mRNA Delivery And the Next Wave of Regenerative Medicine

Published online by Nature Biotechnology, researchers from Ken Chien’s lab at Harvard and other coauthors showed that modified mRNA of VEGF-A injected intramyocardially resulted in the expansion and directed differentiation of endogenous heart progenitors. VEGF-A modRNA markedly improved heart function and enhanced long-term survival of recipients by directing epicardial progenitor cells toward cardiovascular cell types. This publication appears to be the first example of using mRNA as a delivery platform for cell fate-related therapy. AstraZeneca recently invested $240 million on mRNA-related delivery via Moderna, a company with roots within the Harvard stem cell group.

The drastically increased efficacy of using the mRNA platform was accredited to the pulse-like kinetics of mRNA expression profile. It was explained by the fact that native paracrine signals are often transient and precisely regulated in time and space, therefore the pulse-like expression profile of modRNA might be well suited to delivering paracrine-factor signals. Transfected mRNA molecules do not need to penetrate the nuclear membrane, which greatly enhances the efficiency of protein expression on a per transfected molecule over DNA. mRNAs turn over in a much faster pace than plasmid-mediated transgene expression. This is beneficial to many cell fate decisions as exemplified by this recent publication.

Allele Biotech’s reprogramming technologies, licensed by some of the leading stem cell therapy companies, are built around the mRNA platform. We chose mRNA as our core technology to not only change cell fate, but also direct differentiation. We know this platform is the future for cell fate manipulation because we have seen how robustly mRNA expression made the day-and-night difference in gene expression when compared to plasmid DNA (episomal or not), retrovirus, lentivirus, baculo virus, or even transfected proteins. We could convert human fibroblasts into iPSCs, in bulk, in as short as one week with no more effort than changing mRNA complex-containing medium.

Another recent development in iPSC research is in situ reprogramming. Abad et al. generated mice carrying a Tet-inducible cassette of the four cell-reprogramming factors. They then added feed doxycycline to the animals. After several weeks, teratomas appeared in various tissues, indicating that in situ reprogramming had occurred. The iPSCs created this way did not appear to have much advantage over in vitro produced iPSCs other than they are totipotent (helpful if you are studying placenta). Nevertheless, the concept of changing cell fate in situ as dramatically as complete reprogramming is an important leap of faith. As for the next big step, it is easy to see that mRNAs are well suited for in situ reprogramming, as well as transdifferentiation, and more complex gene delivery than the above mentioned VEGF-A alone in heart treatment.

Zangi et al. Nature Biotechnology,
Abad et al. Nature,

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Thursday, September 12th, 2013 iPSCs and other stem cells, Viruses and cells No Comments

Development of Cell Lines from iPSCs for Bioassays

The reprogramming of differentiated somatic cells to pluripotency holds great promise for drug discovery and developmental biology. Using immortalized cell lines for drug screening assays has its limitations, such as questionable relevance; and the use of primary cells is often hindered by supply difficulties. Thanks to pioneering work by the Yamanaka, Thompson, and other groups, the feasibility of creating iPSCs has generated an opportunity to provide cell lines with stem cell properties in a virtually unlimited supply [1, 2]. These cells can be derived into different cell types for specific assays, even with patient- or genotype-specific background. Technologies are being developed to produce re-differentiated cells of a number of lineages.

Take cardiomyocytes as an example. There are a number of conventional methods for inducing stem cells into cardiomyocytes: through embryoid body (EB) formation, co-culturing with visceral endoderm-like cell line (END-2), and monolayer caridomyocyte differentiation with defined growth medium and protein factors [3]. A recent publication showed that using appropriate concentrations of BMP4 and activin-A in BSA-containing medium cardiomyocytes might be achieved from iPSCs or ESCs in about 6 days [4].

Transdifferentiation, or direct reprogramming, by introducing a group of 3 cardiomyocyte-specific factors, investigators could directly program cardiac or dermal fibroblasts into cardiomyocyte-like cells [5]. Although much refinement and characterization of these directly reprogrammed cardiomyocyte-like cells, termed iCMs, will be needed before the process can become widely used, this work raised the possibility of quicker and perhaps more efficient ways of generating cells for assays. Similar transdifferentiation has resulted in induced neuron (iN) cells, also by introducing 3 tissue-specific transcription factors [6]. Therefore, it seems that by using defined combinations of tissue-specific transcription factors it is possible to generate cells of different tissue types. It is also possible that by using different, developmental stage-specific transcription activator sets, transdifferentiation can be conducted in a stepwise way and make sure cells at each step is pure. This strategy may be particularly attractive if its efficiency can be improved by the techniques developed for iPSC creation. After all, reprogramming to pluripotency and transdifferentiation to different tissue types must share certain mechanistic steps in their respective processes.

In addition, it has been reported that by briefly overexpressing the Yamanaka iPS factors and controlling growth conditions, mouse fibroblasts could be transdifferentiated up to 40% in 18 days without reversing back to pluripotency [7]. It would be interesting to see if by transient expression of iPS factors via mRNA then switching to cardiomyocyte-specific transcription factors, we can increase the efficiency for direct reprogramming. Use of chromatin-modifying chemicals that were already shown to directly reverse and alter cell fates might also be used to assist direct reprogramming. We believe that a systematic approach for studying these reprogramming aspects should benefit the iPS fields.

1. Takahashi, K. and S. Yamanaka, Induction of pluripotent stem cells from mouse embryonic and adult fibroblast cultures by defined factors. Cell, 2006. 126(4): p. 663-76.
2. Yu, J., et al., Induced pluripotent stem cell lines derived from human somatic cells. Science, 2007. 318(5858): p. 1917-20.
3. Vidarsson, H., J. Hyllner, and P. Sartipy, Differentiation of human embryonic stem cells to cardiomyocytes for in vitro and in vivo applications. Stem Cell Rev, 2010. 6(1): p. 108-20.
4. Elliott, D.A., et al., NKX2-5(eGFP/w) hESCs for isolation of human cardiac progenitors and cardiomyocytes. Nat Methods, 2011.
5. Ieda, M., et al., Direct reprogramming of fibroblasts into functional cardiomyocytes by defined factors. Cell, 2010. 142(3): p. 375-86.
6. Pang, Z.P., et al., Induction of human neuronal cells by defined transcription factors. Nature, 2011. 476(7359): p. 220-3.
7. Efe, J.A., et al., Conversion of mouse fibroblasts into cardiomyocytes using a direct reprogramming strategy. Nat Cell Biol, 2011. 13(3): p. 215-22.

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Wednesday, November 9th, 2011 iPSCs and other stem cells No Comments