Why Stem Cell Advocates Texans for Cures say “Right to Try” Legislation Should be Fought

Texans for Cures 

This week in Washington DC a delegation from the stem cell advocacy group Texans for Cures is meeting with members of Congress from both parties. The focus of the meetings are three bills promoting “Right to Try” legislation. Supporters of the bills say they will empower patients battling terminal illness. Texans for Cures say, quite the contrary, that these laws will endanger patients. In this guest blog, Texans for Cures explain why they feel these laws are bad.

In 2014, the Goldwater Institute published a policy report titled, “Everyone Deserves the Right to Try: Empowering the Terminally Ill to Take Control of their Treatment.”[i] The report calls for states to pass “Right to Try” legislation as a means to reclaim patients’ medical autonomy and right to determine their own medical treatment.

This policy recommendation is built on the theory that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should not be able to restrict terminal patients’ access to potentially life-saving treatments so long as the treatment has been tested for basic safety. While this idea may seem immediately appealing, the policy undermines medical research in several ways that are harmful to the development of new treatments.

Texans for Cures opposes this legislation because it harms the sound development of treatments for future patients on the mere chance that it may provide relief to current patients that have received a terminal diagnosis. In short, Right to Try policies ignore the attendant risks and overemphasize the potential benefits.

draft_bill_legislation_law

“Right to Try” Model Legislation and State Enacted Variants

The Goldwater Institute’s policy report included model legislation for interested legislators, which it summed up as follows:

Simply stated, Right to Try allows a patient to access investigational medications that have passed basic safety tests without interference by the government when the following conditions are met:

  1. The patient has been diagnosed with a terminal disease;
  2. The patient has considered all available treatment options;
  3. The patient’s doctor has recommended that the investigational drug, device, or biological product represents the patient’s best chance at survival;
  4. The patient or the patient’s guardian has provided informed consent; and
  5. The sponsoring company chooses to make the investigational drug available to patients outside the clinical trial.

Since the Goldwater Institute published this policy report in 2014, 33 states have enacted Right to Try laws.[ii] These laws contain minor variations from the model legislation, but each operates similarly to limit the FDA’s oversight roll.

Right to Try is Loosely Grounded in the Constitution and May Require Federal Action

Due to the fact that these laws may infringe on the FDA’s authority over drug development and distribution, the policy report attempts to ground Right to Try in one’s constitutional right to liberty. This constitutional underpinning is loose and is not firmly supported by Supreme Court precedent.[iii] With the constitutional basis of Right to Try resting on a weak foundation, it is important for Right to Try proponents to pass a complimentary Right to Try statute on the federal level in Congress.

There are three bills actively working through the Congressional process that would prohibit the FDA or any other federal agency from interfering with a patient’s Right to Try: H.R. 878 by Representative Biggs,[iv] H.R. 2368 by Representative Fitzpatrick,[v] and S. 204 by Senator Johnson.[vi] Each of these bills shares three common provisions, while H.R. 2368 has two additional provisions:

Common Provisions:

  1. Prohibition on federal action
  2. No liability
  3. No use of outcomes

Provisions Unique to H.R. 2368:

  1. Manufacturers are not required to make treatments available
  2. Permits manufacturers to receive compensation or recover costs

All three of the federal bills would remove the FDA’s ability to intervene in state Right to Try programs. They also create a liability shield for any producer, manufacturer, distributor, prescriber, dispenser, possessor, or user participating in the program. And finally, each prohibits the use of outcomes from patients participating in Right to Try as a criteria for FDA review of the treatment. This means that harmed patients would have limited or no legal recourse, and the FDA may need another Act of Congress to grant them the authority to intervene in any programs that prove to be dangerous. However, it may be difficult to know if these programs are harming patients or not, because the bills do not provide any mechanism for tracking outcomes and using that information for oversight.

Each bill is drafted in a way that would remove FDA oversight authority and would allow states to proceed with Right to Try policies and grants states broad discretion to tailor these programs without federal oversight. However, H.R. 2368 contains two additional provisions that would compliment and potentially override state statute. First, the bill gives manufacturers the authority to deny patients access to investigational treatments, which is consistent with the Goldwater Institute’s model legislation. Second, the bill allows manufacturers to receive compensation or recover costs involved in making the drug available to patients. This second provision is particularly problematic in that it would allow manufacturers to charge patients for unproven treatments unless they were explicitly prohibited from doing so by state law.

Single pill

How Right to Try Laws Structurally Harm the Research Process

Right to Try laws create a number of problematic incentives and penalties that would likely harm the long term development of new therapies. First and foremost, under Right to Try, patients will be able to bypass the clinical trial process, request investigational treatments, and pay the cost of the drug, rather than enter into a clinical trial. Given that clinical trials may involve the use of placebos, Texans for Cures is concerned that patients may choose to exercise Right to Try rather than participate in a clinical trial, because under Right to Try the patient avoids the possibility of receiving a placebo.

Additionally, there is no mechanism in the proposed bills for tracking outcomes of patients participating in Right to Try, and there is no mechanism for government intervention if Right to Try proves to be unreasonably risky.

Right to Try seeks to shield all participants from liability, meaning that patients who are harmed will have limited or no legal recourse, even if manufacturers or physicians are negligent. Furthermore, Right to Try laws typically allow manufacturers to recover the cost of manufacturing the treatment for participating patients, but cost is not defined. Does cost include the cost of research and development or is it exclusively the cost of creating that specific treatment? The ambiguity surrounding this term is a cause for concern, because companies may be tempted to use this ambiguity to cover a broader sets of costs than the authors intended.

Conclusion

Texans for Cures opposes this legislative effort because the program could potentially harm patients and, if it does, the law does not provide adequate safeguards or remedies. Additionally, the law does not require any monitoring of outcomes and is therefore unscientific in its approach to treatments that are currently undergoing clinical research.

The FDA is already working to ease the burdens associated with Expanded Access programs, which achieve the end that Right to Try desires: providing access to research drugs for terminal patients. The difference is that Expanded Access has additional safeguards and a mechanism for FDA intervention if treatment is found to be dangerous or harmful to the clinical trial process.

Finding scientifically sound treatments for patients in need is the primary concern of Texans for Cures. Texans for Cures sympathizes with, and its members have similarly experienced, the pain of losing loved ones. The hope and emotion involved in Right to Try laws is not to be taken lightly, but it is precisely because strong emotions can cloud our judgment that we, as a society, must approach the clinical trial process with a clear mental state. Texans for Cures believes that Right to Try will harm the long term development of new treatments and therefore asks for your help in fighting this legislative effort.

Footnotes:

[1] Christina Corieri, “Everyone Deserves the Right to Try: Empowering the Terminally Ill to Take Control of their Treatment,” Goldwater Institute (2014), https://goldwater-media.s3.amazonaws.com/cms_page_media/2015/1/28/Right%20To%20Try.pdf

2 KHN Morning Briefing, “‘Right to Try’ Advocates Help Pass Laws In 33 States As Movement Gains National Foothold,” Kaiser Health News (2017), http://khn.org/morning-breakout/right-to-try-advocates-help-pass-laws-in-33-states-as-movement-gains-national-foothold/

3 The Goldwater Institute’s sole source for constitutional grounding for this law comes from a concurrence by Justice Douglas in Doe v. Bolton, 410 U.S. 179, 218 (1973), where he noted that individuals have a “right to care for one’s health and person.” The Goldwater Institute appears to recognize the precarious footing of their model legislation, stating in their policy report, “Although the right of terminal patients to access investigational medications has not yet been recognized by the Supreme Court, it is consistent with and can be supported by existing precedent.”

[1] H.R. 878 by Representative Biggs, https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/878/text?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22right+to+try%22%5D%7D&r=2

[1] H.R. 2368 by Representative Fitzpatrick, https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/2368/text?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22right+to+try%22%5D%7D&r=1

[1] S. 204 by Senator Johnson, https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/204/text?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22right+to+try%22%5D%7D&r=3

Stem Cell Roundup: Battle of the Biotech Bands, “Cells I See” Art Contest and Teaching Baseball Fans the Power of Stem Cells

This Friday’s stem cell roundup is dedicated to the playful side of stem cell science. Scientists are often stereotyped as lab recluses who honorably forgo social lives in the quest to make game-changing discoveries and advance cutting-edge research. But as a former bench scientist, I can attest that scientists are normal people too. They might have a nerdy, slightly neurotic side around their field of research, but they know how to enjoy life and have fun. So here are a few stories that caught our eye this week about scientists having a good time with science.

Rockin’ researchers battle for glory (Kevin McCormack)

Did you know that Bruce Springsteen got his big break after winning the Biotech Battle of the Bands (BBOB)? Probably not, I just made that up. But just because Bruce didn’t hit it big because of BBOB doesn’t mean you can’t.

BBOB is a fun chance for you and your labmates, or research partners, to cast off your lab coats, pick up a guitar, form a band, show off your musical chops, play before a live audience and raise money for charity.  This is the fourth year the event is being held. It’s part of Biotech Week Boston, on Wednesday, September 27th at the Royale Nightclub, Boston.

Biotech Week is a celebration of science and, duh, biotech; bringing together what the event organizers call “the most inventive scientific minds and business leaders in Boston and around the world.” And they wouldn’t lie would they, after all, they’re scientists.

If you want to check out the competition here’s some video from a previous year – see if you can spot the man with the cowbell!

“Cells I See” Stem Cell Art Contest

It’s that time again! The “Cells I See” art contest hosted by Canada’s Centre for Commercialization for Regenerative Medicine (CCRM) and The Stem Cell Network is now open for business. This is a super fun event that celebrates the beauty of stem cells and biomaterials that support regenerative medicine.

Not only is “Cells I See” a great way for scientists to share their research with the public, it’s also a way for them to tap into their artistic, creative side. Last year’s ­contestants submitted breathtaking microscope images, paintings and graphic designs of stem cells in action. The titles for these art submissions were playful. “Nucleic Shower” “The Quest for Innervation” and “Flat, Fluorescent & Fabulous” were some of my favorite title entries.

There are two prizes for this contest. The grand prize of $750 will be awarded to the submission with the highest number of votes from scientists attending the Till and McCulloch Stem Cell Meeting in November. There is also a “People’s Choice” prize of $500 given to the contestant who has the most numbers of likes on the CCRM Facebook page.

The deadline for “Cell I See” submissions is September 8th so you have plenty of time to get your creative juices flowing!

Iris

The 2016 Grand Prize and People’s Choice Winner, Sabiha Hacibekiroglu, won for her photo titled “Iris”.

Scientists Teach Baseball Fans the Power of Stem Cells

San Francisco Giants fans who attended Tuesday’s ball game were in for a special treat – a science treat that is. Researchers from the Gladstone Institutes partnered with the SF Giants to raise awareness about the power of stem cells for advancing research and developing cures for various diseases.

Gladstone PhD student Jessica Butts explains the Stem Cell Plinko game to a Giants fan.

The Gladstone team had a snazzy stem cell booth at the Giant’s Community Clubhouse with fun science swag and educational stem cell activities for fans of all ages. One of the activities was a game called “Stem Cell Plinko” where you drop a ball representing a pluripotent stem cell down a plinko board. The path the ball travels represents how that stem cell differentiates or matures into adult cells like those in the heart.

Gladstone also debuted their new animated stem cell video, which explains how “stem cell research has opened up promising avenues for personalized and regenerative medicine.”

Finally, Gladstone scientists challenged fans to participate in a social media contest about their newfound stem cell knowledge cells on Twitter. The winner of the contest, a woman named Nicole, will get an exclusive, behind-the-scenes lab tour at the Gladstone and “see firsthand how Gladstone is using stem cells to overcome disease.”

The Gladstone “Power of Stem Cells” event is a great example of how scientists are trying to make research and science more accessible to the public. It not only benefits people by educating them about the current state of stem cell research, but also is a fun way for scientists to engage with the local community.

“Participating in the SF Giants game was very fun,” said Megan McDevitt, vice president of communications at the Gladstone Institutes. “Our booth experienced heavy traffic all evening, giving us a wonderful opportunity to engage with the San Francisco community about science and, more specifically, stem cell research. We were delighted to see how interested fans were to learn more on the topic.”

And as if all that wasn’t enough, the Giants won, something that hasn’t been happening very much this season.

Go Giants. Go Gladstone.

Gladstone scientist dropping stem cell knowledge to Giants fans.

Stem cell agency funds Phase 3 clinical trial for Lou Gehrig’s disease

ALS

At CIRM we don’t have a disease hierarchy list that we use to guide where our funding goes. We don’t rank a disease by how many people suffer from it, if it affects children or adults, or how painful it is. But if we did have that kind of hierarchy you can be sure that Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, would be high on that list.

ALS is a truly nasty disease. It attacks the neurons, the cells in our brain and spinal cord that tell our muscles what to do. As those cells are destroyed we lose our ability to walk, to swallow, to talk, and ultimately to breathe.

As Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s interim President and CEO, said in a news release, it’s a fast-moving disease:

“ALS is a devastating disease with an average life expectancy of less than five years, and individuals afflicted with this condition suffer an extreme loss in quality of life. CIRM’s mission is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs and, in keeping with this mission, our objective is to find a treatment for patients ravaged by this neurological condition for which there is currently no cure.”

Having given several talks to ALS support groups around the state, I have had the privilege of meeting many people with ALS and their families. I have seen how quickly the disease works and the devastation it brings. I’m always left in awe by the courage and dignity with which people bear it.

BrainStorm

I thought of those people, those families, today, when our governing Board voted to invest $15.9 million in a Phase 3 clinical trial for ALS run by BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics. BrainStorm is using mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) that are taken from the patient’s own bone marrow. This reduces the risk of the patient’s immune system fighting the therapy.

After being removed, the MSCs are then modified in the laboratory to  boost their production of neurotrophic factors, proteins which are known to help support and protect the cells destroyed by ALS. The therapy, called NurOwn, is then re-infused back into the patient.

In an earlier Phase 2 clinical trial, NurOwn showed that it was safe and well tolerated by patients. It also showed evidence that it can help stop, or even reverse  the progression of the disease over a six month period, compared to a placebo.

CIRM is already funding one clinical trial program focused on treating ALS – that’s the work of Dr. Clive Svendsen and his team at Cedars Sinai, you can read about that here. Being able to add a second project, one that is in a Phase 3 clinical trial – the last stage before, hopefully, getting approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for wider use – means we are one step closer to being able to offer people with ALS a treatment that can help them.

Diane Winokur, the CIRM Board Patient Advocate member for ALS, says this is something that has been a long time coming:

CIRM Board member and ALS Patient Advocate Diane Winokur

“I lost two sons to ALS.  When my youngest son was diagnosed, he was confident that I would find something to save him.  There was very little research being done for ALS and most of that was very limited in scope.  There was one drug that had been developed.  It was being released for compassionate use and was scheduled to be reviewed by the FDA in the near future.  I was able to get the drug for Douglas.  It didn’t really help him and it was ultimately not approved by the FDA.

When my older son was diagnosed five years later, he too was convinced I would find a therapy.  Again, I talked to everyone in the field, searched every related study, but could find nothing promising.

I am tenacious by nature, and after Hugh’s death, though tempted to give up, I renewed my search.  There were more people, labs, companies looking at neurodegenerative diseases.

These two trials that CIRM is now funding represent breakthrough moments for me and for everyone touched by ALS.  I feel that they are a promising beginning.  I wish it had happened sooner.  In a way, though, they have validated Douglas and Hugh’s faith in me.”

These therapies are not a cure for ALS. At least not yet. But what they will do is hopefully help buy people time, and give them a sense of hope. For a disease that leaves people desperately short of both time and hope, that would be a precious gift. And for people like Diane Winokur, who have fought so hard to find something to help their loved ones, it’s a vindication that those efforts have not been in vain.

‘Pay-to-Participate’ stem cell clinical studies, the ugly stepchild of ClinicalTrials.gov

When patients are looking for clinical trials testing new drugs or treatments for their disease, one of the main websites they visit is ClinicalTrials.gov. It’s a registry provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) of approximately 250,000 clinical trials spanning over 200 countries around the world.

ClinicalTrials.gov website

If you visit the website, you’ll find CIRM’s 28 active clinical trials testing stem cell-based therapies for indications like spinal cord injury, type 1 diabetes, heart failure, ALS, cancer and more. These are Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved trials, meaning that researchers did the proper preclinical studies to prove that a therapy was safe and effective in animal models and received approval from the US FDA to test the treatment in human clinical trials.

As the largest clinical registry in the world, ClinicalTrials.gov is a very valuable resource for patients and the public. But there are studies on the website that have recently surfaced and taken on the role of ‘ugly stepchild’. These are unapproved stem cell therapies from companies and stem cell clinics that are registering their “pay-to-participate treatments”. And they are doing so in clever ways that don’t make it obvious to patients that the trials aren’t legitimate. The reason this is so troubling is that unproven therapies can be dangerous or even life-threatening to patients.

Leigh Turner

Leigh Turner, an associate professor of bioethics at the University of Minnesota, has written extensively about the serious problem of stem cell clinics marketing unproven stem cell therapies to desperate patients. Turner, in collaboration with UC Davis professor Dr. Paul Knoepfler, published a study in Cell Stem Cell last year that identified over 550 clinics in the US that promote unproven treatments for almost any condition, including diseases like Alzheimer’s where research has shown that cures are a long way off.

Today, Turner published an article in Regenerative Medicine that shines a light on how companies and clinics are taking advantage of ClinicalTrials.gov to promote their “pay-to-participate” unproven stem cell studies. The article is available for free if you register with RegMedNet, but you can find news coverage about Turner’s piece through EurekAlert,  Wired Magazine and the San Diego Union Tribune.

In an interview with RegMedNet, Turner explained that his research into how businesses promote unproven stem cell therapies led to the discovery that these studies were being listed as “pay-to-participate” on ClinicalTrials.gov.

“Many of these businesses use websites, social media, YouTube videos, webinars and other tools to engage in direct-to-consumer marketing of supposed stem cell therapies. To my surprise, at one point I noticed that some of these companies had successfully listed “pay-to-participate” studies on ClinicalTrials.gov. Many of these “studies” look to me like little more than marketing exercises, though of course the businesses listing them would presumably argue that they are genuine clinical studies.”

While FDA-approved trials can charge study participants, most don’t. If they do, it’s motivated by recovering costs rather than making a profit. Turner also explained that organizations with FDA-approved studies “need to prepare a detailed rationale and a budget, and obtain approval from the FDA.”

Companies with unproven stem cell therapies are ignoring these regulatory requirements and listing their studies as “patient-funded” or “patient-sponsored”. Turner found seven such “pay-to-participate” studies sponsored by US companies on ClinicalTrials.gov. He also identified 11 studies where companies don’t indicate that patients have to pay, but do charge patients to participate in the studies.

Turner is concerned that these companies are using ClinicalTrials.gov to take advantage of innocent patients who don’t realize that these unproven treatments aren’t backed by solid scientific research.

“Patients have already been lured to stem cell clinics that use ClinicalTrials.gov to market unproven stem cell interventions. Furthermore, some patients have been injured after undergoing stem cell procedures at such businesses. Many individuals use ClinicalTrials.gov to find legitimate, well-designed, and carefully conducted clinical trials. They are at risk of being misled by study listings that lend an air of legitimacy and credibility to clinics promoting unproven and unlicensed stem cell interventions.”

Having identified the problem, Turner is now advocating for a solution.

“ClinicalTrials.gov needs to raise the bar and perform a proper review of studies before they are registered. Better screening is needed before more patients and research subjects are harmed. It’s astonishing that officials at the NIH and US FDA haven’t already done something to address this obvious matter of patient safety. Putting a disclaimer on the website isn’t sufficient.”

The disclaimer that Turner is referring to is a statement on the ClinicalTrials.gov website that says, “Listing of a study on this site does not reflect endorsement by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).”

Turner argues that this disclaimer “simply isn’t sufficient.”

“Patients and their loved ones, physicians, researchers, journalists, and many other individuals all use ClinicalTrials.gov because they regard the registry and database as a source of meaningful, credible information about clinical studies. I suspect most individuals would be shocked at how easy it is to register on ClinicalTrials.gov studies that have obvious methodological problems, do not appear to comply with applicable federal regulations or have glaring ethical shortcomings.”

While Turner acknowledges that the NIH database of clinical trials is a “terrific public resource” that he himself has used, he regards it “as a collective good that needs to be protected from parties willing to misuse and abuse it.” His hope is that his article will give journalists the starting material to conduct further investigators into these pay-to-participate studies and the companies behind them. He also hopes that “such coverage will help convince NIH officials that they have a crucial role to play in making ClinicalTrials.gov a resource people can turn to for information about credible clinical trials rather than allowing it to become a database corrupted and devalued by highly problematic studies.”

Convincing is one thing, but implementing change is another. Turner said in his interview that he knows that “careful screening by NIH officials will require more resources, and I am making this argument at a time when much of the political discourse in the U.S. is about cutting funding for the CDC, FDA, NIH and other federal agencies.”

He remains hopeful however and concluded that “perhaps there are ways to jolt into action people who are in positions of power and who can act to help prevent the spread of misinformation, bad science, and marketing packaged as clinical research.”

Novel diabetes therapy uses stem cell “teachers” to calm immune cells

Type 1 diabetes is marked by a loss of insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. Without insulin, blood sugar can’t shuttle into the body’s energy-hungry organs and tissues. As a result, sugar accumulates in the blood which, over time, causes many serious complications such as kidney disease, heart disease and stroke.  An over-reactive immune system is to blame which mistakes the beta cells for foreign invaders and attacks them.

Much of the focus on diabetes therapy development is turning stem cells into beta cells in order to replace the lost cells.  But a recent Stem Cell Translational Medicine publication describes a different approach that uses umbilical cord blood stem cells to tame the immune system and preserve the beta cells that are still intact.

Stem+Cell+Educator+Therapy+Process

Schematic diagram of the Stem Cell Educator therapy procedure.
Image: Tianhe Stem Cell Biotechnologies

The research team, composed of scientists from the U.S., China and Spain, devised a technology they call Stem Cell Educator (SCE) therapy that draws blood from a diabetic patient then separates out the lymphocytes – the white blood cells of the immune system – which trickle through a series of stacked petri dishes that contains cord blood stem cells. Because the stem cells are attached to the surface of the device, only the lymphocytes are recovered and returned to the patient’s blood.  The idea is that through this forced interaction with the cord blood stem cells – which have been shown to blunt immune cell activity – the patient’s own lymphocytes “learn” to quiet their damaging response to beta cells.

In a series of clinical trials in China and Spain from 2010 to 2014, the researchers showed that a single treatment of the SCE therapy restored beta cell function and blood sugar control in patients. Though the treatment appeared safe and effective after one year, how exactly it worked remained unclear. So, in this current study, the team aimed to better understand cord blood stem cell function and to perform a 4-year follow up on the patients.

Shortly after the SCE therapy, the researchers had observed elevated levels of platelets in the blood. They examined these cells more closely to see if they contained any factors that would dampen the immune response. Sure enough, the platelets carried a protein called autoimmune regulator (AIRE) which plays a role in inhibiting immune cells that react against the body.

Now, platelets do not contain a nucleus or nuclear DNA but they do have mitochondria – a cell’s energy producers – which contain their own DNA and genetic code. An analysis of the mitochondrial DNA revealed that it encoded proteins associated with the regeneration and growth of pancreatic beta cells. In an unusual finding in the lab, the researchers showed that the platelets release their mitochondria, which can be taken up by pancreatic beta cells where these beta cell associated proteins can exert their effects.

HealthDay reporter Serena Gordon interviewed Julia Greenstein, vice president of discovery research at JDRF, to get her take on these results:

“The platelets seem to be having a direct effect on the beta cells. This research is intriguing, but it needs to be reproduced.”

For the four-year follow up study, nine of the type 1 diabetes patients from the original trial in China were examined. Two patients who were treated less than a year after being diagnosed with diabetes still had normal levels of insulin in their blood and were still free of needing insulin injections. In the other seven patients, the single treatment had gradually lost its effectiveness. Team leader Dr. Yong Zhao of the University of Hackensack in New Jersey, felt that a single treatment possibly isn’t enough in those patients:

“Because this was a first trial, patients just got one treatment. Now we know it’s very safe so patients can receive two or three treatments.”

I imagine Dr. Zhao will be testing out multiple treatments in a clinical trial that is now in the works here in the states at Hackensack Medical Center. Stay tuned.

CIRM & NIH: a dynamic duo to advance stem cell therapies

NIH

National Institutes of Health

There’s nothing more flattering than to get an invitation, out of the blue, from someone you respect, and be told that they are interested in learning about the way you work, to see if it can help them improve the way they work.

That’s what happened to CIRM recently. I will let Randy Mills, who was our President & CEO at the time, pick up the story:

“Several weeks ago I got a call from the head of the National Heart. Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) asking would we be willing to come out to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and talk about what we have been doing, the changes we have made and the impact they are having.”

Apparently people at the NIH had been reading our Strategic Plan and our Annual Report and had been hearing good things about us from many different individuals and organizations. We also heard that they had been motivated to engage more fully with the regenerative medicine community following the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act.

We were expecting a sit down chat with them but we got a lot more than that. They blocked out one and a half days for us so that we had the time to engage in some in-depth, thoughtful conversations about how to advance the field.

collins-portrait_1

Dr. Francis Collins, NIH Director

The meeting was kicked off by both Francis Collins, the NIH Director, and Gary Gibbons, the NHLBI Director. Then the CIRM team – Dr. Mills, Dr. Maria Millan, Gabe Thompson and James Harrison – gave a series of presentations providing an overview of how CIRM operates, including our vision and strategic priorities, our current portfolio, the lessons learned so far, our plans for the future and the challenges we face.

The audience included the various heads and representatives from the various NIH Institutes who posed a series of questions for us to answer, such as:

  • What criteria do we use to determine if a project is ready for a clinical trial?
  • How do we measure success?
  • How have our strategies and priorities changed under CIRM 2.0?
  • How well are those strategies working?

The conversation went so well that the one day of planned meetings were expanded to two. Maria Millan, now our interim President & CEO, gave an enthusiastic summary of the talks

“The meetings were extremely productive!  After meeting with Dr. Collins’ group and the broader institute, we had additional sit down meetings.   The NIH representatives reported that they received such enthusiastic responses from Institute heads that they extended the meeting into a second day. We met with with the National Institutes of Dental and Craniofacial Research, Heart, Lung and Blood, Eye Institute, Institute on Aging, Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, Diabetes, and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.  We covered strategic and operational considerations for funding the best science in the stem cell and regenerative medicine space.  We explored potential avenues to join forces and leverage the assets and programs of both organizations, to accelerate the development of regenerative medicine and stem cell treatments.”

This was just a first meeting but it laid the groundwork for what we hope will be a truly productive partnership. In fact, shortly after returning from Washington, D.C., CIRM was immediately invited to follow-up NIH workgroups and meetings.

As this budding partnership progresses we’ll let you know how it’s working out.

Stories that caught our eye: Spinal cord injury trial milestone, iPS for early cancer diagnosis, and storing videos in DNA

Spinal cord injury clinical trial hits another milestone (Kevin McCormack)
We began the week with good news about our CIRM-funded clinical trial with Asterias for spinal cord injury, and so it’s nice to end the week with more good news from that same trial. On Wednesday, Asterias announced it had completed enrolling and dosing patients in their AIS-B 10 million cell group.

asterias

People with AIS-B spinal cord injuries have some level of sensation and feeling but very little, if any, movement below the site of injury site. So for example, spinal cord injuries at the neck, would lead to very limited movement in their arms and hands. As a result, they face a challenging life and may be dependent on help in performing most daily functions, from getting out of bed to eating.astopc1

In another branch of the Asterias trial, people with even more serious AIS-A injuries – in which no feeling or movement remains below the site of spinal cord injury – experienced improvements after being treated with Asterias’ AST-OPC1 stem cell therapy. In some cases the improvements were quite dramatic. We blogged about those here.

In a news release Dr. Ed Wirth, Asterias’ Chief Medical Officer, said they hope that the five people treated in the AIS-B portion of the trial will experience similar improvements as the AIS-A group.

“Completing enrollment and dosing of the first cohort of AIS-B patients marks another important milestone for our AST-OPC1 program. We have already reported meaningful improvements in arm, hand and finger function for AIS-A patients dosed with 10 million AST-OPC1 cells and we are looking forward to reporting initial efficacy and safety data for this cohort early in 2018.”

Asterias is already treating some AIS-A patients with 20 million cells and hopes to start enrolling AIS-B patients for the 20 million cell therapy later this summer.

Earlier diagnosis of pancreatic cancer using induced pluripotent stem cells Reprogramming adult cells to an embryonic stem cell-like state is as common in research laboratories as hammers and nails are on a construction site. But a research article in this week’s edition of Science Translational Medicine used this induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) toolbox in a way I had never read about before. And the results of the study may lead to earlier detection of pancreatic cancer, the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the U.S.

Zaret STM pancreatic cancer tissue July 17

A pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma
Credit: The lab of Ken Zaret, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania

We’ve summarized countless iPSCs studies over the years. For example, skin or blood samples from people with Parkinson’s disease can be converted to iPSCs and then specialized into brain cells to provide a means to examine the disease in a lab dish. The starting material – the skin or blood sample – typically has no connection to the disease so for all intents and purposes, it’s a healthy cell. It’s only after specializing it into a nerve cell that the disease reveals itself.

But the current study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania used late stage pancreatic cancer cells as their iPSC cell source. One of the reasons pancreatic cancer is thought to be so deadly is because it’s usually diagnosed very late when standard treatments are less effective. So, this team aimed to reprogram the cancer cells back into an earlier stage of the cancer to hopefully find proteins or molecules that could act as early warning signals, or biomarkers, of pancreatic cancer.

Their “early-stage-cancer-in-a-dish” model strategy was a success. The team identified a protein called thrombospodin-2 (THBS2) as a new candidate biomarker. As team lead, Dr. Ken Zaret, described in a press release, measuring blood levels of THBS2 along with a late-stage cancer biomarker called CA19-9 beat out current detection tests:

“Positive results for THBS2 or CA19-9 concentrations in the blood consistently and correctly identified all stages of the cancer. Notably, THBS2 concentrations combined with CA19-9 identified early stages better than any other known method.”

DNA: the ultimate film archive device?
This last story for the week isn’t directly related to stem cells but is too cool to ignore. For the first time ever, researchers at Harvard report in Nature that they have converted a video into a DNA sequence which was then inserted into bacteria. As Gina Kolata states in her New York Times article about the research, the study represents the ultimate data archive system which can “be retrieved at will and multiplied indefinitely as the host [bacteria] divides and grows.”

A video file is nothing but a collection of “1s” and “0s” of binary code which describe the makeup of each pixel in each frame of a movie. The researchers used the genetic code within DNA to describe each pixel in a short clip of one of the world’s first motion pictures: a galloping horse captured by Eadward Muybridge in 1878.

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The resulting DNA sequence was then inserted into the chromosome of E.Coli., a common bacteria that lives in your intestines, using the CRISPR gene editing method. The video code was still retrievable after the bacteria was allowed to multiply.

The Harvard team envisions applications well beyond a mere biological hard drive. Dr. Seth Shipman, an author of the study, told Paul Rincon of BBC news that he thinks this cell system could be placed in various parts of the body to analyze cell function and “encode information about what’s going on in the cell and what’s going on in the cell environment by writing that information into their own genome”.

Perhaps then it could be used to monitor the real-time activity of stem cell therapies inside the body. For now, I’ll wait to hear about that in some upcoming science fiction film.

One man’s journey with leukemia has turned into a quest to make bone marrow stem cell transplants safer

Dr. Lukas Wartman in his lab in March 2011 (left), before he developed chronic graft-versus-host disease, and last month at a physical therapy session (right). (Photo by Whitney Curtis for Science Magazine)

I read a story yesterday in Science Magazine that really stuck with me. It’s about a man who was diagnosed with leukemia and received a life-saving stem cell transplant that is now threatening his health.

The man is name Lukas Wartman and is a doctor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. He was first diagnosed with a type of blood cancer called acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in 2003. Since then he has taken over 70 drugs and undergone two rounds of bone marrow stem cell transplants to fight off his cancer.

The first stem cell transplant was from his brother, which replaced Wartman’s diseased bone marrow, containing blood forming stem cells and immune cells, with healthy cells. In combination with immunosuppressive drugs, the transplant worked without any complications. Unfortunately, a few years later the cancer returned. This time, Wartman opted for a second transplant from an unrelated donor.

While the second transplant and cancer-fighting drugs have succeeded in keeping his cancer at bay, Wartman is now suffering from something equally life threatening – a condition called graft vs host disease (GVHD). In a nut shell, the stem cell transplant that cured him of cancer and saved his life is now attacking his body.

GVHD, a common side effect of bone marrow transplants

GVHD is a disease where donor transplanted immune cells, called T cells, expand and attack the cells and tissues in your body because they see them as foreign invaders. GVHD occurs in approximately 50% of patients who receive bone marrow, peripheral blood or cord blood stem cell transplants, and typically affects the skin, eyes, mouth, liver and intestines.

The main reason why GVHD is common following blood stem cell transplants is because many patients receive transplants from unrelated donors or family members who aren’t close genetic matches. Half of patients who receive these types of transplants develop an acute form of GVHD within 100 days of treatment. These patients are put on immunosuppressive steroid drugs with the hope that the patient’s body will eventually kill off the aggressive donor T cells.

This was the case for Wartman after the first transplant from his brother, but the second transplant from an unrelated donor eventually caused him to develop the chronic form of GVHD. Wartman is now suffering from weakened muscles, dry eyes, mouth sores and skin issues as the transplanted immune cells slowly attack his body from within. Thankfully, his major organs are still untouched by GVHD, but Wartman knows it could be only a matter of time before his condition worsens.

Dr. Lukas Wartman has to use eye drops every 20 minutes to deal with dry eyes caused by GVHD. (Photo by Whitney Curtis for Science Magazine)

Hope for GVHD sufferers

Wartman along with other GVHD patients are basically guinea pigs in a field where effective drugs are still being developed and tested. Many of these patients, including Wartman, have tried many unproven treatments or drugs for other disease conditions in desperate hope that something will work. It’s a situation that is heartbreaking not only for the patient but also for their families and doctors.

There is hope for GVHD patients however. Science Magazine mentioned two promising drugs for GVHD, ibrutinib and ruxolitinib. Both received breakthrough therapy designation from the US Food and Drug Administration and could be the first approved treatments for GVHD.

Another promising therapy is called Prochymal. It’s a stem cell therapy developed by former CIRM President and CEO, Dr. Randy Mills, at Osiris Therapeutics. Prochymal is already approved to treat the acute form of GVHD in Canada, and is currently being tested in phase 3 trials in the US in young children and adults.

While CIRM isn’t currently funding clinical trials for GVHD, we are funding a trial out of Stanford University led by Dr. Judy Shizuru that aims to improve the outcome of bone marrow stem cell transplants in patients. Shizuru says that these transplants are “the most powerful form of cell therapy out there, for cancers or deficiencies in blood formation” but they come with their own set of potentially deadly side effects such as GVHD.

Shizuru is testing an antibody drug that blocks a signaling protein called CD117, which sits on the surface of blood stem cells and acts as an elimination signal. By turning off this protein, her team improved the engraftment of bone marrow stem cells in mice that had leukemia and removed their need for chemotherapy treatment. The therapy is in a Phase 1 trial for patients with an immune disease called severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) who receive bone marrow transplants, but Shizuru said that her hope is the drug could also treat patients with certain cancers or blood diseases.

Advocating for better GVHD treatments

The reason the article in Science Magazine spoke to me is because of the power of Wartman’s story. Wartman’s battle with ALL and now GVHD has transformed him into one of the strongest patient voices advocating for the development of new GVHD treatments. Jon Cohen, the author of the Science Magazine article, explained:

“The urgency of his case has turned Wartman into one of the world’s few patients who advocate for GVHD research, prevention, and treatment. ‘Most people it affects suffer quietly,” says Wartman. ‘They’re grateful they’re alive, and they’re beaten down. It’s the paradox of being cured and dying of the cure. Even if you can get past that, you don’t have the energy to advocate, and that’s really tragic.’”

Patients like Wartman are an inspiration not only to other people with GVHD, but also to funding agencies and scientists working to advance GVHD research towards a cure. We don’t want these patients to suffer quietly. Wartman’s story is an important reminder that there’s a lot more work to do to make bone marrow transplants safer – so that they save lives without later putting those lives at risk.

Harnessing DNA as a programmable instruction kit for stem cell function

DNA is the fundamental molecule to all living things. The genetic sequences embedded in its double-helical structure contain the instructions for producing proteins, the building blocks of our cells. When our cells divide, DNA readily unzips into two strands and makes a copy of itself for each new daughter cell. In a Nature Communications report this week, researchers at Northwestern University describe how they have harnessed DNA’s elegant design, which evolved over a billion years ago, to engineer a programmable set of on/off instructions to mimic the dynamic interactions that cells encounter in the body. This nano-sized toolkit could provide a means to better understand stem cell behavior and to develop regenerative therapies to treat a wide range of disorders.

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Instructing cells with programmable DNA-protein hybrids: switching bioactivity on and off Image: Stupp lab/Northwestern U.

While cells are what make up the tissues and organs of our bodies, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Cells also secrete proteins and molecules that form a scaffold between cells called the extracellular matrix. Though it was once thought to be merely structural, it’s clear that the matrix also plays a key role in regulating cell function. It provides a means to position multiple cell signaling molecules in just the right spot at the right time to stimulate a particular cell behavior as well as interactions between cells. This physical connection between the matrix, molecules and cells called a “niche” plays an important role for stem cell function.

Since studying cells in the laboratory involves growing them on plastic petri dishes, researchers have devised many methods for mimicking the niche to get a more accurate picture of how cells response to signals in the body. The tricky part has been to capture three main characteristics of the extracellular matrix all in one experiment; that is, the ability to add and then reverse a signal, to precisely position cell signals and to combine signals to manipulate cell function. That’s where the Northwestern team and its DNA toolkit come into the picture.

They first immobilized a single strand of DNA onto the surface of a material where cells are grown. Then they added a hybrid molecule – they call it “P-DNA” – made up of a particular signaling protein attached to a single strand of DNA that pairs with the immobilized DNA. Once those DNA strands zip together, that tethers the signaling protein to the material where the cells encounter it, effectively “switching on” that protein signal. Adding an excess of single-stranded DNA that doesn’t contain the attached protein, pushes out the P-DNA which can be washed away thereby switching off the protein signal. Then the P-DNA can be added back to restart the signal once again.

Because the DNA sequences can be easily synthesized in the lab, it allows the researchers to program many different instructions to the cells. For instance, combinations of different protein signals can be turned on simultaneously and the length of the DNA strands can precisely control the positioning of cell-protein interactions. The researchers used this system to show that spinal cord neural stem cells, which naturally clump together in neurospheres when grown in a dish, can be instructed to spread out on the dish’s surface and begin specializing into mature brain cells. But when that signal is turned off, the cells ball up together again into the neurospheres.

Team lead Samuel Stupp looks to this reversible, on-demand control of cell activity as means to develop patient specific therapies in the future:

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Samuel Stupp

“People would love to have cell therapies that utilize stem cells derived from their own bodies to regenerate tissue. In principle, this will eventually be possible, but one needs procedures that are effective at expanding and differentiating cells in order to do so. Our technology does that,” he said in a university press release.

 

 

One day, scientists could grow the human cardiovascular system from stem cells

The human cardiovascular system is an intricate, complex network of blood vessels that include arteries, capillaries and veins. These structures distribute blood from the heart to all parts of the body, from our head to our toes, and back again.

This week, two groups of scientists published studies showing that they can create key components of the human cardiovascular system from human pluripotent stem cells. These technologies will not only be valuable for modeling the cardiovascular system, but also for developing transplantable tissues to treat patients with cardiovascular or vascular diseases.

Growing capillaries using 3D printers

Scientists from Rice University and the Baylor College of Medicine are using 3D printers to make functioning capillaries. These are tiny, thin vessels that transport blood from the arteries to the veins and facilitate the exchange of oxygen, nutrients and waste products between the blood and tissues. Capillaries are made of a single layer of endothelial cells stitched together by cell structures called tight junctions, which create an impenetrable barrier between the blood and the body.

In work published in the journal Biomaterials Science, the scientists discovered two materials that coax human stem cell-derived endothelial cells to develop into capillary-like structures. They found that adding mesenchymal stem cells to the process, improved the ability of the endothelial cells to form into the tube-like structures resembling capillaries. Lead author on the study, Gisele Calderon, explained their initial findings in an interview with Phys.org,

“We’ve confirmed that these cells have the capacity to form capillary-like structures, both in a natural material called fibrin and in a semisynthetic material called gelatin methacrylate, or GelMA. The GelMA finding is particularly interesting because it is something we can readily 3-D print for future tissue-engineering applications.”

Scientists grow capillaries from stem cells using 3D gels. (Image Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

The team will use their 3D printing technology to develop more accurate models of human tissues and their vast network of capillaries. Their hope is that these 3D printed tissues could be used for more accurate drug testing and eventually as implantable tissues in the clinic. Co-senior author on the study, Jordan Miller, summarized potential future applications nicely.

“Ultimately, we’d like to 3D print with living cells … to create fully vascularized tissues for therapeutic applications. You could foresee using these 3D printed tissues to provide a more accurate representation of how our bodies will respond to a drug. The potential to build tissue constructs made from a particular patient represents the ultimate test bed for personalized medicine. We could screen dozens of potential drug cocktails on this type of generated tissue sample to identify candidates that will work best for that patient.”

Growing functioning arteries

In a separate study published in the journal PNAS, scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Morgridge Institute reported that they can generate functional arterial endothelial cells, which are cells that line the insides of human arteries.

The team used a lab technique called single-cell RNA sequencing to identify important signaling factors that coax human pluripotent stem cells to develop into arterial endothelial cells. The scientists then used the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology to develop arterial “reporter cell lines”, which light up like Christmas trees when candidate factors are successful at coaxing stem cells to develop into arterial endothelial cells.

Arterial endothelial cells derived from human pluripotent stem cells. (The Morgridge Institute for Research)

Using this two-pronged strategy, they generated cells that displayed many of the characteristic functions of arterial endothelial cells found in the body. Furthermore, when they transplanted these cells into mice that suffered a heart attack, the cells helped form new arteries and improved the survival rate of these mice significantly. Mice who received the transplanted cells had an 83% survival rate compared to untreated mice who only had a 33% survival rate.

In an interview with Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, senior author on the study James Thomson, explained the significance of their findings,

“Our ultimate goal is to apply this improved cell derivation process to the formation of functional arteries that can be used in cardiovascular surgery. This work provides valuable proof that we can eventually get a reliable source for functional arterial endothelial cells and make arteries that perform and behave like the real thing.”

In the future, the scientists have set their sights on developing a universal donor cell line that can treat large populations of patients without fear of immune rejection. With cardiovascular disease being the leading cause of death around the world, the demand for such a stem cell-based therapy is urgent.