Going the extra mile to save a patient’s life

You can tell an awful lot about a company by the people it hires and the ability it gives them to do their job in an ethical, principled way. By that measure Rocket Pharma is a pretty darn cool company.

Rocket Pharma is running a CIRM-funded clinical trial for Leukocyte Adhesion Deficiency-I (LAD-I), a rare genetic immune disorder that leaves patients vulnerable to repeated infections that often results in death within the first two years of life. The therapy involves taking some of the child’s own blood stem cells and, in the lab, correcting the mutation that causes LAD-I, then returning those cells to the patient. Hopefully those blood stem cells then create a new, healthy blood supply and repair the immune system.

So far, they have treated the majority of the nine patients in this Phase 1/2 clinical trial. Here’s the story of three of those children, all from the same family. Every patient’s path to the treatment has been uniquely challenging. For one family, it’s been a long, rough road, but one that shows how committed Rocket Pharma (Rocket) is to helping people in need.

The patient, a young girl, is from India. The family has already lost one child to what was almost certainly LAD-I, and now they faced the very real prospect of losing their daughter too. She had already suffered numerous infections and the future looked bleak. Fortunately, the team at Rocket heard about her and decided they wanted to help enroll her in their clinical trial.

Dr. Gayatri Rao, Rocket Pharmaceuticals

Dr. Gayatri Rao, the Global Program Head for the LAD-I therapy, this patient was about 6 months old when they heard about her: “She had already been in and out of the hospital numerous times so the family were really interested in enrolling the patient. But getting the family to the US was daunting.”

Over the course of several months, the team at Rocket helped navigate the complicated immigration process. Because the parents and child would need to make several trips to the US for treatment and follow-up exams they would need multiple-entry visas. “Just to get all the paper work necessary was a monumental task. Everything had to be translated because the family didn’t speak English. By the time the family flew to Delhi for their visa interview they had a dossier that filled a 3 inch binder.”  Rocket worked closely with partners in India to provide the family on-the-ground support every step of the way.  To help ensure the family received the visas they needed, Rocket also reached out to members of Congress and six members wrote in support of the family’s application.

Finally, everything fell into place. The family had the visas, all the travel arrangements were made. The Rocket team had even found an apartment near the UCLA campus where the family would stay during the treatment and stocked it with Indian food.

But on the eve of their flight to the US, the coronavirus pandemic hit. International flights were cancelled. Borders were closed. A year of work was put on hold and, more important, the little girl’s life hung in the balance.

Over the course of the next few months the little girl suffered several infections and had to be hospitalized. The family caught COVID and had to undergo quarantine till they recovered. But still the Rocket team kept working on a plan to bring them to the US. Finally, in late January, as vaccines became available and international flights opened up once again, the family were able to come to the US. One west-coast based Rocket team member even made sure that upon arriving to the apartment in UCLA, there was a home-cooked meal, a kitchen stocked with groceries, and handmade cards welcoming them to help transition the family into their new temporary “home.” They are now in living in that apartment near UCLA, waiting for the treatment to start.

Gayatri says it would have been easy to say: “this is too hard” and try to find another patient in the trial, but no one at Rocket wanted to do that: “Once a patient gets identified, we feel like we know them and the team feels invested in doing everything we can for them. We know it may not work out. But at the end of the day, we recognize that this child often has no other choices, and that motivates us to keep going despite the challenges.  If anything, this experience has taught us that with persistence and creativity, we can surmount these challenges.”

Maybe doing the right thing brings its own rewards, because this earlier this month Rocket was granted Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy (RMAT) designation for their treatment for LAD-I. This is a big deal because it means the therapy has already shown it appears to be safe and potentially beneficial to patients, so the designation means that if it continues to be safe and effective it may be eligible for a faster, more streamlined approval process. And that means it can get to the patients who need it, outside of a clinical trial, faster.

Hitting our goals: regulatory reform

Way, way back in 2015 – seems like a lifetime ago doesn’t it – the team at CIRM sat down and planned out our Big 6 goals for the next five years. The end result was a Strategic Plan that was bold, ambitious and set us on course to do great things or kill ourselves trying. Well, looking back we can take some pride in saying we did a really fine job, hitting almost every goal and exceeding them in some cases. So, as we plan our next five-year Strategic Plan we thought it worthwhile to look back at where we started and what we achieved. We are going to start with Regulatory Reform.

The political landscape in 2015 was dramatically different than it is today. Compared to more conventional drugs and therapies stem cells were considered a new, and very different, approach to treating diseases and disorders. At the time the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was taking a very cautious approach to approving any stem cell therapies for a clinical trial.

A survey of CIRM stakeholders found that 70% said the FDA was “the biggest impediment for the development of stem cell treatments.” One therapy, touted by the FDA as a success story, had such a high clinical development hurdle placed on it that by the time it was finally approved, five years later, its market potential had significantly eroded and the product failed commercially. As one stakeholder said: “Is perfect becoming the enemy of better?”

So, we set ourselves a goal of establishing a new regulatory paradigm, working with Congress, academia, industry, and patients, to bring about real change at the FDA and to find ways to win faster approval for promising stem cell therapies, without in any way endangering patients.

It seemed rather ambitious at the time, but achieving that goal happened much faster than any of us anticipated. With a sustained campaign by CIRM and other industry leaders, working with the patient advocacy groups, the FDA, Congress, and President Obama, the 21st Century Cures Act was signed into law on December 13, 2016.

President Obama signs the 21st Century Cures Act.
Photo courtesy of NBC News

The law did something quite radical; it made the perspectives of patients an integral part of the FDA’s decision-making and approval process in the development of drugs, biological products and devices. And it sped up the review process by:

In a way the FDA took its foot off the brake but didn’t hit the accelerator, so the process moved faster, but in a safe, manageable way.

Fast forward to today and eight projects that CIRM funds have been granted RMAT designation. We have become allies with the FDA in helping advance the field. We have created a unique partnership with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) to support the Cure Sickle Cell initiative and accelerate the development of cell and gene therapies for sickle cell disease.

The landscape has changed since we set a goal of regulatory reform. We still have work to do. But now we are all working together to achieve the change we all believe is both needed and possible.

Study shows reduction in brain injury after stroke patients were treated with their own stem cells

Illustration showing the mechanism of an ischemic stroke. In an ischemic stroke, blood supply to part of the brain is decreased, leading to dysfunction of that area of the brain. Here, a blood clot is the reason for restricted blood flow.

Stroke is the third leading cause of death and serious long-term disability and affects nearly 800,000 Americans a year, with someone in the U.S. suffering a stroke every 40 seconds. Roughly 87% of all strokes are ischemic strokes, meaning that a clot blocks blood flow to the brain. Unfortunately 90% of those who suffer an ischemic stroke also end up suffering from weakness or paralysis to one side of the body.

A study conducted by Muhammad Haque, Ph.D. and Sean Savitz, M.D. at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) found that treating patients with stem cells from their own bone marrow could lead to a reduction in brain injury after a stroke caused by a blood clot.

For this study, there were 37 patients from ages 18 to 80. While all received the standard stroke treatment and rehabilitation follow-up, 17 patients whose strokes were the most severe received a bone marrow stem cell therapy. To measure any improvement, the UTHealth team used 3D brain imaging of the patients obtained from MRI scans. They used these images to compare changes in white matter of those treated with their own bone marrow stem cells to those who were not treated.

White matter is a specific type of tissue in the brain that is critical for motor function because it is responsible for carrying movement-related information to the spinal cord.

Three months after the stroke, the MRI scans of each patient showed the expected decrease after a stroke. However, scans taken 12 months after the stroke occurred showed an improvement on average in the 17 patients who received bone marrow cell therapy.

In a press release from UTHealth, Dr. Haque elaborates on what these results could mean for developing treamtents for stroke patients.

“We envision that future clinical trials might be directed toward identifying white matter protection or repair as an important mechanistic target of efficacy studies and potency assays for bone marrow cell therapies.”

The full results to this study were published in STEM CELLS Translational Medicine.

Women who have changed, and are changing, the world

The problem with trying to write about something like Women’s History Month is where do you start? Even if you narrow it down to women in science the list is vast.

Marie Curie

I suppose you could always start with Maria Salomea Skłodowska who is better known as Marie Curie. She not only discovered radium and polonium, but she was also the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (in Physics). When she later won another Nobel (in Chemistry) she became the first person ever to win two Nobels and is still the only person ever to win in two different fields. Not a bad place to start.

Agnes Pockels

Or how about Agnes Pockels (1862–1935). Even as a child Agnes was fascinated by science but, in Germany at the time, women were not allowed to attend university. So, she depended on her younger brother to send her his physics textbooks when he was finished with them. Agnes studied at home while taking care of her elderly parents. Doing the dishes  Agnes noticed how oils and soaps could impact the surface tension of water. So, she invented a method of measuring that surface tension. She wrote a paper about her findings that was published in Nature, and went on to become a highly respected and honored pioneer in the field.

Jennifer Doudna (left) and Emmanuelle Charpentier: Photo courtesy Nature

Fast forward to today we could certainly do worse than profile the two women who won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work with the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9; Jennifer Doudna at the University of California, Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier at the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin. Their pioneering work showed how you could use CRISPR  to make precise edits in genes, creating the possibility of using it to edit human genes to eliminate or cure diseases. In fact, some CIRM-funded research is already using this approach to try and cure sickle cell disease.

In awarding the Nobel to Charpentier and Doudna, Pernilla Wittung Stafshede, a biophysical chemist and member of the Nobel chemistry committee, said: “The ability to cut DNA where you want has revolutionized the life sciences. The ‘genetic scissors’ were discovered just eight years ago but have already benefited humankind greatly.”

Barbara McClintock: Photo courtesy Brittanica

Appropriately enough none of that work would have been possible without the pioneering work of another woman, Barbara McClintock. She dedicated her career to studying the genetics of corn and developed a technique that enabled her to identify individual chromosomes in different strains of corn.

At the time it was thought that genes were stable and were arranged in a linear fashion on chromosomes, like beads on a string. McClintock’s work showed that genes could be mobile, changing position and altering the work of other genes. It took a long time before the scientific world caught up with her and realized she was right. But in 1983 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work.

Katherine Johnson at her desk at Langley Research Center: Photo courtesy NASA /AFP

Katherine Johnson is another brilliant mind whose recognition came later in life. But when it did, it made her a movie star. Kind of. Johnson was a mathematician, a “computer” in the parlance of the time. She did calculations by hand, enabling NASA to safely launch and recover astronauts in the early years of the space race.

Johnson and the other Black “computers” were segregated from their white colleagues until the last 1950’s, when signs dictating which restrooms and drinking fountains they could use were removed. She was so highly regarded that when John Glenn was preparing for the flight that would make him the first American to orbit the earth he asked for her to manually check the calculations a computer had made. He trusted her far more than any machine.

Johnson and her co-workers were overlooked until the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures” brought their story to life. She was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, by President Obama.

There are so many extraordinary women scientists we could talk about who have made history. But we should also remind ourselves that we are surrounded by remarkable women right now, women who are making history in their own way, even if we don’t recognized it at the moment. Researchers that CIRM funds, Dr. Catriona Jamieson at UC San Diego, Dr. Jan Nolta at UC Davis, Dr. Jane Lebkowski with Regenerative Patch technologies and so many others. They’re all helping to change the world. We just don’t know it yet.

If you would like to learn about other women who have made extraordinary contributions to science you can read about them here and here and here.

A Match Made in Heaven, if heaven were in Oakland!

The Matchmaker – by Gerrit van Honthorst

Throughout history, matchmakers have played an important role in bringing together couples for arranged marriages. Fast forward to today and CIRM is now playing a similar role. We’re not looking to get anyone hitched, what we are trying to do is create partnerships between people we are funding and companies looking for the next hot thing.

So far, I’d say we are doing a pretty decent job. Over the years we have leveraged our funding to bring in some $13 billion in additional investments in stem cell research. But there’s still a lot of untapped potential out there. That’s why tomorrow, March 9th, we’re joining with BIOCOM to host a Partner Day.

The idea is to highlight some of the most promising programs we are funding and see if we can find partners for them, partners who want to help advance the research and ultimately – we hope – bring those therapies to patients.

The webinar and panel discussion will feature a presentation from the CIRM Business Development team about our portfolio. That’s a pretty extensive list because it covers all stages of research from Discovery or basic, through Translational and all the way to Clinical. We’ll show how our early investment in these programs has helped de-risk them and given them the chance to get the data needed to demonstrate their promise and potential.

So, who are we interested in having join us? Pretty nearly everyone involved in the field:

  • Academic institutions
  • Research organizations
  • Entrepreneurs
  • Venture capital firms
  • Companies

And the areas of interest are equally broad:

  • Stem or progenitor cell-based therapy
  • Cell Therapy
  • Gene therapy
  • Biologic
  • Small molecule
  • Medical Device
  • Diagnostic
  • Tools/Tech
  • Other

And for those who are really interested and don’t want to waste any time, there’s an opportunity to set up one-on-one meetings right away. After all, if you have found the perfect match, why wait!

But here’s the catch. Space is limited so you need to register ahead. Here’s where you go to find out all the details and sign up for the event.

Study shows connection between bipolar disorder and neuroinflammation

Astrocytes, which provide structural support and protection for neurons and also supply them with nutrients and oxygen.

Bipolar disorder (BPD) is a mental disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, concentration, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. In the United States, recent research has shown that 1.6% of the population has BPD, which is roughly over 4 million people. Those with BPD are more likely to have conditions associated with chronic inflammation such as hypertension and diabetes. It is because of this that scientists have been studying the connection between inflammation and BPD for quite some time.

In a new study, researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, UC San Diego, and the Institute of Psychiatry and Neuroscience of Paris have found evidence that astrocytes, a certain type of brain cell, can trigger inflammation more easily in those that have BPD. What’s more, these astrocytes can be linked to decreased brain activity that could be harmful to mental health.

Astrocytes are star shaped (as the word “astro” might suggest) and help support neurons, the cells that relay information around the brain. One of these supporting roles includes helping trigger inflammation in the brain and the surrounding nervous system to help with injury or infection. The researchers believe that this process can go wrong in people with BPD and that astrocytes can play a role in this dysfunctional inflammation.

For this study, the team used induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), a kind of stem cell that can turn into virtually any type of cell, that they created from patients with BPD and patients without BPD. They converted these iPSCs into astrocytes and compared those that came from BPD patients to those that did not. What they found is that the astrocytes from patients with BPD were noticeably different. The BPD astrocytes had a higher expression of a protein that triggers an inflammatory response when compared to the non-BPD astrocytes. When they exposed neurons to the BPD astrocytes, the team saw decreased levels of neural activity compared to the non-BPD astrocytes. Lastly, when the researchers blocked the inflammatory protein, the neurons were less affected by the BPD astrocytes.

“Our study suggests that normal function of astrocytes is affected in bipolar disorder patients’ brains, contributing to neuroinflammation,” said Dr. Renata Santos, a researcher at the Salk Institute as well as the Institute of Psychiatry and Neuroscience of Paris, in a news release.

The team hopes that their findings can not only provide insight into BPD, but to other mental illnesses linked to inflammation such as schizophrenia. The ultimate goal is to help advance research into astrocytes and inflammation in order to develop treatments that might reverse the harmful bodily changes seen in those with BPD and other mental disorders.

The full study was published in Stem Cell Reports.

A little history in the making by helping the tiniest patients

Dr. Diana Farmer stands with Dr. Aijun Wang and their UC Davis research team.

It’s appropriate that at the start of Women’s History Month, UC Davis’ Dr. Diana Farmer is making a little history of her own. She launched the world’s first clinical trial using stem cells to treat spina bifida before the child is born.

Spina bifida is a birth defect caused when a baby’s spinal cord fails to develop properly in the womb. In myelomeningocele, the most severe form of spina bifida, a portion of the spinal cord or nerves is exposed in a sac through an opening in the spine. Most people with myelomeningocele have changes in their brain structure, leg weakness, and bladder and bowel dysfunction. 

Illustration of spina bifida

While surgery can help, Dr. Farmer says it is far from perfect: “Currently, the standard of care for our patients is fetal surgery, which, while promising, still leaves more than half of children with spina bifida unable to walk independently. There is an extraordinary need for a treatment that prevents or lessens the severity of this devastating condition. Our team has spent more than a decade working up to this point of being able to test such a promising therapy.” 

The team at UC Davis – in a CIRM-funded study – will use a stem cell “patch” that is placed over the exposed spinal cord, then surgically close the opening, hopefully allowing the stem cells to regenerate and protect the spinal cord.

In a news release Dr. Aijun Wang, a stem cell bioengineer, says the team has been preparing for this trial for years, helping show in animals that it is safe and effective. He is hopeful it will prove equally safe and effective in people: “Our cellular therapy approach, in combination with surgery, should encourage tissue regeneration and help patients avoid devastating impairments throughout their lives.” 

Dr. Farmer says the condition, while rare, disproportionately affects Latinx babies and if the procedure works could have an enormous impact on their lives and the lives of their families: “A successful treatment for MMC would relieve the tremendous emotional and economic cost burden on families. We know it initially costs approximately $532,000 per child with spina bifida. But the costs are likely several million dollars more due to ongoing treatments, not to mention all the pain and suffering, specialized childcare, and lost time for unpaid caregivers such as parents.”

Here is video of two English bulldogs who had their spinal injuries repaired at UC Davis using stem cells. This was part of the research that led to the clinical trial led by Dr. Farmer and Dr. Wang.

Stem cell gene therapy for Fabry disease shows positive results in patients

Darren Bidulka rests after his modified blood stem cells were transplanted into him at the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary in 2017, allowing him to stop his enzyme therapy. (From left): Dr. Jeffrey Medin, Medical College of Wisconsin, Dr. Aneal Khan, the experimental trial lead in Calgary, and Darren Bidulka. Image Credit: Darren Bidulka

Fabry disease is an X-linked genetic disorder that can damage major organs and shorten lifespan. Without a functional version of a gene called GLA, our bodies are unable to make the correct version of an enzyme that breaks down a fat, and that in turn can lead to problems in the kidneys, heart and brain. It is estimated that one person in 40,000 to 60,000 has the disease and it affects men more severely than women since men only have one copy of the X chromosome. Current treatment consists of enzyme therapy infusions every two weeks but there is currently no cure for Fabry disease. 

However, a Canadian research team is conducting the world’s first pilot study to treat Fabry disease using a stem cell gene therapy approach. The researchers collected the patient’s own blood stem cells and used gene therapy to insert copies of the fully functional gene into the stem cells, allowing them to make the correct version of the enzyme. The newly modified stem cells were then transplanted back into each patient.

Five men participated in this trial and the results so far have been very encouraging. After treatment with the stem cell gene therapy, all patients began producing the corrected version of the enzyme to near normal levels within one week. With these initial results, all five patients were allowed to stop their biweekly enzyme therapy infusions. So far, only three patients decided to do so and are stable.

In a news release, Darren Bidulka, the first patient to be treated in the study, talked about how life changing this stem cell gene therapy has been for him.

“I’m really happy that this worked. What an amazing result in an utterly fascinating experience. I consider this a great success. I can lead a more normal life now without scheduling enzyme therapy every two weeks. This research is also incredibly important for many patients all over the world, who will benefit from these findings.”

CIRM is no stranger to stem cell gene therapy and its potential having funded clinical trials in various areas such as severe combined immunodeficiency (bubble baby disease), cystinosis, sickle cell disease, and various others. The broad range of genetic diseases it has been used in to treat patients further highlights its importance in scientific research.

The full results of this study were published in Nature Communications.

A word from our Chair, several in fact

In 2005, the New Oxford American Dictionary named “podcast” its word of the year. At the time a podcast was something many had heard of but not that many actually tuned in to. My how times have changed. Now there are some two million podcasts to chose from, at least according to the New York Times, and who am I to question them.

Yesterday, in the same New York Times, TV writer Margaret Lyons, wrote about how the pandemic helped turn her from TV to podcasts: “Much in the way I grew to prefer an old-fashioned phone call to a video chat, podcasts, not television, became my go-to medium in quarantine. With their shorter lead times and intimate production values, they felt more immediate and more relevant than ever before.”

I mention this because an old colleague of ours at CIRM, Neil Littman, has just launched his own podcast and the first guest on it was Jonathan Thomas, Chair of the CIRM Board. Their conversation ranged from CIRM’s past to the future of the regenerative field as a whole, with a few interesting diversions along the way. It’s fun listening. And as Margaret Lyons said it might be more immediate and more relevant than ever before.

Scientists look at how the lung and brain respond differently to SARS-CoV-2 infection

UC San Diego School of Medicine researchers found approximately 10-fold higher SARS-CoV-2 infection (green) in lung organoids (left), compared to brain organoids (right). Image courtesy of UCSD Health

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic early last year, scientists all over the world are still trying to better understand SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Although the more commonly known symptoms involve respiratory issues, there have been other long term problems observed in recovered patients. These consist of heart issues, fatigue, and neurological issues such as loss of taste and smell and “brain fog”.

To better understand this, Dr. Tariq Rana and a team of researchers at the UC San Diego School of Medicine are using stem cells to create lung and brain organoids to better understand how the virus interacts with the various organ systems and to better develop therapies that block infection. Organoids are 3D models made of cells that can be used to analyze certain features of the human organ being modeled. Although they are far from perfect replicas, they can be used to study physical structure and other characteristics. 

The team’s lung and brain organoids produced molecules ACE2 and TMPRSS2, which sit like doorknobs on the outer surfaces of cells. SARS-CoV-2 is able to use these doorknobs to enter cells and establish infection.

Dr. Rana and his team then developed a pseudovirus, a noninfectious version of SARS-CoV-2, and attached a fluorescent label, allowing them to measure how effectively the virus binds in human lung and brain organoids as well as to evaluate the cells’ response. The team was surprised to see an approximately 10-fold higher SARS-CoV-2 infection in lung organoids compared to brain organoids. Additionally, treatment with TMPRSS2 inhibitors reduced infection levels in both organoids.

Besides differences in infection levels, the lung and brain organoids also differed in their responses to the virus. Infected lung organoids pumped out molecules intended to summon help from the immune system while infected brain organoids upped their production of molecules that plays a fundamental role in pathogen recognition and activation of the body’s own immune defenses.

In a news release from UC San Diego Health, Dr. Rana elaborates on the results of his study.

“We’re finding that SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t infect the entire body in the same way. In different cell types, the virus triggers the expression of different genes, and we see different outcomes.”

The next steps for Rana and his team is to develop SARS-CoV-2 inhibitors and test out how well they work in organoid models derived from people of a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds that represent California’s diverse population. To carry out this research, CIRM awarded Dr. Rana a grant of $250,000, which is part of the $5 million in emergency funding for COVID-19 research that CIRM authorized at the beginning of the pandemic.

The full results of this study can be found in Stem Cell Reports.