Breakthrough image could lead to better therapies

Image of a blood stem cell in its natural environment: Photo courtesy UC Merced

When it comes to using stem cells for therapy you don’t just need to understand what kinds of cell to use, you also need to understand the environment that is best for them. Trying to get stem cells to grow in the wrong environment would be like trying to breed sheep in a pond. It won’t end well.

But for years scientists struggled to understand how to create the right environment, or niche, for these cells. The niche provides a very specific micro-environment for stem cells, protecting them and enabling them to self-renew over long periods of time, helping repair damaged tissues and organs in the body.

But different stem cells need different niches, and those involve both physical and chemical properties, and getting that mixture right has been challenging. That in turn has slowed down our ability to use those cells to develop new therapies.

UC Merced’s Joel Spencer in the lab: Photo courtesy UC Merced

Now UC Merced’s Professor Joel Spencer and his team have developed a way of capturing an image of hematopoietic or blood stem cells (HSCs), inside their niche in the bone marrow. In an article on UC Merced News, he says this could be a big step forward.

“Everyone knew black holes existed, but it took until last year to directly capture an image of one due to the complexity of their environment. It’s analogous with stem cells in the bone marrow. Until now, our understanding of HSCs has been limited by the inability to directly visualize them in their native environment.

“This work brings an advancement that will open doors to understanding how these cells work which may lead to better therapeutics for hematologic disorders including cancer.”

In the past, studying HSCs involved transplanting them into a mouse or other animal that had undergone radiation to kill off its own bone marrow cells. It enabled researchers to track the HSCs but clearly the new environment was very different than the original, natural one. So, Spencer and his team developed new microscopes and imaging techniques to study cells and tissues in their natural environment.  

In the study, published in the journal Nature, Spencer says all this is only possible because of recent technological breakthroughs.

“My lab is seeking to answer biological questions that were impossible until the advancements in technology we have seen in the past couple decades. You need to be able to peer inside an organ, inside a live animal and see what’s happening as it happens.”

Being able to see how these cells behave in their natural environment may help researchers learn how to recreate that environment in the lab, and help them develop new and more effective ways of using those cells to repair damaged tissues and organs.

Facebook Live: Ask the Stem Cell Team

On December 12th we hosted our latest ‘Facebook Live: Ask the Stem Cell Team’ event. This time around we really did mean team. We had a host of our Science Officers answering questions from friends and supporters of CIRM. We got a lot of questions and didn’t have enough time to address them all. So here’s answers to all the questions.

What are the obstacles to using partial cellular reprogramming to return people’s entire bodies to a youthful state. Paul Hartman.  San Leandro, California

Dr. Kelly Shepard

Dr. Kelly Shepard: Certainly, scientists have observed that various manipulations of cells, including reprogramming, partial reprogramming, de-differentiation and trans-differentiation, can restore or change properties of cells, and in some cases, these changes can reflect a more “youthful” state, such as having longer telomeres, better proliferative capacity, etc. However, some of these same rejuvenating properties, outside of their normal context, could be harmful or deadly, for example if a cell began to grow and divide when or where it shouldn’t, similar to cancer. For this reason, I believe the biggest obstacles to making this approach a reality are twofold: 1)  our current, limited understanding of the nature of partially reprogrammed cells; and 2) our inability to control the fate of those cells that have been partially reprogrammed, especially if they are inside a living organism.  Despite the challenges, I think there will be step wise advances where these types of approaches will be applied, starting with specific tissues. For example, CIRM has recently funded an approach that uses reprogramming to make “rejuvenated” versions of T cells for fighting lung cancer.  There is also a lot of interest in using such approaches to restore the reparative capacity of aged muscle. Perhaps some successes in these more limited areas will be the basis for expanding to a broader use.

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STROKE

What’s going on with Stanford’s stem cell trials for stroke? I remember the first trial went really well In 2016 have not heard anything about since? Elvis Arnold

Dr. Lila Collins

Dr. Lila Collins: Hi Elvis, this is an evolving story.  I believe you are referring to SanBio’s phase 1/2a stroke trial, for which Stanford was a site. This trial looked at the safety and feasibility of SanBio’s donor or allogeneic stem cell product in chronic stroke patients who still had motor deficits from their strokes, even after completing physical therapy when natural recovery has stabilized.  As you note, some of the treated subjects had promising motor recoveries. 

SanBio has since completed a larger, randomized phase 2b trial in stroke, and they have released the high-level results in a press release.  While the trial did not meet its primary endpoint of improving motor deficits in chronic stroke, SanBio conducted a very similar randomized trial in patients with stable motor deficits from chronic traumatic brain injury (TBI).  In this trial, SanBio saw positive results on motor recovery with their product.  In fact, this product is planned to move towards a conditional approval in Japan and has achieved expedited regulatory status in the US, termed RMAT, in TBI which means it could be available more quickly to patients if all goes well.  SanBio plans to continue to investigate their product in stroke, so I would stay tuned as the work unfolds. 

Also, since you mentioned Stanford, I should note that Dr Gary Steinberg, who was a clinical investigator in the SanBio trial you mentioned, will soon be conducting a trial with a different product that he is developing, neural progenitor cells, in chronic stroke.  The therapy looks promising in preclinical models and we are hopeful it will perform well for patients in the clinic.

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I am a stroke survivor will stem cell treatment able to restore my motor skills? Ruperto

Dr. Lila Collins:

Hi Ruperto. Restoring motor loss after stroke is a very active area of research.  I’ll touch upon a few ongoing stem cell trials.  I’d just like to please advise that you watch my colleague’s comments on stem cell clinics (these can be found towards the end of the blog) to be sure that any clinical research in which you participate is as safe as possible and regulated by FDA.

Back to stroke, I mentioned SanBio’s ongoing work to address motor skill loss in chronic stroke earlier.  UK based Reneuron is also conducting a phase 2 trial, using a neural progenitor cell as a candidate therapy to help recover persistent motor disability after stroke (chronic).  Dr Gary Steinberg at Stanford is also planning to conduct a clinical trial of a human embryonic stem cell-derived neuronal progenitor cell in stroke.

There is also promising work being sponsored by Athersys in acute stroke. Athersys published results from their randomized, double blinded placebo controlled Ph2 trial of their Multistem product in patients who had suffered a stroke within 24-48 hours.  After intravenous delivery, the cells improved a composite measure of stroke recovery, including motor recovery.  Rather than acting directly on the brain, Multistem seems to work by traveling to the spleen and reducing the inflammatory response to a stroke that can make the injury worse.

Athersys is currently recruiting a phase 3 trial of its Multistem product in acute stroke (within 1.5 days of the stroke).  The trial has an accelerated FDA designation, called RMAT and a special protocol assessment.  This means that if the trial is conducted as planned and it reaches the results agreed to with the FDA, the therapy could be cleared for marketing.  Results from this trial should be available in about two years. 

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Questions from several hemorrhagic stroke survivors who say most clinical trials are for people with ischemic strokes. Could stem cells help hemorrhagic stroke patients as well?

Dr. Lila Collins:

Regarding hemorrhagic stroke, you are correct the bulk of cell therapies for stroke target ischemic stroke, perhaps because this accounts for the vast bulk of strokes, about 85%.

That said, hemorrhagic strokes are not rare and tend to be more deadly.  These strokes are caused by bleeding into or around the brain which damages neurons.  They can even increase pressure in the skull causing further damage.  Because of this the immediate steps treating these strokes are aimed at addressing the initial bleeding insult and the blood in the brain.

While most therapies in development target ischemic stroke, successful therapies developed to repair neuronal damage or even some day replace lost neurons, could be beneficial after hemorrhagic stroke as well.

We are aware of a clinical trial targeting acute hemorrhagic stroke that is being run by the Mayo clinic in Jacksonville Florida.

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I had an Ischemic stroke in 2014, and my vision was also affected. Can stem cells possibly help with my vision issues. James Russell

Dr. Lila Collins:

Hi James. Vision loss from stroke is complex and the type of loss depends upon where the stroke occurred (in the actual eye, the optic nerve or to the other parts of the brain controlling they eye or interpreting vision).  The results could be:

  1. Visual loss from damage to the retina
  2. You could have a normal eye with damage to the area of the brain that controls the eye’s movement
  3. You could have damage to the part of the brain that interprets vision.

You can see that to address these various issues, we’d need different cell replacement approaches to repair the retina or the parts of the brain that were damaged. 

Replacing lost neurons is an active effort that at the moment is still in the research stages.  As you can imagine, this is complex because the neurons have to make just the right connections to be useful. 

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VISION

Is there any stem cell therapy for optical nerve damage? Deanna Rice

Dr. Ingrid Caras

Dr. Ingrid Caras: There is currently no proven stem cell therapy to treat optical nerve damage, even though there are shady stem cell clinics offering treatments.  However, there are some encouraging early gene therapy studies in mice using a virus called AAV to deliver growth factors that trigger regeneration of the damaged nerve. These studies suggest that it may be possible to restore at least some visual function in people blinded by optic nerve damage from glaucoma

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I read an article about ReNeuron’s retinitis pigmentosa clinical trial update.  In the article, it states: “The company’s treatment is a subretinal injection of human retinal progenitors — cells which have almost fully developed into photoreceptors, the light-sensing retinal cells that make vision possible.” My question is: If they can inject hRPC, why not fully developed photoreceptors? Leonard

Dr. Kelly Shepard: There is evidence from other studies, including from other tissue types such as blood, pancreas, heart and liver, that fully developed (mature) cell types tend not to engraft as well upon transplantation, that is the cells do not establish themselves and survive long term in their new environment. In contrast, it has been observed that cells in a slightly less “mature” state, such as those in the progenitor stage, are much more likely to establish themselves in a tissue, and then differentiate into more mature cell types over time. This question gets at the crux of a key issue for many new therapies, i.e. what is the best cell type to use, and the best timing to use it.

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My question for the “Ask the Stem Cell Team” event is: When will jCyte publish their Phase IIb clinical trial results. Chris Allen

Dr. Ingrid Caras: The results will be available sometime in 2020.

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I understand the hRPC cells are primarily neurotropic (rescue/halt cell death); however, the literature also says hRPC can become new photoreceptors.  My questions are: Approximately what percentage develop into functioning photoreceptors? And what percentage of the injected hRPC are currently surviving? Leonard Furber, an RP Patient

Dr. Kelly Shepard: While we can address these questions in the lab and in animal models, until there is a clinical trial, it is not possible to truly recreate the environment and stresses that the cells will undergo once they are transplanted into a human, into the site where they are expected to survive and function. Thus, the true answer to this question may not be known until after clinical trials are performed and the results can be evaluated. Even then, it is not always possible to monitor the fate of cells after transplantation without removing tissues to analyze (which may not be feasible), or without being able to transplant labeled cells that can be readily traced.

Dr. Ingrid Caras – Although the cells have been shown to be capable of developing into photoreceptors, we don’t know if this actually happens when the cells are injected into a patient’s eye.   The data so far suggest that the cells work predominantly by secreting growth factors that rescue damaged retinal cells or even reverse the damage. So one possible outcome is that the cells slow or prevent further deterioration of vision. But an additional possibility is that damaged retinal cells that are still alive but are not functioning properly may become healthy and functional again which could result in an improvement in vision.

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DIABETES

What advances have been made using stem cells for the treatment of Type 2 Diabetes? Mary Rizzo

Dr. Ross Okamura

Dr. Ross Okamura: Type 2 Diabetes (T2D) is a disease where the body is unable to maintain normal glucose levels due to either resistance to insulin-regulated control of blood sugar or insufficient insulin production from pancreatic beta cells.  The onset of disease has been associated with lifestyle influenced factors including body mass, stress, sleep apnea and physical activity, but it also appears to have a genetic component based upon its higher prevalence in certain populations. 

Type 1 Diabetes (T1D) differs from T2D in that in T1D patients the pancreatic beta cells have been destroyed by the body’s immune system and the requirement for insulin therapy is absolute upon disease onset rather than gradually developing over time as in many T2D cases.  Currently the only curative approach to alleviate the heavy burden of disease management in T1D has been donor pancreas or islet transplantation. However, the supply of donor tissue is small relative to the number of diabetic patients.  Donor islet and pancreas transplants also require immune suppressive drugs to prevent allogenic immune rejection and the use of these drugs carry additional health concerns.  However, for some patients with T1D, especially those who may develop potentially fatal hypoglycemia, immune suppression is worth the risk.

To address the issue of supply, there has been significant activity in stem cell research to produce insulin secreting beta cells from pluripotent stem cells and recent clinical data from Viacyte’s CIRM funded trial indicates that implanted allogeneic human stem cell derived cells in T1D patients can produce circulating c-peptide, a biomarker for insulin.  While the trial is not designed specifically to cure insulin-dependent T2D patients, the ability to produce and successfully engraft stem cell-derived beta cells would be able to help all insulin-dependent diabetic patients.

It’s also worth noting that there is a sound scientific reason to clinically test a patient-derived pluripotent stem cell-based insulin-producing cells in insulin-dependent T2D diabetic patients; the cells in this case could be evaluated for their ability to cure diabetes in the absence of needing to prevent both allogeneic and autoimmune responses.

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SPINAL CORD INJURY

Is there any news on clinical trials for spinal cord injury? Le Ly

Kevin McCormack: The clinical trial CIRM was funding, with Asterias (now part of a bigger company called Lineage Cell Therapeutics, is now completed and the results were quite encouraging. In a news release from November of 2019 Brian Culley, CEO of Lineage Cell Therapeutics, described the results this way.

“We remain extremely excited about the potential for OPC1 (the name of the therapy used) to provide enhanced motor recovery to patients with spinal cord injuries. We are not aware of any other investigative therapy for SCI (spinal cord injury) which has reported as encouraging clinical outcomes as OPC1, particularly with continued improvement beyond 1 year. Overall gains in motor function for the population assessed to date have continued, with Year 2 assessments measuring the same or higher than at Year 1. For example, 5 out of 6 Cohort 2 patients have recovered two or more motor levels on at least one side as of their Year 2 visit whereas 4 of 6 patients in this group had recovered two motor levels as of their Year 1 visit. To put these improvements into perspective, a one motor level gain means the ability to move one’s arm, which contributes to the ability to feed and clothe oneself or lift and transfer oneself from a wheelchair. These are tremendously meaningful improvements to quality of life and independence. Just as importantly, the overall safety of OPC1 has remained excellent and has been maintained 2 years following administration, as measured by MRI’s in patients who have had their Year 2 follow-up visits to date. We look forward to providing further updates on clinical data from SCiStar as patients continue to come in for their scheduled follow up visits.”

Lineage Cell Therapeutics plans to meet with the FDA in 2020 to discuss possible next steps for this therapy.

In the meantime the only other clinical trial I know that is still recruiting is one run by a company called Neuralstem. Here is a link to information about that trial on the www.clinicaltrials.gov website.

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ALS

Now that the Brainstorm ALS trial is finished looking for new patients do you have any idea how it’s going and when can we expect to see results? Angela Harrison Johnson

Dr. Ingrid Caras: The treated patients have to be followed for a period of time to assess how the therapy is working and then the data will need to be analyzed.  So we will not expect to see the results probably for another year or two.

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AUTISM

Are there treatments for autism or fragile x using stem cells? Magda Sedarous

Dr. Kelly Shepard: Autism and disorders on the autism spectrum represent a collection of many different disorders that share some common features, yet have different causes and manifestations, much of which we still do not understand. Knowing the origin of a disorder and how it affects cells and systems is the first step to developing new therapies. CIRM held a workshop on Autism in 2009 to brainstorm potential ways that stem cell research could have an impact. A major recommendation was to exploit stem cells and new technological advances to create cells and tissues, such as neurons, in the lab from autistic individuals that could then be studied in great detail.  CIRM followed this recommendation and funded several early-stage awards to investigate the basis of autism, including Rett Syndrome, Fragile X, Timothy Syndrome, and other spectrum disorders. While these newer investigations have not yet led to therapies that can be tested in humans, this remains an active area of investigation. Outside of CIRM funding, we are aware of more mature studies exploring the effects of umbilical cord blood or other specific stem cell types in treating autism, such as an ongoing clinical trial conducted at Duke University.

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PARKINSON’S DISEASE

What is happening with Parkinson’s research? Hanifa Gaphoor

Dr. Kent Fitzgerald

Dr. Kent Fitzgerald: Parkinson’s disease certainly has a significant amount of ongoing work in the regenerative medicine and stem cell research. 

The nature of cell loss in the brain, specifically the dopaminergic cells responsible for regulating the movement, has long been considered a good candidate for cell replacement therapy.  

This is largely due to the hypothesis that restoring function to these cells would reverse Parkinson’s symptoms. This makes a lot of sense as front line therapy for the disease for many years has been dopamine replacement through L-dopa pills etc.  Unfortunately, over time replacing dopamine through a pill loses its benefit, whereas replacing or fixing the cells themselves should be a more permanent fix. 

Because a specific population of cells in one part of the brain are lost in the disease, multiple labs and clinicians have sought to replace or augment these cells by transplantation of “new” functional cells able to restore function to the area an theoretically restore voluntary motor control to patients with Parkinson’s disease. 

Early clinical research showed some promise, however also yielded mixed results, using fetal tissue transplanted into the brains of Parkinson’s patients.   As it turns out, the cell types required to restore movement and avoid side effects are somewhat nuanced.  The field has moved away from fetal tissue and is currently pursuing the use of multiple stem cell types that are driven to what is believed to be the correct subtype of cell to repopulate the lost cells in the patient. 

One project CIRM sponsored in this area with Jeanne Loring sought to develop a cell replacement therapy using stem cells from the patients themselves that have been reprogrammed into the kinds of cell damaged by Parkinson’s.  This type of approach may ultimately avoid issues with the cells avoiding rejection by the immune system as can be seen with other types of transplants (i.e. liver, kidney, heart etc).

Still, others are using cutting edge gene therapy technology, like the clinical phase project CIRM is sponsoring with Krystof Bankiewicz to investigate the delivery of a gene (GDNF) to the brain that may help to restore the activity of neurons in the Parkinson’s brain that are no longer working as they should. 

The bulk of the work in the field of PD at the present remains centered on replacing or restoring the dopamine producing population of cells in the brain that are affected in disease.   

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HUNTINGTON’S DISEASE

Any plans for Huntington’s? Nikhat Kuchiki

Dr. Lisa Kadyk

Dr. Lisa Kadyk: The good news is that there are now several new therapeutic approaches to Huntington’s Disease that are at various stages of preclinical and clinical development, including some that are CIRM funded.   One CIRM-funded program led by Dr. Leslie Thompson at UC Irvine is developing a cell-based therapeutic that consists of neural stem cells that have been manufactured from embryonic stem cells.   When these cells are injected into the brain of a mouse that has a Huntington’s Disease mutation, the cells engraft and begin to differentiate into new neurons.  Improvements are seen in the behavioral and electrophysiological deficits in these mutant mice, suggesting that similar improvements might be seen in people with the disease.   Currently, CIRM is funding Dr. Thompson and her team to carry out rigorous safety studies in animals using these cells, in preparation for submitting an application to the FDA to test the therapy in human patients in a clinical trial.   

There are other, non-cell-based therapies also being tested in clinical trials now, using  anti-sense oligonucleotides (Ionis, Takeda) to lower the expression of the Huntington protein.  Another HTT-lowering approach is similar – but uses miRNAs to lower HTT levels (UniQure, Voyager)

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TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY (TBI)

My 2.5 year old son recently suffered a hypoxic brain injury resulting in motor and speech disabilities. There are several clinical trials underway for TBI in adults. My questions are:

  • Will the results be scalable to pediatric use and how long do you think it would take before it is available to children?
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  • I’m wondering why the current trials have chosen to go the route of intracranial injections as opposed to something slightly less invasive like an intrathecal injection?
  • Is there a time window period in which stem cells should be administered by, after which the administration is deemed not effective?

Dr. Kelly Shepard:  TBI and other injuries of the nervous system are characterized by a lot of inflammation at the time of injury, which is thought to interfere with the healing process- and thus some approaches are intended to be delivered after that inflammation subsides. However, we are aware of approaches that intend to deliver a therapy to a chronic injury, or one that has occurred  previously. Thus, the answer to this question may depend on how the intended therapy is supposed to work. For example, is the idea to grow new neurons, or is it to promote the survival of neurons of other cells that were spared by the injury? Is the therapy intended to address a specific symptom, such as seizures? Is the therapy intended to “fill a gap” left behind after inflammation subsides, which might not restore all function but might ameliorate certain symptoms.? There is still a lot we don’t understand about the brain and the highly sophisticated network of connections that cannot be reversed by only replacing neurons, or only reducing inflammation, etc. However, if trials are well designed, they should yield useful information even if the therapy is not as effective as hoped, and this information will pave the way to newer approaches and our technology and understanding evolves.

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We have had a doctor recommending administering just the growth factors derived from MSC stem cells. Does the science work that way? Is it possible to isolate the growth factors and boost the endogenous growth factors by injecting allogenic growth factors?

Dr. Stephen Lin

Dr. Stephen Lin:  Several groups have published studies on the therapeutic effects in non-human animal models of using nutrient media from MSC cultures that contain secreted factors, or extracellular vesicles from cells called exosomes that carry protein or nucleic acid factors.  Scientifically it is possible to isolate the factors that are responsible for the therapeutic effect, although to date no specific factor or combination of factors have been identified to mimic the effects of the undefined mixtures in the media and exosomes.  At present no regulatory approved clinical therapy has been developed using this approach. 

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PREDATORY STEM CELL CLINICS

What practical measures are being taken to address unethical practitioners whose bad surgeries are giving stem cell advances a bad reputation and are making forward research difficult? Kathy Jean Schultz

Dr. Geoff Lomax

Dr. Geoff Lomax: Terrific question! I have been doing quite a bit research into the history of this issue of unethical practitioners and I found an 1842 reference to “quack medicines.” Clearly this is nothing new. In that day, the author appealed to make society “acquainted with the facts.”

In California, we have taken steps to (1) acquaint patients with the facts about stem cell treatments and (2) advance FDA authorized treatments for unmet medical needs.

  • First, CIRM work with Senator Hernandez in 2017 to write a law the requires provides to disclose to patient that a stem cell therapy has not been approved by the Food and Drug administration.
  • We continue to work with the State Legislature and Medical Board of California to build on policies that require accurate disclosure of the facts to patients.
  • Second, our clinical trial network the — Alpha Stem Cell Clinics – have supported over 100 FDA-authorized clinical trials to advance responsible clinical research for unmet medical needs.

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I’m curious if adipose stem cell being used at clinics at various places in the country is helpful or beneficial? Cheri Hicks

Adipose tissue has been widely used particularly in plastic and reconstructive surgery. Many practitioners suggest adipose cells are beneficial in this context. With regard to regenerative medicine and / or the ability to treat disease and injury, I am not aware of any large randomized clinical trials that demonstrate the safety and efficacy of adipose-derived stem cells used in accordance with FDA guidelines.

I went to a “Luncheon about Stem Cell Injections”. It sounded promising. I went thru with it and got the injections because I was desperate from my knee pain. The price of stem cell injections was $3500 per knee injection. All went well. I have had no complications, but haven’t noticed any real major improvement, and here I am a year later. My questions are:

 1) I wonder on where the typical injection cells are coming from?

  2) I wonder what is the actual cost of the cells?

3) What kind of results are people getting from all these “pop up” clinics or established clinics that are adding this to there list of offerings?

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Dr. Geoff Lomax: You raise a number of questions and point here; they are all very good and it’s is hard to give a comprehensive response to each one, but here is my reaction:

  • There are many practitioners in the field of orthopedics who sincerely believe in the potential of cell-based treatments to treat injury / pain
  • Most of the evidence presented is case reports that individuals have benefited
  • The challenge we face is not know the exact type of injury and cell treatments used.
  • Well controlled clinical trials would really help us understand for what cells (or cell products) and for what injury would be helpful
  • Prices of $3000 to $5000 are not uncommon, and like other forms of private medicine there is often a considerable mark-up in relation to cost of goods.
  • You are correct that there have not been reports of serious injury for knee injections
  • However the effectiveness is not clear while simultaneously millions of people have been aided by knee replacements.

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Do stem cells have benefits for patients going through chemotherapy and radiation therapy? Ruperto

Dr. Kelly Shepard: The idea that a stem cell therapy could help address effects of chemotherapy or radiation is being and has been pursued by several investigators over the years, including some with CIRM support. Towards the earlier stages, people are looking at the ability of different stem cell-derived neural cell preparations to replace or restore function of certain brain cells that are damaged by the effects of chemotherapy or radiation. In a completely different type of approach, a group at City of Hope is exploring whether a bone marrow transplant with specially modified stem cells can provide a protective effect against the chemotherapy that is used to treat a form of brain cancer, glioblastoma. This study is in the final stage of development that, if all goes well, culminates with application to the FDA to allow initiation of a clinical trial to test in people.

Dr. Ingrid Caras: That’s an interesting and valid question.  There is a Phase 1 trial ongoing that is evaluating a novel type of stem/progenitor cell from the umbilical cord of healthy deliveries.  In animal studies, these cells have been shown to reduce the toxic effects of chemotherapy and radiation and to speed up recovery. These cells are now being tested in a First-in-human clinical trial in patients who are undergoing high-dose chemotherapy to treat their disease.

There is a researcher at Stanford, Michelle Monje, who is investigating that the role of damage to stem cells in the cognitive problems that sometimes arise after chemo- and radiation therapy (“chemobrain”).  It appears that damage to stem cells in the brain, especially those responsible for producing oligodendrocytes, contributes to chemobrain.  In CIRM-funded work, Dr. Monje has identified small molecules that may help prevent or ameliorate the symptoms of chemobrain.

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Is it possible to use a technique developed to fight one disease to also fight another? For instance, the bubble baby disease, which has cured (I think) more than 50 children, may also help fight sickle cell anemia?  Don Reed.

Dr. Lisa Kadyk: Hi Don. Yes, the same general technique can often be applied to more than one disease, although it needs to be “customized” for each disease.   In the example you cite, the technique is an “autologous gene-modified bone marrow transplant” – meaning the cells come from the patient themselves.  This technique is relevant for single gene mutations that cause diseases of the blood (hematopoietic) system.  For example, in the case of “bubble baby” diseases, a single mutation can cause failure of immune cell development, leaving the child unable to fight infections, hence the need to have them live in a sterile “bubble”.   To cure that disease, blood stem cells, which normally reside in the bone marrow, are collected from the patient and then a normal version of the defective gene is introduced into the cells, where it is incorporated into the chromosomes.   Then, the corrected stem cells are transplanted back into the patient’s body, where they can repopulate the blood system with cells expressing the normal copy of the gene, thus curing the disease.  

A similar approach could be used to treat sickle cell disease, since it is also caused by a single gene mutation in a gene (beta hemoglobin) that is expressed in blood cells.  The same technique would be used as I described for bubble baby disease but would differ in the gene that is introduced into the patient’s blood stem cells. 

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Is there any concern that CIRM’s lack of support in basic research will hamper the amount of new approaches that can reach clinical stages? Jason

Dr. Kelly Shepard: CIRM always has and continues to believe that basic research is vital to the field of regenerative medicine. Over the past 10 years CIRM has invested $904 million in “discovery stage/basic research”, and about $215 million in training grants that supported graduate students, post docs, clinical fellows, undergraduate, masters and high school students performing basic stem cell research. In the past couple of years, with only a limited amount of funds remaining, CIRM made a decision to invest most of the remaining funds into later stage projects, to support them through the difficult transition from bench to bedside. However, even now, CIRM continues to sponsor some basic research through its Bridges and SPARK Training Grant programs, where undergraduate, masters and even high school students are conducting stem cell research in world class stem cell laboratories, many of which are the same laboratories that were supported through CIRM basic research grants over the past 10 years. While basic stem cell research continues to receive a substantial level of support from the NIH ($1.8 billion in 2018, comprehensively on stem cell projects) and other funders, CIRM believes continued support for basic research, especially in key areas of stem cell research and vital opportunities, will always be important for discovering and developing new treatments.

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What is the future of the use of crispr cas9 in clinical trials in california/globally. Art Venegas

Dr. Kelly Shepard: CRISPR/Cas9 is a powerful gene editing tool. In only a few years, CRISPR/Cas9 technology has taken the field by storm and there are already a few CRISPR/Cas9 based treatments being tested in clinical trials in the US. There are also several new treatments that are at the IND enabling stage of development, which is the final testing stage required by the FDA before a clinical trial can begin. Most of these clinical trials involving CRISPR go through an “ex vivo” approach, taking cells from the patient with a disease causing gene, correcting the gene in the laboratory using CRISPR, and reintroducing the cells carrying the corrected gene back into the patient for treatment.  Sickle cell disease is a prime example of a therapy being developed using this strategy and CIRM funds two projects that are preparing for clinical trials with this approach.  CRISPR is also being used to develop the next generation of cancer T-cell therapies (e.g. CAR-T), where T-cells – a vital part of our immune system – are modified to target and destroy cancer cell populations.  Using CRISPR to edit cells directly in patients “in vivo” (inside the body) is far less common currently but is also being developed.  It is important to note that any FDA sanctioned “in vivo” CRISPR clinical trial in people will only modify organ-specific cells where the benefits cannot be passed on to subsequent generations. There is a ban on funding for what are called germ line cells, where any changes could be passed down to future generations.

CIRM is currently supporting multiple CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing projects in California from the discovery or most basic stage of research, through the later stages before applying to test the technique in people in a clinical trial.

While the field is new – if early safety signals from the pioneering trials are good, we might expect a number of new CRISPR-based approaches to enter clinical testing over the next few years. The first of these will will likely be in the areas of bone marrow transplant to correct certain blood/immune or  metabolic diseases, and cancer immunotherapies, as these types of approaches are the best studied and furthest along in the pipeline.

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Explain the differences between gene therapy and stem cell therapy? Renee Konkol

Dr. Stephen Lin:  Gene therapy is the direct modification of cells in a patient to treat a disease.  Most gene therapies use modified, harmless viruses to deliver the gene into the patient.  Gene therapy has recently seen many success in the clinic, with the first FDA approved therapy for a gene induced form of blindness in 2017 and other approvals for genetic forms of smooth muscle atrophy and amyloidosis. 

Stem cell therapy is the introduction of stem cells into patients to treat a disease, usually with the purpose of replacing damaged or defective cells that contribute to the disease.  Stem cell therapies can be derived from pluripotent cells that have the potential to turn into any cell in the body and are directed towards a specific organ lineage for the therapy.  Stem cell therapies can also be derived from other cells, called progenitors, that have the ability to turn into a limited number of other cells in the body. for example hematopoietic or blood stem cells (HSCs), which are found in bone marrow, can turn into other cells of the blood system including B-cells and T-cells: while mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), which are usually found in fat tissue, can turn into bone, cartilage, and fat cells.  The source of these cells can be from the patient’s own body (autologous) or from another person (allogeneic).

Gene therapy is often used in combination with cell therapies when cells are taken from the patient and, in the lab, modified genetically to correct the mutation or to insert a correct form of the defective gene, before being returned to patients.  Often referred to as “ex vivo gene therapy” – because the changes are made outside the patient’s body – these therapies include Chimeric Antigen Receptor T (CAR-T) cells for cancer therapy and gene modified HSCs to treat blood disorders such as severe combined immunodeficiency and sickle cell disease. This is an exciting area that has significantly improved and even cured many people already.

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Currently, how can the outcome of CIRM stem cell medicine projects and clinical trials be soundly interpreted when their stem cell-specific doses are not known? James L. Sherley, M.D., Ph.D., Director. Asymmetrex, LLC

Dr. Stephen Lin:  Stem cell therapies that receive approval to conduct clinical trials must submit a package of data to the FDA that includes studies that demonstrate their effectiveness, usually in animal models of the disease that the cell therapy is targeting.  Those studies have data on the dose of the cell therapy that creates the therapeutic effect, which is used to estimate cell doses for the clinical trial.  CIRM funds discovery and translational stage awards to conduct these types of studies to prepare cell therapies for clinical trials.  The clinical trial is also often designed to test multiple doses of the cell therapy to determine the one that has the best therapeutic effect.   Dosing can be very challenging with cell therapies because of issues including survival, engraftment, and immune rejection, but CIRM supports studies designed to provide data to give the best estimate possible.

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Is there any research on using stem cells to increase the length of long bones in people?” For example, injecting stem cells into the growth plates to see if the cells can be used to lengthen limbs. Sajid

Dr. Kelly Shepard: There is quite a lot of ongoing research seeking ways to repair bones with stem cell based approaches, which is not the same but somewhat related. Much of this is geared towards repairing the types of bone injuries that do not heal well naturally on their own (large gaps, dead bone lesions, degenerative bone conditions). Also, a lot of this research involves engineering bone tissues in the lab and introducing the engineered tissue into a bone lesion that need be repaired. What occurs naturally at the growth plate is a complex interaction between many different cell types, much of which we do not fully understand. We do not fully understand how to use the cells that are used to engineer bone tissue in the lab. However, a group at Stanford, with some CIRM support, recently discovered a “skeletal stem cell” that exists naturally at the ends of human bones and at sites of fracture.  These are quite different than MSCs and offer a new path to be explored for repairing and generating bone. 

Two CIRM supported studies highlighted in Nature as promising approaches for blood disorders

Blood stem cells (blue) are cleared from the bone marrow (purple) before new stem cells can be transplanted.Credit: Dennis Kunkel Microscopy/SPL

Problems with blood stem cells, a type of stem cell in your bone marrow that gives rise to various kinds of blood cells, can sometimes result in blood cancer as well as genetic and autoimmune diseases.

It is because of this that researchers have looked towards blood stem cell transplants, which involves replacing a person’s defective blood stem cells with healthy ones take from either a donor or the patient themselves.

However, before this can be done, the existing population of defective stem cells must be eradicated in order to allow the transplanted blood stem cells to properly anchor themselves into the bone marrow. Current options for this include full-body radiation or chemotherapy, but these approaches are extremely toxic.

But what if there was a way to selectively target these blood stem cells in order to make the transplants much safer?

An article published in Nature highlights the advancements made in the field of blood stem cell transplantation, some of which is work that is funded by yours truly.

One of the approaches highlighted involves the work that we funded related to Forty Seven and an antibody created that inhibits a protein called CD47.

The article discusses how Forty Seven tested two antibodies in monkeys. One antibody blocks the activity of a molecule called c-Kit, which is found on blood stem cells. The other is the antibody that blocks CD47, which is found on some immune cells. Inhibiting CD47 allows those immune cells to sweep up the stem cells that were targeted by the c-Kit antibody, thereby boosting its effectiveness. In early tests, the two antibodies used together reduced the number of blood stem cells in bone marrow. The next step for this team is to demonstrate that the treatment clears out the old supply of stem cells well enough to allow transplanted cells to flourish.

You can read more about the CD47 antibody in a previous blog post.

Another notable segment of this article is the CIRM funded trial that is being conducted by Dr. Judith Shizuru at Stanford University. This clinical trial also uses an antibody that targets c-Kit found on blood stem cells.

The purpose of this trial is to wipe out the problematic blood stem cells in infants with X-linked Severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a rare fatal genetic disorder that leaves infants without a functional immune system, in order to introduce properly functioning blood stem cells. Dr. Shizuru and her team found that transplanted blood stem cells, in this case from donors who did not have the disease, successfully took hold in the bone marrow of four out of six of the babies.

You can read more about Dr. Shizuru’s work in a previous blog post as well.

Researchers create a better way to grow blood stem cells

UCLA’s Dr. Hanna Mikkola and Vincenzo Calvanese, lead scientists on the study. Photo courtesy UCLA

Blood stem cells are a vital part of us. They create all the other kinds of blood cells in our body and are used in bone marrow transplants to help people battling leukemia or other blood cancers. The problem is growing these blood stem cells outside the body has always proved challenging. Up till now.

Researchers at UCLA, with CIRM funding, have identified a protein that seems to play a key role in helping blood stem cells renew themselves in the lab. Why is this important? Because being able to create a big supply of these cells could help researchers develop new approaches to treating a wide array of life-threatening diseases.

One of the most important elements that a stem cell has is its ability to self-renew itself over long periods of time. The problem with blood stem cells has been that when they are removed from the body they quickly lose their ability to self-renew and die off.

To discover why this is the case the team at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA analyzed blood stem cells to see which genes turn on and off as those cells turn into other kinds of blood cells – red, white and platelets. They identified one gene, called MLLT3, which seemed to play a key role in helping blood stem cells self-renew.

To test this finding, the researchers took blood stem cells and, in the lab, inserted copies of the MLLT3 gene into them. The modified cells were then able to self-renew at least 12 times; a number far greater than in the past.

Dr. Hanna Mikkola, a senior author of the study says this finding could help advance the field:

“If we think about the amount of blood stem cells needed to treat a patient, that’s a significant number. But we’re not just focusing on quantity; we also need to ensure that the lab-created blood stem cells can continue to function properly by making all blood cell types when transplanted.”

Happily, that seemed to be the case. When they subjected the MLLT3-enhanced blood stem cells to further analysis they found that they appeared to self-renew at a safe rate and didn’t multiply too much or mutate in ways that could lead to leukemia or other blood cancers.

The next steps are to find more efficient and effective ways of keeping the MLLT3 gene active in blood stem cells, so they can develop ways of using this finding in a clinical setting with patients.

Their findings are published in the journal Nature.

How early CIRM support helped an anti-cancer therapy overcome obstacles and help patients

Dr. Catriona Jamieson, UC San Diego

When you read about a new drug or therapy being approved to help patients it always seems so simple. Researchers come up with a brilliant idea, test it to make sure it is safe and works, and then get approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to sell it to people who need it.

But it’s not always that simple, or straight forward. Sometimes it can take years, with several detours along the way, before the therapy finds its way to patients.

That’s the case with a blood cancer drug called fedratinib (we blogged about it here) and the relentless efforts by U.C. San Diego researcher Dr. Catriona Jamieson to help make it available to patients. CIRM funded the critical early stage research to help show this approach could help save lives. But it took many more years, and several setbacks, before Dr. Jamieson finally succeeded in getting approval from the FDA.

The story behind that therapy, and Dr. Jamieson’s fight, is told in the San Diego Union Tribune. Reporter Brad Fikes has been following the therapy for years and in the story he explains why he found it so fascinating, and why this was a therapy that almost didn’t make it.

CIRM funded research could lead to treatment to prevent recurrence of deadly blood cancer

Chronic myelogenous leukemia

Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) is a cancer of the white blood cells. It causes them to increase in number, crowd out other blood cells, leading to anemia, infection or heavy bleeding. Up until the early 2000’s the main weapon against CML was chemotherapy, but the introduction of drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors changed that, dramatically improving long term survival rates.

However, these medications are not a cure and do not completely eradicate the leukemia stem cells that can fuel the growth of the cancer, so if people stop taking the medication the cancer can return.

Dr. John Chute: Photo courtesy UCLA

But now Dr. John Chute and a team of researchers at UCLA, in a CIRM-supported study, have found a way to target those leukemia stem cells and possibly eliminate them altogether.

The team knew that mice that had the genetic mutation responsible for around 95 percent of CML cases normally developed the disease and died with a few months. However, mice that had the CML gene but lacked another gene, one that produced a protein called pleiotrophin, had normal white blood cells and lived almost twice as long. Clearly there was something about pleiotrophin that played a key role in the growth of CML.

They tested this by transplanting blood stem cells from mice with the CML gene into healthy mice. The previously healthy mice developed leukemia and died. But when they did the same thing from mice that had the CML gene but lacked the pleiotrophin gene, the mice remained healthy.

So, Chute and his team wanted to know if the same thing happens in human cells. Studying human CML stem cells they found these had not just 100 times more pleiotrophin than ordinary cells, they were also producing their own pleiotrophin.

In a news release Chute, said this was unexpected:

“This provides an example of cancer stem cells that are perpetuating their own disease growth by hijacking a protein that normally supports the growth of the healthy blood system.”

Next Chute and the team developed an antibody that blocked the action of pleiotrophin and when they tested it in human cells the CML stem cells died.

Then they combined this antibody with a drug called imatinib (better known by its brand name, Gleevec) which targets the genetic abnormality that causes most forms of CML. They tested this in mice who had been transplanted with human CML stem cells and the cells died.

“Our results suggest that it may be possible to eradicate CML stem cells by combining this new targeted therapy with a tyrosine kinase inhibitor,” said Chute. “This could lead to a day down the road when people with CML may not need to take a tyrosine kinase inhibitor for the rest of their lives.”

The next step is for the researchers to modify the antibody so that it is better suited for humans and not mice and to see if it is effective not just in cells in the laboratory, but in people.

The study is published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation

Boosting the blood system after life-saving therapy

Following radiation, the bone marrow shows nearly complete loss of blood cells in mice (left). Mice treated with the PTP-sigma inhibitor displayed rapid recovery of blood cells (purple, right): Photo Courtesy UCLA

Chemotherapy and radiation are two of the front-line weapons in treating cancer. They can be effective, even life-saving, but they can also be brutal, taking a toll on the body that lasts for months. Now a team at UCLA has developed a therapy that might enable the body to bounce back faster after chemo and radiation, and even make treatments like bone marrow transplants easier on patients.

First a little background. Some cancer treatments use chemotherapy and radiation to kill the cancer, but they can also damage other cells, including those in the bone marrow responsible for making blood stem cells. Those cells eventually recover but it can take weeks or months, and during that time the patient may feel fatigue and be more susceptible to infections and other problems.

In a CIRM-supported study, UCLA’s Dr. John Chute and his team developed a drug that speeds up the process of regenerating a new blood supply. The research is published in the journal Nature Communications.

They focused their attention on a protein called PTP-sigma that is found in blood stem cells and acts as a kind of brake on the regeneration of those cells. Previous studies by Dr. Chute showed that, after undergoing radiation, mice that have less PTP-sigma were able to regenerate their blood stem cells faster than mice that had normal levels of the protein.

John Chute: Photo courtesy UCLA

So they set out to identify something that could help reduce levels of PTP-sigma without affecting other cells. They first identified an organic compound with the charming name of 6545075 (Chembridge) that was reported to be effective against PTP-sigma. Then they searched a library of 80,000 different small molecules to find something similar to 6545075 (and this is why science takes so long).

From that group they developed more than 100 different drug candidates to see which, if any, were effective against PTP-sigma. Finally, they found a promising candidate, called DJ009. In laboratory tests DJ009 proved itself effective in blocking PTP-sigma in human blood stem cells.

They then tested DJ009 in mice that were given high doses of radiation. In a news release Dr. Chute said the results were very encouraging:

“The potency of this compound in animal models was very high. It accelerated the recovery of blood stem cells, white blood cells and other components of the blood system necessary for survival. If found to be safe in humans, it could lessen infections and allow people to be discharged from the hospital earlier.”

Of the radiated mice, most that were given DJ009 survived. In comparison, those that didn’t get DJ009 died within three weeks.

They saw similar benefits in mice given chemotherapy. Mice with DJ009 saw their white blood cells – key components of the immune system – return to normal within two weeks. The untreated mice had dangerously low levels of those cells at the same point.

It’s encouraging work and the team are already getting ready for more research so they can validate their findings and hopefully take the next step towards testing this in people in clinical trials.

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.

Media matters in spreading the word

Cover of New Yorker article on “The Birth Tissue Profiteers”. Illustration by Ben Jones

When you have a great story to tell the best and most effective way to get it out to the widest audience is still the media, both traditional mainstream and new social media. Recently we have seen three great examples of how that can be done and, hopefully, the benefits that can come from it.

First, let’s go old school. Earlier this month Caroline Chen wrote a wonderful in-depth article about clinics that are cashing in on a gray area in stem cell research. The piece, a collaboration between the New Yorker magazine and ProPublica, focused on the use of amniotic stem cell treatments and the gap between what the clinics who offer it are claiming it can do, and the reality.

Here’s one paragraph profiling a Dr. David Greene, who runs a company providing amniotic fluid to clinics. It’s a fine piece of writing showing how the people behind these therapies blur the lines between fact and reality, not just about the cells but also about themselves:

“Greene said that amniotic stem cells derive their healing power from an ability to develop into any kind of tissue, but he failed to mention that mainstream science does not support his claims. He also did not disclose that he lost his license to practice medicine in 2009, after surgeries he botched resulted in several deaths. Instead, he offered glowing statistics: amniotic stem cells could help the heart beat better, “on average by twenty per cent,” he said. “Over eighty-five per cent of patients benefit exceptionally from the treatment.”

Greene later backpedals on that claim, saying:

“I don’t claim that this is a treatment. I don’t claim that it cures anything. I don’t claim that it’s a permanent fix. All I discuss is maybe, potentially, people can get some improvements from stem-cell care.”

CBS2 TV Chicago

This week CBS2 TV in Chicago did their own investigative story about how the number of local clinics offering unproven and unapproved therapies is on the rise. Reporter Pam Zekman showed how misleading newspaper ads brought in people desperate for something, anything, to ease their arthritis pain.

She interviewed two patients who went to one of those clinics, and ended up out of pocket, and out of luck.

“They said they would regenerate the cartilage,” Patricia Korona recalled. She paid $4500 for injections in her knee, but the pain continued. Later X-rays were ordered by her orthopedic surgeon.

He found bone on bone,” Korona said. “No cartilage grew, which tells me it failed; didn’t work.”

John Zapfel paid $14,000 for stem cell injections on each side of his neck and his shoulder. But an MRI taken by his current doctor showed no improvement.

“They ripped me off, and I was mad.” Zapfel said.      

TV and print reports like this are a great way to highlight the bogus claims made by many of these clinics, and to shine a light on how they use hype to sell hope to people who are in pain and looking for help.

At a time when journalism seems to be increasingly under attack with accusations of “fake news” it’s encouraging to see reporters like these taking the time and news outlets devoting the resources to uncover shady practices and protect vulnerable patients.

But the news isn’t all bad, and the use of social media can help highlight the good news.

That’s what happened yesterday in our latest CIRM Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team” event. The event focused on the future of stem cell research but also included a really thoughtful look at the progress that’s been made over the last 10-15 years.

We had two great guests, UC Davis stem cell researcher and one of the leading bloggers on the field, Paul Knoepfler PhD; and David Higgins, PhD, a scientist, member of the CIRM Board and a Patient Advocate for Huntington’s Disease. They were able to highlight the challenges of the early years of stem cell research, both globally and here at CIRM, and show how the field has evolved at a remarkable rate in recent years.

Paul Knoepfler

Naturally the subject of the “bogus clinics” came up – Paul has become a national expert on these clinics and is quoted in the New Yorker article – as did the subject of the frustration some people feel at what they consider to be the too-slow pace of progress. As David Higgins noted, we all think it’s too slow, but we are not going to race recklessly ahead in search of something that might heal if we might also end up doing something that might kill.

David Higgins

A portion of the discussion focused on funding and, in particular, what happens if CIRM is no longer around to fund the most promising research in California. We are due to run out of funding for new projects by the end of this year, and without a re-infusion of funds we will be pretty much closing our doors by the end of 2020. Both Paul and David felt that could be disastrous for the field here in California, depriving the most promising projects of support at a time when they needed it most.

It’s probably not too surprising that three people so closely connected to CIRM (Paul has received funding from us in the past) would conclude that CIRM is needed for stem cell research to not just survive but thrive in California.

A word of caution before you watch: fashion conscious people may be appalled at how my pocket handkerchief took on a life of its own.