Science on Thanksgiving & recommended reading

Turkey Scientist

Picture from Pinterest

I’m thankful for a whole bunch of things on Thanksgiving including family, but here I wanted to talk specifically about why we should be thankful for science.

At this moment in history it is plainly evident how greatly past science has helped the world and at the same time how intensely the world needs science right now as well as looking to the immediate future. When reality is only an occasional stop on the crazy path of many public figures including, for instance, certain American politicians, science is a bedrock foundation for justice and democracy.

I’m thankful for science for these reasons and many others. I love science and feel fortunate to be a scientist.

Here’s some recommended science reading on Thanksgiving.

Poll finds near equal split on question: would you have a designer baby?

A few weeks back I started a poll focusing on whether people would have a designer baby if they could.Poll Designer Baby

With nearly 200 responses so far, the results are very mixed (see image).

One conclusion from this I think is that we need more information on possible risks versus benefits. Another element here is that the poll, as one commenter pointed out, did not divide between health-related and enhancement motivations behind having the designer baby. I may do a future poll including that divide.

Looking at the votes geographically, interestingly respondents in the UK were shifted more toward “Yes” than other countries such as the US.

A reminder that Internet polls are non-scientific.

Stem cells in space with NASA: microgravity reduces regenerative potential

NASA researchers have been interested in the effects of space travel and in particular microgravity (μg; not to be confused in this context with the common abbreviation for micrograms) on stem cells. For instance, see the past piece “Stem Cells Take Wild Ride in Space Capsule”.

In a new NASA study led by Dr. Eduardo A.C. Almeida, the researchers found that μg reduced the regenerative capacity of mouse embryonic stem cells (mESC).

Stem cells space Figure 5

The mESC taken to space exhibited altered behavior including reduced differentiation into a variety of specialized cell types (see Figure 5 from the paper that summarizes the changes).

Normally mESC are pluripotent, meaning that they can be stimulated to form any murine cell type. The mESC that travelled into space, in contrast, did not differentiate normally and failed to turn on specific differentiation markers. Instead they were shifted more toward an undifferentiated phenotype even when signaled to differentiate.

“In this study, we found that spaceflight in μg promoted the maintenance of EB stem cell gene expression and post-μg reloading differentiation potential, defined as “stemness”, and inhibited the appearance of differentiation markers for multiple tissue lineages. These findings may have important implications for the maintenance of tissue regenerative health in both astronauts during short and long-duration spaceflight in μg conditions, and for humans on earth.”

The μg mESC were, however, able to form embryoid bodies (EBs), the early stage of mESC differentiation, apparently normally and did not exhibit reduced survival during differentiation.

There may be subtle differences in other aspects of cell biology of μg mESC such as cell cycling, cell metabolism and signaling. For these studies, the μg mESC were compared to so-called “ground control” mESC.

These studies suggest that astronauts in space for extended periods of time may exhibit health changes associated with alterations in their stem cell biology. It will be interesting to see follow up work including in particular on human embryonic stem cells (hESC) and induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSC), which seem like logical next steps.

The study published in the journal Stem Cells and Development, is entitled:  Microgravity Reduces the Differentiation and Regenerative Potential of Embryonic Stem Cells. The authors included in order the following: Elizabeth A. BlaberHayley Finkelstein, Natalya Dvorochkin, Kevin Y. Sato, Rukhsana YousufBrendan P. BurnsRuth K. Globus, and Eduardo A.C. Almeida.

Stem Cell News Briefs: Anversa, Japan Regs, Ocata Suit, More

It’s been a busy few weeks for the stem cell field. Below are some news briefs on developments.

  • RetractionWatch reports that Piero Anversa is leaving Harvard/Brigham and Women’s Hospital after an investigation and dismissed lawsuit he filed against the institution. All still quiet on the STAP cell front at the same institutions.
  • There’s some more clarity and confusion over the Japanese regulatory sphere for IPS cells. New regs may not be issued for another 4 or more months, leaving the clinical studies there in some limbo timing-wise. JapanNews asks “Are the mutations found in the RPE study relevant?” and quotes an anonymous source that they aren’t.
  • An interesting new paper on direct reprogramming to a cardiac phenotype. What do you think of this work?
  • Shareholders in Ocata, in the process of being acquired by Astellas Pharma, are unhappy with the deal and perceived undervaluing of Ocata in the purchase. A number of reactions are in the works including a class action lawsuit. Note: I have a very small, long-term stake in the company.Timothy J. Kieffer
  • 2015 Till-McCulloch prize goes to Timothy J. Kieffer (pictured)
    and his lab for outstanding research on production of insulin-secreting cells.
  • A link between Duchenne and stem cells could be important.

Some patients unhappy with stem cell clinics

stem cell shot clinic

Screen shot from CBS Chicago TV segment of syringe filled with “stem cells”

Over the years I’ve heard from quite a few patients of stem cell clinics who feel very strongly about their experiences. Some have quite positive views on getting stem cell interventions, while others feel very negatively about the stem cell clinics. I’ve heard more of the latter kind of experience.

People often tell me that the stem cells from clinics only worked briefly at best and were too expensive. Another complaint is that the clinic responds to patient disappointment often by suggesting additional, expensive shots of stem cells for the “full benefit”. There is also sometimes a sense that the clinic claims while recruiting patients or on the Internet didn’t match the patient’s own experience.

A new report by Pam Zekman at CBS Chicago reflects the polarized views out there. Some they talked to were positive, but others were unhappy.

For example take the case of Charisma Cardine, who has been blind for 13 years, which the report describes as, “the result of a rare central nervous system disease.” 

“They told us that it was a 90 to 95 percent success rate,” Cardine says. “They said they worked with one other patient besides her before and they gained their sight back within two weeks,” her sister, Christiana James, adds. But Cardine’s $9,000 treatment at the Miami Stem Cell Treatment Center did not restore her sight.”

A stem cell doctor from a different clinic quoted in the article, Dr. Daniel Ritacca of the Chicago Stem Cell Treatment Center, has a positive outlook on their clinic’s treatment of more than 4,000 patients. One of his patients, Bob Leonard who suffers from MS, believes his stem cell treatment helped him. The Chicago clinic is part of the stem cell clinic chain, Cell Surgical Network.

For another stem cell clinic patient, Robert Heller who suffers from lung disease, his experience at yet another stem cell clinic, The Lung Institute (also see A Look Inside a Stem Cell Clinic Informercial by Professor David Brafman), was reported as not so positive in the article:

Heller paid $6,500 for treatments but says his condition only got worse. “”They give you a lot of BS and wishful thinking and selling you on hopes. False hopes,” he says.”

Those are strong words.

The reporter Zekman participated in a Lung Institute webinar, where reportedly claims were made that “71 percent of their patients” had seen increases in lung function.

Many in the research community are trying to get a better sense of the range of patient experiences at stem cell clinics.

Have you had a stem cell treatment at a clinic?

What has your experience been like?

Please share it in the comments. Or you can also email me directly ([email protected]).