Stem cell stories that caught our eye: brain repair, bone repair and boosting old stem cells

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.

Potential drugs to make brain stem cells do a better job.
Patients with strokes and neurodegenerative diseases usually have a double whammy of faulty self-repair mechanisms. The brain is one of those organs that has few adult stem cells and most patients are decidedly senior citizens with older stem cells that are less robust.

Most teams looking to get around that problem implant stem cells from young donors, but that can be invasive and the cells often don’t survive long in a non-native environment. So, several groups are looking for ways to get those few stem cells in our adult brain to do a better job. One team, at the Australian company Novogen, announced this week that they had discovered a class of compounds that seems to promote the growth and activation of adult brain stem cells.

Yahoo Finance picked up the company’s press release, which is a little excessively promotional, but does get the basic facts straight. If these compounds end up working in people, they could make a big difference in healing neural conditions.

Another option for boosting older stem cells. A team at Moscow State University has published a review of the research into why stem cells in older people are not as good at repairing damage, and some early attempts to boost the performance of those cells. The short write up of the paper in Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News gives very little detail, but it does have a link to the full article in BioResearch Open Access, which is relatively understandable.
old mouse
They give some focus to the use of a patient’s mesenchymal stem cells from their bone marrow or fat to treat heart problems. They site a few studies that suggest if you stress the cells in the lab after you harvest them from the patient and before you inject the back to where they are needed, they seem to do a better job. In particular, they cited growing the cells in an extremely low-oxygen environment.

A new type of bone stem cell discovered.
The dogma has been that mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) found in the bone give rise to any new bone or cartilage we may need as adults. But those cells also have roles making a few other types of cells. Now, researchers on both coasts, at Stanford and Columbia, have discovered a more specific stem cell that just gives rise to bone and cartilage.

Both research papers appeared in today’s online edition of the journal Cell and Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News wrote up the Columbia study. It points out that while it remains true that MSCs can generate bone, the newly discovered cells may be more efficient doing it and may be better targets for therapies that try to speed bone healing. The university’s press release was picked up by ScienceDaily and provides a bit more detail.

The Stanford team, after isolating the bone-specific stem cells, took the work another step. That work could be key to helping older patients who often have slow healing fractures because they have fewer active stem cells of any type. The CIRM-funded researchers discovered a set of genetic factors that can be used to reprogram fat cells to become the specialized bone stem cell. In a press release picked up by HealthCanal one of the senior authors on the paper, Michael Longaker, described how the finding might allow patients to avoid the painful procedure of harvesting bone for bone grafts.

“Using this research you might be able to put some of your own fat into a biomimetic scaffold, let it grow into the bone you want in a muscle or fat pocket, and then move that new bone to where it’s needed.”


The cancer stem cell debate explained.
Jocelyn Kaiser wrote the best, most balanced, piece I have read on the whole debate over whether cancer stem cells exist, and more important, will targeting them really make a difference in the number of patients we cure of cancer? Even though it appears in the journal Science it is written as a feature and is pretty approachable to a lay audience.

A book for stem cell wonks.
David Warburton, a CIRM-grantee at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, has published a book of essays that cover a broad swath of the field of regenerative medicine. The essays range from the minutia of what it takes to set up a stem cell lab to the pipeline of potential therapies. I have to admit I have a personal prejudice to like the book given his quote in the press release on EurekAlert:

“Those of us working in this field in California are positively impacted by the critical funding provided by the citizens of the state through the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. I believe this book shows that the hope behind CIRM – the hope that stem cells can really revolutionize medicine and human health – is fully justified.”

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