Stem cells for MS: progress and perspective

Here’s another one that ‘got away’ – an article on various stem cell therapy-based approaches for multiple sclerosis that I wrote this past August, originally slated for a special collection that fell through at more or less the last minute. Since it doesn’t seem like that project is going to be resuscitated at the moment or any point in the near future, here is the final draft of that article…

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The remarkable potential of stem cells to develop into healthy adult tissue has led many people to view them as a biomedical Wizard of Oz, ready to grant them a healthy new heart or brain on demand—a perception fuelled by fevered media coverage extolling their vast therapeutic potential. But as with the Great and Powerful Oz, misconceptions abound regarding the present capabilities of stem cell-based therapies, and some patients with serious degenerative disorders such as multiple sclerosis (MS) are finding themselves disappointed once they actually peer behind the curtain.

“Most of the patients that come to us ask me to give them stem cells because they want to walk again,” says Antonio Uccelli, a neuroimmunologist performing clinical stem cell research at Italy’s University of Genoa. “Patients are mesmerized by the hope that stem cell treatment is a treatment for regenerating tissue, and it’s difficult to convince them otherwise.”

(more after the jump)

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To questionable ends

Just published a new piece in Nature about ongoing research into the role of telomeres in human health, and you can read it here. As usual, I wrote much more than made it to the final version (what can I say, I’m a man of many words), and one of the casualties of the cut was an entire section on anti-aging therapeutics that supposedly work by ratcheting up telomerase activity.

Now, although the link between telomere shortening and age-related tissue degeneration appears to be relatively robust, it’s clearly a gross oversimplification to see telomere length as a sole driver of the overall aging process or as any kind of simple quantitative metric of ‘biological age’. But that hasn’t stopped several companies from attempting to capitalize on the general public’s limited understanding – and the extreme complexity – of telomere biology.

Boy, that stupid scientific community really burns my britches... what with all their "theories" and "experiments". Jerks.

(image from here)

Many of these products claim to harness “Nobel prize-winning technology”… such as Reneuve, which consists (for some reason) of pig thymus glands in grain alcohol with elderberry and currant juice. Yummers! Oh, wait… I meant to say, rejuvenating! Apparently, the idea is that you’re taking invigorating porcine telomerase with every delicious sip. But, you say, how on earth would eating glandular extracts manage to deliver telomerase enzyme intact into the nuclei of cells in every tissue of my body? Here’s the brain-melting explanation:
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Another fallen soldier…

From the ScienceInsider blog comes the truly depressing news that The Scientist will be no more. They quote CEO Vitek Tracz with an utterly unsurprising explanation:

The only reason is economic – we simply could not find a way to make it pay. There is no other reason. It has wonderful and talented staff, an audience that likes it, and it succeeded in keeping high editorial and production standards for many years. The world is turning away from traditional magazines, and our dependence on page advertising brought us to this point.

One of the toughest aspects of working at Seed was that feeling of watching disaster unfold in slow motion, as the magazine gradually fell apart in spite of all the incredibly talented and motivated writers and editors who were struggling to keep it alive. A lot of it came down to an ongoing series of bad business decisions by the company as a whole – which I won’t get into – but a lot of it also simply boiled down to the harsh realities of publishing. But the audience was certainly there… and enthusiastic, to boot. If I had a dime for every person who told me, “Oh, Seed? I loved that magazine!”…? Depressing.

But this is the reality now – I’m very lucky that I manage to find regular work and sustain myself as a freelancer, even as the number of mainstream outlets for science writing continues to dwindle steadily and rapidly. It’s sad to go to Barnes & Noble and see that the ‘Science’ section in the periodicals pretty much consists of Scientific American and National Geographic and Sky News (for the astronomy geeks), possibly New Scientist, and… Cat Fancy.

Wired, of course, being a “technology” magazine, enjoys much much more company in a different section, and as such, appears to be doing just fine thank you very much. So at least there’s that. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a brighter future as new web- and iPad- and other device-oriented news platforms emerge (especially since it’s clear I’ll never survive as a full-time blogger!), but in the meantime, it probably wouldn’t hurt to start updating my resume…

UPDATE (18 Oct): Looks like the Old Boy got a reprieveLabX, a company that runs what appears to be a Craigslist for lab equipment (minus, hopefully, the ‘Casual Encounters’) and publishes LabManager magazine, has acquired The Scientist and apparently intends to keep publishing the magazine with editorial staff intact. Seems like an odd fit to me, but apparently they will keep things rolling along as they are without any obvious disruption, so I’ll just take the good news wherever I can get it…

Summer… It’s Gone

I feel like I just realized that it was October last night, when I woke up in the middle of the night shivering after my girlfriend had stolen all the blankets (yet again). This has been a busy summer for work, some of which should be appearing in print shortly, as well as some other long term projects, but I also had a few vacation opportunities – including a too-brief trip to the southwest to visit some old friends, followed by a journey through Arizona’s Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly (which, by the way, is pronounced along the lines of ‘de shay-yee’ rather than ‘da shelly’, to the confoundment of most tourists).

Being me, I took far too many pictures and only just now finished editing them (2+ months later). But anyway, here’s a tiny taste of summer and sun…

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Infectious beauty

They may not be as cute and cuddly as their plush counterparts, but these glass microbes are absolutely stunning.

This one is my favorite, just because it brings back so many fond (and not-so-fond) memories from undergraduate biology classes:

It’s also vaguely horrifying at this scale, kind of like an unholy derivative of one of the face-huggers from Alien… it looks like it’s just about ready to start scuttling my way. Luckily, I always carry a vial of restriction enzymes for protection.

Go check out the rest of artist Luke Jerram’s work – it’s stunning. (h/t Jonathan Eisen’s Tree of Life blog)

These city walls


When I first moved to NYC (about 13 years ago) I used to have some favorite photography spots in Brooklyn… desolate, post-industrial neighborhoods where I would wander around for hours and see maybe two people. Now, the Great Manhattan Exodus means that once-barren areas like Gowanus and Red Hook have become home to luxury condos, fancy hotels, hipster bars and IKEA.

But the transformation isn’t complete yet.
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Science… from… space!

I love Retraction Watch. Sure, most of the time it depresses me, such as when they’re delving into the dirt under the bottom of the barrel of scientific misconduct, but sometimes there’s just pure comedy gold like this retracted article from Applied Mathematics Letters.

I’ll skip over the actual issues with the math in the paper (which is nowhere near my area of expertise) to focus instead on this gem of wisdom from the Discussion section:

Both science and spirituality came from space. Science is based on equations and experiments whereas spirituality relies on beliefs. The spirituality promises that everything in this universe was created in pairs but in opposites. For example, origin and end, man and women, light and dark, day and night, sorrow and pleasure, loss and gain, God and devil, ugly and beauty, good and bad and so on. Similarly, possible and impossible are consistent in mathematics.

Sure, I’ve seen some oddball outbursts buried in the conclusions of research articles before, but I dare you – DARE you – to read that excerpt without automatically mentally plugging in the sound of somebody taking a massive bong hit at the end. Wow.

But really, go read the whole post.

Some updates

A new piece up over at JustGarciaHill, based on an interview I conducted with Kweisi Mfume, former Maryland congressman and president of the NAACP, and current executive director of the National Medical Association. As a grizzled veteran of the ridiculous Clinton administration-era wars over medical insurance reform, Mr. Mfume is remarkably well-informed about healthcare policy and he took the time to share his opinions with me regarding the Obama administration’s PPACA legislation (and its failings) as well as the larger issues of addressing the severe racial/ethnic healthcare disparities that are widespread in America. Check it out

I’ve got a new article in Nature that should be out in the next few weeks, and I’m working on a few other projects right now that are still in the early stages… there’s one in particular I’m rather excited about, but no more news on that until I’ve made a bit more progress.

Edible antibodies

Two new pieces up in the February issue of Nature Biotechnology. The first is a short news piece about the synthetic biology regulatory recommendations from the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, which was mostly remarkable in that everybody I spoke to seemed pretty darn satisfied with them, which is always a pleasant surprise when it comes to government oversight of research.

The other is a much longer feature about new ways of getting antibody and antibody-like drugs into the body, as an alternative to making patients sit through a 4-hour IV drip every week or so… especially for cases where you’re just trying to target a particular tissue or organ, and don’t necessarily want to dump tremendous amounts of antibody into the bloodstream to hit it. This was pretty interesting stuff for me, since I don’t venture into the pharma world too much, but I was a bit sad that one of my favorite parts of the piece had to be cut due to my old arch-nemesis, length constraints. A quick overview of the cut section after the jump…
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One more (silly) thing

It's a cookbook... IT'S A COOKBOOK!

Taken at my local Borders while  holiday shopping. I’m hoping this was just the work of lazy staffers and not actual preparation and serving suggestions.