Stem cell Stories that caught our eye: spare parts for ears, hope for stroke and dubious therapy in Italy

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.

Don Gibbons

2 thoughts on “Stem cell Stories that caught our eye: spare parts for ears, hope for stroke and dubious therapy in Italy

  1. Why are universities trying to limit access to breast cancer tests?

    Myriad is the lead plaintiff, but two universities also signed on to the lawsuit: the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Utah Research Foundation. These schools own BRCA-related patents, which they have licensed exclusively to Myriad.

    Why are universities trying to force a potentially life-saving cancer test off the market? A spokeswoman for the University of Pennsylvania declined to comment for this story, and a University of Utah spokesperson didn’t return our call Friday afternoon. But the short answer seems to be money.

    Many universities now have “technology transfer” offices whose job it is to obtain patents based on university research and license them to private industry. These activities generated $1.8 billion in patent licensing revenues in 2011.

    This is a relatively new phenomenon. According to the Wall Street Journal, universities were only obtaining about 250 patents a year as recently as 1980. Then Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act, which made it easier for universities to claim patents for federally-funded research. By 2003, the number of patents universities were getting each year had shot up more than 10-fold to almost 4,000

  2. How Intellectual Property Reinforces Inequality

    It should not be very surprising that Myriad has done everything it can to prevent its tests’ revenue stream from facing competition — indeed, after recovering somewhat from a 30 percent drop in the wake of the court ruling, its share price is still nearly 20 percent below what it was beforehand. It owned the genes, and didn’t want anybody trespassing on its property. In obtaining the patent, Myriad, like most corporations, seemed motivated more by maximizing profits than by saving lives — if it really cared about the latter, it could and would have done better at providing tests at lower costs and encourage others to develop better, more accurate and cheaper tests. Not surprisingly, it made labored arguments that its patents, which allowed monopolistic prices and exclusionary practices, were essential to incentivize future research. But when the devastating effects of its patents became apparent, and it remained adamant in exerting its full monopoly rights, these pretensions of interest in the greater good were woefully unconvincing.

    Myriad denied the test to two women in the case by rejecting their Medicaid insurance — according to the plaintiffs, because the reimbursement was too low. Other women, after one round of Myriad’s testing, had to make agonizing decisions about whether to have a single or double mastectomy, or whether to have their ovaries removed, with severely incomplete information — either Myriad’s testing for additional BRCA mutations was unaffordable (Myriad charges $700 extra for information that national guidelines say should be provided to patients), or second opinions were unattainable because of Myriad’s patents.

    But as important a victory as this is, it is ultimately only one corner of a global intellectual property landscape that is heavily shaped by corporate interests — usually American. And America has attempted to foist its intellectual property regime on others, through the World Trade Organization and bilateral and other multilateral trade regimes. It is doing so now in negotiations as part of the so-called trans-Pacific Partnership. Trade agreements are supposed to be an important instrument of diplomacy: closer trade integration brings closer ties in other dimensions. But attempts by the office of the United States Trade Representative to persuade others that, in effect, corporate profits are more important than human lives undermines America’s international standing: if anything, it reinforces the stereotype of the crass American.

    Economic power often speaks louder, though, than moral values; and in the many instances in which American corporate interests prevail in intellectual property rights, our policies help increase inequality abroad. In most countries, it’s much the same as in the United States: the lives of the poor are sacrificed at the altar of corporate profits. But even in those where, say, the government would provide a test like Myriad’s at affordable prices for all, there is a cost: when a government pays monopoly prices for a medical test, it takes money away that could be spent for other lifesaving health expenditures.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.