Friday, October 11, 2013

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: cord blood for leukemia, liver cancer and stem cells in sync with the sun

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.

Image Credit: AveLardo
 Skin stem cells and circadian rhythms. The stem cells in our skin seem to know how to tell time, or at least solar time. They carryout different functions depending on the time of the day. Most notably, they activate genes that can protect against damage from ultra violet light during the daytime. The problem is, these internal cellular clocks gradually become less accurate as we age resulting in increased damage to the skin and less ability to induce repairs—the main function of the stem cells. These findings were reported in Cell Stem Cell by a team at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine in Barcelona and written about at the site redOrbit.

Harvard cord blood clinical trial. Many more leukemia and lymphoma patients may become candidates for stem cell transplants from umbilical cord blood as a result of a chemical trick discovered and developed by a team scattered across Harvard affiliated institutions. Blood from a single umbilical cord does not have enough stem cells for an adult transplant, so adults are generally given stem cells from two cords, doubling the chances of an adverse immune reaction. The team found a chemical, a type of prostaglandin that seems to greatly expand the number of stem cells in a single cord. They treated cord samples with the chemical prior to transplantation and the results of a first-phase clinical trial suggest it worked. The work was published in the journal Blood and written about at the site redOrbit.

There are several fun aspects to this study. Having worked with several members of the team during the early years of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute it is nice to see their first example of pushing a discovery from the bench to the bedside for patients. It also highlights the importance of basic research. They initially discovered this chemical's properties studying zebrafish. Also, it really shows the power of collaborations. This result required pulling together basic researchers, clinical researchers and researchers at a company. These are all themes of the work we do here at CIRM. I am heading off Sunday for the Stem Cells on the Mesa Partnering Forum where we will work to team up academic and industry researchers. My colleague wrote about what that means for accelerating stem cell science earlier today.

Pre-cancer cells flag liver cancer. A team from UC San Diego and partially funded by CIRM has found a type of cell that seems to be in an intermediate stage between a normal liver cell and a liver cancer cell. They found these progenitor cells in an area of liver damaged by cirrhosis. While millions of people have some level of such damage, only a few go on to develop cancer. If it turns out these progenitor cells are markers for those unfortunate few, they could be used for early diagnosis and treatment. Most liver cancer is found too late and results in death in three to six months. This study shows the power of research teams looking at the interplay between stem cells, normal adult cells, and cells that have gone down a cancerous path. The study was published in Cell, and written about by HEALTHCANAL.

With stem cells it’s location, location, location. During the June meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research we wrote about a theme at the meeting and titled it “It takes a neighborhood to get a cell to grow up and behave well.” A team from Yale has added another angle to the story. Their work in Nature showed that not only do cells behave based on a norm for the neighborhood, if you move them to a new neighborhood, they will leave their old behavior behind and take on the one appropriate for the new neighborhood. They studied stem cells in hair follicles, but all the accumulating evidence suggests it applies to other tissues as well. The lead author told a writer for HEALTHCANAL. “It’s analogous to human children—what they are exposed to in their environment determines what they become as adults.”

Don Gibbons

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