When I was home for a break during graduate school, my dad sat me down at the kitchen table and asked me to explain to him what stem cells — particularly embryonic stem cells — were, and why they were so special. I did the best I could to explain that the earlier along in the development process the stem cells were, the greater number of downstream cell types they could develop into and how that was interesting to researchers and clinicians. He was asking because California, the state I lived in at the time, was gearing up for a fight over Proposition 71 — prior to that, I don't think he'd ever heard of a stem cell. It's a fight that hasn't ended, even with the passage of California's ballot initiative. Indeed, it has been elevated in the US to the federal level with new policies put in place by the Obama administration that are being challenged in federal court — the work of many stem cell researchers dangles by a thread that leads to the district court, and possibly higher.
In this month's cover story, Christie Rizk looks into not only the funding challenges facing stem cell researchers, but also the science they hope to do with that grant money. A main focus of stem cell research, she says, is to develop therapies for diseases, such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, as well as to understand the biology underlying those conditions. In addition, researchers are looking to partnerships to translate those findings to the clinic. It's a good read, and one I'll be passing along to my dad.
Elsewhere in the issue, Matthew Dublin peers into the misfolded, — and, he says, misunderstood — world of prions. Some researchers question whether these infectious proteins cause disease, though there is increasing evidence that they do. Researchers are using a combination of 'omics techniques and old-fashioned lab work to get an idea of what makes prions so deadly and elusive.
Finally, in this month's Case Study, Tracy Vence focuses on companion diagnostics and how a quantitative, multiplexed assay may help determine which HER2-positive breast cancer patients are more likely to respond to the drug Herceptin.