Stem cell stories that caught our eye: fingering chemical cancer cause, treating leukemia and getting better ID on 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.

Stem cells model environmental damage. Using human embryonic stem cells to generate prostate tissue in mice, a team at the University of Illinois has shown how the endocrine-disrupting chemical BPA can lead to prostate cancer. They implanted the cells, derived from human stem cells, along with supportive rodent cells in mice and then fed the mice a diet with low levels of BPA. As the cells matured into prostate tissue in the animals the chemical seemed to reprogram the cells in a manner that raises the risk for cancer. The team reported its work at the annual meeting of the Endocrine Society in Chicago this week and the association’s press release was picked up by Bio-Medicine.

Protecting stem cell “home” may be new therapy. A Spanish team has discovered that certain rare leukemias, known as myeloproliferative disorders, seem to be triggered by damage to the area where stem cells hang out in our bone marrow known as the stem cell niche. Normally the niche controls the behavior of blood-forming stem cells but when it gets inflamed that control breaks down the team reported in the journal Nature. But there is good news, they tested a currently available drug in an animal model and it seemed to reverse the damage to the niche and return normal stem cell controls. ScienceDaily ran a story about the work.

Clever trick could make stem cell frequent fliers. Researchers often share stem cells with colleagues around the world by freezing them first. But in some uses, it would be better if the cells could be shipped in living cultures. That usually requires some sort of electrical motor to agitate the vials to keep the cells from clumping, but airlines don’t allow running electric motors in cargo on planes. So a group of engineering students at the University of California, San Diego, has taken cues from old pendulum clocks and developed a spring powered motor that can keep the cells agitated. As our field gets ready to commercialize cell products, there may be times this could help centralize mass production of cells for shipping. Medical Design Technology explained the students’ project.

Getting a better ID on the “other” bone marrow stem cell. Most people know that our bone marrow has blood-forming stem cells, but it also has mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). Those cells can form bone, cartilage and fat and release proteins that seem to direct the work of other stem cells. Those skills have led to more than 200 clinical trials investigating the potential of MSCs to treat many diseases. But those trials have often produced results that are hard to interpret, and many researchers in the field say part of the problem comes from our inability to accurately identify true MSCs resulting in most clinical trials using a mixed population of cells. Now one of the leaders in the field, Sean Morrison at the University of Texas Southwest Medical Center, reports that his team has found a reliable marker for MSCs known as leptin receptor. His current work was in mice, but if it can be duplicated with human cells, it could increase the chances for valuable data coming from MSC trials.

Don Gibbons