Using 3D printer to develop treatment for spinal cord injury

3d-printed-device

3D printed device

Spinal cord injuries (SCIs) affect approximately 300,000 Americans, with about 18,000 new cases occurring per year. One of these patients, Jake Javier, who we have written about many times over the past several years, received ten million stem cells as part of a CIRM-funded clinical trial and a video about his first year at Cal Poly depicts how these injuries can impact someone’s life.

Currently, there is nothing that completely reverses SCI damage and most treatment is aimed at rehabilitation and empowering patients to lead as normal a life as possible under the circumstances. Improved treatment options are necessary both to improve patients’ overall quality of life, and to reduce associated healthcare costs.

Scientists at UC San Diego’s School of Medicine and Institute of Engineering in Medicine have made critical progress in providing SCI patients with hope towards a more comprehensive and longer lasting treatment option.

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Prof. Shaochen Chen and his 3D printer

In a study partially funded by CIRM and published in Nature Medicine, Dr. Mark Tuszynski’s and Dr. Shaochen Chen’s groups used a novel 3D printing method to grow a spinal cord in the lab.

Previous studies have seen some success in lab grown neurons or nerve cells, improving SCI in animal models. This new study, however, is innovative both for the speed at which the neurons are printed, and the extent of the neuronal network that is produced.

To achieve this goal, the scientists used a biological scaffold that directs the growth of the neurons so they grow to the correct length and generate a complete neuronal network. Excitingly, their 3D printing technology was so efficient that they were able to grow implants for an animal model in 1.6 seconds, and a human-sized implant in just ten minutes, showing that their technology is scalable for injuries of different sizes.

When they tested the spinal cord implants in rats, they found that not only did the implant repair the damaged spinal cord tissue, but it also provided sustained improvement in motor function up to six months after implantation.

Just as importantly, they also observed that blood vessels had infiltrated the implanted tissue. The absence of vascularized tissue is one of the main reasons engineered implants do not last long in the host, because blood vessels are necessary to provide nutrients and support tissue growth. In this case, the animal’s body solved the problem on its own.

In a press release, one of the co-first authors of the paper, Dr. Kobi Koffler, states the importance and novelty of this work:

“This marks another key step toward conducting clinical trials to repair spinal cord injuries in people. The scaffolding provides a stable, physical structure that supports consistent engraftment and survival of neural stem cells. It seems to shield grafted stem cells from the often toxic, inflammatory environment of a spinal cord injury and helps guide axons through the lesion site completely.”

In order to make this technology viable for human clinical trials, the scientists are testing their technology in larger animal models before moving into humans, as well as investigating how to improve the longevity of the neuronal network by introducing proteins into the scaffolds.

 

 

Stem Cell Agency celebrates 50 clinical trials with patient #1

Yesterday the CIRM Board approved funding for our 50th clinical trial (you can read about that here) It was an historic moment for us and to celebrate we decided to go back in history and hear from the very first person to be treated in a CIRM-funded clinical trial. Rich Lajara was treated in the Geron clinical trial after experiencing a spinal cord injury, thus he became CIRM’s patient #1. It’s a badge he says he is honored to wear. This is the speech Rich made to our Board.

Rich Lajara

Hello and good afternoon everyone. It’s an honor to be here today as the 50th clinical trial has been officially funded by CIRM. It was feels like it was just yesterday that I was enrolled into the first funded clinical trial by CIRM and in turn became California’s’ 1st embryonic stem cell patient.

I became paralyzed from the waist down in September 2011. It was Labor Day and I was at a river with some close friends. There was this natural granite rock slide feature next to a waterfall, it was about 60 feet long; all you had to do was get a bucket of water to get the rocks wet and slide down into a natural pool. I ended up slipping and went down head first backwards but was too far over and I slid off a 15’ ledge where the waterfall was. I was pulled from the water and banged up pretty bad. Someone said “look at that deformity on his back” and tapped my leg and asked if I could feel that. I knew immediately I was paralyzed. I thought this was the end, little did I know this was just the beginning. I call it being in the wrong place at the right time.

So, after a few days in the hospital of course everyone, as well as myself, wanted a cure. We quickly learned one didn’t exist. A close family friend had been making phone calls and was able to connect with the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation and learned about a clinical trial with “stem cells”. One of my biggest question was how any people have done this? “Close to none”, I was told.

I was also told I most likely would have no direct benefit as this was a safety trial? So why do it at all? Obviously at that time I was willing to overlook the “most likely” part because I was willing to do anything to try and get my normal life back.

Looking back the big picture was laying the ground work for others like Kris or Jake (two people enrolled in a later version of this trial). At the time I had no clue that what I was doing would be such a big deal. The data collected from me would end up being priceless. It’s stories like Jake’s and Kris’ that make me proud and reinforce my decision to have participated in California’s first stem cell clinical trial funded by prop 71.

Like I said earlier it was just the beginning for me. A couple of years later I became a patient advocate working with Americans for Cures. I have been able to meet many people in the stem cell industry and love to see the glow in their face when they learn I was California’s first embryonic stem cell patient.

I can’t even fathom all the year’s of hard work and countless hours of research that had lead up to my long anticipated surgery, but when I see their glowing smile I know they knew what it took.

I also enjoy sharing my story and bridging the gap between myths and facts about stem cells, or talking to students and helping inspire the next generation that will be in the stem cell industry.  As a matter of fact, I have 13 year old sister, Maddie, dead set on being a neurosurgeon.

Fast forward to today. Life in a wheelchair is not exactly a roll in the park (no pun intended) but I have grown accustomed to the new normal. Aside from some neuropathic pain, life is back on track.

Not once did I feel sorry for myself, I was excited to be alive. Sure I have bad days but don’t we all.

In the last 14 years CIRM has funded 50 human clinical trials, published around 2750 new peer-reviewed scientific discoveries, and they’ve transformed California into the world leader in stem cell research. As I look around the posters on the wall, of the people whose lives have been transformed by the agency, I can’t help but be struck by just how much has been achieved in such a short period of time.

While my journey might not yet be over, Evie and 40 other children like her, (children born with SCID) will never remember what it was like to live with the horrible condition they were born with because they have been cured thanks to CIRM. There are hundreds of others whose lives have been transformed because of work the agency has funded.

CIRM has proven how much can be achieved if we invest in cutting-edge medical research.

As most of you here probably know CIRM’s funding from Proposition 71 is about to run out. If I had just one message I wanted people to leave with today it would be this. Everyone in this room knows how much CIRM has done in a little over a decade and how many lives have been changed because of its existence. We have the responsibility to make sure this work continues. We have a responsibility to make sure that the stories we’ve heard today are just the beginning.

I will do everything I can to make sure the agency gets refunded and I hope that all of you will join me in that fight. I’m excited for the world of stem cells, particularly in California, and can’t wait to see what’s on the horizon.

 

Stem Cell Agency Board Approves 50th Clinical Trial

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Rich Lajara, the first patient treated in a CIRM-funded clinical trial

May 4th, 2011 marked a landmark moment for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). On that day the Stem Cell Agency’s Board voted to invest in its first ever clinical trial, which was also the first clinical trial to use cells derived from embryonic stem cells. Today the Stem Cell Agency reached another landmark, with the Board voting to approve its 50th clinical trial.

“We have come a long way in the past seven and a half years, helping advance the field from its early days to a much more mature space today, one capable of producing new treatments and even cures,” says Jonathan Thomas, JD, PhD, Chair of the CIRM Board. “But we feel that in many ways we are just getting started, and we intend funding as many additional clinical trials as we can for as long as we can.”

angiocrinelogo

The project approved today awards almost $6.2 million to Angiocrine Bioscience Inc. to see if genetically engineered cells, derived from cord blood, can help alleviate or accelerate recovery from the toxic side effects of chemotherapy for people undergoing treatment for lymphoma and other aggressive cancers of the blood or lymph system.

“This is a project that CIRM has supported from an earlier stage of research, highlighting our commitment to moving the most promising research out of the lab and into people,” says Maria T. Millan, MD, President & CEO of CIRM. “Lymphoma is the most common blood cancer and the 6th most commonly diagnosed cancer in California. Despite advances in therapy many patients still suffer severe complications from the chemotherapy, so any treatment that can reduce those complications can not only improve quality of life but also, we hope, improve long term health outcomes for patients.”

The first clinical trial CIRM funded was with Geron, targeting spinal cord injury. While Geron halted the trial for business reasons (and returned the money, with interest) the mantle was later picked up by Asterias Biotherapeutics, which has now treated 25 patients with no serious side effects and some encouraging results.

Rich Lajara was part of the Geron trial, the first patient ever treated in a CIRM-funded clinical trial. He came to the CIRM Board meeting to tell his story saying when he was injured “I knew immediately I was paralyzed. I thought this was the end, little did I know this was just the beginning. I call it being in the wrong place at the right time.”

When he learned about the Geron clinical trial he asked how many people had been treated with stem cells. “Close to none” he was told. Nonetheless he went ahead with it. He says he has never regretted that decision, knowing it helped inform the research that has since helped others.

Since that first trial the Stem Cell Agency has funded a wide range of projects targeting heart disease and stroke, cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and several rare diseases. You can see the full list on the Clinical Trials Dashboard page on our website.

Rich ended by saying: “CIRM has proven how much can be achieved if we invest in cutting-edge medical research. As most of you here probably know, CIRM’s funding from Proposition 71 is about to run out. If I had just one message I wanted people to leave with today it would be this, I will do everything I can to make sure the agency gets refunded and I hope that all of you will join me in that fight. I’m excited for the world of stem cells, particularly in California and can’t wait to see what’s on the horizon.”

lubinbert-mug

The CIRM Board also took time today to honor Dr. Bert Lubin, who is stepping down after serving almost eight years on the Board.

When he joined the Board in February, 2011 Dr. Lubin said: “I hope to use my position on this committee to advocate for stem cell research that translates into benefits for children and adults, not only in California but throughout the world.”

Over the years he certainly lived up to that goal. As a CIRM Board member he has supported research for a broad range of unmet medical needs, and specifically for curative treatments for children born with a rare life-threatening conditions such as Sickle Cell Disease and Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) as well as  treatments to help people battling vision destroying diseases.

As the President & CEO of Children’s Hospital Oakland (now UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland) Dr. Lubin was a leader in helping advance research into new treatments for sickle cell disease and addressing health disparities in diseases such as asthma, diabetes and obesity.

Senator Art Torres said he has known Dr. Lubin since the 1970’s and in all that time has been impressed by his devotion to patients, and his humility, and that all Californians should be grateful to him for his service, and his leadership.

Dr. Lubin said he was “Really grateful to be on the Board and I consider it an honor to be part of a group that benefits patients.”

He said he may be stepping down from the CIRM Board but that was all: “I am going to retire the word retirement. I think it’s a mistake to stop doing work that you find stimulating. I’m going to repurpose the rest of my life, and work to make sure the treatments we’ve helped develop are available to everyone. I am so proud to be part of this. I am stepping down, but I am devoted to doing all I can to ensure that you get the resources you need to sustain this work for the future.”

3D printed neuronal networks are an important step forward in treating spinal cord injury

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3D printed live neuronal cells. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota.

Approximately 300,000 people in the United States live with spinal cord injury (SCI), and 17,000 new cases are reported every year. With no cure, the primary treatment option for people with SCI is rehabilitation with a physical therapist combined with medications to control the pain. Given the relatively permanent nature of these injuries, a new study conducted by Dr. Michael McAlpine and Dr. Ann Parr’s groups at the University of Minnesota is particularly exciting. These scientists have developed a 3D-printing technique to generate a network of neuronal cells in the lab, which they hope will be useful to treat patients with long term SCI. This is the first instance of printing and differentiating neuronal stem cells in a lab. Let’s take a look at how they did it!

The investigators started with induced pluripotent stem cells derived from adult cells (ex. blood, skin etc…), which were then used to bioprint the neurons of interest. They not only printed neurons, but also neuronal support cells called oligodendrocytes, which are responsible for ensuring that neurons can transmit messages efficiently. The uniqueness of their approach lies in their printing process, where the cells were printed in the context of a silicone mold. The silicone “guide” promoted neuronal differentiation as well as provided a scaffold for the scientists to spatially organize the architecture of the cells they generated. Both spatial organization and the presence of the neuronal support cells is particularly important because previous studies have shown that while injecting rodents with neural stem cells has improved SCI, the longevity of these results was compromised by a lack of support system for the injected cells. Therefore, the ability to generate both a functional cell type as well as a spatially accurate structure is important to make this neuronal printing system relevant for treating patients.

To confirm that printed cells were functional, the investigators used calcium flux assays, which demonstrated that the neuronal networks generated were able to communicate with each other. Not only were the cells healthy and functional, but their viability was exceptional: 75% of the cells stayed alive, which is remarkable for cells printed in a laboratory.

While there is still a long way to go before this type of treatment can used to treat SCI in humans, the potential for helping people with long term spinal cord injury is significant. Dr. Parr states:

“We’ve found that relaying any signals across the injury could improve functions for the patients. There’s a perception that people with spinal cord injuries will only be happy if they can walk again. In reality, most want simple things like bladder control or to be able to stop uncontrollable movements of their legs. These simple improvements in function could greatly improve their lives.”

The possibility of implanted neuronal stem cells being effective to treat SCI is also being investigated with the CIRM-funded Asterias trial. To check out more information about this work, read our blog post here and the clinical trial details here.

Stem cell treatment for spinal cord injury offers improved chance of independent life for patients

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Kris Boesen, CIRM spinal cord injury clinical trial patient works to strengthen his upper body. (Photo/Greg Iger)

A spinal cord injury is devastating, changing a person’s life in a heartbeat. In the past there was little that doctors could do other than offer pain relief and physical therapy to try and regain as much muscle function as possible. That’s why the latest results from the CIRM-supported Asterias Biotherapeutics spinal cord injury trial are so encouraging.

Asterias is transplanting what they call AST-OPC1 cells into patients who have suffered injuries that left them paralyzed from the neck down.  AST-OPC1 are oligodendrocyte progenitor cells, which develop into cells that support and protect nerve cells in the central nervous system, the area damaged in spinal cord injury. It’s hoped the treatment will restore connections at the injury site, allowing patients to regain some movement and feeling.

The latest results seem to suggest they are doing just that.

In a news release, Asterias reports that of the 25 patients treated in this clinical trial none have experienced serious side effects. They also reported that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests show that more than 95 percent of the patients have shown evidence of what’s called “tissue matrix” at the injury site. This is encouraging because it suggests the implanted cells are engrafting and helping prevent a cavitation, a serious process that often occurs in spinal cord injuries and can lead to permanent loss of muscle and sensory function plus chronic pain.

The study also shows that after six months:

  • 100 percent of the patients in Group 5 (who received 20 million cells) have recovered at least one motor level (for example increased ability to use their arms) on at least one side
  • Two patients in Group 5 recovered one motor level on both sides
  • Altogether four of the 25 patients have recovered two or more motor levels on at least one side.

Not surprisingly Ed Wirth, the Chief Medical Officer at Asterias, was pleased with the results:

“The results from the study remain encouraging as the six-month follow-up data continued to demonstrate a positive safety profile and show that the AST-OPC1 cells are successfully engrafting in patients.”

While none of the patients are able to walk, just regaining some use of their arms or hands can have a hugely important impact on their quality of life and their ability to lead an independent life. And, because lifetime costs of taking care of someone who is paralyzed from the neck or chest down can run as high as $5 million, anything that increases a patient’s independence can have a big impact on those costs.

The impact of this research is helping change the lives of the patients who received it. One of those patients is Jake Javier. We have blogged about Jake several times over the last two years and recently showed this video about his first year at Cal Poly and how Jake is turning what could have been a life-ending event into a life-affirming one.

 

Stem Cell Roundup: Jake Javier’s amazing spirit; TV report highlights clinic offering unproven stem cell therapies

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Jake Javier: Photo Michael Clemens, Sees the Day

In the Roundup we usually focus on studies that highlight advances in stem cell research but today we’re going to do something a little different. Instead of relying on print for our stories, we’re turning to video.

We begin with a piece about Jake Javier. Regular readers of our blog will remember that Jake is the young man who broke his neck the day before he graduated high school, leaving him paralyzed from the upper chest down.

After enrolling in the CIRM-funded Asterias clinical trial, and receiving a transplant of 10 million stem cells, Jake regained enough use of his arms and hands to be able to go to Cal Poly and start his life over.

This video highlights the struggles and challenges he faced in his first year, and his extraordinary spirit in overcoming them.

(thanks to Matt Yoon and his Creative Services team at Cal Poly for this video)

Going Undercover

The second video is from the NBC7 TV station in San Diego and highlights one of the big problems in regenerative medicine today, clinics offering unproven therapies. The investigative team at NBC7 went undercover at a stem cell clinic seminar where presenters talked about “the most significant breakthrough in natural medicine” for improving mobility and reducing pain. As the reporter discovered, the reality didn’t live up to the promise.

NBC7 Investigative Report

 

Scientists repair spinal cord injuries in monkeys using human stem cells

Human neuronal stem cells extend axons (green). (Image UCSD)

An exciting development for spinal cord injury research was published this week in the journal Nature Medicine. Scientists from the University of San Diego School of Medicine transplanted human neural progenitor cells (NPCs) into rhesus monkeys that had spinal cord injuries. These cells, which are capable of turning into other cells in the brain, survived and robustly developed into nerve cells that improved the monkeys’ use of their hands and arms.

The scientists grafted 20 million human NPCs derived from embryonic stem cells into two-week-old spinal cord lesions in the monkeys. These stem cells were delivered with growth factors to improve their survival and growth. The monkeys were also treated with immunosuppressive drugs to prevent their immune system from rejecting the human cells.

After nine months, they discovered that the NPCs had developed into nerve cells within the injury site that extended past the injury into healthy tissue. These nerve extensions are called axons, which allow nerves to transmit electrical signals and instructions to other brain cells. During spinal cord injury, nerve cells and their axon extensions are damaged. Scientists have found it difficult to regenerate these damaged cells because of the inhibitory growth environment created at the injury site. You can compare it to the build-up of scar tissue after a heart attack. The heart has difficulty regenerating healthy heart muscle, which is instead replaced by fibrous scar tissue.

Excitingly, the UCSD team was able to overcome this hurdle in their current study. When they transplanted human NPCs with growth factors into the monkeys, they found that the cells were not affected by the inhibitory environment of the injury and were able to robustly develop into nerve cells and send out axon extensions.

Large numbers of human axons (green) emerge from a lesion/graft sites. Many axons travel along the interface (indicated by arrows) between spinal cord white matter (nerve fibers covered with myelin) and spinal cord gray matter (nerves without the whitish myelin sheathing). Image courtesy of Mark Tuszynski, UC San Diego School of Medicine.

The senior scientist on the study, Dr. Mark Tuszynski, explained how their findings in a large animal model are a huge step forward for the field in a UCSD Health news release:

“While there was real progress in research using small animal models, there were also enormous uncertainties that we felt could only be addressed by progressing to models more like humans before we conduct trials with people. We discovered that the grafting methods used with rodents didn’t work in larger, non-human primates. There were critical issues of scale, immunosuppression, timing and other features of methodology that had to be altered or invented. Had we attempted human transplantation without prior large animal testing, there would have been substantial risk of clinical trial failure, not because neural stem cells failed to reach their biological potential but because of things we did not know in terms of grafting and supporting the grafted cells.”

Dr. Tuszynski is a CIRM-grantee whose earlier research involved optimizing stem cell treatments for rodent models of spinal cord injury. We’ve blogged about that research previously on the Stem Cellar here and here.

Tuszynski recently was awarded a CIRM discovery stage research grant to develop a candidate human neural stem cell line that is optimized to repair the injured spinal cord and can be used in human clinical trials. He expressed cautious optimism about the future of this treatment for spinal cord injury patients emphasizing the need for patience and more research before arriving at clinical trials:

“We seem to have overcome some major barriers, including the inhibitory nature of adult myelin against axon growth. Our work has taught us that stem cells will take a long time to mature after transplantation to an injury site, and that patience will be required when moving to humans. Still, the growth we observe from these cells is remarkable — and unlike anything I thought possible even ten years ago. There is clearly significant potential here that we hope will benefit humans with spinal cord injury.”


Related Links:

How a stem cell transplant may help transform Lucas Lindner’s life

Lucas Lidner was left paralyzed below the chin after a truck accident last May.  Photo: Fox6Now, Milwaukee

On a Sunday morning in early 2016, Lucas Lindner was driving to get some donuts for his grandmother. A deer jumped in front of his truck. Lucas swerved to avoid it and crashed, suffering a severe spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down.

Lucas took part in a CIRM-funded clinical trial, becoming just the second person to get 10 million stem cells transplanted into his neck. Since then he has regained some use of his arms and hands. While some patients with spinal cord injuries do experience what is called “spontaneous” recovery, Lucas was not the only person in the trial who experienced an improvement. Asterias Biotherapeutics, the company behind the clinical trial, reported that four of the six patients in the trial “have recovered 2 or more motor levels on at least one side through 12 months, which is more than double the rates of recovery seen in both matched historical controls and published data in a similar population.”

Lucas says his improvement has changed his life.

“I was pretty skeptical after the accident, on being able to do anything, on what was going to happen. But regaining hand function alone gave me everything I pretty much needed or wanted back.”

Lucas can now type 40 words a minute, use a soldering iron and touch his pinkie to his thumb, something he couldn’t do after the accident.

In August of last year Lucas did something else he never imagined he would be able to do, he threw out the first pitch at a Milwaukee Brewers baseball game. At the time, he said “I’m blown away by the fact that I can pitch a ball again.”

Lucas Lindner at the Milwaukee Brewers baseball game.

Now Lucas has his sights set on something even more ambitious. He is going back to school to study IT.

“When I was in 3rd grade a teacher asked what I want to be and I said a neuro-computational engineer. Everyone laughed at me because no one knew what that meant. Now, after what happened to me, I want to be part of advancing the science, helping make injuries like mine a thing of the past.”

Even though he was one of the first people to take part in this clinical trial, Lucas doesn’t think of himself as a pioneer.

“The real pioneers are the scientists who came up with this therapy, who do it because they love it.”


You can read more about Lucas and other patients who’ve participated in CIRM-funded clinical trials in CIRM’s 2017 Annual Report on our website

For more about Lucas and his story, watch this video below from Asterias.

Positive update on Asterias’ SCiStar study for spinal cord injury at TMM 2017

This guest blog is reposted with permission from Signals Blog, published by the Center for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM) in Canada.

With the extensive exploitation of regenerative medicine through the marketing and selling of unapproved stem cell “therapies” online, it was refreshing to hear an update about clinical trials for a legitimate stem cell therapy at the Till & McCulloch Meetings (TMM) in Canada earlier this month.

Dr. Jane Lebkowski, of Asterias, speaking at TMM 2017

Dr. Jane Lebkowski, President of R&D and Chief Scientific Officer at Asterias Biotherapeutics Inc. shared updates from their SCiStar study. This California-based company is currently in an open-label, single-arm Phase 1/2a clinical trial for testing the safety and efficacy of treating several types of spinal cord injuries (SCI) with AST-OPC1s – a type of brain cell called an oligodendrocyte progenitor cell, which they derived from pluripotent stem cells. Earlier this year they reported promising safety results in their first two cohorts of patients and clearance to proceed into additional patients.

Asterias uses a cryopreserved human ESC (embryonic stem cell) line to derive their AST-OPC1s, which they report are a non-homogenous population containing mostly OPCs and some neural progenitor cells. Importantly, they do not observe evidence that any ESCs remain in their differentiated cultures.

Their clinical trial is operating off the heels of extensive nonclinical safety and efficacy studies in over 28 different animal studies in >3,000 rodents and pigs with a unilateral contusion SCI model, as well as data from the first ever human clinical trial with human ESC-derived products previously conducted by Geron.

In their last non-clinical animal model studies of cervical (neck) and thoracic (back) SCI, Asterias showed that as long as they inject cells within the first 30 days of injury they see a persistent reduction in cavity formation at the injury site. They also saw myelination (growth of a protective, insulating sheath around nerve extensions) of nerve cells when AST-OPC1s were injected into myelin-free Shiverer mice, and increased vascularization (blood vessel growth) of injured tissue that persists to nine months post-transplantation. They also have in vitro data to suggest that the injected cells can secrete neurotrophic factors. Importantly, they saw behavioural improvements in their animal models that include “increases in running speed, right forelimb stride length, right forelimb maximal longitudinal deviation, and right rear stride frequency.”

In her talk at TMM, Dr. Lebkowski gave some exciting details about the company’s most recent clinical study. They’ve been delivering their AST-OPC1s to 18-69 year-old patients with C4-C7 spinal cord injury at multiple doses: a low dose of about two million cells and medium at 10 million cells. They give a single injection of either two million, 10 million, or 20 million AST-OPC1s within 21 to 42 days of injury. They have results from patients in the first two cohorts so far, and reported that both two and 10 million cell doses appeared safe 12 months after administration.

Excitingly, patients who received 10 million cells showed signs of functional improvements (in their movement) that have so far persisted up to 12 months after the injection – an improvement of 12.3% on their motor test, equivalent to two full motor scores. This translates to increased arm and hand function and improved independence in activities of daily living at 12 months. Given that these patients were requiring over six hours of home care a day, even small improvements in motor function can have huge impact on their quality of life and independence.

The research community is still waiting to hear preliminary results from the third cohort of patients who received 20 million cells. Asterias is currently recruiting more patients, including those with incomplete spinal cord injury. These studies will be used to inform a larger, double-blind controlled clinical trial that will include more extensive tests of the functional and physiological effects of injecting AST-OPC1s.

This promising work has not been an easy road. It has taken over a decade of thorough and challenging research. The current work was made possible by a $14.3 million investment from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and Dr. Lebkowski estimates that they have spent over $125 million U.S. for this trial. While Asterias covers non-routine medical costs for the patients who enroll, it will take time and more support from government institutions to further test this treatment and, if proven safe and effective, make it financially accessible to all eligible patients.

Returning to my first point about unapproved stem cell therapies, please engage in conversations about “hype and hope” of stem cell therapies with members of the general public, and encourage them to ask their family health team and a scientist before enrolling in any clinical trials advertised online. There are other ways you can keep our industry “honest” here. For more plain language resources on the current status of stem cell therapies, please see here and here.


Samantha Yammine

Samantha is a PhD Candidate studying neural stem cell biology in Dr. Derek van der Kooy’s lab at the University of Toronto. She is also an avid science communicator who uses social media to make science more accessible to everyone. For your daily dose of the fun and trendy side of science, find her online as @SamanthaZY on Twitter and @Science.Sam on Instagram. 

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.