The challenges of living with IPEX

Last week the CIRM Board awarded $5.53 million to Dr. Rosa Bacchetta at Stanford to complete the work necessary to conduct a clinical trial for IPEX syndrome. This is a rare disease caused by mutations in the FOXP3 gene which leaves people with the condition vulnerable to immune system attacks on their organs and tissues. These attacks can be devastating, even fatal.

At the Board meeting Taylor Lookofsky, a young man with IPEX syndrome, talked about the impact the condition has had on his life. The transcript of his talk is below.

It’s a powerful reminder that syndromes like this, because they affect a small number of people, are often overlooked and have few resources devoted to finding new treatments and cures. After reading Taylor’s story you come to appreciate his courage and determination, and why the funding CIRM provides is so important in helping researchers like Dr. Bacchetta find therapies to help people like Taylor.

Brian Lookofsky (Taylor’s father), Taylor Lookofsky and Dr. Rosa Bacchetta at the CIRM Board meeting

“Good morning, my name is Taylor Lookofsky and I would first like to thank Rosa, who is one of the many doctors in my life. Rosa presented me with this amazing opportunity to come and speak to you today about my life and the challenges living with IPEX.

  • I’d like to give you some background into my health challenges I’ve faced my entire life. Now to give some context to my years of struggle, I am 28 years old, not 10 years younger as some may have assumed.
  • My first diagnosis came at the age of 1 ½ years old -type 1 diabetes.
  • Soon after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, I had to have a feeding tube inserted in my abdomen as I was restricted from eating almost all foods due to unknown food allergies. I was not allowed to ingest ANY food until the age of 6 years old. When I was finally introduced to food, any food ingested was tasteless and felt like sandpaper on my tongue since I had to train myself to eat.
  • Around age 10, I would be faced with the beginning of a never-ending battle with my dermatitis. I remember specific details where my mother had taken me to a dermatologist to try and figure out what was happening to my skin as it was red, blotchy, oozing. I remember shivering so badly that my mom had to ask the doctor’s office to turn the air down.
  • At age 18 I had been formally diagnosed with IPEX. I lost my hair and my skin started a battle that was more intense than any previous episode. I remember taking showers and clumps of my hair would fall out, and I would cry in the shower not knowing what was going on.
  • At age 20, I would go through the most horrific episode with my skin to date. I was bed ridden, on pain meds and could not sleep. I had gone to all of my doctors trying to figure out what had triggered this event, and no doctor could figure out what was happening, leaving me extremely frustrated, depressed and drained of all energy. I went to the burn center as a last resort and was then treated like a burn patient. To care for these wounds, I would bathe, take a sponge and physically scrape these wounds to keep them infection free and as clean as possible. When I would exit the bath, I felt like a dried-up sponge and my skin was so tight that any movement would make my skin crack open and start bleeding. To add to this, I had to use medicated wraps to help with the healing process.
  • In an ongoing attempt to treat my many symptoms, I took a series of medications that came with side effects. I have had at least 15 surgeries to remove squamous cells caused by one of the medications: In 2018, my colon perforated. As a result, I now have a colostomy bag.

The IPEX symptoms have affected me not just physically, but mentally as well. I had lost all my hair and growth has been permanently stunted, and I have not reached the point in puberty as my male counterparts. I would go day by day and see all my peers and be envious that they were tall, had beards and hair, had relationships, and the confidence that I was lacking and admittedly, still lack to this day at times.

I’ve felt hopeless because there have been so few treatment options and with the treatment currently available, I have tried hundreds of medications and creams, and have had my blood drawn countless times in hopes of finding a medication that works for me, or a cure for this insufferable disease. However, nothing. As a result, I have been battling depression singe age 20. There were days that went by where I thought “I just don’t want to be here if this is what life is going to be like.” 

The funding needed for Dr. Rosa’s therapy would be life changing in the way of new treatment options and potentially lead to a cure for this horrific disease.

I am determined to see that there is so much more to life than what society is telling me. I’ve decided that I would not conform to societies rules, and instead, tell society how I am going to live my unique and authentic life with IPEX.

I appreciate your time and consideration to fund this important research.”

Using film to break down barriers around rare disease

You can read about a disease or hear someone talking about it and be engaged and interested. But when you see and hear the people who have the disease talking about it and the impact it has on their lives, that’s when a profound impact occurs. When you look into their eyes and hear them describe, in their own words, how it affects them, you are moved, truly moved, in ways that are hard to describe.

That’s the goal of the Rare Disease Film Festival taking place in San Francisco Saturday November 9 and Sunday November 10. Over two days they’ll be showing 50 films on rare diseases. The film “Rare But Not Alone” highlights conditions such as Batten Disease, Sanfilippo Syndrome and Epidermolysis Bullosa. It shows how families with rare conditions can often feel isolated and alone, but through the internet they can create support groups and a community to help them cope with the pain and challenges that these conditions create.

Daniel DeFabio, the co-founder of the festival, says the idea grew out of his own experiences as a parent.

“I had run a film festival before, it was general interest short independent films. But when my son was diagnosed with Menkes Disease, I made a film about that. After exploring the best festivals and conferences to screen a rare disease film I saw an unmet need.  There was nothing out there like a film festival focused on the rare disease community.  A community of 30 million Americans seemed to deserve its own festival.”

A rare disease is one that affects fewer than 200,000 people. In the US they are also called “Orphan diseases” because drug companies were not interested in adopting them to help create cures or new treatments. At CIRM we are committed to funding research into these kinds of condition. We are not in the business of making a profit. We are here to try and save lives. Of the 60 clinical trials we now fund more than a dozen of them target rare conditions.

DeFabio says the festival is designed to be a place for people to come and share their experiences, but he also hopes it has a more practical, tangible result.

“I partnered with Bo Bigelow. His daughter has USP7. We knew we wanted more than just increased awareness. We wanted awareness that could lead to action. We structured the festival to get the right people together and talking about what they learn in the films. You know Debussy’s line on how music is what happens in the space between the notes? We felt advocacy was what happens in the space between the films. We hope after a screening people stay for a while and start conversations in our lobby. Ideally, they’ll make connection to a new researcher, or a researcher might realize a new application for work that has already been done.”

“We say of our festival you may never be more moved at the movies. And we provide the packs to tissues to our audience in case we’re right.”

Stem Cell Agency Approves Funding for Clinical Trials Targeting Parkinson’s Disease and Blindness

The governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) yesterday invested $32.92 million to fund the Stem Cell Agency’s first clinical trial in Parkinson’s disease (PD), and to support three clinical trials targeting different forms of vision loss.

This brings the total number of clinical trials funded by CIRM to 60.

The PD trial will be carried out by Dr. Krystof Bankiewicz at Brain Neurotherapy Bio, Inc. He is using a gene therapy approach to promote the production of a protein called GDNF, which is best known for its ability to protect dopaminergic neurons, the kind of cell damaged by Parkinson’s. The approach seeks to increase dopamine production in the brain, alleviating PD symptoms and potentially slowing down the disease progress.

David Higgins, PhD, a CIRM Board member and patient advocate for Parkinson’s says there is a real need for new approaches to treating the disease. In the US alone, approximately 60,000 people are diagnosed with PD each year and it is expected that almost one million people will be living with the disease by 2020.

“Parkinson’s Disease is a serious unmet medical need and, for reasons we don’t fully understand, its prevalence is increasing. There’s always more outstanding research to fund than there is money to fund it. The GDNF approach represents one ‘class’ of potential therapies for Parkinson’s Disease and has the potential to address issues that are even broader than this specific therapy alone.”

The Board also approved funding for two clinical trials targeting retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a blinding eye disease that affects approximately 150,000 individuals in the US and 1.5 million people around the world. It is caused by the destruction of light-sensing cells in the back of the eye known as photoreceptors.  This leads to gradual vision loss and eventually blindness.  There are currently no effective treatments for RP.

Dr. Henry Klassen and his team at jCyte are injecting human retinal progenitor cells (hRPCs), into the vitreous cavity, a gel-filled space located in between the front and back part of the eye. The proposed mechanism of action is that hRPCs secrete neurotrophic factors that preserve, protect and even reactivate the photoreceptors, reversing the course of the disease.

CIRM has supported early development of Dr. Klassen’s approach as well as preclinical studies and two previous clinical trials.  The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted jCyte Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy (RMAT) designation based on the early clinical data for this severe unmet medical need, thus making the program eligible for expedited review and approval.

The other project targeting RP is led by Dr. Clive Svendsen from the Cedars-Sinai Regenerative Medicine Institute. In this approach, human neural progenitor cells (hNPCs) are transplanted to the back of the eye of RP patients. The goal is that the transplanted hNPCs will integrate and create a protective layer of cells that prevent destruction of the adjacent photoreceptors. 

The third trial focused on vision destroying diseases is led by Dr. Sophie Deng at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). Dr. Deng’s clinical trial addresses blinding corneal disease by targeting limbal stem cell deficiency (LSCD). Under healthy conditions, limbal stem cells (LSCs) continuously regenerate the cornea, the clear front surface of the eye that refracts light entering the eye and is responsible for the majority of the optical power. Without adequate limbal cells , inflammation, scarring, eye pain, loss of corneal clarity and gradual vision loss can occur. Dr. Deng’s team will expand the patient’s own remaining LSCs for transplantation and will use  novel diagnostic methods to assess the severity of LSCD and patient responses to treatment. This clinical trial builds upon previous CIRM-funded work, which includes early translational and late stage preclinical projects.

“CIRM funds and accelerates promising early stage research, through development and to clinical trials,” says Maria T. Millan, MD, President and CEO of CIRM. “Programs, such as those funded today, that were novel stem cell or gene therapy approaches addressing a small number of patients, often have difficulty attracting early investment and funding. CIRM’s role is to de-risk these novel regenerative medicine approaches that are based on rigorous science and have the potential to address unmet medical needs. By de-risking programs, CIRM has enabled our portfolio programs to gain significant downstream industry funding and partnership.”

CIRM Board also awarded $5.53 million to Dr. Rosa Bacchetta at Stanford to complete work necessary to conduct a clinical trial for IPEX syndrome, a rare disease caused by mutations in the FOXP3 gene. Immune cells called regulatory T Cells normally function to protect tissues from damage but in patients with IPEX syndrome, lack of functional Tregs render the body’s own tissues and organs to autoimmune attack that could be fatal in early childhood.  Current treatment options include a bone marrow transplant which is limited by available donors and graft versus host disease and immune suppressive drugs that are only partially effective. Dr. Rosa Bacchetta and her team at Stanford will use gene therapy to insert a normal version of the FOXP3 gene into the patient’s own T Cells to restore the normal function of regulatory T Cells.

The CIRM Board also approved investing $15.80 million in four awards in the Translational Research program. The goal of this program is to help promising projects complete the testing needed to begin talking to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about holding a clinical trial.

The TRAN1 Awards are summarized in the table below:

ApplicationTitleInstitutionAward Amount
TRAN1 11536Ex Vivo Gene Editing of Human Hematopoietic Stem Cells for the Treatment of X-Linked Hyper IgM Syndrome  UCLA $4,896,628
TRAN1 11555BCMA/CS1 Bispecific CAR-T Cell Therapy to Prevent Antigen Escape in Multiple Myeloma  UCLA $3,176,805
TRAN1 11544 Neural Stem cell-mediated oncolytic immunotherapy for ovarian cancer  City of Hope $2,873,262
TRAN1 11611Development of a human stem cell-derived inhibitory neuron therapeutic for the treatment of chronic focal epilepsyNeurona Therapeutics$4,848,750

How early CIRM support helped an anti-cancer therapy overcome obstacles and help patients

Dr. Catriona Jamieson, UC San Diego

When you read about a new drug or therapy being approved to help patients it always seems so simple. Researchers come up with a brilliant idea, test it to make sure it is safe and works, and then get approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to sell it to people who need it.

But it’s not always that simple, or straight forward. Sometimes it can take years, with several detours along the way, before the therapy finds its way to patients.

That’s the case with a blood cancer drug called fedratinib (we blogged about it here) and the relentless efforts by U.C. San Diego researcher Dr. Catriona Jamieson to help make it available to patients. CIRM funded the critical early stage research to help show this approach could help save lives. But it took many more years, and several setbacks, before Dr. Jamieson finally succeeded in getting approval from the FDA.

The story behind that therapy, and Dr. Jamieson’s fight, is told in the San Diego Union Tribune. Reporter Brad Fikes has been following the therapy for years and in the story he explains why he found it so fascinating, and why this was a therapy that almost didn’t make it.

USC study shows how tumor cells in the bloodstream can target distant organs

Various types of cancer can become particularly aggressive and difficult to treat once they spread from their initial point of origin to other parts of the body. This unfortunate phenomenon, known as metastasis, can make treatment very challenging, decreasing the chance of survival for the patient.

In order to better understand this process, a CIRM supported study at USC looked at breast cancer cells circulating in the blood that eventually invade the brain. The findings, which appear in Cancer Discovery, shed light on how tumor cells in the blood are able to target a particular organ, which may enable the development of treatments than can prevent metastasis from occurring.

Dr. Min Yu

Dr. Min Yu and her lab at USC were able to isolate breast cancer cells from the blood of breast cancer patients whose cancer had already metastasized. The team then expanded the number of cancer cells through a process known as cell culture. These expanded human tumor cells were then injected into the bloodstream of animal models. It was found that these cells migrated to the brain as was predicted.

Upon further analysis, Dr. Yu and her lab discovered a protein on the surface of the tumor cells in the bloodstream that enable them to breach the blood brain barrier, a protective layer around the brain that blocks the passage of certain substances, and enter the brain. Additionally, Dr. Yu and her team discovered another protein inside the tumor cells that shield them from the brain’s immune response, enabling these cells to grow inside the brain.

In a news release in Science Magazine, Dr. Yu talks about how these findings could be used to improve treatment and prevention options for those with aggressive cancers:

“We can imagine someday using the information carried by circulating tumor cells to improve the detection, monitoring and treatment of the spreading cancers. A future therapeutic goal is to develop drugs that get rid of circulating tumor cells or target those molecular signatures to prevent the spread of cancer.”

CIRM has also funded a separate clinical trial related to the treatment of breast cancer related brain metastases.

UCLA Conducts CAR-T Cell Clinical Trial for Patients with Recurring and Non-Responsive Cancers

Dr. Sarah Larson (left) and Dr. Yvonne Chen (right)

There have been many advances made towards the treatment of various cancers, such as deadly forms of leukemia and lymphoma, that were once considered a death sentence and thought to be incurable. Unfortunately, there are still people who do not respond to treatment or eventually relapse and see the cancer return. However, researchers at UCLA are attempting to fine-tune some of these approaches to help people with these recurring and non-treatment responding cancers.

Diagram describing CAR-T cell therapy

Dr. Sarah Larson and Dr. Yvonne Chen at UCLA are conducting a clinical trial that involves genetically-modifying a patient’s own T cells, which are an immune system cell that can destroy foreign or abnormal cells. The T-cells are modified with a protein called a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR), which identifies and destroys the cancer by detecting a specific protein, referred to as an antigen, on the cancer cells. These genetically modified T-cells are referred to as CAR-T cells and are re-introduced back into the patient as part of the therapy.

Previous CAR-T cells developed can only recognize one specific protein. For example, one FDA-approved CAR-T cell therapy is able to recognize a protein called CD19, which is found in B-cell lymphoma and leukemia. However, over time, the cancer cells can lose the CD19 antigen, making the CAR-T cell ineffective and can result in a reoccurrence of the cancer.

In a news release by UCLA, Dr. Larson describes the limitations of this design:

“One of the reasons CAR T cell therapy can stop working in patients is because the cancer cells escape from therapy by losing the antigen CD19, which is what the CAR T cells are engineered to target.”

But Dr. Larson and Dr. Chen are using a CAR-T cell that is able to recognize not one by two proteins simultaneously. In addition to recognizing CD19, their CAR-T cell is also able to recognize a protein called CD20, which is also found in B-cell lymphoma and leukemia. This is called a bispecific CAR-T cell because of it’s ability to identify two protein targets simultaneously.

In the same UCLA news release, Dr. Larson hopes that this approach will be more effective:

“One way to keep the CAR T cells working is to have more than one antigen to target. So by using both CD19 and CD20, the thought is that it will be more effective and prevent the loss of the antigen, which is known as antigen escape, one of the common mechanisms of resistance.”

Before the clinical trial, Dr. Chen and her team at UCLA conducted preclinical studies that showed how using bispecific CAR-T cells provided a much better defense compared to single target CAR-T cells against tumors in mice.

In the same UCLA news release, Dr. Chen elaborate on the results of her preclinical studies:

“Based on these results, we’re quite optimistic that the bispecific CAR can achieve therapeutic improvement over the single-input CD19 CAR that’s currently available.”

This first-in-humans study will evaluate the therapy in patients with non-Hodgkin’s B-cell lymphoma or chronic lymphocytic leukemia that has come back or has not responded to treatment. The goal is to determine a safe therapeutic dose.

Encouraging Progress for Two CIRM Supported Clinical Trials

This past Wednesday was Stem Cell Awareness Day, a day that is meant to remind us all of the importance of stem cell research and the potential it has to treat a wide variety of diseases. On this day, we also released an independent Economic Impact Report that showed how $10.7 Billion (yes, you read that right) was generated as a direct result of the the legacy we have built as a state agency that funds groundbreaking research.

Aside from the monetary incentive, which is an added bonus, the research we fund has made encouraging progress in the scientific field and has demonstrated the positive impact it can have on various disease areas. This week, two clinical trials supported by CIRM funding have released very promising updates.

Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy

Capricor Therapeutics, Inc. has presented positive results for a clinical trial related to a treatment for duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), a genetic disorder. DMD leads to progressive muscle degeneration and weakness due to its effect on a protein called dystrophin, which helps keep muscle cells intact.

The treatment that Capricor is testing is called CAP-1002 and consists of a unique population of cells that contain cardiac progenitor cells, a type of stem cell, that help encourage the regeneration of cells. CIRM funded an earlier clinical trial for this treatment.

The early results of this current trial describe how teens and young men in the advanced stages of DMD saw improvements in skeletal, lung, and heart measurements after receiving multiple doses of the treatment.

In a news release, Dr. Linda Marban, Chief Executive Officer of Capricor, expresses optimism for this clinical trial by saying,

“We are very pleased that the interim analysis from this double-blind placebo-controlled study, has demonstrated meaningful improvements across three clinically relevant endpoints in older patients with limited remaining treatment options.”

In the same news release, Dr. Craig McDonald, the national principal investigator for the trial, echoes the same sentiment by stating,

“The results from this trial to date are very promising in that the cells appear to positively impact skeletal, pulmonary and cardiac assessments in older DMD patients who have few, if any, remaining treatment options. We are eager to meet with the FDA to discuss the next steps for this promising program.”

Mantle Cell Lymphoma

Additionally, Oncternal Therapeutics has decided, because of positive results, to open an expansion of its CIRM-funded clinical trial aimed at treating patients with mantle cell lymphoma (MCL). The treatment involves an antibody called cirmtuzumab, named after us, in combination with a drug called ibrutinib.

The preliminary results were from the first six patients with MCL that were treated in the trial. One patient with MCL, who had relapsed following an allogeneic stem cell transplant, experienced a confirmed complete response (CR) after three months of cirmtuzumab plus ibrutinib treatment. This complete response appears to be sustained and has been confirmed to be ongoing after completing 12 months of the combination treatment. A second confirmed complete response occurred in a patient who had progressive disease after failing several different chemotherapy regimens, bone marrow transplant and CAR-T therapy. 

In a news release, Dr. Hun Lee, an investigator in the trial, states that,

“It is encouraging to see that the drug has been well tolerated as well as the early signal of efficacy of cirmtuzumab with ibrutinib in MCL, particularly the rapid and durable complete responses of the heavily pre-treated patients after three months of therapy, which is an unusually fast response in this patient population.”

New Report Says CIRM Produces Big Economic Boost for California

An independent Economic Impact Report says the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has had a major impact on California’s economy, creating tens of thousands of new jobs, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in new taxes, and producing billions of dollars in additional revenue for the state.

The report, done by Dan Wei and Adam Rose at the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, looked at the impacts of CIRM funding on both the state and national economy from the start of the Stem Cell Agency in 2004 to the end of 2018.

The total impacts on the California economy are estimated to be:

  • $10.7 billion of additional gross output (sales revenue)
  • $641.3 million of additional state/local tax revenues
  • $726.6 million of additional federal tax revenues
  • 56,549 additional full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs, half of which offer salaries considerably higher than the state average

Maria Millan, M.D., CIRM’s President and CEO, says the report reflects the Agency’s role in building an ecosystem to accelerate the translation of important stem cell science to solutions for patients with unmet medical needs. “CIRM’s mission on behalf of patients has been the priority from day one, but this report shows that CIRM funding brings additional benefits to the state. This report reflects how CIRM is promoting economic growth in California by attracting scientific talent and additional capital, and by creating an environment that supports the development of businesses and commercial enterprises in the state”

In addition to the benefits to California, the impacts outside of California on the US economy are estimated to be:

  • $4.7 billion of additional gross output (sales revenue)
  • $198.7 million of additional state (non-Californian) & local tax revenue
  • $208.6 million of additional federal tax revenues
  • 25,816 additional full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs

The researchers summarize their findings, saying: “In terms of economic impacts, the state’s investment in CIRM has paid handsome dividends in terms of output, employment, and tax revenues for California.”

The estimates in the report are based on the economic stimulus created by CIRM funding and by the co-funding that researchers and companies were required to provide for clinical and late-stage preclinical projects. The estimates also include:

  • Investments in CIRM-supported projects from private funders such as equity investments, public offerings and mergers and acquisitions,
  • Follow-on funding from the National Institutes of Health and other organizations due to data generated in CIRM-funded projects
  • Funding generated by clinical trials held at CIRM’s Alpha Stem Cell Clinics network

The researchers state “Nearly half of these impacts emanate from the $2.67 billion CIRM grants themselves.”

“The economic impact of California’s investment in stem and regenerative cell research is reflective of significant progress in this field that was just being born at the time of CIRM’s creation,” says Dr. Millan. “We fund the most promising projects based on rigorous science from basic research into clinical trials. We partnered with researchers and companies to increase the likelihood of success and created specialized infrastructure such as the Alpha Clinics Network to support the highest quality of clinical care and research standards for these novel approaches.  The ecosystem created by CIRM has attracted scientists, companies and capital from outside the state to California. By supporting promising science projects early on, long before most investors were ready to come aboard, we enabled our scientists to make progress that positioned them to attract significant commercial investments into their programs and into California.”

These partnerships have helped move promising therapies out of the lab and into clinical trials for companies like Orchard Therapeutics’ successful treatment for Severe Combined Immunodeficiency and Forty Seven Inc.’s innovative approach to treating cancer.

Dr. Don Kohn: Photo courtesy UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center

“I think one of the greatest strengths of CIRM has been their focus on development of new stem cell therapies that can become real medicines,” says UCLA and Orchard Therapeutics’ Don Kohn, M.D. “This has meant guiding academic investigators to do the things that may be second nature in industry/pharmaceutical companies but are not standard for basic or clinical research.  The support from CIRM to perform the studies and regulatory activities needed to navigate therapies through the FDA and to form alliances with biotech and pharma companies has allowed the stem cell gene therapy we developed to treat SCID babies to be advanced and licensed to Orchard Therapeutics who can make it available to patients across the country.”

Dr. Mark Chao: Photo courtesy Forty Seven Inc.

“CIRM’s support has been instrumental to our early successes and our ability to rapidly progress Forty Seven’s CD47 antibody targeting approach with magrolimab,” says Mark Chao, M.D., Ph.D., Founder and Vice President of Clinical Development at Forty Seven Inc. “ CIRM was an early collaborator in our clinical programs, and will continue to be a valued partner as we move forward with our MDS/AML clinical trials.”

The researchers say the money generated by partnerships and investments, what is called “deal-flow funding”, is still growing and that the economic benefits created by them are likely to continue for some time: “Deal-flow funding usually involves several waves or rounds of capital infusion over many years, and thus is it expected that CIRM’s past and current funding will attract increasing amounts of industry investment and lead to additional spending injections into the California economy in the years to come.”

They conclude their report by saying: “CIRM has led to California stem cell research and development activities becoming a leader among the states.”

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.

Stem cell treatment restores man’s sight in right eye after 25 years

James O’Brien, recipient of a stem cell treatment that restored the vision in his right eye

At 18 years old, there are several life-changing moments that young people look forward to. For some, it involves graduating from high school, starting college, and being able to cast a vote in an election. For others, this momentous occasion symbolizes the official start of adulthood.

For James O’ Brien, this milestone was marked by a rather unfortunate event where ammonia was thrown at his face in a random attack. As a result of this incident, the surface of his right eye was burned and he was left completely blind in his right eye.

Fast forward 25 years and thanks to an experimental stem cell treatment, James is able to see out of his right eye for the first time since the attack.

“Being able to see with both eyes – it’s a small thing that means the world. Basically I went from near-blindness in that eye to being able to see everything.” said O’Brien in a news release from Daily Heralds.

Dr. Sajjad Ahmad and a team of surgeons at the Moorfields Eye Hospital in London removed healthy stem cells from O’Brien’s left eye and grew these cells in a lab for months. After an adequate number of healthy stem cells from O’Briens left eye were grown, the surgeons then cut the scar tissue in his right eye and replaced it with the healthy stem cells.

They then waited a year after the procedure for the cells to settle down before inserting a cornea – which plays a key role in vision and focuses light – from a deceased donor.

“This is going to have a huge impact. A lot of these patients are young men so it affects their work, their lives, those around them. It’s not just the vision that drops, it’s the pain.” said Dr. Ahmad in the news release previously mentioned.

The procedure used took over 20 years to develop and Dr. Ahmad hopes to continue to develop the procedure for patients that have been blinded in both eyes by chemicals or have lost their vision through degenerative conditions.

CIRM has funded three clinical trials in vision loss to date. Two of these trials are being conducted by Dr. Henry Klassen for an eye condition known as retinitis pigmentosa and have shown promising results. The third trial is being conducted by Dr. Mark Humayun for another eye condition known as age-related macular degeneration (AMD) which has also shown promising results.

See video below for a news segment of James O’Brien on BBC News: