Seeing with stem cells

ICYMI, we’ve been seeing some cool stuff with stem cells recently. The latest is a possible treatment for macular degeneration—the leading cause of blindness in the UK. Essentially, the part of your eye that lets you see what’s directly in front of you (the macula) gets worse over the years like an iPhone hardware update. You know, subtle changes at first, then it’s just objectively worse than it was before (stages of macular degeneration here.) But using an embryonic stem cell patch inserted into the back of the patients’ eye, failing macula cells can be replaced to restore partial vision. Two patients in a Phase I study have experienced improved vision for about a year, and eight more patients will be part of the ongoing study

Stem cell sheets save skin

The situation: a seven-year-old had lost two-thirds of his skin to junctional epidermolysis bullosa. German doctors had tried nearly everything to try to treat the condition which they thought would soon be fatal. When the boy’s father asked if there were any experimental treatments they could try, they found one with Dr. Michele De Luca who was able to use the kid’s stem cells to construct a fully functional skin graft to replace 80% of his skin. And it took! This marks the first time a stem cell other than the hematopoietic kind has been successfully transplanted. The kid has made a full recovery, and is off to playing soccer with his friends, likely with much less fear of scraping a knee.

In a GATTA-CA vida, baby

Ok, we may not exactly be at the point where we’re determining employment by genetic status, but CRISPR still gives some ethicists pause when it comes to human applications. However, a team of researchers led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov—whose greatest hits include creating “three-parent” monkeys and a technique for creating stem cells out of skin cells—decided they weren’t gonna let China have all the fun with pushing ethical boundaries. The team’s work culminated in the first gene-editing of a human embryo performed on US soil. They also did it better than their Chinese counterparts have been able to so far, with fewer unintended errors in portions of the DNA that weren’t being actively operated on.

3. Some stem cells start squamous cell sickness, study says

Do you ever get tired at your job? You know, those days when the work just keeps piling up until you end up sending an email talking about the “Key Onion Leader” you want at your conference next year? Well turns out, basal stem cells can mess up at their jobs too… except their mess-ups can lead to the second-most prevalent form of lung cancer instead of confusion over vegetable management. The correlation was identified by University of Melbourne researchers who realized there was high basal stem cell growth in smokers since those cells help replace cells lost from smoking. The discovery gives innovator companies a drug target to stop lung cancer’s progress in its tracks.

2. That’s a lot of aspirin

Bayer plans to unlock some of the potential within its ranks by establishing start-up-like entities. Bayer is trying the spin-out approach to developing next-gen solutions in human, animal, and agriculture technologies such as stem cells, RNA inhibition/activation, the microbiome, and DNA editing. One of the first, and probably best-funded is Casebia, a joint venture founded by Bayer and CRISPR Therapeutics. Casebia was initially funded with $300M from Bayer and another $35M was spent to give Bayer an unspecified stake in CRISPR. Casebia has access to gene-editing technology from CRISPR in specific disease areas, as well as access to protein engineering expertise and relevant disease know-how through Bayer. Prescription for success? Not sure, but take two of these and call me in the morning.

3. Move over mAbs, stem cell therapies are (almost) here

Great news for individuals suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and not so great news for pharma companies holding patents on the monoclonal antibody-based biologics currently used to treat RA. An Australian biotech, Mesoblast, completed Phase II clinical trials on its stem cell treatment for rheumatoid arthritis to astounding results (some have inserted the word “cure” here). In a test designed to identify whether the stem cell treatment is efficient—by achieving 20% relief of signs and symptoms—researchers instead saw a 70% improvement among more than one-third of the patients who received MPC-300-IV. Since some RA patients are unable to take biologics, a stem cell therapy could benefit wider audiences.

5. Coming soon to FedEx/Kinkos?

People smarter than most have developed a new kind of bio-ink. No, you can’t get it at Staples. But don’t let that stop you from getting excited about this stem cell-containing ink that can be used to engineer bone and cartilage via 3D printing. The team developed a formulation that contains two different polymer based components—one extracted from seaweed, the other a synthetic polymer used in the medical industry—and a retrofitted benchtop 3D printer to generate a full-size tracheal cartilage ring in just 5 weeks. Sounds slow for the person who could really use a tracheal cartilage ring right about now. Potential uses include joints for hip and knee replacement surgeries as well as nose reconstruction. Lord Voldemort would be pleased.