Stem cell stories that caught our eye: bone disease, Parkinson’s and healthy gut flora

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.

Bone disease treated in growing fetus. Two children born with brittle bone disease, which normally results in hundreds of fracture and slow growth, have developed pretty close to normal following stem cell infusions while they were still in the womb. They have both had at least one stem cell boost in the years since with one meeting growth standards at age 10. The multi-national team of researchers, led by scientists at Sweden’s Karolinka Institute, used the type of stem cell found in bone marrow called mesenchymal stem cells. They published their results in the journal CIRM helped to found Stem Cells Translational Medicine, and the journal’s press release was picked up by several outlets including the San Francisco Chronicle’s web site.

Here is a list of CIRM-funded projects on bone disease.

Pathway keeps the stem in stem cells. Stem cells really want to grow up and become a specific mature tissue. Keeping them in their undifferentiated stem cell state requires the work of a few key genes. But those genes are competing with other genes that are pushing the stem cells to mature. Now a CIRM-funded team at the University of California at San Diego has fingered a gene that blocks the signal that keeps the stem in stem cells and forces them to mature. They suggest that a similar stay-immature pathway may be at work in cancer stem cells. So the gene that they found that can block that stem pathway may be a tool for blocking the rampant growth of cancer stem cells. Fiercebiotech ran the university’s press release.

When CIRM announced its Disease Team 3 awards in December, three of the projects funded were planning clinical trials of various methods to block cancer stem cells.

Giving young cells old attitude. We often write about the power of creating a disease in a dish by taking stem cells from a patient and reprogramming them into iPS type stem cells. You can then mature those stem cells into the type of tissue defective in the disease. But when the disease is one associated with aging, such as Parkinson’s disease, the reprogramming is too good at its job. It reprograms the cells to be like young ones and nerves grown from them don’t show signs of Parkinson’s that only show up with age. Now, one of the leaders in our field, Lorenz Studer of Sloan-Kettering Institute, has used a genetic manipulation to prematurely age the reprogrammed stem cells. His team found a way to over express a protein that is normally only present in large quantities in the disease progeria, which causes premature aging. They found that nerve cells grown from those stem cells showed several of the same signs of aging as in Parkinson’s patients.

This is a clever tool likely to be quickly adopted by many research teams studying diseases of aging. They published their work in Cell Stem Cell and it was written about by BioTechniques.

Gut bacteria and overzealous stem cells. Researchers at the Buck Institute have added fodder to the growing belief that the right balance of gut flora is a key to a healthy life. The Northern California team worked in fruit flies and found that the bacterial load in the flies’ gut increased with age and that change increased inflammation in part due to over-proliferation of stem cell in the gut. Most important, they found that if they genetically manipulated the flies so they express a specific protein they could turn down the stem cell proliferation and restore the bacterial balance in the gut. The institute’s press release was picked up by Science Codex.

CIRM did not fund this particular work, but we do fund seven age related projects at the Buck.

Don Gibbons

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