A year unlike any other – a look back at one year post Prop 14

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State flag of California

2020 was, by any standards, a pretty wacky year. Pandemic. Political convulsions. And a huge amount of uncertainty as to the funding of life-saving therapies at CIRM. Happily those all turned out OK. We got vaccines to take care of COVID. The election was won fair and square (seriously). And Proposition 14 was approved by the voters of California, re-funding your favorite state Stem Cell Agency.

But for a while, quite a while, there was uncertainty surrounding our future. For a start, once the pandemic lockdown kicked in it was impossible for people to go out and collect the signatures needed to place Proposition 14 on the November ballot. So the organizers of the campaign reached out online, using petitions that people could print out and sign and mail in.

It worked. But even after getting all the signatures needed they faced problems such as how do you campaign to get something passed, when the normal channels are not available. The answer is you get very creative very quickly.

Bob Klein

Bob Klein, the driving force behind both Proposition 71 (the 2004 ballot initiative that created CIRM) and Proposition 14, says it was challenging:

“It was a real adventure. It’s always hard, you have a complicated message about stem cells and genetics and therapy and it’s always a challenge to get a million signatures for a ballot initiative but in the middle of a pandemic where we had to shut down the signature gathering at grocery stores and street corners, where we had to go to petitions that had to be sent to voters and get them to fill them out properly and send them back. And of course the state went into an economic recoil because of the pandemic and people were worried about the money.”

Challenging absolutely, but ultimately successful. On November 13, ten days after the election, Prop 14 was declared the winner.

As our President and CEO, Dr. Maria Millan says, we went from an agency getting ready to close its doors to one ramping up for a whole new adventure.

“We faced many challenges in 2020. CIRM’s continued existence was hinging on the passage of a new bond initiative and we began the year uncertain if it would even make it on the ballot.  We had a plan in place to wind down and close operations should additional funding not materialize.  During the unrest and challenges brought by 2020, and functioning in a virtual format, we retained our core group of talented individuals who were able to mobilize our emergency covid research funding round, continue to advance our important research programs and clinical trials and initiate the process of strategic planning in the event that CIRM was reauthorized through a new bond initiative. Fortunately, we planned for success and Proposition 14 passed against all odds!”

“When California said “Yes,” the CIRM team was positioned to launch the next Era of CIRM! We have recruited top talent to grow the team and have developed a new strategic plan and evolved our mission:  Accelerating world-class science to deliver transformative regenerative medicine treatments to a diverse California and worldwide in an equitable manner.” 

And since that close call we have been very busy. In the last year we have hired 16 new employees, everyone from a new General Counsel to the Director of Finance, and more are on the way as we ramp up our ability to turn our new vision into a reality.

We have also been working hard to ensure we could continue to fund groundbreaking research from the early-stage Discovery work, to testing therapies in patients in clinical trials. Altogether our Board has approved almost $250 million in 56 new awards since December 2020. That includes:

Clinical – $84M (9 awards)

Translational – $15M (3 awards)

Discovery – $13M (11 awards)

Education – $138M (33 awards)

We have also enrolled more than 360 new patients in clinical trials that we fund or that are being carried out in the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic network.

This is a good start, but we know we have a lot more work to do in the coming years.

The last year has flown by and brought more than its fair share of challenges. But the CIRM team has shown that it can rise to those, in person and remotely, and meet them head on. We are already looking forward to 2022. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

Promising new approach for people with epilepsy

Image courtesy Epilepsy.com

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A new therapeutic approach, supported by CIRM, that blocks the signals in the brain that can cause epilepsy has been given permission by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be tested in a clinical trial.

Nearly 3.5 million Americans suffer from some form of epilepsy. It can affect people in different ways from stiff muscles or staring spells, to violent shaking and loss of consciousness. The impact it has on people’s lives extends far beyond the condition itself. People who suffer from epilepsy experience a higher frequency of depression and other mood disorders, social isolation, challenges in school and with living independently, higher unemployment, limitations on driving, and higher risk of early death.

Medications can help control the seizures in some people, but around one-third of patients don’t respond to those drugs. The alternative is surgery, which is invasive and can cause damage to delicate brain tissue.

Now Neurona Therapeutics has developed an approach, called NRTX-1001, that turns stem cells into interneurons, a kind of nerve cell in the brain. These cells secrete chemical messengers, called GABA inhibitory neurotransmitters, that help rebalance the misfiring electrical signals in the brain and hopefully eliminate or reduce the seizures.

Cory Nicholas, PhD, Neuron’s Therapeutics co-founder and CEO, said getting the go-ahead from the FDA for a clinical trial is a key milestone for the company. “Neurona’s accomplishments are a testament to longstanding support from CIRM. CIRM has supported the NRTX-1001 program from bench to bedside, dating back to early research in the Neurona founders’ laboratories at the University of California, San Francisco to the recent IND-enabling studies conducted at Neurona. It’s an exciting time for the field of regenerative medicine and is gratifying to see the NRTX-1001 neuronal cell therapy now cleared by the FDA to enter clinical testing in people who have drug resistant temporal lobe epilepsy. We are thankful to CIRM for their support of this important work that has the potential to provide seizure-freedom for patients who currently have limited treatment options.”

In a news release Dr. Nicholas said the timing was perfect. “This milestone is especially rewarding and timely given that November is Epilepsy Awareness Month. NRTX-1001 is a new type of inhibitory cell therapy that is targeted to the focal seizure onset region in the brain and, in a single treatment, has the potential to significantly improve the lives of people living with focal epilepsy.”

In animal models NRTX-1001 produced freedom from seizures in more than two-thirds of the treated group, compared to just 5 percent of the untreated group. It also resulted in reduced tissue damage in the seizure-affected area of the brain.

The clinical trial will initially target people affected by mesial temporal lobe epilepsy (MTLE) where seizures often begin in a structure called the hippocampus. MTLE is the most common type of focal epilepsy.

CIRM has invested almost $6.67 million in funding three stages of this project, from the early Discovery work to this latest late-stage preclinical work, highlighting our commitment to doing all we can to advance the most promising science from the bench to the bedside.

COVID is a real pain in the ear

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The more you learn about COVID-19 the more there is to dislike about it. The global death toll from the virus is now more than five million and for those who survive there can be long-term health consequences. We know COVID can attack the lungs, heart and brain. Now we are learning it can also mess up your ears causing hearing problems, ringing in the ear (tinnitus) and leave you dizzy.

Viral infections are a known cause of hearing loss and other kinds of infection. That’s why, before the pandemic started, Dr. Konstantina Stantovic at Massachusetts Eye and Ear and Dr. Lee Gherke at MIT had been studying how and why things like measles, mumps and hepatitis affected people’s hearing. After COVID hit they heard reports of patients experiencing sudden hearing loss and other problems, so they decided to take a closer look.

They took cells from ten patients who had all experienced some hearing or ear-related problems after testing positive for COVID and, using the iPSC method, turned those cells into the kind found in the inner ear including hair cells, supporting cells, nerve fibers, and Schwann cells.  

They then compared those to cells from patients who had similar hearing issues but who had not been infected with COVID. They found that the hair and Schwann cells both had proteins the virus can use to infect cells. That’s important because hair cells help with balance and the Schwann cells play a protective role for neuronal axons, which help different nerve cells in the brain communicate with each other.

In contrast, some of the other cells in the inner ear didn’t have those proteins and so were protected from COVID.

In a news release Dr. Stankovic says it’s not known how many people infected with COVID experienced hearing issues. “Initially this was because routine testing was not readily available for patients who were diagnosed with COVID, and also, when patients were having more life-threatening complications, they weren’t paying much attention to whether their hearing was reduced or whether they had tinnitus. We still don’t know what the incidence is, but our findings really call for increased attention to audio vestibular symptoms in people with Covid exposure.”

The doctors are not sure how the virus gets into the inner ear but speculate that it may enter through the Eustachian tube, that’s a small passageway that connects your throat to your middle ear. When you sneeze, swallow, or yawn, your Eustachian tubes open, preventing air pressure and fluid from building up inside your ear. They think that might allow particles from the nose to spread to the ear.

The study is published in the journal Communications Medicine.

CIRM has funded 17 different projects targeting COVID-19, several of which are still active.

A hair raising tale

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For many men, losing their hair is not just something that happens with age, it’s traumatic. A survey of men from the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain found that more than 70% of men who reported losing their hair said it was an important feature of their image, and 62% agreed that hair loss could affect self-esteem. So, while a scientist who comes up with a way to prevent hair loss may not win a Nobel Prize, they will certainly get the undying gratitude of millions of men, and some women, around the world.

Now a team at Northwestern Medicine may just have found some clues as to why it happens, and some clues on how to stop it.

As we age our hair follicles go through a cycle of growth and death. As older hairs die there are stem cells in the hair follicles that produce new, replacement hair follicle cells. In this study, which was done in older male mice, the researchers found that as the mice age the stem cells in the hair start to lose the stickiness that helps them remain in the hair follicles. Without that stickiness they drift outside of the protective environment and can’t survive.

As Dr. Rui Yi, lead author of the study says in a news release; no hair stem cells, no hair replacements. “The result is fewer and fewer stem cells in the hair follicle to produce hair. This results in thinning hair and ultimately baldness during aging.”

Happily, the team also discovered two genes that seem to play a key role in generating the stickiness the cells need to stay in the follicle. They are now trying to reinstate those genes to see if that can reverse hair loss.

While this was done in mice the researchers say there are a lot of similarities between mice and humans in hair and stem cells.

One can only hope.

The study is published in the journal Nature Aging.

A step forward in finding a treatment for a deadly neurological disorder

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MRI section of a brain affected by ALS with the front section of the brain highlighted

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a nasty disease that steadily attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. It’s pretty much always fatal within a few years. As if that wasn’t bad enough, ALS also can overlap with a condition called frontotemporal dementia (ALS/FTD). Together these conditions cause devastating symptoms of muscle weakness along with changes in memory, behavior and personality.

Now researchers at Cambridge University in the UK have managed to grow groups of cells called “mini-brains” that mimic ALS/FTD and could lead to new approaches to treating this deadly combination.

We have written about these mini-brains before. Basically, they are created, using the iPSC method, that takes skin or blood cells from a patient with a particular condition, in this case ALS/FTD, and turns them into the kind of nerve cells in the brain affected by the disease. Because they came from someone who had ALS/FTD they display many of the characteristics of the disease and this gives researchers a great tool to study the condition.

This kind of approach has been done before and given researchers a glimpse into what is happening in the brains of people with ALS/FTD. But in the past those cells were in a kind of clump, and it wasn’t possible to get enough nutrients to the cells in the middle of the clump for the mini-brain to survive for long.

What is different about the Cambridge team is that they were able to create these mini-brains using thin, slices of cells. That meant all the cells could get enough nutrients to survive a long time, giving the team a better model to understand what is happening in ALS/FTD.

In a news release, Dr András Lakatos, the senior author of the study, said: “Neurodegenerative diseases are very complex disorders that can affect many different cell types and how these cells interact at different times as the diseases progress.

“To come close to capturing this complexity, we need models that are more long-lived and replicate the composition of those human brain cell populations in which disturbances typically occur, and this is what our approach offers. Not only can we see what may happen early on in the disease – long before a patient might experience any symptoms – but we can also begin to see how the disturbances change over time in each cell.”

Thanks to these longer-lived cells the team were able to see changes in the mini-brains at a very early stage, including damage to DNA and cell stress, changes that affected other cells which play a role in muscle movements and behavior.

Because the cells developed using the iPSC method are from a patient with ALS/FTD, the researchers were able to use them to screen many different medications to see if any had potential as a therapy. They identified one, GSK2606414, that seemed to help in reducing the build-up of toxic proteins, reduced cell stress and the loss of nerve cells.

The team acknowledge that these results are promising but also preliminary and will require much more research to verify them.

CIRM has funded three clinical trials targeting ALS. You can read about that work here.

Wit, wisdom and a glimpse into the future

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As of this moment, there are over two million podcasts and over 48 million episodes to listen to on your favorite listening device. If you’re a true crime enthusiast like me, you’ve surely heard of Casefile or one of the other 94 podcasts on the topic. But what if you’re looking for something a little less ghastly and a little more uplifting?

Dr. Daylon James, co-host of The Stem Cell Podcast

The Stem Cell Podcast is an informative and entertaining resource for scientists and science enthusiasts (or really, anyone) interested in learning about the latest developments in stem cell research.

Dr. Arun Sharma, co-host of The Stem Cell Podcast

On their latest episode, dynamic co-hosts and research scientists Dr. Daylon James and Dr. Arun Sharma sit down with our President & CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, to discuss the impact of California’s culture of innovation on CIRM, the challenge of balancing hope vs. hype in the context of stem cell research/therapies, and the evolution of the agency over the past 15 years.

Listen on as Dr. Millan highlights some of CIRM’s greatest victories and shares our mission for the future.

Raising awareness about mental health

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World Mental Health Day is observed on 10 October every year. It’s a time to try and raise awareness about mental health issues and the impact they have not just on the individual but their family, their community and all of us. The theme for World Mental Health Day 2021 is ‘mental health in an unequal world.’

Dr. Le Ondra Clark Harvey: Photo courtesy CCCBHA

To highlight the issues raised on World Mental Health Day we talked to one of CIRM’s newest Board member, Dr. Le Ondra Clark Harvey. She’s a psychologist and the CEO of the California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies (CCCBHA) a statewide advocacy organization representing mental health and substance use disorder non-profit agencies that collectively serve over 750 thousand Californians annually.

What made you want to be on the CIRM Board?

I was recommended to apply for the CIRM Board by a member of CCCBHA, the organization I am privileged to lead and serve. I saw the position as an opportunity to shed light on cognitive disorders that many do not readily think of when they think about stem cell research. The appointment also has personal meaning to me as I have a grandfather who is a cancer survivor and  who has an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.  Breast cancer has also affected women in my family, including myself, and I know that the research that CIRM funds can assist with finding a cure and providing accessible treatment options for all Californians. 

A lot of people might not think that stem cells would have a role in addressing mental health issues, what role do you think they can play?

You are correct, most people do not immediately think of stem cell therapies as a remedy to brain health disorders. However, there are many cognitive disorders and symptoms that can be mitigated, and hopefully someday ameliorated, as a result of stem cell therapies. For example, autism and other developmental disabilities, dementia, Alzheimer’s, Tourette’s and tardive dyskinesia.  

What are the biggest challenges we face in addressing mental health issues in this country?

Stigma remains a significant barrier that impacts the ability to provide – particularly among racially and ethnically diverse communities. In my own practice, I’ve seen how stigma can prevent individuals from entering into care even when access issues have been mitigated. Public awareness campaigns, and culturally specific advocacy efforts and practices must be integrated into treatment models in order to provide individuals with the specific care they need. 

Do you think that the widespread media attention paid to Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles has helped raise awareness about mental health and perhaps also reduced some of the stigma surrounding it?

Yes, I do. Also, the pandemic has opened many individuals eyes, and engendered a sense of empathy, about the prevalence and impact that isolation and loneliness can have on a person. 

Building embryo-like cells in the lab

Dr. Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz: Photo courtesy Caltech

Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) have many remarkable properties, not the least of which is their ability to turn into every other kind of cell in our body. But there are limits to what researchers can do with embryonic stem cells. One issue is that there aren’t always hESCs available – they come from eggs donated by couples who have undergone in vitro fertilization. Another is that researchers can only develop these cells in the laboratory for 14 days (though that rule may be changing).

Now researchers at Caltech have developed a kind of hESC-in-a-dish that could help make it easier to answer questions about human development without the need to wait for a new line of hESCs.

The team, led by Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, used a line of expanded pluripotent cells (EPSCs), originally derived from a human embryo, to create a kind of 3D model that mimics some of the activities of an embryo.

The cool thing about these cells is that, because they were originally derived from an embryo, they retain some “memory” of how they are supposed to work. In a news release Zernicka-Goetz says this enables them to display elements of both polarization and cavitation, early crucial phases in the development of a human embryo.

“The ability to assemble the basic structure of the embryo seems to be a built-in property of these earliest embryonic cells that they are simply unable to ‘forget.’ Nevertheless, either their memory is not absolutely precise or we don’t yet have the best method of helping the cells recover their memories. We still have further work to do before we can get human stem cells to achieve the developmental accuracy that is possible with their equivalent mouse stem cell counterparts.”

Being able to create these embryo-like elements means researchers can generate cells in large numbers and won’t be so dependent on donated embryos.

In the study, published in the journal Nature Communications, the researchers say this could help them develop a deeper understanding of embryonic development.

Understanding human development is of fundamental biological and clinical importance. Despite its significance, mechanisms behind human embryogenesis remain largely unknown…. this stem cell platform provides insights into the design of stem cell models of embryogenesis.

Creating a diverse group of future scientists

Students in CIRM’s Bridges program showing posters of their work

If you have read the headlines lately, you’ll know that the COVID-19 pandemic is having a huge impact on the shipping industry. Container vessels are forced to sit out at anchor for a week or more because there just aren’t enough dock workers to unload the boats. It’s a simple rule of economics, you can have all the demand you want but if you don’t have the people to help deliver on the supply side, you are in trouble.

The same is true in regenerative medicine. The field is expanding rapidly and that’s creating a rising demand for skilled workers to help keep up. That doesn’t just mean scientists, but also technicians and other skilled individuals who can ensure that our ability to manufacture and deliver these new therapies is not slowed down.

That’s one of the reasons why CIRM has been a big supporter of training programs ever since we were created by the voters of California when they approved Proposition 71. And now we are kick-starting those programs again to ensure the field has all the talented workers it needs.

Last week the CIRM Board approved 18 programs, investing more than $86 million, as part of the Agency’s Research Training Grants program. The goal of the program is to create a diverse group of scientists with the knowledge and skill to lead effective stem cell research programs.

The awards provide up to $5 million per institution, for a maximum of 20 institutions, over five years, to support the training of predoctoral graduate students, postdoctoral trainees, and/or clinical trainees.

This is a revival of an earlier Research Training program that ran from 2006-2016 and trained 940 “CIRM Scholars” including:

• 321 PhD students
• 453 Postdocs
• 166 MDs

These grants went to academic institutions from UC Davis in Sacramento to UC San Diego down south and everywhere in-between. A 2013 survey of the students found that most went on to careers in the industry.

  • 56% continued to further training
  • 14% advanced to an academic research faculty position
  • 10.5% advanced to a biotech/industry position
  • 12% advanced to a non-research position such as teaching, medical practice, or foundation/government work

The Research Training Grants go to:

AWARDINSTITUTIONTITLEAMOUNT
EDUC4-12751Cedars-SinaiCIRM Training Program in Translational Regenerative Medicine    $4,999,333
EDUC4-12752UC RiversideTRANSCEND – Training Program to Advance Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Research, Education, and Workforce Diversity    $4,993,115
EDUC4-12753UC Los AngelesUCLA Training Program in Stem Cell Biology    $5 million
EDUC4-12756University of Southern CaliforniaTraining Program Bridging Stem Cell Research with Clinical Applications in Regenerative Medicine    $5 million
EDUC4-12759UC Santa CruzCIRM Training Program in Systems Biology of Stem Cells    $4,913,271
EDUC4-12766Gladstone Inst.CIRM Regenerative Medicine Research Training Program    $5 million
EDUC4-12772City of HopeResearch Training Program in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine    $4,860,989
EDUC4-12782StanfordCIRM Scholar Training Program    $4,974,073
EDUC4-12790UC BerkeleyTraining the Next Generation of Biologists and Engineers for Regenerative Medicine    $4,954,238
EDUC4-12792UC DavisCIRM Cell and Gene Therapy Training Program 2.0    $4,966,300
EDUC4-12802Children’s Hospital of Los AngelesCIRM Training Program for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Research    $4,999,500
EDUC4-12804UC San DiegoInterdisciplinary Stem Cell Training Grant at UCSD III    $4,992,446
EDUC4-12811ScrippsTraining Scholars in Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research    $4,931,353
EDUC4-12812UC San FranciscoScholars Research Training Program in Regenerative Medicine, Gene Therapy, and Stem Cell Research    $5 million
EDUC4-12813Sanford BurnhamA Multidisciplinary Stem Cell Training Program at Sanford Burnham Prebys Institute, A Critical Component of the La Jolla Mesa Educational Network    $4,915,671  
EDUC4-12821UC Santa BarbaraCIRM Training Program in Stem Cell Biology and Engineering    $1,924,497
EDUC4-12822UC IrvineCIRM Scholars Comprehensive Research Training Program  $5 million
EDUC4-12837Lundquist Institute for Biomedical InnovationStem Cell Training Program at the Lundquist Institute    $4,999,999

These are not the only awards we make to support training the next generation of scientists. We also have our SPARK and Bridges to Stem Cell Research programs. The SPARK awards are for high school students, and the Bridges program for graduate or Master’s level students.

Them bones them bones them dry bones – and how to help repair them

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Broken bones

People say that with age comes wisdom, kindness and confidence. What they usually don’t say is that it also comes with aches and pains and problems we didn’t have when we were younger. For example, as we get older our bones get thinner and more likely to break and less likely to heal properly.

That’s a depressing opening paragraph isn’t it. But don’t worry, things get better from here because new research from Germany has found clues as to what causes our bones to become more brittle, and what we can do to try and stop that.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing and CECAD Cluster of Excellence for Ageing Research at the University of Cologne have identified changes in stem cells from our bone marrow that seem to play a key role in bones getting weaker as we age.

To explain this we’re going to have to go into the science a little, so bear with me. One of the issues the researchers focused on is the role of epigenetics, this is genetic information that doesn’t change the genes themselves but does change their activity. Think of it like a light switch. The switch doesn’t change the bulb, but it does control when it’s on and when it’s off. So this team looked at the epigenome of MSCs, the stem cells found in the bone marrow. These cells play a key role in the creation of cartilage, bone and fat cells.

In a news release, Dr. Andromachi Pouikli, one of the lead researchers in the study, says these MSCs don’t function as well as we get older.

“We wanted to know why these stem cells produce less material for the development and maintenance of bones as we age, causing more and more fat to accumulate in the bone marrow. To do this, we compared the epigenome of stem cells from young and old mice. We could see that the epigenome changes significantly with age. Genes that are important for bone production are particularly affected.”

So, they took some stem cells from the bone marrow of mice and tested them with a solution of sodium acetate. Now sodium acetate has a lot of uses, including being used in heating pads, hand warmers and as a food seasoning, but in this case the solution was able to make it easier for enzymes to get access to genes and boost their activity.

“This treatment impressively caused the epigenome to rejuvenate, improving stem cell activity and leading to higher production of bone cells,” Pouikli said.

So far so good. But does this work the same way in people? Maybe so. The team analyzed MSCs from people who had undergone hip surgery and found that they showed the same kind of age-related changes as the cells from mice.

Clearly there’s a lot more work to do before we can even think about using this finding as a solution to aging bones. But it’s an encouraging start.

The study is published in the journal Nature Aging.