You can read about a disease or hear someone talking about it and be engaged and interested. But when you see and hear the people who have the disease talking about it and the impact it has on their lives, that’s when a profound impact occurs. When you look into their eyes and hear them describe, in their own words, how it affects them, you are moved, truly moved, in ways that are hard to describe.
the goal of the Rare Disease Film Festival taking place in San
Francisco Saturday November 9 and Sunday November 10. Over two days they’ll be
showing 50 films on rare diseases. The film “Rare But Not Alone” highlights
conditions such as Batten Disease,
Sanfilippo Syndrome and Epidermolysis Bullosa. It shows how families with rare
conditions can often feel isolated and alone, but through the internet they can
create support groups and a community to help them cope with the pain and
challenges that these conditions create.
Daniel DeFabio, the co-founder of the festival, says the idea grew out of his own experiences as a parent.
“I had run a film festival
before, it was general interest short independent films. But when my
son was diagnosed with Menkes Disease, I made a film about that. After
exploring the best festivals and conferences to screen a rare disease film I
saw an unmet need. There was nothing out there like a film festival
focused on the rare disease community. A community of 30 million
Americans seemed to deserve its own festival.”
A rare disease is one that
affects fewer than 200,000 people. In the US they are also called “Orphan
diseases” because drug companies were not interested in adopting them to help
create cures or new treatments. At CIRM we are committed to funding research
into these kinds of condition. We are not in the business of making a profit.
We are here to try and save lives. Of the 60
clinical trials we now
fund more than a dozen of them target rare conditions.
DeFabio says the festival is designed to be a place for people to come and share their experiences, but he also hopes it has a more practical, tangible result.
“I partnered with Bo
Bigelow. His daughter has USP7. We knew we wanted more than just increased
awareness. We wanted awareness that could lead to action. We
structured the festival to get the right people together and talking about
what they learn in the films. You know Debussy’s line on how music is what
happens in the space between the notes? We felt advocacy was what happens in
the space between the films. We hope after a screening people stay for a while
and start conversations in our lobby. Ideally, they’ll make connection to a new
researcher, or a researcher might realize a new application for work that has already
“We say of
our festival you may never be more moved at the movies. And we provide the
packs to tissues to our audience in case we’re right.”
When you read about a new drug or therapy being approved to help patients it always seems so simple. Researchers come up with a brilliant idea, test it to make sure it is safe and works, and then get approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to sell it to people who need it.
But it’s not always that simple, or straight forward. Sometimes it can take years, with several detours along the way, before the therapy finds its way to patients.
That’s the case with a blood cancer drug called fedratinib (we blogged about it here) and the relentless efforts by U.C. San Diego researcher Dr. Catriona Jamieson to help make it available to patients. CIRM funded the critical early stage research to help show this approach could help save lives. But it took many more years, and several setbacks, before Dr. Jamieson finally succeeded in getting approval from the FDA.
The story behind that therapy, and Dr. Jamieson’s fight, is told in the San Diego Union Tribune. Reporter Brad Fikes has been following the therapy for years and in the story he explains why he found it so fascinating, and why this was a therapy that almost didn’t make it.
Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) is a cancer of the white blood cells. It causes them to increase in number, crowd out other blood cells, leading to anemia, infection or heavy bleeding. Up until the early 2000’s the main weapon against CML was chemotherapy, but the introduction of drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors changed that, dramatically improving long term survival rates.
However, these medications are not a
cure and do not completely eradicate the leukemia stem cells that can fuel the
growth of the cancer, so if people stop taking the medication the cancer can
But now Dr. John Chute and a team of researchers at UCLA, in a CIRM-supported study, have found a way to target those leukemia stem cells and possibly eliminate them altogether.
The team knew that mice that had the genetic mutation
responsible for around 95 percent of CML cases normally developed the disease
and died with a few months. However, mice that had the CML gene but lacked
another gene, one that produced a protein called pleiotrophin, had normal white
blood cells and lived almost twice as long. Clearly there was something about
pleiotrophin that played a key role in the growth of CML.
They tested this by transplanting blood stem cells from mice
with the CML gene into healthy mice. The previously healthy mice developed
leukemia and died. But when they did the same thing from mice that had the CML
gene but lacked the pleiotrophin gene, the mice remained healthy.
So, Chute and his team wanted to know if the same thing
happens in human cells. Studying human CML stem cells they found these had not
just 100 times more pleiotrophin than ordinary cells, they were also producing
their own pleiotrophin.
In a news release Chute, said this was unexpected:
“This provides an example of cancer stem cells
that are perpetuating their own disease growth by hijacking a protein that
normally supports the growth of the healthy blood system.”
Next Chute and the team developed an antibody that blocked
the action of pleiotrophin and when they tested it in human cells the CML stem
Then they combined this antibody with a drug called imatinib
(better known by its brand name, Gleevec) which targets the genetic abnormality
that causes most forms of CML. They tested this in mice who had been
transplanted with human CML stem cells and the cells died.
“Our results suggest that it may be possible to eradicate
CML stem cells by combining this new targeted therapy with a tyrosine kinase
inhibitor,” said Chute. “This could lead to a day down the road when people
with CML may not need to take a tyrosine kinase inhibitor for the rest of their
The next step is for the researchers to modify the antibody so that it is better suited for humans and not mice and to see if it is effective not just in cells in the laboratory, but in people.
An independent Economic Impact Report says the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has had a major impact on California’s economy, creating tens of thousands of new jobs, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in new taxes, and producing billions of dollars in additional revenue for the state.
The report, done by Dan Wei and Adam Rose at the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, looked at the impacts of CIRM funding on both the state and national economy from the start of the Stem Cell Agency in 2004 to the end of 2018.
The total impacts on the California economy are estimated
billion of additional gross output (sales revenue)
million of additional state/local tax revenues
million of additional federal tax revenues
additional full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs, half of which offer salaries
considerably higher than the state average
Millan, M.D., CIRM’s President and CEO, says the report reflects the Agency’s
role in building an ecosystem to accelerate the translation of important stem
cell science to solutions for patients with unmet medical needs. “CIRM’s
mission on behalf of patients has been the priority from day one, but this
report shows that CIRM funding brings additional benefits to the state. This report
reflects how CIRM is promoting economic growth in California by attracting
scientific talent and additional capital, and by creating an environment that
supports the development of businesses and commercial enterprises in the state”
In addition to the benefits to California, the impacts
outside of California on the US economy are estimated to be:
billion of additional gross output (sales revenue)
million of additional state (non-Californian) & local tax revenue
million of additional federal tax revenues
additional full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs
researchers summarize their findings, saying: “In terms of economic impacts, the
state’s investment in CIRM has paid handsome dividends in terms of output, employment,
and tax revenues for California.”
The estimates in the report are based on the economic stimulus
created by CIRM funding and by the co-funding that researchers and companies
were required to provide for clinical and late-stage preclinical projects. The
estimates also include:
Investments in CIRM-supported projects from private funders such
as equity investments, public offerings and mergers and acquisitions,
Follow-on funding from the National Institutes of Health and other
organizations due to data generated in CIRM-funded projects
Funding generated by clinical trials held at CIRM’s Alpha Stem
Cell Clinics network
researchers state “Nearly half of these impacts emanate from the $2.67 billion
CIRM grants themselves.”
economic impact of California’s investment in stem and regenerative cell
research is reflective of significant progress in this field that was just
being born at the time of CIRM’s creation,” says Dr. Millan. “We fund the most
promising projects based on rigorous science from basic research into clinical
trials. We partnered with researchers and companies to increase the likelihood
of success and created specialized infrastructure such as the Alpha Clinics
Network to support the highest quality of clinical care and research standards
for these novel approaches. The
ecosystem created by CIRM has attracted scientists, companies and capital from outside
the state to California. By supporting promising science projects early on,
long before most investors were ready to come aboard, we enabled our scientists
to make progress that positioned them to attract significant commercial
investments into their programs and into California.”
think one of the greatest strengths of CIRM has been their focus on development
of new stem cell therapies that can become real medicines,” says UCLA and
Orchard Therapeutics’ Don Kohn, M.D. “This has meant guiding academic
investigators to do the things that may be second nature in
industry/pharmaceutical companies but are not standard for basic or clinical
research. The support from CIRM to perform the studies and regulatory
activities needed to navigate therapies through the FDA and to form alliances
with biotech and pharma companies has allowed the stem cell gene therapy we
developed to treat SCID babies to be advanced and licensed to Orchard
Therapeutics who can make it available to patients across the country.”
support has been instrumental to our early successes and our ability to rapidly
progress Forty Seven’s CD47 antibody targeting approach with magrolimab,” says
Mark Chao, M.D., Ph.D., Founder and Vice President of Clinical Development at
Forty Seven Inc. “ CIRM was an early collaborator in our clinical
programs, and will continue to be a valued partner as we move forward with our
MDS/AML clinical trials.”
researchers say the money generated by partnerships and investments, what is
called “deal-flow funding”, is still growing and that the economic benefits
created by them are likely to continue for some time: “Deal-flow funding
usually involves several waves or rounds of capital infusion over many years,
and thus is it expected that CIRM’s past and current funding will attract
increasing amounts of industry investment and lead to additional spending
injections into the California economy in the years to come.”
They conclude their report by saying: “CIRM has led to
California stem cell research and development activities becoming a leader
among the states.”
It’s always gratifying to see research you have helped support go from being an intriguing idea to something with promise to a product that is now the focus of a company. It’s all the more gratifying if the product in question might one day help millions of people battling diabetes.
That’s the case with
a small pouch being developed by a company called Encellin. The pouch is the
brainchild of Tejal Desai, Ph.D., a
professor of bioengineering at UCSF and a CIRM grantee.
“It’s a cell encapsulation device, so this material can essentially protect beta cells from the immune system while allowing them to function by secreting insulin. We are placing stem cell-derived beta cells into the pouch which is then implanted under the skin. The cells are then able to respond to changes in sugar or glucose levels in the blood by pumping out insulin. By placing the device in a place that is accessible we can easily remove it if we have to, but also we can recharge it and put in new cells as well.”
While the pouch was developed in Dr. Desai’s lab, the idea
to take it from a promising item and try to turn it into a real-world therapy
came from one of Dr. Desai’s former students, Crystal Nyitray, Ph.D.
After getting her PhD, Nyitray went to work for the pharmaceutical giant Sanofi. In an article in FierceBiotech she says that’s where she realized that the pouch she had been working on at UCSF had real potential.
“During that time, I started to realize
we really had something, that everything that pharma or biotech was looking at
was something we had been developing from the ground up with those specific
questions in mind,”
So Dr. Nyitray went to work for QB3, the institute created
by UC San Francisco to help startups develop their ideas and get funding. The
experience she gained there gave her the confidence to be the co-founder and
CEO of Encellin.
Dr. Desai is a scientific advisor to Encellin. She says
trying to create a device that contains insulin-secreting cells is not new.
Many previous attempts failed because once the device was placed in the body,
the immune system responded by creating fibrosis or scarring around it which
blocked the ability of the cells to get out.
But she thinks their approach has an advantage over previous
“This is not a new idea, the idea has been around for 40 or
more years but getting it to work is hard. We have a convergence of getting the
right cell types and combining that with our knowledge of immunology and then
the material science where we can design materials at this scale to get the kind
of function that we need.
Dr. Nyitray ““If we can reduce fibrosis, it really
helps the cells get nutrients better, survive better and signal more
effectively. It’s really critical to their success.”
Dr. Desai says the device is still in the early stages of
being tested, but already it’s showing promise.
“We have done testing in animals. Where the company is
taking this is now to see if we can take this to larger animals and then
She says without CIRM’s support none of this would have
“CIRM has been really instrumental in helping us refine the
cell technology piece of it, to get really robust cells and also to support the
development to push the materials, to understand the biology, to really
understand what was happening with the cell material interface. We know we have
a lot of challenges ahead, but we are really excited to see if this could
We are excited too. We are looking forward to seeing what
Encellin does in the coming years. It could change the lives of millions of
people around the world.
For several years, researchers have been able to take stem cells and use them to make three dimensional structures called organoids. These are a kind of mini organ that scientists can then use to study what happens in the real thing. For example, creating kidney organoids to see how kidney disease develops in patients.
Scientists can do the same with brain cells, creating clumps
of cells that become a kind of miniature version of parts of the brain. These
organoids can’t do any of the complex things our brains do – such as thinking –
but they do serve as useful physical models for us to use in trying to develop
a deeper understanding of the brain.
Now Alysson Muotri and his team at UC San Diego – in
a study supported by two
grants from CIRM – have taken the science one step further, developing
brain organoids that allow us to measure the level of electrical activity they
generate, and then compare it to the electrical activity seen in the developing
brain of a fetus. That last sentence might cause some people to say “What?”, but
this is actually really cool science that could help us gain a deeper
understanding of how brains develop and come up with new ways to treat problems
in the brain caused by faulty circuitry, such as autism or schizophrenia.
The team developed new, more effective methods of growing
clusters of the different kinds of cells found in the brain. They then placed
them on a multi-electrode array, a kind of muffin tray that could measure
electrical impulses. As they fed the cells and increased the number of cells in
the trays they were able to measure changes in the electrical impulses they
gave off. The cells went from producing 3,000 spikes a minute to 300,000 spikes
a minute. This is the first time this level of activity has been achieved in a
cell-based laboratory model. But that’s not all.
When they further analyzed the activity of the organoids, they found there were some similarities to the activity seen in the brains of premature babies. For instance, both produced short bursts of activity, followed by a period of inactivity.
In a news
release Muotri says they were surprised by the finding:
“We couldn’t believe it at first — we
thought our electrodes were malfunctioning. Because the data were so striking,
I think many people were kind of skeptical about it, and understandably so.”
Muotri knows that this research –
published in the journal Cell Stem Cell – raises ethical issues and he is
quick to say that these organoids are nothing like a baby’s brain, that they differ
in several critical ways. The organoids are tiny, not just in size but also in
the numbers of cells involved. They also don’t have blood vessels to keep them
alive or help them grow and they don’t have any ability to think.
“They are far from being functionally
equivalent to a full cortex, even in a baby. In fact, we don’t yet have a way
to even measure consciousness or sentience.”
What these organoids do have is the ability to help us look
at the structure and activity of the brain in ways we never could before. In
the past researchers depended on mice or other animals to test new ideas or
therapies for human diseases or disorders. Because our brains are so different
than animal brains those approaches have had limited results. Just think about
how many treatments for Alzheimer’s looked promising in animal models but
failed completely in people.
These new organoids allow us to explore how new therapies
might work in the human brain, and hopefully increase our ability to develop
more effective treatments for conditions as varied as epilepsy and autism.
Chemotherapy and radiation are two of the front-line weapons in treating cancer. They can be effective, even life-saving, but they can also be brutal, taking a toll on the body that lasts for months. Now a team at UCLA has developed a therapy that might enable the body to bounce back faster after chemo and radiation, and even make treatments like bone marrow transplants easier on patients.
First a little
background. Some cancer treatments use chemotherapy and radiation to kill the
cancer, but they can also damage other cells, including those in the bone
marrow responsible for making blood stem cells. Those cells eventually recover
but it can take weeks or months, and during that time the patient may feel
fatigue and be more susceptible to infections and other problems.
In a CIRM-supported study, UCLA’s Dr. John Chute and his team developed a drug that speeds up the process of regenerating a new blood supply. The research is published in the journal Nature Communications.
They focused their
attention on a protein called PTP-sigma that is found in blood stem cells and
acts as a kind of brake on the regeneration of those cells. Previous studies by
Dr. Chute showed that, after undergoing radiation, mice that have less
PTP-sigma were able to regenerate their blood stem cells faster than mice that
had normal levels of the protein.
So they set out to
identify something that could help reduce levels of PTP-sigma without affecting
other cells. They first identified an organic compound with the charming name
of 6545075 (Chembridge) that was reported to be effective against PTP-sigma.
Then they searched a library of 80,000 different small molecules to find
something similar to 6545075 (and this is why science takes so long).
From that group they
developed more than 100 different drug candidates to see which, if any, were
effective against PTP-sigma. Finally, they found a promising candidate, called DJ009.
In laboratory tests DJ009 proved itself effective in blocking PTP-sigma in
human blood stem cells.
They then tested
DJ009 in mice that were given high doses of radiation. In a news
release Dr. Chute said the results were very encouraging:
“The potency of this compound in animal models was very
high. It accelerated the recovery of blood stem cells, white blood cells and
other components of the blood system necessary for survival. If found to be
safe in humans, it could lessen infections and allow people to be discharged
from the hospital earlier.”
Of the radiated mice, most that were given DJ009
survived. In comparison, those that didn’t get DJ009 died within three weeks.
They saw similar benefits in mice given chemotherapy.
Mice with DJ009 saw their white blood cells – key components of the immune
system – return to normal within two weeks. The untreated mice had dangerously
low levels of those cells at the same point.
It’s encouraging work and the team are already getting
ready for more research so they can validate their findings and hopefully take
the next step towards testing this in people in clinical trials.
In ancient Greek mythology, a Chimera was a creature that was usually depicted as a lion with an additional goat head and a serpent for a tail. Due to the Chimera’s animal hybrid nature, the term “chimeric” came to fruition in the scientific community as a way to describe an organism containing two or more different sets of DNA.
A CIRM-funded study conducted by Dr. Mathew Blurton-Jones and his team at UC Irvine describes a way for human brain immune cells, known as microglia, to grow and function inside mice. Since the mice contain a both human cells and their own mice cells, they are described as being chimeric.
In order to develop this chimeric “mighty mouse” model, Dr. Blurton-Jones and his team generated induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which have the ability to turn into any kind of cell, from cell samples donated by adult patients. For this study, the researchers converted iPSCs into microglia, a type of immune cell found in the brain, and implanted them into genetically modified mice. After a few months, they found that the implanted cells successfully integrated inside the brains of the mice.
By finding a way to look at human microglia grow and function in real time in an animal model, scientists can further analyze crucial mechanisms contributing to neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, traumatic brain injury, and stroke.
For this particular study, Dr. Blurton-Jones and his team looked at human microglia in the mouse brain in relation to Alzheimer’s, which could hold clues to better understand and treat the disease. The team did this by introducing amyloid plaques, protein fragments in the brain that accumulate in people with Alzheimer’s, and evaluating how the human microglia responded. They found that the human microglia migrated toward the amyloid plaques and surrounding them, which is what is observed in Alzheimer’s patients.
In a press release, Dr. Blurton-Jones expressed the importance of studying microglia by stating that,
“Microglia are now seen as having a crucial role in the development and progression of Alzheimer’s. The functions of our cells are influenced by which genes are turned on or off. Recent research has identified over 40 different genes with links to Alzheimer’s and the majority of these are switched on in microglia. However, so far we’ve only been able to study human microglia at the end stage of Alzheimer’s in post-mortem tissues or in petri dishes.”
Furthermore, Dr. Blurton-Jones highlighted the importance of looking at human microglia in particular by saying that,
“The human microglia also showed significant genetic differences from the rodent version in their response to the plaques, demonstrating how important it is to study the human form of these cell.”
The full results of this study were published in Cell.
The invention of GPS navigation systems has made finding your way around so much easier, providing simple instructions on how to get from point A to point B. Now, a new study shows that our bodies have their own internal navigation system that helps stem cells know where to go, and when, in order to build a human heart. And the study also shows what can go wrong when even a few cells fail to follow directions.
In this CIRM-supported study, a team of researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, used a new technique called single cell RNA sequencing to study what happens in a developing heart. Single cell RNA sequencing basically takes a snapshot photo of all the gene activity in a single cell at one precise moment. Using this the researchers were able to follow the activity of tens of thousands of cells as a human heart was being formed.
“This sequencing technique allowed us
to see all the different types of cells present at various stages of heart development
and helped us identify which genes are activated and suppressed along the way. We
were not only able to uncover the existence of unknown cell types, but we also
gained a better understanding of the function and behavior of individual
cells—information we could never access before.”
Then they partnered with a team at Luxembourg Centre for Systems
Biomedicine (LCSB) of the University of Luxembourg which ran a
computational analysis to identify which genes were involved in creating
different cell types. This highlighted one specific gene, called Hand2, that controls
the activity of thousands of other genes. They found that a lack of Hand2 in
mice led to an inability to form one of the heart’s chambers, which in turn led
to impaired blood flow to the lungs. The embryo was creating the cells needed
to form the chamber, but not a critical pathway that would allow those cells to
get where they were needed when they were needed.
Gifford says this has given us a deeper insight into how
cells are formed, knowledge we didn’t have before.
“Single-cell technologies can inform us about how organs
form in ways we couldn’t understand before and can provide the underlying cause
of disease associated with genetic variations. We revealed subtle differences
in very, very small subsets of cells that actually have catastrophic
consequences and could easily have been overlooked in the past. This is the
first step toward devising new therapies.”
These therapies are needed to help treat congenital heart
defects, which are the most common and deadly birth defects. There are more
than 2.5 million Americans with these defects. Deepak Srivastava, President of
Gladstone and the leader of the study, said the knowledge gained in this study
could help developed strategies to help address that.
to see the long-term consequences in adults, and right now, we don’t really
have any way to treat them. My hope is that if we can understand the genetic
causes and the cell types affected, we could potentially intervene soon after
birth to prevent the worsening of their state over time.
Fragile X syndrome (FXS) is a genetic disorder that is the most common form of inherited intellectual disability in children, and has also been linked to a form of autism. Uncovering the cause of FXS could help lead to a deeper understanding of autism, what causes it and ultimately, it’s hoped, to treating or even preventing it.
Researchers at Children’s Hospital in Chicago looked at FXS at the stem cell level and found how a genetic defect has an impact on the development of neurons (nerve cells in the brain) and how that in turn has an impact on the developing brain in the fetus.
In a news release on Eurekalert, Dr. Yongchao Ma, the senior author of the study, says this identified a problem at a critical point in the development of the brain:
“During embryonic brain development,
the right neurons have to be produced at the right time and in the right
numbers. We focused on what happens in the stem cells that leads to slower
production of neurons that are responsible for brain functions including learning
and memory. Our discoveries shed light on the earliest stages of disease
development and offer novel targets for potential treatments.”
The team looked at neural stem cells and found that a lack
of one protein, called FMRP, created a kind of cascade that impacted the
ability of the cells to turn into neurons. Fewer neurons meant impaired brain
The findings, published in the journal Cell Reports, help explain how
genetic information flows in cells in developing babies and, according to Dr.
Ma, could lead to new ideas on how to treat problems.
“Currently we are exploring how to
stimulate FMRP protein activity in the stem cell, in order to correct the
timing of neuron production and ensure that the correct amount and types of
neurons are available to the developing brain. There may be potential for gene
therapy for fragile X syndrome.”