How the human genome is unlocking some of the secrets of stem cells, hopefully leading to new treatments

A little over a year ago we set aside $40 million to study how variations in the human genome – the complete map of our genetic information – can affect our ability to use stem cells to treat a wide variety of diseases and disorders.

Human-Genome-Project_finalThat money helped set up the Stanford/Salk Center of Excellence in Stem Cell Genomics (CESCG) with a goal of using genomic analysis to better understand how stem cells change as they grow and become different kinds of cells, and then use that knowledge to develop new treatments for a wide variety of conditions.

Now the CESCG has just announced it is investing $11.6 million on seven different projects aimed at gaining a deeper understanding of deadly or disabling diseases and conditions, such as heart disease and autism.

As Stanford’s Dr. Michael Snyder, a co-Principal Investigator on the project, said in a news release, a major part of CESCG’s mission is to “establish a Collaborative Research Program (CRP) to support the genomics research needs of stem cell investigators in California,”

‘We don’t just provide funds we also partner with the individual researchers, providing them with the support, expertise and resources they need to conduct successful genomics analyses. We received 30 applications from throughout the State, and after peer review 7 projects were identified as the best new collaborations for the Center.”

So how does this advance stem cell science? Well, in the past researchers often depended on animal models for their work; but because results in animals don’t always translate when applied to people this was not always an effective way to work. At the University of California, San Francisco and the University of California, Los Angeles researchers Arnold Kriegstein and Gay Crooks are using genomics to better understand normal human cell identities in the brain (UCSF) and the blood (UCLA) and then applying that knowledge to help develop more accurate and more detailed stem cell-based models for us to study.

Jonathan Thomas, the Chair of our Board, says one of the best ways to do great science, is to create a great team:

“The goal of the Board in creating this program and bringing together this group of researchers was to accelerate our fundamental understanding of human biology and the ways that disease work. That knowledge will help point the way not just to new treatments but also, hopefully, to ways that those treatments can potentially be tailored to meet the needs of individual patients.”

Meryl Streep, Lindsay Lohan and the importance of staying above the fray in science communications

Carl Sagan: photo courtesy Brainpickings.org

Carl Sagan: photo courtesy Brainpickings.org

Carl Sagan, the astronomer and cosmologist (among many other things) once said: “We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology, and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That’s a clear prescription for disaster.”

The goal of two panel discussions at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in San Jose last week was to find ways to change that: to get the public to both understand and care more about science and technology; and to get scientists to do a better job of explaining both to them.

The first challenge of course is finding scientists who want to be part of this public conversation. Dr. Nalini Nadkarni, an ecologist who studies rain forests, said for young scientists in particular it’s not just a matter of having the right skills, it’s also a matter of finding the time:

“One of the challenges of scientific engagement is that just being a scientist is a full-time job, and it’s hard to think about doing public engagement when you are trying to build a career.”

Dr. Anthony Dudo, who studies the intersection of science, media and society, says one thing universities can do is encourage outreach and engagement, maybe even make it a factor in a teacher getting tenure. He says there are a lot of researchers who are happy to do this kind of outreach – either through public talks or media interviews – and they do it for all sorts of reasons.

“Many do it because it’s something they enjoy, they consider it a civic duty, something that sparks public interest in science and raises awareness about their field. In addition some say it can enhance their own scientific reputation and increase visibility for funding.”

But there is a risk. Some scientists reported facing a backlash from colleagues who felt they were trying to hog the limelight. They fell victim to what is called the “Carl Sagan” effect, which holds that if someone is spending that much time and effort communicating science to the public they must not be a very good scientist to start with.

No one could accuse Stanford’s Dr. Noah Diffenbaugh of not being a good scientist – he specializes in studying climate change and you can read his extensive resume here –  but he is also a gifted communicator, something he says he feels is his duty:

“I feel it is my responsibility to answer questions from the public when asked, because my research group is publicly funded by taxpayer dollars through agencies like the NSF. And as a public citizen I feel responsible that if we are having a public dialogue about climate change that I should be part of that dialogue.”

But he says he is very careful to avoid taking sides in the debate. He tells of an interview he once heard where Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep talked about the importance of keeping her personal life and beliefs private (as opposed to Lindsay Lohan’s very public private life). Streep says as an actress she wants people to be able to look at her on screen and focus on the character she is playing, and not be distracted by thinking about any very public shenanigans she may have been involved in. Diffenbaugh says a scientist’s credibility depends on them doing the same:

“I stick to the facts and don’t express personal opinions or offer advocacy positions. I feel strong that in public discussions about climate change that someone in the conversation needs to be focused on evidence. It’s a role that scientists are fundamentally equipped to play.”

But even the best communicators are finding it increasingly hard to get their message into the media these days. Fewer and fewer newspapers or TV stations have skilled, experienced health and science writers, which makes it difficult to reach the public.

Lisa Krieger is an award-winning science journalist at the San Jose Mercury News. She says she finds it challenging getting stories she wants to write into the paper because she is competing for shrinking space against stories that might seem more relevant to local readers:

“Basic science is hard to cover because readers want to know how it will benefit them directly and sometimes these things are years, or even decades, away from having any real impact on people. And that’s a hard sell to an editor to get those kinds of stories into the paper.”

Krieger says the key to getting the message out is making it personal, tell stories about real people, about the real impact something could have on someone.

While acknowledging the challenges, and risks, of being a public voice and face for science – particularly when there is so much political polarization around science these days – everyone agreed that we need more scientists who are willing and able to talk about their work in ways that will engage the public, help them understand what is being done and why they should care.

For Carl Sagan (yes, him again) the reason why scientists should engage with the public was simple; to share knowledge about the wonders of the world we live in.

“It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works—that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.”

Money matters: how investing in research advances stem cell science

Our goal at the stem cell agency is simple; to accelerate the development of successful therapies to patients with unmet medical needs. But on the way to doing that something interesting is happening; we’re helping advance the scientific understanding of stem cells and building a robust stem cell research community in California in the process.

You don’t have to take our word for it. A new paper in the journal Cell Stem Cell takes a look at the impact that state funding for stem cell research has had on scientific publications. The question the researchers posed was; have the states that fund stem cell research seen an increase in their share of scientific publications in the field? The answer, at least in California’s case, is absolutely yes.

Let’s back up a little. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s the field of stem cell research was considered quite controversial, particularly when it came to human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). To help scientists get around some of the restrictions that were placed on the use of federal funds to do hESC research a number of states voted to provide their own funding for this work. This research focuses on four of the biggest supporters of this work: California, Connecticut, Maryland, and New York.

The researchers looked at the following factors:

  1. The percentage of scientific publications in the U.S.
  2. With at least one author from those four states.
  3. That focused on hESCs and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).
  4. Comparing the numbers from before the state funding kicked in to after.

Finally – stay with me here, we’re almost done – they compared those numbers to the number of publications for two other areas of non-controversial biomedical research, RNAi and cancer. For California the results were clear. The percentage of papers on RNAi and cancer from 1996 – 2013, that had at least one California author, stayed fairly consistent (between 15-18%). However, the percentage of papers on hESCs and iPSCS with a California author rose from zero in 1998 and 2006 (the year each was discovered) to a high of 45 percent in 2009. That has since dropped down a little but still remains consistently high.

Study graphic study code The article says the reason for this is really rather obvious: “that state funding programs appear to have contributed to over-performance in the field.”

“After the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) issued its first grants in April 2006, the share of articles acknowledging California funding increased rapidly. Between 2010 and 2013, approximately 55% of hESC-related articles published with at least one California author acknowledged state funding, suggesting that this funding program played an important role as California maintained and built upon its early leadership in the field.”

Connecticut also saw its share of publications rise, though not as dramatically as California. Maryland and New York, in contrast, saw their share of publications remain consistent. However, as the researchers point out, with California gobbling up so much more of the available space in these journals, the fact that both states kept their share consistent was an achievement in itself.

The researchers acknowledge that scientific publications are “only one measure of the impact of state science programs” and say it’s important we look at other measures as well – such as how many clinical trials arise from that research. Nonetheless they conclude by saying:

“This analysis illustrating the relative performance of states in the production of stem-cell-related research publications provides a useful starting point for policymakers and, potentially, voters considering the future of state stem cell funding efforts as well as others interested in state science and technology policy more generally.”

British Parliament votes to approve “three parent” baby law

After what is being described as “an historic debate”, the British Parliament today voted to approve the use of an IVF technique that critics say will lead to the creation of “three parent” babies.

UK Parliament

UK Parliament

Parliament voted 382 to 128 in favor of the technique known as mitochondrial donation, which will prevent certain genetic diseases being passed on from parents to children; diseases that can cause a wide range of conditions such as fatal heart problems, liver failure, brain disorders and blindness.

Mitochondrial donation involves replacing a small amount of faulty DNA from a mother’s egg with healthy DNA from a second woman. The technique involves taking two eggs, one from the mother and another from the donor. The nucleus of the donor egg is removed, leaving the rest of the egg contents, including the mitochondria. The nucleus from the mother’s egg is then placed in the donor egg. This means that the baby would have genes from the mother, the father and the female donor.

The vote makes the UK the first country in the world to endorse this process. It comes at the end of what supporters of the measure described in a letter to Parliament as “seven years of consultation and inquiry that have revealed broad scientific, ethical and public approval.”

Mitochondrial donation is a controversial process opposed by many religious and faith-based groups who say it creates “designer babies” because it involves implanting genetically modified embryos, and because it could result in genetic alterations that might be passed on to subsequent generations.

While many scientists support the technique some have raised concerns about it. Among those are Dr. Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell researcher at U.C. Davis, (CIRM is funding some of his work). In a recent blog on the process Paul wrote that while he is not opposed to the technique in theory, he thinks this move at this time is premature:

“There is no doubt that mitochondrial diseases are truly terrible and need to be addressed, but if the potential outcomes from the technology are still vague, there are safety concerns, and it raises profound ethical issues such as changing the human genome heritably as is the case here, then my view is that a careful approach is both practical and logical. We cannot at this time have a reasonable expectation that this technology would be safe and effective. That may change in coming years with new knowledge. I hope so.”

Supporters in the UK say the science is already good enough to proceed. Dame Sally Davies, Britain’s Chief Medical Officer, calls it the genetic equivalent of “changing a faulty battery in a car.”

Professor Lord Winston, a fertility expert at Imperial College, London, says:

“I think the case is self-evident and reasonable. This is about something that is unusual and will benefit a small number of patients. I know there are some people who think it is a slippery slope that the next thing will be choosing intelligence or blond hair, but I don’t think that. For 20 years, it’s been scientifically possible to have sex selection of embryos; we still don’t allow it in Britain apart from for heritable diseases.”

It’s important to point out that while the House of Commons passed the regulations they still have to be approved by the House of Lords before they become law. A vote is scheduled for the end of this month. Even then any future trial involving the technique will still require the approval of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) before it can go ahead.

Even if the process is ultimately approved in the UK it will likely face an uphill battle to be approved here in the U.S. where the debate over the ethical, as well as the scientific and technical implications of the process, has already generated strong feelings on both sides of the divide.

Getting the right tools for the right job

Imagine a device that sits outside the body and works like a form of dialysis for a damaged liver, filtering out the toxins and giving the liver a chance to regenerate, and the patient a chance to avoid the need for a transplant.

Or imagine a method of enhancing the number of stem cells we can harvest or generate from umbilical cord blood, enabling us to use those stem cells and offer life-saving bone marrow transplants to all the patients who don’t have a matched donor.

Well, you may not have to imagine for too long. Yesterday, our governing Board approved almost $30 million in funding for our Tools and Technology Awards and two of the successful applications are for researchers hoping to turn those two ideas into reality.

The Tools n Tech awards may not have the glamor or cache of the big money awards that are developing treatments heading towards clinical trials, but they are nonetheless an essential part of what we do.

As our Board Chair Jonathan Thomas said in a news release they focus on developing new approaches or creating new ways of overcoming some of the biggest obstacles in stem cell research.

“Sometimes even the most promising therapy can be derailed by a tiny problem. These awards are designed to help find ways to overcome those problems, to bridge the gaps in our knowledge and ensure that the best research is able to keep progressing and move out of the lab and into clinical trials in patients.”

Altogether 20 awards were funded for a wide variety of different ideas and projects. Some focus on improving our ability to manufacture the kinds of cells we need for transplanting into patients. Another one plans to use a new class of genetic engineering tools to re-engineer the kind of stem cells found in bone marrow, making them resistant to HIV/AIDS. They also hope this method could ultimately be used to directly target the stem cells while they are inside the body, rather than taking the cells out and performing the same procedure in a lab and later transplanting them back.

Dr. Kent Leach, UC Davis School of Engineering

Dr. Kent Leach, UC Davis School of Engineering

One of the winners was Dr. Kent Leach from the University of California, Davis School of Engineering. He’s looking to make a new kind of imaging probe, one that uses light and sound to measure the strength and durability of bone and cartilage created by stem cells. This could eliminate the need for biopsies to make the same measurements, which is good news for patients and might also help reduce healthcare costs.

We featured Dr. Leach in one of our Spotlight videos where he talks about using stem cells to help repair broken bones that no longer respond to traditional methods.

What…exactly…do you do? How 12 year olds helped me learn how to talk about science

Jackie Ward in her lab at UC San Diego

Jackie Ward in her lab at UC San Diego

Jackie Ward is a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and received a training grant from CIRM while studying for her PhD. At UCSD Jackie uses stem cells as a model to study rare neurodegenerative diseases in the lab of Albert La Spada. Her work as a PhD student focuses on a rare form of inherited neurodegeneration called spinocerebellar ataxia. From time to time Jackie shares her experiences with us. Here’s her latest.

One of the many questions I get over my annual trek home during the holidays is “What…exactly…do you do?” This is usually couched somewhere between “have you learned to surf yet?” and “how’s the weather?” In the past, I preferred to talk about my surfing skills (very minimal) and the sunshine (always amazing, thanks San Diego), more than what I do every day. It’s amazing how this seemingly innocuous question can be the most difficult to answer. Because we’re used to presenting our work in lecture formats or lengthy scientific papers, summing it up in three sentences of non-jargon can be difficult. A similar thought was outlined recently at UCSD, by the actor and science advocate Alan Alda. The title of his presentation, “Getting the Public Past a Blind Date with Science,” highlighted the uncomfortable feelings many people have towards science. Like any relationship, sustained communication and trust is necessary for success. Unfortunately, on many scientific issues, that relationship has suffered. As a PhD student, I am constantly surrounded by my peers—other scientists who know exactly what I mean when I use terms like “reprogramming” or “retinal photoreceptor.” While these scientist-to-scientist conversations are vital to our work, we often forget that it is equally, or perhaps more, important to have conversations with people who have no idea what we do. As any CIRM- or NIH-funded lab is well aware, a significant portion of our funding comes from taxpayer dollars. It’s these “investors” to whom we ultimately report back. This conversation is challenging. Not only do we have to change our language, we have to remember what it was like to not know everything we do now. The best practice I’ve gotten in this regard is talking to kids. Seventh graders seem to be less afraid to ask you questions or call you out on something that doesn’t make sense to them. (Now that I think about it, it might be beneficial to include some 13-year-olds on our grant review panels.) My graduate program allows students to fulfill their teaching requirement by doing science outreach activities. I chose to do this with the Salk Institute’s mobile science lab, where real scientists are connected to local middle schools to discuss their jobs and lead hands-on science labs. I didn’t realize how valuable this experience was until it started to become easier for me to answer the “what do you do” question. I changed the words I use. I replaced the word “reprogram” with “rewind” and “retinal photoreceptor” with “eye cell.” Unexpectedly, I think this practice helped me become a better communicator when I talk to other scientists now too. I try not to assume a certain level of knowledge with anybody. While I still love talking about pretending to surf and gloating about the weather, I’ve become more fond of the “what do you do” question. I hope to only improve with time. It’ll be my small contribution for getting science to that second date.

Strong ARMing regenerative medicine; bold thoughts on a bright future

It’s a time-honored tradition for the President of the United States to begin his State of the Union speech by saying “The state of our union is strong.” Well, Ed Lanphier, the incoming Chairman of the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine (ARM) – the industry trade group – took a leaf out of that book in kicking off the annual “State of the Industry Briefing” in San Francisco yesterday. He said the state of the industry is not just strong, but getting stronger all the time.

ARM_State_of_the_Industry_Briefing_2015_And he had the facts to back him up. In monetary terms alone he said the regenerative medicine field raised $6.3 billion in 2014, compared to $2.3 billion in 2013.

He pointed to the growing number of partnerships and alliances between big pharmaceutical businesses and smaller biotech and cell therapy companies as a sign that deep pocket investors recognize the potential in the field, saying “Big Pharma sees the value of these outcomes and the maturation of these pipelines.”

Lanphier also highlighted the more than 375 clinical trials that were underway last year, and the fact that more than 60 regenerative medicine products have been approved.

But he also pointed out that the field as a whole faces some big challenges in the coming years. One of the most pressing could be pricing. He cited criticisms that exploded over medicines like Gilead’s hepatitis C treatment Sovaldi because of its $1,000-a-day price tag. Lanphier warned that regenerative medicine could face similar criticisms when some of its therapies are finally approved, because they are likely to be very expensive (at least to start with). He said we need to start thinking now how to talk to patients and the public in general about this, so they understand why these treatments are so expensive, but may be cheaper in the long run if they cure rather than just treat disease.

As if to reinforce that message the first panel discussion in the briefing focused on the gene therapy and genome-editing field. Panel members talked about the high expectations for this field in the 1990’s but that it took decades of work before we finally started to see those early hopes turn into reality.

Jeffrey Walsh, the COO of bluebird bio talked about: “The excitement about gene therapy in the early days… and then having to survive the 15-20 years after that in the very challenging days for gene therapy.”

Katrine Bosley, the CEO of Editas Medicine, says those challenges have not gone away and that the field will have to address some big issues in the future. Among those are working with regulatory agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to win approval for completely new ways of treating disease. Another is anticipating the kinds of ethical issues they will have to address in using these techniques to alter genes.

Questions about the regulatory process also popped up in the second panel, which focused more on advanced therapy and drug development. Paul Laikind of ViaCyte (whose clinical trial in type 1 diabetes we are funding) highlighted those challenges saying: “Making the cells the way you want is not rocket science; but doing it in a way that meets regulatory requirements is rocket science.”

Paul Wotton, the President and CEO of Ocata Therapeutics (formerly called ACT) echoed those sentiments:

“We are pioneering things here and it’s the pioneers who often end up with arrows in their back, so you really have to spend a lot of time working with the FDA and other regulatory bodies to make sure you are having all the right conversations ahead of time.”

But while everyone freely acknowledged there are challenging times ahead, the mood was still very positive, perhaps best summed up by C. Randal Mills, the President of CEO of CIRM and moderator of the panel, when he said:

“I find it remarkable where we are in this space today – with this number of cutting edge companies in clinical trials. Stem cell therapy is becoming a reality, it’s no longer a place where only a foolish few dare to go in; it’s a reality. There is a change in the practice of medicine that is coming and we are all fortunate to be a part of it.”

CIRM 2.0: A New Year, a new start, a new way to advance research

It’s tradition to begin the New Year by making a resolution. Wikipedia has a wonderful description of what this involves saying it is where “a person makes a promise to do an act of self-improvement or something slightly nice, such as opening doors for people beginning from New Year’s Day.”

CIRM2.0_Logo

Well, by that criteria, CIRM 2.0 is a perfect way for us to start 2015 because it is both an act of self-improvement and something “slightly nice” (love that phrase).

2.0, for those of you who haven’t been following us, is a rather dramatic overhaul of the way we do business. It’s about streamlining the way we work in a way that places added emphasis on speed, partnerships and patients.

CIRM 2.0 makes it easier for both companies and academic researchers with promising projects to partner with CIRM to get the support they need when they need it, reducing the time from application to funding from around two years to just 120 days – that’s the “self-improvement”.

In a news release marking the launch of 2.0, our President and CEO Randy Mills summed up the reason why we are making these changes:

“Our mission is to accelerate the development of stem cell therapies for patients with unmet medical needs. Today, in officially launching the first three programs under CIRM 2.0, we have boldly reaffirmed our commitment to continuously seek new and innovative ways to better serve that mission.”

Simply put, we hope that by improving the way we work we can help speed up the development of treatments for patients in need. I would say that more than qualifies as being “slightly nice.”

You can hear Randy talking about CIRM 2.0 here

This is just the first phase of our new look. In December our governing Board gave us $50 million to get this up and running for clinical stage work over the next six months (you can find links to the Program Announcements for that work on our news release). Later this year we are going to expand 2.0 to include both discovery – or basic – research and translational research.

We are now in our 11th year as an agency funding stem cell research. Last year was a big year for us with 8 projects we are funding approved for clinical trials. But as we see every New Year, getting a little older shouldn’t stop you from wanting to improve or making the next year or years even better. Or from just doing something “slightly nice” for others.

Peering inside the brain: how stem cells could help turn skin into therapies for dementia

To truly understand a disease you need to be able to see how it works, how it causes our body to act in ways that it shouldn’t. In cancer, for example, you can take cells from a tumor and observe them under a microscope to see what is going on. But with diseases of the brain it’s much harder. You can’t just open someone’s skull to grab some cells to study. However, now we have new tools that enable us to skip the skull-opening bit, and examine brain cells in people with diseases like dementia, to see what’s going wrong, and maybe even to get some ideas on how to make it right.

AF_neuronTHMito(2)_webThe latest example of this comes from researchers in Belgium who have developed a new strategy for treating patients with an inherited form of dementia. They used the induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) method, taking take skin cells from patients with frontotemporal dementia, and turning them into neurons, the kind of brain cell damaged by the disease. They were then able to study those neurons for clues as to what was happening inside the brain.

The study is reported in the journal Stem Cell Reports, and in an accompanying news release the senior author, Catherine Verfaillie, says this approach allows them to study problems in the brain in ways that weren’t possible before.

“iPSC models can now be used to better understand dementia, and in particular frontotemporal dementia, and might lead to the development of drugs that can curtail or slow down the degeneration of cortical neurons.”

The researchers identified problems with a particular signaling pathway in the brain, Wnt, which plays an important role in the development of neurons. In patients with frontotemporal dementia, the neurons weren’t able to mature into cortical neurons, which play a key role in enabling thought, perception and voluntary movement. However, by genetically correcting that problem they were able to restore the ability of the neurons to turn into cortical neurons.

Philip Van Damme, a lead researcher on the project, says this may open up possible ways to treat the problem.

“Our findings suggest that signaling events required for neurodevelopment may also play major roles in neurodegeneration. Targeting such pathways, as for instance the Wnt pathway presented in this study, may result in the creation of novel therapeutic approaches for frontotemporal dementia.”

How stem cells made the list of scientific breakthroughs of 2014 (twice actually)

This is the time of year when everyone puts out their lists of the best and worst of the last 12 months. The best movies (”Guardians of the Galaxy”, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) the worst movies (“Guardians of the Galaxy”, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” – it’s all a matter of taste really) the best music etc. You get the picture.

Science imagesSo it’s always fun to see what makes the list of the “biggest scientific breakthroughs” of 2014. I put those in quotations because I always get a little nervous using the word “breakthrough” when talking about stem cells; what seems like a breakthrough one year, could prove out to be a dud the next. Or, worse still, a fake – see yesterday’s blog. But when Science magazine uses the word as part of its article: ‘Breakthrough of the Year: The top 10 scientific achievements of 2014’, I think it has a shot at being accurate.

The list is compiled by the editors of Science, to highlight what they call “a singular scientific achievement”. I’ll tell you what they chose as the winner in a moment, but there are two stem cell stories that were listed as runners-up.

Giving new life to old mice; cartoon courtesy of

Giving new life to old mice; cartoon courtesy of

The first story was about a trio of studies that showed how giving older mice the blood of younger mice can help rejuvenate them in surprising ways, including improving muscle and brain function. We blogged about this work when it came out in May. It’s already being tested to see if it might work in people, with 18 Alzheimer’s patients getting injections of plasma donated by young adults, to see if that can help slow down or halt the progression of the disease.

The second story was about work turning embryonic stem (ES) cells into mature beta cells, the kind of cells found in our pancreas that help produce insulin. These are also the cells that are destroyed in type 1 diabetes. This year researchers found a way to turn ES cells into mass quantities of beta cells, a critical first step in developing a therapy for type 1 diabetes. The next step is to find a way to protect those cells from the same autoimmune reaction that killed the beta cells in the first place.

What’s particular interesting about this work – at least from our perspective – is that we are funding a clinical trial run by ViaCyte that uses this same approach, and has the cells encapsulated in a special device to protect them from the immune system.

Getting two stem cell stories on the list of the biggest scientific stories of the year is no mean achievement, and a sign of the progress the field is making. We’re hoping that 2015 sees even more stem cell stories making positive news headlines.

As for the story named the “Breakthrough of the Year”, it was the ten-year mission that ended with the landing of a spacecraft on a comet 326 million miles away from earth. Coming second to that kind of astonishing achievement is no disgrace.