Stem cell stories that caught our eye: clues on Lou Gehrig’s, first iPS patients and spacey stem cells

In the first clinical trial using iPS type stem cells the stem cells will be matured into retinal cells like these.

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.

Nanotubes provide support for stem cells to grow. Tiny carbon nanotubes seem to provide a better growth environment for embryonic stem cells than traditional lab culture conditions. They better mimic the body’s natural support cells. They also allow researchers to avoid the various animal serums that most often nurture stem cells in the lab, but would disqualify them for later use in humans. An international team from the University of Surrey and the University of California at Irvine reported on their work with the nanotubes in Applied Materials & Interfaces and Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News wrote about it.

Stem cells grown in outer space. This video clip certainly lives up to the name of the Chicago Tribune’s new Blue Sky Innovation web site. It offers an interview with a Mayo Clinic stem cell research who had wanted to be an astronaut and is now send stem cells into space. His hypothesis is that in microgravity the cells might grow faster. If that turns out to be true on this trip to the international space station, then he will send a batch up with a protocol to get them to mature into specific tissues, with the eventual goal of growing organs more rapidly in space. Blue sky indeed.

Interview about first iPS stem cell trial. Japan’s Riken Institute has already begun recruiting patients with blinding macular degeneration for the first ever trial in which the patients would receive cells matured from embryonic-like iPS cells made from their own tissue. With the possibility that the immune system would not reject these cells since their genetics so closely match the patient’s, a great deal of hope and anxiety in the field rests on this trial. While stem cells have been made from the tissue of the first set of patients, no transplants will happen until the cells have been tested for safety for a year. In this interview in Slate, the lead researcher Masayo Takahashi explains why she thinks the cells will be safe.

Here is our video primer on making iPS type stem cells.

Screening stem cells for disease. A regulatory manager at the University of Washington has written a paper in the journal Cell Stem Cell that points out a major obstacle to moving stem cells from the lab bench to the clinic. There is a disconnect between what the National Institutes of Health requires for stem cell lines to be registered for use in NIH funded projects and what the Food and Drug Administration requires for cells to be transplanted into people. The FDA requires donors to be tested for key infectious diseases while the NIH does not, and most cell line donors are lost to follow-up. This conundrum re-enforces the importance of independent funding sources like CIRM that allow our grantees to use our awards to both create new cell lines and screen the donors. But the bigger issue, as this article in The Scientist points out is that it may be time for the FDA to change its policy and instead just require testing of the cells themselves. It is expensive, but for a company looking at down-the-road liability, well worth it.

Toxin fingered again as guilty in Lou Gehrig’s. A couple years ago, CIRM grantees at the Salk Institute grew brain cells from iPS type stem cells created from patients with ALS (Lou Gerhig’s disease). They showed that the neurons don’t commit suicide they way we had thought, but rather the astrocytes that are supposed to protect them, become turncoats and murder them. It appeared that the normally supportive astrocytes start producing a toxin that kills the neurons. Now a team at Columbia University has shown that in astrocytes taken directly from ALS patients, they can isolate this same toxin found in the lab with iPS grown cells.Science Codex ran the university’s press release on the work.

Here is our previous blog post on the work at Salk modeling ALS.

Don Gibbons

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