Stem Cell

11
Jun 2014
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ISSCR Screen Capture

What’s the ‘real deal’ on stem cells?

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The day before 3,600 scientists, clinicians, educators and industry professionals from around the world gather in Vancouver next week for the International Society of Stem Cell Researchers’ summit, the public will get a chance to hear about the ‘real deal’ on stem cells.…

The day before 3,600 scientists, clinicians, educators and industry professionals from around the world gather in Vancouver next week for the International Society of Stem Cell Researchers’ summit, the public will get a chance to hear about the ‘real deal’ on stem cells.

Moderated by the Vancouver Sun’s Pamela Fayerman, the Tuesday, June 17th symposium focuses on why stem cells, which have been hailed for the past two decades as having the potential to fight so many diseases, have — with some notable exceptions — been slow to deliver.

The panel that includes Prof. Timothy Caulfield, author of The Cure for Everything and member of our Foundation’s Science Leadership Council, and stem cell transplant recipient Jennifer Molson will tackle the question: Why is it taking so long to make these promised therapies a reality? Industry investment expert Gregory Bonfiglio of Proteus Venture Partners and University of British Columbia stem cell researcher Dr. Kelly McNagny will also share their views.

It’s an important question. The translation of stem cell research discoveries into stem cell therapies takes a long time. It includes securing funding, getting regulatory approvals and conducting rigorous — and hugely expensive — clinical trials. In the meantime, unregulated clinics are popping up around the planet, offering “miracle” stem cell cures that have not been proven safe or effective.

The symposium, sponsored by the Stem Cell Network and the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine, will be held in the OmniMax Theatre at Science World at TELUS World of Science. For more information, click here.

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09
Apr 2014
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Thinking outside the heart

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Stem cell derived mini-heart can pump blood through sluggish veins

A U.S.-based researcher has come up with what she believes is a stem cell solution for sluggish blood flow that could knock the socks off the current standard of care.…

Stem cell derived mini-heart can pump blood through sluggish veins

A U.S.-based researcher has come up with what she believes is a stem cell solution for sluggish blood flow that could knock the socks off the current standard of care.

“Compression stockings have been used since antiquity,” says Dr. Narine Sarvazyan, a researcher at George Washington University in Washington, DC. “So we really haven’t made much progress in treating chronic venous insufficiency.”

The condition is common, affecting between 20-30% of people over the age of 50. It can be particularly distressing for people with diabetes, causing non-healing ulcers to form on their legs or ankles. It can also affect people who are paralyzed and those recovering from surgery.

Dr. Sarvazyan’s solution is to implant a “mini-heart” made of stem cell derived heart muscle cells called cardiomyocytes at the site where the blood is stagnating.  The cells form a cuff that wraps around the problem vein while rhythmically contracting and releasing to move the blood along. You can see a short video of how it works here.

The invention of the mini-heart has caused quite a stir online.  It has been picked up by the Huffington Post, Science Daily and Business Standard

So far, Dr. Sarvazyan has only created “in vitro” (Petri dish) versions of the mini-hearts in her lab. Her next step, after finalizing the design, will be to move to animal tests with rats and, ultimately, pigs. In a best-case scenario, she hopes to begin clinical trials with people after about two years.

The advantage is the mini-hearts can be tailor-made from stem cells extracted from the patient’s own fatty tissue so that there will be no danger of rejection and little risk of inflammation.

“It’s a very different application,” says Dr. Sarvazyan. “Most people who work with these cardiomyocytes have a goal of repairing cardiac muscles. That is pretty much where everyone is aiming.  But the idea came into my mind that we can use the same tissue and actually use it in different locations much more easily. You don’t have to have that much structured muscle. It doesn’t have to have much force. It’s easier to vascularize because it’s smaller.”

Dr. Sarvazyan outlines the advantages in a paper called Thinking Outside the Heart, published, in the Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology and Therapeutics.

“So far I don’t see any downsides,” she told Stem Cell NewsDesk.  “Of course, nature is much smarter than us. It’s possible when we put it in animals, something may happen that we could not predict.  I can’t say for sure that it will work — we definitely need to test it.”

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04
Apr 2014
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After the fury, will STAP stem cells stand up?

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The news this week that a Japanese researcher who claimed to have discovered a much simpler way to create stem cells has been found guilty of misconduct has sent a shock wave through the international stem cell community.…

The news this week that a Japanese researcher who claimed to have discovered a much simpler way to create stem cells has been found guilty of misconduct has sent a shock wave through the international stem cell community.

More importantly, it has everyone wondering:  does this revolutionary new method of making stem cells work?

In January, NewsDesk reported on the excitement generated by reports that researchers at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, working with a team in the Boston, had transformed blood cells from newborn mice into pluripotent cells called STAP cells.

The STAP (stimulus-triggered activation of pluripotency) process stresses the cells by exposing them to trauma, low oxygen levels or mildly acidic solutions so that they revert to an embryonic-stem-cell-like state. Lead author Dr. Haruko Obokata (pictured at right) of the RIKEN Center said work was already underway to replicate the technique with human cells.

Until now there have only been two basic ways of making stem cells: harvesting them from embryos (embryonic stem cells), or genetically reprogramming adult cells to function like embryonic stem cells (induced pluripotent stem cells). To put the impact of Dr. Obokata’s discovery in context, the 2006 discovery of induced pluripotent cells earned her countryman  Dr. Shinya Yamanaka the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2012.

However, on Tuesday, a RIKEN-led committee investigating six problems with the STAP findings, which were published in the high-prestige journal Nature, ruled that in two instances Dr. Obokata had intentionally manipulated data. Both dealt with images of the cells used to support the findings.

CTV carried an Associated Press report in which RIKEN Institute President Dr.  Ryoji Noyori said that, after allowing for an appeal, “disciplinary action would be taken, including calling for retraction of the suspect paper.”  Nature, meanwhile is conducting its own investigation.

For her part, Dr. Obokata has vigorously denied doing anything wrong and is appealing the decision, calling it “a misunderstanding.”

The fracas follows concerns over the use of several duplicated images in the findings as well as reports that scientists working in other labs have been unable to reproduce the same results by using the STAP process. The latter is not entirely surprising: it can take time to get a new process exactly right — especially one that is a revolutionary as what Dr. Obokata’s team came up with.

In fact, the RIKEN investigators haven’t said if STAP is scientifically valid.  Nature News reported that the committee “repeatedly fended off questions about whether the technology works and, thus, whether STAP cells actually exist,” quoting one investigator as saying, “That is beyond the scope of our investigation.”

 

Dr. Janet Rossant, Chief of Research and Senior Scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto urges caution before passing judgment.

“The team in RIKEN is still continuing to believe in the basic finding and will surely be working to revalidate the findings,” Dr. Rossant wrote to NewsDesk in an email. “We await new reports from the lab in Japan and, critically, reports from other labs worldwide as to whether this finding can be readily and robustly replicated.”

So, while the storm around the misrepresented data rages, the scientific world waits to see if STAP stands up to the test of time.

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06
Sep 2013
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Scientists focus on curing blindness

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Want to see the future of stem cell science?  Look in the mirror.

See the retina – the thin black line outside the iris?…

Want to see the future of stem cell science?  Look in the mirror.

See the retina – the thin black line outside the iris? Those are retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells.  And that’s where the stem cell revolution in new treatments likely will begin.

Outstanding advances in treating leukemia, multiple myeloma and other blood-borne cancers notwithstanding, stem cells have yet to deliver the kind of treatments and cures many had hoped would be available by now. That is soon to change. Not in the blink of an eye, but certainly over the next few years.

“I think that blindness is going to be the first disease cured using pluripotent cells,” says Dr. Derek van der Kooy of the University of Toronto.

Dr. van der Kooy, whose team discovered retinal stem cells 13 years ago, bases his prediction on the fact that the retina is an easy target.

“It’s well laminated and there is this fantastic sub retinal space where you can inject the cells perfectly, exactly where they are supposed to go,” says Dr. van der Kooy. “You can actually see what you’re doing – you can look in the eye and see where you’re injecting the cells. With the heart or the brain, you can’t see where they (the stem-cell-derived transplant cells) are going. Also, it’s an incredibly sensitive assay to see whether they work or not: you can see whether vision improves.”

Dr. van der Kooy’s comments come in the wake of Japan’s announcement that it has approved the world’s first human tests using induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. They will be used to produce RPE cells to treat age-related macular degeneration.

Japan’s Dr. Shinya Yamanaka first demonstrated how to create iPs cells in 2006 (in mice) and 2007 (in humans).  Essentially, he came up with a process to take adult skin cells and induce them into becoming pluripotent (capable of differentiating into any cell the body needs) much like human embryonic stem cells. It was an amazing feat for which he won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

The discovery of iPS cells created a whole new source of pluripotent stem cells and, perhaps more significantly, got around ethical concerns about destroying embryos left over from in vitro fertilization to create embryonic stem cell lines.

But there was a problem. Dr. Yamanaka‘s original method used viruses in the reprogramming process, creating a risk of causing mutations and triggering disease.  Other researchers, notably Dr. Andras Nagy at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, have since devised other, non-viral ways of creating the cells to avoid that risk.

Japan invests $1 billion in iPS cells

Clearly, Japan thinks any risk is now negligible. The Wall Street Journal reported in late June that Japan has committed more than $1 billion over the next 10 years to advance iPS cell research and develop clinical applications. The age-related macular degeneration trial – involving just six patients – represents, the WSJ reports, “a big step forward [for Japan] in the race to develop stem-cell therapies.”

Dr. van der Kooy, however, points out that an American company, Advanced Cell Technologies, is already conducting clinical trials to test the safety of RPE cells derived from embryonic stem cells as a therapy for age-related macular degeneration and Stargardt disease (a juvenile form of the condition).

“It is the very first time that people have used iPS cells to try to treat a disease in humans, but conceptually it’s not that different than the ACT trial going on in the States right now,” says Dr van der Kooy. “And there are two other embryonic-stem-cell-derived trials that are going to start: another one in California and one in England. All four will be essentially the same type of trial – attempts to make RPE cells from pluripotent human cells for either macular degeneration or Stargardt’s.”

There is also a potentially crucial Canadian connection to this story.  Dr. Molly Shoichet, a bioengineer and colleague of Dr. van der Kooy at the University of Toronto, has developed a stem cell delivery system that uses a minimally invasive and biodegradable gel called HAMC (pronounced “hammock”) to deliver the progenitor cells to the retina.

“We’ve seen a pro-survival effect in the lab tests and in animal models,” says Dr. Shoichet. “The cells survive better when we deliver them with the gel and they integrate better in the retina.”

So the race is on to cure blindness caused by macular degeneration using with iPS cells and embryonic stem cells. “When you think about it, it’s the general argument for stem cell biology,” says Dr. van der Kooy. “Once cells have degenerated, the only way you’re going to improve them is replace the cells you’re missing.”

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