One family’s fight to save their son’s life, and how stem cells made it possible

CIRM’s mission is very simple: to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. Anne Klein’s son, Everett, was a poster boy for that statement. Born with a fatal immune disorder Everett faced a bleak future. But Anne and husband Brian were not about to give up. The following story is one Anne wrote for Parents magazine. It’s testament to the power of stem cells to save lives, but even more importantly to the power of love and the determination of a family to save their son.

My Son Was Born With ‘Bubble Boy’ Disease—But A Gene Therapy Trial Saved His Life

Everett Schmitt. Photo: Meg Kumin

I wish more than anything that my son Everett had not been born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). But I know he is actually one of the lucky unlucky ones. By Anne Klein

As a child in the ’80s, I watched a news story about David Vetter. David was known as “the boy in the bubble” because he was born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a rare genetic disease that leaves babies with very little or no immune system. To protect him, David lived his entire life in a plastic bubble that kept him separated from a world filled with germs and illnesses that would have taken his life—likely before his first birthday.

I was struck by David’s story. It was heartbreaking and seemed so otherworldly. What would it be like to spend your childhood in an isolation chamber with family, doctors, reporters, and the world looking in on you? I found it devastating that an experimental bone marrow transplant didn’t end up saving his life; instead it led to fatal complications. His mother, Carol Ann Demaret, touched his bare hand for the first and last time when he was 12 years old.

I couldn’t have known that almost 30 years later, my own son, Everett, would be born with SCID too.

Everett’s SCID diagnosis

At birth, Everett was big, beautiful, and looked perfectly healthy. My husband Brian and I already had a 2-and-a-half-year-old son, Alden, so we were less anxious as parents when we brought Everett home. I didn’t run errands with Alden until he was at least a month old, but Everett was out and about with us within a few days of being born. After all, we thought we knew what to expect.

But two weeks after Everett’s birth, a doctor called to discuss Everett’s newborn screening test results. I listened in disbelief as he explained that Everett’s blood sample indicated he may have an immune deficiency.

“He may need a bone marrow transplant,” the doctor told me.

I was shocked. Everett’s checkup with his pediatrician just two days earlier went swimmingly. I hung up and held on to the doctor’s assurance that there was a 40 percent chance Everett’s test result was a false positive.

After five grueling days of waiting for additional test results and answers, I received the call: Everett had virtually no immune system. He needed to be quickly admitted to UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in California so they could keep him isolated and prepare to give him a stem cell transplant. UCSF diagnosed him specifically with SCID-X1, the same form David battled.

Beginning SCID treatment

The hospital was 90 miles and more than two hours away from home. Our family of four had to be split into two, with me staying in the hospital primarily with Everett and Brian and Alden remaining at home, except for short visits. The sudden upheaval left Alden confused, shaken, and sad. Brian and I quickly transformed into helicopter parents, neurotically focused on every imaginable contact with germs, even the mildest of which could be life-threatening to Everett.

When he was 7 weeks old, Everett received a stem cell transplant with me as his donor, but the transplant failed because my immune cells began attacking his body. Over his short life, Everett has also spent more than six months collectively in the hospital and more than three years in semi-isolation at home. He’s endured countless biopsies, ultrasounds, CT scans, infusions, blood draws, trips to the emergency department, and medical transports via ambulance or helicopter.

Gene therapy to treat SCID

At age 2, his liver almost failed and a case of pneumonia required breathing support with sedation. That’s when a doctor came into the pediatric intensive care unit and said, “When Everett gets through this, we need to do something else for him.” He recommended a gene therapy clinical trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that was finally showing success in patients over age 2 whose transplants had failed. This was the first group of SCID-X1 patients to receive gene therapy using a lentiviral vector combined with a light dose of chemotherapy.

After the complications from our son’s initial stem cell transplant, Brian and I didn’t want to do another stem cell transplant using donor cells. My donor cells were at war with his body and cells from another donor could do the same. Also, the odds of Everett having a suitable donor on the bone marrow registry were extremely small since he didn’t have one as a newborn. At the NIH, he would receive a transplant with his own, perfectly matched, gene-corrected cells. They would be right at home.

Other treatment options would likely only partially restore his immunity and require him to receive infusions of donor antibodies for life, as was the case with his first transplant. Prior gene therapy trials produced similarly incomplete results and several participants developed leukemia. The NIH trial was the first one showing promise in fully restoring immunity, without a risk of cancer. Brian and I felt it was Everett’s best option. Without hesitation, we flew across the country for his treatment. Everett received the gene therapy in September 2016 when he was 3, becoming the youngest patient NIH’s clinical trial has treated.

Everett’s recovery

It’s been more than two years since Everett received gene therapy and now more than ever, he has the best hope of developing a fully functioning immune system. He just received his first vaccine to test his ability to mount a response. Now 6 years old, he’s completed kindergarten and has been to Disney World. He plays in the dirt and loves shows and movies from the ’80s (maybe some of the same ones David enjoyed).

Everett knows he has been through a lot and that his doctors “fixed his DNA,” but he’s focused largely on other things. He’s vocal when confronted with medical pain or trauma, but seems to block out the experiences shortly afterwards. It’s sad for Brian and me that Everett developed these coping skills at such a young age, but we’re so grateful he is otherwise expressive and enjoys engaging with others. Once in the middle of the night, he woke us up as he stood in the hallway, exclaiming, “I’m going back to bed, but I just want you to know that I love you with all my heart!”

I wish more than anything that Everett had not been born with such a terrible disease and I could erase all the trauma, isolation, and pain. But I know that he is actually one of the lucky unlucky ones. Everett is fortunate his disease was caught early by SCID newborn screening, which became available in California not long before his birth. Without this test, we would not have known he had SCID until he became dangerously ill. His prognosis would have been much worse, even under the care of his truly brilliant and remarkable doctors, some of whom cared for David decades earlier.

Carol-Ann-mother-of-David-Vetter-meeting-Everett-Schmitt
Everett Schmitt meeting David Vetter’s mom Carol Ann Demaret. Photo – Brian Schmitt

When Everett was 4, soon after the gene therapy gave him the immunity he desperately needed, our family was fortunate enough to cross paths with David’s mom, Carol Ann, at an Immune Deficiency Foundation event. Throughout my life, I had seen her in pictures and on television with David. In person, she was warm, gracious, and humble. When I introduced her to Everett and explained that he had SCID just like David, she looked at Everett with loving eyes and asked if she could touch him. As she touched Everett’s shoulder and they locked eyes, Brian and I looked on with profound gratitude.

Anne Klein is a parent, scientist, and a patient advocate for two gene therapy trials funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. She is passionate about helping parents of children with SCID navigate treatment options for their child.

You can read about the clinical trials we are funding for SCID here, here, here and here.

From bench to bedside: a Q&A with stem cell expert Jan Nolta

At CIRM we are privileged to work with many remarkable people who combine brilliance, compassion and commitment to their search for new therapies to help people in need. One of those who certainly fits that description is UC Davis’ Jan Nolta.

This week the UC Davis Newsroom posted a great interview with Jan. Rather than try and summarize what she says I thought it would be better to let her talk for herself.

Jan Nolta
Jan Nolta

Talking research, unscrupulous clinics, and sustaining the momentum

(SACRAMENTO) —

In 2007, Jan Nolta returned to Northern California from St. Louis to lead what was at the time UC Davis’ brand-new stem cell program. As director of the UC Davis Stem Cell Program and the Institute for Regenerative Cures, she has overseen the opening of the institute, more than $140 million in research grants, and dozens upon dozens of research studies. She recently sat down to answer some questions about regenerative medicine and all the work taking place at UC Davis Health.

Q: Turning stem cells into cures has been your mission and mantra since you founded the program. Can you give us some examples of the most promising research?

I am so excited about our research. We have about 20 different disease-focused teams. That includes physicians, nurses, health care staff, researchers and faculty members, all working to go from the laboratory bench to patient’s bedside with therapies.

Perhaps the most promising and exciting research right now comes from combining blood-forming

stem cells with gene therapy. We’re working in about eight areas right now, and the first cure, something that we definitely can call a stem cell “cure,” is coming from this combined approach.

Soon, doctors will be able to prescribe this type of stem cell therapy. Patients will use their own bone marrow or umbilical cord stem cells. Teams such as ours, working in good manufacturing practice facilities, will make vectors, essentially “biological delivery vehicles,” carrying a good copy of the broken gene. They will be reinserted into a patient’s cells and then infused back into the patient, much like a bone marrow transplant.

“Perhaps the most promising and exciting research right now comes from combining blood-forming stem cells with gene therapy.”

Along with treating the famous bubble baby disease, where I had started my career, this approach looks very promising for sickle cell anemia. We’re hoping to use it to treat several different inherited metabolic diseases. These are conditions characterized by an abnormal build-up of toxic materials in the body’s cells. They interfere with organ and brain function. It’s caused by just a single enzyme. Using the combined stem cell gene therapy, we can effectively put a good copy of the gene for that enzyme back into a patient’s bone marrow stem cells. Then we do a bone marrow transplantation and bring back a person’s normal functioning cells.

The beauty of this therapy is that it can work for the lifetime of a patient. All of the blood cells circulating in a person’s system would be repaired. It’s the number one stem cell cure happening right now. Plus, it’s a therapy that won’t be rejected. These are a patient’s own stem cells. It is just one type of stem cell, and the first that’s being commercialized to change cells throughout the body.

Q: Let’s step back for a moment. In 2004, voters approved Proposition 71. It has funded a majority of the stem cell research here at UC Davis and throughout California. What’s been the impact of that ballot measure and how is it benefiting patients?

We have learned so much about different types of stem cells, and which stem cell will be most appropriate to treat each type of disease. That’s huge. We had to first do that before being able to start actual stem cell therapies. CIRM [California Institute for Regenerative Medicine] has funded Alpha Stem Cell Clinics. We have one of them here at UC Davis and there are only five in the entire state. These are clinics where the patients can go for high-quality clinical stem cell trials approved by the FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration]. They don’t need to go to “unapproved clinics” and spend a lot of money. And they actually shouldn’t.

“By the end of this year, we’ll have 50 clinical trials.”

By the end of this year, we’ll have 50 clinical trials [here at UC Davis Health]. There are that many in the works.

Our Alpha Clinic is right next to the hospital. It’s where we’ll be delivering a lot of the immunotherapies, gene therapies and other treatments. In fact, I might even get to personally deliver stem cells to the operating room for a patient. It will be for a clinical trial involving people who have broken their hip. It’s exciting because it feels full circle, from working in the laboratory to bringing stem cells right to the patient’s bedside.

We have ongoing clinical trials for critical limb ischemia, leukemia and, as I mentioned, sickle cell disease. Our disease teams are conducting stem cell clinical trials targeting sarcoma, cellular carcinoma, and treatments for dysphasia [a swallowing disorder], retinopathy [eye condition], Duchenne muscular dystrophy and HIV. It’s all in the works here at UC Davis Health.

There’s also great potential for therapies to help with renal disease and kidney transplants. The latter is really exciting because it’s like a mini bone marrow transplant. A kidney recipient would also get some blood-forming stem cells from the kidney donor so that they can better accept the organ and not reject it. It’s a type of stem cell therapy that could help address the burden of being on a lifelong regime of immunosuppressant drugs after transplantation.

Q: You and your colleagues get calls from family members and patients all the time. They frequently ask about stem cell “miracle” cures. What should people know about unproven treatments and unregulated stem cell clinics?

That’s a great question.The number one rule is that if you’re asked to pay money for a stem cell treatment, don’t do it. It’s a big red flag.

When it comes to advertised therapies: “The number one rule is that if you’re asked to pay money for a stem cell treatment, don’t do it. It’s a big red flag.”

Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous people out there in “unapproved clinics” who prey on desperate people. What they are delivering are probably not even stem cells. They might inject you with your own fat cells, which contain very few stem cells. Or they might use treatments that are not matched to the patient and will be immediately rejected. That’s dangerous. The FDA is shutting these unregulated clinics down one at a time. But it’s like “whack-a-mole”: shut one down and another one pops right up.

On the other hand, the Alpha Clinic is part of our mission is to help the public get to the right therapy, treatment or clinical trial. The big difference between those who make patients pay huge sums of money for unregulated and unproven treatments and UC Davis is that we’re actually using stem cells. We produce them in rigorously regulated cleanroom facilities. They are certified to contain at least 99% stem cells.

Patients and family members can always call us here. We can refer them to a genuine and approved clinical trial. If you don’t get stem cells at the beginning [of the clinical trial] because you’re part of the placebo group, you can get them later. So it’s not risky. The placebo is just saline. I know people are very, very desperate. But there are no miracle cures…yet. Clinical trials, approved by the FDA, are the only way we’re going to develop effective treatments and cures.

Q: Scientific breakthroughs take a lot of patience and time. How do you and your colleagues measure progress and stay motivated?   

Motivation?  “It’s all for the patients.”

It’s all for the patients. There are not good therapies yet for many disorders. But we’re developing them. Every day brings a triumph. Measuring progress means treating a patient in a clinical trial, or developing something in the laboratory, or getting FDA approval. The big one will be getting biological license approval from the FDA, which means a doctor can prescribe a stem cell or gene therapy treatment. Then it can be covered by a patient’s health insurance.

I’m a cancer survivor myself, and I’m also a heart patient. Our amazing team here at UC Davis has kept me alive and in great health. So I understand it from both sides. I understand the desperation of “Where do I go?” and “What do I do right now?” questions. I also understand the science side of things. Progress can feel very, very slow. But everything we do here at the Institute for Regenerative Cures is done with patients in mind, and safety.

We know that each day is so important when you’re watching a loved one suffer. We attend patient events and are part of things like Facebook groups, where people really pour their hearts out. We say to ourselves, “Okay, we must work harder and faster.” That’s our motivation: It’s all the patients and families that we’re going to help who keep us working hard.

Tracking and mapping the health of damaged organs

Tissue engineering

Medical treatments for a variety of diseases have advanced dramatically in recent decades, but sometimes they come with a cost; namely damage to surrounding tissues and organs. That’s where stem cell research and regenerative medicine come in. Those fields seek to develop new ways of repairing the damage. But how do you see if those repairs are working? Researchers at Purdue say they have found a way to do just that.

The researchers have developed a 3D technology that allows them to track, map and monitor what happens with cells and tissues that are being used to repair damage caused by disease or the treatment for the disease. By observing the cells and tissues they can see if they are staying where they are needed and if they are working.

The technology, published in the journal ACS Nano, uses tiny sensors placed on a flexible scaffold to monitor the new materials in the body. Ingeniously the scaffold is buoyant, so it can float and survive in the wet conditions found in many parts of the body.

In a news release, Chi Hwan Lee, the leader of the research team, says the device could help millions of people:

“Tissue engineering already provides new hope for hard-to-treat disorders, and our technology brings even more possibilities. This device offers an expanded set of potential options to monitor cell and tissue function after surgical transplants in diseased or damaged bodies. Our technology offers diverse options for sensing and works in moist internal body environments that are typically unfavorable for electronic instruments.”

Purdue created this video showing the device and explaining how it works.

Developing a non-toxic approach to bone-crushing cancers

When cancer spreads to the bone the results can be devastating

Battling cancer is always a balancing act. The methods we use – surgery, chemotherapy and radiation – can help remove the tumors but they often come at a price to the patient. In cases where the cancer has spread to the bone the treatments have a limited impact on the disease, but their toxicity can cause devastating problems for the patient. Now, in a CIRM-supported study, researchers at UC Irvine (UCI) have developed a method they say may be able to change that.

Bone metastasis – where cancer starts in one part of the body, say the breast, but spreads to the bones – is one of the most common complications of cancer. It can often result in severe pain, increased risk of fractures and compression of the spine. Tackling them is difficult because some cancer cells can alter the environment around bone, accelerating the destruction of healthy bone cells, and that in turn creates growth factors that stimulate the growth of the cancer. It is a vicious cycle where one problem fuels the other.

Now researchers at UCI have developed a method where they combine engineered mesenchymal stem cells (taken from the bone marrow) with targeting agents. These act like a drug delivery device, offloading different agents that simultaneously attack the cancer but protect the bone.

Weian Zhao; photo courtesy UC Irvine

In a news release Weian Zhao, lead author of the study, said:

“What’s powerful about this strategy is that we deliver a combination of both anti-tumor and anti-bone resorption agents so we can effectively block the vicious circle between cancers and their bone niche. This is a safe and almost nontoxic treatment compared to chemotherapy, which often leaves patients with lifelong issues.”

The research, published in the journal EBioMedicine, has already been shown to be effective in mice. Next, they hope to be able to do the safety tests to enable them to apply to the Food and Drug Administration for permission to test it in people.

The team say if this approach proves effective it might also be used to help treat other bone-related diseases such as osteoporosis and multiple myeloma.

Taking the message to the people: fighting for the future of stem cell research in California

Stem cells have been in the news a lot this week, and not necessarily for the right reason.

First, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) won a big legal decision in its fight to crack down on clinics offering bogus, unproven and unapproved stem cell therapies.

But then came news that another big name celebrity, in this case Star Trek star William Shatner, was going to one of these clinics for an infusion of what he called “restorative cells”.

It’s a reminder that for every step forward we take in trying to educate the public about the dangers of clinics offering unproven therapies, we often take another step back when a celebrity essentially endorses the idea.

So that’s why we are taking our message directly to the people, as often as we can and wherever we can.

In June we are going to be holding a free, public event in Los Angeles to coincide with the opening of the International Society for Stem Cell Research’s Annual Conference, the biggest event on the global stem cell calendar. There’s still time to register for that by the way. The event is from 6-7pm on Tuesday, June 25th in Petree Hall C., at the Los Angeles Convention Center at 1201 South Figueroa Street, LA 90015.

The event is open to everyone and it’s FREE. We have created an Eventbrite page where you can get all the details and RSVP if you are coming.

It’s going to be an opportunity to learn about the real progress being made in stem cell research, thanks in no small part to CIRM’s funding. We’re honored to be joined by UCLA’s Dr. Don Kohn, who has helped cure dozens of children born with a fatal immune system disorder called severe combined immunodeficiency, also known as “bubble baby disease”. And we’ll hear from the family of one of those children whose life he helped save.

And because CIRM is due to run out of money to fund new projects by the end of this year you’ll also learn about the very real concerns we have about the future of stem cell research in California and what can be done to address those concerns. It promises to be a fascinating evening.

But that’s not all. Our partners at USC will be holding another public event on stem cell research, on Wednesday June 26th from 6.30p to 8pm. This one is focused on treatments for age-related blindness. This features some of the top stem cell scientists in the field who are making encouraging progress in not just slowing down vision loss, but in some cases even reversing it.

You can find out more about that event here.

We know that we face some serious challenges in trying to educate people about the risks of going to a clinic offering unproven therapies. But we also know we have a great story to tell, one that shows how we are already changing lives and saving lives, and that with the support of the people of California we’ll do even more in the years to come.

CIRM-funded study helps unlock some of the genetic secrets behind macular degeneration

Retina affected by age-related macular degeneration

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of vision loss in people over 60. It affects 10 million Americans. That’s more than cataracts and glaucoma combined. The causes of AMD are not known but are believed to involve a mixture of hereditary and environmental factors. There is no treatment for it.

Now, in a CIRM-funded study, researchers at UC San Diego (UCSD) have used stem cells to help identify genetic elements that could provide some clues as to the cause, and maybe give some ideas on how to treat it.

Before we get into what the researchers did let’s take a look at what AMD does. At a basic level it attacks the retina, the thin layer of tissue that lines the back of the eye. The retina receives light, turns it into electrical signals and sends it to the brain which turns it into a visual image.

The disease destroys the macula, the part of the retina that controls our central vision. At first, sight becomes blurred or fuzzy but over time it progresses to the point where central vision is almost completely destroyed.

To try and understand why this happens the team at UCSD took skin samples from six people with AMD and, using the iPSC method, turned those cells into the kinds of cell found in the retina. Because these cells came from people who had AMD they now displayed the same characteristics as AMD-affected retinal cells. This allowed the researchers to create what is called a “disease-in-a-dish” model that allowed them to see, in real time, what is happening in AMD.

They were able to identify a genetic variant that reduces production of a protein called VEGFA, which is known to promote the growth of new blood vessels.

In a news release Kelly Frazer, director of the Institute for Genomic Medicine at UCSD and the lead author of the study, said the results were unexpected.

Kelly Frazer, PhD, UC San Diego

“We didn’t start with the VEGFA gene when we went looking for genetic causes of AMD. But we were surprised to find that with samples from just six people, this genetic variation clearly emerged as a causal factor.”

Frazer says this discovery, published in the journal Stem Cell Reports, could ultimately lead to new approaches to developing new treatments for AMD.

CIRM already funds one clinical trial-stage project targeting AMD.

From organs to muscle tissue: how stem cells are being used in 3D

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges-Pierre Seurat

When most people think of stem cells, they might conjure up an image of small dots under a microscope. It is hard to imagine these small specs being applied to three-dimensional structures. But like a pointillism painting, such as A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges-Pierre Seurat, stem cells can be used to help build things never thought possible. Two studies demonstrate this concept in very different ways.

MIT engineers have designed coiled “nanoyarn,” shown as an artist’s interpretation here. The twisted fibers are lined with living cells and may be used to repair injured muscles and tendons while maintaining their flexibility. Image by Felice Frankel

A study at MIT used nanofiber coated with muscle stem cells and mesenchymal stem cells in an effort to provide a flexible range of motion for these stem cells. Hundreds of thousands of nanofibers were twisted, resembling yarn and rope, in order to mimic the pattern found in tendons and muscle tissue throughout the body. The researchers at MIT found that the yarn like structure of the nanofibers keep the stem cells alive and growing, even as the team stretched and bent the fibers multiple times.

Normally, when a person injures these types of tissues, particularly around a major joint such as the shoulder or knee, it require surgery and weeks of limited mobility to heal properly. The MIT team hopes that their technology could be applied toward treating the site of injury while maintaining range of motion as the newly applied stem cells continue to grow to replace the injured tissue.

In an article, Dr. Ming Guo, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT and one of the authors of the study, was quoted as saying,

“When you repair muscle or tendon, you really have to fix their movement for a period of time, by wearing a boot, for example. With this nanofiber yarn, the hope is, you won’t have to wearing anything like that.”

Their complete findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Researchers in Germany have created transparent human organs using a new technology that could pave the way to print three-dimensional body parts such as kidneys for transplants. Above, Dr. Ali Ertuerk inspects a transparent human brain.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.

In a separate study, researchers in Germany have successfully created transparent human organs, paving the way to print three-dimensional body parts. Dr. Ali Erturk at Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, with a team of scientists, developed a technique to create a detailed blueprint of organs, including blood vessels and every single cell in its specific location. These directions were then used to print a scaffold of the organ. With the help of a 3D printer, stem cells, acting like ink in a printer, were injected into the correct positions to make the organ functional.

Previously, 3D-printed organs lacked detailed cellular structures because they were based on crude images from computer tomography or MRI machines. This technology has now changed that.

In an article, Dr. Erturk is quoted as saying,

“We can see where every single cell is located in transparent human organs. And then we can actually replicate exactly the same, using 3D bioprinting technology to make a real functional organ. Therefore, I believe we are much closer to a real human organ for the first time now.”

Advancing stem cell research in many ways

Speakers at the Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium: Photo by Marco Sanchez

From Day One CIRM’s goal has been to advance stem cell research in California. We don’t do that just by funding the most promising research -though the 51 clinical trials we have funded to date clearly shows we do that rather well – but also by trying to bring the best minds in the field together to overcome problems.

Over the years we have held conferences, workshops and symposiums on everything from Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy and tissue engineering. Each one attracted the key players and stakeholders in the field, brainstorming ideas to get past obstacles and to explore new ways of developing therapies. It’s an attempt to get scientists, who would normally be rivals or competitors, to collaborate and partner together in finding the best way forward.

It’s not easy to do, and the results are not always obvious right away, but it is essential if we hope to live up to our mission of accelerating stem cell therapies to patients with unmet medical needs.

For example. This past week we helped organize two big events and were participants in another.

The first event we pulled together, in partnership with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, was a workshop called “Brainstorm Neurodegeneration”. It brought together leaders in stem cell research, genomics, big data, patient advocacy and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to tackle some of the issues that have hampered progress in finding treatments for things like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS and Huntington’s disease.

We rather ambitiously subtitled the workshop “a cutting-edge meeting to disrupt the field” and while the two days of discussions didn’t resolve all the problems facing us it did produce some fascinating ideas and some tantalizing glimpses at ways to advance the field.

Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium: Photo by Marco Sanchez

Two days later we partnered with UC San Francisco to host the Fourth Annual CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium. This brought together the scientists who develop therapies, the doctors and nurses who deliver them, and the patients who are in need of them. The theme was “The Past, Present & Future of Regenerative Medicine” and included both a look at the initial discoveries in gene therapy that led us to where we are now as well as a look to the future when cellular therapies, we believe, will become a routine option for patients. 

Bringing these different groups together is important for us. We feel each has a key role to play in moving these projects and out of the lab and into clinical trials and that it is only by working together that they can succeed in producing the treatments and cures patients so desperately need.

Cierra Jackson: Photo by Marco Sanchez

As always it was the patients who surprised us. One, Cierra Danielle Jackson, talked about what it was like to be cured of her sickle cell disease. I think it’s fair to say that most in the audience expected Cierra to talk about her delight at no longer having the crippling and life-threatening condition. And she did. But she also talked about how hard it was adjusting to this new reality.

Cierra said sickle cell disease had been a part of her life for all her life, it shaped her daily life and her relationships with her family and many others. So, to suddenly have that no longer be a part of her caused a kind of identity crisis. Who was she now that she was no longer someone with sickle cell disease?

She talked about how people with most diseases were normal before they got sick, and will be normal after they are cured. But for people with sickle cell, being sick is all they have known. That was their normal. And now they have to adjust to a new normal.

It was a powerful reminder to everyone that in developing new treatments we have to consider the whole person, their psychological and emotional sides as well as the physical.

CIRM’s Dr. Maria Millan (right) at a panel presentation at the Stanford Drug Discovery Symposium. Panel from left to right are: James Doroshow, NCI; Sandy Weill, former CEO Citigroup; Allan Jones, CEO Allen Institute

And so on to the third event we were part of, the Stanford Drug Discovery Symposium. This was a high level, invitation-only scientific meeting that included some heavy hitters – such as Nobel Prize winners Paul Berg and  Randy Schekman, former FDA Commissioner Robert Califf. Over the course of two days they examined the role that philanthropy plays in advancing research, the increasingly important role of immunotherapy in battling diseases like cancer and how tools such as artificial intelligence and big data are shaping the future.

CIRM’s President and CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, was one of those invited to speak and she talked about how California’s investment in stem cell research is delivering Something Better than Hope – which by a happy coincidence is the title of our 2018 Annual Report. She highlighted some of the 51 clinical trials we have funded, and the lives that have been changed and saved by this research.

The presentations at these conferences and workshops are important, but so too are the conversations that happen outside the auditorium, over lunch or at coffee. Many great collaborations have happened when scientists get a chance to share ideas, or when researchers talk to patients about their ideas for a successful clinical trial.

It’s amazing what happens when you bring people together who might otherwise never have met. The ideas they come up with can change the world.

CIRM-funded therapy helps “bubble babies” lead a normal life

Ja’Ceon Golden; ‘cured” of SCID

At CIRM we are very cautious about using the “c” word. Saying someone has been “cured” is a powerful statement but one that loses its meaning when over used or used inappropriately. However, in the case of a new study from U.C. San Francisco and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, saying “cure” is not just accurate, it’s a celebration of something that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago.

The research focuses on children with a specific form of Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) called X-Linked SCID. It’s also known as “bubble baby” disease because children born with this condition lack a functioning immune system, so even a simple infection could be fatal and in the past they were kept inside sterile plastic bubbles to protect them.

In this study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers took blood stem cells from the child and, in the lab, genetically re-engineered them to correct the defective gene, and then infused them back into the child. Over time they multiplied and created a new blood supply, one free of the defect, which helped repair the immune system.

In a news release Dr. Ewelina Mamcarz, the lead author of the study, announced that ten children have been treated with this method.

“These patients are toddlers now, who are responding to vaccinations and have immune systems to make all immune cells they need for protection from infections as they explore the world and live normal lives. This is a first for patients with SCID-X1.”

The ten children were treated at both St. Jude and at UCSF and CIRM funded the UCSF arm of the clinical trial.

The story, not surprisingly, got a lot of attention in the media including this fine piece by CNN.

Oh, and by the way we are also funding three other clinical trials targeting different forms of SCID. One with UCLA’s Don Kohn,  one with Stanford’s Judy Shizuru, and one with UCSF’s Mort Cowan

Rats, research and the road to new therapies

Don Reed

Don Reed has been a champion of CIRM even before there was a CIRM. He’s a pioneer in pushing for funding for stem cell research and now he’s working hard to raise awareness about the difference that funding is making.

In a recent article on Daily Kos, Don highlighted one of the less celebrated partners in this research, the humble rat.

A BETTER RAT? Benefit #62 of the California Stem Cell Agency

By Don C. Reed

When I told my wife Gloria I was writing an article about rats, she had several comments, including: “Oo, ugh!” and also “That’s disgusting!”

Obviously, there are problems with rats, such as when they chew through electrical wires, which may cause a short circuit and burn down the house. Also, they are blamed for carrying diseased fleas in their ears and spreading the Black Plague, which in 1340 killed half of China and one-third of Europe—but this is not certain. The plague may in fact have been transmitted by human-carried parasites.

But there are positive aspects to rats as well. For instance: “…a rat paired with  another that has a disability…will be very kind to the other rat. Usually, help is offered with food, cleaning, and general care.”—GUIDE TO THE RAT, by Ginger Cardinal.

Above all, anyone who has ever been sick owes a debt to rats, specifically the Norway rat with that spectacular name, rattus norvegicus domesticus, found in labs around the world.

I first realized its importance on March 1, 2002, when I held in my hand a rat which had been paralyzed, but then recovered the use of its limbs.

The rat’s name was Fighter, and she had been given a derivative of embryonic stem cells, which restored function to her limbs. (This was the famous stem cell therapy begun by Hans Keirstead with a Roman Reed grant, developed by Geron, and later by CIRM and Asterias, which later benefited humans.)

As I felt the tiny muscles struggling to be free, it was like touching tomorrow— while my paralyzed son, Roman Reed, sat in his wheelchair just a few feet away.

Was it different working with rats instead of mice? I had heard that the far smaller lab mice were more “bitey” than rats.  

Wanting to know more about the possibilities of a “better rat”, I went to the CIRM website, (www.cirm.ca.gov) hunted up the “Tools and Technology III” section, and the following complicated sentence::

“Embryonic stem cell- based generation of rat models for assessing human cellular therapies.”

Hmm. With science writing, it always takes me a couple of readings to know what they were talking about. But I recognized some of the words, so that was a start.

“Stemcells… rat models… human therapies….”  

I called up Dr. Qilong Ying, Principle Investigator (PI) of the study.

As he began to talk, I felt a “click” of recognition, as if, like pieces of a puzzle, facts were fitting together.

It reminded me of Jacques Cousteau, the great underwater explorer, when he tried to invent a way to breathe underwater. He had the compressed air tank, and a mouthpiece that would release air—but it came in a rush, not normal breathing.

So he visited his friend, race car mechanic Emil Gagnan, and told him, “I need something that will give me air, but only when I inhale,”– and Gagnan said: “Like that?” and pointed to a metal contraption on a nearby table.

It was something invented for cars. But by adding it to what Cousteau already had, the Cousteau-Gagnan SCUBA (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) gear was born—and the ocean could now be explored.

Qi-Long Ying’s contribution to science may also be a piece of the puzzle of cure…

A long-term collaboration with Dr. Austin Smith centered on an attempt to do with rats what had done with mice.

In 2007, the  Nobel Prize in Medicine had been won by Dr. Martin Evans, Mario Capecchi, and Oliver Smithies. Working independently, they developed “knock-out” and “knock-in” mice, meaning to take out a gene, or put one in.  

But could they do the same with rats?

 “We and others worked very, very hard, and got nowhere,” said Dr. Evans.

Why was this important?

Many human diseases cannot be mimicked in the mouse—but might be in the rat. This is for several reasons: the rat is about ten times larger; its internal workings are closer to those of a human; and the rat is considered several million years closer (in evolutionary terms) to humans than the mouse.

In 2008 (“in China, that is the year of the rat,” noted Dr. Ying in our conversation) he received the first of three grants from CIRM.

“We proposed to use the classical embryonic stem cell-based gene-targeting technology to generate rat models mimicking human heart failure, diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases…”

How did he do?

In 2010, Science Magazine honored him with inclusion in their “Top 10 Breakthroughs for using embryonic stem cell-based gene targeting to produce the world’s first knockout rats, modified to lack one or more genes…”

And in 2016, he and Dr. Smith received the McEwen Award for Innovation,  the highest honor bestowed by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR).

Using knowledge learned from the new (and more relevant to humans) lab rat, it may be possible to develop methods for the expansion of stem cells directly inside the patient’s own bone marrow. Stem cells derived in this fashion would be far less likely to be rejected by the patient.  To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, they would be “of the patient, by the patient and for the patient—and shall not perish from the patient”—sorry!

Several of the rats generated in Ying’s lab (to mimic human diseases) were so successful that they have been donated to the Rat Research Resource center so that other scientists can use them for their study.

“Maybe in the future we will develop a cure for some diseases because of knowledge from using rat models,” said Ying. “I think it’s very possible. So we want more researchers from USC and beyond to come and use this technology.”

And it all began with the humble rat…