CIRM Board Approves Two New Discovery Research Projects for COVID-19

Dr. Karen Christman (left) and Dr. Lili Yang (right)

This past Friday the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved two new discovery research project as part of the $5 million in emergency funding for COVID-19 related projects.  This brings the number of COVID-19 projects CIRM is supporting to 17, including three clinical trials.

$249,974 was awarded to Dr. Karen Christman at UC San Diego to develop a treatment for Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), a life-threatening lung injury that occurs when fluid leaks into the lungs and is prevalent in COVID-19 patients.  Dr. Christman and her team will develop extracellular matrix (ECM) hydrogels, a kind of structure that provides support to surrounding cells.  The goal is to develop a treatment that can be delivered directly to site of injury, where the ECM would recruit stem cells, treat lung inflammation, and promote lung healing.

$250,000 was awarded to Dr. Lili Yang at UCLA to develop a treatment for COVID-19.  Dr. Yang and her team will use blood stem cells to create invariant natural killer T (iNKT) cells, a powerful kind of immune cell with the potential to clear virus infection and mitigate harmful inflammation.  The goal is to develop these iNKT cells as an off the shelf therapy to treat patients with COVID-19.

These awards are part of CIRM’s Quest Awards Program (DISC2), which promotes promising new technologies that could be translated to enable broad use and improve patient care.

“The harmful lung inflammation caused by COVID-19 can be dangerous and life threatening,” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., the President and CEO of CIRM. “Early stage discovery projects like the ones approved today are vital in developing treatments for patients severely affected by the novel coronavirus.”

Earlier in the week the Board also approved changes to both DISC2 and clinical trial stage projects (CLIN2). These were in recognition of the Agency’s remaining budget and operational timeline and the need to launch the awards as quickly as possible.

For DISC2 awards the changes include:

  • Award limit of $250,000
  • Maximum award duration of 12 months
  • Initiate projects within 30 days of approval
  • All proposals must provide a statement describing how their overall study plan and design has considered the influence of race, ethnicity, sex and gender diversity.
  • All proposals should discuss the limitations, advantages, and/or challenges in developing a product or tools that addresses the unmet medical needs of California’s diverse population, including underserved communities.

Under the CLIN2 awards, to help projects carry out a clinical trial, the changes include:

  • Adjust award limit to the following:
Applicant typePhase 1, Phase 1/2, Feasability Award CapPhase 2 Award CapPhase 3 Award Cap
Non-profit$9M$11.25M$7.5M
For-profit$6M$11.25M$7.5M
  • Adjust the award duration to not exceed 3 years with award completion no later than November 2023
  • Initiate projects within 30 days of approval
  • All proposals must include a written plan in the application for outreach and study participation by underserved and disproportionately affected populations. Priority will be given to projects with the highest quality plans in this regard.

The changes outlined above for CLIN2 awards do not apply to sickle cell disease projects expected to be funded under the CIRM/NHLBI Cure Sickle Cell Disease joint Initiative.

Cord blood transplants help children fighting deadly diseases

Dr. Paul Szabolcs: Photo courtesy of UPMC

A simple blood stem cell transplant is showing tremendous promise in treating a wide range of metabolic, blood and immune disorders such as thalassemia and some leukodystrophies.

These are considered rare diseases – meaning there are fewer than 200,000 people with them in the US – so there is often little funding available to develop new therapies to help people suffering from them. So, researchers at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh set out to develop a therapy that could help several different disorders without having to craft individual approaches for each condition.

The team used blood stem cells from donated umbilical cords and placentas. In a news article, study senior author Dr. Paul Szabolcs, said they then used a combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy to prepare the patients for the transplant and increase the chance of success.

“We approached the topic with the mindset to design a regimen that carefully balances low-intensity chemo (bringing safety) with sufficiently effective immunotherapy to blast away the patients’ immune system, therefore preventing rejection. Rejection has been a common failure when other centers explored the reduced-intensity conditioning (RIC) approach with cord blood. We are the first to prove the RIC is able to give reliable results in long-term engraftment.”

Szabolcs says another advantage to their approach was that it meant there didn’t need to be a perfect immune system match of donor and recipient.

“That’s huge for ethnic minorities. The probability of a perfect match is very low, but with a cord blood graft, we have a chance to overcome this discrepancy over the course of a couple months and then taper immunosuppressants away.”

Altogether 44 children were treated this way. After undergoing the preparation, they had the blood stem cells transfused into them and, once those cells had integrated into the body they got a second, smaller, transfusion a few weeks later to help kick start their immune system.

Most of the complications from the infusions were mild, and while around 5 percent of children died from viral infection due to the immune suppression this was much lower than in earlier studies. Another encouraging sign was that none of the children suffered severe Graft vs Host disease which can be fatal.

Thirty of the children in the trial suffered from metabolic disorders, meaning their bodies were unable to remove dangerous toxins, and this led to developmental delays in their brains. One year after the treatment all 30 children had normal enzyme levels and their neurological decline had stopped. Some of the children even showed improvements and gained new skills.

Most of the children with metabolic disorders had leukodystrophies. These are usually fatal within a few years of diagnosis. Even with a cord blood transplant the three-year survival rate is only 60 percent. In this trial more than 90 percent of children with leukodystrophies were alive after three years.

Dr. Szabolcs says this approach has a lot of advantages over existing approaches, including cost.

“There has been a lot of emphasis placed on cool new technologies that might address these diseases, but — even if they prove effective — those aren’t available to most centers. The regimen we developed is more robust, readily applicable and will remain significantly less expensive.”

The study was published in the journal Blood Advances.

Four teaspoons could save a life

Sometimes it’s the smallest things that make the biggest difference. In the case of a clinical trial that CIRM is funding, all it takes to be part of it is four teaspoons of blood.

The clinical trial is being run by Dr. John Zaia and his team at the City of Hope in Duarte, near Los Angeles, in partnership with tgen and the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network. They are going to use blood plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 to treat people newly infected with the virus. The hope is that antibodies in the plasma, which can help fight infections, will reduce the severity or length of infection in others.

Dr. John Zaia. Photo courtesy City of Hope

People who have had the virus and are interested in taking part are asked to give four teaspoons of blood, to see if they have enough antibodies. If they do they can then either donate plasma – to help newly infected people – or blood to help with research into COVID-19.

As a sign of how quickly Dr. Zaia and his team are working, while we only approved the award in late April, they already have their website up and running, promoting the trial and trying to recruit both recovered COVID-19 survivors and current patients.

The site does a great job of explaining what they are trying to do and why people should take part. Here’s one section from the site.

Why should I participate in your study?

By participating in our study, you will learn whether you have developed antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. To do so, you just need to donate a small sample of blood (approximately 4 teaspoons).

If testing show you have enough antibodies, you will have the option of donating plasma that will be used to treat severely ill COVID-19 patients and may help save lives.

If you don’t want to donate plasma, you can still donate blood (approximately 3.5 tablespoons), which will be studied and help researchers learn more about COVID-19.

By donating blood or plasma, you will help us gain information that may be of significant value for patient management in future epidemic seasons.

You don’t even have to live close to one of the clinical trial sites because the team can send you a blood collection kit and information about a blood lab near you so you can donate there. They may even send a nurse to collect your blood.

The team is also trying to ensure they reach communities that are often overlooked in clinical trials. That’s why the website is also in Spanish and Vietnamese.

Finally, the site is also being used to help recruit treating physicians who can collect the blood samples and help infuse newly infected patients.

We often read about clinical trials in newspapers and online. Now you get a chance to not only see one working in real time, you can get to be part of it.

Saying farewell to an old friend

There are some people who, when you think of them, always bring a smile to your face. Dr. Bert Lubin was one of those people. Sadly, we lost Bert to brain cancer two days ago. But the impact he had, not just as an advocate for stem cell research but as a pioneer in sickle cell disease research and a champion for children’s health, will live on.

Bert had a number of official titles but probably the one he was most proud of was President & CEO of Children’s Hospital Oakland (now UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland). But it wasn’t the title that he cared about, it was the opportunity it gave him to make a difference in the life of children in Oakland, to create a program to find new treatments and cures for a life-threatening disease. And he has made a difference.

As I started to write this tribute to Bert, I thought about who I should ask for a quote. And then I realized I had the perfect person. Bert himself. I was fortunate enough to interview him in December 2018, when he decided to step down after eight years on the CIRM Board.  As always, he had his own positive spin on that, saying: “I don’t see myself leaving. I’m just repurposing what is my role in CIRM. I’m recycling and reinventing.”

And Bert was always full of invention.

He grew up in Bellevue, a small town outside Pittsburgh, PA. His parents ran a fruit and vegetable market there and, growing up, Bert often worked in the store. It wasn’t something he enjoyed but he said he learned some valuable lessons.

“I think what happened in my childhood is that I learned how to sell. I am a salesman. I hated working in that store, I hated it, but I liked the communication with people, they trusted me, I could sell things and they were good things. Like Christmas. I’m Jewish, we were the only Jews in that community, and at Christmas we sold Christmas trees, but the trees were sometimes crooked and they were $2.99 a tree so I convinced families that I could go to their house and set the tree so it looked straight and I helped them decorate it and they loved it.”

He said, thinking back on his life it’s almost as if there were a plan, even if he wasn’t aware of it.

“I started thinking about that more recently, I started wondering how did this even happen? I’m not a religious person but it’s almost like there’s some fate. How did I get there? It’s not that I planned it that way and it’s certainly not that my parents planned it because I was the first in my family to go to high school let alone college. My parents, when I went to medical school and then decided I wanted to spend more time in an academic direction, they were upset. They wanted me to go into practice in a community that I grew up in and be economically secure and not be on the fringe in what an academic life is like.”

And then, fate stepped in and brought him to the San Francisco Bay Area.

“What happened was, I was at the University of Pennsylvania having trained at Boston Children’s and Philadelphia Children’s, where I had started a sickle cell disease program, and was asked to look at a job in southern California to start a sickle cell program there. So, I flew to San Francisco because a lot of people I’d studied with were now working at UCSF and I thought it would be fun to see them before going down to southern California. They took me out to dinner and showed me around and I said this place is beautiful, I can play tennis out here all year round, there’s lots of music – I love jazz – and they said ‘you know Bert, have you looked at Oakland Children’s hospital? We want to start a sickle cell program center, but the patients are all in Oakland and the patient population that would be served is in Oakland. But if you came out to the Bay Area we could partner with you to start that program. 

“So, when I walked in the door here (at Oakland) and said ‘I want to create this northern California sickle cell center with UC’ the staff that was here said ‘you know we’re not a research hospital, we are a community based hospital’. I said, ‘I’m not saying you shouldn’t be that but I’m trying to create an opportunity here’ and they said to me ‘as long as you don’t ask for any money you can go and do whatever you want’.

‘They recognized that I had this fire in me to really create something that was novel. And the warmth and community commitment from this place is something that attracted me and then allowed me to build on that.

“For example, when I became the director of the research program we had $500,000 in NIH grants and when I left we had $60 million. We just grew. Why did we grow? Because we cared about the faculty and the community. We had a lovely facility, which was actually the home of the Black Panther party. It was the Black Panthers who started screening for sickle cell on street corners here in Oakland, and they were the start of the national sickle cell act so there’s a history here and I like that history.

“Then I got a sense of the opportunities that stem cell therapies would have for a variety of things, certainly including sickle cell disease, and I thought if there’s a chance to be on the CIRM Board, as an advocate for that sickle cell community, I think I’d be a good spokesperson. So, I applied. I just thought this was an exciting opportunity.

“I thought it was a natural fit for me to add some value, I only want to be on something where I think I add value.”

Bert added value to everything he did. And everyone he met felt valued by him. He was a mentor to so many people, young physicians and nurses, students starting out on their careers. And he was a friend to those in need.

He was an extraordinary man and we are grateful that we were able to call him a colleague, and a friend, for as long as we did.

When Burt stepped down from Children’s his colleagues put together this video about his life and times. It seems appropriate to share it again and remind ourselves of the gift that he was to everyone fortunate enough to know him.

CIRM Board Approves Third Clinical Trial for COVID-19

Dr. Xiaokui Zhang (left), Dr. Albert Wong (center), and Dr. Preet Chaudhary (right)

Today the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) awarded $750,000 to Dr. Xiaokui Zhang at Celularity to conduct a clinical trial for the treatment of COVID-19.  This brings the total number of CIRM clinical trials to 64, including three targeting the coronavirus.

This trial will use blood stem cells obtained from the placenta to generate natural killer (NK) cells, a type of white blood cell that is a vital part of the immune system, and administer them to patients with COVID-19.  NK cells play an important role in defense against cancer and in fighting off viral infections.  The goal is to administer these cells to locate the active sites of COVID-19 infection and destroy the virus-infected cells.  These NK cells have been used in two other clinical trials for acute myeloid leukemia and multiple myeloma.

The Board also approved two additional awards for Discovery Stage Research (DISC2), which promote promising new technologies that could be translated to enable broad use and improve patient care.

One award for $100,000 was given to Dr. Albert Wong at Stanford.  Dr. Wong has recently received an award from CIRM to develop a vaccine that produces a CD8+ T cell response to boost the body’s immune response to remove COVID-19 infected cells.  The current award will enable him to expand on the initial approach to increase its potential to impact the Latinx and African American populations, two ethnicities that are disproportionately impacted by the virus in California.

The other award was for $249,996 and was given to Dr. Preet Chaudhary at the University of Southern California.  Dr. Chaudary will use induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to generate natural killer cells (NK). These NK cells will express a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR), a synthetic receptor that will directly target the immune cells to kill cells infected with the virus.  The ultimate goal is for these iPSC-NK-CAR cells to be used as a treatment for COVID-19. 

“These programs address the role of the body’s immune T and NK cells in combatting viral infection and CIRM is fortunate enough to be able to assist these investigators in applying experience and knowledge gained elsewhere to find targeted treatments for COVID-19” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, the President & CEO of CIRM. “This type of critical thinking reflects the resourcefulness of researchers when evaluating their scientific tool kits.  Projects like these align with CIRM’s track record of supporting research at different stages and for different diseases than the original target.”

The CIRM Board voted to endorse a new initiative to refund the agency and provide it with $5.5 billion to continue its work. The ‘California Stem Cell Research, Treatments and Cures Initiative of 2020 will appear on the November ballot. 

The Board also approved a resolution honoring Ken Burtis, PhD., for his long service on the Board. Dr. Burtis was honored for his almost four decades of service at UC Davis as a student, professor and administrator and for his 11 years on the CIRM Board as both a member and alternate member. In the resolution marking his retirement the Board praised him, saying “his experience, commitment, knowledge, and leadership, contributed greatly to the momentum of discovery and the future therapies which will be the ultimate outcome of the dedicated work of the researchers receiving CIRM funding.”

Jonathan Thomas, the Chair of the Board, said “Ken has been invaluable and I’ve always found him to have tremendous insight. He has served as a great source of advice and inspiration to me and to the ICOC in dealing with all the topics we have had to face.” 

Lauren Miller Rogen thanked Dr. Burtis, saying “I sat next to you at my first meeting and was feeling so extraordinarily overwhelmed and you went out of your way to explain all these big science words to me. You were always a source of help and support, and you explained things to me in a way that I always appreciated with my normal brain.”

Dr. Burtis said it has been a real honor and privilege to be on the Board. “I’ve been amazed and astounded at the passion and dedication that the Board and CIRM staff have brought to this work. Every meeting over the years there has been a moment of drama and then resolution and this Board always manages to reach agreement and serve the people of California.”

A ready-made approach to tackling COVID-19

Coronavirus particles, illustration.

In late March the CIRM Board approved $5 million in emergency funding for COVID-19 research. The idea was to support great ideas from California’s researchers, some of which had already been tested for different conditions, and see if they could help in finding treatments or a vaccine for the coronavirus.

Less than a month later we were funding a clinical trial and two other projects, one that targeted a special kind of immune system cell that has the potential to fight the virus.

Our friends at UCLA have just written a terrific piece on this project and the team that came up with the idea. Here is that article.

Researchers use stem cells to model the immune response to COVID-19

By Tiare Dunlap

Cities across the United States are opening back up, but we’re still a long way from making the COVID-19 pandemic history. To truly accomplish that, we need to have a vaccine that can stop the spread of infection.

But to develop an effective vaccine, we need to understand how the immune system responds to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Vaccines work by imitating infection. They expose a person’s immune system to a weakened version or component of the virus they are intended to protect against. This essentially prepares the immune system to fight the virus ahead of time, so that if a person is exposed to the real virus, their immune system can quickly recognize the enemy and fight the infection. Vaccines need to contain the right parts of the virus to provoke a strong immune response and create long-term protection.

Most of the vaccines in development for SARS CoV-2 are using part of the virus to provoke the immune system to produce proteins called antibodies that neutralize the virus. Another way a vaccine could create protection against the virus is by activating the T cells of the immune system.

T cells specifically “recognize” virus-infected cells, and these kinds of responses may be especially important for providing long-term protection against the virus. One challenge for researchers is that they have only had a few months to study how the immune system protects against SARS CoV-2, and in particular, which parts of the virus provoke the best T-cell responses.

This is where immunotherapy researchers and UCLA Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research members Dr. Gay Crooks and Dr. Christopher Seet come in.

Dr. Gay Crooks: Photo courtesy UCLA

For years, they have been perfecting an innovative technology that uses blood-forming stem cells — which can give rise to all types of blood and immune cells — to produce a rare and powerful subset of immune cells called type 1 dendritic cells. Type 1 dendritic cells play an essential role in the immune response by devouring foreign proteins, termed antigens, from virus-infected cells and then chopping them into fragments. Dendritic cells then use these protein fragments to trigger T cells to mount an immune response.

Dr. Christopher Seet: Photo courtesy UCLA

Using this technology, Crooks and Seet are working to pinpoint which specific parts of the SARS-CoV-2 virus provoke the strongest T-cell responses.

Building long-lasting immunity

“We know from a lot of research into other viral infections and also in cancer immunotherapy, that T-cell responses are really important for long-lasting immunity,” said Seet, an assistant professor of hematology-oncology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “And so this approach will allow us to better characterize the T-cell response to SARS-CoV-2 and focus vaccine and therapeutic development on those parts of the virus that induce strong T-cell immunity.”

This project was recently awarded $150,000 from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the state’s stem cell agency. The award was matched by the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center.

Crooks’ and Seet’s project uses blood-forming stem cells taken from healthy donors and infected with a virus containing antigens from SARS-CoV-2. They then direct these stem cells to produce large numbers of type 1 dendritic cells using a new method developed by Seet and Suwen Li, a graduate student in Crooks’ lab. Both Seet and Li are graduates of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center’s training program.

“The dendritic cells we are able to make using this process are really good at chopping up viral antigens and eliciting strong immune responses from T cells,” said Crooks, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and of pediatrics at the medical school and co-director of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center.

When type 1 dendritic cells chop up viral antigens into fragments, they present these fragments on their cell surfaces to T cells. Our bodies produce millions and millions of T cells each day, each with its own unique antigen receptor, however only a few will have a receptor capable of recognizing a specific antigen from a virus.

When a T cell with the right receptor recognizes a viral antigen on a dendritic cell as foreign and dangerous, it sets off a chain of events that activates multiple parts of the immune system to attack cells infected with the virus. This includes clonal expansion, the process by which each responding T cell produces a large number of identical cells, called clones, which are all capable of recognizing the antigen.

“Most of those T cells will go off and fight the infection by killing cells infected with the virus,” said Seet, who, like Crooks, is also a member of the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. “However, a small subset of those cells become memory T cells — long-lived T cells that remain in the body for years and protect from future infection by rapidly generating a robust T-cell response if the virus returns. It’s immune memory.”

Producing extremely rare immune cells

This process has historically been particularly challenging to model in the lab, because type 1 dendritic cells are extremely rare — they make up less than 0.1% of cells found in the blood. Now, with this new stem cell technology, Crooks and Seet can produce large numbers of these dendritic cells from blood stem cells donated by healthy people, introduce them to parts of the virus, then see how T cells  taken from the blood can respond in the lab. This process can be repeated over and over using cells taken from a wide range of healthy people.

“The benefit is we can do this very quickly without the need for an actual vaccine trial, so we can very rapidly figure out in the lab which parts of the virus induce the best T-cell responses across many individuals,” Seet said.

The resulting data could be used to inform the development of new vaccines for COVID-19 that improve T-cell responses. And the data about which viral antigens are most important to the T cells could also be used to monitor the effectiveness of existing vaccine candidates, and an individual’s immune status to the virus.

“There are dozens of vaccine candidates in development right now, with three or four of them already in clinical trials,” Seet said. “We all hope one or more will be effective at producing immediate and long-lasting immunity. But as there is so much we don’t know about this new virus, we’re still going to need to really dig in to understand how our immune systems can best protect us from infection.”

Supporting basic research into our body’s own processes that can inform new strategies to fight disease is central to the mission of the Broad Stem Cell Research Center.

“When we started developing this project some years ago, we had no idea it would be so useful for studying a viral infection, any viral infection,” Crooks said. “And it was only because we already had these tools in place that we could spring into action so fast.”

Scientists Engineer Stem Cells to Fight HIV

Image of the virus that causes AIDS – courtesy NIH

If that headline seems familiar it should. It came from an article in MIT Technology Review back in 2009. There have been many other headlines since then, all on the same subject, and yet here we are, in 2020, and still no cure for HIV/AIDS. So what’s the problem, what’s holding us back?

First, the virus is incredibly tough and wily. It is constantly mutating so trying to target it is like playing a game of ‘whack a mole’. Secondly not only can the virus evade our immune system, it actually hijacks it and uses it to help spread itself throughout the body. Even new generations of anti-HIV medications, which are effective at controlling the virus, can’t eradicate it. But now researchers are using new tools to try and overcome those obstacles and tame the virus once and for all.

Dr. Scott Kitchen: Photo David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA

UCLA researchers Scott Kitchen and Irvin Chen have been awarded $13.65 million by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to see if they can use the patient’s own immune system to fight back against HIV.

Dr. Irvin Chen: Photo UCLA

Dr. Kitchen and Dr. Chen take the patient’s own blood-forming stem cells and then, in the lab, they genetically engineer them to carry proteins called chimeric antigen receptors or CARs. Once these blood cells are transplanted back into the body, they combine with the patient’s own immune system T cells (CAR T). These T cells now have a newly enhanced ability to target and destroy HIV.

That’s the theory anyway. Lots of research in the lab shows it can work. For example, the UCLA team recently showed that these engineered CAR T cells not only destroyed HIV-infected cells but also lived for more than two years. Now the team at UCLA want to take the lessons learned in the lab and apply them to people.

In a news release Dr. Kitchen says the NIH grant will give them a terrific opportunity to do that: “The overarching goal of our proposed studies is to identify a new gene therapy strategy to safely and effectively modify a patient’s own stem cells to resist HIV infection and simultaneously enhance their ability to recognize and destroy infected cells in the body in hopes of curing HIV infection. It is a huge boost to our efforts at UCLA and elsewhere to find a creative strategy to defeat HIV.”

By the way, CIRM helped get this work off the ground with an early-stage grant. That enabled Dr. Kitchen and his team to get the data they needed to be able to apply to the NIH for this funding. It’s a great example of how we can kick-start projects that no one else is funding. You can read a blog about that early stage research here.

CIRM has already funded three clinical trials targeting HIV/AIDS. Two of these are still active; Dr. Mehrdad Abedi at UC Davis and Dr. John Zaia at City of Hope.

Parkinson’s Disease and Stem Cells

Lila Collins, PhD

A few weeks ago we held a Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team About Parkinson’s Disease” event. As you can imagine we got lots of questions but, because of time constraints, only had time to answer a few. Thanks to my fabulous CIRM colleagues, Dr. Lila Collins and Dr. Kent Fitzgerald, for putting together answers to some of the other questions. Here they are.

Kent Fitzgerald, PhD

Q: It seems like we have been hearing for years that stem cells can help people with Parkinson’s, why is it taking so long?

A: Early experiments in Sweden using fetal tissue did provide a proof of concept for the strategy of replacing dopamine producing cells damaged or lost in Parkinson’s disease (PD) . At first, this seemed like we were on the cusp of a cell therapy cure for PD, however, we soon learned based on some side effects seen with this approach (in particular dyskinesias or uncontrollable muscle movements) that the solution was not as simple as once thought. 

While this didn’t produce the answer it did provide some valuable lessons.

The importance of dopaminergic (DA) producing cell type and the location in the brain of the transplant.  Simply placing the replacement cells in the brain is not enough. It was initially thought that the best site to place these DA cells is a region in the brain called the SN, because this area helps to regulate movement. However, this area also plays a role in learning, emotion and the brains reward system. This is effectively a complex wiring system that exists in a balance, “rewiring” it wrong can have unintended and significant side effects. 

Another factor impacting progress has been understanding the importance of disease stage. If the disease is too advanced when cells are given then the transplant may no longer be able to provide benefit.  This is because DA transplants replace the lost neurons we use to control movement, but other connected brain systems have atrophied in response to losing input from the lost neurons. There is a massive amount of work (involving large groups and including foundations like the Michael J Fox Foundation) seeking to identify PD early in the disease course where therapies have the best chance of showing an effect.   Clinical trials will ultimately help to determine the best timing for treatment intervention.

Ideally, in addition to the cell therapies that would replace lost or damaged cells we also want to find a therapy that slows or stops the underlying biology causing progression of the disease.

So, I think we’re going to see more gene therapy trials including those targeting the small minority of PD that is driven by known mutations.  In fact, Prevail Therapeutics will soon start a trial in patients with GBA1 mutations. Hopefully, replacing the enzyme in this type of genetic PD will prevent degeneration.

And, we are also seeing gene therapy approaches to address forms of PD that we don’t know the cause, including a trial to rescue sick neurons with GDNF which is a neurotrophic factor (which helps support the growth and survival of these brain cells) led by Dr Bankiewicz  and trials by Axovant and Voyager, partnered with Neurocrine aimed at restoring dopamine generation in the brain.

 A small news report came out earlier this year about a recently completed clinical trial by Roche Pharma and Prothena. This addressed the build up in the brain of what are called lewy bodies, a problem common to many forms of PD. While the official trial results aren’t published yet, a recent press release suggests reason for optimism.  Apparently, the treatment failed to statistically improve the main clinical measurement, but other measured endpoints saw improvement and it’s possible an updated form of this treatment will be tested again in the hopes of seeing an improved effect.

Finally, I’d like to call attention to the G force trials. Gforce is a global collaborative effort to drive the field forward combining lessons learned from previous studies with best practices for cell replacement in PD.  These first-in-human safety trials to replace the dopaminergic neurons (DANs) damaged by PD have shared design features including identifying what the best goals are and how to measure those.

The CIRA trial, Dr Jun Takahashi

The NYSTEM PD trial, Dr Lorenz Studer

The EUROSTEMPD trial, Dr Roger Barker.

And the Summit PD trial, Dr Jeanne Loring of Aspen Neuroscience.

Taken together these should tell us quite a lot about the best way to replace these critical neurons in PD.

As with any completely novel approach in medicine, much validation and safety work must be completed before becoming available to patients

The current approach (for cell replacement) has evolved significantly from those early studies to use cells engineered in the lab to be much more specialized and representing the types believed to have the best therapeutic effects with low probability of the side effects (dyskinesias) seen in earlier trials. 

If we don’t really know the cause of Parkinson’s disease, how can we cure it or develop treatments to slow it down?

PD can now be divided into major categories including 1. Sporadic, 2. Familial. 

For the sporadic cases, there are some hallmarks in the biology of the neurons affected in the disease that are common among patients.  These can be things like oxidative stress (which damages cells), or clumps of proteins (like a-synuclein) that serve to block normal cell function and become toxic, killing the DA neurons. 

The second class of “familial” cases all share one or more genetic changes that are believed to cause the disease.  Mutations in genes (like GBA, LRRK2, PRKN, SNCA) make up around fifteen percent of the population affected, but the similarity in these gene mutations make them attractive targets for drug development.

CIRM has funded projects to generate “disease in a dish” models using neurons made from adults with Parkinson’s disease.   Stem cell-derived models like this have enabled not only a deep probing of the underlying biology in Parkinson’s, which has helped to identify new targets for investigation, but have also allowed for the testing of possible therapies in these cell-based systems. 

iPSC-derived neurons are believed to be an excellent model for this type of work as they can possess known familial mutations but also show the rest of the patients genetic background which may also be a contributing factor to the development of PD. They therefore contain both known and unknown factors that can be tested for effective therapy development.

I have heard of scientists creating things called brain organoids, clumps of brain cells that can act a little bit like a brain. Can we use these to figure out what’s happening in the brain of people with Parkinson’s and to develop treatments?

There is considerable excitement about the use of brain organoids as a way of creating a model for the complex cell-to-cell interactions in the brain.  Using these 3D organoid models may allow us to gain a better understanding of what happens inside the brain, and develop ways to treat issues like PD.

The organoids can contain multiple cell types including microglia which have been a hot topic of research in PD as they are responsible for cleaning up and maintaining the health of cells in the brain.  CIRM has funded the Salk Institute’s Dr. Fred Gage’s to do work in this area.

If you go online you can find lots of stem cells clinics, all over the US, that claim they can use stem cells to help people with Parkinson’s. Should I go to them?

In a word, no! These clinics offer a wide variety of therapies using different kinds of cells or tissues (including the patient’s own blood or fat cells) but they have one thing in common; none of these therapies have been tested in a clinical trial to show they are even safe, let alone effective. These clinics also charge thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars these therapies, and because it’s not covered by insurance this all comes out of the patient’s pocket.

These predatory clinics are peddling hope, but are unable to back it up with any proof it will work. They frequently have slick, well-designed websites, and “testimonials” from satisfied customers. But if they really had a treatment for Parkinson’s they wouldn’t be running clinics out of shopping malls they’d be operating huge medical centers because the worldwide need for an effective therapy is so great.

Here’s a link to the page on our website that can help you decide if a clinical trial or “therapy” is right for you.

Is it better to use your own cells turned into brain cells, or cells from a healthy donor?

This is the BIG question that nobody has evidence to provide an answer to. At least not yet.

Let’s start with the basics. Why would you want to use your own cells? The main answer is the immune system.  Transplanted cells can really be viewed as similar to an organ (kidney, liver etc) transplant. As you likely know, when a patient receives an organ transplant the patient’s immune system will often recognize the tissue/organ as foreign and attack it. This can result in the body rejecting what is supposed to be a life-saving organ. This is why people receiving organ transplants are typically placed on immunosuppressive “anti-rejection “drugs to help stop this reaction. 

In the case of transplanted dopamine producing neurons from a donor other than the patient, it’s likely that the immune system would eliminate these cells after a short while and this would stop any therapeutic benefit from the cells.  A caveat to this is that the brain is a “somewhat” immune privileged organ which means that normal immune surveillance and rejection doesn’t always work the same way with the brain.  In fact analysis of the brains collected from the first Swedish patients to receive fetal transplants showed (among other things) that several patients still had viable transplanted cells (persistence) in their brains.

Transplanting DA neurons made from the patient themselves (the iPSC method) would effectively remove this risk of the immune system attack as the cells would not be recognized as foreign.

CIRM previously funded a discovery project with Jeanne Loring from Scripps Research Institute that sought to generate DA neurons from Parkinson’s patients for use as a potential transplant therapy in these same patients.   This project has since been taken on by a company formed, by Dr Loring, called Aspen Neuroscience.  They hope to bring this potential therapy into clinical trials in the near future.    

A commonly cited potential downside to this approach is that patients with genetic (familial) Parkinson’s would be receiving neurons generated with cells that may have the same mutations that caused the problem in the first place. However, as it can typically take decades to develop PD, these cells could likely function for a long time. and prove to be better than any current therapies.

Creating cells from each individual patient (called autologous) is likely to be very expensive and possibly even cost-prohibitive. That is why many researchers are working on developing an “off the shelf” therapy, one that uses cells from a donor (called allogeneic)would be available as and when it’s needed.

When the coronavirus happened, it seemed as if overnight the FDA was approving clinical trials for treatments for the virus. Why can’t it work that fast for Parkinson’s disease?

While we don’t know what will ultimately work for COVID-19, we know what the enemy looks like.  We also have lots of experience treating viral infections and creating vaccines.  The coronavirus has already been sequenced, so we are building upon our understanding of other viruses to select a course to interrupt it.  In contrast, the field is still trying to understand the drivers of PD that would respond to therapeutic targeting and therefore, it’s not precisely clear how best to modify the course of neurodegenerative disease.  So, in one sense, while it’s not as fast as we’d like it to be, the work on COVID-19 has a bit of a head start.

Much of the early work on COVID-19 therapies is also centered on re-purposing therapies that were previously in development.  As a result, these potential treatments have a much easier time entering clinical trials as there is a lot known about them (such as how safe they are etc.).  That said, there are many additional therapeutic strategies (some of which CIRM is funding) which are still far off from being tested in the clinic. 

The concern of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is often centered on the safety of a proposed therapy.  The less known, the more cautious they tend to be. 

As you can imagine, transplanting cells into the brain of a PD patient creates a significant potential for problems and so the FDA needs to be cautious when approving clinical trials to ensure patient safety.

Two rare diseases, two pieces of good news

Dr. Stephanie Cherqui

Last week saw a flurry of really encouraging reports from projects that CIRM has supported. We blogged about two of them last Wednesday, but here’s another two programs showing promising results.

UC San Diego researcher Dr. Stephanie Cherqui is running a CIRM-funded clinical trial for cystinosis. This is a condition where patients lack the ability to clear an amino acid called cystine from their cells. As the cystine builds up it can lead to multi-organ failure affecting the kidneys, eyes, thyroid, muscle, and pancreas.

Dr. Cherqui uses the patient’s own blood stem cells, that have been genetically corrected in the lab to remove the defective gene that causes the problem. It’s hoped these new cells will help reduce the cystine buildup.

The data presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Cell and Gene Therapy (ASCGT) focused on the first patient treated with this approach. Six months after being treated the patient is showing positive trends in kidney function. His glomerular filtration rate (a measure of how well the kidneys are working) has risen from 38 (considered a sign of moderate to severe loss of kidney function) to 52 (mild loss of kidney function). In addition, he has not had to take the medication he previously needed to control the disorder, nor has he experienced any serious side effects from the therapy.

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Dr. Linda Marban of Capricor

Capricor Therapeutics also had some positive news about its therapy for people with Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). This is a progressive genetic disorder that slowly destroys the muscles. It affects mostly boys. By their teens many are unable to walk, and most die of heart or lung failure in their 20’s. 

Capricor is using a therapy called CAP-1002, using cells derived from heart stem cells, in the HOPE-2 clinical trial.

In a news release Capricor said 12-month data from the trial showed improvements in heart function, lung function and upper body strength. In contrast, a placebo control group that didn’t get the CAP-1002 treatment saw their condition deteriorate.

Craig McDonald, M.D., the lead investigator on the study, says these results are really encouraging.  “I am incredibly pleased with the outcome of the HOPE-2 trial which demonstrated clinically relevant benefits of CAP-1002 which resulted in measurable improvements in upper limb, cardiac and respiratory function. This is the first clinical trial which shows benefit to patients in advanced stages of DMD for which treatment options are limited.”

You can read the story of Caleb Sizemore, one of the patients treated in the CIRM-funded portion of this trial.

CIRM Board Approves Clinical Trials Targeting COVID-19 and Sickle Cell Disease

Coronavirus particles, illustration.

Today the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved new clinical trials for COVID-19 and sickle cell disease (SCD) and two earlier stage projects to develop therapies for COVID-19.

Dr. Michael Mathay, of the University of California at San Francisco, was awarded $750,000 for a clinical trial testing the use of Mesenchymal Stromal Cells for respiratory failure from Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). In ARDS, patients’ lungs fill up with fluid and are unable to supply their body with adequate amounts of oxygen. It is a life-threatening condition and a major cause of acute respiratory failure. This will be a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial with an emphasis on treating patients from under-served communities.

This award will allow Dr. Matthay to expand his current Phase 2 trial to additional underserved communities through the UC Davis site.

“Dr. Matthay indicated in his public comments that 12 patients with COVID-related ARDS have already been enrolled in San Francisco and this funding will allow him to enroll more patients suffering from COVID- associated severe lung injury,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO. “CIRM, in addition to the NIH and the Department of Defense, has supported Dr. Matthay’s work in ARDS and this additional funding will allow him to enroll more COVID-19 patients into this Phase 2 blinded randomized controlled trial and expand the trial to 120 patients.”

The Board also approved two early stage research projects targeting COVID-19.

  • Dr. Stuart Lipton at Scripps Research Institute was awarded $150,000 to develop a drug that is both anti-viral and protects the brain against coronavirus-related damage.
  • Justin Ichida at the University of Southern California was also awarded $150,00 to determine if a drug called a kinase inhibitor can protect stem cells in the lungs, which are selectively infected and killed by the novel coronavirus.

“COVID-19 attacks so many parts of the body, including the lungs and the brain, that it is important for us to develop approaches that help protect and repair these vital organs,” says Dr. Millan. “These teams are extremely experienced and highly renowned, and we are hopeful the work they do will provide answers that will help patients battling the virus.”

The Board also awarded Dr. Pierre Caudrelier from ExcellThera $2 million to conduct a clinical trial to treat sickle cell disease patients

SCD is an inherited blood disorder caused by a single gene mutation that results in the production of “sickle” shaped red blood cells. It affects an estimated 100,000 people, mostly African American, in the US and can lead to multiple organ damage as well as reduced quality of life and life expectancy.  Although blood stem cell transplantation can cure SCD fewer than 20% of patients have access to this option due to issues with donor matching and availability.

Dr. Caudrelier is using umbilical cord stem cells from healthy donors, which could help solve the issue of matching and availability. In order to generate enough blood stem cells for transplantation, Dr. Caudrelier will be using a small molecule to expand these blood stem cells. These cells would then be transplanted into twelve children and young adults with SCD and the treatment would be monitored for safety and to see if it is helping the patients.

“CIRM is committed to finding a cure for sickle cell disease, the most common inherited blood disorder in the U.S. that results in unpredictable pain crisis, end organ damage, shortened life expectancy and financial hardship for our often-underserved black community” says Dr. Millan. “That’s why we have committed tens of millions of dollars to fund scientifically sound, innovative approaches to treat sickle cell disease. We are pleased to be able to support this cell therapy program in addition to the gene therapy approaches we are supporting in partnership with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the NIH.”