The latest from researchers
San Francisco Chronicle June 17, 2010
Erin Allday: Chronicle Staff Writer
The biggest stars of stem cell research are converging on San Francisco this week for a global conference focused on the latest science, but also on how the experts studying it should best go about applying that science to practical treatments for human patients.
Of the 4,000 scientists signed up for the conference of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, roughly a quarter of them are based in California – and much of the focus of this week’s discussions will be on research taking place in the Bay Area, such as potential therapies for treating Parkinson’s or epilepsy, or a rare but fatal brain disease in children.
Scientists attending the conference said they’re particularly eager to hear about work being done to create all kinds of cells – including those that resemble embryonic stem cells, which in theory can turn into any type of cell in the body – from a simple skin biopsy.
Ultimately, scientists would like to use those stem cells to treat diseases in humans. For now, they are just excited at the prospect of being able to build human models of genetic diseases using stem cells.
“This might allow us to take skin cells and turn them into nerve cells that we can use for very sophisticated experiments. You could do studies for heart cells or liver cells or other genetic diseases that affect other organs,” said Dr. Arnold Kriegstein, director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCSF. “We’ve never been able to take brain cells from patients with, say, Parkinson’s disease and study them in the laboratory.”
Many scientists attending the meetings said it is especially thrilling this year to see the first major wave of research starting clinical trials in human subjects. The conference is the first major meeting after the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine issued more than $200 million in grants late last year. The grants, which ranged from $5 million to $20 million, were given with the explicit understanding that scientists be ready for human trials within four years.
Still mostly theory
Stem cell research really took off about a decade ago, but until recently it was all theoretical. Most of it still is. “Probably 90 percent of what you hear at this conference won’t be even close to trials,” said Dr. Irving Weissman, director of Stanford University’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. But it’s an exciting time, nonetheless, he said. “It’s a remarkable experiment that’s happening,” Weissman said. “Stem cell research has spread rapidly, and nowhere faster than in California.”
Weissman said he’s eager to share with other scientists what California is doing to speed up stem cell research. But he’s also looking forward to hearing from researchers in other countries that are holding clinical trials, to talk about the possibility of future partnerships, and how overseas research can be made to meet U.S. safety and ethical standards.
But the science is obviously the star of this week’s conference. Bay Area researchers will show off the work they’re doing in using stem cells to treat heart disease, brain injuries and various genetic disorders that affect almost any organ in the body.
Robert Blelloch, a researcher at UCSF’s stem cell center, said that after nearly a decade studying stem cells, he’s surprised at how much the science has changed in so short a period of time. The conference, he said, gives him a much-needed chance to get out of his lab and get caught up on the big picture. “It used to be that there were certain (stem cell) journals that you would read cover to cover and be satisfied. Now it’s so many journals, so many articles, and the science is moving so fast that I don’t find that possible to do anymore,” Blelloch said. “I knew all the major stem cell players six years ago. It’s not a small group anymore. It’s not an exclusive group anymore.”
The International Society for Stem Cell Research has recently developed a Web site for patients seeking more information about available treatments – both in the United States and abroad.
The Web site is www.closerlookatstemcells.org/AM.
E-mail Erin Allday at [email protected].
Ed. Note: The 2010 World Stem Cell Summit will take place in Detroit, USA on Oct 4-6, 2010.