Researchers have discovered how a molecule can help prevent certain types of brain tumors by recognizing and ‘disarming’ harmful proteins that cause them.
Nearly one in eight couples in the U.S. face infertility, and about half of those cases can be attributed to semen abnormalities in the male partner.
As the root causes often remain a mystery, new research into the basic biology behind sperm development could one day lead to renewed hope for those wanting to grow their families.
“Germ cell development is a very complicated process. A lot is still unknown about how mammalian sperm develop and what is driving the differentiation program,” says Sue Hammoud, Ph.D., lead author of a new study published in the journal Developmental Cell.
Sperm are germ cells that are continuously generated in the male testes, rendering a man fertile throughout his reproductive lifespan. Sperm development begins with stem cells called spermatogonia. Like most of the cells in the human body, spermatogonia are diploid, meaning they have two sets of chromosomes, one from each parent. Unlike other cells, however, the germline stem cell is the only cell in our body that must go through a process called meiosis, which is a type of cell division that produces daughter cells with only one set of chromosomes from the original parent cell.
At fertilization, a sperm and an egg fuse to start a new, genetically unique individual.
But deeper insight has eluded researchers.
“The spermatogenesis process is difficult to study, because we cannot culture all the required cells in the plastic dish,” explains Hammoud, an assistant professor of human genetics, obstetrics and gynecology, and urology at Michigan Medicine.
A detailed search
Much current knowledge of how sperm cells develop comes from examining tissue sections of the testis under a microscope or by analyzing a known population of cells using cell surface markers, which are like ID badges worn by certain types of cells.
Using these labor-intensive methods, researchers were able to define four major yet varying cell types: spermatogonia (comprising stem cells and progenitor cells, which are descendants of stem cells), spermatocytes (a diverse pool of meiotic cells), post-meiotic haploid cells known as round spermatids, and, finally, the mature sperm.
Still, the old approaches only analyzed a hodgepodge of commonly found cells, Hammond notes. Those methods usually missed rarer cell types and key developmental transitions that can help researchers replicate this process in vitro or understand the actual causes of male infertility.
To overcome this challenge, this new study applied a newly developed, advanced technique called single-cell RNA sequencing to separately analyze more than 30,0000 individual cells from mouse testes, measuring the activity of thousands of genes for each cell.
This led to the most complete catalog to date of all testis cells. The team used this data to characterize the sperm cell developmental program and find new cell types as well as molecular features.
For example, the atlas reveals for the first time that sperm develop in a continuous program, moving seamlessly from one biological state to the next.
“From stem cell to the mature sperm cell, the developmental program is largely continuous, except for a single discrete transition at the entry into meiosis,” Hammoud says. “To learn this for the first time is quite remarkable.”
Now, researchers can use the knowledge about this program to find the genes that must turn on or off in a precise manner for cells to move through development — a critical step toward finding ways to restore fertility in men who don’t produce enough healthy sperm due to inherited or environmental reasons.
Findings inspire future research
While expanding scientists’ knowledge of the germ cells, this work also provides the research community new information about somatic cell types and states within the testes that support sperm development.
For example, the work captured known cell types such as Leydig cells, which produce testosterone, and cells called Sertoli cells that act like nurse cells that surround the germ cells, protecting them throughout development and conveying signals from the outside environment.
Interestingly, the analysis lead to the identification of an unexpected cell population that resembles an embryonic progenitor cell. That has inspired the group’s future work to look more closely at these cell types and their potential in the adult testis.
“Only by understanding germ cell and somatic cell interactions can we begin to drive this process efficiently and safely in a dish,” says Hammoud.
Hammoud collaborated with Jun Li, Ph.D., professor of human genetics, computational biology and bioinformatics. Their trainees, Christopher Green, Ph.D., Qianyi Ma, Ph.D., and several graduate students also participated.
These two groups are also among the founding members of Michigan Center for Single-Cell Genomic Data Analytics, supported by the Michigan Institute for Data Science. This research was supported by National Institute of Health (NIH) grants 1R21HD090371-01A1 and 1DP2HD091949-01.
Researchers at Lund University in Sweden have developed a faster method to generate functional brain cells, called astrocytes, from embryonic stem cells. Astrocytes play a significant role in neurodegenerative diseases. The new method reduces the time required to produce the cells from months to two weeks, and the study has been published in Nature Methods.
Researchers from the Stowers Institute for Medical Research and collaborators have identified a way to expand blood-forming, adult stem cells from human umbilical cord blood (hUCB). This development could make these cells available to more people, and be more readily accepted in those who undergo adult stem cell treatments for conditions such as leukemia, blood disorders, immune system diseases, and other types of cancers, but who do not have an appropriate available bone marrow match.
The neuroscientist Dr David Vilchez and his team at CECAD, the University of Cologne’s Cluster of Excellence for Aging Research, have made an important step towards understanding the mechanisms that cause the neurodegenerative disorder Huntington’s disease. Particularly, they identified a system blocking the accumulation of toxin protein aggregates, which are responsible for neurodegeneration. The results have now been published in the journal Nature Communications.
Huntington’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that results in the death of brain cells, leading to uncontrolled body movement, loss of speech and psychosis. Mutations in the huntingtin gene cause the disease, resulting in the toxic aggregation of the huntingtin protein. The accumulation of these aggregates causes neurodegeneration and usually leads to the patient’s death within twenty years after the onset of the disease.
To examine the mechanisms underlying Huntington’s disease, Vilchez and his team used so-called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) from Huntington’s disease patients, which are able to differentiate into any cell type, such as neurons. Induced pluripotent stem cells derived from patients with Huntington’s disease exhibit a striking ability to avoid the accumulation of toxic protein aggregates, a hallmark of the disease. Even though iPSCs express the mutant gene responsible for Huntington’s disease, no aggregates were found.
The researchers identified a protein called UBR5 as a protective mechanism for the cells, promoting the degradation of mutant huntingtin. These findings can contribute to a better understanding of Huntington’s disease and could be a step stone to developing further treatment in patients.
The researchers screened immortal iPSCs from patients and derived neurons for differences in their ability to avoid mutant huntingtin aggregation. They found that huntingtin can be degraded by the cellular disposal system known as the proteasome. However, this system is defective in the neurons, which leads to the aberrant aggregation of the mutant huntingtin protein. Vilchez and his team found that UBR5 is increased in pluripotent stem cells to accelerate the degradation of huntingtin in the cells. To examine the role of UBR5 in the regulation of the mutant huntingtin gene (HTT), they reduced the levels of UBR5 and could immediately see an accumulation of aggregated proteins in iPSCs. ‘This was striking to see’, says Vilchez. ‘From nothing, the cells went to huge amounts of aggregates.’
The authors went a step further and examined whether UBR5 also controls mutant huntingtin aggregation in Huntington’s disease organismal models. Indeed, they found that dysregulation of UBR5 results in a massive increase in the aggregation and neurotoxic effects in neurons. On the other hand, promoting UBR5 activity blocks mutant huntingtin aggregation in the Huntington’s disease models.
To test the specificity of the results, the researchers also kept an eye on other illnesses. ‘We also checked the mechanism in other neurodegenerative diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis’, says Seda Koyuncu, a doctoral student working in Vilchez’s lab and a main author of the publication. ‘Our result is very specific to Huntington’s disease’, adds Dr Isabel Saez, another main author working with Vilchez at CECAD. Even though the results could be important for treatment and drug development, there is no therapy yet. ‘It’s not like you discover something new and then there is a cure, it’s more difficult — but in some years there might be a therapy’, Saez comments. Until then, more research needs to be done.
What if cancer cells could be re-engineered to turn against their own kind? A new study led by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital leverages the power of gene editing to take a critical step toward using cancer cells to kill cancer. The team reports promising results in preclinical models across multiple types of cancer cells, establishing a potential roadmap toward clinical translation for treating primary, recurrent and metastatic cancer. Results are published in Science Translational Medicine.
Researchers at UW Medicine in Seattle have successfully used human stem cells to restore heart function in monkeys with heart failure. The findings suggest that the technique will be effective in patients with heart failure, the leading cause of death in the world.
In a study published in Stem Cell Reports, a McGill team of scientists led by Dr. Carl Ernst, researcher at the Douglas Hospital Research Centre, revealed a molecular mechanism that may play a role in the development of autism.
It’s not the amount of fat, but the ability to store fat in the right locations, that equates to good metabolic health in humans. In part, for this to occur, new fat cells must be made “on demand” when the body has an energy surplus.
Scientists from Newcastle University have shown that human embryonic stem cells move by travelling back and forth in a line, much like ants moving along their trails.