Dashed Dreams and New Hope: A Quest to Cure Thymic Deficiency

By Kelly Shepard, PhD., CIRM’s Associate Director, Discovery & Translation

CIRM has previously blogged about advances in treating certain forms of  “bubble baby” disease”, where a person is born with a defect in their blood forming stem cells that results in a deficient immune system, rendering them vulnerable to lethal infections by all manner of bacteria, virus or germ.

If a suitable donor can be found, or if the patient’s own defective cells can be corrected through gene therapy approaches, it is now possible to treat or cure such disorders through a bone marrow transplant. In this procedure, healthy blood stem cells are infused into the patient, taking up residence in his or her bone marrow and dividing to give rise to functioning immune cells such as T cells and B cells.

Unfortunately, there is another type of “bubble baby” disease that cannot be treated by providing healthy blood stem cells, because the defective immune system is caused by a different culprit altogether- a missing or dysfunctional thymus.

Created for the National Cancer Institute, http://www.cancer.gov

T Cells Go to School

What is a thymus?  Most of us give little thought to this leaf-shaped organ, which is large and important in our early childhoods, but becomes small and inconspicuous as we age. This transformation belies the critical role a thymus plays in the development of our adaptive immune systems, which takes place in our youth: to prepare our bodies to fight infections for the rest of our lives.

One might think of the thymus as a “school”, where immature T cells go to “learn” how to recognize and attack foreign antigens (surface markers), such as those found on microorganisms or tissues from other individuals. The thymus also “teaches” our immune system to distinguish “self” from “other” by eliminating any T cells that attack our own tissues. Without this critical function, our immune system could inadvertently turn against us, causing serious autoimmune disorders such as ulcerative colitis and myasthenia gravis.

Many children with a severely deficient or absent thymus, referred to as athymia, have inherited a chromosome that is missing a key stretch of genes on a region called 22q11. Doctors believe perhaps 1/2000-1/4000 babies are born with some type of deletion in this region, which leads to a variable spectrum of disorders called 22q11 syndrome that can affect just about any part of the body, and can even cause learning disabilities and mental illness.

Individuals with one form of 22q11, called DiGeorge Syndrome, are particularly affected in the heart, thymus, and parathyroid glands. In the United States, about 20 infants are born per year with the “complete” and most severe form of DiGeorge Syndrome, who lack a thymus altogether, and have severely depressed numbers of T cells for fighting infections. Without medical intervention, this condition is usually fatal by 24 months of age.

Optimism and Setback                                                                  

Although there are no therapies approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for pediatric athymia, Dr. Mary Louise Markert at Duke University and Enzyvant, Inc. have been pioneering an experimental approach to treat children with complete DiGeorge syndrome.

In this procedure, discarded thymic tissues are collected from infants undergoing cardiac surgery, where some of the thymus needs to be removed in order for the surgeon to gain access to the heart. These tissues are processed to remove potentially harmful donor T cells and then transplanted into the thigh of an athymic DiGeorge patient.

Results from early clinical trials seemed promising, with more than 70% of patients surviving, including several who are now ten years post-transplant. Based on those results, in June of 2019 Enzyvant applied to the FDA for a Biologics License Application (BLA), which is needed to be able to sell the therapy in the US. Unfortunately, only a few months later, Enzyvant announced that the FDA had declined to approve the BLA due to manufacturing concerns.

While it may be possible to address these issues in time, the need to step back to the drawing board was a devastating blow to the DiGeorge Community, who have waited decades for a promising treatment to emerge on the horizon.

New Opportunities

Despite the setback, there is reason to hope. In early 2019, CIRM granted a “Quest” Award to team of investigators at Stanford University to develop a novel stem cell based approach for treating thymic deficiency. Co-led by Katja Weinacht, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist, and Vittorio Sebastiano, a stem cell expert and developmental biologist, the team’s strategy is to coax induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) in the laboratory to differentiate into thymic tissue, which could then be transplanted into patients using the route pioneered by Duke and Enzyvant.

Katja Weinacht: Photo courtesy Stanford Children’s Health

The beauty of this new approach is that pluripotent stem cells are essentially immortal in culture, providing an inexhaustible supply of fresh thymic cells for transplant, thereby allowing greater control over the quality and consistency of donor tissues. A second major advantage is the possibility of using pluripotent cells from the patient him/herself as the source, which should be perfectly immune-matched and alleviate the risk of rejection and autoimmunity that comes with use of donated tissues.

Vittorio Sebastiano: Photo courtesy Stanford

Sounds easy, so what are the challenges? As with many regenerative medicine approaches, the key is getting a pluripotent stem cell to differentiate into the right type of cells in the lab, which is a very different environment than what cells experience naturally when they develop in the context of an embryo and womb, where many cells are interacting and providing complex, instructive cues to one another. The precise factors and timing all need to be worked out and in most cases, this is done with an incomplete knowledge of human development.

A second challenge relates to using cells from DiGeorge patients to produce thymic tissue, which are missing several genes on their 22nd chromosome and will likely require sophisticated genetic engineering to restore this ability.

Fortunately, Drs. Weinacht and Sebastiano are up to the challenge, and have already made progress in differentiating human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) into thymic lineage intermediates that appear to be expressing the right proteins at the right time. They plan to combine these cells with engineered materials to create a three-dimensional (3D) tissue that more closely resembles an authentic organ, and which can be tested for functionality in athymic mice.

There is more work to be done, but these advances, along with continued technological improvements and renewed efforts from Enzyvant, could forge a path to the clinic and  lead to a brighter future for patients suffering from congenital athymia and other forms of thymic dysfunction.

 

Facebook Live: Ask the Stem Cell Team

On December 12th we hosted our latest ‘Facebook Live: Ask the Stem Cell Team’ event. This time around we really did mean team. We had a host of our Science Officers answering questions from friends and supporters of CIRM. We got a lot of questions and didn’t have enough time to address them all. So here’s answers to all the questions.

What are the obstacles to using partial cellular reprogramming to return people’s entire bodies to a youthful state. Paul Hartman.  San Leandro, California

Dr. Kelly Shepard

Dr. Kelly Shepard: Certainly, scientists have observed that various manipulations of cells, including reprogramming, partial reprogramming, de-differentiation and trans-differentiation, can restore or change properties of cells, and in some cases, these changes can reflect a more “youthful” state, such as having longer telomeres, better proliferative capacity, etc. However, some of these same rejuvenating properties, outside of their normal context, could be harmful or deadly, for example if a cell began to grow and divide when or where it shouldn’t, similar to cancer. For this reason, I believe the biggest obstacles to making this approach a reality are twofold: 1)  our current, limited understanding of the nature of partially reprogrammed cells; and 2) our inability to control the fate of those cells that have been partially reprogrammed, especially if they are inside a living organism.  Despite the challenges, I think there will be step wise advances where these types of approaches will be applied, starting with specific tissues. For example, CIRM has recently funded an approach that uses reprogramming to make “rejuvenated” versions of T cells for fighting lung cancer.  There is also a lot of interest in using such approaches to restore the reparative capacity of aged muscle. Perhaps some successes in these more limited areas will be the basis for expanding to a broader use.

************************************

STROKE

What’s going on with Stanford’s stem cell trials for stroke? I remember the first trial went really well In 2016 have not heard anything about since? Elvis Arnold

Dr. Lila Collins

Dr. Lila Collins: Hi Elvis, this is an evolving story.  I believe you are referring to SanBio’s phase 1/2a stroke trial, for which Stanford was a site. This trial looked at the safety and feasibility of SanBio’s donor or allogeneic stem cell product in chronic stroke patients who still had motor deficits from their strokes, even after completing physical therapy when natural recovery has stabilized.  As you note, some of the treated subjects had promising motor recoveries. 

SanBio has since completed a larger, randomized phase 2b trial in stroke, and they have released the high-level results in a press release.  While the trial did not meet its primary endpoint of improving motor deficits in chronic stroke, SanBio conducted a very similar randomized trial in patients with stable motor deficits from chronic traumatic brain injury (TBI).  In this trial, SanBio saw positive results on motor recovery with their product.  In fact, this product is planned to move towards a conditional approval in Japan and has achieved expedited regulatory status in the US, termed RMAT, in TBI which means it could be available more quickly to patients if all goes well.  SanBio plans to continue to investigate their product in stroke, so I would stay tuned as the work unfolds. 

Also, since you mentioned Stanford, I should note that Dr Gary Steinberg, who was a clinical investigator in the SanBio trial you mentioned, will soon be conducting a trial with a different product that he is developing, neural progenitor cells, in chronic stroke.  The therapy looks promising in preclinical models and we are hopeful it will perform well for patients in the clinic.

*****************************

I am a stroke survivor will stem cell treatment able to restore my motor skills? Ruperto

Dr. Lila Collins:

Hi Ruperto. Restoring motor loss after stroke is a very active area of research.  I’ll touch upon a few ongoing stem cell trials.  I’d just like to please advise that you watch my colleague’s comments on stem cell clinics (these can be found towards the end of the blog) to be sure that any clinical research in which you participate is as safe as possible and regulated by FDA.

Back to stroke, I mentioned SanBio’s ongoing work to address motor skill loss in chronic stroke earlier.  UK based Reneuron is also conducting a phase 2 trial, using a neural progenitor cell as a candidate therapy to help recover persistent motor disability after stroke (chronic).  Dr Gary Steinberg at Stanford is also planning to conduct a clinical trial of a human embryonic stem cell-derived neuronal progenitor cell in stroke.

There is also promising work being sponsored by Athersys in acute stroke. Athersys published results from their randomized, double blinded placebo controlled Ph2 trial of their Multistem product in patients who had suffered a stroke within 24-48 hours.  After intravenous delivery, the cells improved a composite measure of stroke recovery, including motor recovery.  Rather than acting directly on the brain, Multistem seems to work by traveling to the spleen and reducing the inflammatory response to a stroke that can make the injury worse.

Athersys is currently recruiting a phase 3 trial of its Multistem product in acute stroke (within 1.5 days of the stroke).  The trial has an accelerated FDA designation, called RMAT and a special protocol assessment.  This means that if the trial is conducted as planned and it reaches the results agreed to with the FDA, the therapy could be cleared for marketing.  Results from this trial should be available in about two years. 

********************************

Questions from several hemorrhagic stroke survivors who say most clinical trials are for people with ischemic strokes. Could stem cells help hemorrhagic stroke patients as well?

Dr. Lila Collins:

Regarding hemorrhagic stroke, you are correct the bulk of cell therapies for stroke target ischemic stroke, perhaps because this accounts for the vast bulk of strokes, about 85%.

That said, hemorrhagic strokes are not rare and tend to be more deadly.  These strokes are caused by bleeding into or around the brain which damages neurons.  They can even increase pressure in the skull causing further damage.  Because of this the immediate steps treating these strokes are aimed at addressing the initial bleeding insult and the blood in the brain.

While most therapies in development target ischemic stroke, successful therapies developed to repair neuronal damage or even some day replace lost neurons, could be beneficial after hemorrhagic stroke as well.

We are aware of a clinical trial targeting acute hemorrhagic stroke that is being run by the Mayo clinic in Jacksonville Florida.

****************************

I had an Ischemic stroke in 2014, and my vision was also affected. Can stem cells possibly help with my vision issues. James Russell

Dr. Lila Collins:

Hi James. Vision loss from stroke is complex and the type of loss depends upon where the stroke occurred (in the actual eye, the optic nerve or to the other parts of the brain controlling they eye or interpreting vision).  The results could be:

  1. Visual loss from damage to the retina
  2. You could have a normal eye with damage to the area of the brain that controls the eye’s movement
  3. You could have damage to the part of the brain that interprets vision.

You can see that to address these various issues, we’d need different cell replacement approaches to repair the retina or the parts of the brain that were damaged. 

Replacing lost neurons is an active effort that at the moment is still in the research stages.  As you can imagine, this is complex because the neurons have to make just the right connections to be useful. 

*****************************

VISION

Is there any stem cell therapy for optical nerve damage? Deanna Rice

Dr. Ingrid Caras

Dr. Ingrid Caras: There is currently no proven stem cell therapy to treat optical nerve damage, even though there are shady stem cell clinics offering treatments.  However, there are some encouraging early gene therapy studies in mice using a virus called AAV to deliver growth factors that trigger regeneration of the damaged nerve. These studies suggest that it may be possible to restore at least some visual function in people blinded by optic nerve damage from glaucoma

****************************

I read an article about ReNeuron’s retinitis pigmentosa clinical trial update.  In the article, it states: “The company’s treatment is a subretinal injection of human retinal progenitors — cells which have almost fully developed into photoreceptors, the light-sensing retinal cells that make vision possible.” My question is: If they can inject hRPC, why not fully developed photoreceptors? Leonard

Dr. Kelly Shepard: There is evidence from other studies, including from other tissue types such as blood, pancreas, heart and liver, that fully developed (mature) cell types tend not to engraft as well upon transplantation, that is the cells do not establish themselves and survive long term in their new environment. In contrast, it has been observed that cells in a slightly less “mature” state, such as those in the progenitor stage, are much more likely to establish themselves in a tissue, and then differentiate into more mature cell types over time. This question gets at the crux of a key issue for many new therapies, i.e. what is the best cell type to use, and the best timing to use it.

****************************

My question for the “Ask the Stem Cell Team” event is: When will jCyte publish their Phase IIb clinical trial results. Chris Allen

Dr. Ingrid Caras: The results will be available sometime in 2020.

*****************************

I understand the hRPC cells are primarily neurotropic (rescue/halt cell death); however, the literature also says hRPC can become new photoreceptors.  My questions are: Approximately what percentage develop into functioning photoreceptors? And what percentage of the injected hRPC are currently surviving? Leonard Furber, an RP Patient

Dr. Kelly Shepard: While we can address these questions in the lab and in animal models, until there is a clinical trial, it is not possible to truly recreate the environment and stresses that the cells will undergo once they are transplanted into a human, into the site where they are expected to survive and function. Thus, the true answer to this question may not be known until after clinical trials are performed and the results can be evaluated. Even then, it is not always possible to monitor the fate of cells after transplantation without removing tissues to analyze (which may not be feasible), or without being able to transplant labeled cells that can be readily traced.

Dr. Ingrid Caras – Although the cells have been shown to be capable of developing into photoreceptors, we don’t know if this actually happens when the cells are injected into a patient’s eye.   The data so far suggest that the cells work predominantly by secreting growth factors that rescue damaged retinal cells or even reverse the damage. So one possible outcome is that the cells slow or prevent further deterioration of vision. But an additional possibility is that damaged retinal cells that are still alive but are not functioning properly may become healthy and functional again which could result in an improvement in vision.

**********************************

DIABETES

What advances have been made using stem cells for the treatment of Type 2 Diabetes? Mary Rizzo

Dr. Ross Okamura

Dr. Ross Okamura: Type 2 Diabetes (T2D) is a disease where the body is unable to maintain normal glucose levels due to either resistance to insulin-regulated control of blood sugar or insufficient insulin production from pancreatic beta cells.  The onset of disease has been associated with lifestyle influenced factors including body mass, stress, sleep apnea and physical activity, but it also appears to have a genetic component based upon its higher prevalence in certain populations. 

Type 1 Diabetes (T1D) differs from T2D in that in T1D patients the pancreatic beta cells have been destroyed by the body’s immune system and the requirement for insulin therapy is absolute upon disease onset rather than gradually developing over time as in many T2D cases.  Currently the only curative approach to alleviate the heavy burden of disease management in T1D has been donor pancreas or islet transplantation. However, the supply of donor tissue is small relative to the number of diabetic patients.  Donor islet and pancreas transplants also require immune suppressive drugs to prevent allogenic immune rejection and the use of these drugs carry additional health concerns.  However, for some patients with T1D, especially those who may develop potentially fatal hypoglycemia, immune suppression is worth the risk.

To address the issue of supply, there has been significant activity in stem cell research to produce insulin secreting beta cells from pluripotent stem cells and recent clinical data from Viacyte’s CIRM funded trial indicates that implanted allogeneic human stem cell derived cells in T1D patients can produce circulating c-peptide, a biomarker for insulin.  While the trial is not designed specifically to cure insulin-dependent T2D patients, the ability to produce and successfully engraft stem cell-derived beta cells would be able to help all insulin-dependent diabetic patients.

It’s also worth noting that there is a sound scientific reason to clinically test a patient-derived pluripotent stem cell-based insulin-producing cells in insulin-dependent T2D diabetic patients; the cells in this case could be evaluated for their ability to cure diabetes in the absence of needing to prevent both allogeneic and autoimmune responses.

***********************************

SPINAL CORD INJURY

Is there any news on clinical trials for spinal cord injury? Le Ly

Kevin McCormack: The clinical trial CIRM was funding, with Asterias (now part of a bigger company called Lineage Cell Therapeutics, is now completed and the results were quite encouraging. In a news release from November of 2019 Brian Culley, CEO of Lineage Cell Therapeutics, described the results this way.

“We remain extremely excited about the potential for OPC1 (the name of the therapy used) to provide enhanced motor recovery to patients with spinal cord injuries. We are not aware of any other investigative therapy for SCI (spinal cord injury) which has reported as encouraging clinical outcomes as OPC1, particularly with continued improvement beyond 1 year. Overall gains in motor function for the population assessed to date have continued, with Year 2 assessments measuring the same or higher than at Year 1. For example, 5 out of 6 Cohort 2 patients have recovered two or more motor levels on at least one side as of their Year 2 visit whereas 4 of 6 patients in this group had recovered two motor levels as of their Year 1 visit. To put these improvements into perspective, a one motor level gain means the ability to move one’s arm, which contributes to the ability to feed and clothe oneself or lift and transfer oneself from a wheelchair. These are tremendously meaningful improvements to quality of life and independence. Just as importantly, the overall safety of OPC1 has remained excellent and has been maintained 2 years following administration, as measured by MRI’s in patients who have had their Year 2 follow-up visits to date. We look forward to providing further updates on clinical data from SCiStar as patients continue to come in for their scheduled follow up visits.”

Lineage Cell Therapeutics plans to meet with the FDA in 2020 to discuss possible next steps for this therapy.

In the meantime the only other clinical trial I know that is still recruiting is one run by a company called Neuralstem. Here is a link to information about that trial on the www.clinicaltrials.gov website.

*********************************

ALS

Now that the Brainstorm ALS trial is finished looking for new patients do you have any idea how it’s going and when can we expect to see results? Angela Harrison Johnson

Dr. Ingrid Caras: The treated patients have to be followed for a period of time to assess how the therapy is working and then the data will need to be analyzed.  So we will not expect to see the results probably for another year or two.

***********************************

AUTISM

Are there treatments for autism or fragile x using stem cells? Magda Sedarous

Dr. Kelly Shepard: Autism and disorders on the autism spectrum represent a collection of many different disorders that share some common features, yet have different causes and manifestations, much of which we still do not understand. Knowing the origin of a disorder and how it affects cells and systems is the first step to developing new therapies. CIRM held a workshop on Autism in 2009 to brainstorm potential ways that stem cell research could have an impact. A major recommendation was to exploit stem cells and new technological advances to create cells and tissues, such as neurons, in the lab from autistic individuals that could then be studied in great detail.  CIRM followed this recommendation and funded several early-stage awards to investigate the basis of autism, including Rett Syndrome, Fragile X, Timothy Syndrome, and other spectrum disorders. While these newer investigations have not yet led to therapies that can be tested in humans, this remains an active area of investigation. Outside of CIRM funding, we are aware of more mature studies exploring the effects of umbilical cord blood or other specific stem cell types in treating autism, such as an ongoing clinical trial conducted at Duke University.

**********************************

PARKINSON’S DISEASE

What is happening with Parkinson’s research? Hanifa Gaphoor

Dr. Kent Fitzgerald

Dr. Kent Fitzgerald: Parkinson’s disease certainly has a significant amount of ongoing work in the regenerative medicine and stem cell research. 

The nature of cell loss in the brain, specifically the dopaminergic cells responsible for regulating the movement, has long been considered a good candidate for cell replacement therapy.  

This is largely due to the hypothesis that restoring function to these cells would reverse Parkinson’s symptoms. This makes a lot of sense as front line therapy for the disease for many years has been dopamine replacement through L-dopa pills etc.  Unfortunately, over time replacing dopamine through a pill loses its benefit, whereas replacing or fixing the cells themselves should be a more permanent fix. 

Because a specific population of cells in one part of the brain are lost in the disease, multiple labs and clinicians have sought to replace or augment these cells by transplantation of “new” functional cells able to restore function to the area an theoretically restore voluntary motor control to patients with Parkinson’s disease. 

Early clinical research showed some promise, however also yielded mixed results, using fetal tissue transplanted into the brains of Parkinson’s patients.   As it turns out, the cell types required to restore movement and avoid side effects are somewhat nuanced.  The field has moved away from fetal tissue and is currently pursuing the use of multiple stem cell types that are driven to what is believed to be the correct subtype of cell to repopulate the lost cells in the patient. 

One project CIRM sponsored in this area with Jeanne Loring sought to develop a cell replacement therapy using stem cells from the patients themselves that have been reprogrammed into the kinds of cell damaged by Parkinson’s.  This type of approach may ultimately avoid issues with the cells avoiding rejection by the immune system as can be seen with other types of transplants (i.e. liver, kidney, heart etc).

Still, others are using cutting edge gene therapy technology, like the clinical phase project CIRM is sponsoring with Krystof Bankiewicz to investigate the delivery of a gene (GDNF) to the brain that may help to restore the activity of neurons in the Parkinson’s brain that are no longer working as they should. 

The bulk of the work in the field of PD at the present remains centered on replacing or restoring the dopamine producing population of cells in the brain that are affected in disease.   

********************************

HUNTINGTON’S DISEASE

Any plans for Huntington’s? Nikhat Kuchiki

Dr. Lisa Kadyk

Dr. Lisa Kadyk: The good news is that there are now several new therapeutic approaches to Huntington’s Disease that are at various stages of preclinical and clinical development, including some that are CIRM funded.   One CIRM-funded program led by Dr. Leslie Thompson at UC Irvine is developing a cell-based therapeutic that consists of neural stem cells that have been manufactured from embryonic stem cells.   When these cells are injected into the brain of a mouse that has a Huntington’s Disease mutation, the cells engraft and begin to differentiate into new neurons.  Improvements are seen in the behavioral and electrophysiological deficits in these mutant mice, suggesting that similar improvements might be seen in people with the disease.   Currently, CIRM is funding Dr. Thompson and her team to carry out rigorous safety studies in animals using these cells, in preparation for submitting an application to the FDA to test the therapy in human patients in a clinical trial.   

There are other, non-cell-based therapies also being tested in clinical trials now, using  anti-sense oligonucleotides (Ionis, Takeda) to lower the expression of the Huntington protein.  Another HTT-lowering approach is similar – but uses miRNAs to lower HTT levels (UniQure, Voyager)

******************************

TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY (TBI)

My 2.5 year old son recently suffered a hypoxic brain injury resulting in motor and speech disabilities. There are several clinical trials underway for TBI in adults. My questions are:

  • Will the results be scalable to pediatric use and how long do you think it would take before it is available to children?
  •  
  • I’m wondering why the current trials have chosen to go the route of intracranial injections as opposed to something slightly less invasive like an intrathecal injection?
  • Is there a time window period in which stem cells should be administered by, after which the administration is deemed not effective?

Dr. Kelly Shepard:  TBI and other injuries of the nervous system are characterized by a lot of inflammation at the time of injury, which is thought to interfere with the healing process- and thus some approaches are intended to be delivered after that inflammation subsides. However, we are aware of approaches that intend to deliver a therapy to a chronic injury, or one that has occurred  previously. Thus, the answer to this question may depend on how the intended therapy is supposed to work. For example, is the idea to grow new neurons, or is it to promote the survival of neurons of other cells that were spared by the injury? Is the therapy intended to address a specific symptom, such as seizures? Is the therapy intended to “fill a gap” left behind after inflammation subsides, which might not restore all function but might ameliorate certain symptoms.? There is still a lot we don’t understand about the brain and the highly sophisticated network of connections that cannot be reversed by only replacing neurons, or only reducing inflammation, etc. However, if trials are well designed, they should yield useful information even if the therapy is not as effective as hoped, and this information will pave the way to newer approaches and our technology and understanding evolves.

********************************

We have had a doctor recommending administering just the growth factors derived from MSC stem cells. Does the science work that way? Is it possible to isolate the growth factors and boost the endogenous growth factors by injecting allogenic growth factors?

Dr. Stephen Lin

Dr. Stephen Lin:  Several groups have published studies on the therapeutic effects in non-human animal models of using nutrient media from MSC cultures that contain secreted factors, or extracellular vesicles from cells called exosomes that carry protein or nucleic acid factors.  Scientifically it is possible to isolate the factors that are responsible for the therapeutic effect, although to date no specific factor or combination of factors have been identified to mimic the effects of the undefined mixtures in the media and exosomes.  At present no regulatory approved clinical therapy has been developed using this approach. 

************************************

PREDATORY STEM CELL CLINICS

What practical measures are being taken to address unethical practitioners whose bad surgeries are giving stem cell advances a bad reputation and are making forward research difficult? Kathy Jean Schultz

Dr. Geoff Lomax

Dr. Geoff Lomax: Terrific question! I have been doing quite a bit research into the history of this issue of unethical practitioners and I found an 1842 reference to “quack medicines.” Clearly this is nothing new. In that day, the author appealed to make society “acquainted with the facts.”

In California, we have taken steps to (1) acquaint patients with the facts about stem cell treatments and (2) advance FDA authorized treatments for unmet medical needs.

  • First, CIRM work with Senator Hernandez in 2017 to write a law the requires provides to disclose to patient that a stem cell therapy has not been approved by the Food and Drug administration.
  • We continue to work with the State Legislature and Medical Board of California to build on policies that require accurate disclosure of the facts to patients.
  • Second, our clinical trial network the — Alpha Stem Cell Clinics – have supported over 100 FDA-authorized clinical trials to advance responsible clinical research for unmet medical needs.

*****************************************

I’m curious if adipose stem cell being used at clinics at various places in the country is helpful or beneficial? Cheri Hicks

Adipose tissue has been widely used particularly in plastic and reconstructive surgery. Many practitioners suggest adipose cells are beneficial in this context. With regard to regenerative medicine and / or the ability to treat disease and injury, I am not aware of any large randomized clinical trials that demonstrate the safety and efficacy of adipose-derived stem cells used in accordance with FDA guidelines.

I went to a “Luncheon about Stem Cell Injections”. It sounded promising. I went thru with it and got the injections because I was desperate from my knee pain. The price of stem cell injections was $3500 per knee injection. All went well. I have had no complications, but haven’t noticed any real major improvement, and here I am a year later. My questions are:

 1) I wonder on where the typical injection cells are coming from?

  2) I wonder what is the actual cost of the cells?

3) What kind of results are people getting from all these “pop up” clinics or established clinics that are adding this to there list of offerings?

*********************************

Dr. Geoff Lomax: You raise a number of questions and point here; they are all very good and it’s is hard to give a comprehensive response to each one, but here is my reaction:

  • There are many practitioners in the field of orthopedics who sincerely believe in the potential of cell-based treatments to treat injury / pain
  • Most of the evidence presented is case reports that individuals have benefited
  • The challenge we face is not know the exact type of injury and cell treatments used.
  • Well controlled clinical trials would really help us understand for what cells (or cell products) and for what injury would be helpful
  • Prices of $3000 to $5000 are not uncommon, and like other forms of private medicine there is often a considerable mark-up in relation to cost of goods.
  • You are correct that there have not been reports of serious injury for knee injections
  • However the effectiveness is not clear while simultaneously millions of people have been aided by knee replacements.

*************************************

Do stem cells have benefits for patients going through chemotherapy and radiation therapy? Ruperto

Dr. Kelly Shepard: The idea that a stem cell therapy could help address effects of chemotherapy or radiation is being and has been pursued by several investigators over the years, including some with CIRM support. Towards the earlier stages, people are looking at the ability of different stem cell-derived neural cell preparations to replace or restore function of certain brain cells that are damaged by the effects of chemotherapy or radiation. In a completely different type of approach, a group at City of Hope is exploring whether a bone marrow transplant with specially modified stem cells can provide a protective effect against the chemotherapy that is used to treat a form of brain cancer, glioblastoma. This study is in the final stage of development that, if all goes well, culminates with application to the FDA to allow initiation of a clinical trial to test in people.

Dr. Ingrid Caras: That’s an interesting and valid question.  There is a Phase 1 trial ongoing that is evaluating a novel type of stem/progenitor cell from the umbilical cord of healthy deliveries.  In animal studies, these cells have been shown to reduce the toxic effects of chemotherapy and radiation and to speed up recovery. These cells are now being tested in a First-in-human clinical trial in patients who are undergoing high-dose chemotherapy to treat their disease.

There is a researcher at Stanford, Michelle Monje, who is investigating that the role of damage to stem cells in the cognitive problems that sometimes arise after chemo- and radiation therapy (“chemobrain”).  It appears that damage to stem cells in the brain, especially those responsible for producing oligodendrocytes, contributes to chemobrain.  In CIRM-funded work, Dr. Monje has identified small molecules that may help prevent or ameliorate the symptoms of chemobrain.

*****************************************

Is it possible to use a technique developed to fight one disease to also fight another? For instance, the bubble baby disease, which has cured (I think) more than 50 children, may also help fight sickle cell anemia?  Don Reed.

Dr. Lisa Kadyk: Hi Don. Yes, the same general technique can often be applied to more than one disease, although it needs to be “customized” for each disease.   In the example you cite, the technique is an “autologous gene-modified bone marrow transplant” – meaning the cells come from the patient themselves.  This technique is relevant for single gene mutations that cause diseases of the blood (hematopoietic) system.  For example, in the case of “bubble baby” diseases, a single mutation can cause failure of immune cell development, leaving the child unable to fight infections, hence the need to have them live in a sterile “bubble”.   To cure that disease, blood stem cells, which normally reside in the bone marrow, are collected from the patient and then a normal version of the defective gene is introduced into the cells, where it is incorporated into the chromosomes.   Then, the corrected stem cells are transplanted back into the patient’s body, where they can repopulate the blood system with cells expressing the normal copy of the gene, thus curing the disease.  

A similar approach could be used to treat sickle cell disease, since it is also caused by a single gene mutation in a gene (beta hemoglobin) that is expressed in blood cells.  The same technique would be used as I described for bubble baby disease but would differ in the gene that is introduced into the patient’s blood stem cells. 

*****************************************

Is there any concern that CIRM’s lack of support in basic research will hamper the amount of new approaches that can reach clinical stages? Jason

Dr. Kelly Shepard: CIRM always has and continues to believe that basic research is vital to the field of regenerative medicine. Over the past 10 years CIRM has invested $904 million in “discovery stage/basic research”, and about $215 million in training grants that supported graduate students, post docs, clinical fellows, undergraduate, masters and high school students performing basic stem cell research. In the past couple of years, with only a limited amount of funds remaining, CIRM made a decision to invest most of the remaining funds into later stage projects, to support them through the difficult transition from bench to bedside. However, even now, CIRM continues to sponsor some basic research through its Bridges and SPARK Training Grant programs, where undergraduate, masters and even high school students are conducting stem cell research in world class stem cell laboratories, many of which are the same laboratories that were supported through CIRM basic research grants over the past 10 years. While basic stem cell research continues to receive a substantial level of support from the NIH ($1.8 billion in 2018, comprehensively on stem cell projects) and other funders, CIRM believes continued support for basic research, especially in key areas of stem cell research and vital opportunities, will always be important for discovering and developing new treatments.

********************************

What is the future of the use of crispr cas9 in clinical trials in california/globally. Art Venegas

Dr. Kelly Shepard: CRISPR/Cas9 is a powerful gene editing tool. In only a few years, CRISPR/Cas9 technology has taken the field by storm and there are already a few CRISPR/Cas9 based treatments being tested in clinical trials in the US. There are also several new treatments that are at the IND enabling stage of development, which is the final testing stage required by the FDA before a clinical trial can begin. Most of these clinical trials involving CRISPR go through an “ex vivo” approach, taking cells from the patient with a disease causing gene, correcting the gene in the laboratory using CRISPR, and reintroducing the cells carrying the corrected gene back into the patient for treatment.  Sickle cell disease is a prime example of a therapy being developed using this strategy and CIRM funds two projects that are preparing for clinical trials with this approach.  CRISPR is also being used to develop the next generation of cancer T-cell therapies (e.g. CAR-T), where T-cells – a vital part of our immune system – are modified to target and destroy cancer cell populations.  Using CRISPR to edit cells directly in patients “in vivo” (inside the body) is far less common currently but is also being developed.  It is important to note that any FDA sanctioned “in vivo” CRISPR clinical trial in people will only modify organ-specific cells where the benefits cannot be passed on to subsequent generations. There is a ban on funding for what are called germ line cells, where any changes could be passed down to future generations.

CIRM is currently supporting multiple CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing projects in California from the discovery or most basic stage of research, through the later stages before applying to test the technique in people in a clinical trial.

While the field is new – if early safety signals from the pioneering trials are good, we might expect a number of new CRISPR-based approaches to enter clinical testing over the next few years. The first of these will will likely be in the areas of bone marrow transplant to correct certain blood/immune or  metabolic diseases, and cancer immunotherapies, as these types of approaches are the best studied and furthest along in the pipeline.

**********************************

Explain the differences between gene therapy and stem cell therapy? Renee Konkol

Dr. Stephen Lin:  Gene therapy is the direct modification of cells in a patient to treat a disease.  Most gene therapies use modified, harmless viruses to deliver the gene into the patient.  Gene therapy has recently seen many success in the clinic, with the first FDA approved therapy for a gene induced form of blindness in 2017 and other approvals for genetic forms of smooth muscle atrophy and amyloidosis. 

Stem cell therapy is the introduction of stem cells into patients to treat a disease, usually with the purpose of replacing damaged or defective cells that contribute to the disease.  Stem cell therapies can be derived from pluripotent cells that have the potential to turn into any cell in the body and are directed towards a specific organ lineage for the therapy.  Stem cell therapies can also be derived from other cells, called progenitors, that have the ability to turn into a limited number of other cells in the body. for example hematopoietic or blood stem cells (HSCs), which are found in bone marrow, can turn into other cells of the blood system including B-cells and T-cells: while mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), which are usually found in fat tissue, can turn into bone, cartilage, and fat cells.  The source of these cells can be from the patient’s own body (autologous) or from another person (allogeneic).

Gene therapy is often used in combination with cell therapies when cells are taken from the patient and, in the lab, modified genetically to correct the mutation or to insert a correct form of the defective gene, before being returned to patients.  Often referred to as “ex vivo gene therapy” – because the changes are made outside the patient’s body – these therapies include Chimeric Antigen Receptor T (CAR-T) cells for cancer therapy and gene modified HSCs to treat blood disorders such as severe combined immunodeficiency and sickle cell disease. This is an exciting area that has significantly improved and even cured many people already.

***********************************

Currently, how can the outcome of CIRM stem cell medicine projects and clinical trials be soundly interpreted when their stem cell-specific doses are not known? James L. Sherley, M.D., Ph.D., Director. Asymmetrex, LLC

Dr. Stephen Lin:  Stem cell therapies that receive approval to conduct clinical trials must submit a package of data to the FDA that includes studies that demonstrate their effectiveness, usually in animal models of the disease that the cell therapy is targeting.  Those studies have data on the dose of the cell therapy that creates the therapeutic effect, which is used to estimate cell doses for the clinical trial.  CIRM funds discovery and translational stage awards to conduct these types of studies to prepare cell therapies for clinical trials.  The clinical trial is also often designed to test multiple doses of the cell therapy to determine the one that has the best therapeutic effect.   Dosing can be very challenging with cell therapies because of issues including survival, engraftment, and immune rejection, but CIRM supports studies designed to provide data to give the best estimate possible.

*****************************************

Is there any research on using stem cells to increase the length of long bones in people?” For example, injecting stem cells into the growth plates to see if the cells can be used to lengthen limbs. Sajid

Dr. Kelly Shepard: There is quite a lot of ongoing research seeking ways to repair bones with stem cell based approaches, which is not the same but somewhat related. Much of this is geared towards repairing the types of bone injuries that do not heal well naturally on their own (large gaps, dead bone lesions, degenerative bone conditions). Also, a lot of this research involves engineering bone tissues in the lab and introducing the engineered tissue into a bone lesion that need be repaired. What occurs naturally at the growth plate is a complex interaction between many different cell types, much of which we do not fully understand. We do not fully understand how to use the cells that are used to engineer bone tissue in the lab. However, a group at Stanford, with some CIRM support, recently discovered a “skeletal stem cell” that exists naturally at the ends of human bones and at sites of fracture.  These are quite different than MSCs and offer a new path to be explored for repairing and generating bone. 

CIRM funded study may help explain why some people with cystic fibrosis are less prone to infection

Dr. Kelly A. Frazer, UC San Diego School of Medicine

Cystic fibrosis is a disorder that mostly affects the lungs. It is caused by a mutation in a gene called cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR). As a result of this mutation, cells that produce mucus (a slimy substance like the one in your nose) secrete a thicker-than-normal mucus that can create blockages in the lungs and digestive system. In the lungs, this thicker mucus is a perfect breeding ground for bacteria, leading to more chronic lung infections in those with cystic fibrosis.

However, some people with cystic fibrosis don’t develop lung infections as early or as often as others with the disorder. Thanks to a CIRM funded study, Dr. Kelly Frazer and her team at the UC San Diego School of Medicine have discovered why this might happen.

In healthy people, the CFTR protein is embedded in the membrane of most cells, where it forms a channel for chlorine ions. In people with cystic fibrosis, an inherited mutation in the CFTR gene means their channels don’t work as well and cells produce more mucus. The RNF5 protein inhibits CFTR, so people with cystic fibrosis who have genetic variations that decrease RNF5 expression have CFTR channels that function a little better, and thus aren’t as prone to infections as people with high RNF5 expression.

Before we get into that, we need to dive a bit deeper into cystic fibrosis and what causes this thicker-than normal mucus. In healthy people, CFTR is embedded in the membrane of most cells, where it forms a channel that allows chloride – a component of salt – to travel through. This flow ensures that cells have the right balance of salt and water. In people with cystic fibrosis, the CFTR mutation means that the channel doesn’t work as well, the flow of water is blocked resulting in more thick and sticky mucus. There are medications that can help boost CFTR, but they are very expensive and don’t work for everyone.

Dr. Frazer and her team discovered that a gene, called RNF5, also prevents CFTR from functioning well. People with cystic fibrosis who have lower levels of RNF5 have channels that function better, with less mucus build up, compared to people with higher levels of RNF5. This could potentially explain why some with cystic fibrosis get more chronic lung infections compared to others with the condition.

In a press release by UC San Diego School of Medicine, Dr. Frazer talks about how RNF5 could play a role in treating patients.

“The cystic fibrosis field is trying to figure out what are the modifiers across the genome that increase or decrease the probability that an individual patient will respond to these expensive drugs. RNF5 may be one of these modifier genes.”

In the same press release, Dr. Matteo D’Antonio, a project scientist in Dr. Frazer’s lab, talks about how these findings could result in more personalized treatments for people with cystic fibrosis.

“This study uncovered a new aspect of cystic fibrosis — one that could lead to new drug design and development, and allow clinicians to better tailor treatments.”

The full study was published in eLife.

An off-the-shelf cancer killer

iPS Cell: Photo from the lab of Kathrin Plath at UCLA

One of the hottest areas in cancer research right now is the use of CAR-T treatments. These use the patient’s own re-engineered immune system cells to target and kill the tumor. But the thing that makes it so appealing – using the patient’s own cells – also makes it really complicated and expensive. Creating a custom-made therapy from each patient’s own cells takes time and costs a lot of money. But now a new approach could change that.

Fate Therapeutics has developed an off-the-shelf therapy (thanks to CIRM funding) that could, theoretically, be stored at hospitals and clinics around the country and used whenever it’s needed for anyone who needs it.

At this year’s meeting of the American Society of Hematology (ASH) Fate announced that the first patient treated with this new approach seems to be doing very well. The patient had acute myeloid leukemia and wasn’t responding to conventional treatments. However, following treatment with Fate’s FT516 the patient responded quickly and – according to STAT News’ Adam Feuerstein – was able to leave the hospital and spend Thanksgiving with his family.

Equally impressive is that 42 days after being treated with FT516, the man showed no signs of leukemia in either his bone marrow or blood.

FT516 is designed to provide a one-two combination attack on cancer. It’s made up of the wonderfully named natural killer (NK) cells, which are a critical part of our immune system defenses against cancer. These NK cells are created by using the iPSC process and have been genetically modified to express a protein that boosts their cancer-killing abilities.

Because these cells are manufactured they can, if effective, be produced in large numbers and stored for whenever needed. That would not only dramatically reduce costs but also make them more widely available when they are needed.

This is only one patient and the follow-up is still relatively short. Even so, the results are encouraging and certainly give hope that Fate is on to something big. We’ll be keeping track and let you know how things progress.

What to be thankful for this Thanksgiving: scientists hard at work

Biomedical technician Louis Pinedo feeds stem cells their special diet. Photo by Cedars-Sinai.

With Thanksgiving and Black Friday approaching in the next couple of days, we wanted to give thanks to all the scientists hard at work during this holiday weekend. Science does not sleep–the groundbreaking research and experiments that are being conducted do not take days off. There are tasks in the laboratory that need to be done daily otherwise months, even years, of important work can be lost in an instant.

Below is a story from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center that talks about one of these scientists, Louis Pinedo, that will be working during this holiday weekend.

Stem Cells Don’t Take the Day Off on Thanksgiving

Inside a Cedars-Sinai Laboratory, Where a Scientist Will be Busy Feeding Stem Cells During the Holiday

While most of us are stuffing ourselves with turkey and pumpkin pie at home on Thanksgiving Day, the staff at one Cedars-Sinai laboratory will be on the job, feeding stem cells.

“Stem cells do not observe national holidays,” says Loren Ornelas-Menendez, the manager of a lab that converts samples of adult skin and blood cells into stem cells—the amazing “factories” our bodies use to make our cells. These special cells help medical scientists learn how diseases develop and how they might be cured.

Stem cells are living creatures that must be hand-fed a special formula each day, monitored for defects and maintained at just the right temperature. And that means the cell lab is staffed every day, 52 weeks a year.

These cells are so needy that Ornelas-Menendez jokes: “Many people have dogs. We have stem cells.”

Millions of living stem cells are stored in the David and Janet Polak Foundation Stem Cell Core Laboratory at the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute. Derived from hundreds of healthy donors and patients, they represent a catalogue of human ills, including diabetes, breast cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and Crohn’s disease.

Cedars-Sinai scientists rely on stem cells for many tasks: to make important discoveries about how our brains develop; to grow tiny versions of human tissues for research; and to create experimental treatments for blindness and neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) that they are testing in clinical trials.

The lab’s main collection consists of induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs, which mimic the all-powerful stem cells we all had as embryos. These ingenious cells, which Cedars-Sinai scientists genetically engineer from adult cells, can make any type of cell in the body—each one matching the DNA of the donor. Other types of stem cells in the lab make only one or two kinds of cells, such as brain or intestinal cells.

Handy and versatile as they are, stem cells are high-maintenance. A few types, such as those that make connective tissue cells for wound healing, can be fed as infrequently as every few days. But iPSCs require a daily meal to stay alive, plus daily culling to weed out cells that have started to turn into cells of the gut, brain, breast or other unwanted tissues.

So each day, lab staff suit up and remove trays of stem cells from incubators that are set at a cozy 98.6 degrees. Peering through microscopes, they carefully remove the “bad” cells to ensure the purity of the iPSCs they will provide to researchers at Cedars-Sinai and around the world.

While the cells get sorted, a special feeding formula is defrosting in a dozen bottles spread around a lab bench. The formula incudes sodium, glucose, vitamins and proteins. Using pipettes, employees squeeze the liquid into food wells inside little compartments that contain the iPSCs. Afterward, they return the cells to their incubators.

The lab’s 10 employees are on a rotating schedule that ensures the lab is staffed on weekends and holidays, not just weekdays. On Thanksgiving Day this year, biomedical technician Louis Pinedo expects to make a 100-mile round trip from his home in Oxnard, California, to spend several hours at work, filling nearly 600 feeding wells. On both Christmas and New Year’s Day, two employees are expected to staff the lab.

All this ceaseless effort helps make Cedars-Sinai one of the world’s top providers of iPSCs, renowned for consistency and quality. Among the lab’s many clients are major universities and the global Answer ALS project, which is using the cells in its search for a cure for this devastating disease.

That’s why the lab’s director, Dhruv Sareen, PhD, suggests that before you sit down to your Thanksgiving feast, why not lift a glass to these hard-working lab employees?

“One day the cells they tend could lead to treatments for diseases that have plagued humankind for centuries,” he says. “And that’s something to be truly thankful for.”

Machine learning used to pattern stem cells – a vital step in organ modeling

Gladstone researchers discovered a method to control the patterns stem cells form in a dish. The work was led by Senior Investigator Todd McDevitt (left) and his team, including (pictured) David Joy and Ashley Libby.

When someone thinks of machine learning, the first thing that comes to mind might be the technology used by Netflix or Hulu to suggest new shows based on their viewing history. But what if this technology could be applied towards advancing the field of regenerative medicine?

Thanks to a CIRM funded study, a team of scientists lead by Dr. Todd McDevitt at the Gladstone Institutes have found a way to to use machine learning to control the spacial organization of stem cells, a key process that plays a vital role in organ development. This new understanding of how stem cells organize themselves in 3D is an important step towards being able to create functional and/or personalized organs for research or organ transplants.

“We’ve shown how we can leverage the intrinsic ability of stem cells to organize,” said Dr. McDevitt in a news release from Gladstone Institutes. “This gives us a new way of engineering tissues, rather than a printing approach where you try to physically force cells into a specific configuration.”

In their normal environment, stem cells are able to form patterns as they mature and over time morph into the tissues seen in an adult organism. One type of stem cell, called an induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC), can become nearly every cell type of the body. In fact, researchers have already found ways to direct iPSCs to become various cell types such as those in the heart or brain.

Unfortunately, attempting to replicate the pattern formation of stem cells as they mature has been challenging. Some have used 3D printing to lay out stem cells in a desired shape, but the cells often migrated away from their initial locations.

In the same news release mentioned above, Ashley Libby, a graduate student at Gladstone and co-first author of this study, said that,

“Despite the importance of organization for functioning tissues, we as scientists have had difficulty creating tissues in a dish with stem cells. Instead of an organized tissue, we often get a disorganized mix of different cell types.”

To solve this problem, the scientists used a computational model to learn how to influence stem cells into forming new arrangements, such as those that might be useful in generating personalized organs.

Previous studies conducted by Dr. McDevitt showed that blocking the expression of two genes, called ROCK1 and CDH1, affected the layout of iPS cells grown in a petri dish.

In this current study, the scientists used CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing (you can read about this technology in more detail here) to block expression of ROCK1 and CDH1 at any time by adding a drug to the iPSCs. This was done to see if they could predict stem cell arrangement based on the alterations made to ROCK1 and CDH1 at different drug doses and time periods.

The team carried out various experiments with different doses and timing. Then, the data was input into a machine-learning program designed to identify patterns, something that could take a human months to identify.

(Left) video showing simulated interactions between different stem cell populations. (Right) image of stem cells grown in conditions dictated by the machine-learning program generate a colony that forms a bull’s-eye pattern, as predicted.

The machine-learning program used the data to predict ways that ROCK1 and CDH1 affect iPSC organization. The scientists then began to see whether the program could compute how to make entirely new patterns, like a bull’s-eye or an island of cells. The team says the results were little short of astounding. Machine learning was able to accurately predict conditions that will cause stem cell colonies to form desired patterns.

The full study was published in the journal Cell Systems.

Rare Disease, Type 1 Diabetes, and Heart Function: Breakthroughs for Three CIRM-Funded Studies

This past week, there has been a lot of mention of CIRM funded studies that really highlight the importance of the work we support and the different disease areas we make an impact on. This includes important research related to rare disease, Type 1 Diabetes (T1D), and heart function. Below is a summary of the promising CIRM-funded studies released this past week for each one of these areas.

Rare Disease

Comparison of normal (left) and Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease (PMD) brains (right) at age 2. 

Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease (PMD) is a rare genetic condition affecting boys. It can be fatal before 10 years of age and symptoms of the disease include weakness and breathing difficulties. PMD is caused by a disruption in the formation of myelin, a type of insulation around nerve fibers that allows electrical signals in the brain to travel quickly. Without proper signaling, the brain has difficulty communicating with the rest of the body. Despite knowing what causes PMD, it has been difficult to understand why there is a disruption of myelin formation in the first place.

However, in a CIRM-funded study, Dr. David Rowitch, alongside a team of researchers at UCSF, Stanford, and the University of Cambridge, has been developing potential stem cell therapies to reverse or prevent myelin loss in PMD patients.

Two new studies, of which Dr. Rowitch is the primary author, published in Cell Stem Cell, and Stem Cell Reports, respectively report promising progress in using stem cells derived from patients to identify novel PMD drugs and in efforts to treat the disease by directly transplanting neural stem cells into patients’ brains. 

In a UCSF press release, Dr. Rowitch talks about the implications of his findings, stating that,

“Together these studies advance the field of stem cell medicine by showing how a drug therapy could benefit myelination and also that neural stem cell transplantation directly into the brains of boys with PMD is safe.”

Type 1 Diabetes

Viacyte, a company that is developing a treatment for Type 1 Diabetes (T1D), announced in a press release that the company presented preliminary data from a CIRM-funded clinical trial that shows promising results. T1D is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s own immune system destroys the cells in the pancreas that make insulin, a hormone that enables our bodies to break down sugar in the blood. CIRM has been funding ViaCyte from it’s very earliest days, investing more than $72 million into the company.

The study uses pancreatic precursor cells, which are derived from stem cells, and implants them into patients in an encapsulation device. The preliminary data showed that the implanted cells, when effectively engrafted, are capable of producing circulating C-peptide, a biomarker for insulin, in patients with T1D. Optimization of the procedure needs to be explored further.

“This is encouraging news,” said Dr. Maria Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “We are very aware of the major biologic and technical challenges of an implantable cell therapy for Type 1 Diabetes, so this early biologic signal in patients is an important step for the Viacyte program.”

Heart Function

Although various genome studies have uncovered over 500 genetic variants linked to heart function, such as irregular heart rhythms and heart rate, it has been unclear exactly how they influence heart function.

In a CIRM-funded study, Dr. Kelly Frazer and her team at UCSD studied this link further by deriving heart cells from induced pluripotent stem cells. These stem cells were in turn derived from skin samples of seven family members. After conducting extensive genome-wide analysis, the team discovered that many of these genetic variations influence heart function because they affect the binding of a protein called NKX2-5.

In a press release by UCSD, Dr. Frazer elaborated on the important role this protein plays by stating that,

“NKX2-5 binds to many different places in the genome near heart genes, so it makes sense that variation in the factor itself or the DNA to which it binds would affect that function. As a result, we are finding that multiple heart-related traits can share a common mechanism — in this case, differential binding of NKX2-5 due to DNA variants.”

The full results of this study were published in Nature Genetics.

“Brains” in a dish that can create electrical impulses

Brain organoids in a petri dish: photo courtesy UCSD

For several years, researchers have been able to take stem cells and use them to make three dimensional structures called organoids. These are a kind of mini organ that scientists can then use to study what happens in the real thing. For example, creating kidney organoids to see how kidney disease develops in patients.

Scientists can do the same with brain cells, creating clumps of cells that become a kind of miniature version of parts of the brain. These organoids can’t do any of the complex things our brains do – such as thinking – but they do serve as useful physical models for us to use in trying to develop a deeper understanding of the brain.

Now Alysson Muotri and his team at UC San Diego – in a study supported by two grants from CIRM – have taken the science one step further, developing brain organoids that allow us to measure the level of electrical activity they generate, and then compare it to the electrical activity seen in the developing brain of a fetus. That last sentence might cause some people to say “What?”, but this is actually really cool science that could help us gain a deeper understanding of how brains develop and come up with new ways to treat problems in the brain caused by faulty circuitry, such as autism or schizophrenia.

The team developed new, more effective methods of growing clusters of the different kinds of cells found in the brain. They then placed them on a multi-electrode array, a kind of muffin tray that could measure electrical impulses. As they fed the cells and increased the number of cells in the trays they were able to measure changes in the electrical impulses they gave off. The cells went from producing 3,000 spikes a minute to 300,000 spikes a minute. This is the first time this level of activity has been achieved in a cell-based laboratory model. But that’s not all.

When they further analyzed the activity of the organoids, they found there were some similarities to the activity seen in the brains of premature babies. For instance, both produced short bursts of activity, followed by a period of inactivity.

Alysson Muotri

In a news release Muotri says they were surprised by the finding:

“We couldn’t believe it at first — we thought our electrodes were malfunctioning. Because the data were so striking, I think many people were kind of skeptical about it, and understandably so.”

Muotri knows that this research – published in the journal Cell Stem Cell – raises ethical issues and he is quick to say that these organoids are nothing like a baby’s brain, that they differ in several critical ways. The organoids are tiny, not just in size but also in the numbers of cells involved. They also don’t have blood vessels to keep them alive or help them grow and they don’t have any ability to think.

“They are far from being functionally equivalent to a full cortex, even in a baby. In fact, we don’t yet have a way to even measure consciousness or sentience.”

What these organoids do have is the ability to help us look at the structure and activity of the brain in ways we never could before. In the past researchers depended on mice or other animals to test new ideas or therapies for human diseases or disorders. Because our brains are so different than animal brains those approaches have had limited results. Just think about how many treatments for Alzheimer’s looked promising in animal models but failed completely in people.

These new organoids allow us to explore how new therapies might work in the human brain, and hopefully increase our ability to develop more effective treatments for conditions as varied as epilepsy and autism.

CIRM-Funded Researchers Develop Chimeric “Mighty Mouse” Model to Study Alzheimer’s Disease

Dr. Mathew Blurton-Jones, leader of team that developed the chimeric “Mighty Mouse” model at the University of California, Irvine

In ancient Greek mythology, a Chimera was a creature that was usually depicted as a lion with an additional goat head and a serpent for a tail. Due to the Chimera’s animal hybrid nature, the term “chimeric” came to fruition in the scientific community as a way to describe an organism containing two or more different sets of DNA.

A CIRM-funded study conducted by Dr. Mathew Blurton-Jones and his team at UC Irvine describes a way for human brain immune cells, known as microglia, to grow and function inside mice. Since the mice contain a both human cells and their own mice cells, they are described as being chimeric.

In order to develop this chimeric “mighty mouse” model, Dr. Blurton-Jones and his team generated induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which have the ability to turn into any kind of cell, from cell samples donated by adult patients. For this study, the researchers converted iPSCs into microglia, a type of immune cell found in the brain, and implanted them into genetically modified mice. After a few months, they found that the implanted cells successfully integrated inside the brains of the mice.

By finding a way to look at human microglia grow and function in real time in an animal model, scientists can further analyze crucial mechanisms contributing to neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, traumatic brain injury, and stroke.

For this particular study, Dr. Blurton-Jones and his team looked at human microglia in the mouse brain in relation to Alzheimer’s, which could hold clues to better understand and treat the disease. The team did this by introducing amyloid plaques, protein fragments in the brain that accumulate in people with Alzheimer’s, and evaluating how the human microglia responded. They found that the human microglia migrated toward the amyloid plaques and surrounding them, which is what is observed in Alzheimer’s patients.

In a press release, Dr. Blurton-Jones expressed the importance of studying microglia by stating that,

“Microglia are now seen as having a crucial role in the development and progression of Alzheimer’s. The functions of our cells are influenced by which genes are turned on or off. Recent research has identified over 40 different genes with links to Alzheimer’s and the majority of these are switched on in microglia. However, so far we’ve only been able to study human microglia at the end stage of Alzheimer’s in post-mortem tissues or in petri dishes.”

Furthermore, Dr. Blurton-Jones highlighted the importance of looking at human microglia in particular by saying that,

“The human microglia also showed significant genetic differences from the rodent version in their response to the plaques, demonstrating how important it is to study the human form of these cell.”

The full results of this study were published in Cell.

CIRM funded study identifies potential drug target for deadly heart condition

Joseph Wu is co-senior author of a study that demonstrates how patient-derived heart cells can help scientists better study the heart and screen potential therapies. Photo courtesy of Steve Fisch

Heart disease continues to be the number one cause of death in the United States. An estimated 375,000 people have a genetic form of heart disease known as familial dilated cardiomyopathy. This occurs when the heart muscle becomes weakened in one chamber in the heart, causing the open area of the chamber to become enlarged or dilated. As a result of this, the heart can no longer beat regularly, causing shortness of breath, chest pain and, in severe cases, sudden and deadly cardiac arrest.

A diagram of a normal heart compared to one with the dilated cardiomyopathy

A CIRM funded study by a team of researchers at Stanford University looked further into this form of genetic heart disease by taking a patient’s skin cells and converting them into stem cells known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which can become any type of cell in the body. These iPSCs were then converted into heart muscle cells that pulse just as they do in the body. These newly made heart muscle cells beat irregularly, similar to what is observed in the genetic heart condition.

Upon further analysis, the researchers linked a receptor called PGDF to cause various genes to be more highly activated in the mutated heart cells compared to normal ones. Two drugs, crenolanib and sunitinib, interfere with the PGDF receptor. After treating the abnormal heart cells, they began beating more regularly, and their gene-activation patterns more closely matched those of cells from healthy donors.

These two drugs are already FDA-approved for treating various cancers, but previous work shows that the drugs may damage the heart at high doses. The next step would be determining the right dose of the drug. The current study is part of a broader effort by the researchers to use these patient-derived cells-in-a-dish to screen for and discover new drugs.

Dr. Joseph Wu, co-senior author of this study, and his team have generated heart muscle cells from over 1,000 patients, including those of Dr. Wu, his son, and his daughter. In addition to using skin cells, the same technique to create heart cells from patients can also be done with 10 milliliters of blood — roughly two teaspoons.

In a news release, Dr. Wu is quoted as saying,

“With 10 milliliters of blood, we can make clinically usable amounts of your beating heart cells in a dish…Our postdocs have taken my blood and differentiated my pluripotent stem cells into my brain cells, heart cells and liver cells. I’m asking them to test some of the medications that I might need to take in the future.”

The full results of this study were published in Nature.