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.

Teaching stem cells to play video games

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video games atari pong
Pong video game

Back when I was growing up, shortly after the extinction of the dinosaurs, there was a popular video game called Pong. It was, in fact, pretty much the only video game at the time. It was a pretty simple game. You moved a “paddle” to hit a ball and knock it back across the screen to your opponent. If your opponent missed it you won the point. It was a really simplified form of video ping pong (hence the name). 

So why am I telling you this? Well, researchers in the UK and Australia have devised a way of teaching blobs of brain cells how to play Pong. I kid you not. 

Playing Pong

What they did was turn stem cells into brain cells, as part of a system called Dishbrain. Using software, they helped these neurons or brain cells communicate with each other through electrical stimulation and recordings. 

In an article in Newsweek, (yup, Newsweek is still around) the researchers explained that using these electrical signals they could help the cells identify where the “ball” was. For example, if the signals came from the left that meant the “ball” was on the right. 

In the study they say: “Using this DishBrain system, we have demonstrated that a single layer of in vitro (in a dish) cortical neurons can self-organize and display intelligent and sentient behavior when embodied in a simulated game-world.” We have shown that even without a substantial filtering of cellular activity, statistically robust differences over time and against controls could be observed in the behavior of neuronal cultures in adapting to goal directed tasks.”

Now you might think this was just something the researchers dreamed up to pass time during COVID, but they say understanding how these brain cells can learn and respond could help them develop other methods of using neurons that might be even cooler than playing video games. 

The study is published in the journal BioRXiv

One more good reason to exercise

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As we start the New Year with a fervent hope that it’s better than the last two, many people are making a resolution to get more exercise. A new study suggests that might not just benefit the body, it could also help the brain. At least if you are a mouse.

Researchers at the University of Queensland Brain Institute found that 35 days of exercise could improve brain function and memory.

In an interview in Futurity, Dan Blackmore, one of the lead researchers on the study, says they not only showed the benefits of exercise, but also an explanation for why it helps.

“We tested the cognitive ability of elderly mice following defined periods of exercise and found an optimal period or ‘sweet spot’ that greatly improved their spatial learning. We found that growth hormone (GH) levels peaked during this time, and we’ve been able to demonstrate that artificially raising GH in sedentary mice also was also effective in improving their cognitive skills. We discovered GH stimulates the production of new neurons in the hippocampus—the region of the brain critically important to learning and memory.

The study was published in the journal iScience.

Obviously, this is great for mice, but they hope that future research could show similar benefits for people. But don’t wait for that study to come out, there’s already plenty of evidence that exercising has terrific benefits for the body. Here’s just seven ways it can give you a boost.

How do Zebrafish grow ears? It’s quite transparent

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Zebrafish

One of the hopes of regenerative medicine is that one day we will be able to use stem cells to regrow damaged organs, avoiding the need for a transplant. It’s a fascinating idea, supported in part by the ability of some creatures, such as Axolotls and salamanders, to regrow parts of their anatomy that they have lost.

But there’s quite a leap from a lizard to a human and bridging that gap is proving far from easy. One of the problems is simply understanding how cells know what to do to form the correct shape for the organ. Even something as relatively simple as an ear is incredibly complex.

However, researchers at Harvard Medical School have discovered a way to replicate how cells form into flexible sheets, so they can be folded into the delicate shape of tubes in the inner ear. They did this by studying Zebrafish. Why? In an article in Genetic Engineering and Biology News Dr. Akankshi Munjal, PhD, first author of the paper, said the reason was simple.

Akankshi Munjal, PhD, first author of the paper; Photo courtesy Harvard Medical School

“Zebrafish are transparent, so we just stick them under a microscope and look at this entire process from a single cell to a larva that can swim and has all its parts.”

Because they could watch the Zebrafish develop in real time, they were able to observe what the cells were doing at any point simply by looking at the fish under a microscope. Another advantage is that in Zebrafish the semicircular canals of the inner ear – tubes that help them maintain balance and orient themselves – form close to the surface, making it even easier to see what was going on.

In the study, published in the journal Cell, the researchers say it appears that a combination of pressure generated by hyaluronic acid, which acts as a cushion and lubricant between tissues, and molecular tethers between cells help direct flat sheets of cells into tubes and other shapes.

Dr. Sean Megason, one of the authors of the paper, said that knowing the mechanism at work is really important. “Right now tissue engineers are trying to build tissues without knowing how cells normally do this during embryonic development. We want to define these rules such that cells can be programmed to assemble into any desired pattern and shape. This work shows a new way in which cells can generate force to bend tissues into the right shape.”

The researchers say if they can understand how cells work together to create these complex shapes they may be better able to replicate that process in the lab, and grow ears, parts of ears or even other organs for people.

How some brilliant research may have uncovered a potential therapy for Alzheimer’s 

Dr. Nicole Koutsodendris, photo courtesy Gladstone Institutes

In the world of scientific research, the people doing clinical trials tend to suck up all the oxygen in the room. They’re the stars, the ones who are bringing potential therapies to patients. However, there’s another group of researchers who toil away in the background, but who are equally deserving of praise and gratitude. 

Dr. Lana Zholudeva, photo courtesy Gladstone Institutes

These are the scientists who do basic or discovery-level research. This is where all great therapies start. This is where a researcher gets an idea and tests it to see if it holds promise. A good idea and a scientist who asks a simple question, “I wonder if…..”  

Dr. Yadong Huang, Photo courtesy Gladstone Institutes

In our latest “Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation” podcast we talk to three researchers who are asking those questions and getting some truly encouraging answers. They are scientists at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco: one seasoned scientist and two young post-docs trying to make a name for themselves. And they might just have discovered a therapy that could help people battling Alzheimer’s disease. 

Enjoy the podcast.


  

Bridges Scholar Spotlight: Samira Alwahabi

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For more than a decade, CIRM has funded a number of educational and research training programs to give students the opportunity to explore stem cell science. One such project, the Bridges to Stem Cell Research program, helps train future generation of scientists by preparing undergraduate and master’s students from several California universities for careers in stem cell research.

Last summer, the Pacific Division of AAAS organized a ‘Moving on from COVID-19’ virtual forum specifically focused on students of science presenting their future career and research plans through 3-5 minute descriptive videos. 

Samira Alwahabi, a Bridges scholar and undergraduate student majoring in Biological Sciences at California State University, Fullerton was one of the many participants who submitted a video detailing their current work and future aspirations. Alwahabi is a CIRM intern conducting research in the Kuo lab at the Stanford University School of Medicine where she focuses on the identification and characterization of human distal lung stem cells as well as the effects of the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus on the human distal lung through the use of organoids. Her video, which you can watch below, was recognized for “Best Video Submission by an Undergraduate Student.” 

We reached out to Samira to congratulate her and she shared a few words with us about her experience with the Bridges program:

I am very grateful to the CSUF Bridges to Stem Cell Research program for giving me the opportunity to pursue research in the Kuo Lab at Stanford University. The past 11 months have been nothing less than exceptional! I have learned more than I could have even imagined and have been able to really solidify my future career goals through hands-on practice and interactions with professionals at all levels in the field of medical research. The CIRM Bridges program has allowed me to better understand how medical advancements are made and helped to further strengthen my interest in medicine. My future career goals include a career in medicine as a physician, where I will be able to use my research experience to better understand medical innovations that translate into improved quality of care for my patients. 

Congratulations Samira!

A year unlike any other – a look back at one year post Prop 14

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State flag of California

2020 was, by any standards, a pretty wacky year. Pandemic. Political convulsions. And a huge amount of uncertainty as to the funding of life-saving therapies at CIRM. Happily those all turned out OK. We got vaccines to take care of COVID. The election was won fair and square (seriously). And Proposition 14 was approved by the voters of California, re-funding your favorite state Stem Cell Agency.

But for a while, quite a while, there was uncertainty surrounding our future. For a start, once the pandemic lockdown kicked in it was impossible for people to go out and collect the signatures needed to place Proposition 14 on the November ballot. So the organizers of the campaign reached out online, using petitions that people could print out and sign and mail in.

It worked. But even after getting all the signatures needed they faced problems such as how do you campaign to get something passed, when the normal channels are not available. The answer is you get very creative very quickly.

Bob Klein

Bob Klein, the driving force behind both Proposition 71 (the 2004 ballot initiative that created CIRM) and Proposition 14, says it was challenging:

“It was a real adventure. It’s always hard, you have a complicated message about stem cells and genetics and therapy and it’s always a challenge to get a million signatures for a ballot initiative but in the middle of a pandemic where we had to shut down the signature gathering at grocery stores and street corners, where we had to go to petitions that had to be sent to voters and get them to fill them out properly and send them back. And of course the state went into an economic recoil because of the pandemic and people were worried about the money.”

Challenging absolutely, but ultimately successful. On November 13, ten days after the election, Prop 14 was declared the winner.

As our President and CEO, Dr. Maria Millan says, we went from an agency getting ready to close its doors to one ramping up for a whole new adventure.

“We faced many challenges in 2020. CIRM’s continued existence was hinging on the passage of a new bond initiative and we began the year uncertain if it would even make it on the ballot.  We had a plan in place to wind down and close operations should additional funding not materialize.  During the unrest and challenges brought by 2020, and functioning in a virtual format, we retained our core group of talented individuals who were able to mobilize our emergency covid research funding round, continue to advance our important research programs and clinical trials and initiate the process of strategic planning in the event that CIRM was reauthorized through a new bond initiative. Fortunately, we planned for success and Proposition 14 passed against all odds!”

“When California said “Yes,” the CIRM team was positioned to launch the next Era of CIRM! We have recruited top talent to grow the team and have developed a new strategic plan and evolved our mission:  Accelerating world-class science to deliver transformative regenerative medicine treatments to a diverse California and worldwide in an equitable manner.” 

And since that close call we have been very busy. In the last year we have hired 16 new employees, everyone from a new General Counsel to the Director of Finance, and more are on the way as we ramp up our ability to turn our new vision into a reality.

We have also been working hard to ensure we could continue to fund groundbreaking research from the early-stage Discovery work, to testing therapies in patients in clinical trials. Altogether our Board has approved almost $250 million in 56 new awards since December 2020. That includes:

Clinical – $84M (9 awards)

Translational – $15M (3 awards)

Discovery – $13M (11 awards)

Education – $138M (33 awards)

We have also enrolled more than 360 new patients in clinical trials that we fund or that are being carried out in the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic network.

This is a good start, but we know we have a lot more work to do in the coming years.

The last year has flown by and brought more than its fair share of challenges. But the CIRM team has shown that it can rise to those, in person and remotely, and meet them head on. We are already looking forward to 2022. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

Promising new approach for people with epilepsy

Image courtesy Epilepsy.com

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A new therapeutic approach, supported by CIRM, that blocks the signals in the brain that can cause epilepsy has been given permission by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be tested in a clinical trial.

Nearly 3.5 million Americans suffer from some form of epilepsy. It can affect people in different ways from stiff muscles or staring spells, to violent shaking and loss of consciousness. The impact it has on people’s lives extends far beyond the condition itself. People who suffer from epilepsy experience a higher frequency of depression and other mood disorders, social isolation, challenges in school and with living independently, higher unemployment, limitations on driving, and higher risk of early death.

Medications can help control the seizures in some people, but around one-third of patients don’t respond to those drugs. The alternative is surgery, which is invasive and can cause damage to delicate brain tissue.

Now Neurona Therapeutics has developed an approach, called NRTX-1001, that turns stem cells into interneurons, a kind of nerve cell in the brain. These cells secrete chemical messengers, called GABA inhibitory neurotransmitters, that help rebalance the misfiring electrical signals in the brain and hopefully eliminate or reduce the seizures.

Cory Nicholas, PhD, Neuron’s Therapeutics co-founder and CEO, said getting the go-ahead from the FDA for a clinical trial is a key milestone for the company. “Neurona’s accomplishments are a testament to longstanding support from CIRM. CIRM has supported the NRTX-1001 program from bench to bedside, dating back to early research in the Neurona founders’ laboratories at the University of California, San Francisco to the recent IND-enabling studies conducted at Neurona. It’s an exciting time for the field of regenerative medicine and is gratifying to see the NRTX-1001 neuronal cell therapy now cleared by the FDA to enter clinical testing in people who have drug resistant temporal lobe epilepsy. We are thankful to CIRM for their support of this important work that has the potential to provide seizure-freedom for patients who currently have limited treatment options.”

In a news release Dr. Nicholas said the timing was perfect. “This milestone is especially rewarding and timely given that November is Epilepsy Awareness Month. NRTX-1001 is a new type of inhibitory cell therapy that is targeted to the focal seizure onset region in the brain and, in a single treatment, has the potential to significantly improve the lives of people living with focal epilepsy.”

In animal models NRTX-1001 produced freedom from seizures in more than two-thirds of the treated group, compared to just 5 percent of the untreated group. It also resulted in reduced tissue damage in the seizure-affected area of the brain.

The clinical trial will initially target people affected by mesial temporal lobe epilepsy (MTLE) where seizures often begin in a structure called the hippocampus. MTLE is the most common type of focal epilepsy.

CIRM has invested almost $6.67 million in funding three stages of this project, from the early Discovery work to this latest late-stage preclinical work, highlighting our commitment to doing all we can to advance the most promising science from the bench to the bedside.

COVID is a real pain in the ear

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The more you learn about COVID-19 the more there is to dislike about it. The global death toll from the virus is now more than five million and for those who survive there can be long-term health consequences. We know COVID can attack the lungs, heart and brain. Now we are learning it can also mess up your ears causing hearing problems, ringing in the ear (tinnitus) and leave you dizzy.

Viral infections are a known cause of hearing loss and other kinds of infection. That’s why, before the pandemic started, Dr. Konstantina Stantovic at Massachusetts Eye and Ear and Dr. Lee Gherke at MIT had been studying how and why things like measles, mumps and hepatitis affected people’s hearing. After COVID hit they heard reports of patients experiencing sudden hearing loss and other problems, so they decided to take a closer look.

They took cells from ten patients who had all experienced some hearing or ear-related problems after testing positive for COVID and, using the iPSC method, turned those cells into the kind found in the inner ear including hair cells, supporting cells, nerve fibers, and Schwann cells.  

They then compared those to cells from patients who had similar hearing issues but who had not been infected with COVID. They found that the hair and Schwann cells both had proteins the virus can use to infect cells. That’s important because hair cells help with balance and the Schwann cells play a protective role for neuronal axons, which help different nerve cells in the brain communicate with each other.

In contrast, some of the other cells in the inner ear didn’t have those proteins and so were protected from COVID.

In a news release Dr. Stankovic says it’s not known how many people infected with COVID experienced hearing issues. “Initially this was because routine testing was not readily available for patients who were diagnosed with COVID, and also, when patients were having more life-threatening complications, they weren’t paying much attention to whether their hearing was reduced or whether they had tinnitus. We still don’t know what the incidence is, but our findings really call for increased attention to audio vestibular symptoms in people with Covid exposure.”

The doctors are not sure how the virus gets into the inner ear but speculate that it may enter through the Eustachian tube, that’s a small passageway that connects your throat to your middle ear. When you sneeze, swallow, or yawn, your Eustachian tubes open, preventing air pressure and fluid from building up inside your ear. They think that might allow particles from the nose to spread to the ear.

The study is published in the journal Communications Medicine.

CIRM has funded 17 different projects targeting COVID-19, several of which are still active.

Beware of misleading headlines and claims

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Coronavirus particles, illustration.

When the COVID pandemic broke out researchers all over the world scrambled to find new approaches to tackling the virus. Some of these, such as the vaccines, proved remarkably effective. Others, such as the anti-parasite medication ivermectin or the anti-malaria drug chloroquine, were not only not helpful, they were sometimes harmful.

Part of the problem was the understandable desire to find something, anything that would protect people from the virus. But another part of the problem was that even with research that was based on solid science, the reporting of that research in the media sometimes tilted towards hype rather than hard evidence.

A new study in the journal Stem Cell Reports takes a look at the explosion of research targeting COVID. They highlighted the lack of rigor that sometimes accompanied that research, and the lack of regulation that allowed some predatory clinics to offer stem cell “therapies” that had never been tested in people let alone shown to be either safe or effective.

Dr. Leigh Turner, from the University of California Irvine and a co-author of the study, warned against studies that were cutting ethical and scientific corners. “Scientists, regulators, and policymakers must guard against the proliferation of poorly designed, underpowered, and duplicative studies that are launched with undue haste because of the pandemic, but are unlikely to provide convincing, clinically meaningful safety and efficacy data.”

The researchers cited an earlier study (by UC Davis’ Dr. Paul Knoepfler and Dr. Mina Kim) that looked at 70 clinical trials involving cell-based treatments for COVID-19. Drs. Knoepfler and Kim found that most were small, involving around 50 patients, and only 22.8% were randomized, double-blinded, and controlled experiments. They say even if these produced promising results they would have to be tested in much larger numbers to be of real benefit.

Another issue that Turner and his team highlighted was the hype that sometimes accompanied this work, citing news releases that over-hyped findings and failed to mention study limitations to gain more media coverage.

In a news release Dr. Laertis Ikonomou, of the University at Buffalo and a co-author of the study, said over-hyping treatments is nothing new but that it seemed to become even more common during COVID.

“Therefore, it is even more important to communicate promising developments in COVID-19-related science and clinical management [responsibly]. Key features of good communication are an accurate understanding of new findings, including study limitations and avoidance of sensationalist language.”

“Realistic time frames for clinical translation are equally important as is the realization that promising interventions at preliminary stages may not always translate to proven treatments following rigorous testing.”

They also warned about clinics advertising “stem cell therapies” that were unproven and unlicensed and often involved injecting the patients’ own cells back into them. The researchers say it’s time that the FDA and other authorities cracked down on companies taking advantage of patients in this way.

“If companies and affiliated clinicians are not fined, forced to return to patients whatever profits they have made, confronted with criminal charges, subject to revocation of medical licensure, or otherwise subject to serious legal and financial consequences, it is possible that more businesses will be drawn to this space because of the profits that can be generated from selling unlicensed and unproven cell-based products in the midst of a pandemic.”

At a time when so many were dying or suffering long-term health problems as a result of COVID, it’s unconscionable that others were happy to cash in on the fear and pain to make a quick buck.

When the pandemic broke out the CIRM Board voted to approved $5 million in emergency funding to help develop new therapies to combat the virus. Altogether we funded 17 different projects including three clinical trials.