Last week was a good week for neuroscience. Boston Children’s Hospital received nearly $2.2 million from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) to create a Human Neuron Core. The facility will allow researchers at Boston Children’s and beyond to study neurodevelopmental, psychiatric and neurological disorders directly in living, functioning neurons made from patients with these disorders.
Patient-derived neurons are ideal for modeling disease and for preclinical screening of potential drug candidates, including existing, FDA-approved drugs. Created from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) made from a small skin sample, the lab-created human neurons capture disease physiology at the cellular level in a way that neurons from rats or mice cannot.
Alexander DeVine is a research assistant in the Stem Cell Research Program at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Few discoveries have so transformed human stem cell research as have induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Like embryonic stem cells (ESCs), iPSCs possess, in principle, the potential to produce any of the cells in the human body—hence the term pluripotent. Because they can be derived by “reprogramming” easily accessible cell types (e.g., blood or skin cells) from any patient, rather than by creating and dissecting an embryo from donated sperm and eggs, iPSCs are more readily available to researchers than ESCs and better poised for clinical application.
In the seven years since Shinya Yamanaka, Jamie Thomson, and Boston Children’s Hospital’s own George Daley independently described the first methods for generating human iPSCs, these versatile cells have taken stem cell laboratories by storm. Today, they are used around the globe to study human development and to model a plethora of common and rare genetic conditions, from Parkinson’s disease to Fanconi anemia to type I diabetes. iPSCs are also starting to enter the clinic: in Japan, patients are already being recruited to a clinical trial to test the safety and efficacy of iPSC-derived therapeutics for the treatment of blindness.
For years, the lab of Leonard Zon, MD, director of the Stem Cell Research Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, has sought ways to enhance bone marrow transplants for patients with cancer, serious immune deficiencies and blood disorders. Using zebrafish as a drug-screening platform, the lab has found a number of promising compounds, including one called ProHema that is now in clinical trials.
But truthfully, until now, Zon and his colleagues have largely been flying blind.
“Stem cell and bone marrow transplants are still very much a black box: cells are introduced into a patient and later on we can measure recovery of their blood system, but what happens in between can’t be seen,” says Owen Tamplin, PhD, in the Zon Lab. “Now we have a system where we can actually watch that middle step.”
Since 2009, Boston Children’s Hospital has committed $6.2 million to support 58 hospital innovations ranging from therapeutics, diagnostics, medical devices and vaccines to regenerative medicine and healthcare IT projects. What a difference six years makes.
The Technology Development Fund (TDF) was proposed to Boston Children’s senior leadership in 2008 after months of research. As a catalyst fund, the TDF is designed to transform seed-stage academic technologies at the hospital into independently validated, later-stage, high-impact opportunities sought by licensees and investors. In addition to funds, investigators get access to mentors, product development experts and technical support through a network of contract research organizations and development partners. TDF also provides assistance with strategic planning, intellectual property protection, regulatory requirements and business models.
Seeking some “metrics of success” beyond licensing numbers and royalties (which can come a decade or so after a license), I asked recipients of past TDF awards to report back any successes that owed at least in part to data generated with TDF funds. While we expected some of the results, we would have never anticipated such a large impact.
Labs the world over are jumping onto the gene editing bandwagon (and into the inevitable patent arguments). And it’s hard to blame them. As these technologies have evolved over the last two decades starting with the zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs), followed by transcription activator-like effector nucleases (TALENs) and CRISPR—they’ve become ever more powerful and easier to use.
But one question keeps coming up: How precise are these systems? After all, a method that selectively mutates, deletes or swaps specific gene sequences (and now can even turn genes on) is only as good as its accuracy.
Algorithms can predict the likely “off-target” edits based on the target’s DNA sequence, but they’re based on limited data. “The algorithms are getting better,” says Richard Frock, PhD, a fellow in the laboratory of Frederick Alt, PhD, at Boston Children’s Hospital. “But you still worry about the one rare off-target effect that’s not predicted but falls in a coding region and totally debilitates a gene.”
Frock, Alt (who leads Boston Children’s Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine, or PCMM), fellow Jiazhi Hu, PhD, and their collaborators recently turned a method first developed in Alt’s lab for studying broken chromosomes into a quality assurance tool for genome editing. As a bonus, the method—called high-throughput genome translocation sequencing (HTGTS)—also reveals the “collateral damage” gene editing methods might create in a cell’s genome, information that could help researchers make better choices when designing gene editing experiments.
Stem cells offer great potential in biomedical engineering because they’re pluripotent—meaning they can multiply indefinitely and develop into any of the hundreds of different kinds of cells and tissues in the body. But in trying to tap these cells’ creative potential, it has so far been hard to pinpoint the precise biological mechanisms and genetic makeups that dictate how stem cells diverge on the path to development.
Part of the challenge, according to James Collins, PhD, a core faculty member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, is that not all stem cells are created the same. “Stem cell colonies contain much variability between individual cells. This has been considered somewhat problematic for developing predictive approaches in stem cell engineering,” he says.
While at first glimmer, it could appear this would make predictive stem cell engineering more difficult, it might actually present an opportunity to exert even more programmable control over stem cell differentiation and development than was originally envisioned. “What was previously considered problematic variability could actually be beneficial to our ability to precisely control stem cells,” says Collins.
Chronic pain, affecting tens of millions of Americans alone, is debilitating and demoralizing. It has many causes, and in the worst cases, people become “hypersensitized”—their nervous systems fire off pain signals in response to very minor triggers.
There are no good medications to calm these signals, in part because the subjectivity of pain makes it difficult to study, and in part because there haven’t been good research models. Drugs have been tested in animal models and “off the shelf” cell lines, some of them engineered to carry target molecules (such as the ion channels that trigger pain signals). Drug candidates emerging from these studies initially looked promising but haven’t panned out in clinical testing.
CRISPR—a gene editing technology that lets researchers make precise mutations, deletions and even replacements in genomic DNA—is all the rage among genomic researchers right now. First discovered as a kind of genomic immune memory in bacteria, labs around the world are trying to leverage the technology for diseases ranging from malaria to sickle cell disease to Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
In a paper published yesterday in Cell Stem Cell, a team led by Derrick Rossi, PhD, of Boston Children’s Hospital, and Chad Cowan, PhD, of Massachusetts General Hospital, report a first for CRISPR: efficiently and precisely editing clinically relevant genes out of cells collected directly from people. Specifically, they applied CRISPR to human hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells (HSPCs) and T-cells.
“CRISPR has been used a lot for almost two years, and report after report note high efficacy in various cell lines. Nobody had yet reported on the efficacy or utility of CRISPR in primary blood stem cells,” says Rossi, whose lab is in the hospital’s Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine. “But most researchers would agree that blood will be the first tissue targeted for gene editing-based therapies. You can take blood or stem cells out of a patient, edit them and transplant them back.”
The study also gave the team an opportunity to see just how accurate CRISPR’s cuts are. Their conclusion: It may be closer to being clinic-ready than we thought.
We all remember Dolly the sheep, the first mammal to be born through a cloning technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). As with the thousands of other SCNT-cloned animals ranging from mice to mules, researchers created Dolly by using the nucleus from a grown animal’s cell to replace the nucleus of an egg cell from the same species.
The idea behind SCNT is that the egg’s cellular environment kicks the transferred nucleus’s genome into an embryonic state, giving rise to an animal genetically identical to the nucleus donor. SCNT is also a technique for generating embryonic stem cells for research purposes.
While researchers have accomplished SCNT in many animal species, it could work better than it does now. It took the scientists who cloned Dolly 277 tries before they got it right. To this day, SCNT efficiency—that is, the percent of nuclear transfers it takes generate a living animal—still hovers around 1 to 2 percent for mice, 5 to 20 percent in cows and 1 to 5 percent in other species. By comparison, the success rate in mice of in vitro fertilization (IVF) is around 50 percent.
“The efficiency is very low,” says Yi Zhang, PhD, a stem cell biologist in Boston Children’s Hospital’s Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine. “This indicates that there are some barriers preventing successful cloning. Thus our first goal was to identify such barriers.”