The use of antiretroviral drugs has turned HIV/AIDS from a fatal disease to one that can, in many cases in the US, be controlled. But these drugs are not a cure. That’s why the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) voted to approve investing $6.85 million in a therapy that aims to cure the disease.
This is the 82nd clinical trial funded by CIRM.
There are approximately 38 million people worldwide living with HIV/AIDS. And each year there are an estimated 1.5 million new cases. The vast majority of those living with HIV do not have access to the life-saving antiretroviral medications that can keep the virus under control. People who do have access to the medications face long-term complications from them including heart disease, bone, liver and kidney problems, and changes in metabolism.
The antiretroviral medications are effective at reducing the viral load in people with HIV, but they don’t eliminate it. That’s because the virus that causes AIDS can integrate its DNA into long-living cells in the body and remain dormant. When people stop taking their medications the virus is able to rekindle and spread throughout the body.
Dr. William Kennedy and the team at Excision Bio Therapeutics have developed a therapeutic candidate called EBT-101. This is the first clinical study using the CRISPR-based platform for genome editing and excision of the latent form of HIV-1, the most common form of the virus that causes AIDS in the US and Europe. The goal is to eliminate or sufficiently reduce the hidden reservoirs of virus in the body to the point where the individual is effectively cured.
“To date only a handful of people have been cured of HIV/AIDS, so this proposal of using gene editing to eliminate the virus could be transformative,” says Dr. Maria Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “In California alone there are almost 140,000 people living with HIV. HIV infection continues to disproportionately impact marginalized populations, many of whom are unable to access the medications that keep the virus under control. A functional cure for HIV would have an enormous impact on these communities, and others around the world.”
In a news release announcing they had dosed the first patient, Daniel Dornbusch, CEO of Excision, called it a landmark moment. “It is the first time a CRISPR-based therapy targeting an infectious disease has been administered to a patient and is expected to enable the first ever clinical assessment of a multiplexed, in vivo gene editing approach. We were able to reach this watershed moment thanks to years of innovative work by leading scientists and physicians, to whom we are immensely grateful. With this achievement, Excision has taken a major step forward in developing a one-time treatment that could transform the HIV pandemic by freeing affected people from life-long disease management and the stigma of disease.”
The Excision Bio Therapeutics team also scored high on their plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Reviewers praised them for adding on a partnering organization to provide commitments to serve underserved populations, and to engaging a community advisory board to help guide their patient recruitment.
For children born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) life can be very challenging. SCID means they have no functioning immune system, so even a simple infection can prove life threatening. Left untreated, children with SCID often die in the first few years of life.
There are stem cell/gene therapies funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), such as ones at UCLA and UCSF/St. Judes, but an alternative method of treating, and even curing the condition, is a bone marrow or hematopoietic stem cell transplant (HCT). This replaces the child’s blood supply with one that is free of the SCID mutation, which helps restore their immune system.
However, current HCT methods involve the use of chemotherapy or radiation to destroy the patient’s own unhealthy blood stem cells and make room for the new, healthy ones. This approach is toxic and complex and can only be performed by specialized teams in major medical centers, making access particularly difficult for poor and underserved communities.
To change that, Dr. Judy Shizuru at Stanford University, with CIRM funding, developed an antibody that can direct the patient’s own immune cells to kill diseased blood stem cells, creating the room needed to transplant new, healthy cells. The goal was to make stem cell transplants safer and more effective for the treatment of many life-threatening blood disorders.
That approach, JSP191, is now being championed by Jasper Therapeutics and they just got some very good news from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA has granted JSP191 Fast Track Designation, which can speed up the review of therapies designed to treat serious conditions and fill unmet medical needs.
In a news release, Ronald Martell, President and CEO of Jasper Therapeutics, said this is good news for the company and patients: “This new Fast Track designation recognizes the potential role of JSP191 in improving clinical outcomes for these patients and will allow us to more closely work with the FDA in the upcoming months to determine a path toward a Biologics License Application (BLA) submission.”
Getting a BLA means Jasper will be able to market the antibody in the US and make it available to all those who need it.
This is the third boost from the FDA for Jasper. Previously the agency granted JSP191 both Orphan and Rare Pediatric Disease designations. Orphan drug designation qualifies sponsors for incentives such as tax credits for clinical trials. Rare Pediatric Disease designation means that if the FDA does eventually approve JSP191, then Jasper can apply to receive a priority review of an application to use the product for a different disease, such as someone who is getting a bone marrow transplant for sickle cell disease or severe auto immune diseases.
September is National Sickle Cell Awareness Month, a time to refocus our efforts to find new treatments, even a cure, for people with sickle cell disease. Until we get those, CIRM remains committed to doing everything we can to reduce the stigma and bias that surrounds it.
Sickle cell disease (SCD) is a rare, inherited blood disorder in which normally smooth and round red blood cells may become sickle-shaped and harden. These blood cells can clump together and clog up arteries, causing severe and unpredictable bouts of pain, organ damage, vision loss and blindness, strokes and premature death.
There is a cure, a bone marrow transplant from someone who is both a perfect match and doesn’t carry the SCD trait. However, few patients are able to find that perfect match and even if they do the procedure carries risks.
The GRASP Trial is a Phase 2 trial that will take place at various locations throughout the country. It’s a collaboration between the NHLBI and CIRM. Researchers are testing whether a gene therapy approach can improve or eliminate sickle cell pain episodes.
Shortly after being born, babies stop producing blood containing oxygen-rich fetal hemoglobin and instead produce blood with the adult hemoglobin protein. For children with sickle cell disease, the transition from the fetal to the adult form of hemoglobin marks the onset of anemia and the painful symptoms of the disorder.
Scientists previously discovered that the BCL11A gene helps to control fetal hemoglobin and that decreasing the expression of this gene can increase the amount of fetal hemoglobin while at the same time reducing the amount of sickle hemoglobin in blood. This could result in boosting the production of normal shaped red blood cells with a goal of curing or reducing the severity of sickle cell disease.
The approach used in this trial is similar to a bone marrow transplant, but instead of using donor stem cells, this uses the patient’s own blood stem cells with new genetic information that instructs red blood cells to silence the expression of the BCL11A gene. This approach is still being studied to make sure that it is safe and effective, but it potentially has the advantage of eliminating some of the risks of other therapies.
In this trial, patients will have to spend some time in an inpatient unit as they undergo chemotherapy to kill some bone marrow blood stem cells and create room for the new, gene-modified cells to take root.
The trial is based on a successful pilot/phase 1 study which showed it to be both safe and effective in the initial 10 patients enrolled in the trial.
For more information about the trial, including inclusion/exclusion criteria and trial locations, please visit the CureSCi GRASP trial page.
Nancy Rene, a sickle cell disease patient advocate, says while clinical trials like this are obviously important, there’s another aspect of the treatment of people with the disease that is still too often overlooked.
“As much as I applaud CIRM for the work they are doing to find a therapy or cure for Sickle Cell, I am often dismayed by the huge gulf between research protocols and general medical practice. For every story I hear about promising research, there is often another sad tale about a sickle cell patient receiving inadequate care. This shouldn’t be an either/or proposition. Let’s continue to support ground-breaking research while we expand education and training for medical professionals in evidenced based treatment. I look forward to the day when sickle cell patients receive the kind of treatment they need to lead healthy, pain-free lives.”
For years scientists have been touting the potential of CRISPR, a gene editing tool that allows you to target a specific mutation and either cut it out or replace it with the corrected form of the gene. But like all new tools it had its limitations. One important one was the difficult in delivering the corrected gene to mature cells in large numbers.
Scientists at the Gladstone Institutes and U.C. San Francisco say they think they have found a way around that. And the implications for using this technique to develop new therapies for deadly diseases are profound.
In the past scientists used inactivated viruses as a way to deliver corrected copies of the gene to patients. We have blogged about UCLA’s Dr. Don Kohn using this approach to treat children born with SCID, a deadly immune disorder. But that was both time consuming and expensive.
CRISPR, on the other hand, showed that it could be easier to use and less expensive. But getting it to produce enough cells for an effective therapy proved challenging.
The team at Gladstone and UCSF found a way around that by switching from using CRISPR to deliver a double-stranded DNA to correct the gene (which is toxic to cells in large quantities), and instead using CRISPR to deliver a single stranded DNA (you can read the full, very technical description of their approach in the study they published in the journal Nature Biotechnology).
Alex Marson, MD, PhD, director of the Gladstone-UCSF Institute of Genomic Immunology and the senior author of the study, said this more than doubled the efficiency of the process. “One of our goals for many years has been to put lengthy DNA instructions into a targeted site in the genome in a way that doesn’t depend on viral vectors. This is a huge step toward the next generation of safe and effective cell therapies.”
It has another advantage too, according to Gladstone’s Dr. Jonathan Esensten, an author of the study. “This technology has the potential to make new cell and gene therapies faster, better, and less expensive.”
The team has already used this method to generate more than one billion CAR-T cells – specialized immune system cells that can target cancers such as multiple myeloma – and says it could also prove effective in targeting some rare genetic immune diseases.
An ever-growing array of academic and industry resources are required to rapidly translate scientific discoveries and emerging technologies toward safe and effective regenerative medicine therapies for patients. To help, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is creating a network of Industry Resource Partners (IRP) that will make its unique resources available to help accelerate the progression of CIRM-funded Discovery, Translational and Clinical stage research projects toward transformative regenerative medicine therapies for rare and prevalent diseases.
The Industry Resource Partners will offer their services, technologies and expertise to CIRM-funded projects in a cost-effective, stage-appropriate and consistent manner.
For example, Novo Nordisk is making research-grade vials of its Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP)-grade human embryonic stem cell line available for CIRM Discovery Quest stage research projects at no cost. Having access to clinically compatible pluripotent stem cell lines such as this one will help CIRM researchers accelerate the translation of their therapeutic discoveries toward clinical use. Researchers will also have future access to Novo Nordisk’s GMP seed stock as well as opportunities for partnering with Novo Nordisk.
“CIRM is a lender of first resort, supporting projects in the very early stages, long before they are able to attract outside investment,” says Shyam Patel, PhD, the Director of Business Development at CIRM. “With the launch of this program we hope to create a force-multiplier effect by bringing in industry partners who have the resources, experience and expertise to help further accelerate CIRM-funded regenerative medicine research projects.”
This new network builds on work CIRM started in 2018 with the Industry Alliance Program (IAP). The goal of the IAP was to partner researchers and industry to help accelerate the most promising stem cell, gene and regenerative medicine therapy programs to commercialization. Four of the members of the IAP are also founding members or the IRP.
In addition to Novo Nordisk, the IRP includes:
ElevateBio is providing access to high quality, well-characterized induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) lines to CIRM Discovery Quest stage research projects for product development in regenerative medicine. CIRM awardees will also have access to ElevateBio’s viral vector technologies, process development, analytical development, and GMP manufacturing services.
Bayer is offering to support the cell therapy process development and GMP manufacturing needs of CIRM Translational and Clinical awardees at its newly built Berkeley facilities. The partnered projects will have access to Bayer’s cell therapy manufacturing facilities, equipment, resources and expertise. Bayer is also open to partnering from fee-based-services to full business development and licensing opportunities.
Resilience is providing access to its GMP manufacturing services for CIRM Translational and Clinical Stage projects. In addition to providing access to its cell therapy manufacturing services and partnering opportunities, Resilience will provide project consultation that could aid CIRM applicants in drafting manufacturing plans and budgets for CIRM applications.
“These partnerships are an important step forward in helping advance not only individual projects but also the field as a whole,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “One of the biggest challenges facing regenerative medicine right now involves manufacturing. Providing researchers with access to high quality starting materials and advanced manufacturing capabilities is going to be essential in helping these projects maintain high quality standards and comply with the regulatory frameworks needed to bring these therapies to patients.”
While the IRP Network will offer its services to CIRM grantees there is no obligation or requirement that any CIRM awardee take advantage of these services.
The word “miraculous” gets tossed around a lot in the world of medicine, mostly by people who have made an unexpected recovery from a deadly or life-threatening condition. In Sean Entin’s case calling his recovery from an almost-fatal stroke could be called miraculous, but I think you would also have to say it’s due to hard work, determination, and an attitude that never even considered giving up.
Sean had a stroke in 2011. Doctors didn’t think he’d survive. He was put into a coma and underwent surgery to create an opening in his skull to give his brain time and space to heal. When he woke he couldn’t walk or talk, couldn’t count. Doctors told him he would never walk again.
They didn’t know Sean. Fast forward to today. Sean is active, has completed two 5k races – that’s two more than me – and has created Stroke Hacker, a program designed to help others going through what he did.
Sean is a remarkable man, which is why I sat down to chat with him for the latest episode of the California Institutes for Regenerative Medicine’s podcast, ‘Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation’.
One of the great pleasures of my job is getting to meet the high school students who take part in our SPARK or Summer Internship to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge program. It’s a summer internship for high school students where they get to spend a couple of months working in a world class stem cell and gene therapy research facility. The students, many of whom go into the program knowing very little about stem cells, blossom and produce work that is quite extraordinary.
One such student is Tan Ieng Huang, who came to the US from China for high school. During her internship at U.C. San Francisco she got to work in the lab of Dr. Arnold Kriegstein. He is the Founding Director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of California, San Francisco. Not only did she work in his lab, she took the time to do an interview with him about his work and his thoughts on the field.
It’s a fascinating interview and shows the creativity of our SPARK students. You will be seeing many other examples of that creativity in the coming weeks. But for now, enjoy the interview with someone who is a huge presence in the field today, by someone who may well be a huge presence in the not too distant future.
‘a tête-à-tête with Prof. Arnold Kriegstein’
Prof. Arnold Kriegstein is the Founding Director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of California, San Francisco. Prof. Kriegstein is also the Co-Founder and Scientific Advisor of Neurona Therapeutics which seeks to provide effective and safe cell therapies for chronic brain disorder. A Clinician by training, Prof. Kriegstein has been fascinated by the intricate workings of the human brain. His laboratory focuses on understanding the transcriptional and signaling networks active during brain development, the diversity of neuronal cell types, and their fate potential. For a long time, he has been interested in harnessing this potential for translational and therapeutic intervention.
During my SEP internship I had the opportunity to work in the Kriegstein lab. I was in complete awe. I am fascinated by the brain. During the course of two months, I interacted with Prof. Kriegstein regularly, in lab meetings and found his ideas deeply insightful. Here’s presenting some excerpts from some of our discussions, so that it reaches many more people seeking inspiration!
Tan Ieng Huang (TH): Can you share a little bit about your career journey as a scientist?
Prof. Arnold Kriegstein (AK): I wanted to be a doctor when I was very young, but in high school I started having some hands-on research experience. I just loved working in the lab. From then on, I was thinking of combining those interests and an MD/PhD turned out to be an ideal course for me. That was how I started, and then I became interested in the nervous system. Also, when I was in high school, I spent some time one summer at Rockefeller University working on a project that involved operant conditioning in rodents and I was fascinated by behavior and the role of the brain in learning and memory. That happened early on, and turned into an interest in cortical development and with time, that became my career.
TH: What was your inspiration growing up, what made you take up medicine as a career?
AK: That is a little hard to say, I have an identical twin brother. He and I used to always share activities, do things together. And early on we actually became eagle scouts, sort of a boy scout activity in a way. In order to become an eagle scout without having to go through prior steps, we applied to a special program that the scouts had, which allowed us to shadow physicians in a local hospital. I remember doing that at a very young age. It was a bit ironic, because one of the evenings, they showed us films of eye surgery, and my brother actually fainted when they made an incision in the eye. The reason it makes me laugh now is because my brother became an eye surgeon many years later. But I remember our early experience, we both became very fascinated by medicine and medical research.
TH: What inspired you to start the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research Institute?
AK: My interest in brain development over the years became focused on earlier stages of development and eventually Neurogenesis, you know, how neurons are actually generated during early stages of in utero brain development. In the course of doing that we discovered that the radial glial cells, which have been thought for decades to simply guide neurons as they migrate, turned out to actually be the neural stem cells, they were making the neurons and also guiding them toward the cortex. So, they were really these master cells that had huge importance and are now referred to as neural stem cells. But at that time, it was really before the stem cell field took off. But because we studied neurogenesis, because I made some contributions to understanding how the brain develops from those precursors or progenitor cells, when the field of stem cells developed, it was very simple for me to identify as someone who studied neural stem cells. I became a neural stem cell scientist. I started a neural stem cell program at Columbia University when I was a Professor there and raised 15 million dollars to seed the program and hired new scientists. It was shortly after that I was approached to join UCSF as the founder of a new stem cell program. And it was much broader than the nervous system; it was a program that covered all the different tissues and organ systems.
TH: Can you tell us a little bit about how stem cell research is contributing to the treatment of diseases? How far along are we in terms of treatments?
AK: It’s taken decades, but things are really starting to reach the clinic now. The original work was basic discovery done in research laboratories, now things are moving towards the clinic. It’s a really very exciting time. Initially the promise of stem cell science was called Regenerative medicine, the idea of replacing injured or worn-out tissues or structures with new cells and new tissues, new organs, the form of regeneration was made possible by understanding that there are stem cells that can be tweaked to actually help make new cells and tissues. Very exciting process, but in fact the main progress so far hasn’t been replacing worn out tissues and injured cells, but rather understanding diseases using human based model of disease. That’s largely because of the advent of induced pluripotent stem cells, a way of using stem cells to make neurons or heart cells or liver cells in the laboratory, and study them both in normal conditions during development and in disease states. Those platforms which are relatively easy to make now and are pretty common all over the world allow us to study human cells rather than animal cells, and the hope is that by doing that we will be able to produce conventional drugs and treatments that work much better than ones we had in the past, because they will be tested in actual human cells rather than animal cells.
TH: That is a great progress and we have started using human models because even though there are similarities with animal models, there are still many species-specific differences, right?
AK: Absolutely, in fact, one of the big problems now in Big Pharma, you know the drug companies, is that they invest millions and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars in research programs that are based on successes in treating mice, but patients don’t respond the same way. So the hope is that by starting with a treatment that works on human cells it might be more likely that the treatment will work on human patients.
TH: What are your thoughts on the current challenges and future of stem cell research?
AK: I think this is an absolute revolution in modern medicine, the advent of two things that are happening right now, first the use of induced pluripotent stem cells, the ability to make pluripotent cells from adult tissue or cells from an individual allows us to use models of diseases that I mentioned earlier from actual patients. That’s one major advance. And the other is gene editing, and the combination of gene editing and cell-based discovery science allows us to think of engineering cells in ways that can make them much more effective as a form of cell therapy and those cell therapies have enormous promise. Right now, they are being used to treat cancer, but in the future, they might be able to treat heart attack, dementia, neurodegenerative diseases, ALS, Parkinson’s disease, a huge list of disorders that are untreatable right now or incurable. They might be approached by the combination of cell-based models, cell therapies, and gene editing.
TH: I know there are still some challenges right now, like gene editing has some ethical issues because people don’t know if there can be side effects after the gene editing, what are your thoughts?
AK: You know, like many other technologies there are uncertainties, and there are some issues. Some of the problems are off-target effects, that is you try to make a change in one particular gene, and while doing that you might change other genes in unexpected ways and cause complications. But we are understanding that more and more now and can make much more precise gene editing changes in just individual genes without affecting unanticipated areas of the genome. And then there are also the problems of how to gene-edit cells in a safe way. There are certain viral factors that can be used to introduce the gene editing apparatus into a cell, and sometimes if you are doing that in a patient, you can also have unwanted side effects from the vectors that you are using, often they are modified viral vectors. So, things get complicated very quickly when you start trying to treat patients, but I think these are all tractable problems and I think in time they will all be solved. It will be a terrific, very promising future when it comes to treating patients who are currently untreatable.
TH: Do you have any advice for students who want to get into this field?
AK: Yes, I think it’s actually never been a better time and I am amazed by the technologies that are available now. Gene editing that I mentioned before but also single cell approaches, the use of single cell multiomics revealing gene expression in individual cells, the molecular understanding of how individual cells are formed, how they are shaped, how they change from one stage to another, how they can be forced into different fates. It allows you to envision true Regenerative medicine, improving health by healing or replacing injured or diseased tissues. I think this is becoming possible now, so it’s a very exciting time. Anyone who has an interest in stem cell biology or new ways of treating diseases, should think about getting into a laboratory or a clinical setting. I think this time is more exciting than it’s ever been.
TH: So excited to hear that, because in school we have limited access to the current knowledge, the state-of-art. I want to know what motivates you every day to do Research and contribute to this field?
AK: Well, you know that I have been an MD/PhD, as I mentioned before, in a way, there are two different reward systems at play. In terms of the PhD and the science, it’s the discovery part that is so exciting. Going in every day and thinking that you might learn something that no one has ever known before and have a new insight into a mechanism of how something happens, why it happens. Those kinds of new insights are terrifically satisfying, very exciting. On the MD side, the ability to help patients and improve peoples’ lives is a terrific motivator. I always wanted to do that, was very driven to become a Neurologist and treat both adult and pediatric patients with neurological problems. In the last decade or so, I’ve not been treating patients so much, and have focused on the lab, but we have been moving some of our discoveries from the laboratory into the clinic. We have just started a clinical trial, of a new cell-based therapy for epilepsy in Neurona Therapeutics, which is really exciting. I am hoping it will help the patients but it’s also a chance to actually see something that started out as a project in the laboratory become translated into a therapy for patients, so that’s an achievement that has really combined my two interests, basic science, and clinical medicine. It’s a little late in life but not too late, so I’m very excited about that.
Tan Ieng Huang, Kriegstein Lab, SEP Intern, CIRM Spark Program2022
It’s not often you get excited talking about company mergers, but a deal announced today is something worth getting excited about, particularly if you have type 1 diabetes (T1D).
Today Vertex announced it was buying ViaCyte for $320 million in cash. Why is that important? Because both companies are working on developing stem cell therapies for people with type 1 diabetes, so combining the two may help speed up that work.
Now, in the interests of full disclosure the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has been supporting ViaCyte’s work for some years now, investing in nine different research programs, including two clinical trials with the company.
ViaCyte has been developing an implantable device which contains pancreatic endoderm cells that mature over a few months and turn into insulin-producing pancreatic islet cells, the kind destroyed by T1D.
Vertex is taking a slightly different approach, manufacturing synthetic islet cells which are then injected into the patient.
In a news release both companies said the deal – which is slated to be completed later this year – would help speed up that work.:
“VX-880 has successfully demonstrated clinical proof of concept in T1D, and the acquisition of ViaCyte will accelerate our goal of transforming, if not curing T1D by expanding our capabilities and bringing additional tools, technologies and assets to our current stem cell-based programs,” said Reshma Kewalramani, M.D., Chief Executive Officer and President of Vertex.
“ViaCyte’s commitment to finding a functional cure for T1D is shared by Vertex, and this acquisition will allow Vertex to deploy ViaCyte’s tools, technologies and assets toward the development of Vertex’s multiple cell replacement therapy approaches designed to reduce the burden of millions of people living with T1D worldwide,” said Michael Yang, President and Chief Executive Officer of ViaCyte.
Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President and CEO, says it’s always gratifying to see a project we have supported continue to progress.
“We are delighted at the news that Vertex and ViaCyte are combining their experience, expertise and resources in working to develop a stem cell therapy for type 1 diabetes. At CIRM we pride ourselves on helping de-risk projects, giving promising research the support it needs to attract outside investment. We have been big supporters of ViaCyte’s work over many years. That support has been vital in helping lead to this deal. We believe this is good news for both companies and hope it will ultimately be even better news for everyone with type 1 diabetes.”
While stem cell and gene therapy research has advanced dramatically in recent years, there are still many unknowns and many questions remaining about how best to use these approaches in developing therapies. That’s why the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) today approved investing almost $25 million in 19 projects in early stage or Discovery research.
The awards are from CIRM’s DISC2 Quest program, which supports the discovery of promising new stem cell-based and gene therapy technologies that could be translated to enable broad use and ultimately, improve patient care.
“Every therapy that helps save lives or change lives begins with a researcher asking a simple question, “What if?”, says Dr. Maria T. Millan, the President and CEO of CIRM. “Our Quest awards reflect the need to keep supporting early stage research, to gain a deeper understanding of stem cells work and how we can best tap into that potential to advance the field.”
Dr. Judy Shizuru at Stanford University was awarded $1.34 million to develop a safer, less-toxic form of bone marrow or hematopoietic stem cell transplant (HCT). HCT is the only proven cure for many forms of blood disorders that affect people of all ages, sexes, and races worldwide. However, current methods involve the use of chemotherapy or radiation to destroy the patient’s own unhealthy blood stem cells and make room for the new, healthy ones. This approach is toxic and complex and can only be performed by specialized teams in major medical centers, making access particularly difficult for poor and underserved communities.
Dr. Shizuru proposes developing an antibody that can direct the patient’s own immune cells to kill diseased blood stem cells. This would make stem cell transplant safer and more effective for the treatment of many life-threatening blood disorders, and more accessible for people in rural or remote parts of the country.
Dr. Lili Yang at UCLA was awarded $1.4 million to develop an off-the-shelf cell therapy for ovarian cancer, which causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.
Dr. Yang is using immune system cells, called invariant natural killer T cells (iNKT) to attack cancer cells. However, these iNKT cells are only found in small numbers in the blood so current approaches involve taking those cells from the patient and, in the lab, modifying them to increase their numbers and strength before transplanting them back into the patient. This is both time consuming and expensive, and the patient’s own iNKT cells may have been damaged by the cancer, reducing the likelihood of success.
In this new study Dr. Yang will use healthy donor cord blood cells and, through genetic engineering, turn them into the specific form of iNKT cell therapy targeting ovarian cancer. This DISC2 award will support the development of these cells and do the necessary testing and studies to advance it to the translational stage.
Timothy Hoey and Tenaya Therapeutics Inc. have been awarded $1.2 million to test a gene therapy approach to replace heart cells damaged by a heart attack.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. with the highest incidence among African Americans. It’s caused by damage or death of functional heart muscle cells, usually due to heart attack. Because these heart muscle cells are unable to regenerate the damage is permanent. Dr. Hoey’s team is developing a gene therapy that can be injected into patients and turn their cardiac fibroblasts, cells that can contribute to scar tissue, into functioning heart muscle cells, replacing those damaged by the heart attack.
Today marks two significant events for the Black community. June 19th is celebrated as Juneteenth, the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to ensure that the enslaved people there were free. That moment came two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law.
June 19th is also marked as World Sickle Cell Awareness Day. It’s an opportunity to raise awareness about a disease that affects around 100,000 Americans, most of them Black, and the impact it has on the whole family and entire communities.
Sickle cell disease (SCD) is an inherited blood disorder that is caused by a genetic mutation. Instead of red blood cells being smooth and round and flowing easily through arteries and veins, the cells are sickle shaped and brittle. They can clog up arteries and veins, cutting off blood to vital organs, causing intense pain, organ damage and leading to premature death.
SCD can be cured with a bone marrow transplant, but that’s a risky procedure and most people with SCD don’t have a good match. Medications can help keep it under control but cannot cure it. People with SCD live, on average, 30 years less than a healthy adult.
CIRM has invested almost $60 million in 13 different projects, including five clinical trials, to try and develop a cure for SCD. There are encouraging signs of progress. For example, in July of 2020, Evie Junior took part in a CIRM-funded clinical trial where his own blood stem cells were removed then, in the laboratory, were genetically modified to repair the genetic mutation that causes the disease. Those cells were returned to him, and the hope is they’ll create a sickle cell-free blood supply. Evie hasn’t had any crippling bouts of pain or had to go to the hospital since his treatment.
“There is a real need for a new approach to treating SCD and making life easier for people with SCD and their families,” says Adrienne Shapiro, the mother of a daughter with SCD and the co-founder of Axis Advocacy, a sickle cell advocacy and education organization. “Finding a cure for Sickle Cell would mean that people like my daughter would no longer have to live their life in short spurts, constantly having their hopes and dreams derailed by ER visits and hospital stays. It would mean they get a chance to live a long life, a healthy life, a normal life.”
We will all keep working together to advance this research and develop a cure. Until then Juneteenth will be a reminder of the work that still lies ahead.