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Stem Cell Acquisition Without Embryonic Destruction

Twenty-four hours after human fertilization, the egg divides into two cells. After forty-eight hours it divides into four cells, and so on. After 96 hours, the fertilized egg continues to divide while remaining the same size, resulting in smaller cells which are strongly attached to each other.

Currently, human embryonic stem cell (hESC) lines are derived from cells taken from the 8-cell stage of embryonic development. The strong cell adhesion at this stage is the reason for the destruction of the embryo when trying to acquire the hESCs. This process has variable success rates and the removed cells must be mixed with already established hESC lines to survive.

Scientists are hoping that a breakthrough in hESC acquisition will reduce ethical concerns and increase their ability to do clinically driven research. On July 9, 2008 at the conference of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, Dr. Hilde Van de Velde from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, in Belgium reported that he has successfully derived a hESC line from a single cell taken at the 4-cell stage embryo. Dr. Van De Velde also stated that there was no need to mix the cell with other cultures after removal, thereby simplifying the procedure. This breakthrough in acquiring hESCs also contributed the knowledge that cells at the 4-cell stage of embryonic development are able to develop into all cell types of the body (called totipotent) which was previously unknown.

Embryonic stem cell research has been slowed in the U.S. by governmental policies based on ethical concerns regarding the use of embryos in research. Voters in Michigan are currently voting on a ballot measure that would lift the existing ban on stem cell research so that unused embryos from fertility clinics, which would normally be disposed of, can be used in research. Despite such bans, major progress is still being made. For example, scientists recently were able to treat Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy in mice models using stem cells. Also, a rare form of cancer called Multiple Myeloma which affects the plasma cells in bone marrow, thereby destroying patient’s bones, has been treated in humans using stem cell therapy.

The new technique may decrease ethical concerns by allowing the removal of hESCs without the destruction of the embryo. Risks to the embryo may still remain, and current future work is aimed at determining if the removal of cells at the 4-cell stage has an impact on healthy child development.

Mains Associates Provides Video!

We are very excited to announce a partnership with Marc Levenson to provide video as yet one more way for our clients to share their message.  Marc is fun to work with and is genuinely excited by new technology and research, while his 30 years of experience help him communicate even the most complex information clearly and concisely.  I think those of you who do have the opportunity to work with him will find his enthusiasm infectious!

Marc argues that science, technology, and especially biotechnology, get limited coverage on television and radio because people fear what they don't understand. His novel, fun approach relies on using everyday familiar objects as metaphors to make science more relevant to a non-scientific audience.  To learn more about Marc, I encourage you to visit his TV show, Tech Closeup.

Welcome to the Team!

In a long overdue, but important post, I would like to welcome, and encourage you to welcome, two new members to the Mains Associates team.

Elizabeth Kelley and Jennifer Small have recently began to work with us both on client projects and in creating original content for our site.  They are just two of our team, and over the coming months, we will be introducting more and more of our team through blog postings, articles, and other pieces of content available on our site.

Elizabeth is a graduate student in biology at Stanford University whose main interests are neuroscience and genetics. In her free time she enjoys reading, dog training, and spending time outdoors.

Jennifer is a freelance writer and photojournalist experienced in promotional, grant, and editorial writing.   Originally from Michigan, she moved to the Bay Area in 2007 to finish her degree in Technical & Professional Writing at San Francisco State University.

The Frequency of Extreme “Natural” Disasters


Amid the tragic record-breaking flood in the Midwest comes a report from the U.S. Climate Change Science Program. Based on over 100 academic papers, it addresses the past and future effects of global warming.

The study implies that the increase in greenhouse gases over the last fifty years may be responsible for the increasing drought (in the southwest) and downpours, which are now occurring at a rate of three times the past century’s average.

The Midwest, meanwhile, is having its’ second “500-year” flood in the past 15 years (the first one occurring in 1993). The Cedar River in Iowa has now beaten their previous flood record by rising over 11 feet! Although this event is too recent to have been addressed in the report, it is clear that for some disasters, there are more factors involved than greenhouse gases. The Iowa landscape has been heavily restructured for urban development and farming, eliminating natural wetlands and fields containing native deep rooted plants adept at water absorption.

The reports’ predictions on future climate change are the same predictions we’ve been reading about for years; fewer cold days/nights, increasing number of hot days/nights, increasing heat waves (most pronounced over northwestern North America), more frequent and extreme downpours and droughts (notably in the southwest). What the report does add is that we will not see a slow and steady increase in temperature and natural disasters, for which we can somewhat comfortably adjust to, but instead experience sudden increases in extreme phenomena.

Extreme phenomena like two “500-year” floods in the span of 15 years? It sounds like as a country we need to strengthen our disaster preparedness and urge Iowans to build their houses on stilts!

Pig Crude?

Hot on the heels of our article on crude oil from algae comes this article on crude oil from pig manure.  Much like the concept of algal crude oil, the idea is to create a fuel that is as similar to our current compounds as possible.  This makes it easier to integrate into our current infrastructure, a big hurdle for many alternative energy sources, and thus roll out to consumers.

The article describes the process created by Yuanhui Zhang that uses heat and pressure to turn organic compounds into oil.  Creating a high-heat and pressure environment takes energy, so the question on my mind is whether or not the energy we gain from this alternative fuel is more than the energy used to create it.  The same question holds for algal crude as it does for ethanol, hydrogen, or other alternative fuels.  I suppose the ultimate would be to use a renewable source like wind or geothermal to power the manure-to-crude conversion, but this article doesn't indicate that the research is far enough along to get into those engineering questions just yet.

Scientists Without Borders Has Arrived

I just learned (via Nature) about Scientists Without Borders (SWB), an extraordinary joint project launched on 12 May 08 by the New York Academy of Sciences and the UN Millennium Project. The goal is to “mobilize and coordinate science-based activities that improve quality of life in the developing world. The SWB database will provide a way for organizations, projects and individuals with complementary needs and resources to find one another.” A major challenge of the initiative is to link science-related activities across the developing countries that face many communication barriers. The SWB site can function as a Community of Practice for researchers in developing countries and their colleagues and allies in the developed world.

Our experience in facilitating science communications, especially in space life sciences between NASA and the Russian, French, European, Canadian, and Japanese Space Agencies taught us many lessons within the developed world. The SWB will no doubt face even greater challenges and perhaps greater rewards in doing so across the developing world. The SWB deserves broad support and you can register on their site and begin to participate as you wish. We have offered our support to the SWB and encourage you to do the same. The world needs the science community to virtually join hands to deal with our major global issues.

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