How two California researchers are advancing world class science to develop real life solutions

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In our recently launched 5-year Strategic Plan, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) profiled two researchers who have leveraged CIRM funding to translate basic biological discoveries into potential real-world solutions for devastating diseases.

Dr. Joseph Wu is director of the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute and the recipient of several CIRM awards. Eleven of them to be exact! Over the past 10 years, Dr. Wu’s lab has extensively studied the application of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) for cardiovascular disease modeling, drug discovery, and regenerative medicine. 

Dr. Wu’s extensive studies and findings have even led to a cancer vaccine technology that is now being developed by Khloris Biosciences, a biotechnology company spun out by his lab. 

Through CIRM funding, Dr. Wu has developed a process to produce cardiomyocytes (cardiac muscle cells) derived from human embryonic stem cells for clinical use and in partnership with the agency. Dr. Wu is also the principal investigator in the first-in-US clinical trial for treating ischemic heart disease. His other CIRM-funded work has also led to the development of cardiomyocytes derived from human induced pluripotent stem cells for potential use as a patch.

Over at UCLA, Dr. Lili Yang and her lab team have generated invariant Natural Killer T cells (iNKT), a special kind of immune system cell with unique features that can more effectively attack tumor cells. 

More recently, using stem cells from donor cord-blood and peripheral blood samples, Dr. Yang and her team of researchers were able to produce up to 300,000 doses of hematopoietic stem cell-engineered iNKT (HSC–iNKT) cells. The hope is that this new therapy could dramatically reduce the cost of producing immune cell products in the future. 

Additionally, Dr. Yang and her team have used iNKT cells to develop both autologous (using the patient’s own cells), and off-the-shelf anti-cancer therapeutics (using donor cells), designed to target blood cell cancers.

The success of her work has led to the creation of a start-up company called Appia Bio. In collaboration with Kite Pharma, Appia Bio is planning on developing and commercializing the promising technology. 

CIRM has been an avid supporter of Dr. Yang and Dr. Wu’s research because they pave the way for development of next-generation therapies. Through our new Strategic Plan, CIRM will continue to fund innovative research like theirs to accelerate world class science to deliver transformative regenerative medicine treatments in an equitable manner to a diverse California and the world.

Visit this page to learn more about CIRM’s new 5-year Strategic Plan and stay tuned as we share updates on our 5-year goals here on The Stem Cellar.

One more good reason to exercise

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As we start the New Year with a fervent hope that it’s better than the last two, many people are making a resolution to get more exercise. A new study suggests that might not just benefit the body, it could also help the brain. At least if you are a mouse.

Researchers at the University of Queensland Brain Institute found that 35 days of exercise could improve brain function and memory.

In an interview in Futurity, Dan Blackmore, one of the lead researchers on the study, says they not only showed the benefits of exercise, but also an explanation for why it helps.

“We tested the cognitive ability of elderly mice following defined periods of exercise and found an optimal period or ‘sweet spot’ that greatly improved their spatial learning. We found that growth hormone (GH) levels peaked during this time, and we’ve been able to demonstrate that artificially raising GH in sedentary mice also was also effective in improving their cognitive skills. We discovered GH stimulates the production of new neurons in the hippocampus—the region of the brain critically important to learning and memory.

The study was published in the journal iScience.

Obviously, this is great for mice, but they hope that future research could show similar benefits for people. But don’t wait for that study to come out, there’s already plenty of evidence that exercising has terrific benefits for the body. Here’s just seven ways it can give you a boost.

How some brilliant research may have uncovered a potential therapy for Alzheimer’s 

Dr. Nicole Koutsodendris, photo courtesy Gladstone Institutes

In the world of scientific research, the people doing clinical trials tend to suck up all the oxygen in the room. They’re the stars, the ones who are bringing potential therapies to patients. However, there’s another group of researchers who toil away in the background, but who are equally deserving of praise and gratitude. 

Dr. Lana Zholudeva, photo courtesy Gladstone Institutes

These are the scientists who do basic or discovery-level research. This is where all great therapies start. This is where a researcher gets an idea and tests it to see if it holds promise. A good idea and a scientist who asks a simple question, “I wonder if…..”  

Dr. Yadong Huang, Photo courtesy Gladstone Institutes

In our latest “Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation” podcast we talk to three researchers who are asking those questions and getting some truly encouraging answers. They are scientists at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco: one seasoned scientist and two young post-docs trying to make a name for themselves. And they might just have discovered a therapy that could help people battling Alzheimer’s disease. 

Enjoy the podcast.


  

Newly-developed Organoid Mimics How Gut and Heart Tissues Arise Cooperatively From Stem Cells 

Microscopy image of the new type of organoid created by Todd McDevitt, Ana Silva, and their colleagues in which heart tissue (red, purple, and orange masses) and gut tissue (blue and green masses) are growing together. Captured by Ana Silva.
Microscopy image of the new type of organoid created by Todd McDevitt, Ana Silva, and their colleagues in which heart tissue (red, purple, and orange masses) and gut tissue (blue and green masses) are growing together. Captured by Ana Silva. Image courtesy of Gladstone Institutes.

Scientists at Gladstone Institutes have discovered how to grow a first-of-its-kind organoid—a three-dimensional, organ-like cluster of cells—that mimics how gut and heart tissues arise cooperatively from stem cells.  

The study was supported by a grant from CIRM and the Gladstone BioFulcrum Heart Failure Research Program. 

Gladstone Senior Investigator Todd McDevitt, PhD said this first-of-its-kind organoid could serve as a new tool for laboratory research and improve our understanding of how developing organs and tissues cooperate and instruct each other. 

McDevitt’s team creates heart organoids from human induced pluripotent stem cells, coaxing them into becoming heart cells by growing them in various cocktails of nutrients and other naturally occurring substances. In this case, the scientists tried a different cocktail to potentially allow a greater variety of heart cells to form. 

To their surprise, they found that the new cocktail led to organoids that contained not only heart, but also gut cells. 

“We were intrigued because organoids normally develop into a single type of tissue—for example, heart tissue only,” says Ana Silva, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in the McDevitt Lab and first author of the new study. “Here, we had both heart and gut tissues growing together in a controlled manner, much as they would in a normal embryo.” 

Shown here is the study’s first author, Ana Silva, a postdoctoral scholar in the McDevitt Lab. Image courtesy of Gladstone Institutes.

The researchers also found that compared to conventional heart organoids, the new organoids resulted in much more complex and mature heart structures—including some resembling more mature-like blood vessels. 

These organoids offer a promising new look into the relationship between developing tissues, which has so far relied on growing single-tissue organoids separately and then attempting to combine them. Not only that, the organoids could help clarify how the process of human development can go wrong and provide insight on congenital disorders like chronic atrial and intestinal dysrhythmias that are known to affect both heart and gut development. 

“Once it became clear that the presence of the gut tissue contributed to the maturity of the heart tissue, we realized we had arrived at something new and special,” says McDevitt. 

Read the official release about this study on Gladstone’s website

The study findings are published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

Producing insulin for people who can’t

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ViaCyte’s implantable stem cell pouch

One of the huge advantages of a stem cell agency like CIRM (not that there is anything out there quite like us, but anyway) is our ability to support projects as they progress from a great idea to a therapy actually being tested in people.

Exhibit A on that front came via a news release from ViaCyte, a company that is developing a new approach to helping people with severe Type 1 Diabetes (T1D).

Unlike type 2 diabetes, which is largely diet & lifestyle related and develops over time, T1D is an autoimmune condition where the person’s immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Without those cells and insulin the body is not able to regulate blood sugar levels and that can lead to damage to the heart, kidneys, eyes and nerves. In severe cases it can be fatal.

ViaCyte (which has been supported with more than $72 million from CIRM) has developed a pouch that can be implanted under the skin in the back. This pouch contains stem cells that over a period of a few months turn into insulin-producing pancreatic islet cells, the kind destroyed by T1D. The goal is for these cells to monitor blood flow and when they detect blood sugar or glucose levels are high, can secrete insulin to restore them to a safe level.

They tested this approach in 15 patients in a Phase 1 clinical trial in Canada. Their findings, published in the journals Cell Stem Cell and Cell Reports Medicine, show that six months after implantation, the cells had turned into insulin-producing islet cells. They also showed a rise in C-peptide levels after patients ate a meal. C-peptides are a sign your body is producing insulin so the rise in that number was a good indication the implanted cells were boosting insulin production.

As Dr. James Shapiro, the Chair of Canada Research and one of the lead authors of the study says, that’s no small achievement: “The data from these papers represent a significant scientific advance. It is the first reported evidence that differentiated stem cells implanted in patients can generate meal-regulated insulin secretion, offering real hope for the incredible potential of this treatment.”

And that wasn’t all. The researchers say that patients spent 13 percent more time in the target range for blood sugar levels than before the treatment, and some were even able to reduce the amount of insulin they injected.

Now this is only a Phase 1 clinical trial so the goal was to test the safety of the pouch, called PEC-Direct (VC-02), to see if the body would tolerate it being implanted and to see if it is effective. The beauty of this method is that the device is implanted under the skin so it can be removed easily if any problems emerge. So far none have.

Ultimately the hope is that this approach will help patients with T1D better regulate their blood sugar levels, improve their health outcomes, and one day even achieve independence from the burden of daily insulin injections.

Creating a New Model for Diversity in Scientific and Medical Research

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Nature Cell Biology cover

The global pandemic has highlighted many of the inequities in our health care system, with the virus hitting communities of color the hardest. That has led to calls for greater diversity, equity and inclusion at every level of scientific research and, ultimately, of medical care. A recently released article in the journal Nature Cell Biology, calls for “new models for basic and disease research that reflect diverse ancestral backgrounds and sex and ensure that diverse populations are included among donors and research participants.”

The authors of the article are Dr. Maria T. Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO; Rick Horwitz Senior Advisor and Executive Director, Emeritus, Allen Institute for Cell Science; Dr. Ekemini Riley, President, Coalition for Aligning Science; and Dr. Ruwanthi N. Gunawardane, Executive Director of the Allen Institute for Cell Science.

Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO, says we need to make these issues a part of everything we do. “At CIRM we have incorporated the principles of promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in our research funding programs, education programs and future programs. We believe this is essential to ensure that the therapies our support helps advance will reach all patients in need and in particular communities that are disproportionately affected and/or under-served.”

The article highlights how, in addition to cultural, environmental, and socioeconomic factors, genetic factors also appear to play a role in the way disease affects different people. For example, 50 percent of people in South Asia have genetic traits that increases their risk for severe COVID-19, in contrast only 16 percent of Europeans have those traits.

But while some studies have shown how African American men are at greater risk for prostate cancer than white men, most of the research in this and other areas has been done on white populations of European ancestry. Efforts are already underway to change these disparities. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has sponsored the All of Us Research Program, which is inviting one million people across the U.S. to help build one of the most diverse health databases in history.

The article in Nature Cell Biology stresses the need to account for diversity at the individual molecular, cellular and tissue level. The authors make the point that diversity in those taking part in clinical trials is essential, but equally essential is that diverse biology is accounted for in the scientific work that leads to the development of potential therapies in order to increase the likelihood of success.

That’s why the authors of the article say: “If we are to truly understand human biology, address health disparities, and personalize our treatments, we need to go beyond our important, ongoing efforts in addressing diversity and inclusion in the workforce and the delivery of healthcare. We need to improve the data we generate by including diverse populations among donors and research participants. This will require new models and tools for basic and disease research that more closely reflect the diversity of human tissues, across diverse donor backgrounds.”

“Greater diversity in biological studies is not only the right thing to do, it is crucial to helping researchers make new discoveries that benefit everyone,” said Ru Gunawardane, Executive Director of the Allen Institute for Cell Science.

To do this they propose creating “a suite” of research cells, such as human induced pluripotent stem cell (hiPSC) lines from a diverse group of individuals to reflect the racial, ethnic and gender composition of the population. Human iPSCs are cells taken from any tissue (usually skin or blood) from a child or adult that have been genetically modified to behave like an embryonic stem cell. As the name implies, these cells are pluripotent, which means that they can become any type of adult cell.

CIRM has already created one version of what this suite would look like, through its iPSC Repository, a collection of more than 2,600 hiPSCs from individuals of diverse ancestries, including African, Hispanic, Native American, East and South Asian, and European. The Allen Institute for Cell Science also has a collection that could serve as a model for this kind of repository. Its collection of over 50 hiPSC

lines have been thoroughly analyzed on both a genomic and biological level and could also be broken down to include diversity in donor ethnicity and sex.

Currently researchers use cells from different lines and often follow very different procedures in using them, making it hard to compare results from one study to another. Having a diverse and well defined collection of research cells and cell models that are created by standardized procedures, could make it easier to compare results from different studies and share knowledge within the scientific community. By incorporating diversity in the very early stages of scientific research, the scientists and therapy developers gain a more complete picture of the biology disease and potential treatments.  

One step closer to making ‘off-the-shelf’ immune cell therapy for cancer a reality 

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Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses a person’s own immune system to fight cancer. It comes in a variety of forms including targeted antibodies, cancer vaccines, and adoptive cell therapies. While immunotherapies have revolutionized the treatment of aggressive cancers in recent decades, they must be created on a patient-specific basis and as a result can be time consuming to manufacture/process and incredibly costly to patients already bearing the incalculable human cost of suffering from the cruelest disease.

Fortunately, the rapid progress that has led to the present era of cancer immunotherapy is expected to continue as scientists look for ways to improve efficacy and reduce cost. Just this week, a CIRM-funded study published in Cell Reports Medicine revealed a critical step forward in the development of an “off-the-shelf” cancer immunotherapy by researchers at UCLA. “We want cell therapies that can be mass-produced, frozen and shipped to hospitals around the world,” explains Lili Yang, the study’s senior author. 

Lili Yang, the study’s senior author and a member of UCLA’s Broad Stem Cell Research Center

In order to fulfil this ambitious goal, Yang and her colleagues developed a new method for producing large numbers of a specialized T cell known as invariant natural killer T (iNKT) cells. iNKT cells are rare but powerful immune cells that don’t carry the risk of graft-versus-host disease, which occurs when transplanted cells attack a recipient’s body, making them better suited to treat a wide range of patients with various cancers.

Using stem cells from donor cord-blood and peripheral blood samples, the team of researchers discovered that one cord blood donation could produce up to 5,000 doses of the therapy and one peripheral blood donation could produce up to 300,000 doses. The high yield of the resulting cells, called hematopoietic stem cell-engineered iNKT (HSC–iNKT) cells,could dramatically reduce the cost of producing immune cell products in the future. 

In order to test the efficacy of the HSC–iNKT cells, researchers conducted two very important tests. First, they compared its cancer fighting abilities to another set of immune cells called natural killer cells. The results were promising. The HSC–iNKT cells were significantly better at killing several types of tumor cells such as leukemia, melanoma, and lung cancer. Then, the HSC–iNKT cells were frozen and thawed, just as they would be if they were to one day become an off-the-shelf cell therapy. Researchers were once again delighted when they discovered that the HSC–iNKT cells sustained their tumor-killing efficacy.

Next, Yang and her team added a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) to the HSC–iNKT cells. CAR is a specialized molecule that can enable immune cells to recognize and kill a specific type of cancer. When tested in the lab, researchers found that CAR-equipped HSC–iNKT cells eliminated the specific cancerous tumors they were programmed to destroy. 

This study was made possible in part by three grants from CIRM.

Type 1 diabetes therapy gets go-ahead for clinical trial

ViaCyte’s implantable cell-based therapy for type 1 diabetes

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Taking even the most promising therapy and moving it out of the lab and into people is an incredibly complex process and usually requires a great team. Now, two great teams have paired up to do just that with a therapy for type 1 diabetes (T1D). ViaCyte and CRISPR Therapeutics have put their heads together and developed an approach that has just been given clearance by Health Canada to start a clinical trial.

Regular readers of this blog know that CIRM has been a big supporter of ViaCyte for many years, investing more than $72 million in nine different awards. They have developed an implantable device containing embryonic stem cells that develop into pancreatic progenitor cells, which are precursors to the islet cells destroyed by T1D. The hope is that when this device is transplanted under a patient’s skin, the progenitor cells will develop into mature insulin-secreting cells that can properly regulate the glucose levels in a patient’s blood.

One of the challenges in earlier testing was developing a cell-based therapy that could evade the immune system, so that people didn’t need to have their immune system suppressed to prevent it attacking and destroying the cells. This particular implantable version sprang out of an early stage award we made to ViaCyte (DISC2-10591). ViaCyte and CRISPR Therapeutics helped with the design of the therapeutic called VCTX210.

In a news release, Michael Yang, the President and CEO of ViaCyte, said getting approval for the trial was a major milestone: “Being first into the clinic with a gene-edited, immune-evasive cell therapy to treat patients with type 1 diabetes is breaking new ground as it sets a path to potentially broadening the treatable population by eliminating the need for immunosuppression with implanted cell therapies. This approach builds on previous accomplishments by both companies and represents a major step forward for the field as we strive to provide a functional cure for this devastating disease.”

The clinical trial, which will be carried out in Canada, is to test the safety of the therapy, whether it creates any kind of reaction after being implanted in the body, and how well it does in evading the patient’s immune system. In October our podcast – Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation – highlighted work in T1D and included an interview with Dr. Manasi Jaiman, ViaCyte’s Vice President for Clinical Development. Here’s an excerpt from that podcast.

Dr. Manasi Jaimin, ViaCyte VP Clinical development

Old therapies inspire new hope for treatment of pediatric brain tumors

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Image courtesy St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

A recent study led by John Hopkins Medicine has found that combining two ‘old therapies’ can offer a surprising new purpose – fighting Medulloblastoma, the most common malignant brain tumor in children. The fast-growing cancerous tumor originates in the brain or spinal cord and has traditionally been treated with surgery to remove the tumor followed by radiation and chemotherapy. 

The prospective therapy which comprises of copper ions and Disulfiram (DSF-Cu++), paves the way toward a successful treatment that can be used alone or in conjunction with traditional therapy. “Disulfiram, [is] a medication that’s been used for nearly 70 years to treat chronic alcoholism,” explains Betty Tyler, the study’s senior author and associate professor of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. “It has great promise being ‘repurposed’ as an anticancer agent, especially when it is complexed with metal ions such as copper.”

The researchers tested the anticancer activity of DSF-Cu++ and, in their attempts to define what it targeted at the molecular level to achieve these effects, were able to highlight four key findings.

First, the team of researchers found that DSF-Cu++ blocks two biological pathways in medulloblastomas that the cancer cells need in order to remove proteins threatening their survival. With these pathways blocked, these proteins accumulate in the tumor and cause the malignant cells to die, leaving them to eventually be removed by the body’s own immune system. 

Second, the researchers discovered that just a few hours of exposure to DSF-Cu++ not only kills medulloblastoma cells but can also effectively reduce the cancer stem cells responsible for their creation. 

The third finding in the study revealed that DSF-CU++ keeps cancer cells from recovering. By impairing the ability of medulloblastoma cells to repair the damage done to their DNA, DSF-CU++ enhances the cell killing power of the treatment.

Lastly, the promising combo of DSF-CU++ demonstrated significant increases in prolonging survival days of mice whose brains were implanted with two subtypes of medulloblastoma. 

Promising new approach for people with epilepsy

Image courtesy Epilepsy.com

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A new therapeutic approach, supported by CIRM, that blocks the signals in the brain that can cause epilepsy has been given permission by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be tested in a clinical trial.

Nearly 3.5 million Americans suffer from some form of epilepsy. It can affect people in different ways from stiff muscles or staring spells, to violent shaking and loss of consciousness. The impact it has on people’s lives extends far beyond the condition itself. People who suffer from epilepsy experience a higher frequency of depression and other mood disorders, social isolation, challenges in school and with living independently, higher unemployment, limitations on driving, and higher risk of early death.

Medications can help control the seizures in some people, but around one-third of patients don’t respond to those drugs. The alternative is surgery, which is invasive and can cause damage to delicate brain tissue.

Now Neurona Therapeutics has developed an approach, called NRTX-1001, that turns stem cells into interneurons, a kind of nerve cell in the brain. These cells secrete chemical messengers, called GABA inhibitory neurotransmitters, that help rebalance the misfiring electrical signals in the brain and hopefully eliminate or reduce the seizures.

Cory Nicholas, PhD, Neuron’s Therapeutics co-founder and CEO, said getting the go-ahead from the FDA for a clinical trial is a key milestone for the company. “Neurona’s accomplishments are a testament to longstanding support from CIRM. CIRM has supported the NRTX-1001 program from bench to bedside, dating back to early research in the Neurona founders’ laboratories at the University of California, San Francisco to the recent IND-enabling studies conducted at Neurona. It’s an exciting time for the field of regenerative medicine and is gratifying to see the NRTX-1001 neuronal cell therapy now cleared by the FDA to enter clinical testing in people who have drug resistant temporal lobe epilepsy. We are thankful to CIRM for their support of this important work that has the potential to provide seizure-freedom for patients who currently have limited treatment options.”

In a news release Dr. Nicholas said the timing was perfect. “This milestone is especially rewarding and timely given that November is Epilepsy Awareness Month. NRTX-1001 is a new type of inhibitory cell therapy that is targeted to the focal seizure onset region in the brain and, in a single treatment, has the potential to significantly improve the lives of people living with focal epilepsy.”

In animal models NRTX-1001 produced freedom from seizures in more than two-thirds of the treated group, compared to just 5 percent of the untreated group. It also resulted in reduced tissue damage in the seizure-affected area of the brain.

The clinical trial will initially target people affected by mesial temporal lobe epilepsy (MTLE) where seizures often begin in a structure called the hippocampus. MTLE is the most common type of focal epilepsy.

CIRM has invested almost $6.67 million in funding three stages of this project, from the early Discovery work to this latest late-stage preclinical work, highlighting our commitment to doing all we can to advance the most promising science from the bench to the bedside.