Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Stem cell Stories that caught our eye: improving skin repair and heart repair, but avoiding the charlatans

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Modeling our largest organ—our skin. Before we can make major strides in improving wound healing we need to understand how our skin repairs cuts and replenishes itself on a day-to-day basis. Some competing theories were put to the test in Sheffield, England when some biologists teamed up with some Information Technology experts to create computer models of three options for how the skin could regenerate itself over a three-year period. With two of the models, at the end of the simulated third year, the skin was not whole. The only model that worked was one that proposed “sleeping” stem cells that sit in the lowest portions of the skin but don’t constantly divide. Instead they wait until they are called into action to repair a wound or replace routinely sloughed off skin. This news website has one version of the story.

Heart cells on a kite string in a lightning storm. Most teams that have grown heart tissue from embryonic stem cells or from reprogrammed stem cells, so called iPS cells, have ended up with beating heart muscle that behave more like heart muscle in the developing fetus than mature adult heart muscle. A team at the University of Toronto has produced cells that behave like mature heart muscle by using what they call a “biowire.” They seed stem cells on a silk suture, like that used for closing wounds. Then they treated the wire with electric pulses in cycles that mimic the electrical signals maturing heart cells would experience. The university’s press release was picked up here.

Stem cell charlatans. We have frequently written about stem cell clinics that seem to be offering “therapies” too good to be true. (including here). The Philippines has been mentioned in several recent reports of questionable stem cell offerings. It was good to see that the Philippine Medical Association has taken an active approach in warning the citizens of the country to avoid these practitioners. Here is one story about the group’s effort.

“Liberated” lab animals in poor conditions. In my various positions at Stanford and Harvard I frequently was called upon to defend our use of animals in research, something I was proud to do. Most of the medical advances that are saving lives today would not exist without animal models. However, animal models are far from perfect at predicting human disease and responses to therapies. Everyone I knew who worked with them always sought to use as few as possible. They often spoke of hope for alternatives to animal models. One fun thing about being at CIRM, is the opportunity offered by reprogrammed iPS cells for replacing a significant amount of animal research, but not all of it. Animal rights activists will never be convinced of this on-going need, but it is sad when they supposedly “liberate” lab mice and then house them in conditions much less humane than the lab they came from before the theft. Here is one account of this happening in Italy.

Don Gibbons

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