Posts Tagged ‘history’

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.

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, 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.


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.

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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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Cancer Vaccines: Using Embryonic Tissues and Stem Cells to Vaccinate Against Cancer

May 3rd, 2010

A recently published paper showed that mice with colon cancer can be “vaccinated” with human embryonic stem cells and have a significant immune response against the cancer (Li et al., 2009). This study relates to a big hurdle that needs to be overcome in order to better fight cancer: immune tolerance. The immune system usually fails to detect and attack cancerous tumors, and consequently many cancer treatments are currently being developed that stimulate the immune system to fight back (e.g. the growing field of cancer vaccines).

Antibody and Antigens

Cancerous tumors and embryonic tissues have been found to share many of the same antigens, which are detected by the immune system through antibodies. This group of antigens is called oncofetal antigens. Consequently, animals can be vaccinated with embryonic tissues/cells (most recently done with human embryonic stem cells) and develop an immune response against cancer.

Interestingly, this state of immune tolerance is similar to what happens during pregnancy, and, more specifically, it’s been found that the body’s response to a tumor is very similar to its response to embryonic tissues. While much recent research has not been published in this area, there is actually a long history of studies that show: (1) there is a significant number of antigens shared between tumors and embryonic tissues (called “oncofetal antigens”) and, consequently, antibodies made against tumors can also recognize embryonic tissues, and vice versa; (2) pregnancy confers some immunity against cancer (accompanied by antibody production against oncofetal antigens), not only against its occurrence but also against its growth; (3) similar to pregnancy, an immune response against cancer can be generated by vaccinating animals with embryonic tissues. These studies and the recent re-visitation will be explored below (for a more detailed review, see Brewer et al., 2009).

The first published suggestion that tumors may have an embryonic nature came in the early 1800s (Muller, 1838). Tumors were suspected to be tissues that had been triggered to become embryonic-like again, and it is now generally accepted that tumors are indeed more “embryonic” than the tissues they are derived from, due to the re-expression of embryonic-related genes. By the late 1800s, researchers understood cancer enough to realize that they must better understand normal development in order to better combat cancerous tumors and their embryonic-like cells (Brewer et al., 2009). In the 1880s, these studies shifted focus; the field of immunology was born (from research conducted by Louis Pasteur, at the University of Strasbourg, and Robert Koch, as a medical officer in Poland) and many researchers focused on creating vaccines to cure diseases. Cancer was no exception.
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Direct Reprogramming: Turning One Cell Directly Into Another

February 9th, 2010

A goal of regenerative medicine has been to be able to take any cell from a person’s body and turn it in to any other cell type that may be desired (such as insulin-producing beta-cells for treating diabetes, or creating neurons to treat a neurodegenerative disease). This would eliminate several donor-compatibility problems, and potentially eliminate the need for a donor (who isn’t the patient) altogether. In 2007, human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) were created and this goal seemed a bit closer (Yu et al., 2007; Takahashi et al., 2007). iPSCs are cells that can be take from adult tissue and “reprogrammed” into embryonic stem cell (ESC)-like cells. Because iPSCs are pluripotent, these cells can then differentiate into (or become) any cell type (for more information, see the All Things Stem Cell article on “Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells: A New Stem Cell Line with a Long History”).

But is it possible to get rid of the iPSC-middle man? Is it possible to take any cell in the adult body and directly reprogram it, skipping the iPSC state, into the final desired cell type? There have been several studies over the last few decades that show this is quite possible, though it still has a ways to go before it can be regularly used in the clinic.

Reprogramming of cells to a different cell type is usually done by either somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) or by using transcription factors. This post will focus on work done with transcription factors (for more information on using SCNT, see the “Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells…” post). Transcription factors are expressed (or made) at different levels in different cell types, and control what genes are expressed in every cell, making sure, for example, that a liver cell remains a liver cell and does not become a neuron. A famous example of how transcription factor expression can be used to alter a cell’s identity is the creation of iPSCs, where adult cells were forced to express transcription factors normally expressed in ESCs, which made the adult cells express genes specific to ESCs, and consequently become nearly identical to ESCs.

There are many degrees of direct reprogramming that have been reported over the last few decades. Several progenitor cells, cells that appear to be committed to their fate but not yet fully differentiated, have been shown to be capable of dedifferentiating into a different cell type; this process is called transdetermination. However, in a few cases it has been shown that a fully differentiated cell can actually become a different cell type; this process is called transdifferentiation (Graf and Enver, 2009). Over the last few decades, much progress has been made in direct reprogramming with muscle, blood, the pancreas, and neurons.


In the 1980s, the first reprogramming experiments using transcription factors took place. In 1987, a group reported using MyoD to make fibroblasts become muscle cells (Davis et al., 1987). Fibroblasts are cells important for wound healing (they secrete essential extracellular matrix proteins) and are common in connective tissues. The specific fibroblasts used were embryonic mouse fibroblasts. Because they were embryonic, this process is called transdetermination; the embryonic fibroblasts could probably differentiate more easily than adult fibroblasts (Graf and Enver, 2009). To convert the fibroblasts into muscle cells, the researchers transfected the fibroblasts with the cDNA of MyoD, forcing the cells to express MyoD (Davis et al., 1987). MyoD is normally only expressed in skeletal muscle, and it was later found to be a transcription factor involved in the differentiation of muscle cells and also a very early marker of muscle cell fate commitment.

Because of its success with the fibroblasts, MyoD was subsequently used in many other reprogramming studies to see what other cells it could make into muscle. It was found that while MyoD could indeed convert many different cell types into muscle, including fibroblasts in the dermal layer of skin, immature chondrocytes (cells in cartilage), smooth muscle, and retinal cells (Choi et al., 1990), MyoD could not turn any cell type into muscle; it was found incapable of making muscle out of hepatocytes (cells in the liver) (Schäfer et al., 1990).


In the 1990s, another key direct reprogramming factor was discovered, specifically involved in hematopoiesis. Hematopoiesis is the process by which the different types of blood cells are generated in the body (the term literally means “to make blood”). (For information on hematopoietic stem cells, see the All Things Stem Cell article “Hematopoietic Stem Cells: A Long History in Brief”). The central hematopoiesis-regulating factor discovered was the transcription factor GATA-1.

In 1995, a group reported that when GATA-1 was added to or removed from avian monocyte precursors, it could turn them into erythrocytes, megakaryocytes, and eosinophils (Kulessa et al., 1995). To understand the significance of these findings an inspection of hematopoiesis is required (see Figure). During hematopoiesis, hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) (also called hemocytoblasts) give rise to all the different types of blood cells. Specifically, HSCs can first differentiate into either a common myeloid progenitor cell or a common lymphoid progenitor cell; either progenitor then further differentiates into specific blood cell types.

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Direct Reprogramming in the Hematopoietic System. Several different transcription factors have been found that can directly reprogram one type of blood cell into another. Changing the expression levels of GATA-1 in monocytes (red) can make them differentiate into eosinophils, erythrocytes, or megakaryocytes. Making B-cells (B lymphocytes) express C/EBP transcription factors (blue) can cause them to differentiate into macrophages. Lastly, C/EBPs can also inhibit the function of the transcription factor Pax5; when Pax5 is deleted in B-cells they differentiate into T-cells (T lymphocytes), though they first dedifferentiate into a common lymphoid progenitor.

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Chd1 Regulation of Chromatin May be Key for Embryonic Stem Cell Pluripotency

January 10th, 2010

While it is widely accepted that embryonic stem cells (ESCs) have the ability to become any type of cell, the molecular causes for this characteristic are still under much investigation, although one suspected player is chromatin. Recently, more evidence has been reported to support the important role of chromatin structure in maintaining an undifferentiated state in ESCs; the specific protein involved is called Chd1 (Gaspar-Maia et al., 2009).

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DNA is condensed on histones, creating a structure called chromatin. (Left) A single DNA strand (formed by a sugar-phosphate backbone and nucleotide base-pairs). (Right) Chromatin is the complex formed by histones (green) and DNA (blue); the DNA can be tightly wrapped around the histones. (DNA bound to histones may be inaccessible to the transcription machinery, preventing the transcription of these genes, while unbound DNA allows space for the machinery and the genes may be transcribed.) Chd1 may function in ESCs to maintain chromatin in an open (euchromatin) state and potentially promote pluripotency in this way.

Chromatin structure plays an important role in regulating what genes are created, or expressed, in a given cell. In eukaryote organisms (almost all large organisms, such as animals, plants, and fungi, but not bacteria), DNA forms a complex with proteins that are called histones. This complex of DNA and histones is called chromatin (see figure). Histones act as spools for the DNA to be spun around, binding to DNA and packaging it into tightly coiled units (without histones, the long DNA strands would take up a very large amount of space). Whether the histones bind to the DNA or not can be regulated through chemical modification of the histones (they can be methylated or acetylated). When histones are bound to the DNA, the chromatin is in a condensed state (called heterochromatin) and the genes are not expressed because they cannot be accessed by the gene transcription machinery. However, when the histones are not bound to the DNA, the chromatin is extended (called euchromatin), and the DNA can be accessed and these genes can be expressed.

It was previously believed that embryonic stem cells had lots of open chromatin (euchromatin), but this was not a proven theory. A study on stem cells and gene expression (Efroni et al., 2008) reported that, globally but at low-levels, more genes in ESCs are actively turned into protein than are in differentiated cells. Additionally, proteins involved in changing chromatin structure and transcribing genes were expressed at relatively high levels in ESCs too. When the function of some proteins involved in chromatin-remodeling was changed, normal ESC proliferation and differentiation was also affected. Overall, Efroni et al. suggested that the differentiation of ESCs may correlate with a loss of active transcription of the cell genome.

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