Teaching stem cells to play video games

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video games atari pong
Pong video game

Back when I was growing up, shortly after the extinction of the dinosaurs, there was a popular video game called Pong. It was, in fact, pretty much the only video game at the time. It was a pretty simple game. You moved a “paddle” to hit a ball and knock it back across the screen to your opponent. If your opponent missed it you won the point. It was a really simplified form of video ping pong (hence the name). 

So why am I telling you this? Well, researchers in the UK and Australia have devised a way of teaching blobs of brain cells how to play Pong. I kid you not. 

Playing Pong

What they did was turn stem cells into brain cells, as part of a system called Dishbrain. Using software, they helped these neurons or brain cells communicate with each other through electrical stimulation and recordings. 

In an article in Newsweek, (yup, Newsweek is still around) the researchers explained that using these electrical signals they could help the cells identify where the “ball” was. For example, if the signals came from the left that meant the “ball” was on the right. 

In the study they say: “Using this DishBrain system, we have demonstrated that a single layer of in vitro (in a dish) cortical neurons can self-organize and display intelligent and sentient behavior when embodied in a simulated game-world.” We have shown that even without a substantial filtering of cellular activity, statistically robust differences over time and against controls could be observed in the behavior of neuronal cultures in adapting to goal directed tasks.”

Now you might think this was just something the researchers dreamed up to pass time during COVID, but they say understanding how these brain cells can learn and respond could help them develop other methods of using neurons that might be even cooler than playing video games. 

The study is published in the journal BioRXiv

Producing insulin for people who can’t

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ViaCyte’s implantable stem cell pouch

One of the huge advantages of a stem cell agency like CIRM (not that there is anything out there quite like us, but anyway) is our ability to support projects as they progress from a great idea to a therapy actually being tested in people.

Exhibit A on that front came via a news release from ViaCyte, a company that is developing a new approach to helping people with severe Type 1 Diabetes (T1D).

Unlike type 2 diabetes, which is largely diet & lifestyle related and develops over time, T1D is an autoimmune condition where the person’s immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Without those cells and insulin the body is not able to regulate blood sugar levels and that can lead to damage to the heart, kidneys, eyes and nerves. In severe cases it can be fatal.

ViaCyte (which has been supported with more than $72 million from CIRM) has developed a pouch that can be implanted under the skin in the back. This pouch contains stem cells that over a period of a few months turn into insulin-producing pancreatic islet cells, the kind destroyed by T1D. The goal is for these cells to monitor blood flow and when they detect blood sugar or glucose levels are high, can secrete insulin to restore them to a safe level.

They tested this approach in 15 patients in a Phase 1 clinical trial in Canada. Their findings, published in the journals Cell Stem Cell and Cell Reports Medicine, show that six months after implantation, the cells had turned into insulin-producing islet cells. They also showed a rise in C-peptide levels after patients ate a meal. C-peptides are a sign your body is producing insulin so the rise in that number was a good indication the implanted cells were boosting insulin production.

As Dr. James Shapiro, the Chair of Canada Research and one of the lead authors of the study says, that’s no small achievement: “The data from these papers represent a significant scientific advance. It is the first reported evidence that differentiated stem cells implanted in patients can generate meal-regulated insulin secretion, offering real hope for the incredible potential of this treatment.”

And that wasn’t all. The researchers say that patients spent 13 percent more time in the target range for blood sugar levels than before the treatment, and some were even able to reduce the amount of insulin they injected.

Now this is only a Phase 1 clinical trial so the goal was to test the safety of the pouch, called PEC-Direct (VC-02), to see if the body would tolerate it being implanted and to see if it is effective. The beauty of this method is that the device is implanted under the skin so it can be removed easily if any problems emerge. So far none have.

Ultimately the hope is that this approach will help patients with T1D better regulate their blood sugar levels, improve their health outcomes, and one day even achieve independence from the burden of daily insulin injections.

Stem Cell Agency Board Invests in Therapy Targeting Deadly Blood Cancers

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Dr. Ezra Cohen, photo courtesy UCSD

Hematologic malignancies are cancers that affect the blood, bone marrow and lymph nodes and include different forms of leukemia and lymphoma. Current treatments can be effective, but in those patients that do not respond, there are few treatment options. Today, the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved investing $4.1 million in a therapy aimed at helping patients who have failed standard therapy.

Dr. Ezra Cohen, at the University of California San Diego, and Oncternal Therapeutics are targeting a protein called ROR1 that is found in B cell malignancies, such as leukemias and lymphomas, and solid tumors such as breast, lung and colon. They are using a molecule called a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) that can enable a patient’s own T cells, an important part of the immune system, to target and kill their cancer cells. These cells are derived from a related approach with an antibody therapy that targets ROR1-binding medication called Cirmtuzumab, also created with CIRM support. This CAR-T product is designed to recognize and kill cancer stem cells that express ROR1.

This is a late-stage preclinical project so the goal is to show they can produce enough high-quality cells to treat patients, as well as complete other regulatory measures needed for them to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permission to test the therapy in a clinical trial in people.

If given the go-ahead by the FDA the therapy will target patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), mantle cell lymphoma (MCL) and acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).  

“CAR-T cell therapies represent a transformational advance in the treatment of hematologic malignancies,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, CIRM’s President and CEO. “This approach addresses the need to develop new therapies for patients whose cancers are resistant to standard chemotherapies, who have few therapeutic options and a very poor chance or recovery.”

One step closer to making ‘off-the-shelf’ immune cell therapy for cancer a reality 

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Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses a person’s own immune system to fight cancer. It comes in a variety of forms including targeted antibodies, cancer vaccines, and adoptive cell therapies. While immunotherapies have revolutionized the treatment of aggressive cancers in recent decades, they must be created on a patient-specific basis and as a result can be time consuming to manufacture/process and incredibly costly to patients already bearing the incalculable human cost of suffering from the cruelest disease.

Fortunately, the rapid progress that has led to the present era of cancer immunotherapy is expected to continue as scientists look for ways to improve efficacy and reduce cost. Just this week, a CIRM-funded study published in Cell Reports Medicine revealed a critical step forward in the development of an “off-the-shelf” cancer immunotherapy by researchers at UCLA. “We want cell therapies that can be mass-produced, frozen and shipped to hospitals around the world,” explains Lili Yang, the study’s senior author. 

Lili Yang, the study’s senior author and a member of UCLA’s Broad Stem Cell Research Center

In order to fulfil this ambitious goal, Yang and her colleagues developed a new method for producing large numbers of a specialized T cell known as invariant natural killer T (iNKT) cells. iNKT cells are rare but powerful immune cells that don’t carry the risk of graft-versus-host disease, which occurs when transplanted cells attack a recipient’s body, making them better suited to treat a wide range of patients with various cancers.

Using stem cells from donor cord-blood and peripheral blood samples, the team of researchers discovered that one cord blood donation could produce up to 5,000 doses of the therapy and one peripheral blood donation could produce up to 300,000 doses. The high yield of the resulting cells, called hematopoietic stem cell-engineered iNKT (HSC–iNKT) cells,could dramatically reduce the cost of producing immune cell products in the future. 

In order to test the efficacy of the HSC–iNKT cells, researchers conducted two very important tests. First, they compared its cancer fighting abilities to another set of immune cells called natural killer cells. The results were promising. The HSC–iNKT cells were significantly better at killing several types of tumor cells such as leukemia, melanoma, and lung cancer. Then, the HSC–iNKT cells were frozen and thawed, just as they would be if they were to one day become an off-the-shelf cell therapy. Researchers were once again delighted when they discovered that the HSC–iNKT cells sustained their tumor-killing efficacy.

Next, Yang and her team added a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) to the HSC–iNKT cells. CAR is a specialized molecule that can enable immune cells to recognize and kill a specific type of cancer. When tested in the lab, researchers found that CAR-equipped HSC–iNKT cells eliminated the specific cancerous tumors they were programmed to destroy. 

This study was made possible in part by three grants from CIRM.

Type 1 diabetes therapy gets go-ahead for clinical trial

ViaCyte’s implantable cell-based therapy for type 1 diabetes

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Taking even the most promising therapy and moving it out of the lab and into people is an incredibly complex process and usually requires a great team. Now, two great teams have paired up to do just that with a therapy for type 1 diabetes (T1D). ViaCyte and CRISPR Therapeutics have put their heads together and developed an approach that has just been given clearance by Health Canada to start a clinical trial.

Regular readers of this blog know that CIRM has been a big supporter of ViaCyte for many years, investing more than $72 million in nine different awards. They have developed an implantable device containing embryonic stem cells that develop into pancreatic progenitor cells, which are precursors to the islet cells destroyed by T1D. The hope is that when this device is transplanted under a patient’s skin, the progenitor cells will develop into mature insulin-secreting cells that can properly regulate the glucose levels in a patient’s blood.

One of the challenges in earlier testing was developing a cell-based therapy that could evade the immune system, so that people didn’t need to have their immune system suppressed to prevent it attacking and destroying the cells. This particular implantable version sprang out of an early stage award we made to ViaCyte (DISC2-10591). ViaCyte and CRISPR Therapeutics helped with the design of the therapeutic called VCTX210.

In a news release, Michael Yang, the President and CEO of ViaCyte, said getting approval for the trial was a major milestone: “Being first into the clinic with a gene-edited, immune-evasive cell therapy to treat patients with type 1 diabetes is breaking new ground as it sets a path to potentially broadening the treatable population by eliminating the need for immunosuppression with implanted cell therapies. This approach builds on previous accomplishments by both companies and represents a major step forward for the field as we strive to provide a functional cure for this devastating disease.”

The clinical trial, which will be carried out in Canada, is to test the safety of the therapy, whether it creates any kind of reaction after being implanted in the body, and how well it does in evading the patient’s immune system. In October our podcast – Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation – highlighted work in T1D and included an interview with Dr. Manasi Jaiman, ViaCyte’s Vice President for Clinical Development. Here’s an excerpt from that podcast.

Dr. Manasi Jaimin, ViaCyte VP Clinical development

Beware of misleading headlines and claims

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Coronavirus particles, illustration.

When the COVID pandemic broke out researchers all over the world scrambled to find new approaches to tackling the virus. Some of these, such as the vaccines, proved remarkably effective. Others, such as the anti-parasite medication ivermectin or the anti-malaria drug chloroquine, were not only not helpful, they were sometimes harmful.

Part of the problem was the understandable desire to find something, anything that would protect people from the virus. But another part of the problem was that even with research that was based on solid science, the reporting of that research in the media sometimes tilted towards hype rather than hard evidence.

A new study in the journal Stem Cell Reports takes a look at the explosion of research targeting COVID. They highlighted the lack of rigor that sometimes accompanied that research, and the lack of regulation that allowed some predatory clinics to offer stem cell “therapies” that had never been tested in people let alone shown to be either safe or effective.

Dr. Leigh Turner, from the University of California Irvine and a co-author of the study, warned against studies that were cutting ethical and scientific corners. “Scientists, regulators, and policymakers must guard against the proliferation of poorly designed, underpowered, and duplicative studies that are launched with undue haste because of the pandemic, but are unlikely to provide convincing, clinically meaningful safety and efficacy data.”

The researchers cited an earlier study (by UC Davis’ Dr. Paul Knoepfler and Dr. Mina Kim) that looked at 70 clinical trials involving cell-based treatments for COVID-19. Drs. Knoepfler and Kim found that most were small, involving around 50 patients, and only 22.8% were randomized, double-blinded, and controlled experiments. They say even if these produced promising results they would have to be tested in much larger numbers to be of real benefit.

Another issue that Turner and his team highlighted was the hype that sometimes accompanied this work, citing news releases that over-hyped findings and failed to mention study limitations to gain more media coverage.

In a news release Dr. Laertis Ikonomou, of the University at Buffalo and a co-author of the study, said over-hyping treatments is nothing new but that it seemed to become even more common during COVID.

“Therefore, it is even more important to communicate promising developments in COVID-19-related science and clinical management [responsibly]. Key features of good communication are an accurate understanding of new findings, including study limitations and avoidance of sensationalist language.”

“Realistic time frames for clinical translation are equally important as is the realization that promising interventions at preliminary stages may not always translate to proven treatments following rigorous testing.”

They also warned about clinics advertising “stem cell therapies” that were unproven and unlicensed and often involved injecting the patients’ own cells back into them. The researchers say it’s time that the FDA and other authorities cracked down on companies taking advantage of patients in this way.

“If companies and affiliated clinicians are not fined, forced to return to patients whatever profits they have made, confronted with criminal charges, subject to revocation of medical licensure, or otherwise subject to serious legal and financial consequences, it is possible that more businesses will be drawn to this space because of the profits that can be generated from selling unlicensed and unproven cell-based products in the midst of a pandemic.”

At a time when so many were dying or suffering long-term health problems as a result of COVID, it’s unconscionable that others were happy to cash in on the fear and pain to make a quick buck.

When the pandemic broke out the CIRM Board voted to approved $5 million in emergency funding to help develop new therapies to combat the virus. Altogether we funded 17 different projects including three clinical trials.

Reprogramming brain cells to restore vision after a stroke

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About one third of stroke survivors experience vision loss. It can be a devastating side effect as most patients will not fully recover their vision and there are currently no reliable treatments available. But thanks to a collaborative effort by two teams of researchers from Purdue University and Jinan University in China, there may be a way to use gene therapy to recover lost vision after a stroke.

A stroke happens when part of the brain is starved of oxygen which can result in death of brain cells or neurons. Oftentimes this is caused by a blockage in an artery in the brain. Given the location of these vital arteries, most strokes lead to loss of motor function and in some cases, permanent vision loss.

The brain is an incredible machine and capable of remapping its neural pathways enough to restore some visual function, but this isn’t always the case. The neurons that are destroyed in the process of experiencing a stroke do not regenerate and lose their ability to communicate/transmit information between different areas of the brain, and between the brain and the rest of the nervous system.

Two research teams, one led by Alexander Chubykin at Purdue University’s and the other led by Gong Chen at Jinan University, have taken a different approach to neural regeneration by reprogramming local glial cells into neurons, therefore restoring connections between the old neurons and the newly reprogrammed neurons.

In a news release, Dr. Chubykin says the results in the lab look promising. “We can watch the mice get their vision back. We don’t have to implant new cells, so there’s no immunogenic rejection. This process is easier to do than stem cell therapy, and there’s less damage.”

The collaborative research, published in the journal Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology, is promising not only in aiding with vision restoration after a stroke but could also lead to similar treatment for reestablishing motor function. Visual function is easier than motor skills to measure accurately and the scientists are looking into the effectiveness of this procedure in live mice using advanced optical imaging tools. If the study continues to provide positive results, it might not be long before human trials are started. 

CIRM is also funding clinical trials to help repair vision loss and to help people recovering from a stroke.

A step forward in finding a treatment for a deadly neurological disorder

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MRI section of a brain affected by ALS with the front section of the brain highlighted

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a nasty disease that steadily attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. It’s pretty much always fatal within a few years. As if that wasn’t bad enough, ALS also can overlap with a condition called frontotemporal dementia (ALS/FTD). Together these conditions cause devastating symptoms of muscle weakness along with changes in memory, behavior and personality.

Now researchers at Cambridge University in the UK have managed to grow groups of cells called “mini-brains” that mimic ALS/FTD and could lead to new approaches to treating this deadly combination.

We have written about these mini-brains before. Basically, they are created, using the iPSC method, that takes skin or blood cells from a patient with a particular condition, in this case ALS/FTD, and turns them into the kind of nerve cells in the brain affected by the disease. Because they came from someone who had ALS/FTD they display many of the characteristics of the disease and this gives researchers a great tool to study the condition.

This kind of approach has been done before and given researchers a glimpse into what is happening in the brains of people with ALS/FTD. But in the past those cells were in a kind of clump, and it wasn’t possible to get enough nutrients to the cells in the middle of the clump for the mini-brain to survive for long.

What is different about the Cambridge team is that they were able to create these mini-brains using thin, slices of cells. That meant all the cells could get enough nutrients to survive a long time, giving the team a better model to understand what is happening in ALS/FTD.

In a news release, Dr András Lakatos, the senior author of the study, said: “Neurodegenerative diseases are very complex disorders that can affect many different cell types and how these cells interact at different times as the diseases progress.

“To come close to capturing this complexity, we need models that are more long-lived and replicate the composition of those human brain cell populations in which disturbances typically occur, and this is what our approach offers. Not only can we see what may happen early on in the disease – long before a patient might experience any symptoms – but we can also begin to see how the disturbances change over time in each cell.”

Thanks to these longer-lived cells the team were able to see changes in the mini-brains at a very early stage, including damage to DNA and cell stress, changes that affected other cells which play a role in muscle movements and behavior.

Because the cells developed using the iPSC method are from a patient with ALS/FTD, the researchers were able to use them to screen many different medications to see if any had potential as a therapy. They identified one, GSK2606414, that seemed to help in reducing the build-up of toxic proteins, reduced cell stress and the loss of nerve cells.

The team acknowledge that these results are promising but also preliminary and will require much more research to verify them.

CIRM has funded three clinical trials targeting ALS. You can read about that work here.

Some good news for people with dodgy knees

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Graphic contrasting a healthy knee with one that has osteoarthritis

About 10% of Americans suffer from knee osteoarthritis, a painful condition that can really impair mobility and quality of life. It’s often caused by an injury to cartilage, say when you were playing sports in high school or college, and over time it continues to degenerate and ultimately results in the  loss of both cartilage and bone in the joint.

Current treatments involve either medication to control the pain or surgery. Medication works up to a point, but as the condition worsens it loses effectiveness.  Knee replacement surgery can be effective, but is a serious, complicated procedure with a long recovery time.  That’s why the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) voted to invest almost $6 million in an innovative stem cell therapy approach to helping restore articular cartilage in the knee.

Dr. Frank Petrigliano, Chief of the Epstein Family Center for Sports Medicine at Keck Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC), is using pluripotent stem cells to create chondrocytes (the cells responsible for cartilage formation) and then seeding those onto a scaffold. The scaffold is then surgically implanted at the site of damage in the knee. Based on scientific data, the seeded scaffold has the potential to regenerate the damaged cartilage, thus decreasing the likelihood of progression to knee osteoarthritis.  In contrast to current methods, this new treatment could be an off-the-shelf approach that would be less costly, easier to administer, and might also reduce the likelihood of progression to osteoarthritis.

This is a late-stage pre-clinical program. The goals are to manufacture clinical grade product, carry out extensive studies to demonstrate safety of the approach, and then file an IND application with the FDA, requesting permission to test the product in a clinical trial in people.

“Damage to the cartilage in our knees can have a big impact on quality of life,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, MD, President and CEO of CIRM. “It doesn’t just cause pain, it also creates problems carrying out simple, everyday activities such as walking, climbing stairs, bending, squatting and kneeling. Developing a way to repair or replace the damaged cartilage to prevent progression to knee osteoarthritis could make a major difference in the lives of millions of Americans. This program is a continuation of earlier stage work funded by CIRM at the Basic Biology and Translational stages, illustrating how CIRM supports scientific programs from early stages toward the clinic.”

Getting under the skin of people with type 1 diabetes – but in a good way

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As someone with a family history of type 1 diabetes (T1D) I know how devastating the condition can be. I also know how challenging it can be to keep it under control and the consequences of failing to do that. Not maintaining healthy blood sugar levels can have a serious impact on the heart, kidney, eyes, nerves, and blood vessels. It can even be fatal.

Right now, controlling T1D means being careful about what you eat, when you eat and how much you eat. It also means regularly checking your blood throughout the day to see if the glucose level is too high or too low. If it’s too high you need to inject insulin; if it’s too low you need to take a fast-acting carbohydrate such as fruit juice or glucose to try and restore it to a healthy level.

That’s why two new approaches to T1D that CIRM has supported are so exciting. They both use small devices implanted under the skin that contain stem cells. The cells can both monitor blood sugar and, if it’s too high, secrete insulin to bring it down.

We sat down with two key members of the Encellin and ViaCyte teams, Dr. Crystal Nyitray and Dr. Manasi Jaiman, to talk about their research, how it works, and what it could mean for people with T1D. That’s in the latest episode of our podcast ‘Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation’.

I think you are going to enjoy it.

This is the size of the implant that ViaCyte is using.
This is the size of the implant Encellin is using

Dr. Crystal Nyitray, CEO & Co-founder Encellin

Dr. Manasi Jaiman, Vice President, Clinical Development ViaCyte