An experimental gene therapy with a hairy twist

In October 2019, 20-year-old Jordan Janz became the first person in the world to receive an experimental therapy for cystinosis. Cystinosis is a rare genetic disorder characterized by the accumulation of an amino acid called cystine in different tissues and organs of the body including the kidneys, eyes, muscles, liver, pancreas, and brain. This accumulation of cystine ultimately leads to multi-organ failure, eventually causing premature death in early adulthood. On average, cystinosis patients live to 28.5 years old. By that calculation, Janz didn’t have a lot of time.

The treatment was grueling but worth it. The experimental gene therapy funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine seemed to work and Janz began to feel better. There was, however, an unexpected change. Janz’s almost white, blonde hair had settled into a darker tone. Of all the things the gene therapy was expected to alter such as the severity of his cystinosis symptoms hair color was not one of them. Eventually, the same phenomenon played out in other people: So far in the gene-therapy trial, four of the five patients all of whom are white have gotten darker hair.

The outcome, while surprising to researchers, didn’t seem to be a sign of something going awry, instead they determined that it might be a very visible sign of the gene therapy working.

The sudden hair-color changes were surprising to Stephanie Cherqui, a stem-cell scientist at UC San Diego and the principal investigator of the gene-therapy trial. However, it didn’t seem to be a sign of something going awry, instead Cherqui and her colleagues determined that it might be a very visible sign of the gene therapy working.

But exactly how did genetically modifying Janz’s (and other participants’) blood cells change his hair color? In this instance, scientists chose to genetically tweak blood stem cells because they have a special ability: Some eventually become white blood cells, which then travel to all different parts of the body.

Janz’s new white blood cells were genetically modified to express the gene that is mutated in cystinosis, called CTNS. Once they traveled to his eyes, skin, and gut, the white blood cells began pumping out the missing protein encoded by the gene. Cells in the area began taking up the protein and clearing away long accumulated cystine crystals. In Janz, the anti-cystine proteins from his modified blood cells must have reached the hair follicles in his skin. There, they cleared out the excess cystine that was blocking normal melanin production, and his hair got darker.

Hair color is one way in which patients in the clinical trial are teaching scientists about the full scope of the CTNS gene. The investigators have since added hair biopsies to the trial in order to track the color changes in a more systematic fashion.

Read the full article on The Atlantic.

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  

Can regenerative medicine turn back the clock on aging?

One of my favorite phrases is “standing room only”. I got a chance to use it last week when we held a panel discussion on whether regenerative medicine could turn back the clock on aging. The event was at the annual conference of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) and more than 150 people packed into a conference room to hear the debate (so far more than 800 also watched a live stream of the event.)

It’s not surprising the place was jammed. The speakers included:

  • Dr. Deepak Srivastava, the President of the Gladstone Institutes, an expert on heart disease and the former President of ISSCR.
  • Dr. Stanley “Tom” Carmichael, Chair of the Department of Neurology at UCLA and an expert on strokes and other forms of brain injury.
  • Adrienne Shapiro, the mother of a daughter with sickle cell disease, a tireless patient advocate and supporter of regenerative medicine research, and the co-founder of Axis Advocacy, a family support organization for people with sickle cell.
  • Jonathan Tomas, PhD, JD, the Chair of the CIRM Board.

And the topic is a timely one. It is estimated that as many as 90 percent of the people who die every day, die from diseases of aging such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer. So, what can be done to change that, to not just slow down or stop these diseases, but to turn back the clock, to repair the damage already done and replace cells and tissues already destroyed.

The conversation was enlightening, hopeful and encouraging, but also cautionary.

You can watch the whole event on our Youtube channel.

I think you are going to enjoy it.

Two reasons to remember June 19th

Today marks two significant events for the Black community. June 19th is celebrated as Juneteenth, the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to ensure that the enslaved people there were free. That moment came two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law.

June 19th is also marked as World Sickle Cell Awareness Day. It’s an opportunity to raise awareness about a disease that affects around 100,000 Americans, most of them Black, and the impact it has on the whole family and entire communities.

Sickle cell disease (SCD) is an inherited blood disorder that is caused by a genetic mutation. Instead of red blood cells being smooth and round and flowing easily through arteries and veins, the cells are sickle shaped and brittle. They can clog up arteries and veins, cutting off blood to vital organs, causing intense pain, organ damage and leading to premature death.

SCD can be cured with a bone marrow transplant, but that’s a risky procedure and most people with SCD don’t have a good match. Medications can help keep it under control but cannot cure it. People with SCD live, on average, 30 years less than a healthy adult.

CIRM has invested almost $60 million in 13 different projects, including five clinical trials, to try and develop a cure for SCD. There are encouraging signs of progress. For example, in July of 2020, Evie Junior took part in a CIRM-funded clinical trial where his own blood stem cells were removed then, in the laboratory, were genetically modified to repair the genetic mutation that causes the disease. Those cells were returned to him, and the hope is they’ll create a sickle cell-free blood supply. Evie hasn’t had any crippling bouts of pain or had to go to the hospital since his treatment.

Evie Junior: Photo by Jaquell Chandler

CIRM has also entered into a unique partnership with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) to co-fund cell and gene therapy programs under the NIH “Cure Sickle Cell” initiative.  The goal is to markedly accelerate the development of cell and gene therapies for SCD.

“There is a real need for a new approach to treating SCD and making life easier for people with SCD and their families,” says Adrienne Shapiro, the mother of a daughter with SCD and the co-founder of Axis Advocacy, a sickle cell advocacy and education organization. “Finding a cure for Sickle Cell would mean that people like my daughter would no longer have to live their life in short spurts, constantly having their hopes and dreams derailed by ER visits and hospital stays.  It would mean they get a chance to live a long life, a healthy life, a normal life.”

We will all keep working together to advance this research and develop a cure. Until then Juneteenth will be a reminder of the work that still lies ahead.

Stem cells help researchers map out glaucoma in search for new treatments

Glaucoma is the world’s leading cause of irreversible blindness. There is no cure and current treatments are only able to slow down the progression of the disease. Now research using stem cells to create a genetic blueprint of glaucoma is giving scientist a powerful new tool to combat the disease.

Glaucoma occurs when healthy retinal ganglion cells, which relay information from the eyes to the brain, are damaged and die. However, researchers were unable to really understand what was happening because the only way to look at retinal ganglion cells was through very invasive procedures.

So, researchers in Australia took skin cells from people with glaucoma and people with healthy eyes and, using the iPSC method, turned them into retinal ganglion cells. They were then able to map the genetic expression of these cells and compare the healthy cells with the diseased ones.

In an interview with Science Daily, Professor Joseph Powell , who led the team, says they were able to identify more than 300 unique genetic features which could provide clues as to what is causing the vision loss.

“The sequencing identifies which genes are turned on in a cell, their level of activation and where they are turned on and off like a road network with traffic lights. This research gives us a genetic roadmap of glaucoma and identifies 312 sites in the genome where these lights are blinking. Understanding which of these traffic lights should be turned off or on will be the next step in developing new therapies to prevent glaucoma.”

Powell says by identifying underlying causes for glaucoma researchers may be able to develop new, more effective therapies.

The study is published in Cell Genomics.

Join us to hear how stem cell and gene therapy are taking on diseases of aging

It is estimated that as many as 90 percent of people in industrialized countries who die every day, die from diseases of aging such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Of those still alive the numbers aren’t much more reassuring. More than 80 percent of people over the age of 65 have a chronic medical condition, while 68 percent have two or more.

Current medications can help keep some of those conditions, such as high blood pressure, under control but regenerative medicine wants to do a lot more than that. We want to turn back the clock and restore function to damaged organs and tissues and limbs. That research is already underway and we are inviting you to a public event to hear all about that work and the promise it holds.

On June 16th from 3p – 4.30p PST we are holding a panel discussion exploring the impact of regenerative medicine on aging. We’ll hear from experts on heart disease and stroke; we will look at other ground breaking research into aging; and we’ll discuss the vital role patients and patient advocates play in helping advance this work.

The discussion is taking place in San Francisco at the annual conference of the International Society for Stem Cell Research. But you can watch it from the comfort of your own home. That’s because we are going to live stream the event.

Here’s where you can see the livestream: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaUgsc5alDI

And if you have any questions you would like the panel to answer feel free to send them to us at info@cirm.ca.gov

The long road to developing a therapy for epilepsy

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Good science takes time. That’s an important guiding phrase for researchers looking to develop new therapies. But it’s also a frustrating reality for patients who are waiting for something to help them now.

That point was driven home last week when the governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) voted to invest almost $8 million to test a new approach to treating a drug-resistant form of epilepsy. This approach holds a lot of promise but getting to this point has not been easy or quick.

Epilepsy is one of the most common neurological disorders in the US, affecting more than three million people. More than one third of those people have a form of epilepsy that doesn’t respond to current medications, so the only options are surgery or using lasers (LITT) to remove the affected part of the brain. Not surprisingly this can cause serious, irreversible damage, such as effects on memory, mood and vision. Equally unsurprising, because of those impacts many people are reluctant to go that route.

Now a company called Neurona Therapeutics has developed a new approach called NRTX-1001. This consists of a specialized type of neuronal or brain cell that is derived from embryonic stem cells (hESCs).  These neuronal cells are injected into the brain in the area affected by the seizures where they release a neurotransmitter or chemical messenger that will block the signals in the brain causing the epileptic seizures. Pre-clinical testing suggests a single dose of NRTX-1001 may have a long-lasting ability to suppress seizures.

Cory Nicholas, PhD, the Co-Founder and CEO of Neurona says this approach will be tested on people with drug-resistant temporal lobe epilepsy, the most common form of epilepsy.

“To our knowledge, NRTX-1001 is the first human cell therapy to enter clinical trials for epilepsy. This cell therapy has the potential to provide a less invasive, non-tissue destructive, regenerative alternative for people with chronic focal seizures.” 

“Epilepsy patient advocates and clinicians have said that such a regenerative cell therapy could represent a first option that, if successful, could obviate the need for lobectomy/LITT. And for those not eligible for lobectomy/LITT, cell therapy could provide the only option to potentially achieve seizure-freedom.”

Nicholas says this work didn’t happen overnight. “This effort to develop regenerative cell therapy for epilepsy officially began in the early 2000’s from the laboratories of John Rubenstein, MD, PhD, Arturo Alvarez-Buylla, PhD, and Arnold Kriegstein, MD, PhD, at UC San Francisco. They were among the first to understand how specialized inhibitory nerve cells, called interneurons, develop from neural stem cells in our forebrain before birth. Subsequently, they pioneered the extraction and use of these cells as a cell therapy in preclinical models.”

Over the years the group working on this approach expanded, later becoming Neurona Therapeutics, and CIRM supported that work with several awards.

“CIRM provided the necessary funds and expertise to help translate our discoveries toward the clinic using human embryonic stem cell (hESC) technology to generate a sustainable supply of interneuron cells for further evaluation. Truly, CIRM has been the essential catalyst in accelerating this important research from bench to bedside.”

Nicholas says its immensely gratifying to be part of this work, and to know that if it succeeds it will be life-altering, even life-saving, for so many people.

“It is difficult to reflect back with all the work that is happening at present on the first-in-human trial, but it is always emotional for me to think about our amazing team: Neurona employees, CIRM staff, clinicians, professors, trainees, collaborators, and investors; who have worked tirelessly in contributing to the advancement of this therapeutic mission. I am deeply humbled by the opportunity to be part of this innovative, rigorous, and compassionate effort, and by the responsibility to the brave patients participating in the study. We remain steadfast in our commitment to patient safety and cautiously optimistic that NRTX-1001 cell therapy will improve quality of life for people living with chronic focal epilepsy. Moreover, we are sincerely thankful to Californians for their commitment to CIRM’s vision, and we are proud to be a part of this groundbreaking initiative that has put our state at the forefront, dedicated to fulfilling the promise of regenerative medicine.”

The power of the patient advocate: how a quick visit led to an $11M grant to fund a clinical trial

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Members of NFOSD visiting UC Davis in 2013

At the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) we are fortunate in having enough money to fund the most promising research to be tested in a clinical trial. Those are expensive projects, often costing tens of millions of dollars. But sometimes the projects that come to our Board start out years before in much more humble circumstances, raising money through patient advocates, tapping into the commitment and ingenuity of those affected by a disease, to help advance the search for a treatment.

That was definitely the case with a program the CIRM Board voted to approve yesterday, investing more than $11 million dollars to fund a Phase 2 clinical trial testing a cell therapy for dysphagia. That’s a debilitating condition that affects many people treated for head and neck cancer.

Patients with head and neck cancer often undergo surgery and/or radiation to remove the tumors. As a result, they may develop problems swallowing and this can lead to serious complications such as malnutrition, dehydration, social isolation, or a dependence on using a feeding tube. Patients may also inhale food or liquids into their lungs causing infections, pneumonia and death. The only effective therapy is a total laryngectomy where the larynx or voice box is removed, leaving the person unable to speak.

Dr. Peter Belafsky and his team at the University of California at Davis are developing a therapeutic approach using Autologous Muscle Derived Progenitor Cells (AMDC), cells derived from a biopsy of the patient’s own muscle, elsewhere in the body. Those AMDCs are injected into the tongue of the patient, where they fuse with existing muscle fibers to increase tongue strength and ability to swallow.

The $11,015,936 that Dr. Belafsky is getting from CIRM will enable them to test this approach in patients. But without grass roots support the program might never have made it this far.

Ed Steger is a long-term survivor of head and neck cancer, he’s also the President of the National Foundation of Swallowing Disorders (NFOSD). In 2007, after being treated for his cancer, Ed developed a severe swallowing disorder. It helped motivate him to push for better treatment options.

In 2013, a dozen swallowing disorder patients visited UC Davis to learn how stem cells might help people with dysphagia. (You can read about that visit here). Ed says: “We were beyond thrilled with the possibilities and drawing on patients and other UCD contacts our foundation raised enough funds to support a small UCD clinical trial under the guidance of Dr. Belafsky in mouse models that demonstrated these possibilities.”

A few years later that small funding by patients and their family members grew into a well-funded Phase I/II human clinical trial. Ed says the data that trial produced is helping advance the search for treatments.

“Skipping forward to the present, this has now blossomed into an additional $11 million grant, from CIRM, to continue the work that could be a game changer for millions of Americans who suffer annually from oral phase dysphagia. My hat is off to all those that have made this possible… the donors, patient advocates, and the dedicated committed researchers and physicians who are performing this promising and innovative research.”

Our hats are off to them too. Their efforts are making what once might have seemed impossible, a real possibility.

Marathon effort to raise awareness about Huntington’s disease

The COVID pandemic put a lot of things on hold over the last two years. But thanks to the vaccine and boosters more and more people are feeling comfortable about getting out and about again. Case in point, the Orange County Marathon was held for the first time in two years on Sunday, May 1st.

Because May is Huntington’s disease Awareness Month the University of California at Irvine HD-CARE group took the opportunity to use the marathon to raise awareness about the disease, raise some money, but also to celebrate each other and the work they do.

Huntington’s disease is a particularly nasty disease. It’s a rare, inherited condition that leads to the steady breakdown of nerve cells in the brain, affecting movement and thinking and can cause severe psychiatric issues including mania and bipolar disorder. Treatments are limited and there is no cure.

Frances Saldana, a great supporter of CIRM and an amazing advocate for HD, told us they wanted the event to add friendship, hope, and fun in the lives of our scientists, patient advocates, and family members as we go together on our journey in search of a treatment and/or cure for Huntington’s disease. It was a really good day, and we had a lot of fun.” 

They created a short video to highlight just how much fun they had.

It’s a lovely reminder that even in the face of an horrendous disease like HD, people can find fellowship, fun and a sense of hope.

CIRM has invested almost $36 million in funds several projects targeting Huntington’s, and you can read about those here.

Replacement brain cells offer hope for Parkinson’s treatment

A colony of iPSCs from a Parkinson’s patient (left) and dopaminergic neurons made from these iPSCs (right) to model PD. (Image credit: Jeanne Loring)

A new study that used adult blood stem cells to create replacement brain nerve cells appears to help rats with Parkinson’s.

In Parkinson’s, the disease attacks brain nerve cells that produce a chemical called dopamine. The lack of dopamine produces a variety of symptoms including physical tremors, depression, anxiety, insomnia and memory problems. There is no cure and while there are some effective treatments they tend to wear off over time.

In this study, researchers at Arizona State University took blood cells from humans and, using the iPSC method, changed those into dopamine-producing neurons. They then cultured those cells in the lab before implanting them in the brains of rats which had Parkinson’s-like symptoms.

They found that rats given cells that had been cultured in the lab for 17 days survived in greater numbers and seemed to be better at growing new connections in their brains, compared to rats given cells that had been cultured for 24 or 37 days.

In addition, those rats given larger doses of the cells experienced a complete reversal of their symptoms, compared to rats given smaller doses.

In a news release, study co-author Dr. Jeffrey Kordower, said: “We cannot be more excited by the opportunity to help individuals who suffer from [a] genetic form of Parkinson’s disease, but the lessons learned from this trial will also directly impact patients who suffer from sporadic, or non-genetic forms of this disease.”

The study, published in the journal npj Regenerative Medicine, says this approach might also help people suffering from other neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s or Huntington’s disease.