First patient in CIRM funded X-CGD trial gives back by working in patient care

Brenden Whittaker

Brenden Whittaker was born with a rare genetic disorder called X-linked chronic granulomatous disease (X-CGD). This condition affects the immune system’s ability to fight off common germs, specifically bacteria and fungi, and can result in infections that would only be mild for healthy people. Unfortunately for Brenden, he has suffered life-threatening infections that have required him to be hospitalized hundreds of times throughout most of his childhood. At only 16 years old, he got a very bad case of pneumonia that resulted in having tissue from his right lung removed. By age 22, the treatments he had received to fight off infections had stopped working entirely.

His prognosis looked grim, but fortunately he was informed of a CIRM-funded clinical trial conducted by Dr. Don Kohn to treat his condition. He would go on to become the first participant in this trial, which involved taking his blood stem cells, using gene therapy to correct the X-CGD mutation, and reintroducing these modified cells back into his body. Following his treatment, blood tests confirmed that the treatment produced enough corrected cells for Brenden to now be protected from severe infection.

Before the CIRM-funded treatment, the chances of severe infection were virtually everywhere, something many of us might better understand given everything going on with COVID-19. But now with a new lease on life, Brenden is giving back to the very community that helped him in his time of need. He is currently working as a patient care associate at his local hospital in Ohio. Considered an essential worker, Brenden’s responsibilities include taking patients’ vital signs, helping them eat and get cleaned up, and going for walks around the unit with those who are able to do so. He also plans to attend nursing school in the future.

In a news release, Brenden talks about wanting to give back to those in similar situations as him and demonstrates true selflessness.

“My job entails doing anything I can to make a patient’s time in the hospital a little bit easier while at the same time helping the doctors and nurses monitor for any new health developments. From the nurses who sat with me holding my hand and telling me about their lives when I was up in the middle of the night with a fever, to the patient transporters who remembered my name and talked with me the whole way to surgery, to the doctors who wouldn’t give up until they found an option that worked for me, these people are the reason the hospital setting is the only place I want to work. If I can help even one person the way these people have helped me, I will be happy.”

In addition to Brenden, five additional patients who received the same treatment for X-CGD are also doing well. This same gene therapy approach for blood stem cells was used in another CIRM-funded trial for SCID, another kind of genetic immune disorder. The SCID trial resulted in over 50 babies being cured of the condition, including little Evie, who is featured on the cover of CIRM’s 18-month report.

CIRM supported study of gene silencer blocks ALS degeneration, saves motor function

Dr. Martin Marsala, UC San Diego

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a neurodegenerative disease that destroys the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. As a result of ALS, the motor neurons that enable bodily movement and muscle control are harmed, which can make it difficult to move, speak, eat, and breathe. This condition usually affects people from age 40 to 70, but individuals in their 20s and 30s have also been known to develop ALS. Unfortunately there is no cure for this condition.

However, a study supported by CIRM and conducted by Dr. Martin Marsala at UC San Diego is using a mouse model to look at an approach that uses a gene silencer to protect motor neurons before or shortly after ALS symptoms start to develop.

The gene silencer works by turning off a targeted gene and is delivered via injection. In the case of ALS, previous research suggests that mutations in a gene called SOD1 may cause motor neuronal cell death, resulting in ALS. For this study, Dr. Marsala and his team injected the gene silencer at two sites in the spinal cord in adult mice expressing an ALS-causing mutation of the SOD1 gene. The mice injected did not yet display symptoms of ALS or had only begun showing symptoms.

In mice not yet showing ALS symptoms, they displayed normal neurological function with no onset ALS symptoms after treatment. Additionally, near complete protection of motor neurons and other cells was observed. In mice that had just began showing ALS symptoms, the injection blocked further disease progression as well as further harm to remaining motor neurons. Both of these groups of mice lived without negative side effects for the duration of the study.

In a news release, Dr. Marsala talks about what these results mean for the study of ALS.

“At present, this therapeutic approach provides the most potent therapy ever demonstrated in mouse models of mutated SOD1 gene-linked ALS.”

The next steps for this research would be to conduct additional safety studies with a larger animal model in order to determine an optimal, safe dose for the treatment.

The full results of this study were published in Nature Medicine.

In addition to supporting this research for ALS, CIRM has funded two clinical trials in the field as well. One of these trials is being conducted by BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics and the other trial is being by Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

How early CIRM support helped an anti-cancer therapy overcome obstacles and help patients

Dr. Catriona Jamieson, UC San Diego

When you read about a new drug or therapy being approved to help patients it always seems so simple. Researchers come up with a brilliant idea, test it to make sure it is safe and works, and then get approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to sell it to people who need it.

But it’s not always that simple, or straight forward. Sometimes it can take years, with several detours along the way, before the therapy finds its way to patients.

That’s the case with a blood cancer drug called fedratinib (we blogged about it here) and the relentless efforts by U.C. San Diego researcher Dr. Catriona Jamieson to help make it available to patients. CIRM funded the critical early stage research to help show this approach could help save lives. But it took many more years, and several setbacks, before Dr. Jamieson finally succeeded in getting approval from the FDA.

The story behind that therapy, and Dr. Jamieson’s fight, is told in the San Diego Union Tribune. Reporter Brad Fikes has been following the therapy for years and in the story he explains why he found it so fascinating, and why this was a therapy that almost didn’t make it.

One family’s fight to save their son’s life, and how stem cells made it possible

CIRM’s mission is very simple: to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. Anne Klein’s son, Everett, was a poster boy for that statement. Born with a fatal immune disorder Everett faced a bleak future. But Anne and husband Brian were not about to give up. The following story is one Anne wrote for Parents magazine. It’s testament to the power of stem cells to save lives, but even more importantly to the power of love and the determination of a family to save their son.

My Son Was Born With ‘Bubble Boy’ Disease—But A Gene Therapy Trial Saved His Life

Everett Schmitt. Photo: Meg Kumin

I wish more than anything that my son Everett had not been born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). But I know he is actually one of the lucky unlucky ones. By Anne Klein

As a child in the ’80s, I watched a news story about David Vetter. David was known as “the boy in the bubble” because he was born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a rare genetic disease that leaves babies with very little or no immune system. To protect him, David lived his entire life in a plastic bubble that kept him separated from a world filled with germs and illnesses that would have taken his life—likely before his first birthday.

I was struck by David’s story. It was heartbreaking and seemed so otherworldly. What would it be like to spend your childhood in an isolation chamber with family, doctors, reporters, and the world looking in on you? I found it devastating that an experimental bone marrow transplant didn’t end up saving his life; instead it led to fatal complications. His mother, Carol Ann Demaret, touched his bare hand for the first and last time when he was 12 years old.

I couldn’t have known that almost 30 years later, my own son, Everett, would be born with SCID too.

Everett’s SCID diagnosis

At birth, Everett was big, beautiful, and looked perfectly healthy. My husband Brian and I already had a 2-and-a-half-year-old son, Alden, so we were less anxious as parents when we brought Everett home. I didn’t run errands with Alden until he was at least a month old, but Everett was out and about with us within a few days of being born. After all, we thought we knew what to expect.

But two weeks after Everett’s birth, a doctor called to discuss Everett’s newborn screening test results. I listened in disbelief as he explained that Everett’s blood sample indicated he may have an immune deficiency.

“He may need a bone marrow transplant,” the doctor told me.

I was shocked. Everett’s checkup with his pediatrician just two days earlier went swimmingly. I hung up and held on to the doctor’s assurance that there was a 40 percent chance Everett’s test result was a false positive.

After five grueling days of waiting for additional test results and answers, I received the call: Everett had virtually no immune system. He needed to be quickly admitted to UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in California so they could keep him isolated and prepare to give him a stem cell transplant. UCSF diagnosed him specifically with SCID-X1, the same form David battled.

Beginning SCID treatment

The hospital was 90 miles and more than two hours away from home. Our family of four had to be split into two, with me staying in the hospital primarily with Everett and Brian and Alden remaining at home, except for short visits. The sudden upheaval left Alden confused, shaken, and sad. Brian and I quickly transformed into helicopter parents, neurotically focused on every imaginable contact with germs, even the mildest of which could be life-threatening to Everett.

When he was 7 weeks old, Everett received a stem cell transplant with me as his donor, but the transplant failed because my immune cells began attacking his body. Over his short life, Everett has also spent more than six months collectively in the hospital and more than three years in semi-isolation at home. He’s endured countless biopsies, ultrasounds, CT scans, infusions, blood draws, trips to the emergency department, and medical transports via ambulance or helicopter.

Gene therapy to treat SCID

At age 2, his liver almost failed and a case of pneumonia required breathing support with sedation. That’s when a doctor came into the pediatric intensive care unit and said, “When Everett gets through this, we need to do something else for him.” He recommended a gene therapy clinical trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that was finally showing success in patients over age 2 whose transplants had failed. This was the first group of SCID-X1 patients to receive gene therapy using a lentiviral vector combined with a light dose of chemotherapy.

After the complications from our son’s initial stem cell transplant, Brian and I didn’t want to do another stem cell transplant using donor cells. My donor cells were at war with his body and cells from another donor could do the same. Also, the odds of Everett having a suitable donor on the bone marrow registry were extremely small since he didn’t have one as a newborn. At the NIH, he would receive a transplant with his own, perfectly matched, gene-corrected cells. They would be right at home.

Other treatment options would likely only partially restore his immunity and require him to receive infusions of donor antibodies for life, as was the case with his first transplant. Prior gene therapy trials produced similarly incomplete results and several participants developed leukemia. The NIH trial was the first one showing promise in fully restoring immunity, without a risk of cancer. Brian and I felt it was Everett’s best option. Without hesitation, we flew across the country for his treatment. Everett received the gene therapy in September 2016 when he was 3, becoming the youngest patient NIH’s clinical trial has treated.

Everett’s recovery

It’s been more than two years since Everett received gene therapy and now more than ever, he has the best hope of developing a fully functioning immune system. He just received his first vaccine to test his ability to mount a response. Now 6 years old, he’s completed kindergarten and has been to Disney World. He plays in the dirt and loves shows and movies from the ’80s (maybe some of the same ones David enjoyed).

Everett knows he has been through a lot and that his doctors “fixed his DNA,” but he’s focused largely on other things. He’s vocal when confronted with medical pain or trauma, but seems to block out the experiences shortly afterwards. It’s sad for Brian and me that Everett developed these coping skills at such a young age, but we’re so grateful he is otherwise expressive and enjoys engaging with others. Once in the middle of the night, he woke us up as he stood in the hallway, exclaiming, “I’m going back to bed, but I just want you to know that I love you with all my heart!”

I wish more than anything that Everett had not been born with such a terrible disease and I could erase all the trauma, isolation, and pain. But I know that he is actually one of the lucky unlucky ones. Everett is fortunate his disease was caught early by SCID newborn screening, which became available in California not long before his birth. Without this test, we would not have known he had SCID until he became dangerously ill. His prognosis would have been much worse, even under the care of his truly brilliant and remarkable doctors, some of whom cared for David decades earlier.

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Everett Schmitt meeting David Vetter’s mom Carol Ann Demaret. Photo – Brian Schmitt

When Everett was 4, soon after the gene therapy gave him the immunity he desperately needed, our family was fortunate enough to cross paths with David’s mom, Carol Ann, at an Immune Deficiency Foundation event. Throughout my life, I had seen her in pictures and on television with David. In person, she was warm, gracious, and humble. When I introduced her to Everett and explained that he had SCID just like David, she looked at Everett with loving eyes and asked if she could touch him. As she touched Everett’s shoulder and they locked eyes, Brian and I looked on with profound gratitude.

Anne Klein is a parent, scientist, and a patient advocate for two gene therapy trials funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. She is passionate about helping parents of children with SCID navigate treatment options for their child.

You can read about the clinical trials we are funding for SCID here, here, here and here.

CIRM-funded therapy helps “bubble babies” lead a normal life

Ja’Ceon Golden; ‘cured” of SCID

At CIRM we are very cautious about using the “c” word. Saying someone has been “cured” is a powerful statement but one that loses its meaning when over used or used inappropriately. However, in the case of a new study from U.C. San Francisco and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, saying “cure” is not just accurate, it’s a celebration of something that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago.

The research focuses on children with a specific form of Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) called X-Linked SCID. It’s also known as “bubble baby” disease because children born with this condition lack a functioning immune system, so even a simple infection could be fatal and in the past they were kept inside sterile plastic bubbles to protect them.

In this study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers took blood stem cells from the child and, in the lab, genetically re-engineered them to correct the defective gene, and then infused them back into the child. Over time they multiplied and created a new blood supply, one free of the defect, which helped repair the immune system.

In a news release Dr. Ewelina Mamcarz, the lead author of the study, announced that ten children have been treated with this method.

“These patients are toddlers now, who are responding to vaccinations and have immune systems to make all immune cells they need for protection from infections as they explore the world and live normal lives. This is a first for patients with SCID-X1.”

The ten children were treated at both St. Jude and at UCSF and CIRM funded the UCSF arm of the clinical trial.

The story, not surprisingly, got a lot of attention in the media including this fine piece by CNN.

Oh, and by the way we are also funding three other clinical trials targeting different forms of SCID. One with UCLA’s Don Kohn,  one with Stanford’s Judy Shizuru, and one with UCSF’s Mort Cowan

Gene therapy gives patient a cure and a new lease on life

Brenden Whittaker (left), of Ohio, is a patient born with a rare genetic immune disease who was treated at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center in a CIRM funded gene therapy trial. Dr. David Williams (on right) is Brenden’s treating physician.
Photo courtesy of Rose Lincoln – Harvard Staff Photographer

Pursuing an education can be quite the challenge in itself without the added pressure of external factors. For Brenden Whittaker, a 25 year old from Ohio, the constant trips to the hospital and debilitating nature of an inherited genetic disease made this goal particularly challenging and, for most of his life, out of sight.

Brenden was born with chronic granulomatous disease (CGD), a rare genetic disorder that affects the proper function of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell that is an essential part of the body’s immune system. This leads to recurring bacterial and fungal infections and the formation of granulomas, which are clumps of infected tissue that arise as the body attempts to isolate infections it cannot combat. People with CGD are often hospitalized routinely and the granulomas themselves can obstruct digestive pathways and other pathways in the body. Antibiotics are used in an attempt to prevent infections from occurring, but eventually patients stop responding to them. One in two people with CGD do not live past the age of 40.

In Brenden’s case, when the antibiotics he relied on started failing, the doctors had to resort to surgery to cut out an infected lobe of his liver and half his right lung. Although the surgery was successful, it would only be a matter of time before a vital organ was infected and surgery would no longer be an option.

This ultimately lead to Brenden becoming the first patient in a CGD gene therapy trial at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.  The trial, lead by UCLA’s Dr. Don Kohn thanks to a CIRM grant, combats the disease by correcting the dysfunctional gene inside a patient’s blood stem cells. The patient’s corrected blood stem cells are then reintroduced, allowing the body to produce properly functioning neutrophils, rebooting the immune system.

It’s been a little over three years since Brenden received this treatment in late 2015, and the results have been remarkable. Dr. David Williams, Brenden’s treating physician, expected Brenden’s body to produce at least 10 percent of the functional neutrophils, enough so that Brenden’s immune system would provide protection similar to somebody without CGD. The results were over 50 percent, greatly exceeding expectations.

Brenden Whittaker mowing the lawn in the backyard of his home in Columbus, Ohio. He is able to do many more things without the fear of infection since participating in the trial. Photo courtesy of Colin McGuire

In an article published by The Harvard Gazette, Becky Whittaker, Brendan’s mother, is quoted as saying, ““Each day that he’s free of infection, he’s able to go to class, he’s able to work at his part-time job, he’s able to mess around playing with the dog or hanging out with friends…[this] is a day I truly don’t believe he would have had beyond 2015 had something not been done.”

In addition to the changes to his immune system, the gene therapy has reinvigorated Brenden’s drive for the future. Living with CGD had caused Brenden to miss out on much of his schooling throughout the years, having to take constant pauses from his academics at a community college. Now, Brenden aims to graduate with an associate’s degree in health sciences in the spring and transfer to Ohio State in the fall for a bachelor’s degree program. In addition to this, Brenden now has dreams of attending medical school.

In The Harvard Gazette article, Brenden elaborates on why he wants to go to medical school saying, ” Just being the patient for so long, I want to give back. There are so many people who’ve been there for me — doctors, nurses who’ve been there for me [and] helped me for so long.”

In a press release dated February 25, 2019, Orchard Therapeutics, a biopharmaceutical company that is continuing the aforementioned approach for CGD, announced that six patients treated have shown adequate neutrophil function 12 months post treatment. Furthermore, these six patients no longer receive antibiotics related to CGD. Orchard Therapeutics also announced that they are in the process of designing a registrational trial for CGD.

Midwest universities are making important tools to advance stem cell research

580b4-ipscell

iPSCs are not just pretty, they’re also pretty remarkable

Two Midwest universities are making headlines for their contributions to stem cell research. Both are developing important tools to advance this field of study, but in two unique ways.

Scientists at the University of Michigan (UM), have compiled an impressive repository of disease-specific stem cell lines. Cell lines are crucial tools for scientists to study the mechanics of different diseases and allows them to do so without animal models. While animal models have important benefits, such as the ability to study a disease within the context of a living mammal, insights gained from such models can be difficult to translate to humans and many diseases do not even have good models to use.

The stem cell lines generated at the Reproductive Sciences Program at UM, are thanks to numerous individuals who donated extra embryos they did not use for in vitro fertilization (IVF). Researchers at UM then screened these embryos for abnormalities associated with different types of disease and generated some 36 different stem cell lines. These have been donated to the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry, and include cell lines for diseases such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s Disease and hemophilia.

Using one such cell line, Dr. Peter Todd at UM, found that the genetic abnormality associated with Fragile X Syndrome, a genetic mutation that results in developmental delays and learning disabilities, can be corrected by using a novel biological tool. Because Fragile X Syndrome does not have a good animal model, this stem cell line was critical for improving our understanding of this disease.

In the next state over, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM), researchers are doing similar work but using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) for their work.

The Human Stem Cell Gene Editing Service has proved to be an important resource in expediting research projects across campus. They use CRISPR-Cas9 technology (an efficient method to mutate or edit the DNA of any organism), to generate human stem cell lines that contain disease specific mutations. Researchers use these cell lines to determine how the mutation affects cells and/or how to correct the cellular abnormality the mutation causes. Unlike the work at UM, these stem cell lines are derived from iPSCs  which can be generated from easy to obtain human samples, such as skin cells.

The gene editing services at UWM have already proved to be so popular in their short existence that they are considering expanding to be able to accommodate off-campus requests. This highlights the extent to which both CRISPR technology and stem cell research are being used to answer important scientific questions to advance our understanding of disease.

CIRM also created an iPSC bank that researchers can use to study different diseases. The  Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell (iPSC) Repository is  the largest repository of its kind in the world and is used by researchers across the globe.

The iPSC Repository was created by CIRM to house a collection of stem cells from thousands of individuals, some healthy, but some with diseases such as heart, lung or liver disease, or disorders such as autism. The goal is for scientists to use these cells to better understand diseases and develop and test new therapies to combat them. This provides an unprecedented opportunity to study the cell types from patients that are affected in disease, but for which cells cannot otherwise be easily obtained in large quantities.

CCSF’s CIRM Bridges scholars: the future of stem cell research is in good hands

In need of an extra dose of inspiration? You might read a great book or listen to that podcast your friend recommended. You might even take a stroll along the beach. But I can do you one better: go to a conference poster session where young stem cell scientists describe their research.

That’s what I did last week at the City College of San Francisco’s (CCSF) Bioscience Symposium held at UC San Francisco’s Genentech Hall. It’s a day-long conference that showcases the work of CCSF Bioscience interns and gives them a chance to present the results of their research projects, network with their peers and researchers, hear panelists talk about careers in biotechnology and participate in practice job interviews.

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CCSF’s CIRM Bridges Scholars (clockwise from top left): Vanessa Lynn Herrara, Viktoriia Volobuieva, Christopher Nosworthy and Sofiana E. Hamama.

Bridges_CCSF_2018

CCSF’s CIRM Bridges Scholars (clockwise from top left): Seema Niddapu, Mark Koontz, Karolina Kaminska and Iris Avellano

Eight of the dozens of students in attendance at the Symposium are part of the CIRM-funded Bridges Stem Cell Internship program at CCSF. It’s one of 14 CIRM Bridges programs throughout the state that 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.

In the CCSF Bridges Program, directed by Dr. Carin Zimmerman, the students do a 9-month paid internship in top notch labs at UCSF, the Gladstone Institutes and Blood System Research Institute. As I walked from poster to poster and chatted with each Bridges scholar, their excitement and enthusiasm for carrying out stem cell research was plain to see. It left me with the feeling that the future of stem cell research is in good hands and, as I walked into the CIRM office the next day, I felt re-energized to tackle the Agency’s mission to accelerate stem cell treatment for patients with unmet medical needs. But don’t take my word for it, listen to the enthusiastic perspectives of Bridges scholars Mark Koontz and Iris Avellano in this short video.

Meet the high school student who moonlights as a neuroscientist

As part of our CIRM scholar blog series, we’re featuring the research and career accomplishments of CIRM funded students. Today, you’ll read about one of our former SPARK high school students.


Emma Friedenberg and former CIRM SPARK Director Karen Ring at the 2017 SPARK Conference.

Emma Friedenberg is a high school senior at Campbell Hall in North Hollywood, California. She’s also an up-and-coming neuroscientist who has her sights set on unraveling the complexities of the brain and discovering cures for degenerative brain diseases. Emma spent the summer of 2017 studying Huntington’s disease in the lab of Dr. Virginia Mattis at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Her internship was possible because of the CIRM SPARK high school educational program which gives California students the opportunity to do stem cell research for a summer.

Below is an interview with Emma about her SPARK experience and how the program is helping her pursue her passions for research and medicine.

Q: How did you learn about the CIRM SPARK program and why did you want to apply?

I’ve been a clinical volunteer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for two years in the Intensive Care Unit and the Neurology and Spine Unit. I was submitting my application to return as a volunteer when I explored Cedars-Sinai’s Outreach website page and found the CIRM SPARK program. I knew immediately it was a perfect fit. I plan on studying neuroscience in college with an intention of obtaining my medical degree and becoming a surgeon. The CIRM SPARK program at Cedars within the Board of Governor’s Regenerative Medicine Institute had an option to be involved specifically in the Brain Program. In Dr. Virginia Mattis’ lab, I studied translational stem cell therapies for neurodegenerative diseases, in particular Huntington’s Disease. As Cedars-Sinai calls it, a “bench to bedside” approach is an unparalleled and invaluable experience and huge advantage in science.

Q: What was your SPARK research project?

At Cedars-Sinai, I was mentored by Dr. Virginia Mattis in her stem cell lab. The Mattis Lab researches stem cell therapies for Huntington’s disease (HD), a neurodegenerative brain disease. HD is caused by a loss of neurons, specifically medium spiny neurons in the striatum of Huntington’s patients. We used induced pluripotent stem cells to model HD in a petri dish to study the development of the disease and to create medium spiny neurons that could one day be transplanted into Huntington’s patients to replace lost and damaged cells.

Medium spiny neurons made from Huntington’s disease patient induced pluripotent stem cells. (Image credit: Mattis Lab, Cedars Sinai)

My primary research in the Mattis Lab was experimenting on our cell line to find the most time and cost-effective procedure to produce large populations of medium spiny neurons, because current methods are expensive and largely inefficient. However, my internship was not limited to the laboratory. I spent a significant amount of time shadowing doctors in the ALS Clinic.

Q: What was your experience in the CIRM SPARK program like?

In one word, the CIRM SPARK program was incredible –a one of a kind opportunity. The sciences are my personal passion and the cornerstone of my academic pursuits. The CIRM SPARK program has bolstered my scientific knowledge and provided practical experience in a real-world laboratory environment. A career in medicine is a significant commitment, and I’m confident the CIRM SPARK program was a beneficial start to obtaining my goals.

Cedars-Sinai SPARK students celebrating the completion of their 2017 internships.

Q: What do you value most about your SPARK experience?

It was wonderful to be part of a program which understood collaboration and offered a plethora of learning opportunities outside of the wet lab. What I will keep with me is not only techniques of immunocytochemistry and microscopy, but also the advice and encouragement from accomplished scientists like Clive Svendsen and my mentor Virginia Mattis.

Q: What are your future goals?

I plan on studying neuroscience in college with an intention of obtaining my medical degree and becoming a surgeon.

Q: Who is your scientific idol and why?

I recently read Dr. Eric Kandel’s book, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present. Dr. Kandel is a neuroscientist and a Professor at Columbia University. He received the Nobel Prize for his work in memory storage using Aplysia, a type of sea slug. His book examines how the human brain responds to art. What I find so inspiring about his book is his interdisciplinary approach to science, a combination of neuroscience, psychoanalysis, biology, and art. The human brain is so complicated that it can be studied from numerous perspectives, from biology to chemistry to electrophysiology. It is not until we can begin to merge these understandings that we will begin to unlock the secrets of the brain. Dr. Kandel is not only a scientist, but an intellectual.

Q: What is your favorite thing about being a scientist?

For centuries, the human brain was an anomaly, unexplainable by science. With 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections, the brain is the most complex network in the universe. How the brain functions as an information-processing organ and regulates emotion, behavior, and cognition as well as basic body functions like breathing remains a mystery. In recent years, there has been significant progress in brain research. Scientists are on the brink of major breakthroughs, but there is significant work to do particularly on neurological brain disorders. Being a scientist means living on the cutting-edge of human innovation. I enjoy being able to both ask and answer questions that will benefit humankind.


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The Story of a South African Bubble Boy and a Gene Therapy That Gave Him His Life Back

Ayaan Isaacs, health24

Ayaan Isaacs was born in South Africa on March 4th, 2016 as a seemingly healthy baby. But only a few days in to life, he contracted a life-threatening liver infection. He thankfully survived, only to have the doctors discover a few weeks later that he had something much more troubling – a rare disease that left him without a functioning immune system.

Ayaan was diagnosed with X-linked severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), which is often referred to as ‘bubble baby’ disease because patients are extremely susceptible to infection and must live in sterile environments. SCID patients can be cured with a blood stem cell transplant if they have a genetically matched donor. Unfortunately for Ayaan, only a partially matched donor was available, which doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome.

Ayaan’s parents were desperate for an alternative treatment to save Ayaan’s life. It was at this point that they learned about a clinical trial at St. Jude Children’s Research hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. The trial is treating SCID patients with a stem cell gene therapy that aims to give them a new functioning immune system. The therapy involves extracting the patient’s blood-forming stem cells and genetically correcting the mutation that causes SCID. The corrected blood stem cells are then transplanted back into the patient where they rebuild a healthy immune system.

Ayaan was able to enroll in the trial, and he was the first child in Africa to receive this life-saving gene therapy treatment. Ayaan’s journey with bubble boy disease was featured by South Africa’s health24 earlier this year. In the article, his mom Shamma Sheik talked about the hope that this gene therapy treatment brought to their family.

“No child should have to die just because they are unable to find a donor. Gene therapy offered Ayaan a chance at life that he ordinarily would not have had. I was fortunate to have found an alternative therapy that is working and already showing remarkable results. We are mindful that this is still an experimental treatment and there are complications that can arise; however, I am very optimistic that he will return to South Africa with a functioning immune system.”

Carte Blanche, an investigative journalism program in South Africa, did a feature video of Ayaan in February. Although the video is no longer available on their website, it did reveal that four months after Ayaan’s treatment, his condition started to improve suggesting that the treatment was potentially working.

We’ve written previously about another young boy named Ronnie who was diagnosed with X-linked SCID days after he was born. Ronnie also received the St. Jude stem cell gene therapy in a CIRM-funded clinical trial at the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. Ronnie was treated when he was six months old and just celebrated his first birthday as a healthy, vibrant kid thanks to this trial. You can hear more about Ronnie’s moving story from his dad, Pawash Priyank, in the video below.

Our hope is that powerful stories like Ayaan’s and Ronnie’s will raise awareness about SCID and the promising potential of stem cell gene therapies to cure patients of this life-threatening immune disease.

Ronnie and his parents celebrating his 1st birthday. (Photo courtesy of Pawash Priyank)


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