Stem Cell Patient Advocates, Scientists and Doctors Unite Around a Common Cause

Some phrases just bring a smile to your face: “It’s a girl/boy”, “Congratulations, you got the job”, and “Another beer sir?” (or maybe that last one is just me). One other phrase that makes me smile is “packed house”. That’s why I was smiling so much at our Patient Advocate Event at UC San Diego last week. The room was jammed with around 150 patients and patient advocates who had come to hear about the progress being made in stem cell research.

Jonathan Thomas, Chair of the CIRM governing Board, kicked off the event with a quick run-through of our research, focusing on our clinical trials. As we have now funded 29 clinical trials, it really was a quick run-through, but JT did focus on a couple of remarkable stories of cures for patients suffering from Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) and Chronic Granulomatous Disease.

His message was simple. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go to fulfill our mission of accelerating stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. We have a target of 40 new clinical trials by 2020 and JT stressed our determination to do everything we can to reach that goal.

David Higgins, Parkinson’s Disease Advocate and CIRM Board Member (Credit Cory Kozlovich, UCSD)

Next up was David Higgins, who has a unique perspective. David is a renowned scientist, he’s also the Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s disease on the CIRM Board, and he has Parkinson’s disease. David gave a heartfelt presentation on the changing role of the patient and their growing impact on health and science.

In the old days, David said, the patient was merely the recipient of whatever treatment a doctor determined was appropriate. Today, that relationship is much more like a partnership, with physician and patient working together to determine the best approach.

He said CIRM tries to live up to that model by engaging the voice of the patient and patient advocate at every stage of the approval process, from shaping concepts to assessing the scientific merits of a project and deciding whether to fund it, and then doing everything we can to help it succeed.

He said California can serve as the model, but that patients need to make their voices heard at the national level too, particularly in light of the proposed huge budget cuts for the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Jennifer Braswell. (Credit Cory Kozlovich, UCSD)

U.C. San Diego’s Dr. Jennifer Braswell gave some great advice on clinical trials, focusing on learning how to tell a good trial from a questionable one, and the questions patients need to ask before agreeing to be part of one.

She said it has to:

  • Be at a highly regarded medical center
  • Be based on strong pre-clinical evidence
  • Involved well-informed and compassionate physicians and nurses
  • Acknowledge that it carries some risk.

“You all know that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If someone says a clinical trial carries no risk that’s a red flag, you know that’s not true. There is risk. Good researchers work hard to reduce the risk as much as possible, but you cannot eliminate it completely.”

She said even sites such as www.clinicaltrials.gov – a list of all the clinical trials registered with the National Institutes of Health – have to be approached cautiously and that you should talk to your own physican before signing up for anything.

Finally, UC San Diego’s Dr. Catriona Jamieson talked about her research into blood cancers, and how her work would not have been possible without the support of CIRM. She also highlighted the growing number of trials being carried out at through the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network, which helps scientists and researchers share knowledge and resources, enabling them to improve the quality of the care they provide patients.

The audience asked the panelists some great questions about the need for;

  • A national patient database to make it easier to recruit people for clinical trials
  • For researchers to create a way of letting people know if they didn’t get into a clinical trial so the patients wouldn’t get their hopes up
  • For greater public education about physicians or clinics offering unproven therapies

Adrienne Shapiro, an advocate for sickle cell disease patients, asks a question at Thursday’s stem cell meeting in La Jolla. (Bradley J. Fikes)

The meeting showed the tremendous public interest in stem cell research, and the desire to move it ahead even faster.

This was the first of a series of free public events we are holding around California this year. Next up, Los Angeles. More details of that shortly.

jCyte starts second phase of stem cell clinical trial targeting vision loss

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How retinitis pigmentosa destroys vision

Studies show that Americans fear losing their vision more than any other sense, such as hearing or speech, and almost as much as they fear cancer, Alzheimer’s and HIV/AIDS. That’s not too surprising. Our eyes are our connection to the world around us. Sever that connection, and the world is a very different place.

For people with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), the leading cause of inherited blindness in the world, that connection is slowly destroyed over many years. The disease eats away at the cells in the eye that sense light, so the world of people with RP steadily becomes darker and darker, until the light goes out completely. It often strikes people in their teens, and many are blind by the time they are 40.

There are no treatments. No cures. At least not yet. But now there is a glimmer of hope as a new clinical trial using stem cells – and funded by CIRM – gets underway.

klassenWe have talked about this project before. It’s run by UC Irvine’s Dr. Henry Klassen and his team at jCyte. In the first phase of their clinical trial they tested their treatment on a small group of patients with RP, to try and ensure that their approach was safe. It was. But it was a lot more than that. For people like Rosie Barrero, the treatment seems to have helped restore some of their vision. You can hear Rosie talk about that in our recent video.

Now the same treatment that helped Rosie, is going to be tested in a much larger group of people, as jCyte starts recruiting 70 patients for this new study.

In a news release announcing the start of the Phase 2 trial, Henry Klassen said this was an exciting moment:

“We are encouraged by the therapy’s excellent safety track record in early trials and hope to build on those results. Right now, there are no effective treatments for retinitis pigmentosa. People must find ways to adapt to their vision loss. With CIRM’s support, we hope to change that.”

The treatment involves using retinal progenitor cells, the kind destroyed by the disease. These are injected into the back of the eye where they release factors which the researchers hope will help rescue some of the diseased cells and regenerate some replacement ones.

Paul Bresge, CEO of jCyte, says one of the lovely things about this approach, is its simplicity:

“Because no surgery is required, the therapy can be easily administered. The entire procedure takes minutes.”

Not everyone will get the retinal progenitor cells, at least not to begin with. One group of patients will get an injection of the cells into their worst-sighted eye. The other group will get a sham injection with no cells. This will allow researchers to compare the two groups and determine if any improvements in vision are due to the treatment or a placebo effect.

The good news is that after one year of follow-up, the group that got the sham injection will also be able to get an injection of the real cells, so that if the therapy is effective they too may be able to benefit from it.

Rosie BarreroWhen we talked to Rosie Barrero about the impact the treatment had on her, she said it was like watching the world slowly come into focus after years of not being able to see anything.

“My dream was to see my kids. I always saw them with my heart, but now I can see them with my eyes. Seeing their faces, it’s truly a miracle.”

We are hoping this Phase 2 clinical trial gives others a chance to experience similar miracles.


Related Articles:

Stem Cell Stories That Caught Our Eye: Free Patient Advocate Event in San Diego, and new clues on how to fix muscular dystrophy and Huntington’s disease

UCSD Patient Advocate mtg instagram

Stem cell research is advancing so fast that it’s sometimes hard to keep up. That’s one of the reasons we have our Friday roundup, to let you know about some fascinating research that came across our desk during the week that you might otherwise have missed.

Of course, another way to keep up with the latest in stem cell research is to join us for our free Patient Advocate Event at UC San Diego next Thursday, April 20th from 12-1pm.  We are going to talk about the progress being made in stem cell research, the problems we still face and need help in overcoming, and the prospects for the future.

We have four great speakers:

  • Catriona Jamieson, Director of the CIRM UC San Diego Alpha Stem Cell Clinic and an expert on cancers of the blood
  • Jonathan Thomas, PhD, JD, Chair of CIRM’s Board
  • Jennifer Briggs Braswell, Executive Director of the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center
  • David Higgins, Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s on the CIRM Board

We will give updates on the exciting work taking place at UCSD and the work that CIRM is funding. We have also set aside some time to get your thoughts on how we can improve the way we work and, of course, answer your questions.

What: Stem Cell Therapies and You: A Special Patient Advocate Event

When: Thursday, April 20th 12-1pm

Where: The Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, 2880 Torrey Pines Scenic Drive, La Jolla, CA 92037

Why: Because the people of California have a right to know how their money is helping change the face of regenerative medicine

Who: This event is FREE and open to everyone.

We have set up an EventBrite page for you to RSVP and let us know if you are coming. And, of course, feel free to share this with anyone you think might be interested.

This is the first of a series of similar Patient Advocate Update meetings we plan on holding around California this year. We’ll have news on other locations and dates shortly.

 

Fixing a mutation that causes muscular dystrophy (Karen Ring)

It’s easy to take things for granted. Take your muscles for instance. How often do you think about them? (Don’t answer this if you’re a body builder). Daily? Monthly? I honestly don’t think much about my muscles unless I’ve injured them or if they’re sore from working out.

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Heart muscle cells (green) that don’t have dystrophin protein (Photo; UT Southwestern)

But there are people in this world who think about their muscles or their lack of them every day. They are patients with a muscle wasting disease called Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). It’s the most common type of muscular dystrophy, and it affects mainly young boys – causing their muscles to progressively weaken to the point where they cannot walk or breathe on their own.

DMD is caused by mutations in the dystrophin gene. These mutations prevent muscle cells from making dystrophin protein, which is essential for maintaining muscle structure. Scientists are using gene editing technologies to find and fix these mutations in hopes of curing patients of DMD.

Last year, we blogged about a few of these studies where different teams of scientists corrected dystrophin mutations using CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology in human cells and in mice with DMD. One of these teams has recently followed up with a new study that builds upon these earlier findings.

Scientists from UT Southwestern are using an alternative form of the CRISPR gene editing complex to fix dystrophin mutations in both human cells and mice. This alternative CRISPR complex makes use of a different cutting enzyme, Cpf1, in place of the more traditionally used Cas9 protein. It’s a smaller protein that the scientists say can get into muscle cells more easily. Cpf1 also differs from Cas9 in what DNA nucleotide sequences it recognizes and latches onto, making it a new tool in the gene editing toolbox for scientists targeting DMD mutations.

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Gene-edited heart muscle cells (green) that now express dystrophin protein (Photo: UT Southwestern)

Using CRISPR/Cpf1, the scientists corrected the most commonly found dystrophin mutation in human induced pluripotent stem cells derived from DMD patients. They matured these corrected stem cells into heart muscle cells in the lab and found that they expressed the dystrophin protein and functioned like normal heart cells in a dish. CRISPR/Cpf1 also corrected mutations in DMD mice, which rescued dystrophin expression in their muscle tissues and some of the muscle wasting symptoms caused by the disease.

Because the dystrophin gene is one of the longest genes in our genome, it has more locations where DMD-causing mutations could occur. The scientists behind this study believe that CRISPR/Cpf1 offers a more flexible tool for targeting different dystrophin mutations and could potentially be used to develop an effective gene therapy for DMD.

Senior author on the study, Dr. Eric Olson, provided this conclusion about their research in a news release by EurekAlert:

“CRISPR-Cpf1 gene-editing can be applied to a vast number of mutations in the dystrophin gene. Our goal is to permanently correct the underlying genetic causes of this terrible disease, and this research brings us closer to realizing that end.”

 

A cellular traffic jam is the culprit behind Huntington’s disease

Back in the 1983, the scientific community cheered the first ever mapping of a genetic disease to a specific area on a human chromosome which led to the isolation of the disease gene in 1993. That disease was Huntington’s, an inherited neurodegenerative disorder that typically strikes in a person’s thirties and leads to death about 10 to 15 years later. Because no effective therapy existed for the disease, this discovery of Huntingtin, as the gene was named, was seen as a critical step toward a better understand of Huntington’s and an eventual cure.

But flash forward to 2017 and researchers are still foggy on how mutations in the Huntingtin gene cause Huntington’s. New research, funded in part by CIRM, promises to clear some things up. The report, published this week in Neuron, establishes a connection between mutant Huntingtin and its impact on the transport of cell components between the nucleus and cytoplasm.

Roundup Picture1

The pores in the nuclear envelope allows proteins and molecules to pass between a cell’s nucleus and it’s cytoplasm. Image: Blausen.com staff (2014).

To function smoothly, a cell must be able to transport proteins and molecules in and out of the nucleus through holes called nuclear pores. The research team – a collaboration of scientists from Johns Hopkins University, the University of Florida and UC Irvine – found that in nerve cells, the mutant Huntingtin protein clumps up and plays havoc on the nuclear pore structure which leads to cell death. The study was performed in fly and mouse models of HD, in human HD brain samples as well as HD patient nerve cells derived with the induced pluripotent stem cell technique – all with this same finding.

Roundup Picture2

Huntington’s disease is caused by the loss of a nerve cells called medium spiny neurons. Image: Wikimedia commons

By artificially producing more of the proteins that make up the nuclear pores, the damaging effects caused by the mutant Huntingtin protein were reduced. Similar results were seen using drugs that help stabilize the nuclear pore structure. The implications of these results did not escape George Yohrling, a senior director at the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, who was not involved in the study. Yohrling told Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn:

“This is very exciting research because we didn’t know what mutant genes or proteins were doing in the body, and this points to new areas to target research. Scientists, biotech companies and pharmaceutical companies could capitalize on this and maybe develop therapies for this biological process”,

It’s important to temper that excitement with a reality check on how much work is still needed before the thought of clinical trials can begin. Researchers still don’t understand why the mutant protein only affects a specific type of nerve cells and it’s far from clear if these drugs would work or be safe to use in the context of the human brain.

Still, each new insight is one step in the march toward a cure.

A life-threatening childhood disease and the CIRM-funded team seeking a stem cell cure featured in new video

“My hope for Brooke is she can one day look back and we have to remind her of the disease she once had.”

That’s Clay Emerson’s biggest hope for his young daughter Brooke, who has cystinosis, a life-threatening genetic disease that appears by the age of two and over time causes damage to many organs, especially the kidneys and eyes but also the liver, muscle, brain, pancreas and other tissues. The Emersons and other families affected by the disease are featured in a recent video produced by the Cystinosis Research Foundation.

I doubt many can watch the seven-minute piece without getting a lump in their throat or watery eyes. One of many heart wrenching scene shows Brooke’s mother, Jill Emerson, preparing a day’s worth of medicine that she administers through a tube connected to Brook’s stomach.

“Brooke takes about 20 doses of medication a day and that’s throughout the 24hr period in a day. The poor kid hasn’t had a full night’s sleep ever in her entire life because I have to wake her up to take her life-saving medicine.”

Jill Emerson prepares a day’s worth of medicine for her daughter Brooke. Unfortunately, the treatments only slow the progression of cystinosis but don’t cure it. (Video Still: Cystinosis Research Foundation)

But these treatments only slow down the progression of this incurable disease. Even perfect compliance with taking the medicine doesn’t stop severe complications of the disease including kidney failure, diabetes, muscle weakness, and difficulty swallowing just to name a few. Cystinosis also shorten life spans. Natalie, the video’s narrator, a young woman with cystinosis wonders how much time she has left:

“There are people in their 20s who have recently died from cystinosis. I am 25 years old and I often think about how long I have to live. I’m praying for a cure for all of us.”

Her prayers may be answered in the form of a stem cell gene therapy treatment. UCSD researcher Dr. Stephanie Cherqui, who is also featured in the video, received $5 million in CIRM funding to bring her team’s therapy to clinical trials in people.

At a cellular level, cystinosis is caused by mutations in a gene called CTNS which lead to an accumulation of the amino acid cysteine. The excess cysteine eventually forms crystals causing devastating damage to cells throughout the body. Cherqui’s treatment strategy is to take blood stem cells from affected individuals, insert a good copy of the CTNS gene using genome editing into the cells’ DNA, and then transplant the cells back into the patient.

Cystinosis_Cherqui

Dr. Stephanie Cherqui and her team are working hard to bring a stem cell gene therapy treatment for cystinosis to clinical trials. (Video Still: Cystinosis Research Foundation)

Her team has preliminary evidence that the strategy works in mice. Now, they will use the CIRM grant to complete these pre-clinical studies and prepare the genetically engineered blood stem cells for use in patients. These steps are necessary to get the green light from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to begin clinical trials, hopefully some time this year.

Cherqui says that if all goes well, the treatment approach may have benefits beyond cystinosis:

“If we can bring this to the finish line, we can then show the way to maybe hundreds, maybe thousands of other genetic diseases. So this could be a real benefit to mankind.”

Creating partnerships to help get stem cell therapies over the finish line

Lewis, Clark, Sacagawea

Lewis & Clark & Sacagawea:

Trying to go it alone is never easy. Imagine how far Lewis would have got without Clark, or the two of them without Sacagawea. Would Batman have succeeded without Robin; Mickey without Minnie Mouse? Having a partner whose skills and expertise complements yours just makes things easier.

That’s why some recent news about two CIRM-funded companies running clinical trials was so encouraging.

Viacyte Gore

First ViaCyte, which is developing an implantable device to help people with type 1 diabetes, announced a collaborative research agreement with W. L. Gore & Associates, a global materials science company. On every level it seems like a natural fit.

ViaCyte has developed a way of maturing embryonic stem cells into an early form of the cells that produce insulin. They then insert those cells into a permeable device that can be implanted under the skin. Inside the device, the cells mature into insulin-producing cells. While ViaCyte has experience developing the cells, Gore has experience in the research, development and manufacturing of implantable devices.

Gore-tex-fabricWhat they hope to do is develop a kind of high-tech version of what Gore already does with its Gore-Tex fabrics. Gore-Tex keeps the rain out but allows your skin to breathe. To treat diabetes they need a device that keeps the immune system out, so it won’t attack the cells inside, but allows those cells to secrete insulin into the body.

As Edward Gunzel, Technical Leader for Gore PharmBIO Products, said in a news release, each side brings experience and expertise that complements the other:

“We have a proven track record of developing and commercializing innovative new materials and products to address challenging implantable medical device applications and solving difficult problems for biologics manufacturers.  Gore and ViaCyte began exploring a collaboration in 2016 with early encouraging progress leading to this agreement, and it was clear to us that teaming up with ViaCyte provided a synergistic opportunity for both companies.  We look forward to working with ViaCyte to develop novel implantable delivery technologies for cell therapies.”

AMD2

How macular degeneration destroys central vision

Then last week Regenerative Patch Technologies (RPT), which is running a CIRM-funded clinical trial targeting age-related macular degeneration (AMD), announced an investment from Santen Pharmaceutical, a Japanese company specializing in ophthalmology research and treatment.

The investment will help with the development of RPT’s therapy for AMD, a condition that affects millions of people around the world. It’s caused by the deterioration of the macula, the central portion of the retina which is responsible for our ability to focus, read, drive a car and see objects like faces in fine details.

RPE

RPT is using embryonic stem cells to produce the support cells, or RPE cells, needed to replace those lost in AMD. Because these cells exist in a thin sheet in the back of the eye, the company is assembling these sheets in the lab by growing the RPE cells on synthetic scaffolds. These sheets are then surgically implanted into the eye.

In a news release, RPT’s co-founder Dennis Clegg says partnerships like this are essential for small companies like RPT:

“The ability to partner with a global leader in ophthalmology like Santen is very exciting. Such a strong partnership will greatly accelerate RPT’s ability to develop our product safely and effectively.”

These partnerships are not just good news for those involved, they are encouraging for the field as a whole. When big companies like Gore and Santen are willing to invest their own money in a project it suggests growing confidence in the likelihood that this work will be successful, and that it will be profitable.

As the current blockbuster movie ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is proving; with the right partner you can not only make magic, you can also make a lot of money. For potential investors those are both wonderfully attractive qualities. We’re hoping these two new partnerships will help RPT and ViaCyte advance their research. And that these are just the first of many more to come.

Could the Answer to Treating Parkinson’s Disease Come From Within the Brain?

Sometimes a solution to a disease doesn’t come in the form of a drug or a stem cell therapy, but from within ourselves.

Yesterday, scientists from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden reported an alternative strategy for treating Parkinson’s disease that involves reprogramming specific cells in the brain into the nerve cells killed off by the disease. Their method, which involves delivering reprogramming genes into brain cells called astrocytes, was able to alleviate motor symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease in mice.

What is Parkinson’s Disease and how is it treated?

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that’s characterized by the death of dopamine-producing nerve cells (called dopaminergic neurons) in an area of the brain that controls movement.

Dopaminergic neurons grown in a culture dish. (Image courtesy of Faria Zafar, Parkinson’s Institute).

PD patients experience tremors in their hands, arms and legs, have trouble starting and stopping movement, struggle with maintaining balance and have issues with muscle stiffness. These troublesome symptoms are caused by a lack dopamine, a chemical made by dopaminergic neurons, which signals to the part of the brain that controls how a person initiates and coordinates movement.

Over 10 million people in the world are affected by PD and current therapies only treat the symptoms of the disease rather than prevent its progression. Many of these treatments involve drugs that replace the lost dopamine in the brain, but these drugs lose their effectiveness over time as the disease kills off more neurons, and they come with their own set of side effects.

Another strategy for treating Parkinson’s is replacing the lost dopaminergic neurons through cell-based therapies. However this research is still in its early stages and would require patients to undergo immunosuppressive therapy because the stem cell transplants would likely be allogeneic (from a donor) rather than autologous (from the same individual).

Drug and cell-based therapies both involve taking something outside the body and putting it in, hoping that it does the right thing and prevents the disease. But what about using what’s already inside the human body to fight off PD?

This brings us to today’s study where scientists reprogrammed brain cells in vivo (meaning inside a living organism) to produce dopamine in mice with symptoms that mimic Parkinson’s. Their method, which was published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, was successful in alleviating some of the Parkinson’s-related movement problems the mice had. This study was funded in part by a CIRM grant and received a healthy amount of coverage in the media including STATnews, San Diego Union-Tribune and Scientific American.

Reprogramming the brain to make more dopamine

Since Shinya Yamanaka published his seminal paper on reprogramming adult somatic cells into induced pluripotent stem cells, scientists have taken the building blocks of his technology a step further to reprogram one adult cell type into another. This process is called “direct reprogramming” or “transdifferentiation”. It involves delivering a specific cocktail of genes into cells that rewrite the cells identity, effectively turning them into the cell type desired.

The Karolinska team found that three genes: NEUROD1, ASCL1 and LMX1A combined with a microRNA miR218 were able to reprogram human astrocytes into induced dopaminergic neurons (iDANs) in a lab dish. These neurons looked and acted like the real thing and gave the scientists hope that this combination of factors could reprogram astrocytes into iDANs in the brain.

The next step was to test these factors in mice with Parkinson’s disease. These mice were treated with a drug that killed off their dopaminergic neurons giving them Parkinson’s-like symptoms. The team used viruses to deliver the reprogramming cocktail to astrocytes in the brain. After a few weeks, the scientists observed that some of the “infected” astrocytes developed into iDANs and these newly reprogrammed neurons functioned properly, and more importantly, helped reverse some of the motor symptoms observed in these mice.

This study offers a new potential way to treat Parkinson’s by reprogramming cells in the brain into the neurons that are lost to the disease. While this research is still in its infancy, the scientists plan to improve the safety of their technology so that it can eventually be tested in humans.

Bonus Blog Interview for World Parkinson’s Day

Ernest Arenas, Karolinska Institutet

In honor of World Parkinson’s day (April 11th), I’m providing a bonus blog interview about this research. I reached out to the senior author of this study, Dr. Ernest Arenas, to ask him a few more questions about his publication and the future studies his team is planning.

Q) What are the major findings of your current study and how do they advance research on Parkinson’s disease?

The current treatment for Parkinson’s disease (PD) is symptomatic and does not change the course of the disease. Cell replacement therapies, such as direct in vivo reprogramming of in situ [local] astrocytes into dopamine (DA) neurons, work by substituting the cells lost by disease and have the potential to halt or even reverse motor alterations in PD.

Q) Can you comment on the potential for gene therapy treatments for Parkinson’s patients?

We see direct in vivo reprogramming of brain astrocytes into dopamine neurons in situ as a possible future alternative to DA cell transplantation. This method represents a gene therapy approach to cell replacement since we use a virus to deliver four reprogramming factors. In this method, the donor cells are in the host brain and there is no need to search for donor cells and no cell transplantation or immunosuppression. The method for the moment is an experimental prototype and much more needs to be done in order to improve efficiency, safety and to translate it to humans.

Q) Will reprogrammed iDANs be susceptible to Parkinson’s disease over time?

As any other cell replacement therapy, the cells would be, in principle, susceptible to Parkinson’s disease. It has been found that PD catches up with transplanted cells in 15-20 years. We think that this is a sufficiently long therapeutic window.

In addition, direct in vivo reprogramming may also be performed with drug-inducible constructs that could be activated years after, as disease progresses. This might allow adding more cells by turning on the reprogramming factors with pharmacological treatment to the host. This was not tested in our study but the basic technology to develop such strategies currently exist.

Q) What are your plans for future studies and translating this research towards the clinic?

In our experiments, we used transgenic mice in order to test our approach and to ensure that we only reprogrammed astrocytes. There is a lot that still needs to be done in order to develop this approach as a therapy for Parkinson’s disease. This includes improving the efficiency and the safety of the method, as well as developing a strategy suitable for therapy in humans. This can be achieved by further improving the reprogramming cocktail, by using a virus with a selective tropism [affinity] for astrocytes and that do not incorporate the constructs into the DNA of the host cell, as well as using constructs with astrocyte-specific promoters and capable of self-regulating depending on the cell context.

Our study demonstrates for the first time that it is possible to use direct reprogramming of host brain cells in order to rescue neurological symptoms. These results indicate that direct reprogramming has the potential to become a novel therapeutic approach for Parkinson’s disease and opens new opportunities for the treatment of patients with neurological disorders.

How Parkinson’s disease became personal for one stem cell researcher

April is Parkinson’s disease Awareness Month. This year the date is particularly significant because 2017 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of British apothecary James Parkinson’s “An Essay on the Shaking Palsy”, which is now recognized as a seminal work in describing the disease.

Schuele_headshotTo mark the occasion we talked with Dr. Birgitt Schuele, Director Gene Discovery and Stem Cell Modeling at the Parkinson’s Institute and Clinical Center in Sunnyvale, California. Dr. Schuele recently received funding from CIRM for a project using new gene-editing technology to try and halt the progression of Parkinson’s.

 

 

What got you interested in Parkinson’s research?

People ask if I have family members with Parkinson’s because a lot of people get into this research because of a family connection, but I don’t.  I was always excited by neuroscience and how the brain works, and I did my medical residency in neurology and had a great mentor who specialized in the neurogenetics of Parkinson’s. That helped fuel my interest in this area.

I have been in this field for 15 years, and over time I have gotten to know a lot of people with Parkinson’s and they have become my friends, so now I’m trying to find answers and also a cure for Parkinson’s. For me this has become personal.

I have patients that I talk to every couple of months and I can see how their disease is progressing, and especially for people with early or young onset Parkinson’s. It’s devastating. It has a huge effect on the person and their family, and on relationships, even how they have to talk to their kids about their risk of getting the disease themselves. It’s hard to see that and the impact it has on people’s lives. And because Parkinson’s is progressive, I get to see, over the years, how it affects people, it’s very hard.

Talk about the project you are doing that CIRM is funding

It’s very exciting. The question for Parkinson’s is how do you stop disease progression, how do you stop the neurons from dying in areas affected by the disease. One protein, identified in 1997 as a genetic form of Parkinson’s, is alpha-synuclein. We know from studying families that have Parkinson’s that if you have too much alpha-synuclein you get early onset, a really aggressive form of Parkinson’s.

I followed a family that carries four copies of this alpha-synuclein gene (two copies is the normal figure) and the age of onset in this family was in their mid 30’s. Last year I went to a funeral for one of these family members who died from Parkinson’s at age 50.

We know that this protein is bad for you, if you have too much it kills brains cells. So we have an idea that if you lower levels of this protein it might be an approach to stop or shield those cells from cell death.

We are using CRISPR gene editing technology to approach this. In the Parkinson’s field this idea of down-regulation of alpha-synuclein protein isn’t new, but previous approaches worked at the protein level, trying to get rid of it by using, for example, immunotherapy. But instead of attacking the protein after it has been produced we are starting at the genomic level. We want to use CRISPR as a way to down-regulate the expression of the protein, in the same way we use a light dimmer to lower the level of light in a room.

But this is a balancing act. Too much of the protein is bad, but so is too little. We know if you get rid of the protein altogether you get negative effects, you cause complications. So we want to find the right level and that’s complex because the right level might vary from person to person.

We are starting with the most extreme levels, with people who have twice as much of this protein as is normal. Once we understand that better, then we can look at people who have levels that are still higher than normal but not at the upper levels we see in early-onset Parkinson’s. They have more subtle changes in their production or expression of this protein. It’s a little bit of a juggling act and it might be different for different patients. We start with the most severe ones and work our way to the most common ones.

One of the frustrations I often hear from patients is that this is all taking so long. Why is that?

Parkinson’s has been overall frustrating for researchers as well. Around 100 years ago, Dr. Lewy first described the protein deposits and the main neuropathology in Parkinson’s. About 20 years ago, mutations in the alpha-synuclein gene were discovered, and now we know approximately 30 genes that are associated with, or can cause Parkinson’s. But it was all very descriptive. It told us what is going on but not why.

Maybe we thought it was straight forward and maybe researchers only focused on what we knew at that point. In 1957, the neurotransmitter dopamine was identified and since the 1960s people have focused on Parkinson’s as a dopamine-deficient problem because we saw the amazing effects L-Dopa had on patients and how it could help ease their symptoms.

But I would say in the last 15 years we have looked at it more closely and realized it’s more complicated than that. There’s also a loss of sense of smell, there’s insomnia, episodes of depression, and other things that are not physical symptoms. In the last 10 years or so we have really put the pieces together and now see Parkinson’s as a multi-system disease with neuronal cell death and specific protein deposits called Lewy Bodies. These Lewy Bodies contain alpha-synuclein and you find them in the brain, the gut and the heart and these are organs people hadn’t looked at because no one made the connection that constipation or depression could be linked to the disease. It turns out that Parkinson’s is much more complicated than just a problem in one particular region of the brain.

The other reason for slow progress is that we don’t have really good models for the disease that are predictive for clinical outcomes. This is why probably many clinical trials in the neurodegenerative field have failed to date. Now we have human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from people with Parkinson’s, and iPSC-derived neurons allow us to better model the disease in the lab, and understand its underlying mechanisms  more deeply. The technology has now advanced so that the ability to differentiate these cells into nerve cells is better, so that you now have iPSC-derived neurons in a dish that are functionally active, and that act and behave like dopamine-producing neurons in the brain. This is an important advance.

Will this lead to a clinical trial?

That’s the idea, that’s our hope.

We are working with professor Dr. Deniz Kirik at the University of Lund in Sweden. He’s an expert in the field of viral vectors that can be used in humans – it’s a joint grant between us – and so what we learn from the human iPS cultures, he’ll transfer to an animal model and use his gene vector technology to see if we can see the same effects in vivo, in mice.

We are using a very special Parkinson’s mouse model – developed at UC San Francisco – that has the complete human genomic structure of the alpha-synuclein gene. If all goes well, we hope that ultimately we could be ready in a couple of years to think about preclinical testing and then clinical trials.

What are your hopes for the future?

My hope is that I can contribute to stopping disease progression in Parkinson’s. If we can develop a drug that can get rid of accumulated protein in someone’s brain that should stop the cells from dying. If someone has early onset PD and a slight tremor and minor walking problems, stopping the disease and having a low dose of dopamine therapy to control symptoms is almost a cure.

The next step is to develop better biomarkers to identify people at risk of developing Parkinson’s, so if you know someone is a few years away from developing symptoms, and you have the tools in place, you can start treatment early and stop the disease from kicking in, even before you clinically have symptoms.

Thinking about people who have been diagnosed with a disease, who are ten years into the disease, who already have side effects from the disease, it’s a little harder to think of regenerative medicine, using embryonic or iPSCs for this. I think that it will take longer to see results with this approach, but that’s the long-term hope for the future. There are many  groups working in this space, which is critical to advance the field.

Why is Parkinson’s Awareness Month important?

It’s important because, while a lot of people know about the disease, there are also a lot of misconceptions about Parkinson’s.

Parkinson’s is confused with Alzheimer’s or dementia and cognitive problems, especially the fact that it’s more than just a gait and movement problem, that it affects many other parts of the body too.

CIRM-funded team uncovers novel function for protein linked to autism and schizophrenia

Imagine you’ve just stopped your car at the top of the steepest street in San Francisco. Now, if want to stay at the top of the hill you’re going to need to keep your foot on the brakes. Let go and you’ll start rolling down. Fast.

Don’t step off the brake pedal! Photo: Wikipedia

Conceptually, similar decision points happen in human development. A brain cell, for instance, has the DNA instructions to become any cell in the body but must “keep the brakes on”, or repress, genes responsible for other cell types. Release the silencing of those genes and the brain cell’s properties will get pulled toward other fates.

That’s the subject of a CIRM-funded research study published today in Nature which reports on the identification of a new type of repressor protein which opens up a new understanding of how brain cells establish and keep their identity. That may not sound so exciting to our non-scientist readers but this discovery could lead to new therapy approaches for neurological disorders like autism, schizophrenia, major depression and low I.Q.

Skin cells to brain cells with just three genes
In previous experiments, this Stanford University research team led by Marius Wernig, showed it’s possible to convert a skin cell to a brain cell, or neuron, by adding just three genes to the cells, including one called Myt1l. The other two genes were known to act as master “on switches” that activate a cascade of genes responsible for making neuron-specific proteins. Myt1l also helped increase the efficiency of this direct reprogramming but it’s exact role in the process wasn’t clear.

Direct conversion of skin cell into a neuron.
Image: Wernig Lab, Stanford

A closer examination of Myt1l protein function revealed that instead of being an on switch for neuron-specific genes, it was actually an off switch for skin-specific genes. Now, there’s nothing unusual about the existence of a protein that represses gene activity to help determine cell identity. But up until now, these repressors were thought to be “lineage specific” meaning they specifically switched off genes of a specific cell type. For example, a well-studied repressor called REST affects cell fate by putting the brakes on only nerve-specific genes. The case of Myt1l was different.

Many but one
The researchers found that, in brain cells, Myt1l not only blocked the activation of skin-specific genes, it also shut down genes related to lung, cartilage, heart and other cells fates. The one set of genes that Mytl1 repressor did not appear to act on was neuron-specific genes. From these results a “many but one” pattern emerged. That is; it seems Myt1l helps drive and maintain a neuron cell fate by shutting off gene networks for many different cell identities except for neurons. It’s a novel way to regulate cell fate, as Wernig explained in a press release:

Marius Wernig
Photo: Steve Fisch

“The concept of an inverse master regulator, one that represses many different developmental programs rather than activating a single program, is a unique way to control neuronal cell identity, and a completely new paradigm as to how cells maintain their cell fate throughout an organism’s lifetime.”

To build a stronger case for Myt1l function, the team looked at the effect of blocking the protein in the developing mouse brain. Sure enough, lifting Myt1l repression lead to a decrease in the number of neurons in the brain. Wernig described the impact of also inhibiting Myt1l in mature neurons:

“When this protein is missing, neural cells get a little confused. They become less efficient at transmitting nerve signals and begin to express genes associated with other cell fates.”

Potential cures can be uncovered withfundamental lab research
It turns out that Myt1l mutations have been recently found in people with autism, schizophrenia, major depression and low I.Q. Based on their new insights, the author suggest that in adults, these disorders may be caused by a neuron’s inability to maintain its identity rather than by a more permanent abnormality that occurred during fetal brain development. This hypothesis presents the exciting possibility of developing therapies that could improve symptoms.

One scientist’s quest to understand autism using stem cells

April is National Autism Awareness Month and people and organizations around the world are raising awareness about a disorder that affects more than 20 million people globally. Autism affects early brain development and causes a wide spectrum of social, mental, physical and emotional symptoms that appear during childhood. Because the symptoms and their severity can vary extremely between people, scientists now use the classification of autism spectrum disorder (ASM).

Alysson Muotri UC San Diego

In celebration of Autism Awareness Month, we’re featuring an interview with a CIRM-funded scientist who is on the forefront of autism and ASD research. Dr. Alysson Muotri is a professor at UC San Diego and his lab is interested in unlocking the secrets to brain development by using molecular tools and stem cell models.

One of his main research projects is on autism. Scientists in his lab are using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) derived from individuals with ASD to model the disease in a dish. From these stem cell models, his team is identifying genes that are associated with ASD and potential drugs that could be used to treat this disorder. Ultimately, Dr. Muotri’s goal is to pave a path for the development of personalized therapies for people with ASD.

I reached out to Dr. Muotri to ask for an update on his Autism research. His responses are below.

Q: Can you briefly summarize your lab’s work on Autism Spectrum Disorders?

AM: As a neuroscientist studying autism, I was frustrated with the lack of a good experimental model to understand autism. All the previous models (animal, postmortem brain tissues, etc.) have serious experimental limitations. The inaccessibility of the human brain has blocked the progress of research on ASD for a long time. Cellular reprogramming allows us to transform easy-access cell types (such as skin, blood, dental pulp, etc.) into brain cells or even “mini-brains” in the lab. Because we can capture the entire genome of the person, we can recapitulate early stages of neurodevelopment of that same individual. This is crucial to study neurodevelopment disorders, such as ASD, because of the strong genetic factor underlying the pathology [the cause of a disease]. By comparing “mini-brains” between an ASD and neurotypical [non-ASD] groups, we can find anatomical and functional differences that might explain the clinical symptoms.

Q: What types of tools and models are you using to study ASD?

AM: Most of my lab takes advantage of reprogramming stem cells and genome editing techniques to generate 3D organoid models of ASD. We use the stem cells to create brain organoids, also called “mini-brains” in the lab. These mini-brains will develop from single cells and grow and mature in the same way as the fetal brain. Thus, we can learn about their structure and connectivity over time.

A cross section of a cerebral organoid or mini-brain courtesy of Alysson Muotri.

This new model brings something novel to the table: the ability to experimentally test specific hypotheses in a human background.  For example, we can ask if a specific genetic variant is causal for an autistic individual. Thus, we can edit the genome of that autistic individual, fixing target mutations in these mini-brains and check if now the fixed mini-brains will develop any abnormalities seen in ASD.

The ability to combine all these recent technologies to create a human experimental model of ASD in the lab is quite new and very exciting. As with any other model, there are limitations. For example, the mini-brains don’t have all the complexity and cell types seen in the developing human embryo/fetus. We also don’t know exactly if we are giving them the right and necessary environment (nutrients, growth factors, etc.) to mature. Nonetheless, the progress in this field is taking off quickly and it is all very promising.

Two mini-brains grown in a culture dish send out cellular extensions to connect with each other. Neurons are in green and astrocytes are in pink. Image courtesy of Dr. Muotri.

Q: We’ve previously written about your lab’s work on the Tooth Fairy Project and how you identified the TRPC6 gene. Can you share updates on this project and any new insights?

AM: The Tooth Fairy Project was designed to collect dental pulp cells from ASD and control individuals in a non-invasive fashion (no need for skin biopsy or to draw blood). We used social media to connect with families and engage them in our research. It was so successful we have now hundreds of cells in the lab. We use this material to reprogram into stem cells and to sequence their DNA.

One of the first ASD participants had a mutation in one copy of the TRPC6 gene, a novel ASD gene candidate. Everybody has two copies of this gene in the genome, but because of the mutation, this autistic kid has only one functional copy. Using stem cells, we re-created cortical neurons from that individual and confirmed that this mutation inhibits the formation of excitatory synapses (connections required to propagate information).

Interestingly, while studying TRPC6, we realized that a molecule found in Saint John’s Wort, hyperforin, could stimulate the functional TRPC6. Since the individual still has one functional TRPC6 gene copy, it seemed reasonable to test if hyperforin treatment could compensate the mutation on the other copy. It did. A treatment with hyperforin for only two weeks could revert the deficits on the neurons derived from that autistic boy. More exciting is the fact that the family agreed to incorporate St. John’s Wort on his diet. We have anecdotal evidence that this actually improved his social and emotional skills.

To me, this is the first example of personalized treatment for ASD, starting with genome sequencing, detecting potential causative genetic mutations, performing cellular modeling in the lab, and moving into clinic. I believe that there are many other autistic cases where this approach could be used to find better treatments, even with off the counter medications. To me, that is the greatest insight.

Watch Dr. Muotri’s Spotlight presentation about the Tooth Fairy Project and his work on autism.

Q: Is any of the research you are currently doing in autism moving towards clinical trials?

AM: IGF-1, or insulin growth factor-1, a drug we found promising for Rett syndrome and a subgroup of idiopathic [meaning its causes are spontaneous or unknown] ASD is now in clinical trials. Moreover, we just concluded a CIRM award on a large drug screening for ASD. The data is very promising, with several candidates. We have 14 drugs in the pipeline, some are repurposed drugs (initially designed for cancer, but might work for ASD). It will require additional pre-clinical studies before we start clinical trials.

Q: What do you think the future of diagnosis and treatment will be for patients with ASD?

AM: I am a big enthusiastic fan of personalized treatments for ASD. While we continue to search for a treatment that could help a large fraction of ASD people, we also recognized that some cases might be easier than others depending on their genetic profile. The idea of using stem cells to create “brain avatars” of ASD individuals in the lab is very exciting. We are also studying the possibility of using this approach as a future diagnostic tool for ASD. I can imagine every baby having their “brain avatar” analyses done in the lab, eventually pointing out “red flags” on the ones that failed to achieve neurodevelopment milestones. If we could capture these cases, way before the autism symptoms onset, we could initiate early treatments and therapies, increasing the chances for a better prognostic and clinical trajectory. None of these would be possible without stem cell research.

Q: What other types of research is your lab doing?

Mini-brains grown in a dish in Dr. Muotri’s lab.

AM: My lab is also using these human mini-brains to test the impact of environmental factors in neurodevelopment. By exposing the mini-brains to certain agents, such as pollution particles, household chemicals, cosmetics or agrotoxic products [pesticides], we can measure the concentration that is likely to induce brain abnormalities (defects in neuronal migration, synaptogenesis, etc.). This toxicological test can complement or substitute for other commonly used analyses, such as animal models, that are not very humane or predictive of human biology. A nice example from my lab was when we used this approach to confirm the detrimental effect of the Zika virus on brain development. Not only did we show causation between the circulating Brazilian Zika virus and microcephaly [a birth defect that causes an abnormally small head], but our data also pointed towards a potential mechanism (we showed that the virus kills neural progenitor cells, reducing the thickness of the cortical layers in the brain).

You can learn more about Dr. Muotri’s research on his lab’s website.


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You Are Invited: CIRM Patient Advocate Event, San Diego April 20th

Cured_AR_2016_cover

The word “cured” is one of the loveliest words in the English language. Last year we got to use it twice when we talked about stem cell therapies we are funding. Two of our clinical trials are not just helping people, they are curing them (you can read about that in our Annual Report).

But this was just part of the good news about stem cell research. We are making progress on many different fronts, against many different diseases, and we want to tell you all about that.

That’s why we are holding a special Patient Advocate event at UC San Diego on Thursday, April 20th from 12 – 1pm to talk about the progress being made in stem cell research, the problems we still face and need help in overcoming, and the prospects for the future.

We will have four terrific speakers:

  • Catriona Jamieson, Director of the CIRM UC San Diego Alpha Stem Cell Clinic and an expert on cancers of the blood
  • Jonathan Thomas, PhD, JD, Chair of CIRM’s Board
  • Jennifer Briggs Braswell, Executive Director of the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center
  • David Higgins, Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s on the CIRM Board

We will give updates on the exciting work taking place at UCSD and the work that CIRM is funding. We have also set aside some time to get your thoughts on how we can improve the way we work and, of course, answer your questions.

So we would love for you to join us, and tell your friends about the event as well. Here are the basic details.

What: Stem Cell Therapies and You: A Special Patient Advocate Event

When: Thursday, April 20th 12-1pm

Where: The Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, 2880 Torrey Pines Scenic Drive, La Jolla, CA 92037

Why: Because the people of California have a right to know how their money is helping change the face of regenerative medicine

Who: This event is FREE and open to the public

We have set up an EventBrite page for people to RSVP and let us know if they are coming.

We hope to see you there.