Stem cell stories that caught our eye: Some good news got a little overplayed on blindness and Alzheimer’s

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.

Stories on blindness show too much wide-eyed wonder. While our field got some very good news this week when Advanced Cell Technologies (ACT) published data on its first 18 patients treated for two blinding diseases, many of the news stories were a little too positive. The San Diego Union Tribune ran the story from Associated Press writer Maria Cheng who produced an appropriately measured piece. She led with the main point of this early-phase study—the cells implanted seem to be safe—and discussed “improved vision” in half the patients. She did not imply their sight came back to normal. Her third paragraph had a quote from a leading voice in the field Chris Mason of University College London:

“It’s a wonderful first step but it doesn’t prove that (stem cells) work.”

The ACT team implanted a type of cell called RPE cells made from embryonic stem cells. Those cells are damaged in the two forms of blindness tested in this trial, Stargardt’s macular dystrophy and age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the elderly. Some of the patients have been followed for three years after the cell transplants, which provides the best evidence to date that cells derived from embryonic stem cells can be safe. And some of the patients regained useful levels of vision, which with this small study you still have to consider other possible reasons for the improvement, but it is certainly a positive sign.

CIRM funds a team using a different approach to replacing the RPE cells in these patients and they expect to begin a clinical trial late this year

Stem cells create stronger bone with nanoparticles.   Getting a person’s own stem cells to repair bad breaks in their bones certainly seems more humane than hacking out a piece of healthy bone from some place else on their body and moving it to the damaged area. But our own stem cells often can’t mend anything more than minor breaks. So, a team from Keele University and the University of Nottingham in the U.K. laced magnetic nanoparticles with growth factors that stimulate stem cell growth and used external magnets to hold the particles at the site of injury after they were injected.

It worked nicely in laboratory models as reported in the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine, and reported on the web site benzinga. Now comes the hard step of proving it is safe to test in humans

Stem cells might end chronic shortage of blood platelets. Blood platelets—a staple of cancer therapy because they get depleted by chemotherapy and radiation—too often are in short supply. They can only set on the shelf for five days after a donation. If we could generate them from stem cells, they could be made on demand, but you’d have to make many different versions to match various peoples’ blood type. The latter has been a bit of a moot point since no one has been able to make clinical grade platelets from stem cells.

plateletsA paper published today by Advanced Cell Technologies may have solved the platelet production hurdle and the immune matching all at once. (ACT is having a good week.) They produced platelets in large quantities from reprogrammed iPS type stem cells without using any of the ingredients that make many iPS cells unusable for human therapy. And before they made the platelets, they deleted the gene in the stem cells responsible for the bulk of immune rejection. So, they may have created a so-called “universal” donor.

They published their method in Stem Cell Reports and Reuters picked up their press release. Let’s see if the claims hold up.

Alzheimer’s in a dish—for the second time. My old colleagues at Harvard got a little more credit than they deserved this week. Numerous outlets, including the Boston Globe, picked up a piece by The New York Times’ Gina Kolata crediting them with creating a model of Alzheimer’s in a lab dish for the first time. This was actually done by CIRM-grantee Lawrence Goldstein at the University of California, San Diego, a couple years ago.

But there were some significant differences in what the teams did do. Goldstein’s lab created iPS type stem cells from skin samples of patients who had a genetic form of the disease. They matured those into nerve cells and did see increased secretion of the two proteins, tau and amyloid-beta, found in the nerves of Alzheimer’s patients. But they did not see those proteins turn into the plaques and tangles thought to wreak havoc in the disease. The Harvard team did, which they attributed, in part, to growing the cells in a 3-dimensional gel that let the nerves grow more like they would normally.

The Harvard team, however, started with embryonic stem cells, matured them into nerves, and then artificially introduced the Alzheimer’s-associated gene. They have already begun using the model system to screen existing drugs for candidates that might be able to clear or prevent the plaques and tangles. But they introduced the gene in such a way the nerve cells over express the disease gene, so it is not certain the model will accurately predict successful therapies in patients.

Don Gibbons

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: fast track marketing in Japan, a 3D cell tour and autism

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.

Event showed great progress, but Japan nipping at our heals. The San Diego Union Tribune’s Brad Fikes seemed to be enjoying covering the Stem Cell Meeting on the Mesa in his own backyard in La Jolla. He stayed for the full two days of the industry Partnering Forum and when we chatted he said he had more good material than he could use. I was certainly willing to second the sentiment of the opening paragraph of the story he wrote:

“More than ever before, stem cell therapies appear poised to transform medicine — potentially curing heart disease, diabetes and paralyzing injuries, among other ailments.”

But the last portion of his piece was a little unsettling. He noted the frequent discussion at the meeting of Japan’s new fast track path for marketing stem cell therapies. The CEO of Athersys, one of the leading companies in the field, announced at the meeting that his company would be taking their lead product to Japan first for marketing, not the U.S.

Turning cell biology into a 3-D game. The ability to track cells has become one of the most important limiting factors in stem cell biology. We need to know where cells go when they are transplanted in the body, but even before that, we have found that the interaction of cells with their environment often determines if stem cell offspring do their jobs and we need to track cells to understand this.

Now a team at Drexel University that includes an expert in computer software and hardware used in gaming has

Researchers at Drexel touring a group of cells using 3D glasses.

Researchers at Drexel touring a group of cells using 3D glasses.

provided the field with an invaluable tool. They can label various cells with distinctive markers and follow their movements. More important they can use an elaborate software program to integrate individual slices of a tissue into a 3D sample that researchers can “tour” while wearing 3D glasses.

Red Orbit quoted Andrew Cohen the leader of the computer development team:

“It’s like Photoshop for cell biologists. The software outlines cells and blood vessels, keeping track of them as they’re dividing and moving around one another. This provides a wealth of information on the patterns of cell shape, motion and division. Visualization of the 3-D microscopy data together with the analysis results is a key step to measure and ultimately understand what drives these cells.”

Cally Templea, a leading expert from the Neural Stem Cell Institute in Rensselaer, NY, was also quoted about the power of this new tool to help stem cell biologists understand how stem cells interact with their environment:

“LEVER 3-D is amazing, it opens new vistas for understanding the stem cell niche.”

Autism linked to stem cell burst (in mice). The accelerated brain growth seen right after birth in many people with autism spectrum disorder has been linked to a burst of nerve stem cell division triggered by inflammation. The study at the University of California, Los Angeles, could explain why inflammation during pregnancy, either due to an autoimmune reaction or an infection, has been shown to be a risk factor for the disorder.

Health Canal posted the press release from the university that quoted the senior author of a paper in the journal Stem Cell Reports, Harley Kornblum:

“We have now shown that one way maternal inflammation could result in larger brains and, ultimately, autistic behavior, is through the activation of the neural stem cells that reside in the brain of all developing and adult mammals.”

The researchers gave pregnant mice a toxin found in bacteria and discovered that it triggered an excess production of nerve stem cells in their pups. This resulted in enlarged brains and behavior associated with autism, such as a reduced interest in interacting with other mice.

Little guy regrowing his head could help us. While a few species have the ability to regrow a severed body part, the tiny Hydractinia—commonly called snail fur—out does the rest in that it can regrow its head. BBC did a nice job of describing work at the University of Galway trying to explain how it accomplishes the feat and putting the work into perspective with other recent research findings.

After harvesting the creatures off the backs of hermit crabs the Galway team isolated embryonic stem cells from them, to which they attributed the ability to regrow something as complex as a head. The snail fur may be unique in that no other adult animal is believed to harbor embryonic stem cells. The researchers hope to use the tiny creature to learn how we might be able to turn on some ancestral regenerative capacity in humans.

Don Gibbons

Meeting designed to bring together investors and researchers seemed to hit pay dirt this year

When I helped plan the first Partnering Forum at the Stem Cell Meeting on the Mesa four years ago, I must admit it felt a bit early for the stated goal of the meeting, which was to bring together academic research teams and early stage biotech companies with big pharmaceutical companies and other investors who could help take the therapies to the patients. The air of the resulting meeting was excitement moderated by caution and a healthy dose of skepticism.

This year’s even that ended yesterday felt very different. First it grew from a couple hundred to more than 700. It followed a period that saw a series of major investments in the field. One speaker noted that in the previous 12 months, $2.5 billion had been invested in cell and gene therapies, double the amount of the prior 12 months. At one panel discussion, a venture capital executive announced that his company was ready to invest in one of our grantees. He had seen them present their research in prior years and their project was not ready then, but it is now.

A panel on regulatory hurdles to advancing cell therapies, including CIRM senior VP Ellen Feigal (second from left) talked about the need for the community to share information.

A panel on regulatory hurdles to advancing cell therapies, including CIRM senior VP Ellen Feigal (second from left) talked about the need for the community to share information.

Many speakers still called for caution, but at a different level. Several companies are expected to report results from Phase 3 clinical trials—the large late stage trials that decide if a therapy is ready for marketing—and they noted that the industry needs good results from some of those trials. A frequent refrain voiced the need for clear data on clinical outcome that makes it easy to show a superior benefit for patients compared to what’s available today.

Our President and CEO Randal Mills led off the second day of the event with a discussion of the restructuring of our grant making process that he refers to as “CIRM 2.0.” His goal is to cut the time from eligibility to submit a grant to the time it is awarded from the current average of 22 months to just 81 days. The concept created an immediate buzz in the room that lasted through lunch three hours later.

But as Randy likes to say, “It is all about the patients.” He noted in his presentation that in his prior position, working on a stem cell therapy for pediatric Graft Versus Host Disease—a horrible deadly complication that strikes half of kids getting bone marrow transplants for cancer—that extra 20 months equals another 750 dying kids.

Everyone here seemed to be in sync on reducing the time to develop therapies. If someone produced a word map of the event, “accelerate” would be large and near the middle as one of the most spoken words.

Don Gibbons

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: heart disease, blindness and replacement teeth

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.

Review looks at approaches to blindness.
The Scientist published a nice lay level overview of various teams’ work to use stem cells to cure blindness. The bulk of the story covers age-related macular degeneration, the most common form of blindness in the elderly, with six approaches discussed and compared including the CIRM-funded California Project to Cure Blindness.

Dennis Clegg, one member of the California project team, was featured in a story posted by his university

The piece smartly includes an overview of the reasons eye diseases make up a disproportionate number of early stem cell trials using stem cells from sources other than bone marrow. Many in the field view it as the perfect target for early therapies where safety will be a main concern. It is a confined space so the cells are less likely to roam; it is small so fewer cells will be needed; and it has reduced immune activity so less likely to reject new cells.

The author describes three approaches to using cells derived from embryonic stem cells, one using iPS-type stem cells, one using fetal-derived nerve stem cells and one using cells from umbilical cord blood. An ophthalmologist from the University of Wisconsin who was not associated with any of the trials offered a fair assessment:

“We’re pushing the boundaries of this technology. And as such, we expect there to be probably more bumps in the road than smooth parts.”


A heart of gold, nanoparticles that is.
Most teams using scaffolds seeded with cells to create patches to strengthen damaged hearts start with animal material to create the scaffold, which can cause immune problems. An Israeli group has developed a way to use a patient’s own fat tissue to create these scaffolds. But that left the remaining problem of getting cells in a scaffold to beat in unison with the native heart. They found that by lacing the scaffold with gold nanoparticles they could create an effective conduction system for the heart’s electrical signals.

A story in ScienceDaily quotes the lead researcher Tal Dvir:

“The result was that the nonimmunogenic hybrid patch contracted nicely due to the nanoparticles, transferring electrical signals much faster and more efficiently than non-modified scaffolds.”

If you read the story parts of it are a little overwrought. The headline, “A Heartbeat away? Hybrid patch could replace transplants,” pushes credibility on two fronts. The first half suggests this therapy is imminent, rather than the reality of years away. Patches could only replace the need for transplants. They could never work as well as a full new heart, but since we only need partial function in our heart to live relatively OK, and they might be safer than a transplant they might replace the need.

Could teeth be first complex organ stem cell success? The Seattle Times did a pretty thorough story about why the tooth might be the first complex organ replaced via stem cells and regenerative medicine. While it is a complex organ with multiple layers, a blood system and a nervous system, it does not have moveable parts and we understand each part better than with other major organs.

The paper starts with a good reminder of just how far dental hygiene has come, with few elderly people needing dentures today—leaving the need for new teeth, suggests the author, to people such as hockey players.

A CIRM-funded team is investigating various ways to build a new tooth.

Even the Tea Party would like this regulation.
We have roughly as many genes as a frog, but are much more complicated. Our higher function evolved in part by making our genes more highly regulated. A CIRM-funded team now reports that this particularly applies to our “jumping genes,” and no that does not have anything to do with jumping frogs.

The work focuses on transposons, bits of our DNA that literally move around, or jump, between our functional genes and change how they are turned on or off. We also have evolved a set of genes to control the jumping genes, and the researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, suggest that evolution has been a never ending tug of war between the jumping genes and the genes that are supposed to control them.

HealthCanal ran the university’s press release, which quotes lead researcher Sofie Salama:

“We have basically the same 20,000 protein-coding genes as a frog, yet our genome is much more complicated, with more layers of gene regulation. This study helps explain how that came about.”

Don Gibbons

Seventh annual Stem Cell Awareness Day, Oct. 8, will share some of the reasons behind the hope

When we organized the first Stem Cell Awareness Day in 2008 it was a small affair with events in Australia, Canada and a couple venues in California. It has quickly grown to become a sufficiently grass roots event worldwide that we can’t capture all the activities. But we feature 10 events in the US and six international events at our web site stemcellday.com.

Last year's Stem Cell Day event at the Sanford Consortium in San Diego drew a full house.

Last year’s Stem Cell Day event at the Sanford Consortium in San Diego drew a full house.

One entry in particular is truly international: the opening of a science museum exhibit “Super Cells” in Canada before it embarks on a five-year tour across North America, the United Kingdom, and potentially Europe as well. We wrote about the exhibit that CIRM helped to develop last week.

One event that fully embraces the spirit of the day this year will be at the annual Stem Cell Meeting on the Mesa in La Jolla, California. All the various players in the field, researchers, industry executives and investors come together at this annual gather on the famous La Jolla mesa to foster partnerships that can accelerate the movement of discoveries into therapies for patients. These international leaders will be joined by the public at an event on the second night of the meeting. The featured speaker will be Carl June, a real star of one of the field’s breakthrough therapies: using genes to modify cells to treat cancer and HIV.

In California, CIRM-funded institutions in San Diego, Irvine, Los Angeles, Berkeley and Sacramento will be hosting lab tours, seminars and other events for the public. We will also be matching CIRM grantees with high schools up and down the state to offer guests talks on stem cell science. We expect to reach at least 50 classes and more than a thousand students. Similar efforts are taking place in Toronto, Canada and in New York State.

Many of the activities today and throughout the month—we consider all of October a time to share stem cell knowledge—are focused on the general public. A list of those we are aware of can be found on the Stem Cell Awareness Day website.
If you can’t make one of these events but want to discover more about stem cells, here are a few of our best resources:
stem cell basics
Disease fact sheets
A list of our therapies in development

This year attendees at all the events are likely to hear much more than in previous years about potential therapies that have made it through the pipeline and are now being tested (or close to being tested) in patients. The promise and hope of stem cell science is starting to be backed up by data.

Don Gibbons

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: heart disease, premature infants and incontinence

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.

Decoding heart health and genetics in Asians. A study from CIRM grantee Joseph Wu at Stanford may point the way to using stem cells to solve problems caused by too many drugs being tested predominantly on white males. Ethnic variations to drug response too often get ignored in current clinical trials.

The Stanford team has used iPS type stem cells to create a disease-in-a-dish model of a genetic mutation that effects 500 million people, but mostly East Asians. The mutation disables the metabolic protein called ALDH2 and results in increased risk of heart disease and increases the risk of death after a heart attack. By growing heart muscle from stem cells made from the skin of patients with the mutation his team found that the defect alters the way the heart cells react to stress.

Wu suggests that drug companies one day may keep banks of iPS cells from various ethnic groups to see how their responses to drugs differ. Science Daily ran the university’s press release.

Stem cells may treat gut disease in premies.
A laundry list of medical challenges confronts premature babies, but few are as deadly as the intestinal disease that goes by the name NEC, or necrotizing enterocolitis. It strikes with no notice and can kill within hours.

140925100256-largeA team at the University of Ohio reports they have developed what may be a two-pronged attack on the disease. First, they found a biomarker that can predict which infants might develop NEC, and second they have tested stem cells for treating the intestinal damage done by the disease. In an animal model they found that a type of stem cell found in bone marrow, mesenchymal stem cells, can reduce the inflammation that causes the damage and that neural stem cells can repair the nerve connections disrupted by the inflammation.

While this explanation sounds straight forward, getting to that potential intervention was anything but a simple path. The university wrote an extensive feature detailing the many years and many steps the research team took to unravel this who-done-it that involves the gut’s extensive “brain” and immune system. Science Daily picked up the piece.

We recently posted a video about a project we fund using stem cells to develop a treatment for irritable bowel disease.

Fat stem cells tested in incontinence. For far too many older women laughing and coughing can lead to embarrassing bladder leaks. Several groups are working with various types of stem cells to try to strengthen the urinary sphincter and help patients lead a more normal life. A team at Cleveland Clinic now reports some positive results using the most easily accessed form of stem cells, those in fat.

They harvested patients’ own fat stems cells, grew them in the lab for three weeks and then mixed them with a collagen gel from cows to hold them in place before injecting them into the sphincter. Three of five patients passed “the cough test” after one year. Good results, but clearly more work needs to be done to yield more uniform results. Stem Cells Translational Medicine published the research and issued this press release.

Some researcher suspect starting with an earlier stage, more versatile stem cell might yield better results. One of our grantees is developing cells to treat incontinence starting with reprogrammed iPS type stem cells.

New course looks at where fact and fiction overlap. I am a big fan of almost any effort to blend science and the arts. A professor at the University of Southern California seems to agree. CIRM grantee Gage Crump will be teaching a course next spring about science fiction and stem cells.

The university says the course, Stem Cells: Fact and Fiction, will range from babies born with three biological parents to regrown body parts. The course will explore the current state of stem cell biology as it closes the gap between reality and the sci fi visions of authors such as Margaret Atwood and Philip K. Dick. Crump describes it as:

“a mad scientist type of course, where we go through some real science but also [think] about what’s the future of science.”

Don Gibbons

Museum exhibit explaining stem cell super heroes opens in Canada today, due in California in 2016

7108285_origAn international touring exhibit using super hero cells as guides to explain the many roles of stem cells in our lives opens today at the Sherbrooke Museum of Nature and Science in Canada. Its five-year tour will include further displays in Canada, the United Kingdom and three stops on California—the San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles and San Diego—in 2016.

Super Cell logoDesigned for the general public, with a special eye to children, the exhibit uses hands-on and interactive modules to show just how important stem cells are not only to our early development but also to our daily lives. CIRM was a partner in the development of the exhibit, but the primary mover behind it has been Canada’s Stem Cell Network, and within the network, Lisa Willemse who has really pushed its two-year gestation.

The earliest steps in the development involved visits to children in schools to tease out their points of interest. In a press release she explained some of what they learned:

“How does a lizard grow a new tail? Where does disease come from? How do we start little and get big? These were the kinds of questions the kids asked us, which shows a real interest in the mysteries of the body—mysteries that are largely the domain of stem cells.”

“Much of it is easy to explain, once they understand that stem cells have the ability to make all the kinds of cells in the body. For example, you can tell them that every second, stem cells in your bone marrow make about 2 million new red blood cells. You snap your fingers, and just like that, another 2 million cells were made. Soon they all start snapping their fingers, knowing that every time they do it, something remarkable and vital to life has happened in their own body.”

In Canada, the four modules have explanations in English and French. In California, they will be in English and Spanish. In Spanish the exhibit title “Super Cells: The Power of Stem Cells” becomes Celulas Fantasticas: El Poder Del Las Celulas Madre. I love the concept of a mother cell.

Additional partners in the project included the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine in Canada and the UK’s Cell Therapy Catapult.

Don Gibbons

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: a good review at the NY Times, expanding cord blood and leukemia

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.

Review paints picture of the field today.
A writer I have respected for many years, Karen Weintraub, wrote a nice review of the current state of stem cell clinical trials in the Tuesday Science Times in the New York Times. She discusses the steady, methodical progress being made:

“Researchers have been slowly learning how to best use stem cells, what types to use and how to deliver them to the body — findings that are not singularly transformational, but progressive and pragmatic.”

She quotes our senior VP Ellen Feigal about the safety seen so far in clinical trials and notes that CIRM should have 10 clinical trials enrolling patients by the end of the year. She also covers the dangers of clinics offering unproven therapies and the power of using iPS-type stem cells to model diseases in the laboratory. Overall, a nicely balanced piece.

Making mitochondrial disease and 3-parent embryos personal. A little newspaper in Oregon called the Willamet Week has published a story that makes the issues around so-called “three-parent” babies very personal. The controversial procedure aims to allow women with rare mitochondrial diseases to have normal children.

Mitochondria, known as the powerhouses of the cell, have the unusual trait of being the only part of the cell besides the nucleus to have any DNA. It is these few genes in the mitochondria that we inherit solely from our mothers because when the DNA from the egg and sperm fuse, the mother’s mitochondria stay in the fluid outside the nucleus. So, to avoid passing along faulty mitochondrial genes, a team in Oregon devised a way to insert the DNA from the mother’s nucleus into a donor egg that had its nucleus removed, a process called nuclear transfer.

Guided by a microscope researchers insert the nucleus from one woman into the egg of another

Guided by a microscope researchers insert the nucleus from one woman into the egg of another

The paper provides a long read—nearly 4,000 words—that goes into great detail about the procedure, the ethics, the research team’s views on the ethics, and the personal story of a patient living with a disease of exhaustion she calls “mitochondrial crash.” The writer lets the patient have the last word on ethics:

“To me it’s win-win because you’re not messing with God’s child. You’re just taking out the bad parts. I don’t want to pick out a blond-haired, blue-eyed tall kid, picking your child’s traits, but to rule out a potentially lethal chronic illness brings in a whole different story.”


Cord blood might now save more adult cancer patients.
Umbilical cord blood is a literal lifesaver for many pediatric cancer patients allowing them to withstand harsh chemotherapy and be rescued by the stem cells in the cord blood. But the procedure is used in few adults because the vast majority of cord blood samples don’t have enough stem cell for an adult requiring the use of two cord samples and doubling the chance for potentially deadly immune reactions.

A team at the University of Montreal screened more than 5,000 molecules looking for one that would let them expand the number of stem cells from one sample in the lab. They hit upon one that they say could allow a 10-fold increase in the number of single cord samples suitable for adults. They expect to begin clinical trials in December.

Science News ran a brief review of the work and the blog Science 2.0 ran the university’s press release with a bit more detail.

Trial begins with cancer drug named for CIRM
Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, announced this week that they had begun a clinical trial with leukemia patients using a drug named for our agency cirmtuzumab. This molecule, in the class of drugs called antibodies, disables a protein that cancer stem cells use to accelerate the growth of cancer.

This trial, for patients with recurrence of their chronic lymphocytic leukemia, became the third CIRM funded team this month announcing plans to start clinical trials. In addition to our blog post the San Diego Union Tribune wrote about the latest trial, and we issued press releases on the trials for spinal cord injury and diabetes.

Don Gibbons

New formula a more efficient way to reprogram adult cells to become like embryonic stem cells

Shinya Yamanaka won the Nobel Prize for developing a recipe of genetic factors that can turn back the clock of adult cells and make them behave like embryonic stem cells. But he would be the first to tell you his recipe ultimately may not be the best one for making these stem cells called iPS cells.

Virtually from the day he published his groundbreaking work, teams around the world have tried to develop new formulas that get around some problems with the original. One issue is the low efficiency of getting true stem cells. Another is the high rate of genetic aberrations that can be produced in the resulting stem cells.

Now, a team pairing researchers at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has published a new recipe that seems to yield many more true stem cells, ones that are called pluripotent because they can make all cell types. The new cells also seem to have fewer genetic alterations, which could make them safer for clinical use in people.

They made the improved cells by moving from OSKM to SNEL—from the original genetic factors, Oct4, Sox2, Klf4 and Myc, to Sall4, Nanog, Esrrb and Lin28. An elaborate computer analysis of the function of genes helped them come up with the formula.

This work used mouse cells, so up next on their agenda is coming up with a similar formula that works in human cells. HealthCanal ran the university’s press release and Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News ran a slightly more technical analysis of the work.

Don Gibbons

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: first iPS clinical trial, cancer metabolism and magnates helping heal hearts

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.

First clinical trial with reprogrammed stem cells.
Today, a Japanese woman became the first patient to be treated with cells derived from reprogrammed iPS-type stem cells. The patient received cells matured into a type of cell damaged in the most common form of blindness, age-related macular degeneration.

Those cells, a normal part of the eye’s retina, were made from stem cells created from a skin sample donated by the patient several months ago. In the intervening time the resulting retinal cells have been tested in mice and monkeys to make sure they will not cause tumors. Because the cells have the same genes as the patient, researchers believe they may not be rejected by the patient’s immune system in the absence of immune suppressive drugs—the beauty of iPS technology.

Right now, that technology is much too cumbersome and time consuming to result in a broadly applicable therapy. But if this first clinical trial proves the immune system get-out-of-jail-free theory, it should intensify efforts to make iPS technology more efficient.

When Japanese authorities gave permission to treat the first patient earlier this week Popular Science provided an easy read version of the story and Nature News provided a bit more detail.

Cancer cells don’t handle their sugar well. Sugar has a bad rep these days. Now, it looks like manipulating sugar metabolism might lead to ways to better treat leukemia and perhaps, make therapies less toxic to normal cells. It turns out cancer cells are much more sensitive to changes in sugar level than normal blood stem cells or the intermediate cells that give rise the various branches of the blood system.

David Scadden at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute has long studied the role of the stem cell's environment in its function.

David Scadden at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute has long studied the role of the stem cell’s environment in its function.

A team led by old friend and colleague at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, David Scadden, first looked at sugar metabolism in normal blood forming stem cells and their intermediate cells. They found that the parent stem cell and their direct offspring, those intermediate cells, behave differently when faced with various manipulations in sugar level, which makes sense since the intermediate cells are usually much more actively dividing.

But when they manipulated the genes of both types of cells to make them turn cancerous, the cancer cells from both were much more sensitive to changes in sugar metabolism. In a university press release picked up by ScienceCodex David said he hoped to interest drug companies in developing ways to exploit these differences to create better therapies.

Magnets and nanoparticles steer stem cells.
Getting stem cells to where they are needed to make a repair, and keeping them there is a major challenge. A team at Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai hospital that we fund (but not for this study) has taken an approach to this problem that is the equivalent of holding your pants up with a double set of button, a belt and suspenders.

Treating damaged hearts in rats they first loaded iron-containing nanoparticles with two types of antibodies, one that recognizes and homes to injured heart tissue and one that attracts healing stem cells. After infusing them into the animal’s blood stream, they placed a magnet over its heart to hold the iron nanoparticles near by. The iron provided the added benefit of letting the team track the cells via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to verify they did get to and stay where they were needed.

In a press release from the hospital picked up by ScienceDaily the lead researcher Eduardo Marban said:

“The result is a kind of molecular matchmaking,”

The study was published in Nature Communications and you can read about other work we fund in Marban’s lab trying to figure out once you get the stem cells to the heart exactly how do they create the repair.

Reprogrammed stem cells turned into white blood cells. We have written often about the difficulties of getting stem cells to create fully mature blood cells. Last week we talked about a Wisconsin team breaking the barrier for red blood cells. Now, a team at the Salk Institute is reporting success for white blood cells.

Starting with iPS-type stem cells they got the mature white cells via a two-step process. First they manipulated one gene called Sox2 to get the stem cells to become the right intermediate cells. Then they used a gene-regulating molecule called a micro-RNA to get the middleman cells to mature into white blood cells.

In a press release from the Salk, lead researcher Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte noted the clinical importance of the work:

“In terms of potential clinical applications, the hematopoietic system represents one of the most suitable tissues for stem cell-based therapies. . .”

The team published the research in the journal Stem Cells and the web portal BioSpace picked up the release.

Book on early spinal cord injury clinical trial. The title of a book on the first ever clinical trial using cells from embryonic stem cells kind of says it all: Inevitable Collision: The Inspiring Story that Brought Stem Cell Research to Conservative America.

Katy Sharify's experience in the first embryonic stem cell trial is featured in a new book and she discussed it in a video from a CIRM workshop.

Katy Sharify’s experience in the first embryonic stem cell trial is featured in a new book and she discussed it in a video from a CIRM workshop.


The book details the personal stories of the first and fifth patients in the spinal cord injury trial conducted by Geron. That company made the financial decision to end its stem cell product development in favor of its cancer products. But the spinal cord injury trial is now set to restart, modified to treat neck injuries instead of back injuries and at higher doses, through CIRM funding to the company that bought the Geron stem cell business, Asterias.

In a press release from the publisher, the book’s author explained her goal:

“Through this book I hope to bridge the gap between science and religion and raise awareness of the importance and power of stem cell research.”

The fifth patient in the Geron study, Katie Sharify, is featured in our “Stories of Hope” that have filled The Stem Cellar this week.

Don Gibbons