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.

Stem cell model reveals deeper understanding into “ALS resilient” neurons

A descriptive illustration of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Courtesy of ALS Foundation website.

Understanding the basic biology of how a cell functions can be crucial to being able to better understand a disease and unlock a potential approach for a treatment. Stem cells are unique in that they give scientists the opportunity to create a controlled environment of cells that might be otherwise difficult to study. Dr. Eva Hedlund and a team of researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden utilize a stem cell model approach to uncover findings related to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that destroys motor neurons, a type of nerve cell, that are important for voluntary muscle movement. When motor neurons can no longer send signals to the muscles, the muscles begin to deteriorate, a process formally known as atrophy. The progressive atrophy leads to muscle paralysis, including those in the legs and feet, arms and hands, and those that control swallowing and breathing. It affects about 30,000 people in the United States alone, with 5,000 new cases diagnosed each year. There is currently no cure.

In a previous study, researchers at the Karolinska Institute were able to successfully create oculomotor neurons from embryonic stem cells. For reasons not yet fully understood, oculomotor neurons are “ALS resilient” and can survive all stages of the disease.

In the current study, published in Stem Cell Reports, Dr. Hedlund and her team found that the oculomotor neurons they generated appeared more resilient to ALS-like degeneration when compared to spinal cord motor neurons, something commonly observed in humans. Furthermore, they discovered that their “ALS resilient” neurons generated from stem cells activate a survival-enhancing signal known as Akt, which is common in oculomotor neurons in humans and could explain their resilience. These results could potentially aid in identifying genetic targets for treatments protecting sensitive neurons from the disease.

In a press release, Dr. Hedlund is quoted as saying,

“This cell culture system can help identify new genes contributing to the resilience in oculomotor neurons that could be used in gene therapy to strengthen sensitive motor neurons.”

CIRM is currently funding two clinical trials for ALS, one of which is being conducted by Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the other by Brainstorm Cell Therapeutics. The latter of the trials is currently recruiting patients and information on how to enroll can be found here.

Advancing stem cell research in many ways

Speakers at the Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium: Photo by Marco Sanchez

From Day One CIRM’s goal has been to advance stem cell research in California. We don’t do that just by funding the most promising research -though the 51 clinical trials we have funded to date clearly shows we do that rather well – but also by trying to bring the best minds in the field together to overcome problems.

Over the years we have held conferences, workshops and symposiums on everything from Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy and tissue engineering. Each one attracted the key players and stakeholders in the field, brainstorming ideas to get past obstacles and to explore new ways of developing therapies. It’s an attempt to get scientists, who would normally be rivals or competitors, to collaborate and partner together in finding the best way forward.

It’s not easy to do, and the results are not always obvious right away, but it is essential if we hope to live up to our mission of accelerating stem cell therapies to patients with unmet medical needs.

For example. This past week we helped organize two big events and were participants in another.

The first event we pulled together, in partnership with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, was a workshop called “Brainstorm Neurodegeneration”. It brought together leaders in stem cell research, genomics, big data, patient advocacy and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to tackle some of the issues that have hampered progress in finding treatments for things like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS and Huntington’s disease.

We rather ambitiously subtitled the workshop “a cutting-edge meeting to disrupt the field” and while the two days of discussions didn’t resolve all the problems facing us it did produce some fascinating ideas and some tantalizing glimpses at ways to advance the field.

Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium: Photo by Marco Sanchez

Two days later we partnered with UC San Francisco to host the Fourth Annual CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium. This brought together the scientists who develop therapies, the doctors and nurses who deliver them, and the patients who are in need of them. The theme was “The Past, Present & Future of Regenerative Medicine” and included both a look at the initial discoveries in gene therapy that led us to where we are now as well as a look to the future when cellular therapies, we believe, will become a routine option for patients. 

Bringing these different groups together is important for us. We feel each has a key role to play in moving these projects and out of the lab and into clinical trials and that it is only by working together that they can succeed in producing the treatments and cures patients so desperately need.

Cierra Jackson: Photo by Marco Sanchez

As always it was the patients who surprised us. One, Cierra Danielle Jackson, talked about what it was like to be cured of her sickle cell disease. I think it’s fair to say that most in the audience expected Cierra to talk about her delight at no longer having the crippling and life-threatening condition. And she did. But she also talked about how hard it was adjusting to this new reality.

Cierra said sickle cell disease had been a part of her life for all her life, it shaped her daily life and her relationships with her family and many others. So, to suddenly have that no longer be a part of her caused a kind of identity crisis. Who was she now that she was no longer someone with sickle cell disease?

She talked about how people with most diseases were normal before they got sick, and will be normal after they are cured. But for people with sickle cell, being sick is all they have known. That was their normal. And now they have to adjust to a new normal.

It was a powerful reminder to everyone that in developing new treatments we have to consider the whole person, their psychological and emotional sides as well as the physical.

CIRM’s Dr. Maria Millan (right) at a panel presentation at the Stanford Drug Discovery Symposium. Panel from left to right are: James Doroshow, NCI; Sandy Weill, former CEO Citigroup; Allan Jones, CEO Allen Institute

And so on to the third event we were part of, the Stanford Drug Discovery Symposium. This was a high level, invitation-only scientific meeting that included some heavy hitters – such as Nobel Prize winners Paul Berg and  Randy Schekman, former FDA Commissioner Robert Califf. Over the course of two days they examined the role that philanthropy plays in advancing research, the increasingly important role of immunotherapy in battling diseases like cancer and how tools such as artificial intelligence and big data are shaping the future.

CIRM’s President and CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, was one of those invited to speak and she talked about how California’s investment in stem cell research is delivering Something Better than Hope – which by a happy coincidence is the title of our 2018 Annual Report. She highlighted some of the 51 clinical trials we have funded, and the lives that have been changed and saved by this research.

The presentations at these conferences and workshops are important, but so too are the conversations that happen outside the auditorium, over lunch or at coffee. Many great collaborations have happened when scientists get a chance to share ideas, or when researchers talk to patients about their ideas for a successful clinical trial.

It’s amazing what happens when you bring people together who might otherwise never have met. The ideas they come up with can change the world.

Rare Disease Day – fighting for awareness and hope

It’s hard thinking of something as rare when one in 20 people are at risk of experiencing it in their lifetime. But that’s the situation with rare diseases. There are more than 7,000 of them and each affects under 200,000 people. In some cases they may only affect a few hundred people. But for each person that disease, though rare, poses a real threat. And that’s why Rare Disease Day was created.

Rare Disease Day is held on the last day of February each year.  The goal is to raise awareness among the general public about the huge impact these diseases have on people’s lives. That impact is not just on the person with the disease but on the whole family who are often struggling just to get a diagnosis.

Every year groups around the world, from patients and patient advocacy organizations to researchers and policymakers, stage events to mark the day. This year there are more than 460 events being held in 96 countries, everywhere from Albania and Andora to Tunisia and Uruguay.

Here in the US many groups organize events at State Capitols to educate elected officials and policy makers about the particular needs of these communities and the promise that scientific research holds to combat these conditions. Others have auctions to raise funds for research or public debates to raise awareness.

Each event is unique in its own way because each represents many different diseases, many different needs, and many different stories. The goal of these events is to put a human face on each condition, to give it visibility, so that it is no longer something most people have never heard of, instead it becomes something that affects someone you may know or who reminds you of someone you know.

Here’s a video from Spain that does just that.

You can find a complete list of events being held around the world to mark Rare Disease Day.

At CIRM we feel a special link to this day. That’s because many of the diseases we fund research into are rare diseases such as severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), and ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Sickle Cell Disease.

Evie Vaccaro, cured of SCID

These diseases affect relatively small numbers of patients so they often struggle to get funding for research. Because we do not have to worry about making a profit on any therapy we help develop we can focus our efforts on supporting those with unmet medical needs. And it’s paying off. Our support has already helped develop a therapy for SCID that has cured 40 children. We have two clinical trials underway for ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. We also have two clinical trials for Sickle Cell Disease and have reached a milestone agreement with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) on a partnership to help develop a cure for this crippling and life-threatening disorder.

The hope is that events like Rare Disease Day let people know that even though they have a condition that affects very few, that they are not alone, but that they are part of a wider, global community, a community committed to working to find treatments and cures for all of them.

Stem Cells make the cover of National Geographic

clive & sam

Clive Svendsen, PhD, left, director of the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute, and Samuel Sances, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the institute, with the January 2019 special edition of National Geographic. The magazine cover features a striking image of spinal cord tissue that was shot by Sances in his lab. Photo by Cedars-Sinai.

National Geographic is one of those iconic magazines that everyone knows about but few people read. Which is a shame, because it’s been around since 1888 and has helped make generations of readers aware about the world around them. And now, it’s shifting gears and helping people know more about the world inside them. That’s because a special January edition of National Geographic highlights stem cells.

The issue, called ‘The Future of Medicine’, covers a wide range of issues including stem cell research being done at Cedars-Sinai by Clive Svendsen and his team (CIRM is funding Dr. Svendsen’s work in a clinical trial targeting ALS, you can read about that here). The team is using stem cells and so-called Organ-Chips to develop personalized treatments for individual patients.

Here’s how it works. Scientists take blood or skin cells from individual patients, then using the iPSC method, turn those into the kind of cell in the body that is diseased or damaged. Those cells are then placed inside a device the size of an AA battery where they can be tested against lots of different drugs or compounds to see which ones might help treat that particular problem.

This approach is still in the development phase but if it works it would enable doctors to tailor a treatment to a patient’s specific DNA profile, reducing the risk of complications and, hopefully, increasing the risk it will be successful. Dr. Svendsen says it may sound like science fiction, but this is not far away from being science fact.

“I think we’re entering a new era of medicine—precision medicine. In the future, you’ll have your iPSC line made, generate the cell type in your body that is sick and put it on a chip to understand more about how to treat your disease.”

Dr. Svendsen isn’t the only connection CIRM has to the article. The cover photo for the issue was taken by Sam Sances, PhD, who received a CIRM stem cell research scholarship in 2010-2011. Sam says he’s grateful to CIRM for being a longtime supporter of his work. But then why wouldn’t we be. Sam – who is still just 31 years old – is clearly someone to watch. He got his first research job, as an experimental coordinator, with Pacific Ag Research in San Luis Obispo when he was still in high school.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The most popular Stem Cellar posts of 2018

The blog

You never know when you write something if people are going to read it. Sometimes you wonder if anyone is going to read it. So, it’s always fun, and educational, to look back at the end of the year and see which pieces got the most eyeballs.

It isn’t always the ones you think will draw the biggest audiences. Sometimes it is diseases that are considered “rare” (those affecting fewer than 200,000 people) that get the most attention.

Maybe it’s because those diseases have such a powerful online community which shares news, any news, about their condition of interest with everyone they know. Whatever the reason, we are always delighted to share encouraging news about research we are funding or encouraging research that someone else is funding.

That was certainly the case with the top two stories this year. Both were related to ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.  It’s a particularly nasty condition. People diagnosed with ALS have a life expectancy of just 2 to 5 years. So it’s probably not a big surprise that stories suggesting stem cells could expand that life span got a big reception.

Whatever the reason, we’re just happy to share hopeful news with everyone who comes to our blog.

And so, without further ado, here is the list of the most popular Stem Cellar Blog Posts for 2018.

All of us in the Communications team at CIRM consider it an honor and privilege to be able to work here and to meet many of the people behind these stories; the researchers and the patients and patient advocates. They are an extraordinary group of individuals who help remind us why we do this work and why it is important. We love our work and we hope you enjoy it too. We plan to be every bit as active and engaged in 2019.

71 for Proposition 71

Proposition 71 is the state ballot initiative that created California’s Stem Cell Agency. This month, the Agency reached another milestone when the 71st clinical trial was initiated in the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics (ASCC) Network. The ASCC Network deploys specialized teams of doctors, nurses and laboratory technicians to conduct stem cell clinical trials at leading California Medical Centers.

StateClinics_Image_CMYK

These teams work with academic and industry partners to support patient-centered for over 40 distinct diseases including:

  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)
  • Brain Injury & Stroke
  • Cancer at Multiple Sites
  • Diabetes Type 1
  • Eye Disease / Blindness Heart Failure
  • HIV / AIDS
  • Kidney Failure
  • Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID)
  • Sickle Cell Anemia
  • Spinal Cord Injury

These clinical trials have treated over 400 patients and counting. The Alpha Stem Cell Clinics are part of CIRM’s Strategic Infrastructure. The Strategic Infrastructure program which was developed to support the growth of stem cell / regenerative medicine in California. A comprehensive update of CIRM’s Infrastructure Program was provided to our Board, the ICOC.

CIRM’s infrastructure catalyzes stem cell / regenerative medicine by providing resources to all qualified researchers and organizations requiring specialized expertise. For example, the Alpha Clinics Network is supporting clinical trials from around the world.

Many of these trials are sponsored by commercial companies that have no CIRM funding. To date, the ASCC Network has over $27 million in contracts with outside sponsors. These contracts serve to leverage CIRMs investment and provide the Network’s medical centers with a diverse portfolio of clinical trials to address patients’’ unmet medical needs.

Alpha Clinics – Key Performance Metrics

  • 70+ Clinical Trials
  • 400+ Patients Treated
  • 40+ Disease Indications
  • Over $27 million in contracts with commercial sponsors

The CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics and broader Infrastructure Programs are supporting stem cell research and regenerative medicine at every level, from laboratory research to product manufacturing to delivery to patients. This infrastructure has emerged to make California the world leader in regenerative medicine. It all started because California’s residents supported a ballot measure and today we have 71 clinical trials for 71.

 

 

Japanese scientists implant first Parkinson’s patient with replacement neurons derived from stem cells

Parkinsons

Neurons derived from stem cells.Credit: Silvia Riccardi/SPL

Currently, more than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson’s disease (PD). By 2020, in the US alone, people living with Parkinson’s are expected to outnumber the cases of multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and Lou Gehrig’s disease combined.

There is no cure for Parkinson’s and treatment options consist of medications that patients ultimately develop tolerance to, or surgical therapies that are expensive. Therefore, therapeutic options that offer long-lasting treatment, or even a cure, are essential for treating PD.

Luckily for patients, Jun Takahashi’s team at Kyoto University has pioneered a stem cell based therapy for PD patients.

To understand their treatment strategy, however, we first have to understand what causes this disease. Parkinson’s results from decreased numbers of neurons that produce dopamine, a molecule that helps control muscle movements. Without proper dopamine production, patients experience a wide range of movement abnormalities, including the classic tremors that are associated with PD.

The current treatment options only target the symptoms, as opposed to the root cause of the disease. Takashi’s group decided to go directly to the source and improve dopamine production in these patients by correcting the dopaminergic neuron shortage.

The scientists harvested skin cells from a healthy donor and reprogrammed them to become induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), or stem cells that become any type of cell. These iPSCs were then turned into the precursors of dopamine-producing neurons and implanted into 12 brain regions known to be hotspots for dopamine production.

The procedure was carried out in October and the patient, a male in his 50s, is still healthy. If his symptoms continue to improve and he doesn’t experience any bad side effects,  he will receive a second dose of dopamine-producing stem cells. Six other patients are scheduled to receive this same treatment and Takashi hopes that, if all goes well, this type of treatment can be ready for the general public by 2023.

This treatment was first tested in monkeys, where the researchers saw that not only did the implanted stem cells improve Parkinson’s symptoms and survive in the brain for at least two years, but they also did not cause any negative side effects.

This is only the third time iPSCs have been used as a treatment option in humans. The first was for macular degeneration in 2014.

CIRM is funding a similar, albeit earlier-stage program, with Jeanne Loring at Scripps.

 

A stepping stone for bringing stem cell therapy to patients with ALS

ALS Picture1

Imagine being told that you have a condition that gradually causes you to lose the ability to control your body movements, from picking up a pencil to walking to even breathing. Such is the reality for the nearly 6,000 people who are diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) every year, in the United States alone.

ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a neurodegenerative disease that causes the degradation of motor neurons, or nerves that are responsible for all voluntary muscle movements, like the ones mentioned above. It is a truly devastating disease with a particularly poor prognosis of two to five years from the time of diagnosis to death. There are only two approved drugs for ALS and these do not stop it but only slow progression of the disease; and even then only for some patients, not all.

A ray of hope for such a bleak treatment landscape, has been the advent of stem cell therapy options over the past decade. Of particular excitement is the recent discovery made Nasser Aghdami’s group at the Royan Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Technology in Iran.

Two small Phase I clinical trials detailed in Cell Journal demonstrated that injecting mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), derived from the patient’s own bone marrow, was safe when administered via injection into the bloodstream or the spinal cord. Previous studies had shown that MSCs both revived motor neurons and extended the lifespan in a rodent model of the disease.

In humans, many studies have shown that MSCs taken from bone marrow are safe for use in humans, but these studies have disagreed about whether injection via the bloodstream or spinal cord route is the most effective way to deliver the therapy. This report confirms that both routes of administration are safe as no adverse clinical events were observed for either group throughout the study time frame.

While an important stepping stone, there is still a long way to go. For example, while no adverse clinical events were observed in either group, the overall ALS-FRS score, a clinical scale to determine ALS disease progression, worsened in all patients over the course of the study. Whether this was just due to natural progression of the disease, or because of the stem cell treatment is difficult to determine given the small size of the cohort.

One reason the scientists suggest that could explain the disease decline is because the MSCs were taken from the ALS patients themselves, which means these cells were likely not functioning optimally prior to re-introduction into the patient. To remedy this, they hope to test the effect of MSCs taken from healthy donors in both injection routes in the future. They also need a larger cohort of patients to determine whether or not there is a difference in the therapeutic effect of administering stem cells via the two different routes.

While it may seem that the results from this clinical trial are not particularly groundbreaking or innovative, it is important to remember that these incremental improvements through clinical trials are critical for bringing safe and effective therapies to the market. For more information on the different phases of clinical trials, please refer to this video.

CIRM is also funding clinical trials targeting ALS. One is a Phase 1 trial out of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and another is a Phase 3 trial with the company Brainstorm Cell Therapeutics.

What makes an expert an expert?

When we launched our Facebook Live “Ask the Expert” series earlier this year we wanted to create an opportunity for people to hear from and question experts about specific diseases or disorders. The experts we turned to were medical ones, neurologists and neuroscientists in the case of the first two Facebook Live events, stroke and ALS.

Then we learned about a blog post on the ALS Advocacy website questioning our use of the word “expert”. The author, Cathy Collet, points out that doctors or scientists are far from the only experts about these conditions, that there are many people who, by necessity, have become experts on a lot of issues relating to ALS and any other disease.

Cathy Collet ALS

 

Here’s Cathy’s blog. After you read it please let us know what you think: should we come up with a different title for the series, if so what would you suggest?

 

 

 

“Over the years I’ve experienced many “Ask the Experts” sessions related to ALS.  It’s always a panel of neuroscientists who talk a lot about ALS research and then take a few questions.

The “Expert” crown defaults to them.  They speak from the dais.  We get to listen a lot and ask.  They are by default “The Experts” in the fight against ALS.

But wait, there are all kinds of people with superb and valuable knowledge related to ALS –

  • There are people who know a lot about insurance.
  • There are people who know a lot about communication technology.
  • There are people who know a lot about low-tech hacks.
  • There are people who know a lot about suction machines.
  • There are people who know a lot about breathing.
  • There are people who know a lot about the FDA.
  • There are people who know a lot about moving a person on and off a commode.
  • There are people who know a lot about taxes.
  • There are people who know a lot about drugs.
  • There are people who know a lot about data.
  • There are people who know a lot about choking.
  • There are people who know a lot about financing research.
  • There are people who know a lot about stem cells.
  • There are people who know a lot about feeding tubes and nutrition.
  • There are people who know a lot about what’s important in living with the beast ALS.
  • There are people who know a lot about primary care in ALS.
  • There are people who know a lot about constipation.

Our default implication for the word experts being neuroscientists is revealing. There are many people in the fight against ALS, including those living with it, who know a lot.  We still live in a hierarchy where people with ALS and caregivers are at the bottom.

Words matter.  “Expert” is not a royal title to be owned by anyone by default.

It’s time for simple changes to some traditions.  “Ask the Neuroscientists,” anyone?

 

By the way, our next Facebook Live “Ask the ?” feature is targeting Sickle Cell Disease. It will be from noon till 1pm on Tuesday August 28th. More details, and maybe even a new name, to follow.