A little history in the making by helping the tiniest patients

Dr. Diana Farmer stands with Dr. Aijun Wang and their UC Davis research team.

It’s appropriate that at the start of Women’s History Month, UC Davis’ Dr. Diana Farmer is making a little history of her own. She launched the world’s first clinical trial using stem cells to treat spina bifida before the child is born.

Spina bifida is a birth defect caused when a baby’s spinal cord fails to develop properly in the womb. In myelomeningocele, the most severe form of spina bifida, a portion of the spinal cord or nerves is exposed in a sac through an opening in the spine. Most people with myelomeningocele have changes in their brain structure, leg weakness, and bladder and bowel dysfunction. 

Illustration of spina bifida

While surgery can help, Dr. Farmer says it is far from perfect: “Currently, the standard of care for our patients is fetal surgery, which, while promising, still leaves more than half of children with spina bifida unable to walk independently. There is an extraordinary need for a treatment that prevents or lessens the severity of this devastating condition. Our team has spent more than a decade working up to this point of being able to test such a promising therapy.” 

The team at UC Davis – in a CIRM-funded study – will use a stem cell “patch” that is placed over the exposed spinal cord, then surgically close the opening, hopefully allowing the stem cells to regenerate and protect the spinal cord.

In a news release Dr. Aijun Wang, a stem cell bioengineer, says the team has been preparing for this trial for years, helping show in animals that it is safe and effective. He is hopeful it will prove equally safe and effective in people: “Our cellular therapy approach, in combination with surgery, should encourage tissue regeneration and help patients avoid devastating impairments throughout their lives.” 

Dr. Farmer says the condition, while rare, disproportionately affects Latinx babies and if the procedure works could have an enormous impact on their lives and the lives of their families: “A successful treatment for MMC would relieve the tremendous emotional and economic cost burden on families. We know it initially costs approximately $532,000 per child with spina bifida. But the costs are likely several million dollars more due to ongoing treatments, not to mention all the pain and suffering, specialized childcare, and lost time for unpaid caregivers such as parents.”

Here is video of two English bulldogs who had their spinal injuries repaired at UC Davis using stem cells. This was part of the research that led to the clinical trial led by Dr. Farmer and Dr. Wang.

A word from our Chair, several in fact

In 2005, the New Oxford American Dictionary named “podcast” its word of the year. At the time a podcast was something many had heard of but not that many actually tuned in to. My how times have changed. Now there are some two million podcasts to chose from, at least according to the New York Times, and who am I to question them.

Yesterday, in the same New York Times, TV writer Margaret Lyons, wrote about how the pandemic helped turn her from TV to podcasts: “Much in the way I grew to prefer an old-fashioned phone call to a video chat, podcasts, not television, became my go-to medium in quarantine. With their shorter lead times and intimate production values, they felt more immediate and more relevant than ever before.”

I mention this because an old colleague of ours at CIRM, Neil Littman, has just launched his own podcast and the first guest on it was Jonathan Thomas, Chair of the CIRM Board. Their conversation ranged from CIRM’s past to the future of the regenerative field as a whole, with a few interesting diversions along the way. It’s fun listening. And as Margaret Lyons said it might be more immediate and more relevant than ever before.

Tipping our hat to the good guys (& gals)

A search on Google using the term “stem cell blogs” quickly produces a host of sites offering treatments for everything from ankle, hip and knee problems, to Parkinson’s disease and asthma. Amazingly the therapies for those very different conditions all use the same kind of cells produced in the same way. It’s like magic. Sadly, it’s magic that is less hocus pocus and more bogus bogus.

The good news is there are blogs out there (besides us, of course) that do offer good, accurate, reliable information about stem cells. The people behind them are not in this to make a quick buck selling snake oil. They are in this to educate, inform, engage and enlighten people about what stem cells can, and cannot do.

So, here’s some of our favorites.

The Niche

This blog has just undergone a face lift and is now as colorful and easy to read as it is informative. It bills itself as the longest running stem cell blog around. It’s run by UC Davis stem cell biologist Dr. Paul Knoepfler – full disclosure, we have funded some of Paul’s work – and it’s a constant source of amazement to me how Paul manages to run a busy research lab and post regular updates on his blog.

The power of The Niche is that it’s easy for non-science folk – like me – to read and understand without having to do a deep dive into Google search or Wikipedia. It’s well written, informative and often very witty. If you are looking for a good website to check whether some news about stem cells is real or suspect, this is a great place to start.

Stem Cell Battles

This site is run by another old friend of CIRM’s, Don Reed. Don has written extensively about stem cell research in general, and CIRM in particular. His motivation to do this work is clear. Don says he’s not a doctor or scientist, he’s something much simpler:

“No. I am just a father fighting for his paralyzed son, and the only way to fix him is to advance cures for everyone. Also, my mother died of breast cancer, my sister from leukemia, and I myself am a prostate cancer survivor. So, I have some very personal reasons to support the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and to want state funding for stem cell and other regenerative medicine research to continue in California!”

The power of Don’s writing is that he always tells human stories, real tales about real people. He makes everything he does accessible, memorable and often very funny. If I’m looking for ways to explain something complex and translate it into everyday English, I’ll often look at Don’s work, he knows how to talk to people about the science without having their eyes cloud over.

A Closer Look at Stem Cells

This is published by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), the leading professional organization for stem cell scientists. You might expect a blog from such a science-focused organization to be heavy going for the ordinary person, but you’d be wrong.

A Closer Look at Stem Cells is specifically designed for people who want to learn more about stem cells but don’t have the time to get a PhD. They have sections explaining what stem cells are, what they can and can’t do, even a glossary explaining different terms used in the field (I used to think the Islets of Langerhans were small islands off the coast of Germany till I went to this site).

One of the best, and most important, parts of the site is the section on clinical trials, helping people understand what’s involved in these trials and the kinds of things you need to consider before signing up for one.

Signals

Of course, the US doesn’t have a monopoly on stem cell research and that’s reflected in the next two choices. One is the Signals Blog from our friends to the north in Canada. This is an easy-to-read site that describes itself as the “Insiders perspective on the world of stem cells and regenerative medicine.” The ‘Categories ‘dropdown menu allows you to choose what you want to read, and it gives you lots of options from the latest news to a special section for patients, even a section on ethical and legal issues. 

EuroStemCell

As you may have guessed from the title this is by our chums across the pond in Europe. They lay out their mission on page one saying they want to help people make sense of stem cells:

“As a network of scientists and academics, we provide independent, expert-reviewed information and road-tested educational resources on stem cells and their impact on society. We also work with people affected by conditions, educators, regulators, media, healthcare professionals and policymakers to foster engagement and develop material that meets their needs.”

True to their word they have great information on the latest research, broken down by different types of disease, different types of stem cell etc. And like CIRM they also have some great educational resources for teachers to use in the classroom.

Everything you wanted to know about COVID vaccines but never got a chance to ask

All this month we are using our blog and social media to highlight a new chapter in CIRM’s life, thanks to the voters approving Proposition 14. We are looking back at what we have done since we were created in 2004, and also looking forward to the future. Today we feature a rare treat, an interview with Moderna’s Dr. Derrick Rossi.

Moderna co-founder Dr. Derrick Rossi

It’s not often you get a chance to sit down with one of the key figures in the fight against the coronavirus and get to pick his brain about the best ways to beat it. We were fortunate enough to do that on Wednesday, talking to Dr. Derrick Rossi, the co-founder of Moderna, about the vaccine his company has developed.

CIRM’s President and CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, was able to chat to Dr. Rossi for one hour about his background (he got support from CIRM in his early post-doctoral research at Stanford) and how he and his colleagues were able to develop the COVID-19 vaccine, how the vaccine works, how effective it is, how it performs against new variations of the virus.

He also told us what he would have become if this science job hadn’t worked out.

All in all it was a fascinating conversation with someone whose work is offering a sense of hope for millions of people around the world.

If you missed it first time around you can watch it here.

How a CIRM scholar helped create a life-saving COVID vaccine

Dr. Derrick Rossi might be the most famous man whose name you don’t recognize. Dr. Rossi is the co-founder of Moderna. Yes, that Moderna. The COVID-19 vaccine Moderna. The vaccine that in clinical trials proved to be around 95 percent effective against the coronavirus.

Dr. Rossi also has another claim to fame. He is a former CIRM scholar. He did some of his early research, with our support, in the lab of Stanford’s Dr. Irv Weissman.

So how do you go from a lowly post doc doing research in what, at the time, was considered a rather obscure scientific field, to creating a company that has become the focus of the hopes of millions of people around the world?  Well, join us on Wednesday, January 27th at 9am (PST) to find out.

CIRM’s President and CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, will hold a live conversation with Dr. Rossi and we want you to be part of it. You can join us to listen in, and even post questions for Dr. Rossi to answer. Think of the name dropping credentials you’ll get when say to your friends; “Well, I asked Dr. Rossi about that and he told me…..”

Being part of the conversation is as simple as clicking on this link:

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

We look forward to seeing you there.

Persistence pays off in search for clue to heart defects

A team of scientists led by Benoit Bruneau (left), including Irfan Kathiriya (center) and Kavitha Rao (right), make inroads into understanding what genes are improperly deployed in some cases of congenital heart disease.  Photo courtesy Gladstone Institute

For more than 20 years Dr. Benoit Bruneau has been trying to identify the causes of congenital heart disease, the most common form of birth defect in the U.S. It turns out that it’s not one cause, but many.

Congenital heart disease covers a broad range of defects, some relatively minor and others life-threatening and even fatal. It’s been known that a mutation in a gene called TBX5 is responsible for some of these defects, so, in a CIRM-funded study ($1.56 million), Bruneau zeroed in on this mutation to see if it could help provide some answers.

In the past Bruneau, the director of the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease, had worked with a mouse model of TBX5, but this time he used human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These are cells that can be manipulated in the lab to become any kind of cell in the human body. In a news release Bruneau says this was an important step forward.

“This is really the first time we’ve been able to study this genetic mutation in a human context. The mouse heart is a good proxy for the human heart, but it’s not exactly the same, so it’s important to be able to carry out these experiments in human cells.”

The team took some iPSCs, changed them into heart cells, and used a gene editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9 to create the kinds of mutations in TBX5 that are seen in people with congenital heart disease. What they found was some genes were affected a lot, some not so much. Which is what you might expect in a condition that causes so many different forms of problems.

“It makes sense that some are more affected than others, but this is the first experimental data in human cells to show that diversity,” says Bruneau.

But they didn’t stop there. Oh no. Then they did a deep dive analysis to understand how the different ways that different cells were impacted related to each other. They found some cells were directly affected by the TBX5 mutation but others were indirectly affected.

The study doesn’t point to a simple way of treating congenital heart disease but Bruneau says it does give us a much better understanding of what’s going wrong, and perhaps will give us better ideas on how to stop that.

“Our new data reveal that the genes are really all part of one network—complex but singular—which needs to stay balanced during heart development. That means if we can figure out a balancing factor that keeps this network functioning, we might be able to help prevent congenital heart defects.”

The study is published in the journal Developmental Cell.

CIRM-Funded Project Targeting Sickle Cell Disease Gets Green Light for Clinical Trial

Dr. Matthew Porteus

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted Investigational New Drug (IND) permission enabling Graphite Bio to test the investigational, potentially revolutionary gene editing therapy GPH101 developed under the supervision of Matthew Porteus, MD, PhD, in a clinical trial for people with sickle cell disease (SCD).

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has been supporting this project with a $5.2 million grant, enabling Dr. Porteus and his team at the Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at Stanford University to conduct the preclinical manufacturing and safety studies required by the FDA.

“We congratulate the Graphite Bio team for obtaining the IND, a critical step in bringing the GPH101 gene therapy forward for Sickle Cell Disease,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO. “CIRM is committed to the national Cure Sickle Cell initiative and are delighted that this technology, the product of CIRM funded research conducted by Dr. Porteus at Stanford, is progressing to the next stage of development”

Sickle cell disease is caused by a genetic mutation that turns normally smooth, round red blood cells into rigid, sickle shaped cells. Those cells clump together, clogging up blood vessels, causing intense pain, damaging organs and increasing the risk of strokes and premature death. There are treatments that help control the damage, but the only cure is a bone marrow stem cell transplant, which can only happen if the patient has a stem cell donor (usually a close relative) who has matching bone marrow.  

The investigational therapy GPH101 harnesses the power of CRISPR and natural DNA repair mechanisms to cut out the single mutation in the sickle globin gene and paste in the correct “code.” Correction of this mutation would reverse the defect and result in healthy non-sickling red blood cells.  

CEDAR, a Phase 1/2, multi-center, open-label clinical study is designed to evaluate the safety, preliminary efficacy and pharmacodynamics of GPH101 in adult and adolescent patients with severe SCD.

For patient advocate Nancy Rene, the news is personal: “It’s always exciting to hear about the progress being made in sickle cell research.  If successful it will mean that my grandson, and especially other young adults, can look forward to a life free of pain and organ damage.  They can actually begin to plan their lives, thinking about careers and families. I want to thank Dr. Porteus and all of the scientists who are working so hard for people with sickle cell disease. This is wonderful news.”

CIRM has funded four clinical trials for Sickle Cell Disease using different approaches and has a unique partnership with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institutes under the NIH “Cure Sickle Cell” initiative.

You can’t take it if you don’t make it

Biomedical specialist Mamadou Dialio at work in the Cedars-Sinai Biomanufacturing Center. Photo by Cedars-Sinai.

Following the race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 has been a crash course in learning how complicated creating a new therapy is. It’s not just the science involved, but the logistics. Coming up with a vaccine that is both safe and effective is difficult enough, but then how do you make enough doses of it to treat hundreds of millions of people around the world?

That’s a familiar problem for stem cell researchers. As they develop their products they are often able to make enough cells in their own labs. But as they move into clinical trials where they are testing those cells in more and more people, they need to find a new way to make more cells. And, of course, they need to plan ahead, hoping the therapy is approved by the Food and Drug Administration, so they will need to be able to manufacture enough doses to meet the increased demand.

We saw proof of that planning ahead this week with the news that Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles has opened up a new Biomanufacturing Center.

Dr. Clive Svendsen, executive director of the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute, said in a news release, the Center will manufacture the next generation of drugs and regenerative medicine therapies.

“The Cedars-Sinai Biomanufacturing Center leverages our world-class stem-cell expertise, which already serves scores of clients, to provide a much-needed biomanufacturing facility in Southern California. It is revolutionary by virtue of elevating regenerative medicine and its therapeutic possibilities to an entirely new level-repairing the human body.”

This is no ordinary manufacturing plant. The Center features nine “clean rooms” that are kept free from dust and other contaminants. Everyone working there has to wear protective suits and masks to ensure they don’t bring anything into the clean rooms.

The Center will specialize in manufacturing induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs. Dhruv Sareen, PhD, executive director of the Biolmanufacturing Center, says iPSCs are cells that can be turned into any other kind of cell in the body.

“IPSCs are powerful tools for understanding human disease and developing therapies. These cells enable us to truly practice precision medicine by developing drug treatments tailored to the individual patient or groups of patients with similar genetic profiles.”

The Biomanufacturing Center is designed to address a critical bottleneck in bringing cell- and gene-based therapies to the clinic. After all, developing a therapy is great, but it’s only half the job. Making enough of it to help the people who need it is the other half.

CIRM is funding Dr. Svendsen’s work in developing therapies for ALS and other diseases and disorders.  

CIRM-funded therapy to ease the impact of chemotherapy

Treatments for cancer have advanced a lot in recent years, but many still rely on the use of chemotherapy to either shrink tumors before surgery or help remove cancerous cells the surgery missed. The chemo can be very effective, but it’s also very toxic. Angiocrine Bioscience Inc. is developing a way to reduce those toxic side effects, and they just got a nice vote of confidence for that approach.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted Angiocrine Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy (RMAT) designation for their product AB-205.

RMAT is a big deal. It means the therapy, in this case AB-205, has already shown it is safe and potentially beneficial to patients, so the designation means that if it continues to be safe and effective it may be eligible for a faster, more streamlined approval process. And that means it can get to the patients who need it, outside of a clinical trial, faster.

What is AB-205? Well it’s made from genetically engineered cells, derived from cord blood, designed to help alleviate or accelerate recovery from the toxic side effects of chemotherapy for people undergoing treatment for lymphoma and other aggressive cancers of the blood or lymph system.

CIRM awarded Angiocrine Bioscience $6.2 million in 2018 to help carry out the Phase 2 clinical trial testing the therapy. In a news release ,CIRM President & CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, said there is a real need for this kind of therapy.

“This is a project that CIRM has supported from an earlier stage of research, highlighting our commitment to moving the most promising research out of the lab and into people. Lymphoma is the most common blood cancer and the 6th most commonly diagnosed cancer in California. Despite advances in therapy many patients still suffer severe complications from the chemotherapy, so any treatment that can reduce those complications can not only improve quality of life but also, we hope, improve long term health outcomes for patients.”

In a news release Dr. Paul Finnegan, Angiocrine’s CEO, welcomed the news.

“The RMAT designation speaks to the clinical meaningfulness and the promising efficacy data and safety profile of AB-205 based on our Phase 1b/2 study. This is an important step in accelerating the development of AB-205 towards its first market approval. We appreciate the thorough assessment provided by the FDA reviewers and the support from our partner, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.” 

The investment in Angiocrine marked a milestone for CIRM. It was the 50th clinical trial we had funded. It was a cause for celebration then. We’re hoping it will be a cause for an even bigger celebration in the not too distant future.

The company hopes to start a Phase 3 clinical trial in the US and Europe next year.

Stem cell therapy for deadly childhood immune disorder goes four for four

The gold standard for any new therapy in the U.S. is approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This approval clears the therapy for sale and often also means it will be covered by insurance. But along the way there are other designations that can mean a lot to a company developing a new approach to a deadly disease.

That’s what recently happened with Mustang Bio’s MB-107. The therapy was given Orphan Drug Designation for the treatment of X-linked Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) also known as “bubble baby disease”, a rare but deadly immune disorder affecting children. This is the same therapy that CIRM is funding in a clinical trial we’ve blogged about in the past.  

Getting Orphan Drug Designation can be a big deal. It is given to therapies intended for the treatment, diagnosis or prevention of rare diseases or disorders that affect fewer than 200,000 people in the U.S. It comes with some sweet incentives, such as tax credits toward the cost of clinical trials and prescription drug user fee waivers. And, if the product becomes the first in its class to get FDA approval for a particular disease, it is entitled to seven years of market exclusivity, which is independent from intellectual property protection.

This is not the first time Mustang Bio’s MB-107 has been acknowledged as a potential gamechanger. It’s also been given three other classifications both here in the US and in Europe.

  • Rare Pediatric Disease Designation: this also applies to treatments for diseases affecting fewer than 200,000 people in the US that have the potential to provide clinically meaningful benefits to patients. It provides the company with a “voucher” that they can use to apply for priority review for another therapy they are developing. The hope is that this will encourage companies to develop treatments for rare childhood diseases that might not otherwise be profitable.
  • Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy (RMAT) designation: this allows for faster, more streamlined approvals of regenerative medicine products
  • Advanced Therapy Medicinal Product classification: this is granted by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) to medicines that are based on genes, tissues or cells and can offer groundbreaking opportunities for the treatment of disease.

Of course, none of these designations are a guarantee that Mustang Bio’s MB-107 will ultimately get FDA approval, but they’re a pretty good indication that a lot of people have confidence they’ll get there.