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.

Scientists Send Rodents to Space; Test New Therapy to Prevent Bone Loss

In just a few months, 40 very special rodents will embark upon the journey of a lifetime.

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Today UCLA scientists are announcing the start of a project that will test a new therapy that has the potential to slow, halt or even reverse bone loss due to disease or injury.

With grant funding from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), a team of stem cell scientists led by UCLA professor of orthopedic surgery Chia Soo will send 40 rodents to the International Space Station (ISS). Living under microgravity conditions for two months, these rodents will begin to undergo bone loss—thus closely mimicking the conditions of bone loss, known as osteoporosis, seen in humans back on Earth.

At that point, the rodents will be injected with a molecule called NELL-1. Discovered by Soo’s UCLA colleague Kang Ting, this molecule has been shown in early tests to spur bone growth. In this new set of experiments on the ISS, the researchers hope to test the ability of NELL-1 to spur bone growth in the rodents.

The team is optimistic that NELL-1 could really be key to transforming how doctors treat bone loss. Said Ting in a news release:

“NELL-1 holds tremendous hope, not only for preventing bone loss but one day even restoring healthy bone. For patients who are bed-bound and suffering from bone loss, it could be life-changing.”

“Besides testing the limits of NELL-1’s robust bone-producing efforts, this mission will provide new insights about bone biology and could uncover important clues for curing diseases such as osteoporosis,” added Ben Wu, a UCLA bioengineer responsible for initially modifying NELL-1 to make it useful for treating bone loss.

The UCLA team will oversee ground operations while the experiments will be performed by NASA scientists on the ISS and coordinated by CASIS.

These experiments are important not only for developing new therapies to treat gradual bone loss, such as osteoporosis, which normally affects the elderly, but also those who have bone loss due to trauma or injury—including bone loss due to extended microgravity conditions, a persistent problem for astronauts living on the ISS. Said Soo:

“This research has enormous translational application for astronauts in space flight and for patients on Earth who have osteoporosis or other bone-loss problems from disease, illness or trauma.”

UC Davis Surgeons Begin Clinical Trial that Tests New Way to Deliver Stem Cells; Heal Bone Fractures

Each year, approximately 8.9 million people worldwide will suffer a bone fracture. Many of these fractures heal with the help of traditional methods, but for some, the road to recovery is far more difficult.

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After exhausting traditional treatments—such as surgically implanted pins or plates, bed rest and injections to spur bone growth—these patients can undergo a special type of stem cell transplant that directs stem cells extracted from the bone marrow to the fracture site to speed healing.

This procedure has its drawbacks, however. For example, the act of extracting cells from one’s own bone marrow and then injecting them into the fracture site requires two very painful surgical procedures: one to extract the cells, and another to implant them. Recovery times for each procedure, especially in older patients, can be significant.

Enter a team of surgeons at UC Davis. Who last week announced a ‘proof-of-concept’ clinical trial to test a device that can extract and isolate stem cells far more efficiently than before—and allow surgeons to implant the cells into the fracture in just a single surgery.

As described in HealthCanal, he procedure makes use of a reamer-irrigator-aspirator system, or RIA, that normally processes wastewater during bone drilling surgery. As its name implies, this wastewater was thought to be useless. But recent research has revealed that it is chock-full of stem cells.

The problem was that the stem cells were so diluted within the wastewater that they couldn’t be used. Luckily, a device recently developed by Sacramento-based SynGen, Inc., was able to quickly and efficiently extract the cells in high-enough concentrations to then be implanted into the patient. Instead of having to undergo two procedures—the patient now only has to undergo one.

“The device’s small size and rapid capabilities allow autologous stem cell transplantation to take place during a single operation in the operation room rather than requiring two procedures separated over a period of weeks,” said UC Davis surgeon Mark Lee, who is leading the clinical trial. “This is a dramatic difference that promises to make a real impact on healing and patient recovery.”

Hear more from Lee about how stem cells can be used to heal bone fractures in our 2012 Spotlight on Disease.

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: brain repair, bone repair and boosting old stem cells

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.

Potential drugs to make brain stem cells do a better job.
Patients with strokes and neurodegenerative diseases usually have a double whammy of faulty self-repair mechanisms. The brain is one of those organs that has few adult stem cells and most patients are decidedly senior citizens with older stem cells that are less robust.

Most teams looking to get around that problem implant stem cells from young donors, but that can be invasive and the cells often don’t survive long in a non-native environment. So, several groups are looking for ways to get those few stem cells in our adult brain to do a better job. One team, at the Australian company Novogen, announced this week that they had discovered a class of compounds that seems to promote the growth and activation of adult brain stem cells.

Yahoo Finance picked up the company’s press release, which is a little excessively promotional, but does get the basic facts straight. If these compounds end up working in people, they could make a big difference in healing neural conditions.

Another option for boosting older stem cells. A team at Moscow State University has published a review of the research into why stem cells in older people are not as good at repairing damage, and some early attempts to boost the performance of those cells. The short write up of the paper in Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News gives very little detail, but it does have a link to the full article in BioResearch Open Access, which is relatively understandable.
old mouse
They give some focus to the use of a patient’s mesenchymal stem cells from their bone marrow or fat to treat heart problems. They site a few studies that suggest if you stress the cells in the lab after you harvest them from the patient and before you inject the back to where they are needed, they seem to do a better job. In particular, they cited growing the cells in an extremely low-oxygen environment.

A new type of bone stem cell discovered.
The dogma has been that mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) found in the bone give rise to any new bone or cartilage we may need as adults. But those cells also have roles making a few other types of cells. Now, researchers on both coasts, at Stanford and Columbia, have discovered a more specific stem cell that just gives rise to bone and cartilage.

Both research papers appeared in today’s online edition of the journal Cell and Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News wrote up the Columbia study. It points out that while it remains true that MSCs can generate bone, the newly discovered cells may be more efficient doing it and may be better targets for therapies that try to speed bone healing. The university’s press release was picked up by ScienceDaily and provides a bit more detail.

The Stanford team, after isolating the bone-specific stem cells, took the work another step. That work could be key to helping older patients who often have slow healing fractures because they have fewer active stem cells of any type. The CIRM-funded researchers discovered a set of genetic factors that can be used to reprogram fat cells to become the specialized bone stem cell. In a press release picked up by HealthCanal one of the senior authors on the paper, Michael Longaker, described how the finding might allow patients to avoid the painful procedure of harvesting bone for bone grafts.

“Using this research you might be able to put some of your own fat into a biomimetic scaffold, let it grow into the bone you want in a muscle or fat pocket, and then move that new bone to where it’s needed.”


The cancer stem cell debate explained.
Jocelyn Kaiser wrote the best, most balanced, piece I have read on the whole debate over whether cancer stem cells exist, and more important, will targeting them really make a difference in the number of patients we cure of cancer? Even though it appears in the journal Science it is written as a feature and is pretty approachable to a lay audience.

A book for stem cell wonks.
David Warburton, a CIRM-grantee at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, has published a book of essays that cover a broad swath of the field of regenerative medicine. The essays range from the minutia of what it takes to set up a stem cell lab to the pipeline of potential therapies. I have to admit I have a personal prejudice to like the book given his quote in the press release on EurekAlert:

“Those of us working in this field in California are positively impacted by the critical funding provided by the citizens of the state through the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. I believe this book shows that the hope behind CIRM – the hope that stem cells can really revolutionize medicine and human health – is fully justified.”

In living color: new imaging technique tracks traveling stem cells

Before blood stem cells can mature, before they can grow and multiply into the red blood cells that feed our organs, or the white blood cells that protect us from pathogens, they must go on a journey.

A blood stem cell en route to taking root in a zebrafish. [Credit: Boston Children's Hospital]

A blood stem cell en route to taking root in a zebrafish. [Credit:
Boston Children’s Hospital]

This journey, which takes place in the developing embryo, moves blood stem cells from their place of origin to where they will take root to grow and mature. That this journey happened was well known to scientists, but precisely how it happened remained shrouded in darkness.

But now, for the first time, scientists at Boston Children’s Hospital have literally shone a light on the entire process. In so doing, they have opened the door to improving surgical procedures that also rely on the movement of blood cells—such as bone marrow transplants, which are in essence stem cell transplants.

Reporting in today’s issue of the journal Cell, Boston Children’s senior investigator Leonard Zon and his team developed a way to visually track the trip that blood stem cells take in the developing embryo. As described in today’s news release, the same process that guides blood stem cells to the right place also occurs during a bone marrow transplant. The similarities between the two, therefore, could lead to more successful bone marrow transplants. According to the study’s co-first author Owen Tamplin:

“Stem cell and bone marrow transplants are still very much a black box—cells are introduced into a patient and later on we can measure recovery of the blood system, but what happens in between can’t be seen. Now we have a system where we can actually watch that middle step.”

And in the following video, Zon describes exactly how they did it:

As outlined in the above video, Zon and his team developed a transparent version of the zebrafish, a tiny model organism that is often used by scientists to study embryonic development. They then labeled blood stem cells in this transparent fish with a special fluorescent dye, so that the cells glowed green. And finally, with the help of both confocal and electron microscopy, they sat back and watched the blood stem cell take root in what’s called its niche—in beautiful Technicolor.

“Nobody’s ever visualized live how a stem cell interacts with its niche,” explained Zon. “This is the first time we get a very high-resolution view of the process.”

Further experiments found that the process in zebrafish closely resembled the process in mice—an indication that the same basic system could exist for humans.

With that possibility in mind, Zon and his team already have a lead on a way to improve the success of human bone marrow transplants. In chemical screening experiments, the team identified a chemical compound called lycorine that boosts the interaction between the zebrafish blood stem cell and its niche—thus promoting the number of blood stem cells as the embryo matures.

Does the lycorine compound (or an equivalent) exist to boost blood stem cells in mice? Or even in humans? That remains to be seen. But with the help of the imaging technology used by Zon and the Boston Children’s team—they have a good chance of being able to see it.

Stem Cell Stories that Caught Your Eye: The Most Popular Stem Cellar Stories of 2014

2014 marked an extraordinary year for regenerative medicine and for CIRM. We welcomed a new president, several of our research programs have moved into clinical trials—and our goal of accelerating treatments for patients in need is within our grasp.

As we look back we’d like to revisit The Stem Cellar’s ten most popular stories of 2014. We hope you enjoyed reading them as much as we did reporting them. And from all of us here at the Stem Cell Agency we wish you a Happy Holidays and New Year.

10. UCSD Team Launches CIRM-Funded Trial to Test Safety of New Leukemia Drug

9. Creating a Genetic Model for Autism, with a Little Help from the Tooth Fairy

8. A Tumor’s Trojan Horse: CIRM Researchers Build Nanoparticles to Infiltrate Hard-to-Reach Tumors

7. CIRM funded therapy for type 1 diabetes gets FDA approval for clinical trial

6. New Videos: Living with Crohn’s Disease and Working Towards a Stem Cell Therapy

5. Creativity Program Students Reach New Heights with Stem Cell-Themed Rendition of “Let it Go”

4. Scientists Reach Yet Another Milestone towards Treating Type 1 Diabetes

3. Meet the Stem Cell Agency President C. Randal Mills

2. Truth or Consequences: how to spot a liar and what to do once you catch them

1. UCLA team cures infants of often-fatal “bubble baby” disease by inserting gene in their stem cells; sickle cell disease is next target

Shape-Shifting Cells Drive Bone Healing; Point to New Method of Correcting Bone Deformities

There’s a time to grow and a time to heal—and the cells that make up our bone and cartilage have impeccable timing. During childhood and adolescence, these cells work to grow the bones longer and stronger. Once we’ve reached adulthood, they shift focus to repair and healing.

New research may help doctors treat craniofacial abnormalities while the patient is still growing—rather than having to wait until adulthood.

New research may help doctors treat craniofacial abnormalities while the patient is still growing—rather than having to wait until adulthood.

This is part of why children with bone deformities are often forced to wait until adulthood—until their bones stop growing—before their condition can be corrected.

Another part of the reason behind the agonizing wait is that scientists still don’t know exactly how this transition in bone cells, from a focus on growing to a focus on healing, even happens.

But new research out of the University of Michigan (UM) is well on its way to changing that.

In findings published today in Nature Cell Biology, Noriaki Ono (a UM assistant professor of dentistry) and his team announce the discovery of a subset of cartilage-making cells that take on new duties during the transition from adolescence into adulthood.

Previously, scientists had thought that these cartilage-making cells, known as chondrocytes, die once the bones stopped growing. But these new findings by Ono and his team showed that is not the case—not all chondrocytes bite the dust. Instead, they literally transform themselves from growing bone, to healing it.

The fact that some chondrocytes persist through to adulthood may mean that they can be selectively targeted to correct bone deformities in younger patients. As Ono explained in more detail:

“Up until now, the cells that drive this bone growth have not been understood very well. As an orthodontist myself, I have special interest in this aspect, especially for finding a cure for severe bone deformities in the faces of children. If we can find a way to make bones that continue to grow alongside the child, maybe we should be able to put these pieces of growing bones back into children and make their faces look much better than they do.”

10 Years/10 Therapies: 10 Years after its Founding CIRM will have 10 Therapies Approved for Clinical Trials

In 2004, when 59 percent of California voters approved the creation of CIRM, our state embarked on an unprecedented experiment: providing concentrated funding to a new, promising area of research. The goal: accelerate the process of getting therapies to patients, especially those with unmet medical needs.

Having 10 potential treatments expected to be approved for clinical trials by the end of this year is no small feat. Indeed, it is viewed by many in the industry as a clear acceleration of the normal pace of discovery. Here are our first 10 treatments to be approved for testing in patients.

HIV/AIDS. The company Calimmune is genetically modifying patients’ own blood-forming stem cells so that they can produce immune cells—the ones normally destroyed by the virus—that cannot be infected by the virus. It is hoped this will allow the patients to clear their systems of the virus, effectively curing the disease.

Spinal cord injury patient advocate Katie Sharify is optimistic about the latest clinical trial led by Asterias Biotherapeutics.

Spinal cord injury patient advocate Katie Sharify is optimistic about the clinical trial led by Asterias Biotherapeutics.

Spinal Cord Injury. The company Asterias Biotherapeutics uses cells derived from embryonic stem cells to heal the spinal cord at the site of injury. They mature the stem cells into cells called oligodendrocyte precursor cells that are injected at the site of injury where it is hoped they can repair the insulating layer, called myelin, that normally protects the nerves in the spinal cord.

Heart Disease. The company Capricor is using donor cells derived from heart stem cells to treat patients developing heart failure after a heart attack. In early studies the cells appear to reduce scar tissue, promote blood vessel growth and improve heart function.

Solid Tumors. A team at the University of California, Los Angeles, has developed a drug that seeks out and destroys cancer stem cells, which are considered by many to be the reason cancers resist treatment and recur. It is believed that eliminating the cancer stem cells may lead to long-term cures.

Leukemia. A team at the University of California, San Diego, is using a protein called an antibody to target cancer stem cells. The antibody senses and attaches to a protein on the surface of cancer stem cells. That disables the protein, which slows the growth of the leukemia and makes it more vulnerable to other anti-cancer drugs.

Sickle Cell Anemia. A team at the University of California, Los Angeles, is genetically modifying a patient’s own blood stem cells so they will produce a correct version of hemoglobin, the oxygen carrying protein that is mutated in these patients, which causes an abnormal sickle-like shape to the red blood cells. These misshapen cells lead to dangerous blood clots and debilitating pain The genetically modified stem cells will be given back to the patient to create a new sickle cell-free blood supply.

Solid Tumors. A team at Stanford University is using a molecule known as an antibody to target cancer stem cells. This antibody can recognize a protein the cancer stem cells carry on their cell surface. The cancer cells use that protein to evade the component of our immune system that routinely destroys tumors. By disabling this protein the team hopes to empower the body’s own immune system to attack and destroy the cancer stem cells.

Diabetes. The company Viacyte is growing cells in a permeable pouch that when implanted under the skin can sense blood sugar and produce the levels of insulin needed to eliminate the symptoms of diabetes. They start with embryonic stem cells, mature them part way to becoming pancreas tissues and insert them into the permeable pouch. When transplanted in the patient, the cells fully develop into the cells needed for proper metabolism of sugar and restore it to a healthy level.

HIV/AIDS. A team at The City of Hope is genetically modifying patients’ own blood-forming stem cells so that they can produce immune cells—the ones normally destroyed by the virus—that cannot be infected by the virus. It is hoped this will allow the patients to clear their systems of the virus, effectively curing the disease

Blindness. A team at the University of Southern California is using cells derived from embryonic stem cell and a scaffold to replace cells damaged in Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of blindness in the elderly. The therapy starts with embryonic stem cells that have been matured into a type of cell lost in AMD and places them on a single layer synthetic scaffold. This sheet of cells is inserted surgically into the back of the eye to replace the damaged cells that are needed to maintain healthy photoreceptors in the retina.

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: gene editing tools, lung repair in COPD and big brains

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.

Correcting the genetic error in sickle-cell disease might be as simple as editing the text.

Correcting the genetic error in sickle-cell disease might be as simple as editing the text [Credit: Nature News].

Review of the many ways to edit defective genes. Nature’s news section did a nice review of the many ways blood-forming stem cells can be genetically altered to correct diseases caused by a single mutation. If you have been following the recently booming field of gene therapy, you may have a hard time keeping all the items in the gene editing toolbox straight. The Nature author provides a rundown on the leading contenders—viral vectors, zinc fingers, TALENs and CRISPRs. Early in the piece she describes why researchers are so excited by the field.

“Although most existing treatments for genetic diseases typically only target symptoms, genetic manipulation or ‘gene therapy’ goes after the cause itself.”

Much of the article talks about work by CIRM grantees. It describes work by Don Kohn at the University of California, Los Angeles, on vectors and zinc fingers, as well as work by Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte at the Salk Institute using TALENS and CRISPRs. We explain Kohn’s work treating sickle cell disease in our Fact Sheet.

Getting lungs to repair themselves. A research team at Jackson Labs in Maine has isolated a stem cell in lungs that appears to be able to repair damage left behind by severe infections. They hope to learn enough about how those stem cells work to enlist them to repair damage in diseases like Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

They published the work in Nature and ScienceDaily picked up the lab’s press release. It quotes the lead researcher, Wa Xian on the hope they see down the road for the 12 million people in the U.S. with COPD:

“These patients have few therapeutic options today. We hope that our research could lead to new ways to help them.”

Making middle-man cells more valuable. The University of Wisconsin lab of Jamie Thomson, where human embryonic stem cells (ESCs) were first isolated, has found a way to make some of the offspring of those stem cells more valuable.

We have often written that for therapy, the desired cell to start with is not an ESC or even the end desired adult tissue, but rather a middleman cell called a progenitor. But those cells often don’t renew, or replicate themselves, very well in the lab. Ideally researchers would like to have a steady supply of progenitor cells that could be pushed to mature further only when needed. The Thomson lab found that by manipulating a few genes they could arrest the development of progenitors so they constantly renew themselves. ScienceNewsline picked up the press release from the University’s Morgridge Institute that houses the Thomson lab.

Link found to human’s big brains. A CIRM-funded team at the University of California, San Francisco, isolated a protein that seems to be responsible for fostering the large brain size in humans compared with other animals. Human brain stem cells need the protein, dubbed PDGFD, to reproduce.

The team found that the protein acts on parts of the brain that have changed during mammalian evolution. It is not active at all in mice brains, for example. So, if someone accuses you of being a smart aleck just tell them you can’t help it, it’s your PDGFD. HealthCanal ran the university’s press release, which provides a lot more detail of how the protein actually helps give us big heads.

Don Gibbons

CIRM Scientists Discover Key to Blood Cells’ Building Blocks

Our bodies generate new blood cells—both red and white blood cells—each and every day. But reproducing that feat in a petri dish has proven far more difficult.

Pictured: sections from zebrafish embryos. Blood vessels are labeled in red, the protein complex that regulates inflammation green and cell nuclei in blue. The arrowhead indicates a potential HSC. The image at bottom right combines all channels. [Credit: UC San Diego School of Medicine]

Pictured: sections from zebrafish embryos. Blood vessels are labeled in red, the protein complex that regulates inflammation green and cell nuclei in blue. The arrowhead indicates a potential HSC. The image at bottom right combines all channels.
[Credit: UC San Diego School of Medicine]

But now, scientists have identified the missing ingredient to producing hematopoietic stem cells, or HSC’s—the type of stem cell that gives rise to all blood and immune cells in the body. The results, published last week in the journal Cell, describe how a newly discovered protein plays a key role in generating HSC’s in the developing embryo—giving scientists a more complete recipe to reproduce these cells in the lab.

The research, which was led by University of California, San Diego (UCSD) professor David Traver and supported by a grant from CIRM, offers renewed hope for the possibility of generating patient-specific blood or immune cells using induced pluripotent stem cell (iPS cell) technology.

As Traver explained in last week’s news release:

“The development of some mature cell lineages from iPS cells, such as cardiac or neural, has been reasonably straightforward, but not with HSCs. This is likely due, at least in part, to not fully understanding all the factors used by the embryo to generate HSCs.”

Indeed, the ability to generate HSCs has long challenged scientists, as outlined in a CIRM workshop from last year. But now, says Traver, they have found a crucial piece to the puzzle.

Specifically, the researchers investigated a signaling protein called tumor necrosis factor alpha—or TNFα for short— a protein known to be important for regulating inflammation and immunity. Previous research by this study’s first author, Raquel Espin-Palazon, and others also discovered it was related to the healthy function of blood vessels during embryonic development.

In this study, Traver, Espin-Palazon and the UCSD drilled down even further—and found that TNFα was required for the normal development of HSCs in the embryo. This surprised the research team, as the young embryo is generally considered to be sterile—with no need for a protein normally charged with regulating immune response to be switched on. Explained Traver:

“There was no expectation that pro-inflammatory signaling would be active at this time or in the blood-forming regions.”

While preliminary, establishing this relationship between TNFα and HSC formation will be a boon to researchers looking for new ways to generate large quantities of healthy, patient-specific red and white blood cells for those patients who so desperately need them.

Learn more about how stem cell technology could help treat blood diseases in our Thalassemia Fact Sheet.