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.

It’s nice to be appreciated

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Photo: courtesy City of Hope

No one likes to be taken for granted, to feel that people only like you because you have scads of cash and they want some of it. That’s why it’s so lovely when you feel you are appreciated because of all the things money makes possible.

That’s how it felt when we saw City of Hope’s news release about our funding to train the next generation of scientists and leaders in the field of regenerative medicine. CIRM has awarded COH $4.86 million as part of its Research Training Program in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine.

The program provides stem cell and gene therapy research training for up to 6 graduate students and 12 postdocs at the Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope. In addition to 3 years of research, the training includes coursework, patient engagement and community outreach activities.

In a news release, Dr. Nadia Carlesso, chair of the Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, said this funding is important in training a new generation of scientists.

“This program originates from City of Hope’s longstanding expertise in conducting clinical trials and applying fundamental stem cell biology and gene therapy to the treatment of diseases. The program reflects City of Hope’s commitment to ensuring that future scientific leaders understand the varied needs of diverse patient populations, and the inequities that presently affect both biomedical research and the development of and access to innovative therapies.”

Students in the program will have access to world class research facilities and will also benefit from the fact that their classrooms and laboratories are within walking distance from where patients are treated. We believe the best scientists need to have experience in working both at the laboratory bench and at the bedside, not only developing new therapies, but being able to deliver those therapies in a caring, compassionate way.

Stem cell discovery could help shorten cancer treatment recovery 

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A researcher prepares to study blood cells under a microscope. Photo by Getty.

A recent discovery by stem cell scientists at Cedars-Sinai may help make cancer treatment more efficient and shorten the time it takes for people to recover from radiation and chemotherapy.  

Published in the journal Nature Communications, the study by Dr. John Chute and his team (and co-funded by CIRM) revealed a mechanism through which the blood vessels in the bone marrow respond to injury, such as from chemotherapy or radiation. 

Each year, about 650,000 cancer patients receive chemotherapy in an outpatient oncology clinic in the United States.  

When people receive radiation or chemotherapy as part of their cancer treatment, their blood counts plummet. It typically takes several weeks for these counts to return to normal levels. During this period patients are at risk for developing infections that may lead to hospitalization, disruptions in chemotherapy schedules, and even death. 

Chute and his colleagues found that when mice receive radiation treatment, the cells that line the inner walls of the blood vessels in the bone marrow produce a protein called semaphorin 3A. This protein tells another protein, called neuropilin 1, to kill damaged blood vessels in the bone marrow. 

When the investigators blocked the ability of these blood vessel cells to produce neuropilin 1 or semaphorin 3A, or injected an antibody that blocks semaphorin 3A communication with neuropilin 1, the veins and arteries in the bone marrow regenerated faster following irradiation. In addition, blood counts increased dramatically after one week. 

“We’ve discovered a mechanism that appears to control how blood vessels regenerate following injury,” said Chute, senior author of the paper. “Inhibiting this mechanism causes rapid recovery of the blood vessels and blood cells in bone marrow following chemotherapy or irradiation.”  

In principle, Chute said, targeting this mechanism could allow patients to recover following chemotherapy in one to two weeks, instead of three or four weeks as currently experienced. 

Christina M. Termini, a post-doctoral scientist at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, was the first author of this study. Read the source press release here.  

Two Early-Stage Research Programs Targeting Cartilage Damage Get Funding from Stem Cell Agency

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Darryl D’Lima: Scripps Health

Every year millions of Americans suffer damage to their cartilage, either in their knee or other joints, that can eventually lead to osteoarthritis, pain and immobility. Today the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved two projects targeting repair of damaged cartilage.

The projects were among 17 approved by CIRM as part of the DISC2 Quest Discovery Program. The program promotes the discovery of promising new stem cell-based and gene therapy technologies that could be translated to enable broad use and ultimately, improve patient care.

Dr. Darryl D’Lima and his team at Scripps Health were awarded $1,620,645 to find a way to repair a torn meniscus. Every year around 750,000 Americans experience a tear in their meniscus, the cartilage cushion that prevents the bones in the knee grinding against each other. These injuries accelerate the early development of osteoarthritis, for which there is no effective treatment other than total joint replacement, which is a major operation. There are significant socioeconomic benefits to preventing disabling osteoarthritis. The reductions in healthcare costs are also likely to be significant.

The team will use stem cells to produce meniscal cells in the lab. Those are then seeded onto a scaffold made from collagen fibers to create tissue that resembles the knee meniscus. The goal is to show that, when placed in the knee joint, this can help regenerate and repair the damaged tissue.

This research is based on an earlier project that CIRM funded. It highlights our commitment to helping good science progress, hopefully from the bench to the bedside where it can help patients.

Dr. Kevin Stone: Photo courtesy Stone Research Foundation

Dr. Kevin Stone and his team at The Stone Research Foundation for Sports Medicine and Arthritis were awarded $1,316,215 to develop an approach to treat and repair damaged cartilage using a patient’s own stem cells.

They are using a paste combining the patient’s own articular tissue as well as Mesenchymal Stem Cells (MSC) from their bone marrow. This mixture is combined with an adhesive hydrogel to form a graft that is designed to support cartilage growth and can also stick to surfaces without the need for glue. This paste will be used to augment the use of a microfracture technique, where micro-drilling of the bone underneath the cartilage tear brings MSCs and other cells to the fracture site. The hope is this two-pronged approach will produce an effective and functional stem cell-based cartilage repair procedure.

If effective this could produce a minimally invasive, low cost, one-step solution to help people with cartilage injuries and arthritis.

The full list of DISC2 grantees is:

ApplicationTitlePrincipal Investigator and InstitutionAmount
DISC2-13212Preclinical development of an exhaustion-resistant CAR-T stem cell for cancer immunotherapy  Ansuman Satpathy – Stanford University    $ 1,420,200  
DISC2-13051Generating deeper and more durable BCMA CAR T cell responses in Multiple Myeloma through non-viral knockin/knockout multiplexed genome engineering  Julia Carnevale – UC San Francisco  $ 1,463,368  
DISC2-13020Injectable, autologous iPSC-based therapy for spinal cord injury  Sarah Heilshorn – Stanford University    $789,000
DISC2-13009New noncoding RNA chemical entity for heart failure with preserved ejection fraction.  Eduardo Marban – Cedars-Sinai Medical Center  $1,397,412  
DISC2-13232Modulation of oral epithelium stem cells by RSpo1 for the prevention and treatment of oral mucositis  Jeffrey Linhardt – Intact Therapeutics Inc.  $942,050  
DISC2-13077Transplantation of genetically corrected iPSC-microglia for the treatment of Sanfilippo Syndrome (MPSIIIA)  Mathew Blurton-Jones – UC Irvine    $1,199,922  
DISC2-13201Matrix Assisted Cell Transplantation of Promyogenic Fibroadipogenic Progenitor (FAP) Stem Cells  Brian Feeley – UC San Francisco  $1,179,478  
DISC2-13063Improving the efficacy and tolerability of clinically validated remyelination-inducing molecules using developable combinations of approved drugs  Luke Lairson – Scripps Research Inst.  $1,554,126  
DISC2-13213Extending Immune-Evasive Human Islet-Like Organoids (HILOs) Survival and Function as a Cure for T1D  Ronald Evans – The Salk Institute for Biological Studies    $1,523,285  
DISC2-13136Meniscal Repair and Regeneration  Darryl D’Lima – Scripps Health      $1,620,645  
DISC2-13072Providing a cure for sphingosine phosphate lyase insufficiency syndrome (SPLIS) through adeno-associated viral mediated SGPL1 gene therapy  Julie Saba – UC San Francisco  $1,463,400  
DISC2-13205iPSC-derived smooth muscle cell progenitor conditioned medium for treatment of pelvic organ prolapse  Bertha Chen – Stanford University  $1,420,200  
DISC2-13102RNA-directed therapy for Huntington’s disease  Gene Wei-Ming Yeo  – UC San Diego  $1,408,923  
DISC2-13131A Novel Therapy for Articular Cartilage Autologous Cellular Repair by Paste Grafting  Kevin Stone – The Stone Research Foundation for Sports Medicine and Arthritis    $1,316,215  
DISC2-13013Optimization of a gene therapy for inherited erythromelalgia in iPSC-derived neurons  Ana Moreno – Navega Therapeutics    $1,157,313  
DISC2-13221Development of a novel stem-cell based carrier for intravenous delivery of oncolytic viruses  Edward Filardo – Cytonus Therapeutics, Inc.    $899,342  
DISC2-13163iPSC Extracellular Vesicles for Diabetes Therapy  Song Li – UC Los Angeles  $1,354,928  

Overcoming obstacles and advancing treatments to patients

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UC Davis GMP Manufacturing facility: Photo courtesy UC Davis

When you are trying to do something that has never been done before, there are bound to be challenges to meet and obstacles to overcome. At the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) we are used to coming up with great ideas and hearing people ask “Well, how are you going to do that?”

Our new 5-year Strategic Plan is how. It’s the roadmap that will help guide us as we work to overcome critical bottlenecks in bringing regenerative medicine therapies to people in need.

Providing more than money

People often think of CIRM as a funding agency, providing the money needed to do research. That’s true, but it’s only part of the story. With every project we fund, we also offer a lot of support. That’s particularly true at the clinical stage, where therapies are being tested in people. Projects we fund in clinical trials don’t just get money, they also have access to:

  • Alpha Stem Cells Clinic Network – This is a group of specialized medical centers that have the experience and expertise to deliver new stem cell and gene therapies.
  • The CIRM Cell and Gene Therapy Center – This helps with developing projects, overcoming manufacturing problems, and offers guidance on working with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to get permission to run clinical trials.
  • CIRM Clinical Advisory Panels (CAPs) – These are teams put together to help advise researchers on a clinical trial and to overcome problems. A crucial element of a CAP is a patient advocate who can help design a trial around the needs of the patients, to help with patient recruitment and retention.

Partnering with key stakeholders

Now, we want to build on this funding model to create new ways to support researchers in bringing their work to patients. This includes earlier engagement with regulators like the FDA to ensure that projects match their requirements. It includes meetings with insurers and other healthcare stakeholders, to make sure that if a treatment is approved, that people can get access to it and afford it.

In the past, some in the regenerative medicine field thought of the FDA as an obstacle to approval of their work. But as David Martin, a CIRM Board member and industry veteran says, the FDA is really a key ally.

“Turning a promising drug candidate into an approved therapy requires overcoming many bottlenecks… CIRM’s most effective and committed partner in accelerating this is the FDA.”

Removing barriers to manufacturing

Another key area highlighted in our Strategic Plan is overcoming manufacturing obstacles. Because these therapies are “living medicines” they are complex and costly to produce. There is often a shortage of skilled technicians to do the jobs that are needed, and the existing facilities may not be able to meet the demand for mass production once the FDA gives permission to start a clinical trial. 

To address all these issues CIRM wants to create a California Manufacturing Network that combines academic innovation and industry expertise to address critical manufacturing bottlenecks. It will also coordinate training programs to help build a diverse and expertly trained manufacturing workforce.

CIRM will work with academic institutions that already have their own manufacturing facilities (such as UC Davis) to help develop improved ways of producing therapies in sufficient quantities for research and clinical trials. The Manufacturing Network will also involve industry partners who can develop facilities capable of the large-scale production of therapies that will be needed when products are approved by the FDA for wider use.

CIRM, in collaboration with this network, will also help develop education and hands-on training programs for cell and gene therapy manufacturing at California community colleges and universities. By providing internships and certification programs we will help create a talented, diverse workforce that is equipped to meet the growing demands of the industry.

You can read more about these goals in our 2022-27 Strategic Plan.

Sharing ideas and data to advance regenerative medicine

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If Kindergarten kids can learn to share why can’t scientists?

When I was a kid, we were always told to share our toys. It was a good way of teaching children the importance of playing nice with the other kids and avoiding conflicts.

Those same virtues apply to science. Sharing data, knowledge and ideas doesn’t just create a sense of community. It also helps increase the odds that scientists can build on the knowledge gained by others to advance their own work, and the field as a whole.

That’s why advancing world class science through data sharing is one of the big goals in CIRM’s new Strategic Plan. There’s a very practical reason why this is needed. Although most scientists today fully appreciate and acknowledge the importance of data sharing, many still resist the idea. This is partly for competitive reasons: the researchers want to publish their findings first and take the credit.

But being first isn’t just about ego. It is also crucial in getting promotions, being invited to prestigious meetings, winning awards, and in some cases, getting the attention of biopharma. So, there are built-in incentives to avoiding data sharing.

That’s unfortunate because scientific progress is often dependent on collaboration and building upon the work of other researchers.

CIRM’s goal is to break down those barriers and make it easier to share data. We will do that by building what are called “knowledge networks.” These networks will streamline data sharing from CIRM-funded projects and combine that with research data from other organizations, publishers and California academic institutions. We want to create incentives for scientists to share their data, rather than keep it private.

We are going to start by creating a knowledge network for research targeting the brain and spinal cord. We hope this will have an impact on studying everything from stroke and Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s and psychiatric disorders. The network will eventually cover all aspects of research—from the most basic science to clinical trials—because knowledge gained in one area can help influence research done in another.

To kick start this network, CIRM will partner with other funding agencies, disease foundations and research institutions to enable scientists to have access to this data such that data from one platform can be used to analyze data from another platform. This will amplify the power of data analysis and allow researchers to build upon the work of others rather than repeat already existing research.

As one of our Board members, Dr. Keith Yamamoto said in our Strategic Plan, “Making such data sharing and analysis across CIRM projects operational and widely accessible would leverage CIRM investments, serving the biomedical research enterprise broadly.”

It’s good for science, but ultimately and more importantly, it’s good for all of us because it will speed up the development of new approaches and new therapies for a wide range of diseases and disorders.

Visit this page to learn more about CIRM’s new 5-year Strategic Plan and stay tuned as we share updates on our 5-year goals here on The Stem Cellar.

How two California researchers are advancing world class science to develop real life solutions

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In our recently launched 5-year Strategic Plan, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) profiled two researchers who have leveraged CIRM funding to translate basic biological discoveries into potential real-world solutions for devastating diseases.

Dr. Joseph Wu is director of the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute and the recipient of several CIRM awards. Eleven of them to be exact! Over the past 10 years, Dr. Wu’s lab has extensively studied the application of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) for cardiovascular disease modeling, drug discovery, and regenerative medicine. 

Dr. Wu’s extensive studies and findings have even led to a cancer vaccine technology that is now being developed by Khloris Biosciences, a biotechnology company spun out by his lab. 

Through CIRM funding, Dr. Wu has developed a process to produce cardiomyocytes (cardiac muscle cells) derived from human embryonic stem cells for clinical use and in partnership with the agency. Dr. Wu is also the principal investigator in the first-in-US clinical trial for treating ischemic heart disease. His other CIRM-funded work has also led to the development of cardiomyocytes derived from human induced pluripotent stem cells for potential use as a patch.

Over at UCLA, Dr. Lili Yang and her lab team have generated invariant Natural Killer T cells (iNKT), a special kind of immune system cell with unique features that can more effectively attack tumor cells. 

More recently, using stem cells from donor cord-blood and peripheral blood samples, Dr. Yang and her team of researchers were able to produce up to 300,000 doses of hematopoietic stem cell-engineered iNKT (HSC–iNKT) cells. The hope is that this new therapy could dramatically reduce the cost of producing immune cell products in the future. 

Additionally, Dr. Yang and her team have used iNKT cells to develop both autologous (using the patient’s own cells), and off-the-shelf anti-cancer therapeutics (using donor cells), designed to target blood cell cancers.

The success of her work has led to the creation of a start-up company called Appia Bio. In collaboration with Kite Pharma, Appia Bio is planning on developing and commercializing the promising technology. 

CIRM has been an avid supporter of Dr. Yang and Dr. Wu’s research because they pave the way for development of next-generation therapies. Through our new Strategic Plan, CIRM will continue to fund innovative research like theirs to accelerate world class science to deliver transformative regenerative medicine treatments in an equitable manner to a diverse California and the world.

Visit this page to learn more about CIRM’s new 5-year Strategic Plan and stay tuned as we share updates on our 5-year goals here on The Stem Cellar.

One more good reason to exercise

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As we start the New Year with a fervent hope that it’s better than the last two, many people are making a resolution to get more exercise. A new study suggests that might not just benefit the body, it could also help the brain. At least if you are a mouse.

Researchers at the University of Queensland Brain Institute found that 35 days of exercise could improve brain function and memory.

In an interview in Futurity, Dan Blackmore, one of the lead researchers on the study, says they not only showed the benefits of exercise, but also an explanation for why it helps.

“We tested the cognitive ability of elderly mice following defined periods of exercise and found an optimal period or ‘sweet spot’ that greatly improved their spatial learning. We found that growth hormone (GH) levels peaked during this time, and we’ve been able to demonstrate that artificially raising GH in sedentary mice also was also effective in improving their cognitive skills. We discovered GH stimulates the production of new neurons in the hippocampus—the region of the brain critically important to learning and memory.

The study was published in the journal iScience.

Obviously, this is great for mice, but they hope that future research could show similar benefits for people. But don’t wait for that study to come out, there’s already plenty of evidence that exercising has terrific benefits for the body. Here’s just seven ways it can give you a boost.

How do Zebrafish grow ears? It’s quite transparent

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Zebrafish

One of the hopes of regenerative medicine is that one day we will be able to use stem cells to regrow damaged organs, avoiding the need for a transplant. It’s a fascinating idea, supported in part by the ability of some creatures, such as Axolotls and salamanders, to regrow parts of their anatomy that they have lost.

But there’s quite a leap from a lizard to a human and bridging that gap is proving far from easy. One of the problems is simply understanding how cells know what to do to form the correct shape for the organ. Even something as relatively simple as an ear is incredibly complex.

However, researchers at Harvard Medical School have discovered a way to replicate how cells form into flexible sheets, so they can be folded into the delicate shape of tubes in the inner ear. They did this by studying Zebrafish. Why? In an article in Genetic Engineering and Biology News Dr. Akankshi Munjal, PhD, first author of the paper, said the reason was simple.

Akankshi Munjal, PhD, first author of the paper; Photo courtesy Harvard Medical School

“Zebrafish are transparent, so we just stick them under a microscope and look at this entire process from a single cell to a larva that can swim and has all its parts.”

Because they could watch the Zebrafish develop in real time, they were able to observe what the cells were doing at any point simply by looking at the fish under a microscope. Another advantage is that in Zebrafish the semicircular canals of the inner ear – tubes that help them maintain balance and orient themselves – form close to the surface, making it even easier to see what was going on.

In the study, published in the journal Cell, the researchers say it appears that a combination of pressure generated by hyaluronic acid, which acts as a cushion and lubricant between tissues, and molecular tethers between cells help direct flat sheets of cells into tubes and other shapes.

Dr. Sean Megason, one of the authors of the paper, said that knowing the mechanism at work is really important. “Right now tissue engineers are trying to build tissues without knowing how cells normally do this during embryonic development. We want to define these rules such that cells can be programmed to assemble into any desired pattern and shape. This work shows a new way in which cells can generate force to bend tissues into the right shape.”

The researchers say if they can understand how cells work together to create these complex shapes they may be better able to replicate that process in the lab, and grow ears, parts of ears or even other organs for people.

How some brilliant research may have uncovered a potential therapy for Alzheimer’s 

Dr. Nicole Koutsodendris, photo courtesy Gladstone Institutes

In the world of scientific research, the people doing clinical trials tend to suck up all the oxygen in the room. They’re the stars, the ones who are bringing potential therapies to patients. However, there’s another group of researchers who toil away in the background, but who are equally deserving of praise and gratitude. 

Dr. Lana Zholudeva, photo courtesy Gladstone Institutes

These are the scientists who do basic or discovery-level research. This is where all great therapies start. This is where a researcher gets an idea and tests it to see if it holds promise. A good idea and a scientist who asks a simple question, “I wonder if…..”  

Dr. Yadong Huang, Photo courtesy Gladstone Institutes

In our latest “Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation” podcast we talk to three researchers who are asking those questions and getting some truly encouraging answers. They are scientists at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco: one seasoned scientist and two young post-docs trying to make a name for themselves. And they might just have discovered a therapy that could help people battling Alzheimer’s disease. 

Enjoy the podcast.