Stem Cell Person of the Year 2014 Award To Include $2,000 Prize

stem cell person of the year 2014I believe in putting my money where my mouth is. When people in the stem cell field make extraordinary, positive contributions, they deserve major recognition and something tangible. With this goal in mind, I give out an annual Stem Cell Person of the Year Award.

Past award winners have received the recognition and a $1,000 prize that I put up myself.

I’m excited this year to boost the prize to $2,000. It’s part of my way of giving back and supporting the field.

To be clear, to me personally this is a lot of money, but I feel passionately about advocating for the stem cell field so it is worth it to me to support this award.

The point of this prize is to recognize people who are willing to take risks to help others. These are innovators and outside the box thinkers not satisfied with the status quo. Past winners Roman Reed in 2012 and Elena Cattaneo in 2013 both exemplify these attributes.

Nominees and the ultimate winner could be someone from any part of the stem cell arena: patients, advocates, scientists, doctors, policy makers, industry leaders, etc.

On this coming Monday, September 22nd, I will formally open the door to nominations for this award with a blog post. Let me know your suggestions after that. That post on Monday will include the full rules, but there are just a few.

On October 7th at midnight, nominations will close and on October 8, International Stem Cell Day, I will announce the candidates. At that point we will also begin a two-week Internet vote on the candidates for finalists.

The top vote getters–exact number depending on the total number of nominees–will be the finalists.

The Internet poll does not decide the winner, but from that pool I will pick the winner, who will be announced most likely in early November.

Who will win in 2014? Who do you think should? Starting thinking about people you’d like to nominate.

NIH Finds Old Small Pox, Ricin: What’s in Your Lab?

There can be weird old stuff in the freezers, fridges, and elsewhere in labs.

Most labs try to do the equivalent of a spring cleaning now and then to make a dent in the accumulation of this kind of stuff.

Recently the NIH found various old stuff in their labs including two very unnerving findings: living smallpox and the deadly poison, Ricin.

What’s the scariest, weirdest, oldest, or funniest thing you’ve found in your lab cleanings or when you inherited an old lab from another lab that left?

Things I’ve heard were found somewhat unexpectedly from other labs over the years:

  • A human brain.
  • Old fashioned sequencing gel autorads with those classic A,C, T, G ladders of bands (actually pretty cool).
  • Chemicals with expiration dates in the 1970s.
  • Buffer with giant crystals in them.
  • Buffers with strange fungal colonies inside them.
  • Old PCR machines with 24 slots.
  • Actual hard copy photographs of data such as pictures of gels or cells taken with a camera with film.
  • Teenage mutant ninja turtles action figures from the 1980s.
  • Weird apparatus that no one recognizes but that looks important and expensive.
  • Hardcopy paper reprints.
  • Unidentifiable “stuff”.
  • “Xerox” copies of library articles.
  • Weird frozen or fixed animal parts.
  • Hundreds of epi tubes with no labels on them (Sharpie wore off).
  • Dot-matrix printers.
  • Old bacterial plates with wild fungal or bacterial colonies growing on them.
  • Scads of tubes with apparently nothing in them.
  • Floppy disks (do you even know what these are?)




Harvard STAP cell authors release new protocol, affirm belief in phenomenon

Even as everyone was going through the Science and Nature reviews of the rejected STAP papers this week, something else on the STAP front that happened last week.

What’s up?

Well, the STAP Nature papers are retracted, RIKEN CDB is going to be reorganized, RIKEN CDB has tried at least 22 times to make STAP cells and every time it didn’t work, and senior STAP author Charles Vacanti in theory is now on sabbatical as of September 1st. Even so Vacanti and fellow STAP researcher Koji Kojima, released yet another new STAP protocol on September 3.

The new protocol is intended to have a better chance to work for others.

Their first bullet point is admission of an earlier misstep in saying it was “easy” to make STAP cells. Apparently they concede it’s actually kind of hard to make STAP cells.

One could ask where is the line between hard and impossible?

Their second point is to suggest that people try making STAP cells not just with low pH, but also adding in ATP.

Then they dive into detailing an actual protocol in a step-by-step fashion. They call it the most effective STAP protocol “du jour”.

They close with a paragraph that I think contains a key typo (emphasis mine):

We have developed this most recent protocol to address concerns that to date, to our knowledge, other groups have been able to generate STAP cells using our previously published or posted protocols. While we are confident that the original protocols published, will work if performed with meticulous attention to detail, we have tried to develop a protocol based on new information, that should be much more effective in demonstrating a phenomenon in which we have absolute confidence.

I think they meant in the first sentence to say “other groups have been unable to generate STAP cells…”

In fact as far as I know, nobody has been able to make STAP cells in replication efforts including Obokata herself.

Vacanti and Kojima conclude by saying that they still firmly believe in STAP.

Stem cell landmark: patient receives first ever iPS cell-based transplant

Masayo Takahashi

Today is a historical and very exciting day for the stem cell field.

In a major first for the stem cell and regenerative medicine fields, a patient in Japan today received a pioneering transplant of a retinal pigmented epithelial (RPE) sheet made from induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, also known by the acronym IPSC.

This is the first ever iPS cell-based transplant into a human.

The patient is reported to be a 70-something Japanese woman suffering from macular degeneration and the procedure was performed by Dr. Yasuo Kurimoto and other specialists. I highly recommend the article by David Cyranoski, one of my favorite science writers, linked to in the previous sentence for more on the transplant.

The patient is clearly a brave hero. The team transplanted a huge (from a bioengineering perspective) 1.3 x 3.0 mm sheet of RPEs into the retina of the patient, who did not have any clear immediate side effects from the procedure. Keep in mind again that this sheet was made indirectly from the patients own skin cells so it is an autologous (or self) transplant, a notion that 10 years ago would have seemed entirely like sci-fi.

This is not only a huge milestone, but also an astonishingly fast translation of iPS cell technology from the bench to the bedside. Talk about warp speed science.

Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka first reported the creation of mouse and human iPS cells just eight and seven years ago, respectively. To get to the clinic so soon thereafter is one of the fastest biomedical translational pathways in history.

How was this possible?

In part this is a story of an extraordinary level of commitment to iPS cell technology by Japan and its scientists including the team led by the amazing Dr. Masayo Takahashi (pictured above) and of course Yamanaka too.

The work was also made possible by Yoshiki Sasai, who did pioneering work in retinal differentiation from pluripotent stem cells. So we are talking about fantastic scientists dedicated to translation and a government willing to fund them generously to make this a reality.

Another important element to this story is that Japan has a clinical translation pipeline that is now faster with recent changes in regulations than that of the US. For example, this and future iPS cell-based transplants were approved as part of a clinical study, a type of clinical research mechanism that doesn’t exist in the US. It is safe to say that the same technology with the same research team and outstanding level of funding would still be at least a few years away from their first patient in the US due to the different regulatory scheme. Another indication of the unusual speed here was indicated in the Cyranoski piece:

Kurimoto performed the procedure a mere four days after a health-ministry committee gave Takahashi clearance for the human trials (see ‘Next-generation stem cells cleared for human trial‘).

With this difference between regulatory frameworks not only comes the potential for speedier clinical innovations, but also the uncertain potential for risks from first in-human studies.

In a sense we have an experiment inside of an experiment here.

We have the actual clinical studies as an experiment and then we have the larger context of a regulatory experiment too. Nobody knows how it will turn out. One can certainly have hope from the fact that the Takahashi team’s preclinical studies were reportedly encouraging from a safety perspective, although that data has not yet been published. Also, on the positive side we have the encouraging results from the ongoing clinical trials from Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) using a similar approach to macular degeneration, but employing human embryonic stem cells to make the RPEs.

For the vision impaired and the broader stem cell field, it is heartening to have two such capable teams working to cure blindness with pluripotent stem cells.

Admittedly, we are now in uncharted territory, which is both exciting and a bit unsettling too. That’s the reality with cutting edge biomedical science and going after huge goals like curing blindness. What an exciting time to be in the stem cell field.

Advanced Cell Technology reinventing itself including new name ‘Ocata Therapeutics’

advanced cell technologyIt’s been a big summer for stem cell biotech Advanced Cell Technology (ACT; stock ACTCD) as it continues what I would call a process of reinventing itself.

What’s been happening?

ACT recently did a notable 100:1 reverse split on its stock, opening it up to a whole new group of investors.

The company has also settled some previously lingering litigation and gotten new some new IP.

The latest development is a move to change the company’s name to Ocata Therapeutics. I asked Bob Lanza about the name changed and he told me that “Ocata is a native American (Huron) word for ‘medicine man’.”

Cool name.

I’m guessing we’ll be saying goodbye to the old logo (above) and I’ll be very curious to see the new one.

Investors following the stock expect some major additional developments in coming days/weeks, which could include a major new paper on the ACT clinical trials for macular degeneration.

It’s an exciting time for the company.

By way of disclosure, I have a relatively recently acquired small amount of stock (in it for the long haul) in the company. This blog is not intended as financial advice.