Guest blogger Alan Trounson — December’s stem cell research highlights

Each month CIRM President Alan Trounson gives his perspective on recently published papers he thinks will be valuable in moving the field of stem cell research forward. This month’s full report, along with an archive of past reports, is available on the CIRM website.

My review this month starts with a couple papers that further cement the high value of reprogrammed iPS cells as “disease-in-a-dish” models. This time they found the underlying mechanisms of the autism seen in Timothy Syndrome (blogged about here) and the bone and cartilage abnormalities seen in Marfan Syndrome.

But I want to take this space to note a different type of paper, one discussing a single patient, but a patient that would probably not be alive today without stem cells and a very creative international team of scientists. The team headed by a group at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden also had inputs from researchers in England, Germany and Iceland.

The patient had recurrent cancer in his trachea and little hope with traditional therapy, so the team built him a new airway. They first imaged his diseased trachea with a CT scan and then used that picture to build an artificial polymer scaffold of the same size and shape. They seeded this replica with stem cells from the patient’s own bone marrow and grew it in a bioreactor for 36 hours.

The new trachea was functional at the time of transplant, but the team gave the patient two growth factors to enhance the maturation of the airway. It seems like the patient’s own repair systems also kicked in because the team was able to detect other stem cells summoned to the site and other growth factors released by neighboring cells.

The patient is alive and cancer-free five months after the surgery. He is living “proof of concept” for an entire branch of regenerative medicine that seeks to build replacement tissues to order. We blogged about this advance here.

I began blogging about my science picks just a few months ago. You can read my 2011 science highlights in review in the following blog entries: