Stories that caught our eye: $20.5 million in new CIRM discovery awards, sickle cell disease cell bank, iPSC insights

CIRM Board launches a new voyage of Discovery (Kevin McCormack).
Basic or early stage research is the Rodney Dangerfield of science; it rarely gets the respect it deserves. Yesterday, the CIRM governing Board showed that it not only respects this research, but also values its role in laying the foundation for everything that follows.

The CIRM Board approved 11 projects, investing more than $20.5 million in our Discovery Quest, early stage research program. Those include programs using gene editing techniques to develop a cure for a rare but fatal childhood disease, finding a new approach to slowing down the progress of Parkinson’s disease, and developing a treatment for the Zika virus.

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Electron micrograph of Zika virus (red circles). Image: CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith

The goal of the Discovery Quest program is to identify and explore promising new stem cell therapies or technologies to improve patient care.

In a news release Randy Mills, CIRM’s President & CEO, said we hope this program will create a pipeline of projects that will ultimately lead to clinical trials:

“At CIRM we never underestimate the importance of early stage scientific research; it is the birth place of groundbreaking discoveries. We hope these Quest awards will not only help these incredibly creative researchers deepen our understanding of several different diseases, but also lead to new approaches on how best to use stem cells to develop treatments.”

Creating the world’s largest stem cell bank for sickle cell disease (Karen Ring).
People typically visit the bank to deposit or take out cash, but with advancements in scientific research, people could soon be visiting banks to receive life-saving stem cell treatments. One of these banks is already in the works. Scientists at the Center for Regenerative Medicine (CReM) at Boston Medical Center are attempting to generate the world’s largest stem cell bank focused specifically on sickle cell disease (SCD), a rare genetic blood disorder that causes red blood cells to take on an abnormal shape and can cause intense pain and severe organ damage in patients.

To set up their bank, the team is collecting blood samples from SCD patients with diverse ethnic backgrounds and making induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from these samples. These patient stem cell lines will be used to unravel new clues into why this disease occurs and to develop new potential treatments for SCD. More details about this new SCD iPSC bank can be found in the latest edition of the journal Stem Cell Reports.

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Gustavo Mostoslavsky, M.D., PH.D., Martin Steinberg, M.D., George Murphy PH.D.
Photo: Boston Medical Center

In a news release, CReM co-founder and Professor, Gustavo Mostoslavsky, touched on the future importance of their new stem cell bank:

“In addition to the library, we’ve designed and are using gene editing tools to correct the sickle hemoglobin mutation using the stem cell lines. When coupled with corrected sickle cell disease specific iPSCs, these tools could one day provide a functional cure for the disorder.”

For researchers interested in using these new stem cell lines, CReM is making them available to researchers around the world as part of the NIH’s NextGen Consortium study.

DNA deep dive reveals ways to increase iPSC efficiency (Todd Dubnicoff)
Though the induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell technique was first described ten years ago, many researchers continue to poke, prod and tinker with the method which reprograms an adult cell, often from skin, into an embryonic stem cell-like state which can specialize into any cell type in the body. Though this breakthrough in stem cell research is helping scientists better understand human disease and develop patient-specific therapies, the technique is hampered by its low efficiency and consistency.

This week, a CIRM-funded study from UCLA reports new insights into the molecular changes that occur during reprogramming that may help pave the way toward better iPS cell methods. The study, published in Cell, examined the changes in DNA during the reprogramming process.

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Senior authors Kathrin Plath and Jason Ernst and first authors Petko Fiziev and Constantinos Chronis.
Photo: UCLA

In a skin cell, the genes necessary for embryonic stem cell-like, or pluripotent, characteristics are all turned off. One way this shut down in gene activity occurs is through tight coiling of the DNA where the pluripotent genes are located. This physically blocks proteins called transcriptions factors from binding the DNA and activating those pluripotent genes within skin cells. On the other hand, regions of DNA carrying skin-related genes are loosely coiled, so that transcription factors can access the DNA and turn on those genes.

The iPS cell technique works by artificially adding four pluripotent transcriptions factors into skin cells which leads to changes in DNA coiling such that skin-specific genes are turned off and pluripotent genes are turned on. The UCLA team carefully mapped the areas where the transcription factors are binding to DNA during the reprogramming process. They found that the shut down of the skin genes and activation of the pluripotent genes occurs at the same time. The team also found that three of the four iPS cell factors must physically interact with each other to locate and activate the areas of DNA that are responsible for reprogramming.

Using the findings from those experiments, the team was able to identify a fifth transcription factor that helps shut down the skin-specific gene more effectively and, in turn, saw a hundred-fold increase in reprogramming efficiency. These results promise to help the researchers fine-tune the iPS cell technique and make its clinical use more practical.

Stem Cell Profiles in Courage: Brenden Whittaker

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Brenden Whittaker: Photo Colin McGuire

It’s not often you meet someone who says one of their favorite things in the world is mowing the lawn. But then, there aren’t many people in the world like Brenden Whittaker. In fact, as of this writing, he may be unique.

Brenden was born with severe chronic granulomatous disease (x-CGD), a rare genetic disorder that left him with an impaired immune system that was vulnerable to repeated bacterial and fungal infections. Over 22 years Brenden was in and out of the hospital hundreds of times, he almost died a couple of times, and lost parts of his lungs and liver.

Then he became the first person to take part in a clinical trial to treat x-CGD. UCLA researcher Don Kohn had developed a technique that removed Brenden’s blood stem cells, genetically re-engineered them to correct the mutation that caused the disease, and then returned those stem cells to Brenden. Over time they created a new blood system, and restored Brenden’s immune system.

He was cured.

We profiled Brenden for our 2016 Annual Report. Here’s an extended version of the interview we did with him, talking about his life before and after he was cured.

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Brenden with a CIRM Game Ball – signed by everyone at CIRM

Brenden’s story:

I still think about it, my disease, every few days or so and it’s weird because in the past I was sick so often; before this year, I was sick consistently for about 5 years and going to doctor’s appointments 2 or 3 times a week and being in the hospital. So, it’s weird having a cough and not having to be rushed to the ER, not having to call someone every time the smallest thing pops up, and not having to worry about what it means.

It’s been good but it’s been weird to not have to do that.  It’s a nice problem to have.

What are you doing now that you didn’t do before?

Cutting the grass is something I couldn’t do before, that I’ve taken up now. Most people look at me as if I’m crazy when I say it, but I love cutting grass, and I wasn’t able to do it for 22 years of my life.

People will complain about having to pick up after their dog goes to the bathroom and now I can follow my dog outside and can pick up after her. It really is just the little things that people don’t think of. I find enjoyment in the small things, things I couldn’t do before but now I can and not have to worry about them.

The future

I was in the boy scouts growing up so I love camping, building fires, just being outdoors. I hiked on the Appalachian Trail. Now I’ll be able to do more of that.

I have a part time job at a golf course and I’m actually getting ready to go back to school full time in January. I want to get into pre-med, go to medical school and become a doctor. All the experience I’ve had has just made me more interested in being a doctor, I just want to be in a position where I can help people going through similar things, and going through all this just made me more interested in it.

Before the last few months I couldn’t schedule my work more than a week in advance because I didn’t know if I was going to be in the hospital or what was going on. Now my boss jokes that I’m giving him plans for the next month or two. It’s amazing how far ahead you can plan when you aren’t worried about being sick or having to go to the hospital.

I’d love to do some traveling. Right now most of my traveling consists of going to and from Boston (for medical check-ups), but I would love to go to Europe, go through France and Italy. That would be a real cool trip. I don’t need to see everything in the world but just going to other countries, seeing cities like London, Paris and Rome, seeing how people live in other cultures, that would be great.

Advice for others

I do think about the fact that when I was born one in a million kids were diagnosed with this disease and there weren’t any treatments. Many people only lived a few years. But to be diagnosed now you can have a normal life. That’s something all on its own. It’s almost impossible for me to fathom it’s happening, after all the years and doctor’s appointments and illnesses.

So, for people going through anything like this, I’d say just don’t give up. There are new advances being made every day and you have to keep fighting and keep getting through it, and some day it will all work out.


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Avalanches of exciting new stem cell research at the Keystone Symposia near Lake Tahoe

From January 8th to 13th, nearly 300 scientists and trainees from around the world ascended the mountains near Lake Tahoe to attend the joint Keystone Symposia on Neurogenesis and Stem Cells at the Resort at Squaw Creek. With record-high snowfall in the area (almost five feet!), attendees had to stay inside to stay warm and dry, and even when we lost power on the third day on the mountain there was no shortage of great science to keep us entertained.

Boy did it snow at the Keystone Conference in Tahoe!

Boy did it snow at the Keystone Conference in Tahoe!

One of the great sessions at the meeting was a workshop chaired by CIRM’s Senior Science Officer, Dr. Kent Fitzgerald, called, “Bridging and Understanding of Basic Science to Enable/Predict Clinical Outcome.” This workshop featured updates from the scientists in charge of three labs currently conducting clinical trials funded and supported by CIRM.

Regenerating injured connections in the spinal cord with neural stem cells

Mark Tuszynski, UCSD

Mark Tuszynski, UCSD

The first was a stunning talk by Dr. Mark from UCSD who is investigating how neural stem cells can help outcomes for those with spinal cord injury. The spinal cord contains nerves that connect your brain to the rest of your body so you can sense and move around in your environment, but in cases of severe injury, these connections are cut and the signal is lost. The most severe of these injuries is a complete transection, which is when all connections have been cut at a given spot, meaning no signal can pass through, just like how no cars could get through if a section of the Golden Gate Bridge was missing. His lab works in animal models of complete spinal cord transections since it is the most challenging to repair.

As Dr. Tuszynski put it, “the adult central nervous system does not spontaneously regenerate [after injury], which is surprising given that it does have its own set of stem cells present throughout.” Their approach to tackle this problem is to put in new stem cells with special growth factors and supportive components to let this process occur.

Just as most patients wouldn’t be able to come in for treatment right away after injury, they don’t start their tests until two weeks after the injury. After that, they inject neural stem cells from either the mouse, rat, or human spinal cord at the injury site and then wait a bit to see if any new connections form. Their group has shown very dramatic increases in both the number of new connections that regenerate from the injury site and extend much further than previous efforts have shown. These connections conduct electrochemical messages as normal neurons do, and over a year later they see no functional decline or tumors forming, which is often a concern when transplanting stem cells that normally like to divide a lot.

While very exciting, he cautions, “this research shows a major opportunity in neural repair that deserves proper study and the best clinical chance to succeed”. He says it requires thorough testing in multiple animal models before going into humans to avoid a case where “a clinical trial fails, not because the biology is wrong, but because the methods need tweaking.”

Everyone needs support – even dying cells

The second great talk was by Dr. Clive Svendsen of Cedars-Sinai Regenerative Medicine Institute on how stem cells might help provide healthy support cells to rescue dying neurons in the brains of patients with neurodegenerative diseases like Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and Parkinson’s. Some ALS cases are hereditary and would be candidates for a treatment using gene editing techniques. However, around 90 percent of ALS cases are “sporadic” meaning there is no known genetic cause. Dr. Svendsen explained how in these cases, a stem cell-based approach to at least fix the cellular cause of the disease, would be the best option.

While neurons often capture all the attention in the brain, since they are the cells that actually send messages that underlie our thoughts and behaviors, the Svendsen lab spends a great deal of time thinking about another type of cell that they think will be a powerhouse in the clinic: astrocytes. Astrocytes are often labeled as the support cells of the brain as they are crucial for maintaining a balance of chemicals to keep neurons healthy and functioning. So Dr. Svendsen reasoned that perhaps astrocytes might unlock a new route to treating neurodegenerative diseases where neurons are unhealthy and losing function.

ALS is a devastating disease that starts with early muscle twitches and leads to complete paralysis and death usually within four years, due to the rapid degeneration of motor neurons that are important for movement all over the body. Svendsen’s team found that by getting astrocytes to secrete a special growth factor, called “GDNF”, they could improve the survival of the neurons that normally die in their model of ALS by five to six times.

After testing this out in several animal models, the first FDA-approved trial to test whether astrocytes from fetal tissue can slow spinal motor neuron loss will begin next month! They will be injecting the precursor cells that can make these GDNF-releasing astrocytes into one leg of ALS patients. That way they can compare leg function and track whether the cells and GDNF are enough to slow the disease progression.

Dr. Svendsen shared with us how long it takes to create and test a treatment that is committed to safety and success for its patients. He says,

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

Clive Svendsen 

“We filed in March 2016, submitted the improvements Oct 2016, and we’re starting our first patient in Feb 2017. [One document is over] 4500 pages… to go to the clinic is a lot of work. Without CIRM’s funding and support we wouldn’t have been able to do this. This isn’t easy. But it is doable!”

 

Improving outcomes in long-term stroke patients in unknown ways

Gary Steinberg

Gary Steinberg

The last speaker for the workshop, Dr. Gary Steinberg, a neurosurgeon at Stanford who is looking to change the lives of patients with severe limitations after having a stroke. The deficits seen after a stroke are thought to be caused by the death of neurons around the area where the stroke occurred, such that whatever functions they were involved with is now impaired. Outcomes can vary for stroke patients depending on how long it takes for them to get to the emergency department, and some people think that there might be a sweet spot for when to start rehabilitative treatments — too late and you might never see dramatic recovery.

But Dr. Steinberg has some evidence that might make those people change their mind. He thinks, “these circuits are not irreversibly damaged. We thought they were but they aren’t… we just need to continue figuring out how to resurrect them.”

He showed stunning videos from his Phase 1/2a clinical trial of several patients who had suffered from a stroke years before walking into his clinic. He tested patients before treatment and showed us videos of their difficulty to perform very basic movements like touching their nose or raising their legs. After carefully injecting into the brain some stem cells taken from donors and then modified to boost their ability to repair damage, he saw a dramatic recovery in some patients as quickly as one day later. A patient who couldn’t lift her leg was holding it up for five whole seconds. She could also touch her arm to her nose, whereas before all she could do was wiggle her thumb. One year later she is even walking, albeit slowly.

He shared another case of a 39 year-old patient who suffered a stroke didn’t want to get married because she felt she’d be embarrassed walking down the aisle, not to mention she couldn’t move her arm. After Dr. Steinberg’s trial, she was able to raise her arm above her head and walk more smoothly, and now, four years later, she is married and recently gave birth to a boy.

But while these studies are incredibly promising, especially for any stroke victims, Dr. Steinberg himself still is not sure exactly how this stem cell treatment works, and the dramatic improvements are not always consistent. He will be continuing his clinical trial to try to better understand what is going on in the injured and recovering brain so he can deliver better care to more patients in the future.

The road to safe and effective therapies using stem cells is long but promising

These were just three of many excellent presentations at the conference, and while these talks involved moving science into human patients for clinical trials, the work described truly stands on the shoulders of all the other research shared at conferences, both present and past. In fact, the reason why scientists gather at conferences is to give one another feedback and to learn from each other to better their own work.

Some of the other exciting talks that are surely laying down the framework for future clinical trials involved research on modeling mini-brains in a dish (so-called cerebral organoids). Researchers like Jürgen Knoblich at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Austria talked about the new ways we can engineer these mini-brains to be more consistent and representative of the real brain. We also heard from really fundamental biology studies trying to understand how one type of cell becomes one vs. another type using the model organism C. elegans (a microscopic, transparent worm) by Dr. Oliver Hobert of Columbia University. Dr. Austin Smith, from the University of Cambridge in the UK, shared the latest about the biology of pluripotent cells that can make any cell type, and Stanford’s Dr. Marius Wernig, one of the meeting’s organizers, told us more of what he’s learned about the road to reprogramming an ordinary skin cell directly into a neuron.

Stay up to date with the latest research on stem cells by continuing to follow this blog and if you’re reading this because you’re considering a stem cell treatment, make sure you find out what’s possible and learn about what to ask by checking out closerlookatstemcells.org.


Samantha Yammine

Samantha Yammine

Samantha Yammine is a science communicator and a PhD candidate in Dr. Derek van der Kooy’s lab at the University of Toronto. You can learn more about Sam and her research on her website.

Has the promise of stem cells been overstated?

One of the most famous stem cell scientists in the world said on Monday that the promise of stem cell treatments has in some ways been overstated.

In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, one of the recipients of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells), said, “we can help just a small portion of patients by stem cell therapy.”

Shinya Yamanaka. (Image source: Ko Sasaki, New York Times)

Shinya Yamanaka. (Image source: Ko Sasaki, New York Times)

He explained that there are only 10 target diseases that he believes will benefit directly from stem cell therapies including, “Parkinson’s, retinal and corneal diseases, heart and liver failure, diabetes, spinal cord injury, joint disorders and some blood disorders. But maybe that’s all. The number of human diseases is enormous.”

This is a big statement coming from a key opinion leader in the field of stem cell research, and it’s likely to spur a larger conversation on the future of stem cell treatments.

Yamanaka also touched on another major point in his interview – progress takes time.

In the ten years since his discovery of iPS cells, he and other scientists have learned the hard way that the development of stem cell treatments can be time consuming. While autologous iPS cell treatments (making stem cell lines from a patient and transplanting them back into that patient) have entered clinical trials to treat patients with macular degeneration, a disease that causes blindness, the trials have been put on hold until the safety of the stem cell lines being used are confirmed.

At the World Alliance Forum in November, Yamanaka revealed that generating a single patient iPS cell line can cost up to one million dollars which isn’t feasible for the 1000’s of patients who need them. He admitted that the fate of personalized stem cell medicine, which once seemed so promising, now seems unrealistic because it’s time consuming and costly.

But with any obstacle, there is always a path around it. Under Yamanaka’s guidance, Japan is generating donor iPS cell lines that can be used to treat a large portion of the Japanese population. Yamanaka said that 100 lines would cover 100 million people in Japan and that 200 lines would be enough to cover the US population. iPS cell banks are being generated around the world, meaning that one day the millions of people suffering from the target diseases Yamanaka mentioned could be treated or even cured. Would this not fulfill a promise that was made about the potential of stem cell treatments?

Which brings me to my point, I don’t believe the promise of stem cells has been overstated. I think that it has yet to be realized, and it will take more research and more time to get there. As a community, we need to be understanding, patient, and supportive.

In my opinion (as a scientist aside from my role at CIRM), I believe that Yamanaka’s interview failed to reveal his optimism about the future of stem cell treatments. What I took from Yamanaka’s comments is that stem cell treatments can help a small number of patients with specific diseases right now. That’s not to say that stem cell research won’t produce promising treatments for other diseases in the future.

Retinal diseases and blood disorders are easier to target with stem cell treatments because only one type of cell needs to be replaced. It makes sense to tackle those diseases first and make sure that these stem cell treatments are effective and safe in patients before we focus on more complicated diseases where multiple cell types or organs are involved.

Part of the reason why scientists are unsure whether stem cell treatments can treat complex diseases is because we still don’t know the details of what causes these diseases. After we know more about what’s going wrong, including all the cell types and molecules involved, research might reveal new ways that stem cells could be used to help treat those diseases. Or on the other hand, stem cells could be used to model those diseases to help discover new drug treatments.

I’ve heard Yamanaka talk many times and recently I heard him speak at the World Alliance Forum in November, where he said that the two biggest hurdles we are facing for stem cell treatments to be successful is time and cost. After we overcome these hurdles, his outlook was optimistic that stem cell treatments could improve people’s lives. But he stressed that these advances will take time.

He shared a similar sentiment at the very end of the NY Times interview by referencing his father’s story and the decades it took to cure hepatitis C,

“You know, my father had a small factory. He injured his leg in the factory when I was in junior high. He had a transfusion, and he got hepatitis C. He passed away in 1989. Twenty-five years later, just two years ago, scientists developed a very effective cure. We now have a tablet. Three months and the virus is gone — it’s amazing. But it took 25 years. iPS cells are only 10 years old. The research takes time. That’s what everybody needs to understand.”

Yamanaka says more time is needed for stem cell treatments to become effective cures, but CIRM has already witnessed success. In our December Board meeting, we heard from two patients who were cured of genetic blood diseases by stem cell treatments that CIRM funded. One of them was diagnosed with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) and the other had chronic granulomatous disease (CGD). Both had their blood stem cells genetically engineered to removed disease-causing mutations and then transplanted back into their body to create a healthy immune system and cure them of their disease.

Hearing how grateful these patients and their families were to receive life-saving stem cell treatments and how this research brings new hope to other patients suffering from the same diseases, in my mind, fulfills the promise of stem cell research and makes funding stem cell treatments worth it.

I believe we will hear more and more of these success stories in the next decade and CIRM will most certainly play an important role in this future. There are others in the field who share a similar optimism for the future of stem cell treatments. Hank Greely, the Director for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University, said in an interview with the Sacramento Bee about the future of CIRM,

Hank Greely, Stanford University

Hank Greely, Stanford University

“The next few years should determine just how good California’s investment has been. It is encouraging to see CIRM supporting so many clinical trials; it will be much more exciting when – and I do expect ‘when’ and not ‘if’ – one of those trials leads to an approved treatment.”

 


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Stories that caught our eye: frail bones in diabetics, ethics of future IVF, Alzheimer’s

The connection between diabetes and frail bones uncovered
Fundamentally, diabetes is defined by abnormally high blood sugar levels. But that one defect over time carries an increased risk for a wide range of severe health problems. For instance, compared to healthy individuals, type 2 diabetics are more prone to poorly healing bone fractures – a condition that can dramatically lower one’s quality of life.

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Bones of the healthy animals (top) form larger calluses during healing which lead to stronger repaired bones. Bones of the diabetic mice (bottom) have smaller calluses and the healed bones are more brittle. Image: Stanford University

To help these people, researchers are trying to tease out how diabetes impacts bone health. But it’s been a complicated challenge since there are many factors at play. Is it from potential side effects of diabetes drugs? Or is the increased body weight associated with type 2 diabetes leading to decreased bone density? This week a CIRM-funded team at Stanford pinpointed skeletal stem cells, a type of adult stem cell that goes on to make all the building blocks of the bone, as important pieces to this scientific puzzle.

Reporting in Science Translational Medicine, the team, led by Michael Longaker – co-director of Stanford’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine – found that, compared to healthy animals, type 2 diabetic mice have a reduced number of skeletal stem cells after bone fracture. A study of the local cellular “neighborhood” of these stem cells showed that the diabetic mice also had a reduction in the levels of a protein called hedgehog. Blocking hedgehog activity in healthy mice led to the slow bone healing seen in the diabetic mice. More importantly, boosting hedgehog levels near the site of the fracture in diabetic mice lead to bone healing that was just as good as in the healthy mice.

To see if this result might hold up in humans, the team analyzed hedgehog levels in bone samples retrieved from diabetics and non-diabetics undergoing joint replacement surgeries. Sure enough, hedgehog was depleted in the diabetic bone exactly reflecting the mouse results.

Though more studies will be needed to develop a hedgehog-based treatment in humans, Longaker talked about the exciting big picture implications of this result in a press release:

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Michael Longaker

“We’ve uncovered the reason why some patients with diabetes don’t heal well from fractures, and we’ve come up with a solution that can be locally applied during surgery to repair the break. Diabetes is rampant worldwide, and any improvement in the ability of affected people to heal from fractures could have an enormously positive effect on their quality of life.”

 

Getting the ethics ahead of the next generation of fertility treatments
The Business Insider ran an article this week with a provocative title, “Now is the time to talk about creating humans from stem cells.” I initially read too much into that title because I thought the article was advocating the need to start the push for the cloning of people. Instead, author Rafi Letzter was driving at the importance for concrete, ethical discussion right now about stem cell technologies for fertility treatments that may not be too far off.

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These mice were born from artificial eggs that were made from stem cells in a dish.
It’s great news for infertility specialist but carries many ethical dilemmas. 
(Image: K. Hayashi, Kyushu University)

In particular, he alludes to a paper from October (read our blog about it) that reported the creation of female mouse eggs from stem cells. These eggs were fertilized, implanted into the mother and successfully developed into living mice. What’s more, one set of stem cells were derived from mouse skin samples via the induced pluripotent stem cell method. This breakthrough could one day make it possible for an infertile woman to simply go through a small skin biopsy or mouth swab to generate an unlimited number of eggs for in vitro fertilization (IVF). Just imagine how much more efficient, less invasive and less costly this procedure could be compared to current IVF methods that require multiple hormone injections and retrieval of eggs from a woman’s ovaries.

But along with that hope for couples who have trouble conceiving a child comes a whole host of ethical issues. Here, Letzter refers to a perspective letter published on Wednesday in Science Translation Medicine by scientists and ethicists about this looming challenge for researchers and policymakers.

It’s an important read that lays out the current science, the clinical possibilities and regulatory and ethical questions that must be addressed sooner than later. In an interview with Letzter, co-author Eli Adashi, from the Alpert Medical School at Brown University, warned against waiting too long to heed this call to action:

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Eli Adashi

“Let’s start the [ethical] conversation now. Like all conversations it will be time consuming. And depending how well we do it, and we’ve got to do it well, it will be demanding. It will not be wise to have that conversation when you’re seeing a paper in Science or Nature reporting the complete process in a human. That would not be wise on our collective part. We should be as much as possible ready for that.”

 

 

Tackling Frontotemporal dementia and Alzheimer’s by hitting the same target.
To develop new disease therapies, you usually need to understand what is going wrong at a cellular level. In some cases, that approach leads to the identification of a specific protein that is either missing or in short supply. But this initial step is just half the battle because it may not be practical to make a drug out of the protein itself. So researchers instead search for other proteins or small molecules that lead to an increase in the level of the protein.

A CIRM-funded project at the Gladstone Institutes has done just that for the protein called progranulin. People lacking one copy of the progranulin gene carry an increased risk for  frontotemporal dementia (FTD), a degenerative disease of the brain that is the most common cause of dementia in people under 60 years of age. FTD symptoms are often mistaken for Alzheimer’s. In fact, mutations in progranulin are also associated with Alzheimer’s.

Previous studies have shown that increasing levels of progranulin in animals with diseases that mimic FTP and Alzheimer’s symptoms can reverse symptoms. But little was known how progranulin protein levels were regulated in the cells. Amanda Mason, the lead author on the Journal of Biological Chemistry report, explained in a press release how they tackled this challenge:

“We wanted to know what might regulate the levels of progranulin. Many processes in biology are controlled by adding or removing a small chemical group called phosphate, so we started there.”

These phosphate groups hold a lot of energy in their chemical bonds and can be harnessed to activate or turn off the function of proteins and DNA. The team systematically observed the effects of enzymes that add and remove phosphate groups and zeroed in on one called Ripk1 that leads to increases in progranulin levels. Now the team has set their sights on Ripk1 as another potential target for developing a therapeutic that could be effective against both FTP and Alzheimer’s. Steve Finkbeiner, the team lead, gave a big picture perspective on these promising results:

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Steve Finkbeiner

“This is an exciting finding. Alzheimer’s disease was discovered over 100 years ago, and we have essentially no drugs to treat it. To find a possible new way to treat one disease is wonderful. To find a way that might treat two diseases is amazing.”

 

Eye on the prize: two stem cell studies restore vision in blind mice

For the 39 million people in the world who are blind, a vision-restoring therapy would be the ultimate prize. So far, this prize has remained out of reach, but two studies published this week have entered the ring as promising contenders in the fight against blindness.

In the red corner, we have a study published in Stem Cell Reports from the RIKEN Institute in Japan led by scientist Masayo Takahashi. Her team restored vision in blind mice with an advanced stage of retinal disease by transplanting sheets of light-sensing photoreceptor cells that were made from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).

In the blue corner, we have a study published in Cell Stem Cell from the Buck Institute in California led by scientist Deepak Lamba. His team restored long-term vision in blind mice by transplanting embryonic stem cell-derived photoreceptor cells and preventing the immune system from rejecting the transplant.

Transplanting Retinal sheets

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Synaptic integration of graft retina into model mouse
Credit: RIKEN

Let’s first talk about the Riken study led by Masayo Takahashi. She is well known for her pioneering work on iPSC-derived treatments for macular degeneration – a disease that damages the retina and causes blindness.

In previous work, Takahashi and her team transplanted sheets of mouse stem cell-derived retinal progenitor cells, which mature into light-sensing cells called photoreceptors, into the eyes of mice. The cells within the sheet formed connections with the resident cells in the mouse eye, proving the feasibility of transplanting retinal sheets to restore vision.

In their current study, published in Stem Cell Reports, Takahashi’s team found that the retinal sheets could restore vision in mice that had a very severe form of retinal disease that left them unable to see light. After the mice received the retinal transplants, they responded to light, which they were unable to do previously. Like their other findings, they found that the cells in the transplant made connections with the host cells in the eye including nerve cells that send light-sensing signals to the brain.

First author on the study, Michiko Mandai explained the importance of their findings and their future plans in a news release,

“These results are a proof of concept for using iPSC-derived retinal tissue to treat retinal degeneration. We are planning to proceed to clinical trials in humans after a few more necessary studies using human iPSC-derived retinal tissue in animals. Clinical trials are the only way to determine how many new connections are needed for a person to be able to ‘see’ again.”

While excited by their results, Mandai and the rest of the RIKEN team aren’t claiming the prize for a successful treatment that will cure blindness in people just yet. Mandai commented,

“We cannot expect to restore practical vision at the moment. We will start from seeing a simple light, then possibly move on to larger figures in the next stage.”

Blocking the immune system

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Image showing transplanted GFP-expressing human stem cell derived photoreceptors (green) integrated in a host rodent retina stained for Otx2 (red).
Credit Jie Zhu, Buck Institute for Research on Aging

In the Buck Institute study, Lamba and his team took on the challenge of answering a controversial question about why retinal cell transplants typically don’t survive long-term in the eye. Some scientists think that the transplanted cells die off over time because they don’t integrate into the eye while others think that they are rejected and killed off by the immune system.

To answer this question, Lamba transplanted human embryonic stem cell-derived retinal cells into immunodeficient mice that lacked a protein receptor that’s vital for a functioning immune system. The retinal cells transplanted into immunodeficient mice survived much better than retinal cells transplanted into normal mice and developed into ten times as many photoreceptors that integrated themselves into the host eye.

Their next step was to transplant the retinal cells into mice that were blind and also lacked the same immune receptor as the other mice. After the transplant, the blind mice became responsive to light and showed brain activity associated with sensing light. Their newfound ability to see lasted for nine months to a year following the transplant.

Lamba believes that backing down the immune response is responsible for the long-term vision restoration in the blind mice. He explained the importance of their findings in a Buck Institute news release,

“That finding gives us a lot of hope for patients, that we can create some sort of advantage for these stem cell therapies so it won’t be just a transient response when these cells are put in, but a sustained vision for a long time. Even though the retina is often considered to be ‘immune privileged,’ we have found that we can’t ignore cell rejection when trying to transplant stem cells into the eye.”

In the future, Lamba will explore the potential for using drugs that target the specific protein receptor they blocked earlier to improve the outcome of embryonic stem cell-derived retinal transplants,

“We can also potentially identify other small molecules or recombinant proteins to reduce this interleukin 2 receptor gamma activity in the body – even eye-specific immune responses – that might reduce cell rejection. Of course it is not validated yet, but now that we have a target, that is the future of how we can apply this work to humans.”

Who will be the winner?

The Buck Institute study is interesting because it suggests that embryonic stem cell-based transplants combined with immunosuppression could be a promising strategy to improve vision in patients. But it also begs the question of whether the field should focus instead on iPSC-based therapies where a patient’s own stem cells are used to make the transplanted cells. This strategy would side step the immune response and prevent patients from a taking a lifetime of immunosuppressive drugs.

However, I’m not saying that RIKEN’s iPSC-based strategy is necessarily the way to go for treating blindness (at least not yet). It takes a lot of time and money to make iPSC lines and it’s not feasible given our current output to generate iPSC lines for every blind patient.

So, it sounds like a winner in this fight to cure blindness won’t be announced any time soon. In the meantime, both teams need to conduct further preclinical studies before they can move on to testing these treatments in human clinical trials.

Here at CIRM, we’re funding a promising Phase 1 clinical trial sponsored by jCyte for a form of blindness called Retinis Pigmentosa. Based on preliminary results with a small cohort of patient, the treatment seems safe and may even be showing hints of effectiveness in some patients.

Ultimately, more is better. As the number of stem cell clinical trials for blindness grows, the sooner we can find out which therapies work best for which patients.

Stem Cells Profile in Courage: Pat Furlong, Patient Advocate

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Pat Furlong: Photo by Colin McGuire – http://www.colinmcguire.com

One of the true joys for me in helping put together this year’s Annual Report was getting to know the patients and patient advocates that we profiled in the report. These are some extraordinary individuals and the short profiles we posted only touch the surface of just how extraordinary.

So, over the next few weeks we are going to feature four of these people at greater length, allowing them, in their own words, to talk about what makes them tic, and how they keep going in the face of what is often heartbreak and tragedy.

We begin with Pat Furlong, a Patient Advocate and the Founding President and CEO of Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy (PPMD), the largest nonprofit organization in the United States solely focused on Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD).

DMD is the most common fatal, genetic childhood disorder, which affects approximately 1 out of every 3,500 boys each year worldwide. It’s a progressive muscle disorder that leads to loss of muscle function, meaning you lose your ability to walk, to use your arms, and ultimately to breathe. And because the heart is a muscle, that is often seriously affected. There is no cure, and treatment options are limited. At the time her sons were diagnosed life expectancy was in the teens.

Pat’s story:

“When my sons, Chris and Pat were diagnosed with DMD, at the ages of 4 and 6, there was nothing available for them. Doctors cared about them but they didn’t have the tools they needed, or the National Institutes of Health the money it needed to do research.

Doctors were faced with diagnosing a disease and saying “there’s nothing we can do”. And then parents like me, coming to them hearing there was nothing they could do, no hope, no help. When your son is diagnosed with something like this you are told go home and love them.

When I asked questions, I was often ignored or dismissed by some doctors.

When my sons were diagnosed with DMD I would drop them off at school and go walking and that would help me deal with the anger.

For me staying in this is to be able to say to Chris and Pat in the universe, when you were here I tried my very best and when you were gone I continued to try my best so that others would have advantages that you didn’t receive.

I haven’t stood back and said I can’t go on.

The family is all scarred, we all suffered this loss. It’s much more apparent when we are together, there are empty chairs, emptiness. If we go to a family gathering we wish Chris and Pat were here, could be married. Now there’s my husband and our two daughters. We have a granddaughter, who is wonderful, but still we are incomplete and we will live with that forever.

I am trained as a nurse and I find DMD equal parts fascinating disease, heartbreaking and painful. I try to emphasize the fascinating so I can keep going. There are frustrations; lack of money, the slow process of regulatory approval, but I have an incredible team of very smart people and we are passionate about change so that helps keep us going.

Your only interest can’t be DMD, it can’t be. For me it’s certainly a priority, but it’s not my only interest. I love to go to an art museum and see how creative people work. I love Cirque du Soleil because they do things with their muscles I can’t imagine. Going outside and seeing these things makes the world better.

I am interested in the expression of art, to see how people dress, to see how people are creative, I love creativity, I think the human spirit is pretty amazing and the creativity around it. I think we are all pretty amazing but sometimes we don’t say it enough.

I recently saw a woman on the subway with a pair of tennis shoes that said “you are beautiful” and people around her were looking at her shoes and smiling, just because of those shoes. We forget to interact, and that was such a simple way of doing that.

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I relax by doing yoga, 90-minute hot yoga, as often as I can. I’ve also done a number of half marathons, but I’m more a walker than a runner. I find getting outside or hot yoga makes me concentrate on what I’m doing so that I can’t think of anything else. I can put it down and think about nothing and whisper prayers to my sons and say am I doing the right thing, is there something I should be doing differently? It’s my time to think about them and meditate about what they think would be important.

You need to give your mind time to cope, so it’s putting your phone down and your computer away. It’s getting rid of those interruptions. To put the phone, the computer down and get in a hot room and do yoga, or run around outside, to look at a tree and think about the changing season, the universe, the sun. It’s an incredible break for the brain to be able to rest.

I think the disease has made us kinder people and more thoughtful. When Chris died, we found a notebook he kept. In it was written “the meaning of life is a life of meaning”. I think that’s where we have all landed, what we all strive for, a life of meaning.

 

 

 

What’s Your 2017 Stem Cell Resolution?

January marks the beginning of a new year and is typically a time when people make resolutions to better themselves. This year at CIRM, we’re shaking things up and making stem cell resolutions.

What’s your #StemCellResolution?

Our goal is to raise awareness about the importance of funding stem cell research and accelerating the development of safe and effective stem cell treatments for patients. We want to promote this goal not only within the scientific and patient communities but also within the general public.

That’s why we are challenging you (yes you the reader) to come up with your own stem cell resolution for 2017 and share it with us on social media during the month of January.

It’s easy and fun to participate. All you need to do is think of a resolution about stem cell research. If you’re a scientist, it could be making a resolution to apply for funding for your newest stem cell project. Don’t know anything about stem cells? How about making a resolution to learn about stem cell research for a specific disease? The options are endless!

After you decide on your resolution, you can post a selfie, video, or stem cell resolution graphic that we’ve designed (available on our website  https://www.cirm.ca.gov/stemcellresolution) on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. Make sure to write your resolution in your post, include the hashtag #stemcellresolution, and tag CIRM’s social media accounts.

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Have more than one resolution? No problem! Feel free to post as many stem cell resolutions during January as you want. We also encourage you to share this campaign with your friends and challenge them to participate.

Check out our video for more details on how to participate:

There be prizes!

At the end of January, we will pick the most inspiring stem cell resolutions and blog about them on the Stem Cellar. We’ll also send the people who wrote those resolutions CIRM Stem Cell Champions t-shirts.

So, what are you waiting for? We want to hear from you!

Stem cell and gene therapy research gets a good report card from industry leader

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Panel discussion at ARM State of the industry briefing: left to Right Robert Preti, Chair ARM; Jeff Walsh, bluebird bio; Manfred Rudiger, Kiadis Pharma; Barbara Sasu, Pfizer;  Thomas Farrell, Bellicum Pharmaceuticals. Photo courtesy ARM.

The state of the regenerative medicine field is strong and getting stronger. That was the bottom line verdict at the 2017 Cell and Gene Therapies State of the Industry briefing in San Francisco.

The briefing, an annual update on the field presented by the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine (ARM), gave a “by the numbers” look at the field and apart from one negative spot everything is moving in the right direction.

Robert Preti, Chair of ARM’s Board, said worldwide there are more than 750 regenerative companies working in the stem cell and gene therapy space. And those companies are increasingly moving the research out of the lab and into clinical trials in people.

For example, at the end of 2016 there were 802 clinical trials underway. That is a 21 percent growth over 2015. Those breakdown as follows:

Phase 1 – 271 (compared to 192 in 2015)

Phase 2 – 465 (compared to 376 in 2015)

Phase 3 – 66 (compared to 63 in 2015)

The bulk of these clinical trials, 45 percent, are focused on cancer. The second largest target, 11 percent, is on heart disease. The number of trials for neurological disorders and rare diseases are also growing in number.

Preti says the industry is at an important inflection point right now and that this growth is presenting new problems:

“The pipeline of products is robust and the technologies supporting that pipeline is even more robust. The technologies that are fueling the growth in clinical activity have accelerated so fast that we on the manufacturing side are playing catchup. We are at a point where we have to get serious about large scale commercial production.”

Preti also talked about “harmonization” of the regulatory process and the need to have a system that makes it easier for products approved for clinical trials in one country, to get approval for clinical trials in other countries.

Michael Werner, the executive director of ARM, said the organization has played a key role in helping promote the field and cited the recently passed 21st Century Cures Act as “a major win and a powerful statement of ARM’s leadership in this sector.”

But there was one area where the news wasn’t all positive, the ability of companies to raise capital. In 2015 companies raised $11 billion for research. In 2016 it was less than half of that, $5.3 billion.

With that somber note in mind it was appropriate that the panel discussion that followed the briefing was focused on the near-term and long-term challenges facing the field if it was to be commercially successful.

One of the big challenges was the issue of regulatory approval, and here the panel seemed to be more optimistic than in previous years.

Manfred Rüdiger of Kiadis Pharma said he was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to work with different regulatory agencies in the US, Canada and Europe.

“We used them as a kind of free consultancy service, listening to their advice and making the changes they suggested so that we were able to use the same manufacturing process in Europe and Canada and the US.”

Jeff Walsh of bluebird bio, said the key to having a good working relationship with regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is simple:

“Trust and transparency between you and the regulatory agencies is essential, it’s a critical factor in advancing your work. The agencies respond well when you have that trust. One thing we can’t be is afraid to ask. The agencies will tell you where their line is, but don’t be afraid to ask or to push the boundaries. This is new for everyone, companies and regulators, so if you are pushing it helps create the environment that allows you to work together to develop safe therapies that benefit patients.”

Another big issue was scalability in manufacturing; that it’s one thing to produce enough of a product to carry out a clinical trial but completely different if you are hoping to use that same product to treat millions of people spread out all over the US or the world.

And of course cost is always something that is front and center in people’s minds. How do you develop therapies that are not just safe and effective, but also affordable? How do companies ensure they will get reimbursed by health insurers for the treatments? No one had any simple answer to what are clearly very complex problems. But all recognized the need to start thinking about these now, long before the treatments themselves are even ready.

Walsh ended by saying:

“This is not just about what can you charge but what should you charge. We have a responsibility to engage with the agencies and ultimately the payers that make these decisions, in the same way we engage with regulatory agencies; with a sense of openness, trust and transparency. Too often companies wait too long, too late before turning to the payers and trying to decide what is appropriate to charge.”

 

 

CIRM Board member Jeff Sheehy appointed to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors

As a former journalist I love breaking news, it gets the adrenaline flowing. Usually when news is breaking it’s bad news. Today, however, I was fortunate to be present for breaking news that was, more than anything, a celebration.

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Jeff Sheehy, CIRM Board member (standing at podium) was appointed today as San Francisco’s District 8 Supervisor by Mayor Ed Lee (right of Sheehy), replacing Scott Weiner (3rd from left) who held the position before his election to the State Senate

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee today appointed CIRM Board member, and Patient Advocate for HIV/AIDS, Jeff Sheehy, as the new Supervisor for District 8. In announcing his decision the Mayor said:

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SF Mayor Ed Lee

“This was a very important decision. I was looking for someone who is passionate, a lover of our City and our people, someone who is solution oriented. I found that person in Jeff Sheehy. He has passion and commitment. He has an intellect that is very deep and a spirit that is steeped in advocacy.”

 

Those of us at CIRM know that passion and advocacy very well. As CIRM Board Chair, Jonathan Thomas, and Vice Chair, Art Torres, said in a joint statement:

“We are delighted that Mayor Lee has chosen Jeff Sheehy to be the new Supervisor. Having worked with Jeff for many years we know that he brings intelligence, dedication and compassion to everything he does. While Jeff is the HIV/AIDS Patient Advocate member on our Board, he has always been a true champion for anyone suffering from an inadequately treated disease, making sure that their voices are heard and reflected in every decision we make. We are confident he will bring those same qualities, and that same passion to the Board of Supervisors. We are also delighted that while he takes on this new role he will still continue to be a member of the CIRM Board and help us fulfill our mission of accelerating stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.”

As the first HIV-positive person to serve on the Board Jeff said he knows there are going to be tough challenges ahead, for the LGBTQ community and the City, but he said he has one very clear goal:

“This is about the kids, they are our future. If we don’t do well for our kids, we won’t do well for our City.”

He said he is both honored and humbled to be appointed to what he calls “a very challenging job.” But anyone who knows Jeff knows that he never backs away from a challenge.

Scott Weiner, who represented District 8 before being elected to the State Senate, called Jeff “an extraordinary leader, an extraordinary thinker. Some who is tenacious and committed to serving our community.”

Congratulations to Jeff, his husband Billy and their daughter Michelle. That’s a pretty cool way to start 2017.