Encouraging news for treatment targeting retinitis pigmentosa

While most people probably wouldn’t put 2020 in their list of favorite years, it’s certainly turning out to be a good one for jCyte. Earlier this year jCyte entered into a partnership with global ophthalmology company Santen Pharmaceuticals worth up to $252 million. Then earlier this week they announced some encouraging results from their Phase 2b clinical trial.

Let’s back up a bit and explain what jCyte does and why it’s so important. They have developed a therapy for retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a rare vision destroying disease that attacks the light sensitive cells at the back of the eye. People are often diagnosed when they are in their teens and most are legally blind by middle age. CIRM has supported this therapy from its early stages into clinical trials.

This latest clinical trial is one of the largest of its kind anywhere in the world. They enrolled 84 patients (although only 74 were included in the final analysis). The patients had vision measuring between 20/80 and 20/800. They were split into three groups: one group was given a sham or placebo treatment; one was given three million human retinal progenitor cells (hRPCs), the kind attacked by the disease; and one was given six million hRPCs.

jCyte CEO Paul Bresge

In an article in Endpoints News, jCyte’s CEO Paul Bresge said there was a very specific reason for this approach. “We did enroll a very wide patient population into our Phase IIb, including patients that had vision anywhere from 20/80 to 20/800, just to learn which patients would potentially be the best responders.”

The results showed that the treatment group experienced improved functional vision and greater clarity of vision compared to the sham or placebo group. Everyone had their vision measured at the start and again 12 months later. For the placebo group the mean change in their ability to read an eye chart (with glasses on) was an improvement of 2.81 letters; for the group that got three million hRPCs it was 2.96 letters, and for the group that got six million hRPCs it was 7.43 letters.

When they looked at a very specific subgroup of patients the improvement was even more dramatic, with the six million cell group experiencing an improvement of 16.27 letters.

Dr. Henry Klassen

Dr. Henry Klassen, one of the founders of jCyte, says the therapy works by preserving the remaining photoreceptors in the eye, and helping them bounce back.

“Typically, people think about the disease as a narrowing of this peripheral vision in a very nice granular way, but that’s actually not what happens. What happens in the disease is that patients lose like islands of vision. So, what we’re doing in our tests is actually measuring […] islands that the patients have at baseline, and then what we’re seeing after treatment is that the islands are expanding. It’s similar to the way that one would track, let’s say a tumor, in oncology of course we’re looking for the opposite effect. We’re looking for the islands of vision to expand.”

One patient did experience some serious side effects in the trial but they responded well to treatment.

The team now plan on carrying out a Phase 3 clinical trial starting next year. They hope that will provide enough evidence showing the treatment is both safe and effective to enable them to get approval from the US Food and Drug Administration to make it available to all who need it.

Using mini lungs to test potential COVID-19 therapies

Dr. Evan Snyder

If someone told you they were working on lungs in a dish you might be forgiven for thinking that’s the worst idea for a new recipe you have ever heard of. But in the case of Dr. Evan Snyder and his team at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute it could be a recipe for a powerful new tool against COVID-19. 

Earlier this month the CIRM Board approved almost $250,000 for Dr. Snyder and his team to use human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs), a type of stem cell that can be created by reprogramming skin or blood cells, to create any other cell in the body, including lung cells.

These cells will then be engineered to become 3D lung organoids or “mini lungs in a dish”. The importance of this is that these cells resemble human lungs in a way animal models do not. They have the same kinds of cells, structures and even blood vessels that lungs do.

These cells will then be infected with the coronavirus and then be used to test two drugs to see if those drugs are effective against the virus.

In a news release Dr. Snyder says these cells have some big advantages over animal models, the normal method for early stage testing of new therapies.

“Mini lungs will also help us answer why some people with COVID-19 fare worse than others. Because they are made from hiPSCs, which come from patients and retain most of the characteristics of those patients, we can make ‘patient-specific’ mini lungs. We can compare the drug responses of mini lungs created from Caucasian, African American, and Latino men and women, as well as patients with a reduced capacity to fight infection to make sure that therapies work effectively in all patients. If not, we can adjust the dose or drug regime to help make the treatment more effective.

“We can also use the mini lungs experimentally to evaluate the effects of environmental toxins that come from cigarette smoking or vaping to make sure the drugs are still effective; and emulate the microenvironmental conditions in the lungs of patients with co-morbidities such as diabetes, and heart or kidney disease.”

To date CIRM has funded 15 projects targeting COVID-19, including three that are in clinical trials.

Cord blood transplants help children fighting deadly diseases

Dr. Paul Szabolcs: Photo courtesy of UPMC

A simple blood stem cell transplant is showing tremendous promise in treating a wide range of metabolic, blood and immune disorders such as thalassemia and some leukodystrophies.

These are considered rare diseases – meaning there are fewer than 200,000 people with them in the US – so there is often little funding available to develop new therapies to help people suffering from them. So, researchers at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh set out to develop a therapy that could help several different disorders without having to craft individual approaches for each condition.

The team used blood stem cells from donated umbilical cords and placentas. In a news article, study senior author Dr. Paul Szabolcs, said they then used a combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy to prepare the patients for the transplant and increase the chance of success.

“We approached the topic with the mindset to design a regimen that carefully balances low-intensity chemo (bringing safety) with sufficiently effective immunotherapy to blast away the patients’ immune system, therefore preventing rejection. Rejection has been a common failure when other centers explored the reduced-intensity conditioning (RIC) approach with cord blood. We are the first to prove the RIC is able to give reliable results in long-term engraftment.”

Szabolcs says another advantage to their approach was that it meant there didn’t need to be a perfect immune system match of donor and recipient.

“That’s huge for ethnic minorities. The probability of a perfect match is very low, but with a cord blood graft, we have a chance to overcome this discrepancy over the course of a couple months and then taper immunosuppressants away.”

Altogether 44 children were treated this way. After undergoing the preparation, they had the blood stem cells transfused into them and, once those cells had integrated into the body they got a second, smaller, transfusion a few weeks later to help kick start their immune system.

Most of the complications from the infusions were mild, and while around 5 percent of children died from viral infection due to the immune suppression this was much lower than in earlier studies. Another encouraging sign was that none of the children suffered severe Graft vs Host disease which can be fatal.

Thirty of the children in the trial suffered from metabolic disorders, meaning their bodies were unable to remove dangerous toxins, and this led to developmental delays in their brains. One year after the treatment all 30 children had normal enzyme levels and their neurological decline had stopped. Some of the children even showed improvements and gained new skills.

Most of the children with metabolic disorders had leukodystrophies. These are usually fatal within a few years of diagnosis. Even with a cord blood transplant the three-year survival rate is only 60 percent. In this trial more than 90 percent of children with leukodystrophies were alive after three years.

Dr. Szabolcs says this approach has a lot of advantages over existing approaches, including cost.

“There has been a lot of emphasis placed on cool new technologies that might address these diseases, but — even if they prove effective — those aren’t available to most centers. The regimen we developed is more robust, readily applicable and will remain significantly less expensive.”

The study was published in the journal Blood Advances.

Lab-grown human sperm cells could unlock treatments for infertility

Dr. Miles Wilkinson: Photo courtesy UCSD

Out of 100 couples in the US, around 12 or 13 will have trouble starting a family. In one third of those cases the problem is male infertility (one third is female infertility and the other third is a combination of factors). In the past treatment options for men were often limited. Now a new study out of the University of California San Diego (UCSD) could help lead to treatments to help these previously infertile men have children of their own.

The study, led by Dr. Miles Wilkinson of UCSD School of Medicine, targeted spermatogonial stem cells (SSCs), which are the cells that develop into sperm. In the past it was hard to isolate these SSCs from other cells in the testes. However, using a process called single cell RNA sequencing – which is like taking a photo of all the gene expression happening in one cell at a precise moment – the team were able to identify the SSCs.

In a news release Dr. Wilkinson, the senior author of the study, says this is a big advance on previous methods: “We think our approach — which is backed up by several techniques, including single-cell RNA-sequencing analysis — is a significant step toward bringing SSC therapy into the clinic.”

Identifying the SSCs was just the first step. Next the team wanted to find a way to be able to take those cells and grow and multiply them in the lab, an important step in having enough cells to be able to treat infertility.

So, they tested the cells in the lab and identified something called the AKT pathway, which controls cell division and survival. By blocking the AKT pathway they were able to keep the SSCs alive and growing for a month. Next they hope to build on the knowledge and expand the cells for even longer so they could be used in a clinical setting.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is wilkinson-ssc-graphic_450px.jpg
Illustrations by Vishaala Wilkinson

The hope is that this could ultimately lead to treatments for men whose bodies don’t produce sperm cells, or enough sperms cells to make them fertile. It could also help children going through cancer therapy which can destroy their ability to have children of their own later in life. By taking sperm cells and freezing them, they could later be grown and expanded in the lab and injected back into the testes to restore sperm production.

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Four teaspoons could save a life

Sometimes it’s the smallest things that make the biggest difference. In the case of a clinical trial that CIRM is funding, all it takes to be part of it is four teaspoons of blood.

The clinical trial is being run by Dr. John Zaia and his team at the City of Hope in Duarte, near Los Angeles, in partnership with tgen and the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network. They are going to use blood plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 to treat people newly infected with the virus. The hope is that antibodies in the plasma, which can help fight infections, will reduce the severity or length of infection in others.

Dr. John Zaia. Photo courtesy City of Hope

People who have had the virus and are interested in taking part are asked to give four teaspoons of blood, to see if they have enough antibodies. If they do they can then either donate plasma – to help newly infected people – or blood to help with research into COVID-19.

As a sign of how quickly Dr. Zaia and his team are working, while we only approved the award in late April, they already have their website up and running, promoting the trial and trying to recruit both recovered COVID-19 survivors and current patients.

The site does a great job of explaining what they are trying to do and why people should take part. Here’s one section from the site.

Why should I participate in your study?

By participating in our study, you will learn whether you have developed antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. To do so, you just need to donate a small sample of blood (approximately 4 teaspoons).

If testing show you have enough antibodies, you will have the option of donating plasma that will be used to treat severely ill COVID-19 patients and may help save lives.

If you don’t want to donate plasma, you can still donate blood (approximately 3.5 tablespoons), which will be studied and help researchers learn more about COVID-19.

By donating blood or plasma, you will help us gain information that may be of significant value for patient management in future epidemic seasons.

You don’t even have to live close to one of the clinical trial sites because the team can send you a blood collection kit and information about a blood lab near you so you can donate there. They may even send a nurse to collect your blood.

The team is also trying to ensure they reach communities that are often overlooked in clinical trials. That’s why the website is also in Spanish and Vietnamese.

Finally, the site is also being used to help recruit treating physicians who can collect the blood samples and help infuse newly infected patients.

We often read about clinical trials in newspapers and online. Now you get a chance to not only see one working in real time, you can get to be part of it.

Saying farewell to an old friend

There are some people who, when you think of them, always bring a smile to your face. Dr. Bert Lubin was one of those people. Sadly, we lost Bert to brain cancer two days ago. But the impact he had, not just as an advocate for stem cell research but as a pioneer in sickle cell disease research and a champion for children’s health, will live on.

Bert had a number of official titles but probably the one he was most proud of was President & CEO of Children’s Hospital Oakland (now UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland). But it wasn’t the title that he cared about, it was the opportunity it gave him to make a difference in the life of children in Oakland, to create a program to find new treatments and cures for a life-threatening disease. And he has made a difference.

As I started to write this tribute to Bert, I thought about who I should ask for a quote. And then I realized I had the perfect person. Bert himself. I was fortunate enough to interview him in December 2018, when he decided to step down after eight years on the CIRM Board.  As always, he had his own positive spin on that, saying: “I don’t see myself leaving. I’m just repurposing what is my role in CIRM. I’m recycling and reinventing.”

And Bert was always full of invention.

He grew up in Bellevue, a small town outside Pittsburgh, PA. His parents ran a fruit and vegetable market there and, growing up, Bert often worked in the store. It wasn’t something he enjoyed but he said he learned some valuable lessons.

“I think what happened in my childhood is that I learned how to sell. I am a salesman. I hated working in that store, I hated it, but I liked the communication with people, they trusted me, I could sell things and they were good things. Like Christmas. I’m Jewish, we were the only Jews in that community, and at Christmas we sold Christmas trees, but the trees were sometimes crooked and they were $2.99 a tree so I convinced families that I could go to their house and set the tree so it looked straight and I helped them decorate it and they loved it.”

He said, thinking back on his life it’s almost as if there were a plan, even if he wasn’t aware of it.

“I started thinking about that more recently, I started wondering how did this even happen? I’m not a religious person but it’s almost like there’s some fate. How did I get there? It’s not that I planned it that way and it’s certainly not that my parents planned it because I was the first in my family to go to high school let alone college. My parents, when I went to medical school and then decided I wanted to spend more time in an academic direction, they were upset. They wanted me to go into practice in a community that I grew up in and be economically secure and not be on the fringe in what an academic life is like.”

And then, fate stepped in and brought him to the San Francisco Bay Area.

“What happened was, I was at the University of Pennsylvania having trained at Boston Children’s and Philadelphia Children’s, where I had started a sickle cell disease program, and was asked to look at a job in southern California to start a sickle cell program there. So, I flew to San Francisco because a lot of people I’d studied with were now working at UCSF and I thought it would be fun to see them before going down to southern California. They took me out to dinner and showed me around and I said this place is beautiful, I can play tennis out here all year round, there’s lots of music – I love jazz – and they said ‘you know Bert, have you looked at Oakland Children’s hospital? We want to start a sickle cell program center, but the patients are all in Oakland and the patient population that would be served is in Oakland. But if you came out to the Bay Area we could partner with you to start that program. 

“So, when I walked in the door here (at Oakland) and said ‘I want to create this northern California sickle cell center with UC’ the staff that was here said ‘you know we’re not a research hospital, we are a community based hospital’. I said, ‘I’m not saying you shouldn’t be that but I’m trying to create an opportunity here’ and they said to me ‘as long as you don’t ask for any money you can go and do whatever you want’.

‘They recognized that I had this fire in me to really create something that was novel. And the warmth and community commitment from this place is something that attracted me and then allowed me to build on that.

“For example, when I became the director of the research program we had $500,000 in NIH grants and when I left we had $60 million. We just grew. Why did we grow? Because we cared about the faculty and the community. We had a lovely facility, which was actually the home of the Black Panther party. It was the Black Panthers who started screening for sickle cell on street corners here in Oakland, and they were the start of the national sickle cell act so there’s a history here and I like that history.

“Then I got a sense of the opportunities that stem cell therapies would have for a variety of things, certainly including sickle cell disease, and I thought if there’s a chance to be on the CIRM Board, as an advocate for that sickle cell community, I think I’d be a good spokesperson. So, I applied. I just thought this was an exciting opportunity.

“I thought it was a natural fit for me to add some value, I only want to be on something where I think I add value.”

Bert added value to everything he did. And everyone he met felt valued by him. He was a mentor to so many people, young physicians and nurses, students starting out on their careers. And he was a friend to those in need.

He was an extraordinary man and we are grateful that we were able to call him a colleague, and a friend, for as long as we did.

When Burt stepped down from Children’s his colleagues put together this video about his life and times. It seems appropriate to share it again and remind ourselves of the gift that he was to everyone fortunate enough to know him.

You never forget your first

Jake Javier: Photo Michael Clemens “Sees the Day” Photography

Now that we have 64 clinical trials that we have funded (plus a few dozen more where we supported the early stage research) it’s sometimes hard to remember the details of each trial. But there is one you never forget. The very first clinical trial you funded. And we just got some encouraging news about it.

Way back in 2011 CIRM funded a clinical trial with a company called Geron, targeting spinal cord injuries. It was not only the first clinical trial we funded, it was also the first clinical trial involving the use of embryonic stem cells that was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

But in November of that year Geron decided to change its business plan and canceled the trial. We got all our money back – plus interest – but it was still terribly disappointing to us and to everyone who had hopes the research would help people with severe spinal cord injuries.

Fast forward three years and a company called Asterias picked up where Geron left off, getting permission from the FDA to run a clinical trial using  the same approach for spinal cord injuries. Once again CIRM funded the project.

The results from this Phase 1 trial were, to say the least, encouraging

We profiled two of the patients treated in this group who seemed to benefit a lot from the therapy; Jake Javier and Kris Boesen.

Kris Boesen

But after the initial trial it felt like someone hit the pause button. Asterias was bought up by BioTime which changed its name to Lineage Cell Therapeutics and moved much of the OPC1 spinal cord injury program to Israel. Then last week Lineage announced it was unpausing the program.

In a news release they announced that by moving the program to their cGMP manufacturing plant in Israel they were able to make “process improvements” in the program and, more importantly; “ Lineage intends to meet with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to discuss further development of the OPC1 program by the end of 2020.”

Brian M. Culley, Lineage’s CEO said:  “We have worked diligently over the past year to transition all manufacturing activities for the OPC1 program to our in-house cGMP facility, where our experienced cell therapy production team could develop and deploy much-needed improvements and modernization to the production and analytical processes. This work has achieved significantly better efficiency and improved quality control, which we expect will enable a consistent supply of material to support a late-stage clinical trial of OPC1. With these necessary steps now completed, our focus turns to developing a “thaw-and-inject” formulation and superior delivery tools, to enable an easier surgical procedure and facilitate faster enrollment in the next clinical trial. We also are evaluating ways to return OPC1 to the clinic sooner than originally planned, reflecting our view of compelling clinical data which continues to read out from the 25-patient phase 1/2a SCiStar study.”

So, almost a decade after we first became involved with this project, we’re happy to say it’s alive and seemingly well and getting ready to take the next step in helping people with spinal cord injuries. We’ll let you know how it goes.

One last thing. One of the reasons we are such fans of the approach is Jake Javier. We have come to know and admire him and watch him fight back from his injury. He is a remarkable young man in many ways. He is now a student at Cal Poly where they made this video about him.

A ready-made approach to tackling COVID-19

Coronavirus particles, illustration.

In late March the CIRM Board approved $5 million in emergency funding for COVID-19 research. The idea was to support great ideas from California’s researchers, some of which had already been tested for different conditions, and see if they could help in finding treatments or a vaccine for the coronavirus.

Less than a month later we were funding a clinical trial and two other projects, one that targeted a special kind of immune system cell that has the potential to fight the virus.

Our friends at UCLA have just written a terrific piece on this project and the team that came up with the idea. Here is that article.

Researchers use stem cells to model the immune response to COVID-19

By Tiare Dunlap

Cities across the United States are opening back up, but we’re still a long way from making the COVID-19 pandemic history. To truly accomplish that, we need to have a vaccine that can stop the spread of infection.

But to develop an effective vaccine, we need to understand how the immune system responds to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Vaccines work by imitating infection. They expose a person’s immune system to a weakened version or component of the virus they are intended to protect against. This essentially prepares the immune system to fight the virus ahead of time, so that if a person is exposed to the real virus, their immune system can quickly recognize the enemy and fight the infection. Vaccines need to contain the right parts of the virus to provoke a strong immune response and create long-term protection.

Most of the vaccines in development for SARS CoV-2 are using part of the virus to provoke the immune system to produce proteins called antibodies that neutralize the virus. Another way a vaccine could create protection against the virus is by activating the T cells of the immune system.

T cells specifically “recognize” virus-infected cells, and these kinds of responses may be especially important for providing long-term protection against the virus. One challenge for researchers is that they have only had a few months to study how the immune system protects against SARS CoV-2, and in particular, which parts of the virus provoke the best T-cell responses.

This is where immunotherapy researchers and UCLA Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research members Dr. Gay Crooks and Dr. Christopher Seet come in.

Dr. Gay Crooks: Photo courtesy UCLA

For years, they have been perfecting an innovative technology that uses blood-forming stem cells — which can give rise to all types of blood and immune cells — to produce a rare and powerful subset of immune cells called type 1 dendritic cells. Type 1 dendritic cells play an essential role in the immune response by devouring foreign proteins, termed antigens, from virus-infected cells and then chopping them into fragments. Dendritic cells then use these protein fragments to trigger T cells to mount an immune response.

Dr. Christopher Seet: Photo courtesy UCLA

Using this technology, Crooks and Seet are working to pinpoint which specific parts of the SARS-CoV-2 virus provoke the strongest T-cell responses.

Building long-lasting immunity

“We know from a lot of research into other viral infections and also in cancer immunotherapy, that T-cell responses are really important for long-lasting immunity,” said Seet, an assistant professor of hematology-oncology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “And so this approach will allow us to better characterize the T-cell response to SARS-CoV-2 and focus vaccine and therapeutic development on those parts of the virus that induce strong T-cell immunity.”

This project was recently awarded $150,000 from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the state’s stem cell agency. The award was matched by the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center.

Crooks’ and Seet’s project uses blood-forming stem cells taken from healthy donors and infected with a virus containing antigens from SARS-CoV-2. They then direct these stem cells to produce large numbers of type 1 dendritic cells using a new method developed by Seet and Suwen Li, a graduate student in Crooks’ lab. Both Seet and Li are graduates of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center’s training program.

“The dendritic cells we are able to make using this process are really good at chopping up viral antigens and eliciting strong immune responses from T cells,” said Crooks, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and of pediatrics at the medical school and co-director of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center.

When type 1 dendritic cells chop up viral antigens into fragments, they present these fragments on their cell surfaces to T cells. Our bodies produce millions and millions of T cells each day, each with its own unique antigen receptor, however only a few will have a receptor capable of recognizing a specific antigen from a virus.

When a T cell with the right receptor recognizes a viral antigen on a dendritic cell as foreign and dangerous, it sets off a chain of events that activates multiple parts of the immune system to attack cells infected with the virus. This includes clonal expansion, the process by which each responding T cell produces a large number of identical cells, called clones, which are all capable of recognizing the antigen.

“Most of those T cells will go off and fight the infection by killing cells infected with the virus,” said Seet, who, like Crooks, is also a member of the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. “However, a small subset of those cells become memory T cells — long-lived T cells that remain in the body for years and protect from future infection by rapidly generating a robust T-cell response if the virus returns. It’s immune memory.”

Producing extremely rare immune cells

This process has historically been particularly challenging to model in the lab, because type 1 dendritic cells are extremely rare — they make up less than 0.1% of cells found in the blood. Now, with this new stem cell technology, Crooks and Seet can produce large numbers of these dendritic cells from blood stem cells donated by healthy people, introduce them to parts of the virus, then see how T cells  taken from the blood can respond in the lab. This process can be repeated over and over using cells taken from a wide range of healthy people.

“The benefit is we can do this very quickly without the need for an actual vaccine trial, so we can very rapidly figure out in the lab which parts of the virus induce the best T-cell responses across many individuals,” Seet said.

The resulting data could be used to inform the development of new vaccines for COVID-19 that improve T-cell responses. And the data about which viral antigens are most important to the T cells could also be used to monitor the effectiveness of existing vaccine candidates, and an individual’s immune status to the virus.

“There are dozens of vaccine candidates in development right now, with three or four of them already in clinical trials,” Seet said. “We all hope one or more will be effective at producing immediate and long-lasting immunity. But as there is so much we don’t know about this new virus, we’re still going to need to really dig in to understand how our immune systems can best protect us from infection.”

Supporting basic research into our body’s own processes that can inform new strategies to fight disease is central to the mission of the Broad Stem Cell Research Center.

“When we started developing this project some years ago, we had no idea it would be so useful for studying a viral infection, any viral infection,” Crooks said. “And it was only because we already had these tools in place that we could spring into action so fast.”

Scientists Engineer Stem Cells to Fight HIV

Image of the virus that causes AIDS – courtesy NIH

If that headline seems familiar it should. It came from an article in MIT Technology Review back in 2009. There have been many other headlines since then, all on the same subject, and yet here we are, in 2020, and still no cure for HIV/AIDS. So what’s the problem, what’s holding us back?

First, the virus is incredibly tough and wily. It is constantly mutating so trying to target it is like playing a game of ‘whack a mole’. Secondly not only can the virus evade our immune system, it actually hijacks it and uses it to help spread itself throughout the body. Even new generations of anti-HIV medications, which are effective at controlling the virus, can’t eradicate it. But now researchers are using new tools to try and overcome those obstacles and tame the virus once and for all.

Dr. Scott Kitchen: Photo David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA

UCLA researchers Scott Kitchen and Irvin Chen have been awarded $13.65 million by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to see if they can use the patient’s own immune system to fight back against HIV.

Dr. Irvin Chen: Photo UCLA

Dr. Kitchen and Dr. Chen take the patient’s own blood-forming stem cells and then, in the lab, they genetically engineer them to carry proteins called chimeric antigen receptors or CARs. Once these blood cells are transplanted back into the body, they combine with the patient’s own immune system T cells (CAR T). These T cells now have a newly enhanced ability to target and destroy HIV.

That’s the theory anyway. Lots of research in the lab shows it can work. For example, the UCLA team recently showed that these engineered CAR T cells not only destroyed HIV-infected cells but also lived for more than two years. Now the team at UCLA want to take the lessons learned in the lab and apply them to people.

In a news release Dr. Kitchen says the NIH grant will give them a terrific opportunity to do that: “The overarching goal of our proposed studies is to identify a new gene therapy strategy to safely and effectively modify a patient’s own stem cells to resist HIV infection and simultaneously enhance their ability to recognize and destroy infected cells in the body in hopes of curing HIV infection. It is a huge boost to our efforts at UCLA and elsewhere to find a creative strategy to defeat HIV.”

By the way, CIRM helped get this work off the ground with an early-stage grant. That enabled Dr. Kitchen and his team to get the data they needed to be able to apply to the NIH for this funding. It’s a great example of how we can kick-start projects that no one else is funding. You can read a blog about that early stage research here.

CIRM has already funded three clinical trials targeting HIV/AIDS. Two of these are still active; Dr. Mehrdad Abedi at UC Davis and Dr. John Zaia at City of Hope.

Super charging killer cells to fight leukemia

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of a natural killer cell.
Photo credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Racing car drivers are forever tinkering with their cars, trying to streamline them and soup up their engines because while fast is good, faster is better. Researchers do the same things with potential anti-cancer therapies, tinkering with them to make them safer and more readily available to patients while also boosting their ability to fight cancer.

That’s what researchers at the University of California San Diego (UCSD), in a CIRM-funded study, have done. They’ve taken immune system cells – with the already impressive name of ‘natural killer’ (NK) cells – and made them even deadlier to cancers.

These natural killer (NK) cells are considered one of our immune system’s frontline weapons against outside threats to our health, things like viruses and cancer. But sometimes the cancers manage to evade the NKs and spread throughout the body or, in the case of leukemia, throughout the blood.

Lots of researchers are looking at ways of taking a patient’s own NK cells and, in the lab boosting their ability to fight these cancers. However, using a patient’s own cells is both time consuming and very, very expensive.

Dan Kaufman MD

Dr. Dan Kaufman and his team at UCSD decided it would be better to try and develop an off-the-shelf approach, a therapy that could be mass produced from a single batch of NK cells and made available to anyone in need.

Using the iPSC method (which turns tissues like skin or blood into embryonic stem cell-like cells, capable of becoming any other cell in the body) they created a line of NK cells. Then they removed a gene called CISH which slows down the activities of cytokines, acting as a kind of brake or restraint on the immune system.

In a news release, Dr. Kaufman says removing CISH had a dramatic effect, boosting the power of the NK cells.

“We found that CISH-deleted iPSC-derived NK cells were able to effectively cure mice that harbor human leukemia cells, whereas mice treated with the unmodified NK cells died from the leukemia.”

Dr. Kaufman says the next step is to try and develop this approach for testing in people, to see if it can help people whose disease is not responding to conventional therapies.

“Importantly, iPSCs provide a stable platform for gene modification and since NK cells can be used as allogeneic cells (cells that come from donors) that do not need to be matched to individual patients, we can create a line of appropriately modified iPSC-derived NK cells suitable for treating hundreds or thousands of patients as a standardized, ‘off-the-shelf’ therapy.”

The study is published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.