Archive for the ‘Endocrine Diseases’ Category

Reporter and Curator: Dr. Sudipta Saha, Ph.D.


Research about marijuana and fertility is limited but some previous studies suggested that it might harm semen quality. Smoking of any type is also known to be a risk factor for male infertility. So, men who have smoked cannabis are expected to have worse measures of fertility but the data from a recent study suggested the opposite. The finding contradicts all conventional knowledge on how weed affects sperm. This may be because previous research typically focused on men with drug abuse history but this present study simply asked men if they had smoked more than two joints in their life.


Analysis of 1,143 semen samples from 662 men collected between 2000 and 2017 at the Fertility Clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital showed that those who had smoked weed at some point in their life had a mean sperm concentration of 62.7 million sperm per milliliter (mL) of ejaculate, while men who avoided marijuana entirely had mean concentrations of 45.4 million/mL. Added to this only 5% of weed smokers had sperm concentrations below the 15 million/mL threshold the World Health Organization has set for a “normal” sperm count, versus 12% of men who never smoked marijuana.


The study has some imperfections such as the participants are not necessarily representative of the general population. They were predominantly college educated men with a mean age of 36, and were all seeking treatment at a fertility center. Further research is needed to support the findings. Two possibilities are put forward by the researchers as the reason behind such data. The first is that low levels of marijuana could have a positive effect on the endocannabinoid system, the neurotransmitters in the nervous system that bind to cannabinoid receptors, and are known to regulate fertility. The second is that may be weed-smokers are just bigger risk takers and men with higher testosterone levels and thus have better sperm count.


But, there’s certainly no medical recommendation to smoke weed as a fertility treatment but this study, at least, suggests that a little marijuana doesn’t hurt and might benefit sperm production in some way. But, the researchers specified that their finding does not necessarily mean that smoking cannabis increases the chances of fatherhood.




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Hypertriglyceridemia: Evaluation and Treatment Guideline

Reporter and Curator: Dr. Sudipta Saha, Ph.D.


Severe and very severe hypertriglyceridemia increase the risk for pancreatitis, whereas mild or moderate hypertriglyceridemia may be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Individuals found to have any elevation of fasting triglycerides should be evaluated for secondary causes of hyperlipidemia including endocrine conditions and medications. Patients with primary hypertriglyceridemia must be assessed for other cardiovascular risk factors, such as central obesity, hypertension, abnormalities of glucose metabolism, and liver dysfunction. The aim of this study was to develop clinical practice guidelines on hypertriglyceridemia.

The diagnosis of hypertriglyceridemia should be based on fasting levels, that mild and moderate hypertriglyceridemia (triglycerides of 150–999 mg/dl) be diagnosed to aid in the evaluation of cardiovascular risk, and that severe and very severe hypertriglyceridemia (triglycerides of >1000 mg/dl) be considered a risk for pancreatitis. The patients with hypertriglyceridemia must be evaluated for secondary causes of hyperlipidemia and that subjects with primary hypertriglyceridemia be evaluated for family history of dyslipidemia and cardiovascular disease.

The treatment goal in patients with moderate hypertriglyceridemia should be a non-high-density lipoprotein cholesterol level in agreement with National Cholesterol Education Program Adult Treatment Panel guidelines. The initial treatment should be lifestyle therapy; a combination of diet modification, physical activity and drug therapy may also be considered. In patients with severe or very severe hypertriglyceridemia, a fibrate can be used as a first-line agent for reduction of triglycerides in patients at risk for triglyceride-induced pancreatitis.

Three drug classes (fibrates, niacin, n-3 fatty acids) alone or in combination with statins may be considered as treatment options in patients with moderate to severe triglyceride levels. Statins are not be used as monotherapy for severe or very severe hypertriglyceridemia. However, statins may be useful for the treatment of moderate hypertriglyceridemia when indicated to modify cardiovascular risk.




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Changes in Levels of Sex Hormones and N-Terminal Pro–B-Type Natriuretic Peptide as Biomarker for Cardiovascular Diseases

Reporter and Curator: Dr. Sudipta Saha, Ph.D.


Considerable differences exist in the prevalence and manifestation of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (CVD) and heart failure (HF) between men and women. Premenopausal women have a lower risk of CVD and HF compared with men; however, this risk increases after menopause. Sex hormones, particularly androgens, are associated with CVD risk factors and events and have been postulated to mediate the observed sex differences in CVD.


B-type natriuretic peptides (BNPs) are secreted from cardiomyocytes in response to myocardial wall stress. BNP plays an important role in cardiovascular remodelling and volume homeostasis. It exerts numerous cardioprotective effects by promoting vasodilation, natriuresis, and ventricular relaxation and by antagonizing fibrosis and the effects of the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system. Although the physiological role of BNP is cardioprotective, pathologically elevated N-terminal pro–BNP (NT-proBNP) levels are used clinically to indicate left ventricular hypertrophy, dysfunction, and myocardial ischemia. Higher NT-proBNP levels among individuals free of clinical CVD are associated with an increased risk of incident CVD, HF, and cardiovascular mortality.


BNP and NT-proBNP levels are higher in women than men in the general population. Several studies have proposed the use of sex- and age-specific reference ranges for BNP and NT-proBNP levels, in which reference limits are higher for women and older individuals. The etiology behind this sex difference has not been fully elucidated, but prior studies have demonstrated an association between sex hormones and NT-proBNP levels. Recent studies measuring endogenous sex hormones have suggested that androgens may play a larger role in BNP regulation by inhibiting its production.


Data were collected from a large, multiethnic community-based cohort of individuals free of CVD and HF at baseline to analyze both the cross-sectional and longitudinal associations between sex hormones [total testosterone (T), bioavailable T, freeT, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), SHBG, and estradiol] and NT-proBNP, separately for women and men. It was found that a more androgenic pattern of sex hormones was independently associated with lower NT-proBNP levels in cross-sectional analyses in men and postmenopausal women.


This association may help explain sex differences in the distribution of NT-proBNP and may contribute to the NP deficiency in men relative to women. In longitudinal analyses, a more androgenic pattern of sex hormones was associated with a greater increase in NT-proBNP levels in both sexes, with a more robust association among women. This relationship may reflect a mechanism for the increased risk of CVD and HF seen in women after menopause.


Additional research is needed to further explore whether longitudinal changes in NT-proBNP levels seen in our study are correlated with longitudinal changes in sex hormones. The impact of menopause on changes in NT-proBNP levels over time should also be explored. Furthermore, future studies should aim to determine whether sex hormones directly play a role in biological pathways of BNP synthesis and clearance in a causal fashion. Lastly, the dual role of NTproBNP as both

  • a cardioprotective hormone and
  • a biomarker of CVD and HF, as well as
  • the role of sex hormones in delineating these processes,

should be further explored. This would provide a step toward improved clinical CVD risk stratification and prognostication based on

  • sex hormone and
  • NT-proBNP levels.




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Reporter and Curator: Dr. Sudipta Saha, Ph.D.


Over the past 20 years, studies have shown that girls and possibly boys have been experiencing puberty at progressively younger ages. This is troubling news, as earlier age at puberty has been linked with increased risk of mental illness, breast and ovarian cancer in girls and testicular cancer in boys. Researchers found that daughters of mothers who had higher levels of diethyl phthalate and triclosan in their bodies during pregnancy experienced puberty at younger ages. The same trend was not observed in boys. So, researchers suspected that girls exposed to chemicals commonly found in toothpaste, makeup, soap and other personal care products before birth may hit puberty earlier.


Diethyl phthalate is often used as a stabilizer in fragrances and cosmetics. The antimicrobial agent triclosan — which the FDA banned from use in hand soap in 2017 because it was shown to be ineffective — is still used in some toothpastes. Researchers suspected that many chemicals in personal care products can interfere with natural hormones in human bodies, and studies have shown that exposure to these chemicals can alter reproductive development in rats. Chemicals that have been implicated include phthalates, which are often found in scented products like perfumes, soaps and shampoos; parabens, which are used as preservatives in cosmetics; and phenols, which include triclosan.


However, few studies have looked at how these chemicals might affect the growth of human children. This present study at UC Berkeley, USA recruited pregnant women living in the farm-working, primarily Latino communities of Central California’s Salinas Valley between 1999 and 2000. While the primary aim of the study was to examine the impact of pesticide exposure on childhood development, the researchers used the opportunity to examine the effects of other chemicals as well. The scientists measured concentrations of phthalates, parabens and phenols in urine samples taken from mothers twice during pregnancy, and from children at the age of 9. They then followed the growth of the children — 159 boys and 179 girls — between the ages of 9 and 13 to track the timing of developmental milestones marking different stages of puberty.


The vast majority — more than 90 percent — of urine samples of both mothers and children showed detectable concentrations of all three classes of chemicals, with the exception of triclosan which was present in approximately 70 percent of samples. The researchers found that every time the concentrations of diethyl phthalate and triclosan in the mother’s urine doubled, the timing of developmental milestones in girls shifted approximately one month earlier. Girls who had higher concentrations of parabens in their urine at age 9 also experienced puberty at younger ages. However, it is unclear if the chemicals were causing the shift, or if girls who reached puberty earlier were more likely to start using personal care products at younger ages.


The limitations are that these chemicals are quickly metabolized and one to two urinary measurements per developmental point may not accurately reflect usual exposure. The study population was limited to Latino children of low socioeconomic status living in a farmworker community and may not be widely generalizable. But, this study contributes to a growing literature that suggests that exposure to certain endocrine disrupting chemicals may impact timing of puberty in children.




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Reporter and Curator: Dr. Sudipta Saha, Ph.D.


Anti-Müllerian Hormone (AMH), is secreted by growing follicles that contains the egg or ovum. According to regular practice low AMH and high Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) are generally considered as indicators of diminished egg quantity in a female. But, there are several cases the female conceived absolutely normally without any support even after low AMH was reported.


Therefore, a new research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association declares that AMH doesn’t dictate a woman’s reproductive potential. Although AMH testing is one of the most common ways that doctors assess a woman’s fertility. Present research says that all it takes is one egg each cycle and AMH is not a marker of whether a female can or cannot become pregnant. So, for women who haven’t yet tried to get pregnant and who are wondering whether they are fertile, an AMH value isn’t going to be helpful in that context. In addition, AMH is not necessarily a good marker to predict that whether one has to cryopreserve her eggs. So, practically doctors don’t yet have a way to definitively predict egg quality or a woman’s long-term ability to conceive, but age is obviously one of the most important factors.


The above mentioned study followed 750 women between the ages of 30 and 44 who had been trying to conceive for three months or less. During the 12-month observation period, those with low AMH values of less than 0.7 were not less likely to conceive than those who had normal AMH values. The study had various limitations, however, that are worth noting. The researchers only included women who did not have a history of infertility. Women who sought fertility treatments (about 6 percent) were withdrawn. And only 12 percent of the women were in the 38-to-44 age range. In addition, the number of live births was unavailable.


Among women aged 30 to 44 years without a history of infertility who had been trying to conceive for 3 months or less, biomarkers indicating diminished ovarian reserve compared with normal ovarian reserve were not associated with reduced fertility. These findings do not support the use of urinary or blood FSH tests or AMH levels to assess natural fertility for women with these characteristics. The researchers’ next want to see whether low AMH is associated with a higher risk of miscarriage among the women who conceived.


Although AMH testing isn’t designed to be an overall gauge of a woman’s fertility, it can still provide valuable information, especially for women who are infertile and seeking treatment. It can assist in diagnosing polycystic ovarian syndrome, and identify when a woman is getting closer to menopause. Previous research also showed that AMH is good predictor of a woman’s response to ovarian stimulation for in vitro fertilization and therefore it can predict the probability of conceiving via in vitro fertilization (I.V.F.).




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New Estrogen without Breast Proliferation Effect

Curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP




Written By: Dr. Fanni R. Eros

New Estrogens May Have Beneficial Effects Without Increasing Cancer Risk – June 4, 2016

An American research group designed a new estrogen molecule, PaPE-1, and found that PaPE-1 might have beneficial effects on metabolism and vascular health, while not enhancing proliferation in uterine and breast cells, therefore not increasing cancer risk.


After menopause, estrogen therapy is proved to help prevent metabolic and vascular diseases. However, estrogen (a female sex hormone) also has proliferative effects on the uterus and breasts, increasing cancer risk. Estrogens operate through two pathways: the nuclear-initiated and extranuclear-initiated pathways. The extranuclear-initiated pathway is responsible for the beneficial effects of estrogens, while activation of the nuclear-initiated pathway may result in adverse effects, such as cell proliferation of the uterus and breasts. It seems that estrogen molecules that bind to estrogen receptors (ER) with high affinity activate both pathways, while an estrogen molecule with a low-affinity binding capability can only activate the extranuclear-initiated pathway, and therefore have only beneficial effects.

In an article recently published in Science Signalling, an American research group investigated the effects of pathway preferential estrogens (PaPEs) compared to estradiol (E2, a form of estrogen and a common supplement for post-menopausal women). They altered the structure of E2 which reduced the binding affinity of the new molecule (PaPE-1) by 50000 times compared to E2, but could still form a competent complex with the receptor. They found that PaPE-1 was selective in activating the extranuclear-initiated pathway and it did not stimulate proliferation of human breast cancer cells, but activated the mTOR pathway that modulates metabolic functions. Both E2 and PaPE-1 treatment resulted in increased gene expression, however E2 activated more genes overall and more genes related to cell proliferation.

To test the new molecule in vivo, researchers used ovariectomized female mice (mice with ovaries removed) and treated them with a control vehicle, E2, or PaPE-1. Compared to E2, PaPE-1 did not have any effect on uterine weight, mammary ductal growth and thymus size. However, both E2 and PaPE-1 reduced the mammary gland fat deposits that developed after ovariectomy and they both decreased body weight. Both hormones reduced fat mass, triglyceride (fat) concentrations in blood and liver lipid content, but only E2 increased total lean mass and water mass.
Investigators further examined the gene expression and found that both PaPE-1 and E2 induced gene expression changes in liver and skeletal muscles, while only E2 altered the gene expression in the uterus.

When researchers used mice that had no α-type ER, E2 did not stimulate uterine growth and neither PaPE-1 nor E2 decreased blood triglycerides.
Researchers also investigated the beneficial vascular effects of E2 and PaPE-1 compared to the control vehicle. They treated mice with one of the three substances, injured their carotid artery and then continued the therapy for 3 more days. They found that both E2 and PaPE-1 treatment caused similar vascular repair and that the effect could be prevented by administering anti-estrogens.
The research group designed 3 more molecules, PaPE-2, 3 and 4, that also activated the extranuclear-initiated pathway and therefore showed similar tissue-selective effects.

After menopause, estrogen supplementation can have beneficial cardiovascular and metabolic effects. However, estrogen therapy may result in proliferation of uterine and breast cells and it increases uterus and breast cancer risk. PaPE-1 seems to be an estrogen molecule that combines all the beneficial effects of estrogen supplementation without increasing cancer risk. Furthermore, the process used to develop these new molecules can be applied to other hormones, such as glucocorticoids and Vitamin D, which may result in drugs with more selective activity.

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Fat Cells Reprogrammed to Make Insulin

Curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP


A New Use for Love Handles, Insulin-Producing Beta Cells


Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich have found an exciting new use for the cells that reside in the undesirable flabby tissue—creating pancreatic beta cells. The ETH researchers extracted stem cells from a 50-year-old test subject’s fatty tissue and reprogrammed them into mature, insulin-producing beta cells.

The findings from this study were published recently in Nature Communications in an article entitled “A Programmable Synthetic Lineage-Control Network That Differentiates Human IPSCs into Glucose-Sensitive Insulin-Secreting Beta-Like Cells.”

The investigators added a highly complex synthetic network of genes to the stem cells to recreate precisely the key growth factors involved in this maturation process. Central to the process were the growth factors Ngn3, Pdx1, and MafA; the researchers found that concentrations of these factors change during the differentiation process.

For instance, MafA is not present at the start of maturation. Only on day 4, in the final maturation step, does it appear, its concentration rising steeply and then remaining at a high level. The changes in the concentrations of Ngn3 and Pdx1, however, are very complex: while the concentration of Ngn3 rises and then falls again, the level of Pdx1 rises at the beginning and toward the end of maturation.

Senior study author Martin Fussenegger, Ph.D., professor of biotechnology and bioengineering at ETH Zurich’s department of biosystems science and engineering stressed that it was essential to reproduce these natural processes as closely as possible to produce functioning beta cells, stating that “the timing and the quantities of these growth factors are extremely important.”

The ETH researchers believe that their work is a real breakthrough, in that a synthetic gene network has been used successfully to achieve genetic reprogramming that delivers beta cells. Until now, scientists have controlled such stem cell differentiation processes by adding various chemicals and proteins exogenously.

“It’s not only really hard to add just the right quantities of these components at just the right time, but it’s also inefficient and impossible to scale up,” Dr. Fussenegger noted.

While the beta cells not only looked very similar to their natural counterparts—containing dark spots known as granules that store insulin—the artificial beta cells also functioned in a very similar manner. However, the researchers admit that more work needs to be done to increase the insulin output.

“At the present time, the quantities of insulin they secrete are not as great as with natural beta cells,” Dr. Fussenegger stated. Yet, the key point is that the researchers have for the first time succeeded in reproducing the entire natural process chain, from stem cell to differentiated beta cell.

In future, the ETH scientists’ novel technique might make it possible to implant new functional beta cells in diabetes sufferers that are made from their adipose tissue. While beta cells have been transplanted in the past, this has always required subsequent suppression of the recipient’s immune system—as with any transplant of donor organs or tissue.

“With our beta cells, there would likely be no need for this action since we can make them using endogenous cell material taken from the patient’s own body,” Dr. Fussenegger said. “This is why our work is of such interest in the treatment of diabetes.”

A programmable synthetic lineage-control network that differentiates human IPSCs into glucose-sensitive insulin-secreting beta-like cells

Pratik SaxenaBoon Chin HengPeng BaiMarc FolcherHenryk Zulewski & Martin Fussenegger
Nature Communications7,Article number:11247

Synthetic biology has advanced the design of standardized transcription control devices that programme cellular behaviour. By coupling synthetic signalling cascade- and transcription factor-based gene switches with reverse and differential sensitivity to the licensed food additive vanillic acid, we designed a synthetic lineage-control network combining vanillic acid-triggered mutually exclusive expression switches for the transcription factors Ngn3 (neurogenin 3; OFF-ON-OFF) and Pdx1 (pancreatic and duodenal homeobox 1; ON-OFF-ON) with the concomitant induction of MafA (V-maf musculoaponeurotic fibrosarcoma oncogene homologue A; OFF-ON). This designer network consisting of different network topologies orchestrating the timely control of transgenic and genomic Ngn3, Pdx1 and MafA variants is able to programme human induced pluripotent stem cells (hIPSCs)-derived pancreatic progenitor cells into glucose-sensitive insulin-secreting beta-like cells, whose glucose-stimulated insulin-release dynamics are comparable to human pancreatic islets. Synthetic lineage-control networks may provide the missing link to genetically programme somatic cells into autologous cell phenotypes for regenerative medicine.

Cell-fate decisions during development are regulated by various mechanisms, including morphogen gradients, regulated activation and silencing of key transcription factors, microRNAs, epigenetic modification and lateral inhibition. The latter implies that the decision of one cell to adopt a specific phenotype is associated with the inhibition of neighbouring cells to enter the same developmental path. In mammals, insights into the role of key transcription factors that control development of highly specialized organs like the pancreas were derived from experiments in mice, especially various genetically modified animals1, 2, 3, 4. Normal development of the pancreas requires the activation of pancreatic duodenal homeobox protein (Pdx1) in pre-patterned cells of the endoderm. Inactivating mutations of Pdx1 are associated with pancreas agenesis in mouse and humans5, 6. A similar cell fate decision occurs later with the activation of Ngn3 that is required for the development of all endocrine cells in the pancreas7. Absence of Ngn3 is associated with the loss of pancreatic endocrine cells, whereas the activation of Ngn3 not only allows the differentiation of endocrine cells but also induces lateral inhibition of neighbouring cells—via Delta-Notch pathway—to enter the same pancreatic endocrine cell fate8. This Ngn3-mediated cell-switch occurs at a specific time point and for a short period of time in mice9. Thereafter, it is silenced and becomes almost undetectable in postnatal pancreatic islets. Conversely, Pdx1-positive Ngn3-positive cells reduce Pdx1 expression, as Ngn3-positive cells are Pdx1 negative10. They re-express Pdx1, however, as they go on their path towards glucose-sensitive insulin-secreting cells with parallel induction of MafA that is required for proper differentiation and maturation of pancreatic beta cells11. Data supporting these expression dynamics are derived from mice experiments1, 11, 12. A synthetic gene-switch governing cell fate decision in human induced pluripotent stem cells (hIPSCs) could facilitate the differentiation of glucose-sensitive insulin-secreting cells.

In recent years, synthetic biology has significantly advanced the rational design of synthetic gene networks that can interface with host metabolism, correct physiological disturbances13 and provide treatment strategies for a variety of metabolic disorders, including gouty arthritis14, obesity15 and type-2 diabetes16. Currently, synthetic biology principles may provide the componentry and gene network topologies for the assembly of synthetic lineage-control networks that can programme cell-fate decisions and provide targeted differentiation of stem cells into terminally differentiated somatic cells. Synthetic lineage-control networks may therefore provide the missing link between human pluripotent stem cells17 and their true impact on regenerative medicine18, 19, 20. The use of autologous stem cells in regenerative medicine holds great promise for curing many diseases, including type-1 diabetes mellitus (T1DM), which is characterized by the autoimmune destruction of insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells, thus making patients dependent on exogenous insulin to control their blood glucose21, 22. Although insulin therapy has changed the prospects and survival of T1DM patients, these patients still suffer from diabetic complications arising from the lack of physiological insulin secretion and excessive glucose levels23. The replacement of the pancreatic beta cells either by pancreas transplantation or by transplantation of pancreatic islets has been shown to normalize blood glucose and even improve existing complications of diabetes24. However, insulin independence 5 years after islet transplantation can only be achieved in up to 55% of the patients even when using the latest generation of immune suppression strategies25, 26. Transplantation of human islets or the entire pancreas has allowed T1DM patients to become somewhat insulin independent, which provides a proof-of-concept for beta-cell replacement therapies27, 28. However, because of the shortage of donor pancreases and islets, as well as the significant risk associated with transplantation and life-long immunosuppression, the rational differentiation of stem cells into functional beta-cells remains an attractive alternative29, 30. Nevertheless, a definitive cure for T1DM should address both the beta-cell deficit and the autoimmune response to cells that express insulin. Any beta-cell mimetic should be able to store large amounts of insulin and secrete it on demand, as in response to glucose stimulation29, 31. The most effective protocols for the in vitro generation of bonafide insulin-secreting beta-like cells that are suitable for transplantation have been the result of sophisticated trial-and-error studies elaborating timely addition of complex growth factor and small-molecule compound cocktails to human pancreatic progenitor cells32, 33, 34. The differentiation of pancreatic progenitor cells to beta-like cells is the most challenging part as current protocols provide inconsistent results and limited success in programming pancreatic progenitor cells into glucose-sensitive insulin-secreting beta-like cells35, 36, 37. One of the reasons for these observations could be the heterogeneity in endocrine differentiation and maturation towards a beta cell phenotype. Here we show that a synthetic lineage-control network programming the dynamic expression of the transcription factors Ngn3, Pdx1 and MafA enables the differentiation of hIPSC-derived pancreatic progenitor cells to glucose-sensitive insulin-secreting beta-like cells (Supplementary Fig. 1).


Vanillic acid-programmable positive band-pass filter

The differentiation pathway from pancreatic progenitor cells to glucose-sensitive insulin-secreting pancreatic beta-cells combines the transient mutually exclusive expression switches of Ngn3 (OFF-ON-OFF) and Pdx1 (ON-OFF-ON) with the concomitant induction of MafA (OFF-ON) expression10,11. Since independent control of the pancreatic transcription factors Ngn3, Pdx1 and MafA by different antibiotic transgene control systems responsive to tetracycline, erythromycin and pristinamycin did not result in the desired differential control dynamics (Supplementary Fig. 2), we have designed a vanillic acid-programmable synthetic lineage-control network that programmes hIPSC-derived pancreatic progenitor cells to specifically differentiate into glucose-sensitive insulin-secreting beta-like cells in a seamless and self-sufficient manner. The timely coordination of mutually exclusive Ngn3 and Pdx1 expression with MafA induction requires the trigger-controlled execution of a complex genetic programme that orchestrates two overlapping antagonistic band-pass filter expression profiles (OFF-ON-OFF and ON-OFF-ON), a positive band-pass filter for Ngn3 (OFF-ON-OFF) and a negative band-pass filter, also known as band-stop filter, for Pdx1 (ON-OFF-ON), the ramp-up expression phase of which is linked to a graded induction of MafA (OFF-ON).

The core of the synthetic lineage-control network consists of two transgene control devices that are sensitive to the food component and licensed food additive vanillic acid. These devices are a synthetic vanillic acid-inducible (ON-type) signalling cascade that is gradually induced by increasing the vanillic acid concentration and a vanillic acid-repressible (OFF-type) gene switch that is repressed in a vanillic acid dose-dependent manner (Fig. 1a,b). The designer cascade consists of the vanillic acid-sensitive mammalian olfactory receptor MOR9-1, which sequentially activates the G protein Sα (GSα) and adenylyl cyclase to produce a cyclic AMP (cAMP) second messenger surge38 that is rewired via the cAMP-responsive protein kinase A-mediated phospho-activation of the cAMP-response element-binding protein 1 (CREB1) to the induction of synthetic promoters (PCRE) containing CREB1-specific cAMP response elements (CRE; Fig. 1a). The co-transfection of pCI-MOR9-1 (PhCMV-MOR9-1-pASV40) and pCK53 (PCRE-SEAP-pASV40) into human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSC-TERT) confirmed the vanillic acid-adjustable secreted alkaline phosphatase (SEAP) induction of the designer cascade (>10nM vanillic acid; Fig. 1a). The vanillic acid-repressible gene switch consists of the vanillic acid-dependent transactivator (VanA1), which binds and activates vanillic acid-responsive promoters (for example, P1VanO2) at low and medium vanillic acid levels (<2μM). At high vanillic acid concentrations (>2μM), VanA1 dissociates from P1VanO2, which results in the dose-dependent repression of transgene expression39 (Fig. 1b). The co-transfection of pMG250 (PSV40-VanA1-pASV40) and pMG252 (P1VanO2-SEAP-pASV40) into hMSC-TERT corroborated the fine-tuning of the vanillic acid-repressible SEAP expression (Fig. 1b).

Figure 1: Design of a vanillic acid-responsive positive band-pass filter providing an OFF-ON-OFF expression profile.

Design of a vanillic acid-responsive positive band-pass filter providing an OFF-ON-OFF expression profile.

a) Vanillic acid-inducible transgene expression. The constitutively expressed vanillic acid-sensitive olfactory G protein-coupled receptor MOR9-1 (pCI-MOR9-1; PhCMV-MOR9-1-pA) senses extracellular vanillic acid levels and triggers G protein (Gs)-mediated activation of the membrane-bound adenylyl cyclase (AC) that converts ATP into cyclic AMP (cAMP). The resulting intracellular cAMP surge activates PKA (protein kinase A), whose catalytic subunits translocate into the nucleus to phosphorylate cAMP response element-binding protein 1 (CREB1). Activated CREB1 binds to synthetic promoters (PCRE) containing cAMP-response elements (CRE) and induces PCRE-driven expression of human placental secreted alkaline phosphatase (SEAP; pCK53, PCRE-SEAP-pA). Co-transfection of pCI-MOR9-1 and pCK53 into human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSC-TERT) grown for 48h in the presence of increasing vanillic acid concentrations results in a dose-inducible SEAP expression profile. (b) Vanillic acid-repressible transgene expression. The constitutively expressed, vanillic acid-dependent transactivator VanA1(pMG250, PSV40-VanA1-pA, VanA1, VanR-VP16) binds and activates the chimeric promoter P1VanO2 (pMG252, P1VanO2-SEAP-pA) in the absence of vanillic acid. In the presence of increasing vanillic acid concentrations, VanA1 is released from P1VanO2, and transgene expression is shut down. Co-transfection of pMG250 and pMG252 into hMSC-TERT grown for 48h in the presence of increasing vanillic acid concentrations results in a dose-repressible SEAP expression profile. (c) Positive band-pass expression filter. Serial interconnection of the synthetic vanillic acid-inducible signalling cascade (a) with the vanillic acid-repressible transcription factor-based gene switch (b) by PCRE-mediated expression of VanA1 (pSP1, PCRE-VanA1-pA) results in a two-level feed-forward cascade. Owing to the opposing responsiveness and differential sensitivity to vanillic acid, this synthetic gene network programmes SEAP expression with a positive band-pass filter profile (OFF-ON-OFF) as vanillic acid levels are increased. Medium vanillic acid levels activate MOR9-1, which induces PCRE-driven VanA1 expression. VanA1remains active and triggers P1VanO2-mediated SEAP expression in feed-forward manner, which increases to maximum levels. At high vanillic acid concentrations, MOR9-1 maintains PCRE-driven VanA1 expression, but the transactivator dissociates from P1VanO2, which shuts SEAP expression down. Co-transfection of pCI-MOR9-1, pSP1 and pMG252 into hMSC-TERT grown for 48h in the presence of increasing vanillic acid concentrations programmes SEAP expression with a positive band-pass profile (OFF-ON-OFF). Data are the means±s.d. of triplicate experiments (n=9).

The opposing responsiveness and differential sensitivity of the control devices to vanillic acid are essential to programme band-pass filter expression profiles. Upon daisy-chaining the designer cascade (pCI-MOR9-1; PhCMV-MOR9-1-pASV40; pSP1, PCRE-VanA1-pASV40) and the gene switch (pSP1, PCRE-VanA1-pASV40; pMG252, P1VanO2-SEAP-pASV40) in the same cell, the network executes a band-pass filter SEAP expression profile when exposed to increasing concentrations of vanillic acid (Fig. 1c). Medium vanillic acid levels (10nM to 2μM) activate MOR9-1, which induces PCRE-driven VanA1 expression. VanA1 remains active within this concentration range and, in a feed-forward amplifier manner, triggers P1VanO2-mediated SEAP expression, which gradually increases to maximum levels (Fig. 1c). At high vanillic acid concentrations (2μM to 400μM), MOR9-1 maintains PCRE-driven VanA1 expression, but the transactivator is inactivated and dissociates from P1VanO2, which results in the gradual shutdown of SEAP expression (Fig. 1c).

Vanillic acid-programmable lineage-control network

For the design of the vanillic acid-programmable synthetic lineage-control network, constitutive MOR9-1 expression and PCRE-driven VanA1 expression were combined with pSP12 (pASV40-Ngn3cm←P3VanO2right arrowmFT-miR30Pdx1g-shRNA-pASV40) for endocrine specification and pSP17(PCREm-Pdx1cm-2A-MafAcm-pASV40) for maturation of developing beta-cells (Fig. 2a,b). ThepSP12-encoded expression unit enables the VanA1-controlled induction of the optimized bidirectional vanillic acid-responsive promoter (P3VanO2) that drives expression of a codon-modified Ngn3cm, the nucleic acid sequence of which is distinct from its genomic counterpart (Ngn3g) to allow for quantitative reverse transcription–PCR (qRT–PCR)-based discrimination. In the opposite direction, P3VanO2 transcribes miR30Pdx1g-shRNA, which exclusively targets genomicPdx1 (Pdx1g) transcripts for RNA interference-based destruction and is linked to the production of a blue-to-red medium fluorescent timer40 (mFT) for precise visualization of the unit’s expression dynamics in situ. pSP17 contains a dicistronic expression unit in which the modified high-tightness and lower-sensitivity PCREm promoter (see below) drives co-cistronic expression of Pdx1cm andMafAcm, which are codon-modified versions producing native transcription factors that specifically differ from their genomic counterparts (Pdx1g, MafAg) in their nucleic acid sequence. After individual validation of the vanillic acid-controlled expression and functionality of all network components (Supplementary Figs 2–9), the lineage-control network was ready to be transfected into hIPSC-derived pancreatic progenitor cells. These cells are characterized by high expression of Pdx1g and Nkx6.1 levels and the absence of Ngn3g and MafAg production32, 33, 34 (day 0:Supplementary Figs 10–16).


Figure 2: Synthetic lineage-control network programming differential expression dynamics of pancreatic transcription factors.

Synthetic lineage-control network programming differential expression dynamics of pancreatic transcription factors.

(a) Schematic of the synthetic lineage-control network. The constitutively expressed, vanillic acid-sensitive olfactory G protein-coupled receptor MOR9-1 (pCI-MOR9-1; PhCMV-MOR9-1-pA) senses extracellular vanillic acid levels and triggers a synthetic signalling cascade, inducing PCRE-driven expression of the transcription factor VanA1 (pSP1, PCRE-VanA1-pA). At medium vanillic acid concentrations (purple arrows), VanA1 binds and activates the bidirectional vanillic acid-responsive promoter P3VanO2 (pSP12, pA-Ngn3cm←P3VanO2right arrowmFT-miR30Pdx1g-shRNA-pA), which drives the induction of codon-modified Neurogenin 3 (Ngn3cm) as well as the coexpression of both the blue-to-red medium fluorescent timer (mFT) for precise visualization of the unit’s expression dynamics and miR30pdx1g-shRNA (a small hairpin RNA programming the exclusive destruction of genomic pancreatic and duodenal homeobox 1 (Pdx1g) transcripts). Consequently, Ngn3cm levels switch from low to high (OFF-to-ON), and Pdx1g levels toggle from high to low (ON-to-OFF). In addition, Ngn3cm triggers the transcription of Ngn3g from its genomic promoter, which initiates a positive-feedback loop. At high vanillic acid levels (orange arrows), VanA1 is inactivated, and both Ngn3cm and miR30pdx1g-shRNA are shut down. At the same time, the MOR9-1-driven signalling cascade induces the modified high-tightness and lower-sensitivity PCREm promoter that drives the co-cistronic expression of the codon-modified variants of Pdx1 (Pdx1cm) and V-maf musculoaponeurotic fibrosarcoma oncogene homologue A (MafAcm; pSP17, PCREm-Pdx1cm-2A-MafAcm-pA). Consequently, Pdx1cm and MafAcm become fully induced. As Pdx1cm expression ramps up, it initiates a positive-feedback loop by inducing the genomic counterparts Pdx1g and MafAg. Importantly, Pdx1cm levels are not affected by miR30Pdx1g-shRNA because the latter is specific for genomic Pdx1g transcripts and because the positive feedback loop-mediated amplification of Pdx1gexpression becomes active only after the shutdown of miR30Pdx1g-shRNA. Overall, the synthetic lineage-control network provides vanillic acid-programmable, transient, mutually exclusive expression switches for Ngn3 (OFF-ON-OFF) and Pdx1 (ON-OFF-ON) as well as the concomitant induction of MafA (OFF-ON) expression, which can be followed in real time (Supplementary Movies 1 and 2). (b) Schematic illustrating the individual differentiation steps from human IPSCs towards beta-like cells. The colours match the cell phenotypes reached during the individual differentiation stages programmed by the lineage-control network shown in a.

Following the co-transfection of pCI-MOR9-1 (PhCMV-MOR9-1-pASV40), pSP1 (PCRE-VanA1-pASV40), pSP12 (pASV40-Ngn3cm←P3VanO2right arrowmFT-miR30Pdx1g-shRNA-pASV40) and pSP17(PCREm-Pdx1cm-2A-MafAcm-pASV40) into hIPSC-derived pancreatic progenitor cells, the synthetic lineage-control network should override random endogenous differentiation activities and execute the pancreatic beta-cell-specific differentiation programme in a vanillic acid remote-controlled manner. To confirm that the lineage-control network operates as programmed, we cultivated network-containing and pEGFP-N1-transfected (negative-control) cells for 4 days at medium (2μM) and then 7 days at high (400μM) vanillic acid concentrations and profiled the differential expression dynamics of all of the network components and their genomic counterparts as well as the interrelated transcription factors and hormones in both whole populations and individual cells at days 0, 4, 11 and 14 (Figs 2 and 3 and Supplementary Figs 11–17).


Figure 3: Dynamics of the lineage-control network.

Dynamics of the lineage-control network.

(a,b) Quantitative RT–PCR-based expression profiling of the pancreatic transcription factors Ngn3cm/g, Pdx1cm/g and MafAcm/g in hIPSC-derived pancreatic progenitor cells containing the synthetic lineage-control network at days 4 and 11. Data are the means±s.d. of triplicate experiments (n=9). (cg) Immunocytochemistry of pancreatic transcription factors Ngn3cm/g, Pdx1cm/g and MafAcm/g in hIPSC-derived pancreatic progenitor cells containing the synthetic lineage-control network at days 4 and 11. hIPSC-derived pancreatic progenitor cells were co-transfected with the lineage-control vectors pCI-MOR9-1 (PhCMV-MOR9-1-pA), pSP1 (PCRE-VanA1-pA), pSP12 (pA-Ngn3cm←P3VanO2right arrowmFT-miR30Pdx1g-shRNA-pA) and pSP17 (PCREm-Pdx1cm-2A-MafAcm) and immunocytochemically stained for (c) VanA1 and Pdx1 (day 4), (d) VanA1 and Ngn3 (day 4), (e) VanA1 and Pdx1 (day 11), (f) MafA and Pdx1 (day 11) as well as (g) VanA1 and insulin (C-peptide) (day 11). The cells staining positive for VanA1 are containing the lineage-control network. DAPI, 4′,6-diamidino-2-phenylindole. Scale bar, 100μm.


Multicellular organisms, including humans, consist of a highly structured assembly of a multitude of specialized cell phenotypes that originate from the same zygote and have traversed a preprogrammed multifactorial developmental plan that orchestrates sequential differentiation steps with high precision in space and time19, 51. Because of the complexity of terminally differentiated cells, the function of damaged tissues can for most medical indications only be restored via the transplantation of donor material, which is in chronically short supply52.

Despite significant progress in regenerative medicine and the availability of stem cells, the design of protocols that replicate natural differentiation programmes and provide fully functional cell mimetics remains challenging29, 53. For example, efforts to generate beta-cells from human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) have led to reliable protocols involving the sequential administration of growth factors (activin A, bone morphogenetic protein 4 (BMP-4), basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF), FGF-10, Noggin, vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and Wnt3A) and small-molecule compounds (cyclopamine, forskolin, indolactam V, IDE1, IDE2, nicotinamide, retinoic acid, SB−431542 and γ-secretase inhibitor) that modulate differentiation-specific signalling pathways31, 54, 55. In vitro differentiation of hESC-derived pancreatic progenitor cells into beta-like cells is more challenging and has been achieved recently by a complex media formulation with chemicals and growth factors32, 33, 34.

hIPSCs have become a promising alternative to hESCs; however, their use remains restricted in many countries56. Most hIPSCs used for directed differentiation studies were derived from a juvenescent cell source that is expected to show a higher degree of differentiation potential compared with older donors that typically have a higher need for medical interventions37, 57, 58. We previously succeeded in producing mRNA-reprogrammed hIPSCs from adipose tissue-derived mesenchymal stem cells of a 50-year-old donor, demonstrating that the reprogramming of cells from a donor of advanced age is possible in principle59.

Recent studies applying similar hESC-based differentiation protocols to hIPSCs have produced cells that release insulin in response to high glucose32, 33, 34. This observation suggests that functional beta-like cells can eventually be derived from hIPSCs32, 33. In our hands, the growth-factor/chemical-based technique for differentiating human IPSCs resulted in beta-like cells with poor glucose responsiveness. Recent studies have revealed significant variability in the lineage specification propensity of different hIPSC lines35, 60 and substantial differences in the expression profiles of key transcription factors in hIPSC-derived beta-like cells33. Therefore, the growth-factor/chemical-based protocols may require further optimization and need to be customized for specific hIPSC lines35. Synthetic lineage-control networks providing precise dynamic control of transcription factor expression may overcome the challenges associated with the programming of beta-like cells from different hIPSC lines.

Rather than exposing hIPSCs to a refined compound cocktail that triggers the desired differentiation in a fraction of the stem cell population, we chose to design a synthetic lineage-control network to enable single input-programmable differentiation of hIPSC-derived pancreatic progenitor cells into glucose-sensitive insulin-secreting beta-like cells. In contrast with the use of growth-factor/chemical-based cocktails, synthetic lineage-control networks are expected to (i) be more economical because of in situ production of the required transcription factors, (ii) enable simultaneous control of ectopic and chromosomally encoded transcription factor variants, (iii) tap into endogenous pathways and not be limited to cell-surface input, (iv) display improved reversibility that is not dependent on the removal of exogenous growth factors via culture media replacement, (v) provide lateral inhibition, thereby reducing the random differentiation of neighbouring cells and (vi) enable trigger-programmable and (vii) precise differential transcription factor expression switches.

The synthetic lineage-control network that precisely replicates the endogenous relative expression dynamics of the transcription factors Pdx-1, Ngn3 and MafA required the design of a new network topology that interconnects a synthetic signalling cascade and a gene switch with differential and opposing sensitivity to the food additive vanillic acid. This differentiation device provides different band-pass filter, time-delay and feed-forward amplifier topologies that interface with endogenous positive-feedback loops to orchestrate the timely expression and repression of heterologous and chromosomally encoded Ngn3, Pdx1 and MafA variants. The temporary nature of the engineering intervention, which consists of transient transfection of the genetic lineage-control components in the absence of any selection, is expected to avoid stable modification of host chromosomes and alleviate potential safety concerns. In addition, the resulting beta-cell mass could be encapsulated inside vascularized microcontainers28, a proven containment strategy in prototypic cell-based therapies currently being tested in animal models of prominent human diseases14, 15, 16, 61, 62 as well as in human clinical trials28.

The hIPSC-derived beta-like cells resulting from this trigger-induced synthetic lineage-control network exhibited glucose-stimulated insulin-release dynamics and capacity matching the human physiological range and transcriptional profiling, flow cytometric analysis and electron microscopy corroborated the lineage-controlled stem cells reached a mature beta-cell phenotype. In principle, the combination of hIPSCs derived from the adipose tissue of a 50-year-old donor59 with a synthetic lineage-control network programming glucose-sensitive insulin-secreting beta-like cells closes the design cycle of regenerative medicine63. However, hIPSCs that are derived from T1DM patients, differentiated into beta-like cells and transplanted back into the donor would still be targeted by the immune system, as demonstrated in the transplantation of segmental pancreatic grafts from identical twins64. Therefore, any beta-cell-replacement therapy will require complementary modulation of the immune system either via drugs30, 65, engineering or cell-based approaches66, 67 or packaging inside vascularizing, semi-permeable immunoprotective microcontainers28.

Capitalizing on the design principles of synthetic biology, we have successfully constructed and validated a synthetic lineage-control network that replicates the differential expression dynamics of critical transcription factors and mimicks the native differentiation pathway to programme hIPSC-derived pancreatic progenitor cells into glucose-sensitive insulin-secreting beta-like cells that compare with human pancreatic islets at a high level. The design of input-triggered synthetic lineage-control networks that execute a preprogrammed sequential differentiation agenda coordinating the timely induction and repression of multiple genes could provide a new impetus for the advancement of developmental biology and regenerative medicine.

Other related articles published in this Open Access Online Scientific Journal include the following:

Adipocyte Derived Stroma Cells: Their Usage in Regenerative Medicine and Reprogramming into Pancreatic Beta-Like Cells

Curator: Evelina Cohn, Ph.D.

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