Stem Cell Agency’s supporting role in advancing research for rare diseases

Orchard

The recent agreement transferring GSK’s rare disease gene therapies to Orchard Therapeutics was good news for both companies and for the patients who are hoping this research could lead to new treatments, even cures, for some rare diseases. It was also good news for CIRM, which played a key role in helping Orchard grow to the point where this deal was possible.

In a news releaseMaria Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO, said:

“At CIRM, our value proposition is centered around our ability to advance the field of regenerative medicine in many different ways. Our funding and partnership has enabled the smooth transfer of Dr. Kohn’s technology from the academic to the industry setting while conducting this important pivotal clinical trial. With our help, Orchard was able to attract more outside investment and now it is able to grow its pipeline utilizing this platform gene therapy approach.”

Under the deal, GSK not only transfers its rare disease gene therapy portfolio to Orchard, it also becomes a shareholder in the company with a 19.9 percent equity stake. GSK is also eligible to receive royalties and commercial milestone payments. This agreement is both a recognition of Orchard’s expertise in this area, and the financial potential of developing treatments for rare conditions.

Dr. Millan says it’s further proof that the agency’s impact on the field of regenerative medicine extends far beyond the funding it offers companies like Orchard.

“Accelerating stem cell therapies to patients with unmet medical needs involves a lot more than just funding research; it involves supporting the research at every stage and creating partnerships to help it fulfill its potential. We invest when others are not ready to take a chance on a promising but early stage project. That early support not only helps the scientists get the data they need to show their work has potential, but it also takes some of the risk out of investments by venture capitalists or larger pharmaceutical companies.”

CIRM’s early support helped UCLA’s Don Kohn, MD, develop a stem cell therapy for severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). This therapy is now Orchard’s lead program in ADA-SCID, OTL-101.

Sohel Talib, CIRM’s Associate Director Therapeutics and Industry Alliance, says this approach has transformed the lives of dozens of children born with this usually fatal immune disorder.

“This gene correction approach for severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) has already transformed the lives of dozens of children treated in early trials and CIRM is pleased to be a partner on the confirmatory trial for this transformative treatment for patients born with this fatal immune disorder.”

Dr. Donald B. Kohn UCLA MIMG BSCRC Faculty 180118Dr. Kohn, now a member of Orchard’s scientific advisory board, said:

“CIRM funding has been essential to the overall success of my work, supporting me in navigating the complex regulatory steps of drug development, including interactions with FDA and toxicology studies that enhanced and helped drive the ADA-SCID clinical trial.”

CIRM funding has allowed Orchard Therapeutics to expand its technical operations footprint in California, which now includes facilities in Foster City and Menlo Park, bringing new jobs and generating taxes for the state and local community.

Mark Rothera, Orchard’s President and CEO, commented:

“The partnership with CIRM has been an important catalyst in the continued growth of Orchard Therapeutics as a leading company transforming the lives of patients with rare diseases through innovative gene therapies. The funding and advice from CIRM allowed Orchard to accelerate the development of OTL-101 and to build a manufacturing platform to support our development pipeline which includes 5 clinical and additional preclinical programs for potentially transformative gene therapies”.

Since CIRM was created by the voters of California the Agency has been able to use its support for research to leverage an additional $1.9 billion in funds for California. That money comes in the form of co-funding from companies to support their own projects, partnerships between outside investors or industry groups with CIRM-funded companies to help advance research, and additional funding that companies are able to attract to a project because of CIRM funding.

Stem Cell Roundup: The brain & obesity; iPSCs & sex chromosomes; modeling mental illness

Stem Cell Image of the Week:
Obesity-in-a-dish reveals mutations and abnormal function in nerve cells

cedars-sinai dayglo

Image shows two types of hypothalamic neurons (in magenta and cyan) that were derived from human induced pluripotent stem cells.
Credit: Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute

Our stem cell image of the week looks like the work of a pre-historic cave dweller who got their hands on some DayGlo paint. But, in fact, it’s a fluorescence microscopy image of stem cell-derived brain cells from the lab of Dhruv Sareen, PhD, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Sareen’s team is investigating the role of the brain in obesity. Since the brain is a not readily accessible organ, the team reprogrammed skin and blood cell samples from severely obese and normal weight individuals into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These iPSCs were then matured into nerve cells found in the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that regulates hunger and other functions.

A comparative analysis showed that the nerve cells derived from the obese individuals had several genetic mutations and had an abnormal response to hormones that play a role in telling our brains that we are hungry or full. The Cedars-Sinai team is excited to use this obesity-in-a-dish system to further explore the underlying cellular changes that lead to excessive weight gain. Ultimately, these studies may reveal ways to combat the ever-growing obesity epidemic, as Dr. Sareen states in a press release:

“We are paving the way for personalized medicine, in which drugs could be customized for obese patients with different genetic backgrounds and disease statuses.”

The study was published in Cell Stem Cell

Differences found in stem cells derived from male vs female.

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Microscope picture of a colony of iPS cells. Credit: Vincent Pasque

Scientists at UCLA and KU Leuven University in Belgium carried out a study to better understand the molecular mechanisms that control the process of reprogramming adult cells back into the embryonic stem cell-like state of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Previous studies have shown that female vs male embryonic stem cells have different patterns of gene regulation. So, in the current study, male and female cells were analyzed side-by-side during the reprogramming process.  First author Victor Pasquale explained in a press release that the underlying differences stemmed from the sex chromosomes:

In a normal situation, one of the two X chromosomes in female cells is inactive. But when these cells are reprogrammed into iPS cells, the inactive X becomes active. So, the female iPS cells now have two active X chromosomes, while males have only one. Our results show that studying male and female cells separately is key to a better understanding of how iPS cells are made. And we really need to understand the process if we want to create better disease models and to help the millions of patients waiting for more effective treatments.”

The CIRM-funded study was published in Stem Cell Reports.

Using mini-brains and CRISPR to study genetic linkage of schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder.

If you haven’t already picked up on a common thread in this week’s stories, this last entry should make it apparent: iPSC cells are the go-to method to gain insight in the underlying mechanisms of a wide range of biology topics. In this case, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School were interested in understanding how mutations in a gene called DISC1 were linked to several mental illnesses including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe depression. While much has been gleaned from animal models, there’s limited knowledge of how DISC1 affects the development of the human brain.

The team used human iPSCs to grow cerebral organoids, also called mini-brains, which are three-dimensional balls of cells that mimic particular parts of the brain’s anatomy. Using CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology – another very popular research tool – the team introduced DISC1 mutations found in families suffering from these mental disorders.

Compared to cells with normal copies of the DISC1 gene, the mutant organoids showed abnormal structure and excessive cell signaling. When an inhibitor of that cell signaling was added to the growing mutant organoids, the irregular structures did not develop.

These studies using human cells provide an important system for gaining a better understanding of, and potentially treating, mental illnesses that victimize generations of families.

The study was published in Translation Psychiatry and picked up by Eureka Alert.

Stem Cell Round: Improving memory, building up “good” fat, nanomedicine

Stem Cell Photo of the Week

roundup03618In honor of brain awareness week, our featured stem cell photo is of the brain! Scientists at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Stem Cell Institute identified a genetic switch that could potentially improve memory during aging and symptoms of PTSD. Shown in this picture are dentate gyrus cells (DGC) (green) and CA3 interneurons (red) located in the memory-forming area of the brain known as the hippocampus. By reducing the levels of a protein called abLIM3 in the DGCs of older mice, the researchers were able to boost the connections between DGCs and CA3 cells, which resulted in an improvement in the memories of the mice. The team believes that targeting this protein in aging adults could be a potential strategy for improving memory and treating patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You can read more about this study in The Harvard Gazette.

New target for obesity.
Fat cells typically get a bad rap, but there’s actually a type of fat cell that is considered “healthier” than others. Unlike white fat cells that store calories in the form of energy, brown fat cells are packed with mitochondria that burn energy and produce heat. Babies have brown fat, so they can regulate their body temperature to stay warm. Adults also have some brown fat, but as we get older, our stores are slowly depleted.

In the fight against obesity, scientists are looking for ways to increase the amount of brown fat and decrease the amount of white fat in the body. This week, CIRM-funded researchers from the Salk Institute identified a molecule called ERRg that gives brown fat its ability to burn energy. Their findings, published in Cell Reports, offer a new target for obesity and obesity-related diseases like diabetes and fatty liver disease.

The team discovered that brown fat cells produce the ERRg molecule while white fat cells do not. Additionally, mice that couldn’t make the ERRg weren’t able to regulate their body temperature in cold environments. The team concluded in a news release that ERRg is “involved in protection against the cold and underpins brown fat identity.” In future studies, the researchers plan to activate ERRg in white fat cells to see if this will shift their identity to be more similar to brown fat cells.

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Mice that lack ERR aren’t able to regulate their body temperature and are much colder (right) than normal mice (left). (Image credit Salk Institute)

Tale of two nanomedicine stories: making gene therapies more efficient with a bit of caution (Todd Dubnicoff).
This week, the worlds of gene therapy, stem cells and nanomedicine converged for not one, but two published reports in the journal American Chemistry Society NANO.

The first paper described the development of so-called nanospears – tiny splinter-like magnetized structures with a diameter 5000 times smaller than a strand of human hair – that could make gene therapy more efficient and less costly. Gene therapy is an exciting treatment strategy because it tackles genetic diseases at their source by repairing or replacing faulty DNA sequences in cells. In fact, several CIRM-funded clinical trials apply this method in stem cells to treat immune disorders, like severe combined immunodeficiency and sickle cell anemia.

This technique requires getting DNA into diseased cells to make the genetic fix. Current methods have low efficiency and can be very damaging to the cells. The UCLA research team behind the study tested the nanospear-delivery of DNA encoding a gene that causes cells to glow green. They showed that 80 percent of treated cells did indeed glow green, a much higher efficiency than standard methods. And probably due to their miniscule size, the nanospears were gentle with 90 percent of the green glowing cells surviving the procedure.

As Steve Jonas, one of the team leads on the project mentions in a press release, this new method could bode well for future recipients of gene therapies:

“The biggest barrier right now to getting either a gene therapy or an immunotherapy to patients is the processing time. New methods to generate these therapies more quickly, effectively and safely are going to accelerate innovation in this research area and bring these therapies to patients sooner, and that’s the goal we all have.”

While the study above describes an innovative nanomedicine technology, the next paper inserts a note of caution about how experiments in this field should be set up and analyzed. A collaborative team from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Stanford University, UC Berkeley and McGill University wanted to get to the bottom of why the many advances in nanomedicine had not ultimately led to many new clinical trials. They set out looking for elements within experiments that could affect the uptake of nanoparticles into cells, something that would muck up the interpretation of results.

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imaging of female human amniotic stem cells incubated with nanoparticles demonstrated a significant increase in uptake compared to male cells. (Green dots: nanoparticles; red: cell staining; blue: nuclei) Credit: Morteza Mahmoudi, Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

In this study, they report that the sex of cells has a surprising, noticeable impact on nanoparticle uptake. Nanoparticles were incubated with human amniotic stem cells derived from either males or females. The team showed that the female cells took up the nanoparticles much more readily than the male cells.  Morteza Mahmoudi, PhD, one of the authors on the paper, explained the implications of these results in a press release:

“These differences could have a critical impact on the administration of nanoparticles. If nanoparticles are carrying a drug to deliver [including gene therapies], different uptake could mean different therapeutic efficacy and other important differences, such as safety, in clinical data.”

 

Just a Mom: The Journey of a Sickle Cell Disease Patient Advocate [video]

Adrienne Shapiro will tell you that she’s just a mom.

And it’s true. She is just a mom. Just a mom who is the fourth generation of mothers in her family to have children born with sickle cell disease. Just a mom who was an early advocate of innovative stem cell and gene therapy research by UCLA scientist Dr. Don Kohn which has led to an on-going, CIRM-funded clinical trial for sickle cell disease. Just a mom who is the patient advocate representative on a Clinical Advisory Panel (CAP) that CIRM is creating to help guide this clinical trial.

She’s just a mom who has become a vocal stem cell activist, speaking to various groups about the importance of CIRM’s investments in both early stage research and clinical trials. She’s just a mom who was awarded a Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Action Award at last month’s World Stem Cell Summit. She’s just a mom who, in her own words, “sees a new world not just for her children but for so many other children”, through the promise of stem cell therapies.

Yep, she’s just a mom. And it’s the tireless advocacy of moms like Adrienne that will play a critical role in accelerating stem cell therapies to patients with unmet medical needs. We can use all the moms we can get.

Adrienne Shapiro speaks to the CIRM governing Board about her journey as a patient advocate

A new study suggests CRISPR gene editing therapies should be customized for each patient

You know a scientific advance is a big deal when it becomes the main premise and title of a Jennifer Lopez-produced TV drama. That’s the case for CRISPR, a revolutionary gene-editing technology that promises to yield treatments for a wide range of genetic diseases.

In fact, clinical trials using the CRISPR method are already underway with more on the horizon. And at CIRM, we’re funding several CRISPR projects including a candidate gene and stem cell therapy that applies CRISPR to repair a genetic mutation found in sickle cell anemia patients.

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Animation by Todd Dubnicoff/CIRM

While these projects are moving full steam ahead, a study published this week in PNAS suggests a note of caution. They report that the natural genetic variability that is found when comparing  the DNA sequences of individuals has the potential to negatively impact the effectiveness of a CRISPR-based treatment and in some cases, could lead to dangerous side effects. As a result, the research team – a collaboration between Boston Children’s Hospital and the University of Montreal – recommends that therapy products using CRISPR should be customized to take into account the genetic variation between patients.

CRISPR 101
While other gene-editing methods pre-date CRISPR, the gene-editing technique has taken the research community by storm because of its ease of use. Pretty much any lab can incorporate it into their studies. CRISPR protein can cut specific DNA sequence within a person’s cells with the help of an attached piece of RNA. It’s pretty straight-forward to customize this “guide” RNA molecule so that it recognizes a desired DNA sequence that is in need of repair or modification.

https://player.vimeo.com/video/112757040

Because CRISPR activity heavily relies on the guide RNA molecule’s binding to a specific DNA sequence, there have been on-going concerns that a patient’s genetic variability could hamper the effectiveness of a given CRISPR therapy if it didn’t bind well. Even worse, if the genetic variability caused the CRISPR product to bind and inactivate a different region of DNA, say a gene responsible for suppressing cancer growth, it could lead to dangerous, so-called off target effects.

Although, studies have been carried out to measure the frequency of these potential CRISPR mismatches, many of the analyses depend on a reference DNA sequence from one individual. But as senior author Stuart Orkin, of Dana-Farber Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, points out in a press release, this is not an ideal way to gauge CRISPR effectiveness and safety:

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Stuart Orkin

“Humans vary in their DNA sequences, and what is taken as the ‘normal’ DNA sequence for reference cannot account for all these differences.”

 

 

One DNA sequence is not like the other
So, in this study, the research team analyzed previously published DNA sequence data from 7,444 people. And they focused on 30 disease genes that various researchers were targeting with CRISPR gene-editing. The team also generated 3,000 different guide RNAs with which to target those 30 disease genes.

The analysis showed that, in fact, about 50 percent of the guide RNAs could potentially have mismatches due to genetic variability found in these patients’ DNA sequences. These mismatches could lead to less effective binding of CRISPR to the disease gene target, which would reduce the effectiveness of the gene editing. And, though rare, the team also found cases in which an individual’s genetic variability could cause the CRISPR guide RNA to bind and cut in the wrong spot.

Matthew Canver, an MD-PhD student at Harvard Medical School who is also an author in the study, points out these less-than-ideal activities could also impact other gene editing techniques. Canver gives an overall recommendation how to best move forward with CRISPR-based therapy development:

canver, matthew

Matthew Canver

“The unifying theme is that all these technologies rely on identifying stretches of DNA bases very specifically. As these gene-editing therapies continue to develop and start to approach the clinic, it’s important to make sure each therapy is going to be tailored to the patient that’s going to be treated.”

 

How a tiny patch of skin helped researchers save the life of a young boy battling a deadly disease

 

EB boy

After receiving his new skin, the boy plays on the grounds of the hospital in Bochum, Germany. Credit: RUB

By any standards epidermolysis bullosa (EB) is a nasty disease. It’s a genetic condition that causes the skin to blister, break and tear off. At best, it’s painful and disfiguring. At worst, it can be fatal. Now researchers in Italy have come up with an approach that could offer hope for people battling the condition.

EB is caused by genetic mutations that leave the top layer of skin unable to anchor to inner layers. People born with EB are often called “Butterfly Children” because, as the analogy goes, their skin is as fragile as the wings of a butterfly. There are no cures and the only treatment involves constantly dressing the skin, sometimes several times a day. With each change of dressing, layers of skin can be peeled away, causing pain.

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Hands of a person with EB

Life and death for one boy

For Hassan, a seven-year old boy admitted to the Burn Unit of the Children’s Hospital in Bochum, Germany, the condition was particularly severe. Since birth Hassan had repeatedly developed blisters all over his body, but several weeks before being admitted to the hospital his condition took an even more serious turn. He had lost skin on around 80 percent of his body and he was battling severe infections. His life hung in the balance.

Hassan’s form of EB was caused by a mutation in a single gene, called LAMB3. Fortunately, a team of researchers at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy had been doing work in this area and had a potential treatment.

To repair the damage the researchers took a leaf out of the way severe burns are treated, using layers of skin to replace the damaged surface. In this case the team took a tiny piece of skin, about half an inch square, from Hassan and, in the laboratory, used a retrovirus to deliver a corrected version of the defective gene into the skin cells.

 

They then used the stem cells in the skin to grow sizable sheets of new skin, ranging in size from about 20 to 60 square inches, and used that to replace the damaged skin.

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In the study, published in the journal Nature, the researchers say the technique worked quickly:

“Upon removal of the non-adhering gauze (ten days after grafting) epidermal engraftment was evident. One month after grafting, epidermal regeneration was stable and complete. Thus approximately 80% of the patient’s TBSA (total body surface area) was restored by the transgenic epidermis.”

The engrafted skin not only covered all the damaged areas, it also proved remarkably durable. In the two years since the surgery the skin has remained, in the words of the researchers, “stable and robust, and does not blister, itch, or require ointment or medications.”

In an interview in Science, Jakub Tolar, an expert on EB at the University of Minnesota, talked about the significance of this study:

“It is very unusual that we would see a publication with a single case study anymore, but this one is a little different. This is one of these [studies] that can determine where the future of the field is going to go.”

Because the treatment focused on one particular genetic mutation it won’t be a cure for all EB patients, but it could provide vital information to help many people with the disease. The researchers identified a particular category of cells that seemed to play a key role in helping repair the skin. These cells, called holoclones, could be an important target for future research.

The researchers also said that if a child is diagnosed with EB at birth then skin cells can be taken and turned into a ready-made supply of the sheets that can be used to treat skin lesions when they develop. This would enable doctors to treat problems before they become serious, rather than have to try and repair the damage later.

As for Hassan, he is now back in school, leading a normal life and is even able to play soccer.

 

 

CIRM-Funded Clinical Trials Targeting Blood and Immune Disorders

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

This week, we’re highlighting CIRM-funded clinical trials to address the growing interest in our rapidly expanding clinical portfolio. Today we are featuring trials in our blood and immune disorders portfolio, specifically focusing on sickle cell disease, HIV/AIDS, severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID, also known as bubble baby disease) and rare disease called chronic granulomatous disease (CGD).

CIRM has funded a total of eight trials targeting these disease areas, all of which are currently active. Check out the infographic below for a list of those trials.

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

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: bubble baby therapy a go in UK, in-utero stem cell trial and novel heart disease target

There were lots of CIRM mentions in the news this week. Here are two brief recaps written by Karen Ring to get you up to speed. A third story by Todd Dubnicoff summarizes an promising finding related to heart disease by researchers in Singapore.  

CIRM-funded “bubble baby” disease therapy gets special designation by UK.
Orchard Therapeutics, a company based in the UK and the US, is developing a stem cell-based gene therapy called OTL-101 to treat a primary immune disease called adenosine-deaminase deficient severe combined immunodeficiency (ADA-SCID), also known as “bubble baby disease”. CIRM is funding a Phase 1/2 clinical trial led by Don Kohn of UCLA in collaboration with Orchard and the University College in London.

In July, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) awarded OTL-101 Rare Pediatric Disease Designation (read more about it here), which makes the therapy eligible for priority review by the FDA, and could give it a faster route to being made more widely available to children in need.

On Tuesday, Orchard announced further good news that OTL-101 received “Promising Innovative Medicine Designation” by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). In a news release, the company explained how this designation bodes well for advancing OTL-101 from clinical trials into patients,

“The designation as Promising Innovative Medicine is the first step of a two-step process under which OTL-101 can benefit from the Early Access to Medicine Scheme (“EAMS”). Nicolas Koebel, Senior Vice President for Business Operations at Orchard, added: “With this PIM designation we can potentially make OTL-101 available to UK patients sooner under the Early Access to Medicine Scheme”.

CIRM funded UCSF clinical trial mentioned in SF Business Times
Ron Leuty, reporter at the San Francisco Business Times, published an article about a CIRM-funded trial out of UCSF that is targeting a rare genetic blood disease called alpha thalassemia major, describing it as, “The world’s first in-utero blood stem cell transplant, soon to be performed at the University of California, San Francisco, could point the way toward pre-birth cures for a range of blood diseases, such as sickle cell disease.”

Alpha Thalassemia affects the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen because of a reduction in a protein called hemoglobin. The UCSF trial, spearheaded by UCSF Pediatric surgeon Dr. Tippi MacKenzie, is hoping to use stem cells from the mother to treat babies in the womb to give them a better chance at surviving after birth.

In an interview with Leuty, Tippi explained,

“Our goal is to put in enough cells so the baby won’t need another transplant. But even if we fall short, if we can just establish 1 percent maternal cells circulating in the child, it will establish tolerance and then they can get the booster transplant.”

She also emphasized the key role that CIRM funded played in the development and launch of this clinical trial.

“CIRM is about more than funding for studies, MacKenzie said. Agency staff has provided advice about how to translate animal studies into work in humans, she said, as well as hiring an FDA consultant, writing an investigational new drug application and setting up a clinical protocol.”

“I’m a clinician, but running a clinical trial is different,” MacKenzie said. “CIRM’s been incredibly helpful in helping me navigate that.”

Heart, heal thyself: the story of Singheart
When you cut your finger or scrape a knee, a scab forms, allowing the skin underneath to regenerate and repair itself. The heart is not so lucky – it has very limited self-healing abilities. Instead, heart muscle cells damaged after a heart attack form scar tissue, making each heart beat less efficient. This condition can lead to chronic heart disease, the number one killer of both men and women in the US.

A mouse heart cell with 2 nuclei (blue) and Singheart RNA labelled by red fluorescent dyes.
Credit: A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore

Research has shown that newborn mice retain the ability to completely regenerate and repair injuries to the heart because their heart muscle cells, or cardiomyocytes, are still able to divide and replenish damaged cells. But by adulthood, the mouse cardiomyocytes lose the ability to stimulate the necessary cell division processes. A research team in Singapore wondered what was preventing cardiomyocytes cell division in adult mice and if there was some way to lift that block.

This week in Nature Communications, they describe the identification of a molecule they call Singheart that may be the answer to their questions. Using tools that allow the analysis of gene activity in single cells revealed that a rare population of diseased cardiomyocytes are able to crank up genes related to cell division. And further analysis showed Singheart, a specialized genetic molecule called a long non-coding RNA, played a role in blocking this cell division gene.

As lead author Dr. Roger Foo, a principal investigator at Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) and the National University Health System (NUHS), explained in a press release, these findings may lead to new self-healing strategies for heart disease,

“There has always been a suspicion that the heart holds the key to its own healing, regenerative and repair capability. But that ability seems to become blocked as soon as the heart is past its developmental stage. Our findings point to this potential block that when lifted, may allow the heart to heal itself.”

Bye Bye bubble baby disease: promising results from stem cell gene therapy trial for SCID

Evangelina Padilla-Vaccaro
(Front cover of CIRM’s 2016 Annual Report)

You don’t need to analyze any data to know for yourself that Evangelina Vaccaro’s experimental stem cell therapy has cured her of a devastating, often fatal disease of the immune system. All you have to do is look at a photo or video of her to see that she’s now a happy, healthy 5-year-old with a full life ahead of her.

But a casual evaluation of one patient won’t get therapies approved in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Instead, a very careful collection of quantitative data from a series of clinical trial studies is a must to prove that a treatment is safe and effective. Each study’s results also provide valuable information on how to tweak the procedures to improve each follow on clinical trial.

A CIRM-funded clinical trial study published this week by a UCLA research team in the Journal of Clinical Investigation did just that. Of the ten participants in the trial, nine including Evangelina were cured of adenosine deaminase-deficient severe combined immunodeficiency, or ADA-SCID, a disease that is usually fatal within the first year of life if left untreated.

In the past, children with SCID were isolated in a germ-free sterile clear plastic bubbles, thus the name “bubble baby disease”. [Credit: Baylor College of Medicine Archives]

ADA-SCID, also referred to as bubble baby disease, is so lethal because it destroys the ability to fight off disease. Affected children have a mutation in the adenosine deaminase gene which, in early development, causes the death of cells that normally would give rise to the immune system. Without those cells, ADA-SCID babies are born without an effective immune system. Even the common cold can be fatal so they must be sheltered in clean environments with limited physical contact with family and friends and certainly no outdoor play.

A few treatments exist but they have limitations. The go-to treatment is a blood stem cell transplant (also known as a bone marrow transplant) from a sibling with matched blood. The problem is that a match isn’t always available and a less than perfect match can lead to serious, life-threatening complications. Another treatment called enzyme replacement therapy (ERT) involves a twice-weekly injection of the missing adenosine deaminase enzyme. This approach is not only expensive but its effectiveness in restoring the immune system varies over a lifetime.

Evangelina being treated by Don Kohn and his team in 2012.  Photo: UCLA

The current study led by Don Kohn, avoids donor cells and enzyme therapy altogether by fixing the mutation in the patient’s own cells. Blood stem cells are isolated from a bone marrow sample and taken back to the lab where a functional copy of the adenosine deaminase gene is inserted into the patient’s cells. When those cells are ready, the patient is subjected to drugs – the same type that are used in cancer therapy – that kill off a portion of the patient’s faulty immune system to provide space in the bone marrow. Then the repaired blood stem cells are transplanted back into the body where they settle into the bone marrow and give rise to a healthy new immune system.

The ten patients were treated between 2009 and 2012 and their health was followed up for at least four years. As of June 2016, nine of the patients in the trial – (all infants except for an eight-year old) – no longer need enzyme injections and have working immune systems that allow them to play outside, attend school and survive colds and other infections that inevitably get passed around the classroom. The tenth patient was fifteen years old at the time of the trial and their treatment was not effective suggesting that early intervention is important. No serious side effects were seen in any of the patients.

Evangelina V

Evangelina Vaccaro (far right), who received Dr. Kohn’s treatment for bubble baby disease in 2012, with her family before her first day of school. Photo: UCLA, courtesy of the Vaccaro family

Now, this isn’t the first ever stem cell gene therapy clinical trial to successfully treat ADA-SCID. Kohn’s team and others have carried out clinical trials over the past few decades, and this current study builds upon the insights of those previous results. In a 2014 press release reporting preliminary results of this week’s published journal article, Kohn described the importance of these follow-on clinical trials for ensuring the therapy’s success:

UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center
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Don Kohn

“We were very happy that over the course of several clinical trials and after making refinements and improvements to the treatment protocol, we are now able to provide a cure for babies with this devastating disease using the child’s own cells.”

The team’s next step is getting FDA approval to use this treatment in all children with ADA-SCID. To reach this aim, the team is carrying out another clinical trial which will test a frozen preparation of the repaired blood stem cells. Being able to freeze the therapy product buys researchers more time to do a thorough set of safety tests on the cells before transplanting them into the patient. A frozen product is also much easier to transport for treating children who live far from the laboratories that perform the gene therapy. In November of last year, CIRM’s governing Board awarded Kohn’s team $20 million to support this project.

If everything goes as planned, this treatment will be the first stem cell gene therapy ever approved in the U.S. We look forward to adding many new photos next to Evangelina’s as more and more children are cured of ADA-SCID.

Stem Cell Profiles in Courage: Brenden Whittaker

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Brenden Whittaker: Photo Colin McGuire

It’s not often you meet someone who says one of their favorite things in the world is mowing the lawn. But then, there aren’t many people in the world like Brenden Whittaker. In fact, as of this writing, he may be unique.

Brenden was born with severe chronic granulomatous disease (x-CGD), a rare genetic disorder that left him with an impaired immune system that was vulnerable to repeated bacterial and fungal infections. Over 22 years Brenden was in and out of the hospital hundreds of times, he almost died a couple of times, and lost parts of his lungs and liver.

Then he became the first person to take part in a clinical trial to treat x-CGD. UCLA researcher Don Kohn had developed a technique that removed Brenden’s blood stem cells, genetically re-engineered them to correct the mutation that caused the disease, and then returned those stem cells to Brenden. Over time they created a new blood system, and restored Brenden’s immune system.

He was cured.

We profiled Brenden for our 2016 Annual Report. Here’s an extended version of the interview we did with him, talking about his life before and after he was cured.

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Brenden with a CIRM Game Ball – signed by everyone at CIRM

Brenden’s story:

I still think about it, my disease, every few days or so and it’s weird because in the past I was sick so often; before this year, I was sick consistently for about 5 years and going to doctor’s appointments 2 or 3 times a week and being in the hospital. So, it’s weird having a cough and not having to be rushed to the ER, not having to call someone every time the smallest thing pops up, and not having to worry about what it means.

It’s been good but it’s been weird to not have to do that.  It’s a nice problem to have.

What are you doing now that you didn’t do before?

Cutting the grass is something I couldn’t do before, that I’ve taken up now. Most people look at me as if I’m crazy when I say it, but I love cutting grass, and I wasn’t able to do it for 22 years of my life.

People will complain about having to pick up after their dog goes to the bathroom and now I can follow my dog outside and can pick up after her. It really is just the little things that people don’t think of. I find enjoyment in the small things, things I couldn’t do before but now I can and not have to worry about them.

The future

I was in the boy scouts growing up so I love camping, building fires, just being outdoors. I hiked on the Appalachian Trail. Now I’ll be able to do more of that.

I have a part time job at a golf course and I’m actually getting ready to go back to school full time in January. I want to get into pre-med, go to medical school and become a doctor. All the experience I’ve had has just made me more interested in being a doctor, I just want to be in a position where I can help people going through similar things, and going through all this just made me more interested in it.

Before the last few months I couldn’t schedule my work more than a week in advance because I didn’t know if I was going to be in the hospital or what was going on. Now my boss jokes that I’m giving him plans for the next month or two. It’s amazing how far ahead you can plan when you aren’t worried about being sick or having to go to the hospital.

I’d love to do some traveling. Right now most of my traveling consists of going to and from Boston (for medical check-ups), but I would love to go to Europe, go through France and Italy. That would be a real cool trip. I don’t need to see everything in the world but just going to other countries, seeing cities like London, Paris and Rome, seeing how people live in other cultures, that would be great.

Advice for others

I do think about the fact that when I was born one in a million kids were diagnosed with this disease and there weren’t any treatments. Many people only lived a few years. But to be diagnosed now you can have a normal life. That’s something all on its own. It’s almost impossible for me to fathom it’s happening, after all the years and doctor’s appointments and illnesses.

So, for people going through anything like this, I’d say just don’t give up. There are new advances being made every day and you have to keep fighting and keep getting through it, and some day it will all work out.


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