Month Archives: September 2008

Schwarzenegger’s Blinders

by David Prentice

September 30, 2008

arnold-blinders2.jpgCalifornia Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has vetoed S.B.1565, the Stem Cell Affordability Bill. The bill would have guaranteed accessibility for uninsured Californians to any stem cell therapies developed through the state taxpayer-funded $6 billion stem cell program, given more flexibility for approval of projects by the grants review working group, and provided for an audit of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) governing board. The bipartisan legislation, sponsored by Sens. Sheila Kuehl and George Runner, had passed through the California legislature with very little opposition (64-7 in the House, 37-1 in the Senate), despite vociferous attacks (including personal attacks on Sen. Kuehl) by CIRM surrogates. Schwarzenegger, with blinders firmly in place, said in his veto statement that voters specifically wanted to fund embryonic stem cells, and that requirements to make state-funded treatments affordable would unnecessarily restrict the agency’s authority to balance patient need with essential research.

According to CIRM’s website, their mission supposedly is to “support and advance stem cell research and regenerative medicine under the highest ethical and medical standards for the discovery and development of cures, therapies, diagnostics and research technologies to relieve human suffering from chronic disease and injury.” But apparently the only part of the statement that is true is to support [embryonic] stem cell research, without any real dedication to the patients. Apparently the scientific committee can’t be trusted to choose the most promising science for patients. California taxpayers were sold a bill of goods in Prop 71, led to believe they would receive affordable therapies from their investment in this research. Yet embryonic stem cells and cloning, preferred by Proposition 71, have yielded not a single treatment for any patient nor any return on the huge investment of taxpayer funds, and CIRM has admitted that after 10 years and all of the money spent there will still be no treatments and no return on the investment. By contrast, other scientists have shown that the new iPS cells are much more promising and easier to produce, and that real treatments are already coming from adult stem cells (CIRM has also denied funds to promising adult stem cell research that is already treating patients.) Sadly, the veto means California taxpayer money will continue to be spent on the least successful, least promising research.

The audit of the stem cell institute’s governing board, which had also been requested by Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit organization in Santa Monica, will proceed despite the veto.

Making Memories with Adult Stem Cells

by David Prentice

September 30, 2008

New nerve cells, produced naturally by adult neural stem cells present in the brain, appear to be essential for learning and memory. The old idea that brain cells are not renewed (that “you start with as many brain cells as you’ll ever have, and it’s downhill from there”) was tossed out the window by scientists years ago. Researchers showed in the early 1990’s that the adult brain continues to make new neurons, a process termed “neurogenesis”, throughout life (Gage has a good review of the early years.) Now researchers at Kyoto University in Japan have shown in mice that new brain cells are necessary for learning and for memory. The new research, published in Nature Neuroscience, indicates that neural stem cells in the adult brain continue to produce new brain cells that are important for memory and learning. The new study supports work published earlier this year showing that new brain cells can affect learning and memory. Last year research showed that transplanting adult neural stem cells into brain-injured mice could restore some memory, and in March 2008 another study showed that injecting human umbilical cord blood stem cells into the brains of aging animals boosted neurogenesis. A recent study also suggested that stimulating specific molecules in the brain could reactivate adult neural stem cells. Exercise has also been shown to stimulate neurogenesis in the brain. So various methods seem to have the potential to help the mouse remember where he put his cheese, or where you left your keys, by stimulating your own brain adult stem cells.

Fireproof Lights Up the Box Office

by Michael Leaser

September 29, 2008

Score another success for Alex and Stephen Kendrick. The creators of Facing the Giants have offered up an unexpectedly poignant film about a firefighter trying to save his failing marriage. And moviegoers have responded with a $6.5 million opening weekend, giving Fireproof the second-highest per-screen average behind Eagle Eye. This on a budget of just $500,000, paltry by Hollywood standards. By comparison, Facing the Giants earned $1.3 million in its opening weekend on its way to a surprisingly successful take of $10 million in its 117-day run, and that on a $100,000 budget.

Like its predecessor, Fireproof employs amateur actors for most of its roles with mixed results, but the leads are solid, and Kirk Cameron is particularly effective as the frustrated fireman who’s not even certain at first that he wants to save his marriage. The film definitely has a low-budget look to it, but Alex Kendrick and his camera crew clearly know their craft. They make every dollar in that budget count. The story itself, though, is reason enough to see the film, especially for recently engaged or newlywed couples. One rarely sees such a life-affirming, marriage-affirming tale on the big screen. Fireproof doesn’t claim marriage is easy, but it should successfully convince skeptics that it’s well worth the work.

Adult Stem Cell Hope for ALS

by David Prentice

September 28, 2008

Adult stem cells have been used in a rat model of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; “Lou Gehrig’s disease”) to strengthen muscles and their connecting nerves. Researchers injected bone marrow adult stem cells carrying a gene for GDNF (glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor), a nurturing protein for nerves. Previous work by the group had shown that transplanting neural stem cells that released GDNF into the spinal cord could protect motor neurons that degenerate in the ALS rat, but that the nerves still did not effectively connect with the muscles that waste away due to ALS. In the current study published in Molecular Therapy, the researchers were pleasantly surprised to find that when they injected the adult stem cells into muscle, however, the cells pumped out GDNF that helped the connecting nerves survive and maintain connection, and that this delayed progression of the disease and extended the lifespan of the ALS animals. The bone marrow adult stem cells had a slight effect on their own, possibly by releasing their own protective factors, but the effect was greater when they delivered the nurturing growth protein. While any human application is still in the future, the new study provides hope for treatment in a disease that currently has no effective therapy. An advantage of this approach is that muscle is easy to access and adult stem cells could be used from the patients themselves.

Doggone Resemblance

by David Prentice

September 28, 2008

Or is it political comment? The Times of London notes that the journal Nature had an interesting juxtaposition of front and back covers for this week’s issue. The front cover is a serious pair of pictures of the two U.S. Presidential candidates, with various articles in the issue discussing the positions of the candidates on science topics.

The back cover? A pair of pictures of two dogs, cannily (caninely?) posed similar to the two gentlemen on the front cover. Nature says they were completely unaware of the mirroring between the front and back covers until the issue landed on the desk…

Perkins Perspective: Bailing Out - An issue of Responsibility

by Tony Perkins

September 27, 2008

On Friday the USA Today carried a story of Nebraska’s “Safe Haven” law. I authored and passed Louisiana’s version of that law back in 1999. Several states now have those laws on the books which are designed to encourage frightened and confused young mothers not to throw their newborn babies in the trash but drop them at a “Safe Haven” like a hospital or fire station, no questions asked.

Since the Nebraska law went into effect in July there have been some unintended results. Over a half dozen parents have dropped off not new born babies, but kids ranging in age from 1 to 17.

A few parents with challenging teenagers might be tempted to chuckle and leave the article in their teen’s room as a veiled threat, but when you get beyond that temptation you can’t help but realize that this speaks to a profound problem in our nation - a lack of commitment and responsibility.

Men and women faced with the difficulties of parenting find a way for government to bail them out, or should we say rescue them. No matter what street we drive down, whether it is Main Street or Wall Street, the growing refusal to assume responsibility cast a dark and ominous cloud over our nation’s future.

Adult Stem Cells for Stroke

by David Prentice

September 27, 2008

Researchers at Texas A&M have shown that adult stem cells injected into the brain can repair stroke damage. They injected human bone marrow stem cells into the brains of mice that had induced stroke, and found that the adult stem cells could alleviate the damage caused by the stroke. Their study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also indicated the mechanism of action of the adult stem cells in the brain. Previous studies have shown that mesenchymal stromal cells (a type of bone marrow stem cell) can reverse neural degeneration in the brain caused by disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and stroke, but the mechanism was unclear. Dr. Darwin Prockop, the senior investigator, noted that “Our paper provides for the first time a molecular explanation of how adult stem/progenitor cells can ameliorate ischemic (reduced blood flow) damage to the brain.” The adult stem cells act primarily by signaling other cells in the brain, stimulating the brain cells to block inflammation that can lead to cell damage and death. Stroke is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. This result, and the mechanism uncovered for adult stem cells, could lead to significant treatments not only for stroke and other brain disorders, but also for diseases and injuries to other tissues throughout the body.

prockop.jpgWhile not the first to suggest this mechanism of action for adult stem cells, Dr. Prockop has been a leader in investigating the actions of adult stem cells to repair tissue damage. Previous research includes the potential of adult stem cells to stimulate repair of the pancreas and kidney, to promote growth of new neural stem cells in the brain, and to form new airway cells for potential lung repair. One of his recent papers discussed at length the potential mechanisms used by adult stem cells for tissue repair.

Adult Stem Cells May Help Childhood Motor Neuron Disease

by David Prentice

September 27, 2008

Researchers at the University of Milan have published results indicating that adult neural stem cells might be used as a treatment for spinal muscular atrophy. This motor neuron disease is the second most common genetic disorder leading to death in childhood. Using a mouse model for the disease, the scientists injected neural stem cells into the spinal cords of animals. They found that treated mice showed improved muscular function and increased lifespan compared to untreated controls. While some of the transplanted cells developed into motor neurons, the major effect of the injected cells seems to be improving survival and function of existing motor neurons already present in the mice, suggesting that the adult stem cells secrete factors to assist survival and regeneration.

Adult Stem Cells Help Liver (No Onions)

by David Prentice

September 27, 2008

Doctors at Imperial College, London have published results showing improvement in patients with alcoholic liver cirrhosis, after treatment with their own adult stem cells. Nine patients had their adult stem cells from blood collected, the numbers were boosted in the lab, and then the cells were injected into their livers. Positive results were seen within one week. Seven of the nine patients showed significant improvement up to 12 weeks (the extent monitored for this study), with three patients showing almost complete resolution. Dr. Nagy Habib, the senior author, said “We are encouraged that the majority of patients in this study experienced a significant improvement in their liver functions.” These latest results were published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology.

The new results using adult stem cells to treat liver damage are a follow-up to previous work done by Habib’s group and reported in 2006 and in 2007. Positive results using adult stem cells to treat liver damage in patients has also been reported by another group in Greece and in Japan.

Patenting A Fraud

by David Prentice

September 26, 2008

Australia is apparently considering granting a patent for human cloning to disgraced South Korean researcher Hwang Woo-suk. The patent would cover the method of producing cloned human embryos and destroying the cloned embryos to harvest human embryonic stem cells. If granted, it would allow Hwang to collect royalties on proceeds from the sales of new medicines developed with his technology. Not that there are any such developments, nor likely to be. But it certainly seems wrong to reward a fraudulent scientist for a process he faked.

Hwang supposedly created cloned human embryos and destroyed them for their cells in 2004 and 2005, publishing the results in the journal Science. In late 2005 it was revealed that the research was a fraud and the results fabricated; the published papers were withdrawn. Hwang was indicted in May 2006, and prosecutors say he was the mastermind behind the fraud. South Korea has banned Hwang from research on cloning human embryos, though he continues to clone animals.

Hwang has supposedly applied for patents on his cloning technique in 11 countries but has been rejected by the European Patent Office and most countries, though a decision is still supposedly pending in four countries. One international patent expert, though, said even if Australia went ahead and granted a patent, it could be revoked if Hwang fails to present the cloned human embryonic stem cell line. If that is the case, Hwang is out of luck; the cell line that Hwang did create was determined to be from parthenogenesis, not from cloning. If you’re interested, you can review his patent claims and patent description.

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