Happy social media day, stem cell fans

Mashable, the online go-to source for information on digital and social media, has declared today, June 30, to be social media day. We’re celebrating with a who’s who of those promoting stem cell science through social media and a comment on why social media is such a valuable tool for science education.

First, why social media? Many times I’ve had disbelievers tell me that there’s no way to educate people about complex topics in 140 characters or less (Twitter) or through a sentence or two on Facebook. This is true. However, there’s nothing like Twitter or Facebook for propagating interesting news articles, exciting discoveries or fascinating blog entries (ahem).

In today’s media landscape there’s a shortage of science reporters writing accurate, in-depth news stories. If, for example, Keith Darce at the San Diego Union Tribune writes something excellent about stem cell science I want all stem cell fans in Los Angeles, San Francisco, D.C., and internationally to see it. If I post a link to that article it goes to our ~700 Twitter followers and ~1,300 Facebook fans, but if those people “like” or retweet the link, it can easily be seen by tens of thousands of people. Not a bad return on 140 characters and a few minutes of my time, I’d say.

Here’s the other thing. When I post to Facebook or Twitter the first people I’m talking to are those who are already following CIRM. It’s important to keep our existing supporters informed — but it’s also important to be reaching new people. Social media helps with that. I can’t assume that everyone out there on Facebook, Twitter or reading blogs knows or cares about stem cell research. But many of those people care about diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, spinal cord injury or other disorders. If I write a blog entry about CIRM’s diabetes awards and post it to Twitter, thousands of people who follow the word “diabetes” on Twitter will see it. (On Twitter you can follow words or topics, not just individuals.) And maybe because a person follows diabetes, they’ll click my link and read my post and learn how CIRM-funded stem cell scientists are working toward a therapy for that disease. Education! In 140 characters or less.

Are you inspired? I’d love to see a few more stem cell advocates following CIRM and being a part of the online stem cell conversation. Here’s a link to our Facebook page and Twitter account.

CIRM isn’t alone in valuing social media. Many other California state agencies are keeping taxpayers in the loop through social media (here’s a list), and other state or national stem cell organizations are quite active, most notably Missouri Cures, Texans for Stem Cell Research, New York Stem Cell Foundation, Irish Stem Cell Foundation, Scottish Stem Cell Network, Australian Stem Cell Centre, and the Canadian Stem Cell Network (which recently had an excellent blog post about the value of scientists communicating on the web). Patient advocates like Roman Reed also promote stem cell research to a wide fan-base online.

But the social media stem cell conversation isn’t all backslapping among like-minded organizations. As Paul Knoepfler, a CIRM grantee at University of California, Davis, often points out on his excellent blog, those opposed to stem cell research are also active, and very organized in how they promote their views.

If you want to see research with all forms of stem cells and good national stem cell research policies, then celebrate Social Media Day by following your favorite stem cell or science organization and joining the conversation. Invite a few friends to join with you. (Have I mentioned our Facebook page and Twitter accounts?)

You can generally find Facebook and Twitter links on an organization’s home page. Comment on posts, retweet articles you want people to read. It only takes a minute and can help spread the word about progress being made in stem cell science.


Majority of Americans support using stem cells to treat serious disease

Amidst the political and media back and forth on the ethics and value of human embryonic stem cell research there’s been little information available about what people actually think — For what purposes they find the use of embryonic stem cells appropriate and how they form those opinions.

This month a group of researchers from the University of Nevada published a Nature Biotechnology paper filling in some of those blanks.

Among the findings I found most interesting reported in a Nevada Today story was this quote from lead author Mariah Evans:

“The vast majority, over two-thirds, said that in deciding whether it is right to allow these treatments, they would follow their own judgment,” she said. “Only 4 percent gave greater moral weight to the Catholic Church than to themselves, and even among committed church-going Catholics, only about one in five defer to the church on these matters.”

The story sums up the report’s key findings:

– More than two-thirds of respondents approved of using therapeutic cloning (nuclear transfer of the patient’s own genes) and stem cells from in vitro fertilized embryos to cure cancer or treat heart attacks, while only about one in six respondents did not approve. About one in six respondents had mixed feelings or was undecided.

– Over two-thirds of respondents also approved of a newer, less-researched method – using modified adult cells as an alternative to using cells from in vitro fertilized embryos – if the use could cure cancer or treat heart attacks. Less than 15 percent did not approve. About one in five had mixed feelings or was undecided.

– Almost half (43 to 47 percent) of respondents also approve of use of therapeutic cloning, stem cells from in vitro fertilized embryos and stem cells from an adult to treat allergies, but slightly over one in four do not. And, 28 to 29 percent have mixed feelings or undecided in this regard. These findings indicate that while more respondents approve of the use of these methods for treatment of less-serious conditions than disapprove of it, the approval is not as strong as it is for using these methods to treat more serious conditions and diseases, such as cancer or heart attacks.

– Respondents were not as approving of use of these methods for cosmetic purposes, such as creating new skin to restore someone’s youthful appearance. Almost one-half (45 to 50 percent) disapproved of this use, while only slightly more than one-quarter (25 to 29 percent) approved of this use. About one-quarter had mixed feelings or were undecided.

– Respondents did not support human reproductive cloning, neither of themselves nor of a child who died, with almost three-quarters (71 to 73 percent) disapproving and only about one in 10 approving. About one in five had mixed feelings or was undecided.

– Respondents were quite evenly divided in their thoughts on animal cloning with slightly over a third approving, slightly over a third disapproving, and about one-quarter having mixed feelings or being undecided.


In vitro fertilization technique receives patent

Last December CIRM grantee Renee Reijo Pera spoke to the CIRM governing board about her work identifying which in vitro fertilization embryos were most likely to result in a successful pregnancy (you can watch that video here). That work has resulted in a patent to Stanford University, with an exclusive license to Menlo Park-based Auxogyn, which was founded by Pera and her colleagues at Stanford.

In the video of her talk, Pera shows several IVF embryos formed in the lab by fusing human sperm and eggs. By videotaping those embryos and watching them develop, she can tell by day two which are going to be ready to implant in a woman’s uterus, a step that normally happens on day five.

Pera has a long-standing interest in the earliest stages of human development, where she says many common diseases may originate. During her talk, Pera, who is director of Stanford’s Center for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research and Education, said:

“I can’t believe the progress we’ve made in the past years with human embryonic stem cells and embryology. We have unprecedented tools to understand human development and we can begin to understand basic questions like where does sporadic disease come from in the population.”

This new technology has the potential to help infertile couples successfully conceive children through in vitro fertilization. Having a patent on the technology also creates jobs and tax revenue in California — one of the great benefits of having a thriving biotechnology community in the state.

Pera has a CIRM Comprehensive Award and a New Cell Lines Award.

Origin of lung mucus glands found, insights for cystic fibrosis, asthma

Last week’s big news at CIRM was the election of Jonathan Thomas as the new governing board chair, as we announced late Wednesday night. He will be replacing Robert Klein, who has served the agency since its inception in 2004. Not that anyone can replace Klein, exactly, but Thomas seems eager to step in and start leading the agency.

While many of us at CIRM were distracted by our board meeting and subsequent leadership change, CIRM grantees kept on doing science, as evidenced by a paper in Stem Cells which came out today.

Scientists with the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA have fund the stem cell that makes all the cells of the mucus glands in the airways of the lungs. By and large, scientists assume that most tissues of the body arise from a pool of tissue-specific stem cells. These stem cells have been identified in the blood system, brain, muscle, skin and a variety of other tissues. Once found, scientists can begin developing ways of harnessing those cells to treat disease.

Until assistant professor Brigitte Gomperts and postdoctoral scholar Ahmed Hegab published this work, nobody knew the origin of the mucus cells in the airway. These cells play a critical role in protecting the body from infectious agents or toxins in the environment. A UCLA press release quotes Gomperts:

“We’re very excited that we found this population of cells because it will allow us to study mechanisms of diseases of the upper airway. For example, there currently are no treatments for excess mucus production, which we see in cystic fibrosis, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). But if we can understand the mechanisms of how these stem cells repair the mucus glands, then we may be able to find a way to put the brakes on the system and prevent mucus over production.”

I often read about people who claim that adult stem cells are as effective at treating disease as embryonic stem cells. What people seem not to understand is that there is no one adult stem cell. Stem cells of the blood system are fantastic, but they don’t repair muscle, skin, brain, or, in this case, mucus glands. Finding these tissue-specific stem cells is the necessary first step to to developing new therapies based on these cells.

Stem Cells, June 27, 2011
CIRM Funding: Brigitte Gomperts (RN2-00904-1)


On stem cells, aging and hopes for spryer golden years

Last week my three year old scraped up the entire left side of his face. Today, there’s barely a trace of the injury. That’s the glory of three year old skin, or more precisely, the glory of three year old stem cells.

Erin Allday at the San Francisco Chronicle had a story last week about the issue of aging stem cells featuring several CIRM grantees who are, like me, curious about why stem cells heal damage more slowly as we age. Her story includes Thomas Rando of Stanford University, whose work I wrote about several years ago. What I found fascinating then, and what still isn’t understood, is why a stem cell grows less able to repair damage over time. Rando and his former postdoctoral fellow Irina Conboy (now at University of California, Berkeley) have found that in older muscle, the stem cells are still able to respond, but the signals themselves may not be as strong. The stem cells are there, they just don’t hear damaged muscle’s cry for help.

Allday quotes Rando, who is director of the Glenn Laboratories for the Biology of Aging at Stanford:

“I don’t necessarily see it as a way of reversing Alzheimer’s or making people live to 200 years old, but there’s this dormant potential that can be unleashed that can profoundly affect the way stem cells repair tissues.”

Allday also quotes Irina Conboy, who spoke at last week’s annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research in Toronto:

Like physicists trying to find the unified theory of everything, we’re trying to find the unified theory of all these bad things that happen with aging. I think they all stem from a lack of stem cell responses.

Conboy has a New Faculty Award from CIRM to learn more about how stem cells age.

Nobody is arguing that studying stem cells will uncover the fountain of youth (at least, CIRM scientists aren’t). Instead, CIRM President Alan Trounson said that by understanding how and why our body’s stem cells age scientists could learn how to keep those stem cells more lively during a person’s golden years. We wouldn’t live longer, maybe, but as long as we’re alive it would be nice to heal more effectively or resist disease. Just having bones heal more quickly could significantly reduce health care costs for the elderly.

“With aging, there are a lot of systems that start to become less efficient or break down or be more inclined to diseases. We may work out ways to provide stem cells that would enable people to remain vigorous.”

Remaining vigorous sounds pretty good to me, even if I don’t ever again heal with the speed of a three year old.


Stories of hope and scientific progress in the CIRM Annual Report

This past year, CIRM scientists made significant progress toward new therapies. Several disease teams showed that their approach is likely to be effective and they are likely to be reaching clinical trials on target in the next few years. Other groups made progress in understanding how embryonic stem cells form adult cells and tissues and mimicking disease in a laboratory dish. CIRM formed new global partnerships to leverage world-wide stem cell expertise and seven of our major facilities opened their doors to stem cell scientists.

I know all this because it’s in the just-published annual report. You can read the stories here, along with letters from Governing Board chair Robert Klein and President Alan Trounson.

My favorite part of every annual report is the focus on patient advocates and their stories. This year, we feature people living with (or caring for) those with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Huntington’s disease, HIV/AIDS, epidermolysis bullosa and stroke, as well as a follow-up story on a woman living with a form of pre-leukemia who we featured in last year’s report. She’s doing well on a new therapy that came out of CIRM-funded research.

The patients and their stories keep CIRM scientists’ focus where it belongs — on developing new therapies for chronic disease and injury.


CIRM grantee Robert Blelloch wins ISSCR Outstanding Young Investigator Award

CIRM grantee Robert Blelloch of the University of California, San Francisco won the 2011 Outstanding Young Investigator Award from the International Society for Stem Cell Research. The society’s annual meeting is taking place now in Toronto.

Blelloch presented his research June 15 at 6pm and will participate in a press briefing at noon June 16. His work focuses on the role of small molecules called microRNAs and their role in stem cell biology and cancer.

Jennifer O’Brien described Blelloch’s work in a press release from UCSF:

During the last few years, Blelloch’s team has reported several key findings. In 2008, they reported that microRNAs promote self renewal of embryonic stem cells in mice (Nature Genetics, 2008). In 2009, they showed that when those same microRNAs were inserted into adult cells the cells de-differentiated back into embryonic stem cells (Nature Biotechnology, 2009). In 2010, they inserted a microRNA into embryonic stem cells and promoted differentiation, but determined that the microRNA had to compete with microRNAs that promote embryonic stem cell self-renewal (Nature, 2010). This year, his laboratory has been looking at microRNAs as a potential tool to systematically dissect the molecular pathways that regulate cell fate transitions, including dedifferentiation of adult cells to create induced pluripotent stem cells (Nature Biotechnology, 2011).

“People have come to realize microRNAs are remarkably powerful,” said Blelloch, associate professor in the Departments of Urology, Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences and Pathology and a member of the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Using microRNAs for therapeutic purposes has great potential , he said. “They could be used either to induce adult cells to de-differentiate to embryonic stem cells, which could be expanded, manipulated and returned to a patient, or to promote differentiation of embryonic stem cells to produce tissues that would remain integrated in the body once re-introduced.” They also could be used to target cancers, and they attract interest from biotechnology companies.

Blelloch has a SEED Award and a New Faculty II Award, both looking at the role of microRNAs in embryonic stem cell biology. Not to blow our own horn, but CIRM does know how to pick high quality research. Last year Stanford’s Joanna Wysocka won the same award. She has a SEED Award and a New Faculty I Award from CIRM.


ISSCR public symposium: Hope, passion and restraint for stem cell clinical trials

The annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research is Mecca for the hardcore stem cell research community. The next four days will be filled with intense and detailed discussions of all of the molecular details of how stem cells work–details we need to understand to move stem cells into the clinic effectively and safely.

But last night, as always, the meeting officially started with a symposium designed specifically for the public. For the third year I have had the pleasure of being on the planning committee for this event and this year we decided the field was ready to discuss clinical trials. We chose the title “The Stem Cell Promise: Moving to the Clinic” and decided to alternate brief talks by patient advocates and scientists/clinicians. Here is a list of speakers from the event.

What a rapt full house of attendees heard was an impassioned evening of hope and excitement balanced nicely with restraint and patient persistence. Early on California’s spinal cord injury advocate Roman Reed reminded the audience that the Geron trial, the first using cells derived from embryonic stem cells, is really about safety, not someone getting up out of a wheel chair. But at the same time he urged everyone in the audience to become an active advocate; to write to their legislatures to make sure this work gets funded: “Take a stand for research; take a stand for stem cells, so that one day we all can stand.”

Michael Fehling, a neurosurgeon at Toronto West Hospital, acknowledged that if scientists are going to design the perfect trial there’s more they need to know about how neuronal progenitor cells will behave at the site of an injury. But he said, “You don’t have to have all the answers,” adding that most scientists believe our knowledge level is ready to begin clinical work. He admonished those in the field to make sure they learn from clinical trials and any information they can glean from how the cells perform in patients to direct a new wave of basic research to learn more of the answers needed to design a better trail. “We need reverse translational research.”


CIRM sends Patient advocates to international stem cell meeting

Today stem cell scientists and patient advocates are descending on Toronto for the annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research. Among those registering and preparing for three days of science is Don Reed, who is one of 20 patient advocates who received a CIRM stipend to attend. 

On his blog today, Reed writes about his trip to Toronto and the important role of patient advocates in promoting science:

Patient advocates like my son Roman Reed are the emotional muscle behind research for cure. It is not easy for a paralyzed person to travel, but he will be there, listening and learning, and speaking.

Because there will be funding fights ahead, both nationally, and in every state.

When a politician says, “We can’t afford to fund the research”—someone must be there to say: “We cannot afford NOT to fund the research—and here’s why.” That someone is us. If it is just the scientists talking, it is all too easy for politicians to ignore them.

Think of he numbers. There are only a handful of top research scientists. Politically, they are negligible. If they only talk to each other, they might as well pack up their test tubes and go home, because they will never get public funding.

But there are millions of patients and family– patient advocates. Working together, we cannot be ignored.

From its inception, CIRM has recognized the importance of patient advocate voices in scientific decision-making, including ten such advocates on our governing board (bios of all board members are available here). Jeff Sheehy, patient advocate board member for HIV/AIDS blogged about his role on our board:

I serve on the governing board as a patient advocate for HIV/AIDS, and in that role I along with the other patient advocate board members have been able to directly influence the direction of the agency. Our voice has helped shape decisions regarding CIRM policies and funding. As [vice chair Duane] Roth writes, patient advocates can grasp some of the most complex and thorny policy and scientific issues and “tip the scales” in the direction of sound public policy that seeks prudently to accelerate progress towards cures.

ISSCR is kicking off the meeting tonight with a public symposium consisting of patient advocates and scientists discussing progress being made in spinal cord injury (featuring Reed’s son Roman Reed), multiple sclerosis and blood disorders. Hopefully those advocate voices will help drive home the importance of continued funding for stem cell research.


Techniques for tracking stem cells necessary for possible therapies

Last week The Scientist carried a story addressing a topic near and dear to the heart of anyone trying to develop a therapy based on transplanting stem cells, whether they are embryonic, adult, or iPS cells: Where do the cells go once they are transplanted?

The problem is this — if you, as a scientist, transplant stem cells near some damage that you are hoping they will repair, you’ve got to hope those cells actually make it to the damaged tissue. If they make a run for the liver when you are trying to treat the heart, or simply sit in a lump where you implanted them, those cells aren’t going to fulfill their mission.

The story quotes CIRM grantee Joseph Wu of Stanford University who has SEED and Basic Biology III Awards to detect stem cells implanted into the heart and to develop stem cell transplantation therapies for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

“If you want to understand what happens to these stem cells, it’s important to track the fate of these cells without having to kill the animal,” says Joseph Wu, a cardiologist at Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, California. Stem cell transplants may settle down, proliferate, and differentiate as desired; they may form dangerous tumors; or they may simply falter and die.

The issue is also one CIRM grantee Paul Knoepfler of the University of California, Davis, touched on in his blog last week, saying:

Once these cells, which have spent weeks in a lab environment, are injected into a person, what happens next?

This is arguably the most important question in the regenerative medicine field, but there are few answers. We are literally mostly in the dark about what cells do after transplant, but there are some things that can be predicted pretty confidently.

He goes on to discuss some of what’s known about the issue using Geron’s clinical trial as an example.

In their article, the Scientist discusses a few techniques scientists are using (including some nice images) to address the question of where the cells go. The story includes a technique being used by CIRM grantee Eduardo Marban at Cedars-Sinai Medical Institute, who has a Disease Team Award to develop a therapy for heart disease.

This is the type of research that comes to mind when people who don’t follow the science comment on the lack of cures. CIRM is funding a broad range of science, some of which is primarily dedicated developing new therapies, and some of which is working to understand these kinds of basic questions that need to be addressed before those therapies can become widespread.