‘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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don Gibbons

Bridging the gap: helping create a new generation of stem cell scientists

Inspiration comes in many different shapes and sizes, but when you see it there is no mistaking it. And when you meet and talk to the students in our Bridges program you find inspiration in each and every one of them.

The program is designed to train the next generation of stem cell scientists, bridging (hence the name) the gap between undergraduate and Master’s level training in research. But it’s so much more than just a recruiting and training program because one of the goals of Bridges is to find students who are often overlooked for opportunities like this: students who may be the first in their family to go to college, who don’t come from a wealthy family or fancy school. These students seize the opportunity with both hands and their sense of delight at being given a chance, and enthusiasm for the work is exciting and infectious.

We held our annual Bridges Trainee Meeting in Burlingame this week, a chance for all the students in the program to come together, listen to lectures from world-class stem cell researchers, and show their posters describing the work they have done over the past year.

At first many of them seem a little shy but once you ask them about their experiences their enthusiasm simply bubbles over. Shayda Kianfar graduated from Berkeley City College and is now studying at the University of California, Berkeley. She says she was accepted into the program even though she had no prior lab experience:

“This has given me an amazing experience. To be surrounded by so many incredible people, to have great mentors is life changing. You learn so many new skills and it opens your eyes. I hadn’t thought about stem cell work before but now I would love to do this. It’s so exciting.”

Kevin Martinez talks to fellow Bridges student David James

Kevin Martinez talks to fellow Bridges student David James

Kevin Martinez graduated from San Francisco State University and says getting a chance to work with extraordinary researchers like Thea Tlsty, Ph.D., at the University of California, San Francisco, was incredible. Kevin got to work with Tlsty and her team on their discovery that certain rare cells extracted from adult breast tissue can be instructed to become different types of cells – a discovery that could have important potential for regenerative medicine.

He says what surprised him most of all was how much independence they gave him, he wasn’t treated like a student but like a colleague:

“They trained me and gave me the experience and opportunity to do amazing work. This is great training for a career either in academia or industry because they teach you how to do research independently, but to also work as part of a team.”

Eleanor Kim, spent her year at City of Hope near Los Angeles. She focused on leukemia stem cells (LCS), testing different medications to see if they could be effective at preventing recurrence of the leukemia or the speed with which it spreads.

Bridges student Eleanor Kim

Bridges student Eleanor Kim

Eleanor was a pre-med student who hadn’t really thought about research until she found out about the Bridges program. Now she’s set her sights on becoming an MD/PhD:

“This got me much more interested in the biology of cancers, what is driving them, what controls them. I want to be able to talk to my patients about what is happening to them but also to be able to do research that might be able to help them.”

Eleanor says she also learned a valuable lesson about the need for a good night’s sleep:

“I learned that you have to work hard but that you also can’t work to the point where you are sleep deprived. This is such detail-oriented work that being sleepy can lead to mistakes and one mistake can set you back days.”

Each Bridges student has their own story; each brings their own unique perspective to their work and to the field. You can hear some of our students talk about how important this opportunity was for them, and how it has changed them in so many ways.

kevin mccormack

In an auditorium with 200 high school students CIRM grantee connected with one who is now heading to UCLA to study stem cells

When part of your job is to reach out to the community, share information and perhaps get the people you connect with excited about what they hear, it can be difficult to point to tangible examples of success. One arrived in my email inbox last week.

Tommy Nguyen in front of an image of nerve stem cells

Tommy Nguyen in front of an image of nerve stem cells

Each year for Stem Cell Awareness Day in October we arrange for CIRM grantees and staff to go out to high schools and give guest lecture on stem cell science. Last year we reached more than 3,000 students. Probably no one reached more students than Julie Mangada of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato. She has talked to students at 15 schools in the past year. Another 21 classes have visited the Learning Center she manages at the Buck.

In a wonderful turn of events, Julie’s talk at Piner High School in Santa Rosa last October caused one student in the auditorium to completely change the trajectory of his upcoming college pursuits. He went on to become class valedictorian and in his commencement speech last month mentioned Julie’s talk and his plans to now attend the University of California, Los Angeles for biological engineering and stem cell science.

Someone in the graduation crowd called the Buck Institute after the talk and asked if the student could have a private tour of the stem cell facilities there. That student, Tommy Nguyen, joined Julie at the Buck last week to walk through the many stem cell projects there, several funded by CIRM. In particular, he saw how embryonic stem cells were grown into nerve stem cells that were transplanted into the brains of an animal model of Parkinson’s Disease (in photos).

Julie Mangada shows Tommy where cells would be implanted for Parkinson's Disease.

Julie Mangada shows Tommy where cells would be implanted for Parkinson’s Disease.

We believe getting young people into the stem cell career pipeline early is essential. That is why I conceived and managed the development of a five-unit high school curriculum in 2009 that is freely available at our Stem Cell Education Portal.

This story about Tommy shows early outreach to students can work. And it is fun when a colleague in the field can write as Julie did in her email last week, “I love my job.”

She also conducts tours for the public at the Buck every Thursday from 10:30 to Noon. To reserve a spot, call (415)209-2245.

Don Gibbons