Sunday, June 10, 2012

Finding on 'Evil' Stem Cells Boosts Stem Cell Agency PR

The California stem cell agency, which is struggling to spread the word about its good deeds, made a bit of progress last week when it was praised – not once but three times – on a widely followed national media outlet.

Jill Helms, Stanford photo
The PR bonus occurred on Science Friday, the NPR program that is a favorite on PBS radio stations around the country. It has 1.4 million listeners and 600,000 podcast downloads each week.

Jill Helms, a surgery professor at Stanford and a specialist in regenerative medicine, was the guest last Friday. She talked about what Science Friday host Ira Flatow called a "paradigm-shifting" finding that cholestrol and fat are not the likely villains in clogging arteries. Instead the villain is a stem cell – an evil one.

While evil stem cells are not a matter that is pushed by the California stem cell agency, Helms said her collaboration began as a result of a CIRM-sponsored meeting in Japan. Although she and lead researcher Song Li, an associate professor of bioengineering at UC Berkeley, work nearly within shouting distance, they had never met. She said,
Zhenyu Tang (at microscope) examines vascular stem
cells in culture along with Aijun Wang (left) and Song Li.
UC Berkeley/Zoey Huang photo
"Even though he works just across the (San Francisco) Bay from me - I met him at a meeting in Japan that was sponsored by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM, and they fund a lot of stem cell research in California."
Later she said,
"I will tell you that cancer is certainly a disease that looks very much like a stem cell gone out of control. And so if we understand what normally regulates a stem cell's behavior, then we gain some crucial insights into what regulates maybe a cancer cell's behavior. It's that kind of approach that I think that CIRM is largely funding initiatives to try to target human diseases, the big ones, and the ones that make us all sort of quake in our shoes, and attempt to come up with new therapies."
And then still later, she said,
"Most basic scientists that work in stem cells and in the area of stem cell are trying as hard as possible to move this into translational therapies, things that can be used in humans. And, of course, CIRM, our funding institution, is very adamant about this being the trajectory. So, you know, I'll be taking a stab at it about five to seven years. I think that the ability to rapidly screen existing drugs for their ability to target this cell population is why we think that it might have a shorter course to getting into humans."
We should note that Helms has not received a grant from the stem cell agency nor is she even one of the featured players in CIRM's many videos. Song Li does have a $1.3million grant from the agency.

The three-pronged push by Helms is just what the agency needs if it is to sell its efforts, which are almost totally ignored by the mainstream media. However, the Science Friday audience consists almost entirely of "true believers" in the virtues of science and research. If CIRM is to accomplish its PR-communications-marketing goals it also has to reach the unwashed heathens, who are, however, unlikely converts. But most importantly, CIRM needs to persuade fence-sitters. All of which will require a long, hard and sometimes frustrating campaign.

One final note: The UC Berkley press release on the research said it was supported by cash from CIRM, the NIH and the United States Army.  According to CIRM's research blog post on Li's work, his team included two researchers who were part of Berkeley’s CIRM-funded training program.
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