If you want to accelerate stem cell therapies then create an Accelerating Center

Buckle up

Buckle up, we’re about to Accelerate

“You can’t teach fish to fly,” is one of the phrases that our CIRM President & CEO, Randy Mills, likes to throw out when asked why we needed to create new centers to help researchers move their most promising therapies out of the lab and into clinical trials.

His point is that many researchers are terrific at research but not so great at the form filling and other process-oriented skills needed to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a clinical trial.

So instead of asking them to learn how to do all those things, why don’t we, CIRM, create a system that will do it for them? And that’s where we came up with the idea for the Accelerating Center (we’re also creating a Translating Center – that’s a topic for a future blog but if you can’t wait to find out the juicy details you can find them here.)

The Accelerating Center will be a clinical research organization that provides regulatory, operational and other support services to researchers and companies hoping to get their stem cell therapies into a clinical trial. The goal is to match the scientific skills of researchers with the regulatory and procedural skills of the Accelerating Center to move these projects through the review process as quickly as possible.

But it doesn’t end there. Once a project has been given the green light by the FDA, the Accelerating Center will help with actually setting up and running their clinical trial, and helping them with data management to ensure they get high quality data from the trial. Again these skills are essential to run a good clinical trial but things researchers may not have learned about when getting a PhD.

We just issued what we call an RFA (Request for Applications)  for people interested in partnering with us to help create the Accelerating Center. To kick-start the process we are awarding up to $15 million for five years to create the Center, which will be based in California.

To begin with, the Accelerating Center will focus on supporting CIRM-funded stem cell projects. But the goal is to eventually extend that support to other stem cell programs.

Now, to be honest, there’s an element of self-interest in all this. We have a goal under our new Strategic Plan of funding 50 new clinical trials over the next five years. Right now, getting a stem cell-related project approved is a slow and challenging process. We think the Accelerating Center is one tool to help us change that and give the most promising projects the support they need to get out of the lab and into people.

There’s a lot more we want to do to help speed up the approval process as well, including working with the FDA to create a new, streamlined regulatory process, one that is faster and easier to navigate. But that may take some time. So in the meantime, the Accelerating Center will help “fish” to do what they do best, swim, and we’ll take care of the flying for them.

 

 

 

Patients beware: warnings about shady clinics and suspect treatments

stem-cells therapy?

Every day we get a call from someone seeking help. Some are battling a life-threatening or life-changing disease. Others call on behalf of a friend or loved one. All are looking for the same thing; a treatment, better still a cure, to ease their suffering.

Almost every day we have to tell them the same thing; that the science is advancing but it’s not there yet. You can almost feel the disappointment, the sense of despair, on the other end of the line.

If it’s hard for us to share that news, imagine how much harder it is for them to hear it. Usually by the time they call us they have exhausted all the conventional therapies. In some cases they are not just running out of options, they are also running out of time.

Chasing hope

Sometimes people mention that they went to the website of a clinic that was offering treatments for their condition, claiming they had successfully treated people with that disease or disorder. This week I had three people mention the same clinic, here in the US, that was offering them “treatments” for multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injury and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Three very different problems, but the same approach was used for each one.

It’s easy to see why people would be persuaded that clinics like this could help them. Their websites are slick and well produced. They promise to take excellent care of patients, often helping take care of travel plans and accommodation.

There’s just one problem. They never offer any scientific evidence on their website that the treatments they offer work. They have testimonials, quotes from happy, satisfied patients, but no clinical studies, no results from FDA-approved clinical trials. In fact, if you explore their sites you’ll usually find an FAQ section that says something to the effect of they are “not offering stem cell therapy as a cure for any condition, disease, or injury. No statements or implied treatments on this website have been evaluated or approved by the FDA. This website contains no medical advice.”

What a damning but revealing phrase that is.

Now, it may be that the therapies they are offering won’t physically endanger patients – though without a clinical trial it’s impossible to know that – but they can harm in other ways. Financially it can make a huge dent in someone’s wallet with many treatments costing $10,000 or more. And there is also the emotional impact of giving someone false hope, knowing that there was little, if any, chance the treatment would work.

Shining a light in shady areas

U.C. Davis stem cell researcher, CIRM grantee, and avid blogger Paul Knoepfler, highlighted this in a recent post for his blog “The Niche” when he wrote:

Paul Knoepfler

Paul Knoepfler

“Patients are increasingly being used as guinea pigs in the stem cell for-profit clinic world via what I call stem cell shot-in-the-dark procedures. The clinics have no logical basis for claiming that these treatments work and are safe.

As the number of stem cell clinics continues to grow in the US and more physicians add on unproven stem cell injections into their practices as a la carte options, far more patients are being subjected to risky, even reckless physician conduct.”

As if to prove how real the problem is, within hours of posting that blog Paul posted another one, this time highlighting how the FDA had sent a Warning Letter to the Irvine Stem Cell Treatment Center saying it had serious concerns about the way it operates and the treatments it offers.

Paul has written about these practices many times in the past, sometimes incurring the wrath of the clinic owners (and very pointed letters from their lawyers). It’s to his credit that he refuses to be intimidated and keeps highlighting the potential risks that unapproved therapies pose to patients.

Making progress

As stem cell science advances we are now able to tell some patients that yes, there are promising therapies, based on good scientific research, that are being tested in clinical trials.

There are not as many as we would like and none have yet been approved by the FDA for wider use. But those will come in time.

For now we have to continue to work hard to raise awareness about the need for solid scientific evidence before more people risk undergoing an unproven stem cell therapy.

And we have to continue taking calls from people desperate for help, and tell them they have to be patient, just a little longer.

***

If you are considering a stem cell treatment, the International Society for Stem Cell Research had a terrific online resource, A Closer Look at Stem Cells. In particular, check out the Nine Things to Know about Stem Cell Treatments page.

 

New Stem Cell Treatment for ALS May Slow Disease Progression

Exciting news was published this week that will give patients suffering from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, something to cheer about. The journal JAMA Neurology reported that a new stem cell treatment was successful in slowing disease progression in a small group of ALS patients in a Phase 2 clinical trial.

This is big news for a fatal, incurable disease that is well known for its progressive, degenerating effects on nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. We’ve written about ALS a lot in the Stem Cellar, so if you want more background on the disease, read our “Progress to a Cure for ALS” blog.

A patient’s own stem cells can help

The stem cell therapy involves extracting mesenchymal stem cells from the bone marrow of ALS patients. These stem cells are then manipulated in culture into cells that secrete a growth factor called NeuroTrophic Factor (NTF), which helps keep nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord healthy and alive. The NTF-secreting stem cells (called NurOwn cells) are then transplanted back into the same ALS patient (making this an autologous stem cell therapy) by injection into either the spinal fluid or the muscles.

logoThe NurOwn method was developed by BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics, a biotech company based in the US and Israel. Clinical trials to test the safety and efficacy of NurOwn stem cells began in 2011 at the Hadassah Medical Organization (HMO). So far, 26 patients have participated in the trials both in the US and in Israel.

According to the JAMA publication, patients were monitored 3 months before and 6 months after they received stem cell transplants and 6 months after. Twelve of the 26 patients participated in an early stage of the trial (phase 1/2) to test the safety and tolerability of the stem cell therapy. The other 14 patients participated in a later stage (phase 2a), dose-escalating study where their modified stem cells were injected into both their spinal fluid and muscles. Following the treatment, the scientists looked at the safety profile of the transplanted stem cells and for signs of clinical improvement in patients such as their ease of breathing or ability to control their muscle movement.

Stem cell treatment is effective in most ALS patients

Results from the clinical trial showed that a majority of the patients benefitted from the NurOwn stem cell therapy. HMO Principle scientist and senior author on the study, Dr. Dimitrios Karussis, explained:

Dr. Dimitrios Karussis (Image credit: Israel21c)

Dimitrios Karussis (Israel21c)

“The results are very encouraging.  Close to 90% of patients who were injected intrathecally through the spinal cord fluid were regarded as responders to the treatment either in terms of their respiratory function or their motor disability.  Almost all of the patients injected in this way showed less progression and some even improved in their respiratory functions or their motor functions.”

A PRNewswire press release covering this study called the stem cell therapy the “first-of-its-kind treatment for treating neurodegenerative diseases.”

Not a cure just yet

This stem cell therapy will need to be tested in more patients before the it can be determined truly effective in slowing progression of ALS. And Dr. Karussis was quick to note that the NurOwn stem cell therapy isn’t a cure for ALS, but rather an early-stage therapy that will provide significant benefit to patients by slowing disease progression.

“I am optimistic that within the foreseeable future, we may provide a treatment to ALS patients that can slow down or stop the progression. I believe we are in the early stages of something new and revolutionary with this harvested stem cell infusion therapy.  While this is absolutely by no means a cure, it is the first step in a long process in that direction.  I see this treatment as being potentially one of the major future tools to treat degenerative diseases of the brain and spinal cord, in general.”

Other stem cell treatments for ALS in the works

A single stem cell therapy that could treat multiple neurodegenerative diseases would be extremely valuable to patients and doctors. However, it’s not clear that the “one ring to rule them all” scenario (couldn’t help making a Lord of the Rings reference) will play out well for all diseases that affect the brain and spinal cord. Luckily, Dr. Karussis and Brainstem Cell Therapeutics are not the only ones pursuing stem cell therapies for ALS.

Clive Svendsen has been on a 15-year quest to develop an ALS therapy

Clive Svendsen

CIRM is currently funding 21 studies (a total of $56.6 million) that use stem cells to either study ALS or to develop therapies to treat the disease. We wrote about one recent study by Clive Svendsen at Cedars Sinai which is using a combination of gene therapy and brain stem cells to deliver growth factors to protect nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord of ALS patients. Currently, Svendsen and his team are in the latter stages of research and hope to apply for FDA approval to test their therapy in patients in the near future. Svendsen told CIRM, “we will begin recruiting patients the first week we have approval.”


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What Went Down at ARM’s Regenerative Medicine State of the Industry

Every January, downtown San Francisco is taken over by a flock of investors, bankers, biotech companies, and scientists attending the annual JP Morgan Healthcare Conference. This meeting looks at the healthcare advancements over the past year and predicts the disease areas and technologies that will see the most progress and success in 2016.

According to some of the experts at the event, regenerative medicine and stem cell research are experiencing impressive, accelerated advancements, which has peaked the interest of investors, biotech, and pharmaceutical companies.

Because these are such fast paced fields, the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine (ARM) hosts the Annual Regenerative Medicine and Advanced Therapies State of the Industry Briefing during JP Morgan to discuss the recent progress and outlook for the industry in the coming year.

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What happened in 2015 and what’s next?

ARM’s  6th Annual Briefing was open to the public and drew over 300 people on Monday morning. The meeting opened with an industry update from Edward Lanphier, ARM Chairman and President/CEO of Sangamo BioSciences.  Then two panels featuring top leaders from biotech and pharmaceutical companies discussed the 2016 clinical data forecast and the promise of regenerative medicine and advanced therapies in oncology (cancer).

With an upbeat attitude, Lanphier gave an overview of clinical development progress in 2015, with 20 approved products worldwide and over 600 clinical trials both from academia and industry. More than 40% of these ongoing clinical trials are in cancer while approximately 12% are in heart disease/injury. These trials are not limited to Phase 1 either. In 2015, there were 376 in Phase 2 (compared to 200 in 2014) and 64 in Phase 3 (compared to 39 in 2014).

Edward Lanphier

Edward Lanphier

Two other areas Lanphier emphasized were CAR-T and other cell-based immunotherapies and gene therapy programs for rare diseases. He ended with 2015 statistics on clinical milestones in various disease and therapy programs, key company IPOs, the financial landscape, and predictions of major anticipated data from clinical trials in 2016.

It was a lot to take in, but this was definitely a good thing and a sign that the areas of regenerative medicine and advanced therapies are thriving. If you want more details, you can check out ARM’s State of the Industry presentation.

Major Theme: Data is King

The major theme that cropped up during the industry update and panel discussions was the importance of producing meaningful clinical data to get positive outcomes in regenerative medicine.

This was succinctly put by panelist Sven Kili, head of Gene Therapy Development at GlaxoSmithKline:

“I would say “Data is King”. A great idea is fantastic, passion is wonderful, and most companies will buy into a strong management team, but that only gets you so far. After that you need to have data, and you need to have a good plan for going forward.”

Kill added that there’s the need to work with the FDA to change the regulatory process, saying the FDA is, understandably, cautious about working with therapies that can alter a person’s genome permanently. However, he said there needs to be serious discussions with the FDA about how to speed up the process, to make it easier for the most promising projects to get approval.

Edward Lanphier also talked about the industry’s new focus on clinical data and the questions that arise when trying to advance regenerative medicine research into approved treatments and cures for patients:

“How do we communicate the value of curing blindness? How do we think about pricing that? What do we think about [drug] reimbursement?  For rare diseases, we aren’t trying to talk about acute treatments – we are talking about one-time, curative outcomes. And the value and benefit to patients in this is enormous. This is what we are trying to do, and on the cusp of, in terms of generating both approvable data and also the proof of concept data that then allows us to drive that next value inflection point in terms of financings.”

The Future Looks Good

After listening to the briefing, the future of regenerative medicine and advanced therapies certainly looks bright. As Jason Kolbert, head of Healthcare Research at the Maxim Group, said:

“This industry is now rapidly maturing and regenerative medicine and gene therapy have great things in store for the next decade.”

Usman Azam, Global Head of Cell and Gene Therapies at Novartis, had a similar outlook:

“We now are going from proof of concept to commercial availability of a disruptive innovation within seven years. If somebody had said that to me four years ago, I would have said, not possible. But that gives you a sense of how quickly this field is moving.”

Experts Panel

ARM Panel: 2016 Sector Forecast: Upcoming Clinical Data Events

National honor for helping “the blind see”

Those of us fortunate to have good health take so many things for granted, not the least of which is our ability to see. But, according to the World Health Organization, there are 39 million people worldwide who are blind, and another 246 million who are visually impaired. Any therapy, any device, that can help change that is truly worthy of celebration.

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Dr. Mark Humayun: Photo courtesy USC

That’s why we are celebrating the news that Professor Mark Humayun has been awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the nation’s top technology honor, by President Obama.

Humayun, a researcher at USC’s Keck School of Medicine and a CIRM grantee, is being honored for his work in developing an artificial retina, one that enables people with a relatively rare kind of blindness to see again.

But we are also celebrating the potential of his work that we are funding that could help restore sight to millions of people suffering from the leading cause of blindness among the elderly. But we’ll get back to that in a minute.

First, let’s talk about the invention that has earned him this prestigious award. It’s called the Argus II and it can help people with retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited degenerative disease that slowly destroys a person’s vision. It affects around 100,000 Americans.

The Argus II uses a camera mounted on glasses that send signals to an electronic receiver that has been implanted inside the eye. The receiver then relays those signals through the optic nerve to the brain where they are interpreted as a visual image.

In a story posted on the USC website, USC President C. L. Max Nikias praised Humayun’s work:

“He dreamed the impossible: to help the blind see. With fearless imagination, bold leadership and biomedical expertise, he and his team made that dream come true with the world’s first artificial retina. USC is tremendously proud to be Professor Humayun’s academic home.”

At CIRM we are tremendously proud to be funding the clinical trial that Humayun and his team are running to find a stem cell therapy for age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of vision loss in the world.  It’s estimated that by 2020 more than 6 million Americans will suffer from AMD.

Humayun’s team is using embryonic stem cells to produce the support cells, or RPE cells, needed to replace those lost in AMD. We recently produced this video that highlights this work, and other CIRM-funded work that targets vision loss.

In a statement released by the White House honoring all the winners, President Obama said:

“Science and technology are fundamental to solving some of our nation’s biggest challenges. The knowledge produced by these Americans today will carry our country’s legacy of innovation forward and continue to help countless others around the world. Their work is a testament to American ingenuity.”

Which is why we are honored to be partners with Humayun and his team in advancing this research and, hopefully, helping find a treatment for millions of people who dream of one day being able to see again.

 

 

 

 

While You Were Away: Gene Editing Treats Mice with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy

Welcome back everyone! I hope you enjoyed your holiday and are looking forward to an exciting new year. My favorite thing about coming back from vacation is to see what cool new science was published. Because as you know, science doesn’t take a vacation!

As I was reading over the news for this past week, one particular story stood out. On New Year’s Eve, Science magazine published three articles (here, here, here) simultaneously that successfully used CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing to treat mice that have Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD).

DMD is a rare, genetic disease that affects approximately 1 in 3,600 boys in the US. It’s caused by a mutation in the dystrophin gene, which generates a protein that is essential for normal muscle function. DMD causes the body’s muscles to weaken and degenerate, leaving patients deformed and unable to move. It’s a progressive disease, and the average life expectancy is around 25 years. Though there are treatments that help prolong or control the onset of symptoms, there is no cure for DMD.

Three studies use CRISPR to treat DMD in mice

For those suffering from this debilitating disease, there is hope for a new therapy – a gene therapy that is. Three groups from UT Southwestern, Harvard, and Duke, used the CRISPR gene editing method to remove and correct the mutation in the dystrophin gene in mice with DMD. All three used a safe viral delivery method to transport the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing complex to the proper location on the dystrophin gene in the mouse genome. There, the complex was able to cut out the mutated section of DNA and paste together a version of the gene that could produce a functional dystrophin protein.

Dystrophin protein (green) in healthy heart muscle (left), absent in DMD mice (center), and partially restored in DMD mice treated with CRISPR/Cas9 (right). (Nelson et al., 2015)

Dystrophin protein (green) in healthy heart muscle (left), absent in DMD mice (center), and partially restored in DMD mice treated with CRISPR/Cas9 (right). (Nelson et al., 2015)

This technique was tested in newly born mice as well as in adult mice by injecting the virus into the mouse circulatory system (so that the gene editing could happen everywhere) or into specific areas like the leg muscle to target muscle cells and stem cells. After the gene editing treatment, all three studies found restored expression of the dystrophin protein in heart and skeletal muscle tissue, which are the main tissues affected in DMD. They were also able to measure improved muscle function and strength in the animals.

This is really exciting news for the DMD field, which has been waiting patiently for an approved therapy. Currently, two clinical trials are underway by BioMarin and Sarepta Therapeutics, but the future of these drugs is uncertain. A gene therapy that could offer a “one-time cure” would certainly be a more attractive option for these patients.

Charles Gersbach, Duke University

Charles Gersbach, Duke University

It’s important to note that none of these gene editing studies reported a complete cure. However, the results are still very promising. Charles Gersbach, senior author on the Duke study, commented, “There’s a ton of room for optimization of these approaches.”

Strong media coverage of DMD studies

The implications of these studies are potentially huge and suitably, these studies were covered by prominent news outlets like Science News, STAT News, The Scientist, and The New York Times.

What I like about the news coverage on the DMD studies is that the results and implications aren’t over hyped. All of the articles mention the promise of this research, but also mention that more work needs to be done in mice and larger animals before gene therapy can be applied to human DMD patients. The words “safe” or “safety” was used in each article, which signals to me that both the science and media worlds understand the importance of testing promising therapies rigorously before attempting in humans on a larger scale.

However, it does seem that CRISPR gene editing for DMD could reach clinical trials in the next few years. Charles Gersbach told STATnews that he could see human clinical trials using this technology in a few years after scientists properly test its safety. He also mentioned that they first will need to understand “how the human immune system will react to delivery of  the CRISPR complex within the body.” He went on, “The hope for gene editing is that if we do this right, we will only need to do one treatment. This method, if proven safe, could be applied to patients in the foreseeable future.”

Eric Olson, UT Southwestern

Eric Olson, UT Southwestern

Eric Olson, senior author on the UT Southwestern study, had a similar opinion, “To launch a clinical trial, we need to scale up, improve efficiency and assess safety. I think within a few years, those issues can be addressed.”

 


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CIRM’s clinical trial portfolio shows off stem cells’ many talents

When I first started working for California’s stem cell institute in 2008 I would never have guessed that we would be funding 15 clinical trials by the end of 2015. Medical science usually does not move that fast. But I, like most people back then, probably thought about stem cell science too narrowly, mostly as leading to replacement parts.

Our current portfolio showcases five distinct ways that stem cell science can lead to potential therapies. And I suspect this list of “methods of action” as scientist like to call them, will grow.

Tissue Replacement

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Dennis Clegg works on blindness

We do have three classic replacement tissue projects. One seeks to mend injured spinal cords. One gives diabetics new insulin-producing cells and one replaces the layer of cells in the back of the eye that has been lost in a blinding disease called age-related macular degeneration.  But even two of these trials are not simple cell replacement. Researchers grow the insulin-producing cells inside a porous pouch to protect them from the immune system and the eye cells are grown in a single layer on a synthetic scaffold.

Promoting self-repair

Klassen

Henry Klassen works on RP

Two of our trials use stem cells to release various cell signals that encourage repair. For the genetic form of blindness called retinitis pigmentosa (RP) the research team injects a type of adult nerve stem cell into the eye. There the injected cells release factors that protect the light receptors in the retina from damage and may trigger renewal of already damaged receptors. For patients who have experienced a heart attack, another team injects stem cells derived from donor heart tissue in hopes they will release cellular factors that increase new blood vessel growth and reduce scarring of heart tissue, which can reduce its ability to function

Gene Editing

Zaia-John

John Zaia work on HIV

Since this is the year that Science magazine named the CRISPR gene editing technology, the discovery of the year, it seems appropriate that the largest segment of our clinical trial portfolio involves gene editing.  However, all our trials use older techniques with some track record of clinical safety—unlike CRISPR. Three different teams are using three different gene modification techniques to make HIV patient’s blood forming stem cells immune to the virus. Another team hopes to give sickle cell anemia patients a healthy form of the hemoglobin gene, which when mutated, causes the disease. That same research group is correcting a genetic error in a form of immune deficiency.

Attack Cancer Stem Cells

Jamieson

Catriona Jamieson works on leukemia

Then there comes the Mr. Hyde of the stem cell world, the cancer stem cell, which is generally attributed to be the cause of relapse after cancer therapy. Three of our teams use different agents to directly attack cancer stem cells in the hope of stopping the deadly cycle of treatment and relapse so many cancer patients face. Two teams are treating various solid tumors including colon, lung and breast cancer. The third trial is treating the blood cancer leukemia. The latter uses a drug with my favorites name cirmtuzumab, an antibody named for CIRM.

Cancer Immunotherapy

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Robert Dillman works on melanoma

Our last two trials also target the Mr. Hyde of stem cells, but in these two trials the teams hope to empower a patient’s own immune system to knock out the treacherous cancer stem cells. They both use a type of immune cell called a dendritic cell, which is first exposed to proteins from the cancer stem cells of the patient, then grown in the lab and injected into the patient. Dendritic cells serve as a kind of Pinterest sign board displaying the identity of the cancer stem cells to the patient’s immune system. This disclosure of Mr. Hyde invites the patient’s immune cells to attack the cancer stem cell. One team treats the skin cancer melanoma and the other treats the brain cancer glioblastoma.

These clinical trials range from early phase safety studies to late stage trials aimed at providing final proof of effectiveness prior to approval for broad use by the Food and Drug Administration. While it is unlikely all 15 potential therapies will make it through all phases of testing and get to the market for patients, historical odds suggest several will, completing an amazingly fast emergence of a new field of medicine.

A New Vaccine Could Make Stem Cell Transplants Safer

Stem cell transplants offer a lot of promise for treating or curing patients who’ve exhausted their therapeutic options. However, there are some potential risks associated with putting stem cells into the human body such as cancer and infection. But scientists and clinicians are working hard to reduce the risk of stem cell therapies by testing them in animals and in early stage clinical trials.

There was good news recently when scientists at the City of Hope reported that they’ve developed a vaccine that could make stem cell transplants safer.

Cytomegalovirus. Image credit (https://scienceforscientists.wordpress.com/tag/cytomegalovirus-cmv/)

Cytomegalovirus. Image credit scienceforscientists

The vaccine helps the immune system fight cytomegalovirus (CMV), which affects 50-80% of adults in the US. CMV typically lies dormant in the human body, but it can be activated in immunocompromised people, pregnant women, and patients receiving stem cell transplants. Once activated, CMV can cause nasty infections and even hepatitis (liver inflammation). There are anti-viral drugs that patients suffering from CMV flare-ups can take, but these drugs are very toxic and can sometimes do more harm than good.

CMVPepVax to the rescue!

In a report published in the Lancet Haematology, the group at City of Hope described a CMV vaccine called CMVPepVax that’s both safe and effective in protecting patients receiving stem cell transplants from CMV flare-ups. They tested the vaccine in a phase 1 clinical trial in 36 patients receiving stem cell treatments for cancer or other diseases. Half of the group received two doses of the vaccine at different time points (28 and 56 days), and the other half didn’t get the vaccine.

After three months, the researchers compared the group that received the vaccine to the control group and saw striking differences. Patients who got CMVPepVax had a boosted immune response against CMV, lower occurrence of CMV flare-ups, and reduced need for anti-viral drugs.

First author on the study, Ryotaro Nakamura, commented:

Ryotaro Nakamura

Ryotaro Nakamura

“Overall, people who received the vaccine had more robust immune recovery than those in the observation group. I was surprised because I didn’t expect to see such a dramatic difference between the two groups in such a small sample study.”

 

But wait, there’s more good news!

Even more exciting was the observation that patients receiving the vaccine were less likely to experience a relapse of their disease (leukemia was given as an example) and had a lower risk of death.

Senior author on the paper Don Diamond explained,

Don Diamond

Don Diamond

“We didn’t anticipate this to happen. Yet we found this striking signal from the data, which told us that those in the vaccine arm of the trial were less likely to relapse of their disease and less likely to develop problems that would lead to non-relapse mortality. In the future, the CMVPepVax vaccine may prove useful not only for patients receiving stem cell transplants, but also for recipients of solid organ transplants or other immunodeficiency diseases.”

Hold your horses

Of course, with any exciting breakthrough such as this, it’s wise to not count your chickens too early. In a City of Hope press release, both Nakamura and Diamond said that these results need to be replicated in a larger phase 2 trial before they can conclude that the vaccine works.

The trial is currently underway. It’s a larger, double-blind study that will compare patients receiving CMVPepVax to a placebo group. It’s the authors’ hope that the results from this trial will support their earlier phase 1 results and also shed light on why the vaccine protects against leukemia relapse.

Diamond concluded:

“We want to get confirmation to see whether lightning strikes twice with these effects. The current phase 2 trial, funded by the National Cancer Institute, will tell us whether the protective effects are really valid. If they are, it would be quite exciting.”

 

The results of this phase 2 trial will be especially important given the recent news about the failure of Chimerix Inc.’s antiviral CMV drug. The company’s stock took a huge hit today after they reported that their oral antiviral CMV drug didn’t reduce infection in stem cell transplant patients in a late-stage study.

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HIV/AIDS: Progress and Promise of Stem Cell Research

Our friends at Americans for Cures and Youreka Science have done it again. They’ve produced another whiteboard video about the progress and promise of stem cell research that’s so inspiring that it would probably make Darth Vader consider coming back to the light side. This time they tackled HIV.

If you haven’t watched one of these videos already, let me bring you up to speed. Americans for Cures is a non-profit organization, the legacy of the passing of Proposition 71, that supports patient advocates in the fight for stem cell research and cures. They’ve partnered with Youreka Science to produce eye-catching and informative videos to teach patients and the general public about the current state of stem cell research and the quest for cures for major diseases.

Stem cell cure for HIV?

Their latest video is on HIV, a well-known and deadly virus that attacks and disables the human immune system. Currently, 37 million people globally are living with HIV and only a few have been cured.

The video begins with the story of Timothy Brown, also known as the Berlin patient. In 2008 at the age of 40, he was dying of a blood cancer called acute myeloid leukemia and needed a bone marrow stem cell transplant to survive. Timothy was also HIV positive, so his doctor decided to use a bone marrow donor who happened to be naturally resistant to HIV infection. The transplanted donor stem cells were not only successful in curing Timothy of his cancer, but they also “rebooted his immune system” and cured his HIV.

Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 2.21.18 PMSo why haven’t all HIV patients received this treatment? The video goes on to explain that bone marrow transplants are dangerous and only used in cancer patients who’ve run out of options. Additionally, only a small percentage of the world’s population is resistant to HIV and the chances that one of these individuals is a bone marrow donor match to a patient is very low.

This is where science comes to the rescue. Three research groups in California, all currently supported by CIRM funding, have proposed alternative solutions: they are attempting to make a patient’s own immune system resistant to HIV instead of relying on donor stem cells. Using gene therapy, they are modifying blood stem cells from HIV patients to be HIV resistant, and then transplanting the modified stem cells back into the same patient to rebuild a new immune system that can block HIV infection.

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All three groups have proven their stem cell technology works in animals; two of them are now testing their approach in early phase clinical trials in humans, and one is getting ready to do so. If these trials are successful, there is good reason to hope for an HIV cure and maybe even cures for other immune diseases.

My thoughts…

What I liked most about this video was the very end. It concludes by saying that these accomplishments were made possible not just by funding promising scientific research, but also by the hard work of HIV patients and patient advocate communities, who’ve brought awareness to the disease and influenced policy changes. Ultimately, a cure for HIV will depend on researchers and patient advocates working together to push the pace and to tackle any obstacles that will likely appear with testing stem cell therapies in human clinical trials.

I couldn’t say it any better than the final line of the video:

“We must remember that human trials will celebrate successes, but barriers will surface along with complications and challenges. So patience and understanding of the scientific process are essential.”

Board gives stem cell institute marching orders, and a road map

The poet T. S. Eliot once wrote: “If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” Well, everyone at CIRM, California’s stem cell institute, is about to find out how tall we are.

Strategic Plan coverYesterday our governing Board approved a new Strategic Plan. To call it ambitious might be considered an understatement. Among the goals it commits us to achieving are:

  • Funding 50 new clinical trials in 5 years including 10 for rare or orphan disorders and 5 in conditions affecting children
  • Fostering enactment of a new, more efficient federal regulatory approval process for stem cell treatments
  • Introducing 50 new therapeutic candidates or devices into the development pipeline
  • Reducing the time it takes to move a stem cell treatment from the earliest Discovery stage into a clinical trial by 50%
  • Increasing the number of projects moving to the next stage of development by 50%

No easy task

Each goal by itself might be considered challenging. Taken together they are likely to stretch us all. And yet that’s why we joined CIRM, why we feel fortunate to be part of this mission. We have a chance to be part of a movement that could change the face of medicine as we know it. We knew it wouldn’t be easy. But now we know what we have to do to help achieve that.

As Randy Mills, our President and CEO, said in a news release, the goal in developing this Strategic Plan was to create a clear vision for the next five years of the Institute:

”We have around $900 million left to work with and we wanted a plan that used that money to the best possible effect, maximizing our chances of pushing as many new treatments to patients as possible. We didn’t want something ‘good enough’, we wanted something ‘great’. This plan is extremely ambitious, but also realistic in the goals it sets out and the way those goals can be met.”

The Strategic Plan – you can read it in full here – doesn’t just lay out goals, it also creates a road map on how to meet those goals. They include engaging industry more, being more creative in how we move the most promising projects from one stage of research to the next, and finding ways to change the regulatory approval process to help remove obstacles and speed up the progress of these therapies into clinical trials.

Aiming high

We know we may not achieve all our goals. As Randy Mills said at our Board meeting: “This is a difficult plan. These goals are not easy to achieve.” There are always risks in pursuing something so big and ambitious but no one ever achieved anything truly worthwhile by playing it safe. We are not interested in playing it safe.

We may start out by being, as T. S. Eliot put it “in over our heads”. But we’re confident we’ll be able to grow tall enough to make this plan work.

As Randy Mills told the Board: “If we are all in this together then the probability of success is high, and if we are successful then all this would have been worthwhile.”