Allele’s SBIR Grant to Develop All-RNA CRISPR

Precise engineering of the genomes of mammalian cells enabled biological and medical applications researchers had dreamed of for decades. Recent developments in the stem cell field have created even more excitement for genetically modifying genomes because it enables delivering more beneficial stem cell-derived therapeutic cells to patients [1]. For instance, by correcting a gene mutation known to be critical to Parkinson’s disease, LRRK2 G2019S, in patient-specific iPSCs (induced pluripotent stem cells), it appeared possible to rescue neurodegenerative phenotypes [2].

Significant amount of fund and energy had been invested in technologies such as ZFN and TALEN, however, judging from the explosion of publications and business activities in just about 2 years since the illustration of its mechanism (just today, Jan 8th, 2015, Novartis announced CRISPR collaborations with Intellia, Caribou, applying it in CAR T cell and HSCs), the CRISPR/cas system is the rising star. This system uses a guide RNA to direct the traffic of a single nuclease towards different targets on a chromosome to alter DNA sequence through cutting. The nuclease, cas9, can be mutated from a double-stranded DNA endonuclease to a single-strand cutter or a non-cutting block, or further fused to various functional domains such as a transcription activation domain. This system can also be used to edit RNA molecules.

A weak spot on the sharp blade of CRISPR is, like any methods for creating loss-of-function effects (RNAi if you remember), the potential of off-target effects. While they can never be completely avoided, with the ever growing popularity of deep sequencing, at least we can know all unintended changes on the edited genome. Almost a perfect storm! As an interesting side story, when we at Allele Biotech first saw the paper in Science describing the CIRPSR/cas system [3], we immediately wrote an SBIR grant application for applying the bacterial system to mammalian cells. The first round of review in December 2012 concluded that it would not work due to eukaryotes’ compact chromatin structures. Of course, the flurry of publication in early 2013, while our application was being resubmitted, proved otherwise. The good news is, Allele Biotech still received an SBIR grant from NIGMS in 2014. Unlike most of the genome editing platforms known in the literature, our goal was to build an all-RNA CRISPR/cas system, thereby with higher potency, less off-target effects, and, as a footprint-free platform, more suitable for therapeutic applications. This system will be combined with our strengths in iPSC and stem cell differentiation, fluorescent protein markers, and deep sequencing based bioinformatics to improve cell therapy and cell based assays.

1 Urnov, F.D., et al., Genome editing with engineered zinc finger nucleases. Nat Rev Genet, 2010. 11(9): p. 636-46.
2 Reinhardt, P., et al., Genetic Correction of a LRRK2 Mutation in Human iPSCs Links Parkinsonian Neurodegeneration to ERK-Dependent Changes in Gene Expression. Cell Stem Cell, 2013. 12(3): p. 354-67.
3 Jinek, M., et al., A Programmable Dual-RNA-Guided DNA Endonuclease in Adaptive Bacterial Immunity. Science, 2012.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Combining mRNA-Mediated Phenotype Rescue and CRISPR-Created Isogenic Genome

There has been a good volume of publications on using patient-specific iPSCs for disease modeling. Among them, a recent study by Wang et al. published in Nature Medicine is unique because it not only created cardiomyocytes from both Barth Cardiomyopathy patient and wildtype samples for functional analysis, but also combined some of the most exciting new technologies to strengthen the correlation between gene change and disease.

First, functional rescue by mRNA transgene. After mRNA that encodes wild-type cardiolipin aclation enzyme encoding gene tafazzin (TAZ) was transfected into Barth iPSC-CM cells, their defects in mitochondrial functions were corrected. Second, loss of function by genome editing. When CRISPR was used to make genome changes in wildtype cells that mimicked the disease-specific mutation, we recreated the patient’s iPSC-CM phenotype in otherwise wildtype cells. Third, next generation sequencing to confirm genomic changes. And forth, the cardiomyocyte contractibility was assayed on bioengineered chips.

This paper should set an example of how patient iPSCs should be used to create disease models to the fullest extent of usefulness and reliability. We are true believers of the idea that technology development empowers the advancement of science.

“Modeling the mitochondrial cardiomyopathy of Barth syndrome with induced pluripotent stem cell and heart-on-chip technologies.” Wang, G., McCain, M.L., Yang, L., He, A., Pasqualini, F.S., Agarwal, A., Yuan, H., Jiang, D., Zhang, D., Zangi, L., Geva, J., Roberts, A.E., Ma, Q., Ding, J., Chen, J., Wang, D.Z., Li, K., Wang, J., Wanders, R.J., Kulik, W., Vaz, F.M., Laflamme, M.A., Murry, C.E., Chien, K.R., Kelley, R.I., Church, G.M., Parker, K.K., Pu, W.T. (2014) Nature Medicine, Jun;20(6):616-23. doi: 10.1038/nm.3545. Epub 2014 May 11.

Appearance of iPSCs–Different Reprogramming Stages within the Same Well

Previously scientists at Allele Biotech have reported near uniform conversion of human fibroblasts using our proprietary mRNA mixtures. The first picture below shows a well of cells after 7 days of growing fibroblasts with the new Allele mRNA mix.

This month, by adjusting the mRNA dose while testing Allele’s own reprogramming medium formulation, we observed various stages of cells going through the transition in the same well (see pictures 2 to 5). All stages of reprogramming typically observed over a span of weeks can actually be seen within 1 well of a 6-well plate when we treated human fibroblasts at half the dose of our standard mRNA mix, on day 10, and using Allele Biotech’s new formulation of reprogramming medium.

(1) Warren, Ni, Wang, and Guo 2012 (pdf download)

Previous bulk conversion on Day 7 of reprogramming at full dose mRNA, improved upon our published efficiency (1)

iPSCs forming small colonies from single cells within a 24-hour time frame

Reprogramming en masse: post mesenchymal-to-epithelial (MET) transition cells start to become iPSCs without surrounding fibroblasts (as opposed to the above figure)

Large patches of cells that became iPSCs in what we call bulk-conversion

Large colonies become highly compact, with sharp edges, and composed of mature stem cells of small cell body and tight bundling

Tags: , , , , , ,

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014 iPSCs and other stem cells 1 Comment

What Does It Take to Bring New Nano Antibodies (nAbs) to the Hands of Researchers?

Judging from the hundreds of papers published using camelid VHH antibodies as reagents, there are probably thousands of researchers who have experience with this type of antibodies by now. We like to call the ~15kD camelid VHH antibody nano antibody or nAbTM. Once someone experiences how well a nAb works for co-IP using a fluorescent protein as tag, they often wonder what it takes to bring nAbs to broader use.

The success of a nAb project starts with the antigen presentation. It is critical to build the capability to produce large quantities of recombinant antigen for immunization. At Allele, our scientists also established some unique presentation formats for traditionally difficult targets (e.g. large membrane proteins).

After llama immunization, the next step is screening. With the goal of creating large scale nano antibodies against diverse targets, we have developed multiple high throughput screening methods to cover very large, diverse libraries generated from immunized animals. The technologies will continue to evolve as the scale of nAb generation continues to expand. We have the ability to functionally screen for site-blocking antibodies and antibodies that only recognized natively folded targets, or targets in their naturally occurring presentations.

A nAb isolation project does not end with the obtaining of a cDNA clone. Or, if it does, the nAb is probably not as great as what Allele Biotech has been offering. In our hands, all nAbs go through an engineering step beginning with the generation of a 3D structural model of the isolated clone. We use structure-guided design to alter the protein, allowing us to improve its properties. This includes increasing affinity, solubility, or altering the protein to improve performance for specific applications. We also like to use known structures of traditional monoclonal antibodies to assist camelid VHH antibody engineering against specific targets.

With a finalized clone in hand, the next step is to establish protocols for commercial production. The Allele team spends a tremendous amount of effort aimed solely at high-yield, low-cost recombinant VHH antibody production in a variety of formats, so that the costs for other scientists to take advantage of these great reagents can be kept as low as possible.

Last but not the least, nAb labeling, including conjugating stable soluble VHH antibody to solid supports for immunoprecipitation or to fluorophores for detection, requires additional expertise and tight operation control. However, our vision is to have a modular system for antibody labeling that will enable the end user to select from a variety of fluorophores and other detection tags, which can be instantaneously and irreversibly coupled via simple mixing.

Note added: we work with commercial (diagnostic and clinical) partners from developing nAbs all the way to the market. We have expert scientists available to customers and licensees for consultation and troubleshooting antibody- and imaging-related questions and problems.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Picture Blog: A Short Path from Human mRNA-iPSCs to Neurons in Record Speed

Traditional differentiation protocols use embryoid body (EB) formation as the first step of lineage restriction to mimic early human embryogenesis, which is then followed by manual selection of neuroepithelial precursors. This procedure is tedious and often inconsistent. We have developed a novel neural differentiation scheme that directs human iPSCs (created with the Allele 6F mRNA reprogramming kit) that progressed, as attached culture, to neural precursor cells (NPCs) in just 4-6 days, half the time it typically takes by other methods. From NPCs it takes about another 5-6 days for neural rosettes to form (see figures below); upon passage, cells in neural rosettes differentiate into neurons in 24 hours.

The neural progenitors at the rosettes stage can be stocked and expanded, before differentiated into different types of neurons. We are working on specifically and efficiently different these neural progenitor cells into dopaminergic, glutamatergic, GABAergic, and other types of sub-types of neurons with Allele’s technologies (Questions? email the Allele Stem Cell Group at

Neural rosettes formed efficiently in wells without going through EB.

neural rosettes formed as attached cells in less than 2 weeks

Human iPSC-derived neurons are created in a short regimen developed at Allele Biotech

Neurons appear from precursor cells shortly after the rosette stage

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014 iPSCs and other stem cells, Open Forum No Comments