Banking iPS and embryonic stem cells for easier access, consistent quality

The board meeting last week was a day for following up on recommendations. In additional to the Opportunity Funds, which we blogged about earlier in the week, the board also approved a proposal for creating a stem cell bank. Stay with me here. This may not sound as exciting as funding new science or creating worldwide partnerships, but it’s important. Here’s why.

Imagine for a second that you decide you want to read those last few Jane Austens that you didn’t read in college. You go to the library, check them out, and enjoy. Right? But imagine that instead of going to a library you had to call around the neighborhood to track down the books, then drive to four different homes and sign four different book loan agreements and after all that some of the books have torn pages. It might seem like a better idea to just reread one of those old Agatha Christies on the shelf.

That’s where stem cell research is today. Say a researcher wants to compare stem cell lines from people with autism to find drugs that alleviate signs of the disease in a dish. That researcher would have to call around to several institutions, navigate a variety of materials transfer agreements and, basically, spend a lot of time on the phone rather than doing research. In yesterday’s blog, my colleague Geoff Lomax quoted Steve Peckman from the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center talking about how these agreements –called MTAs—can hinder access to stem cell lines.

One way for CIRM to accelerate research is by creating more of a library system for stem cells – except we don’t want the cells back. This kind of bank is what was recommended at a banking workshop we held back in November 2010. (You can read a report from that workshop here.)

At last week’s meeting, Uta Grieshammer from our science office described CIRM’s $30 million proposal for creating such a bank. It will consist of three parts. First up will be awards to investigators who will go out and collect tissue samples from individuals with genetic diseases. The goal is to get samples from 1200 people.

Next, CIRM will give a single award to an organization that will take those samples and reprogram them into embryonic-like cells, called iPS cells. These cells have the ability to form every tissue in the body, and still retain the genetic make up of the person who donated the sample. These cells can then be matured into the cell type that goes awry in the disease as a way of studying that disease in a dish. In the past few years this technique has been used to create models of ALS, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease and autism, among others.

Finally, CIRM will fund a group to bank all these newly created cells, along with other stem cell lines. With this resource, that same researcher hoping to study autism cell lines could go to one place, navigate one materials transfer agreement and receive cells that are consistently quality controlled. The cells will be available to people in California and worldwide.


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