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…

Newly developed biosensor can target leukemic stem cells

Dr. Michael Milyavsky (left) and his research student Muhammad Yassin (right). Image courtesy of Tel Aviv University.

Every three minutes, one person in the United States is diagnosed with a blood cancer, which amounts to over 175,000 people every year. Every nine minutes, one person in the United States dies from a blood cancer, which is over 58,000 people every year. These eye opening statistics from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society demonstrate why almost one in ten cancer deaths in 2018 were blood cancer related.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a blood cancer is any type of cancer that begins in blood forming tissue, such as those found in the bone marrow. One example of a blood cancer is leukemia, which results in the production of abnormal blood cells. Chemotherapy and radiation are used to wipe out these cells, but the blood cancer can sometimes return, something known as a relapse.

What enables the return of a blood cancer such as leukemia ? The answer lies in the properties of cancer stem cells, which have the ability to multiply and proliferate and can resist the effects of certain types of chemotherapy and radiation. Researchers at Tel Aviv University are looking to decrease the rate of relapse in blood cancer by targeting a specific type of cancer stem cell known as a leukemic stem cell, which are often found to be the most malignant.

Dr. Michael Milyavsky and his team at Tel Aviv University have developed a biosensor that is able to isolate, label, and target specific genes found in luekemic stem cells. Their findings were published on January 31, 2019 in Leukemia.

In a press release Dr. Milyavsky said:

“The major reason for the dismal survival rate in blood cancers is the inherent resistance of leukemic stem cells to therapy, but only a minor fraction of leukemic cells have high regenerative potential, and it is this regeneration that results in disease relapse. A lack of tools to specifically isolate leukemic stem cells has precluded the comprehensive study and specific targeting of these stem cells until now.”

In addition to isolating and labeling leukemic stem cells, Dr. Milyavsky and his team were able to demonstrate that the leukemic stem cells labeled by their biosensor were sensitive to an inexpensive cancer drug, highlighting the potential this technology has in creating more patient-specific treatment options.

In the article, Dr. Milyavsky said:

” Using this sensor, we can perform personalized medicine oriented to drug screens by barcoding a patient’s own leukemia cells to find the best combination of drugs that will be able to target both leukemia in bulk as well as leukemia stem cells inside it.”

The researchers are now investigating genes that are active in leukemic stem cells in the hope finding other druggable targets.

CIRM has funded two clinical trials that also use a more targeted approach for cancer treatment. One of these trials uses an antibody to treat chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and the other trial uses a different antibody to treat acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

Gene therapy gives patient a cure and a new lease on life

Brenden Whittaker (left), of Ohio, is a patient born with a rare genetic immune disease who was treated at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center in a CIRM funded gene therapy trial. Dr. David Williams (on right) is Brenden’s treating physician.
Photo courtesy of Rose Lincoln – Harvard Staff Photographer

Pursuing an education can be quite the challenge in itself without the added pressure of external factors. For Brenden Whittaker, a 25 year old from Ohio, the constant trips to the hospital and debilitating nature of an inherited genetic disease made this goal particularly challenging and, for most of his life, out of sight.

Brenden was born with chronic granulomatous disease (CGD), a rare genetic disorder that affects the proper function of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell that is an essential part of the body’s immune system. This leads to recurring bacterial and fungal infections and the formation of granulomas, which are clumps of infected tissue that arise as the body attempts to isolate infections it cannot combat. People with CGD are often hospitalized routinely and the granulomas themselves can obstruct digestive pathways and other pathways in the body. Antibiotics are used in an attempt to prevent infections from occurring, but eventually patients stop responding to them. One in two people with CGD do not live past the age of 40.

In Brenden’s case, when the antibiotics he relied on started failing, the doctors had to resort to surgery to cut out an infected lobe of his liver and half his right lung. Although the surgery was successful, it would only be a matter of time before a vital organ was infected and surgery would no longer be an option.

This ultimately lead to Brenden becoming the first patient in a CGD gene therapy trial at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.  The trial, lead by UCLA’s Dr. Don Kohn thanks to a CIRM grant, combats the disease by correcting the dysfunctional gene inside a patient’s blood stem cells. The patient’s corrected blood stem cells are then reintroduced, allowing the body to produce properly functioning neutrophils, rebooting the immune system.

It’s been a little over three years since Brenden received this treatment in late 2015, and the results have been remarkable. Dr. David Williams, Brenden’s treating physician, expected Brenden’s body to produce at least 10 percent of the functional neutrophils, enough so that Brenden’s immune system would provide protection similar to somebody without CGD. The results were over 50 percent, greatly exceeding expectations.

Brenden Whittaker mowing the lawn in the backyard of his home in Columbus, Ohio. He is able to do many more things without the fear of infection since participating in the trial. Photo courtesy of Colin McGuire

In an article published by The Harvard Gazette, Becky Whittaker, Brendan’s mother, is quoted as saying, ““Each day that he’s free of infection, he’s able to go to class, he’s able to work at his part-time job, he’s able to mess around playing with the dog or hanging out with friends…[this] is a day I truly don’t believe he would have had beyond 2015 had something not been done.”

In addition to the changes to his immune system, the gene therapy has reinvigorated Brenden’s drive for the future. Living with CGD had caused Brenden to miss out on much of his schooling throughout the years, having to take constant pauses from his academics at a community college. Now, Brenden aims to graduate with an associate’s degree in health sciences in the spring and transfer to Ohio State in the fall for a bachelor’s degree program. In addition to this, Brenden now has dreams of attending medical school.

In The Harvard Gazette article, Brenden elaborates on why he wants to go to medical school saying, ” Just being the patient for so long, I want to give back. There are so many people who’ve been there for me — doctors, nurses who’ve been there for me [and] helped me for so long.”

In a press release dated February 25, 2019, Orchard Therapeutics, a biopharmaceutical company that is continuing the aforementioned approach for CGD, announced that six patients treated have shown adequate neutrophil function 12 months post treatment. Furthermore, these six patients no longer receive antibiotics related to CGD. Orchard Therapeutics also announced that they are in the process of designing a registrational trial for CGD.

Mending Stem Cells: The Past, Present and Future of Regenerative Medicine

To Mend: (verb used with object) to make (something broken, worn, torn or otherwise damaged) whole, sound or usable by repairing.

It’s remarkable to believe, but today doctors literally have the tools to repair damaged cells. These tools are being used to treat people with diseases that were once incurable. The field of regenerative medicine has made tremendous progress in the last 15 years, but how did these tools come about and what is the experience of patients being treated with them?

These questions, and hopefully yours too, are going to be answered at the fourth annual CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Symposium on April 18, 2019 at the University of California at San Francisco.

UCSF Mission Bay Campus

The symposium is free, and the program is designed with patients and the public in mind, so don’t be shy and put your scientific thinking caps on! A complete agenda may be found here

Perhaps one of the most remarkable discoveries in the past decade are new tools that enable doctors to “edit” or correct a patient’s own DNA. DNA correction tools came about because of a remarkable string of scientific breakthroughs. The symposium will dive into this history and discuss  how these tools are being used today to treat patients.

One specific example of the promise that DNA editing holds is for those with sickle cell disease (SCD), a condition where patients’ blood forming stem cells contain a genetic error that causes the disease. The symposium will describe how the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network, a series of medical centers across California whose focus is on stem cell clinical trials, are supporting work aimed at mending blood cells to cure debilitating diseases like SCD.

Doctors, nurses and patients involved with these trials will be telling their stories and describing their experiences. One important focus will be how Alpha Clinic teams are partnering with community members to ensure that patients, interested in new treatments, are informed about the availability of clinical trials and receive sufficient information to make the best treatment choices.

The fourth annual CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Symposium is an opportunity for patients, their families and the public to meet the pioneers who are literally mending a patients own stem cells to cure their disease.

For registration information go here.


Frustration, failure and finally hope in the search for treatments for spina bifida

diana farmer_2015

Dr. Diana Farmer and her team at UC. Davis

By any standards Dr. Diana Farmer is a determined woman who doesn’t let setbacks and failure deter her. As a fetal and neonatal surgeon, and the chair of the Department of Surgery at UC Davis Health, Dr. Farmer has spent years trying to develop a cure for spina bifida. She’s getting closer.

Dr. Farmer and her partner in this research, Dr. Aijun Wang, have already shown they can repair the damage spina bifida causes to the spinal cord, in the womb, in sheep and bulldogs. Last year the CIRM Board voted to fund her research to get the data needed to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration for permission to start a clinical trial in people.

That work is so promising that we decided to profile Dr. Farmer in our 2018 Annual Report.

Here’s excerpts from an interview we conducted with her as part of the Annual Report.

I have been working on this since 2008. We have been thinking about how to help kids with spina bifida walk. It’s not fatal disease but it is a miserable disease.

It’s horrible for parents who think they are about to have a healthy child suddenly be faced with a baby who faces a life long struggle with their health, everything from difficulty or inability to walk to bowel and bladder problems and life-threatening infections.

As a fetal surgeon we used to only focus on fatal diseases because otherwise kids would die. But as we made progress in the field, we had the opportunity to help others who didn’t have a fatal condition, in ways we couldn’t have done in the past.

I’ve always been fascinated by the placenta, it has lots of protective properties. So, we asked the question if we were able to sample fetal cells from the placenta, could we augment those cells, and use them to tissue engineer spinal injuries, in the womb, to improve the outcome for kids with spina bifida?

Dr. Aijun Wang and I have been working on this project for the last decade.  Ten years of work has taken us to this point where we are now ready to move this to the next level.

It’s amazing to me how long this process takes and that’s why we are so grateful to CIRM because this is a rare disease and finding funding for those is hard. A lot of people are scared about funding fetal surgery and CIRM has been a perfect partner in helping bring this approach, blending stem cell therapy and tissue engineering, together.

If this therapy is successful it will have a huge economic impact on California, and on the rest of the world. Because spina bifida is a lifelong condition involving many operations, many stays in the hospital, in some cases lifelong use of a wheelchair. This has a huge financial burden on the family. And because this doesn’t just affect the child but the whole family, it has a huge psychological burden on families. It affects them in so many ways; parents having to miss work or take time off work to care for their child, other children in the family feeling neglected because their brother or sister needs so much attention.

In the MOMS Trial (a study that looked at prenatal – before birth – and postnatal – after birth – surgery to repair a defect in the spinal cord and showed that prenatal surgery had strong, long-term benefits and some risks) we showed that we could operate on the fetus before birth and help them. The fact that there was any improvement – doubling the number of kids who could walk from 20 to 40% showed this spinal cord injury is not a permanent situation and also showed there was some plasticity in the spinal cord, some potential for improvement. And so, the next question was can we do more. And that’s why we are trying this.

It’s pretty amazing. We are pretty excited.

The thing that makes surgeon-scientists feel so passionate is that we don’t just ask the fundamental questions, we ask questions in order to cure a problem in patients. I grew up in an environment where people were always asking “how can we do it better, how can we improve?”

There were many times of frustration, many times when cell types we explored and worked with didn’t work. But it’s the patients, seeing them, that keeps me motivated to do the science, to keep persevering. That’s the beauty of being a clinician-scientist. We can ask questions in a different way and look at data in a different way because we are driven by patient outcomes. So, whenever we get stuck in the rabbit hole of theoretical problems, we look to the patients for inspiration to keep going.

I am very cognizant of stirring up false hope, knowing that what occurs in animal models doesn’t always translate into humans. But we are optimistic, and I am anxious to get going.

 

Performance, Passion and Progress: and that’s just page one of our 2018 Annual Report

2018_ar_webimage

It’s hard to sum up the activities and achievements of a year in a single document, let alone one that’s just 24 pages. But that’s what we have done in putting together our 2018 Annual Report.

It’s a look back at the year just gone, the highlights, the low lights (spoiler alert – there weren’t any) and the impact we had on the field of stem cell research. But it’s far more than that. It’s also a look ahead. A look at the challenges we face, and profiles of the people who are going to help us overcome those challenges and maintain our progress.

And people are truly at the heart of this report, from UC San Francisco’s Dr. Tippi MacKenzie who is on the front cover for her work in developing an in-utero treatment for the almost always fatal disorder alpha thalassemia major (and the photo of the baby and mom whose lives were changed by that therapy) to Rich Lajara on the back cover, the first person ever treated in a CIRM-funded clinical trial.

Inside are an array of simple images designed to reflect how we as a state agency have performed this year. The numbers themselves tell a powerful story:

  • 50 clinical trials funded to date, 7 this year alone
  • $2.6 billion in CIRM grants has been leveraged to bring in an additional $3.2 billion in matching funds and investments from other sources.
  • 1,180 patients have been involved in CIRM clinical trials

We know people don’t have a lot of time to read Annual Reports so we have made this as visually engaging and informative as possible. We want you to get a real sense of who we are, what we have done and who has helped us do that without you having to wade through a document the size of War and Peace (great book by the way – the Russians beat Napoleon).

We think we have a great story to tell. This Annual Report is one chapter in that story. We hope you like it.