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.
Stem cells form inner ear structures. It was fun reading about work by a team from my alma mater, Indiana University that makes major strides toward repairing hearing loss. They got mouse embryonic stem cells to turn into structures of the inner ear, including bundles of hair cells that receive sound and the supporting cells and neurons that transmit the signals to the brain. Previous attempts to do this using standard flat laboratory cell cultures have had poor results. So instead the Hoosiers created three dimensional cell cultures that more closely mimicked the environment of the inner ear in the developing embryo.
This concept of getting stem cells to become the desired tissue by creating a more natural environment was one of the themes of the recent meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Science, which we wrote about here. The current Nature paper was discussed in Bioscience Technology online. CIRM funds a team at Stanford that is also working on growing functional hair cells. You can read about that work, and other deafness projects on our deafness fact sheet.
Promise and caution for stem cells in stroke. We routinely write about the hope and promise of stem cells, but we try to do it with sufficient caveats to avoid the hype that often creeps into the field. So it was good to come across this review article and the press release from the authors’ institution, Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital with the headline: “Promise and Caution Shown in Ongoing Research into Stem cell Treatment of Strokes.” The release was picked up by Science Newsline here. There are strong theoretical reasons to believe stem cells will have a role in future stroke therapy, but this review correctly notes that we first need to do many tests to determine which cells to use, when to use them, and how best to get them to where they are needed. CIRM funds a team at Stanford working to answer some of these questions as they plan for a clinical trial that you can read about here.
Some cells boogie, other do a slow waltz. When I started out writing about science, editors frequently wanted you to write what I called “fascination stories,” stories that just explained the amazing workings of our body, the universe or a tiny atom. Editors rarely make room for those stories in today’s news market, so I thoroughly enjoyed this piece funded by the National Institutes of Health and published online by LiveScience. Ostensibly about cells migrating around the body, it vividly shows the many vital roles of cell mobility, and a couple of its more sinister sides.
Cell mobility’s importance begins in the earliest days of the embryo as embryonic stem cells move and mature to create the different layers of the growing fetus. But it continues to play vital roles in adults, for routine tasks such as healing wounds. Cell migration, however has a dark side in cancer, when cancer cells migrate and cause metastasis. If you still harbor fascination about our miraculous bodies, this is a fun read.
Passenger pigeon revival through stem cell. The concept of de-extinction has been bandied about a far amount the past few months, in part because of remarks by a former Harvard colleague George Church. This piece in the Washington Post does a better job than most in explaining what the research teams working to bring back extinct species are really doing. The author describes plans from a team working with the passenger pigeon that became extinct in 1914. But their end result won’t be exact copies of those legendary pigeons that were once so plentiful their migration was said to darken the sky.
They will begin with DNA fragments from museum specimens of the extinct birds. Where the DNA is not complete they will fill in with fragments from today’s band-tailed pigeon. They will insert this into stem cells from today’s pigeons, get those to mature into sperm and eggs and then implant those into the embryos of developing band-tailed pigeons. When those birds mature and mate their offspring will be one step toward de-extinction. Then by selective mating, the researchers think they can get something pretty close to a passenger pigeon within a year.
Clinical trial of Italian therapy questioned. An unproven therapy given to patients by the Stamina Foundation in Italy has been causing a stir for months. First desperate patients got the Italian parliament to pass legislation specifically making the procedure legal. Then the Italian scientific community raised a ruckus and the parliament came back and funded a nearly $4 million trial to see if the therapy actually works and is safe. Most recently the journal Nature reported that the data used to support the work were flawed. Now the editors of that journal have called on the government to withdraw funding from the trial. That editorial is here. Needless to say, this drama has provided much material for my Italian science writer friends to post on Facebook.