IBSC directors bring in nearly $12 million to fund the future of bimolecular research at UC Santa Cruz

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Left to right: Lindsay Hinck and Camilla Forsberg

UC Santa Cruz professors Camilla Forsberg and Lindsay Hinck are not only pushing boundaries in their field as the female-led program directors of the Institute for the Biology of Stem Cells (IBSC), they’ve also been looking for ways to enhance the environment within the academic research infrastructure.

“We really wanted to make an effort to elevate everyone’s capacity for doing more research,” explains Forsberg. It was this drive that led the researchers to focus on bringing in grants to support students at different stages of their education to participate in research training programs.

So far, Fosberg and Hinck’s efforts have provided nearly $12 million in extramural funding for predoctoral and undergraduate training programs. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), which provides graduate and postdoctoral funding, is one of the five funding institutions that have supported IBSC. This funding will shape the future of the IBSC, which brings together more than 30 laboratories across the Engineering and Physical and Biological Sciences divisions, as well as the Science & Justice Research Center.

“We didn’t set out to have five training programs, but then there were more opportunities, so we kept pitching our basic mentoring philosophies to different funders,” Forsberg said. “Now we have five different programs. I guess we found a secret sauce that made our funders excited.”

Forsberg and Hinck’s secret sauce is perhaps in part due to their devotion to forming strong peer connections amongst a group of talented graduate and postdoctoral researchers. The programs aim to connect cohorts of trainees who can interact and network through the IBSC in order to form a peer support ecosystem.

Additionally, IBSC strives to build cohorts that welcome and foster diverse perspectives as they will host an upcoming pilot program that aims to demystify the lengthy path from academia to a research career.

With their lastest $1 million training grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), Forsberg and Hinck hope to provide support for postdoctoral scholars interested in the biotech industry. So far, biotech companies Jasper Therapeutics and Roche have joined the collaborative effort with IBSC to create shadowing opportunities for trainees to learn outside of the academic environment.

Furthermore, pre and postdoctoral trainees supported by these training grants can be hosted by several labs in the IBSC and beyond.

“The key thing about all these training programs is that they implement new ideas about structured graduate and postdoctoral training,” Hinck said. “While getting a training grant position is competitive, we try to make the structured training provided by the grants widely available so that all graduate students and postdoctoral scholars at UCSC can increase their skill sets. The environment that’s built around these training programs elevates opportunities for everyone.”

Read the full release here.

Celebrating National DNA Day Together

DNA provides the code of life for nearly all living organisms. So, it’s no wonder that scientists have been studying DNA and the human genome (complete set of DNA) for decades.

In April 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick, in collaboration with Rosalind Franklin, first described the structure of DNA as a double helix. In April 2003, exactly 50 years later, scientists completed the Human Genome Project- a massive research effort to sequence and map all the genes that comprise the human genome.

That same year, Congress approved the first National DNA Day to commemorate both the discovery of the double helix and the completion of the Human Genome Project. The goal of National DNA Day is to offer students, educators, and the public an opportunity to learn about the DNA molecule and genomic research.

You can celebrate National DNA Day this year by following scientists Lilly Lee and Tom Quinn at Takara Bio as they demonstrate how to extract DNA from strawberries. Their lesson plan guides mentors to teach about DNA and genomic research, starting with having students extract DNA on their own.

Laurel Barchas, one of the people behind the video has also played an important role at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). She has collaborated with us on many projects over the years, including helping us build CIRM’s own education portal with lessons for high school students that meet Next Generation Science Standards.

Watch the video below and Click Here for the full lesson plan!

Recovery from muscle loss injuries hindered by immune cell conflicts

During a game in 2018, Alex Smith suffered a compound fracture that broke both the tibia and fibula in his right leg. The gruesome injury aside, the former 49ers quarterback soon developed life-threatening necrotizing fasciitis — a rare bacterial infection — that resulted in sepsis and required him to undergo 17 surgeries.

In a battle to save his life and avoid amputating his leg, doctors had to remove a great deal of his muscle tissue leading to volumetric muscle loss (VML). When Smith returned to the field after nearly two years of recovery, many called his comeback a “miracle”. 

Skeletal muscle is one of the most dynamic tissues of the human body. It defines how we move and can repair itself after injury using stem cells. However, when significant chunks of muscle are destroyed through severe injury (e.g. gunshot wound) or excessive surgery (like that of Smith’s), VML overwhelms the regenerative capacity of the muscle stem cells.

Despite the prevalence of these injuries, no standardized evaluation protocol exists for the characterization and quantification of VML and little is understood about why it consistently overwhelms the body’s natural regenerative processes. Current treatment options include functional free muscle transfer and the use of advanced bracing designs.

However, new research from the University of Michigan (U-M) may have just discovered why tissues often fail to regenerate from traumatic muscle loss injuries.

When researchers from U-M collaborated with partners at Georgia Tech, Emory University and the University of Oregon to study VML injuries in mice, they found that that sometimes post-injury immune cells become dysregulated and prevent stem cell repair. In VML injuries that don’t heal, neutrophils — a type of white blood cell — remain at the injured site longer than normal meaning that they’re not doing their job properly.

In addition, researchers found that intercellular communication between neutrophils and natural killers cells impacted muscle stem cell-mediated repair. When neutrophils communicated with natural killer cells, they were essentially prompted to self-destruct.

The findings suggest that by altering how the two cell types communicate, different healing outcomes may be possible and could offer new treatment strategies that eventually restore function and prevent limb loss. The team of researchers hope that better treatments could mean that recovery from VML injuries is no longer considered a “miracle”.

To read the source release, click here.

Stem cell-derived retinal patch continues to show promising results two years post-implantation

Earlier this year we wrote about the promising results of a phase 1 clinical trial aimed at replacing the deteriorating cells in the retinas of people suffering from age-related macular degeneration- one of the leading causes of blindness worldwide for people over 50. Now there’s even more good news! Highlighted in a news story on the UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) website, researchers are continuing to make progress in their bid to secure approval from the Food and Drug Administration for the life-changing treatment.

Through the collaborative efforts of researchers at UCSB, University of Southern California and California Institute of Technology, a stem cell-derived implant using cells from a healthy donor was developed. The bioengineered implant, described as a scaffold, was then implanted under the retina of 16 participants. If the implant was to work, the new cells would then take up the functions of the old ones, and slow down or prevent further deterioration. In the best-case scenario, they could restore some lost vision.

The first sets of trials, funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), concentrated on establishing the safety of the patch and collecting data on its effectiveness. Parting ways with old practices, the participants in the trial were given just two months of immunosuppressants whereas in the past, using donor cells meant that patients often had to be given long-term immunosuppression to stop their body’s immune system attacking and destroying the implanted cells. The team found that after two years, the presence of the patch hadn’t triggered other conditions associated with implantation, such as the formation of new blood vessels or scar tissue that could cause a detachment of the retina.

Even more importantly, they found no sign of inflammation that indicated an immune response to the foreign cells even after the patient was taken off immunosuppressants two months post-implantation. “What really makes us excited is that there is some strong evidence to show that the cells are still there two years after implantation and they’re still functional,” said Mohamed Faynus, a graduate student researcher in the lab of stem cell biologist Dennis O. Clegg at UCSB.

Having passed the initial phase, the team of researchers now hopes to begin phase 2 of the trial. This time, they are aiming to more specifically assesses the effectiveness of the patch in participants. Looking even farther ahead, the Clegg Lab and colleagues are also exploring combining multiple cell types on the patch to treat patients at varying stages of the disease.

In addition, there have also been improvements made to extend the shelf life of the patch. “Cryopreservation of the therapy significantly extends the product’s shelf-life and allows us to ship the implant on demand all over the world, thus making it more accessible to patients across the globe,” said Britney Pennington, a research scientist in the Clegg Lab.

Rare Disease: An Uphill Battle for Diagnosis and Treatment

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From left to right: Baby Dalia pre-diagnosis, Dalia on her way to the kindergarten, and Dalia today.

When Dalia was 5 years old, she was finally diagnosed with MERRF syndrome– an extremely rare form of mitochondrial disease. By then, her parents had been searching for an answer for three frustrating years. And like most parents of a child suffering from an undiagnosed medical condition, they expected that Dalia’s diagnosis would start a path to recovery. 

Unfortunately for Dalia and millions of Americans who have a rare disease, the condition is chronic and life-threating. More than 90% of rare diseases have no treatment. None are curable. Even more heartbreaking for Dalia’s family, MERRF is degenerative. Time is of essence.

According to research published in The Journal of Rare Disorders, it takes seeing 7.3 physicians and trying for 4.8 years before getting an accurate rare disease diagnosis. This uphill battle aside, diagnosis is merely the first challenge. For the 7,000 known rare diseases, less than 600 have FDA-approved treatments.  

The irony of rare diseases is that a lot of people have them. The total number of Americans living with a rare disease is estimated at between 25-30 million. Two-thirds of these patients are children. “You feel alone, because by definition, your child’s diagnosis is exceptional. And yet, 1 in 10 Americans and 300 million people globally are living with a rare disease,” explains Jessica Fein, Dalia’s mother, in a heartfelt HuffPost article detailing her daughter’s diagnostic odyssey. 

For decades, the rare disease community has pointed to these staggering numbers to highlight that while individual diseases may be rare, the total number of people with a rare disease is large. 

In 1983, Congress passed the Orphan Drug Act in order to provide incentives for drug companies to develop treatments for rare diseases. Between 1973 and 1983, fewer than 10 treatments for rare diseases were approved. Since 1983, hundreds of drugs and biologic products for rare diseases have been approved by the FDA. While researchers have made progress in learning how to diagnose, treat, and even prevent a variety of rare diseases, there is still much to do because like Dalia, most patients living with a rare disorder have no treatments to even consider. 

Four years after her diagnosis, Dalia lost her ability to walk, talk, eat, and breathe without a ventilator. At the time she was only 9 years old. More than a decade after her diagnosis, Dalia is finally enrolled in a clinical trial. Her parents hope that awareness about rare diseases and their prevalence will lead to research, funding, advocacy and health equity. 

Here at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), we understand the importance of funding research that impacts not just the most common diseases. In fact, more than one third of all the projects we fund target a rare disease or condition such as: Retinitis pigmentosa, Sickle cell disease, Huntington’s disease, and Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.

“[If] each of us learned a bit about just one rare disease… it probably wouldn’t change the trajectory for most of the people who are currently suffering, but it might help someone be diagnosed earlier. We’ve made leaps and bounds with awareness, research and treatment for AIDS, cancer and depression, all diseases that were once unknown… Awareness and action aren’t things that can be put on the back burner until more common illnesses are cured. We must do what we can today- and every day moving forward.”

First Patient Dosed in Phase 1 Clinical Trial for T1D

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There’s some good news for a company and a therapeutic approach that CIRM has been supporting for many years.

In September 2018, CRISPR Theraputics and ViaCyte entered a partnership to discover, develop and market gene-edited stem cell-derived therapies to treat type 1 diabetes (T1D). Today, they may stand one step closer to their goal. 

Last week the companies jointly announced that they have dosed the first subject in the Phase 1 clinical trial of VCTX210 for the treatment of T1D. VCTX210 is an investigational stem cell-based therapy. It was developed combining CRISPR’s gene-editing technology with ViaCyte’s stem cell expertise to generate pancreatic beta cells that can evade the immune system.

ViaCyte, a regenerative medicine company long backed by CIRM, has developed an implantable device which contains pancreatic endoderm cells that mature over a few months and turn into insulin-producing pancreatic islet cells, the kind destroyed by T1D. 

ViaCyte’s implantable stem cell pouch

Using CRISPR technology, the genetic code of the implanted cells is modified to create beta cells that avoid all recognition by the immune system. This collaboration aims to eliminate the requirement of patients taking daily immunosuppressants to stop the immune system from attacking the implanted cells. 

The first phase of the VCTX210 clinical trial will assess the safety, tolerability, and immune evasion in patients with T1D. 

“We are excited to work with CRISPR Therapeutics and ViaCyte to carry out this historic, first-in-human transplant of gene-edited, stem cell-derived pancreatic cells for the treatment of diabetes designed to eliminate the need for immune suppression,” said James Shapiro, a clinical investigator in the trial. “If this approach is successful, it will be a transformative treatment for patients with all insulin-requiring forms of diabetes.”

CIRM has been a big investor in ViaCyte’s work for many years and has invested more than $72 million in nine different awards.  

Educating and training the next generation of regenerative science workforce

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Bridges scholars presenting their research posters to CIRM team members and other scientists

Regenerative medicine is a diverse and rapidly evolving field, employing core expertise from biologists, engineers, and clinicians. As the field continues to advance, a well-trained regenerative science workforce is needed to apply the newest discoveries to clinical care. That’s why one of the goals outlined in our new 5-year Strategic Plan is to build a diverse and highly skilled workforce to support the growing regenerative medicine economy in California.  

Since its inception, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has been committed to educating the next generation of researchers, leaders, and innovators. Through its existing educational pillar programs such as SPARK and Bridges, the agency has been able to provide unique training and career development opportunities to a wide range of students from high school to college and beyond.

Through our new Strategic Plan, CIRM hopes to enhance training and education of the future California workforce by making it easier for students to start their career, accelerate career advancement, and provide greater access for diverse and underrepresented groups. Training and educating individuals who come from varied backgrounds brings new perspectives and different skillsets which enhance the development of the entire field, from basic and clinical research to manufacturing and commercialization.

The workforce training programs will be combined with CIRM’s other pillar programs to facilitate career entry at multiple levels. Through connecting the existing EDUC pillar programs with the planned California Manufacturing Network infrastructure program, CIRM hopes to address the critical need for a highly trained manufacturing workforce. By leveraging the Alpha Clinics and Community Care Centers, the agency will work to develop education curricula that address the currently unmet need for Clinical Research Coordinators. CIRM’s competency hubs and knowledge networks will also incorporate education and training programs to provide career pathways in emerging technologies, computational biology and data sciences.

You can read more about these goals in our 2022-27 Strategic Plan.

Breaking down barriers: Expanding patient access and accelerating research

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10 years ago I was presented with an incredibly unique opportunity- to become the fifth patient with spinal cord injuries to participate in the world’s first clinical trial testing a treatment made from human embryonic stem cells. It was not only a risky and potentially life-changing decision, but also one that I had to make in less than a week. 

To make matters more complicated, I was to be poked, prodded, and extensively scanned on a daily basis for several months as part of the follow-up process. I lived nearly two hours away from the hospital and I was newly paralyzed. How would this work? I wanted my decision-making process to be solely based on the amazing science and the potential that with my participation, the field might advance. Instead, I found myself spending countless hours contemplating the extra work I was asking my family to take on in addition to nursing me back to life. 

In this instance, I was “lucky”. I had access to family and friends who were able and willing to make any kind of sacrifice to ensure my happiness. I lived quite a distance away from the hospital, but everyone around me had a car. They had the means to skip work, keep the gas tank filled, and make the tedious journey. I also had an ally, which was perhaps my biggest advantage. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) was the funding agency behind the groundbreaking clinical trial and I’ll never forget the kind strangers who sat on my bedside and delighted me with stories of hope and science. 

Accelerating the research

The field of regenerative medicine has gained so much momentum since my first introduction to stem cells in a small hospital room. Throughout the decade and especially in recent years there have been benchmark FDA approvals, increased funding and regulatory support. The passage of Proposition 14 in 2020 has positioned CIRM to continue to accelerate research from discovery to clinical and to drive innovative, real-world solutions resulting in transformative treatments for patients. 

Now, thanks to Prop 14 we have some new goals, including working to try and ensure that the treatments our funding helps develop are affordable and accessible to a diverse community of patients in an equitable manner, including those often overlooked or underrepresented in the past. Unsurprisingly, one of the big goals outlined in our new 5-year Strategic Plan is to deliver real world solutions through the expansion of the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics network and the creation of a network of Community Care Centers of Excellence.

The Alpha Stem Cell Clinics and Community Care Centers of Excellence will work in collaboration to achieve a wide set of goals. These goals include enabling innovative clinical research in regenerative medicine, increasing diverse patient access to transformative therapies, and improving patient navigation of clinical trials. 

Breaking down the barriers 

The dilemma surrounding the four-hour long round-trip journey for an MRI or a vial of blood isn’t just unique to me and my experience participating in a clinical trial. It is well recognized and documented that geographic disparities in clinical trial sites as well as limited focus on community outreach and education about clinical trials impede patient participation and contribute to the well-documented low participation of under-represented patients in clinical studies.

As outlined in our Strategic Plan, the Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network and Community Care Centers will collaboratively extend geographic access to CIRM-supported clinical trials across the state. Community Care Centers will have direct access and knowledge about the needs of their patient populations including, culturally and linguistically effective community-based education and outreach. In parallel, Alpha Stem Cell Clinics will be designed to support the anticipated outreach and education efforts of future Community Care Centers.

To learn more about CIRM’s approach to deliver real world solutions for patients, check out our new 5-year Strategic Plan

How two California researchers are advancing world class science to develop real life solutions

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In our recently launched 5-year Strategic Plan, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) profiled two researchers who have leveraged CIRM funding to translate basic biological discoveries into potential real-world solutions for devastating diseases.

Dr. Joseph Wu is director of the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute and the recipient of several CIRM awards. Eleven of them to be exact! Over the past 10 years, Dr. Wu’s lab has extensively studied the application of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) for cardiovascular disease modeling, drug discovery, and regenerative medicine. 

Dr. Wu’s extensive studies and findings have even led to a cancer vaccine technology that is now being developed by Khloris Biosciences, a biotechnology company spun out by his lab. 

Through CIRM funding, Dr. Wu has developed a process to produce cardiomyocytes (cardiac muscle cells) derived from human embryonic stem cells for clinical use and in partnership with the agency. Dr. Wu is also the principal investigator in the first-in-US clinical trial for treating ischemic heart disease. His other CIRM-funded work has also led to the development of cardiomyocytes derived from human induced pluripotent stem cells for potential use as a patch.

Over at UCLA, Dr. Lili Yang and her lab team have generated invariant Natural Killer T cells (iNKT), a special kind of immune system cell with unique features that can more effectively attack tumor cells. 

More recently, using stem cells from donor cord-blood and peripheral blood samples, Dr. Yang and her team of researchers were able to produce up to 300,000 doses of hematopoietic stem cell-engineered iNKT (HSC–iNKT) cells. The hope is that this new therapy could dramatically reduce the cost of producing immune cell products in the future. 

Additionally, Dr. Yang and her team have used iNKT cells to develop both autologous (using the patient’s own cells), and off-the-shelf anti-cancer therapeutics (using donor cells), designed to target blood cell cancers.

The success of her work has led to the creation of a start-up company called Appia Bio. In collaboration with Kite Pharma, Appia Bio is planning on developing and commercializing the promising technology. 

CIRM has been an avid supporter of Dr. Yang and Dr. Wu’s research because they pave the way for development of next-generation therapies. Through our new Strategic Plan, CIRM will continue to fund innovative research like theirs to accelerate world class science to deliver transformative regenerative medicine treatments in an equitable manner to a diverse California and the world.

Visit this page to learn more about CIRM’s new 5-year Strategic Plan and stay tuned as we share updates on our 5-year goals here on The Stem Cellar.

UCLA gene therapy offers children with LAD-1 a new chance at living a normal life

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Photo courtesy of Tamara Hogue/UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center

Leukocyte adhesion deficiency type 1 (LAD-1) is a rare pediatric disorder that causes the immune system to malfunction, resulting in recurrent, often severe, bacterial and fungal infections as well as delayed wound healing. This is because of a missing protein that would normally enable white blood cells to stick to blood vessel walls- a crucial step that is needed before moving outside the vessel walls and into tissues to fight infections. If left undiagnosed and untreated, LAD-1 is fatal and most children with the disorder will die before the age of 2.

When Marley Gaskins was finally diagnosed with LAD-1 at age 8 (an extraordinary feat on its own) she had already spent countless hours hospitalized and required round the clock attention and care. The only possible cure was a risky bone marrow transplant from a matched donor, a procedure so rarely performed that there is no data to determine the survival rate.

In search of a better treatment option, Marley’s family came across a clinical trial for children with LAD-1 led by Dr. Donald Kohn, MD, a researcher in the UCLA Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research. 

The novel clinical trial, sponsored by Rocket Pharmaceuticals and CIRM, uses gene therapy in a treatment that works by harvesting the defective blood-making stem cells, correcting the mutation in a lab, and then transplanting the properly functioning cells back into the child’s body. The process eliminates the potential rejection risks of a bone marrow transplant because the corrected cells are the patient’s own.

For Marley’s family, the decision was a no-brainer. “I didn’t hesitate in letting her be a participant in the trial,” Marley’s mother, Tamara Hogue explains, “because I knew in my heart that this would give her a chance at having a normal life.”

In 2019, 9-year-old Marley became the first LAD-1 patient ever to receive the stem cell gene therapy. In the following year, five more children received the gene therapy at UCLA, including three siblings. And Last week, Dr. Kohn reported at the American Society of Hematology Annual Meeting and Exposition that all the children “remain healthy and disease-free”. 

More than two years out of treatment, Marley’s life and daily activities are no longer constricted by the frequent and severe infections that kept her returning to the hospital for months at a time. Instead, she enjoys being an average 12-year-old: going camping, getting her ears pierced, and most importantly, attending what she calls “big school” in the coming year. For patients and families alike, the gene therapy’s success has been like a rebirth. Doctors expect that the one-time therapy will keep LAD-1 patients healthy for life.