by Monya Baker

Two research teams follow cancer to its source

According to two papers published in Nature this month, colon cancer tumours originate from normal stem cells. Both studies show that, when a cell-signaling pathway is misregulated, rare stem cells within the small intestine initiate cancer.

 Much cancer stem cell work sorts through human tumour cells and transplants them into mice to identify a subset capable of initiating tumours anew. Not only is this approach challenged by cross-species differences and other transplantation techniques, but also it does not identify the original 'bad apples' from which the cancerous cells arose. Now, working in genetically engineered mice, two teams of researchers have been able to find the source of these cells. Both systems track the formation of aberrant growths from the crypt stem cells of the small intestine.

by Monya Baker

The cell cycle inhibitor p21 gives cancer cells the chance to repair DNA

To sustain disease, leukemia stem cells have to keep on dividing. To do so cells require a counterintuitive resource: a protein that keeps cells from proliferating. Work reported in Nature this month shows that, by giving cancer stem cells a chance to slow down and repair DNA damage, the protein p21, a cell-cycle inhibitor, not only helps cancer maintain itself, it helps leukemia evade therapies designed to kill rapidly dividing cells. Drugs that inhibit p21 or DNA repair, then, might help leukemia speed up and self destruct.

stem cell therapiesby Amber Dance

A biotech start-up sees stem cells as targets, not transplants

When Captain Kirk and the crew of the starship Enterprise travel back in time to the 1980s in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Dr. McCoy runs across an elderly woman with kidney failure languishing in the hospital. He offers her a pill to swallow. Minutes later, the cured patient rejoices before her baffled physicians: "The doctor gave me a pill and I grew a new kidney!"

To physician Leonard Zon of Harvard Medical School in Boston, the scene parallels his goals for the company he helped found, Fate Therapeutics. Fate, located in La Jolla, California, launched in 2007 with a US$12 million budget. Fate aims to develop small molecules and biologics that stimulate a patient's own stem cells, marrying the tried-and-true methodology of drug development to the relatively new science of stem cells.

by Simone Alves

Chromosome instability is a problem for long-term culture of human embryonic stem cells

Long-term culture of human embryonic stem (hES) cells can cause them to gain or lose large sections of chromosomes, report two papers in Nature Biotechnology. This instability can lessen the reproducibility and reliability of experimental results, and, by raising the specter of cancer, could hinder the clinical application of stem cells.

Checking cell lines in practice is not always easy, experimentally or logistically, says Anselme Perrier of The Institute for Stem Cell Therapy in Evry, France. He and his colleagues discovered that long-term culture of five hES cell lines resulted in a genomic amplification of the 20q.11.21 locus in four cases. "We discovered this mutation during routine quality control" says Perrier, "and it was happening too frequently for it to simply be an artefact".

by Monya Baker

The ISSCR hopes its handbook will prompt regulators and governments to shut shady clinics

Worried that profit-hungry quacks are exploiting patients and endangering clinical research by offering risky stem cell procedures, the International Society for Stem Cell Research has published documents to warn patients away from fraudulent clinics and to spur government authorities to shut the clinics down.

The society condemned stem cell tourism, saying that shady clinics exploit patients' hopes and could jeopardize "legitimate progress of translational stem cell research."1 Researchers worry clinics promote unreasonable expectations for how quickly mainstream work will progress and generate bad publicity that could tarnish the entire field. Patients and patient advocates often express worry that the scientific community is moving too slowly and say patients should be free to try all options.

douglas sippby Sorapop Kiatpongsam and Douglas Sipp

Costs, risks, benefits, and a call for regulation

For some patients with debilitating illnesses, hope seems only a plane ride away. Though the scientific mainstream has dismissed stem cell clinics operating outside standard medical practice, patients continue to go. Patients and providers accuse the biomedical establishment of inaction and excessive caution; the biomedical establishment accuses providers of selling false hope to patients who have exhausted all available options. The resulting impasse arguably stands as the greatest current threat to the advancement of stem cell therapies, and the strongest evidence of the need for regulatory frameworks capable of addressing the needs of the diverse stakeholders in the 'offshore' stem cell drama.

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