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7 posts from November 2011

November 29, 2011

Unsolved mysteries in the intestinal crypt

by Angela C.H. McDonald

Crypt_dungeonsmThe intestine is an amazing organ. In fact, when I am not reading research related to my thesis, I read about the stem cell population that maintains our gut, the intestinal stem cells (ISCs). And sometimes, the reading reveals most unusual mysteries. 

ISCs have their work cut out for them. They must renew the lining of our intestines every few days throughout our lives. ISCs reside in a niche located somewhere within the glands that line our gut tissue (also known as intestinal crypts) however; much speculation and controversy has surrounded the exact identity and location of the ISCs. 

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November 23, 2011

Early data promising for first clinical trial using human cardiac stem cells

by Ben Paylor

A week of highs and lows for the global stem cell community brought with it a healthy dose of optimism for cardiac stem cell researchers. Pilot data from Dr. Roberto Bolli and colleagues’ landmark SCIPIO (Stem Cell Infusion in Patients with Ischemic CardiOmyopathy) clinical trial, published in The Lancet last week, provides much needed new momentum for the therapeutic potential of cardiac stem cells (CSCs).

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November 17, 2011

Not all doom and gloom: Major investment in UK stem cell therapy initiative

While many researchers will feel disheartened by last month’s ruling in the Court of Justice of the European Union that prohibits scientific research patents on human embryonic stem cell products (see Ubaka Ogbogu’s article), it seems some positive news is emerging from Europe as well. Specifically, the United Kingdom has recently promised a huge investment in the development of a major cell therapy centre.

In an effort to emerge from the recession, the UK government has launched a program through its Technology Strategy Board that will create a series of Technology and Innovation Centres. Building off David Cameron’s 2010 announcement, the investment is not trivial (£220 million or ~$350 million) and the idea is to take advantage of the UK’s strengths in various research sectors to build an environment of business development mixed with research advances and opportunities.

The cell therapy centre will build on the UK’s expertise in stem cells and regenerative medicine and is described as “a unique centre where academics, businesses and clinicians (i.e. medical professionals with a special interest in cell therapies) will work together to focus on the commercial development of cutting edge technologies in cell therapy.” According to a recent article in the Guardian the centre has already gained the support of major multinational pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer, GSK, and Astra-Zeneca, which should provide a good base of investment for such a lofty project.

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November 16, 2011

Finances halt first-ever FDA approved human embryonic stem cell clinical trial

by Angela C.H. McDonald

The stem cell community was shocked to hear Geron Corporation’s announcement on Monday that the company will immediately discontinue its stem cell programs including its much-publicized Phase I clinical trial for the treatment of spinal cord injury. 

Following a strategic review of costs and regulatory hurdles involved with their stem cell program, Geron has decided to instead focus its efforts on ongoing cancer trials. Dr. John Scarlett, CEO of Geron Corporation announced yesterday that “by narrowing our focus to the oncology therapeutic area, we anticipate having sufficient financial resources to reach these important near-term value inflection points for shareholders without the necessity of raising additional capital. This would not be possible if we continue to fund the stem cell programs at the current levels.”  

It should be noted that Dr. Scarlett assumed the role of CEO in September of this year. Scarlett is a cancer specialist, which has spurred questions whether this has influenced the decision to terminate Geron’s stem cell program.

It has been a long road for Geron to reach the Phase I clinical trail stage of their human embryonic stem cell trial. Years were spent in preclinical trials, where Geron successfully treated injured rats by injecting oligodendrocyte progenitor cells derived from human embryonic stem cells into spinal cord lesions, improving locomotion.   

In 2008, Geron initiated a Phase I trail but it was put on hold when in animal studies, microscopic cysts where found at injection sites. Additional preclinical studies resolved concerns around these cysts and Geron again initiated Phase I of this trial in October 2010.

Just a few weeks ago, Geron presented a clinical update for the Phase I trial at the Pre-Conference Symposia of the joint 2011 American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine and American Society of Neuro-Radiology Annual Meeting in Atlanta. At this time, the cells had been administered to four thoracic spinal cord injury patients. Clinical data showed no indication of complications related to the surgical procedure or injected cells.However, Geron representatives did report a few minor problems related to immunosuppressive drugs.

Phase I clinical trials are meant to address safety of an experimental treatment and not meant to measure effectiveness.

Although the decision to end this trial appears to be a strategic move for Geron based on finances, many stem cell researchers are questioning whether Geron is throwing in the towel too soon for the wrong reasons. Reports late yesterday indicated the company's stocks were at an all time low following the announcement. Chatter in the stem cell field suggests that the four patients treated to date have shown no signs of efficacy. Could this be the real reason Geron is ending the trial? Many scientists favour this hypothesis (have a look at recent posts on the Knoepfler blog to see reaction and good further discussion on this topic). 

The premature end to the first FDA-approved human embryonic stem cell clinical trial comes as sad and surprising news to the stem cell community. The field is now left questioning what will happen to the future of embryonic stem cell research?  Will this event slow the translation of this research into the clinic?  Has Geron now set a precedent that human embryonic stem cell clinical trials are not worth the money? Not worth the risk? If Geron can’t afford to fund a human embryonic stem cell clinical trial, who can?


November 15, 2011

New York loves stem cells

by Lisa Willemse

CaulfieldsmArt shows are not exactly routine activities for those who work in research, let alone in the field of stem cells. So when an art exhibit that examines our perceptions of biotechnology and stem cell research opens in New York, it's something of an occasion. Even more so if New York embraces the show right back, which certainly appeared to be the case of the crowd in attendance, as well as some of the other activities planned around the exhibit.

We've blogged about the Perceptions of Promise exhibit before - the inaugurual exhibit in Calgary early in 2011 garnered a fair bit of attention from critics and the popular press, but the show's presence at the Chelsea Art Museum (running until November 19) somehow underscores the importance of this endeavour. 

MillssmMaybe it's because having a show in a trendy New York gallery is a proud achievment for any artist. Maybe it's that all-too-Canadian need to be recognized outside our own country. I'd like to think it has more to do with the importance of the topic itself, which we have so often seen can be polarized and clouded with hype as well as legal, political, economic and religious overtones.

Ingram_smPersonally -- and I'm not alone in this sentiment -- I think there needs to be more thoughtful and informed discsussion about biotechnology in atypical locations -- not in labs, but in coffee joints, at dinner parties, on the street, in schools. And if shows such as this one help achieve this, by asking people to think about what it means to them and to stimulate interest and greater understanding, so much the better.

Read full news release

Images all from Perceptions of Promise at the Chelsea Art Museum, NY. Top artwork by Sean Caulfield, centre by Royden Mills, bottom by Liz Ingram and Bernd Hildebrandt

November 08, 2011

Cancer stem cells revealing their many secrets

by Lisa Willemse

Caarts_cancerheartsyou_webLast week, Statistics Canada released a report with figures detailing the cause of death in which it noted that, for the first time, cancer had eclipsed heart disease as the leading cause of death in every province and territory in the country. According to the report, cancer accounted for 30% of all deaths in Canada in 2008. Worldwide, cancer can be attributed to 13% of all deaths.

It seems a fitting time to review some of the latest findings on stem cells and cancer.

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November 03, 2011

Better, faster biomaterials design with high throughput technology

by Angela C.H. McDonald

In the body, cells receive instructive signals from their niche, but how do researchers direct stem cells to perform a specific function? Researchers supply cues to cells in the form of growth factors, small molecules, cell culture density, culture surface and biomaterial design. Cells respond to these cues by altering cellular processes such as cytoskeletal organization, proliferation, adhesion, migration, secretory behaviour and differentiation.

Of particular interest to materials scientists is the cell's response to surfaces it sits on. A growing body of research is focused on enhancing biomaterial function by manipulating a number of material design parameters including the surface or topography of the materials themselves (reviewed here).

In regenerative medicine, biomaterials can function as support for cells and tissue transplanted into the body, templates for tissue regeneration and substrates for delivery and release of biological substances such as growth factors or cells into the body. The intended function of a biomaterial will inform biomaterial design strategies to elicit a specific cellular response. 

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