Stem cell stories that caught our eye: tissue engineering bone, cartilage for arthritis and partisanship in science

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.

TED video on engineering new bone. Two young Columbia University bioengineers use this TED video to remind us how barbaric our current system of obtaining spare parts for humans can be, and how revolutionary it will be to grow new ones from cells. It reminded me of going to the junkyard with my dad as a kid looking for a wrecked car that was a similar to the old family Chevy to find a part. Currently patients needing a replacement piece of bone must either accept bone from a cadaver or let a surgeon chip off a piece of bone from their hip or other spot in their body.

The New York duo does a nice job of explaining their work starting with a CT scan to get the exact dimensions of the patient’s defect. They then mold the exact same shape from animal bone that has had all its whole cells removed so that what remains is a scaffold. They describe seeding that with stem cells from the patient’s own fat tissue and then growing it in a bioreactor that they cleverly describe as a fancy fish tank. But they spend a bit of time in the 4.22-minute video explaining the nuance of getting just the right mix of nutrients in that fish tank.

One of the researchers gave a nice quote about the hope for their work: “I would love to see congenital defects be a statistic from the past.” That was the goal of many of the researchers who presented at a CIRM workshop of tissue engineering described in a report on our web site.

Genes plus stem cells for aching joints. Researcher pretty routinely direct stem cells in the lab to become specific types of tissue, but too often loose control of the cells’ fate after they are transplanted into a body. Duke University researchers think they have found a way to keep the cells from changing their minds after transplantation—in this case for growing new cartilage for damaged joints. Like many other groups they use a synthetic scaffold to get more control of the shape of the final tissue, but they enlist genetic engineering in order to keep the stem cells they seed on the scaffold heading toward the desired form of cartilage. They embed the scaffold with a virus carrying the gene for the growth factor used to direct stem cells toward cartilage in the lab. This virus has been used safely in other forms of gene therapy.

The researchers published their work in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News wrote about the work. CIRM projects for arthritis can be found on our web site.

Disease-specific embryonic stem cell lines. Some of the most important stem cell research today uses cells containing genes that cause certain diseases. Most often, researcher create those stem cells by reprogramming skin or other tissue from patients with the disease to create iPS type stem cells. But you can also get those disease-specific cells through creation of embryonic stem cells from embryos donated by couples that have at least one person carrying the defective gene. Such couples often choose to conceive a child through in-vitro fertilization (IVF). This allows them to add the step called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), which lets them test each embryo created to see which ones carry the genetic defect. They then implant the normal embryos hoping for a healthy baby, and can donate the ones carrying the disease gene to research.

An Australian company recently made 43 such stem cell lines, representing 24 genetic diseases available to researchers around the world through the registry maintained by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The Australian publication LifeScientist wrote about the project. These cells will have great value in letting us compare disease-specific cell lines made through iPS and those made from embryos. We know the two types of stem cells have subtle genetic differences, but this type of comparison will let us better determine if the differences are relevant to disease modeling. This work highlights the need for independent funding sources like CIRM. The NIH remains barred from funding the creation of any new stem cell lines by the Dickey amendment to its federal authorization.

Call for less partisanship in science debates. The blogging web site science 2.0 used a scholarly publication Tuesday to remind us that science data are selectively used and ignored by partisans on the right and the left. The authors’ starting point was a publication in the journal PLOS by American University professor Matthew Nisbet. In the paper, Nisbet divides the public into four groups: scientific optimists, scientific pessimists, conflicted and disengaged. He finds that placement in one group or another often is more dependent on education and economic attainment than partisan position. He suggests that those of us who care about a society driven by well-interpreted scientific data should start our public communication by addressing people’s beliefs about science and its role in society.

The science 2.0 writers use an example from the stem cell field. They remind readers that President Push did not ban embryonic stem cell research as many on the left like to say. He allowed the first ever federal funding of the work, but at such a small narrow trickle, that he severely hindered advancement of the field. (That last sentence is my interpretation, not the science 2.0 writers.)

Don Gibbons

One thought on “Stem cell stories that caught our eye: tissue engineering bone, cartilage for arthritis and partisanship in science

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