A Month of CIRM: Where we’ve been, where we’re going

All this month we are using our blog and social media to highlight a new chapter in CIRM’s life, thanks to the voters approving Proposition 14. We are looking back at what we have done since we were created in 2004, and also looking forward to the future. We kick off this event with a letter from our the Chair of our Board, Jonathan Thomas.

When voters approved Proposition 14 last November, they gave the Stem Cell Agency a new lease on life and a chance to finish the work we began with the approval of Proposition 71 in 2004. It’s a great honor and privilege. It’s also a great responsibility. But I think looking back at what we have achieved over the last 16 years shows we are well positioned to seize the moment and take CIRM and regenerative medicine to the next level and beyond.

When we started, we were told that if we managed to get one project into a clinical trial by the time our money ran out we would have done a good job. As of this moment we have 68 clinical trials that we have funded plus another 31 projects in clinical trials where we helped fund crucial early stage research. That inexorable march to therapies and cures will resume when we take up our first round of Clinical applications under Prop 14 in March.

But while clinical stage projects are the end game, where we see if therapies really work and are safe in people, there’s so much more that we have achieved since we were created. We have invested $900 million in  basic research, creating a pipeline of the most promising stem cell research programs, as well as investing heavily on so-called “translational” projects, which move projects from basic science to where they’re ready to apply to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to begin clinical trials.

We have funded more than 1,000 projects, with each one giving us valuable information to help advance the science. Our funding has helped attract some of the best stem cell scientists in the world to California and, because we only fund research in California, it has persuaded many companies to either move here or open offices here to be eligible for our support. We have helped create the Alpha Stem Cell Clinics, a network of leading medical centers around the state that have the experience and expertise to deliver stem cell therapies to patients. All of those have made California a global center in the field.

That result is producing big benefits for the state. An independent Economic Impact Analysis reported that by the end of 2018 we had already helped generate an extra $10.7 billion in new sales revenue and taxes for California, hundreds of millions more in federal taxes and created more than 56,000 new jobs.

As if that wasn’t enough, we have also:

  • Helped develop the largest iPSC research bank in the world.
  • Created the CIRM Center of Excellence in Stem Cell Genomics to accelerate fundamental understanding of human biology and disease mechanisms.
  • Helped fund the construction of 12 world class stem cell institutes throughout the state.
  • Reached a unique partnership with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institutes to find a cure for sickle cell disease.
  • Used our support for stem cell research to leverage an additional $12 billion in private funding for the field.
  • Enrolled more than 2700 patients in CIRM funded clinical trials

In many ways our work is just beginning. We have laid the groundwork, helped enable an extraordinary community of researchers and dramatically accelerated the field. Now we want to get those therapies (and many more) over the finish line and get them approved by the FDA so they can become available to many more people around the state, the country and the world.

We also know that we have to make these therapies available to all people, regardless of their background and ability to pay. We have to ensure that underserved communities, who were often left out of research in the past, are an integral part of this work and are included in every aspect of that research, particularly clinical trials. That’s why we now require anyone applying to us for funding to commit to engaging with underserved communities and to have a written plan to show how they are going to do that.

Over the coming month, you will hear more about some of the remarkable things we have managed to achieve so far and get a better sense of what we hope to do in the future. We know there will be challenges ahead and that not everything we do or support will work. But we also know that with the team we have built at CIRM, the brilliant research community in California and the passion and drive of the patient advocate community we will live up to the responsibility the people of California placed in us when they approved Proposition 14.

CIRM-Funded Project Targeting Sickle Cell Disease Gets Green Light for Clinical Trial

Dr. Matthew Porteus

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted Investigational New Drug (IND) permission enabling Graphite Bio to test the investigational, potentially revolutionary gene editing therapy GPH101 developed under the supervision of Matthew Porteus, MD, PhD, in a clinical trial for people with sickle cell disease (SCD).

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has been supporting this project with a $5.2 million grant, enabling Dr. Porteus and his team at the Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at Stanford University to conduct the preclinical manufacturing and safety studies required by the FDA.

“We congratulate the Graphite Bio team for obtaining the IND, a critical step in bringing the GPH101 gene therapy forward for Sickle Cell Disease,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO. “CIRM is committed to the national Cure Sickle Cell initiative and are delighted that this technology, the product of CIRM funded research conducted by Dr. Porteus at Stanford, is progressing to the next stage of development”

Sickle cell disease is caused by a genetic mutation that turns normally smooth, round red blood cells into rigid, sickle shaped cells. Those cells clump together, clogging up blood vessels, causing intense pain, damaging organs and increasing the risk of strokes and premature death. There are treatments that help control the damage, but the only cure is a bone marrow stem cell transplant, which can only happen if the patient has a stem cell donor (usually a close relative) who has matching bone marrow.  

The investigational therapy GPH101 harnesses the power of CRISPR and natural DNA repair mechanisms to cut out the single mutation in the sickle globin gene and paste in the correct “code.” Correction of this mutation would reverse the defect and result in healthy non-sickling red blood cells.  

CEDAR, a Phase 1/2, multi-center, open-label clinical study is designed to evaluate the safety, preliminary efficacy and pharmacodynamics of GPH101 in adult and adolescent patients with severe SCD.

For patient advocate Nancy Rene, the news is personal: “It’s always exciting to hear about the progress being made in sickle cell research.  If successful it will mean that my grandson, and especially other young adults, can look forward to a life free of pain and organ damage.  They can actually begin to plan their lives, thinking about careers and families. I want to thank Dr. Porteus and all of the scientists who are working so hard for people with sickle cell disease. This is wonderful news.”

CIRM has funded four clinical trials for Sickle Cell Disease using different approaches and has a unique partnership with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institutes under the NIH “Cure Sickle Cell” initiative.

CIRM funded trial for sickle cell disease gives patient a chance for a better future

Evie Junior is participating in a CIRM funded clinical trial for sickle cell disease that uses a stem cell gene therapy approach. Image credit: UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center

For Evie Junior, personal health and fitness have always been a top priority. During his childhood, he was active and played football, basketball, and baseball in the Bronx, New York. One would never guess that after playing these sports, some nights he experienced pain crises so severe that he was unable to walk. One would also be shocked to hear that he had to have his gallbladder and spleen removed as a child as well.

The health issues that Evie has faced all of his life are related to his diagnosis of sickle cell disease (SCD), a genetic, blood related disorder. SCD causes blood stem cells in the bone marrow, which make blood cells, to produce hard, “sickle” shaped red blood cells. These “sickle” shaped blood cells die early, causing there to be a lack of red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body. Due to their “sickle” shape, these cells also get stuck in blood vessels and block blood flow, resulting in excruciating bouts of pain that come on with no warning and can leave patients hospitalized for days.

SCD affects 100,000 people in the United States, the majority of whom are from the Black and Latinx communities, and millions more people around the world,. It can ultimately lead to strokes, organ damage, and early death.

Growing up with SCD inspired Evie to become an emergency medical technician, where he would be able to help patients treat their pain en route to the hospital, in much the same way he has managed his own pain crises for his whole life. Unfortunately as time passed, Evie’s pain crises became harder and harder to manage.

Then in July 2019, Evie decided to enroll in a CIRM funded clinical trial for a stem cell gene therapy to treat SCD. The therapy, developed by Dr. Don Kohn at UCLA, is intended to correct the genetic mutation in a patient’s blood stem cells to allow them to produce healthy red blood cells. Dr. Kohn has already applied the same concept to successfully treat several genetic immune system deficiencies in two other CIRM funded trials, including a cure for a form of Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, also known as bubble baby disease, as well as X-Linked Chronic Granulomatous Disease.

After some delays related to the coronavirus pandemic, Evie finally received an infusion of his own blood stem cells that had been genetically modified to overcome the mutation that causes SCD in July 2020.

Although the results are still very preliminary, so far they look very promising. Three months after his treatment, blood tests indicated that 70% of Evie’s blood stem cells had the new corrected gene. The UCLA team estimates that a 20% correction would be enough to prevent future sickle cell complications. What is also encouraging is that Evie hasn’t had a pain crisis since undergoing the treatment.

In a press release from UCLA, Dr. Kohn discusses that he is cautiously optimistic about these results.

“It’s too early to declare victory, but it’s looking quite promising at this point. Once we’re at six months to a year, if it looks like it does now, I’ll feel very comfortable that he’s likely to have a permanent benefit.”

In the same press release, Evie talks about what a cure would mean for his future and his life going forward.

“I want to be present in my kids’ lives, so I’ve always said I’m not going to have kids unless I can get this cured. But if this works, it means I could start a family one day.”

You can learn more about Evie’s story and the remarkable CIRM funded work at UCLA by watching the video below.

CIRM-Funded Clinical Trial for Sickle Cell Gives Hope to People Battling the Disease

Marissa Cors (right) with her mother Adrienne Shapiro

Marissa Cors has lived with Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) for more than 40 years. The co-founder of The Sickle Cell Experience Live, an online platform designed to bring more awareness to Sickle Cell Disease around the world, says it’s hard, knowing that at any moment you may have to put your life on hold to cope with another attack of excruciating pain.

“It is incredibly frustrating to have a disease that is constantly disrupting and interfering with your life. The daily pain and fatigue make it difficult to have a normal life. You may be experiencing manageable pain one minute and then a crisis will hit – knocking you to the ground with horrible pain and requiring pain management and hospitalization. It makes going to school or having a job or even a normal adult relationship near impossible.”

SCD is an inherited disease caused by a single gene mutation resulting in abnormal hemoglobin, which causes red blood cells to ‘sickle’ in shape.  Sickling of red blood cells clogs blood vessels and leads to progressive organ damage, pain crises, reduced quality of life, and early death. 

The disease affects around 100,000 Americans, mostly Black Americans but also members of the Latinx community. Marissa says coping with it is more than just a medical struggle. “Born into the cycle of fatigue, pain and fear. Depending on a healthcare system filled with institutionalized bias and racism. It is a life that is difficult on all facets.” 

CIRM is committed to trying find new treatments, and even a cure for SCD. That’s why the CIRM Board recently awarded $8,333,581 to Dr. David Williams at Boston Children’s Hospital to conduct a gene therapy clinical trial for sickle cell disease.  This is the second project that is part of an agreement between CIRM and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the National Institutes of Health, to co-fund cell and gene therapy programs under the NHLBI’s  “Cure Sickle Cell” Initiative.  The goal of this agreement is to markedly accelerate clinical development of cell and gene therapies to cure SCD.

In recent years we have made impressive strides in developing new approaches to treating sickle cell disease,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, President & CEO of CIRM. “But we still have work to do. That’s why this partnership, this research is so important. It reflects our commitment to pushing ahead as fast as we can to find a treatment, a cure, that will help all the people battling the disease here in the U.S. and the estimated 20 million worldwide.”

The team will take a patient’s own blood stem cells and insert a novel engineered gene to silence abnormal hemoglobin and induce normal fetal hemoglobin expression.  The modified blood stem cells will then be reintroduced back into the patient.  The goal of this therapy is to aid in the production of normal shaped red blood cells, thereby reducing the severity of the disease. 

For Marissa, anything that helps make life easier will be welcome not just for people with SCD but their families and the whole community. “A stem cell cure will end generations of guilt, suffering, pain and early death. It will give SCD families relief from the financial, emotional and spiritual burden of caring someone living with SCD. It will give all of us an opportunity to have a normal life. Go to school, go to work, live with confidence.” 

CIRM Board Approves Four New Clinical Trials

A breakdown of CIRM’s clinical trials by disease area

This past Thursday the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved four new clinical trials in addition to ten new discovery research awards.

These new awards bring the total number of CIRM-funded clinical trials to 68.  Additionally, these new additions have allowed the state agency to exceed the goal of commencing 50 new trials outlined in its five year strategic plan.

$8,970,732 was awarded to Dr. Steven Deeks at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) to conduct a clinical trial that modifies a patient’s own immune cells in order to treat and potentially cure HIV. 

Current treatment of HIV involves the use of long-term antiretroviral therapy (ART).  However, many people are not able to access and adhere to long-term ART.

Dr. Deeks and his team will take a patient’s blood and extract T cells, a type of immune cell.  The T cells are then genetically modified to express two different chimeric antigen receptors (CAR), which enable the newly created duoCAR-T cells to recognize and destroy HIV infected cells.  The modified T cells are then reintroduced back into the patient.

The goal of this one time therapy is to act as a long-term control of HIV with patients no longer needing to take ART, in effect a form of HIV cure.  This approach would also address the needs of those who are not able to respond to current approaches, which is estimated to be 50% of those affected by HIV globally. 

$3,728,485 was awarded to Dr. Gayatri Rao from Rocket Pharmaceuticals to conduct a clinical trial using a gene therapy for infantile malignant osteopetrosis (IMO), a rare and life-threatening disorder that develops in infancy.  IMO is caused by defective bone cell function, which results in blindness, deafness, bone marrow failure, and death very early in life. 

The trial will use a gene therapy that targets IMO caused by mutations in the TCIRG1 gene.  The team will take a young child’s own blood stem cells and inserting a functional version of the TCIRG1 gene.  The newly corrected blood stem cells are then introduced back into the child, with the hope of halting or preventing the progression of IMO in young children before much damage can occur. 

Rocket Pharmaceuticals has used the same gene therapy approach for modifying blood stem cells in a separate CIRM funded trial for a rare pediatric disease, which has shown promising results.

$8,996,474 was awarded to Dr. Diana Farmer at UC Davis to conduct a clinical trial of in utero repair of myelomeningocele (MMC), the most severe form of spina bifida.  MMC is a birth defect that occurs due to incomplete closure of the developing spinal cord, resulting in neurological damage to the exposed cord.  This damage leads to lifelong lower body paralysis, and bladder and bowel dysfunction.

Dr. Farmer and her team will use placenta tissue to generate mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs).  The newly generated MSCs will be seeded onto an FDA approved dural graft and the product will be applied to the spinal cord while the infant is still developing in the womb.  The goal of this therapy is to help promote proper spinal cord formation and improve motor function, bladder function, and bowel function. 

The clinical trial builds upon the work of CIRM funded preclinical research.

$8,333,581 was awarded to Dr. David Williams at Boston Children’s Hospital to conduct a gene therapy clinical trial for sickle cell disease (SCD).  This is the second project that is part of an agreement between CIRM and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the National Institutes of Health, to co-fund cell and gene therapy programs under the NHLBI’s  “Cure Sickle Cell” Initiative.  The goal of this agreement is to markedly accelerate clinical development of cell and gene therapies to cure SCD.

SCD is an inherited disease caused by a single gene mutation resulting in abnormal hemoglobin, which causes red blood cells to ‘sickle’ in shape.  Sickling of red blood cells clogs blood vessels and leads to progressive organ damage, pain crises, reduced quality of life, and early death. 

The team will take a patient’s own blood stem cells and insert a novel engineered gene to silence abnormal hemoglobin and induce normal fetal hemoglobin expression.  The modified blood stem cells will then be reintroduced back into the patient.  The goal of this therapy is to aid in the production of normal shaped red blood cells, thereby reducing the severity of the disease.

“Today is a momentus occasion as CIRM reaches 51 new clinical trials, surpassing one of the goals outlined in its five year strategic plan,” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., President and CEO of CIRM.  “These four new trials, which implement innovative approaches in the field of regenerative medicine, reflect CIRM’s ever expanding and diverse clinical portfolio.”

The Board also approved ten awards that are part of CIRM’s Quest Awards Prgoram (DISC2), which promote promising new technologies that could be translated to enable broad use and improve patient care.

The awards are summarized in the table below:

  APPLICATION  TITLE  INSTITUTION  AWARD AMOUNT  
    DISC2-12169  Human-induced pluripotent stem cell-derived glial enriched progenitors to treat white matter stroke and vascular dementia.  UCLA  $250,000
  DISC2-12170Development of COVID-19 Antiviral Therapy Using Human iPSC-Derived Lung Organoids  UC San Diego  $250,000
  DISC2-12111Hematopoietic Stem Cell Gene Therapy for X-linked Agammaglobulinemia  UCLA  $250,000
  DISC2-12158Development of a SYF2 antisense oligonucleotide (ASO) treatment for ALSUniversity of Southern California  $249,997
    DISC2-12124Dual angiogenic and immunomodulating nanotechnology for subcutaneous stem cell derived islet transplantation for the treatment of diabetes  Lundquist Institute  $250,000
  DISC2-12105Human iPSC-derived chimeric antigen receptor-expressing macrophages for cancer treatment  UC San Diego  $250,000
  DISC2-12164Optimization of a human interneuron cell therapy for traumatic brain injury  UC Irvine  $250,000
  DISC2-12172Combating COVID-19 using human PSC-derived NK cells  City of Hope  $249,998
  DISC2-12126The First Orally Delivered Cell Therapy for the Treatment of Inflammatory Bowel Disease  Vitabolus Inc.  $249,000
    DISC2-12130Transplantation of Pluripotent Stem Cell Derived Microglia for the Treatment of Adult-onset Leukoencephalopathy (HDLS/ALSP)  UC Irvine  $249,968

A look back at 15 years of CIRM funding at UCLA

Researchers in the lab of CIRM grantee Donald Kohn, M.D.
Image Credit: UCLA Broad Stem Cell Center

Since the first grant was issued in April 2006, CIRM has funded a wide range of research conducted by top scientists at UCLA for a wide range of diseases. To give a retrospective look at all the research, UCLA released a news article that describes all this work up until this past September. During this period, UCLA researchers were awarded 120 grants totaling more than $307 million. We’ll highlight some of these findings from the article below.

51 Basic Biology CIRM Grants

Basic biology research encompasses very early stage work that focuses on the very essentials such as how stem cells work, how to successfully turn a stem cell into another type of cell, and other basic mechanisms that underly the stem cell research field. This research is critical because they inform future therapies for dozens of conditions including heart disease, genetic and blood disorders, cancer, spinal cord injuries and neurological disorders.

3 Consecutive Year-Long CIRM Training Grants

These CIRM grants are essential in training the next generation of scientists and physicians in the regenerative medicine field. The CIRM training grants supported 146 graduate students, post‐doctoral fellows, and clinical fellows working in UCLA laboratories by providing them year-long  training fellowships. This program was so successful that the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center funded 26 additional fellowships to supplement CIRM’s support.

5 COVID-19 Related Grants

Shortly after the coronavirus pandemic, CIRM authorized  $5 million in emergency funding to fund COVID-19 related projects. UCLA has received a $1.02 million to support four discovery research projects and one translational project. Discovery research promotes promising new technologies that could be translated to enable broad use and improve patient care. Translational research takes it a step further by promoting the activities necessary for advancement to clinical study of a potential therapy.

1 Alpha Stem Cell Clinic (ASCC) Grant

One award was used to establish the UCLA‐UCI Alpha Stem Cell Clinic. It is one of five leading medical centers throughout California that make up the CIRM ASSC Network, which specializes in the delivery of stem cell therapies by providing world-class, state of the art infrastructure to support clinical research.

8 Clinical Trials

Out of the 64 CIRM-funded clinical trials to date, eight of these have been conducted at UCLA. Most notably, this includes a stem cell gene therapy approach developed by Donald Kohn, M.D. The approach was used in three different clinical trials for the following genetic diseases: X-linked chronic granulomatous disease (X-CGD), bubbly baby disease (also known as SCID), and sickle cell disease. The SCID trial resulted in over 50 infants being cured of the disease, including little Evie. The other five clinical trials conducted at UCLA were for corneal damage, lung damage, skin cancer, sarcomas, and solid tumors.

Wide Reach of Conditions

CIRM grants at UCLA have supported research related to many conditions, including the following:

To read the full UCLA article that discusses some of the other grants, click here.

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?

Partners in health

From left to right: Heather Dahlenburg, Jan Nolta, Jeannine Logan White, Sheng Yang
From left to right: Heather Dahlenburg, staff research associate; Jan Nolta, director of the Stem Cell Program; Jeannine Logan White, advanced cell therapy project manager; Sheng Yang, graduate student, Bridges Program, Humboldt State University, October 18, 2019. (AJ Cheline/UC Davis)

At CIRM we are modest enough to know that we can’t do everything by ourselves. To succeed we need partners. And in UC Davis we have a terrific partner. The work they do in advancing stem cell research is exciting and really promising. But it’s not just the science that makes them so special. It’s also their compassion and commitment to caring for patients.

What follows is an excerpt from an article by Lisa Howard on the work they do at UC Davis. When you read it you’ll see why we are honored to be a part of this research.

Gene therapy research at UC Davis

UC Davis’ commitment to stem cell and gene therapy research dates back more than a decade.

In 2010, with major support from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), UC Davis launched the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures, which includes research facilities as well as a Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) facility.

In 2016, led by Fred Meyers, a professor in the School of Medicine, UC Davis launched the Center for Precision Medicine and Data Sciences, bringing together innovations such as genomics and biomedical data sciences to create individualized treatments for patients.

Last year, the university launched the Gene Therapy Center, part of the IMPACT Center program.

Led by Jan Nolta, a professor of cell biology and human anatomy and the director of the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures, the new center leverages UC Davis’ network of expert researchers, facilities and equipment to establish a center of excellence aimed at developing lifelong cures for diseases.

Nolta began her career at the University of Southern California working with Donald B. Kohn on a cure for bubble baby disease, a condition in which babies are born without an immune system. The blood stem cell gene therapy has cured more than 50 babies to date.

Work at the UC Davis Gene Therapy Center targets disorders that potentially can be treated through gene replacement, editing or augmentation.

“The sectors that make up the core of our center stretch out across campus,” said Nolta. “We work with the MIND Institute a lot. We work with the bioengineering and genetics departments, and with the Cancer Center and the Center for Precision Medicine and Data Sciences.”

A recent UC Davis stem cell study shows a potential breakthrough for healing diabetic foot ulcers with a bioengineered scaffold made up of human mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). Another recent study revealed that blocking an enzyme linked with inflammation enables stem cells to repair damaged heart tissue. A cell gene therapy study demonstrated restored enzyme activity in Tay-Sachs disease affected cells in humanized mouse models.

Several cell and gene therapies have progressed to the point that ongoing clinical trials are being conducted at UC Davis for diseases, including sickle-cell anemia, retinopathy, muscle injury, dysphasia, advanced cancer, and Duchenne muscular dystrophy, among others.

“Some promising and exciting research right now at the Gene Therapy Center comes from work with hematopoietic stem cells and with viral vector delivery,” said Nolta.

Hematopoietic stem cells give rise to other blood cells. A multi-institutional Phase I clinical trial using hematopoietic stem cells to treat HIV-lymphoma patients is currently underway at UC Davis.

.Joseph Anderson

Joseph Anderson

“We are genetically engineering a patient’s own blood stem cells with genes that block HIV infection,” said Joseph Anderson, an associate professor in the UC Davis Department of Internal Medicine. The clinical trial is a collaboration with Mehrdad Abedi, the lead principal investigator.

“When the patients receive the modified stem cells, any new immune system cell, like T-cell or macrophage, that is derived from one of these stem cells, will contain the HIV-resistant genes and block further infection,” said Anderson.

He explained that an added benefit with the unique therapy is that it contains an additional gene that “tags” the stem cells. “We are able to purify the HIV-resistant cells prior to transplantation, thus enriching for a more protective cell population.

Kyle David Fink

Kyle David Fink

Kyle David Fink, an assistant professor of neurology at UC Davis, is affiliated with the Stem Cell Program and Institute for Regenerative Cures. His lab is focused on leveraging institutional expertise to bring curative therapies to rare, genetically linked neurological disorders.

“We are developing novel therapeutics targeted to the underlying genetic condition for diseases such as CDKL5 deficiency disorder, Angelman, Jordan and Rett syndromes, and Juvenile Huntington’s disease,” said Fink.

The lab is developing therapies to target the underlying genetic condition using DNA-binding domains to modify gene expression in therapeutically relevant ways. They are also creating novel delivery platforms to allow these therapeutics to reach their intended target: the brain.

“The hope is that these highly innovative methods will speed up the progress of bringing therapies to these rare neurodegenerative disease communities,” said Fink.Jasmine Carter, a graduate research assistant at the UC Davis Stem Cell Program.

Jasmine Carter, a graduate research assistant at the UC Davis Stem Cell Program, October 18, 2019. (AJ Cheline/UC Davis)

Developing potential lifetime cures

Among Nolta’s concerns is how expensive gene therapy treatments can be.

“Some of the therapies cost half a million dollars and that’s simply not available to everyone. If you are someone with no insurance or someone on Medicare, which reimburses about 65 percent, it’s harder for you to get these life-saving therapies,” said Nolta.

To help address that for cancer patients at UC Davis, Nolta has set up a team known as the “CAR T Team.”

Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy is a type of immunotherapy in which a patient’s own immune cells are reprogrammed to attack a specific protein found in cancer cells.

“We can develop our own homegrown CAR T-cells,” said Nolta. “We can use our own good manufacturing facility to genetically engineer treatments specifically for our UC Davis patients.”

Although safely developing stem cell treatments can be painfully slow for patients and their families hoping for cures, Nolta sees progress every day. She envisions a time when gene therapy treatments are no longer considered experimental and doctors will simply be able to prescribe them to their patients.

“And the beauty of the therapy is that it can work for the lifetime of a patient,” said Nolta.

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.