Last November Marissa Cors, a patient advocate in the fight against Sickle Cell Disease (SCD), told the Stem Cellar “A stem cell cure will end generations of guilt, suffering, pain and early death. It will give SCD families relief from the financial, emotional and spiritual burden of caring someone living with SCD. It will give all of us an opportunity to have a normal life. Go to school, go to work, live with confidence.” With each passing month it seems we are getting closer to that day.
CIRM is funding four clinical trials targeting SCD and another project we are supporting has just been given the green light by the Food and Drug Administration to start a clinical trial. Clearly progress is being made.
Yesterday we got a chance to see that progress. We held a Zoom event featuring Marissa Cors and other key figures in the fight against SCD, CIRM Science Officer Dr. Ingrid Caras and Evie Junior. Evie is a pioneer in this struggle, having lived with sickle cell all his life but now hoping to live his life free of the disease. He is five months past a treatment that holds out the hope of eradicating the distorted blood cells that cause such devastation to people with the disease.
You can listen to his story, and hear about the other progress being made. Here’s a recording of the Zoom event.
Battling the virus that causes COVID-19 is something that is top of everyone’s mind right now. That’s why CIRM is funding 17 different projects targeting the virus. But one of the most valuable tools in helping develop vaccines against a wide variety of diseases in the past is now coming under threat. We’ll talk about both issues in a live broadcast we’re holding on Wednesday, October 14th at noon (PDT).
That date is significant because it’s Stem Cell Awareness Day and we thought it appropriate to host a meeting looking at two of the most important issues facing the field.
The first part of the event will focus on the 17 projects that CIRM is funding that target COVID-19. This includes three clinical trials aiming to treat people who have been infected with the virus and are experiencing some of the more severe effects, such as damaged lungs.
We’ll also look at some of the earlier stage research that includes:
Work to help develop a vaccine
Using muscle stem cells to help repair damage to the diaphragm in patients who have spent an extended period on a ventilator
Boosting immune system cells to help fight the virus
The second part of the event will look at ways that funding for stem cell research at the federal level is once again coming into question. The federal government has already imposed new restrictions on funding for fetal tissue research, and now there are efforts in Congress to restrict funding for embryonic stem cell research.
The impacts could be significant. Fetal tissue has been used for decades to help develop some of the most important vaccines used today including rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis A, and shingles. They have also been used to make approved drugs against diseases including hemophilia, rheumatoid arthritis, and cystic fibrosis.
We’ll look at some of the reasons why we are seeing these potential restrictions on the medical research and what impact they could have on the ability to develop new treatments for the coronavirus and other deadly diseases.
When people ask me what I do at CIRM I sometimes half-jokingly tell them that I’m the official translator: I take complex science and turn it into everyday English. That’s important. The taxpayers of California have a right to know how their money is being spent and how it might benefit them. But that message can be even more effective when it comes from the scientists themselves.
Recently we asked some of the scientists we are funding to do research into COVID-19 to record what’s called an “elevator pitch”. This is where they prepare an explanation of their work that is in ordinary English and is quite short, short enough to say it to someone as you ride in an elevator. Hence the name.
It sounds easy enough. But it’s not. When you are used to talking in the language of science day in and day out, suddenly switching codes to talk about your work in plain English can take some practice. Also, you have spent years, often decades, on this work and to have to explain it in around one minute is no easy thing.
But our researchers rose to the challenge. Here’s some examples of just how well they did.
A few weeks ago we held a Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team About Parkinson’s Disease” event. As you can imagine we got lots of questions but, because of time constraints, only had time to answer a few. Thanks to my fabulous CIRM colleagues, Dr. Lila Collins and Dr. Kent Fitzgerald, for putting together answers to some of the other questions. Here they are.
Q:It seems like we have been hearing for years that stem cells can help people with Parkinson’s, why is it taking so long?
A: Early experiments in Sweden using fetal tissue did provide a proof of concept for the strategy of replacing dopamine producing cells damaged or lost in Parkinson’s disease (PD) . At first, this seemed like we were on the cusp of a cell therapy cure for PD, however, we soon learned based on some side effects seen with this approach (in particular dyskinesias or uncontrollable muscle movements) that the solution was not as simple as once thought.
While this didn’t produce the answer it did provide some valuable lessons.
The importance of dopaminergic (DA) producing cell type and the location in the brain of the transplant. Simply placing the replacement cells in the brain is not enough. It was initially thought that the best site to place these DA cells is a region in the brain called the SN, because this area helps to regulate movement. However, this area also plays a role in learning, emotion and the brains reward system. This is effectively a complex wiring system that exists in a balance, “rewiring” it wrong can have unintended and significant side effects.
Another factor impacting progress has been understanding the importance of disease stage. If the disease is too advanced when cells are given then the transplant may no longer be able to provide benefit. This is because DA transplants replace the lost neurons we use to control movement, but other connected brain systems have atrophied in response to losing input from the lost neurons. There is a massive amount of work (involving large groups and including foundations like the Michael J Fox Foundation) seeking to identify PD early in the disease course where therapies have the best chance of showing an effect. Clinical trials will ultimately help to determine the best timing for treatment intervention.
Ideally, in addition to the cell therapies that would replace lost or damaged cells we also want to find a therapy that slows or stops the underlying biology causing progression of the disease.
So, I think we’re going to see more gene therapy trials including those targeting the small minority of PD that is driven by known mutations. In fact, Prevail Therapeutics will soon start a trial in patients with GBA1 mutations. Hopefully, replacing the enzyme in this type of genetic PD will prevent degeneration.
And, we are also seeing gene therapy approaches to address forms of PD that we don’t know the cause, including a trial to rescue sick neurons with GDNF which is a neurotrophic factor (which helps support the growth and survival of these brain cells) led by Dr Bankiewicz and trials by Axovant and Voyager, partnered with Neurocrine aimed at restoring dopamine generation in the brain.
A small news report came out earlier this year about a recently completed clinical trial by Roche Pharma and Prothena. This addressed the build up in the brain of what are called lewy bodies, a problem common to many forms of PD. While the official trial results aren’t published yet, a recent press release suggests reason for optimism. Apparently, the treatment failed to statistically improve the main clinical measurement, but other measured endpoints saw improvement and it’s possible an updated form of this treatment will be tested again in the hopes of seeing an improved effect.
Finally, I’d like to call attention to the G force trials. Gforce is a global collaborative effort to drive the field forward combining lessons learned from previous studies with best practices for cell replacement in PD. These first-in-human safety trials to replace the dopaminergic neurons (DANs) damaged by PD have shared design features including identifying what the best goals are and how to measure those.
And the Summit PD trial, Dr Jeanne Loring of Aspen Neuroscience.
Taken together these should tell us quite a lot about the best way to replace these critical neurons in PD.
As with any completely novel approach in medicine, much validation and safety work must be completed before becoming available to patients
The current approach (for cell replacement) has evolved significantly from those early studies to use cells engineered in the lab to be much more specialized and representing the types believed to have the best therapeutic effects with low probability of the side effects (dyskinesias) seen in earlier trials.
If we don’t really know the cause of Parkinson’s disease, how can we cure it or develop treatments to slow it down?
PD can now be divided into major categories including 1. Sporadic, 2. Familial.
For the sporadic cases, there are some hallmarks in the biology of the neurons affected in the disease that are common among patients. These can be things like oxidative stress (which damages cells), or clumps of proteins (like a-synuclein) that serve to block normal cell function and become toxic, killing the DA neurons.
The second class of “familial” cases all share one or more genetic changes that are believed to cause the disease. Mutations in genes (like GBA, LRRK2, PRKN, SNCA) make up around fifteen percent of the population affected, but the similarity in these gene mutations make them attractive targets for drug development.
CIRM has funded projects to generate “disease in a dish” models using neurons made from adults with Parkinson’s disease. Stem cell-derived models like this have enabled not only a deep probing of the underlying biology in Parkinson’s, which has helped to identify new targets for investigation, but have also allowed for the testing of possible therapies in these cell-based systems.
iPSC-derived neurons are believed to be an excellent model for this type of work as they can possess known familial mutations but also show the rest of the patients genetic background which may also be a contributing factor to the development of PD. They therefore contain both known and unknown factors that can be tested for effective therapy development.
I have heard of scientists creating things called brain organoids, clumps of brain cells that can act a little bit like a brain. Can we use these to figure out what’s happening in the brain of people with Parkinson’s and to develop treatments?
There is considerable excitement about the use of brain organoids as a way of creating a model for the complex cell-to-cell interactions in the brain. Using these 3D organoid models may allow us to gain a better understanding of what happens inside the brain, and develop ways to treat issues like PD.
The organoids can contain multiple cell types including microglia which have been a hot topic of research in PD as they are responsible for cleaning up and maintaining the health of cells in the brain. CIRM has funded the Salk Institute’s Dr. Fred Gage’s to do work in this area.
If you go online you can find lots of stem cells clinics, all over the US, that claim they can use stem cells to help people with Parkinson’s. Should I go to them?
In a word, no! These clinics offer a wide variety of therapies using different kinds of cells or tissues (including the patient’s own blood or fat cells) but they have one thing in common; none of these therapies have been tested in a clinical trial to show they are even safe, let alone effective. These clinics also charge thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars these therapies, and because it’s not covered by insurance this all comes out of the patient’s pocket.
These predatory clinics are peddling hope, but are unable to back it up with any proof it will work. They frequently have slick, well-designed websites, and “testimonials” from satisfied customers. But if they really had a treatment for Parkinson’s they wouldn’t be running clinics out of shopping malls they’d be operating huge medical centers because the worldwide need for an effective therapy is so great.
Here’s a link to the page on our website that can help you decide if a clinical trial or “therapy” is right for you.
Is it better to use your own cells turned into brain cells, or cells from a healthy donor?
This is the BIG question that nobody has evidence to provide an answer to. At least not yet.
Let’s start with the basics. Why would you want to use your own cells? The main answer is the immune system. Transplanted cells can really be viewed as similar to an organ (kidney, liver etc) transplant. As you likely know, when a patient receives an organ transplant the patient’s immune system will often recognize the tissue/organ as foreign and attack it. This can result in the body rejecting what is supposed to be a life-saving organ. This is why people receiving organ transplants are typically placed on immunosuppressive “anti-rejection “drugs to help stop this reaction.
In the case of transplanted dopamine producing neurons from a donor other than the patient, it’s likely that the immune system would eliminate these cells after a short while and this would stop any therapeutic benefit from the cells. A caveat to this is that the brain is a “somewhat” immune privileged organ which means that normal immune surveillance and rejection doesn’t always work the same way with the brain. In fact analysis of the brains collected from the first Swedish patients to receive fetal transplants showed (among other things) that several patients still had viable transplanted cells (persistence) in their brains.
Transplanting DA neurons made from the patient themselves (the iPSC method) would effectively remove this risk of the immune system attack as the cells would not be recognized as foreign.
CIRM previously funded a discovery project with Jeanne Loring from Scripps Research Institute that sought to generate DA neurons from Parkinson’s patients for use as a potential transplant therapy in these same patients. This project has since been taken on by a company formed, by Dr Loring, called Aspen Neuroscience. They hope to bring this potential therapy into clinical trials in the near future.
A commonly cited potential downside to this approach is that patients with genetic (familial) Parkinson’s would be receiving neurons generated with cells that may have the same mutations that caused the problem in the first place. However, as it can typically take decades to develop PD, these cells could likely function for a long time. and prove to be better than any current therapies.
Creating cells from each individual patient (called autologous) is likely to be very expensive and possibly even cost-prohibitive. That is why many researchers are working on developing an “off the shelf” therapy, one that uses cells from a donor (called allogeneic)would be available as and when it’s needed.
When the coronavirus happened, it seemed as if overnight the FDA was approving clinical trials for treatments for the virus. Why can’t it work that fast for Parkinson’s disease?
While we don’t know what will ultimately work for COVID-19, we know what the enemy looks like. We also have lots of experience treating viral infections and creating vaccines. The coronavirus has already been sequenced, so we are building upon our understanding of other viruses to select a course to interrupt it. In contrast, the field is still trying to understand the drivers of PD that would respond to therapeutic targeting and therefore, it’s not precisely clear how best to modify the course of neurodegenerative disease. So, in one sense, while it’s not as fast as we’d like it to be, the work on COVID-19 has a bit of a head start.
Much of the early work on COVID-19 therapies is also centered on re-purposing therapies that were previously in development. As a result, these potential treatments have a much easier time entering clinical trials as there is a lot known about them (such as how safe they are etc.). That said, there are many additional therapeutic strategies (some of which CIRM is funding) which are still far off from being tested in the clinic.
The concern of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is often centered on the safety of a proposed therapy. The less known, the more cautious they tend to be.
As you can imagine, transplanting cells into the brain of a PD patient creates a significant potential for problems and so the FDA needs to be cautious when approving clinical trials to ensure patient safety.
You know you are working with some of the finest scientific minds in the world when they get elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS). It’s the science equivalent of the baseball, football or even Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. People only get in if their peers vote them in. It’s considered one of the highest honors in science, one earned over many decades of hard work. And when it comes to hard work there are few people who work harder than U.C. San Diego’s Dr. Lawrence Goldstein, one of the newly elected members of the NAS.
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.
His work has also helped develop a deeper understanding of the genetics of Alzheimer’s and to identify possible new targets for stem cell and other therapies.
Larry was typically modest when he heard the news, saying: “I have been very fortunate to have wonderful graduate students and fellows who have accomplished a great deal of excellent research. It is a great honor for me and for all of my past students and fellows – I am obviously delighted and hope to contribute to the important work of the National Academy of Sciences.”
But Larry doesn’t intend to rest on his laurels. He says he still has a lot of work to do, including “raising funding to test a new drug approach for Alzheimer’s disease that we’ve developed with CIRM support.”
Jennifer Briggs Braswell, PhD, worked with Larry at UCSD from 2005 to 2018. She says Larry’s election to the NAS is well deserved:
“His high quality publications, the pertinence of his studies in neurodegeneration to our current problems, and his constant, unwavering devotion to the next generation of scientists is matched only by his dedication to improving public understanding of science to motivate social, political, and financial support.
“He has been for me a supportive mentor, expressing enthusiastic belief in the likely success of my good ideas and delivering critique with kindness and sympathy. He continues to inspire me, our colleagues at UCSD and other communities, advocate publicly for the importance of science, and work tirelessly on solutions for neurodegenerative disorders.”
While the world has been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic, the virus poses an increased threat to people with Parkinson’s disease (PD). Having a compromised immune system, particularly involving the lungs, means people with PD are at higher risk of some of the more dangerous complications of COVID-19. So, this seems like an appropriate time for CIRM to hold a special Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team” About Parkinson’s disease.
We are holding the event on Tuesday, May 5th at noon PDT.
The initial reason for the Facebook Live was the CIRM Board approving almost $8 million for Dr. Krystof Bankiewicz at Brain Neurotherapy Bio, Inc. to run a Phase 1 clinical trial targeting PD. Dr. Bankiewicz is using a gene therapy approach to promote the production of a protein called GDNF, which is best known for its ability to protect dopaminergic neurons, the kind of cell damaged by Parkinson’s. The approach seeks to increase dopamine production in the brain, alleviating PD symptoms and potentially slowing down the disease progress.
Dr. Bankiewicz will be joined by two of CIRM’s fine Science Officers, Dr. Lila Collins and Dr. Kent Fitzgerald. They’ll talk about the research targeting Parkinson’s that CIRM is funding plus other promising research taking place.
And we are delighted to have a late addition to the team. Our CIRM Board member and patient advocate for Parkinson’s disease, Dr. David Higgins. David has a long history of advocacy for PD and adds the invaluable perspective of someone living with PD.
As always, we want this to be as interactive as possible, so we want to get your questions. You can do this on the day, posting them alongside the live feed, or you can send them to us ahead of time at email@example.com. We’ll do our best to answer as many as we can on the day, and those we don’t get to during the broadcast we’ll answer in a later blog.
On March 19th we held a special Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team About Autism” event. We were fortunate enough to have two great experts – Dr. Alysson Muotri from UC San Diego, and CIRM’s own Dr. Kelly Shepard. As always there is a lot of ground to cover in under one hour and there are inevitably questions we didn’t get a chance to respond to. So, Dr. Shepard has kindly agreed to provide answers to all the key questions we got on the day.
If you didn’t get a chance to see the event you can watch the video here. And feel free to share the link, and this blog, with anyone you think might be interested in the material.
Can umbilical cord blood stem cells help reduce some of the symptoms?
This question was addressed by Dr. Muotri in the live presentation. To recap, a couple of clinical studies have been reported from scientists at Duke University and Sutter Health, but the results are not universally viewed as conclusive. The Duke study, which focused on very young children, reported some improvements in behavior for some of the children after treatment, but it is important to note that this trial had no placebo control, so it is not clear that those patients would not have improved on their own. The Duke team has moved forward with larger trial and placebo control.
Does it have to be the child’s own cord blood or could donated blood work too?
In theory, a donated cord product could be used for similar purposes as a child’s own cord, but there is a caveat- the donated cord tissues must have some level of immune matching with the host in order to not be rejected or lead to other complications, which under certain circumstances, could be serious.
Some clinics claim that the use of fetal stem cells can help stimulate improved blood and oxygen flow to the brain. Could that help children with autism?
Fetal stem cells have been tested in FDA approved/sanctioned clinical trials for certain brain conditions such as stroke and Parkinson Disease, where there is clearer understanding of how and which parts of the brains are affected, which nerve cells have been lost or damaged, and where there is a compelling biological rationale for how certain properties the transplanted cells, such as their anti-inflammatory properties, could provide benefit.
In his presentation, Dr. Muotri noted that neurons are not lost in autistic brains, so there is nothing that would be “replaced” by such a treatment. And although some forms of autism might include inflammation that could potentially be mitigated, it is unlikely that the degree of benefit that might come from reducing inflammation would be worth the risks of the treatment, which includes intracranial injection of donated material. Unfortunately, we still do not know enough about the specific causes and features of autism to determine if and to what extent stem cell treatments could prove helpful. But we are learning more every day, especially with some of the new technologies and discoveries that have been enabled by stem cell technology.
Some therapies even use tissue from sheep claiming that a pill containing sheep pancreas can migrate to and cure a human pancreas, pills containing sheep brains can help heal human brains. What are your thoughts on those?
For some conditions, there may be a scientific rationale for how a specific drug or treatment could be delivered orally, but this really depends on the underlying biology of the condition, the means by which the drug exerts its effect, and how quickly that drug or substance will be digested, metabolized, or cleared from the body’s circulation. Many drugs that are delivered orally do not reach the brain because of the blood-brain barrier, which serves to isolate and protect the brain from potentially harmful substances in the blood circulation. For such a drug to be effective, it would have to be stable within the body for a period of time, and be something that could exert its effects on the brain either directly or indirectly.
Sheep brain or pancreas (or any other animal tissue consumed) in a pill form would be broken down into basic components immediately by digestion, i.e. amino acids, sugars, much like any other meat or food. Often complex treatments designed to be specifically targeted to the brain are delivered by intra-cranial/intrathecal injection, or by developing special strategies to evade the blood brain barrier, a challenge that is easier said than done. For autism, there is still a lot to be learned regarding how a therapeutic intervention might work to help people, so for now, I would caution against the use of dietary supplements or pills that are not prescribed or recommended by your doctor.
What are the questions parents should ask before signing up for any stem cell therapy
Stroke is the third leading cause of death and disability in the US. Every 45 seconds someone in the US has a stroke. Every year around 275,000 people die from a stroke many more survive but are often impaired by the brain attack. The impact is not just physical, but psychological and emotional. It takes an enormous toll on individuals and their families. So, it’s not surprising that there is a lot of research underway to try and find treatments to help people, including using stem cells.
That’s why CIRM is hosting a special Facebook Live ‘Ask the Stem Cell Team About Stroke event on Wednesday, March 25th at noon PDT. Just head over to our Facebook Page on the 25th at noon to hear from two great guests.
We will be joined by Dr. Tom Carmichael, a Professor of Neurology and the Co-Director of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Center. He has a number of CIRM grants focused on helping repair the damage caused by strokes.
CIRM Senior Science Officer, Dr. Lila Collins, will also join us to talk about other stem cell research targeting stroke, its promise and some of the problems that still need to be overcome.
You will have a chance to ask questions of both our experts, either live on the day or by sending us questions in advance at firstname.lastname@example.org.
These are definitely strange, unusual and challenging times. Every day seems to bring new restrictions on what we can and should do. All, of course, in the name of protecting us and helping us avoid a potentially deadly virus. We all hope this will soon pass but we also know the bigger impact of the coronavirus is likely to linger for many months, perhaps even years.
With that in mind a few people have asked us why we are still going ahead with our Facebook Live ‘Ask the Stem Cell Team About Autism’ event this Thursday, March 19th at 12pm PDT. It’s a good question. And the answer is simple. Because there is still a need for good, thoughtful information about the potential for stem cells to help families who have a loved one with autism. And because we still need to do all we can to dispel the bad information out there and warn people about the bogus clinics offering unproven therapies.
In many ways Facebook Live is the perfect way to deliver this information. It allows us to reach out to large numbers of people without having them in the same room. We can educate not contaminate.
And we have some great experts to discuss the use of stem cells in helping people with autism.
The event features Dr. Alysson Muotri from UC San Diego. We have written about his work with stem cells for autism in the past. And CIRM’s own Associate Director for Discovery and Translation, Dr. Kelly Shepard.
But we also want you to be a part of this as well. So, join us online for the event. You can post comments and questions during the event, and we’ll do our best to answer them. Or you can send us in questions ahead of time to email@example.com.
If you were unable to tune in while we were live, not to worry, you you can watch it here on our Facebook page
Do an online search for “autism stem cells” and you quickly come up with numerous websites offering stem cell therapies for autism. They offer encouraging phrases like “new and effective approach” and “a real, lasting treatment.” They even include dense scientific videos featuring people like Dr. Arnold Caplan, a professor at Case Western Reserve University who is known as the “father of the mesenchymal stem” (it would be interesting to know if Dr. Caplan knows he is being used as a marketing tool?)
The problem with these sites is that they are offering “therapies” that have never been proven to be safe, let alone effective. They are also very expensive and are not covered by insurance. Essentially they are preying on hope, the hope that any parent of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will do anything and everything they can to help their child.
But there is encouraging news about stem cells and autism, about their genuine potential to help children with ASD. That’s why we are holding a special Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team” about Autism on Thursday, March 19th at noon (PDT).
The event features Dr. Alysson Muotri from UC San Diego. We have written about his work with stem cells for autism in the past. And CIRM’s own Associate Director for Discovery and Translation, Dr. Kelly Shephard.
We’ll take a look at Dr. Muotri’s work and also discuss the work of other researchers in the field, such as Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg’s work at Duke University.
But we also want you to be a part of this as well. So, join us online for the event. You can post comments and questions during the event, and we’ll do our best to answer them. Or you can send us in questions ahead of time to firstname.lastname@example.org.