Stem cell stories that caught our eye: Parkinson’s trial revived, aspirin kills cancer stem cells and a stem cell role in mother-child obesity

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Parkinson’s clinical trials back on track.
After nearly 20 years of being stuck on the clinical trial “bookshelf”, an international team from Cambridge, UK revived a cell therapy for Parkinson’s disease.

In an announcement picked up this week by the Genetic Literacy Project, the team reported they had treated their first patient. Specifically, fetal brain cells were injected into the brain of a man in his mid-50’s with the disease.

Neurons derived from human embryonic stem cells

A fluorescent microscopic image of numerous dopaminergic neurons (the type of neurons that are degenerated in Parkinson’s disease patients) generated from human embryonic stem cells. Image courtesy of the Xianmin Zeng lab at the Buck Institute for Age Research.

In Parkinson’s, nerve cells controlling movement die for poorly understood reasons. An accumulation of data through the 60’s and 70’s suggested transplantation of fetal brain cells into the Parkinson’s brain would replace the lost nerve cells and restore movement control. After initial promising results in the 80’s and 90’s, larger clinical trials showed no significant benefit and even led to a worsening of symptoms in some patients.

Due to these outcomes, the research community shelved the approach. Insights gained in the interim pointed to more ideal brain injection sites in order to help avoid side effects. Also, follow up on patients beyond the two-year run of those early trials suggested that positive effects of the cell therapy may not emerge for at least three to five years. So this latest trial will run longer to capture this time window.

One remaining snag for this therapeutic strategy is the limited number of available cells for each transplant. So in the meantime, scientists including some of our grantees are working hard at getting embryonic stem cell- or iPS cell-based therapies to the clinic. Since stem cells divide indefinitely, this approach could provide an off-the-shelf, limitless supply of the nerve cells. Stay tuned.

Targeting cancer stem cells with the Wonder Drug.
Aspirin: it’s the wonder drug that may turn out to be even more wonderful.

Ball and stick model of aspirin, the wonder drug: relieves pain and prevents cancer

Ball and stick model of aspirin, the wonder drug: relieves pain and prevents cancer

Famous for relieving pain and preventing heart attacks, aspirin may add breast cancer-killer to its resume. This week a cancer research team at the Kansas City (Mo.) Veteran Affairs Medical Center published experiments picked up by Eureka Alert showing a daily dose of aspirin could put the brakes on breast cancer.

The analysis attributed this anti-cancer effect to aspirin’s capacity to reduce the growth of cancer stem cells. These cells make up a tiny portion of a tumor but if chemotherapy or radiation treatment leaves any behind, it’s thought the cells’ stem cell-like ability for unlimited growth drives cancer relapse and spread (metastasis).

In the study, mice with tumors given a daily low dose of aspirin for 15 days had, on average, tumors nearly 50% smaller than the aspirin-free mice. In another set of experiments, the team showed aspirin could prevent tumors as well. Mice were given aspirin for 10 days before exposing them to cancer cells. After another 15 days, the aspirin treated animals had significantly less tumor growth compared to an untreated group.

Senior author Sushanta Banerjee stands behind these findings: he’s been taking an aspirin a day for three years but stresses that you should consult with your doctor before trying it yourself.

A stem cell link to the passing on of obesity from mom to child?
It’s been observed that children of obese moms have a high risk for obesity and diabetes. You might conclude that genetics are the culprit as well as lifestyle habits passed down from parent to child. But research published this week by researchers at the University of Colorado School of Medicine suggests another mechanism: they conclude the mere presence of the growing embryo in the uterus of an obese mother may instruct the child’s cells to take on more fat.

The team’s reasoning is based on an analysis of umbilical cord blood stem cells collected from babies born to 12 obese mothers and 12 normal weight mothers. In the lab, the stem cells were specialized into fat and muscle cells. The cells from babies of obese mothers showed increased fat accumulation and a lower production of proteins important for uptake of blood sugar (a state that could eventually tip the scales towards diabetes).

Certainly it’s a leap to link the property of cells in a dish to the eventual health of a child. But the results are intriguing enough that the researchers intend to follow the children as they get older to look for more connections between the state of the kids’ stem cells and their health profile.

Desperate patients and false hope: a troubling trend for stem cell-based therapies

A gambler’s odds are usually stacked against them but the possibility, however slim, of hitting the jackpot keeps bringing them back to the table. Now imagine, unbeknownst to them, the system is rigged so there’s a zero percent chance of any winnings. They’d essentially be giving their money away based on a false hope. Sadly, many desperate people looking for stem cell cures do exactly that.

Earlier this week, Cristin Severance, a Team10 TV news reporter in San Diego, investigated local stem cell clinics promising treatments for a number of chronic incurable diseases. Severance cites Stemgenex of La Jolla, which offers people with Parkinson’s disease the chance of improving their symptoms through a therapy using stem cells from their own fat. This opportunity comes at a cost – $15,000. According to stem cell expert Jeanne Loring of The Scripps Research Institute, there’s no prospect the treatment will work.

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Cristin Severance, a Team10 San Diego TV news reporter, investigated local stem cells clinics offering questionable therapies at a steep price.

First, some background: Parkinson’s disease is an incurable neurodegenerative disorder that affects nearly a million people in the United States. The symptoms include tremors, slow movement, muscle rigidity and less facial expression. Parkinson’s occurs when nerve cells, or neurons, in the region of the brain that controls movement, die for reasons that remain unclear. Which leads us to the snag with Stemgenex’s treatment strategy. Dr. Loring, who is a CIRM-funded researcher, explains in the TV news segment:

“The cells they are giving these patients cannot help them. My stem cells [in my laboratory] make neurons of a certain type. The stem cells they are getting out of people’s fat can’t do that. They could never do it. They aren’t capable of it.”

But what about the positive video patient testimonials often posted on these clinics’ websites? Watch enough of them and you’ll notice a pattern: the patients are typically recorded shortly after the treatment with no long-term follow up and no published data in peer-reviewed medical journals. Loring points out the likely explanation for these seemingly successful treatments:

“There is something called a placebo effect…If you believe whatever you’re getting is going to help you then there’s a short period of time in which your body is convinced that it has helped you. But that goes away.”

A plausible approach to treating Parkinson’s is to start with so-called pluripotent stem cells, which have the potential to specialize into any cell type. With these cells in hand, scientists can generate the neurons that are lost in Parkinson’s – a feat Loring and others have accomplished. The next step is to inject these neurons into the brains of Parkinson’s patients to restore—hopefully—proper movement control. But first the researchers must gather enough evidence in animal studies to convince the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that this therapy is safe and effective enough to test in humans.

So what about people who need stem cell cures today, right now? The sobering truth is, there are very few stem-call based products approved by the FDA. Most of those involve blood stem cell transplantation for treating leukemia and some genetic blood disorders as well as the use of stem cells for skin and hair grafts and cartilage repair.

Still, more and more stem cell-based clinical trials are coming online and recruiting people with a wide range of diseases. Everyday at CIRM, we receive emails and phone calls from people looking for advice about these experimental stem cell treatments. Our main recommendation: carefully read an excellent online resource provided by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) called, A Closer Look at Stem Cell Treatments. In particular, the Things to Consider about Clinical Trials section includes a list of questions anyone thinking about participating in a stem cell trial should ask. It would be a good idea to get the answers in writing and discuss them with a physician you trust. That way, you can truly know your odds when forming a decision.

Visit our website for more information about stem cell-related Parkinson’s research as well as the current list of CIRM-funded clinical trials.

One man’s story points to hope against a deadly skin cancer

One of the great privileges and pleasures of working at the stem cell agency is the chance to meet and work with some remarkable people, such as my colleagues here at CIRM and the researchers we support. But for me the most humbling, and by far the most rewarding experience, is having a chance to get to know the people we work for, the patients and patient advocates.

Norm Beegun, got stem cell therapy for metastatic melanoma

Norm Beegun, got stem cell therapy for metastatic melanoma

At our May Board meeting I got to meet a gentleman who exemplifies everything that I truly admire about the patients and patient advocates. His name is Norm Beegun. And this is his story.

Norm lives in Los Angeles. In 2002 he went to see his regular doctor, an old high school friend, who suggested that since it had been almost ten years since he’d had a chest x-ray it might be a good idea to get one. At first Norm was reluctant. He felt fine, was having no health problems and didn’t see the need. But his friend persisted and so Norm agreed. It was a decision that changed, and ultimately saved, his life.

The x-ray showed a spot on his lung. More tests were done. They confirmed it was cancer; stage IV melanoma. They did a range of other examinations to see if they could spot any signs of the cancer on his skin, any potential warnings signs that they had missed. They found nothing.

Norm underwent surgery to remove the tumor. He also tried several other approaches to destroy the cancer. None of them worked; each time the cancer returned; each time to a different location.

Then a nurse who was working with him on these treatments suggested he see someone named Dr. Robert Dillman, who was working on a new approach to treating metastatic melanoma, one involving cancer stem cells.

Norm got in touch with Dr. Dillman and learned what the treatment involved; he was intrigued and signed up. They took some cells from Norm’s tumor and processed them, turning them into a vaccine, a kind of personalized therapy that would hopefully work with Norm’s own immune system to destroy the cancer.

That was in 2004. Once a month for the next six months he was given injections of the vaccine. Unlike the other therapies he had tried this one had no side effects, no discomfort, no pain or problems. All it did was get rid of the cancer. Regular scans since then have shown no sign that the melanoma has returned. Theoretically that could be because the new therapy destroyed the standard tumor cells as well as the cancer stem cells that lead to recurrence.

Norm says when you are diagnosed with an incurable life-threatening disease, one with a 5-year survival rate of only around 15%, you will try anything; so he said it wasn’t a hard decision to take part in the clinical trial, he felt he had nothing to lose.

“I didn’t know if it would help me. I didn’t think I’d be cured. But I wanted to be a guinea pig and perhaps help others.”

When he was diagnosed his son had just won a scholarship to play football at the University of California, Berkeley. Norm says he feared he would never be able to see his son play. But thanks to cleverly scheduling surgery during the off-season and having a stem cell therapy that worked he not only saw his son play, he never missed a game.

Norm returned to Berkeley on May 21st, 2015. He came to address the CIRM Board in support of an application by a company called NeoStem (which has just changed its name to Caladrius Biosciences). This was the company that had developed the cell therapy for metastatic melanoma that Norm took.

“Talking about this is still very emotional. When I got up to talk to the CIRM Board about this therapy, and ask them to support it, I wanted to let them know my story, the story of someone who had their life saved by this treatment. Because of this I am here today. Because of this I was able to see my son play. But just talking about it left me close to tears.”

It left many others in the room close to tears as well. The CIRM Board voted to fund the NeoStem application, investing $17.7 million to help the company carry out a Phase 3 clinical trial, the last hurdle it needs to clear to prove to the Food and Drug Administration that this should be approved for use in metastatic melanoma.

Norm says he is so grateful for the extra years he has had, and he is always willing to try and support others going through what he did:

“I counsel other people diagnosed with metastatic melanoma. I feel that I want to help others, to give them a sense of hope. It is such a wonderful feeling, being able to show other people that you can survive this disease.”

When you get to meet people like Norm, how could you not love this job.

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: sickle cell patient data, vaccine link to leukemia protection, faster cell analysis

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Good news from sickle cell clinical trial. It is always satisfying to report positive results from human clinical trials using stem cells even when we don’t fund the work. Bluebird Bio released the first data on a patient treated for sickle cell anemia using the same procedure the company had earlier used to get good outcomes for two patients with beta thalassemia.

Both diseases result from defects—though different defects—in the gene for hemoglobin, the protein our red blood cells use to carry needed oxygen. So, in both cases they use a modified, deactivated virus to carry a correct version of the gene into patients’ own blood-forming stem cells in the lab. They then re-infused those cells into the patients to provide a ready supply of cells able to make the needed protein.

In the sickle cell patient, after the transplant a third of his red cells were making the right protein and that was enough to wean him off blood transfusions that had been keeping him alive and prevented any further hospitalizations due to the disease. The company also announced that the two previously reported patients treated for beta thalassemia had continued to improve. Reuters ran a story on the new data.

CIRM funds a similar project about to begin treating patients for sickle cell disease (link to video), also using a viral vector but a somewhat different one, so it is reassuring to see viral gene carriers working without side effects.

Another reason to vaccinate, prevent leukemia. While it has been known for some time that infant vaccination seems to have driven down the rate of childhood leukemia, no one has known why. A CIRM-funded team at the University of California, San Francisco, thinks they have figured it out. Viral infections trigger inflammation and the production of enzymes in cells that cause genetic mutations that lead to the cancer.

They worked with Haemophilus influenza Type b (Hib) vaccine but suggest a similar mechanism probably applies to other viral infections, and correspondingly, protection from other vaccines. The senior author on the paper, Marcus Muschen, explained the process in a university press release posted at Press-News.org

“These experiments help explain why the incidence of leukemia has been dramatically reduced since the advent of regular vaccinations during infancy. Hib and other childhood infections can cause recurrent and vehement immune responses, which we have found could lead to leukemia, but infants that have received vaccines are largely protected and acquire long-term immunity through very mild immune reactions.”

Barcoding individual cells. Our skin cells all pretty much look the same, but in the palm of your hand there are actually several different types of cells, even a tiny scratch of the fingernail. As scientist work to better understand how cells function, and in particular how stem cells mature, they increasingly need to know precisely what genes are turned on in individual cells.

Both techniques use tiny channels to isolate individual cells and introduce beads with "bar codes."

Both techniques use tiny channels to isolate individual cells and introduce beads with “bar codes.”

Until recently, all this type of analysis blended up a bunch of cells and asked what is in the collective soup. And this did not get the fine-tuned answers today’s scientists are seeking. Numerous teams over the past couple years have reported on tools to get down to single-cell gene analysis. Now, two teams at Harvard have independently developed ways to make this easier. They both use a type of DNA barcode on tiny beads that gets incorporated into individual cells before analysis.

Allan Klein, part of one team based at the Harvard Medical School’s main campus, described why the work is needed in a detailed narrative story released by the school:

“Does a population of cells that we initially think is uniform actually have some substructure. What is the nature of an early developing stem cell? . . . How is [a cell’s] fate determined? “

Even Macosko who worked with the other team centered at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, noted the considerable increase in ease and decrease in cost with the new methods compared to some of the early methods of single cell gene analysis:

“If you’re a biologist with an interesting question in mind, this approach could shine a light on the problem without bankrupting you. It finally makes gene expression profiling on a cell-by-cell level tractable and accessible. I think it’s something biologists in a lot of fields will want to use.”

The narrative provides a good example of what we called the “bump rate” when I was at Harvard Med. Good science often moves forward when scientists bump into each other, and with Harvard Medical faculty scattered at 17 affiliated hospitals and research institutes scattered across Boston and Cambridge we were always looking for ways to increase the bump rate with conferences and cross department events. Macosko and Klein found out they were both working on similar systems at a conference.

A hopeful sight: therapy for vision loss cleared for clinical trial

Rosalinda Barrero

Rosalinda Barrero, has retinitis pigmentosa

Rosalinda Barrero says people often thought she was rude, or a snob, because of the way she behaved, pretending not to see them or ignoring them on the street. The truth is Rosalinda has retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a nasty disease, one that often attacks early in life and slowly destroys a person’s vision. Rosalinda’s eyes look normal but she can see almost nothing.

“I’ve lived my whole life with this. I told my daughters [as a child] I didn’t like to go Trick or Treating at Halloween because I couldn’t see. I’d trip; I’d loose my candy. I just wanted to stay home.”

Rosalinda says she desperately wants a treatment:

“Because I’m a mom and I would be so much a better mom if I could see. I could drive my daughters around. I want to do my part as a mom.”

Now a promising therapy for RP, funded by the stem cell agency, has been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to start a clinical trial in people.

The therapy was developed by Dr. Henry Klassen at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). RP is a relatively rare, inherited condition in which the light-sensitive cells at the back of the retina, cells that are essential for vision, slowly and progressively degenerate. Eventually it can result in blindness. There is no cure and no effective long-term treatment.

Dr. Klassen’s team will inject patients with stem cells, known as retinal progenitors, to help replace those cells destroyed by the disease and hopefully to save those not yet damaged.

In a news release about the therapy Dr. Klassen said the main goal of this small Phase I trial will be to make sure this approach is safe:

“This milestone is a very important one for our project. It signals a turning point, marking the beginning of the clinical phase of development, and we are all very excited about this project.”

Jonathan Thomas, the Chair of our Board, says that CIRM has invested almost $20 million to help support this work through early stage research and now, into the clinic.

“One of the goals of the agency is to provide the support that promising therapies need to progress and ultimately to get into clinical trials in patients. RP affects about 1.5 million people worldwide and is the leading cause of inherited blindness in the developed world. Having an effective treatment for it would transform people’s lives in extraordinary ways.”

Dr. Klassen says without that support it is doubtful that this work would have progressed as quickly as it has. And the support doesn’t just involve money:

“CIRM has played a critical and essential role in this project. While the funding is extremely important, CIRM also tutors and guides its grantees in the many aspects of translational development at every step of the way, and this accelerates during the later pre-clinical phase where much is at stake.”

This is now the 12th project that we are funding that has been approved by the FDA for clinical trials. It’s cause for optimism, but cautious optimism. These are small scale, early phase trials that in many cases are the first time these therapies have been tested in people. They look promising in the lab. Now it’s time to see if they are equally promising in people.

Considering we didn’t really start funding research until 2007 we have come a long way in a short time. Clearly we still have a long way to go. But the news that Dr. Klassen’s work has been given the go-ahead to take the next, big step, is a hopeful sign for Rosalinda and others with RP that we are at least heading in the right direction.

One of our recent Spotlight on Disease videos features Dr. Klassen and Rosalinda Barrero talking about RP.

This work will be one of the clinical trials being tested in our new Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network. You can read more about that network here.

International stem cell group offers much needed guidance for patients and families

Yesterday the International Society for Stem Cell Research launched a greatly expanded website for the public. While the site, “Closer Look at Stem Cells,” offers a broad overview of stem cell science, the group launched it out of concern stem cell treatments are being marketed by clinics around the world without appropriate oversight and patient protections in place.

closer look webThe design for the new site provides easy navigation that quickly gets you to brief outlines and opportunities for a bit more information one click down. Most important, the detail page often includes a bright yellow warning icon with messages like this:

“View clinics that offer the same cell treatment for a wide variety of conditions or diseases with extreme caution. Be wary of claims that stem cells will somehow just know where to go and what to do to treat a specific condition.”

I could buy several rounds at the pub if I had a dollar for every time I said something like that to a desperate patient or family member who called CIRM with questions.

With quick reads like “Nine things to know about stem cell treatments,” as well as a more in-depth patient handbook the site provides ample opportunities to get the level of information any individual wants. It offers clear explanations for the different phases of clinical trials and what to expect if you enter a clinical trial.

A task force of society members and staff produced the new site. The chair of the task force, Megan Munsie from Stem Cells Australia, noted some of the concerns that triggered the effort in the organization’s press release:

“Promising clinical trials are underway for many diseases and conditions, but most stem cell-based treatments are still in the future. We hope that the website will foster interest and excitement in the science, but also an understanding of the current limitations of stem cells as medicine and a healthy skepticism of clinics selling treatments.”

Hope mixed with a good dose of skepticism is always a good approach to a new field of science. Our web site also offers advice for things to consider if a person is contemplating going to a clinic offering an unproven therapy outside of a clinical trial.

Gene Therapy Beats Half-Matched Stem Cell Transplant in Side-by-Side Comparison to Treat ‘Bubble Baby’ Disease

If you are born with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID), your childhood is anything but normal. You don’t get to play with other kids, or be held by your parents. You can’t even breathe the same air. And, without treatment, you probably won’t live past your first year.

The bubble boy.  Born in 1971 with SCID, David Vetter lived in a sterile bubble to avoid outside germs that could kill him. He died in 1984 at 12 due to complications from a bone marrow transplant. [Credit: Baylor College of Medicine Archives]

The bubble boy. Born in 1971 with SCID, David Vetter lived in a sterile bubble to avoid outside germs that could kill him. He died in 1984 at 12 due to complications from a bone marrow transplant. [Credit: Baylor College of Medicine Archives]

This is the reality of SCID, also called “Bubble Baby” disease, a term coined in the 1970s when the only way to manage the disease was isolating the child in a super clean environment to avoid exposure to germs. The only way to treat the disorder was with a fully matched stem cell transplant from a bone marrow donor, ideally from a sibling. But as you may have guessed, finding a match is extraordinarily rare. Until recently, the next best option was a ‘half-match’ transplant—usually from a parent. But now, scientists are exploring a third, potentially advantageous option: gene therapy. Late last year, we wrote about a promising clinical trial from UCLA researcher (and CIRM Grantee) Donald Kohn, whose team effectively ‘cured’ SCID in 18 children with the help of gene therapy. Experts still consider a fully matched stem cell transplant to be the gold standard of treatment for SCID. But are the second-tier contenders—gene therapy and half-matched transplant—both equally as effective? Until recently, no one had direct comparison. That all changes today, as scientists at the Necker Children’s Hospital in Paris compare in the journal Blood, for the first time, half-matched transplants and gene therapy—to see which approach comes out on top. The study’s lead author, Fabien Touzot, explained the importance of comparing these two methods:

“To ensure that we are providing the best alternative therapy possible, we wanted to compare outcomes among infants treated with gene therapy and infants receiving partial matched transplants.”

So the team monitored a group of 14 SCID children who had been treated with gene therapy, and compared them to another group of 13 who had received the half-matched transplant. And the differences were staggering. Children in the gene therapy group showed an immune system vastly improved compared to the half-matched transplant group. In fact, in the six months following treatment, T-cell counts (an indicator of overall immune system health) rose to almost normal levels in more than 75% of the gene therapy patients. In the transplant group, that number was just over 25%. The gene therapy patients also showed better resilience against infections and had far fewer infection-related hospitalizations—all indictors that gene therapy may in fact be superior to a half-matched transplant. This is encouraging news say researchers. Finding a fully matched stem cell donor is incredibly rare. Gene therapy could then give countless families of SCID patients hope that their children could lead comparatively normal, healthy lives. “Our analysis suggests that gene therapy can put these incredibly sick children on the road to defending themselves against infection faster than a half-matched transplant,” explained Touzot. “These results suggest that for patients without a fully matched stem cell donor, gene therapy is the next-best approach.” Hear more about how gene therapy could revolutionize treatment strategies for SCID in our recent interview with Donald Kohn:

Avoiding drug trial tragedies: new stem cell-based test predicts dangerous drug toxicity

In 2006 Ryan Wilson, a healthy 20 year old Londoner, volunteered for a first-in-human clinical trial to help test the safety of a new drug, TGN1412, intended to treat rheumatoid arthritis and leukemia. The cash he’d get in exchange for his time would help fund his upcoming vacation.

Instead, he nearly died.

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The TGN1412 drug trial disaster got a lot of high profile news coverage in 2006. (image credit: BBC News)

Even though the drug amount injected in his body was 500 times lower than the dose found to be safe in animals, Wilson experienced a catastrophic immune reaction, called a cytokine storm, that led to heart, kidney and liver failure, pneumonia and the loss of his toes and three fingers to dry gangrene. The other five healthy volunteers were also severely injured.

TGN1412’s devastating effect was unfortunately missed in preclinical laboratory and animal studies prior to the human trial. Unlike the pills in your medicine cabinet which are made up of synthesized chemicals, TGN1424 belongs to a growing class of medicines called biologics which come from biological sources such as proteins, DNA, sugars and cells. There is a concern that once a biologic is injected in a patient, the immune system may mount a strong attack all over the body. If that happens, too many immune cells, or white blood cells, are activated and release proteins, called cytokines, which in turn activate more immune cells and the reaction spirals into a dangerous cytokine storm like in Ryan Wilson’s case.

Clearly this tragedy begs for tests that can better predict drug toxicity in humans well before the first trial participants step into the clinic. On Monday a research team from the Imperial College London reported in the journal FASEB that they have done just that using human blood stem cells.

The team’s novel test is not so different than previous ones. Both tests are carried out in a petri dish using two human cell types: white blood cells and endothelial cells, a component of blood vessels. Both tests are also designed to mimic the human immune system’s response to biologics by measuring the release of cytokines.

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Endothelial cells grown from blood stem cells. (credit: Imperial College London)

But the Imperial College London team’s test differs from others in one important way: both the white blood cell and endothelial cell types come from the same individual. First they collect a donor’s blood stem cells and specialize them into endothelial cells. Then white blood cells are also collected from the same donor.

The prior tests, on the other hand, rely on cells from two different donors. Because the two cell types aren’t necessarily tissue-matched, the white blood cells may already be primed for an immune response even before a biologic is added to the test. In fact, these prior tests weren’t able to distinguish between a biologic known to cause a limited immune response versus TGN1424, known to cause a cytokine storm. The newly developed test, however, accurately predicts both the toxic cytokine storm caused by TGN1424 and the absence of a response by several approved biologics, such as the breast cancer drug Herceptin.

In a college news release, Jane Mitchell, the senior author on the report, sees the big picture importance of her lab’s work:

“As biological therapies become more mainstream, it’s more likely that drugs being tested on humans for the first time will have unexpected and potentially catastrophic effects. We’ve used adult stem cell technology to develop a laboratory test that could prevent another disaster like the TGN1412 trial.”

Their results also highlight the often-overlooked power of stem cells to not just deliver therapies but to help develop safer ones.

Pioneer’s 25-year struggle to treat blindness

Being a pioneer is never easy. You are charting unknown territory, tackling problems that have defeated others before you. You have to overcome so many obstacles that at times the challenge can seem insurmountable. But for those who succeed in reaching their goal, the rewards can be extraordinary.

Graziella Pellegrini, Center for Regenerative Medicine, University of Modena, Italy

Graziella Pellegrini, Center for Regenerative Medicine, University of Modena, Italy

Last month Italian researcher Graziella Pellegrini saw 25 years of work pay off when a treatment she developed to cure a form of blindness was given approval for sale by the European Commission.

This is quite an achievement as this means her treatment, called Holoclar, is among the first commercial stem therapies in the world (the first was Prochymal, which has been approved in Canada and New Zealand for the treatment of pediatric GVHD. This drug was developed by Osiris, which was led by our current President & CEO, Dr. Randy Mills.)

Holoclar uses stem cells to help stimulate the regrowth of a cornea. It can only be used for certain rare conditions, but that in no way diminishes its importance for patients or significance for the regenerative medicine field as a whole.

Nature recently sat down with Dr. Pellegrini to talk about her work, her struggle, and the many obstacles she had to overcome to get market approval for her work.

The interview makes for fascinating reading, and is a timely reminder why this kind of groundbreaking research never goes quite as quickly, or smoothly, as one would hope.

CIRM currently has a number of projects focused treating different causes of blindness on limbal cells (the kind Dr. Pellegrini worked on) and other forms of blindness; including a project to treat macular degeneration that has been approved for a clinical trial, and a therapy for retinitis pigmentosa that we hope will be approved for a clinical trial later this year.

One-Time, Lasting Treatment for Sickle Cell Disease May be on Horizon, According to New CIRM-Funded Study

For the nearly 1,000 babies born each year in the United States with sickle cell disease, a painful and arduous road awaits them. The only cure is to find a bone marrow donor—an exceedingly rare proposition. Instead, the standard treatment for this inherited blood disorder is regular blood transfusions, with repeated hospitalizations to deal with complications of the disease. And even then, life expectancy is less than 40 years old.

In Sickle Cell Disease, the misshapen red blood cells cause painful blood clots and a host of other complications.

In Sickle Cell Disease, the misshapen red blood cells cause painful blood clots and a host of other complications.

But now, scientists at UCLA are offering up a potentially superior alternative: a new method of gene therapy that can correct the genetic mutation that causes sickle cell disease—and thus help the body on its way to generate normal, healthy blood cells for the rest of the patient’s life. The study, funded in part by CIRM and reported in the journal Blood, offers a great alternative to developing a functional cure for sickle cell disease. The UCLA team is about to begin a clinical trial with another gene therapy method, so they—and their patients—will now have two shots on goal in their effort to cure the disease.

Though sickle cell disease causes dangerous changes to a patient’s entire blood supply, it is caused by one single genetic mutation in the beta-globin gene—altering the shape of the red blood cells from round and soft to pointed and hard, thus resembling a ‘sickle’ shape for which the disease is named. But the UCLA team, led by Donald Kohn, has now developed two methods that can correct the harmful mutation. As he explained in a UCLA news release about the newest technique:

“[These results] suggest the future direction for treating genetic diseases will be by correcting the specific mutation in a patient’s genetic code. Since sickle cell disease was the first human genetic disease where we understood the fundamental gene defect, and since everyone with sickle cell has the exact same mutation in the beta-globin gene, it is a great target for this gene correction method.”

The latest gene correction technique used by the team uses special enzymes, called zinc-finger nucleases, to literally cut out and remove the harmful mutation, replacing it with a corrected version. Here, Kohn and his team collected bone marrow stem cells from individuals with sickle cell disease. These bone marrow stem cells would normally give rise to sickle-shaped red blood cells. But in this study, the team zapped them with the zinc-finger nucleases in order to correct the mutation.

Then, the researchers implanted these corrected cells into laboratory mice. Much to their amazement, the implanted cells began to replicate—into normal, healthy red blood cells.

Kohn and his team worked with Sangamo BioSciences, Inc. to design the zinc-finger nucleases that specifically targeted and cut the sickle-cell mutation. The next steps will involve improving the efficiency and safest of this method in pre-clinical animal models, before moving into clinical trials.

“This is a promising first step in showing that gene correction has the potential to help patients with sickle cell disease,” said UCLA graduate student Megan Hoban, the study’s first author. “The study data provide the foundational evidence that the method is viable.”

This isn’t the first disease for which Kohn’s team has made significant strides in gene therapy to cure blood disorders. Just last year, the team announced a promising clinical trial to cure Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Syndrome, also known as SCID or “Bubble Baby Disease,” by correcting the genetic mutation that causes it.

While this current study still requires more research before moving into clinical trials, Kohn and his team announced last month that their other gene therapy method, also funded by CIRM, has been approved to start clinical trials. Kohn argues that it’s vital to explore all promising treatment options for this devastating condition:

“Finding varied ways to conduct stem cell gene therapies is important because not every treatment will work for every patient. Both methods could end up being viable approaches to providing one-time, lasting treatments for sickle cell disease and could also be applied to the treatment of a large number of other genetic diseases.”

Find Out More:
Read first-hand about Sickle Cell Disease in our Stories of Hope series.
Watch Donald Kohn speak to CIRM’s governing Board about his research.