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

Blood Test Reveals Alzheimer’s Disease Risk, CIRM-Funded Study Finds

Could a simple blood test predict your risk for one day developing Alzheimer's disease?

Could a simple blood test predict your risk for developing one day developing Alzheimer’s disease?

By the time someone begins to experience the clinical symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, the damage has already been done. An accumulation of toxic proteins is causing brain cells to whither and die, taking with them a lifetime of precious memories.

But what if we had a definitive test that could predict one’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s, even before the onset of symptoms? Could we use it to develop an early-detection method and—even more importantly—a way to slow or halt the disease before it is too late?

While this may seem closer to fiction than reality, scientists from the Western University of Health Sciences are reporting that they’ve done just that: a simple blood test that can accurately predict one’s Alzheimer’s risk—up to ten years before symptoms begin to develop.

Reporting in the latest issue of Translational Psychiatry, senior author Dr. Doug Ethell and his research team describe their ingenious method of tracking the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s via a simple blood test.

Their test, called the CD4see assay, tracks the body’s early immune response to toxic proteins—called amyloid beta proteins—that accumulate and form harmful plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.

Ethell has long been studying how a class of immune cells, called T cells, responds to the buildup of amyloid beta. Previously, he showed that these so-called amyloid beta-specific T cells could actually counter the cognitive decline seen in Alzheimer’s. So, lower amyloid T cell levels should correlate with symptoms. As he explained in an interview:

“If our mouse studies were correct, then there should be fewer of those cells in Alzheimer’s patients. Translating those studies from mouse to man was going to take a big effort—characterizing the small proportion of T cells that respond to amyloid-beta from the millions of other kinds of T cell would require technology that didn’t exist yet.”

So Ethell turned to stem cells. With support from CIRM, Ethell and his team took human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) and developed a type of immune system cell called dendritic cells. These cells stimulated the growth of amyloid-beta T cells—effectively bringing them out of hiding and allowing the researchers to locate and count them.

“Everyone showed a decrease in these T cells as they aged, but the decline occurred earliest in women with the apoE4 gene (the single greatest genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s), often right around the same time as menopause,” explained Ethell. “When our raw data was pasted on foam boards all over my office it seemed to us that older women had lower responses than men, and when the data was finally plotted the dramatic decline around menopause was clear.”

Interestingly, this observation seems to correlate with the fact that Alzheimer’s is more prevalent in women than in men.

Ethell and his team propose that the CD4see assay could soon be used to measure amyloid-beta-specific T cells against one’s age, sex and whether they carry apoE4. This could then be used to calculate the individual’s risk for developing Alzheimer’s symptoms in the future.

This assay could also prove helpful when looking to test new therapeutic strategies that treat early-stage Alzheimer’s—something that has proven difficult without a reliable early detection method.

“Alzheimer’s disease is a puzzle and every bit of knowledge adds a new piece,” added Ethell. “We now view Alzheimer’s disease very differently than we did even just a few years ago.”

Spiderman Sets the Tone for Stem Cell Agency Board Meeting

I don’t often think about Spiderman at meetings of our governing Board – no, really I don’t – but yesterday was an exception. Not that I was daydreaming, rather I was listening to our new President & CEO C. Randal Mills, Ph.D., talk about his determination to set a very specific tone in leading the agency.

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Randy had just explained to the Board that he had asked the agency’s General Counsel to draw up an agreement stating he – Randy, not the lawyer – will not accept a job with any company funded by CIRM for at least one year following his departure from the agency. In addition he will also refuse to accept gifts or travel payments from any company, institution or individual who receives agency funding.

In a news release we issued following the Board meeting he explained his reasons for making this commitment:

“I want the people of California to know that my sole interest in being at CIRM is to help advance stem cell treatments to patients who are in need. I will do so with a full commitment to transparency and by never compromising the integrity of our mission nor our trust to the taxpayers of California.”

And that’s where Spiderman comes in. As any fan of the movie or comic books can tell you one of the things Spiderman says a lot is “With great power comes great responsibility.”

In making his commitment Randy wanted to send a very clear and very strong message that he understands what his role as the President involves, and that it’s important for him to demonstrate that through his actions.

Board member and patient advocate, Sherry Lansing, echoed that saying:

“We take even the possibility of a perception of a conflict of interest very seriously and are determined to do whatever is necessary to ensure that we protect the reputation of the agency and the work that we do. We fully support Dr. Mills in the way he is handling this issue.”

Randy decided to make that commitment after his predecessor, Dr. Alan Trounson joined the Board of Stem Cells Inc., a company that we awarded more than $19 million to develop a therapy for Alzheimer’s disease. While there is nothing illegal about Dr. Trounson’s actions the news did cause a bit of a stir with a few commentators saying this was a dark mark against the agency – even though there is nothing we could have done to stop it because we did not know it was happening.

Randy is not asking anyone else to make the same commitment he has made, but he says it was important for him to do so. His role as President & CEO carries great responsibility and he says he wants to show that he takes it very seriously and will lead by example.

I rather think Spiderman would approve.

Kevin McCormack

July ICOC Board Meeting Now Beginning

The July ICOC Boarding Meeting is now beginning in San Francisco.

The complete agenda can be found here.

For those not able to attend, feel free to dial in:

Dial In (800) 230-1085
Confirmation Number: 331407

Audio Cast:
Web Meeting Address: https://www.webmeeting.att.com
* Meeting Number(s): (511)468-6455
* HOST CODE: 697745
* PARTICIPANT CODE: 249234

WebEx Link:
Go to https://cirm.webex.com/cirm/onstage/g.php?MTID=eb948a1127913f44c7cdffcedc0fa510a
Click “Join Now”.

We will be providing a summary of the meeting’s highlights after the meeting—so stay tuned!

Welcome to the Stem Cellar

Today, as we here at CIRM move forward under the leadership of a new President, and as CIRM-funded scientists work on transforming their discoveries into therapies, we thought it was the right time for some much-needed improvements to our blog.

We originally launched the blog as a way to share the latest and greatest news, events and insight related to the world of regenerative medicine. And while we’ve published more than 1,000 stories to date, and shared this knowledge with researchers, policymakers, advocates and—most importantly, patients—we wanted to take our blog to the next level.

So we’d like to introduce you to: The Stem Cellar, the official blog of California’s Stem Cell Agency, and it’s new home at blog.cirm.ca.gov.

Here you’ll find the same great content you’ve always enjoyed (including our entire archives!), as well as new sections dedicated to News, Events, Ethics & Policy and our ever-popular Weekly Roundup Series “Stem Cell Stories that Caught our Eye.” In the coming weeks and months, we’ll also be adding new sections, including long-form feature stories and enhanced multimedia.

So feel free to look around, stay for a while and let us know what you think in the comments section below. We hope you enjoy what we’ve built as much as we enjoyed making it!

Stem Cell Researchers from around the Globe Converging in Vancouver with More Talk of Therapies than Ever before

The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) officially opens its annual meeting tonight in Vancouver with a public session called “The Real Deal on Stem Cell Therapies.” These preview sessions for the public have become a tradition for the association and generally focus on helping the lay public sort out the legitimate science from the many questionable claims in the field.

The four-day scientific sessions are the largest gathering of stem cell researchers each year with more than 3,000 expected in Vancouver. It provides critical opportunities for scientists to share information and gather informally over coffee or drinks to bounce around ideas. These chats often result in collaborations that accelerate the science.

My colleague Kevin McCormack and I will be roaming the meeting looking for trends and breakthroughs in the science and writing them up quickly for this blog. The first post will be Wednesday morning reporting on tonight’s public event. Other posts are likely to cover progress toward clinical trails in Parkinson’s Disease, diabetes and spinal cord injury, among others.

Our coverage of last year’s public session is here, and one trend we spotted last year was a recognition of the vital importance of the environment where stem cells are grown if you want them to mature into the desired tissue.

Looking forward to spotting new trends over the next few days.

Don Gibbons

Meet the Stem Cell Agency President C. Randal Mills

As you probably have heard by now we have a new President at the stem cell agency. In late April, after a nationwide search, our governing Board appointed C. Randal Mills, PhD, to take over from Alan Trounson who has led the agency for the last six years, and is standing down to spend more time with his family in Australia.

Stem cell agency President C. Randal Mills (left) and Chair of the Board Jonathan Thomas

Stem cell agency President C. Randal Mills (left) and Chair of the Board Jonathan Thomas

Randy comes to us with a track record of success in stem cell research. For the last ten years he has been the President and CEO of Osiris Therapeutics. He helped the company develop Prochymal, used for the treatment of acute graft-vs-host disease in children, a devastating complication of bone marrow transplantation that can be fatal. He is also well known to many of the staff at the stem cell agency, having served as a member of our Grants Working Group review panel for the past five years, helping decide which projects are the most promising and therefore most deserving of funding.

Now we want to introduce him to you.

We are a publicly funded agency so we want to make sure the public gets a chance to know the person who is leading us. That’s why we are holding three events over the next month to give Patient Advocates, researchers, supporters and anyone who is interested a chance to come and hear Randy talk about his vision for the agency and his goals for the future. And of course we want to give you a chance to ask him questions.

Those events are:

    San Francisco: Monday, June 9th from 6 – 7pm at our offices on 210 King Street, San Francisco, CA 94107. We are located between 3rd and 4th streets, there is good muni bus service to the area and we are just one block from the Caltrain Terminal at 700 4th Street.
    Los Angeles: Tuesday, June 10th from 6 – 7pm at the Eli & Edythe Broad CIRM Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. The address there is 1425 San Pablo Street, Los Angeles, CA 90033.
    San Diego: Tuesday, June 24th from 6 – 7pm at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, 1 Market Place, San Diego, CA 92101. This is going to be held at the same time as the BIO 2014 conference so we are meeting in the Grand Hyatt, in the Gaslamp rooms A & B.

At each event we will provide light refreshments.

I do hope you will join us.