NIH-scientists are told to stop buying fetal tissue for research, highlighting importance of CIRM’s voter-created independence

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National Institutes of Health

The news that President Trump’s administration has told scientists employed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that they can’t buy any new human fetal tissue for research has left many scientists frustrated and worried.

The news has also highlighted the reason why voters created CIRM in the first place and the importance of having an independent source of funding for potentially life-saving research such as this.

The Trump administration imposed the suspension of all new acquisitions saying it wants to review all fetal tissue research funded by the federal government. The impact was felt immediately.

In an article on ScienceMag.com, Warner Greene, director of the Center for HIV Cure Research at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, said the decision derailed collaboration between his lab and one at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana. The research focused on an antibody that previous studies showed might prevent HIV from establishing reservoirs in the human body.

“We were all poised to go and then the bombshell was dropped. The decision completely knocked our collaboration off the rails. We were devastated.”

Right now, it’s not clear if the “halt” is temporary or permanent, or if it will ultimately be expanded beyond scientists employed by the NIH to all scientists funded by the NIH who use fetal tissue.

In 2001, President George W. Bush’s decision to impose restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research helped generate support for Proposition 71, the voter-approved initiation that created CIRM. People felt that stem cell research had potential to develop treatments and cures for deadly diseases and that if the federal government wasn’t going to support it then California would.

CIRM Board member, and Patient Advocate for HIV/AIDS, Jeff Sheehy says the current actions could have wide-reaching impact.

“While the initial focus of the emerging ban on the use of fetal tissue has been on projects related to HIV, this action undermines a spectrum of vital research initiatives that seek to cure multiple life-threatening diseases and conditions.  Many regenerative medicine cell-based or gene therapies require pre-clinical safety studies in humanized mice created with fetal tissue.  These mice effectively have human immune systems, which allows researchers to examine the effects of products on the immune system. Work to prevent and treat infectious diseases, including vaccine efforts, require this animal model to do initial testing. Development of vaccines to respond to actual threats requires use of this animal model.  This action could have damaging effects on the health of Americans.”

 

CIRM Supported Scientist Makes Surprising Discovery with Parasitic Gut Worms

 

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Image of gut lining and parasites.  Photo courtesy of UCSF/ Michael Fortes

 

It’s no secret that researchers have long believed adult stem cells could contribute to wound healing in the gut and skin, but in a new paper in Nature — a group of scientists at UC San Francisco made a surprising discovery.

Through several experiments using parasitic worms in the mouse gut, they found that as parasites dug into the intestinal walls of mice, the gut responded in an unexpected way – by reactivating a type of cell growth previously seen in fetal tissues.

So why is this important?

Simply put, it gives scientists new targets to go after. According to UCSF CIRM supported scientist Ophir Klein, MD, Ph.D., this discovery could be paradigm-shifting in terms of our understanding of how the mammalian body can repair damage and could help scientists develop more ways to enhance the body’s natural healing abilities.

Adult stem cells in the intestines are vital for maintaining the digestive status quo. The gut lining is made up of epithelial cells which absorb nutrients and produce protective mucus. These cells are replaced every few days by the stem cells at the base of crypts — indentations in the gut lining. Researchers expected that the same stem cells could also help repair tears in the gut.

How did they do it?

Larvae from parasites like H. polygyrus invade the gut lining in a mouse’s intestine, burying themselves to develop in the tissue. Based on prevailing ideas in the field, the scientists predicted that, in response, nearby stem cells would increase their productivity and patch up the worm-created wounds, but that is not what happened.

Instead, signs of the stem cells in worm-infected areas disappeared entirely; fluorescent markers that should have been expressed by one of the genes in the regular stem cell program completely vanished. And yet, even with no identifiable stem cells in the area, the wounded tissue regenerated more quickly than ever.

Researchers spent years trying to resolve this mystery and after a number of false starts and dead ends, the team eventually noticed the recurrence of a different gene, known as Sca-1.

Using antibody staining for the Sca-1 protein, the researchers realized that where the stem cell genes had disappeared, a different gene program was expressed instead: one that resembled the way that mouse guts develop in utero.

Upon their discovery, the researchers wondered whether the reactivation of this fetal program was a specific response to parasite infections, or if it could be a general strategy for many kinds of gut injury. Additional experiments showed that shutting down gut stem cells with irradiation or genetically targeting them for destruction triggered aspects of the same response: despite an absence of detectable stem cell activity, undifferentiated tissue grew rapidly nonetheless.

Later, once the acute injury is repaired, the gut may return to the normal stem cell program of producing differentiated cells that perform specific functions.

Many other injured tissues could benefit from the ability to quickly and efficiently make generalized repairs before returning to specialized adult cell production, opening up therapeutic opportunities. For example, developing treatments that bestow an ability to control the change between adult and fetal genetic programs might offer new strategies to manage conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

How do you know if they really know what they’re saying “yes” to?

How can you not love something titled “Money, Mischief and Science.” It just smacks of intrigue and high stakes.

And when the rest of the title is “What Have We Learned About Doing Stem Cell Research?” you have an altogether intriguing topic for a panel discussion.

Sue and Bill Gross Hall: Photo by Hoang Xuan Pham/ UC Irvine

Sue and Bill Gross Hall: Photo by Hoang Xuan Pham/ UC Irvine

That panel – featuring CIRM’s own Dr. Geoff Lomax, a regular contributor to The Stem Cellar – is just one element in a day-long event at the University of California, Irvine this Friday, November 13.

Super Symposium

The 2015 Stem Cell Symposium: “The Challenge of Informed Consent in Times of Controversy” looks at some of the problems researchers, companies, institutions and organizations face when trying to put together a clinical trial.

In many cases the individuals who want to sign up for a clinical trial involving the use of stem cells are facing life-threatening diseases or problems. Often they have tried every other option available and this trial may be their last hope. So how can you ensure that they fully understand the risks involved in signing up for a trial?

Equally important is that many of the trials now underway now are Phase 1 trials. The main goal of this kind of trial is to show that the therapy is safe and so the number of cells they use is often too small to have any obvious benefit to the patient. So how can you explain that to a patient who may chose to ignore your caveats and focus instead on the hope, distant as it may be, that this could help them?

Challenging questions

The symposium will feature experts in the fields of science, law, technology and ethics as they consider:

  • Does informed consent convey different meanings depending on who invokes the term?
  • When do we know that consent is informed?
  • What are human research subjects entitled to know before, during and after agreeing to participate in clinical trials?
  • How might the pushback on fetal tissue research impact the scientific development of vaccines, research on Alzheimer’s disease or other medical advancements?

So if you are looking for something thought provoking and engaging to do this Friday, here you are:

“The Challenge of Informed Consent in Times of Controversy,” Friday, Nov. 13, 9am – 4:30pm, at the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center on the University of California, Irvine campus.

The symposium will be livestreamed, and a video recording will be available on www.law.uci.edu following the event.

REGISTER: The symposium is free to UCI student, staff and faculty. There is a $20 registration fee for non-UCI attendees. Visit the event page to register.