A trip to the OR started CIRM’s latest Board member on a career in science

The CIRM Board is pretty big, 29 members, all of whom have very different backgrounds and experiences. That’s one of its strengths, the diversity of members and the sheer range of expertise they bring to this work.

David Martin

Our newest member, Dr. David Martin, is the Chair and CEO of AvidBiotics Corp., a biotech company in South San Francisco. He has a very impressive resume including leadership roles at Genentech, DuPont Merck and Chiron. You can read more about that in our news release.

But we wanted to go beyond the obvious reasons why he was appointed by California State Treasurer John Chiang (who celebrated Dr. Martin’s “very distinguished career in both academics and the biotech industry”) and find a little bit more about him as a person.

We began by asking him how he got interested in science:

“When I was in junior high school, my father, a pediatrician, managed for me to witness at close-hand several surgical procedures in the O.R. When I was in high school my biology teachers were disasters, but I really enjoyed math and physics so I went to an engineering school.  After a year I rejected carrying a 14-inch slide rule on my belt like the other geeks and switched my major to biology. The biology lab excited me, and I changed my courses to prepare for medical school.  There I took off a year for a research training program and a real research lab experience.  I was hooked.”

What have been some of the biggest influences in your career?

Jim Wyngaarden’s research training program (supported by the National Science Foundation – as a precursor to the National Institute of Health’s  Medical Scientist Training Program) and working in Jim’s lab at Duke.  I then had nearly a decade of direct exposure to Gordon Tomkins, first when I was as a post-doc at NIH and then as a faculty member at UCSF.  Third was my many years exposure to Bob Swanson at Genentech.  Each was a remarkable and quite unique mentor.”

You have been a part of some of the biggest players in drug research and development – Genentech, DuPont Merck, Chiron – what are the biggest advances you have seen over the years?

“The discovery, early development, and nearly explosive expansion of recombinant DNA technologies and of their broad applications in the life sciences. Today one can already see on the near horizon a similar, very rapid expansion of stem cell applications to regenerative medicine, and it will not be limited to regenerative medicine.”

Dr. Martin says he feels privileged and enthused to be joining the CIRM Board and hopes his experience will be valuable to the agency:

“Fortuitously, I’ve been in the right place at the right time more than once as a physician-scientist—in both academe and industry; hopefully those experiences and perspectives may be of benefit to CIRM.”

Like many people fortunate enough to live in the San Francisco Bay Area he likes to get out of the lab/office as much as possible to enjoy all that the region has to offer:

“I enjoy bicycling, hiking and fly fishing—when I can find the time.”

We are delighted to welcome Dr. Martin to the CIRM team.

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UCLA launches CIRM-funded clinical trial using engineered blood stem cells to treat skin cancer

It’s not uncommon for biomedical institutes as well as their funding partners to announce through press releases that a clinical trial they’re running has gotten off the ground and has started to enroll patients. For an outsider looking in, it may seem like they’re jumping the gun a bit. No patients have received the therapy. No cures have been declared. So why all the hubbub at the start?

The reality is this: the launch of a clinical trial isn’t a beginning. It represents many years of effort by many researchers and a lot of funding to take an idea and develop it into a tangible product that has been given clearance to be tested in people to potentially save their lives. That’s why this important milestone deserves to be recognized. So, we were excited to get the word out, in the form of a press release , that UCLA had announced this morning the launch of a CIRM-funded clinical trial testing a therapy for hard-to-treat cancers.

The UCLA clinical trial genetically alters a patient’s hematopoietic stem cells give rise to T cells that are efficient cancer killers.

It’s estimated that metastasis, or the spread of cancer to other parts of the body, is responsible for 90% of cancer deaths. Though radiation and chemotherapy treatments can stop a tumor in its tracks, a small population of cancer stem cells in the tumor lie dormant and can evade those anti-cancer approaches. Because of their unlimited potential to divide, the cancer stem cells regrow the tumor leading to its inevitable return and spread. Oncologists clearly need new approaches to help patients with this unmet medical need.

That’s where today’s clinical trial launch comes into the picture. Dr. Antonio Ribas, a member of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center, and his team have genetically engineered cancer-killing white blood cells called T cells and blood-forming stem cells collected from patients to produce a protein that, like a key in a lock, recognizes a protein found almost exclusively on the surface of many types of cancer. When the T cells are transfused back into the patient, they can more efficiently track down and eradicate hard-to-treat skin cancer stem cells. At the same, the transfused blood stem cells – which specialize into all the various immune system cells – provide a long-term supply of T cells for continued protection against reoccurrence of the tumor.

“Few options exist for the treatment of patients whose cancers have metastasized due to resistance to current therapies,” Ribas said in the UCLA press release. “This clinical trial will allow us to try a new approach that engineers the body’s immune system to fight metastasized tumors similar to how it fights germs and viruses.”

 

And as Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO (interim), described in our accompanying press release, CIRM will be an ever-present partner to help Ribas’ team get the clinical trial smoothly out of the starting gate and provide the support needed to carry the therapy to its completion:

“This trial is the first step in developing a therapy that could alleviate the complications resulting from cancer metastases as well as potentially improving outcomes in cancer patients where there are currently no effective treatment options. We are confident that CIRM’s funding and partnership, in combination with the expertise provided by our Alpha Stem Cell Clinic network, will give provide critical support for the successful conduct of this important clinical trial.”

 

To learn more about this clinical trial, visit its page at clinicaltrials.gov. If you think you might be eligible to enroll, please contact Clinical Research Coordinator Justin Tran by email at justintran@mednet.ucla.edu or by phone at 310-206-2090.

From trauma to treatment: a Patient Advocate’s journey from helping her son battle a deadly disease to helping others do the same

Everett SCID 1

For every clinical trial CIRM funds we create a Clinical Advisory Panel or CAP. The purpose of the CAP is to make recommendations and provide guidance and advice to both CIRM and the Project Team running the trial. It’s part of our commitment to doing everything we can to help make the trial a success and get therapies to the people who need them most, the patients.

Each CAP consists of three to five members, including a Patient Advocate, an external scientific expert, and a CIRM Science Officer.

Having a Patient Advocate on a CAP fills a critical need for insight from the patient’s perspective, helping shape the trial, making sure that it is being carried out in a way that has the patient at the center. A trial designed around the patient, and with the needs of the patient in mind, is much more likely to be successful in recruiting and retaining the patients it needs to see if the therapy works.

One of the clinical trials we are currently funding is focused on severe combined immunodeficiency disease, or SCID. It’s also known as “bubble baby” disease because children with SCID are born without a functioning immune system, so even a simple virus or infection can prove fatal. In the past some of these children were kept inside sterile plastic bubbles to protect them, hence the name “bubble baby.”

Everett SCID family

Anne Klein is the Patient Advocate on the CAP for the CIRM-funded SCID trial at UCSF and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Her son Everett was born with SCID and participated in this clinical trial. We asked Anne to talk about her experience as the mother of a child with SCID, and being part of the research that could help cure children like Everett.

“When Everett was born his disease was detected through a newborn screening test. We found out he had SCID on a Wednesday, and by  Thursday we were at UCSF (University of California, San Francisco). It was very sudden and quite traumatic for the family, especially Alden (her older son). I was abruptly taken from Alden, who was just two and a half years old at the time, for two months. My husband, Brian Schmitt, had to immediately drop many responsibilities required to effectively run his small business. We weren’t prepared. It was really hard.”

(Everett had his first blood stem cell transplant when he was 7 weeks old – his mother Anne was the donor. It helped partially restore his immune system but it also resulted in some rare, severe complications as a result of his mother’s donor cells attacking his body. So when, three years later, the opportunity to get a stem cell therapy came along Anne and her husband, Brian, decided to say yes. After some initial problems following the transplant, Everett seems to be doing well and his immune system is the strongest it has ever been.)

“It’s been four years, a lot of ups and downs and a lot of trauma. But it feels like we have turned a corner. Everett can go outside now and play, and we’re hanging out more socially because we no longer have to be so concerned about him being exposed to germs or viruses.

His doctor has approved him to go to daycare, which is amazing. So, Everett is emerging into the “normal” world for the first time. It’s nerve wracking for us, but it’s also a relief.”

Everett SCID in hospital

How Anne came to be on the CAP

“Dr. Cowan from UCSF and Dr. Malech from the NIH (National Institutes of Health) reached out to me and asked me about it a few months ago. I immediately wanted to be part of the group because, obviously, it is something I am passionate about. Knowing families with SCID and what they go through, and what we went through, I will do everything I can to help make this treatment more available to as many people as need it.

I can provide insight on what it’s like to have SCID, from the patient perspective; the traumas you go through. I can help the doctors and researchers understand how the medical community can be perceived by SCID families, how appreciative we are of the medical staff and the amazing things they do for us.

I am connected to other families, both within and outside of the US, affected by this disease so I can help get the word out about this treatment and answer questions for families who want to know. It’s incredibly therapeutic to be part of this wider community, to be able to help others who have been diagnosed more recently.”

The CAP Team

“They were incredibly nice and when I did speak they were very supportive and seemed genuinely interested in getting feedback from me. I felt very comfortable. I felt they were appreciative of the patient perspective.

I think when you are a research scientist in the lab, it’s easy to miss the perspective of someone who is actually experiencing the disease you are trying to fix.

At the NIH, where Everett had his therapy, the stem cell lab people work so hard to process the gene corrected cells and get them to the patient in time. I looked through the window into the hall when Everett was getting his therapy and the lab staff were outside, in their lab coats, watching him getting his new cells infused. They wanted to see the recipient of the life-saving treatment that they prepared.

It is amazing to see the process that the doctors go through to get treatments approved. I like being on the CAP and learning about the science behind it and I think if this is successful in treating others, then that would be the best reward.”

The future:

“We still have to fly back to the NIH, in Bethesda, MD, every three months for checkups. We’ll be doing this for 15 years, until Everett is 18. It will be less frequent as Everett gets older but this kind of treatment is so new that it’s still important to do this kind of follow-up. In between those trips we go to UCSF every month, and Kaiser every 1-3 weeks, sometimes more.

I think the idea of being “cured”, when you have been through this, is a difficult thing to think about. It’s not a word I use lightly as it’s a very weighted term. We have been given the “all clear” before, only to be dealt setbacks later. Once he’s in school and has successfully conquered some normal childhood illnesses, both Brian and I will be able to relax more.

One of Everett’s many doctors once shared with me that, in the past, he sometimes had to tell parents of very sick children with SCID that there was nothing else they could do to help them. So now to have a potential treatment like this, he was so excited about a stem cell therapy showing such promise.

One thing we think about Everett and Alden, is that they are both so young and have been through so much already. I’m hoping that they can forget all this and have a chance to grow up and lead a normal life.”

Extra dose of patience needed for spinal cord injury stem cell therapies, rat study suggests

2017 has been an exciting year for Asterias Biotherapeutics’ clinical trial which is testing a stem cell-based therapy for spinal cord injury. We’ve written several stories about patients who have made remarkable recoveries after participating in the trial (here and here).

But that doesn’t mean researchers at other companies or institutes who are also investigating spinal cord injury will be closing up shop. There’s still a long way to go with the Asterias trial and there’s still a lot to be learned about the cellular and molecular mechanisms of spinal cord injury repair, which could lead to alternative options for victims. Continued studies will also provide insights on optimizing the methods and data collection used in future clinical trials.

Human neuronal stem cells extend axons (green) three months after transplantation in rat model of spinal cord injury. Image: UCSD

In fact, this week a team of UC San Diego scientists report in the Journal of Clinical Investigation that, based on brain stem cell transplant studies in a rat model of spinal cord injury, recovery continues long after the cell therapy is injected. These findings suggest that collecting clinical trial data too soon may give researchers the false impression that their therapy is not working as well as they had hoped.

In this study, funded in part by CIRM, the researchers examined brain stem cells – or neural stem cells, in lab lingo – that were derived from human embryonic stem cells. These neural stem cells (NSCs) aren’t fully matured and give rise to nerve cells as well as support cells called glia. Previous studies have shown that when NSCs are transplanted into rodent models of spinal cord injury, the cells mature into nerve cells, make connections with nerves within the animal and can help restore some limb movement.

But the timeline for the maturation of the NSCs after transplantation into the injury site wasn’t clear because most studies only measured recovery for a few weeks or months. To get a clearer picture, the UCSD team analyzed the fate and impact of human NSCs in adult rats with spinal cord injury from 1 month to 1.5 years – the longest time such an experiment has been carried out so far. The results confirmed that the transplanted NSCs did indeed survive through the 18-month time point and led to recovery of movement in the animals’ limbs.

To their surprise, the researchers found that the NSCs continued to mature and some cell types didn’t fully specialize until 6 months or even 12 months after the transplantation. This timeline suggests that although the human cells are placed into the hostile environment of an injury site in an animal model, they still follow a maturation process seen during human development.

The researchers also focused on the fate of the nerve cells’ axons, the long, thin projections that relay nerve signals and make connections with other nerve cells. Just as is seen with normal human development, these axons were very abundant early in the experiment but over several months they went through a pruning process that’s critical for healthy nerve function.

Altogether, these studies provide evidence that waiting for the clinical trial results of stem cell-based spinal cord injury therapies will require an extra dose of patience. Team lead, Dr. Mark Tuszynski, director of the UC San Diego Translational Neuroscience Institute, summed it up this way in a press release:

Mark Tuszynski, UCSD

“The bottom line is that clinical outcome measures for future trials need to be focused on long time points after grafting. Reliance on short time points for primary outcome measures may produce misleadingly negative interpretation of results. We need to take into account the prolonged developmental biology of neural stem cells. Success, it would seem, will take time.”

Confusing cancer to kill it

Kipps

Thomas Kipps, MD, PhD: Photo courtesy UC San Diego

Confusion is not a state of mind that we usually seek out. Being bewildered is bad enough when it happens naturally, so why would anyone actively pursue it? But now some researchers are doing just that, using confusion to not just block a deadly blood cancer, but to kill it.

Today the CIRM Board approved an investment of $18.29 million to Dr. Thomas Kipps and his team at UC San Diego to use a one-two combination approach that we hope will kill Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL).

This approach combines two therapies, cirmtuzumab (a monoclonal antibody developed with CIRM funding, hence the name) and Ibrutinib, a drug that has already been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for patients with CLL.

As Dr. Maria Millan, our interim President and CEO, said in a news release, the need for a new treatment is great.

“Every year around 20,000 Americans are diagnosed with CLL. For those who have run out of treatment options, the only alternative is a bone marrow transplant. Since CLL afflicts individuals in their 70’s who often have additional medical problems, bone marrow transplantation carries a higher risk of life threatening complications. The combination approach of  cirmtuzumab and Ibrutinib seeks to offer a less invasive and more effective alternative for these patients.”

Ibrutinib blocks signaling pathways that leukemia cells need to survive. Disrupting these pathways confuses the leukemia cell, leading to its death. But even with this approach there are cancer stem cells that are able to evade Ibrutinib. These lie dormant during the therapy but come to life later, creating more leukemia cells and causing the cancer to spread and the patient to relapse. That’s where cirmtuzumab comes in. It works by blocking a protein on the surface of the cancer stem cells that the cancer needs to spread.

It’s hoped this one-two punch combination will kill all the cancer cells, increasing the number of patients who go into complete remission and improve their long-term cancer control.

In an interview with OncLive, a website focused on cancer professionals, Tom Kipps said Ibrutinib has another advantage for patients:

“The patients are responding well to treatment. It doesn’t seem like you have to worry about stopping therapy, because you’re not accumulating a lot of toxicity as you would with chemotherapy. If you administered chemotherapy on and on for months and months and years and years, chances are the patient wouldn’t tolerate that very well.”

The CIRM Board also approved $5 million for Angiocrine Bioscience Inc. to carry out a Phase 1 clinical trial testing a new way of using cord blood to help people battling deadly blood disorders.

The standard approach for this kind of problem is a bone marrow transplant from a matched donor, usually a family member. But many patients don’t have a potential donor and so they often have to rely on a cord blood transplant as an alternative, to help rebuild and repair their blood and immune systems. However, too often a single cord blood donation does not have enough cells to treat an adult patient.

Angiocrine has developed a product that could help get around that problem. AB-110 is made up of cord blood-derived hematopoietic stem cells (these give rise to all the other types of blood cell) and genetically engineered endothelial cells – the kind of cell that lines the insides of blood vessels.

This combination enables the researchers to take cord blood cells and greatly expand them in number. Expanding the number of cells could also expand the number of patients who could get these potentially life-saving cord blood transplants.

These two new projects now bring the number of clinical trials funded by CIRM to 35. You can read about the other 33 here.

 

 

 

Treatments, cures and clinical trials: an in-person update on CIRM’s progress

Patients and Patient Advocates are at the heart of everything we do at CIRM. That’s why we are holding three free public events in the next few months focused on updating you on the stem cell research we are funding, and our plans for the future.

Right now we have 33 projects that we have funded in clinical trials. Those range from heart disease and stroke, to cancer, diabetes, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), two different forms of vision loss, spinal cord injury and HIV/AIDS. We have also helped cure dozens of children battling deadly immune disorders. But as far as we are concerned we are only just getting started.

Over the course of the next few years, we have a goal of adding dozens more clinical trials to that list, and creating a pipeline of promising therapies for a wide range of diseases and disorders.

That’s why we are holding these free public events – something we try and do every year. We want to let you know what we are doing, what we are funding, how that research is progressing, and to get your thoughts on how we can improve, what else we can do to help meet the needs of the Patient Advocate community. Your voice is important in helping shape everything we do.

The first event is at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco on Wednesday, September 6th from noon till 1pm. The doors open at 11am for registration and a light lunch.

Gladstone Institutes

Here’s a link to an Eventbrite page that has all the information about the event, including how you can RSVP to let us know you are coming.

We are fortunate to be joined by two great scientists, and speakers – as well as being CIRM grantees-  from the Gladstone Institutes, Dr. Deepak Srivastava and Dr. Steve Finkbeiner.

Dr. Srivastava is working on regenerating heart muscle after it has been damaged. This research could not only help people recover from a heart attack, but the same principles might also enable us to regenerate other organs damaged by disease. Dr. Finkbeiner is a pioneer in diseases of the brain and has done ground breaking work in both Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease.

We have two other free public events coming up in October. The first is at UC Davis in Sacramento on October 10th (noon till 1pm) and the second at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles on October 30th (noon till 1pm). We will have more details on these events in the coming weeks.

We look forward to seeing you at one of these events and please feel free to share this information with anyone you think might be interested in attending.

Targeting hair follicle stem cells could be the key to fighting hair loss

Chia Pets make growing hair look easy. You might not be familiar with these chia plant terracotta figurines if you were born after the 80s, but I remember watching commercials growing up and desperately wanting a “Chia Pet, the pottery that grows!”

My parents eventually caved and got me a Chia teddy bear, and I was immediately impressed by how easy it was for my bear to grow “hair”. All I needed to do was to sprinkle water over the chia seeds and spread them over my chia pet, and in three weeks, voila, I had a bear that had sprouted a lush, thick coat of chia leaves.

These days, you can order Chia celebrities and even Chia politicians. If only treating hair loss in humans was as easy as growing sprouts on the top of Chia Mr. T’s head…

Activating Hair Follicle Stem Cells, the secret to hair growth?

That day might come sooner than we think thanks to a CIRM-funded study by UCLA scientists.

Published today in Nature Cell Biology, the UCLA team reported a new way to boost hair growth that could eventually translate into new treatments for hair loss. The study was spearheaded by senior authors Heather Christofk and William Lowry, both professors at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA.

Christofk and Lowry were interested in understanding the biology of hair follicle stem cells (HFSCs) and how their metabolism (the set of chemical changes required for a cell to sustain itself) plays a role in hair growth. HFSCs are adult stem cells that live in the hair follicles of our skin. They are typically inactive but can quickly “wake up” and actively divide when a new hair growth cycle is initiated. When HFSCs fail to activate, hair loss occurs.

A closer look at HFSCs in mice revealed that these stem cells are dependent on the products of the glycolytic pathway, a metabolic pathway that converts the nutrient glucose into a metabolite called pyruvate, to stimulate their activation. The HFSCs have a choice, they can either give the pyruvate to their mitochondria to produce more energy, or they can break down the pyruvate into another metabolite called lactate.

The scientists found that if they tipped the balance towards producing more lactate, the HFSCs activated and induced hair growth. On the other hand, if they blocked lactate production, HFSCs couldn’t activate and new hair growth was blocked.

In a UCLA news release, Lowry explained the novel findings of their study,

“Before this, no one knew that increasing or decreasing the lactate would have an effect on hair follicle stem cells. Once we saw how altering lactate production in the mice influenced hair growth, it led us to look for potential drugs that could be applied to the skin and have the same effect.”

New drugs for hair loss?

In the second half of the study, the UCLA team went on the hunt for drugs that promote lactate production in HFSCs in hopes of finding new treatment strategies to battle hair loss. They found two drugs that boosted lactate production when applied to the skin of mice. One was called RCGD423, which activates the JAK-Stat signaling pathway and stimulates lactate production. The other drug, UK5099, blocks the entry of pyruvate into the mitochondria, thereby forcing HFSCs to turn pyruvate into lactate resulting in hair growth. The use of both drugs for boosting hair growth are covered by provisional patent applications filed by the UCLA Technology Development Group.

Untreated mouse skin showing no hair growth (left) compared to mouse skin treated with the drug UK5099 (right) showing hair growth. Credit: UCLA Broad Stem Cell Center/Nature Cell Biology

Aimee Flores, the first author of the study, concluded by explaining why using drugs to target the HFSC metabolism is a promising approach for treating hair loss.

“Through this study, we gained a lot of interesting insight into new ways to activate stem cells. The idea of using drugs to stimulate hair growth through hair follicle stem cells is very promising given how many millions of people, both men and women, deal with hair loss. I think we’ve only just begun to understand the critical role metabolism plays in hair growth and stem cells in general; I’m looking forward to the potential application of these new findings for hair loss and beyond.”

If these hair growth drugs pan out, scientists might give Chia Pets a run for their money.

High school students SPARK an interest in stem cell research

SPARK students at the 2017 Annual Meeting at the City of Hope.

High school is a transformative time for any student. It marks the transition from childhood to adulthood and requires discipline, dedication and determination to excel and get into their desired college or university.

The barrier to entry for college now seems much higher than when I was eighteen, but I am not worried for the current generation of high school students. That’s because I’ve met some of the brightest young minds this past week at the 2017 CIRM SPARK meeting.

SPARK is CIRM’s high school education program, which gives underprivileged students in California the opportunity to train as stem cell scientists for the summer. Students participate in a summer research internship at one of seven programs at leading research institutes in the state. They attend scientific lectures, receive training in basic lab techniques, and do an eight-week stem cell research project under the guidance of a mentor.

At the end of the summer, SPARK students congregate at the annual SPARK poster meeting where they present the fruits of their labor. Meeting these students in person is my favorite time of the year. Their enthusiasm for science and stem cell research is contagious. And when you engage them or listen to them talk about their project, it’s hard to remember that they are still teenagers and not graduate level scientists.

What impresses me most about these students is their communication skills. Each summer, I challenge SPARK students to share their summer research experience through social media and blogging, and each time they go above and beyond with their efforts. Training these students as effective science communicators is important to me. They are the next generation of talented scientists who can help humanize research for the public. They have the power to change the perception of science as a field to be embraced and one that should receive proper funding.

It’s also inspiring to me that this young generation can effectively educate their friends, family and the public about the importance of stem cell research and how it will help save the lives of patients who currently don’t have effective treatments. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend checking out the #CIRMSPARKlab hashtag on Instagram to get a taste of what this year’s group of students accomplished during their internships.

Asking students, many of whom are learning to do research for the first time, to post on Instagram once a week and write a blog about their internship is a tall task. And I believe with any good challenge, there should be a reward. Therefore, at this year’s SPARK meeting held at the City of Hope in Duarte, California, I handed out prizes.

It was very difficult to pick winners for our presentation, social media and blogging awards because honestly, all our students were excellent this year. Even Kevin McCormack, Director of CIRM’s Communications, who helped me read the students’ blogs said,

“This was really tough. The standard of the blogs this year was higher than ever; and previous years had already set the bar really high. It was really difficult deciding which were really good and which were really, really good.”

Ok, enough with the hype, I know you want to read these award-winning blogs so I’ve shared them below. I hope that they inspire you as much as they have inspired me.


Amira Hirara

Amira Hirara (Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute)

It was a day like any other. I walked into the room, just two minutes past 10:30am, ready for another adventurous day in the lab. Just as I settle down, I am greeted by my mentor with the most terrifying task I have ever been asked to perform, “Will you passage the cells for me…alone?” Sweat begins to pour down my cemented face as I consider what is at stake.

The procedure was possibly thirty steps long and I have only executed it twice, with the supervision of my mentor of course. To be asked to do the task without the accompaniment of an experienced individual was unthought-of. I feel my breath begin to shorten as I mutter the word “Ok”. Yet it wasn’t just the procedure that left me shaking like a featherless bird, it was the location of my expedition as well. The dreaded tissue culture room. If even a speck of dirt enters the circulating air of the biosafety cabinet, your cells are at risk of death…death! I’ll be a cell murderer. “Alright”, she said, “I’ll just take a look at the cells then you’ll be on your way.” As we walk down the hallway, my eyes began to twitch as I try to recall the first steps of the procedure. I remember freezing our plates with Poly-ornithine and laminin, which essentially simulates the extracellular environment and allows adhesion between the cell and the plate itself. I must first add antibiotics to rid the frozen plate of potential bacteria. Then I should remove my cells from the incubator, and replace the old solution with accutase and new media, to nourish the cells, as well as unbind them from the plate before. Passaging is necessary when the cell density gets too high, as the cells must be relocated to a roomier environment to better promote survival. As we approach the tissue culture room, my jaw unclenches, as I realize the whirlwind of ideas meant I know more than I thought. My mentor retrieves our cells, views them under the microscope, and deems them ‘ready for passaging’.

“Good luck Amira” she says to me with a reassuring smile. I enter the room ready for battle. Placing first my gloves and coat, I then spray my hands and all things placed in the cabinet with 70% ethanol, to insure a sterile work environment. Back to the procedure, I’ll place the cellular solution of accutase and media into a covalent tube. After, I’ll centrifuge it for two minutes until a cellular pellet forms at the bottom, then dissolve the cells in fresh media, check its density using a cell counter, and calculate the volume of cellular solution needed to add to my once frozen plates. Wait, once I do that, I’ll be all done. I eagerly execute all the steps, ensuring both accuracy and sterility in my work. Pride swells within me as I pipette my last milliliter of solution into my plate. The next day, my mentor and I stop by to check on how our sensitive neural stem cells are doing. “Wow Amira, I am impressed, your cells seem very confluent in their new home, great job!” I smile slyly and begin to nod my head. I now walk these hallways, with a puffed chest, brightened smile, and eagerness to learn. My stem cells did not die, and having the amazing opportunity to master their treatment and procedures, is something I can never forget.

 

Gaby Escobar

Gaby Escobar (Stanford University)

Walking into the lab that would become my home for the next 8 weeks, my mind was an empty canvas.  Up to that point, my perception of the realm of scientific research was one-sided. Limited to the monotonous textbook descriptions of experiments that were commonplace in a laboratory, I wanted more. I wanted to experience the alluring call of curiosity. I wanted to experience the flash of discovery and the unnerving drive that fueled our pursuit of the unknown. I was an empty canvas looking for its first artistic stroke.

Being part of the CIRM Research program, I was lucky enough to have been granted such opportunity. Through the patient guidance of my mentor, I was immersed into the limitless world of stem cell biology. From disease modeling to 3D bioprinting, I was in awe of the capabilities of the minds around me. The energy, the atmosphere, the drive all buzzed with an inimitable quest for understanding. It was all I had imagined and so, so much more.

However, what many people don’t realize is research is an arduous, painstaking process. Sample after sample day after day, frustration and doubt loomed above our heads as we tried to piece together a seemingly pieceless puzzle.  Inevitably, I faced the truth that science is not the picture-perfect realm I had imagined it to be. Rather, it is tiring, it is relentless, and it is unforgiving. But at the same time, it is incomparably gratifying. You see, the innumerable samples, the countless gels and PCRS, all those futile attempts to fruitlessly make sense of the insensible, have meaning. As we traversed through the rollercoaster ride of our project, my mentor shared a personal outlook that struck very deeply with me: her motivation to work against obstacle after obstacle comes not from the recognition or prestige of discovering the next big cure but rather from the notion that one day, her perseverance may transform someone’s life for the good.  And in that, I see the beauty of research and science: the coming together of minds and ideas and bewildering intuitions all for the greater good.

As I look back, words cannot express the gratitude I feel for the lessons I have learned. Undoubtedly, I have made countless mistakes (please don’t ask how many gels I’ve contaminated or pipettes I have dropped) but I’ve also created the most unforgettable of memories. Memories that I know I will cherish for the journey ahead of me. Having experienced the atmosphere of a vibrant scientific community, I have found a second home, a place that I can explore and question and thrive. And although not every day will hold the cure to end all diseases or hand an answer on a silver platter, every day is another opportunity.  And with that, I walk away perhaps not with the masterpiece of art that I had envisioned in my mind but rather with a burning spark of passion, ready to ignite.

 

Anh Vo

Ahn Vo (UC Davis)

With college selectivity increasing and acceptance rates plummeting, the competitive nature within every student is pushed to the limit. In high school, students are expected to pad up their resumes and most importantly, choose an academic path sooner rather than later. However, at 15, I felt too young to experience true passion for a field. As I tried to envision myself in the future, I wondered, would I be someone with the adrenaline and spirit of someone who wants to change the world or one with hollow ambitions, merely clinging onto a paycheck with each day passing? At the very least, I knew that I didn’t want to be the latter.

The unrelenting anxiety induced by the uncertainty of my own ambitions was intoxicating. As my high school career reached its halfway mark, I felt the caving pressure of having to choose an academic path.

“What do you want to be?” was one of the first questions that my mentor, Whitney Cary, asked me. When I didn’t have an answer, she assured me that I needed to keep my doors open, and the SPARK program was the necessary first step that I needed to take to discovering my passion.

As I reflected on my experience, the SPARK program was undoubtedly the “first step”. It was the first step into a lab and above all, into a community of scientists, who share a passion for research and a vehement resolve to contribute to scientific merit. It was the integration into a cohort of other high school students, whose brilliance and kindness allowed us to forge deeper bonds with each other that we will hold onto, even as we part ways. It was the first nervous step into the bay where I met the Stem Cell Core, a team, whose warm laughter and vibrancy felt contagious. Finally, it was the first uncertain stumble into the tissue culture room, where I conceived a curiosity for cell culture that made me never stop asking, “Why?”

With boundless patience, my mentor and the Stem Cell Core strove to teach me techniques, such as immunocytochemistry and continually took the time out of their busy day to reiterate concepts. Despite my initial blunders in the hood, I found myself in a place without judgement, and even after discouraging incidents, I felt a sense of consolation in the witty and good-humored banter among the Stem Cell Core. At the end of every day, the unerring encouragement from my mentor strengthened my resolve to continue improving and incited an earnest excitement in me for the new day ahead. From trembling hands, nearly tipping over culture plates and slippery gloves, overdoused in ethanol, I eventually became acquainted with daily cell culture, and most importantly, I gained confidence and pride in my work.

I am grateful to CIRM for granting me this experience that has ultimately cultivated my enthusiasm for science and for the opportunity to work alongside remarkable people, who have given me new perspectives and insights. I am especially thankful to my mentor, whose stories of her career journey have inspired me to face the future with newfound optimism in spite of adversity.

As my internship comes to a close, I know that I have taken my “first step”, and with a revived mental acquisitiveness, I eagerly begin to take my second.

Other 2017 SPARK Awards

Student Speakers: Candler Cusato (Cedars-Sinai), Joshua Ren (Stanford)

Instagram/Social Media: Jazmin Aizpuru (UCSF), Emily Beckman (CHORI), Emma Friedenberg (Cedars-Sinai)

Poster Presentations: Alexander Escudero (Stanford), Jamie Kim (CalTech), Hector Medrano (CalTech), Zina Patel (City of Hope)


Related Links:

A funny thing happened on my way to a PhD: one scientists change of mind and change of direction

Laurel Barchas is an old and dear friend of the communications team here at CIRM. As a student at U.C. Berkeley she helped us draft our education portal – putting together a comprehensive curriculum to help high schools teach students about stem cells in a way that met all state and federal standards. But a funny thing happened on her way to her Ph.D., she realized she had changed her mind about research, and so she changed her career direction.  

Laurel recently wrote this blog about that experience for the new and improved website of the Student Society for Stem Cell Research (SSSCR) –

Laurel #1

Laurel Barchas at the World Stem Cell Summit 2013

Stem cell parental advice—you can grow up to be anything!

I was one of those students who, since high school, knew I was destined for the lab. Throughout some of high school, and all of college and graduate school, I had internships or positions in amazing labs that warmly took me in and trained me how to be a scientist. I loved designing and carrying out experiments on my stem cells, presenting at lab meetings, writing theses, and teaching others about my work through undergraduate lectures and high school presentations. My participation in the Student Society for Stem Cell Research hugely supported all of my efforts; it even enabled me to get one of my first jobs as a contract curriculum writer (a project manager role) with the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which launched my writing career.

Four years into my biology PhD program, things became clear that I didn’t want to do research anymore. I couldn’t handle the failure inherent in doing research. I wasn’t able to put in the time and focus necessary to do big experiments—then repeat them over and over. Although I loved science, I wasn’t meant to be a career scientist like many of my colleagues. I was a science communicator. Realizing this, and taking into account my personal struggles, my advisers and I decided the best thing was to get a terminal master’s degree.**

Differentiation—finding the right path

I struggled for a while finding a job that suited me. I worked as an education consultant, writing materials directed at teachers and students. I worked as a marketing, communications and operations assistant for a real estate group. I looked for jobs as a teacher, curriculum developer, and science education program coordinator, but none felt quite right for me. Although I had extensive experience in school developing materials for teachers and giving presentations to students, and I knew education could be a rewarding career path, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in the academic world anymore.

Finally, I found some listings looking for technical writers. I didn’t even know what that was at the time. Various biotech companies had their feelers out for entry level writers with advanced degrees in biology or STEM fields—and a master’s degree was just fine. It turns out I was a perfect fit. Surprisingly, many people in the “tech com” (technical communications) and “mar com” (marketing communications) departments at my company had a similar experience; they didn’t want careers in research or the medical professions, so they chose communications.

Laurel #2

Life as a technical writer—feeling like a glial cell

As a technical writer at my company, I have many responsibilities beyond writing and editing user manuals, application notes, and diagrams. Tech writers are much like the oft-forgotten glial cells that “glue the brain together.” I manage each project from start to finish, and I get to work on all types of technical documentation and marketing collateral with a team of company scientists (R&D), graphic designers, marketing specialists, coders, product managers, and other writers. Often, I have major creative input on the content, design, and development of marketing campaigns. I enjoy starting with ideas—maybe a few bullet points or a rough draft—and building colorful, captivating content. It feels like solving a complex puzzle.

I’ve gotten the chance to write articles on human induced pluripotent stem cell-derived beta cells for a drug discovery publication and to create portals for our website. I’ve helped make booth panels and printed resources for conferences like the International Society for Stem Cell Research. Most importantly (to me), I’ve managed to stay within the field of stem cell research/regenerative medicine. I am the main writer for that product and service line, so I can use my expertise and experience (plus, knowledge of my audience) to present products that advance my audience’s basic, translational and clinical research.

I love my job. It pays well, has regular hours, and gives me a sense of belonging to a team. It’s fast paced, I’m working on a new thing every day, and I get to learn and write about the latest advancements from our R&D teams around the world. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that the job fits like a glove, and I can see myself doing this long term. Also…I get to live in Silicon Valley! (Pros: great food, culture, people. Cons: cost of living, traffic.)

I hope you can get encouragement from the retelling of my experience that there is a space for you in this field. This is the first post in a series of articles about careers in regenerative medicine. I aim to take you through a tour of the vocational landscape—its ups, its downs—and am looking forward to hearing from you with any jobs/roles/scenarios you are curious about. Please comment on what you’d like to learn about next!

Remember: there are plenty of options and ways for you to apply your talent and experience to pushing our field forward. SSSCR is here to help!

*I want to thank everyone who serves in the research and medical areas. Without you our field would stop in its tracks. However, not everyone is cut out for such positions. Luckily, there are other options.

**Some reading this might say “awwwww, too bad, she was so close to that PhD” and some might say “that’s a major accomplishment and you can do a lot with that degree!” Both are right, but I choose to believe the latter, as I am so much happier now that I released myself from the allure of lab research and went into science communications. We tend to hold science and medicine up on pedestals; however, science communication facilitates almost all interactions between academic and industry scientists, clinicians, and the public. An understanding of and engagement with new science is critical to promoting a healthy democracy with citizens who can make informed decisions about their society’s future.

Laurel is a co-founder of SSSCR, the current Associate Director, and a member of the SSSCR International executive committee. She has been involved in SSSCR since 2004, when she helped start UC Berkeley’s chapter. Her main contributions are educating various communities about stem cell research and building career development opportunities for students. Along with a team of SSSCR members, Laurel created the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s stem cell education portal to provide teachers with the materials they need to engage students with the field. Currently, Laurel is a Senior Technical Writer focused on stem cell products and services.

How mice and zebrafish are unlocking clues to repairing damaged hearts

Bee-Gees

The Bee Gees, pioneers in trying to find ways to mend a broken heart. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives

This may be the first time that the Australian pop group the Bee Gees have ever been featured in a blog about stem cell research, but in this case I think it’s appropriate. One of the Bee Gees biggest hits was “How can you mend a broken heart” and while it was a fine song, Barry and Robin Gibb (who wrote the song) never really came up with a viable answer.

Happily some researchers at the University of Southern California may succeed where Barry and Robin failed. In a study, published in the journal Nature Genetics, the USC team identify a gene that may help regenerate damaged heart tissue after a heart attack.

When babies are born they have a lot of a heart muscle cell called a mononuclear diploid cardiomyocyte or MNDCM for short. This cell type has powerful regenerative properties and so is able to rebuild heart muscle. However, as we get older we have less and less MNDCMs. By the time most of us are at an age where we are most likely to have a heart attack we are also most likely to have very few of these cells, and so have a limited ability to repair the damage.

Michaela Patterson, and her colleagues at USC, set out to find ways to change that. They found that in some adult mice less than 2 percent of their heart cells were MNDCMs, while other mice had a much higher percentage, around 10 percent. Not surprisingly the mice with the higher percentage of MNDCMs were better able to regenerate heart muscle after a heart attack or other injury.

So the USC team – with a little help from CIRM funding – dug a little deeper and did a genome-wide association study of these mice, that’s where they look at all the genetic variants in different individuals to see if they can spot common traits. They found one gene, Tnni3k, that seems to play a key role in generating MNDCMs.

Turning Tnni3K off in mice resulted in higher numbers of MNDCMs, increasing their ability to regenerate heart muscle. But when they activated Tnni3k in zebrafish it reduced the number of MNDCMs and impaired the fish’s ability to repair heart damage.

While it’s a long way from identifying something interesting in mice and zebrafish to seeing if it can be used to help people, Henry Sucov, the senior author on the study, says these findings represent an important first step in that direction:

“The activity of this gene, Tnni3k, can be modulated by small molecules, which could be developed into prescription drugs in the future. These small molecules could change the composition of the heart over time to contain more of these regenerative cells. This could improve the potential for regeneration in adult hearts, as a preventative strategy for those who may be at risk for heart failure.”