Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Me, myself and I

This is kind of a long update, but it covers everything I've been promising to tell you about since Christmas. Hope it's interesting, it's certainly been fun for me.

So, last term ended up being slightly busier than I’d planned. The science communication stuff has been going really well, I’ve been writing and editing, I did a bunch of talks and co-organised an unconference called SciBarCamb. Then there was the lab work and review essay as part of the PhD course. Plus, naturally, I had to get some baking in there and the intermediate massage course. Hopefully a bit more breathing space in the last term of the year.

Screening cake based on images from my project.

Full details of last terms project will be up shortly and will also be appearing on the Wellcome Trust blog as the next in my series for them describing my rotations. It’s been a lot of fun and I really enjoyed working with the lab, they are also very responsive to bribery by cake, which was very useful for me. That’s what resulted in screening cake. A set of cakes based on images from the yeast genomic screen we’ve been doing.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

SOS: Save our Science - Stem Cell Abuse: Taking Advantage

So I'm feeling reenergised after SciBarCamb yesterday, very successful, more details to come. I've been storing a few posts up on my hard drive so I probably should get round to posting a few before the new term starts. Heres the first then, the results of an analysis of dubious 'stem cell treatments' which are taking advantage of the general public. Find out what is being done and how to protect yourself. Thanks for this one go to severa of my friends here in Cambridge who are big stem cell fans.

Stem cell technology has rapidly become one of the most well known recent advances in the biological sciences. They have excited many with the promise of cures for innumerable, common and debilitating diseases which affect millions worldwide. Stem cells have given hope to the hopeless, yet many are now taking advantage of this desperate hope for their own gain. False treatments are now everywhere, praying on severely ill patients and their families, with overblown promises of miracle recoveries and jargon-filled pseudoscientific literature which seem to support these sham therapies. These methods are often based upon obscure theories, which are not supported by proven, open, peer-reviewed evidence. This current situation not only threatens the patients who submit to these schemes, but is likely to significantly hamper advancement of legitimate research and the development of real, effective cures.

Cells being extracted from the early embryo for stem cell production (source)
The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), concerned by the current lack of safeguards on stem cell treatments, has produced a report highlighting the problem and discussing tools that they are developing to help protect the public and keep everyone aware of which stem cell technologies have been scientifically proven to be safe and beneficial. The online resource, to be provided by the ISSCR, will cover three main points: A list of safe clinics etc. which meet standards of efficacy and safety, information for patients and families on the science behind stem cell research and its clinical applications, and a list of questions that should always be asked before consenting to treatments.
The report points out that many of these stem cell therapies charge patients extortionate amounts of money, this is unusual for any experimental therapy, which will usually be financially backed by government, research or commercial groups, interested in the safe and ethical development of new medical approaches. This is a key indicator of an unsupported scheme which could carry many potential hidden dangers. The ISSCR also recognises that, in order to address this problem, it requires the support of other organisations, including governments and scientific regulatory bodies.

New guidelines and resources are being established by the ISSCR (source)
 The ISSCR has already done much to establish guidelines and regulations regarding stem cell research, and has produced guidelines for the correct methods that should be followed when developing and clinically testing new stem cell technologies. They have decided that stem cell development should follow established clinical trails guidelines, similar to those used for most new drugs and surgical approaches, subject to constant ethical and scientific appraisal and review.

A lack of openness and unwillingness to share data and methodology is characteristic of questionable treatments that are best avoided. If a group is unwilling to discuss with others how it gained its results then they probably have something to hide. As such their findings, and claims, are probably scientifically unsound. This has all been clearly and precisely defined as a set of guidelines by the ISSCR, which stem cell studies should conform to in order to be considered scientifically valid and ethically safe.

The ISSCR task force has outlined, in detail, the process that it will follow to identify clinics offering stem cell treatments and to contact them and investigate the validity of their research. Their findings will be published for use by patients considering treatments, and will allow submission of new clinics for investigation. This resource would also be fully referenced and up-to-date, allowing further investigation of any group listed and ensuring information is always useful and relevant.

Embryonic stem cells in culture (source)
What I find most exciting about this report is the focus on public awareness, something that is often sorely lacking in research fields, particularly ones that have previously been treated with such hostility, as stem cell research has. The paper closes by highlighting the importance of presenting these finding publicly and involving journalistic media, not just the normal scientific publication routes. Is the scientific establishment finally realising that it needs to get the word out to the people in order to advance?

The ISSCR has committed to “avoid overstating what is currently known, whether in the scientific domain, the clinical domain, or the commercial domain” and is working hard to ensure that the entire scientific community conforms to this promise. However, a lot of work is needed to implement all this, and questionable stem cell treatments are on the increase. For now, be cautious, whilst stem cell research is something to be supported and it holds a lot of potential, it is important to avoid being drawn into scams which are likely to leave patients even worse off than they already are.

Taylor, P., Barker, R., Blume, K., Cattaneo, E., Colman, A., Deng, H., Edgar, H., Fox, I., Gerstle, C., Goldstein, L., High, K., Lyall, A., Parkman, R., Pitossi, F., Prentice, E., Rooke, H., Sipp, D., Srivastava, A., Stayn, S., Steinberg, G., Wagers, A., & Weissman, I. (2010). Patients Beware: Commercialized Stem Cell Treatments on the Web Cell Stem Cell, 7 (1), 43-49 DOI: 10.1016/j.stem.2010.06.001