Frustration, failure and finally hope in the search for treatments for spina bifida

diana farmer_2015

Dr. Diana Farmer and her team at UC. Davis

By any standards Dr. Diana Farmer is a determined woman who doesn’t let setbacks and failure deter her. As a fetal and neonatal surgeon, and the chair of the Department of Surgery at UC Davis Health, Dr. Farmer has spent years trying to develop a cure for spina bifida. She’s getting closer.

Dr. Farmer and her partner in this research, Dr. Aijun Wang, have already shown they can repair the damage spina bifida causes to the spinal cord, in the womb, in sheep and bulldogs. Last year the CIRM Board voted to fund her research to get the data needed to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration for permission to start a clinical trial in people.

That work is so promising that we decided to profile Dr. Farmer in our 2018 Annual Report.

Here’s excerpts from an interview we conducted with her as part of the Annual Report.

I have been working on this since 2008. We have been thinking about how to help kids with spina bifida walk. It’s not fatal disease but it is a miserable disease.

It’s horrible for parents who think they are about to have a healthy child suddenly be faced with a baby who faces a life long struggle with their health, everything from difficulty or inability to walk to bowel and bladder problems and life-threatening infections.

As a fetal surgeon we used to only focus on fatal diseases because otherwise kids would die. But as we made progress in the field, we had the opportunity to help others who didn’t have a fatal condition, in ways we couldn’t have done in the past.

I’ve always been fascinated by the placenta, it has lots of protective properties. So, we asked the question if we were able to sample fetal cells from the placenta, could we augment those cells, and use them to tissue engineer spinal injuries, in the womb, to improve the outcome for kids with spina bifida?

Dr. Aijun Wang and I have been working on this project for the last decade.  Ten years of work has taken us to this point where we are now ready to move this to the next level.

It’s amazing to me how long this process takes and that’s why we are so grateful to CIRM because this is a rare disease and finding funding for those is hard. A lot of people are scared about funding fetal surgery and CIRM has been a perfect partner in helping bring this approach, blending stem cell therapy and tissue engineering, together.

If this therapy is successful it will have a huge economic impact on California, and on the rest of the world. Because spina bifida is a lifelong condition involving many operations, many stays in the hospital, in some cases lifelong use of a wheelchair. This has a huge financial burden on the family. And because this doesn’t just affect the child but the whole family, it has a huge psychological burden on families. It affects them in so many ways; parents having to miss work or take time off work to care for their child, other children in the family feeling neglected because their brother or sister needs so much attention.

In the MOMS Trial (a study that looked at prenatal – before birth – and postnatal – after birth – surgery to repair a defect in the spinal cord and showed that prenatal surgery had strong, long-term benefits and some risks) we showed that we could operate on the fetus before birth and help them. The fact that there was any improvement – doubling the number of kids who could walk from 20 to 40% showed this spinal cord injury is not a permanent situation and also showed there was some plasticity in the spinal cord, some potential for improvement. And so, the next question was can we do more. And that’s why we are trying this.

It’s pretty amazing. We are pretty excited.

The thing that makes surgeon-scientists feel so passionate is that we don’t just ask the fundamental questions, we ask questions in order to cure a problem in patients. I grew up in an environment where people were always asking “how can we do it better, how can we improve?”

There were many times of frustration, many times when cell types we explored and worked with didn’t work. But it’s the patients, seeing them, that keeps me motivated to do the science, to keep persevering. That’s the beauty of being a clinician-scientist. We can ask questions in a different way and look at data in a different way because we are driven by patient outcomes. So, whenever we get stuck in the rabbit hole of theoretical problems, we look to the patients for inspiration to keep going.

I am very cognizant of stirring up false hope, knowing that what occurs in animal models doesn’t always translate into humans. But we are optimistic, and I am anxious to get going.

 

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