90 posts categorized "News"

May 16, 2012

We've got a new niche!

SignalsThe SCN Blog has a new name and a new home: http://www.signalsblog.ca

After nearly four years and 207 blog posts, we finally outgrew our dish, so to speak. Late last year, we began planning with the newly-formed Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine, who indicated an interest to begin blogging in the sphere. (Perhaps you'll recall our name contest?) Why have two blogs competing when one can do the job? The result is Signals Blog (the new name came from an SCN staff member who sadly was not eligible for a prize), which will continue to bring the same level of insight, commentary and research news you've found on the SCN Blog, but will add new perspectives and news on biomaterials, regenerative medicine and commercialization.

We think it's a great partnership that will provide a more comprehensive view of the world of stem cells and regenerative medicine. 

To ease the transition for readers, all archived posts from the SCN Blog have been moved to their new home and RSS feeds will be updated to the new address. Comments will be closed on this site, but we'll keep a copy of the archives here for the short term. 

This is our final post on this site: please update your links and check out our new niche at www.signalsblog.ca!

May 11, 2012

2012 Cells I See winners

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To read this article, please visit Signals Blog2012 Cells I See winners

April 24, 2012

The stem cell fraction

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To read this article, please visit Signals BlogThe stem cell fraction

April 17, 2012

Gene deletion to create insulin-producing cells

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To read this article, please visit Signals BlogGene deletion to create insulin-producing cells

April 12, 2012

35 reasons to like stem cells

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To read this article, please visit Signals Blog35 reasons to like stem cells

March 06, 2012

Good start to the year for umbilical cord blood stem cells

by Angela C.H. McDonald

In 1988, the first umbilical cord hematopoietic stem cell transplant was conducted and since that time, over 20,000 umbilical cord blood transplants have been reported around the world. The technique offers several advantages over bone marrow in the treatment of blood disorders including noninvasive accessibility to umbilical cord blood as well as decreased graft versus host disease and superior immune recovery following transplantation. 

Despite these advantages, umbilical cord blood transplantation remains best suited to small children due to the low cell numbers available in a single umbilical cord blood unit that make it of limited use in adult patients. Transplantation of two cord blood units has improved the outcome of adult patients, but there are simply not enough cords available to make this a viable strategy in the long term. 

To overcome this hurdle, researchers have been looking for methods to culture cord blood in vitro with an aim to expand the numbers of stem cells found in a single cord unit and thus to circumvent the need to use two umbilical cord blood units for an adult patient.

It would seem we are getting close. Last month, a method for expanding human umbilical cord blood hematopoietic stem cells was published in Cell Stem Cell. Lead researcher Peter Zandstra and colleagues used computational and experimental approaches to design a strategy that yields an 11-fold increase of self-renewing, multi-lineage repopulating hematopoietic stem cells within 12 days of umbilical cord blood culture. 

In culture, hematopoietic stem cells rapidly produce mature blood cell types that subsequently produce secreted factors inhibiting hematopoietic stem cell expansion. The trick is to dilute accumulating inhibitory factors to allow expansion of the stem cell pool. The researchers computationally simulated hematopoietic stem cell population dynamics and culture strategies and identified a culture system to do just that.

Simulations predicted that an input stream of fresh media into the culture would lead to an increase in total volume over time and would be the most effective strategy for expanding the stem and progenitor cell pools. This prediction was tested experimentally and proved to increase stem and progenitor cell number by reducing the concentration of accumulating inhibitory factors as well as maintaining lower cell densities in culture, effectively slowing the rate and impact of inhibitory factor accumulation.

This culture system – known as a fed-batch culture system – provides multiple advantages over other inhibitory factor dilution methods of umbilical cord cell expansion, including lower costs due to a decreased requirement for culture media as well as a shorter culture time window. The researchers hope to move this technology into clinical trials in the near future.

While significant steps forward in the optimization of cord blood transplantation for the treatment of blood disorders are being made, a number of researchers are exploring alternative therapeutic uses for cord blood stem cells. Earlier this year, a Phase I clinical trial was approved to treat hearing impairment in small children with their own cord blood stem cells.

In a mouse model of hearing loss, studies have demonstrated that cord blood can restore inner ear organization and structure two months following transplantation. How do cord blood stem cells treat hearing loss? Researchers aren’t quite sure. Cord blood stem cells may regenerate lost hair cells in the cochlea, restoring function or they may home to the site of injury in the ear and induce the body’s repair mechanisms (click here to read more). Research is underway to uncover the mechanism of cord blood-mediated hearing restoration. While this research is preliminary, results from animal studies are intriguing and I know I will be waiting to hear about this study’s progress. 


March 05, 2012

A crack in the origin of eggs: policy and fertility implications of oogonial stem cells

by Lisa Willemse, with Ubaka Ogbogu and Timothy Caulfield

The announcement last week that a team of researchers had identified stem cells responsible for generating human eggs caused a ripple of excitement for several reasons. Not only does the news end a controversy regarding an assertion by the same research team that such oogonial stem cells even existed in humans (based on research done in mice), it would appear that this finding will rewrite medical textbooks and change a long-held belief that women are born with all the eggs they will ever have.

Indeed, if oogonial stem cells can give rise to full developed oocytes, it represents a significant crack in the entire notion of fertility and the possibility that adult women of any age could reproduce, as many have noted. If this is the case, IVF clinics could one day find their doors wide open, with fewer limitations on what and who could be a potential client for treatment. 

A seemingly obvious question, then, would be whether such procedures to create eggs for fertilization from oogonial stem cells, either for research or reproductive purposes, would be legal. As we have seen many times before, policy is rarely able to anticipate the directions of science, and thus there is no provision that explicitly deals with the use of stem cells to create oocytes.

In Canada, such activities fall under the Assisted Human Reproduction Act (AHRA). Ubaka Ogbogu, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Law at the Universtiy of Alberta (and regular contributor to this blog) notes:

Under the AHRA the process of creating oocytes from oogonial stem cells is not banned, but likely regulated (Assisted Human Reproduction Canada license required), however, if the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision is implemented by the federal government, the activity might not even be regulated at all or fall to the provinces to regulate. This would apply for oocytes created for reproductive purposes, but not necessarily for research purposes -- using the oocytes for stem cell research would be likely banned depending on the method, which would follow the same rules as for using normal oocytes for stem cell research. 

A further question that complicates matters, is whether the eggs, when created using this method, can be considered reproductive material. Answers to that question may have to wait until science has taken the time to both replicate the initial study and assess the quality and exact nature of the resulting eggs. As with many new findings, it will be some time before any of it translates into clinical options.


February 29, 2012

Breakfast in the shire: How is the UK reacting to Brüstle v Greenpeace?

by David Kent

Last week I attended a breakfast at Eversheds, a law firm in Cambridge entitled Stem cell patenting, Brüstle v Greenpeace: business breaker or business as usual? which focused on the practical implications of the recent decision from the Court of Justice of the European Union on human embryonic stem (ES) cells. The event organizer, Adrian Toutoungi began the session with a summary of where things stand for hopeful patent applicants which included much of the information that Ubaka Ogbogu reported in his recent article on this site with two interesting supplements:

  1. If the implementation of the invention requires the destruction of human embryos, it will not be patentable and it is irrelevant that such destruction may occur at a stage long before implantation
  2. Inventions are also not patentable even if the claims of the patent do not cover the actual use of human embryos.

Following this groundwork, two speakers gave their viewpoints on where this leaves the field, both with respect to pursuing patents in the current climate and with the future of ES cell research in the UK. 

First up, Neil Thornton provided historical context for the ruling.  Prior to this new ruling, the status quo was the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) patent that prohibited human ES cells and cells derived from human embryos from being patented. This new ruling extends the prohibition to cells derived from human ES cell lines or cells derived from human ES cells. Whereas the WARF ruling allowed for patents on inventions that utilized previously created ES cell lines, the Brüstle v. Greenpeace ruling very clearly does not. Dr. Thornton pointed out that the European Patent Office (EPO) is not bound by the Court of Justice of the European Union and has not yet made an official statement regarding the Brüstle v. Greenpeace ruling (though one is expected soon). However, he did quote EPO president Benoit Battistelli from his blog where he said, “If the judges rule in favour of a restrictive interpretation of biotech patentability provisions, the EPO will immediately implement it.” 

Dr. Thornton also speculated on the way forward for those pursuing patents, saying that inventions excluded because they use human ES cells could be viewed as applying to only those technologies where there is no plausible alternative. Therefore, depending on what exactly ends up in the EPO statement, there may be room to patent an invention that could plausibly have used cells from these alternate sources at the time of patent filing (i.e.: using a non-embryo destructive cell source or technique like induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) or single blastomeres.

Dr. Thornton elaborated with a clever analogy of a obtaining a patent on a method to open a locked safe, which would have a morally acceptable use (by a locksmith) and a morally unacceptable use (by a burglar). Under the EPO's current guidelines, he continued, a morally unacceptable use for an invention is not sufficient to deny patent protection if the invention can also be used in a morally acceptable way. He then speculated that if inventions relating to human ES cells were treated in the same way, the EPO could possibly grant claims that would cover the use of cells produced by embryo destructive or non-destructive techniques. There was some discussion following this point around how similar iPS cells are to ES cells and whether or not they could be viewed as a plausible alternative. 

The second speaker was Cathy Prescott of Biolatris (I featured Dr. Prescott in a previous entry on the Royal Society meeting in 2010), who presented on the impact of this ruling for venture capitalists, industry, and academics. Dr. Prescott started with some numbers that made very clear the low level of investment from members of the BVCA (British Venture Capital Association) into the biotechnology field (1% of all technology investments in the UK) citing reasons of uncertain risk management especially in the area of intellectual property which is viewed as the major currency in the biotech sector. According to Dr. Prescott, “No IP = a non starter.” 

From an industry perspective, she noted that the products and services focused on human ES cells were largely either “tools and reagents” or “therapeutics” and quoted a major company delivering tools and reagents into the research market as saying “if this ban were to prevent patenting of downstream methods… [it would] negatively affect business.” The final area that Dr. Prescott commented on was academic research. The most obvious impact, which has precedence in the United States, is that scientists themselves may relocate to those more permissive environments – in this case, to those where they can protect their of applied research. Secondly, it is entirely possible that various EU states may query whether or not it is worth funding non-commercializable research. For now though, Dr. Prescott stressed that both the EC and the UK are committed to continuing to fund ES cell research as a priority area despite patent concerns, including the major government investment made last autumn.

Overall, as an academic researcher, I found the event particularly useful as a high quality synthesis of the ruling’s implications. It certainly left the impression that things were far from decided. For now, it seems that we will have to wait and see what the EPO decides with respect to ES related patents and how stem cell scientists and universities will move forward with respect to patenting in this sector. 


February 01, 2012

News roundup: open access, new funding for personalized medicine and spinal cord injury update

by Lisa Willemse

Some updates and news items of note:

Call for boycott of subscriber-based journals gains momentum

The ongoing friction between proponents of open access and the academic publishers has jumped into the spotlight once again with calls from a number of academics, most notably from prominent British mathmetician Tim Gowers, who publicly announced his decision to stop submitting and reviewing for Elsevier. His objections are worth reading. Within days of his comments, a web site was created that allows other researchers to pledge their support for open access and against the practices of Elsevier and other academic publishers. At time of writing, there were over 2400 signatures. Of course, this is not the first time such calls for open access have surfaced from within the research community, the last big push resulted in the formation of the Public Library of Science in 2000. 

Nor are the sentiments limited to the mathematics field -- within stem cells, Jim Till has long been a proponent of open access and keeps a close eye on relevant news on his blog and Alexey Bersenev has several posts on the topic on his blog, Stem Cell Assays. His summary of the current events includes a good list of the reasons for open access as well as links to other sources for the interested reader.

Shift to personalized medicine finds federal support

Yesterday, the Canadian Minister of Health, Leona Aglukkaq, announced a new initiative worth upwards of $135 million ($67.5M from federal sources, to be matched by partner funds) with a focus on personalized medicine -- the use of genetics, biomarkers and environmental conditions to tailor disease treatments to individual patients. The announcement was essentially a call for applications and while specific projects are not yet known, they will have a strong genomics component and be readily translatable into a clinical setting. More reason for those working in translational research to be happy, and yet another sign that basic research is in trouble.  

A good chunk of the funds is coming from Genome Canada, with other support from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Cancer Stem Cell Consortium. Specifically, the contribution from the Cancer Stem Cell Consortium will support the highest ranking cancer stem cell research project. All projects are expected to last four years.  

Update to spinal cord injury summary

Finally, a note that the entry on spinal cord injury within the Stem Cell Network's patient section has been updated and expanded. We are working to update all the entries in this section and to add new ones in the coming year. 

January 26, 2012

Good news for hESC trials: transplanted human embryonic stem cell-derived retinal pigment epithelium… and it’s safe!

by Angela C.H. McDonald

IStock_000012475983XSmallAs has been reported broadly this week, transplantation of human embryonic stem cell-derived retinal pigment epithelial cells appears to be safe in human patients, and it may even be efficacious (although this can only be confirmed via a Phase II trial). 

Advanced Cell Technology (of California) published a preliminary clinical report of their Phase I clinical trials online this Monday in the Lancet. The two Phase I clinical trials were initiated at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute in July 2011. These trials aimed to treat Stargardt’s Macular Dystrophy and Dry Age-Related Macular Degeneration (two major causes of blindness in the developed world). Each trial will enroll up to 12 patients, with a safety endpoint at 12 months. Four months following transplantation, no adverse affects such as tumorigenicity, ectopic tissue formation, inflammation or cell proliferation could be detected in patients.

The subretinal space of one eye in each patient was injected with retinal pigment epithelial cells generated from human embryonic stem cells. The retinal pigment epithelium is a single cell-thick protective layer in the eye. In the eye of a macular degeneration patient, retinal pigment epithelial cell degeneration causes dysfunction of photoreceptors (which sit on top of the retinal pigment epithelium) and vision in that area of the eye is lost.

Although visual acuity assessments revealed functional improvements in the transplanted eye of each patient, these results should be interpreted with caution. While the Stargardt’s Macular Dystrophy patient only showed improvement in the transplanted eye, the Dry Age-Related Macular Degeneration patient showed improved visual function in both. However, the injected eye did show more improvement than the non-treated eye.

Despite the fact that Monday’s report is very preliminary (results from only two patients at the four-month mark), the company must have a great deal of confidence in the trial for it to have made this public announcement. Additionally, Advanced Cell Technology announced in a press release published on their website Monday that patient enrollment has now begun in the UK for a Phase I clinical trial for Stargardt’s Macular Dystrophy and the first patient was treated in London last Friday.

This exciting news comes just two months after Geron’s announcement to end the first ever FDA-approved human embryonic stem cell Phase I clinical trial, a move described as a strategic financial decision by Geron (covered in a previous blog entry). Disappointment and controversy surrounded the sudden halt of the Geron trial and some question the motive behind this decision. Some speculate that a lack of efficacy in this safety trial is what lead Geron to pull the plug.

Although it felt like the stem cell community took a number of hits in 2011 (including the shut down of the Geron trial and the prohibition of patents for human embryonic stem cell products by the EU), it seems that 2012 is off to a great start.