Battling COVID and turning back the clock on stem cell funding

Coronavirus

Battling the virus that causes COVID-19 is something that is top of everyone’s mind right now. That’s why CIRM is funding 17 different projects targeting the virus. But one of the most valuable tools in helping develop vaccines against a wide variety of diseases in the past is now coming under threat. We’ll talk about both issues in a live broadcast we’re holding on Wednesday, October 14th at noon (PDT).

That date is significant because it’s Stem Cell Awareness Day and we thought it appropriate to host a meeting looking at two of the most important issues facing the field.

The first part of the event will focus on the 17 projects that CIRM is funding that target COVID-19. This includes three clinical trials aiming to treat people who have been infected with the virus and are experiencing some of the more severe effects, such as damaged lungs.

We’ll also look at some of the earlier stage research that includes:

  • Work to help develop a vaccine
  • Using muscle stem cells to help repair damage to the diaphragm in patients who have spent an extended period on a ventilator
  • Boosting immune system cells to help fight the virus

The second part of the event will look at ways that funding for stem cell research at the federal level is once again coming into question. The federal government has already imposed new restrictions on funding for fetal tissue research, and now there are efforts in Congress to restrict funding for embryonic stem cell research.

The impacts could be significant. Fetal tissue has been used for decades to help develop some of the most important vaccines used today including rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis A, and shingles. They have also been used to make approved drugs against diseases including hemophilia, rheumatoid arthritis, and cystic fibrosis.

We’ll look at some of the reasons why we are seeing these potential restrictions on the medical research and what impact they could have on the ability to develop new treatments for the coronavirus and other deadly diseases.

You can watch the CIRM Stem Cell Awareness Day live event by going here: https://www.youtube.com/c/CIRMTV/videos at noon on Wednesday, October 14th.

Feel free to share news about this event with anyone you think might be interested.

We look forward to seeing you there.

Creating an on-off switch to test stem cell therapy for Parkinson’s Disease

Sometimes you read about a new study where the researchers did something that just leaves you gob smacked. That’s how I felt when I read a study in the journal Cell Stem Cell about a possible new approach to helping people with Parkinson’s Disease (PD).

More on the gob smacking later. But first the reason for the study.

We know that one of the causes of Parkinson’s disease is the death of dopamine-producing neurons, brain cells that help plan and control body movement. Over the years, researchers have tried different ways to try and replace those cells but getting the cells where they need to be and getting them to integrate into the brain has proved challenging.

A team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison think they may have found a way to fix that. In an article in Drug Target Review  lead researcher Dr. Su-Chun Zhang, explained their approach:

“Our brain is wired in such an accurate way by very specialized nerve cells in particular locations so we can engage in all our complex behaviors. This all depends on circuits that are wired by specific cell types. Neurological injuries usually affect specific brain regions or specific cell types, disrupting circuits. In order to treat those diseases, we have to restore these circuits.”

The researchers took human embryonic stem cells and transformed them into dopamine-producing neurons, then they transplanted those cells into mice specially bred to display PD symptoms. After several months the team were able to show that not only had the mice improved motor skills but that the transplanted neurons were able to connect to the motor-control regions of the brain and also establish connections with regulatory regions of the brain, which prevented over stimulation. In other words, the transplanted cells looked and behaved the way they would in a healthy human brain.

Now here comes the gob smack part. The team wanted to make sure the cells they transplanted were the reason for the improved motor control in the mice. So, they had inserted a genetic on-and-off switch into the stem cells. By using specially designed drugs the researchers were able to switch the cells on or off.

When the cells were switched off the mice’s motor improvements stopped. When they were switched back on, they were restored.

Brilliant right! Well, I thought it was.

Next step is to test this approach in larger animals and, if all continues to look promising, to move into human clinical trials.

CIRM is already funding one clinical trial in Parkinson’s disease. You can read about it here.

Testing a drug is safe before you give it to a pregnant woman

Pregnant woman holding medicine.

When a doctor gives you a medication you like to think that it’s safe, that it has been tested to make sure it will do you some good or, at the very least, won’t do you any harm. That’s particularly true when the patient is a pregnant woman. You hope the medication won’t harm her or her unborn child. Now scientists in Switzerland have found a new way to do that that is faster and easier than previous methods, and it uses cell cultures instead of animals.

Right now, drugs that are intended for use in pregnant women have to undergo some pretty rigorous testing before they are approved. This involves lots of tests in the lab, and then in animals such as rats and rabbits. It’s time consuming, costly, and not always accurate because animals never quite mimic what happens in people.

In the past researchers tested new medications in the lab on so-called “embryoid bodies”. These are three-dimensional clumps of cells developed from embryonic stem cells from mice. The problem is that even when tested in this way the cells don’t always reflect what happens to a medication as it passes through the body. For example, some medications can seem fine on the surface but after they pass through the liver can take on toxic qualities. 

So, scientists at ETH Zurich in Basel, Switzerland, developed a better way to test for toxicity.

They took a cell-culture chip and created several compartments on it, in some they placed the embryoid bodies and in others they put microtissue samples from human livers.  The different compartments were connected so that fluid flowed freely from the embryoid bodies to the liver and vice versa.

In a news release, Julia Boos, a lead author of the study, says this better reflects what happens to a medication exposed to a human metabolism.

“We’re the first to directly combine liver and embryonic cells in a body-on-a-chip approach. Metabolites created by the liver cells – including metabolites that are stable for just a few minutes – can thus act directly on the embryonic cells. In contrast to tests on mice, in our test, the substances are metabolised by human liver cells – in other words, just as they would be in the human body when the medication is administered.”

To see if this worked in practice the researchers tested their approach on the chemotherapy drug cyclophosphamide, which is turned into a toxic substance after passing through the liver.

They compared results from testing cyclophosphamide with the new liver/embryoid body method to the older method. They found the new approach was far more sensitive and determined that a 400 percent lower concentration of cyclophosphamide was enough to pose a toxic threat.

The team now hope to refine the test even further so it can one day, hopefully, be applied to drug development on a large scale.

Their findings are published in the journal Advanced Science

First patient treated for colon cancer using reprogrammed adult cells

Dr. Sandip Patel (left) and Dr. Dan Kaufman (center) of UC San Diego School of Medicine enjoy a light-hearted moment before Derek Ruff (right) receives the first treatment for cancer using human-induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs). Photo courtesy of UC San Diego Health.

For patients battling cancer for the first time, it can be quite a draining and grueling process. Many treatments are successful and patients go into remission. However, there are instances where the cancer returns in a much more aggressive form. Unfortunately, this was the case for Derek Ruff.

After being in remission for ten years, Derek’s cancer returned as Stage IV colon cancer, meaning that the cancer has spread from the colon to distant organs and tissues. According to statistics from Fight Colorectal Cancer, colorectal cancer is the 2nd leading cause of cancer death among men and women combined in the United States. 1 in 20 people will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in their lifetime and it is estimated that there will be 140,250 new cases in 2019 alone. Fortunately, Derek was able to enroll in a groundbreaking clinical trial to combat his cancer.

In February 2019, as part of a clinical trial at the Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health in collaboration with Fate Therapeutics, Derek became the first patient in the world to be treated for cancer with human-induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs). hiPSCs are human adult cells, such as those found on the skin, that are reprogrammed into stem cells with the ability to turn into virtually any kind of cell. In this trial, hiPSCs were reprogrammed into natural killer (NK) cells, which are specialized immune cells that are very effective at killing cancer cells, and are aimed at treating Derek’s colon cancer.

A video clip from ABC 10 News San Diego features an interview with Derek and the groundbreaking work being done.

In a public release, Dr. Dan Kaufman, one of the lead investigators of this trial at UC San Diego School of Medicine, was quoted as saying,

“This is a landmark accomplishment for the field of stem cell-based medicine and cancer immunotherapy. This clinical trial represents the first use of cells produced from human induced pluripotent stem cells to better treat and fight cancer.”

In the past, CIRM has given Dr. Kaufman funding related to the development of NK cells. One was a $1.9 million grant for developing a different type of NK cell from hiPSCs, which could also potentially treat patients with lethal cancers. The second grant was a $4.7 million grant for developing NK cells from human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) to potentially treat patients with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML).

In the public release, Dr. Kaufman is also quoted as saying,

“This is a culmination of 15 years of work. My lab was the first to produce natural killer cells from human pluripotent stem cells. Together with Fate Therapeutics, we’ve been able to show in preclinical research that this new strategy to produce pluripotent stem cell-derived natural killer cells can effectively kill cancer cells in cell culture and in mouse models.”

Stories that caught our eye: National Geographic takes a deep dive into iPS cells; Japanese researchers start iPS cell clinical trial for spinal cord injury; and do high fat diets increase your risk of colorectal cancer

Can cell therapy beat the most difficult diseases?

That’s the question posed in a headline in National Geographic. The answer; maybe, but it is going to take time and money.

The article focuses on the use of iPS cells, the man-made equivalent of embryonic stem cells that can be turned into any kind of cell or tissue in the body. The reporter interviews Kemal Malik, the member of the Board of Management for pharmaceutical giant Bayer who is responsible for innovation. When it comes to iPS cells, it’s clear Malik is a true believer in their potential.

“Because every cell in our bodies can be produced from a stem cell, the applicability of cell therapy is vast. iPSC technology has the potential to tackle some of the most challenging diseases on the planet.”

But he also acknowledges that the field faces some daunting challenges, including:

  • How to manufacture the cells on a large scale without sacrificing quality and purity
  • How do you create products that have a stable shelf life and can be stored until needed?
  • How do you handle immune reactions if you are giving these cells to patients?

Nonetheless, Malik remains confident we can overcome those challenges and realize the full potential of these cells.

“I believe human beings are on the cusp of the next big wave of pharmaceutical innovation. The use of living cells to make people better.”

As if to prove Malik right there was also news this week that researchers at Japan’s Keio University have been given permission to start a clinical trial using iPS cells to treat people with spinal cord injuries. This would be the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

Japan launches iPSC clinical trial for spinal cord injury

An article in Biospace says that the researchers plan to treat four patients who have suffered varying degrees of paralysis due to a spinal cord injury.  They will take cells from the patients and, using the iPS method, turn them into the kind of nerve cells found in the spinal cord, and then transplant two million of them back into the patient. The hope is that this will create new connections that restore movement and feeling in the individuals.

This trial is expected to start sometime this summer.

CIRM has already funded a first-of-its-kind clinical trial for spinal cord injury with Asterias Biotherapeutics. That clinical trial used embryonic stem cells turned into oligodendrocyte progenitor cells – which develop into cells that support and protect nerve cells in the central nervous system. We blogged about the encouraging results from that trial here.

High fat diet drives colorectal cancer

Finally today, researchers at Salk have uncovered a possible cause to the rise in colorectal cancer deaths among people under the age of 55; eating too much high fat food.

Our digestive system works hard to break down the foods we eat and one way it does that is by using bile acids. Those acids don’t just break down the food, however, they also break down the lining of our intestines. Fortunately, our gut has a steady supply of stem cells that can repair and replace that lining. Unfortunately, at least according to the team from Salk, mutations in these stem cells can lead to colorectal cancer.

The study, published in the journal Cell, shows that bile acids affect a protein called FXR that is responsible for ensuring that gut stem cells produce a steady supply of new lining for the gut wall. When someone eats a high fat diet it upsets the balance of bile acids, starting a cascade of events that help cancer develop and grow.

In a news release Annette Atkins, a co-author of the study, says there is a strong connection between bile acid and cancer growth:

“We knew that high-fat diets and bile acids were both risk factors for cancer, but we weren’t expecting to find they were both affecting FXR in intestinal stem cells.”

So next time you are thinking about having that double bacon cheese burger for lunch, you might go for the salad instead. Your gut will thank you. And it might just save your life.

Midwest universities are making important tools to advance stem cell research

580b4-ipscell

iPSCs are not just pretty, they’re also pretty remarkable

Two Midwest universities are making headlines for their contributions to stem cell research. Both are developing important tools to advance this field of study, but in two unique ways.

Scientists at the University of Michigan (UM), have compiled an impressive repository of disease-specific stem cell lines. Cell lines are crucial tools for scientists to study the mechanics of different diseases and allows them to do so without animal models. While animal models have important benefits, such as the ability to study a disease within the context of a living mammal, insights gained from such models can be difficult to translate to humans and many diseases do not even have good models to use.

The stem cell lines generated at the Reproductive Sciences Program at UM, are thanks to numerous individuals who donated extra embryos they did not use for in vitro fertilization (IVF). Researchers at UM then screened these embryos for abnormalities associated with different types of disease and generated some 36 different stem cell lines. These have been donated to the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry, and include cell lines for diseases such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s Disease and hemophilia.

Using one such cell line, Dr. Peter Todd at UM, found that the genetic abnormality associated with Fragile X Syndrome, a genetic mutation that results in developmental delays and learning disabilities, can be corrected by using a novel biological tool. Because Fragile X Syndrome does not have a good animal model, this stem cell line was critical for improving our understanding of this disease.

In the next state over, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM), researchers are doing similar work but using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) for their work.

The Human Stem Cell Gene Editing Service has proved to be an important resource in expediting research projects across campus. They use CRISPR-Cas9 technology (an efficient method to mutate or edit the DNA of any organism), to generate human stem cell lines that contain disease specific mutations. Researchers use these cell lines to determine how the mutation affects cells and/or how to correct the cellular abnormality the mutation causes. Unlike the work at UM, these stem cell lines are derived from iPSCs  which can be generated from easy to obtain human samples, such as skin cells.

The gene editing services at UWM have already proved to be so popular in their short existence that they are considering expanding to be able to accommodate off-campus requests. This highlights the extent to which both CRISPR technology and stem cell research are being used to answer important scientific questions to advance our understanding of disease.

CIRM also created an iPSC bank that researchers can use to study different diseases. The  Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell (iPSC) Repository is  the largest repository of its kind in the world and is used by researchers across the globe.

The iPSC Repository was created by CIRM to house a collection of stem cells from thousands of individuals, some healthy, but some with diseases such as heart, lung or liver disease, or disorders such as autism. The goal is for scientists to use these cells to better understand diseases and develop and test new therapies to combat them. This provides an unprecedented opportunity to study the cell types from patients that are affected in disease, but for which cells cannot otherwise be easily obtained in large quantities.

Stem Cell Agency Board Approves 50th Clinical Trial

2018-12-13 01.18.50Rich Lajara

Rich Lajara, the first patient treated in a CIRM-funded clinical trial

May 4th, 2011 marked a landmark moment for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). On that day the Stem Cell Agency’s Board voted to invest in its first ever clinical trial, which was also the first clinical trial to use cells derived from embryonic stem cells. Today the Stem Cell Agency reached another landmark, with the Board voting to approve its 50th clinical trial.

“We have come a long way in the past seven and a half years, helping advance the field from its early days to a much more mature space today, one capable of producing new treatments and even cures,” says Jonathan Thomas, JD, PhD, Chair of the CIRM Board. “But we feel that in many ways we are just getting started, and we intend funding as many additional clinical trials as we can for as long as we can.”

angiocrinelogo

The project approved today awards almost $6.2 million to Angiocrine Bioscience Inc. to see if genetically engineered cells, derived from cord blood, can help alleviate or accelerate recovery from the toxic side effects of chemotherapy for people undergoing treatment for lymphoma and other aggressive cancers of the blood or lymph system.

“This is a project that CIRM has supported from an earlier stage of research, highlighting our commitment to moving the most promising research out of the lab and into people,” says Maria T. Millan, MD, President & CEO of CIRM. “Lymphoma is the most common blood cancer and the 6th most commonly diagnosed cancer in California. Despite advances in therapy many patients still suffer severe complications from the chemotherapy, so any treatment that can reduce those complications can not only improve quality of life but also, we hope, improve long term health outcomes for patients.”

The first clinical trial CIRM funded was with Geron, targeting spinal cord injury. While Geron halted the trial for business reasons (and returned the money, with interest) the mantle was later picked up by Asterias Biotherapeutics, which has now treated 25 patients with no serious side effects and some encouraging results.

Rich Lajara was part of the Geron trial, the first patient ever treated in a CIRM-funded clinical trial. He came to the CIRM Board meeting to tell his story saying when he was injured “I knew immediately I was paralyzed. I thought this was the end, little did I know this was just the beginning. I call it being in the wrong place at the right time.”

When he learned about the Geron clinical trial he asked how many people had been treated with stem cells. “Close to none” he was told. Nonetheless he went ahead with it. He says he has never regretted that decision, knowing it helped inform the research that has since helped others.

Since that first trial the Stem Cell Agency has funded a wide range of projects targeting heart disease and stroke, cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and several rare diseases. You can see the full list on the Clinical Trials Dashboard page on our website.

Rich ended by saying: “CIRM has proven how much can be achieved if we invest in cutting-edge medical research. As most of you here probably know, CIRM’s funding from Proposition 71 is about to run out. If I had just one message I wanted people to leave with today it would be this, I will do everything I can to make sure the agency gets refunded and I hope that all of you will join me in that fight. I’m excited for the world of stem cells, particularly in California and can’t wait to see what’s on the horizon.”

lubinbert-mug

The CIRM Board also took time today to honor Dr. Bert Lubin, who is stepping down after serving almost eight years on the Board.

When he joined the Board in February, 2011 Dr. Lubin said: “I hope to use my position on this committee to advocate for stem cell research that translates into benefits for children and adults, not only in California but throughout the world.”

Over the years he certainly lived up to that goal. As a CIRM Board member he has supported research for a broad range of unmet medical needs, and specifically for curative treatments for children born with a rare life-threatening conditions such as Sickle Cell Disease and Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) as well as  treatments to help people battling vision destroying diseases.

As the President & CEO of Children’s Hospital Oakland (now UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland) Dr. Lubin was a leader in helping advance research into new treatments for sickle cell disease and addressing health disparities in diseases such as asthma, diabetes and obesity.

Senator Art Torres said he has known Dr. Lubin since the 1970’s and in all that time has been impressed by his devotion to patients, and his humility, and that all Californians should be grateful to him for his service, and his leadership.

Dr. Lubin said he was “Really grateful to be on the Board and I consider it an honor to be part of a group that benefits patients.”

He said he may be stepping down from the CIRM Board but that was all: “I am going to retire the word retirement. I think it’s a mistake to stop doing work that you find stimulating. I’m going to repurpose the rest of my life, and work to make sure the treatments we’ve helped develop are available to everyone. I am so proud to be part of this. I am stepping down, but I am devoted to doing all I can to ensure that you get the resources you need to sustain this work for the future.”

Stem cell study shows how smoking attacks the developing liver in unborn babies

smoking mom

It’s no secret that smoking kills. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) smoking is responsible for around 480,000 deaths a year in the US, including more than 41,000 due to second hand smoke. Now a new study says that damage can begin in utero long before the child is born.

Previous studies had suggested that smoking could pose a serious risk to a fetus but those studies were done in petri dishes in the lab or using animals so the results were difficult to extrapolate to humans.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland got around that problem by using embryonic stem cells to explore how the chemicals in tobacco can affect the developing fetus. They used the embryonic stem cells to develop fetal liver tissue cells and then exposed those cells to a cocktail of chemicals known to be found in the developing fetus of mothers who smoke.

Dangerous cocktail

They found that this chemical cocktail proved far more potent, and damaged the liver far more, than individual chemicals. They also found it damaged the liver of males and females in different ways.  In males the chemicals caused scarring, in females it was more likely to negatively affect cell metabolism.

There are some 7,000 chemicals found in cigarette smoke including tar, carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, ammonia, and radioactive compounds. Many of these are known to be harmful by themselves. This study highlights the even greater impact they have when combined.

Long term damage

The consequences of exposing a developing fetus to this toxic cocktail can be profound, including impaired growth, premature birth, hormonal imbalances, increased predisposition to metabolic syndrome, liver disease and even death.

The study is published in the Archives of Toxicology.

In a news release Dr. David Hay, one of the lead authors, said this result highlights yet again the dangers posed to the fetus by women smoking while pregnant or being exposed to secondhand smoke :

“Cigarette smoke is known to have damaging effects on the foetus, yet we lack appropriate tools to study this in a very detailed way. This new approach means that we now have sources of renewable tissue that will enable us to understand the cellular effect of cigarettes on the unborn foetus.”

Creating partnerships to help get stem cell therapies over the finish line

Lewis, Clark, Sacagawea

Lewis & Clark & Sacagawea:

Trying to go it alone is never easy. Imagine how far Lewis would have got without Clark, or the two of them without Sacagawea. Would Batman have succeeded without Robin; Mickey without Minnie Mouse? Having a partner whose skills and expertise complements yours just makes things easier.

That’s why some recent news about two CIRM-funded companies running clinical trials was so encouraging.

Viacyte Gore

First ViaCyte, which is developing an implantable device to help people with type 1 diabetes, announced a collaborative research agreement with W. L. Gore & Associates, a global materials science company. On every level it seems like a natural fit.

ViaCyte has developed a way of maturing embryonic stem cells into an early form of the cells that produce insulin. They then insert those cells into a permeable device that can be implanted under the skin. Inside the device, the cells mature into insulin-producing cells. While ViaCyte has experience developing the cells, Gore has experience in the research, development and manufacturing of implantable devices.

Gore-tex-fabricWhat they hope to do is develop a kind of high-tech version of what Gore already does with its Gore-Tex fabrics. Gore-Tex keeps the rain out but allows your skin to breathe. To treat diabetes they need a device that keeps the immune system out, so it won’t attack the cells inside, but allows those cells to secrete insulin into the body.

As Edward Gunzel, Technical Leader for Gore PharmBIO Products, said in a news release, each side brings experience and expertise that complements the other:

“We have a proven track record of developing and commercializing innovative new materials and products to address challenging implantable medical device applications and solving difficult problems for biologics manufacturers.  Gore and ViaCyte began exploring a collaboration in 2016 with early encouraging progress leading to this agreement, and it was clear to us that teaming up with ViaCyte provided a synergistic opportunity for both companies.  We look forward to working with ViaCyte to develop novel implantable delivery technologies for cell therapies.”

AMD2

How macular degeneration destroys central vision

Then last week Regenerative Patch Technologies (RPT), which is running a CIRM-funded clinical trial targeting age-related macular degeneration (AMD), announced an investment from Santen Pharmaceutical, a Japanese company specializing in ophthalmology research and treatment.

The investment will help with the development of RPT’s therapy for AMD, a condition that affects millions of people around the world. It’s caused by the deterioration of the macula, the central portion of the retina which is responsible for our ability to focus, read, drive a car and see objects like faces in fine details.

RPE

RPT is using embryonic stem cells to produce the support cells, or RPE cells, needed to replace those lost in AMD. Because these cells exist in a thin sheet in the back of the eye, the company is assembling these sheets in the lab by growing the RPE cells on synthetic scaffolds. These sheets are then surgically implanted into the eye.

In a news release, RPT’s co-founder Dennis Clegg says partnerships like this are essential for small companies like RPT:

“The ability to partner with a global leader in ophthalmology like Santen is very exciting. Such a strong partnership will greatly accelerate RPT’s ability to develop our product safely and effectively.”

These partnerships are not just good news for those involved, they are encouraging for the field as a whole. When big companies like Gore and Santen are willing to invest their own money in a project it suggests growing confidence in the likelihood that this work will be successful, and that it will be profitable.

As the current blockbuster movie ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is proving; with the right partner you can not only make magic, you can also make a lot of money. For potential investors those are both wonderfully attractive qualities. We’re hoping these two new partnerships will help RPT and ViaCyte advance their research. And that these are just the first of many more to come.

Let’s Be Clear: Stem Cells and Popular Culture

The following is a guest blog from Matt Donne, PhD. Thoughts expressed here are not necessarily those of CIRM.

It was during winter break of my Junior year in college that the gap between the general public’s understanding of embryonic stem cell biology and the reality of that research quickly came into focus for me.

I was out to lunch with my grandmother and excited to see her to share my new research project I had started with human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). While enjoying our lunch together discussing school, relationships, and such, a friend of hers approached to say hello. Immediately my grandmother proclaimed, “This is my grandson Matthew and he is a scientist. He just started working with stem cells to cure cancer.”  Now this statement was not true, but harmless enough so I figured I would let it go. Her friend’s eyes immediately grew large and she quickly felt it necessary to educate us on what exactly I was doing by working with “stem cells”. In her friend’s words I was, “killing babies and sucking out their brains to make stem cells.”

My grandmother and I were both silenced and confused, for different reasons, as her friend quickly walked away in disgust. My grandmother asked concernedly if this was in fact true. I explained that this could not be farther from the truth, and that this friend was extremely misinformed. We then discussed the difference between a developing fetus and the 3 to 5 day old embryos from which these hESC lines were derived. We also discussed these embryos were donated by couples who seek in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments. Specifically, the donated embryos were those which the couple no longer needed and therefore decided to donate them for research proposes to help advance both science and medicine rather than discard them. This fact-based explanation eased many of the fears my grandmother had as to the research. This, however, left in me a fear that over 10 years later I still see playing out in popular culture.

Most recently my frustration toward this misinformation came when I saw a posting by VICE of a carton entitled ‘Magical Stem Cells’. The cartoon was a truly gross and inaccurate representation of where embryonic stem cells are derived, as it portrayed a unicorn fetus essentially being harvested to create “magical” stem cells that can turn into any other cell, tissue or organ in the body. This is wholly inaccurate. It is possible that the cartoon was created to positively promote the potential of stem cell biology, however anyone somewhat versed in the field would find it misleading, disgusting, scary and dangerous.

Vice comic: Magical Stem Cells

Vice comic: Magical Stem Cells

Similarly, the creators of South Park several years back had an episode in which Christopher Reeves was essentially a spokesperson for the research and its potential to cure spinal cord injury. They equated stem cell therapies, like the VICE cartoon, to the use of fetal tissue for therapeutic purposes. Let’s be clear, stem cell biology and stem cell research does not universally mean the use of fetal tissue. In fact, most often the fields of stem cell biology are broken down into three main groups: hESCs, induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs, which are adult cells that have been re-engineered to have embryonic-like qualities), and the broader category of adult stem cells. Use of cells taken from aborted human fetuses, either for research or clinical trials, is in fact the exception to the rule.

The term “stem cell” was first used in 1877 when German biologist Ernst Haeckel wrote about a “stem cell” being the fertilized egg from which all cells of the placenta and body arise.1 In 1981, U.C. San Francisco’s Gail Martin became the first scientist to isolate pluripotent cells (which can turn into any other cell in the body) from mouse embryos and coined the term “embryonic stem cells” to describe them.2 It was not until 1998 that James Thomson created the first hESC lines.3

A few interesting facts about blastocyst stage embryos, which were the source of the first embryonic stem cell lines, are that they look the same in mice, humans, dogs, horses, and cows and are typically comprised of no more than several hundred cells. It is also important to note that embryonic stem cells, by definition, can only come from up to blastocyst stage embryos (about 5-7 days after fertilization). Cells taken from embryos older than the blastocyst stage have already begun specializing into specific cell lineages, and are no longer capable of making all cell types.

This, I think, is extremely important to emphasize, as too many people seem to believe that we get our embryonic stem cells from fetuses. I think it is also important to point out that now several groups have published on potential “embryo-safe” methods of embryonic stem cell derivation4-6, which use a single cell from the early, cleavage stage embryo for derivation. This removal of a single cell from such an early stage embryo has been demonstrated to have no negative consequences to the developing embryo, as it has been used for years in IVF clinics. Development of this technique in turn can help alleviate some of the ethical concerns that people have about the use of donated human embryos for research. Lastly, advances in the techniques and use of both iPSCs and adult stem cells alleviate any potential concerns raised by hESCs.

What I hope to achieve in this opinion piece is to raise a general awareness that some commonly held views on stem cells need to be overturned. This can only happen through continued open conversations and discussions. An important way to achieve this is through outreach and education of young students to get them excited about science and the potential of stem cell biology. Resources such as CIRM’s free online education portal and Outschool’s online teaching platform are great example of how to make this happen. Using social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to post peer-reviewed publications or review articles is another way to make a positive impact.

There are so many amazing things happening in the various fields of stem cell biology that now, more than ever, it is important we lean on facts and push for communicating truths to further our progress of educating the public. What I ask of you at this point is to not sit back and shake your head when you see or read something you know is wrong, such as VICE’s “magical stem cells” cartoon. Please say something, and teach someone.   

Matt Donne

Matt Donne

Matt Donne recently finished his PhD in Developmental and Stem Cell Biology at the University of California, San Francisco, where he was awarded a CIRM Fellowship. Previously he was a CIRM student at San Francisco State University.  He has shared his passion for stem cell biology with students of all ages for over 10 years. His passion for stem cell biology and animals has brought him to VitroLabs, where he is changing how leather is manufactured.


Citations:

1          Ramalho-Santos, M. & Willenbring, H. On the origin of the term “stem cell”. Cell Stem Cell 1, 35-38, doi:10.1016/j.stem.2007.05.013 (2007).

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