A rare chance to help those in need

Recently the CIRM Board voted to support the creation of a Rare Disease Advisory Council (RDAC) in California. An RDAC is an advisory body providing a platform for the rare community to have a stronger voice in state government. They address the needs of rare patients and families by giving stakeholders an opportunity to make recommendations to state leaders on critical issues including the need for increased awareness, diagnostic tools and access to affordable treatments and cures.  

California is now in the process of creating an RDAC but, as a recent article in STAT highlighted, we are far from the only one.

Guadalupe Hayes-Mota

21 states give rare disease patients a seat at the table. The other 29 need to follow suit
By Guadalupe Hayes-Mota Originally published by STAT on July 26, 2021

A powerful movement is taking shape in the U.S. rare disease community that could transform the lives of millions of people. That’s right — millions. Even though a single rare disease may affect only a few individuals, there are several thousand of these problematic diseases that are difficult to identify and treat.

Since 2015, 21 U.S. states have passed legislation to create Rare Disease Advisory Councils that provide platforms for patients and family members to communicate with experts, policymakers, and the broader public. It’s critical to seize this hopeful moment because the needs of so many people living with rare diseases go unaddressed.

I know because I’m one of them.

I was born and raised in a small town in Mexico and diagnosed at birth with hemophilia, a rare genetic disease that prevents the blood from clotting after trauma or injury. While treatment existed in other parts of the world, I had only limited access to it, forcing me to live an isolated childhood indoors, protected and isolated from the world.

When my appendix burst at age 12, I underwent emergency surgery, followed by a desperate eight-hour ambulance ride to a hospital in another town in search of better medication to stop the bleeding. Doctors told my parents I was unlikely to survive, but against all odds I did — after clinically dying twice in the operating room. I am one of the few lucky people with my condition to have survived severe bleeding events without treatment.

After this traumatic incident, my family moved to a small town in California’s Mojave Desert. Navigating the health care system as an immigrant and not knowing the language was complicated. Accessing treatment and services for my disease was almost impossible at first. The nearest specialist was 90 minutes away. Thankfully, with help from the hemophilia association chapter in our area, I gained access to care and treatment.

Read the complete article here.

Building a new mouse, one stem cell at a time

Science is full of acronyms. There are days where it feels like you need a decoder ring just to understand a simple sentence. A recent study found that between 1950 and 2019 researchers used more than 1.1 million unique acronyms in scientific papers. There’s even an acronym for three letter acronyms. It’s TLAs. Which of course has one more letter than the thing it stands for.

I only mention this because I just learned a new acronym, but this one could help change the way we are able to study causes of infertility. The acronym is IVG or in vitro gametogenesis and it could enable scientists to create both sperm and egg, from stem cells, and grow them in the lab. And now scientists in Japan have done just that and allowed these fertilized eggs to then develop into mice.

The study, published in the journal Science, was led by Dr. Katsuhiko Hayashi of Kyushu University in Japan. Dr. Hayashi is something of a pioneer in the field of IVG. In the past his team were the first to produce both mouse sperm, and mouse eggs from stem cells. But they ran into a big obstacle when they tried to get the eggs to develop to a point where they were ready to be fertilized.

Over the last five years they have worked to find a way around this obstacle and, using mouse embryonic stem cells, they developed a process to help these stem cell-generated eggs mature to the point where they were viable.

In an article in STAT News Richard Anderson, Chair of Clinical Reproductive Science at the University of Edinburgh, said this was a huge achievement: “It’s a very serious piece of work. This group has done a lot of impressive things leading up to this, but this latest paper really completes the in vitro gametogenesis story by doing it in a completely stem-cell-derived way.”

The technique could prove invaluable in helping study infertility in people and, theoretically, could one day lead to women struggling with infertility to be able to use their own stem cells to create eggs or men their own sperm. However, the researchers say that even if that does become possible it’s likely a decade or more away.

While the study is encouraging on a scientific level, it’s raising some concerns on an ethical level. Should there be limits on how many of these manufactured embryos that a couple can create? Can someone create dozens or hundreds of these embryos and then sift through them, using genetic screening tools, to find the ones that have the most desirable traits?

One thing is clear, while the science is evolving, bioethicists, scholars and the public need to be discussing the implications for this work, and what kinds of restraints, if any, need to be applied before it’s RFPT (ready for prime time – OK, I made that one up.)

A new way to evade immune rejection in transplanting cells

Immune fluorescence of HIP cardiomyocytes in a dish; Photo courtesy of UCSF

Transplanting cells or an entire organ from one person to another can be lifesaving but it comes with a cost. To avoid the recipient’s body rejecting the cells or organ the patient has to be given powerful immunosuppressive medications. Those medications weaken the immune system and increase the risk of infections. But now a team at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) have used a new kind of stem cell to find a way around that problem.

The cells are called HIP cells and they are a specially engineered form of induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC). Those are cells that can be turned into any kind of cell in the body. These have been gene edited to make them a kind of “universal stem cell” meaning they are not recognized by the immune system and so won’t be rejected by the body.

The UCSF team tested these cells by transplanting them into three different kinds of mice that had a major disease; peripheral artery disease; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; and heart failure.

The results, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, showed that the cells could help reduce the incidence of peripheral artery disease in the mice’s back legs, prevent the development of a specific form of lung disease, and reduce the risk of heart failure after a heart attack.

In a news release, Dr. Tobias Deuse, the first author of the study, says this has great potential for people. “We showed that immune-engineered HIP cells reliably evade immune rejection in mice with different tissue types, a situation similar to the transplantation between unrelated human individuals. This immune evasion was maintained in diseased tissue and tissue with poor blood supply without the use of any immunosuppressive drugs.”

Deuse says if this does work in people it may not only be of great medical value, it may also come with a decent price tag, which could be particularly important for diseases that affect millions worldwide.

“In order for a therapeutic to have a broad impact, it needs to be affordable. That’s why we focus so much on immune-engineering and the development of universal cells. Once the costs come down, the access for all patients in need increases.”

We’ve got cash, here’s how you can get some

When the voters of California approved Proposition 14 last November (thanks folks) they gave us $5.5 billion to continue the work we started way back in 2014. It’s a great honor, and a great responsibility.

It’s also a great opportunity to look at what we do and how we do it and try to come up with even better ways of funding groundbreaking research and helping create a new generation of researchers.

In addition to improving on what we already do, Prop 14 introduced some new elements, some new goals for us to add to the mix, and we are in the process of fleshing out how we can best do that.

Because of all these changes we decided it would be a good idea to hold a “Town Hall” meeting and let everyone know what these changes are and how they may impact applications for funding.

The Town Hall, on Tuesday June 29, was a great success with almost 200 participants. But we know that not everyone who wanted to attend could, so here’s the video of the event, and below that are the questions that were posed by people during the meeting, and the answers to those questions.

Having seen the video we would be eternally grateful if you could respond to a short online survey, to help us get a better idea of your research and education needs and to be better able to serve you and identify potential areas of opportunity for CIRM. Here’s a link to that survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/VQMYPDL

We know that there may be issues or questions that are not answered here, so feel free to send those to us at info@cirm.ca.gov and we will make sure you get an answer.

Are there any DISC funding opportunities specific to early-stage investigators?

DISC funding opportunities are open to all investigators.  There aren’t any that are specific to junior investigators.

Are DISC funding opportunities available for early-mid career researchers based out of USA such as Australia?

Sorry, you have to be in California for us to fund your work.

Does tumor immunology/ cancer immunotherapy fall within the scope of the CIRM discovery grants?

Yes, they do.  Here is a link to various CIRM DISC Awards that fall within the cancer category.  https://www.cirm.ca.gov/grants?disease_focus%5B%5D=1427&program_type%5B%5D=1230

Will Disc1 (Inception awards) and/or seed funding mechanisms become available again?

CIRM is anticipating launching a program to meet this need toward the end of this year.

For DISC award is possible to contact a grant advisor for advice before applying?

Please email discovery@cirm.ca.gov to discuss Discovery stage applications before applying

Is co-funding requirement a MUST for clinical trials?

Co-funding requirements vary.  Please refer to the following link for more information: https://www.cirm.ca.gov/sites/default/files/files/about_cirm/CLIN2_Mini_Brochure2.pdf

Hi, when will reviews for DISC 2: CIRM Quest – Discovery Stage Research Projects (deadline March 2021) be available? Thanks!

Review summaries for the March 2021 Discovery submitted applications will be available by mid-August, with final board funding decisions at the August 24th Application Review Subcommittee Meeting

Has CIRM project made it to Phase III or product launch with FDA approval? What is CIRM strategy for start-up biotech companies?

CIRM has funded several late-stage Phase III/potentially pivotal clinical trials. You can view them here: https://www.cirm.ca.gov/our-impact/funding-clinical-trials

CIRM funding supports non-profit academic grantees as well as companies of all sizes.

I am studying stem cells using mouse. Is my research eligible for the CIRM grants?

Yes it is.

Your programs more specifically into stem cell research would be willing to take patients that are not from California?

Yes, we have treated patients who are not in California. Some have come to California for treatment and others have been treated in other states in the US by companies that are based here in California.

Can you elaborate how the preview of the proposals works? Who reviews them and what are the criteria for full review?

The same GWG panel both previews and conducts the full review. The panel first looks through all the applications to identify what each reviewer believes represents the most likely to be impactful and meet the goals of the CIRM Discovery program. Those that are selected by any reviewer moves forward to the next full review step.

If you meet your milestones-How likely is it that a DISC recipient gets a TRAN award?

The milestones are geared toward preparation of the TRAN stage.  However, this is a different application and review that is not guaranteed to result in funding.

Regarding Manufacturing Public Private partnerships – What specific activities is CIRM thinking about enabling these partnerships? For example, are out of state for profit commercial entities able to conduct manufacturing at CA based manufacturing centers even though the clinical program may be primarily based out of CA? If so, what percent of the total program budget must be expended in CA? How will CIRM enable GMP manufacturing centers interact with commercial entities?

We are in the early stages of developing this concept with continued input from various stakeholders. The preliminary vision is to build a network of academic GMP manufacturing centers and industry partners to support the manufacturing needs of CIRM-funded projects in California.

We are in the process of widely distributing a summary of the manufacturing workshop. Here’s a link to it:

If a center is interested in being a sharing lab or competency hub with CIRM, how would they go about it?

CIRM will be soliciting applications for Shared Labs/Competency hubs in potential future RFAs. The survey asks several questions asking for feedback on these concepts so it would really help us if you could complete the survey.

Would preclinical development of stem cell secretome-derived protein therapies for rare neuromuscular diseases and ultimately, age-related muscle wasting be eligible for CIRM TRAN1 funding? The goal is to complete IND-enabling studies for a protein-based therapy that enhances tissue regeneration to treat a rare degenerative disease. the screening to identify the stem-cell secreted proteins to develop as therapeutics is done by in vitro screening with aged/diseased primary human progenitor cells to identify candidates that enhance their differentiation . In vivo the protein therapeutic signals to several cell types , including precursor cells to improve tissue homeostasis.

I would suggest reaching out to our Translation team to discuss the details as it will depend on several factors. You can email the team at translational@cirm.ca.gov

Here are the slides used in the presentations.

Heads or tails? Stem cells help guide the decision

Two cell embryo

There are many unknown elements for what triggers the cells in an embryo to start dividing and multiplying and becoming every single cell in the body. Now researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco have uncovered one of those elements, how embryos determine which cells become the head and which the tail.

In this CIRM-funded study the Gladstone team, led by Dr. Todd McDevitt, discovered almost by chance how the cells align in a heads-to-tail arrangement.

Todd McDevitt

They had created an organoid made from brain cells when they noticed that some of the cells were beginning to gather in an elongated fashion, in the same way that spinal cords do in a developing fetus.

In a news article, Nick Elder, a graduate student at Gladstone and the co-author of the study, published in the journal Development, says this was not what they had anticipated would happen: “Organoids don’t typically have head-tail directionality, and we didn’t originally set out to create an elongating organoid, so the fact that we saw this at all was very surprising.”

Further study enabled the team to identify which molecules were involved in signaling specific genes to switch on and off. These were similar to the process previously identified in developing mouse embryos.

“This is such a critical point in the early development of any organism, so having a new model to observe it and study it in the lab is very exciting,” says McDevitt.

This is not just of academic interest either, it could have real world implications in helping understand what causes miscarriages or birth defects.

“We can use this organoid to get at unresolved human developmental questions in a way that doesn’t involve human embryos,” says Dr. Ashley Libby, another member of the team. “For instance, you could add chemicals or toxins that a pregnant woman might be exposed to, and see how they affect the development of the spinal cord.”

Physicians and patient advocates on the front lines of the fight for a more equitable health system

Over the last year there has been increasing awareness of the inequalities in the American healthcare system. At every level there is evidence of bias, discrimination and unequal access to the best care. Sometimes unequal access to any care. That is, hopefully, changing but only if the new awareness is matched with action.

At the recent World Stem Cell Summit CIRM helped pull together a panel of physicians and patient advocates who have been leading the charge for change for years. The panel was called ‘Addressing Disparities, Promoting Equity and Inclusion in Clinical Research.’

The panelists include:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is ysabel-duron.jpeg
Ysabel Duron – Founder of The Latino Cancer Institute & CIRM Board member
Adrienne Shapiro – sickle cell disease patient advocate, Founder of Axis Advocacy – Sickle Cell Disease support and advocacy group
Dr. Leah Ke‘ala‘aumoe Dowsett – Clinical geneticist, serves on hospital DEI committee, Board member Association of Native Hawaiian Physicians
Dr. Nathan Chomilo – Co-Founder, Minnesota Doctors for Health Equity and head of the Minnesota COVID Vaccine Equity Program

The conversation they had was informative, illuminating and fascinating. But it didn’t sugar coat where we are, and the hard work ahead of us to get to where we need to be.

Enjoy the event, with apologies for the inept cameo appearance by me at the beginning of the video. Technology clearly isn’t my forte.

Paving the Way

When someone scores a goal in soccer all the attention is lavished on them. Fans chant their name, their teammates pile on top in celebration, their agent starts calling sponsors asking for more money. But there’s often someone else deserving of praise too, that’s the player who provided the assist to make the goal possible in the first place. With that analogy in mind, CIRM just provided a very big assist for a very big goal.

The goal was scored by Jasper Therapeutics. They have just announced data from their Phase 1 clinical trial treating people with Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS). This is a group of disorders in which immature blood-forming cells in the bone marrow become abnormal and leads to low numbers of normal blood cells, especially red blood cells. In about one in three patients, MDS can progress to acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a rapidly progressing cancer of the bone marrow cells.

The most effective way to treat, and even cure, MDS/AML is with a blood stem cell transplant, but this is often difficult for older patients, because it involves the use of toxic chemotherapy to destroy their existing bone marrow blood stem cells, to make room for the new, healthy ones. Even with a transplant there is often a high rate of relapse, because it’s hard for chemotherapy to kill all the cancer cells.

Jasper has developed a therapy, JSP191, which is a monoclonal antibody, to address this issue. JSP191 helps supplement the current treatment regimen by clearing all the remaining abnormal cells from the bone marrow and preventing relapse. In addition it also means the patients gets smaller doses of chemotherapy with lower levels of toxicity. In this Phase 1 study six patients, between the ages of 65 and 74, were given JSP191 – in combination with low-dose radiation and chemotherapy – prior to getting their transplant. The patients were followed-up at 90 days and five of the six had no detectable levels of MDS/AML, and the sixth patient had reduced levels. None of the patients experienced serious side effects.

Clearly that’s really encouraging news. And while CIRM didn’t fund this clinical trial, it wouldn’t have happened without us paving the way for this research. That’s where the notion of the assist comes in.

CIRM support led to the development of the JSP191 technology at Stanford. Our CIRM funds were used in the preclinical studies that form the scientific basis for using JSP191 in an MDS/AML setting.

Not only that, but this same technique was also used by Stanford’s Dr. Judy Shizuru in a clinical trial for children born with a form of severe combined immunodeficiency, a rare but fatal immune disorder in children. A clinical trial that CIRM funded.

It’s a reminder that therapies developed with one condition in mind can often be adapted to help treat other similar conditions. Jasper is doing just that. It hopes to start clinical trials this year using JSP191 for people getting blood stem cell transplants for severe autoimmune disease, sickle cell disease and Fanconi anemia.

How stem cells play “follow the leader”

Todd McDevitt, PhD., Photo: courtesy Gladstone Institutes

It’s hard enough trying to follow the movements of individuals in a crowd of people but imagine how much harder it is to follow the movements of stem cells, crowded into a tiny petri dish. Well, researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco have done just that.

In a CIRM-funded study ($5.85M) Dr. Todd McDevitt and his team created a super smart artificial intelligence way of tracking the movements of hundreds of stem cells growing together in a colony, and even identify “leaders” in the pack.

In our bodies groups of stem cells are able to move in specific ways to form different organs and tissues when exposed to the right environment. Unfortunately, we are still trying to learn what “the right environment” is for different organs.

In a news release, McDevitt, the senior author of the paper published in the journal Stem Cell Reports, says this method of observing cells may help us better understand that.

“If I wanted to make a new human heart right now, I know what types of cells are needed, and I know how to grow them independently in dishes. But we really don’t know how to get those cells to come together to form something as complex as a heart. To accomplish that, we need more insights into how cells work cooperatively to arrange themselves.”

Normally scientists watch cells by tagging them with a fluorescent marker so they can see them under a microscope. But this is slow, painstaking work and not particularly accurate. This new method used a series of what are called “neural networks”, which are artificial intelligence (AI) programs that can detect patterns in the movements of the cells. When combined together the networks proved to be able to track the movement of 95 percent of the cells. Humans by comparison can only manage up to 90 percent. But the nets were not only sharper, they were also faster, much faster, some 500 times faster.

This enhanced ability to watch the cells showed that instead of being static most of the time, as had previously been thought, they were actually on the move a lot of the time. They would move around for 15 minutes and then take a breather for ten minutes (time for the stem cell equivalent of a cup of tea perhaps).  

Some cells moved around a lot in one direction, while others just seemed to shuffle around in the same area. Some cells even seemed to act as “leaders” while other cells appeared to be “followers” and shuffle along behind them.

None of this would have been visible without the power of the AI networks and McDevitt says being able to tap into this could help researchers better understand how to use these complex movements.

“This technique gives us a much more comprehensive view of how cells behave, how they work cooperatively, and how they come together in physical space to form complex organs.

Follow the Leader is not just a kids’ game anymore. Now it’s a scientific undertaking.

Hitting our goals: Making good progress

Way, way back in 2015 – seems like a lifetime ago doesn’t it – the team at CIRM sat down and planned out our Big 6 goals for the next five years. The end result was a Strategic Plan that was bold, ambitious and set us on course to do great things or kill ourselves trying. Well, looking back we can take some pride in saying we did a really fine job, hitting almost every goal and exceeding them in some cases. So, as we plan our next five-year Strategic Plan we thought it worthwhile to look back at where we started and what we achieved. Goal #5 was Advance.

A dictionary definition of progression is “The act of moving forward or proceeding in a course.” That’s precisely what we set out to do when we set one of the goals in our 2015 Strategic Plan. We wanted to do all that we could to make sure the work we were funding could advance to the next stage. The goal we set was:

Advance: Increase projects advancing to the next stage of development by 50%.

The first question we faced was what did we mean by progression and how were we going to measure it? The answer basically boiled down to this: when a CIRM award completes one stage of research and gets CIRM funding to move on to the next stage or to develop a second generation of the same device or therapy.

In the pre-2016 days we’d had some success, on average getting around nine progression events every year. But if we were going to increase that by 50 percent we knew we had to step up our game and offer some incentives so that the team behind a successful project had a reason, other than just scientific curiosity, to try and move their research to the next level.

So, we created a series of linkages between the different stages of research, so the product of each successful investment was the prerequisite for the next stage of development for the research or technology.

We changed the way we funded projects, going from offering awards on an irregular basis to having them happen according to a pre-defined schedule with each program type offered multiple times a year. This meant potential applicants knew when the next opportunity to apply would come, enabling them to prepare and file at the time that was best for them and not just because we said so. We also timed these schedules so that programs could progress from one stage to the next without interruption.

But that’s not all. We recognized that some people may be great scientists at one level but didn’t have the experience or expertise to carry their project forward. So, we created both an Accelerating Center and Translating Center to help them do that. The Translating Center helped projects do the work necessary to get ready to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permission to start a clinical trial. The Accelerating Center helped the team prepare that application for the trial and then plan how that trial would be carried out.

Creating these two centers had an additional benefit; it meant the work that did progress did so faster and was of a higher quality than it might otherwise have been.

Putting all those new building blocks in place meant a lot of work for the CIRM team, on top of their normal duties. But, as always, the team rose to the challenge. By the end of December 2020, a total of 74 projects had advanced or progressed to the next level, an increase of 100 percent on our pre-2016 days.

When we were laying out the goals we said that “The full implementation of these programs will create the chassis of a machine that provides a continuous, predictable, and timely pathway for the discovery and development of promising stem cell treatments.” Thanks to the voter approved Proposition 14 we now have the fund to help those treatments realize that promise.

CIRM funding helps improve immune cell therapy to combat HIV

Image description: T cell infected with HIV.
Image Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

In June of last year we wrote about how Dr. Scott Kitchen and his team at UCLA are engineering blood forming stem cells in order to fight HIV, a potentially deadly virus that attacks the immune system and can worsen into AIDS if left untreated. HIV causes havoc in the body by attacking T cells, a vital part of the body’s immune system that helps fight off infections and diseases.

Dr. Kitchen’s approach uses what is called Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T gene therapy. This is a type of immune therapy that involves genetically modifying the body’s own blood forming stem cells to create T cells that have the ability to fight HIV. These newly formed immune cells have the potential to not only destroy HIV-infected cells but to create “memory cells” that could provide lifelong protection from HIV infection.

Flash forward to April of this year and the results of the CIRM funded study ($1.7M) have been published in PLOS Pathogens.

Unfortunately, although the previously designed CAR T gene therapy was still able to create HIV fighting immune cells, the way the CAR T gene therapy was designed still had the potential to allow for HIV infection.

For this new study, the team modified the CAR T gene therapy such that the cells would be resistant to infection and allow for a more efficient and longer-lasting cell response against HIV than before.

While the previous approach allowed for the continuous production of new HIV-fighting T cells that persisted for more than two years, these cells are inactivated until they come across the HIV virus. The improved CAR T gene therapy engineers the body’s immune response to HIV rather than waiting for the virus to induce a response. This is similar in concept to how a vaccine prepares the immune system to respond against a virus. The new approach also creates a significant number of “memory” T cells that are capable of quickly responding to reactivated HIV. 

The hope is that these findings can influence the development of T cells that are able carry “immune system” memory with the ability to recognize and kill virus-infected or cancerous cells. 

To date, CIRM has also funded four separate clinical trials related to the treatment of HIV/AIDS totaling over $31 million.