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Reaching K-12: Stem Cell Awareness Day

September 30th, 2013

This Wednesday, October 2, 2013, is Stem Cell Awareness Day. It’s a day to celebrate stem cells, have discussions of what stem cell research is, and learn about potential benefits and disease treatments using stem cells. If you want to be involved locally in an event for Stem Cell Awareness Day, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has a useful webpage summarizing events that are being organized in California, as well as international events that are taking place for this special day.

K-12

I am celebrating Stem Cell Awareness Day here at All Things Stem Cell by focusing on K-12 educational efforts. It is particularly important to spread awareness of stem cells and understanding of stem cell research to K-12 students to ensure that this extremely promising avenue of research continues to be supported and funded. While it is challenging to create accessible stem cell resources for K-12, there are actually several freely available online, which are explored below.

Science Buddies

Science Buddies, which is a non-profit leader in K-12 science and engineering education (and is the company I enjoy working for as a scientist/writer), offers multiple science fair project ideas related to stem cells (some of which I authored) for the burgeoning stem cell scientist. Here are a few:

California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM)

CIRM offers an entire stem cell curriculum at their Stem Cell Education Portal. Five units are available on their website. These units are primarily for high school students taking AP-related courses and early college students. Other resources are also available through the Portal.

Biology Bytes Book

Lastly, I recently published two biology books, and one of them, Biology Bytes: Digestible Essays on Stem Cells and Modern Medicine, serves as a broad introduction to the stem cell field, as well as other areas of modern medicine. The reader should have a general biology background, so it is most suitable for a college biology student, although a student taking related AP courses in high school would also likely find it of interest.

Other Resources

There’s a wide variety of other stem cell resources online that are helpful for exploring and explaining stem cell concepts to a K-12 audience, including this blog’s Visual Stem Cell Glossary. Although some stem cell concepts are truly complex and may be beyond the scope of a K-12 audience, it is never too soon to plant the seed of interest in, inquiry about, and positive support for stem cell research.

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“Biology Bytes” Book & Blog

August 11th, 2013

Dr. Teisha J. Rowland, the author of “All Things Stem Cell,” recently published a book inspired by this blog. In the book Biology Bytes: Digestible Essays on Stem Cells and Modern Medicine, author Dr. Rowland discusses the history and latest scientific advancements in these fields of science, and many more. With a specific focus on issues that we increasingly encounter in the modern world around us, Dr. Rowland explores cutting-edge science through essays that can be easily digested: complex scientific concepts are broken down into key points based on the latest discoveries, technical jargon is clearly explained, and the impacts of these discoveries on our lives is explored. This book includes comprehensible explorations of a wide range of topics, including different types of stem cells and treatments they may be used in (with updated essays from “All Things Stem Cell”), the development and impact of in vitro fertilization (a technique responsible for over 1% of U.S. births today), how and why GMOs are made, the creation of vaccines to fight cancer, and fascinating food science behind delectable drinks such as beer, wine, and tea. For $4.99, you can own the book!

Additionally, Dr. Rowland recently started a general biology blog titled “Biology Bytes” (at www.biology-bytes.com). The blog has short articles posted twice a week (Tuesdays and Thursdays) on a variety of biology topics, so far ranging from melanoma in fish, toads that hatch eggs inside their skin, and the decline of the honey bees, to less technical coverage of stem cell topics. The most recent article, “Lab-Grown Meat: Triumphs and Challenges,” is on the muscle stem cells used to create the recently taste-tested stem cell “meat” patty — it is a less technical (and shorter) version of the “All Things Stem Cell” post “Cooking with Stem Cells.” Tune in to “Biology Bytes” for bi-weekly short stories on a wide array of fascinating biology topics, including more accessible explanations of stem cell biology.

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Cooking with Stem Cells

August 11th, 2013

On August 5, 2013, a “lab-grown,” 5-ounce burger patty was taste tested in London, U.K. The patty had been grown from muscle stem cells that were isolated from cows. While this piece of “meat,” which was said to have tasted “close to meat,” represents significant progress in the field of making lab-grown food, the current approach needs to be improved before widespread use is feasible; the patty cost over $330,000 to make (not to mention probably significant culturing time in the lab to generate the 20,000 muscle strands used to make the patty). Luckily, there are many avenues that can be explored to optimize this technology. To understand them, it’s important to first understand the muscle stem cells themselves and how they’re cultured.


(Video credit: The Washington Post)

Origins of Muscle Stem Cells:
During development, the embryo has three different tissue types that, together with the germ cells, will make up the animal’s entire body. These are called the three germ layers. One of these tissue types, specifically the mesoderm, develops into skeletal muscle cells (along with other cell types, including cardiac muscle, kidney cells, red blood cells, and smooth muscle). Some stem cells that have been isolated from muscle appear to be mesenchymal stem cells. Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) got their name because they’re thought to primarily contain progenitors in the mesenchyme, which is a collection of cells mostly derived from mesoderm. (The majority of these cells later make up supportive structures throughout the body, such as bone, cartilage, connective tissue, muscle, adipose tissue, and the lymphatic and hematopoietic systems.) MSCs are typically multipotent, which means they can differentiate, or turn into, multiple different cell types. Specifically, MSCs are usually confirmed to be MSCs by showing that they can differentiate into three different, standard mesenchymal cell types: osteocytes (bone), chondrocytes (cartilage), and adipocytes (fat).

In muscle, there are two main groups of stem cells: satellite cells and muscle-derived stem cells (MDSCs) (Jankowski et al., 2002). Satellite cells were discovered decades ago (Mauro, 1961) and are commonly simply (and perhaps confusingly) referred to as muscle stem cells. It’s thought that these cells can regenerate damaged skeletal muscle and self-renew, but their ability to differentiate is rather limited; they can only make other types of muscle cells. (They’re basically unipotent.) MDSCs, on the other hand, are thought to be a type of multipotent mesenchymal stem cell and possibly a precursor of the satellite cells. But not only can the MDSCs differentiate into mesenchymal cell types, they have been found capable of becoming non-mesenchymal cell types as well. However, when picking the right stem cells to use for making lab-grown meat, the ability to differentiate into many different cell types is, for once, not an appealing trait.
Read more…

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International Stem Cell Awareness Day

September 30th, 2012

International Stem Cell Awareness Day is October 3, 2012, so on this day please help spread the word about the importance of stem cell research! Stem cell researchers across the world are investigating how stem cells can be used to improve our lives, from repairing and regenerating damaged or lost tissues, to developing cures for numerous devastating diseases and conditions, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, macular degeneration, Parkinson’s, and paralyzing spinal cord injuries, and various other useful applications in between: They’re being used to help us learn more about the entire developmental process (giving us a better understanding of how to fix problems that can arise during development), the efficacies of different drugs are studied and characterized using stem cells, and their unique biological roles make them ideal for use in better understanding aging.

StemCellsOfferHope.com

So please be sure to get out the word on stem cells this October 3! For more information on International Stem Cell Awareness Day (and free wallpapers and downloadable stem cell images!), visit StemCellsOfferHope.com, which is affiliated with the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center at the University of California, Irvine. Read on for a summary of stem cell history and recent research breakthroughs and highlights.

THE STEM CELL FAMILY

With all of the breaking news stories that come out on cutting-edge stem cell findings all the time, it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Yes, the stem cell family, which includes all of the varieties of stem cells that have been discovered so far, is very large, and growing larger with new children, cousins, uncles, and aunts being discovered or created all the time. But a key feature they all share is their potential to improve our lives.

Our understanding of these cells and their incredible potential for treating diseases, fight cancers, heal wounds, and, in essence, saving lives, has grown hugely since we first unknowingly used them in World War II. However, the more we learn about them the more we realize we have yet to understand. This blog has strived to explore the different stem cell types in detail, including their biology, history, potential, clinical applications, and numerous remaining questions. However, the ways in which the different types of stem cells came to be accepted into the stem cell family is itself an interesting story, and one that can help paint a useful bigger picture, and that is why this story will be the focus for this blog post to celebrate International Stem Cell Awareness Day.

Read more…

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“STEM CELL REVOLUTIONS” by Scottish Documentary Institute

July 19th, 2012

STEM CELL REVOLUTIONS” is an informative and engaging documentary recently distributed by the Scottish Documentary Institute. It’s a very useful film to see if you want to learn more about the history of stem cells, and where the clinical, cutting-edge technology is at currently. The documentary gives an overview of international stem cell history, starting with the discovery of stem cells and ending with the newest members of the ever-growing stem cell family. To summarize such a wealth of research, research that has been going on for over half a century, the film tells the story of a few key stem cell discoveries and applications. Each story is described through interviews with stem cell researchers who were directly involved or appeared on the scene later but can knowledgably discuss the event’s impact. The first group of stories is related to adult stem cells (although this is not explicitly stated or explained): the discovery of stem cells during WWII, the amazing rescue of two boys in the early 1980s using stem cell-based skin grafts, and the present-day treatment of blind patients in a stem cell clinic in India. The final group of stories is related to pluripotent stem cells: the discovery of embryonic stem cells (ESCs) in mice in 1981 by Martin Evans (it was a treat to see Evans, who won the Nobel Prize in 2007 for the research he discusses in the film!) and of human ESCs (hESCs) in 1998 by Jamie Thomson, present-day use of hESCs to treat patients with retinal disorders in London (although I shuddered a little when Pete Coffee handled a flask of cells without gloves on!), and the creation of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) by Shinya Yamanaka in 2006.


The science presented in the film is well-explained and even though the focus of the film is on medical breakthroughs accomplished using stem cells, the scientists interviewed do not try to over-hype current stem cell applications. Most helpful in making the technical information accessible are several short, accurate, and intriguing animations (made by Cameron Duguid). During a segment on Yamanaka’s research, one of these animations is particularly useful in explaining how chromatin regulation of gene expression is different in different types of tissues. However, it is repeatedly jarring when the interviews with down-to-earth stem cell scientists, who mostly do not over-hype their research, are bookended by interviews with Margaret Atwood (a writer who is confusingly repeatedly interviewed in a laboratory setting). She makes repeated references to The Fountain of Youth – at odds with the scientists’ messages. Similarly, repeatedly interspersed videos of a topless man doing what looked to be the Brazilian martial art of Capoeira seemed out of place.

Perhaps the only shortcoming of the film, if a bit minor, is that it shies away from getting into some of the nitty-gritty of why iPSCs may be better than hESCs or vice versa, but instead falls back upon the standard argument that hESCs are surrounded by ethical concerns. For a 71-minute-long film, it only makes sense that some issues be simplified, but additional details may have helped viewers better understand this important and hotly-debated topic. Specifically, a lot of the ethical arguments against hESCs are outdated or ill-founded. Probably most importantly, in 2006, Irina Klimanskaya and colleagues found how to isolate hESCs while leaving the donor embryo intact and potentially able to develop normally, weakening the argument against the generation of hESC lines on the grounds that they require the destruction of a potential embryo. Additionally, many researchers use blastocysts that would have been discarded by the in vitro fertilization clinic because the embryos were damaged in some way and would never develop properly. However, a significant strike against using hESCs in treatments, which the film does not touch upon, is the potential for immune rejection. Human iPSCs, on the other hand, are very appealing because they potentially may not have immune rejection problems in treatments, as mentioned in the film. However, human iPSCs are much newer to the stem cell scene and have similarities with cancer cells that researchers should probably better understand before iPSCs are widely used clinically. It is also a little surprising that Jamie Thomson is not mentioned in the human iPSC segment, as his group independently created human iPSCs at the same time as Yamanaka’s group.

The researchers interviewed in the film emphasize the importance of striking a balance between regulation and progress, but then the film seems to not take its own advice and gets bogged down in the regulation of stem cells in the very last segment of the film, when it may have been more useful to focus on the near-future applications of these cells. There’s a surprising focus on the hypothetical ethical arguments that would arise should human iPSCs be made into function eggs and sperm (which has not been done yet, and may not even be possible). However, it may be more useful to first focus on whether human iPSCs can even be successfully used in the clinic before diverting attention to this hypothetical ethical argument, which is much further down the road. It would also have been nice to see a mention of direct reprogramming, the latest stem cell technology that may one day make even iPSCs obsolete.

While there are amazing advances being made with stem cell technology, the film rightly cautions viewers about the dangers of going to a stem cell clinic abroad. A great resource for those considering stem cell treatments abroad is A Closer Look at Stem Cell Treatments, a website made by the reputable International Society for Stem Cell Research.

Overall, “STEM CELL REVOLUTIONS” is a great film for anyone wanting to learn more about the history of stem cells, hear legendary researchers talk about their ground-breaking work and patients talk about how stem cell therapies have changed their lives, and still get a down-to-earth idea of what is realistically being accomplished with these cells.

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