Funding development of a vaccine for acute myelogenous leukemia (AML)

Dr. Karin Gaensler. Photo credit: Steve Babuljak/UCSF

Adult acute myelogenous leukemia—also known as acute myeloid leukemia (AML)—is a blood cancer in which the bone marrow makes a large number of abnormal blood cells. 

About 20,000 new cases of AML are diagnosed each year in the US with a 5-year survival rate of around 29%. In 2022, there were nearly 12,000 deaths from AML. Many AML patients—a majority of which are over 60 years old—relapse after treatment. Blood stem cell transplant can be curative, but many older patients do not qualify, showing that there is a significant unmet medical need in treating AML. 

That’s why the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) awarded $6,000,000 to Dr. Karin Gaensler at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) to support development of a safe and effective vaccine for the blood cancer AML to improve relapse-free survival. 

To develop the cancer vaccine, Dr. Gaensler and her team will engineer the patient’s blood stem cells to maximize stimulation of leukemia-specific killing activity and reintroduce engineered cells back to the patient to target and kill residual leukemia stem cells.  

This approach holds the potential for long-term effectiveness as it targets both AML blasts and leukemic stem cells that are often the source of relapse.  

This award is a continuation of a previous CIRM grant that will support the manufacture of the vaccine and the completion of late-stage testing and preparation needed to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permission to begin a clinical trial. 

Bubble baby treatment cleared to restart clinical trial

Evie Vaccaro: Photo courtesy Nancy Ramos

Three families battling a life-threatening immune disorder got some great news last week. A clinical trial that could save the life of their child has once again been given the go-ahead by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The clinical trial is the work of UCLA’s Dr. Don Kohn, and was strongly supported by CIRM. It is targeting ADA-SCID, a condition where the child is born without a functioning immune system so even a simple infection could prove fatal. In the past they were called “bubble babies” because some had been placed inside sterile plastic bubbles to protect them from germs.

Dr. Kohn’s approach – using the patient’s own blood stem cells, modified in the lab to correct the genetic mutation that causes the problem – had shown itself to be amazingly effective.  In a study in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, the researchers showed that of 50 patients treated all had done well and 97 percent were considered cured.

UCLA licensed the therapy to Orchard Therapeutics, who planned to complete the testing needed to apply for permission to make it more widely available. But Orchard ran into problems and shelved the therapy.

After lengthy negotiations Orchard returned the therapy to UCLA last year and now the FDA has given clearance for UCLA to resume treating patients. That is expected to start early next year using CIRM funds left over when Orchard halted its work.

One of the people who played a big role in helping persuade Orchard to return the therapy to UCLA is Alysia Vaccaro. She is the mother of Evie, a child born with ADA-SCID who was cured by Dr. Kohn and his team and is now a thriving 9 year old.

You can watch an interview we did with Alysia about the impact this research has had on her family, and how important it is for other families with ADA-SCID kids.

Making transplants easier for kids, and charting a new approach to fighting solid tumors.

Every year California performs around 100 kidney transplants in children but, on average, around 50 of these patients will have their body reject the transplant. These children then have to undergo regular dialysis while waiting for a new organ. Even the successful transplants require a lifetime of immunosuppression medications. These medications can prevent rejection but they also increase the risk of infection, gastrointestinal disease, pancreatitis and cancer.

Dr. Alice Bertaina and her team at Stanford University were awarded $11,998,188 to test an approach that uses combined blood stem cell (HSC) and kidney transplantation with the goal to improve outcomes with kidney transplantation in children. This approach seeks to improve on the blood stem cell preparation through an immune-based purification process.

In this approach, the donor HSC are transplanted into the patient in order to prepare for the acceptance of the donor kidney once transplanted. Donor HSC give rise to cells and conditions that re-train the immune system to accept the kidney. This creates a “tolerance” to the transplanted kidney providing the opportunity to avoid long-term need for medications that suppress the immune system.

Pre-clinical data support the idea that this approach could enable the patient to stop taking any immunosuppression medications within 90 days of the surgery.

Dr. Maria T. Millan, President and CEO of CIRM, a former pediatric transplant surgeon and tolerance researcher states that “developing a way to ensure long-term success of organ transplantation by averting immune rejection while avoiding the side-effects of life-long immunosuppression medications would greatly benefit these children.”

The CIRM Board also awarded $7,141,843 to Dr. Ivan King and Tachyon Therapeutics, Inc to test a drug showing promise in blocking the proliferation of cancer stem cells in solid tumors such as colorectal and gastrointestinal cancer.

Patients with late-stage colorectal cancer are typically given chemotherapy to help stop or slow down the progression of the disease. However, even with this intervention survival rates are low, usually not more than two years.

Tachyon’s medication, called TACH101, is intended to target colorectal cancer (CRC) stem cells as well as the bulk tumor by blocking an enzyme called KDM4, which cancer stem cells need to grow and proliferate.

In the first phase of this trial Dr. King and his team will recruit patients with advanced or metastatic solid tumors to assess the safety of TACH101, and determine what is the safest maximum dose. In the second phase of the trial, patients with gastrointestinal tumors and colorectal cancer will be treated using the dose determined in the first phase, to determine how well the tumors respond to treatment.  

The CIRM Board also awarded $5,999,919 to Dr. Natalia Gomez-Ospina and her team at Stanford University for a late-stage preclinical program targeting Severe Mucopolysaccharidosis type 1, also known as Hurler syndrome. This is an inherited condition caused by a faulty gene. Children with Hurler syndrome lack an enzyme that the body needs to digest sugar. As a result, undigested sugar molecules build up in the body, causing progressive damage to the brain, heart, and other organs. There is no effective treatment and life expectancy for many of these children is only around ten years.

Dr. Gomez-Ospina will use the patient’s own blood stem cells that have been genetically edited to restore the missing enzyme. The goal of this preclinical program is to show the team can manufacture the needed cells, to complete safety studies and to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration for an Investigational New Drug (IND), the authorization needed to begin a clinical trial in people.

Finally the Board awarded $20,401,260 to five programs as part of its Translational program. The goal of the Translational program is to support promising stem cell-based or gene projects that accelerate completion of translational stage activities necessary for advancement to clinical study or broad end use. Those can include therapeutic candidates, diagnostic methods  or devices and novel tools that address critical bottlenecks in research.

The successful applicants are:

APPLICATIONTITLEPRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR – INSTITUTIONAMOUNT  
TRAN4-14124Cell Villages and Clinical Trial in a Dish with Pooled iPSC-CMs for Drug DiscoveryNikesh Kotecha — Greenstone Biosciences  $1,350,000
TRAN1-14003Specific Targeting Hypoxia Metastatic Breast Tumor with Allogeneic Off-the-Shelf Anti-EGFR CAR NK Cells Expressing an ODD domain of HIF-1αJianhua Yu — Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope  $6,036,002  
TRAN1-13983CRISPR/Cas9-mediated gene editing of Hematopoietic
stem and progenitor cells for Friedreich’s ataxia
Stephanie Cherqui — University of California, San Diego  $4,846,579
TRAN1-13997Development of a Gene Therapy for the Treatment of
Pitt Hopkins Syndrome (PHS) – Translating from Animal Proof of Concept to Support Pre-IND Meeting
Allyson Berent — Mahzi Therapeutics  $4,000,000
TRAN1-13996Overcoming resistance to standard CD19-targeted CAR
T using a novel triple antigen targeted vector
William J Murphy — University of California, Davis  $4,168,679

Sweet 16 and counting for stem cell clinical trial

Dr. Judy Shizuru: Photo courtesy Jasper Therapeutics

Over the years the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has invested a lot in helping children born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a fatal immune disorder. And we have seen great results with some researchers reporting a 95 percent success rate in curing these children.

Now there’s more encouraging news from a CIRM-funded clinical trial with Jasper Therapeutics. They have announced that they have tested their approach in 16 patients, with encouraging results and no serious adverse events.

Let’s back up a little. Children born with SCID have no functioning immune system, so even a simple infection can prove life threatening. Left untreated, children with SCID often die in the first few years of life. Several of the approaches CIRM has funded use the child’s own blood stem cells to help fix the problem. But at Jasper Therapeutics they are using another approach. They use a bone marrow or hematopoietic stem cell transplant (HCT).   This replaces the child’s own blood supply with one that is free of the SCID mutation, which helps restore their immune system.

However, there’s a problem. Most bone marrow transplants use chemotherapy or radiation to destroy the patient’s own unhealthy blood stem cells and make room for the new, healthy ones. It can be effective, but it is also toxic and complex and can only be performed by specialized teams in major medical centers, making access particularly difficult for poor and underserved communities.

To get around that problem Jasper Therapeutics is using an antibody called JSP191 – developed with CIRM funding – that directs the patient’s own immune cells to kill diseased blood stem cells, creating room to transplant new, healthy cells. To date the therapy has already been tested in 16 SCID patients.

In addition to treating 16 patients treated without any apparent problems,  Jasper has also been granted Fast Track Designation by the US Food and Drug Administration. This can help speed up the review of treatments that target serious unmet conditions. They’ve also been granted both Orphan and Rare Pediatric Disease designations. Orphan drug designation qualifies sponsors for incentives such as tax credits for clinical trials. Rare Pediatric Disease designation means that if the FDA does eventually approve JSP191, then Jasper can apply to receive a priority review of an application to use the product for a different disease, such as someone who is getting a bone marrow transplant for sickle cell disease or severe auto immune diseases.

In a news release, Ronald Martell, President and CEO of Jasper Therapeutics said:

“The FDA’s Fast Track designation granted for JSP191 in Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) reinforces the large unmet medical need for patients with this serious disease. Along with its previous designations of Orphan and Rare Pediatric Disease for JSP191, the FDA’s Fast Track recognizes JSP191’s potential role in improving clinical outcomes for SCID patients, many of whom are too fragile to tolerate the toxic chemotherapy doses typically used in a transplant.”

Developing a natural killer for cancer

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

When Lili Yang was studying for her PhD she approached her mentor, the Nobel Laureate Dr. David Baltimore, and told him she was thinking about writing her thesis on a combination of gene therapy, immunotherapy and stem cell therapy. She says he looked at her and told her that all three of those approaches had a bad reputation because of so many past failures. He asked her, “Are you sure?” She was.

Fast forward 20 years and Dr. Yang and her team at UCLA have developed stem cell-engineered invariant Natural Killer T (iNKT) cells, a kind of specialized immune system cell, that has the ability to attack and kill a broad range of cancerous cells, while leaving the body’s healthy tissues unharmed.

Thanks to several CIRM grants, Dr. Yang has developed a platform that can use healthy donor blood stem cells to produce clinical scalable “off-the-shelf” iNKT cells. That has led to the creation of Appia Bio, a start-up company, and talks with the FDA about testing a series of iNKT cell products in clinical trials.

Besides developing cell products targeting the more established blood cancer disease indications, Dr. Yang is most excited about using the same platform to generate off-the-shelf iNKT cell products that could target solid tumor cancers that comprise over 90% of the total cancer cases, such as breast, ovarian, prostate, lung, liver, and colon cancers.

“I have this dream that cell therapy can become off-the-shelf, and how this would really help all cancer patients in need. The current cancer cell therapy requires treating patients one-by-one, resulting in a steep price that is hard to afford ($300,000-$500,000 per patient per treatment) and a complex therapy delivery logistics that is challenging to fulfill (coordination of hospitalization, blood collection, cell manufacturing and infusion for each patient). Not everyone lives near a hospital capable of handling such a personalized therapy or can afford such a steep price. If we can make this therapy with centralized manufacturing, pre-quality controlled and ready for wide use then we don’t need to worry about the gender or age or location of the patient. For off-the-shelf therapy, price is also expected to drop down significantly- this will eventually be ready for everyone everywhere.”

Pioneering a new approach to HIV/AIDS

Dr. Steven Deeks. Photo courtesy UCSF

I’ve always been impressed by the willingness of individuals to step forward and volunteer for a clinical trial. Even more so when they are the first person ever to test a first-in-human therapy. They really are pioneers in helping advance a whole new approach to treating disease. 

That’s certainly the case for the first individual treated in a CIRM-funded clinical trial to develop a functional cure for HIV/AIDS. Caring Cross announced recently that they have dosed the first patient in the trial testing their anti-HIV duoCAR-T cell therapy.  

The trial is being led by UC San Francisco’s Dr. Steven Deeks and UC Davis’ Dr. Mehrdad Abedi. Their approach involves taking a patient’s own blood and extracting T cells, a type of immune cell.  The T cells are then genetically modified to express two different chimeric antigen receptors (CAR), which enable the newly created duoCAR-T cells to recognize and destroy HIV infected cells.  The modified T cells are then reintroduced back into the patient. 

The goal of this one-time therapy is to act as a long-term control of HIV with patients no longer needing to take anti-HIV medications. If it is successful it would be, in effect, a form of functional HIV cure.   

This first phase involves giving different patients different levels of the duoCAR-T therapy to determine the best dose, and to make sure it is safe and doesn’t cause any negative side effects.  

This is obviously just the first step in a long process, but it’s an important first step and certainly one worth marking. As Dr. Deeks said in the news release, “We have reached an important milestone with the dosing of the first participant in the Phase 1/2a clinical trial evaluating a potentially groundbreaking anti-HIV duoCAR-T cell therapy. Our primary goal for this clinical trial is to establish the safety of this promising therapeutic approach.” 

Dr. Abedi, echoed that saying. “The first participant was dosed with anti-HIV duoCAR-T cells at the UC Davis medical center in mid-August. There were no adverse events observed that were related to the product and the participant is doing fine.” 

This approach carries a lot of significance not just for people with HIV in the US, but also globally. If successful it could help address the needs of people who are not able to access antiretroviral therapies or for whom those medications are no longer effective.  

Today there are an estimated 38 million people living with HIV around the world. Every year some 650,000 people die from the disease.  

Funding a Clinical Trial for a Functional Cure for HIV

The use of antiretroviral drugs has turned HIV/AIDS from a fatal disease to one that can, in many cases in the US, be controlled. But these drugs are not a cure. That’s why the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) voted to approve investing $6.85 million in a therapy that aims to cure the disease.

This is the 82nd clinical trial funded by CIRM.

There are approximately 38 million people worldwide living with HIV/AIDS. And each year there are an estimated 1.5 million new cases. The vast majority of those living with HIV do not have access to the life-saving antiretroviral medications that can keep the virus under control. People who do have access to the medications face long-term complications from them including heart disease, bone, liver and kidney problems, and changes in metabolism.

The antiretroviral medications are effective at reducing the viral load in people with HIV, but they don’t eliminate it. That’s because the virus that causes AIDS can integrate its DNA into long-living cells in the body and remain dormant. When people stop taking their medications the virus is able to rekindle and spread throughout the body.

Dr. William Kennedy and the team at Excision Bio Therapeutics have developed a therapeutic candidate called EBT-101. This is the first clinical study using the CRISPR-based platform for genome editing and excision of the latent form of HIV-1, the most common form of the virus that causes AIDS in the US and Europe. The goal is to eliminate or sufficiently reduce the hidden reservoirs of virus in the body to the point where the individual is effectively cured.

“To date only a handful of people have been cured of HIV/AIDS, so this proposal of using gene editing to eliminate the virus could be transformative,” says Dr. Maria Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “In California alone there are almost 140,000 people living with HIV. HIV infection continues to disproportionately impact marginalized populations, many of whom are unable to access the medications that keep the virus under control. A functional cure for HIV would have an enormous impact on these communities, and others around the world.”

In a news release announcing they had dosed the first patient, Daniel Dornbusch, CEO of Excision, called it a landmark moment. “It is the first time a CRISPR-based therapy targeting an infectious disease has been administered to a patient and is expected to enable the first ever clinical assessment of a multiplexed, in vivo gene editing approach. We were able to reach this watershed moment thanks to years of innovative work by leading scientists and physicians, to whom we are immensely grateful. With this achievement, Excision has taken a major step forward in developing a one-time treatment that could transform the HIV pandemic by freeing affected people from life-long disease management and the stigma of disease.”

The Excision Bio Therapeutics team also scored high on their plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Reviewers praised them for adding on a partnering organization to provide commitments to serve underserved populations, and to engaging a community advisory board to help guide their patient recruitment.

CIRM has already invested almost $81 million in 20 projects targeting HIV/AIDS, including four clinical trials.

Fast Track Designation for a therapy making transplants safer for children with a fatal immune disorder

Bone marrow transplant

For children born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) life can be very challenging. SCID means they have no functioning immune system, so even a simple infection can prove life threatening. Left untreated, children with SCID often die in the first few years of life.

There are stem cell/gene therapies funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), such as ones at UCLA and UCSF/St. Judes, but an alternative method of treating, and even curing the condition, is a bone marrow or hematopoietic stem cell transplant (HCT). This replaces the child’s blood supply with one that is free of the SCID mutation, which helps restore their immune system.

However, current HCT 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.

To change that, Dr. Judy Shizuru at Stanford University, with CIRM funding, developed an antibody that can direct the patient’s own immune cells to kill diseased blood stem cells, creating the room needed to transplant new, healthy cells. The goal was to make stem cell transplants safer and more effective for the treatment of many life-threatening blood disorders.

That approach, JSP191, is now being championed by Jasper Therapeutics and they just got some very good news from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA has granted JSP191 Fast Track Designation, which can speed up the review of therapies designed to treat serious conditions and fill unmet medical needs.

In a news release, Ronald Martell, President and CEO of Jasper Therapeutics, said this is good news for the company and patients: “This new Fast Track designation recognizes the potential role of JSP191 in improving clinical outcomes for these patients and will allow us to more closely work with the FDA in the upcoming months to determine a path toward a Biologics License Application (BLA) submission.”

Getting a BLA means Jasper will be able to market the antibody in the US and make it available to all those who need it.

This is the third boost from the FDA for Jasper. Previously the agency granted JSP191 both Orphan and Rare Pediatric Disease designations. Orphan drug designation qualifies sponsors for incentives such as tax credits for clinical trials. Rare Pediatric Disease designation means that if the FDA does eventually approve JSP191, then Jasper can apply to receive a priority review of an application to use the product for a different disease, such as someone who is getting a bone marrow transplant for sickle cell disease or severe auto immune diseases.

The race to cure sickle cell disease

September is National Sickle Cell Awareness Month, a time to refocus our efforts to find new treatments, even a cure, for people with sickle cell disease. Until we get those, CIRM remains committed to doing everything we can to reduce the stigma and bias that surrounds it.

Sickle cell disease (SCD) is a rare, inherited blood disorder in which normally smooth and round red blood cells may become sickle-shaped and harden. These blood cells can clump together and clog up arteries, causing severe and unpredictable bouts of pain, organ damage, vision loss and blindness, strokes and premature death.

There is a cure, a bone marrow transplant from someone who is both a perfect match and doesn’t carry the SCD trait. However, few patients are able to find that perfect match and even if they do the procedure carries risks.

That’s why the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has invested almost $60 million in 14 projects, including five clinical trials targeting the disease. It’s also why we are partnering with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) in their Cure Sickle Cell Initiative (CureSCi).

As part of the events around National Sickle Cell Awareness Month the NHLBI is launching the Gene Therapy to Reduce All Sickle Pain (GRASP) Trial and hosting a special Journeys in Mental Health Webinar on September 27th

The GRASP Trial is a Phase 2 trial that will take place at various locations throughout the country.  It’s a collaboration between the NHLBI and CIRM. Researchers are testing whether a gene therapy approach can improve or eliminate sickle cell pain episodes.  

Shortly after being born, babies stop producing blood containing oxygen-rich fetal hemoglobin and instead produce blood with the adult hemoglobin protein. For children with sickle cell disease, the transition from the fetal to the adult form of hemoglobin marks the onset of anemia and the painful symptoms of the disorder.

Scientists previously discovered that the BCL11A gene helps to control fetal hemoglobin and that decreasing the expression of this gene can increase the amount of fetal hemoglobin while at the same time reducing the amount of sickle hemoglobin in blood.  This could result in boosting the production of normal shaped red blood cells with a goal of curing or reducing the severity of sickle cell disease.   

The approach used in this trial is similar to a bone marrow transplant, but instead of using donor stem cells, this uses the patient’s own blood stem cells with new genetic information that instructs red blood cells to silence the expression of the BCL11A gene. This approach is still being studied to make sure that it is safe and effective, but it potentially has the advantage of eliminating some of the risks of other therapies. 

In this trial, patients will have to spend some time in an inpatient unit as they undergo chemotherapy to kill some bone marrow blood stem cells and create room for the new, gene-modified cells to take root.

The trial is based on a successful pilot/phase 1 study which showed it to be both safe and effective in the initial 10 patients enrolled in the trial.

For more information about the trial, including inclusion/exclusion criteria and trial locations, please visit the CureSCi GRASP trial page.

Nancy Rene, a sickle cell disease patient advocate, says while clinical trials like this are obviously important, there’s another aspect of the treatment of people with the disease that is still too often overlooked.

“As much as I applaud CIRM for the work they are doing to find a therapy or cure for Sickle Cell, I am often dismayed by the huge gulf between research protocols and general medical practice. For every story I hear about promising research, there is often another sad tale about a sickle cell patient receiving inadequate care. This shouldn’t be an either/or proposition. Let’s continue to support ground-breaking research while we expand education and training for medical professionals in evidenced based treatment. I look forward to the day when sickle cell patients receive the kind of treatment they need to lead healthy, pain-free lives.”

How CIRM contributed to City of Hope study helping man with HIV into long-term remission

The news that a stem cell transplant at City of Hope helped a man with HIV go into long-term remission made banner headlines around the world. As it should. It’s a huge achievement, particularly as the 66-year-old man had been living with HIV since 1988.

What wasn’t reported was that work supported by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine played a role in making that happen.

The Stem Cell Transplant

First the news. In addition to living with HIV the man was diagnosed with acute leukemia. Doctors at City of Hope found a donor who was not only a perfect match to help battle the patient’s leukemia, but the donor also had a rare genetic mutation that meant they were resistant to most strains of HIV.

In transplanting blood stem cells from the donor to the patient they were able to send both his leukemia and HIV into remission. The patient stopped taking all his antiretroviral medications 17 months ago and today has no detectable levels of HIV.

In a news release  City of Hope hematologist Ahmed Aribi, M.D., said the patient didn’t experience any serious complications after the procedure.

“This patient had a high risk for relapsing from AML [acute myeloid leukemia], making his remission even more remarkable and highlighting how City of Hope provides excellent care treating complicated cases of AML and other blood cancers.”

It’s a remarkable achievement and is only the fifth time that a patient with both HIV and leukemia has been put into remission after a transplant from an HIV-resistant donor.

CIRM’s Contribution

So, what does that have to do with CIRM? Well, CIRM’s Alpha Clinics Network helped City of Hope get this case approved by an Institutional Review Board (IRB) and also helped in collecting and shipping the donor blood. In addition, part of the Alpha Clinics team at University of California San Diego helped with the reservoir analysis of blood and gut biopsies to check for any remaining signs of HIV.

It’s a reminder that this kind of achievement is a team effort and CIRM is very good at creating and supporting teams. The Alpha Clinics Network is a perfect example. We created it because there was a need for a network of world-class medical facilities with the experience and expertise to deliver a whole new kind of therapy. The Network has been remarkably successful in doing that with more than 200 clinical trials, taking care of more than 1,000 patients, and treating more than 40 different diseases.

This year our Board approved expanding the number of these clinics to better serve the people of California.

While the role of the Alpha Clinics Network in helping this one patient may seem relatively small, it was also an important one. And we are certainly not stopping here. We have invested more than $79 million in 19 different projects targeting HIV/AIDS, include four clinical trials.

We are in this for the long term and results like the man who had HIV and is now in remission are a sign we are heading in the right direction.