Friday, January 24, 2014

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: blindness, targeting cancer and science literacy

Researchers have used stem cells to help retinal cells like these grow the blood vessels they need.
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.

iPS stem cells from cord blood for retina repair. A team at Johns Hopkins has moved reprogrammed stem cells, so called iPS cells, closer to clinical use via a couple different steps. While you can use the iPS technique to reprogram any adult cell, they chose the cells in umbilical cord blood, which being so young have fewer of the mutations that tend to accumulate in our cells as we age. So, these cells may be safer or at least more uniform. The team also perfected a technique they had reported earlier that used molecular mechanisms instead of viruses to carry out the reprogramming. Most important, they found that when they matured those stem cells to become precursors of blood vessels, they could be injected into mice with damaged retinas and succeed in growing needed new vessels.

The research was published in the journal Circulation and written about on the web site science 2.0. You can read about work CIRM funds in the area on our blindness fact sheet.

Stem cells carry chemo to cancer. Since stem cells naturally home to inflammation and stem cells view cancer as inflammation several teams have begun efforts to use stem cells to carry cancer-killing agents to tumors. CIRM funds a team using donor neural stem cells to target a deadly brain cancer. Now a German company apceth (applied cell therapy) is using a patient’s own bone marrow stem cells to target gastro-intestinal tumors. The release from the company run by B3Cnewswire makes it clear they are using the type of stem cell in bone marrow called mesenchymal cells. But it does not clarify how they have altered those cells to deliver a deadly punch when they arrive at the tumor. It does indicate that the therapeutic impact is through genetic manipulation of the cells that can be activated selectively after the cells have traveled through the blood stream and arrived at the tumor.

Stem cell patent questioned. For stem cell wonks who watch some of the insider baseball in the field, Science news reporter Eliot Marshall has written a good review of the arguments on both sides of the court case determining the validity of the patents underlying embryonic stem cell technology. Spurred by the Supreme Court’s decision last year that human genes cannot be patented, the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog challenged the patents held by the University of Wisconsin’s alumni foundation. While I am not going to take sides here, there are clearly argument on both sides of this and it is rare to get them laid out as well as Eliot has, something I have come to expect from him over the years.

Science reporting needs a boost. I love it when a big name takes up one of my soap boxes, in this case the lack of science literacy in this country and how the shrinking number of science journalists is adding to the problem. Renowned medical ethicist Arthur Caplan detailed the issue in an interview published in The Chronicle of Higher Education and ran a review of the piece. It has a great quote from Caplan:
Children are not going to flourish at science in a society that treats it either as something you can believe in selectively, something that is simply one point of view, or something about which anyone can have a credible opinion no matter how ill-qualified, dumb, or misinformed.
He goes on to describe the damage done by cutbacks of dedicated science journalists in news rooms and hits another hobby horse of mine: scientists have a responsibility to communicate their work to the public. I hope a few publishers read his remarks, and a few scientists, too.

Don Gibbons

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