Vampires get a taste of lab-grown blood

Good news for vampires and patients alike: Scientists in Edinburgh have generated red blood cells directly from bone marrow stem cells in the lab. This alternate source of cells could help the 4.5 million people in the U.S. who need a transfusion each year (from America’s Blood Centers, which has many interesting facts about how much blood is needed and how little is donated).

Wired writes:

Professor Marc Turner, who leads the team, believes the blood could be ready for trials in as little as two years, once it’s married with research producing artificial haemoglobin — the protein responsible for transporting oxygen in the blood of vertibrates.

The team are working to produce blood type O-negative, which is good news, as that’s the type that 98 percent of us can accept. Because it’s essentially manufactured, it would be guaranteed to be free from any viruses and diseases, like HIV, Hepatitis and vCJD (mad cow disease).

The Telegraph quotes Turner, who led the project:

“I think it will probably be two or three years before we get to clinical trials and I would think it will be a decade or so before one sees these kinds of artificial red cells or cultured red cells in routine general practice.”

– A.A.

State-of-the-Art Science and Architecture combine for a World-Class Downtown

Erin Rhoades is a professional city planner and lifelong Berkeley resident. Ms. Rhoades’ planning interests are focused on infill development and sustainability. Erin is a founding Board member of Livable Berkeley and the Board Chair.

The Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences/
University of California, Berkeley

The Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences, dedicated last week, stands at the nexus of downtown Berkeley and the University of California, Berkeley campus. The center is symbolic of a vision, not just for UC Berkeley, but the community as a whole. This building is the eighth of twelve stem cell research facilities funded in part by CIRM to open its doors (read more about CIRM’s major facilities).

From the standpoint of design, the building incorporates a range of environmental features. The materials and energy efficiency are state-of-the-art, including a living roof. Architecturally, the center incorporates contemporary design and finish into a space surrounded by structures of historic significance and natural green space.

These design features are thoroughly consistent with the Downtown Area Plan’s (DAP) goals for LEED Gold or equivalent development with outwardly visible sustainable design features that display innovation in green architecture in the context of a downtown with a predominanlty historic character.

Robert Birgeneau,
Chancellor of UC Berkeley,
at the dedication ceremony

Inside, the center will be home to student scientists at every level of education working to tackle emerging and neglected diseases of national and international significance. The flexible and open design will facilitate collaboration among these teams.

The $257 million facility, which received $20 million from CIRM, was financed through an innovative public private partnership involving state bond funds, individual donors and foundations. This model of combining public investment with private funds serves to leverage tax dollars and accelerate benefits to taxpayers.

Innovative funding approaches, like those used to construct the Li Ka Shing Center and the other CIRM major facilities, will be required in Berkeley to achieve the magnitude of investment necessary for high-density infill development and at the same time to accomplish the affordable housing component, community benefits and streetscaping called for in the DAP.

The combination of creating state-of-the-art development, supporting the knowledge (“imagined in California”) economy through public / private financing is an important model for the City of Berkeley. As we move into the 21st century, Berkeley should build on these success stories and support development that builds on this innovative model.

Development in downtown Berkeley should look for ways to showcase the best thinking in progressive environmental design and urban culture. Buildings like the Li Ka Shing Center and the David Brower Center, including their programmatic functions, exemplify Livable Berkeley’s advocacy for a “world class” downtown. Our hope is that the Downtown Area Plan will result in the next building that defines Berkeley not for where it’s been, but where it’s going.

Erin Rhoades

Peyton Manning and how a political football goes flat

Jonathan Moreno is senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

In a cleverly written but factually empty blog post, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council tries to justify his organization’s opposition to human embryonic stem cell research. This time he avers to the decision of the National Football League’s Peyton Manning to resort to adult stem cell treatments in Europe because, Perkins tells us, “the U.S. is giving preferential treatment to embryonic stem cell research.” This assertion is simply false, and I challenge Perkins to provide the evidence. In fact, nationally far more has been spent on adult stem cell research than embryonic.

Perkins also argues that Peyton’s decision to go to Europe to have some of his own fat cells injected into his neck “has impacted the debate” on adult stem cell research. I’m not sure what impact or debate he’s referring to. He’s absolutely right that “[i]t’s too early to tell if the treatment’s had any impact on Manning’s neck,” but he seems far more excited about the debate than whether the “treatment” actually works. At this time there is no evidence that the treatment Manning seeks is more beneficial than potentially harmful. The injection of potent cells into the body is not necessarily a benign procedure, which is why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is being so careful about reviewing these proposals, both for adult and embryonic stem cell procedures.

Perkins operates on a transparent double standard. It’s also “too early to tell” whether embryonic stem cell research will be of medical benefit, which is precisely why the work is being done, but that criterion only seems to apply when it’s consistent with Perkins’ real agenda. Intellectual honestly requires Perkins to acknowledge that he is opposed to research involving human embryos, regardless of potential benefit. That is a respectable position that shouldn¹t be painted over by sophistry. So is Manning’s decision to seek relief where he can, but that decision should be accompanied by an awareness of the risks and the lack of evidence of benefit.

Procedures like the one Manning wants should be approached as carefully controlled research studies with full informed consent and prior review by an independent ethics board. Then perhaps we will know if future patients can expect some relief, or if they are just writing a check and exposing themselves to unwarranted risks.

What is striking about debates like that over human embryonic stem cell research is the way that they continue to be fodder for cultural division. This is something new in the role of science in America, and seems to be especially prevalent in biology. I write about the “new biopolitics” in my latest book, “The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America” (Bellevue Literary Press, 2011). Esoteric bioethical and scientific questions like stem cells and cloning have become part of the political process. There is no reason to think that these issues will recede from the political debate; indeed, they have already surfaced in the current presidential election cycle.

But they also create somewhat unpredictable responses from those who would normally identify themselves as on the left or right, as worries about the impressive results or at least the symbolism of experimental biology cause understandable concern about the implications of powerful new science. There are good reasons to think about these issues in fresh new ways. But the same old predictable rhetoric doesn’t help us do that.

Jonathan Moreno

Purified heart cells from human embryonic stem cells

Earlier this week, a team from South San Fransisco-based VistaGen and Toronto’s McEwen Centre published a paper in the October 23, 2011 Nature Biotechnology that could have important consequences for efforts to repair heart attack damage with stem cells. VistaGen has a CIRM Tools & Technologies award, though that award did not fund the work published this week.

The team, which was led by Gordon Keller at the University Health Network’s McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine in Toronto, developed a way of maturing embryonic stem cells into early heart cells and purifying them. They did this by first discovering a protien that’s on the surface of early heart cells. They could then use antibodies to keep only those cells that have the protein and eliminate all cells without the protein. Creating pure populations of cells is critical for developig therapies, which need to be free of the original embryonic stem cells that can form tumors.

A press release from VistaGen described the technology:

These findings provide, for the first time, a simple method for isolating some of the earliest populations of cardiac precursors and mature cardiomyocytes from human pluripotent stem cell cultures. This readily adaptable technology offers a viable approach for generating large numbers of enriched, non-genetically modified, cardiomyocytes for numerous therapeutic applications.

Creating pure populations of cells is just the first step. Before the cells are shown to be therapeutically useful they must be able to integrate into the complex three-dimensional structure of the human heart and beat in time with the surrounding tissue.


The European embryonic stem cell patent ban: The Other Side of the Coin?

Geoff Lomax is CIRM’s Senior Officer to the Standards Working Group 

Last week we posted on the initial views of scientists and policy analysts on the 10/18 European Court of Justice decision regarding the patentability of hESC products. The initial views were quite pessimistic with regard to hESC-based therapy development, although James Lawford-Davies did offer a few rays of hope for the field.

This week Nature published a piece suggesting there may be a “silver-lining” to the decision. Some commentators believe companies may focus on patents covering the tools and technologies as opposed to cells and their biological products. Further, the absence of a ‘patent thicket” may speed therapy development by reducing the chance of infringement of intellectual property rights.

Nature quotes physician scientist Chris Mason of University College London:

“If anything the ruling is an opportunity. It’s not the end of stem cells in Europe.”

The piece goes on to explain that even a restrictive interpretation should allow companies to patent new and innovative technologies needed to turn human ES cells into treatments. The goal becomes patenting the innovative tools, rather than patenting the cells themselves.

“If the sum total of this market were some cell lines, I would be deeply, deeply worried,” says Julian Hitchcock, a life-sciences lawyer at Field Fisher Waterhouse in London. Growth media, equipment and chemicals that help scientists to work with stem cells could all be patented in Europe without running afoul of the high court’s ruling, he says.

In addition to debate over the ruling’s long-term effects, there is some uncertainty over which cell types would fall under the ruling. Advanced Cell Technology, based in Marlborough, Mass., has developed a technique to create embryonic stem cell lines that does not destroy the embryo. They’ve issued a press release indicating that their cell lines would not be covered by the ban. They write:

”This is a huge setback for stem cell research in Europe,” said Robert Lanza, M.D., ACT’s chief scientific officer. “However, the Court went out of its way to stress that inventions are unpatentable if they ˜necessitate’ the destruction of human embryos. Therefore, this ruling does not appear to affect our single-blastomere technology, which does not require the destruction of embryos at any point. We will do whatever we can to ensure that therapies derived using these stem cells are made available to the patients in Europe who need them.”


Bakersfield residents learn about stem cell progress in aging, macular degeneration

This weekend CIRM hosted an educational event in Bakersfield to update people on the progress being made by CIRM grantees. The event featured a keynote address by board chair Jonathan Thomas plus talks by grantees working on age-related diseases including blindness.

Although CIRM holds board meetings throughout California, this is the first time people in Bakersfield have had a chance to hear directly from CIRM. If media attention in advance of the meeting is anything to judge by, the local community was excited about hosting us. The local radio station KERN spoke with CIRM patient advocate coordinator Chris Stiehl, who helped organize the event. You can listen to that interview here.

Among other things, Stiehl discussed the Geron spinal cord injury trial as one sign that the field of stem cell research is progressing.

“Geron Corporation is doing clinical trials with stem cells on people with spinal cord injuries. That’s amazing. We never had anything for those people except wheelchairs and someday they may get out of their wheelchairs because of this.”

The Bakerfield Californian also had a nice piece announcing the event.

As with all CIRM patient advocacy events, if you can’t make the event you can follow the discussion on Twitter either by watching the stem cell conversation on #stemcells or by following the event’s hash tag, which is listed on the agenda on the CIRM web site. There’s another event coming up October 29 in Santa Rosa, which you can follow at #CIRMSantaRosa.

These types of public events featuring CIRM scientists and patient advocates are going to be ongoing throughout the state as a way of making sure the people of California get a chance to learn about progress being made by the institute.

You can get more information about all the awards CIRM has funded and which institutes have received funding on our website.


CIRM grantees at Gladstone Institute receive $5 million to expand stem cell program

The Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco are set to expand their stem cell research program with a $5 million gift from the Roddenberry Foundation.

The independent Institute, which is associated with the University of California, San Francisco, has received $24 million in funding from CIRM (you can see a complete list of those awards here). The 14 awards fund training new stem cell scientists, creating a lab facility where Gladstone scientists can share stem cell resources and awards to aid in creating reprogrammed stem cells (known as iPS cells) and treat cardiovascular diseases and HIV/AIDS, among others.

The Roddenberry gift will expand these existing areas of expertise among Gladstone scientists by creating the Roddenberry Center for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine – named after Gene Roddenberry, who created “Star Trek”.

A story by Erin Allday at the San Francisco Chronicle quotes Rod Roddenberry, Gene Roddenberry’s son:

“We don’t fool ourselves into thinking we’re going to cure Alzheimer’s or heart disease overnight, but if they tell us they are breaking ground and moving forward, we definitely want to help them do it.”

“It was amazing to go up to Gladstone and look through a microscope and see a sheet of beating heart cells, and know they came from skin cells,” Roddenberry said. “Walking around the institute, we met scientists who were passionate and excited by what they were doing. And as corny as it sounds, a lot of them believed in the ‘Star Trek’ future, a beautiful future.”

Allday also spoke with CIRM President Alan Trouson about the Gladstone Institutes:

“Gladstone is small, but it’s incredibly effective, and it’s ranked very high by scientists around this country as one of the best institutes.”

A press release from the Gladstone Institutes about the gift quotes Deepak Srivastava, who directs both stem cell and cardiovascular research at Gladstone:

“Today’s biggest challenge for solving disease is getting the investments required to transform our basic-science discoveries into health solutions that can alleviate human suffering.”

Investments like those from CIRM and now the Roddenberry Foundation should help accelerate the translation of basic discoveries by Gladstone scientists into real therapies. This video discusses work by Gladstone scientist Bruce Conklin, who is developing a stem cell method of screening drugs to treat a form of heart disease:


Experts View European Court Ruling as a Setback for Stem Cell Therapies

Geoff Lomax is CIRM’s Senior Officer to the Standards Working Group

The European Court of Justice issued a ruling today that therapeutic products created from human embryonic stem cells are not patentable. A press release cites the court’s decision:

Court holds that an invention is excluded from patentability where the implementation of the process requires either the prior destruction of human embryos or their prior use as base material, even if, in the patent application, the description of that process, as in the present case, does not refer to the use of human embryos.

James Lawford-Davies presented background on the case at the World Stem Cell Summit October 5 in Pasadena. He says the decision is seen as “a victory by those opposed to the use of embryos for research in the EU”. Aurora Plomer, a legal scholar at the University of Sheffield, concurs:

“The ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union could be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights in failing to recognize the margin of discretion granted to Member States on the rights of human embryos.”

Researchers are equally disappointed. An AP story quotes Pete Coffey, who received a CIRM Research Leadership Award to support his move from University College London to the University of California Santa Barbara. Coffey has been developing an embryonic stem cell-based approach to treating the most common form on blindness.

“This is a devastating decision which will stop stem cell therapies’ use in medicine,” Pete Coffey, a stem cell researcher at University College London, said in a statement. “The potential to treat disabling and life-threatening diseases using stem cells will not be realized in Europe.”

The Guardian quotes Austin Smith, head of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research at Cambridge University, who said that the decision left European scientists is a “ridiculous position”.

“We are funded to do research for the public good, yet prevented from taking our discoveries to the market place where they could be developed into new medicines. One consequence is that the benefits of our research will be reaped in America and Asia.”

Lawford-Davies says he still holds out hope for the field for the following reasons:

  • Inventors and patent attorneys have known about this concern for some time and have been drafting to try to take account of the court position.
  • It should be possible to obtain patents on allied technologies, such as biomarkers and diagnostics related to the particular therapy. 
  • It is still possible to obtain these types of patents in most other countries in the world, including the US.


CIRM high school curriculum a hit in the land of Disney

CIRM took our high school curriculum on the road last week to the annual meeting of the National Association of Biology Teachers in Anaheim at a hotel just down the block from Disneyland. About 800 biology educators attended the meeting. Although I did not venture into the amusement park, I suspect the exhibit hall at the conference had some equally fanciful attractions such as the 3-D video anatomy display across the aisle from the CIRM booth and the virtual tour of a Costa Rican rain forest. So, I was initially a bit concerned about how stem cells would compete for the teachers’ attention. That concern was pretty quickly set aside.

At the very beginning of the meeting we had a CIRM hands-on workshop to walk a room full of teachers through how our five on-line modules and introductory lesson can be used. You can find them all here. Many in the room walked away after the hour session saying they planned to use the curriculum.

The next day the exhibit hall opened and we had a steady parade of teachers coming by to say their students had been asking about stem cells and that they were thrilled to find out that such a robust curriculum was available on the web and seemed a bit shocked and pleased to find out it was completely free. They liked that each module had student resources and teacher resources, glossaries and assessment tools. Many talked about dressing up their classrooms with blow-ups of the images CIRM has linked off the curriculum and on our Flickr site.

Three days later as the meeting was winding down on Saturday, one teacher who had come by to chat the first day dropped by again to say, “I just wanted to tell you, you are the best thing in this place.”

With that I would like to offer kudos to the team from U.C. Berkeley and the Bay Area high school teachers that helped us build the five modules, and particularly to thank Laurel Barchas who managed the project.


Researchers fix mutation in reprogrammed stem cell, create functional liver

A group led by the Sanger Institute and the University of Cambridge, working with the Sangamo Biosciences, has shown that it’s possible to fix mutations in reprogrammed cells. This work, which was published in Nature, takes two previous advances and combines them into one proof-of-concept.

Since 2007 stem cell scientists have been able to reprogram adult cells such as skin back into an embryonic-like state. These so-called iPS cells can then mature into any cell type in the body, much like embryonic stem cells.

Other groups have shown that it’s possible to take adult stem cells such as those from the bone marrow, correct mutations, and create mutation-free cells that, at least in animal models, can fix diseases. That’s the idea behind CIRM’s two HIV/AIDS disease team awards (described here and here) and a sickle cell disease team. In fact, one of the HIV/AIDS disease teams is also working with technology developed by Sangamo to fix the mutations.

In the work reported in Nature, the team created iPS cells from a person with a genetic liver disease, fixed the mutation, then matured the iPS cells into functional liver cells. A Reuters story quotes Allan Bradley, director of the Sanger Institute:

“These are early steps, but if this technology can be taken into treatment, it will offer great possible benefits for patients,” he added.

Reuters quoted David Lomas, who was part of the team from Cambridge, saying that the liver cells survived when transplanted into mice.

The researchers said it could be another five to 10 years before full clinical trials of the technique could be run using patients with liver disease. But if they succeed, liver transplants — costly and complicated procedures where patients need a lifetime of drugs to ensure the new organ is not rejected — could become a thing of the past.

“If we can use a patient’s own skins cells to produce liver cells that we can put back into the patient, we may prevent the future need for transplantation,” said Lomas.