The bootcamp helping in the fight against rare diseases

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Dr. Emil Kakkis at the Rare Entrepreneur Bootcamp

Imagine you or someone you love is diagnosed with a rare disease and then told, “There is no cure, there are no treatments and because it’s so rare no one is even doing any research into developing a treatment.” Sadly for millions of people that’s an all-too-common occurrence.

There are around 7,000 rare diseases affecting some 25-30 million Americans. Some of these are ultra-rare conditions where worldwide there may be only a few hundred people, or even a few dozen, diagnosed with it. And of all these rare diseases, only 5% have an approved therapy.

For the people struggling with a rare disease, finding a sense of hope in the face of all this can be challenging. Some say it feels as if they have been abandoned by the health care system. Others fight back, working to raise both awareness about the disease and funds to help support research to develop a treatment. But doing that without experience in the world of fund raising and drug development can pose a whole new series of challenges.

That’s where Ultragenyx comes into the picture. The company has a simple commitment to patients. “We aim to develop safe and effective treatments for many serious rare diseases as fast as we can, and we are committed to helping the whole rare disease community move forward by sharing our science and expertise to advance future development, whether by us or others.”

They live up to that commitment by hosting a Rare Entrepreneur Bootcamp. Every year they bring together a dozen or so patient or family organizations that are actively raising funds for a potential treatment approach and give them a 3-day crash course in what they’ll need to know to have a chance to succeed in rare disease drug development.

A panel discussion at the Rare Entrepreneur Bootcamp

Dr. Emil Kakkis, the founder of Ultragenyx, calls these advocates “warriors” because of all the battles they are going to face. He told them, “Get used to hearing no, because you are going to hear that a lot. But keep fighting because that’s the only way you get to ‘yes’.”

The bootcamp brings in experts to coach and advise the advocates on everything from presentation skills when pitching a potential investor, to how to collaborate with academic researchers, how to design a clinical trial, what they need to understand about manufacturing or intellectual property rights.

In a blog about the event, Arjun Natesan, vice president of Translational Research at Ultragenyx, wrote, “We are in a position to share what we’ve learned from bringing multiple drugs to market – and making the process easier for these organizations aligns with our goal of treating as many rare disease patients as possible. Our aim is to empower these organizations with guidance and tools and help facilitate their development of life-changing rare disease treatments.”

For the advocates it’s not just a chance to gain an understanding of the obstacles ahead and how to overcome them, it’s also a chance to create a sense of community. Meeting others who are fighting the same fight helps them realize they are not alone, that they are part of a bigger, albeit often invisible, community, working tirelessly to save the lives of their children or loved ones.  

CIRM also has a commitment to supporting the search for treatments for rare diseases. We are funding more than two dozen clinical trials, in addition to many earlier stage research projects, targeting rare conditions.

Stem cell agency invests in therapy using killer cells to target colorectal, breast and ovarian cancers

While there have been some encouraging advances in treating cancer in recent decades, there are still many cancers that either resist treatment or recur after treatment. Today the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved investing in a therapy targeting some of these hard-to-treat tumors.

BioEclipse Therapeutics Inc. was awarded nearly $8M to test a therapy using immune cells loaded with a cancer-killing virus that targets cancer tissue but spares healthy tissue.

This is the 78th clinical trial funded directly by the Stem Cell Agency.

BioEclipse combines two approaches—an immune cell called a cytokine-induced killer (CIK) cell and a virus engineered to kill cancer cells called an oncolytic virus (OV)—to create what they call “a multi-mechanistic, targeted treatment.”

They will use the patient’s own immune cells and, in the lab, combine them with the OV. The cell/virus combination will then be administered back to the patient. The job of the CIK cells is to carry the virus to the tumors. The virus is designed to specifically attack and kill tumors and stimulate the patient’s immune system to attack the tumor cells. The goal is to eradicate the primary tumor and prevent relapse and recurrence.

“With the intent to develop this treatment for chemotherapy-resistant or refractory solid tumors—including colorectal cancer, triple negative breast cancer, ovarian cancer, gastric cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma, and osteosarcoma—it addresses a significant unmet medical need in fatal conditions for which there are limited treatment options,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, President and CEO of CIRM.  

The CIRM Board also approved more than $18 million in funding four projects under the Translation Projects program. The goal of this program is to support promising regenerative medicine (stem cell-based or gene therapy) projects that accelerate completion of translational stage activities necessary for advancement to clinical study or broad end use.

The awards went to:

ApplicationTitleInstitutionAward Amount
TRAN1-133442Optogenetic therapy for treating retinitis pigmentosa and
other inherited retinal diseases  
  Paul Bresge Ray Therapeutics Inc.  $3,999,553  
TRAN3-13332Living Synthetic Vascular Grafts with Renewable Endothelium    Aijun Wang UC Davis  $3,112,567    
TRAN1-13370Next generation affinity-tuned CAR for prostate cancer    Preet Chaudhary University of Southern California  $5,805,144  
TRAN1-3345Autologous MPO Knock-Out Hematopoietic Stem and
Progenitor Cells for Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension  
  Don Kohn UC Los Angeles  $5,207,434  

Expanding CIRM’s Alpha Clinics Network to deliver transformative regenerative medicine treatments 

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Almost every day, we hear new reports from the thousands of regenerative medicine clinical trials globally sponsored by hundreds of companies and academic researchers. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is a leader in this space supporting some of the most advanced cell and gene therapy clinic trials for a variety of unmet medical needs. With all this current activity, it’s easy to forget that there were only a handful of clinical trials going on just seven years ago. 

A New System for Delivering Treatments 

In 2015, CIRM’s leadership recognized that we were on the cusp of introducing an array of new regenerative medicine clinical trials. However, there was one big concern—the existing clinical delivery systems had limited experience and capacity for managing these new and comparatively complex clinical trials. Cell and gene therapy regenerative medicine treatments require new systems for manufacturing, processing, and delivering treatments to patients.  

In anticipation of the need for clinical bandwidth to support clinical trials, CIRM funded a network of California medical centers to develop teams dedicated to supporting regenerative medicine clinical trials. This network was called the Alpha Clinics Network

Since 2015, the Alpha Clinics Network has grown to include six academic medical centers in California. The Network has treated over a thousand patients in more than 100 clinical trials. CIRM frequently encounters companies and academic researchers that are specifically interested in bringing their research to California to be performed in the Alpha Clinics Network. These research sponsors cite expertise in manufacturing, process, delivery and regulatory compliance as the Networks value proposition. One sponsor summed it up by indicating there are “fewer protocol deviations (errors)” in the Alpha Clinics. 

Expanding the Alpha Clinics Network 

As we enter 2022 with CIRM’s new five year strategic plan, a major aim is to create a broad network of medical centers capable of supporting diverse patient participation in clinical trials.  

As a first step in this effort, CIRM recently announced $80 million in funding to expand the Alpha Clinics Network. This funding is intended to expand both the scale and scope of the Network. This funding will allow the scale to grow from six medical center to up to ten. Scale is important because as the number of clinical trials grow, there needs to be increased coordination and sharing of the workload. Alpha Clinic sites already collaborate to conduct individual clinical trials, and an expanded network will enable a greater number of trials to occur simultaneously. 

In addition, the Expansion Awards will enable the Network to expand the scope of its activities to address current needs of the field. These needs include new research platforms for conducting clinical trials. For example, sites are looking at integrating new types of genomic (DNA sequencing) tools to support improved diagnosis and treatment of patients.  

Also, CIRM is committed to funding research to treat neurological diseases. We anticipate network sites will develop advanced systems for delivering treatments to patients and evaluating the effectiveness of these treatments. In addition, sites will be developing training programs to address the growing workforce needs of the field of regenerative medicine. 

In 2015, CIRM invested in the Alpha Clinics Network which positioned California as a leader in supporting regenerative medicine clinical trials. In 2022, we will be expanding the Network with the aim of delivering transformative treatments to a diverse California and the world. The Network will fulfill this aim by expanding its reach in the state, developing advanced research planforms and technologies, and by training the next generations of researchers with the skills to deliver patient treatments. 

Watch a recording of our recent Alpha Clinics concept plan webinar: 

Reversing hearing loss through regenerative medicine

These images show cellular regeneration, in pink, in a preclinical model of sensorineural hearing loss. The control is on the left and the right has been treated. Image: Hinton AS, Yang-Hood A, Schrader AD, Loose C, Ohlemiller KK, McLean WJ.

Most of us know someone affected by hearing loss, but we may not fully realize the hardships that lack of hearing can bring. Hearing loss can lead to isolation, frustration, and a debilitating ringing in the ears known as tinnitus. It is also closely correlated with dementia. 

The biotechnology company Frequency Therapeutics is seeking to reverse hearing loss — not with hearing aids or implants, but with a new kind of regenerative therapy. The company uses small molecules to program progenitor cells, a descendant of stem cells in the inner ear, to create the tiny hair cells that allow us to hear. 

Progenitor cells generate hair cells when humans are in utero, but they become dormant before birth and never again turn into more specialized cells such as the hair cells of the cochlea. Humans are born with about 15,000 hair cells in each cochlea. Such cells die over time and never regenerate. 

These two images show that one of Frequency’s lead compounds, FREQ-162, drives progenitor cells to turn into oligodendrocytes. The control is on the left and the right has been treated. Image: Frequency Therapeutics

“Tissues throughout your body contain progenitor cells, so we see a huge range of applications,” says Frequency co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer Chris Loose Ph.D. “We believe this is the future of regenerative medicine.” 

In 2012, the research team was able to use small molecules to turn progenitor cells into thousands of hair cells in the lab. Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology affiliate faculty member Jeff Karp says no one had ever produced such a large number of hair cells before. He still remembers looking at the results while visiting his family, including his father, who wears a hearing aid. 

“I looked at them and said, ‘I think we have a breakthrough,’” Karp says. “That’s the first and only time I’ve used that phrase.” 

About the Clinical Trial 

Hair cells die off when exposed to loud noises or drugs including certain chemotherapies and antibiotics. Frequency’s drug candidate is designed to be injected into the ear to regenerate these cells within the cochlea. In clinical trials, the company has already improved people’s hearing as measured by tests of speech perception — the ability to understand speech and recognize words. 

In Frequency’s first clinical study, the company saw statistically significant improvements in speech perception in some participants after a single injection, with some responses lasting nearly two years. 

The company has dosed more than 200 patients to date and has seen clinically meaningful improvements in speech perception in three separate clinical studies. Another study failed to show improvements in hearing compared to the placebo group, but the company attributes that result to flaws in the design of the trial. 

Now Frequency is recruiting for a 124-person trial from which preliminary results should be available early next year. 

The company’s founders hope to solve a problem that impacts more than 40 million people in the U.S. and hundreds of millions more around the world. 

“Hearing is such an important sense; it connects people to their community and cultivates a sense of identity,” says Karp. “I think the potential to restore hearing will have enormous impact on society.” 

The founders believe their approach — injecting small molecules into the inner ear to turn progenitor cells into more specialized cells — offers advantages over gene therapies, which may rely on extracting a patient’s cells, programming them in a lab, and then delivering them to the right area. 

“Tissues throughout your body contain progenitor cells, so we see a huge range of applications,” Loose says. “We believe this is the future of regenerative medicine.” 

Read the source article here

Stem cell-derived retinal patch continues to show promising results two years post-implantation

Earlier this year we wrote about the promising results of a phase 1 clinical trial aimed at replacing the deteriorating cells in the retinas of people suffering from age-related macular degeneration- one of the leading causes of blindness worldwide for people over 50. Now there’s even more good news! Highlighted in a news story on the UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) website, researchers are continuing to make progress in their bid to secure approval from the Food and Drug Administration for the life-changing treatment.

Through the collaborative efforts of researchers at UCSB, University of Southern California and California Institute of Technology, a stem cell-derived implant using cells from a healthy donor was developed. The bioengineered implant, described as a scaffold, was then implanted under the retina of 16 participants. If the implant was to work, the new cells would then take up the functions of the old ones, and slow down or prevent further deterioration. In the best-case scenario, they could restore some lost vision.

The first sets of trials, funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), concentrated on establishing the safety of the patch and collecting data on its effectiveness. Parting ways with old practices, the participants in the trial were given just two months of immunosuppressants whereas in the past, using donor cells meant that patients often had to be given long-term immunosuppression to stop their body’s immune system attacking and destroying the implanted cells. The team found that after two years, the presence of the patch hadn’t triggered other conditions associated with implantation, such as the formation of new blood vessels or scar tissue that could cause a detachment of the retina.

Even more importantly, they found no sign of inflammation that indicated an immune response to the foreign cells even after the patient was taken off immunosuppressants two months post-implantation. “What really makes us excited is that there is some strong evidence to show that the cells are still there two years after implantation and they’re still functional,” said Mohamed Faynus, a graduate student researcher in the lab of stem cell biologist Dennis O. Clegg at UCSB.

Having passed the initial phase, the team of researchers now hopes to begin phase 2 of the trial. This time, they are aiming to more specifically assesses the effectiveness of the patch in participants. Looking even farther ahead, the Clegg Lab and colleagues are also exploring combining multiple cell types on the patch to treat patients at varying stages of the disease.

In addition, there have also been improvements made to extend the shelf life of the patch. “Cryopreservation of the therapy significantly extends the product’s shelf-life and allows us to ship the implant on demand all over the world, thus making it more accessible to patients across the globe,” said Britney Pennington, a research scientist in the Clegg Lab.

Chance discovery could lead to a treatment for skin ulcers

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Dr. Antoni Ribas in his research lab on the UCLA Campus: Photo courtesy Ann Johansson

When UCLA’s Dr. Antoni Ribas was researching a potential therapy for melanoma, a form of skin cancer, he stumbled upon something unexpected. That unexpected discovery has now resulted in him getting a $5 million dollar award from the the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) to develop a therapy to accelerate wound healing in legs.

Venous skin ulcers are open sores on the legs that can take weeks, sometimes even years, to heal and that can cause serious complications if not treated. Around 1% of Americans have venous skin ulcers. They are usually caused by insufficient blood flow from the veins of the legs back to the heart.  The resulting increased blood pressure and swelling in the legs can cause an open wound to form that is painful and difficult to heal, seriously impacting quality of life.   Those most at risk of developing venous leg ulcers are older people, women and non-white populations.

There are no drugs approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for this condition and sometimes these ulcers can lead to serious skin and bone infections and, in rare cases, even skin cancer.

In a news release from UCLA, Dr. Ribas describes how his team were testing a drug called vemurafenib on patients with melanoma. Vemurafenib falls into a category of targeted cancer drugs called BRAF inhibitors, which can shrink or slow the growth of metastatic melanoma in people whose tumors have a mutation to the BRAF gene. 

“We noticed that in the first two months of taking this BRAF inhibitor, patients would begin showing a thickening or overgrowth of the skin. It was somewhat of a paradox – the drug stopped the growth of skin cancer cells with the BRAF mutation, but it stimulated the growth of healthy skin cells.”

That’s when the team realized that the drug’s skin stimulating effect could be put to good use for a whole other group of patients – those with chronic wounds. 

“Aside from a few famous cases, discovering a side effect that becomes a therapeutic isn’t that common,” Ribas said. “For this reason, I had to work hard to convince somebody in my lab to follow my crazy idea and take time away from immunotherapy research and do wound healing experiments.”

Thanks to that “crazy idea” Dr. Ribas and his team are now testing a gel called LUT017 that stimulates skin stem cells to proliferate and produce more keratinocytes, a kind of cell essential for repairing skin and accelerating wound healing.

The CLIN1 grant of $5,005,126 will help them manufacture and test LUT017 in pre-clinical models and apply to the FDA for permission to study it in a clinical trial in people.

Maria T. Millan, CIRM’s President and CEO says “This program adds to CIRM’s diverse portfolio of regenerative medicine approaches to tackle chronic, debilitating that lead to downstream complications, hospitalization, and a poor quality of life.”

Promoting stem cell therapies, racial justice and fish breeding

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Jan Nolta, PhD, in her lab at UC Davis; Photo courtesy UC Davis

Working at CIRM you get to meet many remarkable people and Dr. Jan Nolta certainly falls into that category. Jan is the Director of the Stem Cell Program at UC Davis School of Medicine. She also directs the Institute for Regenerative Cures and is scientific director of both the Good Manufacturing Practice clean room facility at UC Davis and the California Umbilical Cord Blood Collection Program.

As if that wasn’t enough Jan is part of the team helping guide UC Davis’ efforts to expand its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion using a variety of methods including telemedicine, to reach out into rural and remote communities.

She is on the Board of several enterprises, is the editor of the journal Stem Cells and, in her copious spare time, has dozens of aquariums and is helping save endangered species.

So, it’s no wonder we wanted to chat to her about her work and find out what makes her tick. Oh, and what rock bands she really likes. You might be surprised!

That’s why Jan is the guest on the latest edition of our podcast ‘Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation’.

I hope you enjoy it.

HOPE for patients with a muscle destroying disease

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Caleb Sizemore, photo by Todd Dubnicoff

Caleb Sizemore says growing up with Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) was tough. The disease is a rare genetic disorder that slowly destroys a person’s muscles, impairing their ability to walk or breathe. Eventually it attacks the heart leading to premature death.

Caleb says the disease meant “I was limited in what I could do, where I couldn’t play sports and where I was teased and bullied sometimes for being different.”

In the past people with DMD – almost all of whom are boys – lost the ability to walk by the age of 12, and many died in their 20’s. But a new treatment – originally funded by CIRM – is showing promise in helping reverse some of the damage caused by the disease.

Dr. Craig McDonald working with a person who has DMD: Photo courtesy UC Davis

Results from a clinical trial – published in the journal Lancet – showed that the therapy helped halt the decline in muscle strength in the arms and hands, and in MRI’s appeared to improve heart function.

In a news release, Dr. Craig McDonald, a UC Davis professor and the lead author of the study, said: “The trial produced statistically significant and unprecedented stabilization of both skeletal muscle deterioration affecting the arms and heart deterioration of structure and function in non-ambulatory DMD patients.”

The therapy, called CAP-1002, uses cells derived from the human heart that have previously demonstrated the ability to reduce muscle inflammation and enhance cell regeneration. The clinical trial, called HOPE-2 (Halt cardiomyopathy progression in Duchenne).

Dr. McDonald says with current treatments only having a limited impact on the disease, CAP-1002 may have a big impact on the people affected by DMD and their families.

“The trial showed consistent benefits of this cell-based therapy. It suggests that this infusion may be an important treatment option for the boys and young men who have this debilitating disorder.”

The team now hope to be able to apply to the Food and Drug Administration for permission to start a bigger clinical trial involving more patients.

Caleb Sizemore took part in an earlier clinical trial involving this approach. He says MRI’s showed that the therapy appeared to reduce scarring on his heart and gave him greater energy.

In 2017 Caleb talked to the CIRM governing Board about DMD and his part in the clinical trial. You can see that video here.

Joining the movement to fight rare diseases

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It’s hard to think of something as being rare when it affects up to 30 million Americans and 300 million people worldwide. But the truth is there are more than 6,000 conditions – those affecting 200,000 people or fewer – that are considered rare.  

Today, February 28th, is Rare Disease Day. It’s a day to remind ourselves of the millions of people, and their families, struggling with these diseases. These conditions are also called or orphan diseases because, in many cases, drug companies were not interested in adopting them to develop treatments.

At the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), we have no such reservations. In fact last Friday our governing Board voted to invest almost $12 million to support a clinical trial for IPEX syndrome. IPEX syndrome is a condition where the body can’t control or restrain an immune response, so the person’s immune cells attack their own healthy tissue. This leads to the development of Type 1 diabetes, severe eczema, damage to the small intestines and kidneys and failure to thrive. It’s diagnosed in infancy, most of those affected are boys, and it is often fatal.

Taylor Lookofsky (who has IPEX syndrome) and his father Brian

IPEX is one of two dozen rare diseases that CIRM is funding a clinical trial for. In fact, more than one third of all the projects we fund target a rare disease or condition. Those include:

Some might question the wisdom of investing hundreds of millions of dollars in conditions that affect a relatively small number of patients. But if you see the faces of these patients and get to know their families, as we do, you know that often agencies like CIRM are their only hope.

Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President and CEO, says the benefits of one successful approach can often extend far beyond one rare disease.

“Children with IPEX syndrome clearly represent a group of patients with an unmet medical need, and this therapy could make a huge difference in their lives. Success of this treatment in this rare disease presents far-reaching potential to develop treatments for a larger number of patients with a broad array of immune disorders.”

CIRM is proud to fund and spread awareness of rare diseases and invites you to watch this video about how they affect families around the world.

Stem Cell Agency Board Approves Funding for Rare Immune Disorder

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Taylor Lookofsky (center), a person with IPEX syndrome, with his father Brian and Dr. Rosa Bacchetta

IPEX syndrome is a rare condition where the body can’t control or restrain an immune response, so the person’s immune cells attack their own healthy tissue. The syndrome mostly affects boys, is diagnosed in the first year of life and is often fatal. Today the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) invested almost $12 million in a therapy being tested in a clinical trial to help these patients.

Children born with IPEX syndrome have abnormalities in the FOXP3 gene. This gene controls the production of a type of immune cell called a T Regulatory or Treg cell. Without a normal FOXP3 +Treg cells other immune cells attack the body leading to the development of IPEX syndrome, Type 1 diabetes, severe eczema, damage to the small intestines and kidneys and failure to thrive.

Current treatments involve the use of steroids to suppress the immune system – which helps ease symptoms but doesn’t slow down the progression of the disease – or a bone marrow stem cell transplant.  However, a transplant requires a healthy, closely matched donor to reduce the risk of a potentially fatal transplant complication called graft vs host disease, in which the donated immune cells attack the recipient’s tissues.

Dr. Rosa Bacchetta and her team at Stanford University have developed a therapy using the patient’s own natural CD4 T cells that, in the lab, have been genetically modified to express the FoxP3 gene and converted into Treg cells. Those cells are then re-infused into the patient with a goal of determining if this approach is both safe and beneficial. Because the cells come from the patients there will be fewer concerns about the need for immunosuppressive treatment to stop the body rejecting the cells. It will also help avoid the problems of finding a healthy donor and graft vs host disease.

Dr. Bacchetta has received approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to test this approach in a Phase 1 clinical trial for patients suffering with IPEX syndrome.

“Children with IPEX syndrome clearly represent a group of patients with an unmet medical need, and this therapy could make a huge difference in their lives,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, the President and CEO of CIRM. “Success of this treatment in this rare disease presents far-reaching potential to develop treatments for a larger number of patients with a broad array of immune disorders resulting from dysfunctional regulatory T cells.”

In addition to a strong scientific recommendation to fund the project the review team also praised it for the applicants’ commitment to the principles of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in their proposal. The project proposes a wide catchment area, with a strong focus on enrolling people who are low-income, uninsured or members of traditionally overlooked racial and ethnic minority communities.