Stem cell stories that caught our eye: cancer therapy with broad aim, lupus and politics again

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.

Attack on cancer stem cell advancing with a broad aim. Most of the advances in cancer in recent years require matching very specific therapies to a narrow set of patients with a specific genetic vulnerability—so called personalized cancer care. But this type of therapy is very expensive and frankly disappointing to the majority of patients who don’t fit the profile of responders. This week a CIRM-funded Disease Team was in the spotlight at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research for a therapy that has a very broad aim. The Stanford team plans to begin clinical trials later this year with a protein called an antibody that blocks a signal on the surface of cancer stem cells that inhibits our immune system’s ability to seek out and destroy tumors. The researchers have dubbed this signal the “don’t eat me gene” and this gene, CD47, seems to be present on a wide array of tumor types, which means the antibody might work in many cancers. It has in mice, but . . .

The cancer researchers are meeting in San Diego this year, and the San Diego Union Tribune ran a story about the Stanford presentation there. The clinical trial we will be funding with the therapy targets leukemia and you can read about our work to target those cancer stem cells in our leukemia fact sheet.

Cord Blood Benefit seen in lupus, but transient. medpageTODAY did a nice analysis of a study using stem cells from umbilical cord blood for treating lupus in patients that had failed conventional therapy. The Chinese team had used the mesenchymal type stem cells in the cord blood, which are known to have some anti-inflammatory properties. In the multicenter trial, 60 percent of the 40 patients who had received the stem cells had a major or partial clinical response to the therapy. But as usual with medpageTODAY, the author put the numbers in perspective. She noted that we don’t know what the cells do to elicit the response, and can only speculate that they secrete chemicals that tamp down the autoimmune reaction of the disease. Also, they noted that the cells do no stay in the patients for long periods and a third of the responders had relapsed within a year, suggesting the need for retreatment.

Scarless, baby-smooth wound healing possible? While it is easy to dismiss the social value of scarless wound healing—envisioning waiting rooms at cosmetic surgery centers—severe scaring can be very debilitating such as with severe injuries around the eyes or fingers. It turns out that babies are born with legendary soft skin, in part, because if they have any skin tears in the womb, their skin stem cells are different from our adult skin stem cells. They can heal wounds without any scaring. A team at Stanford has now isolated and identified these fetal skin stem cells opening up the possibility of finding out how they accomplish the scarless healing and replicating that method in adult tissue. Science Codex picked up a press release from the journal Advances in Wound Care and the release has a link to the free-access journal.

A week to remember the controversies underlying our field. Scientific American posted a blog this week with a nice time of the various actions by Congress and the executive branch that have impacted our ability to study and gain the benefits from stem cells. Then Nature posted a blog announcing that the National Institutes of Health had closed its center dedicated to stem cell research for no disclosed reason, although there is much buzzing in the community. Next, Inside Science posted that the anti-embryonic stem cell forces in the European Union had gathered enough signatures to put a measure on the ballot there. Then today, numerous outlets ran a story about South Carolina joining the long list of states that have introduced “personhood” legislation that would declare a fertilized egg a person and end up banning much stem cell research. Here is a version from the Charlotte Observer. Let’s hope the voters in this state, like every prior state where the measure has been introduced, muster the will to defeat it.

Don Gibbons

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