Friday, September 27, 2013

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: chemical weapons, Parkinson’s Disease and Cancer

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.

Artillery shells containing mustard gas
Organs on a chip for chemical weapons testing. Chemical weapons are in the news right now a little too much for my taste, but I was glad to see stem cell research is contributing to finding potential treatments for these unthinkable agents. The U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center is the only facility in the U.S. allowed to produce chemical warfare agents for research purposes, to understand how those agents affect the body and to explore treatment options. Working with three universities the researchers there use reprogrammed stem cells, iPS cells, to grow the tissues of specific organs. Up first are heart, liver and lung. They grow them on thumb drive-size chips that have micro fluidic channels to mimic blood vessels that allow the tissue to grow in multiple layers and better mimic the real organ tissue. They will be testing various potential treatments on each type of organ. The work was described on the R&D news website.

Reprogrammed stem cells safe in primates in Parkinson’s test. Many researchers hold out great hope that we will be able to take skin or other adult cells from a patient and turn then into the desired tissue needed for repair, say nerve cells, and not have them rejected by the patient’s immune system. But some studies over the past two years have suggested that although these new cells contain the same genes as the patient, they might still cause an immune response. New data from Japan suggests that this may not be a concern. They took cells from monkey’s mouths or blood, reprogrammed them to be iPS type stem cells, and then matured them into neurons capable of producing dopamine, the protein that is in short supply in Parkinson’s disease.

Each monkey got six injections of their own reprogrammed cells into the area of the brain where that type of neuron normally resides. Over the course of several months the team saw very little immune response and even when there was some response, the nerve cells survived. This holds out hope iPS cells could become a therapy for the disease. The work was discussed in the Discover magazine blog today. You can read more about the Parkinson's disease research CIRM funds on our website.

Therapy target found in brain cancer stem cells. A CIRM-funded researcher at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla has found that cancer stem cells that are part of a certain type of brain cancer use two very specific enzymes to speed up the rate that they divide. The research team also found drugs that were able to block the action of those enzymes. They showed that these drugs could block the growth of mouse tumors as well as the growth of human tumors that had been transplanted into mice. Robert Wechsler-Reya, who holds a CIRM Leadership award, led the work that was described in Drug Discovery & Development today. This video has more detailed information about cancer stem cells.

New York Times Op/Ed on R&D budget cuts. Regular New York Times Opinion Page contributor Thomas Friedman frequently writes about the importance of science and engineering in keeping our country competitive on a world stage. This week he lamented the impact of the sequestration budget cuts on the National Institutes of Health. He quotes NIH Director Francis Collins saying that this coming year the agency will not be able to fund 640 projects that scored in the top 17 percent of all proposals. And of those, 150 were from teams that had prior grants, had shown they were onto something, and would now be cut off. Collins said, “So you damage the previous investment as well as the future one.”

Friedman’s column was a call to not waste our great potential. He wrote: “In a world where the big divide is no longer between developed and developing countries but rather between high-imagination-enabling countries and low-imagination-enabling countries, we remain the highest-imagination-enabling country in the world.” He clearly fears that our nation is squandering a tremendous advantage. I agree.

Don Gibbons

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