CIRM’s top ten stem cell blog posts of 2013

Google “top 10 of 2013” and you’ll find lists of every topic imaginable: the top songs, movies, smartphones, college football plays of year – you name it. So to get a piece of the action, below we’ve posted our 10 most-viewed blog posts of 2013.

One thing is clear from our list: you readers are hungry for the latest stem cell research results as our top two posts of year focused on fundamental discoveries about the role of stem cells in osteoarthritis and the aging heart. There was also the intriguing identification by a UCSF CIRM grantee of a stem cell from adult tissue that appears to have all the potential of an embryonic stem cell. The report of successful human therapeutic cloning, one of the most significant stem cell stories of 2013, also made for a popular blog post.

In addition to science reports, you enjoyed our stories about patient advocacy and education. The third most popular blog this year was a guest post by Katie Jackson, a Huntington’s disease advocate whose husband has tested positive for the incurable, fatal disease (CIRM is funding a UC Davis team that aims to bring a stem cell-based therapy for Huntington’s to clinical trials). Our top 5 blog post by Geoff Lomax, CIRM’s senior medical ethics officer, helped inform readers about the current state of embryo donations for stem cell research. Also on the list was a background story on our Ask the Expert Parkinson’s disease video that featured CIRM grantee and Buck Institute researcher Xianmin Zeng. One of our most successful social media education campaigns of 2013 was our elevator pitch contest, which included a popular blog post.

When we get back in the office on the 2nd, this list will help guide our blog posts for the new year. We look forward to the exciting stem cell stories that await us. Until then, have a happy New Year’s and thanks for visiting!

Most Viewed CIRM Blog Posts of 2013

  1. New stem cell culprit in osteoarthritis points to potential therapy 
  2. Becoming young at heart: single protein helps old hearts appear young in mice 
  3. A patient’s story of hope for a Huntington’s disease therapy 
  4. Ask the Expert: Parkinson’s and Stem Cell Research with the Buck Institute’s Xianmin Zeng
  5. Numbers matter in frozen embryo donation 
  6. CIRM grantee at UCSF discovers new, flexible stem cell 
  7. Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the most influential of them all? 
  8. Wow your audience: join CIRM’s science elevator pitch challenge 
  9. Stressed out? Fear not: small doses might be good for your stem cells 
  10. Caffeine held the key to creating embryonic stem cells from cloned embryo

Todd Dubnicoff

Actress, screenwriter and Alzheimer’s activist joins our Board

Lauren Miller: Photo credit: Ivan Nikolov / WENN

Ordinarily we wouldn’t write a blog on Christmas Eve, there’s no one around to read it. But we couldn’t let this wonderful news go by without mentioning it. We are delighted to welcome Lauren Miller – actress, screenwriter, producer and Alzheimer’s activist – to our governing Board, the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee.

Lauren has starred in numerous movies including “Superbad” and “50/50”. She also co-wrote and starred in the comedy “For a Good Time… Call”, however, it is her work with Hilarity for Charity, a non-profit organization that she co-founded, that makes her a terrific addition to our Board.

In a news release announcing the appointment Lauren said: “As the founder of Hilarity for Charity, an organization which raises awareness of Alzheimer’s Disease among young people, I am truly thrilled to join the California stem cell agency Board as the Alzheimer’s Patient Advocate. To have the opportunity to learn about, and support the research for so many important diseases is such a great honor and responsibility and I look forward to starting.”

Miller’s commitment to raising awareness about Alzheimer’s comes from her family’s battle against the disease. Her grandfather died of Alzheimer’s and her mother was diagnosed with it when she was just 55 years old.

Our Chairman Jonathan Thomas welcomed the appointment saying: “We are delighted to have Lauren joins us on the Board. She brings a fresh perspective to the work that we do and her experience in raising awareness about a devastating disease will be an invaluable asset.”

We currently fund several projects focusing on Alzheimer’s including an almost $20 million award to StemCells Inc., which hopes to bring a therapy using human neural stem cells to treat the disease into clinical trials.

kevin mccormack

Stem cell agency funded heart therapy approved for Phase 2 clinical trial

To be involved in science you need to be committed and persistent. Good science takes time. Sometimes it takes a lot of time. So when you hear that a project that you have been supporting has been approved to move into a Phase 2 clinical trial that you are funding, that’s pretty exciting.

That’s just what happened with Capricor Therapeutic’s treatment for people who have had heart attacks. It’s been cleared to move into the next stage clinical trial, a trial that the stem cell agency is funding.

In a news release CIRM President, Alan Trounson, Ph.D., said:

“This is really exciting news and marks a major milestone for the use of stem cells to treat heart disease. We are delighted to be involved in funding this work. This is precisely what our Disease Team Awards were designed to do, to give the most promising treatments up to $20 million dollars to develop new treatments for some of the deadliest diseases in America.”

For those of you not familiar with clinical trials they are done in stages. Phase 1 is typically the first time this therapy has been tested in people so this stage is to make sure that it’s safe, that it doesn’t have any unexpected or nasty side effects. Phase 2 involves testing it in a larger group of people to further test for safety and also to see if it has any beneficial effect on the patient. Up till now the research has involved testing in the laboratory and in animal models, where it has obviously shown promise. Phase 2 is an important step on the road to approval because it attempts to see if this therapy works in people.

Capricor’s work involves using stem cells called cardiosphere-derived cells. In the first phase of human testing these cells appeared to reduce the scarring in the heart muscle after they were infused into a patient who had experienced a heart attack. This is important because if you can reduce the scarring you may be able to improve the function of the heart, even after something as traumatic as a heart attack.

An earlier version of this therapy involved harvesting the stem cells from the patients themselves, reprogramming those cells and then re-introducing them to the patient. One of those who underwent the procedure was Fred Lesikar. He says before the procedure the after-affects of a heart attack left him weak, and without any energy. After the therapy he says he has his life back.

The version of the treatment that is now heading into Phase 2 trials does not involve taking cells from each individual heart attack patient, instead it uses donor cells, this means it can become an off-the-shelf-therapy, something that is available when and where the patient needs it rather than having to create it new each time.

The first trial involved a small number of people. This next one will involve around 300 people who have had heart attacks. One group will be treated within 30-90 days of the attack; a second group will be treated within 91 days to a year after the incident.

It’s taken time to reach this point, but if it pays off it will be time and money well spent. It’s estimated that close to 5 million Americans have some form of heart disease, with 400,000 new cases diagnosed each year. Clearly there is no shortage of need for new and more effective treatments. That’s why we fund a lot of other work in heart disease

kevin mccormack 

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: striking images, cerebral palsy, and hair loss

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.

Mouse tails stained to illuminate the hair follicle stem cells. The image was captured using confocal imaging by NYC scientist Yaron Fuchs at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and was among the top 10 winners in an imaging contest.

Hair loss research a good tale of how science advances. A researcher at the University of Southern California, with a CIRM-funded post doctoral fellow, has published a series of three papers on the role of hair follicle stem cells in determining when hair grows and when it falls out. Even for those of us who would like a bit more hair, it does sound a little superfluous on the surface. But the web portal Innovations Report does a nice job of telling how the three successive papers over the course of the past year build on each other. The path of research progress becomes very clear. It also points out that any improvement in our understanding of one type of adult stem cell can impact work on adult stem cells in other tissues and organs.

The editors failed to note that the work may also impact prevention of the most common form of skin cancer because it arises from hair follicle stem cells, something we wrote about earlier this week.

Cerebral palsy clinical trial on track. One of the most hyped stem cell “therapies” on the internet is for Cerebral Palsy (CP). Because of the broad and highly variable symptoms of CP, it is also one of the therapies that raises the most eyebrows among serious stem cell researchers. With very few exceptions, the clinics offering this therapy are not collecting and sharing real data about their patients. Those steps are generally considered fundamental to legitimate early stage clinical work.

Now a team at the University of Texas at Houston has announced a trial that seems overdue, a double-blinded, placebo-controlled study. The blinding means that neither the doctor nor the parent will know which child gets stem cells versus a placebo. The 30-patient study will be in two parts with half looking at the impact of the child’s own banked cord blood stem cells and the other half evaluating stem cells from the child’s bone marrow. The trial was described in a press release from Let’s Cure CP, the non-profit that is funding the work, and that release was picked up by several outlets including SFGate.

A report from CIRM’s Cerebral Palsy workshop can be downloaded at the fifth link on this page.

Converting scars in the brain into working nerves. Overzealous repair systems in our brains often share the blame for the damage after stroke or other brain injury. Glial cells normally serves as protective neighbors for our neurons. We summons them in mass after an injury, clogging the site and creating scar tissue rather than new neurons. Now, a team at Penn State University has found a way to reprogram that rescue crew to become needed new neurons. They published their work online yesterday in Cell Stem Cell and the web portal Science Codex published a press release from Penn.

The team used a gene for a protein known to drive growth of neurons in the developing brain. They used a virus to carry the gene into the glial cells in a mouse model of brain injury and they found the cells did convert to new neurons. More important, two different types of glial cells converted into two different types of neurons, excitatory neurons and inhibitory neurons. Getting a balance of those go-for-it, and back-off nerves is critical to normal brain function.

Ten who made a difference in science in 2013. When the journal Nature chose its list of the “10 people who mattered in 2013,” I was pleased and not surprised to find the name of Shoukhrat Mitalipov, who developed embryonic stem cells from cloned human embryos. A colleague wrote about some of the ethical issues around cloning when Mitaliov’s work was published in May.

And the year’s coolest microscopic images. It used to be you had to be a true science geek to love microscopic images. That is not true today. Imaging techniques have improved so much, and aided by multi-hued glowing florescent dyes, it now produces beautiful works of art. I know folks here at CIRM may be outliers, but our office walls glow with stem-cell art. So, it was fun to see a stem cell image made the annual top-ten “ByoScapes” contest run by Olympus. A Howard Hughes investigator, Yaron Fuchs, took eighth place with an image of hair follicle stem cells. Gizmodo was among the outlets that ran the images (shown above).

Don Gibbons

This is how your heart looks on TV; Hanging out with experts talking about stem cells and heart disease

CIRM’s Google Hangout on stem cell therapy for heart disease

Imagine carrying around a computer thumb drive that has a complete read out of your genome so that should you need medical attention the doctors will have instant access to a blueprint of you so they can tailor their treatment for your specific needs.

It may sound futuristic but Dr. Bruce Conklin, a stem cell researcher at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, says it’s not that far fetched and could be a part of our lives in the not too distant future.

Dr. Conklin’s idea was one of the closing thoughts on our Google Hangout on Heart Disease. The panel included Dr. Joseph Wu from Stanford, Dr. Cathy Priest, a Senior Science Officer here at the stem cell agency, and Fred Lesikar, who took part in a clinical trial involving stem cells after he had a heart attack.

The panel has a wide range of expertise and experience with heart disease and they shared that in the Hangout, talking about:

 • Using induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells to better understand what happens to cells affected by heart disease and then to use those cells to screen drugs to find out what drugs may be most effective at treating the problem.
 • The need to explore the use of several different kinds of stem cell to identify which ones work best for which conditions and even which patients
 • The importance of engaging patients in clinical trials to help advance the science.

CIRM has awarded almost $135 million on 45 different research projects focused on different aspects of heart disease. Both Dr. Wu and Dr. Conklin have received funding from us and both talked about how the next ten years are going to change the way we think about and treat heart disease.

We have posted the Google Hangout to our YouTube channel so you can hear for yourself about all the great progress being made, and the steps we need to take to keep this momentum going.

Kevin McCormack

Stem cells make Wired’s list of 2013 scientific highlights

Brain cells derived from human embyronic stem cells

It’s always fun when you make one of those end-of-the-year-best-things list. In this case we, and by we I mean stem cell research, made the Wired magazine list of Best Scientific Discoveries of 2013 – even if we had to share top billing with a new meat-eating mammal and see-through brains (very cool).

Wired said stem cells made the list because the science “announced several big steps towards engineering functioning organs”. That included creating what they described as a “mini-brain” from reprogrammed human skin cells.

The article goes on to say:

“By providing just the right chemical environment, European scientists coaxed the stem cells to become neurons and arrange themselves into different structures that crudely resemble the anatomy of a developing fetal brain. The researchers are using these methods to study what goes wrong in developmental brain disorders like microcephaly, using stem cells from individual patients.”

It’s fascinating work which is why we blogged about the brain blobs when the study first came out.

The Wired year-in-review article highlighted some other research that we also thought highly enough of to write about, work that extended the boundaries of the science in developing human kidney tissue saying: “The road to creating transplantable tissues from stem cells is still long, but these are encouraging steps.”

All in all, a pretty good year for the science. It’s going to be fascinating to see what 2014 will bring.

Kevin McCormack

Older fat-derived stem cells shown to be less potent than younger stem cells

Of the many sources of stem cells, most of us gain a bit of one of them as we age—fat. Unfortunately, a team at Moscow State University has quantified a long-term supposition in the field, that older stem cells, including fat stem cells, are not as good at doing their job as younger ones.

Researchers and purveyors of stem cell “therapies” tout the potential of fat-derived stem cells to help with many diseases. Frankly, some of these claims are logical and some are not. Fat-derived stem cells, called mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs), are good at doing a few things and not others. They can produce bone, cartilage, and fat, and also act to tamp down inflammation and to stimulate growth of new blood vessels.

This connection to new blood vessels has raised hope that the cells may be of some benefit to patients after a heart attack. Although early tests with donor MSCs have not shown significant amounts of immune system rejection, some researchers hope that a person’s own fat cells might stick around longer after injection and do a better job.

That premise led the Moscow team to collect fat stem cells from patients of different age groups, including some with heart disease and some without. They showed that the older cells, both from people with and without heart disease, produced less of the factor that triggers blood vessel growth. The researchers suggested that using an older patients own, or autologous, stem cells may require testing them in the lab for their activity and finding ways to treat them to enhance their therapeutic potential.

The web news portal Benzinga ran a press release prepared by the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine that published the results. (This is the journal CIRM helped to found through seed funding during its first three years.) The release quotes the journal’s editor, Anthony Atala, of Wake Forest University:

“These findings are significant because the successful development of cell therapies depends on a thorough understanding of how age may affect the regenerative potential of autologous cells.”

CIRM funds numerous projects taking various approaches to using stem cells for heart repair. They can be found in our heart disease fact sheet.

Anyone interested in learning more about how stem cells could help treat or find therapies for heart disease can join our Google Hangout today at noon PST with two of our grantees and a patient who participated in a stem cell clinical trial.

Don Gibbons

Gene that blocks skin stem cells from initiating cancer may provide key to prevention

Hair follicle

Stem cells are a true double-edged sword when it comes to cancer. We need our tissue-specific stem cells to repair and replace tissue, but some of them develop into cancer causing cells. Now a CIRM-fundeed team at the University of California, Los Angeles has discovered a molecular switch that seems to keep stem cells, at least those in hair follicles, in a non-cancerous mode.

The finding has immediate implications for the most common form of skin cancer, because hair follicle stem cells initiate those cancers. But it could also apply to many other forms of stem cells and cancer.

Tissue-specific stem cells toggle between dormant and active states. Some researchers have suggested that these stem cells do not give rise to cancer in the dormant state, but they have not known what suppresses the cancer potential.

Working with mice, the team prodded hair follicle stem cells with genes known to initiate cancer, but when the cells were dormant, the cancer genes could not perform their dirty work. Once the cells starting growing, the cancer genes succeeded in starting cancer growth. They found a key gene that was active in the dormant cells and not in the growing cells. That was a gene well known to be involved in regulating the cross-talk within cells, called Pten.

The research was published online yesterday by Nature Cell Biology and a press release from UCLA quoted the first author, Andrew White, on the role of the gene:

“Stem cell quiescence is a novel form of tumor suppression in hair follicle stem cells, and Pten must be present for the suppression to work.”

He went on to suggest that better understanding of how this works could lead to cancer prevention strategies.

CIRM funding: Andrew White (TG2-01169)

Don Gibbons

Why Hanging out with these people could be good for your heart

Heart muscle precursors derived from embryonic stem cells

A few years ago Fred Lesikar suffered a major heart attack. He survived but his heart was badly damaged, so much so that even simple things like walking around the block left him exhausted.

Then Fred took part in an experimental therapy, getting a transplant of some of his own heart stem cells. The goal was to see if these stem cells could repair some of the damage caused by his heart attack. The therapy not only reduced scarring on his heart but Fred said he now has a lot more energy and feels he has his old life back.

Fred’s story is a hopeful indication that stem cells really do have the power to heal damage caused by a heart attack. But his story is just one element in a growing mosaic of approaches using stem cells to treat heart disease. There’s more about Fred’s story and the experimental treatment on our Stories of Hope page.

On Thursday, December 19th from noon till 1pm PT (3-4pm ET) we are going to hold a Google Hangout on heart disease, incuding Fred. It’s a free, interactive online chat with experts in the field exploring the different approaches that are being taken to treat heart disease; we’ll talk about the progress being made and the obstacles to be overcome.

Besides Fred Lesikar the Hangout will feature:
Dr. Joseph Wu, Director of the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute
Dr. Bruce Conklin, a Senior Investigator at the Gladstone Institutes
• Dr. Cathy Priest, a Senior Science Officer at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

It promises to be a fascinating, engaging and educational look at the use of stem cells to treat heart disease.

To join the conversation all you have to do is click on this link.You will be able to watch the conversation and post questions to the experts. You can also email questions in advance to or tweet them in advance or during the Hangout using the hashtag #askCIRM_heart.

We look forward to seeing you there

Kevin McCormack

A perspective on growing kidneys from stem cells

Kidney bud created from human stem cells (in blue and green). Cells in red are mouse kidney cells. Courtesy of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies

Growing complex organs such as kidneys from stem cells is not easy, and neither is putting an advance in perspective without hype

After seeing several headlines in my newsfeed about a “first” lab-grown kidney, and having written about a couple prior lab-grown kidneys, I was pleased to come across this NatureWorldNews article that put the latest advance into perspective.

First off, none of the now four teams have produced a functioning, full-size kidney. They have produced some pretty incredible first steps that resulted in complex components of kidneys that, in some cases, seem to filter like a kidney. The latest group, from the University of Queensland in Australia, published their work in Nature Cell Biology. They noted that a key to their success was their efforts to understand which genes are turned on and off and when in normal kidney development in the embryo.

This was similar to efforts by a CIRM-funded team at the Salk Institute. We wrote about that group’s work creating kidney buds from stem cells earlier this fall. NatureWorldNews noted this work as well as prior work by a team at Kyoto University. The news site provides links to this work as well as similar research trying to create complex lung and brain tissues.

All these projects are finding that given the right cues and the right three-dimensional environment stem cells have an amazing capacity to self-organize into complex structures.

The article quotes a member of the Queensland team, Brandon Wainwright, on the trend:

“The fact that such stem cell populations can undergo self-organization in the laboratory bodes well for the future of tissue bioengineering to replace damaged and diseased organs and tissues.”

The NatureWorldNews site had not been on my radar in the past, but for the science curious who want to have advances put into perspective and maybe dive a bit deeper, it is a great resource. In addition to the analysis, the site provides links to the journal articles as well as to basic information such as that on the National Institutes of Health’s stem cell information pages.

Don Gibbons