Stories that caught our eye: $20.5 million in new CIRM discovery awards, sickle cell disease cell bank, iPSC insights

CIRM Board launches a new voyage of Discovery (Kevin McCormack).
Basic or early stage research is the Rodney Dangerfield of science; it rarely gets the respect it deserves. Yesterday, the CIRM governing Board showed that it not only respects this research, but also values its role in laying the foundation for everything that follows.

The CIRM Board approved 11 projects, investing more than $20.5 million in our Discovery Quest, early stage research program. Those include programs using gene editing techniques to develop a cure for a rare but fatal childhood disease, finding a new approach to slowing down the progress of Parkinson’s disease, and developing a treatment for the Zika virus.

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Electron micrograph of Zika virus (red circles). Image: CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith

The goal of the Discovery Quest program is to identify and explore promising new stem cell therapies or technologies to improve patient care.

In a news release Randy Mills, CIRM’s President & CEO, said we hope this program will create a pipeline of projects that will ultimately lead to clinical trials:

“At CIRM we never underestimate the importance of early stage scientific research; it is the birth place of groundbreaking discoveries. We hope these Quest awards will not only help these incredibly creative researchers deepen our understanding of several different diseases, but also lead to new approaches on how best to use stem cells to develop treatments.”

Creating the world’s largest stem cell bank for sickle cell disease (Karen Ring).
People typically visit the bank to deposit or take out cash, but with advancements in scientific research, people could soon be visiting banks to receive life-saving stem cell treatments. One of these banks is already in the works. Scientists at the Center for Regenerative Medicine (CReM) at Boston Medical Center are attempting to generate the world’s largest stem cell bank focused specifically on sickle cell disease (SCD), a rare genetic blood disorder that causes red blood cells to take on an abnormal shape and can cause intense pain and severe organ damage in patients.

To set up their bank, the team is collecting blood samples from SCD patients with diverse ethnic backgrounds and making induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from these samples. These patient stem cell lines will be used to unravel new clues into why this disease occurs and to develop new potential treatments for SCD. More details about this new SCD iPSC bank can be found in the latest edition of the journal Stem Cell Reports.

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Gustavo Mostoslavsky, M.D., PH.D., Martin Steinberg, M.D., George Murphy PH.D.
Photo: Boston Medical Center

In a news release, CReM co-founder and Professor, Gustavo Mostoslavsky, touched on the future importance of their new stem cell bank:

“In addition to the library, we’ve designed and are using gene editing tools to correct the sickle hemoglobin mutation using the stem cell lines. When coupled with corrected sickle cell disease specific iPSCs, these tools could one day provide a functional cure for the disorder.”

For researchers interested in using these new stem cell lines, CReM is making them available to researchers around the world as part of the NIH’s NextGen Consortium study.

DNA deep dive reveals ways to increase iPSC efficiency (Todd Dubnicoff)
Though the induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell technique was first described ten years ago, many researchers continue to poke, prod and tinker with the method which reprograms an adult cell, often from skin, into an embryonic stem cell-like state which can specialize into any cell type in the body. Though this breakthrough in stem cell research is helping scientists better understand human disease and develop patient-specific therapies, the technique is hampered by its low efficiency and consistency.

This week, a CIRM-funded study from UCLA reports new insights into the molecular changes that occur during reprogramming that may help pave the way toward better iPS cell methods. The study, published in Cell, examined the changes in DNA during the reprogramming process.

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Senior authors Kathrin Plath and Jason Ernst and first authors Petko Fiziev and Constantinos Chronis.
Photo: UCLA

In a skin cell, the genes necessary for embryonic stem cell-like, or pluripotent, characteristics are all turned off. One way this shut down in gene activity occurs is through tight coiling of the DNA where the pluripotent genes are located. This physically blocks proteins called transcriptions factors from binding the DNA and activating those pluripotent genes within skin cells. On the other hand, regions of DNA carrying skin-related genes are loosely coiled, so that transcription factors can access the DNA and turn on those genes.

The iPS cell technique works by artificially adding four pluripotent transcriptions factors into skin cells which leads to changes in DNA coiling such that skin-specific genes are turned off and pluripotent genes are turned on. The UCLA team carefully mapped the areas where the transcription factors are binding to DNA during the reprogramming process. They found that the shut down of the skin genes and activation of the pluripotent genes occurs at the same time. The team also found that three of the four iPS cell factors must physically interact with each other to locate and activate the areas of DNA that are responsible for reprogramming.

Using the findings from those experiments, the team was able to identify a fifth transcription factor that helps shut down the skin-specific gene more effectively and, in turn, saw a hundred-fold increase in reprogramming efficiency. These results promise to help the researchers fine-tune the iPS cell technique and make its clinical use more practical.

Your Guide to Awesome Stem Cell Conferences in 2017

Welcome to 2017, a year that will likely be full of change and new surprises. I’m hoping that some of these surprises will be in regenerative medicine with new stem cell therapies showing promise or effectiveness in clinical trials.

A great way to stay on top of new advances in stem cell research is to attend scientific conferences and meetings. Some of them are well known and highly attended like the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) conference, which this year will be in Boston in June. There are also a few smaller, more intimate conferences focusing on specific topics from discovery research to clinical therapies.

There are loads of stem cell meetings this year, but a few that I would like to highlight. Here’s my abbreviated stem cell research conference and meeting guide for 2017. Some are heavy duty research-focused events and probably not suitable for someone without a science background; they’re also expensive to sign up for. I’ve marked those with an * asterix.


January 8-12th, Keystone Symposium (Fee to register)*

Keystone will be hosting two concurrent stem cell meetings in Tahoe next week, which are geared for researchers in the field. One will be on neurogenesis during development and in the adult brain and the other will be on transcriptional and epigenetic control in stem cells. CIRM is one of the co-funders of this meeting and will be hosting a panel focused on translating basic research into clinical trials. Keystone symposiums are small, intimate meetings rich with scientific content and great for networking. Be on the look out for blog coverage about this meeting in the coming weeks.


February 3rd, Stanford Center for Definitive and Curative Medicine Symposium (Free to the public)

This free symposium at Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA will present first-in-human cell and gene therapies for a number of disorders including bone marrow, skin, cardiac, neural, uterine, pancreatic and neoplastic disorders. Speakers include scientists, translational biologists and clinicians. Irv Weissman, a Stanford professor and CIRM grantee focused on translational cancer research, will be the keynote speaker. Space is limited so sign up ASAP!


March 23rd, CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Symposium (Free to the public)

This free one-day meeting will bring together scientists, clinicians, patient advocates, and other partners to describe how the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network is making stem cell therapies a reality for patients. The City of Hope Alpha Clinic is part of a statewide effort funded by CIRM to develop a network of “Alpha Clinics” that has one unifying goal: to accelerate the development and delivery of stem cell treatments to patients.

City of Hope Medical Center and Alpha Stem Cell Clinic

City of Hope Medical Center and Alpha Stem Cell Clinic


June 14-17th, International Society for Stem Cell Research (Fee to register)*

The Annual ISSCR stem cell research conference will be hosted in Boston this year. This is an international conference focusing on new developments in stem cell science and technology. CIRM was one of the funders of the conference last year when ISSCR was in San Francisco. It’s one of my favorite research events to attend full of interesting scientific presentations and great for meeting future collaborators.


For a more comprehensive 2017 stem cell conference and meeting guide, check out Paul Knoepfler’s Niche blog.

Stem cell heroes: patients who had life-saving, life-changing treatments inspire CIRM Board

 

It’s not an easy thing to bring an entire Board of Directors to tears, but four extraordinary people and their families managed to do just that at the last CIRM Board meeting of 2016.

The four are patients who have undergone life-saving or life-changing stem cell therapies that were funded by our agency. The patients and their families shared their stories with the Board as part of CIRM President & CEO Randy Mill’s preview of our Annual Report, a look back at our achievements over the last year.

The four included:

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Jake Javier, whose life changed in a heartbeat the day before he graduated high school, when he dove into a swimming pool and suffered a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the chest down. A stem cell transplant is giving him hope he may regain the use of his arms and hands.

 

 

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Karl Trede who had just recovered from one life-threatening disease when he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and became the first person ever treated with a new anti-tumor therapy that helped hold the disease at bay.

 

brenden_stories_of_hopeBrenden Whittaker, born with a rare immune disorder that left his body unable to fight off bacterial or fungal infections. Repeated infections cost Brenden part of his lung and liver and almost killed him. A stem cell treatment that gave him a healthy immune system cured him.

 

 

evangelinaEvangelina Padilla Vaccaro was born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), also known as “bubbly baby” disease, which left her unable to fight off infections. Her future looked grim until she got a stem cell transplant that gave her a new blood system and a healthy immune system. Today, she is cured.

 

 

Normally CIRM Board meetings are filled with important, albeit often dry, matters such as approving new intellectual property regulations or a new research concept plan. But it’s one thing to vote to approve a clinical trial, and a very different thing to see the people whose lives you have helped change by funding that trial.

You cannot help but be deeply moved when you hear a mother share her biggest fear that her daughter would never live long enough to go to kindergarten and is now delighted to see her lead a normal life; or hear a young man who wondered if he would make it to his 24th birthday now planning to go to college to be a doctor

When you know you played a role in making these dreams happen, it’s impossible not to be inspired, and doubly determined to do everything possible to ensure many others like them have a similar chance at life.

You can read more about these four patients in our new Stories of Hope: The CIRM Stem Cell Four feature on the CIRM website. Additionally, here is a video of those four extraordinary people and their families telling their stories:

We will have more extraordinary stories to share with you when we publish our Annual Report on January 1st. 2016 was a big year for CIRM. We are determined to make 2017 even bigger.

‘Right To Try’ laws called ‘Right To Beg’ by Stem Cell Advocates

In recent years, ‘Right to Try’ laws have spread rapidly across the US, getting approved in 32 states, with at least three more states trying to pass their own versions.

The organization behind the laws says they serve a simple purpose:

‘Right To Try’ allows terminally ill Americans to try medicines that have passed Phase 1 of the FDA approval process and remain in clinical trials but are not yet on pharmacy shelves. ‘Right To Try’ expands access to potentially life-saving treatments years before patients would normally be able to access them.”

That certainly sounds like a worthy goal; one most people could get behind. And that’s what is happening. Most ‘Right To Try’ laws are passed with almost unanimous bi-partisan support at the state level.

Beth Roxland

Beth Roxland

But that’s not the view of Beth Roxland, an attorney and health policy advisor with an extensive history in both regenerative medicine and bioethics. At the recent World Stem Cell Summit Roxland said ‘Right To Try’ laws are deceptive:

“These are not patient friendly but are actually patient unfriendly and could do harm to patients. The problem is that they are pretending to do something that isn’t being done. It gives patients a sense that they can get access to a treatment, but they don’t have the rights they think they do. This is a right to ask, not a right to get.”

Roxland says the bills in all 32 states are almost all identical, and use the same cookie-cutter language from the Goldwater Institute – the libertarian organization that is promoting these laws. And she says these laws have one major flaw:

“There is no actual right provided in the bill. The only right is the right to try and save your life, “by requesting” from a manufacturer a chance to try the therapy. The manufacturer doesn’t have to do anything; they aren’t obliged to comply. The bills don’t help; they give people false hopes.”

Roxland says there isn’t one substantiated case where a pharmaceutical company has provided access to a therapy solely because of a ‘Right To Try’ law.

However, Starlee Coleman, the Vice President for Communications at the Goldwater Institute, says that’s not true. She says Dr. Ebrahim Delpassand, a cancer specialist in Texas, has testified before Congress that he has treated dozens of patients under his state’s ‘Right To Try’ law. You can see a video of Dr. Delpassand here.

Coleman says ;

“We think the promise of ‘Right To Try’ is self-evident. If one doctor alone can treat 80 patients in one fell swoop, but the FDA can only manage to get 1200 people through its expanded access program each year, we think the potential to help patients is significant.”

Other speakers at the panel presentation at the World Stem Cell Summit said these laws can at the very least play an important role in at least raising the issue of the need for people battling terminal illnesses to have access to experimental therapies. Roxland agreed it was important to have that conversation but she pointed out that what often gets lost in the conversation is that these laws can have hidden costs.

  • 13 states may withdraw hospice eligibility to people who gain access to an early or experimental intervention
  • 4 states may withdraw home care
  • 6 states say patients taking part in these therapies may lose their insurance
  • Several states allow insurers to deny coverage for conditions that may arise from patients getting access to these therapies
  • 30 states say the companies can charge the patients for access to these therapies

Roxland says the motives behind the ‘Right To Try’ laws may be worthy but the effect is misleading, and diverts attention from efforts to create the kind of reforms that would have real benefits for patients.

Here is a blog we wrote on the same topic last year.

California’s stem cell agency rounds up the year with two more big hits

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CIRM Board meeting with  Jake Javier, CIRM Chair Jonathan Thomas, Vice Chair Sen. Art Torres (Ret.) and President/CEO Randy Mills

It’s traditional to end the year with a look back at what you hoped to accomplish and an assessment of what you did. By that standard 2016 has been a pretty good year for us at CIRM.

Yesterday our governing Board approved funding for two new clinical trials, one to help kidney transplant patients, the second to help people battling a disease that destroys vision. By itself that is a no small achievement. Anytime you can support potentially transformative research you are helping advance the field. But getting these two clinical trials over the start line means that CIRM has also met one of its big goals for the year; funding ten new clinical trials.

If you had asked us back in the summer, when we had funded only two clinical trials in 2016, we would have said that the chances of us reaching ten trials by the end of the year were about as good as a real estate developer winning the White House. And yet……..

Helping kidney transplant recipients

The Board awarded $6.65 million to researchers at Stanford University who are using a deceptively simple approach to help people who get a kidney transplant. Currently people who get a transplant have to take anti-rejection medications for the rest of their life to prevent their body rejecting the new organ. These powerful immunosuppressive medications are essential but also come with a cost; they increase the risk of cancer, infection and heart disease.

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CIRM President/CEO Randy Mills addresses the CIRM Board

The Stanford team will see if it can help transplant patients bypass the need for those drugs by injecting blood stem cells and T cells (which play an important role in the immune system) from the kidney donor into the kidney recipient. The hope is by using cells from the donor, you can help the recipient’s body more readily adjust to the new organ and reduce the likelihood the body’s immune system will attack it.

This would be no small feat. Every year around 17,000 kidney transplants take place in the US, and many people who get a donor kidney experience fevers, infections and other side effects as a result of taking the anti-rejection medications. This clinical trial is a potentially transformative approach that could help protect the integrity of the transplanted organ, and improve the quality of life for the kidney recipient.

Fighting blindness

The second trial approved for funding is one we are already very familiar with; Dr. Henry Klassen and jCyte’s work in treating retinitis pigmentosa (RP). This is a devastating disease that typically strikes before age 30 and slowly destroys a person’s vision. We’ve blogged about it here and here.

Dr. Klassen, a researcher at UC Irvine, has developed a method of injecting what are called retinal progenitor cells into the back of the eye. The hope is that these cells will repair and replace the cells damaged by RP. In a CIRM-funded Phase 1 clinical trial the method proved safe with no serious side effects, and some of the patients also reported improvements in their vision. This raised hopes that a Phase 2 clinical trial using a larger number of cells in a larger number of patients could really see if this therapy is as promising as we hope. The Board approved almost $8.3 million to support that work.

Seeing is believing

How promising? Well, I recently talked to Rosie Barrero, who took part in the first phase clinical trial. She told me that she was surprised how quickly she started to notice improvements in her vision:

“There’s more definition, more colors. I am seeing colors I haven’t seen in years. We have different cups in our house but I couldn’t really make out the different colors. One morning I woke up and realized ‘Oh my gosh, one of them is purple and one blue’. I was by myself, in tears, and it felt amazing, unbelievable.”

Amazing was a phrase that came up a lot yesterday when we introduced four people to our Board. Each of the four had taken part in a stem cell clinical trial that changed their lives, even saved their lives. It was a very emotional scene as they got a chance to thank the group that made those trials, those treatments possible.

We’ll have more on that in a future blog.

 

 

 

 

Why Goldilocks could provide the answer to changing the way FDA regulates stem cells

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Panel on FDA regulation at World Stem Cell Summit

One of the hottest topics of the past year in regenerative medicine has been the discussion about the need for regulatory reform at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) so it’s no surprise that topic was the subject of the first main panel discussion at the 2016 World Stem Cell Summit in West Palm Beach, Florida.

The panel, titled ‘FDA Oversight in Regenerative Medicine: What are the Options to Accelerating Translation’, kicked off with Celia Witten, Deputy Director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research at the FDA. She laid out all the new steps that the agency is implementing to try and be more responsive to the needs of researchers and patients.

Perils facing pioneers

Martin McGlynn, the former CEO of StemCells Inc. was up next and he wasted little time listing the companies that had once been considered pioneers in the field only to fail for a variety of reasons. He said one of the big problems is that translational efforts, moving from a good idea to a clinical trial, take too long, saying 15 – 20 years is not unusual and that Big Pharma and strategic investors won’t invest until they see strong Phase 2 study results.

“We need to do great science and design and conduct great clinical trials to advance this field but we also have to come up with a sustainable business model to make this happen.”

A good start

He called the 21st Century Cures Act, which the US Senate approved yesterday, a good start but says many of the challenges won’t be helped by some of the new provisions:

“Many sponsors and companies don’t make it out of open label early studies, so the existence of an accelerated pathway or some of the other enabling tools included in the act will come too late for these groups.”

McGlynn warned that if we don’t take further steps, we risk falling behind the rest of the world where companies are buying up struggling US ventures:

“Many non-USA companies in Japan and China and Australia are quicker to recognize the value of many of the products and approaches that struggle here in the US.”

Too much, too little, just right

Marc Scheineson was the final speaker. He heads the food and drug law practice at Washington, DC law firm Alston & Bird and is a former Associate Commissioner for Legislative Affairs at the FDA. He began his presentation with what he said are the scariest words in the English language: “I‘m a lawyer from Washington D.C. and I’m here to help you.”

Scheineson says part of the problem is that the FDA was created long before cell therapy was possible and so it is struggling to fit its more traditional drug approval framework around stem cell therapies. As a result, this has led to completely separate regulatory processes for the transplantation of human organs and blood vessels, or for the use of whole blood or blood components.

He says it’s like the fable of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Some of the regulation is too hard- resulting in a lengthy regulatory process that takes years to complete and costs billions of dollars – and some of the regulation is too soft allowing clinics to open up around the US offering unproven therapies. He says we need a Goldilocks approach that blends the two into regulations that are just right.

Time to take a second step

Scheineson agreed with McGlynn that the 21st Century Cures Act is a good start but it’s not enough.  He says it still relies heavily on the use of traditional criteria to regulate stem cells, and also leaves much of the interpretation of the Act to the discretion of the FDA.

“It’s a first step, an experiment to see if we can break the logjam and see if we can move things to an affordable BLA (The Biologics License Application is needed to be able to market a product once it’s approved by the FDA). But make no mistake, a cell therapy revolution is underway and I believe the FDA should seize the opportunity to promote innovation and not defensively protect the “status quo”.

 

 

Translating great stem cell ideas into effective therapies

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CIRM funds research trying to solve the Alzheimer’s puzzle

In science, there are a lot of terms that could easily mystify people without a research background; “translational” is not one of them. Translational research simply means to take findings from basic research and advance them into something that is ready to be tested in people in a clinical trial.

Yesterday our Governing Board approved $15 million in funding for four projects as part of our Translational Awards program, giving them the funding and support that we hope will ultimately result in them being tested in people.

Those projects use a variety of different approaches in tackling some very different diseases. For example, researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco received $5.9 million to develop a new way to help the more than five million Americans battling Alzheimer’s disease. They want to generate brain cells to replace those damaged by Alzheimer’s, using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) – an adult cell that has been changed or reprogrammed so that it can then be changed into virtually any other cell in the body.

CIRM’s mission is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs and Alzheimer’s – which has no cure and no effective long-term treatments – clearly represents an unmet medical need.

Another project approved by the Board is run by a team at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI). They got almost $4.5 million for their research helping people with sickle cell anemia, an inherited blood disorder that causes intense pain, and can result in strokes and organ damage. Sickle cell affects around 100,000 people in the US, mostly African Americans.

The CHORI team wants to use a new gene-editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9 to develop a method of editing the defective gene that causes Sickle Cell, creating a healthy, sickle-free blood supply for patients.

Right now, the only effective long-term treatment for sickle cell disease is a bone marrow transplant, but that requires a patient to have a matched donor – something that is hard to find. Even with a perfect donor the procedure can be risky, carrying with it potentially life-threatening complications. Using the patient’s own blood stem cells to create a therapy would remove those complications and even make it possible to talk about curing the disease.

While damaged cartilage isn’t life-threatening it does have huge quality of life implications for millions of people. Untreated cartilage damage can, over time lead to the degeneration of the joint, arthritis and chronic pain. Researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) were awarded $2.5 million to develop an off-the-shelf stem cell product that could be used to repair the damage.

The fourth and final award ($2.09 million) went to Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics, which hopes to create a stem cell therapy for osteonecrosis. This is a painful, progressive disease caused by insufficient blood flow to the bones. Eventually the bones start to rot and die.

As Jonathan Thomas, Chair of the CIRM Board, said in a news release, we are hoping this is just the next step for these programs on their way to helping patients:

“These Translational Awards highlight our goal of creating a pipeline of projects, moving through different stages of research with an ultimate goal of a successful treatment. We are hopeful these projects will be able to use our newly created Stem Cell Center to speed up their progress and pave the way for approval by the FDA for a clinical trial in the next few years.”

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

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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

Investing in student researchers now for future stem cell therapy homeruns

Even though my San Francisco Giants didn’t make it to the World Series this year, I still watched Game 1 two nights ago between the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Cubs. As each batter stepped up to the plate for their first at bat, I thought about all the years of training and in-game experience it must have required for each athlete to reach this pinnacle of their profession. That training certainly relied on mentoring from great coaches and early financial support in the form of athletic scholarships, etc. Without that help, you could argue that the number of young, high-caliber baseball players would dwindle over the generations and the sport eventually would lose relevance.

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The CIRM Bridges Program: training the next generation of all-star stem cell researchers, like Eliana Ochoa-Bolton (pictured here)

I think the same can be said for stem cell research. The field is currently chock-full of veteran, superstar scientists who are leading the charge of bringing first-of-their-kind stem cell treatments to clinical trials (for example, check out Monday’s exciting blog). But the field is still in its infancy and will require a well-trained workforce of scientists, physicians and technicians throughout the 21st century and beyond to fully realize and implement the potential of stem cells to treat patients with unmet medical needs. But cuts in federal funding for research mean this is a particularly challenging time to get started on a scientific career, especially for economically disadvantaged students.

That’s where the Bridges to Stem Cell Research and Therapy Awards Program comes into the picture. Started in 2009, the program provides paid stem cell research internships to students at universities and colleges that don’t have major stem cell research programs. Each Bridges internship includes thorough hands-on training and education in stem cell research, and direct patient engagement and outreach activities that engage California’s diverse communities.

Earlier this year, the CIRM governing Board re-upped on their investment in the Bridges Program to the tune of $40 million. Each of the fourteen awarded schools will have enough funding to support up to ten trainees per year for up to five years. The program has become a source of pride for the CIRM team as well as for each campus. Case in point, this past Wednesday the news center at California State University, Northridge (CSUN) featured a story about the school’s new $2.77 million Bridges grant. Professor Cindy Malone, CSUN’s Bridges Program Director, looked back at the accomplishments from their previous round of funding which began in 2009:

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Cindy Malone
CSUN biology professor

“When we first launched the [CSUN-UCLA Bridges to Stem Cell Research Program], we didn’t know how successful it would become. Our students are taking part in cutting-edge research alongside some of the greatest minds in stem cell research. They are presenting papers at some of the top professional conferences in the world. When they graduate, they are highly sought after by the top medical and graduate schools in the country, and rightly so.”

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Eliana Ochoa-Bolton

One of those students is Eliana Ochoa-Bolton who spent much of her senior year at CSUN as a Bridges intern in the laboratory of Samantha Butler at UCLA. There, she contributed to the lab’s efforts to better understand the nerve signals that become damaged in spinal cord injury with the hope of eventually restoring them. Ochoa-Bolton, who is now a CSUN master’s student in biology and aspires to earn a doctorate, is very grateful for her Bridges experience: “It was such an amazing opportunity. I got to do work I didn’t think possible as an undergraduate.”

Now embarking on the second round of Bridges funding, Malone mapped out the plan for the program’s next five years:

“We will continue to partner with UCLA as our internship-host institution. There, our students will perform 10 months of intensive stem cell research. New research training courses will be launched in the next year to prepare our undergraduates for the new Stem Cell Scientist Training Program and for the increasingly technical job market in California.”

For us CIRM team members and the CIRM governing Board, the Bridges program and its high school counterpart, the CIRM Spark program, continue to be among our favorite awards because we’re continually amazed how much the student’s learn and we’re inspired by their unbounded enthusiasm for stem cell research.

It makes me very optimistic that these students are destined to hit some future stem cell treatments home runs.

A patient perspective on how stem cells could give a second vision to the blind

October is Blindness Awareness month. In honor of the patients who suffer from diseases of blindness and of the scientists and doctors who work tirelessly to develop treatments and cures for these diseases, we are featuring an interview with Kristin Macdonald, a woman who is challenged by Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP).

RP is a genetically inherited disease that affects the photoreceptors at the back of the eye in an area called the retina. It’s a hard disease to diagnose because the first signs are subtle. Patients slowly lose their peripheral vision and ability to see well at night. As the disease progresses, the window of sight narrows and patients experience “tunnel vision”. Eventually, they become totally blind. Currently, there is no treatment for RP, but stem cell research might offer a glimmer of hope.

Kristin MacDonald

Kristin MacDonald

Kristin Macdonald was the first patient treated in a CIRM-funded stem cell trial for RP run by Dr. Henry Klassen at UC Irvine. She is a patient advocate and inspirational speaker for the blind and visually impaired, and is also a patient ambassador for Americans for Cures. Kristin is an amazing woman who hasn’t let RP prevent her from living her life. It was my pleasure to interview her to learn more about her life’s vision, her experience in CIRM’s RP trial, and her thoughts on patient advocacy and the importance of stem cell research.


Q: Tell us about your experience with being diagnosed with RP?

I was officially diagnosed with RP at 31. RP is a very difficult thing to diagnose, and I had to go through a series of doctors before we figured it out. The signs were there in my mid-to-late twenties, but unfortunately I didn’t really know what they were.

Being diagnosed with RP was really surprising to me. I grew up riding horses and doing everything. I had 20/20 vision and didn’t need any reading glasses. I started getting these night vision symptoms in my mid-to-late 20s in New York when I was in Manhattan. It was then that I started tripping, falling and getting clumsy. But I didn’t know what was happening and I was having such a great time with my life that I just denied it. I didn’t want to acknowledge that anything was wrong.

So I moved out to Los Angeles to pursue an acting and television career, and I just kept ignoring that thing in the brain that says “something’s wrong”. By the time I broke my arm for the second time, I had to go to see a doctor. And that’s when they diagnosed me.

Q: How did you boost yourself back up after being diagnosed with RP?

RP doesn’t come with an instruction booklet. It’s a very gradual adjustment emotionally, physically and spiritually. The first thing I did was to get out of denial, which was a really scary place to be because you can break your leg that way. You have to acknowledge what’s happening in life otherwise you’ll never get anywhere or past anything. That was my first stage of getting over denial. As I slowly started to accept things, I learned to live in the moment, which in a way is a big thing in life because we should all be living for today.

I think the fear of someone telling you that you’re going to go into the dark when you’ve always lived your life in the light can be overwhelming at times. I used to go to the mall and sometimes a door to a store would be gone or an elevator that I used to see is gone. What I did to deal with these fears and changes was to become as proactive as possible. I enlisted all of the best people around me in the business. I started doing charitable work for the Center for the Partially Sighted and for the Foundation for Fighting Blindness. I sat on the board of AIRSLA.org, an internet radio service for the blind and visually impaired, where I still do my radio show. Through that, I met other people who were going through the same type of thing and would come into my home to teach me independent living skills.

I remember the first day when an independent living counselor from the Center for the Partially Sighted came to my house and said we have to check in and see what your adjustment to blindness is like. Those words cut through me. “Adjustment to blindness”. It felt like I was going to prison, that’s how it felt like to me back then. But I am so glad I reached out to the Center for the Partially Sighted because they gave me invaluable instructions on how to function as a blind person. They helped me realize I could really live a good life and be whole, and that blindness would never define me.

I also worked a lot on my spiritual side. I read a lot of positive thinking books and found comfort in my faith in god and the support from my family, friends and my boyfriend. I can’t even enumerate how good they’ve been to me.

Q: How has being blind impacted your ability to do the things you love?

I’m a very social person, so giving up my car and suddenly being confined at night was crushing to me. And we didn’t have Uber back then! During that time, I had to learn how to lead a full life socially. I still love to do salsa dancing but it’s tricky. If I stand on the sidelines, some of the dancers will pass you by because they don’t know you’re blind. I also learned how to horseback ride and swim in the ocean – just a different way. I go in the water on a surf leash. Or I ride around the ring with my best friend guiding me.

Kristin loves to ride horses.

Kristin doesn’t let being mostly blind stop her from riding horses.

Q: What treatments have you had for RP?

I investigated just about everything that was out there. [Laughs] After I was diagnosed, I became very proactive to find treatments. But after a while, I became discouraged because these treatments either didn’t work or still needed time for the FDA to give approval.

I did participate in a study nine years ago and had genetically modified cells put into my eye. I had two surgeries: one to put the cells in and one to take them out because the treatment hadn’t done anything. I didn’t get any improvement, and that was crushing to me because I had hoped and waited so long.

I just kept praying, waiting, reading and hoping. And then boom, all the sudden I got a phone call from UC Irvine saying they wanted me to participate in their stem cell trial for RP. They said I’d be the third person in the world to have it done and the first in their clinical trial. They told me I was to be the first North American patient to have progenitor cells put in my eye, which is pretty amazing.

Q: Was it easy to decide to participate in the UC Irvine CIRM-funded trial?

Yes. But don’t get me wrong, I’m human. I was a little scared. It’s a new thing and you have to sign papers saying that you understand that we don’t exactly know what the results will be. Essentially, you are agreeing to be a pathfinder.

Luckily, I have not had any adverse effects since the trial. But I’ve always had a great deal of faith in stem cells. For years, I’ve been hearing about it and I’ve always put my hopes in stem cells thinking that that’s going to be the answer for blindness.

Q: Have you seen any improvements in your sight since participating in this trial?

I was treated a year ago in June. The stem cell transplant was in my left eye, my worse eye that has never gotten better. It’s been about 15 months now, and I started to see improvement after about two months following the treatment. When I would go into my bathroom, I noticed that it was a lot brighter. I didn’t know if I was imagining things, but I called a friend and said, “I don’t know if I’m imagining things but I’m getting more light perception in this eye.”

Sure enough, over a period of about eight months, I had gradual improvement in light perception. Then I leveled off, but now there is no question that I’m photo sensitive. When I go out, I use my sunglasses, and I see a whole lot more light.

Because I was one of the first patients in the trial, they had to give me a small dose of cells to test for safety. So it was amazing that a smaller dose of cells was still able to help me gain back some sight! One of the improvements that I’ve had is that I can actually see the image of my finger waving back and forth on my left side, which I couldn’t before when I put mascara on. I say this because I have put lip pencil all over my mouth by accident. That must have been a real sight! For a woman, putting on makeup is really important.

Q: What was your experience like participating in the UC Irvine trial?

Dr. Klassen who runs the UC Irvine stem cell trial for RP is an amazing person. He was in the room with me during the transplant procedure. I have such a high regard and respect for Dr. Klassen because he’s been working on the cure for RP as long as I’ve had it. He’s someone who’s dedicated his life to trying to find an answer to a disease that I’ve been dealing with on a day-to-day basis.

Dr. Klassen had the opportunity to become a retinal surgeon and make much more money in a different area. But because it was too crushing to talk to patients and give them such a sad diagnosis, he decided he was going to do something about it. When I heard that, I just never forgot it. He’s a wonderful man and he’s really dedicated to this cause.

Q: How have you been an advocate for RP and blindness?

I’ve been an advocate for the visually impaired in many different aspects. I have raised money for different research foundations and donated my time as a host and an MC to various charities through radio shows. I’ve had a voice in the visually impaired community in one way or another on and off for 15 years.

I also started getting involved in Americans for Cures only a few months ago. I am helping them raise awareness about Proposition 71, which created CIRM, and the importance of funding stem cell research in the future.

I may in this lifetime get actual vision again, a real second vision. But in the meantime, I’ve been working on my higher self, which is good because a friend of mine who is totally blind reminded me today, “Kristin, just remember, don’t live for tomorrow just getting that eye sight back”. My friend was born blind. I told him he is absolutely right. I know I can lead a joyful life either way. But trust me, having a cure for RP would be the icing on the cake for me.

Q: Why is it important to be a patient advocate?

I think it’s so important from a number of different aspects, and I really felt this at the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) conference in San Francisco this summer when certain people came to talk to me afterwards, especially researchers and scientists. They don’t get to see the perspective of the patient because they are on the other side of the fence.

I think it’s very important to be a patient advocate because when you have a personal story, it resonates with people much more than just reading about something or hearing about something on a ballot.  It’s really vital for the future. Everybody has somebody or knows somebody who had macular degeneration or became visually impaired. If they don’t, they need to be educated about it.

Q: Tell us about your Radio Show.

My radio show “Second Vision” is about personal development and reinventing yourself and your life’s vision when the first one fails. It was the first internet radio show to support the blind and visually impaired, so that’s why I’m passionate about it. I’ve had scores of authors on there over the years who’ve written amazing books about how to better yourself and personal stories from people who have overcome adversity from all different types of challenges in terms of emotional health, physical health or problems in their lives. You can find anything on the Second Vision website from interviews on Reiki and meditation to Erik Weihenmayer, the blind man who climbed the seven summits (the highest mountains of each of the seven continents).

Q: Why is stem cell research important?

I do think that stem cells will help people with blindness. I don’t know whether it will be a 100% treatment. Scientists may have to do something else along the way to perfect stem cell treatments whether it’s gene therapy or changing the number of cells or types of cells they inject into the eye. I really do have a huge amount of faith in stem cells. If they can regenerate other parts of the body, I think the eye will be no different.

To read more about Kristin Macdonald and her quest for a Second Vision, please visit her website.


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