How stem cells made the list of scientific breakthroughs of 2014 (twice actually)

This is the time of year when everyone puts out their lists of the best and worst of the last 12 months. The best movies (”Guardians of the Galaxy”, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) the worst movies (“Guardians of the Galaxy”, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” – it’s all a matter of taste really) the best music etc. You get the picture.

Science imagesSo it’s always fun to see what makes the list of the “biggest scientific breakthroughs” of 2014. I put those in quotations because I always get a little nervous using the word “breakthrough” when talking about stem cells; what seems like a breakthrough one year, could prove out to be a dud the next. Or, worse still, a fake – see yesterday’s blog. But when Science magazine uses the word as part of its article: ‘Breakthrough of the Year: The top 10 scientific achievements of 2014’, I think it has a shot at being accurate.

The list is compiled by the editors of Science, to highlight what they call “a singular scientific achievement”. I’ll tell you what they chose as the winner in a moment, but there are two stem cell stories that were listed as runners-up.

Giving new life to old mice; cartoon courtesy of

Giving new life to old mice; cartoon courtesy of

The first story was about a trio of studies that showed how giving older mice the blood of younger mice can help rejuvenate them in surprising ways, including improving muscle and brain function. We blogged about this work when it came out in May. It’s already being tested to see if it might work in people, with 18 Alzheimer’s patients getting injections of plasma donated by young adults, to see if that can help slow down or halt the progression of the disease.

The second story was about work turning embryonic stem (ES) cells into mature beta cells, the kind of cells found in our pancreas that help produce insulin. These are also the cells that are destroyed in type 1 diabetes. This year researchers found a way to turn ES cells into mass quantities of beta cells, a critical first step in developing a therapy for type 1 diabetes. The next step is to find a way to protect those cells from the same autoimmune reaction that killed the beta cells in the first place.

What’s particular interesting about this work – at least from our perspective – is that we are funding a clinical trial run by ViaCyte that uses this same approach, and has the cells encapsulated in a special device to protect them from the immune system.

Getting two stem cell stories on the list of the biggest scientific stories of the year is no mean achievement, and a sign of the progress the field is making. We’re hoping that 2015 sees even more stem cell stories making positive news headlines.

As for the story named the “Breakthrough of the Year”, it was the ten-year mission that ended with the landing of a spacecraft on a comet 326 million miles away from earth. Coming second to that kind of astonishing achievement is no disgrace.

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