April 12, 2012

35 reasons to like stem cells

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March 27, 2012

The payoff of patenting your research: Aldagen as a case study

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March 21, 2012

Using titanium to induce bone differentiation and personalized implants

by Angela C.H. McDonald

Titanium can be found everywhere. It is used in cars, sporting equipment and even jewelry manufacturing. But did you know that titanium products are used inside the human body?

You may know someone who has undergone a joint replacement procedure or someone who has a dental implant. For decades, titanium alloys have been used as a biomaterial for these applications.

Titanium is a biocompatible material, which means that it is able to integrate into the body without being rejected. This is a major reason why titanium biomaterials are so popular in orthopedics and dentistry. However, the ability of a titanium implant to fuse with surrounding bone tissue inside the body (a property known as osseointegration) needs to be improved.

Continue reading "Using titanium to induce bone differentiation and personalized implants" »

March 19, 2012

Another success for StemCellTalks

by Ben Paylor

Photo: Mario Moscovici
For those who have been involved with StemCellTalks, it’s hard to believe that it’s already in its third year. Some degree of perspective on the pace at which it has been growing can be found in the numbers associated with the event. To date, StemCellTalks symposia have been hosted six times in four different Canadian cities involving nearly a thousand high school students, hundreds of grad students and a growing list of prominent researchers. With a further two symposia planned for 2012 (Ottawa and Vancouver) and students mobilizing in new cities to expand the initiative, it’s clear that StemCellTalks is here to stay.

Continue reading "Another success for StemCellTalks" »

March 13, 2012

The evolution of biomaterials

by Roshan Yoganathan

Prosthetic_footI’ve been working in the field of biomaterials for over five years now. A short period of time, but nevertheless I’ve noticed that the field has evolved considerably. Since the inception of “biologically compatible materials,” their capabilities, functionalities and uses have undergone multiple stages of change.

There are distinct turning points when biomaterial research is thought to have evolved. I believe we are currently in the third generation and slowly shifting to the fourth (more on this later).

So here is how I see it, starting from the beginning.

Continue reading "The evolution of biomaterials" »

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 10, 2012

Inside the Sauvageau lab

by Lisa Willemse

One of the advantages of working in an admin office of an organization that funds stem cell research is that you tend to hear about what's happening in labs all across the country. So when I heard that some interesting things were happening in the Guy Sauvageau lab, I decided to pay an overdue visit to Montreal to talk to Guy and do some filming in the lab. It was a miserable December day -- rain sheeting down sideways -- and, well, even if everything didn't go exactly as planned that day, the lab was warm and welcoming.

While the video footage is not yet ready for posting (stay tuned), I did write an article on the visit, which has been posted in an excellent blog -- "The Crux" -- run by Lynne Quarmby, a molecular biologist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver (and a writer of insightful, thought-provoking blogs about research and the realities of being a basic researcher in Canada).

Read the complete blog profile of the Sauvageau lab.


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.