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 in space. Since one of the first stories I ever wrote professionally was about how Grumman Corp. was building a beam builder that would be sent into space to build the international space station I could not resist this one. Even before John Glenn took that first orbit around the Earth, space scientists have worried about the impact of weightlessness on astronauts. Now some stem cells have taken up residence at the international space station to help answer that question.
Stem cells need to get a grip. For some time it has become evident that the environment you place a stem cell in greatly influences what it decides to do when it grows up. Mesenchymal stem cells, for example, can become fat or bone among other tissues. Now a team at Penn has found that the choice between fat and bone depends on how well the stem cells can grip onto the media, on which they are growing. I wish a few of my fat cells would loose a grip.
Making old blood young again. The blood-forming stem cells found in our bone marrow loose some of their vigor as we age. They just don’t make new copies of all the various components of our blood as well as they used to do. Now a team in Sweden has looked at the genetic switches that are intertwined in our DNA, and found that some of those switches have been altered in older blood stem cells. More important they found a way to change those switches back to a more youthful setting. In a few years, this could be better than the True Blood of vampire fame.
Stem cell bank with a view. We announced a major new initiative last week to develop a stem cell bank that would house 9,000 reprogrammed stem cell lines, so called iPS cells, made from blood samples of 3,000 patients with 11 diseases that are believed to have genetic culprits. The bank is expected to provide new insight into the true causes of those disease and opportunities to find new therapies. The bank will be housed at the Buck Institute, which sits on a beautiful bluff in northern Marin county. The local paper published a story today with pictures of the empty labs waiting to be filled with bustling scientist, as well as the beautiful setting. I should note that those labs will be filled with folks hired by two companies CIRM lured to California from other states.
15 stem cells in late-stage clinical trials. When stem cell research pushes a therapy into the clinic the cells need to pass through three phases, the first checks for safety, the second looks for early signs that the cells make a difference, and third is pivotal. That Phase 3 trial has to show definitively that the cells benefit the patient and do so better than any standard therapy. A blogger I follow is writing about the 15 stem cell trials in Phase 3. Here is his first installment.
Questionable stem cells in Italy. The Italian minister of health riled scientists on both sides of the Atlantic last week when he allowed a clinic offering an unproven therapy to continue treating patients even though the stem cells involved are not manufactured according to Italy’s legal safety standards. It has stirred quite a debate about patients’ rights to determine the risk they will take. Here are two pieces: a short version from Reuters and a longer one from Nature. The comment field in the latter captures the two sides of the issue.
And to end with a fun note from Italy. Italian movie star and legendary sex symbol, Gina Lollobrigida is auctioning off her jewelry to fund a stem cell hospital and research center. She’s retired from acting and says that her current career as a sculptor does not require flashy jewelry. Growing up as a gay man I may not have appreciated her attributes as much as my straight male friends, but I did love her style and her bling, so I applaud her choice of where those baubles can do the most good.