Friday, November 8, 2013

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: enhanced healing, engineered tissues and bigger muscles

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.


Growing muscle in a dish. A team at Children’s Hospital, Boston and Harvard have used reprogrammed iPS type stem cells to grow muscle in a lab dish. The trick was using a chemical they found in zebra fish. They published the work in the journal Cell, which featured the research in the fun cover illustration above and printed this caption inside:

“The cover tells the story, reported in Xu et al. (pp. 909–921), of an induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC, shown here in a red t-shirt) that cannot make muscle. When a “bully” researcher tries to steal the postdoctoral fellow working with the iPSC, it's back to the lab, where the fellow uses a zebrafish model to discover chemicals that can turn the iPSC into muscle. Facing down the bully, the postdoctoral fellow rides high on his success. This concept was adapted from Charles Atlas comic advertisements related to bodybuilding. Cover artwork by Athens Qin.”

The website Health News Digest ran a story about the work.

The power of gene therapy and stem cells. Many observers of the stem cell field say the low hanging fruit for successful therapies is to use adult stem cells to deliver correct copies of a gene or the product protein of a gene in diseases caused by a single gene mutation. Now, an Australian team has shown this works for a severe form of mental and physical disability called Hurler’s syndrome. The disease that occurs in about one in a thousand births results from a single defective enzyme. The team has used a virus to carry the correct gene into adult stem cells in the lab and injected them into mice with a version of the disease. They verified the animals produced the correct enzyme and saw some improvement in function. The work was written about by ScienceDaily.

CIRM has eight Disease Teams working to combine gene therapy and stem cell therapy. Some of those involve single-gene defect diseases and you can read about one of those projects on our sickle cell anemia fact sheet.

One gene turned on limb regeneration. I love accidental discoveries. An old colleague at Harvard, George Daley, was studying cancer in mice that had been genetically engineered to have a gene turned on that is normally only turned on before the animals are born. When his team tried to ID the young animals by making holes in their ears or by snipping a toe joint, the ear healed over the hole and the toe joints regrew. That would normally only happen in the womb. The protein encoded by the engineered gene seemed to energize the healing ability of the neighboring cells. When he gave normal mice a drug that activates the same processes as the engineered gene, they too healed. Fascinating results, but it only worked on relatively young mice, so no fountain of youth here. The research published in the journal Cell was described in the Scientific American blog.

Consortium reports progress in bioengineering. While much important science still takes place under the supervision of a single dynamic lead investigator, we at CIRM are firm believers that many times the field can move forward more quickly with collaborative teams. The European Union has been putting together cross-border teams for some years. One of those, the BIODESIGN consortium reported a number advances from its 19 members in a story posted by Nanowerk News. One theme is the use of collagen-based materials as scaffolds for using stem cells to produce tissues for repair. That was also a theme at a workshop organized by CIRM, with researchers from around the world, and described in this tissue engineering video.

European call for sustained funding. Having spent many, many days in my previous job trying to convince Congress of the importance of sustained funding to advancing biomedical research toward therapies, it was nice to come across this report from the European Science Foundation. It makes a clear call for sustained public endorsement and funding of human stem cell research. ScienceDaily posted a description of the foundation report.

Don Gibbons

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