Friday, November 1, 2013

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: aging, side effects of bone marrow transplant and spinal cord injury

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.

Stem cells and the girl who never grew up. When Brook Greenberg passed away last week at the age of 20 she looked like a five-year-old toddler. Numerous tests during her life showed no known developmental defect, but her family has let her tissue samples become the subject of a research project to see if her genes can unlock some of the mysteries of aging. A team at Mount Sinai in New York did find three genetic mutations that seemed unique to Greenberg. They have now taken her donated tissue and created reprogrammed iPS type stem cells and matured them into nerves, liver and other cells types to try to tease out how those genes impact the function of the various tissues. Time did an interesting write up that included quotes from her father about hoping some good can come from his daughter’s condition.

Porous particles help stem cells grow up. Many regenerative medicine procedures under development focus on transplanting intermediate precursor cells and hoping they will multiply and mature into the desired adult cell. The problem is, in early tests of the procedure the cells often did not mature efficiently and did not survive well. Now, an international team of researchers from Denmark, Sweden and Japan have developed a system that better mimics the cells’ natural environment and appears to improve cell maturation and survival in neural system uses. They developed silicon-based particles that can be loaded with the cells plus growth factors that help the cells flourish. It seems to work and they published data in the journal CIRM helped found Stem Cells Translational Medicine and it was written about by FierceDrugDelivery.

You can hear about similar work in our video from the CIRM tissue engineering workshop.

Common drug taming horrible side effect. The original stem cell transplant, bone marrow transplant, has made a huge difference in the survival of patients with many forms of blood cancer. But too few patient can find well matched donors, which places those who can’t at risk for Graft Versus Host Disease (GVHD), a horrible side effect in which the donor immune cells attack the host, notably causing mucosal linings to slough off.

Now an existing drug, a statin used to lower cholesterol with the brand name Lipitor, lowered the rate of GVHD dramatically. Just 11 percent of patients developed the condition within six months of transplant compared to a usual rate of close to 50 percent. The small preliminary study was published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology and written up on medpage TODAY by a former colleague, Charlie Bankhead, who was one of my bureau correspondents when I was editor of Medical World News.

Scarring and spinal cord injury. Even widely held assumptions in science need to be put to the test. Researchers working with spinal cord injury have assumed that the scar at the site of injury prevented nerve regrowth and reducing the scarring could aid in recovery. There are multiple sources of scarring, and when a Swedish team concentrated on scar formed through spinal cord stem cells, blocking those cells’ action actually made the ultimate injury worse. When they prevented the stem cells from forming scar tissue the injury gradually expanded. The stem cell generated scar seems to work like a bandage to stabilize the injury. They published the mouse data in Science and it was written about by HEALTHCANAL.

CIRM funds a number of projects that seek to encourage nerve growth past the scar tissue rather than reduce the scarring. You can read about those efforts on our spinal cord injury fact sheet.

Collaboration to address aging. A European Union-wide collaboration of scientists will be meeting in Stockholm next week to begin a project to understand what is different about folks who live to 105. We have known for some time that one common feature for many of these long-lived individuals is they don’t get diabetes and other diseases of metabolism. The collaborators intend to enlist stem cell technology to use tissue from these people to create mice with human liver and pancreas cells to see how they function differently. The consortium goes by the acronym HUMAN, Health and the Understanding of Metabolism, Aging and Nutrition. Here's more about that story.

CIRM is committed to the concept that collaboration of the best minds across boundaries can accelerate the path to therapies. We have 21 collaborative funding agreements with states, nations and foundations around the world. We have a dedicated web page for our collaborative partnerships.

Don Gibbons

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