Glimpse the future at a fun-filled Festival of Science

Hands-on science and fun

Hands-on science and fun

Imagine a giant circus but instead of performing animals you have a Robot Zoo; instead of scary clowns you have colorful chemicals in glass beakers. That’s what AT&T Park will look like this Saturday when the 5th Annual Discovery Day opens its doors.  It’s a hands-on, eye-opening, brain-engaging celebration of science for everyone.

It’s a lot of fun

You’ll get a chance to learn about the science of sports – an appropriate subject as you’ll be doing it at the home of the 3-time World Champions of baseball, the San Francisco Giants. You’ll also be able to experience some of the training it takes to become an astronaut, without any of that pesky going-into-space business.

All in all you’ll be able to visit more than 150 hands-on exhibits and activities spread throughout the park, put together by the top science organizations, institutions and companies from all over the Bay Area. We’re talking Stanford University, UCSF, The Tech Museum, the Exploratorium, KQED, US Geological Society and the list goes on and on.

Meet the future right now

Today's scientists inspiring tomorrow's

Today’s scientists inspiring tomorrow’s

You’ll get to meet the scientists who are exploring outer space and the depths of the ocean, who are doing cutting edge research into health and who are pushing the boundaries of scientific knowledge.

And you will get a chance to meet us, the CIRM Team. We’re going to be there all day talking about the exciting progress being made in the field of stem cell research, and about the 15 clinical trials we are currently funding in heart disease, diabetes, cancer, HIV/AIDS and blindness (to name just a few).

You can find us on the Promenade level at booth P50. We’re easy to spot. We’re the coolest ones around. And if you have kids who enjoy PlayDoh, we will give them a chance to use the fun stuff to make stem cells.

But best of all Discovery Day is a chance for kids to learn how amazing science can be, to meet the scientists who are helping shape their future, and to consider a future as scientists themselves. And for the rest of us, it’s a chance to remind ourselves why we fell in love with science to start with.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the whole shebang is FREE.

The event is this Saturday, November 7 from 10am – 4pm. For details on where it is and how to get there – go to Discovery Day

Fun on the field at AT&T Park

Fun on the field at AT&T Park

CIRM scholar Ke Wei talks heart regeneration

Ke Wei

Ke Wei

“How do you mend a broken heart?” was the topic of one of our recent Stem Cellar blogs highlighting a stellar CIRM-funded publication on the regenerative abilities of the protein FSTL1 following heart injury. One of the master-minds behind this study is co-first author Ke Wei. Ke is a postdoc in Dr. Mark Mercola’s lab at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute located in balmy southern California. He also happens to be one of our prized CIRM scholars.


Cross sections of a healthy (control) or injured mouse heart. Injured hearts treated with patches containing FSTL1 show the most recovery of healthy heart tissue (red). Image adapted from Wei et al. 2015)

Upon hearing of Ke’s important and exciting accomplishments in the field of regenerative medicine for heart disease, we called him up to learn more about his scientific accomplishments and aspirations.

Q: Tell us about your research background and how you got into this field?

KW: I went to UCLA for my graduate school PhD, and I studied under Dr. Fabian Chen focusing on heart development. At that time, I mainly worked on very early heart development and other tissues like smooth muscle cells. For my graduate thesis work, I found that particular genes were important for smooth muscle development.

So I was trained as a heart developmental biologist, but after my PhD, I came to the Burnham Institute and I joined two labs: Dr. Mark Mercola and Dr. Pilar Ruiz-Lozano. They co-mentored me for the first couple of years of my postdoc. Mark is interested in using stem cells and high throughput screens to identify pharmaceutical compounds for inducing heart regeneration and treating heart diseases. Pilar is interested in the epicardium, the outer layer of the heart, which is known to play important roles during heart development. When I joined their labs, they had combined forces to study how the epicardium affects heart development and heart diseases.

In their labs, I used my developmental biologist background to combine in vitro stem cells based screening studies (Mark) and in vivo mouse embryonic heart development studies (Pilar) to dissect the function of the epicardium on heart development and disease.

Q: Tell us about your experience as a CIRM scholar and what you were able to accomplish.

KW: My two years of CIRM fellowship were separated but my focus was the same for both CIRM-funded periods: to understand the effect of the epicardium on heart development and diseases.

In my first project in 2008, we tried to generate an in vitro model of mouse epicardial cells and used those cells to study their influence on cardiac differentiation using both in vitro and in vivo experiments. We ran into a lot of technical difficulties, so at that time, we decided to switch to using existing in vitro epicardial cell lines, and using those to study their influence on cardiomyocytes (heart muscle cells).

In my second year of CIRM funding in 2011, we identified the genes and proteins that can promote immature cardiomyocytes to proliferate, and put them in vivo and it worked. So the success of our publication all started from my second year of CIRM-fellowship.

Q: What benefits did you experience as a CIRM scholar?

KW: I’ve really enjoyed being a CIRM scholar and took advantage of the resources they provided me over the years. One of the benefits I enjoyed the most was attending the CIRM annual meetings and retreats. I was able to talk with a lot of scientists with different backgrounds, and that really expanded my horizons.

As you can see from our paper in Nature, it’s definitely not only a developmental biologist paper. It’s actually very clinical and collaborative, and it was done by many different groups working together. By going to CIRM conferences and meeting all the other CIRM fellows, I got a lot of new ideas, and those ideas encouraged me to collaborate with more scientists. These events really encouraged me to look beyond the thoughts of a developmental biologist.

Our paper is co-authored by me and Vahid Serpooshan from Stanford. We co-first authored this paper, and my work mainly involved the in vitro studies that identified the regenerative proteins and their function in heart injury. Vahid’s approach was more bioengineering focused. He produced the FSTL1 patch, put it in the rodent heart, and conducted all the other in vivo studies. It was a perfect collaboration to push this project for publication in a high level journal like Nature.

Q: What is the big picture of your research and your future goals?

KW: I plan to stay in academia. The key thing about heart diseases is that heart regeneration is very limited. Using our approach, we found one particular protein that’s important to the regenerative process, and in reality, its concentration is very low in the heart when it’s infarcted (injured). I think we have set up a pretty good system to test all possible therapeutic means in the lab, including proteins from the epicardium, small molecules, microRNAs and other compounds to activate cardiomyocyte proliferation. I plan to focus on understanding the mechanisms for why cardiomyocytes stop proliferating in the adult heart, and what new approaches we can pursue to promote their expansion and regenerative abilities. The FSTL1 story is the start of this, and I will try to find new factors that can promote heart regeneration.

Q: Will your work involve human stem cell models?

KW: To make this study clinically relevant, we included the swine models. We are definitely testing FSTL1 in human cells right now. Currently we can produce a huge amount of the human cardiomyocytes. They seem to be at a different stage than rodent cells so we are optimizing the system to perform screens for human cell proliferation. When that system is set up, then anything that comes out of the screen will be much more relevant to clinical studies in humans.

Q: What is your favorite thing about being a scientist?

Knowing that the information I acquire through experiments is new to mankind, and that my actions expand the horizon of combined human knowledge, even just for a tiny bit, is a huge satisfaction to me as a scientist.

CIRM Scholar Spotlight: Matt Donne on Lung Stem Cells

CIRM has funded a number of educational and research training programs over the past ten years to give younger students and graduate/postdoc scholars the opportunity to explore stem cell science.

Two of the main programs we support are the Bridges and the CIRM Scholars Training Program. These programs fund future scientists from an undergraduate to postdoctoral level with a goal of creating “training programs that will significantly enhance the technical skills, knowledge, and experience of a diverse cohort of… trainees in the development of stem cell based therapies.”

The Stem Cellar team was interested to hear from Bridges and CIRM scholars themselves about their experience with these programs, how their careers have benefited from CIRM funding, and what research accomplishments they have under their belt. We were able to track some of these scholars down, and will be publishing a series of interview-style blogs featuring them over the next few months.

Matt Donne

Matt Donne

We start off with a Matt Donne, a PhD student at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) in the Developmental and Stem Cell Biology graduate program. Matt is a talented scientist and has a pretty cool story about his research training path. I sat down with Matt to ask him a few questions.

Q: Tell us how you got into a Stem Cell graduate program at UCSF.

MD: I was fortunate to have Dr. Carmen Domingo from San Francisco State support my application into the CIRM Bridges Program. I’d been working for Dr. Susan Fisher at UCSF for a couple of years and realized that I wanted to get a PhD and go to UCSF. I thought the best way to do that was improve my GPA and get a masters degree in stem cell biology. I applied to the CIRM program at SF State, and was accepted.

The Bridges Program has been a great feeder platform to get students more science experience exposure than they would have otherwise received, and prepares them well to move on to competitive graduate schools.

After receiving my Masters degree, I was admitted into the first year of the Developmental and Stem Cell Biology program at UCSF. When the opportunity to apply for a training grant from CIRM came about between my first and second year of at UCSF, I knew I had to give it a chance and apply. With the help of my mentor, Dr. Jason Rock, I wrote a solid proposal and was awarded the fellowship.

While at SF State, Carmen was extremely supportive and always available for her students. Since then, many of us still keep in touch and more have joined the UCSF graduate school community.

Q: Can you describe your graduate research?

MD: The field of regenerative medicine is searching for ways to allow us to repair injuries similar to how the Marvel Comic Wolverine can repair his wounds in the movies. One interesting fact which has been known for several decades, but has not been able to be investigated more deeply until now, is the innate ability for the adult lung to regrow lost lung tissue without any sort of intervention. My thesis focuses on defining the molecular mechanisms and stem cell niches that allow for this normal, healthy adult lung tissue growth. The working hypothesis is if we can understand what makes a cell undergo healthy tissue proliferation and differentiation, we could stimulate this response to cure individuals who suffer from diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Similarly, if we understand how a cell decides to respond in a diseased way, we could stop or revert the disease process from occurring.

One of the models we use in our lab is a “pneumosphere” culture. We essentially grow alveoli, which are the site of gas exchange in the lung, in a dish to attempt to understand how specific alveolar stem cells signal and interact with one another. This information will teach us how these cells behave so we can in turn either promote a healthy response to injury or, potentially, stop the progression of unhealthy cell responses. The technique of growing alveoli in a dish allows us to cut down on the “noise” and focus on major cellular pathways, which we can then more selectively apply to our mouse model systems.

Pneumospheres. (Photo by Matt Donne)

Pneumospheres or “lung cells in a dish”. (Photo by Matt Donne)

Lung cells.

Lung pneumospheres under a microscope. (Photo by Matt Donne)

We are now in the process of submitting a paper demonstrating some of the molecular players that are involved in this regenerative lung response. Hopefully the reviewers will think our paper is as awesome we as believe it to be.

Q: How has being a CIRM scholar benefited your graduate research career?

MD: Starting in my second year at UCSF, I was awarded the CIRM fellowship. I think it helped the lab to have the majority of my stipend covered through the CIRM fellowship, and personally I was very excited about the $5,000 discretionary budget. These monies allowed me to go to conferences every year for the past three years, and also have helped to support the costs of my experiments.

The first conference I attended was a Gordon Conference in Italy on Developmental Biology. There I was able to learn more about the field and also make friends with many professors, students, and postdocs from around the world. Last year, I went to my first lung-specific conference, and attended again this year. That has been one of the highlights of my PhD career. While there, one is able to speak and interact with professors whose names are seen in many textbooks and published papers. I never thought I would be able to so casually interact with them and develop relationships. Since then, I have been able to work on small collaborations with professors from across the US.

It was great that I could go to these conferences and establish important relationships with professors without being a major financial burden to my Professor. Plus, it has been hugely beneficial for my career as I now have professors whom I can reach out to as I look towards my future as a scientist.

Q: What other benefits did the CIRM scholars program provide you?

MD: Dr. Susan Fisher has been in charge of the CIRM program at UCSF. She organized lunch-time research talks that involved both academic as well as non-academic leaders in the field. I enjoyed the extra exposure to new fields of stem cell biology as well as the ability to learn more about the start-up and non-academic world. There are not many programs that offer this type of experience, and I felt fortunate to be a part of it. Also, the free lunches on occasion were a nice perk for a grad student living in San Francisco!

I attended the CIRM organized conferences whenever they happened. It’s always great presenting at or attending poster sessions at these events, seeing familiar faces and meeting new people. I took full advantage of the learning and networking that CIRM allowed me to do. The CIRM elevator pitch competition was really cool too. I didn’t win, came in third, but I enjoyed the challenge of trying to break down my thesis project into a digestible one-minute pitch.

Q: Where do you see the field of lung biology and regenerative medicine heading?

MD: My take away from the research conferences I have attended with the help of CIRM-funding is that we are in a very exciting time for lung stem cell research. The field overall is still young, but there are many labs across the world now working on a “lung mapping project” to better define stem cell populations in the lung. I see this research in the future translating in to regenerative therapies by which diseased cells/tissue will be targeted to actually stop the disease progression, and in turn possibly repair and regenerate healthy new tissue. This research has wide reaching implications as it has the potential to help everyone from a premature baby more quickly develop mature healthy lungs, to adults suffering from COPD brought on by environmental factors, such as air pollution. As many scientists are often quoted, “This is a very exciting time for our field.”

Q: What are your future plans?

MD: I expect to graduate in about a year’s time. In the future, I want to pursue a career focusing on the social impact of science. I aspire to be someone like UCSF’s former chancellor Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellmand. It’s really cool to go from someone who was the president of product development at Genentech, to chancellor at UCSF, to now president of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bringing science to impact society in that way is what I hope to do with my future.

Related links:

Boo-Boos and Stem Cells: New Children’s Book Explains Body’s Healing Process

With two boys under six, scraped elbows and knees are a common sight in my household. After the crying and tears subside, the excitement of deciding between the Captain America or the Lightning McQueen band aid soon follows.

The fun part of getting a boo-boo: choosing bandaids

The fun part of getting a boo-boo: choosing bandaids

Over those next several days, my boys get a thrill out of peeking at their boo-boos as they gradually heal. And I get giddy about using their minor injuries as an excuse to tell them about the amazing role stem cells play in helping the body heal. But have you ever tried to discuss the cellular and molecular processes of wound healing and tissue regeneration to little kids? It’s a bit tricky to say the least.

Fortunately, a new resource has come to my rescue. Carlo and the Orange Glasses is an imaginative children’s picture book about a boy who gets a cut on his leg and, with the help of his older sister, learns how his body repairs itself. In the story, Carlo uses a magical pair of glasses, the Zoom3000, that lets him witness his stem cells in action as they help mend his skin. You can read the interactive online book here:

Vanessa de Mello, a PhD student at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, wrote and illustrated the book during an internship at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Regenerative Medicine (MRC) also in Scotland. The MRC currently hosts Carlo and the Orange Glasses on EuroStemCell, a fabulous website and program whose mission is “to help European citizens make sense of stem cells.”

In a post last week on the EuroStemCell website, de Mello explained her goal for the book:

Vanessa De Mello

Vanessa De Mello

“The book itself is intended for children around the ages of 8-10. Carlo and the Orange Glasses gives an overview of wound healing, definitions of cells, tissues and stem cells in an imaginative way. I hope for the book to be fun, easy to read and pull more young minds into science.”

I put the book to the test by reading it to my almost six-year-old. He really liked the colorful drawings and when I asked him what the book meant to him, he said:

Ezra_StemCellBook-0669 copy

Carlo and the Orange Glasses helped my
5 year old son, Ezra, learn about stem cells.

“Stem cells are the most important cells in your body because they fix
your boo-boos and help you to grow.”

Based on that response, I’d say Vanessa’s book is a smashing success!

I think making this complex scientific concept accessible and entertaining for very young kids is so important. It helps instill an appreciation for science that they’ll carry on to adulthood. Who knows how many will eventually go on to careers in regenerative medicine and stem cell science. But they all have the potential to become stem cell ambassadors to ensure this field fulfills its promise to bring treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.

A Stem Cell Summer with Taylor Swift, Jay-Z, and Carly Rae Jepsen (New Videos)

Was that a stem cell conference or a film festival?

It’s a question that may have been on some attendees’ minds last Friday at CIRM’s Creativity Day in San Mateo. The event showcased the accomplishments of about 70 high school students who did cutting-edge stem cell research as part of a CIRM-funded summer internship program at nine world-class institutions in California. The remarkable, young students gave graduate-level research presentations and showed off posters of their scientific findings to their lab mentors, the CIRM team, and proud family members.

While the main focus of the internship was lab research, we also included a social media assignment that asked students to capture their internship experiences by writing blogs, taking Instagram photos, or making movies. And just as the student poured their excitement, smarts, and hard work into their research, they also went all-in with the social media challenge.

I don’t know how they found the time, but eight videos were submitted in all – the most yet since the program started. And they’re fabulous! The CIRM team members who voted on the best videos were blown away by the inventiveness and artistry of the videos. Many students parodied popular songs by the likes of Taylor Swift, Jay-Z and Carly Rae Jepsen. They went above and beyond choreographing their own dance routines in the lab and injecting stem cell science into the lyrics. There was even a parody of the Jerry Seinfeld show called “Cirmfeld”.

The best social media submissions in each category were recognized at the Creativity Day (we blogged about the best blog yesterday). It was a very tough choice deciding on the best video, but in the end we choose one winner and two honorable mentions. In that moment just before the winner was announced, the students were holding their collective breaths and nervously sitting at the edge their seats. It really had the atmosphere of a film festival.

The winning video was a parody of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” by Vanessa Arreola & Camilia Kacimi who did their internships at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco. The duo shot, edited and scripted the video themselves. Their work is a great example of an effective way to communicate science to the public: start with a subject people know about, add creativity and humor, and teach some science along the way. Watch the video here:

The two honorable mentions also did fantastic jobs communicating science in an accessible way. The high school interns at City of Hope parodied Carly Rae Jepsen’s “I Really Like You” with their beautifully shot and edited video, “We’re Really Close (To a Breakthrough)”:

The students at Stanford also parodied Taylor Swift but in addition they threw down some fierce lyrics in their parody of a Jay-Z and Kayne West track. I do believe it’s the world’s first rap to include a reference to renown Stanford stem cell researcher, Irv Weissman:

You can watch all the videos on CIRMTV, the agency’s YouTube channel.

Congratulations and best of luck to all of the Creativity students. The future is bright for stem cell science!

High school and middle school teachers use summer to develop stem cell lesson plans.

At CIRM, we have developed programs that try to capture and train budding young scientific minds starting in the upper reaches of k-12 schools, through undergrad college, graduate work and post doctoral training. So, we are thrilled when one of our partner institutions takes on that challenge with a new robust effort.

Piner High teacher Heather Benson practices micropipetting.

Piner High teacher Heather Benson practices micropipetting.

The Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Marin County conducted two programs this month to empower local school teachers to build stem cell science into their lesson plans for the coming year. Both initiatives asked the teachers to give up three days of their summer vacation. The Buck’s Julie Mangada spearheaded the initiative.

Twelve middle school teachers from Marin participated in “STEAM Engine 2015,” in which they created an outline for a curriculum unit on how cells work together and process sensory information. If they teach that outline this fall for a two-four-week period they will get $200 per class for supplies and a bonus $700 stipend in the program partnered with the Marin County Office of Education.

In addition, three high school teachers from neighboring Sonoma County attended a three-day externship to develop integrated lesson plans on the theme: “How have past discoveries built the foundation for stem cell research to cure disorders in the present.” All three teach at Piner High. One, Judy Barcelon, described what she took away from the three days:

“I became inspired to challenge my students with higher level science concepts so they can understand how aging and disease happened on a cellular level.”

The three teachers and their students will work together this fall as a team to create a timeline of technical advances while learning the function of those techniques. They will then create research proposals to foster understanding of one specific disease. The activities will culminate on the CIRM-organized international Stem Cell Awareness Day October 14 with a presentation by Buck’s Mangada as well as someone from CIRM.

The local Press Democrat ran an article about the program last week.

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

‘Tis the Season to Talk Science

And just like that another holiday season is upon us. It’s that time of year when scientists across the nation sit down for their family holiday dinner and attempt to answer the following question without triggering blank stares around the dining room table: “So dear, tell me again, what is it that you do in your laboratory?”

KDubbin bench800x800

Karen Dubbin, a Stanford PhD candidate in the CIRM-funded lab of Sarah Heilshorn, is happy about the valuable new skills she gained in a recent Public Communications of Research course

For some researchers, like those launching clinical trials for incurable diseases, their answers are as easy to digest as grandma’s mashed potatoes. But for others who work on less tangible but equally important areas of science, like chemistry, getting through to the family can be challenging—not just family but the public in general. And that’s a problem. Karen Dubbin, a Stanford University Ph.D. candidate studying materials science and engineering (fields that utilize chemistry) recognizes the importance of communicating her work to the public:

“I think that it is important to communicate research in a way the public can understand primarily because the public funds most of the research I participate in, and in order to spread the awareness of need for scientific funding (and hopefully increase said funding in the future) one has to be able to explain it in a way that excites the average person. “

Dubbin just completed a new, mini-course offered to Stanford graduate students in the departments of chemistry, chemical engineering, and chemical biology to help them work on communicating their research with the public. The class came about through a conversation between chemistry professor Chaitan Khosla and my former CIRM colleague Amy Adams who is now director of Interdisciplinary Life Sciences Communications at Stanford. During their conversation, they mulled over why chemists have a steeper hill to climb when communicating their work. Adams said they reached this conclusion:

“Biology always has the hook of being about you, and physics has an “oh wow” factor. Chemistry is somehow always a bit more removed from human problems and also less wow-ish. That said, it’s important to just about everything we do – the keyboard I’m typing on, parts of my clothes, my health.”

And so the Public Communications of Research course was born. Adams brought in science communicators from across the Stanford campus to talk about writing, video and social media, and to help the students think through how they would communicate their own science. As part of a final assignment, Dubbin produced the video below, which summarizes her work in the CIRM-funded lab of Sarah Heilshorn. Her video uses fun graphics and succinct text to explain how the design of new biomaterials is critical for the efficient delivery of future stem cell-based treatments to patients.

Dubbin thought the course was “super helpful” and she gained an important insight about science communication:

“I think when I used to try to explain my research to non-scientists, being totally accurate was the most important thing to me. Now I think it’s more important to make sure the main ideas are extra clear, as you can always go back and answer questions on the more intricate details if the listener is interested.”

Now that her parents and extended family all have copies of the video, Dubbin can look forward to bright eyes instead of blank stares as she touches upon those more intricate details at this year’s holiday dinner.

Stem cells and professional sports: a call for more science and less speculation

In the world of professional sports, teams invest tens of millions of dollars in players. Those players are under intense pressure to show a return on that investment for the team, and that means playing as hard as possible for as long as possible. So it’s no surprise that players facing serious injuries will often turn to any treatment that might get them back in the game.

image courtesy Scientific American

image courtesy Scientific American

A new study published last week in 2014 World Stem Cell Report (we blogged about it here) highlighted how far some players will go to keep playing, saying at least 12 NFL players have undergone unproven stem cell treatments in the last five years. A session at the recent World Stem Cell Summit in San Antonio, Texas showed that football is not unique, that this is a trend in all professional sports.

Dr. Shane Shapiro, an orthopedic surgeon at the Mayo Clinic, says it was an article in the New York Times in 2009 about two of the NFL players named in the World Stem Cell Report that led him to becoming interested in stem cells. The article focused on two members of the Pittsburgh Steelers team who were able to overcome injuries and play in the Super Bowl after undergoing stem cell treatment, although there was no direct evidence the stem cells caused the improvement.

“The next day, the day after the article appeared, I had multiple patients in my office with copies of the New York Times asking if I could perform the same procedure on them.”

Dr. Shapiro had experienced what has since become one of the driving factors behind many people seeking stem cell therapies, even ones that are unproven; the media reports high profile athletes getting a treatment that seems to work leading many non-athletes to want the same.

“This is not just about high profile athletes it’s also about older patients, weekend warriors and all those with degenerative joint disease, which affects around 50 million Americans. Currently for a lot of these degenerative conditions we don’t have many good non- surgical options, basically physical therapy, gentle pain relievers or steroid injections. That’s it. We have to get somewhere where we have options to slow down this trend, to slow down the progression of these injuries and problems.”

Shapiro says one of the most popular stem cell-based approaches in sports medicine today is the use of plasma rich platelets or PRP. The idea behind it makes sense, at least in theory. Blood contains platelets that contain growth factors that have been shown to help tissue heal. So injecting a patient’s platelets into the injury site might speed recovery and, because it’s the patient’s own platelets, the treatment probably won’t cause any immune response or prove to be harmful.

That’s the theory. The problem is few well-designed clinical trials have been done to see if that’s actually the case. Shapiro talked about one relatively small, non-randomized study that used PRP and in a 14-month follow-up found that 83% of patients reported feeling satisfied with their pain relief. However, 84% of this group did not have any visible improved appearance on ultrasound.

He is now in the process of carrying out a clinical trial, approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), using bone marrow aspirate concentrate (BMAC) cells harvested from the patient’s own bone marrow. Because those cells secrete growth factors such as cytokines and chemokines they hope they may have anti-inflammatory and regenerative properties. The cells will be injected into 25 patients, all of whom have arthritic knees. They hope to have results next year.

Dr. Paul Saenz is a sports medicine specialist and the team physician for the San Antonio Spurs, the current National Basketball Association champions. He says that sports teams are frequently criticized for allowing players to undergo unproven stem cell treatments but he says it’s unrealistic to expect teams to do clinical studies to see if these therapies work, that’s not their area of expertise. But he also says team physicians are very careful in what they are willing to try.

“As fervent as we are to help bring an athlete back to form, we are equally fervent in our desire not to harm a $10 million athlete. Sports physicians are very conservative and for them stem cells are never the first thing they try, they are options when other approaches have failed.”

Saenz said while there are not enough double blind, randomized controlled clinical trials he has seen many individual cases, anecdotal evidence, where the use of stem cells has made a big difference. He talked about one basketball player, a 13-year NBA veteran, who was experiencing pain and mobility problems with his knee. He put the player on a biologic regimen and performed a PRP procedure on the knee.

“What we saw over the next few years was decreased pain, and a dramatic decrease in his reliance on non-steroidal anti inflammatory drugs. We saw improved MRI findings, improved athletic performance with more time on court, more baskets and more rebounds.”

But Saenz acknowledges that for the field to advance anecdotal stories like this are not enough, well-designed clinical trials are needed. He says right now there is too much guesswork in treatments, that there is not even any agreement on best practices or standardized treatment protocols.

Dr. Shapiro says for too long the use of stem cells in sports medicine has been the realm of individual physicians or medical groups. That has to change:

“If we are ever to move forward on this it has to be opened up to the scientific community, we have to do the work, do the studies, complete the analysis, open it up to our peers, report it in a reputable journal. If we want to treat the 50 million Americans who need this kind of therapy we need to go through the FDA approval process. We can’t just continue to treat the one patient a month who can afford to pay for all this themselves. “

Discovery Days; bringing new life to the life sciences

Here are three words you don’t often see strung together: free, science, extravaganza. Yet that’s how Saturday’s Discovery Days at AT&T Park in San Francisco (home of the newly crowned baseball world champion Giants) is being described.

Robots on the rampage at last year's Discovery Days science fair

Robots on the rampage at last year’s Discovery Days science fair

The event truly is a celebration of science. It features more than 150 exhibits on everything from stem cells (that’s us) to rockets and robots and learning how your body and your brain work. It lets you learn about the world through interactive displays, games and experiments that engage and entertain.

Discovery Days is part of the Bay Area Science Festival. The Festival hopes that by making this a fun event it will encourage kids – and that’s the main audience here – to think about pursuing a career in science.

Parents and teachers are an important part of it too. The event gives them both ideas and tools on how to make learning about and teaching science more enjoyable, to help them get young people thinking about science outside the classroom, and to get them to understand that everything they see and do – from throwing a baseball to building a house – involves science.

Engaging the public in science is more than just an academic exercise. In recent years we have seen some fairly sizable cuts in funding for health, medical and scientific research in the US. These cuts are already slowing down our ability to do the research that can lead to new treatments for deadly diseases. Public support for scientific research is essential if we are to stop the cuts and increase funding. Events like Discovery Days can not only educate the public on how fascinating science is, but also how essential public funding for it is.

Bay Area Science Fair logo

So come along tomorrow (November 1) to Discovery Days. The event runs from 11am to 4pm and it’s FREE. It’s at AT&T Park (did I mention that’s the home of the newly crowned champions of baseball, the San Francisco Giants).

Here’s how you can get there