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.’
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.
Two voices, one message, watch out for predatory stem cell clinics
Last week two new papers came out echoing each other about the dangers of bogus “therapies” being offered by predatory stem cell clinics and the risks they pose to patients.
The first was from the Pew Charitable Trusts entitled: ‘Harms Linked to Unapproved Stem Cell Interventions Highlight Need for Greater FDA Enforcement’ with a subtitle: ‘Unproven regenerative medical products have led to infections, disabilities, and deaths.’
That pretty much says everything you need to know about the report, and in pretty stark terms; need for greater FDA enforcement and infections, disabilities and deaths.
Just two days later, as if in response to the call for greater enforcement, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) came out with its own paper titled: ‘Important Patient and Consumer Information About Regenerative Medicine Therapies.’ Like the Pew report the FDA’s paper highlighted the dangers of unproven and unapproved “therapies” saying it “has received reports of blindness, tumor formation, infections, and more… due to the use of these unapproved products.”
The FDA runs down a list of diseases and conditions that predatory clinics claim they can cure without any evidence that what they offer is even safe, let alone effective. It says Regenerative Medicine therapies have not been approved for the treatment of:
Arthritis, osteoarthritis, rheumatism, hip pain, knee pain or shoulder pain.
Blindness or vision loss, autism, chronic pain or fatigue.
Neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Heart disease, lung disease or stroke.
The FDA says it has warned clinics offering these “therapies” to stop or face the risk of legal action, and it warns consumers: “Please know that if you are being charged for these products or offered these products outside of a clinical trial, you are likely being deceived and offered a product illegally.”
It tells consumers if you are offered one of these therapies – often at great personal cost running into the thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars – you should contact the FDA at email@example.com.
The Pew report highlights just how dangerous these “therapies” are for patients. They did a deep dive into health records and found that between 2004 and September 2020 there were more than 360 reported cases of patients experiencing serious side effects from a clinic that offered unproven and unapproved stem cell procedures.
Those side effects include 20 deaths as well as serious and even lifelong disabilities such as:
Partial or complete blindness (9).
Pulmonary embolism (6).
Heart attack (5).
Tumors, lesions, or other growths (16).
Organ damage or failure in several cases that resulted in death.
More than one hundred of the patients identified had to be hospitalized.
The most common type of procedures these patients were given were stem cells taken from their own body and then injected into their eye, spine, hip, shoulder, or knee. The second most common was stem cells from a donor that were then injected.
The Pew report cites the case of one California-based stem cell company that sold products manufactured without proper safety measures, “including a failure to properly screen for communicable diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B and C.” Those products led to at least 13 people being hospitalized due to serious bacterial infection in Texas, Arizona, Kansas, and Florida.
Shocking as these statistics are, the report says this is probably a gross under count of actual harm caused by the bogus clinics. It says the clinics themselves rarely report adverse events and many patients don’t report them either, unless they are so serious that they require medical intervention.
The Pew report concludes by saying the FDA needs more resources so it can more effectively act against these clinics and shut them down when necessary. It says the agency needs to encourage doctors and patients to report any unexpected side effects, saying: “devising effective strategies to collect more real-world evidence of harm can help the agency in its efforts to curb the growth of this unregulated market and ensure that the regenerative medicine field develops into one that clinicians and patients can trust and safely access.”
We completely support both reports and will continue to work with the FDA and anyone else opposed to these predatory clinics. You can read more here about what we have been doing to oppose these clinics, and here is information that will help inform your decision if you are thinking about taking part in a stem cell clinical trial but are not sure if it’s a legitimate one.
Have you ever been at a party where someone says “hey, I’ve got a good idea” and then before you know it everyone in the room is adding to it with ideas and suggestions of their own and suddenly you find yourself with 27 pages of notes, all of them really great ideas. No, me neither. At least, not until yesterday when we held the first meeting of our Scientific Strategy Advisory Panel.
This is a group that was set up as part of Proposition 14, the ballot initiative that refunded CIRM last November (thanks again everyone who voted for that). The idea was to create a panel of world class scientists and regulatory experts to help guide and advise our Board on how to advance our mission. It’s a pretty impressive group too. You can see who is on the SSAP here.
The meeting involved some CIRM grantees talking a little about their work but mostly highlighting problems or obstacles they considered key issues for the future of the field as a whole. And that’s where the ideas and suggestions really started flowing hard and fast.
It started out innocently enough with Dr. Amander Clark of UCLA talking about some of the needs for Discovery or basic research. She advocated for a consortium approach (this quickly became a theme for many other experts) with researchers collaborating and sharing data and findings to help move the field along.
She also called for greater diversity in research, including collecting diverse cell samples at the basic research level, so that if a program advanced to later stages the findings would be relevant to a wide cross section of society rather than just a narrow group.
Dr. Clark also said that as well as supporting research into neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, there needed to be a greater emphasis on neurological conditions such as autism, bipolar disorder and other mental health problems.
(CIRM is already committed to both increasing diversity at all levels of research and expanding mental health research so this was welcome confirmation we are on the right track).
Dr. Mike McCun called for CIRM to take a leadership role in funding fetal tissue research, things the federal government can’t or won’t support, saying this could really help in developing an understanding of prenatal diseases.
Dr. Christine Mummery, President of ISSCR, advocated for support for early embryo research to deepen our understanding of early human development and also help with issues of infertility.
Then the ideas started coming really fast:
There’s a need for knowledge networks to share information in real-time not months later after results are published.
We need standardization across the field to make it easier to compare study results.
We need automation to reduce inconsistency in things like feeding and growing cells, manufacturing cells etc.
Equitable access to CRISPR gene-editing treatments, particularly for underserved communities and for rare diseases where big pharmaceutical companies are less likely to invest the money needed to develop a treatment.
Do a better job of developing combination therapies – involving stem cells and more traditional medications.
One idea that seemed to generate a lot of enthusiasm – perhaps as much due to the name that Patrik Brundin of the Van Andel Institute gave it – was the creation of a CIRM Hotel California, a place where researchers could go to learn new techniques, to share ideas, to collaborate and maybe take a nice cold drink by the pool (OK, I just made that last bit up to see if you were paying attention).
The meeting was remarkable not just for the flood of ideas, but also for its sense of collegiality. Peter Marks, the director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (FDA-CBER) captured that sense perfectly when he said the point of everyone working together, collaborating, sharing information and data, is to get these projects over the finish line. The more we work together, the more we will succeed.
Rett syndrome is a rare form of autism spectrum disorder that impairs brain development and causes problems with movement, speech, and even breathing. It is caused by mutations in a gene called MECP2 and primarily affects females. Although there are therapies to alleviate symptoms, there is currently no cure for this genetic disorder.
With CIRM funding ($1.37M and $1.65M awards), Alysson Muotri, PhD and a team of researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine and Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine have used brain organoids that mimic Rett syndrome to identify two drug candidates that returned the “mini-brains” to near-normal. The drugs restored calcium levels, neurotransmitter production, and electrical impulse activity.
Brain organoids, also referred to as “mini-brains”, are 3D models made of cells that can be used to analyze certain features of the human brain. Although they are far from perfect replicas, they can be used to study changes in physical structure or gene expression over time.
Dr. Muotri and his team created induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), a type of stem cell that can become virtually any type of cell. For the purposes of this study, they were created from the skin cells of Rett syndrome patients. The newly created iPSCs were then turned into brain cells and used to create “mini-brains”, thereby preserving each Rett syndrome patient’s genetic background. In addition to this, the team also created “mini-brains” that artificially lack the MECP2 gene, mimicking the issues with the same gene observed in Rett syndrome.
Lack of the MECP2 gene changed many things about the “mini-brains” such as shape, neuron subtypes present, gene expression patterns, neurotransmitter production, and decreases in calcium activity and electrical impulses. These changes led to major defects in the emergence of brainwaves.
To correct the changes caused by the lack of the MECP2 gene, the team treated the brain organoids with 14 different drug candidates known to affect various brain cell functions. Of all the drugs tested, two stood out: nefiracetam and PHA 543613. The two drugs resolved nearly all molecular and cellular symptoms observed in the Rett syndrome “mini-brains”, with the number active neurons doubling post treatment.
The two drugs were previously tested in clinical trials for the treatment of other conditions, meaning they have been shown to be safe for human consumption.
In a news release from UC San Diego Health, Dr. Muotri stresses that although the results for the two drugs are promising, the end treatment for Rett syndrome may require a multi-drug cocktail of sorts.
“There’s a tendency in the neuroscience field to look for highly specific drugs that hit exact targets, and to use a single drug for a complex disease. But we don’t do that for many other complex disorders, where multi-pronged treatments are used. Likewise, here no one target fixed all the problems. We need to start thinking in terms of drug cocktails, as have been successful in treating HIV and cancers.”
The full results of this study were published in EMBO Molecular Medicine.
It’s been a long time coming. Eighteen months to be precise. Which is a peculiarly long time for an Annual Report. The world is certainly a very different place today than when we started, and yet our core mission hasn’t changed at all, except to spring into action to make our own contribution to fighting the coronavirus.
This latest CIRM Annual Reportcovers 2019 through June 30, 2020. Why? Well, as you probably know we are running out of money and could be funding our last new awards by the end of this year. So, we wanted to produce as complete a picture of our achievements as we could – keeping in mind that we might not be around to produce a report next year.
It’s a pretty jam-packed report. It covers everything from the 14 new clinical trials we have funded this year, including three specifically focused on COVID-19. It looks at the extraordinary researchers that we fund and the progress they have made, and the billions of additional dollars our funding has helped leverage for California. But at the heart of it, and at the heart of everything we do, are the patients. They’re the reason we are here. They are the reason we do what we do.
There are stories of people like Byron Jenkins who almost died from multiple myeloma but is now back leading a full, active life with his family thanks to a CIRM-funded therapy with Poseida. There is Jordan Janz, a young man who once depended on taking 56 pills a day to keep his rare disease, cystinosis, under control but is now hoping a stem cell therapy developed by Dr. Stephanie Cherqui and her team at UC San Diego will make that something of the past.
These individuals are remarkable on so many levels, not the least because they were willing to be among the first people ever to try these therapies. They are pioneers in every sense of the word.
There is a lot of information in the report, charting the work we have done over the last 18 months. But it’s also a celebration of everyone who made it possible, and our way of saying thank you to the people of California who gave us this incredible honor and opportunity to do this work.
On March 19th we held a special Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team About Autism” event. We were fortunate enough to have two great experts – Dr. Alysson Muotri from UC San Diego, and CIRM’s own Dr. Kelly Shepard. As always there is a lot of ground to cover in under one hour and there are inevitably questions we didn’t get a chance to respond to. So, Dr. Shepard has kindly agreed to provide answers to all the key questions we got on the day.
If you didn’t get a chance to see the event you can watch the video here. And feel free to share the link, and this blog, with anyone you think might be interested in the material.
Can umbilical cord blood stem cells help reduce some of the symptoms?
This question was addressed by Dr. Muotri in the live presentation. To recap, a couple of clinical studies have been reported from scientists at Duke University and Sutter Health, but the results are not universally viewed as conclusive. The Duke study, which focused on very young children, reported some improvements in behavior for some of the children after treatment, but it is important to note that this trial had no placebo control, so it is not clear that those patients would not have improved on their own. The Duke team has moved forward with larger trial and placebo control.
Does it have to be the child’s own cord blood or could donated blood work too?
In theory, a donated cord product could be used for similar purposes as a child’s own cord, but there is a caveat- the donated cord tissues must have some level of immune matching with the host in order to not be rejected or lead to other complications, which under certain circumstances, could be serious.
Some clinics claim that the use of fetal stem cells can help stimulate improved blood and oxygen flow to the brain. Could that help children with autism?
Fetal stem cells have been tested in FDA approved/sanctioned clinical trials for certain brain conditions such as stroke and Parkinson Disease, where there is clearer understanding of how and which parts of the brains are affected, which nerve cells have been lost or damaged, and where there is a compelling biological rationale for how certain properties the transplanted cells, such as their anti-inflammatory properties, could provide benefit.
In his presentation, Dr. Muotri noted that neurons are not lost in autistic brains, so there is nothing that would be “replaced” by such a treatment. And although some forms of autism might include inflammation that could potentially be mitigated, it is unlikely that the degree of benefit that might come from reducing inflammation would be worth the risks of the treatment, which includes intracranial injection of donated material. Unfortunately, we still do not know enough about the specific causes and features of autism to determine if and to what extent stem cell treatments could prove helpful. But we are learning more every day, especially with some of the new technologies and discoveries that have been enabled by stem cell technology.
Some therapies even use tissue from sheep claiming that a pill containing sheep pancreas can migrate to and cure a human pancreas, pills containing sheep brains can help heal human brains. What are your thoughts on those?
For some conditions, there may be a scientific rationale for how a specific drug or treatment could be delivered orally, but this really depends on the underlying biology of the condition, the means by which the drug exerts its effect, and how quickly that drug or substance will be digested, metabolized, or cleared from the body’s circulation. Many drugs that are delivered orally do not reach the brain because of the blood-brain barrier, which serves to isolate and protect the brain from potentially harmful substances in the blood circulation. For such a drug to be effective, it would have to be stable within the body for a period of time, and be something that could exert its effects on the brain either directly or indirectly.
Sheep brain or pancreas (or any other animal tissue consumed) in a pill form would be broken down into basic components immediately by digestion, i.e. amino acids, sugars, much like any other meat or food. Often complex treatments designed to be specifically targeted to the brain are delivered by intra-cranial/intrathecal injection, or by developing special strategies to evade the blood brain barrier, a challenge that is easier said than done. For autism, there is still a lot to be learned regarding how a therapeutic intervention might work to help people, so for now, I would caution against the use of dietary supplements or pills that are not prescribed or recommended by your doctor.
What are the questions parents should ask before signing up for any stem cell therapy
These are definitely strange, unusual and challenging times. Every day seems to bring new restrictions on what we can and should do. All, of course, in the name of protecting us and helping us avoid a potentially deadly virus. We all hope this will soon pass but we also know the bigger impact of the coronavirus is likely to linger for many months, perhaps even years.
With that in mind a few people have asked us why we are still going ahead with our Facebook Live ‘Ask the Stem Cell Team About Autism’ event this Thursday, March 19th at 12pm PDT. It’s a good question. And the answer is simple. Because there is still a need for good, thoughtful information about the potential for stem cells to help families who have a loved one with autism. And because we still need to do all we can to dispel the bad information out there and warn people about the bogus clinics offering unproven therapies.
In many ways Facebook Live is the perfect way to deliver this information. It allows us to reach out to large numbers of people without having them in the same room. We can educate not contaminate.
And we have some great experts to discuss the use of stem cells in helping people with autism.
The event features Dr. Alysson Muotri from UC San Diego. We have written about his work with stem cells for autism in the past. And CIRM’s own Associate Director for Discovery and Translation, Dr. Kelly Shepard.
But we also want you to be a part of this as well. So, join us online for the event. You can post comments and questions during the event, and we’ll do our best to answer them. Or you can send us in questions ahead of time to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you were unable to tune in while we were live, not to worry, you you can watch it here on our Facebook page
Way back in 2013, the CIRM Board invested $32 million in a project to create an iPSC Bank. The goal was simple; to collect tissue samples from people who have different diseases, turn those samples into high quality stem cell lines – the kind known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) – and create a facility where those lines can be stored and distributed to researchers who need them.
Fast forward almost seven years and that idea has now become the largest public iPSC bank in the world. The story of how that happened is the subject of a great article (by CIRM’s Dr. Stephen Lin) in the journal Science Direct.
In 2013 there was a real need for the bank. Scientists around the world were doing important research but many were creating the cells they used for that research in different ways. That made it hard to compare one study to another and come up with any kind of consistent finding. The iPSC Bank was designed to change that by creating one source for high quality cells, collected, processed and stored under a single, consistent method.
Tissue samples – either blood or skin – were collected from thousands of individuals around California. Each donor underwent a thorough consent process – including being shown a detailed brochure – to explain what iPS cells are and how the research would be done.
The diseases to be studied through this bank include:
Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD)
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Cardiomyopathies (heart conditions)
Fatty Liver diseases
Hepatitis C (HCV)
Primary Open Angle Glaucoma
The samples were screened to make sure they were safe – for example the blood was tested for HBV and HIV – and then underwent rigorous quality control testing to make sure they met the highest standards.
Once approved the samples were then turned into iPSCs at a special facility at the Buck Institute in Novato and those lines were then made available to researchers around the world, both for-profit and non-profit entities.
Scientists are now able to use these cells for a wide variety of uses including disease modeling, drug discovery, drug development, and transplant studies in animal research models. It gives them a greater ability to study how a disease develops and progresses and to help discover and test new drugs or other therapies
The Bank, which is now run by FUJIFILM Cellular Dynamics, has become a powerful resource for studying genetic variation between individuals, helping scientists understand how disease and treatment vary in a diverse population. Both CIRM and Fuji Film are committed to making even more improvements and additions to the collection in the future to ensure this is a vital resource for researchers for years to come.
Do an online search for “autism stem cells” and you quickly come up with numerous websites offering stem cell therapies for autism. They offer encouraging phrases like “new and effective approach” and “a real, lasting treatment.” They even include dense scientific videos featuring people like Dr. Arnold Caplan, a professor at Case Western Reserve University who is known as the “father of the mesenchymal stem” (it would be interesting to know if Dr. Caplan knows he is being used as a marketing tool?)
The problem with these sites is that they are offering “therapies” that have never been proven to be safe, let alone effective. They are also very expensive and are not covered by insurance. Essentially they are preying on hope, the hope that any parent of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will do anything and everything they can to help their child.
But there is encouraging news about stem cells and autism, about their genuine potential to help children with ASD. That’s why we are holding a special Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team” about Autism on Thursday, March 19th at noon (PDT).
The event features Dr. Alysson Muotri from UC San Diego. We have written about his work with stem cells for autism in the past. And CIRM’s own Associate Director for Discovery and Translation, Dr. Kelly Shephard.
We’ll take a look at Dr. Muotri’s work and also discuss the work of other researchers in the field, such as Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg’s work at Duke University.
But we also want you to be a part of this as well. So, join us online for the event. You can post comments and questions during the event, and we’ll do our best to answer them. Or you can send us in questions ahead of time to email@example.com.
In a previous blog post, we discussed new findings in a CIRM supported study at the Salk Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a developmental disorder that comes in broad ranges and primarily affects communication and behavior.
This week, a new study, also supported by CIRM, finds that a gene associated with ASD, intellectual disability, and language impairment can affect brain stem cells, which in turn, influence early brain development. Dr. Bennett Novitch and his team at UCLA evaluated a gene, called Foxp1, which has been previously studied for its function in the neurons in the developing brain.
In this study, Dr. Novitch and his team looked at Foxp1 levels in the brains of developing mouse embryos. What they discovered is that, in normal developing mice the gene was active much earlier than previous studies had indicated. It turns out that the gene was active during the period when neural stem cells are just beginning to expand in numbers and generate a subset of brain cells found deep within the developing brain.
When mice lacked the gene entirely, there were fewer neural stem cells at early stages of brain development, as well as fewer brain cells deep within the developing brain. Alternatively, when the levels of the gene were above normal, the researchers found significantly more neural stem cells and brain cells deep within the developing brain. Additionally, higher levels of the neural stem cells were observed in mice with high levels of the gene even after they were born.
In a press release from UCLA, Dr. Novitch explains how the different levels of the gene can be tied to the variation of Foxp1 levels seen in ASD patients.
“What we saw was that both too much and too little Foxp1 affects the ability of neural stem cells to replicate and form certain neurons in a specific sequence in mice. And this fits with the structural and behavioral abnormalities that have been seen in human patients.”