Stem cell stories that caught our eye: more versatile cells, heart disease and gearing up cell production

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.

Naïve embryonic stem cells more versatile. We often talk about how valuable embryonic stem cells are because they are pluripotent—they can become anything in our bodies. But when you get right down to it, using them in the lab, they can be a bit stubborn and fussy. Sometimes it can be difficult to mature them into certain types of tissue. Part of the reason is they are generally created from embryos that are four or more days old and stem cells at this stage are “primed” and already have some built in preferences of what they would like to become.

Now a team at the University of Washington has created an embryonic stem cell line from an embryo that was only two days old, manipulated them with a lot of trial and error procedures, and eventually created what they call a truly “naïve” stem cell line. They say these cells will be much easier to convert into various tissue types. More important, they have registered the cell line with the National Institutes of Health, which means any researcher can apply for NIH funding to do work using the lines. That should speed up the process of varying the Washington claim. The student paper there, The Daily, did a very nice job writing up the work that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Some better data on stem cells in heart therapy. Over the past couple years numerous trials have reported modestly positive results using mesenchymal stem cells to treat heart failure. These stem cells lure clinical researchers because they can be harvested easily from a patient’s own fat or bone marrow. But the results, while offering some hints of benefit, have not been very exciting. Most of those trials injected the cells through a catheter into the heart’s arteries. Now, a team from the University of Copenhagen has presented data from a trial in which they injected the cells directly into the damaged heart muscle and reported significantly better results at the American College of Cardiology meeting in Washington, D.C. this week.

The lead researcher reported what he called “dramatic” improvements in a number of indicators of heart function, including ejection fraction and, surprisingly, new cardiac muscle. With only 40 patients, the trial was too small to show definitive improvements in what matters most, clinical health. But the group said they are about to begin a multi-center phase 3 clinical trial in Europe that should be able to answer that key question. medpage TODAY, where an old colleague Peggy Peck is editor-in-chief, did its usual well balanced coverage with a number of uninvolved researchers presenting positive and skeptical interpretations of the data.

Gearing up for cell assembly lines. It is nice to see that folks in our field are paying serious attention to what needs to be done to automate and mass produce cell-based therapies. It makes our field seem real, and no longer living under the rubric “promising.” The Scientist did a review of some of the products companies are selling to help teams developing therapies get ready for wider clinical use of their cells. Definitely only for the seriously science wonky, but if you fit that bill, it’s worth a quick read.

CIRM projects advancing toward 9 clinical trials. I enjoyed seeing someone from the mainstream media finally take note of the progress we are making in moving our projects into clinical trials. Kathy Robertson of the Sacramento Business Journal attended a meeting we held last week with patient advocates at the University of California, Davis campus in the state capital. She noted that of our first 14 Disease Teams nine are on target to begin clinical trials by the end of this year. Two already have. Since they did not begin their work until 2010,such a high percent of these initial teams accomplishing that degree of progress in just four years seems pretty impressive.

Don Gibbons

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