A little history in the making by helping the tiniest patients

Dr. Diana Farmer stands with Dr. Aijun Wang and their UC Davis research team.

It’s appropriate that at the start of Women’s History Month, UC Davis’ Dr. Diana Farmer is making a little history of her own. She launched the world’s first clinical trial using stem cells to treat spina bifida before the child is born.

Spina bifida is a birth defect caused when a baby’s spinal cord fails to develop properly in the womb. In myelomeningocele, the most severe form of spina bifida, a portion of the spinal cord or nerves is exposed in a sac through an opening in the spine. Most people with myelomeningocele have changes in their brain structure, leg weakness, and bladder and bowel dysfunction. 

Illustration of spina bifida

While surgery can help, Dr. Farmer says it is far from perfect: “Currently, the standard of care for our patients is fetal surgery, which, while promising, still leaves more than half of children with spina bifida unable to walk independently. There is an extraordinary need for a treatment that prevents or lessens the severity of this devastating condition. Our team has spent more than a decade working up to this point of being able to test such a promising therapy.” 

The team at UC Davis – in a CIRM-funded study – will use a stem cell “patch” that is placed over the exposed spinal cord, then surgically close the opening, hopefully allowing the stem cells to regenerate and protect the spinal cord.

In a news release Dr. Aijun Wang, a stem cell bioengineer, says the team has been preparing for this trial for years, helping show in animals that it is safe and effective. He is hopeful it will prove equally safe and effective in people: “Our cellular therapy approach, in combination with surgery, should encourage tissue regeneration and help patients avoid devastating impairments throughout their lives.” 

Dr. Farmer says the condition, while rare, disproportionately affects Latinx babies and if the procedure works could have an enormous impact on their lives and the lives of their families: “A successful treatment for MMC would relieve the tremendous emotional and economic cost burden on families. We know it initially costs approximately $532,000 per child with spina bifida. But the costs are likely several million dollars more due to ongoing treatments, not to mention all the pain and suffering, specialized childcare, and lost time for unpaid caregivers such as parents.”

Here is video of two English bulldogs who had their spinal injuries repaired at UC Davis using stem cells. This was part of the research that led to the clinical trial led by Dr. Farmer and Dr. Wang.

A word from our Chair, several in fact

In 2005, the New Oxford American Dictionary named “podcast” its word of the year. At the time a podcast was something many had heard of but not that many actually tuned in to. My how times have changed. Now there are some two million podcasts to chose from, at least according to the New York Times, and who am I to question them.

Yesterday, in the same New York Times, TV writer Margaret Lyons, wrote about how the pandemic helped turn her from TV to podcasts: “Much in the way I grew to prefer an old-fashioned phone call to a video chat, podcasts, not television, became my go-to medium in quarantine. With their shorter lead times and intimate production values, they felt more immediate and more relevant than ever before.”

I mention this because an old colleague of ours at CIRM, Neil Littman, has just launched his own podcast and the first guest on it was Jonathan Thomas, Chair of the CIRM Board. Their conversation ranged from CIRM’s past to the future of the regenerative field as a whole, with a few interesting diversions along the way. It’s fun listening. And as Margaret Lyons said it might be more immediate and more relevant than ever before.

Charting a course for the future

A new home for stem cell research?

Have you ever been at a party where someone says “hey, I’ve got a good idea” and then before you know it everyone in the room is adding to it with ideas and suggestions of their own and suddenly you find yourself with 27 pages of notes, all of them really great ideas. No, me neither. At least, not until yesterday when we held the first meeting of our Scientific Strategy Advisory Panel.

This is a group that was set up as part of Proposition 14, the ballot initiative that refunded CIRM last November (thanks again everyone who voted for that). The idea was to create a panel of world class scientists and regulatory experts to help guide and advise our Board on how to advance our mission. It’s a pretty impressive group too. You can see who is on the SSAP here.  

The meeting involved some CIRM grantees talking a little about their work but mostly highlighting problems or obstacles they considered key issues for the future of the field as a whole. And that’s where the ideas and suggestions really started flowing hard and fast.

It started out innocently enough with Dr. Amander Clark of UCLA talking about some of the needs for Discovery or basic research. She advocated for a consortium approach (this quickly became a theme for many other experts) with researchers collaborating and sharing data and findings to help move the field along.

She also called for greater diversity in research, including collecting diverse cell samples at the basic research level, so that if a program advanced to later stages the findings would be relevant to a wide cross section of society rather than just a narrow group.

Dr. Clark also said that as well as supporting research into neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, there needed to be a greater emphasis on neurological conditions such as autism, bipolar disorder and other mental health problems.

(CIRM is already committed to both increasing diversity at all levels of research and expanding mental health research so this was welcome confirmation we are on the right track).

Dr. Mike McCun called for CIRM to take a leadership role in funding fetal tissue research, things the federal government can’t or won’t support, saying this could really help in developing an understanding of prenatal diseases.

Dr. Christine Mummery, President of ISSCR, advocated for support for early embryo research to deepen our understanding of early human development and also help with issues of infertility.

Then the ideas started coming really fast:

  • There’s a need for knowledge networks to share information in real-time not months later after results are published.
  • We need standardization across the field to make it easier to compare study results.
  • We need automation to reduce inconsistency in things like feeding and growing cells, manufacturing cells etc.
  • Equitable access to CRISPR gene-editing treatments, particularly for underserved communities and for rare diseases where big pharmaceutical companies are less likely to invest the money needed to develop a treatment.
  • Do a better job of developing combination therapies – involving stem cells and more traditional medications.

One idea that seemed to generate a lot of enthusiasm – perhaps as much due to the name that Patrik Brundin of the Van Andel Institute gave it – was the creation of a CIRM Hotel California, a place where researchers could go to learn new techniques, to share ideas, to collaborate and maybe take a nice cold drink by the pool (OK, I just made that last bit up to see if you were paying attention).

The meeting was remarkable not just for the flood of ideas, but also for its sense of collegiality.  Peter Marks, the director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (FDA-CBER) captured that sense perfectly when he said the point of everyone working together, collaborating, sharing information and data, is to get these projects over the finish line. The more we work together, the more we will succeed.

Unlocking a key behind why our bones get weaker as we age

Magnified image of a bone with osteoporosis. Photo Courtesy Sciencephoto.com

Getting older brings with it a mixed bag of items. If you are lucky you can get wiser. If you are not so lucky you can get osteoporosis. But while scientists don’t know how to make you wiser, they have gained some new insights into what makes bones weak and so they might be able to help with the osteoporosis.

Around 200 million people worldwide suffer from osteoporosis, a disease that causes bones to become so brittle that in extreme cases even coughing can lead to a fracture.

Scientists have known for some time that the cells that form the building blocks of our skeletons are found in the bone marrow. They are called mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) and they have the ability to turn into a number of different kinds of cells, including bone or fat. The keys to deciding which direction the MSCs take are things called epigenetic factors, these basically control which genes are switched on or off and in what order. Now researchers from the UCLA School of Dentistry have identified an enzyme that plays a critical role in that process.

The team found that when the enzyme KDM4B is missing in MSCs those cells are more likely to become fat cells rather than bone cells. Over time that leads to weaker bones and more fractures.

In a news release Dr. Cun-Yu Wang, the lead researcher, said: “We know that bone loss comes with age, but the mechanisms behind extreme cases such as osteoporosis have, up until recently, been very vague.”

To see if they were on the right track the team created a mouse model that lacked KDM4B. Just as they predicted the MSCs in the mouse created more fat than bone, leading to weaker skeletons.

They also looked at mice who were placed on a high fat diet – something known to increase bone loss and weaker bones in people – and found that the diet seemed to reduce KDM4B which in turn produced weaker bones.

In the news release Dr. Paul Krebsbach, Dean of the UCLA School of Dentistry, said the implications for the research are enormous. “The work of Dr. Wang, his lab members and collaborators provides new molecular insight into the changes associated with skeletal aging. These findings are an important step towards what may lead to more effective treatment for the millions of people who suffer from bone loss and osteoporosis.”

The study is published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

Tipping our hat to the good guys (& gals)

A search on Google using the term “stem cell blogs” quickly produces a host of sites offering treatments for everything from ankle, hip and knee problems, to Parkinson’s disease and asthma. Amazingly the therapies for those very different conditions all use the same kind of cells produced in the same way. It’s like magic. Sadly, it’s magic that is less hocus pocus and more bogus bogus.

The good news is there are blogs out there (besides us, of course) that do offer good, accurate, reliable information about stem cells. The people behind them are not in this to make a quick buck selling snake oil. They are in this to educate, inform, engage and enlighten people about what stem cells can, and cannot do.

So, here’s some of our favorites.

The Niche

This blog has just undergone a face lift and is now as colorful and easy to read as it is informative. It bills itself as the longest running stem cell blog around. It’s run by UC Davis stem cell biologist Dr. Paul Knoepfler – full disclosure, we have funded some of Paul’s work – and it’s a constant source of amazement to me how Paul manages to run a busy research lab and post regular updates on his blog.

The power of The Niche is that it’s easy for non-science folk – like me – to read and understand without having to do a deep dive into Google search or Wikipedia. It’s well written, informative and often very witty. If you are looking for a good website to check whether some news about stem cells is real or suspect, this is a great place to start.

Stem Cell Battles

This site is run by another old friend of CIRM’s, Don Reed. Don has written extensively about stem cell research in general, and CIRM in particular. His motivation to do this work is clear. Don says he’s not a doctor or scientist, he’s something much simpler:

“No. I am just a father fighting for his paralyzed son, and the only way to fix him is to advance cures for everyone. Also, my mother died of breast cancer, my sister from leukemia, and I myself am a prostate cancer survivor. So, I have some very personal reasons to support the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and to want state funding for stem cell and other regenerative medicine research to continue in California!”

The power of Don’s writing is that he always tells human stories, real tales about real people. He makes everything he does accessible, memorable and often very funny. If I’m looking for ways to explain something complex and translate it into everyday English, I’ll often look at Don’s work, he knows how to talk to people about the science without having their eyes cloud over.

A Closer Look at Stem Cells

This is published by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), the leading professional organization for stem cell scientists. You might expect a blog from such a science-focused organization to be heavy going for the ordinary person, but you’d be wrong.

A Closer Look at Stem Cells is specifically designed for people who want to learn more about stem cells but don’t have the time to get a PhD. They have sections explaining what stem cells are, what they can and can’t do, even a glossary explaining different terms used in the field (I used to think the Islets of Langerhans were small islands off the coast of Germany till I went to this site).

One of the best, and most important, parts of the site is the section on clinical trials, helping people understand what’s involved in these trials and the kinds of things you need to consider before signing up for one.

Signals

Of course, the US doesn’t have a monopoly on stem cell research and that’s reflected in the next two choices. One is the Signals Blog from our friends to the north in Canada. This is an easy-to-read site that describes itself as the “Insiders perspective on the world of stem cells and regenerative medicine.” The ‘Categories ‘dropdown menu allows you to choose what you want to read, and it gives you lots of options from the latest news to a special section for patients, even a section on ethical and legal issues. 

EuroStemCell

As you may have guessed from the title this is by our chums across the pond in Europe. They lay out their mission on page one saying they want to help people make sense of stem cells:

“As a network of scientists and academics, we provide independent, expert-reviewed information and road-tested educational resources on stem cells and their impact on society. We also work with people affected by conditions, educators, regulators, media, healthcare professionals and policymakers to foster engagement and develop material that meets their needs.”

True to their word they have great information on the latest research, broken down by different types of disease, different types of stem cell etc. And like CIRM they also have some great educational resources for teachers to use in the classroom.

U.C. San Diego Scientist Larry Goldstein Joins Stem Cell Agency’s Board

Larry Goldstein, PhD.

Larry Goldstein PhD, has many titles, one of which sums up his career perfectly, “Distinguished Professor”. Dr. Goldstein has distinguished himself on many fronts, making him an ideal addition to the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

Dr. Goldstein – everyone calls him Larry – is a Cell Biologist, Geneticist and Neuroscientist. He worked with many colleagues to launch the UC San Diego Stem Cell program, the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine and the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center. He has received the Public Service Award from the American Society for Cell Biology and has had a Public Policy Fellowship named for him by the International Society for Stem Cell Research. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and last year was named a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.

“I look forward to working with the ICOC and CIRM staff to ensure that the best and most promising stem cell research and medicine is fostered and funded,” Larry said.

For more than 25 years Larry’s work has targeted the brain and, in particular, Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

In 2012 his team was the first to create stem cell models for two different forms of Alzheimer’s, the hereditary and the sporadic forms. This gave researchers a new way of studying the disease, helping them better understand what causes it and looking at new ways of treating it.

He was appointed to the CIRM Board by Pradeep Khosla, the Chancellor of U.C. San Diego saying he is “gratified you are assuming this important role.”

Jonathan Thomas, JD, PhD., Chair of the CIRM Board, welcome the appointment saying “I have known Larry for many years and have nothing but the highest regard for him as a scientist, a leader, and a great champion of stem cell research. He is also an innovative thinker and that will be invaluable to us as we move into a second chapter in the life of CIRM.”

Larry was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Thousand Oaks, California. He graduated from UC San Diego with a degree in Biology in 1976 and from the University of Washington with a Ph. D. in Genetics in 1980. He joined the faculty in Cell and Developmental Biology at Harvard University in 1984 where he was promoted to Full Professor with tenure in 1990. He returned to UC San Diego and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in 1993. After 45 years pursuing cutting edge lab-based research Larry is now transitioning to an administrative and executive role at UC San Diego where he will serve as the Senior Advisor for Stem Cell Research and Policy to the Vice Chancellor of Health Sciences.

He replaces David Brenner who is standing down after completing two terms on the Board.

UCSF Nursing Professor Joins CIRM Board

Elena Flowers, PhD, RN, newest member of the CIRM Board: Photo courtesy UCSF

Elena Flowers, PhD, RN, an associate professor of physiological nursing at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) is joining the Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the state’s Stem Cell Agency.

Dr. Flowers was appointed to the Board by State Controller Betty T. Yee who said: “Ms. Flowers’ experience and express commitment to equitable health outcomes for California’s diverse communities will bring a valued perspective to the work ahead.”

Dr. Flowers is a member of the UCSF Institute for Human Genetics and the International Society of Nurses in Genetics. As a researcher her work focuses on genomics involving precision medicine and risk factors for cardiovascular health and type 2 diabetes. She is also a teacher and has lectured internationally on issues such as topics from racial disparities in Type 2 Diabetes to the implications of genomic technologies for the nursing workforce.

CIRM Board Chair, Jonathan Thomas, PhD, JD, welcomed the appointment: “Dr. Flowers brings a wealth of experience and expertise to our Board and, as a nurse, she will bring a different perspective to the work we do and help us in trying to better address the needs of underserved communities.” 

“I am honored to have the opportunity to serve the citizens of California in this capacity,” says Dr. Flowers. “CIRM has ambitious goals, seeking to improve upon common limitations of public research agencies by its commitment to delivering meaningful findings and ultimately treatments for patients as rapidly as possible. I’m particularly committed to improving inclusion and access to these treatments across the entire diverse California population.”

Dr. Flowers got her undergraduate degree at UC Davis and then served as a research assistant at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. She then went on to get her MS and Doctor of Philosophy degrees at the UCSF School of Nursing.

In her spare time she has no spare time because she is the mother of two young daughters.

De-stressing stem cells and the Bonnie & Clyde of stem cells

Dr. John Cashman

The cells in our body are constantly signalling with each other, it’s a critical process by which cells communicate not just with other cells but also with elements within themselves. One of the most important signalling pathways is called Wnt. This plays a key role in early embryonic and later development. But when Wnt signalling goes wrong, it can also help spur the growth of cancer.

Researchers at the Human BioMolecular Research Institute (HBRI) and Stanford University, have reported on a compound that can trigger a cascade of events that create stress and ultimately impact Wnt’s ability to control the ability of cells to repair themselves.

In a news release Dr. Mark Mercola, a co-author of a CIRM-funded study – published in the journal Cell Chemical Biology – says this is important: “because it explains why stressed cells cannot regenerate and heal tissue damage. By blocking the ability to respond to Wnt signaling, cellular stress prevents cells from migrating, replicating and differentiating.”

The researchers discovered a compound PAWI-2 that shows promise in blocking the compound that causes this cascade of problems. Co-author Dr. John Cashman says PAWI-2 could lead to treatments in a wide variety of cancers such as pancreatic, breast, prostate and colon cancer.

“As anti-cancer PAWI-2 drug development progresses, we expect PAWI-2 to be less toxic than current therapeutics for pancreatic cancer, and patients will benefit from improved safety, less side effects and possibly with significant cost-savings.”

Dr. Catriona Jamieson: Photo courtesy Moores Cancer Center, UCSD

Speaking of cancer….

Stem cells have many admirable qualities. However, one of their less admirable ones is their ability to occasionally turn into cancer stem cells. Like regular stem cells these have the ability to renew and replicate themselves over time, but as cancer stem cells they use that ability to help fuel the growth and spread of cancer in the body. Now, researchers at U.C. San Diego are trying to better understand how those regular stem cells become cancer stem cells, so they can stop that process.

In a CIRM-funded study Dr. Catriona Jamieson and her team identified two molecules, APOBEC3C and ADAR1, that play a key role in this process.

In a news release Jamieson said: “APOBEC3C and ADAR1 are like the Bonnie and Clyde of pre-cancer stem cells — they drive the cells into malignancy.”

So they studied blood samples from 54 patients with leukemia and 24 without. They found that in response to inflammation, APOBEC3C promotes the rapid production of pre-leukemia stem cells. That in turn enables ADAR1 to go to work, interfering with gene expression in a way that helps those pre-leukemia stem cells turn into leukemia stem cells.

They also found when they blocked the action of ADAR1 or silenced the gene in patient cells in the laboratory, they were able to stop the formation of leukemia stem cells.

The study is published in the journal Cell Reports.

Surviving with Joy

Dr. Tippi MacKenzie (left) of UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco, visits with newborn Elianna and parents Nichelle Obar and Chris Constantino. Photo by Noah Berger

Alpha thalassemia major is, by any stretch of the imagination, a dreadful, heart breaker of a disease. It’s caused by four missing or mutated genes and it almost always leads to a fetus dying before delivery or shortly after birth. Treatments are limited and in the past many parents were told that all they can do is prepare for the worst.

Now, however, there is new hope with new approaches, including one supported by CIRM, helping keep these children alive and giving them a chance at a normal life.

Thalassemias are a group of blood disorders that affect the way the body makes hemoglobin, which helps in carrying oxygen throughout the body. In alpha thalassemia major it’s the lack of alpha globin, a key part of hemoglobin, that causes the problem. Current treatment requires in blood transfusions to the fetus while it is still in the womb, and monthly blood transfusions for life after delivery, or a bone marrow transplant if a suitable donor is identified.

A clinical trial run by University of California San Francisco’s Dr. Tippi MacKenzie – funded by CIRM – is using a slightly different approach. The team takes stem cells from the mother’s bone marrow and then infuses them into the fetus. If accepted by the baby’s bone marrow, these stem cells can then mature into healthy blood cells. The hope is that one day this method will enable children to be born with a healthy blood supply and not need regular transfusions.

Treating these babies, saving their lives, is the focus of a short film from UCSF called “Surviving with Joy”. It’s a testament to the power of medicine, and the courage and resilience of parents who never stopped looking for a way to help their child.

Tissues are optional but advised.

Everything you wanted to know about COVID vaccines but never got a chance to ask

All this month we are using our blog and social media to highlight a new chapter in CIRM’s life, thanks to the voters approving Proposition 14. We are looking back at what we have done since we were created in 2004, and also looking forward to the future. Today we feature a rare treat, an interview with Moderna’s Dr. Derrick Rossi.

Moderna co-founder Dr. Derrick Rossi

It’s not often you get a chance to sit down with one of the key figures in the fight against the coronavirus and get to pick his brain about the best ways to beat it. We were fortunate enough to do that on Wednesday, talking to Dr. Derrick Rossi, the co-founder of Moderna, about the vaccine his company has developed.

CIRM’s President and CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, was able to chat to Dr. Rossi for one hour about his background (he got support from CIRM in his early post-doctoral research at Stanford) and how he and his colleagues were able to develop the COVID-19 vaccine, how the vaccine works, how effective it is, how it performs against new variations of the virus.

He also told us what he would have become if this science job hadn’t worked out.

All in all it was a fascinating conversation with someone whose work is offering a sense of hope for millions of people around the world.

If you missed it first time around you can watch it here.