A new approach to a deadly childhood cancer

Cancers of the blood, bone marrow and lymph nodes (also called hematologic malignancies) are the most common form of cancer in children and young adults. Current treatments can be effective but can also pose life-threatening health risks to the child. Now researchers at Stanford have developed a new approach and the Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) voted to support that approach in a clinical trial.

The Board approved investing $11,996,634 in the study, which is the Stem Cell Agency’s 76th clinical trial.

The current standard of care for cancers such as acute leukemias and lymphomas is chemotherapy and a bone marrow (also called HCST) transplant. However, without a perfectly matched donor the risk of the patient’s body rejecting the transplant is higher. Patients may also be at greater risk of graft vs host disease (GVHD), where the donor cells attack the patient’s body. In severe cases GVHD can be life-threatening.

Dr. Maria Grazia Roncarlo: Photo courtesy Stanford

Dr. Maria Grazia Roncarolo and her team at Stanford will test an immunotherapy cell approach using a therapy that is enriched with specialized immune cells called type 1 regulatory T (Tr1) cells. These cells will be infused into the patient following the bone marrow transplant. Both the Tr1 cells and the bone marrow will come from the same donor. The hope is this will help rebuild the patient’s immune system, reduce infections and decrease the likelihood of a relapse.

“Every year around 500 children receive stem cell transplants in California, and while many children do well, too many experiences a rejection of the transplant or a relapse of the cancer,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “Finding an improved therapy for these children means a shorter stay in the hospital, less risk of the need for a second transplant, and a greater quality of life for the child and the whole family.”

The CIRM Board has previously approved funding for 12 other clinical trials targeting cancers of the blood. You can read about them here.

Lung cancer, Sherlock Holmes and piano

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Image of lung cancer

When we think of lung cancer we typically tend to think it’s the end result of years of smoking cigarettes. But, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 10 and 20 percent of cases of lung cancer (20,000 to 40,000 cases a year) happen to non-smokers, people who have either never smoked or smoked fewer than 100 cigarettes in their life. Now researchers have found that there are different genetic types of cancer for smokers and non-smokers, and that might mean the need for different kinds of treatment.

A team at the National Cancer Institute did whole genome sequencing on tumors from 232 never-smokers who had lung cancer. In an interview with STATnews, researcher Maria Teresa Landi said they called their research the Sherlock-Lung study, after the famous fictional pipe-smoking detective Sherlock Holmes. “We used a detective approach. By looking at the genome of the tumor, we use the changes in the tumors as a footprint to follow to infer the causes of the disease.”

They also got quite creative in naming the three different genetic subtypes they found. Instead of giving them the usual dry scientific names, they called them piano, mezzo-forte and forte; musical terms for soft, medium and loud.

Half of the tumors in the non-smokers were in the piano group. These were slow growing with few mutations. The median latency period for these (the time between being exposed to something and being diagnosed) was nine years. The mezzo-forte group made up about one third of the cases. Their cancers were more aggressive with a latency of around 14 weeks. The forte group were the most aggressive, and the ones that most closely resembled smokers’ cancer, with a latency period of just one month.

So, what is the role of stem cells in this research? Well, in the study, published in the journal Nature Genetics the team found that the piano subtype seemed to be connected to genes that help regulate stem cells. That complicates things because it means that the standard treatments for lung cancer that work for the mezzo-forte and forte varieties, won’t work for the piano subtype.

“If this is true, it changes a lot of things in the way we should think of tumorigenesis,” Dr. Landi said.

With that in mind, and because early-detection can often be crucial in treating cancer, what can non-smokers do to find out if they are at risk of developing lung cancer? Well, right now there are no easy answers. For example, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force does not recommend screening for people who have never smoked because regular CT scans could actually increase an otherwise healthy individual’s risk of developing cancer.

National Academy of Medicine honors CIRM Grantees

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As someone who is not always as diligent as he would like to be about sending birthday cards on time, I’m used to sending belated greetings to people. So, I have no shame in sending belated greetings to four CIRM grantees who were inducted into the National Academy of Medicine in 2020.

I say four, but it’s really three and a half. I’ll explain that later.

Being elected to the National Academy of Medicine is, in the NAM’s own modest opinion, “considered one of the highest honors in the fields of health and medicine and recognizes individuals who have demonstrated outstanding professional achievement and commitment to service.”

To be fair, NAM is right. The people elected are among the best and brightest in their field and membership is by election from the other members of NAM, so they are not going to allow any old schmuck into the Academy (which could explain why I am still waiting for my membership).

The CIRM grantees elected last year are:

Dr. Antoni Ribas: Photo courtesy UCLA

Antoni Ribas, MD, PhD, professor of medicine, surgery, and molecular and medical pharmacology, U. C. Los Angeles.

Dr. Ribas is a pioneer in cancer immunology and has devoted his career to developing new treatments for malignant melanoma. When Dr. Ribas first started malignant melanoma was an almost always fatal skin cancer. Today it is one that can be cured.

In a news release Dr. Ribas said it was a privilege to be honored by the Academy: “It speaks to the impact immunotherapy has played in cancer research. When I started treating cases of melanoma that had metastasized to other organs, maybe 1 in 20 responded to treatment. Nobody in their right mind wanted to be a specialist in this field. It was the worst of the worst cancers.”

Looks like he chose his career path wisely.

Dr. Jeffrey Goldberg: Photo courtesy Stanford

Jeffrey Louis Goldberg, MD, PhD, professor and chair of ophthalmology, Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.

Dr. Goldberg was honored for his contribution to the understanding of vision loss and ways to reverse it. His lab has developed artificial retinas that transmit images down the optic nerve to the brain through tiny silicon chips implanted in the eye. He has also helped use imaging technology to better improve our ability to detect damage in photoreceptor cells (these are cells in the retina that are responsible for converting light into signals that are sent to the brain and that give us our color vision and night vision)

In a news release he expressed his gratitude saying: “I look forward to serving the goals of the National Academies, and to continuing my collaborative research efforts with my colleagues at the Byers Eye Institute at Stanford and around the world as we further our efforts to combat needless blindness.”

Dr. Mark Anderson; photo courtesy UCSF

Mark S. Anderson, MD, PhD, professor in Diabetes Research, Diabetes Center, U. C. San Francisco.

Dr. Anderson was honored for being a leader in the study of autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes. This focus extends into the lab, where his research examines the genetic control of autoimmune diseases to better understand the mechanisms by which immune tolerance is broken.

Understanding what is happening with the immune system, figuring out why it essentially turns on the body, could one day lead to treatments that can stop that, or even reverse it by boosting immune activity.

Dr. John Dick: Photo courtesy University Health Network, Toronto

Remember at the beginning I said that three and a half CIRM grantees were elected to the Academy, well, Canadian researcher, Dr. John Dick is the half. Why? Well, because the award we funded actually went to UC San Diego’s Dennis Carson but it was part of a Collaborative Funding Partnership Program with Dr. Dick at the University of Toronto. So, we are going to claim him as one of our own.

And he’s a pretty impressive individual to partner with. Dr. Dick is best known for developing a test that led to the discovery of leukemia stem cells. These are cells that can evade surgery, chemotherapy and radiation and which can lead to patients relapsing after treatment. His work helped shape our understanding of cancer and revealed a new strategy for curing it.

CIRM funds clinical trials targeting heart disease, stroke and childhood brain tumors

Gary Steinberg (Jonathan Sprague)

Heart disease and stroke are two of the leading causes of death and disability and for people who have experienced either their treatment options are very limited. Current therapies focus on dealing with the immediate impact of the attack, but there is nothing to deal with the longer-term impact. The CIRM Board hopes to change that by funding promising work for both conditions.

Dr. Gary Steinberg and his team at Stanford were awarded almost $12 million to conduct a clinical trial to test a therapy for motor disabilities caused by chronic ischemic stroke.  While “clot busting” therapies can treat strokes in their acute phase, immediately after they occur, these treatments can only be given within a few hours of the initial injury.  There are no approved therapies to treat chronic stroke, the disabilities that remain in the months and years after the initial brain attack.

Dr. Steinberg will use embryonic stem cells that have been turned into neural stem cells (NSCs), a kind of stem cell that can form different cell types found in the brain.  In a surgical procedure, the team will inject the NSCs directly into the brains of chronic stroke patients.  While the ultimate goal of the therapy is to restore loss of movement in patients, this is just the first step in clinical trials for the therapy.  This first-in-human trial will evaluate the therapy for safety and feasibility and look for signs that it is helping patients.

Another Stanford researcher, Dr. Crystal Mackall, was also awarded almost $12 million to conduct a clinical trial to test a treatment for children and young adults with glioma, a devastating, aggressive brain tumor that occurs primarily in children and young adults and originates in the brain.  Such tumors are uniformly fatal and are the leading cause of childhood brain tumor-related death. Radiation therapy is a current treatment option, but it only extends survival by a few months.

Dr. Crystal Mackall and her team will modify a patient’s own T cells, an immune system cell that can destroy foreign or abnormal cells.  The T cells will be modified with a protein called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR), which will give the newly created CAR-T cells the ability to identify and destroy the brain tumor cells.  The CAR-T cells will be re-introduced back into patients and the therapy will be evaluated for safety and efficacy.

Joseph Wu Stanford

Stanford made it three in a row with the award of almost $7 million to Dr. Joe Wu to test a therapy for left-sided heart failure resulting from a heart attack.  The major issue with this disease is that after a large number of heart muscle cells are killed or damaged by a heart attack, the adult heart has little ability to repair or replace these cells.  Thus, rather than being able to replenish its supply of muscle cells, the heart forms a scar that can ultimately cause it to fail.  

Dr. Wu will use human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) to generate cardiomyocytes (CM), a type of cell that makes up the heart muscle.  The newly created hESC-CMs will then be administered to patients at the site of the heart muscle damage in a first-in-human trial.  This initial trial will evaluate the safety and feasibility of the therapy, and the effect upon heart function will also be examined.  The ultimate aim of this approach is to improve heart function for patients suffering from heart failure.

“We are pleased to add these clinical trials to CIRM’s portfolio,” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., President and CEO of CIRM.  “Because of the reauthorization of CIRM under Proposition 14, we have now directly funded 75 clinical trials.  The three grants approved bring forward regenerative medicine clinical trials for brain tumors, stroke, and heart failure, debilitating and fatal conditions where there are currently no definitive therapies or cures.”

City of Hope researchers discover potential therapy to treat brain tumors

Glioblastoma (GBM) is a common type of aggressive brain tumor that is found in adults.  Survival of this type of brain cancer is poor with just 40% survival in the first-year post diagnosis and 17% in the second year, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.  This disease has taken the life of former U.S. Senator John McCain and Beau Biden, the late son of U.S. President Joe Biden.

In a CIRM supported lab that conducted the study, Dr. Yanhong Shi and her team at City of Hope, a research and treatment center for cancer, have discovered a potential therapy that they have tested that has been shown to suppress GBM tumor growth and extend the lifespan of tumor-bearing mice. 

Dr. Shi and her team first started by looking at PUS7, a gene that is highly expressed in GBM tissue in comparison to normal brain tissue.  Dr. Qi Cui, a scientist in Dr. Shi’s team and the first author of the study, analyzed various databases and found that high levels of PUS7 have also been associated with worse survival in GBM patients.  The team then studied different glioblastoma stem cells (GSCs), which play a vital role in brain tumor growth, and found that shutting off the PUS7 gene prevented GSC growth and self-renewal. 

The City of Hope team then transplanted two kinds of GSCs, some with the PUS7 gene and some with the PUS7 gene turned off, into immunodeficient mice.  What they found was that the mice implanted with the PUS7-lacking GSCs had less tumor growth and survived longer compared to the mice with the control GSCs that had PUS7 gene.

The team then proceeded to look for an inhibitor of PUS7 from a database of thousands of different compounds and drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  After identifying a promising compound, the researchers tested the potential therapy in mice implanted with GSCs with the PUS7 gene.  What they found was remarkable.  The therapy inhibited the growth of brain tumors in the mice and their survival was significantly prolonged.

“This is one of the most important studies in my lab in recent years and the first paper to show a causal link between PUS7-mediated modification and cancer in general and GBM in particular” says Dr. Shi.  “It will be a milestone study for RNA modification in cancer.”

The full study was published in Nature Cancer.

Dr. Shi has previously worked on several CIRM-funded research projects, such as looking at a potential link between COVID-19 and a gene for Alzheimer’s as well as the development of a therapy for Canavan disease.

Paving the Way

When someone scores a goal in soccer all the attention is lavished on them. Fans chant their name, their teammates pile on top in celebration, their agent starts calling sponsors asking for more money. But there’s often someone else deserving of praise too, that’s the player who provided the assist to make the goal possible in the first place. With that analogy in mind, CIRM just provided a very big assist for a very big goal.

The goal was scored by Jasper Therapeutics. They have just announced data from their Phase 1 clinical trial treating people with Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS). This is a group of disorders in which immature blood-forming cells in the bone marrow become abnormal and leads to low numbers of normal blood cells, especially red blood cells. In about one in three patients, MDS can progress to acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a rapidly progressing cancer of the bone marrow cells.

The most effective way to treat, and even cure, MDS/AML is with a blood stem cell transplant, but this is often difficult for older patients, because it involves the use of toxic chemotherapy to destroy their existing bone marrow blood stem cells, to make room for the new, healthy ones. Even with a transplant there is often a high rate of relapse, because it’s hard for chemotherapy to kill all the cancer cells.

Jasper has developed a therapy, JSP191, which is a monoclonal antibody, to address this issue. JSP191 helps supplement the current treatment regimen by clearing all the remaining abnormal cells from the bone marrow and preventing relapse. In addition it also means the patients gets smaller doses of chemotherapy with lower levels of toxicity. In this Phase 1 study six patients, between the ages of 65 and 74, were given JSP191 – in combination with low-dose radiation and chemotherapy – prior to getting their transplant. The patients were followed-up at 90 days and five of the six had no detectable levels of MDS/AML, and the sixth patient had reduced levels. None of the patients experienced serious side effects.

Clearly that’s really encouraging news. And while CIRM didn’t fund this clinical trial, it wouldn’t have happened without us paving the way for this research. That’s where the notion of the assist comes in.

CIRM support led to the development of the JSP191 technology at Stanford. Our CIRM funds were used in the preclinical studies that form the scientific basis for using JSP191 in an MDS/AML setting.

Not only that, but this same technique was also used by Stanford’s Dr. Judy Shizuru in a clinical trial for children born with a form of severe combined immunodeficiency, a rare but fatal immune disorder in children. A clinical trial that CIRM funded.

It’s a reminder that therapies developed with one condition in mind can often be adapted to help treat other similar conditions. Jasper is doing just that. It hopes to start clinical trials this year using JSP191 for people getting blood stem cell transplants for severe autoimmune disease, sickle cell disease and Fanconi anemia.

Latest CIRM TRAN1 awards focus on CAR-based cell therapy to treat cancer

Earlier this week the CIRM ICOC Board awarded $14.5 million to fund three translational stage research projects (TRAN1), whose goal is to support early development activities necessary for advancement to a clinical study or broad end use of a potential therapy. Although all three projects have their distinct area of focus, they all utilize CAR-based cell therapy to treat a certain type of cancer. This approach involves obtaining T cells, which are an immune system cell that can destroy foreign or abnormal cells, and modifying them with a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR). This enables the newly created CAR-engineered cells to identify specific tumor signals and destroy the cancer. In the sections below we will take a deeper look at each one of these recently approved projects.

TRAN1-12245

Image Description: Hideho Okada, M.D., Ph.D.

$2,663,144 was awarded to the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) to develop specialized CAR-T cells that are able to recognize and destroy tumor cells in glioblastoma, an aggressive type of cancer that occurs in the brain and spinal cord. The specialized CAR-T cells have been created such that they are able to detect two specific signals expressed in glioblastoma. Hideho Okada, M.D., Ph.D. and his team at UCSF will test the therapy in mice with human glioblastoma grafts. They will be looking at preclinical safety and if the CAR-T cell therapy is able to produce a desired or intended result.

TRAN1-12250

Image Description: Lili Yang, Ph.D.

$5,949,651 was awarded to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to develop specialized CAR-engineered cells from human blood stem cells to treat multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer. Lili Yang, Ph.D. and her team have developed a method using human blood stem cells to create invariant natural killer T (iNKT) cells, a special kind of T cell with unique features that can more effectively attack tumor cells using multiple mechanisms and migrate to and infiltrate tumor sites. After being modified with CAR, the newly created CAR-iNKT cells are able to target a specific signal present in multiple myeloma. The team will test the therapy in mice with human multiple myeloma. They will be looking at preclinical safety and if the CAR-iNKT cells are able to produce a desired or intended result.

TRAN1-12258

Image Description: Cristina Puig-Saus, Ph.D.

Another $5,904,462 was awarded to UCLA to develop specialized CAR-T cells to treat melanoma, a form of skin cancer. Cristina Puig-Saus, Ph.D. and her team will use naïve/memory progenitor T cells (TNM), a subset of T cells enriched with stem cells and memory T cells, an immune cell that remains long after an infection has been eliminated. After modification with CAR, the newly created CAR-TNM cells will target a specific signal present in melanoma. The team will test the therapy in mice with human melanoma. They will be looking at preclinical safety and if the CAR-TNM cells are able to produce a desired or intended result.

New technique maps out diversity and location of cells in tissue or tumor

Image Description: Alex Marson is part of a team of researchers who developed a new technique to map the specialized diversity and spatial location of individual cells within a tissue or tumor. Photo Credit: Anastasiia Sapon

All the cells in your body work together and each can have a different role. Their individual function not only depends on cell type, but can also depend on their specific location and surroundings.

A CIRM supported and collaborative study at the Gladstone Institutes, UC San Francisco (UCSF), and UC Berkeley has developed a more efficient method than ever before to simultaneously map the specialized diversity and spatial location of individual cells within a tissue or a tumor.

The technique is named XYZeq and involves segmenting a tissue into microscopic regions. Within each of these microscopic grids, each cell’s genetic information is analyzed in order to better understand how each particular cell functions relative to its spacial location.

For this study, the team obtained tissue from mice with liver and spleen tumors. A slice of tissue was then placed on a slide that divides the tissue into hundreds of “microwells” the size of a grain of salt. Each cell in the tissue gets tagged with a unique “molecular barcode” that represents the microwell it’s contained in, much like a zip code. The cells are then mixed up and assigned a second barcode to ensure that each cell within a given square can be individually identified, similar to a street address within a zip code. Finally, the genetic information in the form of RNA from each cell is analyzed. Once the results are obtained, both barcodes tell the researchers exactly where in the tissue it came from.

The team found that some cell types located near the liver tumor were not evenly spaced out. They also found immune cells and specific types of stem cells clustered in certain regions of the tumor. Additionally, certain stem cells had different levels of some RNA molecules depending on how far they resided from the tumor.

The researchers aren’t entirely sure what this pattern means, but they believe that it’s possible that signals generated by or near the tumor affect what nearby cells do.

In a press release, Alex Marson, M.D., Ph.D., a senior author of the study, elaborates on what the XYZeq technology could mean for disease modeling.

“I think we’re actually taking a step toward this being the way tissues are analyzed to diagnose, characterize, or study disease; this is the pathology of the future.”

The full results of the study were published in Science Advances.

CIRM Board Approves Clinical Trials for Blood Cancer and Pediatric Brain Tumors

Today the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) awarded $14.4 million for two new clinical trials for blood cancer and pediatric brain tumors.

These awards bring the total number of CIRM-funded clinical trials to 70. 

$6.0 million was awarded to Immune-Onc Therapeutics to conduct a clinical trial for patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML), both of which are types of blood cancer. AML affects approximately 20,000 people in the United States each year and has a 5-year survival rate of about 25 percent. Anywhere from 15-30 percent of CMML cases eventually progress into AML.

Paul Woodard, M.D. and his team will treat AML and CMML patients with an antibody therapy called IO-202 that targets leukemic stem cells.  The antibody works by blocking a signal named LILRB4 whose expression is connected with decreased rates of survival in AML patients.  The goal is to attain complete cancer remissions and prolonged survival.

$8.4 million was also awarded to City of Hope to conduct a clinical trial for children with malignant brain tumors.  Brain tumors are the most common solid tumor of childhood, with roughly 5,000 new diagnoses per year in the United States.

Leo D. Wang, M.D., Ph.D. and his team will treat pediatric patients with aggressive brain tumors using chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy.  The CAR T therapy involves obtaining a patient’s own T cells, which are an immune system cell that can destroy foreign or abnormal cells, and modifying them so that they are able to identify and destroy the brain tumors.  The aim of this approach is to improve patient outcome.

“Funding the most promising therapies for aggressive blood cancer and brain tumors has always aligned with CIRM’s mission,” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., President and CEO of CIRM.  “We are excited to fund these trials as the first of many near-term and future stem cell- and regenerative medicine-based approaches that CIRM will be able to support with bond funds under Proposition 14”.

Saying thanks and farewell to a friend

Tom Howing

In this job you get to meet a lot of remarkable people, none more so than the patients who volunteer to take part in what are giant experiments. They are courageous pioneers, willing to be among the first people to ever try a new therapy, knowing that it may not help them and, potentially, might even harm them.

Tom Howing was one such person. I got to know Tom when we were putting together our 2017 Annual Report. Back in 2015 Tom was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer that had spread throughout his body. He underwent surgery and chemotherapy. That worked for a while, but then the cancer returned. So, Tom had more surgery and chemotherapy. Again, it worked for a while but when the cancer returned again Tom was running out of options.

That’s when he learned about a clinical trial with a company called Forty Seven Inc. that was testing a new anti-cancer therapy that CIRM was supporting. Tom says he didn’t hesitate.

“When I was diagnosed with cancer I knew I had battle ahead of me. After the cancer came back again they recommended I try this CD47 clinical trial. I said absolutely, let’s give it a spin. I guess one is always a bit concerned whenever you put the adjective “experimental” in front of anything. But I’ve always been a very optimistic and positive person and have great trust and faith in my caregivers.”

Optimistic and positive are great ways to describe Tom. Happily, his optimism was rewarded. The therapy worked.

“Scans and blood tests came back showing that the cancer appears to be held in check. My energy level is fantastic. The treatment that I had is so much less aggressive than chemo, my quality of life is just outstanding.”

But after a year or so Tom had to drop out of the trial. He tried other therapies and they kept the cancer at bay. For a while. But it kept coming back. And eventually Tom ran out of options. And last week, he ran out of time.

Tom was a truly fine man. He was kind, caring, funny, gracious and always grateful for what he had. He talked often about his family and how the stem cell therapy helped him spend not just more time with them, but quality time.

He knew when he signed up for the therapy that there were no guarantees, but he wanted to try, saying that even if it didn’t help him that the researchers might learn something to help others down the line.

“The most important thing I would say is, I want people to know there is always hope and to stay positive.”

Tom ultimately lost his battle with cancer. But he never lost his spirit, his delight in his family and his desire to keep going as long as he could. In typical Tom fashion he preferred to put his concerns aside and cheer others along.

“To all those people who are putting in all the hours at the bench and microscope, it’s important for them to know that they are making a huge impact on the lives of real people and they should celebrate it and revel in it and take great pride in it.”

We consider ourselves fortunate to have known Tom and to have been with him on part of his journey. He touched our lives, as he touched the lives of so many others. Our thoughts and wishes go out to his family and friends. He will be remembered, because we never forget our friends.

A few years ago Tom came and talked to the CIRM Board. Here is the video of that event.