CIRM-funded clinical trial for spinal cord injury reports promising results

Today, the Menlo Park-based biotech company Asterias Biotherapeutics reported positive results from the first three patients treated in its Phase 1/2a clinical study using stem cell therapy to treat patients with spinal cord injury. This trial is funded by a CIRM Strategic Partnerships Award grant of $14.3 million.

asteriasAsterias has developed a stem cell therapy called AST-OPC1 that uses oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (OPCs), a kind of cell found in the nervous system, to treat patients that have suffered from different types of spinal cord injury. Damage to the spinal cord causes a range of paralysis based on where it occurs. People with spinal cord trauma to the mid-back often retain the use of their hands and arms but can no longer walk and may lose bladder function. Patients with spinal cord injuries in their neck  can be paralyzed completely from their neck down.

astopc1OPCs are precursors to an important cell type in the central nervous system called the oligodendrocyte. These cells are responsible for forming a conductive sheet around nerve cells that allows nerves to send electrical signals and messages safely from one nerve to another. Both OPCs and oligodendrocytes provide support and protection to nerves in the spinal cord and brain, and they can also facilitate repair of damaged nerves by secreting survival and growth factors as well as promoting the formation of new blood vessels.

In this first part of the Phase 1/2a clinical trial three patients with complete cervical (neck) spinal cord injuries were given a “low dose” of two million AST-OPC1 cells to test the safety and feasibility of their stem cell treatment. The first patient was treated at the Shepard Center in Atlanta,  and at the two month post-injection assessment, the patient experienced no side effects and an improvement from a complete to an incomplete injury on the ASIA impairment injury scale. The other two patients received injections at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Both procedures were reported to have gone smoothly, and the patients are still being monitored.

Asterias plans to treat a second group of patients with higher doses of AST-OPC1 cells (10-20 millions cells). Chief Medical Officer Dr. Edward Wirth explained their strategy:

 The safety data in the first cohort now paves the way for testing the higher doses of AST-OPC1 (10-20 million cells) that we believe correspond most closely to the doses that showed the greatest efficacy in animal studies.

If both the low dose and high dose groups report no serious side effects, Asterias will turn to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for approval to expand the patient population of this clinical trial phase from 13 patients up to 40. Asterias hopes that adding more patients “will increase the statistical confidence of the safety and efficacy readouts, reduce the risks of the AST-OPC1 program and position the product for potential accelerated regulatory approvals.”

Spinal cord injury affects more than 12,000 people every year. It remains a major unmet medical need without any FDA-approved therapies or medical devices that improve or restore patient spinal cord function. CIRM is hopeful that Asterias will continue to see positive results with the SCiStar trial and will be able to progress its AST-OPC1 program into late-stage clinical trials and eventually into an FDA-approved stem cell therapy for spinal cord injury.

Related links

Bye Bye BORIS: Gene Silencing Gives Cancer Stem Cells the Boot

A popular theory behind why cancer tumors recur post treatment is the existence of cancer stem cells (CSCs). These cells have stem cell-like qualities and are stubbornly resistant to common cancer cell killing techniques such as radiation and chemotherapy. CSCs are resilient and can reproduce themselves after all other cancer cells die off, creating new tumors and causing cancer relapse.


Cancer stem cells are resistant to typical cancer therapies and can cause tumor relapse.

The origin of CSCs and whether they exist in all types of cancers are questions that are still up for debate. However, it seems that the cancer field has come to a consensus that CSCs do exist in many forms of cancer, and that they are a prime target for the development of new cancer therapies. Researchers hope to develop combination therapies that target regular cancer cells and CSCs. Because what’s the use of treating tumors with drugs if they will just grow back because of pesky CSCs?

There are many proposed strategies for killing cancer stem cells. Some of them center around overcoming life-extending features that CSCs have evolved including the ability to avoid normal cell death processes. One promising technology for targeting CSCs is gene silencing. This technique uses tools that turn off the expression of specific genes (hence the silencing) that are causing cancer cells to survive or divide.

Two independent groups recently announced positive results from studies that use gene silencing technology to kill breast and colon cancer stem cells. These two stories are a great example of how pre-clinical biology from academia can translate into clinical research in industry.

On the Academic Side

A group from Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland reported in PloS One that silencing the expression of a gene called BORIS prevented the growth of breast and colon CSCs.

BORIS inhibits the function of an important tumor suppressor gene called CTCF. A tumor suppressor gene acts as a stop sign and prevents normal cells from turning into cancer cells. When tumor suppressors can’t do their normal job due to rogue jay-walkers like BORIS, normal cells lose an important line of defense and can turn into cancer cells. Typically, BORIS is only expressed in germ cells during development and not in adult cells in the body. However, scientists have found that BORIS is reactivated in some cancer cells, typically in CSCs.

The PLoS study confirmed that BORIS was reactivated in both breast and colon CSCs. One hallmark of CSCs is their ability to survive in 3D culture systems by forming sphere-like structures. They then asked whether silencing BORIS expression in breast and colon CSCs would prevent the formation of spheres in culture. They found that without BORIS, CSCs could no longer form spheres and survive in suspension. They went on to show that when BORIS is silenced, expression of stem cell and CSC genes was reduced in both the breast and colon CSCs. The authors concluded that BORIS is an important gene for CSC survival and “could be a potential new CSC biomarker that could be used as a therapeutic target for cancer therapy.”

BORIS is expressed in breast cancer stem cells (red) but not in breast cancer cells (blue).

BORIS is expressed in breast cancer stem cells (red) but not in breast cancer cells (blue). (Alberti et al. 2015)

On the Industry Side

Regen BioPharma reported on Monday that it successfully used gene silencing technology to kill colon CSCs by silencing BORIS expression. Their positive results have prompted the company to improve and advance its gene-silencing techniques so that it can file an IND (investigational new drug) application for the BORIS gene silencing technology. An IND with the Food and Drug Administration is the final step to beginning a clinical trial in humans.

Regen has published previously in this area and acknowledged the recent findings published in PLoS. In a press release, Thomas Ichim, CSO of Regen said:

From 2006-2008, together with a team of scientists from the Institute of Molecular Medicine and the National Institutes of Health, we published that vaccinating against BORIS results in immune response against and tumor regression in breast cancer, melanoma, and glioma.  Subsequently, we published that gene silencing of BORIS can be utilized to selectively kill breast cancer cells. As we saw in the recent publication, the role of BORIS as an “Achilles Heel” of cancer is becoming more and more apparent.  We are currently in the process of advancing our gene-silencing based approaches, in part by leveraging lessons we are learning during dCellVax development, in order to file an IND for BORIS gene silencing technology.


Big Picture

the boot

Silencing BORIS gives cancer stem cells the boot. (Image source:

The issue with chemotherapies and other cancer treatments is that tumors become resistant to them over time. Gene silencing offers an advantage over these strategies by directly targeting CSCs, which are resistant to first-line cancer treatments. By silencing genes in CSCs that are required for cancer cell survival and metastasis, scientists can target tumors at their source. For patients with aggressive or recurring cancers, BORIS gene silencing technology could be what the doctor will order to prevent future relapse or metastasis. Time will tell, but hopefully gene silencing technologies against CSCs will enter clinical trials sooner than later.

Related links:

Cell mate: the man who makes stem cells for clinical trials

When we announced that one of the researchers we fund – Dr. Henry Klassen at the University of California, Irvine – has begun his clinical trial to treat the vision-destroying disease retinitis pigmentosa, we celebrated the excitement felt by the researchers and the hope from people with the disease.

But we missed out one group. The people who make the cells that are being used in the treatment. That’s like praising a champion racecar driver for their skill and expertise, and forgetting to mention the people who built the car they drive.

Prof. Gerhard Bauer

Prof. Gerhard Bauer

In this case the “car” was built by the Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) team, led by Prof. Gerhard Bauer, at the University of California Davis (UC Davis).

Turns out that Gerhard and his team have been involved in more than just one clinical trial and that the work they do is helping shape stem cell research around the U.S. So we decided to get the story behind this work straight from the horse’s mouth (and if you want to know why that’s a particularly appropriate phrase to use here read this previous blog about the origins of GMP)

When did the GMP facility start, what made you decide this was needed at UC Davis?

Gerhard: In 2006 the leadership of the UC Davis School of Medicine decided that it would be important for UC Davis to have a large enough manufacturing facility for cellular and gene therapy products, as this would be the only larger academic GMP facility in Northern CA, creating an important resource for academia and also industry. So, we started planning the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures and large GMP facility with a team of facility planners, architects and scientists, and by 2007 we had our designs ready and applied for the CIRM major facilities grant, one of the first big grants CIRM offered. We were awarded the grant and started construction in 2008. We opened the Institute and GMP facility in April of 2010.

How does it work? Do you have a number of different cell lines you can manufacture or do people come to you with cell lines they want in large numbers?

Gerhard: We perform client driven manufacturing, which means the clients tell us what they need manufactured. We will, in conjunction with the client, obtain the starting product, for instance cells that need to undergo a manufacturing process to become the final product. These cells can be primary cells or also cell lines. Cell lines may perhaps be available commercially, but often it is necessary to derive the primary cell product here in the GMP facility; this can, for instance, be done from whole donor bone marrow, from apheresis peripheral blood cells, from skin cells, etc.

How many cells would a typical – if there is such a thing – order request?

Gerhard: This depends on the application and can range from 1 million cells to several billions of cells. For instance, for an eye clinical trial using autologous (from the patient themselves) hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells, a small number, such as a million cells may be sufficient. For allogeneic (from an unrelated donor) cell banks that are required to treat many patients in a clinical trial, several billion cells would be needed. We therefore need to be able to immediately and adequately adjust to the required manufacturing scale.

Why can’t researchers just make their own cells in their own lab or company?

Gerhard: For clinical trial products, there are different, higher, standards than apply for just research laboratory products. There are federal regulations that guide the manufacturing of products used in clinical trials, in this special case, cellular products. In order to produce such products, Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) rules and regulations, and guidelines laid down by both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Pharmacopeia need to be followed.

The goal is to manufacture a safe, potent and non-contaminated product that can be safely used in people. If researchers would like to use the cells or cell lines they developed in a clinical trial they have to go to a GMP manufacturer so these products can actually be used clinically. If, however, they have their own GMP facility they can make those products in house, provided of course they adhere to the rules and regulations for product manufacturing under GMP conditions.

Besides the UC Irvine retinitis pigmentosa trial now underway what other kinds of clinical trials have you supplied cells for?

Gerhard: A UC Davis sponsored clinical trial in collaboration with our Eye Center for the treatment of blindness (NCT01736059), which showed remarkable vision recovery in two out of the six patients who have been treated to date (Park et al., PMID:25491299, ), and also an industry sponsored clinical gene therapy trial for severe kidney disease. Besides cellular therapy products, we also manufacture clinical grade gene therapy vectors and specialty drug formulations.

For several years we have been supplying clinicians with a UC Davis GMP facility developed formulation of the neuroactive steroid “allopregnanolone” that was shown to act on resident neuronal stem cells. We saved several lives of patients with intractable seizures, and the formulation is also applied in clinical trials for the treatment of traumatic brain injury, Fragile X syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease.

What kinds of differences are you seeing in the industry, in the kinds of requests you get now compared to when you started?

Gerhard: In addition, gene therapy vector manufacturing and formulation work is really needed by several clients. One of the UC Davis specialties is “next generation” gene-modified mesenchymal stem cells, and we are contacted often to develop those products.

Where will we be in five years?

Gerhard: Most likely, some of the Phase I/II clinical trials (these are early stage clinical trials with, usually, relatively small numbers of patients involved) will have produced encouraging results, and product manufacturing will need to be scaled up to provide enough cellular products for Phase III clinical trials (much larger trials with many more people) and later for a product that can be licensed and marketed.

We are already working with companies that anticipate such scale up work and transitioning into manufacturing for marketing; we are planning this upcoming process with them. We also believe that certain cellular products will replace currently available standard medical treatments as they may turn out to produce superior results.

What does the public not know about the work you do that you think they should know?

Gerhard: The public should know that UC Davis has the largest academic Good Manufacturing Practice Facility in Northern California, that its design was well received by the FDA, that we are manufacturing a wide variety of products – currently about 16 – that we are capable of manufacturing several products at one time without interfering with each other, and that we are happy to work with clients from both academia and private industry through both collaborative and Fee-for-Service arrangements.

We are also very proud to have, during the last 5 years, contributed to saving several lives with some of the novel products we manufactured. And, of course, we are extremely grateful to CIRM for building this state-of-the-art facility.

You can see a video about the building of the GMP facility at UC Davis here.

Throwback Thursday: Progress to a Cure for ALS

Welcome to our new “Throwback Thursday” (TBT) series. CIRM’s Stem Cellar blog has a rich archive of stem cell content that is too valuable to let dust bunnies take over.  So we decided to brush off some of our older, juicy stories and see what advancements in stem cell research science have been made since!

ALS is also called Lou Gehrig's disease, named after the famous American baseball player.

ALS is also called Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the famous American baseball player.

This week, we’ll discuss an aggressive neurodegenerative disease called Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS. You’re probably more familiar with its other name, Lou Gehrig’s disease. Gehrig was a famous American Major League baseball player who took the New York Yankees to six world championships. He had a gloriously successful career that was sadly cut short by ALS. Post diagnosis, Gehrig’s physical performance quickly deteriorated, and he had to retire from a sport for which he was considered an American hero. He passed away only a year later, at the young age of 37, after he succumbed to complications caused by ALS.

A year ago, we published an interesting blog on this topic. Let’s turn back the clock and take a look at what happened in ALS research in 2014.

TBT: Disease in a Dish – Using Human Stem Cells to Find ALS Treatments

This blog featured the first of our scintillating “Stem Cells in Your face” video series called “Treating ALS with a Disease in a Dish.” Here is an excerpt:

Our latest video Disease in a Dish: That’s a Mouthful takes a lighthearted approach to help clear up any head scratching over this phrase. Although it’s injected with humor, the video focuses on a dreadful disease: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, it’s a disorder in which nerve cells that control muscle movement die. There are no effective treatments and it’s always fatal, usually within 3 to 5 years after diagnosis.

To explain disease in a dish, the video summarizes a Science Translation Medicine publication of CIRM-funded research reported by the laboratory of Robert Baloh, M.D., Ph.D., director of Cedars-Sinai’s multidisciplinary ALS Program. In the study, skin cells from patients with an inherited form of ALS were used to create nerve cells in a petri dish that exhibit the same genetic defects found in the neurons of ALS patients. With this disease in a dish, the team identified a possible cause of the disease: the cells overproduce molecules causing a toxic buildup that affects neuron function. The researchers devised a way to block the toxic buildup, which may point to a new therapeutic strategy.

New Stem Cell Discoveries in ALS Make Progress to Finding a Cure

So what’s happened in the field of ALS research in the past year? I’m happy to report that a lot has been accomplished to better understand this disease and to develop potential cures! Here are a few highlights that we felt were worth mentioning:

  • The Ice Bucket Challenge launched by the ALS Association is raising awareness and funds for ALS research.

    The Ice Bucket Challenge launched by the ALS Association is raising awareness and funds for ALS research.

    Ice Bucket Challenge. The ALS Association launched the “world’s largest global social media phenomenon” by encouraging brave individuals to dump ice-cold water on their heads to raise awareness and funds for research into treatments and cures for ALS. This August, the ALS Association re-launched the Ice Bucket Challenge campaign in efforts to raise additional funds and to make this an annual event.

  • ALS Gene Mapping. In a story released yesterday, the global biotech company Biogen is partnering with Columbia University Medical Center to map ALS disease genes. An article from Bloomberg Business describes how using Ice Bucket Money to create “a genetic map of the disease may help reveal the secrets of a disorder that’s not well understood, including how much a person’s genes contribute to the likelihood of developing ALS.” Biogen is also launching a clinical trial for a new ALS drug candidate by the end of the year.
  • New Drug target for ALS. Our next door neighbors at the Gladstone Institutes here in San Francisco published an exciting new finding in the journal PNAS in June. In collaboration with scientists at the University of Michigan, they discovered a new therapeutic target for ALS. They found that a protein called hUPF1 was able to protect brain cells from ALS-induced death by preventing the accumulation of toxic proteins in these cells. In a Gladstone press release, senior author Steve Finkbeiner said, “This is the first time we’ve been able to link this natural monitoring system to neurodegenerative disease. Leveraging this system could be a strategic therapeutic target for diseases like ALS and frontotemporal dementia.”
  • Stem cells, ALS, and clinical trials. Clive Svendsen at Cedars-Sinai is using gene therapy and stem cells to develop a cure for ALS. His team is currently working in mice to determine the safety and effectiveness of the treatment, but they hope to move into clinical trials with humans by the end of the year. For more details, check out our blog Genes + Cells: Stem Cells deliver genes as drugs and hope for ALS.

These are only a few of the exciting and promising stories that have come out in the past year. It’s encouraging and comforting to see, however, that progress towards a cure for ALS is definitely moving forward.

Cranking up stem cell production for when therapies are approved for widespread use

Getting a cell therapy from the research bench to patients requires leaping many hurdles. Perhaps two of the highest arise when proving the potential therapy is safe enough to begin clinical trials and then when scaling up production to meet the demand of thousands of patients.

Scale up to producing the 100s of billions of cells needed to treat large groups of patients could be a roadblock for therapies.

Scale up to producing the 100s of billions of cells needed to treat large groups of patients could be a roadblock for therapies.

An even dozen CIRM-funded projects have made it over the first hurdle. No doubt those teams have begun planning for that last big jump, but in reality, in most cases the processes needed to make cells for a dozen or a few dozen patients in early trials don’t generally scale to the thousands. When you look at the number of cells needed for one heart repair, for example, around five billion, the numbers are mind bending.

Many organizations focus on this issue as their main goal looking for platforms that can help scale up production for cell therapies across many different diseases. A team at the University of Nottingham in England recently reported results from a $3.6 million project that seems to have created a sizeable piece of the solution. They developed a fully synthetic substrate, which has no chance for contamination, that can grow cells by the billion, both stem cells and the more mature cells normally desired for transplant into patients.

“The possibilities for regenerative medicine are still being researched in the form of clinical trials,” said the project leader Morgan Alexander in a university press release posted by ScienceDaily. “What we are doing here is paving the way for the manufacture of stem cells in large numbers when those therapies are proved to be safe and effective.”

The research team used a high throughput lab technique to test many materials until they finally arrived at the one they reported in the journal Advance Materials.

New tech tool speeds up stem cell research

It’s hard to do a good job if you don’t have the right tools. Now researchers have access to a great new tool that could really help them accelerate their work, a tool its developers say “will revolutionize the way cell biologists develop” stem cell models to test in the lab.

Fluidigm's Castillo system

Fluidigm’s Callisto system

The device is called Callisto™. It was created by Fluidigm thanks to two grants from CIRM. The goal was to develop a device that would allow researchers more control and precision in the ways that they could turn stem cells into different kinds of cell. This is often a long, labor-intensive process requiring round-the-clock maintenance of the cells to get them to make the desired transformation.

Callisto changes that. The device has 32 chambers, giving researchers more control over the conditions that cells are stored in, even allowing them to create different environmental conditions for different groups of cells. All with much less human intervention.

Lila Collins, Ph.D., the CIRM Science Officer who has worked closely with Fluidigm on this project over the years, says this system has some big advantages over the past:

“Creating the optimal conditions for reprogramming, stem cell culture and stem cells has historically been a tedious and manually laborious task. This system allows a user to more efficiently test a variety of cellular stimuli at various times without having to stay tied to the bench. Once the chip is set up in the instrument, the user can go off and do other things.”

Having a machine that is faster and easier to use is not the only advantage Callisto offers, it also gives researchers the ability to systematically and simultaneously test different combinations of factors, to see which ones are most effective at changing stem cells into different kinds of cell. And once they know which combinations work best they can use Callisto to reproduce them time after time. That consistency means researchers in different parts of the world can create cells under exactly the same conditions, so that results from one study will more readily support and reflect results from another.

In a news release about Callisto,  Fluidigm’s President and CEO Gajus Worthington, says this could be tremendously useful in developing new therapies:

“Fluidigm aims to enable important research that would otherwise be impractical. The Callisto system incorporates some of our finest microfluidic technology to date, and will allow researchers to quickly and easily create complex cell culture environments. This in turn can help reveal how stems cells make fate decisions. Callisto makes challenging applications, such as cellular reprogramming and analysis, more accessible to a wide range of scientists. We believe this will move biological discovery forward significantly.”

And as Collins points out, Callisto doesn’t just do this on a bulk level, working with millions of cells at a time, the way the current methods do:

“Using a bulk method it’s possible that one might miss an important event in the mixture. The technology in this system allows the user to stimulate and study individual cells. In this way, one could measure changes in small sub-populations and find ways to increase or decrease them.”

Having the right tools doesn’t always mean you are going to succeed, but it certainly makes it a lot easier.

I Sing the Bioelectric: Long-Distance Electrical Signals Guide Cell Growth and Repair

Genes turn on, and genes turn off. Again and again, the genes that together comprise the human genome receive electrical signals that can direct when they should be active—and when they should be dormant. This intricate pattern of signals is a part of what guides an embryonic stem cell to grow and mature into any one of the many types of cells that make up the human body.

Bioelectric signals sent between cells—even cells at great distance from each other—have been found to carry important instructions relating to the growth, development and repair of organs such as the brain.

Bioelectric signals sent between cells—even cells at great distance from each other—have been found to carry important instructions relating to the growth, development and repair of organs such as the brain.

These electrical signals that guide cell growth have long been described as molecular ‘switches.’ But now, scientists at Tufts University have decoded these electrical signals—and discovered that they are far more complex than we had ever imagined.

Reporting in today’s issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, lead author Michael Levin and his Tufts research team have mapped the electrical signals transmitted between cells during development, and found that not only do these signals direct when a gene should be switched on, they also carry their own set of instructions, crucial to cellular development. Using the example of brain formation, Levin explained in today’s news release:

“We’ve found that cells communicate, even across long distances in the embryo, using bioelectrical signals, and they use this information to know where to form a brain and how big that brain should be. The signals are not just necessary for normal development; they are instructive.”

Instead of a molecular switchboard, an analogy that some have used to describe these bioelectrical signals, Levin likened the system to a computer. The signals themselves act like software programs, delivering instructions and information between cells at precisely the right time—even cells at great distance from one another.

Using tadpole embryos as a model, the team identified that the pattern of changes in voltage levels between cell membranes, called cellular resting potential, is the source of these bioelectrical signals, which are crucial to cellular development.

Specifically, the team mapped the changing voltage levels in embryonic stem cells in regards to the formation of the brain. In addition to discovering that these bioelectric signals instruct the formation of organs such as the brain, their discovery also hints at how scientists could manipulate these signals to repair tissues or organs that have been damaged—or even to grow new, healthy tissues.

“This latest research also demonstrated molecular techniques for ‘hijacking’ this bioelectric communication to force the body to make new brain tissue at other locations and to fix genetic defects that cause brain malformation,” Levin explained. “This means we may be able to induce growth of new brain tissue to address birth defects or injury, which is very exciting for regenerative medicine.”

In addition, the authors argue that modifying the bioelectrical signals to generate tissue—rather than modifying the genes themselves—may reduce the risk of adverse effects that may crop up by modifying genes directly.

While it’s early days for this work, Levin and his team foresee ways to apply this knowledge directly to medicine, for example by developing electricity-modulating drugs—which they call ‘electroceuticals’—that can repair damaged or defective tissue, and induce tissue growth.

Stay on Target: Scientists Create Chemical ‘Homing Devices’ that Guide Stem Cells to Final Destination

When injecting stem cells into a patient, how do the cells know where to go? How do they know to travel to a specific damage site, without getting distracted along the way?

Scientists are now discovering that, in some cases they do but in many cases, they don’t. So engineers have found a way to give stem cells a little help.

As reported in today’s Cell Reports, engineers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) in Boston, along with scientists at the pharmaceutical company Sanofi, have identified a suite of chemical compounds that can help the stem cells find their way.

Researchers identified a small molecule that can be used to program stem cells (blue and green) to home in on sites of damage. [Credit: Oren Levy, Brigham and Women's Hospital]

Researchers identified a small molecule that can be used to program stem cells (blue and green) to home in on sites of damage. [Credit: Oren Levy, Brigham and Women’s Hospital]

“There are all kinds of techniques and tools that can be used to manipulate cells outside the body and get them into almost anything we want, but once we transplant cells we lose complete control over them,” said Jeff Karp, the paper’s co-senior author, in a news release, highlighting just how difficult it is to make sure the stem cells reach their destination.

So, Karp and his team—in collaboration with Sanofi—began to screen thousands of chemical compounds, known as small molecules, that they could physically attach to the stem cells prior to injection and that could guide the cells to the appropriate site of damage. Not unlike a molecular ‘GPS.’

Starting with more than 9,000 compounds, the Sanofi team narrowed down the candidates to just six. They then used a microfluidic device—a microscope slide with tiny glass channels designed to mimic human blood vessels. Stem cells pretreated with the compound Ro-31-8425 (one of the most promising of the six) stuck to the sides. An indication, says the team, Ro-31-8425 might help stem cells home in on their target.

But how would these pre-treated cells fare in animal models? To find out, Karp enlisted the help of Charles Lin, an expert in optical imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital. First, the team injected the pre-treated cells into mouse models each containing an inflamed ear. Then, using Lin’s optical imaging techniques, they tracked the cells’ journey. Much to their excitement, the cells went immediately to the site of inflammation—and then they began to repair the damage.

According to Oren Levy, the study’s co-first author, these results are especially encouraging because they point to how doctors may someday soon deliver much-needed stem cell therapies to patients:

“There’s a great need to develop strategies that improve the clinical impact of cell-based therapies. If you can create an engineering strategy that is safe, cost effective and simple to apply, that’s exactly what we need to achieve the promise of cell-based therapy.”

‘STARS’ Help Scientists Control Genetic On/Off Switch

All life on Earth relies, ultimately, on the delicate coordination of switches. During development, these switches turn genes on—or keep them off—at precise intervals, controlling the complex processes that guide the growth of the embryo, cell by cell, as it matures from a collection of stem cells into a living, breathing organism.

Scientists have found a new way to control genetic switches.

Scientists have found a new way to control genetic switches.

If you control the switch, you could theoretically control some of life’s most fundamental processes.

Which is precisely what scientists at Cornell University are attempting to do.

Reporting in today’s issue of Nature Chemical Biology, synthetic biologists have developed a new method of directing these switches—a feat that could revolutionize the field of genetic engineering.

At the heart of the team’s discovery is a tiny molecule called RNA. A more simplified version of its cousin, DNA, RNA normally serves as a liaison—translating the genetic information housed in DNA into the proteins that together make up each and every cell in the body.

In nature, RNA does not have the ability to ‘turn on’ a gene at will. So the Cornell team, led by Julius Lucks, made a new kind of RNA that did.

They engineered a new type of RNA that they are calling Small Transcription Activating RNAs, or STARS, that can serve as a kind of artificial switch. In laboratory experiments, Lucks and his team showed that they could control how and when a gene was switched on by physically placing the STARS system in front of it. As Lucks explained in a news release:

“RNA is like a molecular puzzle, a crazy Rubik’s cube that has to be unlocked in order to do different things. We’ve figured out how to design another RNA that unlocks part of that puzzle. The STAR is the key to that lock.”

RNA is an attractive molecule to manipulate because it is so simple, says Lucks, much simpler than proteins. Many efforts aimed at protein manipulation have failed, due to the sheer complexity of these molecules. But by downshifting into the simpler, more manageable RNA molecules, Lucks argues that greater strides can be made in the field of synthetic biology and genetic engineering.

“This is going to open up a whole set of possibilities for us, because RNA molecules make decisions and compute information really well, and they detect things really well,” said Lucks.

In the future, Lucks envisions a system based solely on RNA that has the capability to manipulate genetic switches to better understand fundamental processes that guide the healthy development of a cell—and provide clues to what happens when those processes go awry.

Stem Cell Stories that Caught Your Eye: The Most Popular Stem Cellar Stories of 2014

2014 marked an extraordinary year for regenerative medicine and for CIRM. We welcomed a new president, several of our research programs have moved into clinical trials—and our goal of accelerating treatments for patients in need is within our grasp.

As we look back we’d like to revisit The Stem Cellar’s ten most popular stories of 2014. We hope you enjoyed reading them as much as we did reporting them. And from all of us here at the Stem Cell Agency we wish you a Happy Holidays and New Year.

10. UCSD Team Launches CIRM-Funded Trial to Test Safety of New Leukemia Drug

9. Creating a Genetic Model for Autism, with a Little Help from the Tooth Fairy

8. A Tumor’s Trojan Horse: CIRM Researchers Build Nanoparticles to Infiltrate Hard-to-Reach Tumors

7. CIRM funded therapy for type 1 diabetes gets FDA approval for clinical trial

6. New Videos: Living with Crohn’s Disease and Working Towards a Stem Cell Therapy

5. Creativity Program Students Reach New Heights with Stem Cell-Themed Rendition of “Let it Go”

4. Scientists Reach Yet Another Milestone towards Treating Type 1 Diabetes

3. Meet the Stem Cell Agency President C. Randal Mills

2. Truth or Consequences: how to spot a liar and what to do once you catch them

1. UCLA team cures infants of often-fatal “bubble baby” disease by inserting gene in their stem cells; sickle cell disease is next target