Stem cell Stories that caught our eye: Vatican-backed stem cells, epilepsy and stroke.

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.

A stem cell hide and seek with Vatican financing. One of the hallmarks of good science is the ability of other labs to reproduce the results. The lack of this verification always leads to controversy, but in one recent case the controversy has been enhanced by financial contributions to the work from the Vatican.

A few years ago, a team in Louisville claimed to have found cells in adult tissues that, like embryonic stem cells, can be coaxed to turn into many different body tissues. Stem cells found in adult tissues are generally considered to be limited to forming a very narrow range of tissues in the same lineage. The more versatile adult stem cells have been billed as a more ethical embryonic-like stem cell, which is assumed to be the reason for the Vatican funding of the company that holds the license to the Louisville work, Neostem.

Several labs have published on their inability to replicate the work, with the most robust of those studies coming out this week from the lab of CIRM grantee Irving Weissman. This web site picked up the university press release on Irv’s work, which some commentators are calling definitive. However, I have to agree in Christine Gorman’s take on the issue in the Scientific American blog. Because two researchers, one at Yale and one at the University of Michigan, have reported replicating some portion of the Louisville work, this controversy is not going away soon.

Epilepsy in a dish—a testing ground for drugs. We have often written about the power of reprogramming skin cells from patients into embryonic-like stem cells. When you mature those cells into the type of tissue impacted by the disease in a lab dish, you have a little screening factory for testing potential treatments. A team of researchers at the University of Michigan did this with cells from children with a rare form of epilepsy and discovered a defect in the way the nerves from these children move sodium in and out of the cell. This became an immediate target for testing potential drugs. ScienceDaily wrote about the work here. And this video talks about the process of making disease-in-a-dish models using iPS cells.

Brain’s support cells offer hope in stroke. Neurons have long held the starring role in the function of our brains, but in recent years more and more research has shown the importance of the supporting cells called astrocytes. Now, a CIRM-funded researcher at UC Davis has shown that a previously unidentified subset of astrocytes has a superior ability to protect neurons from damage such as the nerve death that occurs after a stroke. You can read about the work here. They developed a method to create large quantities of those cells and in nearly pure form. Both the scale up of quantity and the purity have eluded previous research into astrocytes. Most important, they found that those cells successfully protected neurons in a rat model of stroke.

Light-detecting cells created from stem cells. For the first time a British team created photoreceptors from embryonic stem cells. A key to the process was growing the cells in a three-dimensional culture that more closely mimicked the natural environment than a traditional flat laboratory culture. FierceBiotech wrote about the work here.

Alpha clinics for stem cell testing, therapy. I always enjoy it when writers with the mainstream media report on one of our initiatives and really convey the rational behind what we are funding and what we are trying to accomplish. Yesterday our board approved $70 million to establish five clinics in California that would have all the specialized equipment and expertise to test potential new stem cell therapies and, eventually, to deliver therapies that have been proven. Two writers with the L.A. Times wrote about the initiative; one the day before the vote and one the day after. Both writers noted one goal of the clinics that is near and dear to me, our plan to provide patients with the information they need to make intelligent choices when considering stem cell treatments.

The first article quotes a colleague, Natalie DeWitt, who helped develop the program: “One key activity of the CIMC will be to tell people what is proven and what should be avoided.”

Don Gibbons

One thought on “Stem cell Stories that caught our eye: Vatican-backed stem cells, epilepsy and stroke.

  1. Has Carl June Found a Key to Fighting Cancer?

    Walter Keller had nearly lost his battle with leukemia when he went to Penn's Carl June and his group of researchers for a radical new cancer treatment. What happened next may change medicine forever.

    2004, Philadelphia

    T cells. Carl June had an idea for a new kind of cancer treatment involving T cells, those building blocks of the immune system.

    In their natural state, T cells usually aren’t able to kill tumor cells, partly because they can’t latch on strongly enough. But June was fascinated by scientific papers showing it was possible to change this. A few researchers—first an Israeli named Zelig Eshhar in the ’80s, then other investigators around the world—had discovered that you could force a T cell to stick to a tumor cell and kill it. To pull this off, you built an “engineered T cell”—a T cell never before seen in nature. You altered the T cell’s genetic blueprint by injecting a new gene into the cell. The new gene would tell it to build a new molecular limb. The limb, called a “chimeric antigen receptor,” would sit partly inside the cell and partly outside, and it could send signals either in or out. One signal it could send was: kill. Another was: replicate.

    June loved this approach. So elegant. Put the immune system on steroids. What if you could train the body to fight cancer on its own? What if, instead of replacing a patient’s immune system (as in a bone-marrow transplant) or pumping him full of poison (chemo), you could just borrow some cells, tweak them, and infuse them back into the patient? In theory, the engineered cells would stay alive in the blood, replenishing themselves, killing any tumors that recurred. It occurred to June that one infusion could last a lifetime.

    He was also excited by the flexibility of engineered T cells. Normally, a drug for one kind of cancer couldn’t ever work on another kind; you had to start over from scratch. But here, since you were starting with a T cell and adding a limb, you only had to change the shape of the limb. You could snap a new piece on the end, like a LEGO, that fit into a molecule on the surface of a breast-cancer cell, or a pancreatic-cancer cell, or whatever kind of cancer you wanted to attack.

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