Thursday, 3 September 2015

Study Reveals the Genetic Start-up of a Human Embryo

Study Reveals the Genetic Start-up of a Human Embryo
Thursday, 03 September 2015

An international team of scientists led from Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet has for the first time mapped all the genes that are activated in the first few days of a fertilised human egg. The study, which is being published in the journal Nature Communications, provides an in-depth understanding of early embryonic development in human – and scientists now hope that the results will help finding for example new therapies against infertility.

At the start of an individual’s life there is a single fertilised egg cell. One day after fertilisation there are two cells, after two days four, after three days eight and so on, until there are billions of cells at birth. The order in which our genes are activated after fertilisation has remained one of the last uncharted territories of human development.

Juha Kere is a Professor of Molecular Genetics at
Karolinska Institutet. Credit: Ulf Sirborn.
There are approximately 23,000 human genes in total. In the current study, scientists found that only 32 of these genes are switched on two days after fertilization, and by day three there are 129 activated genes. Seven of the genes found and characterised had not been discovered previously.

“These genes are the ‘ignition key’ that is needed to turn on human embryonic development. It is like dropping a stone into water and then watching the waves spread across the surface”, says principal investigator Juha Kere, professor at theDepartment of Biosciences and Nutrition at Karolinska Institutet and also affiliated to the SciLifeLab facility in Stockholm.

The researchers had to develop a new way of analysing the results in order to find the new genes. Most genes code for proteins but there are a number of repeated DNA sequences that are often considered to be so-called ‘junk DNA’, but are in fact important in regulating gene expression.

Treatment of infertility
In the current study, the researchers show that the newly identified genes can interact with the ‘junk DNA’, and that this is essential to the start of development.

Outi Hovatta is a Professor of Obstetrics and
Gynaecology at Karolinska Institutet. Credit:
Ulf Sirborn.
“Our results provide novel insights into the regulation of early embryonic development in human. We identified novel factors that might be used in reprogramming cells into so-called pluripotent stem cells for possible treatment of a range of diseases, and potentially also in the treatment of infertility”, says Outi Hovatta, professor at Karolinska Institutet’s Department of Clinical Science, Intervention and Technology, and a senior author.

The study was a collaboration between three research groups from Sweden and Switzerland that each provided a unique set of skills and expertise. The work was supported by the Karolinska Institutet Distinguished Professor Award, the Swedish Research Council, the Strategic Research Program for Diabetes funding at Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm County, the Jane & Aatos Erkko Foundation, the Instrumentarium Science Foundation, and the Åke Wiberg and Magnus Bergvall foundations. The computations were performed on resources provided by SNIC through Uppsala Multidisciplinary Center for Advanced Computational Science (UPPMAX).

Contact: KI Press Office

Novel PRD-like homeodomain transcription factors and retrotransposon elements in early human development
Virpi Töhönen, Shintaro Katayama, Liselotte Vesterlund, Eeva-Mari Jouhilahti, Mona Sheikhi, Elo Madissoon, Giuditta Filippini-Cattaneo, Marisa Jaconi, Anna Johnsson, Thomas R. Bürglin, Sten Linnarsson, Outi Hovatta and Juha Kere
Nature Communications, 3 September 2015, doi: 10.1038/NCOMMS9207

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Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Most Complete Human Brain Model to Date Is a ‘Brain Changer’

Once licensed, model likely to accelerate study of Alzheimer’s, autism, more
Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Scientists at The Ohio State University have developed a nearly complete human brain in a dish that equals the brain maturity of a 5-week-old foetus.

The brain organoid, engineered from adult human skin cells, is the most complete human brain model yet developed, said Rene Anand, professor of biological chemistry and pharmacology at Ohio State.

The lab-grown brain, about the size of a pencil eraser, has an identifiable structure and contains 99 percent of the genes present in the human foetal brain. Such a system will enable ethical and more rapid and accurate testing of experimental drugs before the clinical trial stage and advance studies of genetic and environmental causes of central nervous system disorders.

“It not only looks like the developing brain, its diverse cell types express nearly all genes like a brain,” Anand said.

“We’ve struggled for a long time trying to solve complex brain disease problems that cause tremendous pain and suffering. The power of this brain model bodes very well for human health because it gives us better and more relevant options to test and develop therapeutics other than rodents.”

Anand reported on his lab-grown brain Tuesday (Aug. 18) at the 2015 Military Health System Research Symposium in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

This image of the lab-grown brain is labelled to
show identifiable structures: the cerebral
hemisphere, the optic stalk and the cephalic
flexure, a bend in the mid-brain region, all
characteristic of the human foetal brain. Credit:
courtesy of The Ohio State University.
Anand, who studies the association between nicotinic receptors and central nervous system disorders, was inspired to pursue a model of human neural biology after encountering disappointing results in a rodent study of an experimental autism drug. Taking a chance with a shoestring budget compared to other researchers doing similar projects, he added stem-cell engineering to his research program. Four years later, he had built himself a replica of the human brain.

The main thing missing in this model is a vascular system. What is there – a spinal cord, all major regions of the brain, multiple cell types, signalling circuitry and even a retina – has the potential to dramatically accelerate the pace of neuroscience research, said Anand, also a professor of neuroscience.

“In central nervous system diseases, this will enable studies of either underlying genetic susceptibility or purely environmental influences, or a combination,” he said.

“Genomic science infers there are up to 600 genes that give rise to autism, but we are stuck there. Mathematical correlations and statistical methods are insufficient to in themselves identify causation. You need an experimental system – you need a human brain.”

Converting adult skin cells into pluripotent cells – immature stem cells that can be programmed to become any tissue in the body – is a rapidly developing area of science that earned the researcher who discovered the technique, Shinya Yamanaka, a Nobel Prize in 2012.

“Once a cell is in that pluripotent state, it can become any organ – if you know what to do to support it to become that organ,” Anand said.

“The brain has been the holy grail because of its enormous complexity compared to any other organ. Other groups are attempting to do this as well.”

Anand’s method is proprietary and he has filed an invention disclosure with the university.

He said he used techniques to differentiate pluripotent stem cells into cells that are designed to become neural tissue, components of the central nervous system or other brain regions.

“We provide the best possible environment and conditions that replicate what’s going on in utero to support the brain,” he said of the work he completed with colleague Susan McKay, a research associate in biological chemistry and pharmacology.

High-resolution imaging of the organoid identifies functioning neurons and their signal-carrying extensions – axons and dendrites – as well as astrocytes, oligodendrocytes and microglia. The model also activates markers for cells that have the classic excitatory and inhibitory functions in the brain, and that enable chemical signals to travel throughout the structure.

It takes about 15 weeks to build a model system developed to match the 5-week-old foetal human brain. Anand and McKay have let the model continue to grow to the 12-week point, observing expected maturation changes along the way.

“If we let it go to 16 or 20 weeks, that might complete it, filling in that 1 percent of missing genes. We don’t know yet,” he said.

He and McKay have already used the platform to launch their own projects, creating brain organoid models of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and autism in a dish. They hope that with further development and the addition of a pumping blood supply, the model could be used for stroke therapy studies. For military purposes, the system offers a new platform for the study of Gulf War illness, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Anand hopes his brain model could be incorporated into the Microphysiological Systems program, a platform the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is developing by using engineered human tissue to mimic human physiological systems.

Support for the work came from the Marci and Bill Ingram Research Fund for Autism Spectrum Disorders and the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center Research Fund.

Anand and McKay are co-founders of a Columbus-based start-up company, NeurXstem, to commercialize the brain organoid platform, and have applied for funding from the federal Small Business Technology Transfer program to accelerate its drug discovery applications.

Contact: Rene Anand

For more on stem cells and cloning, go to CellNEWS at

Friday, 7 August 2015

Chemical-only Cell Reprogramming Transforms Human and Mouse Skin Cells into Neurons

Chemical-only Cell Reprogramming Transforms Human and Mouse Skin Cells into Neurons
Friday, 07 August 2015

Two labs in China have independently succeeded in transforming skin cells into neurons using only a cocktail of chemicals, with one group using human cells from healthy individuals and Alzheimer's patients, and the other group using cells from mice. The two studies reinforce the idea that a purely chemical approach is a promising way to scale up cell reprogramming research that may avoid the technical challenges and safety concerns associated with the more popular method of using transcription factors. Both papers appear on August 6 in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

One of the challenges of forcing cells to change identity is that the cells you end up with may look normal but have different internal activities than their naturally forming counterparts. The two papers provide evidence that similar gene expression, action potentials, and synapse formation can be detected in transcription-factor-induced neurons as those generated from the chemical cocktails. (Both groups used mixtures of seven small molecules, but different recipes – outlined in detail in the supplemental information section of each paper – because they focused on different species.)

This is an image of mouse chemical-induced
neurons. Credit: Courtesy of Hongkui Deng.
"We found that the conversion process induced by our chemical strategy is accompanied by the down-regulation of [skin-cell] specific genes and the increased expression of neuronal transcription factors," said human study co-author Jian Zhao, of the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences and Tongji University.

"By coordinating multiple signalling pathways, these small molecules modulate neuronal transcription factor gene expression and thereby promote the neuronal cell transition."

The authors add that the direct conversion bypasses a proliferative intermediate progenitor stage, which circumvents safety issues posed by other reprogramming methods.

This is an image of human chemical induced
neurons. Credit: Courtesy of Gang Pei and
Jian Zhao.
Zhao's paper, co-led with cell biologist Gang Pei, also shows that the pure chemical protocol can be used to make neurons from the skins cells of Alzheimer's patients. Most of the work using patient stem cells has been done by using transcription factors – molecules that affect which genes are expressed in a cell – to create induced pluripotent stem cells. Chemical cell reprogramming is seen as an alternative for disease modelling or even potential cell replacement therapy of neurological disorders, but the "proof-of-concept" is still emerging.

"In comparison with using transgenic reprogramming factors, the small molecules that are used in this chemical approach are cell permeable; cost-effective; and easy to synthesize, preserve, and standardize; and their effects can be reversible," says mouse study co-author Hongkui Deng of the Peking University Stem Cell Research Center.

"In addition, the use of small molecules can be fine-tuned by adjusting their concentrations and duration, and the approach bypasses the technical challenges and safety concerns of genetic manipulations, which may be promising in their future applications."

Deng worked for four years with Zhen Chai and Yang Zhao, also of Peking University, to identify the small molecules that could create chemically induced mouse neurons. Researchers had been close for years, but a transcription factor was always necessary to complete the transformation. Through many chemical screens they identified the key ingredient, I-BET151, which works to suppress transcription in skin cells. They then found the right steps and conditions to mature the neurons post-transformation.

The authors of both papers aim to learn more about the biology behind chemically induced reprogramming and to make the protocols more efficient. While their success is promising, there are still a number of hurdles to overcome.

"We hope in the future that the chemical approaches would be more robust in inducing functional mature neurons," Deng says.

"In addition, we are attempting to generate specific neuronal subtypes and patient-specific functional neurons for translational medicine by using pure chemicals."

Jian Zhao, of the human study, says:

"It should be possible to generate different subtypes of neurons with a similar chemical approach but using slightly modified chemical cocktails."

"It also needs to be explored whether functional neurons could be induced by chemical cocktails in living organisms with neurological diseases or injury," she adds.

Source: Cell Press
Contact: Joseph Caputo

Small-Molecule-Driven Direct Reprogramming of Mouse Fibroblasts into Functional Neurons
Xiang Li, Xiaohan Zuo, Junzhan Jing, Yantao Ma, Jiaming Wang, Defang Liu, Jialiang Zhu, Xiaomin Du, Liang Xiong, Yuanyuan Du, Jun Xu, Xiong Xiao, Jinlin Wang, Zhen Chai, Yang Zhao, Hongkui Deng
Cell Stem Cell Volume 17, Issue 2, p195–203, 6 August 2015

Direct Conversion of Normal and Alzheimer's Disease Human Fibroblasts into Neuronal Cells by Small Molecules
Wenxiang Hu, Binlong Qiu, Wuqiang Guan, Qinying Wang, Min Wang, Wei Li, Longfei Gao, Lu Shen, Yin Huang, Gangcai Xie, Hanzhi Zhao, Ying Jin, Beisha Tang, Yongchun Yu, Jian Zhao, Gang Pei
Cell Stem Cell Volume 17, Issue 2, p204–212, 6 August 2015

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