New gene-editing technology partially restores vision in blind animals

February 25, 2017

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Salk Institute researchers have discovered a holy grail of gene editing — the ability to, for the first time, insert DNA at a target location into the non-dividing cells that make up the majority of adult organs and tissues. The technique, which the team showed was able to partially restore visual responses in blind rodents, will open new avenues for basic research and a variety of treatments, such as for retinal, heart and neurological diseases.

“We are very excited by the technology we discovered because it’s something that could not be done before,” says Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, a professor in Salk’s Gene Expression Laboratory and senior author of the paper published on November 16, 2016 in Nature. “For the first time, we can enter into cells that do not divide and modify the DNA at will. The possible applications of this discovery are vast.”

Until now, techniques that modify DNA — such as the CRISPR-Cas9 system — have been most effective in dividing cells, such as those in skin or the gut, using the cells’ normal copying mechanisms. The new Salk technology is ten times more efficient than other methods at incorporating new DNA into cultures of dividing cells, making it a promising tool for both research and medicine. But, more importantly, the Salk technique represents the first time scientists have managed to insert a new gene into a precise DNA location in adult cells that no longer divide, such as those of the eye, brain, pancreas or heart, offering new possibilities for therapeutic applications in these cells.

To achieve this, the Salk researchers targeted a DNA-repair cellular pathway called NHEJ (for “non-homologous end-joining”), which repairs routine DNA breaks by rejoining the original strand ends. They paired this process with existing gene-editing technology to successfully place new DNA into a precise location in non-dividing cells.

“Using this NHEJ pathway to insert entirely new DNA is revolutionary for editing the genome in live adult organisms,” says Keiichiro Suzuki, a senior research associate in the Izpisua Belmonte lab and one of the paper’s lead authors. “No one has done this before.”

First, the Salk team worked on optimizing the NHEJ machinery for use with the CRISPR-Cas9 system, which allows DNA to be inserted at very precise locations within the genome. The team created a custom insertion package made up of a nucleic acid cocktail, which they call HITI, or homology-independent targeted integration. Then they used an inert virus to deliver HITI’s package of genetic instructions to neurons derived from human embryonic stem cells.

“That was the first indication that HITI might work in non-dividing cells,” says Jun Wu, staff scientist and co-lead author. With that feat under their belts, the team then successfully delivered the construct to the brains of adult mice. Finally, to explore the possibility of using HITI for gene-replacement therapy, the team tested the technique on a rat model for retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited retinal degeneration condition that causes blindness in humans. This time, the team used HITI to deliver to the eyes of 3-week-old rats a functional copy of Mertk, one of the genes that is damaged in retinitis pigmentosa. Analysis performed when the rats were 8 weeks old showed that the animals were able to respond to light, and passed several tests indicating healing in their retinal cells.

“We were able to improve the vision of these blind rats,” says co-lead author Reyna Hernandez-Benitez, a Salk research associate. “This early success suggests that this technology is very promising.”

The team’s next steps will be to improve the delivery efficiency of the HITI construct. As with all genome editing technologies, getting enough cells to incorporate the new DNA is a challenge. The beauty of HITI technology is that it is adaptable to any targeted genome engineering system, not just CRISPR-Cas9. Thus, as the safety and efficiency of these systems improve, so too will the usefulness of HITI.

“We now have a technology that allows us to modify the DNA of non-dividing cells, to fix broken genes in the brain, heart and liver,” says Izpisua Belmonte. “It allows us for the first time to be able to dream of curing diseases that we couldn’t before, which is exciting.”


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Materials provided by Salk Institute. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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Ageing process may be reversible, scientists claim

December 18, 2016

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Wrinkles, grey hair and niggling aches are normally regarded as an inevitable part of growing older, but now scientists claim that the ageing process may be reversible.

The team showed that a new form of gene therapy produced a remarkable rejuvenating effect in mice. After six weeks of treatment, the animals looked younger, had straighter spines and better cardiovascular health, healed quicker when injured, and lived 30% longer.

Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, who led the work at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, said: “Our study shows that ageing may not have to proceed in one single direction. With careful modulation, ageing might be reversed.”

The genetic techniques used do not lend themselves to immediate use in humans, and the team predict that clinical applications are a decade away. However, the discovery raises the prospect of a new approach to healthcare in which ageing itself is treated, rather than the various diseases associated with it.

The findings also challenge the notion that ageing is simply the result of physical wear and tear over the years. Instead, they add to a growing body of evidence that ageing is partially – perhaps mostly – driven by an internal genetic clock that actively causes our body to enter a state of decline.

The scientists are not claiming that ageing can be eliminated, but say that in the foreseeable future treatments designed to slow the ticking of this internal clock could increase life expectancy.

“We believe that this approach will not lead to immortality,” said Izpisua Belmonte. “There are probably still limits that we will face in terms of complete reversal of ageing. Our focus is not only extension of lifespan but most importantly health-span.”

Wolf Reik, a professor of epigenetics at the Babraham Institute, Cambridge, who was not involved in the work, described the findings as “pretty amazing” and agreed that the idea of life-extending therapies was plausible. “This is not science fiction,” he said.

On the left is muscle tissue from an aged mouse. On the right is muscle tissue from an aged mouse that has been subjected to “reprogramming”.
Photograph: Salk Institute
On the left is muscle tissue from an aged mouse. On the right is muscle tissue from an aged mouse that has been subjected to “reprogramming”.

The rejuvenating treatment given to the mice was based on a technique that has previously been used to “rewind” adult cells, such as skin cells, back into powerful stem cells, very similar to those seen in embryos. These so-called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells have the ability to multiply and turn into any cell type in the body and are already being tested in trials designed to provide “spare parts” for patients.

The latest study is the first to show that the same technique can be used to partially rewind the clock on cells – enough to make them younger, but without the cells losing their specialised function.

“Obviously there is a logic to it,” said Reik. “In iPS cells you reset the ageing clock and go back to zero. Going back to zero, to an embryonic state, is probably not what you want, so you ask: where do you want to go back to?”

The treatment involved intermittently switching on the same four genes that are used to turn skin cells into iPS cells. The mice were genetically engineered in such a way that the four genes could be artificially switched on when the mice were exposed to a chemical in their drinking water.

The scientists tested the treatment in mice with a genetic disorder, called progeria, which is linked to accelerated ageing, DNA damage, organ dysfunction and dramatically shortened lifespan.

After six weeks of treatment, the mice looked visibly younger, skin and muscle tone improved and they lived 30% longer. When the same genes were targeted in cells, DNA damage was reduced and the function of the cellular batteries, called the mitochondria, improved.

“This is the first time that someone has shown that reprogramming in an animal can provide a beneficial effect in terms of health and extend their lifespan,” said Izpisua Belmonte.

Crucially, the mice did not have an increased cancer risk, suggesting that the treatment had successfully rewound cells without turning them all the way back into stem cells, which can proliferate uncontrollably in the body.

The potential for carcinogenic side-effects means that the first people to benefit are likely to be those with serious genetic conditions, such as progeria, where there is more likely to be a medical justification for experimental treatments. “Obviously the tumour risk is lurking in the background,” said Reik.

The approach used in the mice could not be readily applied to humans as it would require embryos to be genetically manipulated, but the Salk team believe the same genes could be targeted with drugs.

“These chemicals could be administrated in creams or injections to rejuvenate skin, muscle or bones,” said Izpisua Belmonte. “We think these chemical approaches might be in human clinical trials in the next ten years.”

The findings are published in the journal Cell.
This article was amended on 16 December 2016. A previous version erroneously gave Wolf Reik’s affiliation as the University of Cambridge. This has now been corrected to the Babraham Institute, Cambridge.

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Scientists discover key driver of human aging: May lead to slowing or reversing aging process

May 02, 2015

In the study, scientists at the Salk Institute and the Chinese Academy of Science found that the genetic mutations underlying Werner syndrome, a disorder that leads to premature aging and death, resulted in the deterioration of bundles of DNA known as heterochromatin.

The discovery, made possible through a combination of cutting-edge stem cell and gene-editing technologies, could lead to ways of countering age-related physiological declines by preventing or reversing damage to heterochromatin.

“Our findings show that the gene mutation that causes Werner syndrome results in the disorganization of heterochromatin, and that this disruption of normal DNA packaging is a key driver of aging,” says Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, a senior author on the paper. “This has implications beyond Werner syndrome, as it identifies a central mechanism of aging–heterochromatin disorganization–which has been shown to be reversible.”

Werner syndrome is a genetic disorder that causes people to age more rapidly than normal. It affects around one in every 200,000 people in the United States. People with the disorder suffer age-related diseases early in life, including cataracts, type 2 diabetes, hardening of the arteries, osteoporosis and cancer, and most die in their late 40s or early 50s.

The disease is caused by a mutation to the Werner syndrome RecQ helicase-like gene, known as the WRN gene for short, which generates the WRN protein. Previous studies showed that the normal form of the protein is an enzyme that maintains the structure and integrity of a person’s DNA. When the protein is mutated in Werner syndrome it disrupts the replication and repair of DNA and the expression of genes, which was thought to cause premature aging. However, it was unclear exactly how the mutated WRN protein disrupted these critical cellular processes.

In their study, the Salk scientists sought to determine precisely how the mutated WRN protein causes so much cellular mayhem. To do this, they created a cellular model of Werner syndrome by using a cutting-edge gene-editing technology to delete WRN gene in human stem cells. This stem cell model of the disease gave the scientists the unprecedented ability to study rapidly aging cells in the laboratory. The resulting cells mimicked the genetic mutation seen in actual Werner syndrome patients, so the cells began to age more rapidly than normal. On closer examination, the scientists found that the deletion of the WRN gene also led to disruptions to the structure of heterochromatin, the tightly packed DNA found in a cell’s nucleus.

This bundling of DNA acts as a switchboard for controlling genes’ activity and directs a cell’s complex molecular machinery. On the outside of the heterochromatin bundles are chemical markers, known as epigenetic tags, which control the structure of the heterochromatin. For instance, alterations to these chemical switches can change the architecture of the heterochromatin, causing genes to be expressed or silenced.

The Salk researchers discovered that deletion of the WRN gene leads to heterochromatin disorganization, pointing to an important role for the WRN protein in maintaining heterochromatin. And, indeed, in further experiments, they showed that the protein interacts directly with molecular structures known to stabilize heterochromatin–revealing a kind of smoking gun that, for the first time, directly links mutated WRN protein to heterochromatin destabilization.

“Our study connects the dots between Werner syndrome and heterochromatin disorganization, outlining a molecular mechanism by which a genetic mutation leads to a general disruption of cellular processes by disrupting epigenetic regulation,” says Izpisua Belmonte. “More broadly, it suggests that accumulated alterations in the structure of heterochromatin may be a major underlying cause of cellular aging. This begs the question of whether we can reverse these alterations–like remodeling an old house or car–to prevent, or even reverse, age-related declines and diseases.”

Izpisua Belmonte added that more extensive studies will be needed to fully understand the role of heterochromatin disorganization in aging, including how it interacts with other cellular processes implicated in aging, such as shortening of the end of chromosomes, known as telomeres. In addition, the Izpisua Belmonte team is developing epigenetic editing technologies to reverse epigenetic alterations with a role in human aging and disease.


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The above story is based on materials provided by Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Weiqi Zhang, Jingyi Li, Keiichiro Suzuki, Jing Qu, Ping Wang, Junzhi Zhou, Xiaomeng Liu, Ruotong Ren, Xiuling Xu, Alejandro Ocampo, Tingting Yuan, Jiping Yang, Ying Li, Liang Shi, Dee Guan, Huize Pan, Shunlei Duan, Zhichao Ding, Mo Li, Fei Yi, Ruijun Bai, Yayu Wang, Chang Chen, Fuquan Yang, Xiaoyu Li, Zimei Wang, Emi Aizawa, April Goebl, Rupa Devi Soligalla, Pradeep Reddy, Concepcion Rodriguez Esteban, Fuchou Tang, Guang-Hui Liu, and Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte. A Werner syndrome stem cell model unveils heterochromatin alterations as a driver of human aging. Science, 30 April 2015 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa1356