20 posts categorized "Commentary"

May 19, 2011

Pull your heads out of the sand: Young scientists need to be policy aware

by David Kent

OstrichXSmall In an article I wrote last month on Nature magazine’s "The Future of the PhD" series, I highlighted a thought from Steven Running (Forest Ecologist extraordinaire) who compared today’s PhD student to those going through the system with him in the 1970s:

“The modern PhD student needs to be much more policy aware, because society has many environmental problems to solve, and not much time.”

While Professor Running was mostly speaking about climate change policy and his own research area, his point about being equipped to handle the attention of the public is well taken, especially in this age of hyper-information exchange. Today’s graduate students and young investigators need to be policy aware and the field of stem cells is a great example where the highly successful laboratory heads often find themselves in policy advising and public relations situations.

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May 11, 2011

Science 2.0: Time to throw open the laboratory doors?

by Michelle Ly

Almost three years ago, Scientific American asked if we were entering an age of Science 2.0.  Would science now be conducted in the open access realm –- freely publishing data, drafts and even whole papers? The economic cost of academic publishing has long been considered unsustainable. As well, the lack of freely accessible papers and results is a frequently heard criticism of academic research. Animal rights groups, for example, often use the perceived absence of transparency in science to cast doubt upon ethical practices involving animal testing. 

Open access has the support of many prominent scientists. This support has certainly increased over the years with diverse voices such as stem cell pioneer and cancer researcher James Till and microbiologist Jonathan Eisen joining the fray. But have we ended up in the Science 2.0 that Scientific American speculated?  While some blogs and open access journals have flourished, the majority of published data still ends up in subscription-based journals. 

One area of biology which has consistently embraced open access models is the field of bioinformatics.  Open access tools for genome analysis, molecular modeling and data visualization are common and frequently used. Recently, researchers from the RWTH Aachen University and Kiel University in Germany, together with The Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California, published results detailing a new method for testing stem cells.  he procedure, called PluriTest, is freely available online and may satisfy the needs of both grant-starved researchers and animal rights activists alike. 

The current standard for proving pluripotency in a new cell line is through the generation of human cell derived teratomas in immunodeficient mice. Teratomas are solid tumors which contain a mixture of histologically distinct tissue types. Pluripotency is confirmed through tissue collection and subsequent histological analysis of the teratoma to determine if the cell line was able to form tissues of all three embryonic germ layers -– ectoderm, mesoderm and endoderm.   

Despite its widespread use, teratoma assays are not standardized, raising questions and concerns about the assay’s effectiveness as a stem cell quality control and regulatory tool. As well, the procedure spans 6-8 weeks between cell implantation and histological analysis, which may be unrealistic for use in large scale production.

In contrast, PluritTest uses a pattern recognition algorithm which is able to distinguish between pluripotent and non-pluripotent cell lines without the need for animal models. The algorithm relies on a large database of gene expression patterns from known human stem cell lines and returns results in about ten minutes. One of the authors, Dr. Franz-Josef Muller, describes the standardized verification process of PluriTest as a way for researchers to “forgo data from animal testing laboratories and simultaneously achieve more precise results”. As the use of stem cells in cell therapy and regenerative medicine increases, any method which reduces the cost of cell line production and testing ultimately benefits patients.     

Will it help further the open access cause? The original paper was, ironically, published behind a Nature paywall and lack of access may limit the number of PluriTest early adopters. However, it is encouraging to see the development of free tools in stem cell research and I am hopeful that more will follow.


April 27, 2011

Integrating stem cell technologies into health care: It’s time to get our priorities straight

by Ubaka Ogbogu

While preparing a consulting report on ethical issues associated with priority setting (a.k.a. resource allocation, rationing) in the stem cell research context, I was surprised to find that there are no published Canadian studies of priority-setting matters pertaining specifically to stem cell research or stem cell-based technologies. A search of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research grants database produced 47 research projects (concluded and ongoing) on priority-setting issues, but none focused on the (potential) integration of stem cell technologies into health care (Note: see update at bottom). Emerging biotechnologies are not well represented either; I found only a 2004 study of priority setting for genetic services led by Fiona Miller and Rosanna Weksberg and a 2003 study on a similar topic by Mita Giacomini.

Experts generally agree that new and cutting edge health care technologies give rise to acute issues of priority setting. This is because such technologies often emerge at high cost (in a bid to recoup research and development expenses), and corresponding high public demand places significant constraints on the resources needed to integrate them into health care. Stem cell therapies will likely follow this trend, and considering the interplay of revolutionary promise and persistent controversy attending the field, may even generate novel priority-setting challenges for health care decision makers.

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April 19, 2011

Pre-emptive stem cell banking in high-risk individuals: Should Japan’s nuclear workers have their stem cells stored?

by David Kent

A few weeks back, The Guardian reported on a proposal by Japanese doctors and scientists that would see the blood cells of Japanese nuclear clean-up workers banked as a precaution against possible exposure to radiation during the clean-up of the Fukishima power plant. The idea would be to harvest and store their blood cells[1] and, should the worker require a transplant in the future due to the development of a blood cancer or bone marrow failure, to then re-infuse the patient’s own blood cells from the pre-exposure state. This would avoid complications like graft-versus-host disease and finding a donor match.  Furthermore, many businesses and hospitals have pledged their help both inside Japan and internationally.

Sounds pretty amazing right? 

Well yes, but there has been substantial dissent, and this dissent has moved the Japanese government to not support the initiative, despite the support of the Japan Society for Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation. The debate of how useful these transplants would be is well-summarised by Alice Park and appears to boil down to two main arguments: 1) Blood cells are only one tissue type that bear the effects of radiation and blood cell therapies would not help with gastrointestinal or lung damage; and 2) Workers may have an extra (unwarranted) sense of security and take unnecessary risks.

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March 09, 2011

Is great science sitting on a shelf?

Patenting report shows disconnect in Canada


by Paul Krzyzanowski

Got a patentable idea? You might want to move to Switzerland. A recent article in the Globe and Mail compared Canada's patenting activity to other major countries, and the small European nation came out a clear winner.

2010 was a record year for US patents issuances to countries around the world. The Globe reported that US patents granted to Canadian applicants increased by 20 per cent – a commendable increase, until one notices that this was still behind those granted to applicants from other countries like Japan (up 26 per cent), Germany (up 25 per cent), South Korea (up 26 per cent) or the U.S. itself (up 24 per cent).  It’s possible that these across-the board increases simply represent a backlog of patents created by the 2008 credit crisis, but since total U.S. patent grabs have increased annually each year since 2007 it suggests that the recent poor economic conditions didn’t affect patenting activity drastically.

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March 07, 2011

Art, science and the perceptions of promise

What role does art play in communicating science? It's a question that has been asked and studied rather extensively and it was one of the topics raised during the POP/SCIENCE panel discussion at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary last Thursday. The event was held in conjunction with the Perceptions of Promise art exhibit, currently running at the Glenbow until March 20.


Scientists themselves are wary and somewhat concerned about the accuracy of artistic and pop culture interpretations of stem cell science. But, when it comes to newspaper reporting of stem cell and genetic research, studies have found that reporters are not doing a bad job, overall. As Timothy Caulfield suggested in his talk at the Understanding Stem Cell Controversies course, the over-optimism often begins with the scientists themselves, who are required to demonstrate or promise applicable results in order to compete for smaller slices of the research funding pie. So if 24's Jack Bauer can be cured of his prion disease using stem cells, is this error necessarily the fault of the script writers? No, but nor can the scientists be blamed, suggests Caulfield. In describing a clear path to the clinic, they are simply doing what is requested by the funding agencies, who are acting on dictates of government, who, in turn, are responding to the needs and desires of the public. And around it goes.

The bigger question is whether artists and mainstream media are required to be accurate in their portrayals of science. As the panel pointed out, the job of artists is not to relate the science accurately (and as panelist Karen Rothenberg intoned, if artists did represent science in a factual manner, the resulting artwork would be very boring), but to interpret and reflect on science through the lens of society. This is a question that has permeated society for a very long time -- and the boundaries are not always entirely clear. Consider, for instance, the anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, which presented an entirely new way for people -- including the scientists of the day -- to look at science and art in the context of their everyday lives. 

Nor are the roles of scientists and artists always so polarized and the Perceptions of Promise exhibit demonstrates this quite clearly. The workshop that launched the project brought artist and scientists together to explore, connect and ultimately to collaborate. Perhaps the most illustrative example of this are the stunning paintings by Daniela Schlüter, which incorporated the procedural sketches of stem cell scientist Paul Cassar. 

Art and popular media may not get it right, but they do get us thinking and talking about science in ways that cannot be achieved through traditional scientific channels. As art and science are both driven primarily by curiosity and a desire to understand, such opportunities for discussions should be welcomed -- no, encouraged -- as a means to provoke new and better scientific and artistic pursuits.

- Lisa Willemse, SCN Director of Communications

March 03, 2011

Are stem cells branded?

I've heard many different adjectives used to frame discussions of stem cells: powerful, promising, controversial, cutting edge, rejuvenating, mysterious, sexy, to name but a few. All of these descriptors are used in various ways to promote particular opinions, beliefs or imagery of stem cells and many of them, I would argue, are vastly overused and in some cases, quite misleading.

While sitting in the morning session at the Understanding Stem Cell Controversies course currently taking place in Calgary, I was introduced to a new adjective in the stem cell lexicon -- branded (and, oddly enough, this descriptor was used by two presenters, Brian Kwon and Timothy Caulfield). Can a word, typically attached to such concepts as corporate identity and customer loyalty, be used in relation to the broad field of stem cells? Of course it can. There may not be a logo to solidify that brand, but the adjectives I listed are, in essence, the brand of stem cells. 

At the heart of this morning's discussions was the use (or misuse) of the stem cell brand not just to sell stem cell products such as face creams and spa treatments, but also to instil a belief that stem cell therapies are a routinely available and the best choice to be made in treating otherwise incurable injuries or disease. As an orthopaedic surgeon, Brian Kwon noted that "every one of my patients asks about stem cell treatment".

In fact, Kwon's current research found that the number of spinal cord injury patients who would choose a stem cell treatment outnumbers those who would choose a conventional drug therapy (assuming that both treatment options exist). Think about it. A spinal cord stem cell treatment would be highly invasive, requiring a major operation, exposure of the spinal cord, injection of a needle into the spinal cord itself and possibly a prolonged course of immunosuppressants. Conventional drug therapies are typically administered either orally or intravenously. 

Kwon further noted that a 2009 sample of media reports about potential treatments for spinal cord injury all used the term "stem cell" as part of the news story, even when the treatment in question had nothing to do with stem cells whatsoever. See more of Kwon's presentation:


Since stem cells have thus far resisted any attempt to define ownership, the brand also defies any single entity's attempt to manage it. For the scientific community, this is troubling. Timothy Caulfield spoke about a current trend to shift the stem cell brand identity from a scientific and clinical framework to the realm of "alternative medicine". Such a shift would negate the authority of scientists in their attempts to raise awareness of the dangers of stem cell tourism by distancing them from public discussions on the issue. 

-- Lisa Willemse, SCN Director of Communications

February 11, 2011

If you build it, they will come: money + resources = interdisciplinary teams

by David Kent

One of the most striking observations I have made since I began my stem cell training involves the hugely positive effects of substantial resources on the field of stem cell biology. Building on the momentum of two stunning advances in developmental biology in the late 1990s (cloning Dolly the sheep and creating of human embryonic stem cell lines), government, industry, media and the public have consistently provided support for the hope and promise of stem cell biology. Because such vast quantities of money were invested, the field progressed more rapidly and with greater diversity than what could have been accomplished by simply funding stem cell biologists. Indeed, this investment has launched a decade of intensive training and cross-fertilization that has been at the leading edge of inter-disciplinary research.

Major organizations were formed (e.g.: the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, the Cambridge Centre for Stem Cell Research, the Australian Stem Cell Centre), large collaborative networks were born (e.g.: the Canadian and UK Stem Cell Networks), and huge numbers of university degree programs were created. Most importantly, however, is what these efforts created in their wake -– they brought people and ideas together.

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February 01, 2011

The underused academic

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Please read it at its new home, Signals BlogThe underused academic

January 19, 2011

Keeping the lights on

by David Kent

Light bulb Banned from receiving federal funds in 2004 by the Bush administration, human embryonic stem cell research was recently embraced by the Obama administration in March 2009 -- sort of, anyway. As many readers are no doubt aware, U.S. courts are currently embroiled in a debate about whether or not the federal government should be funding human embryonic stem cell research.  

If the Obama executive order makes it through the courts and federal monies (i.e.: National Institutes of Health) become widely available for embryonic stem cell research, then non-federal funding organizations (private or state) will certainly re-assess their role in stem cell research. A looming question is what will happen with the personnel and institutes that are funded by these special monies that were created when federal funding was not present –- or, in other words –- who will keep the lights on? Funders will no longer be asked to provide trailblazing monies for research that could not have otherwise been undertaken, but rather to determine if they can sustain this level of investment in stem cell research and infrastructure on top of the new federal research dollars. For many jurisdictions this decision is further complicated by the competing demands for resources as they seek to emerge from the global financial crisis. 

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