Making Stem Cells Virus-Free

March 26th, 2009

A report out today from the University of Wisconsin - Madison suggests that the first virus-free human induced pluripotent stem cells have been created. This is significant in the search for alternatives to embryonic stem cells, which have the ability to become any cell type.

To date, one major stumbling block to the use of adult stem cells induced to be pluripotent has been the use of viral vectors. Foreign genetic material from the viral vectors can integrate itself into the host cell DNA and have negative consequences on cell processes and experimental results.

From the press releaese:

The new work was accomplished using a plasmid, a circle of DNA, and cells from the foreskins of newborns. “The plasmids carry all the needed transgenes, but don’t integrate into the host DNA, they just float around as episomes” in the cell, Thomson says.

The plasmids replicate, but they do so somewhat inefficiently, Thomson explains, so that after they perform the job of reprogramming, they can subsequently be weeded out, leaving the induced cells free of any exotic genetic material. “Once the transgenes have done their job and are no longer needed, one can merely recover induced pluripotent stem cells that have lost their episomes.”

The resulting cells, says Thomson, are remarkably similar to embryonic stem cells and show the same capacity to proliferate indefinitely in culture and diversify into all the cell types of the human body.

The fact that these induced cells are so similar to embryonic cells suggests that the research is on the right track. However, there are several possible methods of reprogramming adult cells under investigation. Another method might turn out to be more efficient or successful at reaching the end goal of turning back the clock on adult cells.

I am waiting for the press releases to fill my inbox suggesting that science has solved all the problems with adult stem cell research, and that we no longer need embryonic stem cells. This is one more step in the process of understanding how our cells work, but it by no means has answered all the questions.

Stem Cell Town Hall Fails Web 2.0

March 19th, 2009

Last night, I attended the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s (CIRM) San Francisco Town Hall for stem cell science. In their words:

“The Town Forums provide an interactive opportunity for people to learn how CIRM is investing
Proposition 71 funds to improve human health and about advances in stem cell science from some of the
most distinguished researchers in the field.”

CIRM manages the public money that was allotted for stem cell research through the passage of Prop. 71. Part of their mandate is to inform the public of the state of the research. They have a vested interest in doing a good job at the public outreach: future funding depends on it.

I went with great hopes for a well-attended, message driven, engaging experience.

They did have the numbers. It’s estimated by the CIRM chief communications officer, Don Gibbons, that 275 people came to the event, which is 75 more than had RSVP’d. So, in terms of feet in the meeting room, the people came.

Needless to say, there were event posters plastered all over SF Muni’s buses and trains for a month prior. But, the fact that so many people had RSVP’d makes me wonder how successful the print ad campaign actually was. I don’t know how many people would write down the email address in order to reply once in front of a computer. Yes, in San Francisco, many people could have used their mobile devices to respond on route, but I still wonder. I know I never RSVP’d. I just showed up.

An RSVP is most likely to come from someone who receives an email communication, an invitation, or… a press release. And, those people are going to be somehow linked to the organization through some kind of list. So, how many of the attendees were citizens of this California locality with no link to CIRM? Probably not as many as they hoped to attract.

But, what about people who might have been interested, but unable to make it to the Palace Hotel in downtown San Francisco? What about Californians in Redding, Stockton, Humboldt, Fresno? That’s a long drive to make for a lecture on stem cells. This is where CIRM fails in its mandate to inform the public of its activities, and where it fails at basic Web 2.0.

With today’s internet capabilities, there is no excuse for relying on outreach techniques of yesterday. They have a mandate to reach the public. I don’t think 275 attendees cuts the mustard. So, where could they have improved?

1.Interact with the audience

If it’s supposed to be interactive, make it interactive.

Sure, the q and a after the lectures was interactive for the people in attendance, but they could do so much better. There are web companies that make it easy to set up a simple camera and stream events live to people around the world. Not only does the video reach a wider audience, the platforms make interactive chat between people hosting and viewing an event possible. Both the informational lectures and the question and answer session could have been made richer by the parallel discussion. I had the only video camera at the town hall, and I wasn’t streaming.

2. Engage the audience

Who did CIRM have presenting to the audience? Scientists. And, while scientists are smart and everything, they don’t always do a good job of conveying information to a lay audience. The lectures last night were academic, textbook, and DRY. If it weren’t for the fact that I think 2/3 of the people in the room had a science background, the lectures would have been over the heads of the average person. Add to the lecture content the fact that the visual presentations were abysmal. The slides were consistently over-stuffed with text or overly-complicated graphics. However, there were two bright spots. Tamara Alliston, who lectured on cartilage, did an excellent job of using cartilage as the main character in her story, and Bruce Conklin, who lectured on heart muscle, effectively used humor to his benefit (not to mention that he also had cool videos). Both of these techniques are extremely effective in getting an audience to engage with a topic.

3. Don’t forget the audience

It seemed as though, as well-intentioned as the speakers were, the purpose of the event was muddled. They forgot the concerns of the audience.

The entire series of three lectures needed to be message driven rather than driven by scientific jargon and research techniques. For future events, I suggest enlisting a public relations expert to train the speakers and help craft a series of engaging lectures with hooks to draw the audience in, stories to keep them engaged, and simple bottom-lines. What is the take home message? Drive it home.

4. Get the audience to spread the word

I’m spreading the word because that was my goal in attending. I wanted to see how this town hall was produced, and then talk about it. CIRM needs to get their audience to advertise for them, to pass their messages along for them. Where are those opportunities? Their website is devoid of ways to interact, communicate, and share. I did hear last night that part of the reason the website is suffering is that it is managed by the state, and has to deal with a lot of internal beaurocracy. Fair enough, but it is easy to become involved in non-state-managed web communities like Twitter, Facebook, Delicious, Stumble Upon, or even Flickr. What about Seesmic? I can imagine some interesting discussions taking place there. To CIRM’s credit, they do have both a YouTube site and a Flickr account.

5. Give the audience what they want

Some of the most effective campaigns to get the public interested in science are being run by NASA and the California Academy of Sciences. They are taking advantage of all the data available to them, and creating fascinating new ways to interact with their respective audiences in just the way the audience wants. NASA’s recent Twitter accounts have had amazing success, especially @MarsPhoenix. Then there is NASA.tv where I watched the recent shuttle docking with the International Space Station. Here in San Francisco, the Cal Academy recently began a Thursday night, adults-only event with top djs and alcohol. So far, it has been a raging success.

These examples aren’t necessarily exactly what CIRM should do, but they should learn the lesson of giving the audience what they want.

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I’ve been a bit harsh on CIRM for its inaugural public outreach event, but I think it is deserved. Science media is lacking, and every organization that is trying to share scientific information with the public needs to do their absolute best to step it up. Science needs to use PR and web 2.0 techniques just like everyone else.

I will admit that the whole town hall left me feeling as if CIRM was only just going through the motions of fulfilling its mandate for public outreach rather than truly making an effort to reach out and educate the people of California and beyond. I hope they do better next time.

How Science Got Its Groove Back

March 9th, 2009

Today’s declaration by President Obama makes me very happy. Not only did he reverse the Bush administration’s limits on federal funding for stem cell research, but he made the statement that science is valuable.

“This [Stem Cell] Order is an important step in advancing the cause of science in America. But let’s be clear: promoting science isn’t just about providing resources - it is also about protecting free and open inquiry. It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient - especially when it’s inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda  -  and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.”By doing this, we will ensure America’s continued global leadership in scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs. That is essential not only for our economic prosperity, but for the progress of all humanity.”That is why today, I am also signing a Presidential Memorandum directing the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making. To ensure that in this new Administration, we base our public policies on the soundest science; that we appoint scientific advisors based on their credentials and experience, not their politics or ideology; and that we are open and honest with the American people about the science behind our decisions. That is how we will harness the power of science to achieve our goals — to preserve our environment and protect our national security; to create the jobs of the future, and live longer, healthier lives.”

Today marks a very public and official change for the relationship between science and politics in the United States government. This makes me very, very happy.

Stem Cell Therapy Needs Global Regulation

February 27th, 2009

From my article on Skepticblog.org:

“Although the Russians claim to be using “neural stem cells”, they are not. They essentially take whole fetal brain, put in a Cuisinart, and inject it uncharacterized as a graft slurry,” wrote Dr. Snyder on The-Scientist.com.

Dr. Snyder and his colleagues have a paper in revision at the New England Journal of Medicine in which they analyzed the cells used in a similar case from the same group, and concluded that they were not likely to be neural stem cells.

The Debate Continues To Rage

September 5th, 2008

I received a press release today from an organization called the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank located in Washington DC and committed to “free enterprise and limited government.”

And, while free enterprise and limited government are not inherently bad, years of bad politics and close-minded agendas immediately put a bad taste in my mouth when I read the phrase.

Still, I was interested in what they had to say this time around.

… a new report from the Competitive Enterprise Institute calls into question whether, ethics aside, stem cell research is even a sensible expenditure of taxpayer dollars.

 Government stem cell research programs, such as California’s Proposition 71, are bureaucratic, wasteful, and mired in political controversy And, because stem cell research is inherently speculative and politically controversial, the public would be best served if governments left it to the private sector.

 “This is not a question of whether the research should be conducted, but whether public funding for it is justified,” said Fry-Revere. “It is impossible to know how successful this research will be or whether any individual projects will produce genuine medical treatments, and it is not the place of government to gamble with taxpayers’ money.”

I can see the argument here; stop government funding of the research because private groups will do the work anyway, and public funding comes with beaurocracy that almost negates the benefits of the research itself. It is true. Publically funded labs have to comply with incredibly strict regulations that make doing the research nearly impossible… not to mention the restrictions on cell lines.

However, this is not what I see as their main point. They primarily argue that the nature of the research is too speculative. Why should the government fund research that might not amount to anything? Sure, fair enough. Why should it?

But, then again, why shouldn’t the government be a part of promoting science and the search for knowledge? The government can help the economy by putting taxpayer money back into industries like scientific research. Not only will that money increase the number of jobs in that sector (something that is good in this time of a 6.1% unemployment rate), but the result could also be something that will help mankind.

Whether or not cures actually come from basic research is not the point of supporting science with taxpayer money. Besides, didn’t the California taxpayers decide to set a certain amount of money aside for stem cell research? It’s not as though the decision was made by someone other than “the people” in this case.

I am amazed to think that supporting science is “gambl[ing] with taxpayers’ money.” The arguments made in the press release are emotional at best, and not supported by fact in the least. If supporting things can be considered gambling one might as well say that public funding of the educational system is a gamble because we have no idea how any of the kids are going to turn out. They might all end up drug addicts and thieves. I’d like to counter that financial support of science and basic reasearch is rather an investment in the future.

Finally, if they really have an issue with the speculative nature of stem cell research, why bring up this question only for stem cells. Why not bring into question funding of science in general? Take the argument to its logical end. It seems that this focused approach belies an underlying agenda.What that agenda is I can only guess at, but I feel that their argument against stem cell funding in this case was disingenuous at best.