Stem cell stories that caught our eye: shutting down cancer stem cells, safer BMT, better gene therapy and a 3rd ear

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.

A new route to shut down cancer stem cells. A team at Texas A&M University has discovered a specific protein’s role in keeping cancer stem cells active and shown the pathway it uses to do its dirty deed. That pathway immediately became a target for future cancer therapy.

Although not universally accepted by all cancer researchers, the theory that cancer stem cells circumvent traditional therapy and keep cancers coming back is gaining credence through studies like the current one. The Texas team looked at the protein FGF that has been implicated in cancer but has not been a target of drug research because it is involved in so much of normal cell processes. It has seemed impossible to halt its bad behavior without inhibiting its good behavior. They tracked down its impact on cells believed to be cancer stem cells and found the pathway it uses for that effect. So, future teams can target this pathway rather than FGF itself and its many roles.

“If we understand how to keep these cells dormant it means that although we may have to live with the presence of cancer stem cells, we can prevent them from causing the cancer to come back,” said one of the study lead authors, Fen Wang. “That’s what we are trying to understand. That is the future of cancer therapy.”

The NewsMedical web portal picked up the university’s release about the research published in The Journal of Biological Chemistry.  CIRM funds several teams trying to thwart cancer stem cells both in blood cancers and in solid tumors.

 

Safer bone marrow transplant. The most common stem cell therapy, commonly called bone marrow transplant, has a more than three-decade record of success treating cancer patients. As doctors have grown more comfortable with the procedure, they expanded its use beyond using a person’s own stem cells and stem cells from immunologically well-matched donors to using cells from only partially matched donors. As this has increased the number of lives saved it has also increased the number of patients put at risk for the horrible complication known as graft versus host disease (GVHD). Besides being painful and debilitating, GVHD frequently ends in death.

A team at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center completed a genetic analysis of transplant patients that did and did not develop GVHD. They found a specific gene marker that increases the risk of the complication by more than 50 percent and the risk of death by 25 percent. The results should push physicians with patients who have the at-risk gene to search harder for a matching donor before they resort to a mismatched transplant.

“Our data provide new information on the role of HLA-DPB1 expression in transplantation associated risks that can be used to guide the selection of donors for future transplant recipients in order to minimize the risk of acute GVHD,” said Effie Petersdorf, one the study authors in an article in MEDPAGETODAY.

The study appears in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine, but anyone who does not want to climb the journal’s pay wall, can get considerable more detail in the MEDPAGE article written by a former colleague from my days editing a national medical magazine, Charles Bankhead. You can trust Charlie to get the story right.

 

Using evolution science to improve gene therapy. The field of gene therapy—providing a correct copy of a gene to someone born with a mutation or using a gene to deliver a desired protein—is finally starting to take off. But one of the oldest tools for getting desired genes into cells, a family of viruses called adeno-associated viruses (AAVs) has serious limitations when trying to directly deliver the gene into people. Most of us have been infected with various AAVs and developed immunity to them. So, our immune system may wipe out the virus carrying the desired payload before it can deliver its goods.

Many teams have developed various forms of AAV that help a bit; making the viruses a little less likely to be recognized. Now, a team at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute has taken a major step down that path using evolutionary science. They used existing records of how the virus has changed over time to construct surface proteins that would not be recognized by the immune systems of most people alive today. Bionity.com wrote about the research that appeared in the journal Cell Reports.

 

ear on arm jpegListen up for the week’s oddest story. An Australian performance artist who goes by the name Stelarc has worked with a team of surgeons to grow an ear on his forearm, which he intends to implant with a microphone connected to the internet so followers of his art can hear what he hears 24/7. Not surprisingly, his family is a little skeptical.

Surgeons built the main part of the ear by implanting a scaffold made from standard materials used in plastic surgery and the artist’s own cells populated it with blood vessels and other tissues. But to grow the exterior ear lobe he intends to work with a team using stem cells, which is why this story appeared in my news feed dozens of times this week.

CNN Style did one of the most thorough write-ups including a good discussion of the ethics of wasting valuable time of medical professionals, something Stelarc himself discussed. He concluded that the value grew from getting the science world and art world to intermingle and better understand each other, something that has been on our soapbox for years.

“But I’ve found there’s a lot of goodwill from people who ordinarily would not have contact with an artist, and ordinarily would not see the reason for wasting time and money and their expertise on doing something like this, and that’s heartening,” Stelarc said.

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