Stem cell Stories that caught our eye: longevity, cell-virus combo for cancer, and cord blood

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.

Better trash collection and longer life. In order for cells to survive they need systems for getting rid of the debris that accumulates as they go about their normal function. Scientists call this trash collection system autophagy. In recent years, several teams have produced data that suggests a highly active autophagy system corresponds with longevity. Now a team at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in San Diego has found a genetic switch that can activate the trash collection system. The team currently is looking for potential therapies that could alter the functioning of this genetic switch that may have a role in many diseases of aging. The Institute’s press release was picked up on this web site.

Stem cells carry cancer-fighting virus. Some clinical trials have shown that certain viruses can selectively kill brain cancer cells. But it has been difficult to get the virus to the right spots in the brain to do its selective destruction. Since neural stem cells home to inflammation and they view cancer as inflammation, a team at the University of Chicago decided neural stem cells could be a great delivery system for the tumor killing virus. In mice with the brain tumor glioblastoma the stem cell-virus combo extended the lives of the animals. The research was published in Stem Cells Translational Medicine, and was detailed in this online news site.

CIRM funds a similar project. This one uses the neural stem cells to carry traditional chemotherapeutic agents to the glioblastoma. That team at the City of Hope outside Los Angeles expects to begin a clinical trial in the next year or two, and you can read about it, and other CIRM projects to treat glioma, on our web site.

Finding the right cord blood got easier. The use of donated umbilical cord blood stem cells increases every year. But so does the number of cord blood banks and databases, making finding the right genetic match for any one leukemia patient a cumbersome process. Now, a German company has deployed big data technology to create a search engine called CordMatch. The search ensures a good match for the genetic tags called HLA. The web site “datanami” described the new service here.

Bug found in cord blood Identified. In 2011 doctors began reporting cases of colitis, an inflammation of the colon, in patients that had received donated umbilical cord stem cells. Since the condition responded to antibiotics, doctors assumed it was caused by a bacteria, but the only tissue samples available from patients were already preserved, so would not have any live cells that could be grown, which is the usual way of identifying an infectious agent. So a team at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute sequenced all of the DNA in the specimen, sorted out the human DNA, and started piecing together the remaining DNA fragments. When they compared those to known bacteria they resembled a bacteria associated with agriculture.

Since the disease was treatable with standard antibiotics, the research is more of a fun bit of science showing you can identify a new bug from DNA left behind in human tissue. The study appeared in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine and was described by Bloomberg News here.

Essay on the disruptive nature of science. GEN Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News ran a thought-provoking essay by Zachary Russ about the fact that many breakthrough fields of science are disruptive to many in society. He starts by reflecting on the controversy surrounding the early days of in vitro fertilization (IVF). He notes that the eventual success of the procedure quelled some of the controversy, but much of it was just transferred to the new offshoot science: using left over IVF embryos to create embryonic stem cells (ESCs). Acknowledging that there are few ESC products today, he details the demonstrated worth of ESCs as a research tool and predicts that their eventual successes in therapy will quell much of the controversy.

Don Gibbons

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