Friday, December 20, 2013

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: striking images, cerbral palsy, and hair loss

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.

Mouse tails stained to illuminate the hair follicle stem cells. The image was captured using confocal imaging by NYC scientist Yaron Fuchs at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and was among the top 10 winners in an imaging contest.
Hair loss research a good tale of how science advances. A researcher at the University of Southern California, with a CIRM-funded post doctoral fellow, has published a series of three papers on the role of hair follicle stem cells in determining when hair grows and when it falls out. Even for those of us who would like a bit more hair, it does sound a little superfluous on the surface. But the web portal Innovations Report does a nice job of telling how the three successive papers over the course of the past year build on each other. The path of research progress becomes very clear. It also points out that any improvement in our understanding of one type of adult stem cell can impact work on adult stem cells in other tissues and organs.

The editors failed to note that the work may also impact prevention of the most common form of skin cancer because it arises from hair follicle stem cells, something we wrote about earlier this week.

Cerebral palsy clinical trial on track. One of the most hyped stem cell “therapies” on the internet is for Cerebral Palsy (CP). Because of the broad and highly variable symptoms of CP, it is also one of the therapies that raises the most eyebrows among serious stem cell researchers. With very few exceptions, the clinics offering this therapy are not collecting and sharing real data about their patients. Those steps are generally considered fundamental to legitimate early stage clinical work.

Now a team at the University of Texas at Houston has announced a trial that seems overdue, a double-blinded, placebo-controlled study. The blinding means that neither the doctor nor the parent will know which child gets stem cells versus a placebo. The 30-patient study will be in two parts with half looking at the impact of the child’s own banked cord blood stem cells and the other half evaluating stem cells from the child’s bone marrow. The trial was described in a press release from Let’s Cure CP, the non-profit that is funding the work, and that release was picked up by several outlets including SFGate.

A report from CIRM’s Cerebral Palsy workshop can be downloaded at the fifth link on this page.

Converting scars in the brain into working nerves. Overzealous repair systems in our brains often share the blame for the damage after stroke or other brain injury. Glial cells normally serves as protective neighbors for our neurons. We summons them in mass after an injury, clogging the site and creating scar tissue rather than new neurons. Now, a team at Penn State University has found a way to reprogram that rescue crew to become needed new neurons. They published their work online yesterday in Cell Stem Cell and the web portal Science Codex published a press release from Penn.

The team used a gene for a protein known to drive growth of neurons in the developing brain. They used a virus to carry the gene into the glial cells in a mouse model of brain injury and they found the cells did convert to new neurons. More important, two different types of glial cells converted into two different types of neurons, excitatory neurons and inhibitory neurons. Getting a balance of those go-for-it, and back-off nerves is critical to normal brain function.

Ten who made a difference in science in 2013. When the journal Nature chose its list of the “10 people who mattered in 2013,” I was pleased and not surprised to find the name of Shoukhrat Mitalipov, who developed embryonic stem cells from cloned human embryos. A colleague wrote about some of the ethical issues around cloning when Mitaliov’s work was published in May.

And the year’s coolest microscopic images. It used to be you had to be a true science geek to love microscopic images. That is not true today. Imaging techniques have improved so much, and aided by multi-hued glowing florescent dyes, it now produces beautiful works of art. I know folks here at CIRM may be outliers, but our office walls glow with stem-cell art. So, it was fun to see a stem cell image made the annual top-ten “ByoScapes” contest run by Olympus. A Howard Hughes investigator, Yaron Fuchs, took eighth place with an image of hair follicle stem cells. Gizmodo was among the outlets that ran the images (shown above).

Don Gibbons

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