CIRM interviews Lorenz Studer: 2017 recipient of the Ogawa-Yamanaka Stem Cell Prize [Video]

For eight long years, researchers who were trying to develop a stem cell-based therapy for Parkinson’s disease – an incurable movement disorder marked by uncontrollable shaking, body stiffness and difficulty walking – found themselves lost in the proverbial wilderness. In initial studies, rodent stem cells were successfully coaxed to specialize into dopamine-producing nerve cells, the type that are lost in Parkinson’s disease. And further animal studies showed these cells could treat Parkinson’s like symptoms when transplanted into the brain.

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Lorenz Studer, MD
Photo Credit: Sloan Kettering

But when identical recipes were used to make human stem cell-derived dopamine nerve cells the same animal experiments didn’t work. By examining the normal developmental biology of dopamine neurons much more closely, Lorenz Studer cracked the case in 2011. Now seven years later, Dr. Studer, director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology at the Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and his team are on the verge of beginning clinical trials to test their Parkinson’s cell therapy in patients

It’s for these bottleneck-busting contributions to the stem cell field that Dr. Studer was awarded the Gladstone Institutes’ 2017 Ogawa-Yamanaka Stem Cell Prize. Now in its third year, the prize was founded by philanthropists Hiro and Betty Ogawa along with  Shinya Yamanaka, Gladstone researcher and director of the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application at Kyoto University, and is meant to inspire and celebrate discoveries that build upon Yamanaka’s Nobel prize winning discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).

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(L to R) Shinya Yamanaka, Andrew Ogawa, Deepak Srivastava present Lorenz Studer the 2017 Ogawa-Yamanaka Stem Cell Prize at Gladstone Institutes. Photo Credit: Todd Dubnicoff/CIRM

Studer was honored at the Gladstone in November and presented the Ogawa-Yamanka Stem Cell Prize Lecture. He was kind enough to sit down with me for a brief video interview (watch it below) a few minutes before he took the stage. He touched upon his Parkinson’s disease research as well as newer work related to hirschsprung disease, a dangerous intestinal disorder often diagnosed at birth that is caused by the loss of nerve cells in the gut. Using human embryonic stem cells and iPSCs derived from hirschsprung patients, Studer’s team has worked out the methods for making the gut nerve cells that are lost in the disease. This accomplishment has allowed his lab to better understand the disease and to make solid progress toward a stem cell-based therapy.

His groundbreaking work has also opened up the gates for other Parkinson’s researchers to make important insights in the field. In fact, CIRM is funding several interesting early stage projects aimed at moving therapy development forward:

We posted the 8-minute video with Dr. Studer today on our official YouTube channel, CIRM TV. You can watch the video here:

And for a more detailed description of Studer’s research, watch Gladstone’s webcast recording of his entire lecture:

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Hey, what’s the big idea? CIRM Board is putting up more than $16.4 million to find out

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David Higgins, CIRM Board member and Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s disease; Photo courtesy San Diego Union Tribune

When you have a life-changing, life-threatening disease, medical research never moves as quickly as you want to find a new treatment. Sometimes, as in the case of Parkinson’s disease, it doesn’t seem to move at all.

At our Board meeting last week David Higgins, our Board member and Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s disease, made that point as he championed one project that is taking a new approach to finding treatments for the condition. As he said in a news release:

“I’m a fourth generation Parkinson’s patient and I’m taking the same medicines that my grandmother took. They work but not for everyone and not for long. People with Parkinson’s need new treatment options and we need them now. That’s why this project is worth supporting. It has the potential to identify some promising candidates that might one day lead to new treatments.”

The project is from Zenobia Therapeutics. They were awarded $150,000 as part of our Discovery Inception program, which targets great new ideas that could have a big impact on the field of stem cell research but need some funding to help test those ideas and see if they work.

Zenobia’s idea is to generate induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) that have been turned into dopaminergic neurons – the kind of brain cell that is dysfunctional in Parkinson’s disease. These iPSCs will then be used to screen hundreds of different compounds to see if any hold potential as a therapy for Parkinson’s disease. Being able to test compounds against real human brain cells, as opposed to animal models, could increase the odds of finding something effective.

Discovering a new way

The Zenobia project was one of 14 programs approved for the Discovery Inception award. You can see the others on our news release. They cover a broad array of ideas targeting a wide range of diseases from generating human airway stem cells for new approaches to respiratory disease treatments, to developing a novel drug that targets cancer stem cells.

Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President and CEO, said the Stem Cell Agency supports this kind of work because we never know where the next great idea is going to come from:

“This research is critically important in advancing our knowledge of stem cells and are the foundation for future therapeutic candidates and treatments. Exploring and testing new ideas increases the chances of finding treatments for patients with unmet medical needs. Without CIRM’s support many of these projects might never get off the ground. That’s why our ability to fund research, particularly at the earliest stage, is so important to the field as a whole.”

The CIRM Board also agreed to invest $13.4 million in three projects at the Translation stage. These are programs that have shown promise in early stage research and need funding to do the work to advance to the next level of development.

  • $5.56 million to Anthony Oro at Stanford to test a stem cell therapy to help people with a form of Epidermolysis bullosa, a painful, blistering skin disease that leaves patients with wounds that won’t heal.
  • $5.15 million to Dan Kaufman at UC San Diego to produce natural killer (NK) cells from embryonic stem cells and see if they can help people with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) who are not responding to treatment.
  • $2.7 million to Catriona Jamieson at UC San Diego to test a novel therapeutic approach targeting cancer stem cells in AML. These cells are believed to be the cause of the high relapse rate in AML and other cancers.

At CIRM we are trying to create a pipeline of projects, ones that hold out the promise of one day being able to help patients in need. That’s why we fund research from the earliest Discovery level, through Translation and ultimately, we hope into clinical trials.

The writer Victor Hugo once said:

“There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.”

We are in the business of finding those ideas whose time has come, and then doing all we can to help them get there.

 

 

 

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: the tale of a tail that grows back and Zika’s devious Trojan Horse

The tale of a tail that grows back (Kevin McCormack)

Ask people what they know about geckos and the odds are they’ll tell you geckos have English accents and sell car insurance. Which tells you a lot more about the power of advertising than it does about the level of knowledge about lizards. Which is a shame, because the gecko has some amazing qualities, not the least of which is its ability to re-grow its tail. Now some researchers have discovered how it regenerates its tail, and what they’ve learned could one day help people with spinal cord injuries.

Geckos often detach a bit of their tail when being pursued by a predator, then grow a new one over the course of 30 days. Researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada found that the lizards use a combination of stem cells and proteins to do that.

They found that geckos have stem cells in their tail called radial glias. Normally these cells are dormant but that changes when the lizard loses its tail. As Matthew Vickaryous, lead author of the study, said in a news release:

“But when the tail comes off everything temporarily changes. The cells make different proteins and begin proliferating more in response to the injury. Ultimately, they make a brand new spinal cord. Once the injury is healed and the spinal cord is restored, the cells return to a resting state.”

Vickaryous hopes that understanding how the gecko can repair what is essentially an injury to its spinal cord, we’ll be better able to develop ways to help people with the same kind of injury.

The study is published in the Journal of Comparative Neurology.

Zika virus uses Trojan Horse strategy to infect developing brain
In April 2015, the World Health Organization declared that infection by Zika virus and its connection to severe birth defects was an international public health emergency. The main concern has been the virus’ link to microcephaly, a condition in which abnormal brain development causes a smaller than normal head size at birth. Microcephaly leads to number of problems in these infants including developmental delays, seizures, hearing loss and difficulty swallowing.

A false color micrograph shows microglia cells (green) infected by the Zika virus (blue). Image Muotri lab/UCSD

Since that time, researchers have been racing to better understand how Zika infection affects brain development with the hope of finding treatment strategies. Now, a CIRM-funded study in Human Molecular Genetics reports important new insights about how Zika virus may be transmitted from infected pregnant women to their unborn babies.

The UCSD researchers behind the study chose to focus on microglia cells. In a press release, team leader Alysson Muotri explained their rationale for targeting these cells:

“During embryogenesis — the early stages of prenatal development — cells called microglia form in the yolk sac and then disperse throughout the central nervous system (CNS) of the developing child. Considering the timing of [Zika] transmission, we hypothesized that microglia might be serving as a Trojan horse to transport the virus during invasion of the CNS.”

In the developing brain, microglia continually travel throughout the brain and clear away dead or infected cells. Smuggling itself aboard microglia would give Zika a devious way to slip through the body’s defenses and infect other brain cells. And that’s exactly what Dr. Muotri’s team found.

Using human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), they generated brain stem cells – the kind found in the developing brain – and in lab dish infected them with Zika virus. When iPSC-derived microglia were added to the infected neural stem cells, the microglia gobbled them up and destroyed them, just as they would do in the brain. But when those microglia were placed next to uninfected brain stem cells, the Zika virus was easily transmitted to those cells. Muotri summed up the results this way:

“Our findings show that the Zika virus can infect these early microglia, sneaking into the brain where they transmit the virus to other brain cells, resulting in the devastating neurological damage we see in some newborns.”

The team went on to show that an FDA-approved drug to treat hepatitis – a liver disease often caused by viral infection – was effective at decreasing the infection of brain stem cells by Zika-carrying microglia. Since these studies were done in petri dishes, more research will be required to confirm that the microglia are a true drug target for stopping the devastating impact of Zika on newborns.

Stanford scientists are growing brain stem cells in bulk using 3D hydrogels

This blog is the final installment in our #MonthofCIRM series. Be sure to check out our other blogs highlighting important advances in CIRM-funded research and initiatives.

Neural stem cells from the brain have promising potential as cell-based therapies for treating neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, and spinal cord injury. A limiting factor preventing these brain stem cells from reaching the clinic is quantity. Scientists have a difficult time growing large populations of brain stem cells in an efficient, cost-effective manner while also maintaining the cells in a stem cell state (a condition referred to as “stemness”).

CIRM-funded scientists from Stanford University are working on a solution to this problem. Dr. Sarah Heilshorn, an associate professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Stanford, and her team are engineering 3D hydrogel technologies to make it easier and cheaper to expand high-quality neural stem cells (NSCs) for clinical applications. Their research was published yesterday in the journal Nature Materials.

Stem Cells in 3D

Similar to how moviegoers prefer to watch the latest Star Wars installment in 3D, compared to the regular screen, scientists are turning to 3D materials called hydrogels to grow large numbers of stem cells. Such an environment offers more space for the stem cells to proliferate and expand their numbers while keeping them happy in their stem cell state.

To find the ideal conditions to grow NSCs in 3D, Heilshorn’s team tested two important properties of hydrogels: stiffness and degradability (or how easy it is to remodel the structure of the hydrogel material). They designed a range of hydrogels, made from proteins with elastic qualities, that varied in these two properties. Interestingly, they found that the stiffness of the material did not have a profound effect on the “stemness” of NSCs. This result contrasts with other types of adult stem cells like muscle stem cells, which quickly differentiate into mature muscle cells when exposed to stiffer materials.

On the other hand, the researchers found that it was crucial for the NSCs to be able to remodel their 3D environment. NSCs maintained their stemness by secreting enzymes that broke down and rearranged the molecules in the hydrogels. If this enzymatic activity was blocked, or if the cells were grown in hydrogels that couldn’t be remodeled easily, NSCs lost their stemness and stopped proliferating. The team tested two other hydrogel materials and found the same results. As long as the NSCs were in a 3D environment they could remodel, they were able to maintain their stemness.

NSCs maintain their stemness in hydrogels that can be remodeled easily. Nestin (green) and Sox2 (red) are markers that indicate “high-quality” NSCs. (Image courtesy of Chris Madl, Stanford)

Caption: NSCs maintain their stemness in hydrogels that can be remodeled easily. Nestin (green) and Sox2 (red) are markers that indicate “high-quality” NSCs. (Images courtesy of Chris Madl)

Christopher Madl, a PhD student in the Heilshorn lab and the first author on the study, explained how remodeling their 3D environment allows NSCs to grow robustly in an interview with the Stem Cellar:

Chris Madl

“In this study, we identified that the ability of the neural stem cells to dynamically remodel the material was critical to maintaining the correct stem cell state. Being able to remodel (or rearrange) the material permitted the cells to contact each other.  This cell-cell contact is responsible for maintaining signals that allow the stem cells to stay in a stem-like state. Our findings allow expansion of neural stem cells from relatively low-density cultures (aiding scale-up) without the use of expensive chemicals that would otherwise be required to maintain the correct stem cell behavior (potentially decreasing cost).”

To 3D and Beyond

When asked what’s next on the research horizon, Heilshorn said two things:

Sarah Heilshorn

“First, we want to see if other stem cell types – for example, pluripotent stem cells – are also sensitive to the “remodel-ability” of materials. Second, we plan to use our discovery to create a low-cost, reproducible material for efficient expansion of stem cells for clinical applications. In particular, we’d like to explore the use of a single material platform that is injectable, so that the same material could be used to expand the stem cells and then transplant them.”

Heilshorn is planning to apply the latter idea to advance another study that her team is currently working on. The research, which is funded by a CIRM Tools and Technologies grant, aims to develop injectable hydrogels containing NSCs derived from human induced pluripotent stem cells to treat mice, and hopefully one day humans, with spinal cord injury. Heilshorn explained,

“In our CIRM-funded studies, we learned a lot about how neural stem cells interact with materials. This lead us to realize that there’s another critical bottleneck that occurs even before the stage of transplantation: being able to generate a large enough number of high-quality stem cells for transplantation. We are developing materials to improve the transplantation of stem cell-derived therapies to patients with spinal cord injuries. Unfortunately, during the transplantation process, a lot of cells can get damaged. We are now creating injectable materials that prevent this cell damage during transplantation and improve the survival and engraftment of NSCs.”

An injectable material that promotes the expansion of large populations of clinical grade stem cells that can also differentiate into mature cells is highly desired by scientists pursuing the development of cell replacement therapies. Heilshorn and her team at Stanford have made significant progress on this front and are hoping that in time, this technology will prove effective enough to reach the clinic.

CIRM stories that caught our eye: UCSD team stops neuromuscular disease in mice, ALS trial enrolls 1st patients and Q&A with CIRM Prez

Ordinarily, we end each week at the Stem Cellar with a few stem cell stories that caught our eye. But, for the past couple of weeks we’ve been busy churning out stories related to our Month of CIRM blog series, which we hope you’ve found enlightening. To round out the series, we present this “caught our eye” blog of CIRM-specific stories from the last half of October.

Stopping neurodegenerative disorder with blood stem cells. (Karen Ring)

CIRM-funded scientists at the UC San Diego School of Medicine may have found a way to treat a progressive neuromuscular disorder called Fredreich’s ataxia (FA). Their research was published last week in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

FA is a genetic disease that attacks the nervous tissue in the spinal cord leading to the loss of sensory nerve cells that control muscle movement. Early on, patients with FA experience muscle weakness and loss of coordination. As the disease progresses, FA can cause scoliosis (curved spine), heart disease and diabetes. 1 in 50,000 Americans are afflicted with FA, and there is currently no effective treatment or cure for this disease.

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In this reconstituted schematic, blood stem cells transplanted in a mouse model of Friedreich’s ataxia differentiate into microglial cells (red) and transfer mitochondrial protein (green) to neurons (blue), preventing neurodegeneration. Image courtesy of Stephanie Cherqui, UC San Diego School of Medicine.

UCSD scientists, led by CIRM grantee Dr. Stephanie Cherqui, found in a previous study that transplanting blood stem and progenitor cells was an effective treatment for preventing another genetic disease called cystinosis in mice. Cherqui’s cystinosis research is currently being funded by a CIRM late stage preclinical grant.

In this new study, the UCSD team was curious to find out whether a similar stem cell approach could also be an effective treatment for FA. The researchers used an FA transgenic mouse model that was engineered to harbor two different human mutations in a gene called FXN, which produces a mitochondrial protein called frataxin. Mutations in FXN result in reduced expression of frataxin, which eventually leads to the symptoms experienced by FA patients.

When they transplanted healthy blood stem and progenitor cells (HSPCs) from normal mice into FA mice, the cells developed into immune cells called microglia and macrophages. They found the microglia in the brain and spinal cord and the macrophages in the spinal cord, heart and muscle tissue of FA mice that received the transplant. These normal immune cells produced healthy frataxin protein, which was transferred to disease-affected nerve and muscle cells in FA mice.

Cherqui explained their study’s findings in a UC San Diego Health news release:

“Transplantation of wildtype mouse HSPCs essentially rescued FA-impacted cells. Frataxin expression was restored. Mitochondrial function in the brains of the transgenic mice normalized, as did in the heart. There was also decreased skeletal muscle atrophy.”

In the news release, Cherqui’s team acknowledged that the FA mouse model they used does not perfectly mimic disease progression in humans. In future studies, the team will test their method on other mouse models of FA to ultimately determine whether blood stem cell transplants will be an effective treatment option for FA patients.

Brainstorm’s CIRM funded clinical trial for ALS enrolls its first patients
“We have been conducting ALS clinical trials for more than two decades at California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC) and this is, by far, the most exciting trial in which we have been involved to date.”

Those encouraging words were spoken by Dr. Robert Miller, director of CPMC’s Forbes Norris ALS Research Center in an October 16th news release posted by Brainstorm Cell Therapeutics. The company announced in the release that they had enrolled the first patients in their CIRM-funded, stem cell-based clinical trial for the treatment of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

BrainStorm

Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is a cruel, devastating disease that gradually destroys motor neurons, the cells in the brain or spinal cord that instruct muscles to move. People with the disease lose the ability to move their muscles and, over time, the muscles atrophy leading to paralysis. Most people with ALS die within 3 to 5 years from the onset of symptoms and there is no effective therapy for the disease.

Brainstorm’s therapy product, called NurOwn®, is made from mesenchymal stem cells that are taken from the patient’s own bone marrow. These stem cells are then modified to boost their production and release of factors, which are known to help support and protect the motor neurons destroyed by the disease. Because the cells are derived directly from the patient, no immunosuppressive drugs are necessary, which avoids potentially dangerous side effects. The trial aims to enroll 200 patients and is a follow up of a very promising phase 2 trial. CIRM’s $16 million grant to the Israeli company which also has headquarters in the United States will support clinical studies at multiple centers in California. And Abla Creasey, CIRM’s Senior Director of Strategic Infrastructure points out in the press release, the Agency support of this trial goes beyond this single grant:

“Brainstorm will conduct this trial at multiple sites in California, including our Alpha Clinics Network and will also manufacture its product in California using CIRM-funded infrastructure.”

An initial analysis of the effectiveness of NurOwn® in this phase 3 trial is expected in 2019.

CIRM President Maria Millan reflects on her career, CIRM’s successes and the outlook for stem cell biology 

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Maria T. Millan, M.D., CIRM President and CEO

RegMedNet a networking website that provides content related to the regenerative medicine community, published an interview this morning with Maria Millan, M.D., CIRM’s new President and CEO. The interview covers the impressive accomplishments that Dr. Millan had achieved before coming to CIRM, with details that even some of us CIRM team members may not have been aware of. In addition to describing her pre-CIRM career, Dr. Millan also describes the Agency’s successes during her term as Vice President of CIRM’s Therapeutics group and she gives her take on future of Agency and the stem cell biology field in general over the next five years and beyond. File this article under “must read”.

CIRM-Funded Clinical Trials Targeting Brain and Eye Disorders

This blog is part of our Month of CIRM series, which features our Agency’s progress towards achieving our mission to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.

 This week, we’re highlighting CIRM-funded clinical trials to address the growing interest in our rapidly expanding clinical portfolio. Our Agency has funded a total of 40 trials since its inception. 23 of these trials were funded after the launch of our Strategic Plan in 2016, bringing us close to the half way point of our goal to fund 50 new clinical trials by 2020.

Today we are featuring CIRM-funded trials in our neurological and eye disorders portfolio.  CIRM has funded a total of nine trials targeting these disease areas, and seven of these trials are currently active. Check out the infographic below for a list of our currently active trials.

For more details about all CIRM-funded clinical trials, visit our clinical trials page and read our clinical trials brochure which provides brief overviews of each trial.

CIRM Bridges Student Researcher Discovers Mentoring is a Two-Way Street

Jasmine Carter is a CIRM Bridges Scholar a Sacramento State University. She currently is interning in the lab of Dr. Kyle Fink at UC Davis and her research focuses on developing induced neurons from skin cells to model neurological disorders and develop novel therapeutics. Jasmine was a mentor to one of our UC Davis CIRM SPARK high school students this summer, and we asked her to share her thoughts on the importance of mentorship in science.

I began my scientific journey as an undergraduate student in the biomedical sciences, determined to get into medical school to become a surgeon. But I was perpetually stressed, always pushing towards the next goal and never stopping to smell the roses. Until one day, I did stop because a mentor encouraged me to figure out how I wanted to contribute to the medical field. In the midst of contemplating this important question, I was offered an undergraduate research position studying stem cells. It wasn’t long before I realized I had found my calling. Those little stem cells were incredibly fascinating to me, and I really enjoyed my time in a research lab. Being able to apply my scientific knowledge at the lab bench and challenge myself to solve biological problems was truly enjoyable to me so I applied to and was accepted into Sacramento State’s CIRM Bridges Program.

Jasmine working with stem cells in the cell culture hood.

To say I was excited to learn more about stem cell biology would be an understatement. I started volunteering in the Translational Research Lab at the Institute for Regenerative Cures at UC Davis as soon as I could. And I started to feel way outside my comfort zone as I walked into the lab because the seemingly endless rows of research benches and all the lab equipment can be a lot to take in when you first begin your research journey. When I started to actually run experiments, I worried that I may have messed the experiment up. I worried that I might SAY or DO something that would make me appear less intelligent because everyone was so knowledgeable. I struggled with figuring out whether or not I was cut out for the research environment.

I have now started my formal research internship and am constantly amazed at the mentorship I receive and collaboration I witness every day; everyone is always willing to lend a helping hand or simply be a sounding board for ideas. I have learned an immense amount of knowledge about stem cell research and its potential to improve knowledge for the scientific community and treatment options for patients. But I would not have had the opportunity to grow as an intern and learn from experts in various disciplines if it were not for the CIRM Bridges Program. The Bridges Program has allowed me to apply basic biological principles as I learn about stem cell biology and the applications of stems cells while completing a Master’s research project. Diving into the research environment has been challenging at times, but guidance from knowledgeable and encouraging mentors in the Translational Research Laboratory has helped to shape me into a more confident researcher.

Jasmine and Yasmine.

As fate would have it, just as I was becoming more and more confident in myself as a researcher, I found myself becoming a mentor to our CIRM SPARK high school intern, Yasmine. During Yasmine’s first week, I saw the exact same feelings of doubt on her face that I had experienced when I first volunteered in the laboratory. I saw how she challenged herself to absorb and understand every word and concept we said to her. I saw that familiar worried expression she’d displayed when unsure if she just messed up on an experiment or the hesitation when trying to figure out if the question she was about to ask was the “right” one. Because I had faced the same struggles, I could assure her that the internship was a learning experience and that each success and setback she encountered while working on her project would make her a better scientist.

During Yasmine’s eight-week summer internship, she observed and helped members of our team on various experiments while conducting her own research project. At the end of the first week, Yasmine commented on how diligent all the researchers in the lab were; how she hadn’t known the amount of effort and work that’s required to develop and complete a research project. Yasmine’s project focused on optimizing the protocols, or recipes, for editing genes in different types of cells for use as potential treatments for neurological disorders. Many days, you’d find Yasmine peering into the microscope and imaging cells – for her project or one of ours. Being able to visually assess the success of our experiments was exciting for her. The time we spent trying to track down just one fluorescent cell was a great opportunity for us to review the experiment and brainstorm the next set of experiments we wanted to run. I enjoyed explaining the science behind the experiments we set up, and Yasmine’s thought provoking questions sometimes led to a learning session where we figured out the answer together. Yasmine even used the knowledge she was acquiring in a graduate level Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) course to explain her flow cytometry results to our team during a lab meeting.

Yasmine at the microscope.

It was actually during one of these lab meetings when I was practicing my poster presentation for the 2017 Annual CIRM Bridges Trainee Meeting when Yasmine said, “I finally understand your project”. She and I had frequently discussed my project, but towards the end of the internship she was integrating what she learned in lectures, whiteboard review sessions and scientific papers to the research we were doing at the lab bench. It was incredibly gratifying to see how much she had learned and how her confidence as a young scientist grew while she interned with us. The internship was an invaluable experience for Yasmine because it helped to reinforce her commitment to improving the lives of patients who suffer from brain cancer. She hopes to use the research skills that the SPARK program provided to seek out research opportunities in college.

But the learning wasn’t one-sided this summer because I was also learning from Yasmine. The CIRM SPARK students are encouraged to document their internship on social media. And with Yasmine’s encouragement, I have started to document my experiences in the Bridges program by showing what the day to day life of a graduate student looks like, what experiments are going well and how I am trouble-shooting the failed experiments. Sometimes those failed experiments can be discouraging, but taking the time to discuss it with a mentor, mentee or an individual on social media can help me to figure out how I should change the experiment. So, when self-doubt sprouted back up as I began to document my experiences in the program, I reminded myself that being pushed outside my comfort zone is a great way to learn. But one of the greatest lessons I learned from Yasmine’s summer internship is the importance of sharing in a mentor-mentee relationship. After sharing my knowledge with Yasmine, I got to watch her confidence shine when she took the reins with experiments and then shared the fruits of her labor with me.

There can be a lot of ups and downs in research. However, opportunities for mentorship and learning with such bright, enthusiastic and dedicated students has certainly validated the importance of the CIRM Bridges and SPARK programs. The mentorship and collaboration that occurs between high school interns, undergraduates, graduate students, post-docs and principal investigators to develop therapies for patients with unmet medical needs is truly amazing.

Mentorship leads to productive careers and friendships.

Jasmine Carter is also an avid science communicator. You can follow her science journey on Instagram and Twitter.

Blocking spike in stem cell growth after brain injury may lessen memory decline, seizures

Survivors of traumatic brain injury (TBI) often suffer from debilitating, life changing symptoms like memory decline and epileptic seizures. Researchers had observed that following TBI, a stem cell-rich area of the brain provides a spike in new nerve cell growth, presumably to help replace damaged or destroyed brain cells. But, like a lot of things in biology, more is not always better. And a new report in Stem Cell Reports provides evidence that this spark of brain cell growth shortly after TBI may actually be responsible for post-injury seizures as well as long-term memory problems for people with this condition.The Rutgers University research team behind the study came to this counterintuitive conclusion by examining brain injury in laboratory rats. They showed that brain cells at the injury site that are known to play a role in memory had doubled in number within three days after injury. But a month later, these brain cells had decreased by more than half the amount seen in rats without injury. Neural stem cells, which develop into the mature cells found in the brain, showed this same up and down pattern, suggesting they were responsible for the loss of the brain cells. Lead scientist, professor Viji Santhakumar, described how these changes in brain cell growth lead to brain injury symptoms:

“There is an initial increase in birth of new neurons after a brain injury but within weeks, there is a dramatic decrease in the normal rate at which neurons are born, depleting brain cells that under normal circumstances should be there to replace damaged cells and repair the brain’s network,” she said in a press release. “The excess new neurons lead to epileptic seizures and could contribute to cognitive decline. It is normal for the birth of new neurons to decline as we age. But what we found in our study was that after a head injury the decline seems to be more rapid.”

The researchers next aimed to slow down this increase in nerve cell growth after injury. To accomplish this goal, they used an anti-cancer drug currently in clinical trials which has been known to block the growth and survival of new nerve cells. Sure enough, the drug blocked this initial, rapid burst in nerve cells in the rats, which prevented the long-term decline in the brain cells that are involved in memory decline. The team also reported that the rats were less vulnerable to seizures when this drug was administered.

“That’s why we believe that limiting this process might be beneficial to stopping seizures after brain injury,” Dr. Santhakumar commented.

Hopefully, these findings will one day help lessen these short- and long-term, life-altering symptoms seen after brain injury.

Hearts and brains are center stage at CIRM Patient Advocate event

Describing the work of a government agency is not the most exciting of topics. Books on the subject would probably be found in the “Self-help for Insomniacs” section of a good bookstore (there are still some around). But at CIRM we are fortunate. When we talk about what we do, we don’t talk about the mechanics of our work, we talk about our mission: accelerating stem cell therapies to people with unmet medical needs.

Yesterday at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco we did just that, talking about the progress being made in stem cell research to an audience of friends, supporters and patient advocates. We had a lot to talk about, including the 35 clinical trials we have funded so far, and our goals and hopes for the future.

We were lucky to have Dr. Deepak Srivastava and Dr. Steve Finkbeiner from Gladstone join us to talk about their work. Some people are good scientists, some are good communicators. Deepak and Steve are great scientists and equally great communicators.

Deepak Srivastava highlighted ongoing stem cell research at the Gladstone
(Photo: Todd Dubnicoff/CIRM)

Deepak is the Director of the Roddenberry Stem Cell Center at Gladstone (and yes, it’s named after Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek fame) and an expert on heart disease. He talked about how advances in research have enabled us to turn heart scar tissue cells into new heart muscle cells, creating the potential to use a person’s own cells to help them recover from a heart attack.

“If you have a heart attack, your heart turns that muscle into scar tissue which affects the heart’s ability to pump blood around the body. We identified a combination of factors that support cells that are already in your heart and we have found a way of converting those scar cells into muscle. This could help repair the heart enough so you may not need a transplant, but you can lead a much more normal life.”

He said this research is now advancing to the point where they hope it could be ready for testing in people in the not too distant future and joked that his father, who has had a heart attack, volunteered to be the second person to try it. “Not the first but definitely the second.”

Steve, who is the Director of the Taube/Koret Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research, specializes in problems in the brain; everything from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to schizophrenia and ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

He talked about his uncle, who has end stage Parkinson’s disease, and how he sees first-hand how devastating this neurodegenerative disease is, and how that personal connection helps motivate him to work ever harder.

He talked about how so many therapies that look promising in mice fail when they are tested in people:

“A huge motivation for me has been to try and figure out a more reliable way to test these potential therapies and to move discoveries from the lab and into clinical trials in patients.”

Steve is using ordinary skin cells or tissue samples, taken from people with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and other neurological conditions, and using the iPSC technique developed by Shinya Yamanaka (who is a researcher at Gladstone and also Director of CIRA in Japan) turns them into the kinds of cells found in the brain. These cells then enable him to study how these different diseases affect the brain, and come up with ways that might stop their progress.

Steve Finkbeiner is using human stem cells to model brain diseases
(Photo: Todd Dubnicoff/CIRM)

He uses a robotic microscope – developed at Gladstone – that allows his team to study these cells and test different potential therapies 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This round-the-clock approach will hopefully help speed up his ability to find something that help patients.

The CIRM speakers – Dr. Maria Millan, our interim President and CEO – and Sen. Art Torres (ret.) the Vice Chair of our Board and a patient advocate for colorectal cancer – talked about the progress we are making in helping push stem cell research forward.

Dr. Millan focused on our clinical trial work and how our goal is to create a pipeline of promising projects from the work being done by researchers like Deepak and Steve, and move those out of the lab and into clinical trials in people as quickly as possible.

Sen. Art Torres (Ret.)
(Photo: Todd Dubnicoff/CIRM)

Sen. Torres focused on the role of the patient advocate at CIRM and how they help shape and influence everything we do, from the Board’s deciding what projects to support and fund, to our creating Clinical Advisory Panels which involve a patient advocate helping guide clinical trial teams.

The event is one of a series that we hold around the state every year, reporting back to our friends and supporters on the progress being made. We feel, as a state agency, that we owe it to the people of California to let them know how their money is being spent.

We are holding two more of these events in the near future, one at UC Davis in Sacramento on October 10th, and one at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on October 30th.

CIRM weekly stem cell roundup: minibrain model of childhood disease; new immune insights; patient throws out 1st pitch

New human Mini-brain model of devastating childhood disease.
The eradication of Aicardi-Goutieres Syndrome (AGS) can’t come soon enough. This rare but terrible inherited disease causes the immune system to attack the brain. The condition leads to microcephaly (an abnormal small head and brain size), muscle spasms, vision problems and joint stiffness during infancy. Death or a persistent comatose state is common by early childhood. There is no cure.

Though animal models that mimic AGS symptoms are helpful, they don’t reflect the human disease closely enough to provide researchers with a deeper understanding of the mechanisms of the disease. But CIRM-funded research published this week may be a game changer for opening up new therapeutic strategies for the children and their families that are suffering from AGS.

Organoid mini-brains are clusters of cultured cells self-organized into miniature replicas of organs. Image courtesy of Cleber A. Trujillo, UC San Diego.

To get a clearer human picture of the disease, Dr. Alysson Muotri of UC San Diego and his team generated AGS patient-derived induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These iPSCs were then grown into “mini-brains” in a lab dish. As described in Cell Stem Cell, their examination of the mini-brains revealed an excess of chromosomal DNA in the cells. This abnormal build up causes various toxic effects on the nerve cells in the mini-brains which, according to Muotri, had the hallmarks of AGS in patients:

“These models seemed to mirror the development and progression of AGS in a developing fetus,” said Muotri in a press release. “It was cell death and reduction when neural development should be rising.”

In turns out that the excess DNA wasn’t just a bunch of random sequences but instead most came from so-called LINE1 (L1) retroelements. These repetitive DNA sequences can “jump” in and out of DNA chromosomes and are thought to be remnants of ancient viruses in the human genome. And it turns out the cell death in the mini-brains was caused by the immune system’s anti-viral response to these L1 retroelements. First author Charles Thomas explained why researchers may have missed this in their mouse models:

“We uncovered a novel and fundamental mechanism, where chronic response to L1 elements can negatively impact human neurodevelopment. This mechanism seems human-specific. We don’t see this in the mouse.”

The team went on to test the anti-retroviral effects of HIV drugs on their AGS models. Sure enough, the drugs decreased the amount of L1 DNA and cell growth rebounded in the mini-brains. The beauty of using already approved drugs is that the route to clinical trials is much faster and in fact a European trial is currently underway.

For more details, watch this video interview with Dr. Muotri:

New findings about immune cell development may open door to new cancer treatments
For those of you who suffer with seasonal allergies, you can blame your sniffling and sneezing on an overreaction by mast cells. These white blood cells help jump start the immune system by releasing histamines which makes blood vessels leaky allowing other immune cells to join the battle to fight disease or infection. Certain harmless allergens like pollen are mistaken as dangerous and can also cause histamine release which triggers tearing and sneezing.

Mast cells in lab dish. Image: Wikipedia.

Dysfunction of mast cells are also involved in some blood cancers. And up until now, it was thought a protein called stem cell factor played the key role in the development of blood stem cells into mast cells. But research reported this week by researchers at Karolinska Institute and Uppsala University found cracks in that previous hypothesis. Their findings published in Blood could open the door to new cancer therapies.

The researchers examine the effects of the anticancer drug Glivec – which blocks the function of stem cell factor – on mast cells in patients with a form of leukemia. Although the number of mature mast cells were reduced by the drug, the number of progenitor mast cells were not. The progenitors are akin to teenagers in that they’re at an intermediate stage of development, more specialized than stem cells but not quite mast cells. The team went on to confirm that stem cell factor was not required for the mast cell progenitors to survive, multiply and mature. Instead, their work identified two other growth factors, interleukin 3 and 6, as important for mast cell development.

In a press release, lead author Joakim Dahlin, explained how these new insights could lead to new therapies:

“The study increases our understanding of how mast cells are formed and could be important in the development of new therapies, for example for mastocytosis for which treatment with imatinib/Glivec is not effective. One hypothesis that we will now test is whether interleukin 3 can be a new target in the treatment of mast cell-driven diseases.”

Patient in CIRM-funded trial regains use of arms, hands and fingers will throw 1st pitch in MLB game.
We end this week with some heart-warming news from Asterias Biotherapeutics. You avid Stem Cellar readers will remember our story about Lucas Lindner several weeks back. Lucas was paralyzed from the neck down after a terrible car accident. Shortly after the accident, in June of 2016, he enrolled in Asterias’ CIRM-funded trial testing an embryonic stem cell-based therapy to treat his injury. And this Sunday, August 13th, we’re excited to report that due to regaining the use of his arms, hands and fingers since the treatment, he will throw out the first pitch of a Major League Baseball game in Milwaukee. Congrats to Lucas!

For more about Lucas’ story, watch this video produced by Asterias Biotherapeutics: