Stem cell stories that caught our eye: good fat vs. bad fat, the black box of cell reprogramming and Parkinson’s

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.

One day a pill might turn bad fat into good fat. For a few years now several research teams have linked white fat to the bad health effects of fat and brown fat to more positive metabolism and to being leaner. Now, a team at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute has used stem cells in the laboratory as a screening tool to look for drugs that could cause the bad fat to turn into the good fat.

Brown fat derived from stem cells. Image courtesy of Harvard

Brown fat derived from stem cells. Image courtesy of Harvard

They have found two molecules that can prevent fat stem cells from becoming mature white fat and instead direct them to become brown fat. But those two molecules used as pills would likely have too many unintended side effects to become a treatment that would likely need to be taken long-term. So, despite some overblown headlines about a “pill to replace a treadmill,” don’t count on it anytime soon.

That treadmill line came from a story in the Harvard Gazette, but to the school’s credit they did follow-up with the needed caveats:

“The path from these findings to a safe and effective medication may not be easy, and the findings will have to be replicated by other research groups, as well as refined, before they could lead to a clinical treatment.”

Opening up the black box of reprogramming cells. Researchers around the world have been turning adult cells into embryonic-like stem cells ever since Shinya Yamanaka’s Nobel-prize winning work showing it was possible more than six years ago. But no one really knew how it works. And that lack of understanding has made it quite difficult to improve on the poor efficiency and mixed-results of the process.

This led 30 senior scientists at eight institutions around the world to launch a project in 2010 to create an extremely detailed map of all the switching on and off of genes over time during the weeks it takes to reprogram adult cells to become “pluripotent” stem cells. The effort, called Project Grandiose, reported its results this week in a series of three papers in the journal Nature Communications. The name comes in part from the massive size of the data sets involved. Files could not be sent electronically. The teams were shipping memory storage devices around the world by courier. The leader of the project, Andras Nagy of Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto described the project in a review of the field in Nature:

“It was the first high-resolution analysis of change in cell state over time. I’m not shy about saying grandiose.”

That journal review provides the best history of reprogramming that I have read and it is written on a level that a lay science hobbyist could understand. It gives a good explanation for one of the surprise findings from Project Grandiose that got a little over-played in some coverage. That was discovery of a new type of pluripotent stem cell called F Class, not referring to Mercedes car lines, but rather the fact that the cell clusters in a lab dish look fuzzy. The process that creates them in the lab seems to be more efficient than traditional reprogramming.

The critical output of the international project is more practical. Researchers around the world now have myriad new ways to think about improving the production of reprogrammed stem cells. Ken Zaret of the University of Pennsylvania, and a long time toiler in the field told the author of the Nature review this work opens up options for more reliable sources of cells to be used in human medicine:

“The motivation of my research is to treat patients. Anything that helps push iPS cells into the clinic excites me.”

Stem cells from inside the nose treat Parkinson’s in rats. A type of stem cell found in tissue that in humans would be thrown out after sinus surgery was retrieved from rats and then injected into the parts of their brains that do not function properly in Parkinson’s disease (PD). After 12 weeks the cells had migrated to where they were needed and matured into the type of nerve cell needed to cure PD and improved the function of the animals.

The cells, called inferior turbinate stem cells, could be a way to use a patient’s own stem cells as therapy for PD and avoid issues of immune rejection of donor cells, which may or may not be an issue in the brain, but this would remove a layer of risk. The work by a team at the University of Bielefeld and Dresden University of Technology in Germany was published in the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine and the Houston Chronicle picked up the journal’s press release.

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