Stem Cell Stories that Caught our Eye: Safety of First Embryonic Cell Trial, Engineered Organs, New Hips

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.

Update on status of bioengineered organs. Kevin Mayer, writing for Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, this week produced the best lay overview I have read on bioengineered organs. Under the heading “bioficial organs” he covers the many ways to create scaffolds that can hold stem cells to create organs. He recounts the successes to date crafting simple organs like the trachea, bladder, vagina or nostril. He talks about the possibilities and limitations of using 3D printing to scale up production of those organs, and delves into recent reports of creating organ-like tissue on chips to be used for disease modeling and drug screening. CIRM covered many of these same topics in our workshop on Opportunities and Challenges for Tissue Repair and Regeneration.

First embryonic stem cell trial called safe. Data from the first-in-human clinical trial of cells derived from embryonic stem cells suggest the stem cell infusions were safe. The data provide welcome news to the field as a whole and hope for the million-plus Americans living with spinal cord injury, the focus of the trial. The biotech company Asterias reported the data at the American Society for Gene and Cell Therapy Thursday. The firm had bought the stem cell assets of Geron, the company that had begun the trial in 2010. In the five patients, all followed for two to three years, the team found no evidence of any ill effects from the stem cell infusion. Also, even though the researchers stopped all immune suppressants 60 days after transplant, they saw no sign of an immune response to the donor cells. TMCnews carried the company’s press release.

CIRM had provided funding for the initial Geron trial, but the company returned the award when they decided to discontinue the trial due to financial considerations. We continue to fund work in the field, which you can read about on our spinal cord injury fact sheet.

Creating mature nerve cells better mimics disease. Many teams have reported creating disease-specific nerves in the lab by creating iPS type stem cells from the skin of patients with neural diseases like Alzheimer’s, but they are less than perfect models of the disease. While they mimic the disease better than any animal model, the nerves resemble those of a newborn, not an older person likely to get the disease. Now a team at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. has developed a process that tricks the maturing iPS stem cells into continuing down the maturation pathway. The result is nerves in a dish that behave more like those in the patient. The website PhysOrg ran a story about the work that is to be published in the May 27th journal Development.

3D printing combined with stem cells for new hip. Deterioration around the site of the hip joint often results in less than optimal results when an artificial hip replaces the bad joint. Another problem is that off-the-shelf sized joints, just like shoes, don’t always fit perfectly. So, a team at the University of Southampton in the UK has developed a one-two-punch to create a better hip. First they used a 3D printer to create a hip and socket that exactly match the patient’s and then they created a bone graft with stem cells to create stronger and better fitting bone behind the socket. The web portal HealthCanal ran the university’s press release.

Ground beef made in the lab. There was a lot of silliness on the web this week about using stem cells to grow hamburgers in the lab. But Popular Science did a good old-fashioned explainer about the actual science behind the concept.

Don Gibbons

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