CIRM Alpha Clinics Network charts a new course for delivering stem cell treatments

Sometimes it feels like finding a cure is the easy part; getting it past all the hurdles it must overcome to be able to reach patients is just as big a challenge. Fortunately, a lot of rather brilliant minds are hard at work to find the most effective ways of doing just that.

Last week, at the grandly titled Second Annual Symposium of the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network, some of those minds gathered to talk about the issues around bringing stem cell therapies to the people who need them, the patients.

The goal of the Alpha Clinics Network is to accelerate the development and delivery of stem cell treatments to patients. In doing that one of the big issues that has to be addressed is cost; how much do you charge for a treatment that can change someone’s life, even save their life? For example, medications that can cure Hepatitis C cost more than $80,000. So how much would a treatment cost that can cure a disease like Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID)? CIRM-funded researchers have come up with a cure for SCID, but this is a rare disease that affects between 40 – 100 newborns every year, so the huge cost of developing this would fall on a small number of patients.

The same approach that is curing SCID could also lead to a cure for sickle cell disease, something that affects around 100,000 people in the US, most of them African Americans. Because we are adding more people to the pool that can be treated by a therapy does that mean the cost of the treatment should go down, or will it stay the same to increase profits?

Jennifer Malin, United Healthcare

Jennifer Malin from United Healthcare did a terrific job of walking us through the questions that have to be answered when trying to decide how much to charge for a drug. She also explored the thorny issue of who should pay; patients, insurance companies, the state? As she pointed out, it’s no use having a cure if it’s priced so high that no one can afford it.

Joseph Alvarnas, the Director of Value-based Analytics at City of Hope – where the conference was held – said that in every decision we make about stem cell therapies we “must be mindful of economic reality and inequality” to ensure that these treatments are available to all, and not just the rich.

“Remember, the decisions we make now will influence not just the lives of those with us today but also the lives of all those to come.”

Of course long before you even have to face the question of who will pay for it, you must have a treatment to pay for. Getting a therapy through the regulatory process is challenging at the best of times. Add to that the fact that many researchers have little experience navigating those tricky waters and you can understand why it takes more than eight years on average for a cell therapy to go from a good idea to a clinical trial (in contrast it takes just 3.2 years for a more traditional medication to get into a clinical trial).

Sunil Kadim, QuintilesIMS

Sunil Kadam from QuintilesIMS talked about the skills and expertise needed to navigate the regulatory pathway. QuintilesIMS partners with CIRM to run the Stem Cell Center, which helps researchers apply for and then run a clinical trial, providing the guidance that is essential to keeping even the most promising research on track.

But, as always, at the heart of every conference, are the patients and patient advocates. They provided the inspiration and a powerful reminder of why we all do what we do; to help find treatments and cures for patients in need.

The Alpha Clinic Network is only a few years old but is already running 35 different clinical trials involving hundreds of patients. The goal of the conference was to discuss lessons learned and share best practices so that number of trials and patients can continue to increase.

The CIRM Board is also doing its part to pick up the pace, approving funding for up to two more Alpha Clinic sites.  The deadline to apply to be one of our new Alpha Clinics sites is May 15th, and you can learn more about how to apply on our funding page.

Since joining CIRM I have been to many conferences but this was, in my opinion, the best one I have ever intended. It brought together people from every part of the field to give the most complete vision for where we are, and where we are headed. The talks were engaging, and inspiring.

Kristin Macdonald was left legally blind by retinitis pigmentosa, a rare vision-destroying disease. A few years ago she became the first person to be treated with a CIRM-funded therapy aimed to restoring some vision. She says it is helping, that for years she lived in a world of darkness and, while she still can’t see clearly, now she can see light. She says coming out of the darkness and into the light has changed her world.

Kristin Macdonald

In the years to come the Alpha Clinics Network hopes to be able to do the same, and much more, for many more people in need.

To read more about the Alpha Clinics Meeting, check out our Twitter Moments.

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: spinal cord injury trial update, blood stem cells in lungs, and using parsley for stem cell therapies

More good news on a CIRM-funded trial for spinal cord injury. The results are now in for Asterias Biotherapeutics’ Phase 1/2a clinical trial testing a stem cell-based therapy for patients with spinal cord injury. They reported earlier this week that six out of six patients treated with 10 million AST-OPC1 cells, which are a type of brain cell called oligodendrocyte progenitor cells, showed improvements in their motor function. Previously, they had announced that five of the six patients had shown improvement with the jury still out on the sixth because that patient was treated later in the trial.

 In a news release, Dr. Edward Wirth, the Chief Medical officer at Asterias, highlighted these new and exciting results:

 “We are excited to see the sixth and final patient in the AIS-A 10 million cell cohort show upper extremity motor function improvement at 3 months and further improvement at 6 months, especially because this particular patient’s hand and arm function had actually been deteriorating prior to receiving treatment with AST-OPC1. We are very encouraged by the meaningful improvements in the use of arms and hands seen in the SciStar study to date since such gains can increase a patient’s ability to function independently following complete cervical spinal cord injuries.”

Overall, the trial suggests that AST-OPC1 treatment has the potential to improve motor function in patients with severe spinal cord injury. So far, the therapy has proven to be safe and likely effective in improving some motor function in patients although control studies will be needed to confirm that the cells are responsible for this improvement. Asterias plans to test a higher dose of 20 million cells in AIS-A patients later this year and test the 10 million cell dose in AIS-B patients that a less severe form of spinal cord injury.

 Steve Cartt, CEO of Asterias commented on their future plans:

 “These results are quite encouraging, and suggest that there are meaningful improvements in the recovery of functional ability in patients treated with the 10 million cell dose of AST-OPC1 versus spontaneous recovery rates observed in a closely matched untreated patient population. We look forward to reporting additional efficacy and safety data for this cohort, as well as for the currently-enrolling AIS-A 20 million cell and AIS-B 10 million cell cohorts, later this year.”

Lungs aren’t just for respiration. Biology textbooks may be in need of some serious rewrites based on a UCSF study published this week in Nature. The research suggests that the lungs are a major source of blood stem cells and platelet production. The long prevailing view has been that the bone marrow was primarily responsible for those functions.

The new discovery was made possible by using special microscopy that allowed the scientists to view the activity of individual cells within the blood vessels of a living mouse lung (watch the fascinating UCSF video below). The mice used in the experiments were genetically engineered so that their platelet-producing cells glowed green under the microscope. Platelets – cell fragments that clump up and stop bleeding – were known to be produced to some extent by the lungs but the UCSF team was shocked by their observations: the lungs accounted for half of all platelet production in these mice.

Follow up experiments examined the movement of blood cells between the lung and bone marrow. In one experiment, the researchers transplanted healthy lungs from the green-glowing mice into a mouse strain that lacked adequate blood stem cell production in the bone marrow. After the transplant, microscopy showed that the green fluorescent cells from the donor lung traveled to the host’s bone marrow and gave rise to platelets and several other cells of the immune system. Senior author Mark Looney talked about the novelty of these results in a university press release:

Mark Looney, MD

“To our knowledge this is the first description of blood progenitors resident in the lung, and it raises a lot of questions with clinical relevance for the millions of people who suffer from thrombocytopenia [low platelet count].”

If this newfound role of the lung is shown to exist in humans, it may provide new therapeutic approaches to restoring platelet and blood stem cell production seen in various diseases. And it will give lung transplants surgeons pause to consider what effects immune cells inside the donor lung might have on organ rejection.

Add a little vanilla to this stem cell therapy. Typically, the only connection between plants and stem cell clinical trials are the flowers that are given to the patient by friends and family. But research published this week in the Advanced Healthcare Materials journal aims to use plant husks as part of the cell therapy itself.

Though we tend to focus on the poking and prodding of stem cells when discussing the development of new therapies, an equally important consideration is the use of three-dimensional scaffolds. Stem cells tend to grow better and stay healthier when grown on these structures compared to the flat two-dimensional surface of a petri dish. Various methods of building scaffolds are under development such as 3D printing and designing molds using materials that aren’t harmful to human tissue.

Human fibroblast cells growing on decellularized parsley.
Image: Gianluca Fontana/UW-Madison

But in the current study, scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison took a creative approach to building scaffolds: they used the husks of parsley, vanilla and orchid plants. The researchers figured that millions of years of evolution almost always leads to form and function that is much more stable and efficient than anything humans can create. Lead author Gianluca Fontana explained in a university press release how the characteristics of plants lend themselves well to this type of bioengineering:

Gianluca Fontana, PhD

“Nature provides us with a tremendous reservoir of structures in plants. You can pick the structure you want.”

The technique relies on removing all the cells of the plant, leaving behind its outer layer which is mostly made of cellulose, long chains of sugars that make up plant cell walls. The resulting hollow, tubular husks have similar shapes to those found in human intestines, lungs and the bladder.

The researchers showed that human stem cells not only attach and grow onto the plant scaffolds but also organize themselves in alignment with the structures’ patterns. The function of human tissues rely on an organized arrangement of cells so it’s possible these plant scaffolds could be part of a tissue replacement cell product. Senior author William Murphy also points out that the scaffolds are easily altered:

William Murphy, PhD

“They are quite pliable. They can be easily cut, fashioned, rolled or stacked to form a range of different sizes and shapes.”

And the fact these scaffolds are natural products that are cheap to manufacture makes this a project well worth watching.

Stem Cell Stories that Caught our Eye: stem cell insights into anorexia, Zika infection and bubble baby disease

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Stem cell model identifies new culprit for anorexia.

Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa are often thought to be caused by psychological disturbances or societal pressure. However, research into the genes of anorexia patients suggests that what’s written in your DNA can be associated with an increased vulnerability to having this disorder. But identifying individual genes at fault for a disease this complex has remained mostly out of scientists’ reach, until now.

A CIRM-funded team from the UC San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine reported this week that they’ve developed a stem cell-based model of anorexia and used it to identify a gene called TACR1, which they believe is associated with an increased likelihood of getting anorexia.

They took skin samples from female patients with anorexia and reprogrammed them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These stem cells contained the genetic information potentially responsible for causing their anorexia. The team matured these iPSCs into brain cells, called neurons, in a dish, and then studied what genes got activated. When they looked at the genes activated by anorexia neurons, they found that TACR1, a gene associated with psychiatric disorders, was switched on higher in anorexia neurons than in healthy neurons. These findings suggest that the TACR1 gene could be an identifier for this disease and a potential target for developing new treatments.

In a UCSD press release, Professor and author on the study, Alysson Muotri, said that they will follow up on their findings by studying stem cell lines derived from a larger group of patients.

Alysson Muotri UC San Diego

“But more to the point, this work helps make that possible. It’s a novel technological advance in the field of eating disorders, which impacts millions of people. These findings transform our ability to study how genetic variations alter brain molecular pathways and cellular networks to change risk of anorexia nervosa — and perhaps our ability to create new therapies.”

Anorexia is a disease that affects 1% of the global population and although therapy can be an effective treatment for some, many do not make a full recovery. Stem cell-based models could prove to be a new method for unlocking new clues into what causes anorexia and what can cure it.

Nature versus Zika, who will win?

Zika virus is no longer dominating the news headlines these days compared to 2015 when large outbreaks of the virus in the Southern hemisphere came to a head. However, the threat of Zika-induced birth defects, like microcephaly to pregnant women and their unborn children is no less real or serious two years later. There are still no effective vaccines or antiviral drugs that prevent Zika infection but scientists are working fast to meet this unmet need.

Speaking of which, scientists at UCLA think they might have a new weapon in the war against Zika. Back in 2013, they reported that a natural compound in the body called 25HC was effective at attacking viruses and prevented human cells from being infected by viruses like HIV, Ebola and Hepatitis C.

When the Zika outbreak hit, they thought that this compound could potentially be effective at preventing Zika infection as well. In their new study published in the journal Immunity, they tested a synthetic version of 25HC in animal and primate models, they found that it protected against infection. They also tested the compound on human brain organoids, or mini brains in a dish made from pluripotent stem cells. Brain organoids are typically susceptible to Zika infection, which causes substantial cell damage, but this was prevented by treatment with 25HC.

Left to right: (1) Zika virus (green) infects and destroys the formation of neurons (pink) in human stem cell-derived brain organoids.  (2) 25HC blocks Zika infection and preserves neuron formation in the organoids. (3) Reduced brain size and structure in a Zika-infected mouse brain. (4) 25HC preserves mouse brain size and structure. Image courtesy of UCLA Stem Cell.

A UCLA news release summarized the impact that this research could have on the prevention of Zika infection,

“The new research highlights the potential use of 25HC to combat Zika virus infection and prevent its devastating outcomes, such as microcephaly. The research team will further study whether 25HC can be modified to be even more effective against Zika and other mosquito-borne viruses.”

Harnessing a naturally made weapon already found in the human body to fight Zika could be an alternative strategy to preventing Zika infection.

Gene therapy in stem cells gives hope to bubble-babies.

Last week, an inspiring and touching story was reported by Erin Allday in the San Francisco Chronicle. She featured Ja’Ceon Golden, a young baby not even 6 months old, who was born into a life of isolation because he lacked a properly functioning immune system. Ja’Ceon had a rare disease called severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), also known as bubble-baby disease.

 

Ja’Ceon Golden is treated by patient care assistant Grace Deng (center) and pediatric oncology nurse Kat Wienskowski. Photo: Santiago Mejia, The Chronicle.

Babies with SCID lack the body’s immune defenses against infectious diseases and are forced to live in a sterile environment. Without early treatment, SCID babies often die within one year due to recurring infections. Bone marrow transplantation is the most common treatment for SCID, but it’s only effective if the patient has a donor that is a perfect genetic match, which is only possible for about one out of five babies with this disease.

Advances in gene therapy are giving SCID babies like Ja’Ceon hope for safer, more effective cures. The SF Chronicle piece highlights two CIRM-funded clinical trials for SCID run by UCLA in collaboration with UCSF and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In these trials, scientists isolate the bone marrow stem cells from SCID babies, correct the genetic mutation causing SCID in their stem cells, and then transplant them back into the patient to give them a healthy new immune system.

The initial results from these clinical trials are promising and support other findings that gene therapy could be an effective treatment for certain genetic diseases. CIRM’s Senior Science Officer, Sohel Talib, was quoted in the Chronicle piece saying,

“Gene therapy has been shown to work, the efficacy has been shown. And it’s safe. The confidence has come. Now we have to follow it up.”

Ja’Ceon was the first baby treated at the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital and so far, he is responding well to the treatment. His great aunt Dannie Hawkins said that it was initially hard for her to enroll Ja’Ceon in this trial because she was a partial genetic match and had the option of donating her own bone-marrow to help save his life. In the end, she decided that his involvement in the trial would “open the door for other kids” to receive this treatment if it worked.

Ja’Ceon Golden plays with patient care assistant Grace Deng in a sterile play area at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital.Photo: Santiago Mejia, The Chronicle

It’s brave patients and family members like Ja’Ceon and Dannie that make it possible for research to advance from clinical trials into effective treatments for future patients. We at CIRM are eternally grateful for their strength and the sacrifices they make to participate in these trials.

Partnering with the best to help find cures for rare diseases

As a state agency we focus most of our efforts and nearly all our money on California. That’s what we were set up to do. But that doesn’t mean we don’t also look outside the borders of California to try and find the best research, and the most promising therapies, to help people in need.

Today’s meeting of the CIRM Board was the first time we have had a chance to partner with one of the leading research facilities in the country focusing on children and rare diseases; St. Jude Children’s Researech Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

a4da990e3de7a2112ee875fc784deeafSt. Jude is getting $11.9 million to run a Phase I/II clinical trial for x-linked severe combined immunodeficiency disorder (SCID), a catastrophic condition where children are born without a functioning immune system. Because they are unable to fight off infections, many children born with SCID die in the first few years of life.

St. Jude is teaming up with researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) to genetically modify the patient’s own blood stem cells, hopefully creating a new blood system and repairing the damaged immune system. St. Jude came up with the method of doing this, UCSF will treat the patients. Having that California component to the clinical trial is what makes it possible for us to fund this work.

This is the first time CIRM has funded work with St. Jude and reflects our commitment to moving the most promising research into clinical trials in people, regardless of whether that work originates inside or outside California.

The Board also voted to fund researchers at Cedars-Sinai to run a clinical trial on ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Like SCID, ALS is a rare disease. As Randy Mills, our President and CEO, said in a news release:

CIRM CEO and President, Randy Mills.

CIRM CEO and President, Randy Mills.

“While making a funding decision at CIRM we don’t just look at how many people are affected by a disease, we also look at the severity of the disease on the individual and the potential for impacting other diseases. While the number of patients afflicted by these two diseases may be small, their need is great. Additionally, the potential to use these approaches in treating other disease is very real. The underlying technology used in treating SCID, for example, has potential application in other areas such as sickle cell disease and HIV/AIDS.”

We have written several blogs about the research that cured children with SCID.

The Board also approved funding for a clinical trial to develop a treatment for type 1 diabetes (T1D). This is an autoimmune disease that affects around 1.25 million Americans, and millions more around the globe.

T1D is where the body’s own immune system attacks the cells that produce insulin, which is needed to control blood sugar levels. If left untreated it can result in serious, even life-threatening, complications such as vision loss, kidney damage and heart attacks.

Researchers at Caladrius Biosciences will take cells, called regulatory T cells (Tregs), from the patient’s own immune system, expand the number of those cells in the lab and enhance them to make them more effective at preventing the autoimmune attack on the insulin-producing cells.

The focus is on newly-diagnosed adolescents because studies show that at the time of diagnosis T1D patients usually have around 20 percent of their insulin-producing cells still intact. It’s hoped by intervening early the therapy can protect those cells and reduce the need for patients to rely on insulin injections.

David J. Mazzo, Ph.D., CEO of Caladrius Biosciences, says this is hopeful news for people with type 1 diabetes:

David Mazzo

David Mazzo

“We firmly believe that this therapy has the potential to improve the lives of people with T1D and this grant helps us advance our Phase 2 clinical study with the goal of determining the potential for CLBS03 to be an effective therapy in this important indication.”

 


Related Links:

Rare diseases are not so rare

brenden-and-dog

Brenden Whittaker – cured in a CIRM-funded clinical trial focusing on his rare disease

It seems like a contradiction in terms to say that there are nearly 7,000 diseases, affecting 30 million people, that are considered rare in the US. But the definition of a rare disease is one that affects fewer than 200,000 people and the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center (GARD) has a database that lists every one of them.

Those range from relatively well known conditions such as sickle cell disease and cerebral palsy, to lesser known ones such as attenuated familial adenomatous polyposis (AFAP) – an inherited condition that increases your risk of colon cancer.

Because disease like these are so rare, in the past many individuals with them felt isolated and alone. Thanks to the internet, people are now able to find online support groups where they can get advice on coping strategies, ideas on potential therapies and, just as important, can create a sense of community.

One of the biggest problems facing the rare disease community is a lack of funding for research to develop treatments or cures. Because these diseases affect fewer than 200,000 people most pharmaceutical companies don’t invest large sums of money developing treatments; they simply wouldn’t be able to get a big enough return on their investment. This is not a value judgement. It’s just a business reality.

And that’s where CIRM comes in. We were created, in part, to help those who can’t get help from other sources. This week alone, for example, our governing Board is meeting to vote on funding clinical trials for two rare and deadly diseases – ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Severe Combined Immunodeficiency or SCID. This kind of funding can mean the difference between life and death.

cirm-2016-annual-report-web-12

For proof, you need look no further than Evie Vaccaro, the young girl we feature on the front of our 2016 Annual Report. Evie was born with SCID and faced a bleak future. But UCLA researcher Don Kohn, with some help from CIRM, developed a therapy that cured Evie. This latest clinical trial could help make a similar therapy available to other children with SCID.

But with almost 7,000 rare diseases it’s clear we can’t help everyone. In fact, there are only around 450 FDA-approved therapies for all these conditions. That’s why the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) and groups like them are organizing events around the US on February 28th, which has been designated as Rare Disease Day. The goal is to raise awareness about rare diseases, and to advocate for action to help this community. Here’s a link to Advocacy Events in different states around the US.

Alone, each of these groups is small and easily overlooked. Combined they have a powerful voice, 30 million strong, that demands to be heard.

 

 

Stories that caught our eye: stem cell transplants help put MS in remission; unlocking the cause of autism; and a day to discover what stem cells are all about

multiple-sclerosis

Motor neurons

Stem cell transplants help put MS in remission: A combination of high dose immunosuppressive therapy and transplant of a person’s own blood stem cells seems to be a powerful tool in helping people with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS) go into sustained remission.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disorder where the body’s own immune system attacks the brain and spinal cord, causing a wide variety of symptoms including overwhelming fatigue, blurred vision and mobility problems. RRMS is the most common form of MS, affecting up to 85 percent of people, and is characterized by attacks followed by periods of remission.

The HALT-MS trial, which was sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), took the patient’s own blood stem cells, gave the individual chemotherapy to deplete their immune system, then returned the blood stem cells to the patient. The stem cells created a new blood supply and seemed to help repair the immune system.

Five years after the treatment, most of the patients were still in remission, despite not taking any medications for MS. Some people even recovered some mobility or other capabilities that they had lost due to the disease.

In a news release, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of NIAID, said anything that holds the disease at bay and helps people avoid taking medications is important:

“These extended findings suggest that one-time treatment with HDIT/HCT may be substantially more effective than long-term treatment with the best available medications for people with a certain type of MS. These encouraging results support the development of a large, randomized trial to directly compare HDIT/HCT to standard of care for this often-debilitating disease.”

scripps-campus

Scripps Research Institute

Using stem cells to model brain development disorders. (Karen Ring) CIRM-funded scientists from the Scripps Research Institute are interested in understanding how the brain develops and what goes wrong to cause intellectual disabilities like Fragile X syndrome, a genetic disease that is a common cause of autism spectrum disorder.

Because studying developmental disorders in humans is very difficult, the Scripps team turned to stem cell models for answers. This week, in the journal Brain, they published a breakthrough in our understanding of the early stages of brain development. They took induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), made from cells from Fragile X syndrome patients, and turned these cells into brain cells called neurons in a cell culture dish.

They noticed an obvious difference between Fragile X patient iPSCs and healthy iPSCs: the patient stem cells took longer to develop into neurons, a result that suggests a similar delay in fetal brain development. The neurons from Fragile X patients also had difficulty forming synaptic connections, which are bridges that allow for information to pass from one neuron to another.

Scripps Research professor Jeanne Loring said that their findings could help to identify new drug therapies to treat Fragile X syndrome. She explained in a press release;

“We’re the first to see that these changes happen very early in brain development. This may be the only way we’ll be able to identify possible drug treatments to minimize the effects of the disorder.”

Looking ahead, Loring and her team will apply their stem cell model to other developmental diseases. She said, “Now we have the tools to ask the questions to advance people’s health.”

A Day to Discover What Stem Cells Are All about.  (Karen Ring) Everyone is familiar with the word stem cells, but do they really know what these cells are and what they are capable of? Scientists are finding creative ways to educate the public and students about the power of stem cells and stem cell research. A great example is the University of Southern California (USC), which is hosting a Stem Cell Day of Discovery to educate middle and high school students and their families about stem cell research.

The event is this Saturday at the USC Health Sciences Campus and will feature science talks, lab tours, hands-on experiments, stem cell lab video games, and a resource fair. It’s a wonderful opportunity for families to engage in science and also to expose young students to science in a fun and engaging way.

Interest in Stem Cell Day has been so high that the event has already sold out. But don’t worry, there will be another stem cell day next year. And for those of you who don’t live in Southern California, mark your calendars for the 2017 Stem Cell Awareness Day on Wednesday, October 11th. There will be stem cell education events all over California and in other parts of the country during that week in honor of this important day.

 

 

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: glowing stem cells and new insights into Zika and SCID

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Glowing stem cells help scientists understand how cells work. (Karen Ring)
It’s easy to notice when something is going wrong. It’s a lot harder to notice when something is going right. The same thing can be said for biology. Scientists dedicate their careers to studying unhealthy cells, trying to understand why people get certain diseases and what’s going wrong at the cellular level to cause these problems. But there is a lot to be said for doing scientific research on healthy cells so that we can better understand what’s happening when cells start to malfunction.

A group from the Allen Institute for Cell Science is doing just this. They used a popular gene-editing technology called CRISPR/Cas9 to genetically modify human stem cell lines so that certain parts inside the cell will glow different colors when observed under a fluorescent microscope. Specifically, the scientists inserted the genetic code to produce fluorescent proteins in both the nucleus and the mitochondria of the stem cells. The final result is a tool that allows scientists to study how stem cells specialize into mature cells in various tissues and organs.

Glowing human stem cells. The edges of the cells are shown in purple while the DNA in the cell’s nucleus is in blue. (Allen Institute for Cell Science).

Glowing human stem cells. The edges of the cells are shown in purple while the DNA in the cell’s nucleus is in blue. (Allen Institute for Cell Science).

The director of stem cells and gene editing at the Allen Institute, Ruwanthi Gunawardane, explained how their technology improves upon previous methods for getting cells to glow in an interview with Forbes:

 “We’re trying to understand how the cell behaves, how it functions, but flooding it with some external protein can really mess it up. The CRISPR system allows us to go into the DNA—the blueprint—and insert a gene that allows the cell to express the protein in its normal environment. Then, through live imaging, we can watch the cell and understand how it works.”

The team has made five of these glowing stem cell lines available for use by the scientific community through the Coriell Institute for Medical Research (which also works closely with the CIRM iPSC Initiative). Each cell line is unique and has a different cellular structure that glows. You can learn more about these cell lines on the Coriell Allen Institute webpage and by watching this video:

 

Zika can take multiple routes to infect a child’s brain. (Kevin McCormack)
One of the biggest health stories of 2016 has been the rapid, indeed alarming, spread of the Zika virus. It went from an obscure virus to a global epidemic found in more than 70 countries.

The major concern about the virus is its ability to cause brain defects in the developing brain. Now researchers at Harvard have found that it can do this in more ways than previously believed.

Up till now, it was believed that Zika does its damage by grabbing onto a protein called AXL on the surface of brain cells called neural progenitor cells (NPCs). However, the study, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, showed that even when AXL was blocked, Zika still managed to infiltrate the brain.

Using induced pluripotent stem cell technology, the researchers were able to create NPCs and then modify them so they had no AXL expression. That should, in theory, have been able to block the Zika virus. But when they exposed those cells to the virus they found they were infected just as much as ordinary brain cells exposed to the virus were.

Caption: Zika virus (light blue) spreads through a three-dimensional model of a developing brain. Image by Max Salick and Nathaniel Kirkpatrick/Novartis

Caption: Zika virus (light blue) spreads through a three-dimensional model of a developing brain. Image by Max Salick and Nathaniel Kirkpatrick/Novartis

In a story in the Harvard Gazette, Kevin Eggan, one of the lead researchers, said this shows scientists need to re-think their approach to countering the virus:

“Our finding really recalibrates this field of research because it tells us we still have to go and find out how Zika is getting into these cells.”

 

Treatment for a severe form of bubble baby disease appears on the horizon. (Todd Dubnicoff)
Without treatment, kids born with bubble baby disease typically die before reaching 12 months of age. Formally called severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), this genetic blood disorder leaves infants without an effective immune system and unable to fight off even minor infections. A bone marrow stem cell transplant from a matched sibling can treat the disease but this is only available in less than 20 percent of cases and other types of donors carry severe risks.

In what is shaping up to be a life-changing medical breakthrough, a UCLA team has developed a stem cell/gene therapy treatment that corrects the SCID mutation. Over 40 patients have participated to date with a 100% survival rate and CIRM has just awarded the team $20 million to continue clinical trials.

There’s a catch though: other forms of SCID exist. The therapy described above treats SCID patients with a mutation in a gene responsible for producing a protein called ADA. But an inherited mutation in another gene called Artemis, leads to a more severe form of SCID. These Artemis-SCID infants have even less success with a standard bone marrow transplant compared to those with ADA-SCID. Artemis plays a role in DNA damage repair something that occurs during the chemo and radiation therapy sessions that are often necessary for blood marrow transplants. So Artemis-SCID patients are hyper-sensitive to the side of effects of standard treatments.

A recent study by UCSF scientists in Human Gene Therapy, funded in part by CIRM, brings a lot of hope to these Artemis-SCID patient. Using a similar stem cell/gene therapy method, this team collected blood stem cells from the bone marrow of mice with a form of Artemis-SCID. Then they added a good copy of the human Artemis gene to these cells. Transplanting the blood stem cells back to mice, restored their immune systems which paves the way for delivering this approach to clinic to also help the Artemis-SCID patients in desperate need of a treatment.

Stem cell agency funds clinical trials in three life-threatening conditions

strategy-wide

A year ago the CIRM Board unanimously approved a new Strategic Plan for the stem cell agency. In the plan are some rather ambitious goals, including funding ten new clinical trials in 2016. For much of the last year that has looked very ambitious indeed. But today the Board took a big step towards reaching that goal, approving three clinical trials focused on some deadly or life-threatening conditions.

The first is Forty Seven Inc.’s work targeting colorectal cancer, using a monoclonal antibody that can strip away the cancer cells ability to evade  the immune system. The immune system can then attack the cancer. But just in case that’s not enough they’re going to hit the tumor from another side with an anti-cancer drug called cetuximab. It’s hoped this one-two punch combination will get rid of the cancer.

Finding something to help the estimated 49,000 people who die of colorectal cancer in the U.S. every year would be no small achievement. The CIRM Board thought this looked so promising they awarded Forty Seven Inc. $10.2 million to carry out a clinical trial to test if this approach is safe. We funded a similar approach by researchers at Stanford targeting solid tumors in the lung and that is showing encouraging results.

Our Board also awarded $7.35 million to a team at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles that is using stem cells to treat pulmonary hypertension, a form of high blood pressure in the lungs. This can have a devastating, life-changing impact on a person leaving them constantly short of breath, dizzy and feeling exhausted. Ultimately it can lead to heart failure.

The team at Cedars-Sinai will use cells called cardiospheres, derived from heart stem cells, to reduce inflammation in the arteries and reduce blood pressure. CIRM is funding another project by this team using a similar  approach to treat people who have suffered a heart attack. This work showed such promise in its Phase 1 trial it’s now in a larger Phase 2 clinical trial.

The largest award, worth $20 million, went to target one of the rarest diseases. A team from UCLA, led by Don Kohn, is focusing on Adenosine Deaminase Severe Combined Immune Deficiency (ADA-SCID), which is a rare form of a rare disease. Children born with this have no functioning immune system. It is often fatal in the first few years of life.

The UCLA team will take the patient’s own blood stem cells, genetically modify them to fix the mutation that is causing the problem, then return them to the patient to create a new healthy blood and immune system. The team have successfully used this approach in curing 23 SCID children in the last few years – we blogged about it here – and now they have FDA approval to move this modified approach into a Phase 2 clinical trial.

So why is CIRM putting money into projects that it has either already funded in earlier clinical trials or that have already shown to be effective? There are a number of reasons. First, our mission is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. Each of the diseases funded today represent an unmet medical need. Secondly, if something appears to be working for one problem why not try it on another similar one – provided the scientific rationale and evidence shows it is appropriate of course.

As Randy Mills, our President and CEO, said in a news release:

“Our Board’s support for these programs highlights how every member of the CIRM team shares that commitment to moving the most promising research out of the lab and into patients as quickly as we can. These are very different projects, but they all share the same goal, accelerating treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.”

We are trying to create a pipeline of projects that are all moving towards the same goal, clinical trials in people. Pipelines can be horizontal as well as vertical. So we don’t really care if the pipeline moves projects up or sideways as long as they succeed in moving treatments to patients. And I’m guessing that patients who get treatments that change their lives don’t particularly

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: better bone marrow transplants, turbo charging anti-inflammatory stem cells and Zika’s weapons

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Three steps to better BMT.  Bone marrow stem cell transplants (BMT) save the lives of many thousands of patients every year, but they also kill a significant number of the blood stem cell transplantcancer and immune disorder patients the procedure is intended to save. In order to make room in the bone marrow for new blood-forming stem cells, you first have to get rid of most of the stem cells already there, and the radiation and chemotherapy to do this proves too toxic for some patients. Also, donor marrow can contain immune cells from the donor that can attack the recipient causing Graft Versus Host Disease (GVHD), which can also be fatal.

Add this all together and physicians tend to save BMT for the patients with the most life threatening forms of the diseases.  A CIRM-funded team at Stanford has developed a three-step process that seems to dramatically reduce all those risks potentially opening up the procedure to less-sick patients including patients with life-altering, but not life-threatening, autoimmune diseases such as lupus and less severe forms of multiple sclerosis.

Experimenting in mice, they first used an antibody that attaches to a marker on blood stem cells called c-kit. But by itself that antibody could not get rid of enough of the stem cells. So, they added a second agent that blocked another protein, CD47, on the surface of blood stem cells. With that protein blocked, the animals own immune cells called macrophages, could destroy the blood stem cells. Then to make the donor cells safer, they used a technology they had developed many years ago to remove any straggler immune cells from the donor stem cells, thus drastically eliminating the chances for GVHD.

judith shizuru

Shizuru

“If it works in humans like it did in mice, we would expect that the risk of death from blood stem cell transplant would drop from 20 percent to effectively zero,” said senior author Judith Shizuru in a university press release posted by HealthCanal.

She went on to compare blood stem cell transplants to planting a new field of crops saying they were looking for a better way to first clear the field for planting and then a better way to do the planting. CIRM funded the team to develop the method for use with Severe Combined Immune Deficiency (SCID). The team published the current mouse study in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

 

Building a better anti-inflammatory stem cell.  Of the more than 700 stem cell therapy clinical trials underway around the world, more than half use the type of stem cell called a mesenchymal stem cell (MSC) found in bone marrow and fat—in marrow it resides alongside the blood-forming stem cells. Some of those trials are tapping into MSC’s ability to build bone, cartilage and blood vessels, but many are counting on their strong anti-inflammatory properties to fight autoimmune diseases.

When MSCs find themselves in an environment with pro-inflammatory proteins they respond by producing anti-inflammatory proteins. To enhance that effect some teams have bathed their MSC’s in pro-inflammatory proteins before injecting them into patients, but the effect of those proteins wears off quickly. So, a team led by CIRM-funded researcher Todd McDevitt at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco has bioengineered a way to make the effect long term.

McDevitt,-Todd-14

Gladstone used a CIRM Research Leadership award to recruit McDevitt from Georgia Tech

They loaded the pro-inflammatory proteins onto sugar-based particles that they imbedded in the middle of clusters of MSCs. The bioengineered complex slowly releases the cues to the MSCs and they in turn produced the desired anti-inflammatory proteins in greater quantities and much longer than in any other experiment.

 “A patient taking anti-inflammatory medication may not have high enough levels of inflammation to trigger the cells. We engineered the MSCs to ensure that they are consistently activated, so they can reliably dampen the immune response for longer,” said McDevitt in an institute press release.

The team published their research in Stem Cells Translational Medicine.

 

Stem cells used to identify Zika’s weapon.  It has been difficult for researchers to think about how to stop the Zika virus’ havoc on fetal brains without knowing how the virus does

Zika Virus

its evil deed. Now, a team at the University of Southern California (USC) has used fetal stem cells to discover two proteins that seem to be Zika’s key weapons.

Viruses often hijack our normal cell processes to enhance their ability to multiply and at the same time do harm to the host. In this case, the two proteins named NS4A and NS4B play key roles in the cell path for normal cell growth and disposal of damaged cells. When exploited by the virus, the two proteins result in cells being destroyed and not replaced.

“Those two viral proteins are ultimately the target for therapy development,” said USC’s Jae Jung in an article posted by Kaiser Health News.

As is typical with this news source, the author goes on to provide considerable high quality background about the Zika outbreak and efforts to find a vaccine or therapy, in this case quoting experts from Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor.

 

Cloning fact timeline.  With the 20th anniversary last month of the birth of Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal, cloning seems to be much in discussion these days. So for

dolly-the-sheep

science nerds who like to keep back up facts handy CNN published a timeline of key events starting with the 1952 Nobel-winning discovery that you could replace the nucleus of a frog’s egg with the nucleus from another cell and still get the egg to develop into a tadpole. And 22 events later, it ends in 2014 with the first use of using cloning techniques to create stem cells that matched an adult.

Advancing Stem Cell Research at the CIRM Bridges Conference

Where will stem cell research be in 10 years?

What would you say to patients who wanted stem cell therapies now?

What are the most promising applications for stem cell research?

Why is it important for the government to fund regenerative medicine?

These challenging and thought-provoking questions were posed to a vibrant group of undergraduate and masters-level students at this year’s CIRM Bridges to Stem Cell Research and Therapy conference.

Educating the next generation of stem cell scientists

The Bridges program is one of CIRM’s educational programs that offers students the opportunity to take coursework at California state schools and community colleges and conduct stem cell research at top universities and industry labs. Its goal is to train the next generation of stem cell scientists by giving them access to the training and skills necessary to succeed in this career path.

The Bridges conference is the highlight of the program and the culmination of the students’ achievements. It’s a chance for students to showcase the research projects they’ve been working on for the past year, and also for them to network with other students and scientists.

Bridges students participated in a networking pitch event about stem cell research.

Bridges students participated in a networking pitch event about stem cell research.

CIRM kicked off the conference with a quick and dirty “Stem Cell Pitch” networking event. Students were divided into groups, given one of the four questions above and tasked with developing a thirty second pitch that answered their question. They were only given ten minutes to introduce themselves, discuss the question, and pick a spokesperson, yet when each team’s speaker took the stage, it seemed like they were practiced veterans. Every team had a unique, thoughtful answer that was inspiring to both the students and to the other scientists in the crowd.

Getting to the clinic and into patients

The bulk of the Bridges conference featured student poster presentations and scientific talks by leading academic and industry scientists. The theme of the talks was getting stem cell research into the clinic and into patients with unmet medical needs.

Here are a few highlights and photos from the talks:

On the clinical track for Huntington’s disease

Leslie Thompson, Professor at UC Irvine, spoke about her latest research in Huntington’s disease (HD). She described her work as a “race against time.” HD is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that’s associated with multiple social and physical problems and currently has no cure. Leslie described how her lab is heading towards the clinic with human embryonic stem cell-derived neural (brain) stem cells that they are transplanting into mouse models of HD. So far, they’ve observed positive effects in HD mice that received human neural stem cell transplants including an improvement in the behavioral and motor defects and a reduction in the accumulation of toxic mutant Huntington protein in their nerve cells.

Leslie Thompson

Leslie Thompson

Leslie noted that because the transplanted stem cells are GMP-grade (meaning their quality is suitable for use in humans), they have a clear path forward to testing their potential disease modifying activity in human clinical trials. But before her team gets to humans, they must take the proper regulatory steps with the US Food and Drug Administration and conduct further experiments to test the safety and proper dosage of their stem cells in other mouse models as well as test other potential GMP-grade stem cell lines.

Gene therapy for SCID babies

Morton Cowan, a pediatric immunologist from UC San Francisco, followed Leslie with a talk about his efforts to get gene therapy for SCID (severe combined immunodeficiency disease) off the bench into the clinic. SCID is also known as bubble-baby disease and put simply, is caused by a lack of a functioning immune system. SCID babies don’t have normal T and B immune cell function and as a result, they generally die of infection or other conditions within their first year of life.

Morton Cowan

Morton Cowan, UCSF

Morton described how the gold standard treatment for SCID, which is hematopoietic or blood stem cell transplantation, is only safe and effective when the patient has an HLA matched sibling donor. Unfortunately, many patients don’t have this option and face life-threatening challenges of transplant rejection (graft-versus host disease). To combat this issue, Morton and his team are using gene therapy to genetically correct the blood stem cells of SCID patients and transplant those cells back into these patients so that they can generate healthy immune cells.

They are currently developing a gene therapy for a particularly hard-to-treat form of SCID that involves deficiency in a protein called Artemis, which is essential for the development of the immune system and for repairing DNA damage in cells. Currently his group is conducting the necessary preclinical work to start a gene therapy clinical trial for children with Artemis-SCID.

Treating spinal cord injury in the clinic

Casey Case, Asterias Biotherapeutics

Casey Case, Asterias Biotherapeutics

Casey Case, Senior VP of Research and Nonclinical Development at Asterias Biotherapeutics, gave an update on the CIRM-funded clinical trial for cervical (neck) spinal cord injury (SCI). They are currently testing the safety of transplanting different doses of their oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (AST-OPC1) in a group of SCI patients. The endpoint for this trial is an improvement in movement greater than two motor levels, which would offer a significant improvement in a patient’s ability to do some things on their own and reduce the cost of their healthcare. You can read more about these results and the ongoing study in our recent blogs (here, here).

Opinion: Scientists should be patient advocates

David Higgins gave the most moving speech of the day. He is a Parkinson’s patient and the Patient Advocate on the CIRM board and he spoke about what patient advocates are and how to become one. David explained how, these days, drug development and patient advocacy is more patient oriented and patients are involved at the center of every decision whether it be questions related to how a drug is developed, what side effects should be tolerated, or what risks are worth taking. He also encouraged the Bridges students to become patient advocates and understand what their needs are by asking them.

David Higgins, Parkinson's advocate and CIRM Board member

David Higgins

“As a scientist or clinician, you need to be an ambassador. You have a job of translating science, which is a foreign language to most people, and you can all effectively communicate to a lay audience without being condescending. It’s important to understand what patients’ needs are, and you’ll only know that if you ask them. Patients have amazing insights into what needs to be done to develop new treatments.”

Bridging the gap between research and patients

The Bridges conference is still ongoing with more poster presentations, a career panel, and scientific talks on discovery and translational stem cell research and commercializing stem cell therapies to all patients in need. It truly is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the Bridges students, many of whom are considering careers in science and regenerative medicine and are taking advantage of the opportunity to talk and network with prominent scientists.

If you’re interested in hearing more about the Bridges conference, follow us on twitter (@CIRMnews, @DrKarenRing, #CIRMBridges2016) and on Instagram (@CIRM_Stemcells).