Stem cell stories that caught our eye: the future of iPS cells, a biopen for arthritis, shistosomiasis and early embryos

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.

Discoverer predicts bright clinical future for iPSCs. Shinya Yamanaka, who won the Nobel Prize in 2012 for figuring out how to reprogram adult cells into embryonic-like stem cells, predicts the resulting induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) will soon make it out of the lab and into clinical practice in increasing numbers. In an interview in the Nikkei Asian Review he said iPS research is “entering a second stage.” The interview occurred during a conference marking the 10th anniversary of his discovery.




Yamanaka told the publication he wanted to establish a method to transplant nerve tissue made from iPS cells into patients, suggesting Kyoto University intends to test such a treatment in Parkinson’s patients in the next year or so. This work has garnered major support from the Japanese science ministry, which is pushing for added clinical trials with blood platelets and cartilage created from iPS cells and eventually with liver and kidney tissue. Yamanka’s institute at the University receives about $35 million a year from the government, but he has big plans that will require added support from industry partners.


 “My dream is that a young person will come upon ideas I haven’t thought of and win the Nobel Prize.”


Biopen to deposit stem cells in sore knees. People like me who write for a living often talk about the power of the pen.  Now the millions of people around the world who have joined me with a diagnosis of arthritis will be rooting for the power of a different type of pen. An Australian team has developed a biopen that can precisely lay down a new layer of cartilage where it is needed.

For now it is still only helping out aching lab animals, but once fully developed the pen holds great promise for people with arthritis and sports injuries. Loaded with stem cells embedded in a gel the biopen lets a surgeon lay down cells in precise rows. More important, like many of the gels used in bioengineering, the one they use becomes rigid when exposed to ultraviolet light and the pen has an ultraviolet light at its tip.

Scientists at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science in Melbourne created the pen and published their work in Biofabrication. They produced a fun video describing the tool which was posted in an article on Forbes.


Parasite’s stem cells help it evade immune system. A nasty little parasitic flat worm causes Shistosomiasis, one of the most devastating tropical diseases. It kills nearly 300,000 people a year, mostly in Africa, and leaves many more unable to work. It chronically infects its victims, damaging organs while evading the host’s immune system.

A team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center now report that the parasite evades immune attack by constantly replacing its outer skin, the tegument, and that it does this via special stem cells. The lead author of the study published in eLife James Collins from Texas explained the importance of the finding in a press release issued by the journal and picked up by Science Newsline.

 “This tissue has long been considered an evolutionary innovation for parasitic flatworms to evade their host’s immune defenses. Our current findings suggest that stem cells are playing a key role in perpetually renewing it, and we believe this is important for the parasite’s ability to survive for decades inside their human host.”

The team tested their hypothesis by depleting the stem cells in some worms and sure enough, the outer skin failed to be replaced. They are now looking for ways to disrupt those stem cells in the parasites in patients to treat their disease.




A blastocyst

Cells in embryo diverge as early as day two.  In writing about stem cells we often talk about the blastocyst with its ball of cells called the inner cell mass surrounded by fluid and an outer membrane. Those cells inside the blastocysts are what we use to develop embryonic stem cells lines. In the embryo those cells go on to develop all the different parts of the body. The membrane, called the trophoblast goes on to become the placenta. But how do the cells in the early embryo decide which ones become the inner cell mass and which become the outer membrane.


It turns out this decision starts as early as day two after fertilization when the embryo is only four cells. Using the latest technology that shows which genes are turned on in individual cells, a team at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. found some cells had highly active Sox21 genes, which is known to be active in stem cells. Other cells had low Sox21 activity and were destined to become the trophoblast and eventually the placenta.

The university issued a press release that was posted by ScienceDaily And The New Scientist wrote their own fun piece on the work.


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