How the Tooth Fairy is helping unlock the secrets of autism

Our 2021-22 Annual Report is now online. It’s filled with information about the work we have done over the last year (we are on a fiscal calendar year from July 1 – June 30), the people who have helped us do that work, and some of the people who have benefited from that work. One of those is Dr. Alysson Muotri, a professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Cellular & Molecular Medicine at the University of California, San Diego.

Dr. Alysson Muotri, in his lab at UCSD

For Dr. Alysson Muotri, trying to unlock the secrets of the brain isn’t just a matter of scientific curiosity, it’s personal. He has a son with autism and Dr. Muotri is looking for ways to help him, and millions of others like him around the world.

He created the Tooth Fairy project where parents donated more than 3,000 baby teeth from  children with autism and children who are developing normally. Dr. Muotri then turned cells from those teeth into neurons, the kind of brain cell affected by autism. He is using those cells to try and identify how the brain of a child with autism differs from a child who is developing normally.

“We’ve been using cells from this population to see what are the alterations (in the gene) and if we can revert them back to a normal state. If you know the gene that is affected, and autism has a strong genetic component, by genome sequencing you can actually find what are the genes that are affected and in some cases there are good candidates for gene therapy. So, you just put the gene back. And we can see that in the lab where we are correcting the gene that is mutated, the networks start to function in a way that is more neurotypical or normal. We see that as highly promising, there’s a huge potential here to help those individuals.”

He is also creating brain organoids, three-dimensional structures created from stem cells that mimic some of the actions and activities of the brain. Because these are made from human cells, not mice or other animals, they may be better at indicating if new therapies have any potential risks for people.

“We can test drugs in the brain organoids of the person and see if it works, see if there’s any toxicity before you actually give the drug to a person, and it will save us time and money and will increase our knowledge about the human brain.”

He says he still gets excited seeing how these cells work. “It’s amazing, it’s a miracle. Every time I see it, it’s like seeing dolphins in the sea because it’s so beautiful.”

Dr. Muotri is also a big proponent of diversity, equity and inclusion in scientific research. He says in the past it was very much a top-down model with scientists deciding what was important. He says we need to change that and give patients and communities a bigger role in shaping the direction of research.

“I think this is something we scientists have to learn, how to incorporate patients in our research. These communities are the ones we are studying, and we need to know what they want and not assume that what we want is what they want. They should be consulted on our grants, and they should participate in the design of our experiments. That is the future.”

How stem cells helped Veronica fight retinitis pigmentosa and regain her vision

Veronica and Elliott

Growing up Veronica McDougall thought everyone saw the world the way she did; blurry, slightly out-of-focus and with tunnel vision.  As she got older her sight got worse and even the strongest prescription glasses didn’t help. When she was 15 her brother tried teaching her to drive. One night she got into the driver’s seat to practice and told him she couldn’t see anything. Everything was just black. After that she stopped driving.   

Veronica says high school was really hard for her, but she managed to graduate and go to community college. As her vision deteriorated, she found it was increasingly hard to read the course work and impossible to see the assignments on the blackboard. Veronica says she was lucky to have some really supportive teachers — including the now First Lady Jill Biden — but eventually she had to drop out.  

Getting a diagnosis

When she was 24, she went to see a specialist who told her she had retinitis pigmentosa, a rare degenerative condition that would eventually leave her legally blind. She says it felt like a death sentence. “All of my dreams of becoming a nurse, of getting married, of having children, of traveling – it all just shattered in that moment.” 

Veronica says she went from being a happy, positive person to an angry depressed one. She woke up each morning terrified, wondering, “Is this the day I go blind?” 

Then her mother learned about a CIRM-funded clinical trial with a company called jCyte. Veronica applied to be part of it, was accepted and was given an injection of stem cells in her left eye. She says over the course of a few weeks, her vision steadily improved. 

“About a month after treatment, I was riding in the car with my mom and suddenly, I realized I could see her out of the corner of my eye while looking straight ahead. That had never, ever happened to me before. Because, I had been losing my peripheral vision at a young age without realizing that until up to that point, I had never had that experience.” 

A second chance at life

She went back to college, threw herself into her studies, started hiking and being more active. She says it was as if she was reborn. But in her senior year, just as she was getting close to finishing her degree, her vision began to deteriorate again. Fortunately, she was able to take part in a second clinical trial, and this time her vision came back stronger than ever. 

“I’m so grateful to the researchers who gave me my sight back with the treatment they have worked their entire lives to develop. I am forever grateful for the two opportunities to even receive these two injections and to be a part of an amazing experience to see again. I feel so blessed! Thank you for giving me my life back.” 

And in getting her life back, Veronica had a chance to give life. When she was at college she met and starting dating Robert, the man who was to become her partner. They now have a little boy, Elliott.  

As for the future, Veronica hopes to get a second stem cell therapy to improve her vision even further. Veronica’s two treatments were in her left eye. She is hoping that the Food and Drug Administration will one day soon approve jCyte’s therapy, so that she can get the treatment in her right eye. Then, she says, she’ll be able to see the world as the rest of us can.  

CIRM has invested more than $150 million in programs targeting vision loss, including four clinical trials for retinitis pigmentosa

The researcher who is following her bliss, and tackling diseases of aging at the same time

Dr. Jill Helms, and associate! Photo courtesy Stanford University

Jill Helms is not your average Stanford University faculty member. Yes, she is a professor in the Department of Surgery. Yes, she has published lots of scientific studies. Yes, she is a stem cell scientist (funded by CIRM). And yes, she is playing a leading role in Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics, a company focused on tissue repair and regeneration. But she is so much more than all that.  

She is a brilliant public speaker, a fashionista, and has ridden her horse to work (well, Stanford is referred to as The Farm, so why not!) and she lives on a farm of her own called “Follow Your Bliss.” The name comes from philosopher Joseph Campbell who wrote, “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of path that has been there all the while, waiting for you. And the life you ought to be living is the one you are living.”  

Dr. Helms says that pretty much sums up her life. She says she feels enormously blessed.  

Well, we felt enormously blessed when she agreed to sit down with us and chat about her work, her life and her love of fashion for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine podcast, Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation.  

We hope you enjoy the latest episode! 

Stem Cell Agency funds clinical trial targeting scarred urethras

A urethral stricture is scarring of the tube that carries urine out of the body. If left untreated it can be intensely painful and lead to kidney stones and infections. That’s why the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is investing more than $3.8 million in a Phase 1 clinical trial to create a stem cell-based therapy for the condition.

This is the 81st clinical trial that CIRM has funded.

When a scar, or stricture, forms along the urethra it impedes the flow of urine and causes other complications. James Yoo, M.D., Ph.D., and his team at Wake Forest University Health Sciences will use epithelial and smooth muscle cells, taken from the patient’s bladder, and layer them on to a synthetic tubular scaffold. The tube will then be surgically implanted inside the urethra.

The goal is for the progenitor cells to support self-renewal of the tissue and for the entire structure to become integrated into the surrounding tissue and become indistinguishable from it, restoring normal urinary function. Dr. Yoo and his team believe their approach has the potential to be effective for at least a decade.

“While not immediately life-threatening, urethral strictures lead to multiple health complications that impair quality of life and predispose to kidney dysfunction,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “Developing an effective and durable treatment would significantly impact lives and has the potential to decrease the cumulative healthcare costs of treating recurrent kidney stones, infections and downstream kidney complications, especially of long-segment urethral strictures.”

Fighting for his life and the lives of other stroke survivors

Sean Entin, stroke survivor and founder of Stroke Hacker

The word “miraculous” gets tossed around a lot in the world of medicine, mostly by people who have made an unexpected recovery from a deadly or life-threatening condition. In Sean Entin’s case calling his recovery from an almost-fatal stroke could be called miraculous, but I think you would also have to say it’s due to hard work, determination, and an attitude that never even considered giving up.

Sean had a stroke in 2011. Doctors didn’t think he’d survive. He was put into a coma and underwent surgery to create an opening in his skull to give his brain time and space to heal. When he woke he couldn’t walk or talk, couldn’t count. Doctors told him he would never walk again.

They didn’t know Sean. Fast forward to today. Sean is active, has completed two 5k races – that’s two more than me – and has created Stroke Hacker, a program designed to help others going through what he did.

Sean is a remarkable man, which is why I sat down to chat with him for the latest episode of the California Institutes for Regenerative Medicine’s podcast, ‘Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation’.

He is a fascinating man, and he makes for fascinating company. Enjoy the podcast.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has invested more than $80 million in stroke research, including one clinical trial currently underway.

The present and future of regenerative medicine

One of the great pleasures of my job is getting to meet the high school students who take part in our SPARK or Summer Internship to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge program. It’s a summer internship for high school students where they get to spend a couple of months working in a world class stem cell and gene therapy research facility. The students, many of whom go into the program knowing very little about stem cells, blossom and produce work that is quite extraordinary.

One such student is Tan Ieng Huang, who came to the US from China for high school. During her internship at U.C. San Francisco she got to work in the lab of Dr. Arnold Kriegstein. He is the Founding Director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of California, San Francisco. Not only did she work in his lab, she took the time to do an interview with him about his work and his thoughts on the field.

It’s a fascinating interview and shows the creativity of our SPARK students. You will be seeing many other examples of that creativity in the coming weeks. But for now, enjoy the interview with someone who is a huge presence in the field today, by someone who may well be a huge presence in the not too distant future.

‘a tête-à-tête with Prof. Arnold Kriegstein’

The Kriegstein lab team: Photo courtesy UCSF

Prof. Arnold Kriegstein is the Founding Director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of California, San Francisco. Prof. Kriegstein is also the Co-Founder and Scientific Advisor of Neurona Therapeutics which seeks to provide effective and safe cell therapies for chronic brain disorder. A Clinician by training, Prof. Kriegstein has been fascinated by the intricate workings of the human brain. His laboratory focuses on understanding the transcriptional and signaling networks active during brain development, the diversity of neuronal cell types, and their fate potential. For a long time, he has been interested in harnessing this potential for translational and therapeutic intervention.

During my SEP internship I had the opportunity to work in the Kriegstein lab. I was in complete awe. I am fascinated by the brain. During the course of two months, I interacted with Prof. Kriegstein regularly, in lab meetings and found his ideas deeply insightful. Here’s presenting some excerpts from some of our discussions, so that it reaches many more people seeking inspiration!

Tan Ieng Huang (TH): Can you share a little bit about your career journey as a scientist?

Prof. Arnold Kriegstein (AK): I wanted to be a doctor when I was very young, but in high school I started having some hands-on research experience. I just loved working in the lab. From then on, I was thinking of combining those interests and an MD/PhD turned out to be an ideal course for me. That was how I started, and then I became interested in the nervous system. Also, when I was in high school, I spent some time one summer at Rockefeller University working on a project that involved operant conditioning in rodents and I was fascinated by behavior and the role of the brain in learning and memory. That happened early on, and turned into an interest in cortical development and with time, that became my career.

TH: What was your inspiration growing up, what made you take up medicine as a career?

AK: That is a little hard to say, I have an identical twin brother. He and I used to always share activities, do things together. And early on we actually became eagle scouts, sort of a boy scout activity in a way. In order to become an eagle scout without having to go through prior steps, we applied to a special program that the scouts had, which allowed us to shadow physicians in a local hospital. I remember doing that at a very young age. It was a bit ironic, because one of the evenings, they showed us films of eye surgery, and my brother actually fainted when they made an incision in the eye. The reason it makes me laugh now is because my brother became an eye surgeon many years later. But I remember our early experience, we both became very fascinated by medicine and medical research.

Tan Ieng and Dr. Arnold Kriegstein at UCSF

TH: What inspired you to start the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research Institute?

AK: My interest in brain development over the years became focused on earlier stages of development and eventually Neurogenesis, you know, how neurons are actually generated during early stages of in utero brain development. In the course of doing that we discovered that the radial glial cells, which have been thought for decades to simply guide neurons as they migrate, turned out to actually be the neural stem cells, they were making the neurons and also guiding them toward the cortex. So, they were really these master cells that had huge importance and are now referred to as neural stem cells. But at that time, it was really before the stem cell field took off. But because we studied neurogenesis, because I made some contributions to understanding how the brain develops from those precursors or progenitor cells, when the field of stem cells developed, it was very simple for me to identify as someone who studied neural stem cells. I became a neural stem cell scientist. I started a neural stem cell program at Columbia University when I was a Professor there and raised 15 million dollars to seed the program and hired new scientists. It was shortly after that I was approached to join UCSF as the founder of a new stem cell program. And it was much broader than the nervous system; it was a program that covered all the different tissues and organ systems.

TH: Can you tell us a little bit about how stem cell research is contributing to the treatment of diseases? How far along are we in terms of treatments?

AK: It’s taken decades, but things are really starting to reach the clinic now. The original work was basic discovery done in research laboratories, now things are moving towards the clinic. It’s a really very exciting time. Initially the promise of stem cell science was called Regenerative medicine, the idea of replacing injured or worn-out tissues or structures with new cells and new tissues, new organs, the form of regeneration was made possible by understanding that there are stem cells that can be tweaked to actually help make new cells and tissues. Very exciting process, but in fact the main progress so far hasn’t been replacing worn out tissues and injured cells, but rather understanding diseases using human based model of disease. That’s largely because of the advent of induced pluripotent stem cells, a way of using stem cells to make neurons or heart cells or liver cells in the laboratory, and study them both in normal conditions during development and in disease states. Those platforms which are relatively easy to make now and are pretty common all over the world allow us to study human cells rather than animal cells, and the hope is that by doing that we will be able to produce conventional drugs and treatments that work much better than ones we had in the past, because they will be tested in actual human cells rather than animal cells.

TH: That is a great progress and we have started using human models because even though there are similarities with animal models, there are still many species-specific differences, right?

AK: Absolutely, in fact, one of the big problems now in Big Pharma, you know the drug companies, is that they invest millions and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars in research programs that are based on successes in treating mice, but patients don’t respond the same way. So the hope is that by starting with a treatment that works on human cells it might be more likely that the treatment will work on human patients.

TH: What are your thoughts on the current challenges and future of stem cell research?

AK: I think this is an absolute revolution in modern medicine, the advent of two things that are happening right now, first the use of induced pluripotent stem cells, the ability to make pluripotent cells from adult tissue or cells from an individual allows us to use models of diseases that I mentioned earlier from actual patients. That’s one major advance. And the other is gene editing, and the combination of gene editing and cell-based discovery science allows us to think of engineering cells in ways that can make them much more effective as a form of cell therapy and those cell therapies have enormous promise. Right now, they are being used to treat cancer, but in the future, they might be able to treat heart attack, dementia, neurodegenerative diseases, ALS, Parkinson’s disease, a huge list of disorders that are untreatable right now or incurable. They might be approached by the combination of cell-based models, cell therapies, and gene editing.

TH: I know there are still some challenges right now, like gene editing has some ethical issues because people don’t know if there can be side effects after the gene editing, what are your thoughts?

AK: You know, like many other technologies there are uncertainties, and there are some issues. Some of the problems are off-target effects, that is you try to make a change in one particular gene, and while doing that you might change other genes in unexpected ways and cause complications. But we are understanding that more and more now and can make much more precise gene editing changes in just individual genes without affecting unanticipated areas of the genome. And then there are also the problems of how to gene-edit cells in a safe way. There are certain viral factors that can be used to introduce the gene editing apparatus into a cell, and sometimes if you are doing that in a patient, you can also have unwanted side effects from the vectors that you are using, often they are modified viral vectors. So, things get complicated very quickly when you start trying to treat patients, but I think these are all tractable problems and I think in time they will all be solved. It will be a terrific, very promising future when it comes to treating patients who are currently untreatable.

TH: Do you have any advice for students who want to get into this field?

AK: Yes, I think it’s actually never been a better time and I am amazed by the technologies that are available now. Gene editing that I mentioned before but also single cell approaches, the use of single cell multiomics revealing gene expression in individual cells, the molecular understanding of how individual cells are formed, how they are shaped, how they change from one stage to another, how they can be forced into different fates. It allows you to envision true Regenerative medicine, improving health by healing or replacing injured or diseased tissues. I think this is becoming possible now, so it’s a very exciting time. Anyone who has an interest in stem cell biology or new ways of treating diseases, should think about getting into a laboratory or a clinical setting. I think this time is more exciting than it’s ever been.

TH: So excited to hear that, because in school we have limited access to the current knowledge, the state-of-art. I want to know what motivates you every day to do Research and contribute to this field?

AK: Well, you know that I have been an MD/PhD, as I mentioned before, in a way, there are two different reward systems at play. In terms of the PhD and the science, it’s the discovery part that is so exciting. Going in every day and thinking that you might learn something that no one has ever known before and have a new insight into a mechanism of how something happens, why it happens. Those kinds of new insights are terrifically satisfying, very exciting. On the MD side, the ability to help patients and improve peoples’ lives is a terrific motivator. I always wanted to do that, was very driven to become a Neurologist and treat both adult and pediatric patients with neurological problems. In the last decade or so, I’ve not been treating patients so much, and have focused on the lab, but we have been moving some of our discoveries from the laboratory into the clinic. We have just started a clinical trial, of a new cell-based therapy for epilepsy in Neurona Therapeutics, which is really exciting. I am hoping it will help the patients but it’s also a chance to actually see something that started out as a project in the laboratory become translated into a therapy for patients, so that’s an achievement that has really combined my two interests, basic science, and clinical medicine. It’s a little late in life but not too late, so I’m very excited about that.

Tan Ieng Huang, Kriegstein Lab, SEP Intern, CIRM Spark Program 2022

Why people seek out unproven and potentially unsafe stem cell treatments

Every day I field phone calls and emails from people looking for a stem cell therapy to help them cope with everything from arthritis to cancer. Often, they will mention that they saw an ad for a clinic online or in a local newspaper claiming they had stem cell therapies that could help fix anything and asking me if they are legitimate.

Even after I try to explain that the therapies these clinics are offering haven’t been tested in a clinical trial and that there’s scant evidence to show they are even safe let alone effective, I know that a good chunk of the callers are going to try them anyway.

Now a survey by the Mayo Clinic takes a deeper dive into why people are willing to put science aside and open up their wallets to go to predatory stem cell clinics for so-called “therapies”.

Dr. Zubin Master. Photo courtesy Mayo Clinic

In a news release Dr. Zubin Master, a co-author of the study, says many patients are lured in by hype and hope.

“We learned that many patients interested in stem cells had beliefs that are not supported by current medical evidence. For example, many thought stem cells were better than surgery or the standard of care.”

The survey asked 533 people, who had approached the Mayo Clinic’s Regenerative Medicine Therapeutic Suites for a consultation about arthritis or musculoskeletal problems, three questions.

  • Why are you interested in stem cell treatment for your condition?
  • How did you find out about stem cell treatment for your condition?
  • Have you contacted a stem cell clinic?

A whopping 46 percent of those who responded said they thought stem cell therapy would help them avoid or at least delay having to get a hip or knee replacement, or that it was a better option than surgery. Another 26 percent said they thought it would ease the pain of an arthritic joint.

The fact that there is little or no evidence to support any of these beliefs didn’t seem to matter. Most people say they got their information about these “therapies” online or by talking to friends and family.

These “therapies” aren’t cheap either. They can cost thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars, and that comes out of the patient’s pocket because none of this is covered by insurance. Yet every year people turn to these bogus clinics because they don’t like the alternatives, mainly surgery.

There is a lot of promising stem cell research taking place around the US trying to find real scientific solutions to arthritic joints and other problems. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has invested almost $24 million in this research. But until those approaches have proven themselves effective and, hopefully, been approved for wider use by the Food and Drug Administration, CIRM and other agencies will have to keep repeating a message many people just don’t want to hear, that these therapies are not yet ready for prime time.

Using stem cells and smart machines to warn of heart problems

Despite advances in treatments in recent years heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the US. It accounts for one in three deaths in this country, and many people are not even aware they have a problem until they have a heart attack.

One of the early warning signs of danger is a heart arrhythmia; that’s when electrical signals that control the hearts beating don’t work properly and can result in the heart beating too fast, too slow, or irregularly. However, predicting who is at risk of these arrhythmias is difficult. Now new research may have found a way to change that.

A research team at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Singapore combined stem cells with machine learning, and developed a way to predict arrhythmias, with a high degree of accuracy.

The team used stem cells to create different batches of cardiomyocytes or heart muscle cells. Some of these batches were healthy heart cells, but some had arrhythmias caused by different problems such as a genetic disorder or drug induced.

They then trained a machine learning program to use videos to scan the 3,000 different groups of cells. By studying the different beating patterns of the cells, and then using the levels of calcium in the cells, the machine was able to predict, with 90 percent accuracy, which cells were most likely to experience arrhythmias.

The researchers say their approach is faster, simpler and more accurate than current methods of trying to predict who is at risk for arrhythmias and could have a big impact on our ability to intervene before the individual suffers a fatal heart attack.

The research was published in the journal Stem Cell Reports.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine has invested more than $180 million in more than 80 different projects, including four clinical trials, targeting heart disease.

A big deal for type 1 diabetes

It’s not often you get excited talking about company mergers, but a deal announced today is something worth getting excited about, particularly if you have type 1 diabetes (T1D).  

Today Vertex announced it was buying ViaCyte for $320 million in cash. Why is that important? Because both companies are working on developing stem cell therapies for people with type 1 diabetes, so combining the two may help speed up that work. 

Now, in the interests of full disclosure the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has been supporting ViaCyte’s work for some years now, investing in nine different research programs, including two clinical trials with the company.  

ViaCyte has been developing an implantable device which contains pancreatic endoderm cells that mature over a few months and turn into insulin-producing pancreatic islet cells, the kind destroyed by T1D.  

Vertex is taking a slightly different approach, manufacturing synthetic islet cells which are then injected into the patient.  

In a news release both companies said the deal – which is slated to be completed later this year – would help speed up that work.:  

“VX-880 has successfully demonstrated clinical proof of concept in T1D, and the acquisition of ViaCyte will accelerate our goal of transforming, if not curing T1D by expanding our capabilities and bringing additional tools, technologies and assets to our current stem cell-based programs,” said Reshma Kewalramani, M.D., Chief Executive Officer and President of Vertex.  

“ViaCyte’s commitment to finding a functional cure for T1D is shared by Vertex, and this acquisition will allow Vertex to deploy ViaCyte’s tools, technologies and assets toward the development of Vertex’s multiple cell replacement therapy approaches designed to reduce the burden of millions of people living with T1D worldwide,” said Michael Yang, President and Chief Executive Officer of ViaCyte.  

Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President and CEO, says it’s always gratifying to see a project we have supported continue to progress.

“We are delighted at the news that Vertex and ViaCyte are combining their experience, expertise and resources in working to develop a stem cell therapy for type 1 diabetes. At CIRM we pride ourselves on helping de-risk projects, giving promising research the support it needs to attract outside investment. We have been big supporters of ViaCyte’s work over many years. That support has been vital in helping lead to this deal. We believe this is good news for both companies and hope it will ultimately be even better news for everyone with type 1 diabetes.”

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