Stem Cell Agency Board Invests in 19 Discovery Research Programs Targeting Cancers, Heart Disease and Other Disorders

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Dr. Judy Shizuru, Stanford University

While stem cell and gene therapy research has advanced dramatically in recent years, there are still many unknowns and many questions remaining about how best to use these approaches in developing therapies. That’s why the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) today approved investing almost $25 million in 19 projects in early stage or Discovery research.

The awards are from CIRM’s DISC2 Quest program, which supports  the discovery of promising new stem cell-based and gene therapy technologies that could be translated to enable broad use and ultimately, improve patient care.

“Every therapy that helps save lives or change lives begins with a researcher asking a simple question, “What if?”, says Dr. Maria T. Millan, the President and CEO of CIRM. “Our Quest awards reflect the need to keep supporting early stage research, to gain a deeper understanding of stem cells work and how we can best tap into that potential to advance the field.”

Dr. Judy Shizuru at Stanford University was awarded $1.34 million to develop a safer, less-toxic form of bone marrow or hematopoietic stem cell transplant (HCT). HCT is the only proven cure for many forms of blood disorders that affect people of all ages, sexes, and races worldwide. However, current methods involve the use of chemotherapy or radiation to destroy the patient’s own unhealthy blood stem cells and make room for the new, healthy ones. This approach is toxic and complex and can only be performed by specialized teams in major medical centers, making access particularly difficult for poor and underserved communities.

Dr. Shizuru proposes developing an antibody that can direct the patient’s own immune cells to kill diseased blood stem cells. This would make stem cell transplant safer and more effective for the treatment of many life-threatening blood disorders, and more accessible for people in rural or remote parts of the country.

Lili Yang UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center: Photo courtesy Reed Hutchinson PhotoGraphics

Dr. Lili Yang at UCLA was awarded $1.4 million to develop an off-the-shelf cell therapy for ovarian cancer, which causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.

Dr. Yang is using immune system cells, called invariant natural killer T cells (iNKT) to attack cancer cells. However, these iNKT cells are only found in small numbers in the blood so current approaches involve taking those cells from the patient and, in the lab, modifying them to increase their numbers and strength before transplanting them back into the patient. This is both time consuming and expensive, and the patient’s own iNKT cells may have been damaged by the cancer, reducing the likelihood of success.

In this new study Dr. Yang will use healthy donor cord blood cells and, through genetic engineering, turn them into the specific form of iNKT cell therapy targeting ovarian cancer. This DISC2 award will support the development of these cells and do the necessary testing and studies to advance it to the translational stage.

Timothy Hoey and Tenaya Therapeutics Inc. have been awarded $1.2 million to test a gene therapy approach to replace heart cells damaged by a heart attack.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. with the highest incidence among African Americans. It’s caused by damage or death of functional heart muscle cells, usually due to heart attack. Because these heart muscle cells are unable to regenerate the damage is permanent. Dr. Hoey’s team is developing a gene therapy that can be injected into patients and turn their cardiac fibroblasts, cells that can contribute to scar tissue, into functioning heart muscle cells, replacing those damaged by the heart attack.

The full list of DISC2 Quest awards is:

APPLICATION NUMBERTITLE OF PROGRAMPRINCIPAL INVESTIGATORAMOUNT
  DISC2-13400  Targeted Immunotherapy-Based Blood Stem Cell Transplantation    Judy Shizuru, Stanford Universtiy  $1,341,910    
  DISC2-13505  Combating Ovarian Cancer Using Stem Cell-Engineered Off-The-Shelf CAR-iNKT Cells    Lili Yang, UCLA  $1,404,000
  DISC2-13515  A treatment for Rett syndrome using glial-restricted
neural progenitor cells  
  Alysson Muotri, UC San Diego  $1,402,240    
  DISC2-13454  Targeting pancreatic cancer stem cells with DDR1 antibodies.    Michael Karin, UC San Diego  $1,425,600  
  DISC2-13483  Enabling non-genetic activity-driven maturation of iPSC-derived neurons    Alex Savtchenko, Nanotools Bioscience  $675,000
  DISC2-13405  Hematopoietic Stem Cell Gene Therapy for Alpha
Thalassemia  
  Don Kohn, UCLA    $1,323,007  
    DISC2-13507  CAR T cells targeting abnormal N-glycans for the
treatment of refractory/metastatic solid cancers  
  Michael Demetriou, UC Irvine  $1,414,800  
  DISC2-13463  Drug Development of Inhibitors of Inflammation Using
Human iPSC-Derived Microglia (hiMG)  
  Stuart Lipton, Scripps Research Inst.  $1,658,123  
  DISC2-13390  Cardiac Reprogramming Gene Therapy for Post-Myocardial Infarction Heart Failure    Timothy Hoey, Tenaya Therapeutics  $1,215,000  
  DISC2-13417  AAV-dCas9 Epigenetic Editing for CDKL5 Deficiency Disorder    Kyle Fink, UC Davis  $1,429,378  
  DISC2-13415  Defining the Optimal Gene Therapy Approach of
Human Hematopoietic Stem Cells for the Treatment of
Dedicator of Cytokinesis 8 (DOCK8) Deficiency  
  Caroline Kuo, UCLA  $1,386,232  
  DISC2-13498  Bioengineering human stem cell-derived beta cell
organoids to monitor cell health in real time and improve therapeutic outcomes in patients  
  Katy Digovich, Minutia, Inc.  $1,198,550  
  DISC2-13469  Novel antisense therapy to treat genetic forms of
neurodevelopmental disease.  
  Joseph Gleeson, UC San Diego  $1,180,654  
  DISC2-13428  Therapeutics to overcome the differentiation roadblock in Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS)    Michael Bollong, Scripps Research Inst.  $1,244,160  
  DISC2-13456  Novel methods to eliminate cancer stem cells    Dinesh Rao, UCLA  $1,384,347  
  DISC2-13441  A new precision medicine based iPSC-derived model to study personalized intestinal fibrosis treatments in
pediatric patients with Crohn’s diseas  
  Robert Barrett Cedars-Sinai  $776,340
  DISC2-13512  Modified RNA-Based Gene Therapy for Cardiac
Regeneration Through Cardiomyocyte Proliferation
  Deepak Srivastava, Gladstone Institutes  $1,565,784
  DISC2-13510  An hematopoietic stem-cell-based approach to treat HIV employing CAR-T cells and anti-HIV broadly
neutralizing antibodies  
  Brian Lawson, The Scintillon Institute  $1,143,600  
  DISC2-13475  Developing gene therapy for dominant optic atrophy using human pluripotent stem cell-derived retinal organoid disease model    Xian-Jie Yang, UCLA  $1,345,691  

Using reengineered human skin cells to treat COVID-19

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Investigators at Cedars-Sinai have identified a potential new therapy for COVID-19: a biologic substance created by reengineered human skin cells.   

In the study—co-funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM)—scientists found the substance stopped SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, from reproducing itself. The substance also protected infected cells when tested in human lung cells.  

Although still in the early stages, the findings open the possibility of having a new therapy for COVID-19 patients, of which there are few. Current COVID-19 treatments primarily focus on preventing the virus from replicating. This new potential treatment inhibits replication but also protects or repairs tissue, which is important because COVID-19 can cause symptoms that affect patients long after the viral infection has been cleared. 

The potential therapy investigated in this study was created by scientists using skin cells called dermal fibroblasts. The investigators engineered the cells to produce therapeutic extracellular vesicles (EVs), which are nanoparticles that serve as a communication system between cells and tissue. Engineering these fibroblasts allowed them to secrete EVs—which the investigators dubbed “ASTEX”—with the ability to repair tissue. 

The study tested ASTEX by applying it to human lung epithelial cells, cells that line the pulmonary tract and are the targets of SARS-CoV-2 infection. They discovered that ASTEX prevented cells from launching an inflammatory process that could lead to cell death. Cells treated with ASTEX also made fewer of a type of protein called ACE that SARS-CoV-2 may use to infect cells. 

The team compared the new potential treatment with remdesivir, a drug currently used to treat COVID-19, and found that remdesivir did not inhibit production of ACE. Instead, remdesivir stops the virus from latching on to a protein called ACE2. ASTEX, therefore, may present another way to prevent the virus from entering cells. 

“We were surprised to find this potential therapy shuts down a novel pathway for viral replication and also protects infected cells,” said Ahmed G. Ibrahim, PhD, MPH, assistant professor in the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai and first author of the study. 

Investigators at Cedars-Sinai are planning future studies.  

The details of the potential therapy are published in the journal Biomaterials and Biosystems. Read the source article here

Stem cell discovery could help shorten cancer treatment recovery 

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A researcher prepares to study blood cells under a microscope. Photo by Getty.

A recent discovery by stem cell scientists at Cedars-Sinai may help make cancer treatment more efficient and shorten the time it takes for people to recover from radiation and chemotherapy.  

Published in the journal Nature Communications, the study by Dr. John Chute and his team (and co-funded by CIRM) revealed a mechanism through which the blood vessels in the bone marrow respond to injury, such as from chemotherapy or radiation. 

Each year, about 650,000 cancer patients receive chemotherapy in an outpatient oncology clinic in the United States.  

When people receive radiation or chemotherapy as part of their cancer treatment, their blood counts plummet. It typically takes several weeks for these counts to return to normal levels. During this period patients are at risk for developing infections that may lead to hospitalization, disruptions in chemotherapy schedules, and even death. 

Chute and his colleagues found that when mice receive radiation treatment, the cells that line the inner walls of the blood vessels in the bone marrow produce a protein called semaphorin 3A. This protein tells another protein, called neuropilin 1, to kill damaged blood vessels in the bone marrow. 

When the investigators blocked the ability of these blood vessel cells to produce neuropilin 1 or semaphorin 3A, or injected an antibody that blocks semaphorin 3A communication with neuropilin 1, the veins and arteries in the bone marrow regenerated faster following irradiation. In addition, blood counts increased dramatically after one week. 

“We’ve discovered a mechanism that appears to control how blood vessels regenerate following injury,” said Chute, senior author of the paper. “Inhibiting this mechanism causes rapid recovery of the blood vessels and blood cells in bone marrow following chemotherapy or irradiation.”  

In principle, Chute said, targeting this mechanism could allow patients to recover following chemotherapy in one to two weeks, instead of three or four weeks as currently experienced. 

Christina M. Termini, a post-doctoral scientist at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, was the first author of this study. Read the source press release here.  

Two Early-Stage Research Programs Targeting Cartilage Damage Get Funding from Stem Cell Agency

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Darryl D’Lima: Scripps Health

Every year millions of Americans suffer damage to their cartilage, either in their knee or other joints, that can eventually lead to osteoarthritis, pain and immobility. Today the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved two projects targeting repair of damaged cartilage.

The projects were among 17 approved by CIRM as part of the DISC2 Quest Discovery Program. The program promotes the discovery of promising new stem cell-based and gene therapy technologies that could be translated to enable broad use and ultimately, improve patient care.

Dr. Darryl D’Lima and his team at Scripps Health were awarded $1,620,645 to find a way to repair a torn meniscus. Every year around 750,000 Americans experience a tear in their meniscus, the cartilage cushion that prevents the bones in the knee grinding against each other. These injuries accelerate the early development of osteoarthritis, for which there is no effective treatment other than total joint replacement, which is a major operation. There are significant socioeconomic benefits to preventing disabling osteoarthritis. The reductions in healthcare costs are also likely to be significant.

The team will use stem cells to produce meniscal cells in the lab. Those are then seeded onto a scaffold made from collagen fibers to create tissue that resembles the knee meniscus. The goal is to show that, when placed in the knee joint, this can help regenerate and repair the damaged tissue.

This research is based on an earlier project that CIRM funded. It highlights our commitment to helping good science progress, hopefully from the bench to the bedside where it can help patients.

Dr. Kevin Stone: Photo courtesy Stone Research Foundation

Dr. Kevin Stone and his team at The Stone Research Foundation for Sports Medicine and Arthritis were awarded $1,316,215 to develop an approach to treat and repair damaged cartilage using a patient’s own stem cells.

They are using a paste combining the patient’s own articular tissue as well as Mesenchymal Stem Cells (MSC) from their bone marrow. This mixture is combined with an adhesive hydrogel to form a graft that is designed to support cartilage growth and can also stick to surfaces without the need for glue. This paste will be used to augment the use of a microfracture technique, where micro-drilling of the bone underneath the cartilage tear brings MSCs and other cells to the fracture site. The hope is this two-pronged approach will produce an effective and functional stem cell-based cartilage repair procedure.

If effective this could produce a minimally invasive, low cost, one-step solution to help people with cartilage injuries and arthritis.

The full list of DISC2 grantees is:

ApplicationTitlePrincipal Investigator and InstitutionAmount
DISC2-13212Preclinical development of an exhaustion-resistant CAR-T stem cell for cancer immunotherapy  Ansuman Satpathy – Stanford University    $ 1,420,200  
DISC2-13051Generating deeper and more durable BCMA CAR T cell responses in Multiple Myeloma through non-viral knockin/knockout multiplexed genome engineering  Julia Carnevale – UC San Francisco  $ 1,463,368  
DISC2-13020Injectable, autologous iPSC-based therapy for spinal cord injury  Sarah Heilshorn – Stanford University    $789,000
DISC2-13009New noncoding RNA chemical entity for heart failure with preserved ejection fraction.  Eduardo Marban – Cedars-Sinai Medical Center  $1,397,412  
DISC2-13232Modulation of oral epithelium stem cells by RSpo1 for the prevention and treatment of oral mucositis  Jeffrey Linhardt – Intact Therapeutics Inc.  $942,050  
DISC2-13077Transplantation of genetically corrected iPSC-microglia for the treatment of Sanfilippo Syndrome (MPSIIIA)  Mathew Blurton-Jones – UC Irvine    $1,199,922  
DISC2-13201Matrix Assisted Cell Transplantation of Promyogenic Fibroadipogenic Progenitor (FAP) Stem Cells  Brian Feeley – UC San Francisco  $1,179,478  
DISC2-13063Improving the efficacy and tolerability of clinically validated remyelination-inducing molecules using developable combinations of approved drugs  Luke Lairson – Scripps Research Inst.  $1,554,126  
DISC2-13213Extending Immune-Evasive Human Islet-Like Organoids (HILOs) Survival and Function as a Cure for T1D  Ronald Evans – The Salk Institute for Biological Studies    $1,523,285  
DISC2-13136Meniscal Repair and Regeneration  Darryl D’Lima – Scripps Health      $1,620,645  
DISC2-13072Providing a cure for sphingosine phosphate lyase insufficiency syndrome (SPLIS) through adeno-associated viral mediated SGPL1 gene therapy  Julie Saba – UC San Francisco  $1,463,400  
DISC2-13205iPSC-derived smooth muscle cell progenitor conditioned medium for treatment of pelvic organ prolapse  Bertha Chen – Stanford University  $1,420,200  
DISC2-13102RNA-directed therapy for Huntington’s disease  Gene Wei-Ming Yeo  – UC San Diego  $1,408,923  
DISC2-13131A Novel Therapy for Articular Cartilage Autologous Cellular Repair by Paste Grafting  Kevin Stone – The Stone Research Foundation for Sports Medicine and Arthritis    $1,316,215  
DISC2-13013Optimization of a gene therapy for inherited erythromelalgia in iPSC-derived neurons  Ana Moreno – Navega Therapeutics    $1,157,313  
DISC2-13221Development of a novel stem-cell based carrier for intravenous delivery of oncolytic viruses  Edward Filardo – Cytonus Therapeutics, Inc.    $899,342  
DISC2-13163iPSC Extracellular Vesicles for Diabetes Therapy  Song Li – UC Los Angeles  $1,354,928  

Celebrating Stem Cell Awareness Day

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The second Wednesday in October is celebrated as Stem Cell Awareness Day. It’s an event that CIRM has been part of since then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger launched it back in 2008 saying: ”The discoveries being made today in our Golden State will have a great impact on many around the world for generations to come.”

In the past we would have helped coordinate presentations by scientists in schools and participated in public events. COVID of course has changed all that. So, this year, to help mark the occasion we asked some people who have been in the forefront of making Governor Schwarzenegger’s statement come true, to share their thoughts and feelings about the day. Here’s what they had to say.

What do you think is the biggest achievement so far in stem cell research?

Dr. Jan Nolta

Jan Nolta, PhD., Director of the Stem Cell Program at UC Davis School of Medicine, and directs the new Institute for Regenerative Cures. “The work of Don Kohn and his UCLA colleagues and team members throughout the years- developing stem cell gene therapy cures for over 50 children with Bubble baby disease. I was very fortunate to work with Don for the first 15 years of my career and know that development of these cures was guided by his passion to help his patients.

Dr. Clive Svendsen

Clive Svendsen, PhD. Director, Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute at Cedars-Sinai: “Without a doubt the discovery of how to make human iPSCs by Shinya Yamanaka and Jamie Thomson.”

When people ask you what kind of impact CIRM and stem cell research has had on your life what do you say?

Ronnie and his parents celebrating his 1st birthday. (Photo courtesy of Pawash Priyank)

Pawash Priyank and Upasana Thakur, parents of Ronnie, who was born with a life-threatening immune disorder but is thriving today thanks to a CIRM-funded clinical trial at UC San Francisco. “This is beyond just a few words and sentences but we will give it a shot. We are living happily today seeing Ronnie explore the world day by day, and this is only because of what CIRM does every day and what Stem cell research has done to humanity. Researchers and scientists come up with innovative ideas almost every day around the globe but unless those ideas are funded or brought to implementation in any manner, they are just in the minds of those researchers and would never be useful for humanity in any manner. CIRM has been that source to bring those ideas to the table, provide facilities and mechanisms to get those actually implemented which eventually makes babies like Ronnie survive and see the world. That’s the impact CIRM has. We have witnessed and heard several good arguments back in India in several forums which could make difference in the world in different sectors of lives but those ideas never come to light because of the lack of organizations like CIRM, lack of interest from people running the government. An organization like CIRM and the interest of the government to fund them with an interest in science and technology actually changes the lives of people when some of those ideas come to see the light of real implementation. 

What are your biggest hopes for the future at UC Davis?

Jan Nolta, PhD: “The future of stem cell and gene therapy research is very bright at UC Davis, thanks to CIRM and our outstanding leadership. We currently have 48 clinical trials ongoing in this field, with over 20 in the pipeline, and are developing a new education and technology complex, Aggie Square, next to the Institute for Regenerative Cures, where our program is housed. We are committed to our very diverse patient population throughout the Sacramento region and Northern California, and to expanding and increasing the number of novel therapies that can be brought to all patients who need them.”

What are your biggest hopes for the future at Cedars-Sinai?

Clive Svendsen, PhD: “That young investigators will get CIRM or NIH funding and be leaders in the regenerative medicine field.”

What do you hope is the future for stem cell research?

Pawash Priyank and Upasana Thakur: “We always have felt good about stem cell therapy. For us, a stem cell has transformed our lives completely. The correction of sequencing in the DNA taken out of Ronnie and injecting back in him has given him life. It has given him the immune system to fight infections. Seeing him grow without fear of doing anything, or going anywhere gives us so much happiness every hour. That’s the impact of stem cell research. With right minds continuing to research further in stem cell therapy bounded by certain good processes & laws around (so that misuse of the therapy couldn’t be done) will certainly change the way treatments are done for certain incurable diseases. I certainly see a bright future for stem cell research.”

On a personal note what is the moment that touched you the most in this journey.

Jan Nolta, PhD: “Each day a new patient or their story touches my heart. They are our inspiration for working hard to bring new options to their care through cell and gene therapy.”

Clive Svendsen, PhD: “When I realized we would get the funding to try and treat ALS with stem cells”

How important is it to raise awareness about stem cell research and to educate the next generation about it?

Pawash Priyank and Upasana Thakur: “Implementing stem cell therapy as a curriculum in the educational systems right from the beginning of middle school and higher could prevent false propaganda of it through social media. Awareness among people with accurate articles right from the beginning of their education is really important. This will also encourage the new generation to choose this as a subject in their higher studies and contribute towards more research to bring more solutions for a variety of diseases popping up every day.”

Creating a diverse group of future scientists

Students in CIRM’s Bridges program showing posters of their work

If you have read the headlines lately, you’ll know that the COVID-19 pandemic is having a huge impact on the shipping industry. Container vessels are forced to sit out at anchor for a week or more because there just aren’t enough dock workers to unload the boats. It’s a simple rule of economics, you can have all the demand you want but if you don’t have the people to help deliver on the supply side, you are in trouble.

The same is true in regenerative medicine. The field is expanding rapidly and that’s creating a rising demand for skilled workers to help keep up. That doesn’t just mean scientists, but also technicians and other skilled individuals who can ensure that our ability to manufacture and deliver these new therapies is not slowed down.

That’s one of the reasons why CIRM has been a big supporter of training programs ever since we were created by the voters of California when they approved Proposition 71. And now we are kick-starting those programs again to ensure the field has all the talented workers it needs.

Last week the CIRM Board approved 18 programs, investing more than $86 million, as part of the Agency’s Research Training Grants program. The goal of the program is to create a diverse group of scientists with the knowledge and skill to lead effective stem cell research programs.

The awards provide up to $5 million per institution, for a maximum of 20 institutions, over five years, to support the training of predoctoral graduate students, postdoctoral trainees, and/or clinical trainees.

This is a revival of an earlier Research Training program that ran from 2006-2016 and trained 940 “CIRM Scholars” including:

• 321 PhD students
• 453 Postdocs
• 166 MDs

These grants went to academic institutions from UC Davis in Sacramento to UC San Diego down south and everywhere in-between. A 2013 survey of the students found that most went on to careers in the industry.

  • 56% continued to further training
  • 14% advanced to an academic research faculty position
  • 10.5% advanced to a biotech/industry position
  • 12% advanced to a non-research position such as teaching, medical practice, or foundation/government work

The Research Training Grants go to:

AWARDINSTITUTIONTITLEAMOUNT
EDUC4-12751Cedars-SinaiCIRM Training Program in Translational Regenerative Medicine    $4,999,333
EDUC4-12752UC RiversideTRANSCEND – Training Program to Advance Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Research, Education, and Workforce Diversity    $4,993,115
EDUC4-12753UC Los AngelesUCLA Training Program in Stem Cell Biology    $5 million
EDUC4-12756University of Southern CaliforniaTraining Program Bridging Stem Cell Research with Clinical Applications in Regenerative Medicine    $5 million
EDUC4-12759UC Santa CruzCIRM Training Program in Systems Biology of Stem Cells    $4,913,271
EDUC4-12766Gladstone Inst.CIRM Regenerative Medicine Research Training Program    $5 million
EDUC4-12772City of HopeResearch Training Program in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine    $4,860,989
EDUC4-12782StanfordCIRM Scholar Training Program    $4,974,073
EDUC4-12790UC BerkeleyTraining the Next Generation of Biologists and Engineers for Regenerative Medicine    $4,954,238
EDUC4-12792UC DavisCIRM Cell and Gene Therapy Training Program 2.0    $4,966,300
EDUC4-12802Children’s Hospital of Los AngelesCIRM Training Program for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Research    $4,999,500
EDUC4-12804UC San DiegoInterdisciplinary Stem Cell Training Grant at UCSD III    $4,992,446
EDUC4-12811ScrippsTraining Scholars in Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research    $4,931,353
EDUC4-12812UC San FranciscoScholars Research Training Program in Regenerative Medicine, Gene Therapy, and Stem Cell Research    $5 million
EDUC4-12813Sanford BurnhamA Multidisciplinary Stem Cell Training Program at Sanford Burnham Prebys Institute, A Critical Component of the La Jolla Mesa Educational Network    $4,915,671  
EDUC4-12821UC Santa BarbaraCIRM Training Program in Stem Cell Biology and Engineering    $1,924,497
EDUC4-12822UC IrvineCIRM Scholars Comprehensive Research Training Program  $5 million
EDUC4-12837Lundquist Institute for Biomedical InnovationStem Cell Training Program at the Lundquist Institute    $4,999,999

These are not the only awards we make to support training the next generation of scientists. We also have our SPARK and Bridges to Stem Cell Research programs. The SPARK awards are for high school students, and the Bridges program for graduate or Master’s level students.

Learning life lessons in the lab

Rohan Upadhyay, CIRM SPARK student 2021

One of the most amazing parts of an amazing job is getting to know the students who take part in CIRM’s SPARK (Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge) program. It’s an internship giving high school students, that reflect the diversity of California, a chance to work in a world-class stem cell research facility.

This year because of the pandemic I didn’t get a chance to meet them in person but reading the blogs they wrote about their experiences I feel as if I know them anyway.

The blogs were fun, creative, engaging and dealt with many issues, as well as stem cell and gene therapy research.

A common theme was how hard the students, many of whom knew little about stem cells before they started, had to work just to understand all the scientific jargon.

Areana Ramirez, who did her internship at UC Davis summed it up nicely when she wrote:

“Despite the struggles of taking over an hour to read a scientific article and researching what every other word meant, it was rewarding to know that all of the strain I had put on my brain was going toward a larger understanding of what it means to help others. I may not know everything about osteogenic differentiation or the polyamine pathway, but I do know the adversities that patients with Snyder-Robinson are facing and the work that is being done to help them. I do know how hard each one of our mentors are working to find new cures and are coming up with innovating ideas that will only help humankind.”

Lauren Ginn at City of Hope had the same experience, but said it taught her a valuable lesson:

“Make no mistake, searching for answers through research can sometimes feel like shooting arrows at a bulls-eye out of sight. Nonetheless, what CIRM SPARK has taught me is the potential for exploration that lies in the unknown. This internship showed me that there is so much more to science than the facts printed in textbooks.”

Rohan Upadhyay at UC Davis discovered that even when something doesn’t work out, you can still learn a lot:

“I asked my mentor (Gerhard Bauer) about what he thought had occurred. But unlike the textbooks there was no obvious answer. My mentor and I could only speculate what had occurred. It was at this point that I realized the true nature of research: every research project leads to more questions that need to be answered. As a result there is no endpoint to research. Instead there are only new beginnings.”

Melanie Nguyen, also at UC Davis, wrote her blog as a poem. But she saved the best part for the prose at the end:

“Like a hematopoietic stem cell, I have learned that I am able to pursue my different interests, to be multi-potential. One can indulge in the joys of biology while simultaneously live out their dreams of being an amateur poet. I choose it all. Similarly, a bone marrow stem cell can become whatever it may please—red, white, platelet. It’s ability to divide and differentiate is the source of its ingenuity. I view myself in the same light. Whether I can influence others with research, words, or stories, I know that with each route I will be able to make change in personalized ways.”

For Lizbeth Bonilla, at Stanford, her experiences transcended the personal and took on an even bigger significance:

“As a first-generation Mexican American, my family was thrilled about this internship and opportunity especially knowing it came from a prestigious institution. Unfortunately there is very little to no representation in our community in regards to the S.T.E.M. field. Our dreams of education and prosperity for the future have to be compromised because of the lack of support and resources. To maintain pride in our culture, we focus on work ethics and family, hoping it will be the next generations’ time to bring successful opportunities home. However, while this is a hope widely shared the effort to have it realized is often limited to men. A Latina woman’s success and interest in education are still celebrated, but not expected. As a first-generation Latina, I want to prove that I can have a career and hopefully contribute to raising the next leading generation, not with the hope that dreams are possible but to be living proof that they are.”

Reading the blogs it was sometimes easy to forget these are 16 and 17 year old students. They write with creativity, humor, thoughtfulness and maturity. They learned a lot about stem cell research over the summer. But I think they also learned a lot more about who they are as individuals and what they can achieve.

SPARKing the genius of the next generation of scientists

Dr. Kelly Shepard, SPARK program director

After almost 18 months – and counting – that have put us all to the test, made us wear masks, work from home, limit contact with all but the closest of family and friends it’s a wonderful thing to be able to get a glimpse of the future and feel that we are in good hands.

That’s how it felt this week when we held our SPARK conference. SPARK stands for Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge. The program helps high school students, that reflect the diversity of California, to take part in summer research at various institutions with a stem cell, gene therapy, or regenerative medicine focus. 

We hope the experience will inspire these students to become the next generation of scientists. Many of the students are first generation Americans, many also come from families with limited resources and without our help might not be able to afford an internship like this.

As part of the program we ask the students to not only do stem cell research and prepare a poster of their work, we also ask them to blog about it. And the blogs they write are things of beauty.

It’s hard to pick winners from so many fine writers, but in the end a team of CIRMites managed to identify a few we thought really stood out. First was Hassan Samiullah who spent his internship at Cedars-Sinai. Hassan wrote three blogs charting his journey at the research facility, working with mice and a deadly brain cancer. This is part of one of his entries.

“When many of us think of scientists, we think of crazy people performing crazy procedures in a lab. While I won’t try refuting the first part, the crazy procedures can actually be very consequential to society at large. What is now common knowledge was once found in the discussion section of a research paper. The therapies we will use to treat cancer tomorrow are being tested in labs today, even if they’re being injected into mice brains.” 

We liked his writing because he explained complex science clearly, with humor and obvious delight that he got to work in a research facility with “real” scientists. Crazy or otherwise. Here is his final blog which, I think, reflects the skill and creativity he brought to the task.

I’m almost at the end of my 7.5-week internship at Cedars-Sinai through the CIRM SPARK program. Looking back at the whole experience, I don’t think I’ve ever been through anything that’s required as much critical thinking.

I remember seeing pX330-dual-U6-Pten-Cdkn2a-Ex2-chimeric-BB-CBh-espCas9, and not having the slightest idea of what any of it meant. Sure, I understood the basics of what I was told: it’s a plasmid that can be transfected into mice brains to model glioblastoma tumors. But what do any of those strings of letters and numbers have to do with that? Well, I saw “Pten” and read it aloud: “P-t-e-n.” After I spelled it out like a kindergartener, I finally made a realization. p10 is a gene—specifically a tumor suppressor gene. I figured that the two jumbles of letters and numbers to the right must also be genes. Sure enough, the plasmid contains three mutated genes that get incorporated into a mouse’s genome, eventually leading to cancer. We didn’t actually end up using this model, however. Part of being in science is procedures not working out as expected.

Resilience is key.

When I found out that the image analysis software I was supposed to use didn’t support the type of data collection I needed to perform, I had to burn a little midnight oil to count the cells of interest manually. It proved to be well worth the effort: we found that mice tumors treated with radiation saw increased interactions between immune cells and endogenous (brain-resident) stem cells, even though they had fewer cells from the original tumor (difference wasn’t statistically significant due to an outlier in the control group). This is an important finding because it may explain the common narrative of glioblastoma: many patients see their tumors recede but suffer an aggressive relapse. This relapse may be due to immune cells’ interacting with stem cells to make them resistant to future treatments.

Understanding stem cells are so critical to cancer research, just as they are to many other fields of research. It is critical for everyone involved in science, medicine, healthcare, and policymaking to recognize and act on the potential of the regenerative medicine field to dramatically improve the quality of life for so many people.

This is just the beginning of my journey in science! I really look forward to seeing what’s next.

We look forward to it too Hassan.

Hassan wasn’t the only one we singled out for praise. Sheila Teker spent her summer at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute. She says her internship didn’t get off to a very encouraging start.

“When the CHORI security guard implied that “kids aren’t allowed” on my first day–likely assuming I was a 10-year-old smuggling myself into a highly professional laboratory – I’d also personally doubted my presence there. Being 16, I wasn’t sure I’d fit in with others in such an intimidating environment; and never did I think, applying for this program, that I could be working with stem cells. I’d heard about stem cells in the news, science classes, and the like, but even doing any cell culturing at all seemed inaccessible to me. At my age, I’d become accustomed to and discouraged by rejection since I was perceived as “too young” for anything.”

Over the course of the summer Sheila showed that while you might question her age, no one should ever question her talent and determination.  

Finally, we thought Alvin Cheng of Stanford also deserved recognition for his fine writing, starting with a really fun way to introduce his research into lower back pain.

“Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated”, Mary Shelley wrote her in 1831 edition of “Frankenstein”. Decades prior, Luigi Galvani discovered with his wife how a dead frog’s leg could twitch when an electric spark was induced. ‘Galvanism’ became the scientific basis behind the infamous novel and bioelectricity.”

While many of the students had to do their research remotely this year, that did not stop them doing amazing work. And working remotely might actually be good training for the future. CIRM’s Dr. Kelly Shepard, the Associate Director of Discovery and Translation and who runs the SPARK program, pointed out to the students that scientists now do research on the international space station from their labs here on earth, so the skills these SPARK students learned this past summer might prove invaluable in years to come.

Regardless of where they work, we see great things in the futures of these young scientists.

CIRM Board Approves New Clinical Trial for ALS

This past Friday the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) awarded $11.99 million to Cedars-Sinai to fund a clinical trial for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. 

ALS is a neurodegenerative disease that results in the death of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing the muscles in the body to gradually weaken, leading to loss of limb function, difficulty breathing, paralysis, and eventually death.  There are medications that can slow down the progression of ALS, but unfortunately there is no cure for the disease.

Clive Svendsen, Ph.D., executive director of Cedars-Sinai’s Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute, and his team will be conducting a trial that uses a combined cell and gene therapy approach as a treatment for ALS.  The trial builds upon the Stem Cell Agency’s first ALS trial, also conducted by Cedars-Sinai and Svendsen.

Genetically engineered stem cells will be transplanted into the motor cortex, an area of the brain responsible for voluntary movements.  These transplanted cells then become astrocytes, a type of support cell that help keep nerve cells functioning.  The astrocytes have been genetically altered to deliver high doses of a growth factor which has been shown to protect nerve cells.  The goal of this approach is to protect the upper motor neurons controlling muscle function and meaningfully improve the quality of life for ALS patients.

“ALS is a devastating disease that attacks the spinal cord and brain and results in the progressive loss of the ability to move, to swallow and eventually to breathe. ” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., President and CEO of CIRM.  “This clinical trial builds on Dr. Svendsen’s work previously funded by CIRM. We are fortunate to be able to support this important work, which was made possible by California citizens who voted to reauthorize CIRM under Proposition 14 this past November.”

You can’t take it if you don’t make it

Biomedical specialist Mamadou Dialio at work in the Cedars-Sinai Biomanufacturing Center. Photo by Cedars-Sinai.

Following the race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 has been a crash course in learning how complicated creating a new therapy is. It’s not just the science involved, but the logistics. Coming up with a vaccine that is both safe and effective is difficult enough, but then how do you make enough doses of it to treat hundreds of millions of people around the world?

That’s a familiar problem for stem cell researchers. As they develop their products they are often able to make enough cells in their own labs. But as they move into clinical trials where they are testing those cells in more and more people, they need to find a new way to make more cells. And, of course, they need to plan ahead, hoping the therapy is approved by the Food and Drug Administration, so they will need to be able to manufacture enough doses to meet the increased demand.

We saw proof of that planning ahead this week with the news that Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles has opened up a new Biomanufacturing Center.

Dr. Clive Svendsen, executive director of the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute, said in a news release, the Center will manufacture the next generation of drugs and regenerative medicine therapies.

“The Cedars-Sinai Biomanufacturing Center leverages our world-class stem-cell expertise, which already serves scores of clients, to provide a much-needed biomanufacturing facility in Southern California. It is revolutionary by virtue of elevating regenerative medicine and its therapeutic possibilities to an entirely new level-repairing the human body.”

This is no ordinary manufacturing plant. The Center features nine “clean rooms” that are kept free from dust and other contaminants. Everyone working there has to wear protective suits and masks to ensure they don’t bring anything into the clean rooms.

The Center will specialize in manufacturing induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs. Dhruv Sareen, PhD, executive director of the Biolmanufacturing Center, says iPSCs are cells that can be turned into any other kind of cell in the body.

“IPSCs are powerful tools for understanding human disease and developing therapies. These cells enable us to truly practice precision medicine by developing drug treatments tailored to the individual patient or groups of patients with similar genetic profiles.”

The Biomanufacturing Center is designed to address a critical bottleneck in bringing cell- and gene-based therapies to the clinic. After all, developing a therapy is great, but it’s only half the job. Making enough of it to help the people who need it is the other half.

CIRM is funding Dr. Svendsen’s work in developing therapies for ALS and other diseases and disorders.