What does it take to turn a stem cell into a cure?

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

Last week, I reported on this new breakthrough in stem cell research, in which scientists have discovered how to trigger the stem cell state in adult somatic cells, like skin cells, producing an induced stem cell, a pluripotent cell that can then be lead down the path to any of a multitude of useful tissue types. I tried to get across the message that this is not the end of embryonic stem cell (ESC) research: the work required ESCs to be developed, the technique being used is unsuitable for therapeutic stem cell work, and there’s a long, long road to follow before we actually have stem cell “cures” in hand. A review on LiveScience emphasized similar reservations. Seizing on this one result as an excuse to end research on ESCs would be a great mistake.

So let’s consider what it takes to turn a stem cell into a medically useful tool. One “simple” (we’ll quickly see that it is anything but) example is finding a cure for type 1 diabetes. We understand that problem very well: people with this disease have lost one specific cell type, the β cells of the pancreas, which manufacture insulin. That’s all we have to do: grow up a dish full of just one cell type, the β cells, and plant them back in the patient’s gut, and presto, no more diabetes (setting aside the chronic difficulty of removing whatever destroyed the patient’s original set of β cells, that is). Sounds easy. It’s not.

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Living Clocks of Arctic Animals

The seed of this mornings discussion in neurobiology was “Time, Love, Memory” by Jonathan Wiener. As has been the norm in past weeks we met in the on campus cafe bringing along with us four insightful questions each to keep the discussion rolling along throughout the hour. Wiener describes later in his book (p192) the three necessary components of living clocks. Living clocks are the basis of circadian rhythms and must have an input pathway so that the clock can be reset by the sunrise and sunset. A good example of why this is important is that humans actually have a twenty-five hour clock that resets itself everyday to correlate to the actual day length of twenty-four hours (23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4.1 seconds for any physicists reading this). People who are blind or people who are not exposed to the sun at all will exhibit a twenty-five hour clock, out of synchronization with the earth’s rotation.

So my question was about animals that live near the poles. How do polar bears or lynxes reset their clocks in the arctic summer when the sun doesn’t set? Some thoughts were that perhaps the living clocks are reset by magnetism but quickly realized that there is no shift of magnetism that corresponds to the length of a day. Another thought was that if it’s always light out, does it matter when the polar bear sleeps? The polar bear could have a period of activity, followed by a period of decreasing activity, and then rest and sleep. Lynxes often hunt at night and rest during the day but if it’s always light out does their clock remain synchronized with the earth’s rotation? PZ mentioned there isn’t much research pertaining to this but If anyone knows of any interesting papers that would enlighten this topic post them up.

References: Jonathan Wiener. “Time, Love, Memory.” Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc. New York. 1999.

Disco Institute is vamping in Iowa

I almost feel sorry for Guillermo Gonzalez. The Discovery Institute is turning him into a political football, and making his denial of tenure a far greater mess than is warranted. They’re going to hold a press conference on Monday.

The fight will rage on over Iowa State University astronomy professor Guillermo Gonzalez, who advocated for intelligent design, the theory that disputes parts of evolution, and lost a bid for tenure.

Advocates for Gonzalez said in a release distributed Tuesday that they will hold a news conference at 11 a.m. Monday in Des Moines. There, they said, they will discuss documents they contend will prove that Gonzalez “lost his job” because he supports intelligent design, not because he was deficient as a scholar. Gonzalez’s backers say an appeal to the Iowa Board of Regents and possibly a lawsuit would be the next steps.

The news conference scheduled for Monday at the Capitol will include attorneys for Gonzalez, representatives of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based organization that supports discussions of intelligent design in science classes, and one or more state legislators, staff of the Discovery Institute said.

The most likely result of this caterwauling: no change in Gonzalez’ status at all, and he’ll have to find another job elsewhere. Search committees everywhere, though, will see him as pure poison, a grandstander who will turn every criticism into a public event. He will be known as the Intelligent Design creationist with a team of lawyers.

If by some bizarre stroke of highly politicized luck he is given tenure, he’s going to be the non-collegial colleague who is taking up a tenure line that they could have given to someone more productive. This will not be a happy situation for him or his department.

Gonzalez can’t win in this fight.

The Discovery Institute, though, stands to benefit from turning Gonzalez into a martyr — they’ll be waving the bloody shreds of his career at everyone, blaming the Darwinists, when the real destructive force here is the DI itself. Anyone else in this position would quietly go through internal channels to review the tenure decision, and when that failed, would quietly go about applying for new jobs…with the intent of doing a better job of fulfilling the requirements for tenure at a new position. This situation comes up a lot — tenure approval is not automatic by any means — and you just have to move on. I’ve been there myself.

I suspect, though, that the DI simply sees a state full of presidential candidates and an opportunity to score some political points. We’ll have to tune in on Monday and see if any of them take the bait and try to use a national candidacy to play games with an individual decision by a single university.

Student Post: Immortalized Mules

I spent a summer working on an Arabian horse ranch when i was 17. I loved that place and am crazy about Arabians but… let’s face it. We’ve severely inbred horses for show. Exhibit A:

It’s not uncommon for an Arabian pedigree to boast seven lines of relation to one horse. Bask, for instance, was a famous Arabian stallion and today a large percentage of Arabs are his decendents including my horse, Rebel, of whom I’m foolishly fond:


Well, I learned some interesting news at today’s Senior Seminar. Why inbreed when you can clone! It’s all the rage among mule racing enthusiasts. Don Jacklin, president of the American Mule Racing Association, almost single-handedly funded cloning research at the University of Idaho of his champion mule line. Cloning champion horses has been made into a very lucrative business in France. Cryozootech turns a large profit cloning gelded or aged horses so that their clones can be used for breeding. If I had 300 grand I could clone Rebel.

It will be really interesting to see what happens to these animals as they age. The mules are reported to be healthy and competitive racers but concerns over telomere length have yet to be addressed.

…And yes. I did just want to use the phrase “mule racing enthusiasts.”

Gay Genes? Genetics?

While reading Jonathan Weiner’s book – Time, Love, Memory, I ran across several topics that are quite controversial. I thought that the book did an excellent job of presenting the science of these subjects while remaining neutral. One such topic is the genetic component of homosexuality. Studies have shown a tenative link between certain genes and homosexuality. Other studies have shown no such link. The thing about genetics is that genes interact with one another in very complex ways. It has taken decades to work out the mechanism of genes involved in circadian rhythm, and new discoveries are still being made. Working out the genetic component of homosexualiy is going to be difficult, and until more is known about how genes influence sexual orientation I am going to withhold judgment as to how much of a role they play.