Bubble baby treatment cleared to restart clinical trial

Evie Vaccaro: Photo courtesy Nancy Ramos

Three families battling a life-threatening immune disorder got some great news last week. A clinical trial that could save the life of their child has once again been given the go-ahead by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The clinical trial is the work of UCLA’s Dr. Don Kohn, and was strongly supported by CIRM. It is targeting ADA-SCID, a condition where the child is born without a functioning immune system so even a simple infection could prove fatal. In the past they were called “bubble babies” because some had been placed inside sterile plastic bubbles to protect them from germs.

Dr. Kohn’s approach – using the patient’s own blood stem cells, modified in the lab to correct the genetic mutation that causes the problem – had shown itself to be amazingly effective.  In a study in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, the researchers showed that of 50 patients treated all had done well and 97 percent were considered cured.

UCLA licensed the therapy to Orchard Therapeutics, who planned to complete the testing needed to apply for permission to make it more widely available. But Orchard ran into problems and shelved the therapy.

After lengthy negotiations Orchard returned the therapy to UCLA last year and now the FDA has given clearance for UCLA to resume treating patients. That is expected to start early next year using CIRM funds left over when Orchard halted its work.

One of the people who played a big role in helping persuade Orchard to return the therapy to UCLA is Alysia Vaccaro. She is the mother of Evie, a child born with ADA-SCID who was cured by Dr. Kohn and his team and is now a thriving 9 year old.

You can watch an interview we did with Alysia about the impact this research has had on her family, and how important it is for other families with ADA-SCID kids.

Making transplants easier for kids, and charting a new approach to fighting solid tumors.

Every year California performs around 100 kidney transplants in children but, on average, around 50 of these patients will have their body reject the transplant. These children then have to undergo regular dialysis while waiting for a new organ. Even the successful transplants require a lifetime of immunosuppression medications. These medications can prevent rejection but they also increase the risk of infection, gastrointestinal disease, pancreatitis and cancer.

Dr. Alice Bertaina and her team at Stanford University were awarded $11,998,188 to test an approach that uses combined blood stem cell (HSC) and kidney transplantation with the goal to improve outcomes with kidney transplantation in children. This approach seeks to improve on the blood stem cell preparation through an immune-based purification process.

In this approach, the donor HSC are transplanted into the patient in order to prepare for the acceptance of the donor kidney once transplanted. Donor HSC give rise to cells and conditions that re-train the immune system to accept the kidney. This creates a “tolerance” to the transplanted kidney providing the opportunity to avoid long-term need for medications that suppress the immune system.

Pre-clinical data support the idea that this approach could enable the patient to stop taking any immunosuppression medications within 90 days of the surgery.

Dr. Maria T. Millan, President and CEO of CIRM, a former pediatric transplant surgeon and tolerance researcher states that “developing a way to ensure long-term success of organ transplantation by averting immune rejection while avoiding the side-effects of life-long immunosuppression medications would greatly benefit these children.”

The CIRM Board also awarded $7,141,843 to Dr. Ivan King and Tachyon Therapeutics, Inc to test a drug showing promise in blocking the proliferation of cancer stem cells in solid tumors such as colorectal and gastrointestinal cancer.

Patients with late-stage colorectal cancer are typically given chemotherapy to help stop or slow down the progression of the disease. However, even with this intervention survival rates are low, usually not more than two years.

Tachyon’s medication, called TACH101, is intended to target colorectal cancer (CRC) stem cells as well as the bulk tumor by blocking an enzyme called KDM4, which cancer stem cells need to grow and proliferate.

In the first phase of this trial Dr. King and his team will recruit patients with advanced or metastatic solid tumors to assess the safety of TACH101, and determine what is the safest maximum dose. In the second phase of the trial, patients with gastrointestinal tumors and colorectal cancer will be treated using the dose determined in the first phase, to determine how well the tumors respond to treatment.  

The CIRM Board also awarded $5,999,919 to Dr. Natalia Gomez-Ospina and her team at Stanford University for a late-stage preclinical program targeting Severe Mucopolysaccharidosis type 1, also known as Hurler syndrome. This is an inherited condition caused by a faulty gene. Children with Hurler syndrome lack an enzyme that the body needs to digest sugar. As a result, undigested sugar molecules build up in the body, causing progressive damage to the brain, heart, and other organs. There is no effective treatment and life expectancy for many of these children is only around ten years.

Dr. Gomez-Ospina will use the patient’s own blood stem cells that have been genetically edited to restore the missing enzyme. The goal of this preclinical program is to show the team can manufacture the needed cells, to complete safety studies and to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration for an Investigational New Drug (IND), the authorization needed to begin a clinical trial in people.

Finally the Board awarded $20,401,260 to five programs as part of its Translational program. The goal of the Translational program is to support promising stem cell-based or gene projects that accelerate completion of translational stage activities necessary for advancement to clinical study or broad end use. Those can include therapeutic candidates, diagnostic methods  or devices and novel tools that address critical bottlenecks in research.

The successful applicants are:

APPLICATIONTITLEPRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR – INSTITUTIONAMOUNT  
TRAN4-14124Cell Villages and Clinical Trial in a Dish with Pooled iPSC-CMs for Drug DiscoveryNikesh Kotecha — Greenstone Biosciences  $1,350,000
TRAN1-14003Specific Targeting Hypoxia Metastatic Breast Tumor with Allogeneic Off-the-Shelf Anti-EGFR CAR NK Cells Expressing an ODD domain of HIF-1αJianhua Yu — Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope  $6,036,002  
TRAN1-13983CRISPR/Cas9-mediated gene editing of Hematopoietic
stem and progenitor cells for Friedreich’s ataxia
Stephanie Cherqui — University of California, San Diego  $4,846,579
TRAN1-13997Development of a Gene Therapy for the Treatment of
Pitt Hopkins Syndrome (PHS) – Translating from Animal Proof of Concept to Support Pre-IND Meeting
Allyson Berent — Mahzi Therapeutics  $4,000,000
TRAN1-13996Overcoming resistance to standard CD19-targeted CAR
T using a novel triple antigen targeted vector
William J Murphy — University of California, Davis  $4,168,679

A timeless message about stem cells

Dr. Daniel Kota

The world of stem cell research is advancing rapidly, with new findings and discoveries seemingly every week. And yet some things that we knew years ago are still every bit as relevant today as they were then.

Take for example a TEDx talk by Dr. Daniel Kota, a stem cell researcher and the Director, Cellular Therapy – Research and Development at Houston Methodist.

Dr. Kota’s talk is entitled: “Promises and Dangers of Stem Cell Therapies”. In it he talks about the tremendous potential of stem cells to reverse the course of disease and help people battle previously untreatable conditions.

But he also warns about the gap between what the science can do, and what people believe it can do. He says too many people have unrealistic expectations of what is available right now, fueled by many unscrupulous snake oil salesmen who open clinics and offer “treatments” that are both unproven and unapproved by the Food and Drug Administration.

He says we need to “bridge the gap between stem cell science and society” so that people have a more realistic appreciation of what stem cells can do.

Sadly, as the number of clinics peddling these unproven therapies grows in the US, Dr. Kota’s message remains all too timely.

Sweet 16 and counting for stem cell clinical trial

Dr. Judy Shizuru: Photo courtesy Jasper Therapeutics

Over the years the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has invested a lot in helping children born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a fatal immune disorder. And we have seen great results with some researchers reporting a 95 percent success rate in curing these children.

Now there’s more encouraging news from a CIRM-funded clinical trial with Jasper Therapeutics. They have announced that they have tested their approach in 16 patients, with encouraging results and no serious adverse events.

Let’s back up a little. Children born with SCID have no functioning immune system, so even a simple infection can prove life threatening. Left untreated, children with SCID often die in the first few years of life. Several of the approaches CIRM has funded use the child’s own blood stem cells to help fix the problem. But at Jasper Therapeutics they are using another approach. They use a bone marrow or hematopoietic stem cell transplant (HCT).   This replaces the child’s own blood supply with one that is free of the SCID mutation, which helps restore their immune system.

However, there’s a problem. Most bone marrow transplants use chemotherapy or radiation to destroy the patient’s own unhealthy blood stem cells and make room for the new, healthy ones. It can be effective, but it is also toxic and complex and can only be performed by specialized teams in major medical centers, making access particularly difficult for poor and underserved communities.

To get around that problem Jasper Therapeutics is using an antibody called JSP191 – developed with CIRM funding – that directs the patient’s own immune cells to kill diseased blood stem cells, creating room to transplant new, healthy cells. To date the therapy has already been tested in 16 SCID patients.

In addition to treating 16 patients treated without any apparent problems,  Jasper has also been granted Fast Track Designation by the US Food and Drug Administration. This can help speed up the review of treatments that target serious unmet conditions. They’ve also been granted both Orphan and Rare Pediatric Disease designations. Orphan drug designation qualifies sponsors for incentives such as tax credits for clinical trials. Rare Pediatric Disease designation means that if the FDA does eventually approve JSP191, then Jasper can apply to receive a priority review of an application to use the product for a different disease, such as someone who is getting a bone marrow transplant for sickle cell disease or severe auto immune diseases.

In a news release, Ronald Martell, President and CEO of Jasper Therapeutics said:

“The FDA’s Fast Track designation granted for JSP191 in Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) reinforces the large unmet medical need for patients with this serious disease. Along with its previous designations of Orphan and Rare Pediatric Disease for JSP191, the FDA’s Fast Track recognizes JSP191’s potential role in improving clinical outcomes for SCID patients, many of whom are too fragile to tolerate the toxic chemotherapy doses typically used in a transplant.”

CIRM Board Approves Funding for New Clinical Trial Targeting Brain Tumors

The governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has awarded almost $12 million to carry out a clinical trial targeting brain tumors.

This brings the total number of CIRM funded clinical trials to 83.  

$11,999,984 was awarded to Dr. Jana Portnow at the Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope. They are using Neural stem cells (NSCs) as a form of delivery vehicle to carry a cancer-killing virus that specifically targets brain tumor cells.

Glioblastoma is the most common malignant primary brain tumor in adults and each year about 12,000 Americans are diagnosed. The 5-year survival rate is only about 10%.

The current standard of care involves surgically removing the tumor followed by radiation, chemotherapy, and alternating electric field therapy. Despite these treatments, survival remains low.

The award to Dr. Portnow will fund a clinical trial to assess the safety and effectiveness of this stem cell-based treatment for Glioblastoma.

The Board also awarded $3,111,467 to Dr. Boris Minev of Calidi Biotherapeutics. This award is in the form of a CLIN1 grant, with the goal of completing the testing needed to apply to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permission to start a clinical trial in people.

This project uses donor fat-derived mesenchymal stem cells that have been loaded with oncolytic virus to target metastatic melanoma, triple negative breast cancer, and advanced head & neck squamous cell carcinoma.

“There are few options for patients with advanced solid tumor cancers such as glioblastoma, melanoma, breast cancer, and head & neck cancer,” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., President and CEO of CIRM. “Surgical resection, chemotherapy and radiation are largely  ineffective in advanced cases and survival typically is measured in months. These new awards will support novel approaches to address the unmet medical needs of patients with these devastating cancers.”

The CIRM Board also voted to approve awarding $71,949,539 to expand the CIRM Alpha Clinics Network. The current network consists of six sites and the Board approved continued funding for those and added an additional three sites. The funding is to last five years.

The goal of the Alpha Clinics award is to expand existing capacities for delivering stem cell, gene therapies and other advanced treatment to patients. They also serve as a competency hub for regenerative medicine training, clinical research, and the delivery of approved treatments.

Each applicant was required to submit a plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to support and facilitate outreach and study participation by underserved and disproportionately affected populations in the clinical trials they serve.

The successful applicants are:

ApplicationProgram TitleInstitution/Principal InvestigatorAmount awarded
INFR4-13579The Stanford Alpha Stem Cell ClinicStanford University – Matthew Porteus  $7,997,246  
INFR4-13581UCSF Alpha Stem Cell ClinicU.C. San Francisco – Mark Walters  $7,994,347  
INFR4-13586A comprehensive stem cell and gene therapy clinic to
advance new therapies for a diverse patient
population in California  
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center – Michael Lewis  $7,957,966    
INFR4-13587The City of Hope Alpha Clinic: A roadmap for equitable and inclusive access to regenerative medicine therapies for all Californians  City of Hope – Leo Wang  $8,000,000
INFR4-13596Alpha Stem Cell Clinic for Northern and Central California  U.C. Davis – Mehrdad Abedi  $7,999,997  
INFR4-13685Expansion of the Alpha Stem Cell and Gene Therapy Clinic at UCLA  U.C. Los Angeles – Noah Federman  $8,000,000
INFR4-13878Alpha Clinic Network Expansion for Cell and Gene Therapies  University of Southern California – Thomas Buchanan  $7,999,983  
INFR4-13952A hub and spoke community model to equitably deliver regenerative medicine therapies to diverse populations across four California counties  U.C. Irvine – Daniela Bota  $8,000,000
INFR4-13597UC San Diego Health CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic  U.C. San Diego – Catriona Jamieson  $8,000,000

The Board also unanimously, and enthusiastically, approved the election of Maria Gonzalez Bonneville to be the next Vice Chair of the Board. Ms. Bonneville, the current Vice President of Public Outreach and Board Governance at CIRM, was nominated by all four constitutional officers: the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the Treasurer and the Controller.

In supporting the nomination, Board member Ysabel Duron said: “I don’t think we could do better than taking on Maria Gonzalez Bonneville as the Vice Chair. She is well educated as far as CIRM goes. She has a great track record; she is empathetic and caring and will be a good steward for the taxpayers to ensure the work we do serves them well.”

In her letter to the Board applying for the position, Ms. Bonneville said: “CIRM is a unique agency with a large board and a long history. With my institutional knowledge and my understanding of CIRM’s internal workings and processes, I can serve as a resource for the new Chair. I have worked hand-in-hand with both the Chair and Vice Chair in setting agendas, prioritizing work, driving policy, and advising accordingly.  I have worked hard to build trusted relationships with all of you so that I could learn and understand what areas were of the most interest and where I could help shed light on those particular programs or initiatives. I have also worked closely with Maria Millan for the last decade, and greatly enjoy our working relationship. In short, I believe I provide a level of continuity and expertise that benefits the board and helps in times of transition.”

In accepting the position Ms. Bonneville said: “I am truly honored to be elected as the Vice Chair for the CIRM Board. I have been a part of CIRM for 11 years and am deeply committed to the mission and this new role gives me an opportunity to help support and advance that work at an exciting time in the Agency’s life. There are many challenges ahead of us but knowing the Board and the CIRM team I feel confident we will be able to meet them, and I look forward to helping us reach our goals.”

Ms. Bonneville will officially take office in January 2023.

The vote for the new Chair of CIRM will take place at the Board meeting on December 15th.

Funding a Clinical Trial for a Functional Cure for HIV

The use of antiretroviral drugs has turned HIV/AIDS from a fatal disease to one that can, in many cases in the US, be controlled. But these drugs are not a cure. That’s why the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) voted to approve investing $6.85 million in a therapy that aims to cure the disease.

This is the 82nd clinical trial funded by CIRM.

There are approximately 38 million people worldwide living with HIV/AIDS. And each year there are an estimated 1.5 million new cases. The vast majority of those living with HIV do not have access to the life-saving antiretroviral medications that can keep the virus under control. People who do have access to the medications face long-term complications from them including heart disease, bone, liver and kidney problems, and changes in metabolism.

The antiretroviral medications are effective at reducing the viral load in people with HIV, but they don’t eliminate it. That’s because the virus that causes AIDS can integrate its DNA into long-living cells in the body and remain dormant. When people stop taking their medications the virus is able to rekindle and spread throughout the body.

Dr. William Kennedy and the team at Excision Bio Therapeutics have developed a therapeutic candidate called EBT-101. This is the first clinical study using the CRISPR-based platform for genome editing and excision of the latent form of HIV-1, the most common form of the virus that causes AIDS in the US and Europe. The goal is to eliminate or sufficiently reduce the hidden reservoirs of virus in the body to the point where the individual is effectively cured.

“To date only a handful of people have been cured of HIV/AIDS, so this proposal of using gene editing to eliminate the virus could be transformative,” says Dr. Maria Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “In California alone there are almost 140,000 people living with HIV. HIV infection continues to disproportionately impact marginalized populations, many of whom are unable to access the medications that keep the virus under control. A functional cure for HIV would have an enormous impact on these communities, and others around the world.”

In a news release announcing they had dosed the first patient, Daniel Dornbusch, CEO of Excision, called it a landmark moment. “It is the first time a CRISPR-based therapy targeting an infectious disease has been administered to a patient and is expected to enable the first ever clinical assessment of a multiplexed, in vivo gene editing approach. We were able to reach this watershed moment thanks to years of innovative work by leading scientists and physicians, to whom we are immensely grateful. With this achievement, Excision has taken a major step forward in developing a one-time treatment that could transform the HIV pandemic by freeing affected people from life-long disease management and the stigma of disease.”

The Excision Bio Therapeutics team also scored high on their plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Reviewers praised them for adding on a partnering organization to provide commitments to serve underserved populations, and to engaging a community advisory board to help guide their patient recruitment.

CIRM has already invested almost $81 million in 20 projects targeting HIV/AIDS, including four clinical trials.

Fast Track Designation for a therapy making transplants safer for children with a fatal immune disorder

Bone marrow transplant

For children born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) life can be very challenging. SCID means they have no functioning immune system, so even a simple infection can prove life threatening. Left untreated, children with SCID often die in the first few years of life.

There are stem cell/gene therapies funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), such as ones at UCLA and UCSF/St. Judes, but an alternative method of treating, and even curing the condition, is a bone marrow or hematopoietic stem cell transplant (HCT). This replaces the child’s blood supply with one that is free of the SCID mutation, which helps restore their immune system.

However, current HCT methods involve the use of chemotherapy or radiation to destroy the patient’s own unhealthy blood stem cells and make room for the new, healthy ones. This approach is toxic and complex and can only be performed by specialized teams in major medical centers, making access particularly difficult for poor and underserved communities.

To change that, Dr. Judy Shizuru at Stanford University, with CIRM funding, developed an antibody that can direct the patient’s own immune cells to kill diseased blood stem cells, creating the room needed to transplant new, healthy cells. The goal was to make stem cell transplants safer and more effective for the treatment of many life-threatening blood disorders.

That approach, JSP191, is now being championed by Jasper Therapeutics and they just got some very good news from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA has granted JSP191 Fast Track Designation, which can speed up the review of therapies designed to treat serious conditions and fill unmet medical needs.

In a news release, Ronald Martell, President and CEO of Jasper Therapeutics, said this is good news for the company and patients: “This new Fast Track designation recognizes the potential role of JSP191 in improving clinical outcomes for these patients and will allow us to more closely work with the FDA in the upcoming months to determine a path toward a Biologics License Application (BLA) submission.”

Getting a BLA means Jasper will be able to market the antibody in the US and make it available to all those who need it.

This is the third boost from the FDA for Jasper. Previously the agency granted JSP191 both Orphan and Rare Pediatric Disease designations. Orphan drug designation qualifies sponsors for incentives such as tax credits for clinical trials. Rare Pediatric Disease designation means that if the FDA does eventually approve JSP191, then Jasper can apply to receive a priority review of an application to use the product for a different disease, such as someone who is getting a bone marrow transplant for sickle cell disease or severe auto immune diseases.

How stem cells helped Veronica fight retinitis pigmentosa and regain her vision

Veronica and Elliott

Growing up Veronica McDougall thought everyone saw the world the way she did; blurry, slightly out-of-focus and with tunnel vision.  As she got older her sight got worse and even the strongest prescription glasses didn’t help. When she was 15 her brother tried teaching her to drive. One night she got into the driver’s seat to practice and told him she couldn’t see anything. Everything was just black. After that she stopped driving.   

Veronica says high school was really hard for her, but she managed to graduate and go to community college. As her vision deteriorated, she found it was increasingly hard to read the course work and impossible to see the assignments on the blackboard. Veronica says she was lucky to have some really supportive teachers — including the now First Lady Jill Biden — but eventually she had to drop out.  

Getting a diagnosis

When she was 24, she went to see a specialist who told her she had retinitis pigmentosa, a rare degenerative condition that would eventually leave her legally blind. She says it felt like a death sentence. “All of my dreams of becoming a nurse, of getting married, of having children, of traveling – it all just shattered in that moment.” 

Veronica says she went from being a happy, positive person to an angry depressed one. She woke up each morning terrified, wondering, “Is this the day I go blind?” 

Then her mother learned about a CIRM-funded clinical trial with a company called jCyte. Veronica applied to be part of it, was accepted and was given an injection of stem cells in her left eye. She says over the course of a few weeks, her vision steadily improved. 

“About a month after treatment, I was riding in the car with my mom and suddenly, I realized I could see her out of the corner of my eye while looking straight ahead. That had never, ever happened to me before. Because, I had been losing my peripheral vision at a young age without realizing that until up to that point, I had never had that experience.” 

A second chance at life

She went back to college, threw herself into her studies, started hiking and being more active. She says it was as if she was reborn. But in her senior year, just as she was getting close to finishing her degree, her vision began to deteriorate again. Fortunately, she was able to take part in a second clinical trial, and this time her vision came back stronger than ever. 

“I’m so grateful to the researchers who gave me my sight back with the treatment they have worked their entire lives to develop. I am forever grateful for the two opportunities to even receive these two injections and to be a part of an amazing experience to see again. I feel so blessed! Thank you for giving me my life back.” 

And in getting her life back, Veronica had a chance to give life. When she was at college she met and starting dating Robert, the man who was to become her partner. They now have a little boy, Elliott.  

As for the future, Veronica hopes to get a second stem cell therapy to improve her vision even further. Veronica’s two treatments were in her left eye. She is hoping that the Food and Drug Administration will one day soon approve jCyte’s therapy, so that she can get the treatment in her right eye. Then, she says, she’ll be able to see the world as the rest of us can.  

CIRM has invested more than $150 million in programs targeting vision loss, including four clinical trials for retinitis pigmentosa

The present and future of regenerative medicine

One of the great pleasures of my job is getting to meet the high school students who take part in our SPARK or Summer Internship to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge program. It’s a summer internship for high school students where they get to spend a couple of months working in a world class stem cell and gene therapy research facility. The students, many of whom go into the program knowing very little about stem cells, blossom and produce work that is quite extraordinary.

One such student is Tan Ieng Huang, who came to the US from China for high school. During her internship at U.C. San Francisco she got to work in the lab of Dr. Arnold Kriegstein. He is the Founding Director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of California, San Francisco. Not only did she work in his lab, she took the time to do an interview with him about his work and his thoughts on the field.

It’s a fascinating interview and shows the creativity of our SPARK students. You will be seeing many other examples of that creativity in the coming weeks. But for now, enjoy the interview with someone who is a huge presence in the field today, by someone who may well be a huge presence in the not too distant future.

‘a tête-à-tête with Prof. Arnold Kriegstein’

The Kriegstein lab team: Photo courtesy UCSF

Prof. Arnold Kriegstein is the Founding Director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of California, San Francisco. Prof. Kriegstein is also the Co-Founder and Scientific Advisor of Neurona Therapeutics which seeks to provide effective and safe cell therapies for chronic brain disorder. A Clinician by training, Prof. Kriegstein has been fascinated by the intricate workings of the human brain. His laboratory focuses on understanding the transcriptional and signaling networks active during brain development, the diversity of neuronal cell types, and their fate potential. For a long time, he has been interested in harnessing this potential for translational and therapeutic intervention.

During my SEP internship I had the opportunity to work in the Kriegstein lab. I was in complete awe. I am fascinated by the brain. During the course of two months, I interacted with Prof. Kriegstein regularly, in lab meetings and found his ideas deeply insightful. Here’s presenting some excerpts from some of our discussions, so that it reaches many more people seeking inspiration!

Tan Ieng Huang (TH): Can you share a little bit about your career journey as a scientist?

Prof. Arnold Kriegstein (AK): I wanted to be a doctor when I was very young, but in high school I started having some hands-on research experience. I just loved working in the lab. From then on, I was thinking of combining those interests and an MD/PhD turned out to be an ideal course for me. That was how I started, and then I became interested in the nervous system. Also, when I was in high school, I spent some time one summer at Rockefeller University working on a project that involved operant conditioning in rodents and I was fascinated by behavior and the role of the brain in learning and memory. That happened early on, and turned into an interest in cortical development and with time, that became my career.

TH: What was your inspiration growing up, what made you take up medicine as a career?

AK: That is a little hard to say, I have an identical twin brother. He and I used to always share activities, do things together. And early on we actually became eagle scouts, sort of a boy scout activity in a way. In order to become an eagle scout without having to go through prior steps, we applied to a special program that the scouts had, which allowed us to shadow physicians in a local hospital. I remember doing that at a very young age. It was a bit ironic, because one of the evenings, they showed us films of eye surgery, and my brother actually fainted when they made an incision in the eye. The reason it makes me laugh now is because my brother became an eye surgeon many years later. But I remember our early experience, we both became very fascinated by medicine and medical research.

Tan Ieng and Dr. Arnold Kriegstein at UCSF

TH: What inspired you to start the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research Institute?

AK: My interest in brain development over the years became focused on earlier stages of development and eventually Neurogenesis, you know, how neurons are actually generated during early stages of in utero brain development. In the course of doing that we discovered that the radial glial cells, which have been thought for decades to simply guide neurons as they migrate, turned out to actually be the neural stem cells, they were making the neurons and also guiding them toward the cortex. So, they were really these master cells that had huge importance and are now referred to as neural stem cells. But at that time, it was really before the stem cell field took off. But because we studied neurogenesis, because I made some contributions to understanding how the brain develops from those precursors or progenitor cells, when the field of stem cells developed, it was very simple for me to identify as someone who studied neural stem cells. I became a neural stem cell scientist. I started a neural stem cell program at Columbia University when I was a Professor there and raised 15 million dollars to seed the program and hired new scientists. It was shortly after that I was approached to join UCSF as the founder of a new stem cell program. And it was much broader than the nervous system; it was a program that covered all the different tissues and organ systems.

TH: Can you tell us a little bit about how stem cell research is contributing to the treatment of diseases? How far along are we in terms of treatments?

AK: It’s taken decades, but things are really starting to reach the clinic now. The original work was basic discovery done in research laboratories, now things are moving towards the clinic. It’s a really very exciting time. Initially the promise of stem cell science was called Regenerative medicine, the idea of replacing injured or worn-out tissues or structures with new cells and new tissues, new organs, the form of regeneration was made possible by understanding that there are stem cells that can be tweaked to actually help make new cells and tissues. Very exciting process, but in fact the main progress so far hasn’t been replacing worn out tissues and injured cells, but rather understanding diseases using human based model of disease. That’s largely because of the advent of induced pluripotent stem cells, a way of using stem cells to make neurons or heart cells or liver cells in the laboratory, and study them both in normal conditions during development and in disease states. Those platforms which are relatively easy to make now and are pretty common all over the world allow us to study human cells rather than animal cells, and the hope is that by doing that we will be able to produce conventional drugs and treatments that work much better than ones we had in the past, because they will be tested in actual human cells rather than animal cells.

TH: That is a great progress and we have started using human models because even though there are similarities with animal models, there are still many species-specific differences, right?

AK: Absolutely, in fact, one of the big problems now in Big Pharma, you know the drug companies, is that they invest millions and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars in research programs that are based on successes in treating mice, but patients don’t respond the same way. So the hope is that by starting with a treatment that works on human cells it might be more likely that the treatment will work on human patients.

TH: What are your thoughts on the current challenges and future of stem cell research?

AK: I think this is an absolute revolution in modern medicine, the advent of two things that are happening right now, first the use of induced pluripotent stem cells, the ability to make pluripotent cells from adult tissue or cells from an individual allows us to use models of diseases that I mentioned earlier from actual patients. That’s one major advance. And the other is gene editing, and the combination of gene editing and cell-based discovery science allows us to think of engineering cells in ways that can make them much more effective as a form of cell therapy and those cell therapies have enormous promise. Right now, they are being used to treat cancer, but in the future, they might be able to treat heart attack, dementia, neurodegenerative diseases, ALS, Parkinson’s disease, a huge list of disorders that are untreatable right now or incurable. They might be approached by the combination of cell-based models, cell therapies, and gene editing.

TH: I know there are still some challenges right now, like gene editing has some ethical issues because people don’t know if there can be side effects after the gene editing, what are your thoughts?

AK: You know, like many other technologies there are uncertainties, and there are some issues. Some of the problems are off-target effects, that is you try to make a change in one particular gene, and while doing that you might change other genes in unexpected ways and cause complications. But we are understanding that more and more now and can make much more precise gene editing changes in just individual genes without affecting unanticipated areas of the genome. And then there are also the problems of how to gene-edit cells in a safe way. There are certain viral factors that can be used to introduce the gene editing apparatus into a cell, and sometimes if you are doing that in a patient, you can also have unwanted side effects from the vectors that you are using, often they are modified viral vectors. So, things get complicated very quickly when you start trying to treat patients, but I think these are all tractable problems and I think in time they will all be solved. It will be a terrific, very promising future when it comes to treating patients who are currently untreatable.

TH: Do you have any advice for students who want to get into this field?

AK: Yes, I think it’s actually never been a better time and I am amazed by the technologies that are available now. Gene editing that I mentioned before but also single cell approaches, the use of single cell multiomics revealing gene expression in individual cells, the molecular understanding of how individual cells are formed, how they are shaped, how they change from one stage to another, how they can be forced into different fates. It allows you to envision true Regenerative medicine, improving health by healing or replacing injured or diseased tissues. I think this is becoming possible now, so it’s a very exciting time. Anyone who has an interest in stem cell biology or new ways of treating diseases, should think about getting into a laboratory or a clinical setting. I think this time is more exciting than it’s ever been.

TH: So excited to hear that, because in school we have limited access to the current knowledge, the state-of-art. I want to know what motivates you every day to do Research and contribute to this field?

AK: Well, you know that I have been an MD/PhD, as I mentioned before, in a way, there are two different reward systems at play. In terms of the PhD and the science, it’s the discovery part that is so exciting. Going in every day and thinking that you might learn something that no one has ever known before and have a new insight into a mechanism of how something happens, why it happens. Those kinds of new insights are terrifically satisfying, very exciting. On the MD side, the ability to help patients and improve peoples’ lives is a terrific motivator. I always wanted to do that, was very driven to become a Neurologist and treat both adult and pediatric patients with neurological problems. In the last decade or so, I’ve not been treating patients so much, and have focused on the lab, but we have been moving some of our discoveries from the laboratory into the clinic. We have just started a clinical trial, of a new cell-based therapy for epilepsy in Neurona Therapeutics, which is really exciting. I am hoping it will help the patients but it’s also a chance to actually see something that started out as a project in the laboratory become translated into a therapy for patients, so that’s an achievement that has really combined my two interests, basic science, and clinical medicine. It’s a little late in life but not too late, so I’m very excited about that.

Tan Ieng Huang, Kriegstein Lab, SEP Intern, CIRM Spark Program 2022

Why people seek out unproven and potentially unsafe stem cell treatments

Every day I field phone calls and emails from people looking for a stem cell therapy to help them cope with everything from arthritis to cancer. Often, they will mention that they saw an ad for a clinic online or in a local newspaper claiming they had stem cell therapies that could help fix anything and asking me if they are legitimate.

Even after I try to explain that the therapies these clinics are offering haven’t been tested in a clinical trial and that there’s scant evidence to show they are even safe let alone effective, I know that a good chunk of the callers are going to try them anyway.

Now a survey by the Mayo Clinic takes a deeper dive into why people are willing to put science aside and open up their wallets to go to predatory stem cell clinics for so-called “therapies”.

Dr. Zubin Master. Photo courtesy Mayo Clinic

In a news release Dr. Zubin Master, a co-author of the study, says many patients are lured in by hype and hope.

“We learned that many patients interested in stem cells had beliefs that are not supported by current medical evidence. For example, many thought stem cells were better than surgery or the standard of care.”

The survey asked 533 people, who had approached the Mayo Clinic’s Regenerative Medicine Therapeutic Suites for a consultation about arthritis or musculoskeletal problems, three questions.

  • Why are you interested in stem cell treatment for your condition?
  • How did you find out about stem cell treatment for your condition?
  • Have you contacted a stem cell clinic?

A whopping 46 percent of those who responded said they thought stem cell therapy would help them avoid or at least delay having to get a hip or knee replacement, or that it was a better option than surgery. Another 26 percent said they thought it would ease the pain of an arthritic joint.

The fact that there is little or no evidence to support any of these beliefs didn’t seem to matter. Most people say they got their information about these “therapies” online or by talking to friends and family.

These “therapies” aren’t cheap either. They can cost thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars, and that comes out of the patient’s pocket because none of this is covered by insurance. Yet every year people turn to these bogus clinics because they don’t like the alternatives, mainly surgery.

There is a lot of promising stem cell research taking place around the US trying to find real scientific solutions to arthritic joints and other problems. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has invested almost $24 million in this research. But until those approaches have proven themselves effective and, hopefully, been approved for wider use by the Food and Drug Administration, CIRM and other agencies will have to keep repeating a message many people just don’t want to hear, that these therapies are not yet ready for prime time.