There are some people who, when you think of them, always bring a smile to your face. Dr. Bert Lubin was one of those people. Sadly, we lost Bert to brain cancer two days ago. But the impact he had, not just as an advocate for stem cell research but as a pioneer in sickle cell disease research and a champion for children’s health, will live on.
Bert had a number of official titles but probably the one he was most proud of was President & CEO of Children’s Hospital Oakland (now UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland). But it wasn’t the title that he cared about, it was the opportunity it gave him to make a difference in the life of children in Oakland, to create a program to find new treatments and cures for a life-threatening disease. And he has made a difference.
As I started to write this tribute to Bert, I thought about who I should ask for a quote. And then I realized I had the perfect person. Bert himself. I was fortunate enough to interview him in December 2018, when he decided to step down after eight years on the CIRM Board. As always, he had his own positive spin on that, saying: “I don’t see myself leaving. I’m just repurposing what is my role in CIRM. I’m recycling and reinventing.”
And Bert was always full of invention.
He grew up in Bellevue, a small town outside Pittsburgh, PA. His parents ran a fruit and vegetable market there and, growing up, Bert often worked in the store. It wasn’t something he enjoyed but he said he learned some valuable lessons.
“I think what happened in my childhood is that I learned how to sell. I am a salesman. I hated working in that store, I hated it, but I liked the communication with people, they trusted me, I could sell things and they were good things. Like Christmas. I’m Jewish, we were the only Jews in that community, and at Christmas we sold Christmas trees, but the trees were sometimes crooked and they were $2.99 a tree so I convinced families that I could go to their house and set the tree so it looked straight and I helped them decorate it and they loved it.”
He said, thinking back on his life it’s almost as if there were a plan, even if he wasn’t aware of it.
“I started thinking about that more recently, I started wondering how did this even happen? I’m not a religious person but it’s almost like there’s some fate. How did I get there? It’s not that I planned it that way and it’s certainly not that my parents planned it because I was the first in my family to go to high school let alone college. My parents, when I went to medical school and then decided I wanted to spend more time in an academic direction, they were upset. They wanted me to go into practice in a community that I grew up in and be economically secure and not be on the fringe in what an academic life is like.”
And then, fate stepped in and brought him to the San Francisco Bay Area.
“What happened was, I was at the University of Pennsylvania having trained at Boston Children’s and Philadelphia Children’s, where I had started a sickle cell disease program, and was asked to look at a job in southern California to start a sickle cell program there. So, I flew to San Francisco because a lot of people I’d studied with were now working at UCSF and I thought it would be fun to see them before going down to southern California. They took me out to dinner and showed me around and I said this place is beautiful, I can play tennis out here all year round, there’s lots of music – I love jazz – and they said ‘you know Bert, have you looked at Oakland Children’s hospital? We want to start a sickle cell program center, but the patients are all in Oakland and the patient population that would be served is in Oakland. But if you came out to the Bay Area we could partner with you to start that program.
“So, when I walked in the door here (at Oakland) and said ‘I want to create this northern California sickle cell center with UC’ the staff that was here said ‘you know we’re not a research hospital, we are a community based hospital’. I said, ‘I’m not saying you shouldn’t be that but I’m trying to create an opportunity here’ and they said to me ‘as long as you don’t ask for any money you can go and do whatever you want’.
‘They recognized that I had this fire in me to really create something that was novel. And the warmth and community commitment from this place is something that attracted me and then allowed me to build on that.
“For example, when I became the director of the research program we had $500,000 in NIH grants and when I left we had $60 million. We just grew. Why did we grow? Because we cared about the faculty and the community. We had a lovely facility, which was actually the home of the Black Panther party. It was the Black Panthers who started screening for sickle cell on street corners here in Oakland, and they were the start of the national sickle cell act so there’s a history here and I like that history.
“Then I got a sense of the opportunities that stem cell therapies would have for a variety of things, certainly including sickle cell disease, and I thought if there’s a chance to be on the CIRM Board, as an advocate for that sickle cell community, I think I’d be a good spokesperson. So, I applied. I just thought this was an exciting opportunity.
“I thought it was a natural fit for me to add some value, I only want to be on something where I think I add value.”
Bert added value to everything he did. And everyone he met felt valued by him. He was a mentor to so many people, young physicians and nurses, students starting out on their careers. And he was a friend to those in need.
He was an extraordinary man and we are grateful that we were able to call him a colleague, and a friend, for as long as we did.
When Burt stepped down from Children’s his colleagues put together this video about his life and times. It seems appropriate to share it again and remind ourselves of the gift that he was to everyone fortunate enough to know him.
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: 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.
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: 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.
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:
Visual loss from damage to the retina
You could have a normal eye with damage to the area of the brain that controls the eye’s movement
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.
Is there any stem cell therapy for optical nerve damage? Deanna Rice
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.
What advances have been made using stem cells for the treatment of Type 2 Diabetes?Mary Rizzo
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.
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.
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.
What is happening with Parkinson’s research? Hanifa Gaphoor
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.
Any plans for Huntington’s?Nikhat Kuchiki
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: 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: 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.
Dr. Bert Lubin has been a fixture at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland long before it was even called that. When he started there 43 years ago it was just a small community hospital and through his commitment to helping those in need he has helped build it into a remarkable institution.
Over the years he started one of the first newborn screening programs for sickle cell disease, created the world’s first non-profit sibling cord blood donor program and along the way boosted the research budget from $500,000 to $60 million without ever losing sight of the hospital’s primary goal, serving the community.
But with someone like Bert, nothing is ever enough. He became a national leader in the fight to develop better treatments and even a cure for sickle cell disease and then joined the CIRM Board to help us find better treatments and even cures for a wide variety of diseases and disorders.
“I got a sense of the opportunities that stem cell therapies would have for a variety of things, certainly including Sickle Cell Disease and I thought if there’s a chance to be on the Board as an advocate for that population I think I’d be a good spokesperson. I just thought this was an exciting opportunity.”
He says the Stem Cell Agency has done a great job in advancing the field, and establishing California as a global leader.
“I think we are seeing advances in stem cell therapies. I’m proud of the progress we are making and I’m proud of the cures we are providing and I think it’s wonderful that the state had the vision to do something as big as this and to be a leader in the world in that regard.”
Now, after almost eight years Bert is stepping down from the CIRM Board. But he’s not stepping away from CIRM.
I feel committed to CIRM, I don’t need to be on the Board to be committed to CIRM. I don’t see myself leaving, I’m just re-purposing what is my role in my CIRM. I’m recycling and reinventing.
To mark this transition to the next phase of his career, the staff at Children’s put together this video tribute for Bert. It’s a sweet, glowing and heart warming thank you to someone who has done so much for so many people. And plans on doing even more in the years to come.
Rich Lajara, the first patient treated in a CIRM-funded clinical trial
May 4th, 2011 marked a landmark moment for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). On that day the Stem Cell Agency’s Board voted to invest in its first ever clinical trial, which was also the first clinical trial to use cells derived from embryonic stem cells. Today the Stem Cell Agency reached another landmark, with the Board voting to approve its 50th clinical trial.
“We have come a long way in the past seven and a half years, helping advance the field from its early days to a much more mature space today, one capable of producing new treatments and even cures,” says Jonathan Thomas, JD, PhD, Chair of the CIRM Board. “But we feel that in many ways we are just getting started, and we intend funding as many additional clinical trials as we can for as long as we can.”
The project approved today awards almost $6.2 million to Angiocrine Bioscience Inc. to see if genetically engineered cells, derived from cord blood, can help alleviate or accelerate recovery from the toxic side effects of chemotherapy for people undergoing treatment for lymphoma and other aggressive cancers of the blood or lymph system.
“This is a project that CIRM has supported from an earlier stage of research, highlighting our commitment to moving the most promising research out of the lab and into people,” says Maria T. Millan, MD, President & CEO of CIRM. “Lymphoma is the most common blood cancer and the 6th most commonly diagnosed cancer in California. Despite advances in therapy many patients still suffer severe complications from the chemotherapy, so any treatment that can reduce those complications can not only improve quality of life but also, we hope, improve long term health outcomes for patients.”
The first clinical trial CIRM funded was with Geron, targeting spinal cord injury. While Geron halted the trial for business reasons (and returned the money, with interest) the mantle was later picked up by Asterias Biotherapeutics, which has now treated 25 patients with no serious side effects and some encouraging results.
Rich Lajara was part of the Geron trial, the first patient ever treated in a CIRM-funded clinical trial. He came to the CIRM Board meeting to tell his story saying when he was injured “I knew immediately I was paralyzed. I thought this was the end, little did I know this was just the beginning. I call it being in the wrong place at the right time.”
When he learned about the Geron clinical trial he asked how many people had been treated with stem cells. “Close to none” he was told. Nonetheless he went ahead with it. He says he has never regretted that decision, knowing it helped inform the research that has since helped others.
Since that first trial the Stem Cell Agency has funded a wide range of projects targeting heart disease and stroke, cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and several rare diseases. You can see the full list on the Clinical Trials Dashboard page on our website.
Rich ended by saying: “CIRM has proven how much can be achieved if we invest in cutting-edge medical research. As most of you here probably know, CIRM’s funding from Proposition 71 is about to run out. If I had just one message I wanted people to leave with today it would be this, I will do everything I can to make sure the agency gets refunded and I hope that all of you will join me in that fight. I’m excited for the world of stem cells, particularly in California and can’t wait to see what’s on the horizon.”
The CIRM Board also took time today to honor Dr. Bert Lubin, who is stepping down after serving almost eight years on the Board.
When he joined the Board in February, 2011 Dr. Lubin said: “I hope to use my position on this committee to advocate for stem cell research that translates into benefits for children and adults, not only in California but throughout the world.”
Over the years he certainly lived up to that goal. As a CIRM Board member he has supported research for a broad range of unmet medical needs, and specifically for curative treatments for children born with a rare life-threatening conditions such as Sickle Cell Disease and Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) as well as treatments to help people battling vision destroying diseases.
As the President & CEO of Children’s Hospital Oakland (now UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland) Dr. Lubin was a leader in helping advance research into new treatments for sickle cell disease and addressing health disparities in diseases such as asthma, diabetes and obesity.
Senator Art Torres said he has known Dr. Lubin since the 1970’s and in all that time has been impressed by his devotion to patients, and his humility, and that all Californians should be grateful to him for his service, and his leadership.
Dr. Lubin said he was “Really grateful to be on the Board and I consider it an honor to be part of a group that benefits patients.”
He said he may be stepping down from the CIRM Board but that was all: “I am going to retire the word retirement. I think it’s a mistake to stop doing work that you find stimulating. I’m going to repurpose the rest of my life, and work to make sure the treatments we’ve helped develop are available to everyone. I am so proud to be part of this. I am stepping down, but I am devoted to doing all I can to ensure that you get the resources you need to sustain this work for the future.”
Whenever we hold an in-person Board meeting at CIRM we like to bring along a patient or patient advocate to address the Board. Hearing from the people they are trying to help, who are benefiting or may benefit from a therapy CIRM is funding, reminds them of the real-world implications of the decisions they make and the impact they have on people’s lives.
At our most recent meeting Marissa Cors told her story.
Marissa Cors addressing the CIRM Board
My name is Marissa Cors, I have sickle cell disease. I was diagnosed with sickle cell disease at six months of age. I am now 40. Sickle cell has been a part of my life every day of my life.
The treatments you are supporting and funding here at CIRM are very important. They offer a potential cure to a disease that desperately needs one. I want to tell you just how urgently people with sickle cell need a cure.
I have been hospitalized so many times that my medical record is now more than 8 gigabytes. I have almost 900 pages in my medical record from my personal doctor alone.
I live with pain every day of my life but because you can’t see pain most people have no idea how bad it can be. The pain comes in two forms:
Chronic pain – this comes from the damage that sickle cell disease does to the body over many years. My right knee, my left clavicle, my lower back are all damaged because of the disease. I get chronic headaches. All these are the result of a lifetime of crisis.
Acute pain – this is the actual crisis that can’t be controlled, where the pain is so intense and the risk of damage to my organs so great that it requires hospitalization. That hospitalization can result in yet more pain, not physical but emotional and psychological pain.
But those are just the simple facts. So, let me tell you what it’s really like to live with sickle cell disease.
It means being in a constant state of limbo and a constant state of unknown because you have no idea when the next crisis is going to come and take over and you have to stop your life. You have absolutely no idea how bad the pain will be or how long it will last.
It is a constant state of frustration and upset and even a constant state of guilt because it is your responsibility to put in place all the safety nets and plans order to keep life moving as normally as possible, not just for you but for everyone else around you. And you know that when a crisis comes, and those plans get ripped up that it’s not just your own life that gets put on hold while you try to deal with the pain, it’s the lives of those you love.
It means having to put your life on hold so often that it’s hard to have a job, hard to have a career or lead a normal life. Hard to do the things everyone else takes for granted. For example, in my 30’s, while all my friends from home and college were building careers and getting married and having families, I was in a cancer ward trying to stay alive, because that’s where they put you when you have sickle cell disease. The cancer ward.
People talk about new medications now that are more effective at keeping the disease under control. But let me tell you. As a black woman walking into a hospital Emergency Room saying I am having a sickle cell crisis and need pain medications, and then naming the ones I need, too often I don’t get treated as a patient, I get treated as a drug addict, a drug seeker.
Even when the doctors do agree to give me the medications I need they often act in a way that clearly shows they don’t believe me. They ask, “How do we know this is a crisis, why is it taking you so long for the medication to take effect?” These are people who spent a few days in medical school reading from a textbook about sickle cell disease. I have spent a lifetime living with it and apparently that’s still not enough for them to trust that I do know what I am talking about.
That’s when I usually say, “Goodbye and don’t forget to send in your replacement doctor because I can’t work with you.”
I have had doctors take away my medication because they wanted to see how I would react without it.
If I dare to question what a doctor or nurse does, they frequently tell me they have to go and take care of other patients who are really sick, not like me.
Even when I talk in my “nice white lady” voice they still treat me and call me “an angry black girl”. Girl. I’m a 40 year old woman but I get treated like a child.
It’s hard to be in the hospital surrounded by doctors and nurses and yet feel abandoned by the medical staff around you.
This month alone 25 people have died from sickle cell in the US. It’s not because we don’t have treatments that can help. It’s due to negligence, not getting the right care at the right time.
I know the work you do here at CIRM won’t change those attitudes. But maybe the research you support could find a cure for sickle cell, so people like me don’t have to endure the pain, the physical, emotional and spiritual pain, that the disease brings every day.
You can read about the work CIRM is funding targeting sickle cell disease, including two clinical trials, on this page on our website.
The live broadcast will feature two scientists and a patient advocate who are working hard to bring an end to sickle cell disease, a devastating, inherited blood disorder that largely targets the African-American community and to a lesser degree the Hispanic community.
We want to answer your most pressing questions, so please email them directly to us beforehand at email@example.com.
For a sneak preview here’s a short video featuring our patient advocate speaker, Adrienne Shapiro. And see below for more details about Ms. Shapiro and our two other guests.
Adrienne Shapiro [Video: Todd Dubnicoff/CIRM]
Donald Kohn, MD
Don Kohn, M.D. is a professor in the departments of Pediatrics and Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics in UCLA’s Broad Stem Cell Research Center. Dr. Kohn has a CIRM Clinical Stage Research grant in support of his team’s Phase 1 clinical trial which is genetically modifying a patient’s own blood stem cells to produce a correct version of hemoglobin, the protein that is mutated in these patients, which causes abnormal sickle-like shaped red blood cells. These misshapen cells lead to dangerous blood clots, debilitating pain and even death. The genetically modified stem cells will be given back to the patient to create a new sickle cell-free blood supply.
Mark Walters, MD
Mark Walters, M.D., is a pediatric hematologist/oncologist and is director of the Blood & Marrow Transplantation Program at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland. Dr. Walters has a CIRM-funded Therapeutic Translation Research grant which aims to improve Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) therapy by preparing for a clinical trial that might cure SCD after giving back sickle gene-corrected blood stem cells – using cutting-edge CRISPR gene editing technology – to a person with SCD. If successful, this would be a universal life-saving and cost-saving therapy.
Adrienne Shapiro is a patient advocate for SCD and the co-founder of the Axis Advocacy SCD patient education and support website. Shapiro is the fourth generation of mothers in her family to have children born with sickle cell disease. She is vocal stem cell activist, speaking to various groups about the importance of CIRM’s investments in both early stage research and clinical trials. In January, she was awarded a Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Action Award at the 2018 World Stem Cell Summit.
The five-year survival rate for people diagnosed with the most advanced stage of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is pretty grim, only between one and 10 percent. To address this devastating condition, the Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) today voted to invest almost $12 million in a team from UCLA that is pioneering a combination therapy for NSCLC.
The team is using the patient’s own immune system where their dendritic cells – key cells in our immune system – are genetically modified to boost their ability to stimulate their native T cells – a type of white blood cell – to destroy cancer cells. The investigators will combine this cell therapy with the FDA-approved therapy pembrolizumab (better known as Keytruda) a therapeutic that renders cancer cells more susceptible to clearance by the immune system.
“Lung cancer is a leading cause of cancer death for men and women, leading to 150,000 deaths each year and there is clearly a need for new and more effective treatments,” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., the President and CEO of CIRM. “We are pleased to support this program that is exploring a combination immunotherapy with gene modified cell and antibody for one of the most extreme forms of lung cancer.”
The CIRM Board also approved investing $14.15 million in four projects under its Translation Research Program. The goal of these awards is to support promising stem cell research and help it move out of the laboratory and into clinical trials in people.
Researchers at Stanford were awarded almost $6 million to help develop a treatment for urinary incontinence (UI). Despite being one of the most common indications for surgery in women, one third of elderly women continue to suffer from debilitating urinary incontinence because they are not candidates for surgery or because surgery fails to address their condition.
The Stanford team is developing an approach using the patient’s own cells to create smooth muscle cells that can replace those lost in UI. If this approach is successful, it provides a proof of concept for replacement of smooth muscle cells that could potentially address other conditions in the urinary tract and in the digestive tract.
Max BioPharma Inc. was awarded almost $1.7 million to test a therapy that targets stem cells in the skeleton, creating new bone forming cells and blocking the destruction of bone cells caused by osteoporosis.
In its application the company stressed the benefit this could have for California’s diverse population stating: “Our program has the potential to have a significant positive impact on the lives of patients with osteoporosis, especially in California where its unique demographics make it particularly vulnerable. Latinos are 31% more likely to have osteoporosis than Caucasians, and California has the largest Latino population in the US, accounting for 39% of its population.”
Autologous iPSC-derived smooth muscle cell therapy for treatment of urinary incontinence
Development of a noninvasive prenatal test for beta-hemoglobinopathies for earlier stem cell therapeutic interventions
Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute
Therapeutic development of an oxysterol with bone anabolic and anti-resorptive properties for intervention in osteoporosis
MAX BioPharma Inc.
Morphological and functional integration of stem cell derived retina organoid sheets into degenerating retina models
SPARK students at the 2017 Annual Meeting at the City of Hope.
High school is a transformative time for any student. It marks the transition from childhood to adulthood and requires discipline, dedication and determination to excel and get into their desired college or university.
The barrier to entry for college now seems much higher than when I was eighteen, but I am not worried for the current generation of high school students. That’s because I’ve met some of the brightest young minds this past week at the 2017 CIRM SPARK meeting.
SPARK is CIRM’s high school education program, which gives underprivileged students in California the opportunity to train as stem cell scientists for the summer. Students participate in a summer research internship at one of seven programs at leading research institutes in the state. They attend scientific lectures, receive training in basic lab techniques, and do an eight-week stem cell research project under the guidance of a mentor.
At the end of the summer, SPARK students congregate at the annual SPARK poster meeting where they present the fruits of their labor. Meeting these students in person is my favorite time of the year. Their enthusiasm for science and stem cell research is contagious. And when you engage them or listen to them talk about their project, it’s hard to remember that they are still teenagers and not graduate level scientists.
What impresses me most about these students is their communication skills. Each summer, I challenge SPARK students to share their summer research experience through social media and blogging, and each time they go above and beyond with their efforts. Training these students as effective science communicators is important to me. They are the next generation of talented scientists who can help humanize research for the public. They have the power to change the perception of science as a field to be embraced and one that should receive proper funding.
It’s also inspiring to me that this young generation can effectively educate their friends, family and the public about the importance of stem cell research and how it will help save the lives of patients who currently don’t have effective treatments. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend checking out the #CIRMSPARKlab hashtag on Instagram to get a taste of what this year’s group of students accomplished during their internships.
Asking students, many of whom are learning to do research for the first time, to post on Instagram once a week and write a blog about their internship is a tall task. And I believe with any good challenge, there should be a reward. Therefore, at this year’s SPARK meeting held at the City of Hope in Duarte, California, I handed out prizes.
It was very difficult to pick winners for our presentation, social media and blogging awards because honestly, all our students were excellent this year. Even Kevin McCormack, Director of CIRM’s Communications, who helped me read the students’ blogs said,
“This was really tough. The standard of the blogs this year was higher than ever; and previous years had already set the bar really high. It was really difficult deciding which were really good and which were really, really good.”
Ok, enough with the hype, I know you want to read these award-winning blogs so I’ve shared them below. I hope that they inspire you as much as they have inspired me.
Amira Hirara (Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute)
It was a day like any other. I walked into the room, just two minutes past 10:30am, ready for another adventurous day in the lab. Just as I settle down, I am greeted by my mentor with the most terrifying task I have ever been asked to perform, “Will you passage the cells for me…alone?” Sweat begins to pour down my cemented face as I consider what is at stake.
The procedure was possibly thirty steps long and I have only executed it twice, with the supervision of my mentor of course. To be asked to do the task without the accompaniment of an experienced individual was unthought-of. I feel my breath begin to shorten as I mutter the word “Ok”. Yet it wasn’t just the procedure that left me shaking like a featherless bird, it was the location of my expedition as well. The dreaded tissue culture room. If even a speck of dirt enters the circulating air of the biosafety cabinet, your cells are at risk of death…death! I’ll be a cell murderer. “Alright”, she said, “I’ll just take a look at the cells then you’ll be on your way.” As we walk down the hallway, my eyes began to twitch as I try to recall the first steps of the procedure. I remember freezing our plates with Poly-ornithine and laminin, which essentially simulates the extracellular environment and allows adhesion between the cell and the plate itself. I must first add antibiotics to rid the frozen plate of potential bacteria. Then I should remove my cells from the incubator, and replace the old solution with accutase and new media, to nourish the cells, as well as unbind them from the plate before. Passaging is necessary when the cell density gets too high, as the cells must be relocated to a roomier environment to better promote survival. As we approach the tissue culture room, my jaw unclenches, as I realize the whirlwind of ideas meant I know more than I thought. My mentor retrieves our cells, views them under the microscope, and deems them ‘ready for passaging’.
“Good luck Amira” she says to me with a reassuring smile. I enter the room ready for battle. Placing first my gloves and coat, I then spray my hands and all things placed in the cabinet with 70% ethanol, to insure a sterile work environment. Back to the procedure, I’ll place the cellular solution of accutase and media into a covalent tube. After, I’ll centrifuge it for two minutes until a cellular pellet forms at the bottom, then dissolve the cells in fresh media, check its density using a cell counter, and calculate the volume of cellular solution needed to add to my once frozen plates. Wait, once I do that, I’ll be all done. I eagerly execute all the steps, ensuring both accuracy and sterility in my work. Pride swells within me as I pipette my last milliliter of solution into my plate. The next day, my mentor and I stop by to check on how our sensitive neural stem cells are doing. “Wow Amira, I am impressed, your cells seem very confluent in their new home, great job!” I smile slyly and begin to nod my head. I now walk these hallways, with a puffed chest, brightened smile, and eagerness to learn. My stem cells did not die, and having the amazing opportunity to master their treatment and procedures, is something I can never forget.
Gaby Escobar (Stanford University)
Walking into the lab that would become my home for the next 8 weeks, my mind was an empty canvas. Up to that point, my perception of the realm of scientific research was one-sided. Limited to the monotonous textbook descriptions of experiments that were commonplace in a laboratory, I wanted more. I wanted to experience the alluring call of curiosity. I wanted to experience the flash of discovery and the unnerving drive that fueled our pursuit of the unknown. I was an empty canvas looking for its first artistic stroke.
Being part of the CIRM Research program, I was lucky enough to have been granted such opportunity. Through the patient guidance of my mentor, I was immersed into the limitless world of stem cell biology. From disease modeling to 3D bioprinting, I was in awe of the capabilities of the minds around me. The energy, the atmosphere, the drive all buzzed with an inimitable quest for understanding. It was all I had imagined and so, so much more.
However, what many people don’t realize is research is an arduous, painstaking process. Sample after sample day after day, frustration and doubt loomed above our heads as we tried to piece together a seemingly pieceless puzzle. Inevitably, I faced the truth that science is not the picture-perfect realm I had imagined it to be. Rather, it is tiring, it is relentless, and it is unforgiving. But at the same time, it is incomparably gratifying. You see, the innumerable samples, the countless gels and PCRS, all those futile attempts to fruitlessly make sense of the insensible, have meaning. As we traversed through the rollercoaster ride of our project, my mentor shared a personal outlook that struck very deeply with me: her motivation to work against obstacle after obstacle comes not from the recognition or prestige of discovering the next big cure but rather from the notion that one day, her perseverance may transform someone’s life for the good. And in that, I see the beauty of research and science: the coming together of minds and ideas and bewildering intuitions all for the greater good.
As I look back, words cannot express the gratitude I feel for the lessons I have learned. Undoubtedly, I have made countless mistakes (please don’t ask how many gels I’ve contaminated or pipettes I have dropped) but I’ve also created the most unforgettable of memories. Memories that I know I will cherish for the journey ahead of me. Having experienced the atmosphere of a vibrant scientific community, I have found a second home, a place that I can explore and question and thrive. And although not every day will hold the cure to end all diseases or hand an answer on a silver platter, every day is another opportunity. And with that, I walk away perhaps not with the masterpiece of art that I had envisioned in my mind but rather with a burning spark of passion, ready to ignite.
Ahn Vo (UC Davis)
With college selectivity increasing and acceptance rates plummeting, the competitive nature within every student is pushed to the limit. In high school, students are expected to pad up their resumes and most importantly, choose an academic path sooner rather than later. However, at 15, I felt too young to experience true passion for a field. As I tried to envision myself in the future, I wondered, would I be someone with the adrenaline and spirit of someone who wants to change the world or one with hollow ambitions, merely clinging onto a paycheck with each day passing? At the very least, I knew that I didn’t want to be the latter.
The unrelenting anxiety induced by the uncertainty of my own ambitions was intoxicating. As my high school career reached its halfway mark, I felt the caving pressure of having to choose an academic path.
“What do you want to be?” was one of the first questions that my mentor, Whitney Cary, asked me. When I didn’t have an answer, she assured me that I needed to keep my doors open, and the SPARK program was the necessary first step that I needed to take to discovering my passion.
As I reflected on my experience, the SPARK program was undoubtedly the “first step”. It was the first step into a lab and above all, into a community of scientists, who share a passion for research and a vehement resolve to contribute to scientific merit. It was the integration into a cohort of other high school students, whose brilliance and kindness allowed us to forge deeper bonds with each other that we will hold onto, even as we part ways. It was the first nervous step into the bay where I met the Stem Cell Core, a team, whose warm laughter and vibrancy felt contagious. Finally, it was the first uncertain stumble into the tissue culture room, where I conceived a curiosity for cell culture that made me never stop asking, “Why?”
With boundless patience, my mentor and the Stem Cell Core strove to teach me techniques, such as immunocytochemistry and continually took the time out of their busy day to reiterate concepts. Despite my initial blunders in the hood, I found myself in a place without judgement, and even after discouraging incidents, I felt a sense of consolation in the witty and good-humored banter among the Stem Cell Core. At the end of every day, the unerring encouragement from my mentor strengthened my resolve to continue improving and incited an earnest excitement in me for the new day ahead. From trembling hands, nearly tipping over culture plates and slippery gloves, overdoused in ethanol, I eventually became acquainted with daily cell culture, and most importantly, I gained confidence and pride in my work.
I am grateful to CIRM for granting me this experience that has ultimately cultivated my enthusiasm for science and for the opportunity to work alongside remarkable people, who have given me new perspectives and insights. I am especially thankful to my mentor, whose stories of her career journey have inspired me to face the future with newfound optimism in spite of adversity.
As my internship comes to a close, I know that I have taken my “first step”, and with a revived mental acquisitiveness, I eagerly begin to take my second.
CIRM funds research trying to solve the Alzheimer’s puzzle
In science, there are a lot of terms that could easily mystify people without a research background; “translational” is not one of them. Translational research simply means to take findings from basic research and advance them into something that is ready to be tested in people in a clinical trial.
Yesterday our Governing Board approved $15 million in funding for four projects as part of our Translational Awards program, giving them the funding and support that we hope will ultimately result in them being tested in people.
Those projects use a variety of different approaches in tackling some very different diseases. For example, researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco received $5.9 million to develop a new way to help the more than five million Americans battling Alzheimer’s disease. They want to generate brain cells to replace those damaged by Alzheimer’s, using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) – an adult cell that has been changed or reprogrammed so that it can then be changed into virtually any other cell in the body.
CIRM’s mission is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs and Alzheimer’s – which has no cure and no effective long-term treatments – clearly represents an unmet medical need.
Another project approved by the Board is run by a team at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI). They got almost $4.5 million for their research helping people with sickle cell anemia, an inherited blood disorder that causes intense pain, and can result in strokes and organ damage. Sickle cell affects around 100,000 people in the US, mostly African Americans.
The CHORI team wants to use a new gene-editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9 to develop a method of editing the defective gene that causes Sickle Cell, creating a healthy, sickle-free blood supply for patients.
Right now, the only effective long-term treatment for sickle cell disease is a bone marrow transplant, but that requires a patient to have a matched donor – something that is hard to find. Even with a perfect donor the procedure can be risky, carrying with it potentially life-threatening complications. Using the patient’s own blood stem cells to create a therapy would remove those complications and even make it possible to talk about curing the disease.
While damaged cartilage isn’t life-threatening it does have huge quality of life implications for millions of people. Untreated cartilage damage can, over time lead to the degeneration of the joint, arthritis and chronic pain. Researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) were awarded $2.5 million to develop an off-the-shelf stem cell product that could be used to repair the damage.
The fourth and final award ($2.09 million) went to Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics, which hopes to create a stem cell therapy for osteonecrosis. This is a painful, progressive disease caused by insufficient blood flow to the bones. Eventually the bones start to rot and die.
As Jonathan Thomas, Chair of the CIRM Board, said in a news release, we are hoping this is just the next step for these programs on their way to helping patients:
“These Translational Awards highlight our goal of creating a pipeline of projects, moving through different stages of research with an ultimate goal of a successful treatment. We are hopeful these projects will be able to use our newly created Stem Cell Center to speed up their progress and pave the way for approval by the FDA for a clinical trial in the next few years.”
SPARK students take a group photo with CIRM SPARK director Karen Ring.
Yesterday was one of the most exciting and inspiring days I’ve had at CIRM since I joined the agency one year ago. We hosted the CIRM SPARK conference which brought together fifty-five high school students from across California to present their stem cell research from their summer internships.
The day was a celebration of their accomplishments. But it was also a chance for the students to hear from scientists, patient advocates, and clinicians about the big picture of stem cell research: to develop stem cell treatments and cures for patients with unmet medical needs.
Since taking on the role of the CIRM SPARK director, I’ve been blown away by the passion, dedication, and intelligence that our SPARK interns have shown during their short time in the lab. They’ve mastered techniques and concepts that I only became familiar with during my PhD and postdoctoral research. And even more impressive, they eloquently communicated their research through poster presentations and talks at the level of professional scientists.
During their internships, SPARK students were tasked with documenting their research experiences through blogs and social media. They embraced this challenge with gusto, and we held an awards ceremony to recognize the students who went above and beyond with these challenges.
I’d like to share the winning blogs with our readers. I hope you find them as inspiring and motivating as I do. These students are our future, and I look forward to the day when one of them develops a stem cell treatment that changes the lives of patients.
Andrew Choi, Cedars-Sinai SPARK student
Am I crying or is my face uncontrollably sweating right now? I think I am doing both as I write about my unforgettable experiences over the course of the past 6 weeks and finalize my poster.
As I think back, I am very grateful for the takeaways of the research field, acquiring them through scientific journals, lab experiments with my mentor, and both formal and informal discourses. It seems impossible to describe all the episodes and occurrences during the program in this one blog post, but all I can say is that they were all unique and phenomenal in their own respective ways.
Gaining new perspectives and insights and being acquainted with many of the techniques, such as stereology, immunocytochemistry and immunohistochemistry my peers have utilized throughout their careers, proved to me the great impact this program can make on many individuals of the younger generation.
CIRM SPARK not only taught me the goings on behind the bench-to-bedside translational research process, but also morals, work ethics, and effective collaboration with my peers and mentors. My mentor, Gen, reiterated the importance of general ethics. In the process of making my own poster for the program, her words resonate even greater in me. Research, education, and other career paths are driven by proper ethics and will never continue to progress if not made the basic standard.
I am thankful for such amazing institutions: California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for enabling me to venture out into the research career field and network. Working alongside with my fellow seven very brilliant friends, motivated me and made this journey very enjoyable. I am especially thankful my mentor, Gen, for taking the time to provide me with the best possible resources, even with her busy ongoing projects. She encouraged me to be the best that I am.
I believe, actually, I should say, I KNOW Cedars-Sinai’s CIRM SPARK program does a SUPERB and astounding job of cultivating life-long learners and setting exceptional models for the younger generation. I am hoping that many others will partake in this remarkable educational program.
I am overall very blessed to be part of a successful summer program. The end of this program does not mark the end of my passions, but sparks them to even greater heights.
Jamey Guzman, UC Davis SPARK student
When I found out about this opportunity, all I knew was that I had a fiery passion for learning, for that simple rush that comes when the lightbulb sputters on after an unending moment of confusion. I did not know if this passion would translate into the work setting; I sometimes wondered if passion alone would be enough to allow me to understand the advanced concepts at play here. I started at the lab nervous, tentative – was this the place for someone so unsure exactly what she wanted to be ‘when she grew up,’ a date now all too close on the horizon? Was I going to fit in at this lab, with these people who were so smart, so busy, people fighting for their careers and who had no reason to let a 16-year-old anywhere near experiments worth thousands of dollars in cost and time spent?
I could talk for hours about the experiments that I worked to master; about the rush of success upon realizing that the tasks now completed with confidence were ones that I had once thought only to belong to the lofty position of Scientist. I could fill pages and pages with the knowledge I gained, a deep and personal connection to stem cells and cell biology that I will always remember, even if the roads of Fate pull me elsewhere on my journey to a career.
The interns called the experience #CIRMSparkLab in our social media posts, and I find this hashtag so fitting to describe these last few months. While there was, of course, the lab, where we donned our coats and sleeves and gloves and went to work with pipets and flasks…There was also the Lab. #CIRMSparkLab is so much more than an internship; #CIRMSparkLab is an invitation into the worldwide community of learned people, a community that I found to be caring and vibrant, creative and funny – one which for the first time I can fully imagine myself joining “when I grow up.”
#CIRMSparkLab is having mentors who taught me cell culture with unerring patience and kindness. It is our team’s lighthearted banter across the biosafety cabinet; it is the stories shared of career paths, of goals for the present and the future. It is having mentors in the best sense of the word, trusting me, striving to teach and not just explain, giving up hours and hours of time to draw up diagrams that ensured that the concepts made so much sense to me.
#CIRMSparkLab is the sweetest ‘good-morning’ from scientists not even on your team, but who care enough about you to say hi, to ask about your projects, to share a smile. It is the spontaneity and freedom with which knowledge is dispensed: learning random tidbits about the living patterns of beta fish from our lab manager, getting an impromptu lecture about Time and the Planck Constant from our beloved professor as he passes us at lunch. It is getting into a passionate, fully evidence-backed argument about the merits of pouring milk before cereal that pitted our Stem Cell team against our Exosome team: #CIRMSparkLab is finding a community of people with whom my “nerdy” passion for learning does not leave me an oddball, but instead causes me to connect instantly and deeply with people at all ages and walks of life. And it is a community that, following the lead of our magnificent lab director, welcomed ten interns into their lab with open arms at the beginning of this summer, fully cognizant of the fact that we will break beakers, overfill pipet guns, drop gels, bubble up protein concentration assays, and all the while never stop asking, “Why? Why? Why? Is this right? Like this? WHY?”
I cannot make some sweeping statement that I now know at age 16 exactly what I want to do when I grow up. Conversely, to say I learned so much – or I am so grateful – or you have changed my life is simply not enough; words cannot do justice to those sentiments which I hope that all of you know already. But I can say this: I will never forget how I felt when I was at the lab, in the community of scientists. I will take everything I learned here with me as I explore the world of knowledge yet to be obtained, and I will hold in my heart everyone who has helped me this summer. I am truly a better person for having known all of you.
Thank you, #CIRMSparkLab.
Adriana Millan, CalTech SPARK student
As children, we all grew up with the companionship of our favorite television shows. We enjoyed sitcoms and other animations throughout our childhood and even as adults, there’s no shame. The goofy and spontaneous skits we enjoyed a laugh over, yet we did not pay much attention to the lessons they attempted to teach us. As a child, these shows play crucial roles in our educational endeavors. We are immediately hooked and tune in for every episode. They spark curiosity, as they allow our imaginations to run wild. For me, that is exactly where my curiosity stemmed and grew for science over the years. A delusional young girl, who had no idea what the reality of science was like.
You expect to enter a lab and run a full day of experimentations. Accidentally mix the wrong chemicals and discover the cure for cancer. Okay, maybe not mix the incorrect chemicals together, I learned that in my safety training class. The reality is that working in a lab was far from what I expected — eye opening. Working alongside my mentor Sarah Frail was one of the best ways I have spent a summer. It was not my ideal summer of sleeping in until noon, but it was worthwhile.
My experience is something that is a part of me now. I talk about it every chance I get, “Mom, can you believe I passaged cells today!” It changed the way I viewed the principles of science. Science is one of the most valuable concepts on this planet, it’s responsible for everything and that’s what I have taken and construed from my mentor. She shared her passion for science with me and that completed my experience. Before when I looked at cells, I did not know exactly what I was supposed to observe. What am I looking at? What is that pink stuff you are adding to the plate?
However, now I feel accomplished. It was a bit of a roller coaster ride, with complications along the way, but I can say that I’m leaving this experience with a new passion. I am not just saying this to please the audience, but to express my gratitude. I would have never even looked into Huntington’s Disease. When I first arrived I was discombobulated. Huntington’s Disease? Now I can proudly say I have a grasp on the complexity of the disease and not embarrass my mentor my calling human cells bacteria – quite embarrassing in fact. I’m a professional pipette handler, I work well in the hood, I can operate a microscope – not so impressive, I have made possibly hundreds of gels, I have run PCRs, and my cells love me, what else can I ask for.
If you are questioning what career path you are to take and even if it is the slightest chance it may be a course in science, I suggest volunteering in a lab. You will leave with your questioned answered. Is science for me? This is what I am leaving my experience with. Science is for me.
Other SPARK 2016 Awards
Student Speakers: Jingyi (Shelly) Deng (CHORI), Thomas Thach (Stanford)
Poster Presentations: Jerusalem Nerayo (Stanford), Jared Pollard (City of Hope), Alina Shahin (City of Hope), Shuling Zhang (UCSF)
Instagram Photos: Roxanne Ohayon (Stanford), Anna Victoria Serbin (CHORI), Diana Ly (UC Davis)
If you want to see more photos from the CIRM SPARK conference, check out our Instagram page @CIRM_Stemcells or follow the hashtag #CIRMSPARKLab on Instagram and Twitter.