Cures, clinical trials and unmet medical needs

When you have a great story to tell there’s no shame in repeating it as often as you can. After all, not everyone gets to hear first time around. Or second or third time. So that’s why we wanted to give you another opportunity to tune into some of the great presentations and discussions at our recent CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network Symposium.

It was a day of fascinating science, heart-warming, and heart-breaking, stories. A day to celebrate the progress being made and to discuss the challenges that still lie ahead.

There is a wide selection of topics from “Driving Towards a Cure” – which looks at some pioneering work being done in research targeting type 1 diabetes and HIV/AIDS – to Cancer Clinical Trials, that looks at therapies for multiple myeloma, brain cancer and leukemia.

The COVID-19 pandemic also proved the background for two detailed discussions on our funding for projects targeting the coronavirus, and for how the lessons learned from the pandemic can help us be more responsive to the needs of underserved communities.

Here’s the agenda for the day and with each topic there’s a link to the video of the presentation and conversation.

Thursday October 8, 2020

View Recording: CIRM Fellows Trainees

9:00am Welcome Mehrdad Abedi, MD, UC Davis Health, ASCC Program Director  

Catriona Jamieson, MD,  View Recording: ASCC Network Value Proposition

9:10am Session I:  Cures for Rare Diseases Innovation in Action 

Moderator: Mark Walters, MD, UCSF, ASCC Program Director 

Don Kohn, MD, UCLA – View Recording: Severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) 

Mark Walters, MD, UCSF, ASCC Program Director – View Recording: Thalassemia 

Pawash Priyank, View Recording: Patient Experience – SCID

Olivia and Stacy Stahl, View Recording: Patient Experience – Thalassemia

10 minute panel discussion/Q&A 

BREAK

9:55am Session II: Addressing Unmet Medical Needs: Driving Towards a Cure 

Moderator: John Zaia, MD, City of Hope, ASCC Program Direction 

Mehrdad Abedi, MD, UC Davis Health, ASCC Program Director – View Recording: HIV

Manasi Jaiman, MD, MPH, ViaCyte, Vice President, Clinical Development – View Recording: Diabetes

Jeff Taylor, Patient Experience – HIV

10 minute panel discussion/Q&A 

BREAK

10:40am Session III: Cancer Clinical Trials: Networking for Impact 

Moderator: Catriona Jamieson, MD, UC San Diego, ASCC Program Director 

Daniela Bota, MD, PhD, UC Irvine, ASCC Program Director – View Recording:  Glioblastoma 

Michael Choi, MD, UC San Diego – View Recording: Cirmtuzimab

Matthew Spear, MD, Poseida Therapeutics, Chief Medical Officer – View Recording: Multiple Myeloma  

John Lapham, Patient Experience –  View Recording: Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) 

10 minute panel discussion/Q&A 

BREAK

11:30am Session IV: Responding to COVID-19 and Engaging Communities

Two live “roundtable conversation” sessions, 1 hour each.

Roundtable 1: Moderator Maria Millan, MD, CIRM 

CIRM’s / ASCC Network’s response to COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma, Cell Therapy and Novel Vaccine Approaches

Panelists

Michael Matthay, MD, UC San Francisco: ARDS Program

Rachael Callcut, MD, MSPH, FACS, UC Davis: ARDS Program 

John Zaia, MD, City of Hope: Convalescent Plasma Program 

Daniela Bota, MD, PhD, UC Irvine: Natural Killer Cells as a Treatment Strategy 

Key questions for panelists: 

  • Describe your trial or clinical program?
  • What steps did you take to provide access to disproportionately impacted communities?
  • How is it part of the overall scientific response to COVID-19? 
  • How has the ASCC Network infrastructure accelerated this response? 

Brief Break

Roundtable 2: Moderator Ysabel Duron, The Latino Cancer Institute and Latinas Contra Cancer

View Recording: Roundtable 2

Community Engagement and Lessons Learned from the COVID Programs.  

Panelists

Marsha Treadwell, PhD, UC San Francisco: Community Engagement  

Sheila Young, MD, Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science: Convalescent Plasma Program in the community

David Lo, MD, PhD,  UC Riverside: Bringing a public health perspective to clinical interventions

Key questions for panelists: 

  • What were important lessons learned from the COVID programs? 
  • How can CIRM and the ASCC Network achieve equipoise among communities and engender trust in clinical research? 
  • How can CIRM and the ASCC Network address structural barriers (e.g. job constrains, geographic access) that limit opportunities to participate in clinical trials?

Creating an on-off switch to test stem cell therapy for Parkinson’s Disease

Sometimes you read about a new study where the researchers did something that just leaves you gob smacked. That’s how I felt when I read a study in the journal Cell Stem Cell about a possible new approach to helping people with Parkinson’s Disease (PD).

More on the gob smacking later. But first the reason for the study.

We know that one of the causes of Parkinson’s disease is the death of dopamine-producing neurons, brain cells that help plan and control body movement. Over the years, researchers have tried different ways to try and replace those cells but getting the cells where they need to be and getting them to integrate into the brain has proved challenging.

A team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison think they may have found a way to fix that. In an article in Drug Target Review  lead researcher Dr. Su-Chun Zhang, explained their approach:

“Our brain is wired in such an accurate way by very specialized nerve cells in particular locations so we can engage in all our complex behaviors. This all depends on circuits that are wired by specific cell types. Neurological injuries usually affect specific brain regions or specific cell types, disrupting circuits. In order to treat those diseases, we have to restore these circuits.”

The researchers took human embryonic stem cells and transformed them into dopamine-producing neurons, then they transplanted those cells into mice specially bred to display PD symptoms. After several months the team were able to show that not only had the mice improved motor skills but that the transplanted neurons were able to connect to the motor-control regions of the brain and also establish connections with regulatory regions of the brain, which prevented over stimulation. In other words, the transplanted cells looked and behaved the way they would in a healthy human brain.

Now here comes the gob smack part. The team wanted to make sure the cells they transplanted were the reason for the improved motor control in the mice. So, they had inserted a genetic on-and-off switch into the stem cells. By using specially designed drugs the researchers were able to switch the cells on or off.

When the cells were switched off the mice’s motor improvements stopped. When they were switched back on, they were restored.

Brilliant right! Well, I thought it was.

Next step is to test this approach in larger animals and, if all continues to look promising, to move into human clinical trials.

CIRM is already funding one clinical trial in Parkinson’s disease. You can read about it here.

Exploring tough questions, looking for answers

COVID-19 and social and racial injustice are two of the biggest challenges facing the US right now. This Thursday, October 8th, we are holding a conversation that explores finding answers to both.

The CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network Symposium is going to feature presentations about advances in stem cell and regenerative research, highlighting treatments that are already in the clinic and being offered to patients.

But we’re also going to dive a little deeper into the work we support, and use it to discuss two of the most pressing issues of the day.

One of the topics being featured is research into COVID-19. To date CIRM has funded 17 different projects, including three clinical trials. We’ll talk about how these are trying to find ways to help people infected with the virus, seeing if stem cells can help restore function to organs and tissues damaged by the virus, and if we can use stem cells to help develop safe and effective vaccines.

Immediately after that we are going to use COVID-19 as a way of exploring how the people most at risk of being infected and suffering serious consequences, are also the ones most likely to be left out of the research and have most trouble accessing treatments and vaccines.

Study after study highlights how racial and ethnic minorities are underrepresented in clinical trials and disproportionately affected by debilitating diseases. We have a responsibility to change that, to ensure that the underserved are given the same opportunity to take part in clinical trials as other communities.

How do we do that, how do we change a system that has resisted change for so long, how do we overcome the mistrust that has built up in underserved communities following decades of abuse? We’ll be talking about with experts who are on the front lines of this movement.

It promises to be a lively meeting. We’d love to see you there. It’s virtual – of course – it’s open to everyone, and it’s free.

Here’s where you can register and find out more about the Symposium

It’s all about the patients

Ronnie, born with a fatal immune disorder now leading a normal life thanks to a CIRM-funded stem cell/gene therapy: Photo courtesy of his mum Upasana

Whenever you are designing something new you always have to keep in mind who the end user is. You can make something that works perfectly fine for you, but if it doesn’t work for the end user, the people who are going to work with it day in and day out, you have been wasting your time. And their time too.

At CIRM our end users are the patients. Everything we do is about them. Starting with our mission statement: to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. Everything we do, every decision we make, has to keep the needs of the patient in mind.

So, when we were planning our recent 2020 Grantee Meeting (with our great friends and co-hosts UC Irvine and UC San Diego) one of the things we wanted to make sure didn’t get lost in the mix was the face and the voice of the patients. Often big conferences like this are heavy on science with presentations from some of the leading researchers in the field. And we obviously wanted to make sure we had that element at the Grantee meeting. But we also wanted to make sure that the patient experience was front and center.

And we did just that. But more on that in a minute. First, let’s talk about why the voice of the patient is important.

Some years ago, Dr. David Higgins, a CIRM Board member and patient advocate for Parkinson’s Disease (PD), said that when researchers are talking about finding treatments for PD they often focus on the dyskinesia, the trembling and shaking and muscle problems. However, he said if you actually asked people with PD you’d find they were more concerned with other aspects of the disease, the insomnia, anxiety and depression among other things. The key is you have to ask.

Frances Saldana, a patient advocate for research into Huntington’s disease

So, we asked some of our patient advocates if they would be willing to be part of the Grantee Meeting. All of them, without hesitation, said yes. They included Frances Saldana, a mother who lost three of her children to Huntington’s disease; Kristin MacDonald, who lost her sight to a rare disorder but regained some vision thanks to a stem cell therapy and is hoping the same therapy will help restore some more; Pawash Priyank, whose son Ronnie was born with a fatal immune disorder but who, thanks to a stem cell/gene therapy treatment, is now healthy and leading a normal life.

Because of the pandemic everything was virtual, but it was no less compelling for that. We interviewed each of the patients or patient advocates beforehand and those videos kicked off each session. Hearing, and seeing, the patients and patient advocates tell their stories set the scene for what followed. It meant that the research the scientists talked about took on added significance. We now had faces and names to highlight the importance of the work the scientists were doing. We had human stories. And that gave a sense of urgency to the work the researchers were doing.

But that wasn’t all. After all the video presentations each session ended with a “live” panel discussion. And again, the patients and patient advocates were a key part of that. Because when scientists talk about taking their work into a clinical trial they need to know if the way they are setting up the trial is going to work for the patients they’re hoping to recruit. You can have the best scientists, the most promising therapy, but if you don’t design a clinical trial in a way that makes it easy for patients to be part of it you won’t be able to recruit or retain the people you need to test the therapy.

Patient voices count. Patient stories count.

But more than anything, hearing and seeing the people we are trying to help reminds us why we do this work. It’s so easy to get caught up in the day to day business of our jobs, struggling to get an experiment to work, racing to get a grant application in before the deadline. Sometimes we get so caught up in the minutiae of work we lose sight of why we are doing it. Or who we are doing it for.

At CIRM we have a saying; come to work every day as if lives depend on you, because lives depend on you. Listening to the voices of patients, seeing their faces, hearing their stories, reminds us not to waste a moment. Because lives depend on all of us.

Here’s one of the interviews that was featured at the event. I do apologize in advance for the interviewer, he’s rubbish at his job.

CIRM Funded Trial for Parkinson’s Treats First Patient

Dr. Krystof Bankiewicz

Brain Neurotherapy Bio, Inc. (BNB) is pleased to announce the treatment of the first patient in its Parkinson’s gene therapy study.  The CIRM-funded study, led by Dr. Krystof Bankiewicz, is one of the 64 clinical trials funded by the California state agency to date.

Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative movement disorder that affects one million people in the U.S alone and leads to shaking, stiffness, and problems with walking, balance, and coordination.  It is caused by the breakdown and death of dopaminergic neurons, special nerve cells in the brain responsible for the production of dopamine, a chemical messenger that is crucial for normal brain activity.

The patient was treated at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center with a gene therapy designed to promote the production of a protein called GDNF, which is best known for its ability to protect dopaminergic neurons, the kind of cell damaged by Parkinson’s. The treatment seeks to increase dopamine production in the brain, alleviating Parkinson’s symptoms and potentially slowing down the disease progress.

“We are pleased to support this multi-institution California collaboration with Ohio State to take a novel first-in-human gene therapy into a clinical trial for Parkinson’s Disease.” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., President and CEO of CIRM.  “This is the culmination of years of scientific research by the Bankiewicz team to improve upon previous attempts to translate the potential therapeutic effect of GDNF to the neurons damaged in the disease. We join the Parkinson’s community in following the outcome of this vital research opportunity.”

CIRM Board Member and patient advocate David Higgins, Ph.D. is also excited about this latest development.  For Dr. Higgins, advocating for Parkinson’s is a very personal journey since he, his grandmother, and his uncle were diagnosed with the disease.

“Our best chance for developing better treatments for Parkinson’s is to test as many logical approaches as possible. CIRM encourages out-of-the-box thinking by providing funding for novel approaches. The Parkinson’s community is a-buzz with excitement about the GDNF approach and looks to CIRM to identify, fund, and promote these kinds of programs.”

In a news release Dr. Sandra Kostyk, director of the Movement Disorders Division at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center said this approach involves infusing a gene therapy solution deep into a part of the brain affected by Parkinson’s: “This is a onetime treatment strategy that could have ongoing lifelong benefits. Though it’s hoped that this treatment will slow disease progression, we don’t expect this strategy to completely stop or cure all aspects of the disease. We’re cautiously optimistic as this research effort moves forward.” 

Other trial sites located in California that are currently recruiting patients are the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Specifically, the Irvine trial site is using the UCI Alpha Stem Cell Clinic, one of five leading medical centers throughout California that make up the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic (ASSC) Network.  The ASSC Network specializes in the delivery of stem cell therapies by providing world-class, state of the art infrastructure to support clinical research.

For more information on the trial and enrollment eligibility, you can directly contact the study coordinators by email at the trial sites listed:

  1. The Ohio State University: OSUgenetherapyresearch@osumc.edu
  2. University of California, San Francisco: GDNF@ucsf.edu
  3. University of California, Irvine: chewbc@hs.uci.edu

Meet the people who are changing the future

Kristin MacDonald

Every so often you hear a story and your first reaction is “oh, I have to share this with someone, anyone, everyone.” That’s what happened to me the other day.

I was talking with Kristin MacDonald, an amazing woman, a fierce patient advocate and someone who took part in a CIRM-funded clinical trial to treat retinitis pigmentosa (RP). The disease had destroyed Kristin’s vision and she was hoping the therapy, pioneered by jCyte, would help her. Kristin, being a bit of a pioneer herself, was the first person to test the therapy in the U.S.

Anyway, Kristin was doing a Zoom presentation and wanted to look her best so she asked a friend to come over and do her hair and makeup. The woman she asked, was Rosie Barrero, another patient in that RP clinical trial. Not so very long ago Rosie was legally blind. Now, here she was helping do her friend’s hair and makeup. And doing it beautifully too.

That’s when you know the treatment works. At least for Rosie.

There are many other stories to be heard – from patients and patient advocates, from researchers who develop therapies to the doctors who deliver them. – at our CIRM 2020 Grantee Meeting on next Monday September 14th Tuesday & September 15th.

It’s two full days of presentations and discussions on everything from heart disease and cancer, to COVID-19, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and spina bifida. Here’s a link to the Eventbrite page where you can find out more about the event and also register to be part of it.

Like pretty much everything these days it’s a virtual event so you’ll be able to join in from the comfort of your kitchen, living room, even the backyard.

And it’s free!

You can join us for all two days or just one session on one day. The choice is yours. And feel free to tell your friends or anyone else you think might be interested.

We hope to see you there.

Perseverance: from theory to therapy. Our story over the last year – and a half

Some of the stars of our Annual Report

It’s been a long time coming. Eighteen months to be precise. Which is a peculiarly long time for an Annual Report. The world is certainly a very different place today than when we started, and yet our core mission hasn’t changed at all, except to spring into action to make our own contribution to fighting the coronavirus.

This latest CIRM Annual Reportcovers 2019 through June 30, 2020. Why? Well, as you probably know we are running out of money and could be funding our last new awards by the end of this year. So, we wanted to produce as complete a picture of our achievements as we could – keeping in mind that we might not be around to produce a report next year.

Dr. Catriona Jamieson, UC San Diego physician and researcher

It’s a pretty jam-packed report. It covers everything from the 14 new clinical trials we have funded this year, including three specifically focused on COVID-19. It looks at the extraordinary researchers that we fund and the progress they have made, and the billions of additional dollars our funding has helped leverage for California. But at the heart of it, and at the heart of everything we do, are the patients. They’re the reason we are here. They are the reason we do what we do.

Byron Jenkins, former Naval fighter pilot who battled back from his own fight with multiple myeloma

There are stories of people like Byron Jenkins who almost died from multiple myeloma but is now back leading a full, active life with his family thanks to a CIRM-funded therapy with Poseida. There is Jordan Janz, a young man who once depended on taking 56 pills a day to keep his rare disease, cystinosis, under control but is now hoping a stem cell therapy developed by Dr. Stephanie Cherqui and her team at UC San Diego will make that something of the past.

Jordan Janz and Dr. Stephanie Cherqui

These individuals are remarkable on so many levels, not the least because they were willing to be among the first people ever to try these therapies. They are pioneers in every sense of the word.

Sneha Santosh, former CIRM Bridges student and now a researcher with Novo Nordisk

There is a lot of information in the report, charting the work we have done over the last 18 months. But it’s also a celebration of everyone who made it possible, and our way of saying thank you to the people of California who gave us this incredible honor and opportunity to do this work.

We hope you enjoy it.

A new voice and vision added to CIRM Board

UC Davis School of Medicine Dean, Dr. Allison Brashear: Photo courtesy UCD

We have a new member on the CIRM Board – Dr. Allison Brashear is the Dean of the UC Davis School of Medicine, overseeing one of the nation’s top research, academic and medical training institutions.

Dr. Brashear is an internationally known researcher in movement disorders and an expert in ATP1A3-related diseases, a spectrum of rare neurologic disorders.

Before joining UC Davis, Dr. Brashear was professor and chair of the Department of Neurology for 14 years at Wake Forest School of Medicine.

She serves on the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, and has served on the boards of the American Neurological Association and the American Academy of Neurology, where she was instrumental in crafting a leadership program for women, now expanded to include leadership development for minorities.

You can read more about her background in this news release. But we wanted to get a sense of what motivates and inspires Dr. Brashear. So we asked her. And she told us.

Dean Brashear being sworn in – virtually – on the CIRM Board. Top left, James Harrision CIRM General Counsel; Jonathan Thomas, CIRM Board Chair; Dr. Brashear; and Dr. Jim Kovach, Director of Industry Alliances at UC Davis, alternative Board member.

When did you get interested in science? Was this always something you knew you wanted to do?

I loved math and science in middle school and continued with science in college. I grew up hearing my parents talk about caring for patients and the impact you could have on them and their family’s lives. My father is a pulmonologist and my mother was a Ph.D. in marriage and family therapy. Together they taught me the value of patient-centered care. 

My mother was a tremendous advocate for women. When I was in middle school she took my friend and I to the state legislature and we watched the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) debates. It’s a powerful memory but not always flattering about what people thought at the time. So, from an early age I really became a strong advocate for women, to make sure women had opportunities and that we were an inclusive culture wherever I was. 

As a woman going into a male dominated field, how did you manage to push past the skeptics and doubters to succeed? 

Early on I recognized the need to work with senior faculty who would give me an opportunity to lead and learn.  I became a chair of neurology at Wake Forest when I was 44 and was the only woman chair for 4 years. When I was appointed to the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center Board of Directors as one of two faculty, I was the only woman. I learned early on that it was important to have sponsorship from senior leaders to succeed. I learned that, when opportunities presented themselves, to say “yes.” This is how I became the lead investigator into ATP1A3 related diseases in 1991. That project, now 11 years funded by the NIH, is one that is led by me and three other women. 

It’s still not uncommon for me to walk into a room and be the only woman. And so, making sure that there is appropriate support for women leaders is really key.

Did you have mentors to help you along the way – what was their advice to you?

I prefer the term sponsorship. Mentors advise – which is important, but more important is the role of the sponsor. A sponsor goes out of their way to advance another career. This can be a public call-out, a well-placed phone call or giving a resident what ends up being a new pathway of research.  I appreciate the many sponsors in my life, and that includes men and women.  I aspire to be a similar sponsor. This is my way to pay it forward. 

How do you sponsor others to help them overcome barriers, etc.? 

I advise women to get extra leadership training, learn about money and to make sure to have a network of advocates. I also remind them to say thank you to those who pave the way. 

I think it goes down to the message that you meet these key people in your life and they go the extra mile to help you and you, as a leader, need to take that opportunity and really just launch from it. Along the way I found I really wanted to bring people in and grow them and that was the best part of being chair of the department and one of the reasons I wanted to be a dean. When faculty join our health system I want to set them up to succeed. Celebrating others’ success with them is a great feeling. Fostering these successes is how we can be a catalyst to research and care innovations that improve health, which is at the heart of our work.  

These are interesting times to head a major university, what advice and encouragement do you have for students just starting out who face their first year “at university” at home? 

Every change brings opportunity. University at home is hard – interpersonal relationships are so important to learning and we miss that when we are on Zoom. I advise students and faculty to nurture those social connections.

When you are not working what do you do for fun?  

I hang out with my husband and our two rescue dogs. We are making plans to go explore California when the COVID-19 pandemic settles down. We had our two adult children home during the shutdown, but both are back at school on the East Coast. 

Parkinson’s Disease and Stem Cells

Lila Collins, PhD

A few weeks ago we held a Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team About Parkinson’s Disease” event. As you can imagine we got lots of questions but, because of time constraints, only had time to answer a few. Thanks to my fabulous CIRM colleagues, Dr. Lila Collins and Dr. Kent Fitzgerald, for putting together answers to some of the other questions. Here they are.

Kent Fitzgerald, PhD

Q: It seems like we have been hearing for years that stem cells can help people with Parkinson’s, why is it taking so long?

A: Early experiments in Sweden using fetal tissue did provide a proof of concept for the strategy of replacing dopamine producing cells damaged or lost in Parkinson’s disease (PD) . At first, this seemed like we were on the cusp of a cell therapy cure for PD, however, we soon learned based on some side effects seen with this approach (in particular dyskinesias or uncontrollable muscle movements) that the solution was not as simple as once thought. 

While this didn’t produce the answer it did provide some valuable lessons.

The importance of dopaminergic (DA) producing cell type and the location in the brain of the transplant.  Simply placing the replacement cells in the brain is not enough. It was initially thought that the best site to place these DA cells is a region in the brain called the SN, because this area helps to regulate movement. However, this area also plays a role in learning, emotion and the brains reward system. This is effectively a complex wiring system that exists in a balance, “rewiring” it wrong can have unintended and significant side effects. 

Another factor impacting progress has been understanding the importance of disease stage. If the disease is too advanced when cells are given then the transplant may no longer be able to provide benefit.  This is because DA transplants replace the lost neurons we use to control movement, but other connected brain systems have atrophied in response to losing input from the lost neurons. There is a massive amount of work (involving large groups and including foundations like the Michael J Fox Foundation) seeking to identify PD early in the disease course where therapies have the best chance of showing an effect.   Clinical trials will ultimately help to determine the best timing for treatment intervention.

Ideally, in addition to the cell therapies that would replace lost or damaged cells we also want to find a therapy that slows or stops the underlying biology causing progression of the disease.

So, I think we’re going to see more gene therapy trials including those targeting the small minority of PD that is driven by known mutations.  In fact, Prevail Therapeutics will soon start a trial in patients with GBA1 mutations. Hopefully, replacing the enzyme in this type of genetic PD will prevent degeneration.

And, we are also seeing gene therapy approaches to address forms of PD that we don’t know the cause, including a trial to rescue sick neurons with GDNF which is a neurotrophic factor (which helps support the growth and survival of these brain cells) led by Dr Bankiewicz  and trials by Axovant and Voyager, partnered with Neurocrine aimed at restoring dopamine generation in the brain.

 A small news report came out earlier this year about a recently completed clinical trial by Roche Pharma and Prothena. This addressed the build up in the brain of what are called lewy bodies, a problem common to many forms of PD. While the official trial results aren’t published yet, a recent press release suggests reason for optimism.  Apparently, the treatment failed to statistically improve the main clinical measurement, but other measured endpoints saw improvement and it’s possible an updated form of this treatment will be tested again in the hopes of seeing an improved effect.

Finally, I’d like to call attention to the G force trials. Gforce is a global collaborative effort to drive the field forward combining lessons learned from previous studies with best practices for cell replacement in PD.  These first-in-human safety trials to replace the dopaminergic neurons (DANs) damaged by PD have shared design features including identifying what the best goals are and how to measure those.

The CIRA trial, Dr Jun Takahashi

The NYSTEM PD trial, Dr Lorenz Studer

The EUROSTEMPD trial, Dr Roger Barker.

And the Summit PD trial, Dr Jeanne Loring of Aspen Neuroscience.

Taken together these should tell us quite a lot about the best way to replace these critical neurons in PD.

As with any completely novel approach in medicine, much validation and safety work must be completed before becoming available to patients

The current approach (for cell replacement) has evolved significantly from those early studies to use cells engineered in the lab to be much more specialized and representing the types believed to have the best therapeutic effects with low probability of the side effects (dyskinesias) seen in earlier trials. 

If we don’t really know the cause of Parkinson’s disease, how can we cure it or develop treatments to slow it down?

PD can now be divided into major categories including 1. Sporadic, 2. Familial. 

For the sporadic cases, there are some hallmarks in the biology of the neurons affected in the disease that are common among patients.  These can be things like oxidative stress (which damages cells), or clumps of proteins (like a-synuclein) that serve to block normal cell function and become toxic, killing the DA neurons. 

The second class of “familial” cases all share one or more genetic changes that are believed to cause the disease.  Mutations in genes (like GBA, LRRK2, PRKN, SNCA) make up around fifteen percent of the population affected, but the similarity in these gene mutations make them attractive targets for drug development.

CIRM has funded projects to generate “disease in a dish” models using neurons made from adults with Parkinson’s disease.   Stem cell-derived models like this have enabled not only a deep probing of the underlying biology in Parkinson’s, which has helped to identify new targets for investigation, but have also allowed for the testing of possible therapies in these cell-based systems. 

iPSC-derived neurons are believed to be an excellent model for this type of work as they can possess known familial mutations but also show the rest of the patients genetic background which may also be a contributing factor to the development of PD. They therefore contain both known and unknown factors that can be tested for effective therapy development.

I have heard of scientists creating things called brain organoids, clumps of brain cells that can act a little bit like a brain. Can we use these to figure out what’s happening in the brain of people with Parkinson’s and to develop treatments?

There is considerable excitement about the use of brain organoids as a way of creating a model for the complex cell-to-cell interactions in the brain.  Using these 3D organoid models may allow us to gain a better understanding of what happens inside the brain, and develop ways to treat issues like PD.

The organoids can contain multiple cell types including microglia which have been a hot topic of research in PD as they are responsible for cleaning up and maintaining the health of cells in the brain.  CIRM has funded the Salk Institute’s Dr. Fred Gage’s to do work in this area.

If you go online you can find lots of stem cells clinics, all over the US, that claim they can use stem cells to help people with Parkinson’s. Should I go to them?

In a word, no! These clinics offer a wide variety of therapies using different kinds of cells or tissues (including the patient’s own blood or fat cells) but they have one thing in common; none of these therapies have been tested in a clinical trial to show they are even safe, let alone effective. These clinics also charge thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars these therapies, and because it’s not covered by insurance this all comes out of the patient’s pocket.

These predatory clinics are peddling hope, but are unable to back it up with any proof it will work. They frequently have slick, well-designed websites, and “testimonials” from satisfied customers. But if they really had a treatment for Parkinson’s they wouldn’t be running clinics out of shopping malls they’d be operating huge medical centers because the worldwide need for an effective therapy is so great.

Here’s a link to the page on our website that can help you decide if a clinical trial or “therapy” is right for you.

Is it better to use your own cells turned into brain cells, or cells from a healthy donor?

This is the BIG question that nobody has evidence to provide an answer to. At least not yet.

Let’s start with the basics. Why would you want to use your own cells? The main answer is the immune system.  Transplanted cells can really be viewed as similar to an organ (kidney, liver etc) transplant. As you likely know, when a patient receives an organ transplant the patient’s immune system will often recognize the tissue/organ as foreign and attack it. This can result in the body rejecting what is supposed to be a life-saving organ. This is why people receiving organ transplants are typically placed on immunosuppressive “anti-rejection “drugs to help stop this reaction. 

In the case of transplanted dopamine producing neurons from a donor other than the patient, it’s likely that the immune system would eliminate these cells after a short while and this would stop any therapeutic benefit from the cells.  A caveat to this is that the brain is a “somewhat” immune privileged organ which means that normal immune surveillance and rejection doesn’t always work the same way with the brain.  In fact analysis of the brains collected from the first Swedish patients to receive fetal transplants showed (among other things) that several patients still had viable transplanted cells (persistence) in their brains.

Transplanting DA neurons made from the patient themselves (the iPSC method) would effectively remove this risk of the immune system attack as the cells would not be recognized as foreign.

CIRM previously funded a discovery project with Jeanne Loring from Scripps Research Institute that sought to generate DA neurons from Parkinson’s patients for use as a potential transplant therapy in these same patients.   This project has since been taken on by a company formed, by Dr Loring, called Aspen Neuroscience.  They hope to bring this potential therapy into clinical trials in the near future.    

A commonly cited potential downside to this approach is that patients with genetic (familial) Parkinson’s would be receiving neurons generated with cells that may have the same mutations that caused the problem in the first place. However, as it can typically take decades to develop PD, these cells could likely function for a long time. and prove to be better than any current therapies.

Creating cells from each individual patient (called autologous) is likely to be very expensive and possibly even cost-prohibitive. That is why many researchers are working on developing an “off the shelf” therapy, one that uses cells from a donor (called allogeneic)would be available as and when it’s needed.

When the coronavirus happened, it seemed as if overnight the FDA was approving clinical trials for treatments for the virus. Why can’t it work that fast for Parkinson’s disease?

While we don’t know what will ultimately work for COVID-19, we know what the enemy looks like.  We also have lots of experience treating viral infections and creating vaccines.  The coronavirus has already been sequenced, so we are building upon our understanding of other viruses to select a course to interrupt it.  In contrast, the field is still trying to understand the drivers of PD that would respond to therapeutic targeting and therefore, it’s not precisely clear how best to modify the course of neurodegenerative disease.  So, in one sense, while it’s not as fast as we’d like it to be, the work on COVID-19 has a bit of a head start.

Much of the early work on COVID-19 therapies is also centered on re-purposing therapies that were previously in development.  As a result, these potential treatments have a much easier time entering clinical trials as there is a lot known about them (such as how safe they are etc.).  That said, there are many additional therapeutic strategies (some of which CIRM is funding) which are still far off from being tested in the clinic. 

The concern of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is often centered on the safety of a proposed therapy.  The less known, the more cautious they tend to be. 

As you can imagine, transplanting cells into the brain of a PD patient creates a significant potential for problems and so the FDA needs to be cautious when approving clinical trials to ensure patient safety.

Stem Cells for Parkinson’s Disease

While the world has been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic, the virus poses an increased threat to people with Parkinson’s disease (PD). Having a compromised immune system, particularly involving the lungs, means people with PD are at higher risk of some of the more dangerous complications of COVID-19. So, this seems like an appropriate time for CIRM to hold a special Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team” About Parkinson’s disease.

We are holding the event on Tuesday, May 5th at noon PDT.

The initial reason for the Facebook Live was the CIRM Board approving almost $8 million for Dr. Krystof Bankiewicz at Brain Neurotherapy Bio, Inc. to run a Phase 1 clinical trial targeting PD. Dr. Bankiewicz is using a gene therapy approach to promote the production of a protein called GDNF, which is best known for its ability to protect dopaminergic neurons, the kind of cell damaged by Parkinson’s. The approach seeks to increase dopamine production in the brain, alleviating PD symptoms and potentially slowing down the disease progress.

Dr. Bankiewicz will be joined by two of CIRM’s fine Science Officers, Dr. Lila Collins and Dr. Kent Fitzgerald. They’ll talk about the research targeting Parkinson’s that CIRM is funding plus other promising research taking place.

And we are delighted to have a late addition to the team. Our CIRM Board member and patient advocate for Parkinson’s disease, Dr. David Higgins. David has a long history of advocacy for PD and adds the invaluable perspective of someone living with PD.

As always, we want this to be as interactive as possible, so we want to get your questions. You can do this on the day, posting them alongside the live feed, or you can send them to us ahead of time at info@cirm.ca.gov. We’ll do our best to answer as many as we can on the day, and those we don’t get to during the broadcast we’ll answer in a later blog.

We look forward to seeing you there.