Stem cell Stories that caught our eye: bioengineered windpipes, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and Cancer

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.

Lab made windpipe. The one story that has been hard to miss recently tells the story of the two-year-old girl who may have been given a second chance at a near normal childhood thanks to a bioengineered replacement windpipe. My colleague wrote about the breakthrough and the wider field of tissue engineering here. However, from the social media posts I have read about the work I suspect most folks did not read to the end of the widely printed Associated Press article. The stem cells that created the new tissue were grown on a synthetic scaffold that cannot expand. That means as miraculous as this procedure has been, the surgeon acknowledged at the end of the article that the girl is likely to need a new and larger replacement windpipe in about five years. Here is the AP story as it ran in the Washington Post.

Safety data in ALS trail. I always like seeing positive data from a phase 1 clinical trial, the early phase testing that begins to determine if a potential therapy is safe. At the annual conference of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons this week Neuralstem released the data for the 15 patients in its phase 1 trail for ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease (here is a press release about the work). Because it involved injections directly into the spine, and because the nerves in the spine of ALS patients are considered to be especially vulnerable to damage, seeing no adverse effects of the stem cell injections is an important milestone for the company and the field.

Collaboration in cancer research. “Collaboration enhances the path to discovery,” is a bit of a mantra here at CIRM. After 20 years of collaboration a clinical trail is underway today for an aggressive form of brain cancer. That collaborative team stretched across the continent, from Penn State, to Case Western in Cleveland, to the University of Washington in Seattle and back to a small biotech company in Maryland. One problem with treating brain cancer is that in order to get enough chemotherapy into the tumor to kill it, you have to flood the patient with so much of the toxic agent that you can completely wipe out their blood forming stem cells. The academic collaborators found a mutant gene that made some cancers resistant to chemotherapy. They thought that if they could introduce that gene into blood-forming stem cells in the bone marrow, they could protect them from high dose therapy. They turned to the industry partner to develop a safe way to get the gene into the stem cells. The clinical trail is now well underway. And was detailed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, here.

Stem cells in culture—arts that is. I enjoy it where stem cell science makes it into the narrative of literature or other art forms. I cringe when it becomes a story line that suggests an untested stem cell injection is legitimate patient care. But the most recent book from Audrey Niffenegger, Raven Girl, seems to simply riff on the concept that stem cells are the root source of all of the structures in our body. I have not read the book, but this review from NPR makes it sound like the basic tenants of stem cell science are a simple starting point for a science fiction tale of romance and hope. Her last book, The Time Travelers Wife, became a best seller, so I will curious to see what happens with a book that talks about reprogramming stem cells.


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