From bench to bedside: a Q&A with stem cell expert Jan Nolta

At CIRM we are privileged to work with many remarkable people who combine brilliance, compassion and commitment to their search for new therapies to help people in need. One of those who certainly fits that description is UC Davis’ Jan Nolta.

This week the UC Davis Newsroom posted a great interview with Jan. Rather than try and summarize what she says I thought it would be better to let her talk for herself.

Jan Nolta
Jan Nolta

Talking research, unscrupulous clinics, and sustaining the momentum

(SACRAMENTO) —

In 2007, Jan Nolta returned to Northern California from St. Louis to lead what was at the time UC Davis’ brand-new stem cell program. As director of the UC Davis Stem Cell Program and the Institute for Regenerative Cures, she has overseen the opening of the institute, more than $140 million in research grants, and dozens upon dozens of research studies. She recently sat down to answer some questions about regenerative medicine and all the work taking place at UC Davis Health.

Q: Turning stem cells into cures has been your mission and mantra since you founded the program. Can you give us some examples of the most promising research?

I am so excited about our research. We have about 20 different disease-focused teams. That includes physicians, nurses, health care staff, researchers and faculty members, all working to go from the laboratory bench to patient’s bedside with therapies.

Perhaps the most promising and exciting research right now comes from combining blood-forming

stem cells with gene therapy. We’re working in about eight areas right now, and the first cure, something that we definitely can call a stem cell “cure,” is coming from this combined approach.

Soon, doctors will be able to prescribe this type of stem cell therapy. Patients will use their own bone marrow or umbilical cord stem cells. Teams such as ours, working in good manufacturing practice facilities, will make vectors, essentially “biological delivery vehicles,” carrying a good copy of the broken gene. They will be reinserted into a patient’s cells and then infused back into the patient, much like a bone marrow transplant.

“Perhaps the most promising and exciting research right now comes from combining blood-forming stem cells with gene therapy.”

Along with treating the famous bubble baby disease, where I had started my career, this approach looks very promising for sickle cell anemia. We’re hoping to use it to treat several different inherited metabolic diseases. These are conditions characterized by an abnormal build-up of toxic materials in the body’s cells. They interfere with organ and brain function. It’s caused by just a single enzyme. Using the combined stem cell gene therapy, we can effectively put a good copy of the gene for that enzyme back into a patient’s bone marrow stem cells. Then we do a bone marrow transplantation and bring back a person’s normal functioning cells.

The beauty of this therapy is that it can work for the lifetime of a patient. All of the blood cells circulating in a person’s system would be repaired. It’s the number one stem cell cure happening right now. Plus, it’s a therapy that won’t be rejected. These are a patient’s own stem cells. It is just one type of stem cell, and the first that’s being commercialized to change cells throughout the body.

Q: Let’s step back for a moment. In 2004, voters approved Proposition 71. It has funded a majority of the stem cell research here at UC Davis and throughout California. What’s been the impact of that ballot measure and how is it benefiting patients?

We have learned so much about different types of stem cells, and which stem cell will be most appropriate to treat each type of disease. That’s huge. We had to first do that before being able to start actual stem cell therapies. CIRM [California Institute for Regenerative Medicine] has funded Alpha Stem Cell Clinics. We have one of them here at UC Davis and there are only five in the entire state. These are clinics where the patients can go for high-quality clinical stem cell trials approved by the FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration]. They don’t need to go to “unapproved clinics” and spend a lot of money. And they actually shouldn’t.

“By the end of this year, we’ll have 50 clinical trials.”

By the end of this year, we’ll have 50 clinical trials [here at UC Davis Health]. There are that many in the works.

Our Alpha Clinic is right next to the hospital. It’s where we’ll be delivering a lot of the immunotherapies, gene therapies and other treatments. In fact, I might even get to personally deliver stem cells to the operating room for a patient. It will be for a clinical trial involving people who have broken their hip. It’s exciting because it feels full circle, from working in the laboratory to bringing stem cells right to the patient’s bedside.

We have ongoing clinical trials for critical limb ischemia, leukemia and, as I mentioned, sickle cell disease. Our disease teams are conducting stem cell clinical trials targeting sarcoma, cellular carcinoma, and treatments for dysphasia [a swallowing disorder], retinopathy [eye condition], Duchenne muscular dystrophy and HIV. It’s all in the works here at UC Davis Health.

There’s also great potential for therapies to help with renal disease and kidney transplants. The latter is really exciting because it’s like a mini bone marrow transplant. A kidney recipient would also get some blood-forming stem cells from the kidney donor so that they can better accept the organ and not reject it. It’s a type of stem cell therapy that could help address the burden of being on a lifelong regime of immunosuppressant drugs after transplantation.

Q: You and your colleagues get calls from family members and patients all the time. They frequently ask about stem cell “miracle” cures. What should people know about unproven treatments and unregulated stem cell clinics?

That’s a great question.The number one rule is that if you’re asked to pay money for a stem cell treatment, don’t do it. It’s a big red flag.

When it comes to advertised therapies: “The number one rule is that if you’re asked to pay money for a stem cell treatment, don’t do it. It’s a big red flag.”

Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous people out there in “unapproved clinics” who prey on desperate people. What they are delivering are probably not even stem cells. They might inject you with your own fat cells, which contain very few stem cells. Or they might use treatments that are not matched to the patient and will be immediately rejected. That’s dangerous. The FDA is shutting these unregulated clinics down one at a time. But it’s like “whack-a-mole”: shut one down and another one pops right up.

On the other hand, the Alpha Clinic is part of our mission is to help the public get to the right therapy, treatment or clinical trial. The big difference between those who make patients pay huge sums of money for unregulated and unproven treatments and UC Davis is that we’re actually using stem cells. We produce them in rigorously regulated cleanroom facilities. They are certified to contain at least 99% stem cells.

Patients and family members can always call us here. We can refer them to a genuine and approved clinical trial. If you don’t get stem cells at the beginning [of the clinical trial] because you’re part of the placebo group, you can get them later. So it’s not risky. The placebo is just saline. I know people are very, very desperate. But there are no miracle cures…yet. Clinical trials, approved by the FDA, are the only way we’re going to develop effective treatments and cures.

Q: Scientific breakthroughs take a lot of patience and time. How do you and your colleagues measure progress and stay motivated?   

Motivation?  “It’s all for the patients.”

It’s all for the patients. There are not good therapies yet for many disorders. But we’re developing them. Every day brings a triumph. Measuring progress means treating a patient in a clinical trial, or developing something in the laboratory, or getting FDA approval. The big one will be getting biological license approval from the FDA, which means a doctor can prescribe a stem cell or gene therapy treatment. Then it can be covered by a patient’s health insurance.

I’m a cancer survivor myself, and I’m also a heart patient. Our amazing team here at UC Davis has kept me alive and in great health. So I understand it from both sides. I understand the desperation of “Where do I go?” and “What do I do right now?” questions. I also understand the science side of things. Progress can feel very, very slow. But everything we do here at the Institute for Regenerative Cures is done with patients in mind, and safety.

We know that each day is so important when you’re watching a loved one suffer. We attend patient events and are part of things like Facebook groups, where people really pour their hearts out. We say to ourselves, “Okay, we must work harder and faster.” That’s our motivation: It’s all the patients and families that we’re going to help who keep us working hard.

Developing a non-toxic approach to bone-crushing cancers

When cancer spreads to the bone the results can be devastating

Battling cancer is always a balancing act. The methods we use – surgery, chemotherapy and radiation – can help remove the tumors but they often come at a price to the patient. In cases where the cancer has spread to the bone the treatments have a limited impact on the disease, but their toxicity can cause devastating problems for the patient. Now, in a CIRM-supported study, researchers at UC Irvine (UCI) have developed a method they say may be able to change that.

Bone metastasis – where cancer starts in one part of the body, say the breast, but spreads to the bones – is one of the most common complications of cancer. It can often result in severe pain, increased risk of fractures and compression of the spine. Tackling them is difficult because some cancer cells can alter the environment around bone, accelerating the destruction of healthy bone cells, and that in turn creates growth factors that stimulate the growth of the cancer. It is a vicious cycle where one problem fuels the other.

Now researchers at UCI have developed a method where they combine engineered mesenchymal stem cells (taken from the bone marrow) with targeting agents. These act like a drug delivery device, offloading different agents that simultaneously attack the cancer but protect the bone.

Weian Zhao; photo courtesy UC Irvine

In a news release Weian Zhao, lead author of the study, said:

“What’s powerful about this strategy is that we deliver a combination of both anti-tumor and anti-bone resorption agents so we can effectively block the vicious circle between cancers and their bone niche. This is a safe and almost nontoxic treatment compared to chemotherapy, which often leaves patients with lifelong issues.”

The research, published in the journal EBioMedicine, has already been shown to be effective in mice. Next, they hope to be able to do the safety tests to enable them to apply to the Food and Drug Administration for permission to test it in people.

The team say if this approach proves effective it might also be used to help treat other bone-related diseases such as osteoporosis and multiple myeloma.

HIV eliminated from mice using CRISPR and LASER ART

Dr. Kamel Khalili

In the United States alone, there are approximately 1.1 million people living with Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), a virus that weakens the immune system by destroying important cells that fight off disease and infection. This number is much larger on a global scale, with 36.9 million people living with HIV as of 2017. If left untreated, the immune system becomes so weakened that the condition worsens into acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), which is usually fatal.

Current treatment for HIV focuses on the use of antiretroviral therapy (ART). This treatment is able to suppress replication of the virus, but it does not eliminate it from the body entirely. In order to be sustainable, ART must be taken throughout the course of a lifetime, otherwise HIV rebounds and the replication of the virus renews, fueling the development of AIDS.

The ability of HIV to rebound is related to the fact that it is able to integrate its DNA into various cells inside the body and beyond the reach of ART. Here they are able to remain dormant and ready to replicate as soon as ART is not interfering. It is because of this that ART is not sufficient on its own to cure HIV, but a group of scientists have uncovered a promising breakthrough to change that.

In a major collaboration, researchers at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University and the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) have for the first time eliminated HIV from the DNA of living mice. This study marks a critical step toward the development of a possible cure for human HIV infection.

The team of researchers was able to do this with the help of a new technology called long-acting slow-effective release (LASER) ART. LASER ART is able to target HIV sanctuaries and maintain replication at low levels for extended periods of time. Immediately after administering LASER ART, the team used a gene editing technology known as CRISPR to remove the final remnants of HIV DNA hidden inside cells.

In a press release, Dr. Kamel Khalili, senior investigator for this study, was quoted as saying,

“Our study shows that treatment to suppress HIV replication and gene editing therapy, when given sequentially, can eliminate HIV from cells and organs of infected animals…We now have a clear path to move ahead to trials in non-human primates and possibly clinical trials in human patients within the year.”

The full results of this study were published in Nature Communications.

To learn more about how CRISPR technology works, you can read more about it on a previous blog post.

Breaking bad news to stem cell researchers

It’s never easy to tell someone that they are too late, that they missed the deadline. It’s particularly hard when you know that the person you are telling that to has spent years working on a project and now needs money to take it to the next level. But in science, as in life, it’s always better to tell people what they need to know rather than what they would like to hear.

And so, we have posted a notice on our website for researchers thinking about applying for funding that, except in a very few cases, they are too late, that there is no money available for new projects, whether it’s Discovery, Translational or Clinical.

Here’s that notice:

CIRM anticipates that the budget allocation of funds for new awards under the CIRM clinical program (CLIN1, CLIN2 and CLIN3) may be depleted within the next two to three months. CIRM will accept applications for the monthly deadline on June 28, 2019 but will suspend application submissions after that date until further notice. All applicants should note that the review of submitted applications may be halted at any point in the process if funds are depleted prior to completion of the 3-month review cycle. CIRM will notify applicants of such an occurrence. Therefore, submission and acceptance of an application to CIRM does not guarantee the availability of funds or completion of a review cycle.

The submission of applications for the CIRM/NHLBI Cure Sickle Cell Initiative (CLIN1 SCD, CLIN2 SCD) are unaffected and application submissions for this program will remain open.

We do, of course, have enough money set aside to continue funding all the projects our Board has already approved, but we don’t have money for new projects (except for some sickle cell disease projects).

In truth our funding has lasted a lot longer than anyone anticipated. When Proposition 71 was approved the plan was to give CIRM $300 million a year for ten years. That was back in 2004. So what happened?

Well, in the early years stem cell science was still very much in its infancy with most of the work being done at a basic or Discovery level. Those typically don’t require very large sums so we were able to fund many projects without hitting our $300m target. As the field progressed, however, more and more projects were at the clinical trial stage and those need multiple millions of dollars to be completed. So, the money went out faster.

To date we have funded 55 clinical trials and our early support has helped more than a dozen other projects get into clinical trials. This includes everything from cancer and stroke, to vision loss and diabetes. It’s a good start, but we feel there is so much more to do.

Followers of news about CIRM know there is talk about a possible ballot initiative next year that would provide another $5.5 billion in funding for us to help complete the mission we have started.

Over the years we have built a pipeline of promising projects and without continued support many of those projects face a difficult future. Funding at the federal level is under threat and without CIRM there will be a limited number of funding alternatives for them to turn to.

Telling researchers we don’t have any money to support their work is hard. Telling patients we don’t have any money to support work that could lead to new treatments for them, that’s hardest of all.

Stories of the week – preterm birth and mice with a human immune system

While we are here at ISSCR 2019 hearing various scientists talk about their work, we realize that there are various breakthroughs in stem cell research in a wide variety of different fields going on every day. It is wonderful to see how scientists are hard at work in developing the latest science and pushing innovation. Here are two remarkable stories you may have missed this week.

Scientists developing way to help premature babies breathe easier

Researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center are looking at ways to stimulate lung development in premature infants who suffer from a rare condition called Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia (BPD), which can cause lifelong breathing problems and even death. Using a mouse model of BPD, extensive analysis, and testing, the scientists were able to create a proposal to develop a stem cell therapy based on what are called c-KIT endothelial progenitor cells.

Premature babies, unable to breathe on their own, rely on machines to help them breathe. Unfortunately, these machines can interfere with lung development as well. The cells proposed in the stem cell therapy are common in the lungs of infants still in the womb and help in the formation of capillaries and air sacs in the lungs called alveoli.

In a press release, Dr. Vlad Kalinichenko, lead investigator for this work, was quoted as saying,

“The cells are highly sensitive to injury by high oxygen concentrations, so lung development in premature babies on mechanical oxygen assistance is impeded. Our findings suggest using c-KIT-positive endothelial cells from donors, or generating them with pluripotent stem cells, might be a way to treat BPD or other pediatric lung disorders associated with loss of alveoli and pulmonary microvasculature.”

The full results were published in American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

Mice with a human immune system help research into cancer and infections

Speaking of a mouse model, researchers from Aarhus University and Aarhus University Hospital have succeeded in using mice with a transplanted human immune system to study functions in the immune system which are otherwise particularly difficult to study. This work could open the possibilities towards looking further into disease areas such as cancer, HIV, and autoimmune diseases.

Before potential treatments can be tested in humans, there needs to be extensive animal testing and data generated. However, when the disease relate’s to the human immune system, it can be particularly challenging to evaluate this in mice. The research team succeeded in transplanting human stem cells into mice whose own immune system is disabled, and then triggered a type of reaction in the immune system which normally reacts to meeting a range of viruses and bacteria.

In a press release, Dr. Anna Halling Folkmar, one of the researchers behind the study, says that,

“The humanised mice are an important tool in understanding how human immune cells behave during diseases and how they react to different medical treatments.”

The full results were published in Immunology.

“A new awakening”: One patient advocate’s fight for her daughters life

We often talk about the important role that patient advocates play in helping advance research. That was demonstrated in a powerful way last week when the CIRM Board approved almost $12 million to fund a clinical trial targeting a rare childhood disorder called cystinosis.

The award, to Stephanie Cherqui and her team at UC San Diego (in collaboration with UCLA) was based on the scientific merits of the program. But without the help of the cystinosis patient advocate community that would never have happened. Years ago the community held a series of fundraisers, bake sales etc., and used the money to help Dr. Cherqui get her research started.

That money enabled Dr. Cherqui to get the data she needed to apply to CIRM for funding to do more detailed research, which led to her award last week. There to celebrate the moment was Nancy Stack. Her testimony to the Board was a moving celebration of how long they have worked to get to this moment, and how much hope this research is giving them.

Nancy Stack is pictured in spring 2018 with her daughter Natalie Stack and husband Geoffrey Stack. (Lar Wanberg/Cystinosis Research Foundation)

Hello my name is Nancy Stack and I am the founder and president of the Cystinosis Research Foundation.  Our daughter Natalie was diagnosed with cystinosis when she was an infant. 

Cystinosis is a rare disease that is characterized by the abnormal accumulation of cystine in every cell in the body.  The build-up of cystine eventually destroys every organ in the body including the kidneys, eyes, liver, muscles, thyroid and brain.  The average age of death from cystinosis and its complications is 28 years of age.

For our children and adults with cystinosis, there are no healthy days. They take between 8-12 medications around the clock every day just to stay alive – Natalie takes 45 pills a day.  It is a relentless and devastating disease.

Medical complications abound and our children’s lives are filled with a myriad of symptoms and treatments – there are g-tube feedings, kidney transplants, bone pain, daily vomiting,  swallowing difficulties, muscle wasting, severe gastrointestinal side effects and for some blindness.   

We started the Foundation in 2003.  We have worked with and funded Dr. Stephanie Cherqui since 2006.   As a foundation, our resources are limited but we were able to fund the initial grants for Stephanie’s  Stem Cell studies. When CIRM awarded a grant to Stephanie in 2016, it allowed her to complete the studies, file the IND and as a result, we now have FDA approval for the clinical trial. Your support has changed the course of this disease. 

When the FDA approved the clinical trial for cystinosis last year, our community was filled with a renewed sense of hope and optimism.  I heard from 32 adults with cystinosis – all of them interested in the clinical trial.  Our adults know that this is their only chance to live a full life. Without this treatment, they will die from cystinosis.  In every email I received, there was a message of hope and gratitude. 

I received an email from a young woman who said this, “It’s a new awakening to learn this morning that human clinical trials have been approved by the FDA. I reiterate my immense interest to participate in this trial as soon as possible because my quality of life is at a low ebb and the trial is really my only hope. Time is running out”. 

And a mom of a 19 year old young man who wants to be the first patient in the trial wrote and said this, “On the day the trial was announced I started to cry tears of pure happiness and I thought, a mother somewhere gets to wake up and have a child who will no longer have cystinosis. I felt so happy for whom ever that mom would be….I never imagined that the mom I was thinking about could be me. I am so humbled to have this opportunity for my son to try to live disease free.

My own daughter ran into my arms that day and we cried tears of joy – finally, the hope we had clung to was now a reality. We had come full circle.  I asked Natalie how it felt to know that she could be cured and she said, “I have spent my entire life thinking that I would die from cystinosis in my 30s but now, I might live a full life and I am thinking about how much that changes how I think about my future. I never planned too far ahead but now I can”. 

As a mother, words can’t possible convey what it feels like to know that my child has a chance to live a long, healthy life free of cystinosis – I can breathe again. On behalf of all the children and adults with cystinosis, thank you for funding Dr. Cherqui, for caring about our community, for valuing our children and for making this treatment a reality.  Our community is ready to start this trial – thank you for making this happen.

*************

CIRM will be celebrating the role of patient advocates at a free event in Los Angeles tomorrow. It’s at the LA Convention Center and here are the details. And did I mention it’s FREE!

Tue, June 25, 2019 – 6:00 PM – 7:00 PM PDT

Petree Hall C., Los Angeles Convention Center, 1201 South Figueroa Street Los Angeles, CA 90015

And on Wednesday, USC is holding an event highlighting the progress being made in fighting diseases that destroy vision. Here’s a link to information about the event.

Seeing is believing: A new tool to help us learn about stem cells.

Cave paintings from Libya: evidence humans communicated through visual images long before they created text

There’s a large body of research that shows that many people learn better through visuals. Studies show that much of the sensory cortex in our brain is devoted to vision so our brains use images rather than text to make sense of things.

That’s why we think it just makes sense to use visuals, as much as we can, when trying to help people understand advances in stem cell research. That’s precisely what our colleagues at U.C. San Diego are doing with a new show called “Stem Cell Science with Alysson Muotri”.

Alysson is a CIRM grantee who is doing some exciting work in developing a deeper understanding of autism. He’s also a really good communicator who can distill complex ideas down into easy to understand language.

The show features Alysson, plus other scientists at UCSD who are working hard to move the most promising research out of the lab and into clinical trials in people. Appropriately the first show in the series follows that path, exploring how discoveries made using tiny Zebrafish could hopefully lead to stem cell therapies targeting blood diseases like leukemia. This first show also highlights the important role that CIRM’s Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network will play in bringing those therapies to patients.

You can find a sneak preview of the show on YouTube. The series proper will be broadcast on California local cable via the UCTV channel at 8:00 pm on Thursdays starting July 8, 2019. 

And if you really have a lot of time on your hands you can check out the more than 300 videos CIRM has produced on every aspect of stem cell research from cures for fatal diseases to questions to ask before taking part in a clinical trial.

Blood-brain barrier chip created with stem cells expands potential for personalized medicine

An Organ-Chip used in the study to create a blood-brain barrier (BBB).

The brain is a complex part of the human body that allows for the formation of thoughts and consciousness. In many ways it is the essence of who we are as individuals. Because of its importance, our bodies have developed various layers of protection around this vital organ, one of which is called the blood-brain barrier (BBB).

The BBB is a thin border of various cell types around the brain that regulate what can enter the brain tissue through the bloodstream. Its primary purpose is to prevent toxins and other unwanted substances from entering the brain and damaging it. Unfortunately this barrier can also prevent helpful medications, designed to fix problems, from reaching the brain.

Several brain disorders, such as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS – also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s Disease (PD), and Huntington’s Disease (HD) have been linked to defective BBBs that keep out critical biomolecules needed for healthy brain activity.

In a CIRM-funded study, a team at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center created a BBB through the use of stem cells and an Organ-Chip made from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These are a specific type of stem cells that can turn into any type of cell in the body and can be generated from a person’s own cells. In this study, iPSCs were created from adult blood samples and used to make the neurons and other supporting cells that make up the BBB. These cells were then placed inside an Organ-Chip which recreates the environment that cells normally experience within the human body.

Inside the 3-D Organ-Chip, the cells were able to form a BBB that functions as it does in the body, with the ability to block entry of certain drugs. Most notably, when the BBB was generated from cell samples of patients with HD, the BBB malfunctioned in the same way that it does in patients with the disease.

These findings expand the potential for personalized medicine for various brain disorders linked to problems in the BBB. In a press release, Dr. Clive Svendsen, director of the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute and senior author of the study, was quoted as saying,

“The study’s findings open a promising pathway for precision medicine. The possibility of using a patient-specific, multicellular model of a blood barrier on a chip represents a new standard for developing predictive, personalized medicine.”

The full results of the study were published in the scientific journal Cell Stem Cell.

CIRM-funded clinical trial shows encouraging results for patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia & mantle cell lymphoma

Illustration courtesy of Oncternal Therapeutics

I often joke that my job here at CIRM is to be the official translator for the stem cell agency. I have to translate complex science into everyday English that people without a science background – that includes me – can understand.

Think I’m joking? Try making sense of this.

See what I mean. If you are a scientist this is not only perfectly clear, it’s also quite exciting. But for the rest of us……..

Actually, it is really quite exciting news. It’s about a CIRM-funded clinical trial being run by Oncternal Therapeutics to treat people with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), a kind of cancer where our body makes too many white blood cells. The study is using a combination therapy of Cirmtuzumab (a monoclonal antibody named after us because we helped fund its development) and ibrutinib, a conventional therapy used to treat cancers like CLL.

Cirmtuzumab recognizes and then attaches itself to a protein on the surface of cancer stem cells that the cancer needs to survive and spread. This attachment disables the protein (called ROR1) which slows the growth of the leukemia and makes it more vulnerable to anti-cancer drugs like ibrutinib.

In this Phase 1/2 clinical trial 12 patients were given the combination therapy for 24 weeks or more, making them eligible to determine how effective, or ineffective, the therapy is:

  • 11 of the 12 patients had either a partial response – meaning a reduction in the amount of detectable cancer – or a complete response to the treatment – meaning no detectable cancer.
  • None of the patients saw their cancer spread or grow
  • Three of the patients completed a year of treatment and they all showed signs of a complete response including no enlarged lymph nodes and white blood cell counts in the normal range.  

The combination therapy is also being used to treat people with Mantle Cell Lymphoma (MCL), a rare but fast-growing form of blood cancer. The results from this group, while preliminary, are also encouraging. One patient, who had experienced a relapse following a bone marrow transplant, experienced a complete response after three months of cirmtuzumab and ibrutinib.  

The data on the clinical trial was presented at a poster session (that’s the poster at the top of this blog) at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

In a news release Dr. James Breitmeyer, the President & CEO of Oncternal, said the results are very encouraging:  

“These data presented today, taken together with an earlier Phase 1 study of cirmtuzumab as a monotherapy in relapsed/refractory CLL, give us increased confidence in the potential for cirmtuzumab as a treatment for patients with ROR1-expressing lymphoid malignancies, particularly in combination with ibrutinib as a potential treatment for patients with CLL and MCL. We believe that the data also help to validate the importance of ROR1 as a therapeutic target,”

CIRM funded clinical trial shows promising results for patients with blood cancers

An illustration of a macrophage, a vital part of the immune system, engulfing and destroying a cancer cell. Antibody 5F9 blocks a “don’t eat me” signal emitted from cancer cells.
Courtesy of Forty Seven, Inc.

Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML) are both types of blood cancers that can be difficult to treat. CIRM is funding Forty Seven, Inc. to conduct a clinical trial to treat patients with these blood cancers with an antibody called 5F9. CIRM has also given multiple awards prior to the clinical trial to help in developing the antibody.

Cancer cells express a signal known as CD47, which sends a “don’t eat me” message to macrophages, which are white blood cells that are part of the immune system designed to “eat” and destroy unhealthy cells. The antibody works by blocking the signal, enabling the body’s own immune system to detect and destroy the cancer cells.

In a press release, Forty Seven, Inc. announced early clinical results from their CIRM funded trial using the antibody to treat patients with AML and MDS. Some patients received just the antibody while others received the antibody in combination with azacitidine, a chemotherapy drug used to treat these cancers.

Here is a synopsis of the trial:

  • 35 patients treated in a Phase 1 clinical trial have been evaluated for a response assessment to-date.
  • 10 of these have MDS or AML and only received the 5F9 antibody.
  • 11 of these have higher-risk MDS and received the 5F9 antibody along with the chemotherapy drug azacitidine.
  • 14 of these have untreated AML and received the 5F9 antibody along with the chemotherapy drug azacitidine.

For the 11 patients with higher-risk MDS treated with the antibody and chemotherapy, they found that:

  • All 11 patients achieved an objective response rate (ORR), meaning that there was a reduction in tumor burden of a predefined amount.
  • Six of these patients achieved a complete response (CR), indicating a disappearance of all signs of cancer in response to treatment.

For the 14 patients with untreated AML treated with the antibody and chemotherapy, they found that:

  • Nine of these patients achieved an ORR.
  • Five of these nine patients achieved a CR.
  • Two of these nine patients achieved a morphologic leukemia-free state (MLFS), indicating the disappearance of all cells with formal and structural characteristics of leukemia, accompanied by bone marrow recovery, in response to treatment. 
  • The remaining five patients achieved stable disease (SD), meaning that the tumor is neither growing nor shrinking.

The results also showed that:

  • There was no evidence of increased toxicities when the antibody was used alongside the chemotherapy drugs, demonstrating tolerance and safety of the treatment.
  • No responding MDS or AML patient has relapsed or progressed on the antibody in combination with chemotherapy, with a median follow-up of 3.8 months.
  • The median time to response was rapid at 1.9 months.
  • Several patients have experienced deepening responses over time resulting in complete remissions. 

Based on the favorable results observed in this clinical trial to-date, expansion cohorts have been initiated, meaning that additional patients will be enrolled in a phase I trial. This will include patients with both higher-risk MDS and untreated AML as well as using the antibody in combination with chemotherapy.

In the press release, Dr. David Sallman, an investigator in the clinical trial, is quoted as saying,

“These new data for 5F9 show encouraging clinical activity in a broad population of patients with MDS and AML, who may be unfit for existing therapeutic options or at higher-risk for developing rapidly-advancing disease. Despite an evolving treatment landscape, physicians continue to seek new therapies for MDS and AML that can be used safely in combination with standard-of-care to help patients more rapidly achieve durable responses. To that end, I am excited to see meaningful clinical activity in a majority of patients treated with 5F9 in combination with azacitidine, with a median time to response of under two months and no relapses or progressions among responding patients.”