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 About.com 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

Hanging out after the Hangout – how a talk about a new treatment for type 1 diabetes sparked a deeper conversation

You know you have hit on an important topic when the conversation continues long after you expected it to end. That’s certainly what happened with yesterday’s Google Hangout on Diabetes that we hosted. While the Hangout itself was, I thought, engaging and informative, it clearly only began to touch on the full scope of the issue.

After the Hangout ended I thanked the four experts who made up our panel – Drs. Kevin D’Amour and Howard Foyt from ViaCyte, Dr. Francisco Prieto a physician and researcher and the Patient Advocate for Diabetes for our governing Board, and Chris Stiehl, who has been living with type 1 diabetes for 54 years – and that began a conversation about all the different aspects of the disease that we simply didn’t have time to touch on during the Hangout.

While the Hangout focused on treatments and therapies for the physical side of diabetes, part of the post-Hangout conversation focused on other aspects. Chris pointed out:

 “I believe one of the major issues in diabetes is the psychological aspect of the disease, public ignorance and discrimination, etc. I know that CIRM does not fund that kind of research, but diabetes depression is a key component of who survives and who doesn’t” 

Francisco responded to that by broadening the conversation even wider:

 “I agree Chris that the psychological aspects are tremendous – I have to deal with that every day. The genetics are also very interesting, and not just for type 1. Being Latino and with a heavily Latino patient population, I see this daily as well, and also the tremendous degree of heterogeneity there is between different people with the “same” disease – type 2 diabetes. Some appear to be much more insulin resistant than others, and while our tools are better, our ability to measure and understand those differences and the implications for their treatment are still quite primitive. The fact that science gives us a way to figure these things out and use that to make people’s lives better is why I love it.” 

What this says is that we touched on a disease that touches so many people in so many different ways, not just the individual with diabetes but also their family and friends.

But this all began with the Hangout and a look at the latest research, including Kevin and Howard’s discussion of their new device that could prove a powerful tool for people with type 1 diabetes. This project has funded in part by grants totaling over $30 million from CIRM.

If you missed the conversation the first time around you can catch it all by watching it on our web site. There’s a wealth of information there and it’s started a conversation that we are going to keep following in the months and years to come.

To learn more about CIRM-funded research related to diabetes, visit our fact sheet.

kevin mccormack