Using stem cells to fix bad behavior in the brain

 

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Gladstone Institutes Steven Finkbeiner and Gaia Skibinski: Photo courtesy Chris Goodfellow, Gladstone Institutes

Diseases of the brain have many different names, from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to ALS and Huntington’s, but they often have similar causes. Researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco are using that knowledge to try and find an approach that might be effective against all of these diseases. In a new CIRM-funded study, they have identified one protein that could help do just that.

Many neurodegenerative diseases are caused by faulty proteins, which start to pile up and cause damage to neurons, the brain cells that are responsible for processing and transmitting information. Ultimately, the misbehaving proteins cause those cells to die.

The researchers at the Gladstone found a way to counter this destructive process by using a protein called Nrf2. They used neurons from humans (made from induced pluripotent stem cells – iPSCs – hence the stem cell connection here) and rats. They then tested these cells in neurons that were engineered to have two different kinds of mutations found in  Parkinson’s disease (PD) plus the Nrf2 protein.

Using a unique microscope they designed especially for this study, they were able to track those transplanted neurons and monitor what happened to them over the course of a week.

The neurons that expressed Nrf2 were able to render one of those PD-causing proteins harmless, and remove the other two mutant proteins from the brain cells.

In a news release to accompany the study in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, first author Gaia Skibinski, said Nrf2 acts like a house-cleaner brought in to tidy up a mess:

“Nrf2 coordinates a whole program of gene expression, but we didn’t know how important it was for regulating protein levels until now. Over-expressing Nrf2 in cellular models of Parkinson’s disease resulted in a huge effect. In fact, it protects cells against the disease better than anything else we’ve found.”

Steven Finkbeiner, the senior author on the study and a Gladstone professor, said this model doesn’t just hold out hope for treating Parkinson’s disease but for treating a number of other neurodegenerative problems:

“I am very enthusiastic about this strategy for treating neurodegenerative diseases. We’ve tested Nrf2 in models of Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and ALS, and it is the most protective thing we’ve ever found. Based on the magnitude and the breadth of the effect, we really want to understand Nrf2 and its role in protein regulation better.”

The next step is to use this deeper understanding to identify other proteins that interact with Nrf2, and potentially find ways to harness that knowledge for new therapies for neurodegenerative disorders.

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: turning on T cells; fixing our brains; progress and trends in stem cells; and one young man’s journey to recover from a devastating injury

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A healthy T cell

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Directing the creation of T cells. To paraphrase the GOP Presidential nominee, any sane person LOVES, LOVES LOVES their T cells, in a HUGE way, so HUGE. They scamper around the body getting rid of viruses and the tiny cancers we all have in us all the time. A CIRM-funded team at CalTech has worked out the steps our genetic machinery must take to make more of them, a first step in letting physicians turn up the action of our immune systems.

We have known for some time the identity of the genetic switch that is the last, critical step in turning blood stem cells into T cells, but nothing in our body is as simple as a single on-off event. The Caltech team isolated four genetic factors in the path leading to that main switch and, somewhat unsuspected, they found out those four steps had to be activated sequentially, not all at the same time. They discovered the path by engineering mouse cells so that the main T cell switch, Bcl11b, glows under a microscope when it is turned on.

“We identify the contributions of four regulators of Bcl11b, which are all needed for its activation but carry out surprisingly different functions in enabling the gene to be turned on,” said Ellen Rothenberg, the senior author in a university press release picked up by Innovations Report. “It’s interesting–the gene still needs the full quorum of transcription factors, but we now find that it also needs them to work in the right order.”

Video primer on stem cells in the brain.  In conjunction with an article in its August issue, Scientific American posted a video from the Brain Forum in Switzerland of Elena Cattaneo of the University of Milan explaining the basics of adult versus pluripotent stem cells, and in particular how we are thinking about using them to repair diseases in the brain.

The 20-minute talk gives a brief review of pioneers who “stood alone in unmarked territory.” She asks how can stem cells be so powerful; and answers by saying they have lots of secrets and those secrets are what stem cell scientist like her are working to unravel.  She notes stem cells have never seen a brain, but if you show them a few factors they can become specialized nerves. After discussing collaborations in Europe to grow replacement dopamine neurons for Parkinson’s disease, she went on to describe her own effort to do the same thing in Huntington’s disease, but in this case create the striatal nerves lost in that disease.

The video closes with a discussion of how basic stem cell research can answer evolutionary questions, in particular how genetic changes allowed higher organisms to develop more complex nervous systems.

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CIRM Science Officers Kelly Shepard and Kent Fitzgerald

A stem cell review that hits close to home.  IEEE Pulse, a publication for scientists who mix engineering and medicine and biology, had one of their reporters interview two of our colleagues on CIRM’s science team. They asked senior science officers Kelly Shepard and Kent Fitzgerald to reflect on how the stem cell field has progressed based on their experience working to attract top researchers to apply for our grants and watching our panel of outside reviewers select the top 20 to 30 percent of each set of applicants.

One of the biggest changes has been a move from animal stem cell models to work with human stem cells, and because of CIRM’s dedicated and sustained funding through the voter initiative Proposition 71, California scientists have led the way in this change. Kelly described examples of how mouse and human systems are different and having data on human cells has been critical to moving toward therapies.

Kelly and Kent address several technology trends. They note how quickly stem cell scientists have wrapped their arms around the new trendy gene editing technology CRISPR and discuss ways it is being used in the field. They also discuss the important role of our recently developed ability to perform single cell analysis and other technologies like using vessels called exosomes that carry some of the same factors as stem cells without having to go through all the issues around transplanting whole cells.

“We’re really looking to move things from discovery to the clinic. CIRM has laid the foundation by establishing a good understanding of mechanistic biology and how stem cells work and is now taking the knowledge and applying it for the benefit of patients,” Kent said toward the end of the interview.

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Jake Javier and his family

Jake’s story: one young man’s journey to and through a stem cell transplant; As a former TV writer and producer I tend to be quite critical about the way TV news typically covers medical stories. But a recent story on KTVU, the Fox News affiliate here in the San Francisco Bay Area, showed how these stories can be done in a way that balances hope, and accuracy.

Reporter Julie Haener followed the story of Jake Javier – we have blogged about Jake before – a young man who broke his spine and was then given a stem cell transplant as part of the Asterias Biotherapeutics clinical trial that CIRM is funding.

It’s a touching story that highlights the difficulty treating these injuries, but also the hope that stem cell therapies holds out for people like Jake, and of course for his family too.

If you want to see how a TV story can be done well, this is a great example.

Advancing Stem Cell Research at the CIRM Bridges Conference

Where will stem cell research be in 10 years?

What would you say to patients who wanted stem cell therapies now?

What are the most promising applications for stem cell research?

Why is it important for the government to fund regenerative medicine?

These challenging and thought-provoking questions were posed to a vibrant group of undergraduate and masters-level students at this year’s CIRM Bridges to Stem Cell Research and Therapy conference.

Educating the next generation of stem cell scientists

The Bridges program is one of CIRM’s educational programs that offers students the opportunity to take coursework at California state schools and community colleges and conduct stem cell research at top universities and industry labs. Its goal is to train the next generation of stem cell scientists by giving them access to the training and skills necessary to succeed in this career path.

The Bridges conference is the highlight of the program and the culmination of the students’ achievements. It’s a chance for students to showcase the research projects they’ve been working on for the past year, and also for them to network with other students and scientists.

Bridges students participated in a networking pitch event about stem cell research.

Bridges students participated in a networking pitch event about stem cell research.

CIRM kicked off the conference with a quick and dirty “Stem Cell Pitch” networking event. Students were divided into groups, given one of the four questions above and tasked with developing a thirty second pitch that answered their question. They were only given ten minutes to introduce themselves, discuss the question, and pick a spokesperson, yet when each team’s speaker took the stage, it seemed like they were practiced veterans. Every team had a unique, thoughtful answer that was inspiring to both the students and to the other scientists in the crowd.

Getting to the clinic and into patients

The bulk of the Bridges conference featured student poster presentations and scientific talks by leading academic and industry scientists. The theme of the talks was getting stem cell research into the clinic and into patients with unmet medical needs.

Here are a few highlights and photos from the talks:

On the clinical track for Huntington’s disease

Leslie Thompson, Professor at UC Irvine, spoke about her latest research in Huntington’s disease (HD). She described her work as a “race against time.” HD is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that’s associated with multiple social and physical problems and currently has no cure. Leslie described how her lab is heading towards the clinic with human embryonic stem cell-derived neural (brain) stem cells that they are transplanting into mouse models of HD. So far, they’ve observed positive effects in HD mice that received human neural stem cell transplants including an improvement in the behavioral and motor defects and a reduction in the accumulation of toxic mutant Huntington protein in their nerve cells.

Leslie Thompson

Leslie Thompson

Leslie noted that because the transplanted stem cells are GMP-grade (meaning their quality is suitable for use in humans), they have a clear path forward to testing their potential disease modifying activity in human clinical trials. But before her team gets to humans, they must take the proper regulatory steps with the US Food and Drug Administration and conduct further experiments to test the safety and proper dosage of their stem cells in other mouse models as well as test other potential GMP-grade stem cell lines.

Gene therapy for SCID babies

Morton Cowan, a pediatric immunologist from UC San Francisco, followed Leslie with a talk about his efforts to get gene therapy for SCID (severe combined immunodeficiency disease) off the bench into the clinic. SCID is also known as bubble-baby disease and put simply, is caused by a lack of a functioning immune system. SCID babies don’t have normal T and B immune cell function and as a result, they generally die of infection or other conditions within their first year of life.

Morton Cowan

Morton Cowan, UCSF

Morton described how the gold standard treatment for SCID, which is hematopoietic or blood stem cell transplantation, is only safe and effective when the patient has an HLA matched sibling donor. Unfortunately, many patients don’t have this option and face life-threatening challenges of transplant rejection (graft-versus host disease). To combat this issue, Morton and his team are using gene therapy to genetically correct the blood stem cells of SCID patients and transplant those cells back into these patients so that they can generate healthy immune cells.

They are currently developing a gene therapy for a particularly hard-to-treat form of SCID that involves deficiency in a protein called Artemis, which is essential for the development of the immune system and for repairing DNA damage in cells. Currently his group is conducting the necessary preclinical work to start a gene therapy clinical trial for children with Artemis-SCID.

Treating spinal cord injury in the clinic

Casey Case, Asterias Biotherapeutics

Casey Case, Asterias Biotherapeutics

Casey Case, Senior VP of Research and Nonclinical Development at Asterias Biotherapeutics, gave an update on the CIRM-funded clinical trial for cervical (neck) spinal cord injury (SCI). They are currently testing the safety of transplanting different doses of their oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (AST-OPC1) in a group of SCI patients. The endpoint for this trial is an improvement in movement greater than two motor levels, which would offer a significant improvement in a patient’s ability to do some things on their own and reduce the cost of their healthcare. You can read more about these results and the ongoing study in our recent blogs (here, here).

Opinion: Scientists should be patient advocates

David Higgins gave the most moving speech of the day. He is a Parkinson’s patient and the Patient Advocate on the CIRM board and he spoke about what patient advocates are and how to become one. David explained how, these days, drug development and patient advocacy is more patient oriented and patients are involved at the center of every decision whether it be questions related to how a drug is developed, what side effects should be tolerated, or what risks are worth taking. He also encouraged the Bridges students to become patient advocates and understand what their needs are by asking them.

David Higgins, Parkinson's advocate and CIRM Board member

David Higgins

“As a scientist or clinician, you need to be an ambassador. You have a job of translating science, which is a foreign language to most people, and you can all effectively communicate to a lay audience without being condescending. It’s important to understand what patients’ needs are, and you’ll only know that if you ask them. Patients have amazing insights into what needs to be done to develop new treatments.”

Bridging the gap between research and patients

The Bridges conference is still ongoing with more poster presentations, a career panel, and scientific talks on discovery and translational stem cell research and commercializing stem cell therapies to all patients in need. It truly is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the Bridges students, many of whom are considering careers in science and regenerative medicine and are taking advantage of the opportunity to talk and network with prominent scientists.

If you’re interested in hearing more about the Bridges conference, follow us on twitter (@CIRMnews, @DrKarenRing, #CIRMBridges2016) and on Instagram (@CIRM_Stemcells).

On the Hunt for Huntington’s Disease Treatments in the New Millennium

“Over the next five to ten years, we want to make Huntington’s disease an increasingly treatable condition.”

This bold and inspiring statement was made by Dr. Ray Dorsey at the inaugural HD-CARE symposium for Huntington’s disease (HD) research held at UC Irvine last month. The event brought together scientists, doctors, patients, family members, and caregivers to discuss the latest discoveries in HD research and to talk openly about how we can address the unmet needs of patients suffering from this terrible, deadly neurodegenerative disease.

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Symposium speakers and HD-CARE Board Members

The symposium was hosted by HD-CARE, a non-profit organization established three years ago to support HD research and patient care. Frances Saldaña, HD-CARE president and a CIRM patient advocate, established this symposium with the goal of bringing new hope to HD patients and their family members.

Frances Saldana, HD-CARE President & Patient Advocate

Frances Saldana

“There is so much exciting research taking place all over the world that one can hardly contain oneself with excitement and hope,” explained Saldaña. “It is only right to share this scientific information and breakthroughs in HD research that has undoubtedly given our families so much hope.”

Recent breakthroughs

The symposium featured talks by scientists and doctors that spanned a broad range of topics including the recent progress of using human stem cells to model HD, the hope and hype of gene editing, and the benefits of in vitro fertilization (IVF) for HD families.

Dr. Ray Dorsey, Professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center, gave the keynote address. Inspiring from the start, he captured the audience’s attention by posing the question, “Why are we here?” To which he answered, “I think we are here to change this sign, which says Huntington’s disease is a fatal genetic neurodegenerative disease, to one that says HD is an increasingly treatable condition. Over the next five to ten years, we want to make HD an increasingly treatable condition.”

Referencing the HIV epidemic in the 1980s, Dorsey pointed out that there is precedent. What was thought to be a disease with a rapid death sentence is now, decades later, a treatable condition, and his belief is that the same can be done for HD patients in the near future.

Dorsey next highlighted major clinical advances in HD treatment including a record ten drugs currently in development in 2016. Treatments that he felt had particular promise included a gene silencing therapy by Ionis Pharmaceuticals, which is the first treatment being tested in clinical trials that targets the cause of HD. Dorsey also mentioned two drugs, Pridopidine and SD-809 (a modified version of the FDA-approved drug Tetrabenazine), that are used to treat symptoms of HD.

My favorite part of the talk was the end where he described his latest efforts to develop digital biomarkers that use smart phones and wearables to monitor a patient’s response to HD treatments in their own home.  This technology will not only make it easier to determine which treatments are effective for HD, but will also improve the quality of care patients receive during clinical trials.

Dr. Ray Dorsey

Dr. Ray Dorsey

“We think that these devices, which allow us to make assessments of how people are doing with a given condition, will soon be able to connect patients to clinicians so they can receive care regardless of who they are or where they live. We hope that for Huntington’s disease, these tools and technologies will enable us to connect patients to effective treatments for HD.”

Battle cry for change

While the science at the symposium was certainly encouraging, the voices of the patients and patient advocates made the strongest impression. Many of them spoke out to share their stories or ask questions. Others, like Saldaña, advocated for faster progress towards a cure.

“This disease is one in which family members and friends need to rally together and demand that research be properly funded to end this generational disease.  It is not one in which policy makers can sit around and wonder if they should fund it…it is a five-alarm fire that needs immediate action, and from the families, a fierce battle cry asking from policy makers and decision makers to fund aggressive research to end Huntington’s disease.”

Julie Rosling, Frances Saldana,

Julie Rosling receives the Patient Advocacy Award from HD-CARE’s Frances Saldana and Karen Thornburn

A particularly moving event was the presentation of the 2016 Patient Advocacy Award to Julie Rosling. Members of the HD-CARE board presented Rosling with a trophy to honor her brave efforts in advocating for HD patient rights. Saldaña described how Rosling was fearless at a HD patient-focused drug development meeting with the FDA in DC last fall. Along with other patients, she stood up and challenged the FDA to move HD into the fast track category for approving clinical trials.

A similar demand for regulatory change was brought up during the symposium regarding the approval of stem cell treatments for HD. As the representative for CIRM, I had a few moments to talk about our new Stem Cell Champions campaign, which is actively recruiting patient advocates that can work with us to help make the FDA approval process for stem cell treatments faster and more efficient. Our colleagues at Americans for Cures also spoke briefly about their efforts to promote the acceleration of stem cell treatments and improve the lives of HD patients.

By the end of the symposium, there was an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment and more importantly a renewed sense of hope for the future of HD treatments.

“It was extremely successful and I believe everyone left feeling very optimistic about the future for HD families,” said Saldaña. “There is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

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Patient Advocates Ron Shapiro, Adrienne Shapiro, David Saldana, Frances Saldana, Daniel Medina with Karen Ring from CIRM


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