A number of items caught my eye today. Stem cell politics first, since it seems to be that time of year:
Australia's Senate voted on Tuesday to allow cloned stem cells to be used for medical research after an emotional and divisive debate on relaxing restrictions on research.
The bill passed by two votes in the 76-seat Senate and will now go to the lower house of parliament in late November, where supporters believe they can muster the numbers to overturn existing bans on research on cloned stem cells.
ST. LOUIS Missouri voters have narrowly approved a state constitutional amendment that protects stem cell research, even involving the use of human embryos.
The amendment guarantees that any federally-allowed stem cell research and treatments can be carried out in Missouri. That includes research involving the use of human embryos.
Would that we lived in a world in which government employees and politicians had no power beyond persuasion, just like the rest of us. Perhaps then, there would be less waste and battle - certainly less folk willing to abolish freedom of research, if it meant they actually had to work just as hard as those pushing science forward.
But on to matters of more substance; actual research, and people actually working to make progress, rather than fighting over control of one another. This first research isn't quite stem cell science, but it's both worthy of attention and something we're probably going to see much more of as scientists get better at this - the use of somewhat differentiated precursor cells.
Previous studies that had used stem cells, master cells in the body that have the potential to become any type of cell in the body, had failed because the cells did not form into photoreceptors.
Researchers had thought that the mature retina, the part of the eye that senses light and forms images, did not have the capacity for repair.
MacLaren and his collaborators showed using precursor cells that are already programmed to become photoreceptors but are not quite there yet was the key to successful transplantation.
Stem cell therapy - a technique that relies on the idea that stem cells can be prompted to turn into cartilage cells that will grow and repair damage - is another possible avenue for future treatment. Johns Hopkins researcher Jennifer Elisseeff has used the method in rats, finding that stem cells can fill in holes in the cartilage.
"These cells have the amazing ability to repair parts of the body," says Thomas Vangsness, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Vangsness and his colleagues are testing a stem cell therapy developed by Osiris Therapeutics. The Baltimore company has developed a solution of stem cells taken from a single adult donor. Vangsness and his colleagues injected the stem cell solution into the knees of 55 patients with a torn meniscus, cartilage-like tissue in the knee. They're hoping the stem cells will turn into cartilage cells and repair the injury, but the data are just now being analyzed, Vangsness says.
He hopes to have some answers in the fall. "If it does work - that would be a huge deal," Vangsness says. But can stem cells go beyond treating simple injuries and stop an ongoing disease process - one that constantly grinds up cartilage?
Fleischmann calls that concept "pie in the sky" but says that years from now doctors might have injectable stem cell therapy or some other technique that could hold the line on osteoporosis. "If we could regrow cartilage," Fleischmann says, "that would be the holy grail."
This next one is most interesting. Mice are little cancer factories in comparison to much more cancer resistant humans, so it isn't the case that everything that happens in mouse models of cancer is at all applicable to medicine - but still.
Researchers in America have discovered that vaccinating mice with embryonic stem cells prevented lung cancer in those animals that had had cancer cells transplanted into them after the vaccination or that had been exposed to cancer-causing chemicals.
Prof Eaton is the James Graham Brown Professor of Cancer Biology and Deputy Director of the James Graham Brown Cancer Center, University of Louisville, USA. He and his colleague, Dr Robert Mitchell, tested two different vaccines in the mice. One consisted of embryonic stem cells (ESC) only, obtained from mouse blastocysts (very early, pre-implantation embryos). The other vaccine consisted of the ESCs combined with cultured fibroblast cells producing GM-CSF, a growth factor usually made by white blood cells and blood vessel-lining endothelial cells, which "supercharges" the immune response and appears to enhance the vaccine-induced immunity to cancer.
He and his team injected mice with ESCs alone or ESCs + STO/GM-CSF. In mice that had Lewis lung carcinoma transplanted into them afterwards, ESCs were 80% effective in preventing tumour growth and ESCs + STO/GM-CSF were 100% effective. In mice subsequently exposed to a carcinogen that causes lung cancer (3-methylcholanthrene followed by repetitive dosing with butylated hydroxytoluene), ESCs resulted in 60% of mice remaining tumour free after 27 weeks and ESC + STO/GM-CSF resulted in 90% remaining tumour free. Importantly, tumours arising in vaccinated mice were, on average, about 80-90% smaller than tumours in unvaccinated mice. All the unvaccinated mice developed tumours. None of the vaccinated mice developed autoimmune disease or a showed a significant decline in adult pluripotent bone marrow stem cells -- both potential adverse responses to the vaccinations.
So much interesting research is going out there these days that it's hard to see more than a swathe of it. This is as to be expected: advances in biotechnology translate into cost reductions - more science per dollar.