It’s nice to be appreciated

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Photo: courtesy City of Hope

No one likes to be taken for granted, to feel that people only like you because you have scads of cash and they want some of it. That’s why it’s so lovely when you feel you are appreciated because of all the things money makes possible.

That’s how it felt when we saw City of Hope’s news release about our funding to train the next generation of scientists and leaders in the field of regenerative medicine. CIRM has awarded COH $4.86 million as part of its Research Training Program in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine.

The program provides stem cell and gene therapy research training for up to 6 graduate students and 12 postdocs at the Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope. In addition to 3 years of research, the training includes coursework, patient engagement and community outreach activities.

In a news release, Dr. Nadia Carlesso, chair of the Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, said this funding is important in training a new generation of scientists.

“This program originates from City of Hope’s longstanding expertise in conducting clinical trials and applying fundamental stem cell biology and gene therapy to the treatment of diseases. The program reflects City of Hope’s commitment to ensuring that future scientific leaders understand the varied needs of diverse patient populations, and the inequities that presently affect both biomedical research and the development of and access to innovative therapies.”

Students in the program will have access to world class research facilities and will also benefit from the fact that their classrooms and laboratories are within walking distance from where patients are treated. We believe the best scientists need to have experience in working both at the laboratory bench and at the bedside, not only developing new therapies, but being able to deliver those therapies in a caring, compassionate way.

CIRM Board gives thumbs up to training and treatment programs

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CIRM Bridges student discusses her poster presentation

At CIRM, the bread and butter of what we do is funding research and hopefully advancing therapies to patients. But the jam, that’s our education programs. Helping train the next generation of stem cell and gene therapy scientists is really inspiring. Watching these young students – and some are just high school juniors – come in and grasp the science and quickly become fluent in talking about it and creating their own experiments shows the future is in good hands.

Right now we fund several programs, such as our SPARK and Bridges internships, but they can’t cover everything, so last week the CIRM Board approved a new training program called COMPASS (Creating Opportunities through Mentorship and Partnership Across Stem Cell Science). The program will fill a critical need for skilled research practitioners who understand and contribute at all levels in the translation of science to medicine, from bench to bedside.

The objective of the COMPASS Training Program is to prepare a diverse group of undergraduate students for careers in regenerative medicine through the creation of novel recruitment and support mechanisms that identify and foster untapped talent within populations that are historically under-represented in the biomedical sciences. It will combine hands-on research with mentorship experiences to enhance transition of students to successful careers. A parallel objective is to foster greater awareness and appreciation of diversity, equity and inclusion in trainees, mentors, and other program participants

The CIRM Board approved investing $58.22 million for up to 20 applications for a five-year duration.

“This new program highlights our growing commitment to creating a diverse workforce, one that taps into communities that have been historically under-represented in the biomedical sciences,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “The COVID19 pandemic made it clear that the benefits of scientific discovery are not always accessible to communities that most need them. CIRM is committed to tackling these challenges by creating a diverse and dedicated workforce that can meet the technical demands of taking novel treatment ideas and making them a reality.”

The Board also approved a new $80 million concept plan to expand the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network. The Network clinics are all in top California medical centers that have the experience and the expertise to deliver high-quality FDA-authorized stem cell clinical trials to patients.

There are currently five Alpha Clinics – UC San Diego; UCLA/UC Irvine; City of Hope; UCSF; UC Davis – and since 2015 they have hosted more than 105 clinical trials, enrolled more than 750 patients in these trials, and generated more than $95 million in industry contracts. 

Each award will provide up to $8 million in funding over a five-year period. The clinics will have to include:

  • A demonstrated ability to offer stem cell and gene therapies to patients as part of a clinical trial.
  • Programs to help support the career development of doctors, nurses, researchers or other medical professionals essential for regenerative medicine clinical trials.
  • A commitment to data sharing and meeting CIRM’s requirements addressing issues of diversity, equity and inclusion and meeting the needs of California’s diverse patient population.

Educating and training the next generation of regenerative science workforce

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Bridges scholars presenting their research posters to CIRM team members and other scientists

Regenerative medicine is a diverse and rapidly evolving field, employing core expertise from biologists, engineers, and clinicians. As the field continues to advance, a well-trained regenerative science workforce is needed to apply the newest discoveries to clinical care. That’s why one of the goals outlined in our new 5-year Strategic Plan is to build a diverse and highly skilled workforce to support the growing regenerative medicine economy in California.  

Since its inception, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has been committed to educating the next generation of researchers, leaders, and innovators. Through its existing educational pillar programs such as SPARK and Bridges, the agency has been able to provide unique training and career development opportunities to a wide range of students from high school to college and beyond.

Through our new Strategic Plan, CIRM hopes to enhance training and education of the future California workforce by making it easier for students to start their career, accelerate career advancement, and provide greater access for diverse and underrepresented groups. Training and educating individuals who come from varied backgrounds brings new perspectives and different skillsets which enhance the development of the entire field, from basic and clinical research to manufacturing and commercialization.

The workforce training programs will be combined with CIRM’s other pillar programs to facilitate career entry at multiple levels. Through connecting the existing EDUC pillar programs with the planned California Manufacturing Network infrastructure program, CIRM hopes to address the critical need for a highly trained manufacturing workforce. By leveraging the Alpha Clinics and Community Care Centers, the agency will work to develop education curricula that address the currently unmet need for Clinical Research Coordinators. CIRM’s competency hubs and knowledge networks will also incorporate education and training programs to provide career pathways in emerging technologies, computational biology and data sciences.

You can read more about these goals in our 2022-27 Strategic Plan.

Stem Cell Agency Board Invests in Therapy Targeting Deadly Blood Cancers

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Dr. Ezra Cohen, photo courtesy UCSD

Hematologic malignancies are cancers that affect the blood, bone marrow and lymph nodes and include different forms of leukemia and lymphoma. Current treatments can be effective, but in those patients that do not respond, there are few treatment options. Today, the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved investing $4.1 million in a therapy aimed at helping patients who have failed standard therapy.

Dr. Ezra Cohen, at the University of California San Diego, and Oncternal Therapeutics are targeting a protein called ROR1 that is found in B cell malignancies, such as leukemias and lymphomas, and solid tumors such as breast, lung and colon. They are using a molecule called a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) that can enable a patient’s own T cells, an important part of the immune system, to target and kill their cancer cells. These cells are derived from a related approach with an antibody therapy that targets ROR1-binding medication called Cirmtuzumab, also created with CIRM support. This CAR-T product is designed to recognize and kill cancer stem cells that express ROR1.

This is a late-stage preclinical project so the goal is to show they can produce enough high-quality cells to treat patients, as well as complete other regulatory measures needed for them to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permission to test the therapy in a clinical trial in people.

If given the go-ahead by the FDA the therapy will target patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), mantle cell lymphoma (MCL) and acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).  

“CAR-T cell therapies represent a transformational advance in the treatment of hematologic malignancies,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, CIRM’s President and CEO. “This approach addresses the need to develop new therapies for patients whose cancers are resistant to standard chemotherapies, who have few therapeutic options and a very poor chance or recovery.”

Creating a diverse group of future scientists

Students in CIRM’s Bridges program showing posters of their work

If you have read the headlines lately, you’ll know that the COVID-19 pandemic is having a huge impact on the shipping industry. Container vessels are forced to sit out at anchor for a week or more because there just aren’t enough dock workers to unload the boats. It’s a simple rule of economics, you can have all the demand you want but if you don’t have the people to help deliver on the supply side, you are in trouble.

The same is true in regenerative medicine. The field is expanding rapidly and that’s creating a rising demand for skilled workers to help keep up. That doesn’t just mean scientists, but also technicians and other skilled individuals who can ensure that our ability to manufacture and deliver these new therapies is not slowed down.

That’s one of the reasons why CIRM has been a big supporter of training programs ever since we were created by the voters of California when they approved Proposition 71. And now we are kick-starting those programs again to ensure the field has all the talented workers it needs.

Last week the CIRM Board approved 18 programs, investing more than $86 million, as part of the Agency’s Research Training Grants program. The goal of the program is to create a diverse group of scientists with the knowledge and skill to lead effective stem cell research programs.

The awards provide up to $5 million per institution, for a maximum of 20 institutions, over five years, to support the training of predoctoral graduate students, postdoctoral trainees, and/or clinical trainees.

This is a revival of an earlier Research Training program that ran from 2006-2016 and trained 940 “CIRM Scholars” including:

• 321 PhD students
• 453 Postdocs
• 166 MDs

These grants went to academic institutions from UC Davis in Sacramento to UC San Diego down south and everywhere in-between. A 2013 survey of the students found that most went on to careers in the industry.

  • 56% continued to further training
  • 14% advanced to an academic research faculty position
  • 10.5% advanced to a biotech/industry position
  • 12% advanced to a non-research position such as teaching, medical practice, or foundation/government work

The Research Training Grants go to:

AWARDINSTITUTIONTITLEAMOUNT
EDUC4-12751Cedars-SinaiCIRM Training Program in Translational Regenerative Medicine    $4,999,333
EDUC4-12752UC RiversideTRANSCEND – Training Program to Advance Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Research, Education, and Workforce Diversity    $4,993,115
EDUC4-12753UC Los AngelesUCLA Training Program in Stem Cell Biology    $5 million
EDUC4-12756University of Southern CaliforniaTraining Program Bridging Stem Cell Research with Clinical Applications in Regenerative Medicine    $5 million
EDUC4-12759UC Santa CruzCIRM Training Program in Systems Biology of Stem Cells    $4,913,271
EDUC4-12766Gladstone Inst.CIRM Regenerative Medicine Research Training Program    $5 million
EDUC4-12772City of HopeResearch Training Program in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine    $4,860,989
EDUC4-12782StanfordCIRM Scholar Training Program    $4,974,073
EDUC4-12790UC BerkeleyTraining the Next Generation of Biologists and Engineers for Regenerative Medicine    $4,954,238
EDUC4-12792UC DavisCIRM Cell and Gene Therapy Training Program 2.0    $4,966,300
EDUC4-12802Children’s Hospital of Los AngelesCIRM Training Program for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Research    $4,999,500
EDUC4-12804UC San DiegoInterdisciplinary Stem Cell Training Grant at UCSD III    $4,992,446
EDUC4-12811ScrippsTraining Scholars in Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research    $4,931,353
EDUC4-12812UC San FranciscoScholars Research Training Program in Regenerative Medicine, Gene Therapy, and Stem Cell Research    $5 million
EDUC4-12813Sanford BurnhamA Multidisciplinary Stem Cell Training Program at Sanford Burnham Prebys Institute, A Critical Component of the La Jolla Mesa Educational Network    $4,915,671  
EDUC4-12821UC Santa BarbaraCIRM Training Program in Stem Cell Biology and Engineering    $1,924,497
EDUC4-12822UC IrvineCIRM Scholars Comprehensive Research Training Program  $5 million
EDUC4-12837Lundquist Institute for Biomedical InnovationStem Cell Training Program at the Lundquist Institute    $4,999,999

These are not the only awards we make to support training the next generation of scientists. We also have our SPARK and Bridges to Stem Cell Research programs. The SPARK awards are for high school students, and the Bridges program for graduate or Master’s level students.

A new approach to a deadly childhood cancer

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Cancers of the blood, bone marrow and lymph nodes (also called hematologic malignancies) are the most common form of cancer in children and young adults. Current treatments can be effective but can also pose life-threatening health risks to the child. Now researchers at Stanford have developed a new approach and the Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) voted to support that approach in a clinical trial.

The Board approved investing $11,996,634 in the study, which is the Stem Cell Agency’s 76th clinical trial.

The current standard of care for cancers such as acute leukemias and lymphomas is chemotherapy and a bone marrow (also called HSCT) transplant. However, without a perfectly matched donor the risk of the patient’s body rejecting the transplant is higher. Patients may also be at greater risk of graft vs host disease (GVHD), where the donor cells attack the patient’s body. In severe cases GVHD can be life-threatening.

Dr. Maria Grazia Roncarlo: Photo courtesy Stanford

Dr. Maria Grazia Roncarolo and her team at Stanford will test an immunotherapy cell approach using a therapy that is enriched with specialized immune cells called type 1 regulatory T (Tr1) cells. These cells will be infused into the patient following the bone marrow transplant. Both the Tr1 cells and the bone marrow will come from the same donor. The hope is this will help provide the patient’s immune system with these regulatory cells to combat life-threatening graft versus host disease and increase the success of treatment and bone marrow (HSCT) transplant.

“Every year around 500 children receive stem cell transplants in California, and while many children do well, too many experiences a rejection of the transplant or a relapse of the cancer,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “Finding an improved therapy for these children means a shorter stay in the hospital, less risk of the need for a second transplant, and a greater quality of life for the child and the whole family.”

The CIRM Board has previously approved funding for 12 other clinical trials targeting cancers of the blood. You can read about them here.

Tiny tools for the smallest of tasks, editing genes

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Developing new tools to edit genes

Having the right tools to do a job is important. Try using a large screwdriver to tighten the screws on your glasses and you quickly appreciate that it’s not just the type of tool that’s important, it’s also the size. The same theory applies to gene editing. And now researchers at Stanford have developed a tool that can take on even the tiniest of jobs.

The tool involves the use of CRISPR. You may well have heard about CRISPR. The magazine New Scientist described it this way: “CRISPR is a technology that can be used to edit genes and, as such, will likely change the world.” For example, CIRM is funding research using CRISPR to help children born with severe combined immunodeficiency, a rare, fatal immune disorder.  

There’s just one problem. Right now, CRISPR is usually twinned with a protein called Cas9. Together they are used to remove unwanted genes and insert a corrected copy of the bad gene. However, that CRISPR-Cas9 combination is often too big to fit into all our cells. That may seem hard to understand for folks like me with a limited science background, but trust the scientists, they aren’t making this stuff up.

To address that problem, Dr. Stanley Qi and his team at Stanford created an even smaller version, one they call CasMINI, to enable them to go where Cas9 can’t go. In an article on Fierce Biotech, Dr. Qi said this mini version has some big benefits: “If people sometimes think of Cas9 as molecular scissors, here we created a Swiss knife containing multiple functions. It is not a big one, but a miniature one that is highly portable for easy use.”

How much smaller is the miniature version compared to the standard Cas9? About half the size, 529 amino acids, compared to Cas9’s 1,368 amino acids.”

The team conclude their study in the journal Molecular Cell saying this could have widespread implications for the field: “This provides a new method to engineer compact and efficient CRISPR-Cas effectors that can be useful for broad genome engineering applications, including gene regulation, gene editing, base editing, epigenome editing, and chromatin imaging.”

CIRM funds clinical trials targeting heart disease, stroke and childhood brain tumors

Gary Steinberg (Jonathan Sprague)

Heart disease and stroke are two of the leading causes of death and disability and for people who have experienced either their treatment options are very limited. Current therapies focus on dealing with the immediate impact of the attack, but there is nothing to deal with the longer-term impact. The CIRM Board hopes to change that by funding promising work for both conditions.

Dr. Gary Steinberg and his team at Stanford were awarded almost $12 million to conduct a clinical trial to test a therapy for motor disabilities caused by chronic ischemic stroke.  While “clot busting” therapies can treat strokes in their acute phase, immediately after they occur, these treatments can only be given within a few hours of the initial injury.  There are no approved therapies to treat chronic stroke, the disabilities that remain in the months and years after the initial brain attack.

Dr. Steinberg will use embryonic stem cells that have been turned into neural stem cells (NSCs), a kind of stem cell that can form different cell types found in the brain.  In a surgical procedure, the team will inject the NSCs directly into the brains of chronic stroke patients.  While the ultimate goal of the therapy is to restore loss of movement in patients, this is just the first step in clinical trials for the therapy.  This first-in-human trial will evaluate the therapy for safety and feasibility and look for signs that it is helping patients.

Another Stanford researcher, Dr. Crystal Mackall, was also awarded almost $12 million to conduct a clinical trial to test a treatment for children and young adults with glioma, a devastating, aggressive brain tumor that occurs primarily in children and young adults and originates in the brain.  Such tumors are uniformly fatal and are the leading cause of childhood brain tumor-related death. Radiation therapy is a current treatment option, but it only extends survival by a few months.

Dr. Crystal Mackall and her team will modify a patient’s own T cells, an immune system cell that can destroy foreign or abnormal cells.  The T cells will be modified with a protein called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR), which will give the newly created CAR-T cells the ability to identify and destroy the brain tumor cells.  The CAR-T cells will be re-introduced back into patients and the therapy will be evaluated for safety and efficacy.

Joseph Wu Stanford

Stanford made it three in a row with the award of almost $7 million to Dr. Joe Wu to test a therapy for left-sided heart failure resulting from a heart attack.  The major issue with this disease is that after a large number of heart muscle cells are killed or damaged by a heart attack, the adult heart has little ability to repair or replace these cells.  Thus, rather than being able to replenish its supply of muscle cells, the heart forms a scar that can ultimately cause it to fail.  

Dr. Wu will use human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) to generate cardiomyocytes (CM), a type of cell that makes up the heart muscle.  The newly created hESC-CMs will then be administered to patients at the site of the heart muscle damage in a first-in-human trial.  This initial trial will evaluate the safety and feasibility of the therapy, and the effect upon heart function will also be examined.  The ultimate aim of this approach is to improve heart function for patients suffering from heart failure.

“We are pleased to add these clinical trials to CIRM’s portfolio,” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., President and CEO of CIRM.  “Because of the reauthorization of CIRM under Proposition 14, we have now directly funded 75 clinical trials.  The three grants approved bring forward regenerative medicine clinical trials for brain tumors, stroke, and heart failure, debilitating and fatal conditions where there are currently no definitive therapies or cures.”

Gene therapy is life-changing for children with a life-threatening brain disorder

If you have never heard of AADC deficiency count yourself lucky. It’s a rare, incurable condition that affects only around 135 children worldwide but it’s impact on those children and their families is devastating. The children can’t speak, can’t feed themselves or hold up their head, they have severe mood swings and often suffer from insomnia.

But Dr. Krystof Bankiewicz, a doctor and researcher at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), is using techniques he developed treating Parkinson’s disease to help those children. Full disclosure here, CIRM is funding Dr. Bankiewicz’s Parkinson’s clinical trial.

In AADC deficiency the children lack a critical enzyme that helps the brain make serotonin and dopamine, so called “chemical messengers” that help the cells in the brain communicate with each other. In his AADC clinical trial Dr. Bankiewicz and his team created a tiny opening in the skull and then inserted a functional copy of the AADC gene into two regions of the brain thought to have most benefit – the substantia nigra and ventral tegmental area of the brainstem.

Image showing target areas for AADC gene insertion: Courtesy UCSF

When the clinical trial began none of the seven children were able to sit up on their own, only two had any ability to control their head movement and just one could grasp an object in their hands. Six of the seven were described as moody or irritable and six suffered from insomnia.

In a news release Dr. Bankiewicz says the impact of the gene therapy was quite impressive: “Remarkably, these episodes were the first to disappear and they never returned. In the months that followed, many patients experienced life-changing improvements. Not only did they begin laughing and have improved mood, but some were able to start speaking and even walking.”

Those weren’t the only improvements, at the end of one year:

  • All seven children had better control of their head and body.
  • Four of the children were able to sit up by themselves.
  • Three patients could grasp and hold objects.
  • Two were able to walk with some support.

Two and a half years after the surgery:

  • One child was able to walk without any support.
  • One child could speak with a vocabulary of 50 words.
  • One child could communicate using an assistive device.

The parents also reported big improvements in mood and ability to sleep.

UCSF posted some videos of the children before and after the surgery and you can see for yourself the big difference in the children. It’s not a cure, but for families that had nothing in the past, it is a true gift.

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

CIRM funded trial may pave way for gene therapy to treat different diseases

Image Description: Jordan Janz (left) and Dr. Stephanie Cherqui (right)

According to the  National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD), a disease is consider rare if it affects fewer than 200,000 people. If you combine the over 7,000 known rare diseases, about 30 million people in the U.S. are affected by one of these conditions. A majority of these conditions have no cure or have very few treatment options, but a CIRM funded trial (approximately $12 million) for a rare pediatric disease has showed promising results in one patient using a gene therapy approach. The hope for the field as a whole is that this proof of concept might pave the way to use gene therapy to treat other diseases.

Cystinosis is a rare disease that primarily affects children and young adults, and leads to premature death, usually in early adulthood.  Patients inherit defective copies of a gene that results in abnormal accumulation of cystine (hence the name cystinosis) in all cells of the body.  This buildup of cystine can lead to multi-organ failure, with some of earliest and most pronounced effects on the kidneys, eyes, thyroid, muscle, and pancreas.  Many patients suffer end-stage kidney failure and severe vision defects in childhood, and as they get older, they are at increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, bone defects, and neuromuscular problems.  There is currently a drug treatment for cystinosis, but it only delays the progression of the disease, has severe side effects, and is expensive.

Dr. Stephane Cherqui at UC San Diego (UCSD), in partnership with AVROBIO, is conducting a clinical trial that uses a gene therapy approach to modify a patient’s own blood stem cells with a functional version of the defective gene. The corrected stem cells are then reintroduced into the patient with the hope that they will give rise to blood cells that will reduce cystine buildup in the body.  

22 year old Jordan Janz was born with cystinosis and was taking anywhere from 40 to 60 pills a day as part of his treatment. Unfortunately the medication affected his body odor, leaving him smelling like rotten eggs or stinky cheese. In 2019, Jordan was the first of three patients to participate in Dr. Cherqui’s trial and the results have been remarkable. Tests have shown that the cystine in his eyes, skin and muscle have greatly decreased. Instead of the 40-60 pills a day, he just takes vitamins and specific nutrients his body needs. What’s more is that he no longer has a problem with body odor caused by the pills he once had to take. Although it will take much more time know if Jordan was cured of the disease, he says that he feels “essentially cured”.

In an article from the Associated Press, Jordan is optimistic about his future.

“I have more of a life now. I’m going to school. I’m hoping to open up my own business one day.”

You can learn more about Jordan by watching the video below:

Although gene therapy approaches still need to be closely studied, they have enormous potential for treating patients. CIRM has funded other clinical trials that use gene therapy approaches for different genetic diseases including X-SCID, ADA-SCID, ART-SCID, X-CGD, and sickle cell disease.