Stem cell stories that caught our eye this week: appetite, hurdles to therapies, scientist biographies and more

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

One of the stories that caught our eye this week has to do with finding therapies for kids with untreatable blood diseases

There are many reasons for the pace of progress in stem cell therapies. While most of us observing the stem cell field closely actually think the field has moved much faster than we expected, it does not seem that way for patients anxious for therapies. This piece from Esquire, which has been available online for some time and finally came out in print, describes in detail the hurdles that have created a drag on the field. It does a pretty good job of metering out the blame between politics, FDA policy, industry’s clutch on patents, and scientists themselves. It is a long read that required me having an unexpected layover in a Houston airport to finally get through it, but it is worth the time.

A stem cell option for obesity epidemic—Say what? Many news outlets this week carried a story about a new type of nerve stem cell found in the brain that might result in a way to regulate appetite control. There is a logic to the idea that we blogged about here. But I particularly liked the article about the findings by the National Health Service in the U.K.. It has all the caveats and cautions that I tell students they should use when I give guest lecture in science writing programs. The finding is in mice and even there it requires a few more experiments to determine whether increasing the activity of this set of stem cells will impact the little critters’ appetites. But it is possible, and it could have a huge impact on health around the world. So it is worth contemplating.

Sorting cells to get just the right ones. Alright, I admit this one is a bit science wonky, but it is important work. When you follow this field you know that one of the biggest obstacles to getting therapies into patients is proving to the Food and Drug Administration that you are able to transplant a nearly pure cell population of only the type of cell your patients need. Here, a team at the Georgia Institute of Technology uses a process that measures the differences in how cells adhere to a surface to reliable sort the mixed cell populations that most experiments produce.

Finding a treatment for untreatable kids, with state funds (not California’s). In a post on the Vector Blog from Children’s Hospital in Boston, a former colleague from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, Len Zon, writes about treating kids with untreatable blood diseases. His hope is to use the kids’ own cells to create reprogrammed stem cells, iPS cells, and genetically engineer those cells to finally provide some hope for these kids and their parents. This work is considered such a long-shot that companies generally won’t fund it, so Len and his team are relying on a special fund set up by the state of Massachusetts to move the work forward. Now that he says they are close to potential therapies, I have to say that I am proud to have helped get that piece of legislation passed on Beacon Hill.

A Nobel Prize winner not afraid to stir the pot. This well written profile in the New York Times really captures Elizabeth Blackburn, whose work I have followed for many years. The work that won her the Nobel is just plain fascinating and it helps explain a lot of the unexplainable about what we are and how we change with age. She discovered telomeres, which are the caps on the ends of our chromosomes that have been described as being like the plastic tips on the end of some shoelaces. Without them it is really difficult to get you shoes laced back up right and without telomeres, it is hard for cells to divide and get the chromosomes copied right. Yes, this sounds tangential to stem cells, except some studies have shown that reprogramming adult cells to become the iPS-type of stem cell resets the telomeres to a more youthful form. Also, she will be forever linked to the stem cell field as the member of the President’s ethics commission who was removed from the commission during the Bush administration because of her support for embryonic stem cells.

Political lessons from the father of in vitro fertilization. Much has been written this week about the millions of families that have been made possible by the pioneering work of Robert Edwards that resulted in the first “test-tube” baby. Most articles have noted the controversy the swirled around the field in those early days, but this piece does a particularly good job of discussing how the researchers in the field dealt with the politics and the parallels to the politicization of several fields of science today, particularly embryonic stem cells, which come from IVF embryos no longer needed by those happy families. CIRM’s president Alan Trounson was in middle of the early IVF battles and it has been enlightening to work with him here at CIRM and listen to the parallels between the two issues. He wrote about his friend Robert Edwards here.

D.G.

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