Identifying the visually impaired patients most likely to benefit from jCyte’s stem cell therapy

We have written about jCyte many times on The Stem Cellar. For one reason, they are showing really encouraging results in their treatment for retinitis pigmentosa (RP). And now they have taken an even deeper dive into those results and identified which patients may be most likely to benefit from the therapy.

RP is a rare genetic disorder that slowly destroys the rods and cones, the light sensing cells in the back of the eye. If you look at the image below the one on the left shows normal vision, the one on the right shows what happens with RP. At first you start to lose night vision, then other parts of your vision are slowly eroded until you are legally blind.

RP starts early, often people are diagnosed in their teens and are legally blind by middle age. There is no treatment, no cure. It’s estimated that as many as 100,000 people in the US have RP, as many as two million worldwide.

That’s where jCyte comes in. They developed jCell, a therapy using adult stem cells that have been changed into human retinal progenitor cells (hRPCs). These are injected into the back of the eye where they secrete small proteins called neurotrophic factors.

Dr. Henry Klassen, one of the founders of jCyte, says jCell works by preserving the remaining photoreceptors in the eye, and helping them bounce back.

“Typically, people think about the disease as a narrowing of this peripheral vision in a very nice granular way, but that’s actually not what happens. What happens in the disease is that patients lose like islands of vision. So, what we’re doing in our tests is actually measuring […] islands that the patients have at baseline, and then what we’re seeing after treatment is that the islands are expanding. It’s similar to the way that one would track, let’s say a tumor, in oncology of course we’re looking for the opposite effect. We’re looking for the islands of vision to expand.”

And in patients treated with jCell those islands of vision did expand. The team followed patients for one-year post treatment and found that patients given the highest dose, six million cells, experienced the biggest improvement and were able to read, on average, 16 more letters on a standard eye chart than they had been before treatment. In comparison people given a sham or placebo treatment only had an improvement of less than two letters.

This group also experienced improvements in their peripheral vision, their ability to distinguish objects in the foreground from the background and were better able to get around in low light.

But that’s not all. Dr. Sunil Srivastava, with the Cleveland Clinic Cole Eye Institute, did a detailed analysis of patients treated in the trial and identified central foveal thickness (CFT- the part of the eye located in the center of the retina) as an important marker for who would be most likely to benefit from jCell. People who started out with a higher CFT score were most likely to get the biggest benefits.

In a news release, jCyte CEO Dr. Shannon Blalock said the findings are really encouraging: “We look forward to working closely with our scientific advisory board and principal investigators to apply these key learnings to our upcoming pivotal study of jCell to optimize its probability of success in an effort to advance the clinical development program of our RMAT designated therapy for RP patients who currently have no treatment options.”

Hitting our Goals: Accelerating to the finish line

Way, way back in 2015 – seems like a lifetime ago doesn’t it – the team at CIRM sat down and planned out our Big 6 goals for the next five years. The end result was a Strategic Plan that was bold, ambitious and set us on course to do great things or kill ourselves trying. Well, looking back we can take some pride in saying we did a really fine job, hitting almost every goal and exceeding them in some cases. So, as we plan our next five-year Strategic Plan we thought it worthwhile to look back at where we started and what we achieved. Goal #6 was Accelerate.

Ever wonder how long it takes for a drug or therapy to go from basic research to approval by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)? Around 12 years on average is the answer. That’s a long time. And it can take even longer for stem cell therapies to go that same distance.

There are a lot of reasons why it takes so long (safety being a hugely important element) but when we were sitting down in 2015 to put together our Strategic Plan we wanted to find a way to speed up that process, to go faster, without in any way reducing the focus on safety.

So, we set a goal of reducing the time it takes from identifying a stem cell therapy candidate to getting an Investigational New Drug (IND) approval from the FDA, which means it can be tested in a clinical trial. At the time it was taking us around eight years, so we decided to go big and try to reduce that time in half, to four years.

Then the question was how were we going to do that? Well, before we set the goal we did a tour of the major biomedical research institutions in California – you know, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) UC San Francisco, Stanford etc. – and asked the researchers what would help them most. Almost without exception said “a clearing house”, a way to pair early stage investigators with later stage partners who possess the appropriate expertise and interest to advance the project to the next stage of development, e.g., helping a successful basic science investigator find a qualified partner for the project’s translational research phase.

So we set out to do that. But we didn’t stop there. We also created what we called Clinical Advisory Panels or CAPs. These consisted of a CIRM Science Officer with expertise on a particular area of research, an expert on the kind of research being done, and a Patient Representative. The idea was that CAPs would help guide and advise the research team, helping them overcome specific obstacles and get ready for a clinical trial. The Patient Representative could help the researchers understand what the needs of the patient community was, so that a trial could take those into account and be more likely to succeed. For us it wasn’t enough just to fund promising research, we were determined to do all we could to support the team behind the project to advance their work.

How did we do. Pretty good I would have to say. For our Translational stage projects, the average amount of time it took for them to move to the CLIN1 stage, the last stage before a clinical trial, was 4.18 years. For our CLIN1 programs, 73 percent of those achieved their IND within 2 years, meaning they were then ready to actually start an FDA-sanctioned clinical trial.

Of course moving fast doesn’t guarantee that the therapy will ultimately prove effective. But for an agency whose mission is “to accelerate stem cell therapies to patients with unmet medical needs”, going slow is not an option.

Regulated, Reputable and Reliable: FDA’s Taking Additional Steps to Advance Safe and Effective Regenerative Medicine Products

Peter Marks, M.D., Ph.D., Director, Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research

In February 2020, CIRM presented a series of benchmarks for the responsible delivery of stem cell and regenerative medicine products. These benchmarks are outlined in the publication Regulated, reliable and reputable: Protect patients with uniform standards for stem cell treatments. In a nutshell, CIRM advocates for the delivery of regenerative medicine products in a context where:

  • The product is authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is overseen by an IRB or ethics board,
  • The treatment is delivered by qualified doctors, nurses, and technicians,
  • Treatment occurs at a clinical treatment center with expertise in regenerative medicine, and
  • There is ongoing monitoring and follow-up of patients.

On April 21 of 2021, Dr. Peter Marks, Director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, indicated the FDA’s intent to ensure new regenerative medicine products are FDA-authorized. Specifically, the FDA will require product developers to obtain an Investigational New Drug or IND authorization. In his news release Dr. Marks says the agency is willing to exercise more enforcement of these rules should clinics or therapy producers fail to follow these guidelines.

“These regenerative medicine products are not without risk and are often marketed by clinics as being safe and effective for the treatment of a wide range of diseases or conditions, even though they haven’t been adequately studied in clinical trials. We’ve said previously and want to reiterate here – there is no room for manufacturers, clinics, or health care practitioners to place patients at risk through products that violate the law, including by not having an IND in effect or an approved biologics license. We will continue to take action regarding unlawfully marketed products.”

IND authorization is particularly important as the agency pays close attention to how the product is produced and whether there is a scientific rationale and potential clinical evidence that it may be effective against the specific disease condition. All CIRM-funded clinical trials and all trials conducted in the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network must have IND authorization.

Regenerative medicine products are generally created from human cells or tissues. These products are frequently referred to as “living medicines.” The “living” nature of these products is what contributes to their remarkable potential to relieve, stop or reverse disease in a durable or sustainable manner.

The risk with unregulated products is that there is no assurance that they have been  produced in a quality controlled process or manner  where all components of the  injected material have been well characterized and studied for safety and efficacy for a given disease as well as a specific site in the body. In addition, there is no way to ensure that unregulated products meet standards or quality specifications such as ensuring that they have the active and beneficial component while making sure that they do not include harmful contaminants..  There have been documented examples of patients being severely injured by unregulated and inadequately characterized products. For example, in 2017 three Florida women were blinded by an unauthorized product.  Dr. George Daley, a stem cell expert and the Dean of Harvard Medical School, described the clinic operators as “charlatans peddling the modern equivalent of snake oil.”

To receive FDA authorization, detailed scientific data and well controlled clinical data are required to ensure safety and a demonstration that  the product is safe has the potential to improve or resolve the patient’s disease condition.

While it seems both important and self-evident that stem cell products be safe and effective and supported by evidence they can impact the patient’s disease condition, that doesn’t always happen. Unfortunately, too many patients have experienced unnecessary medical risks and financial harm from unauthorized treatments. CIRM applauds the FDA for taking additional steps to advance regenerative medicine products where the clinical benefits of such therapies outweigh any potential harms.

Hitting our goals: Making good progress

Way, way back in 2015 – seems like a lifetime ago doesn’t it – the team at CIRM sat down and planned out our Big 6 goals for the next five years. The end result was a Strategic Plan that was bold, ambitious and set us on course to do great things or kill ourselves trying. Well, looking back we can take some pride in saying we did a really fine job, hitting almost every goal and exceeding them in some cases. So, as we plan our next five-year Strategic Plan we thought it worthwhile to look back at where we started and what we achieved. Goal #5 was Advance.

A dictionary definition of progression is “The act of moving forward or proceeding in a course.” That’s precisely what we set out to do when we set one of the goals in our 2015 Strategic Plan. We wanted to do all that we could to make sure the work we were funding could advance to the next stage. The goal we set was:

Advance: Increase projects advancing to the next stage of development by 50%.

The first question we faced was what did we mean by progression and how were we going to measure it? The answer basically boiled down to this: when a CIRM award completes one stage of research and gets CIRM funding to move on to the next stage or to develop a second generation of the same device or therapy.

In the pre-2016 days we’d had some success, on average getting around nine progression events every year. But if we were going to increase that by 50 percent we knew we had to step up our game and offer some incentives so that the team behind a successful project had a reason, other than just scientific curiosity, to try and move their research to the next level.

So, we created a series of linkages between the different stages of research, so the product of each successful investment was the prerequisite for the next stage of development for the research or technology.

We changed the way we funded projects, going from offering awards on an irregular basis to having them happen according to a pre-defined schedule with each program type offered multiple times a year. This meant potential applicants knew when the next opportunity to apply would come, enabling them to prepare and file at the time that was best for them and not just because we said so. We also timed these schedules so that programs could progress from one stage to the next without interruption.

But that’s not all. We recognized that some people may be great scientists at one level but didn’t have the experience or expertise to carry their project forward. So, we created both an Accelerating Center and Translating Center to help them do that. The Translating Center helped projects do the work necessary to get ready to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permission to start a clinical trial. The Accelerating Center helped the team prepare that application for the trial and then plan how that trial would be carried out.

Creating these two centers had an additional benefit; it meant the work that did progress did so faster and was of a higher quality than it might otherwise have been.

Putting all those new building blocks in place meant a lot of work for the CIRM team, on top of their normal duties. But, as always, the team rose to the challenge. By the end of December 2020, a total of 74 projects had advanced or progressed to the next level, an increase of 100 percent on our pre-2016 days.

When we were laying out the goals we said that “The full implementation of these programs will create the chassis of a machine that provides a continuous, predictable, and timely pathway for the discovery and development of promising stem cell treatments.” Thanks to the voter approved Proposition 14 we now have the fund to help those treatments realize that promise.

Saying thanks and farewell to a friend

Tom Howing

In this job you get to meet a lot of remarkable people, none more so than the patients who volunteer to take part in what are giant experiments. They are courageous pioneers, willing to be among the first people to ever try a new therapy, knowing that it may not help them and, potentially, might even harm them.

Tom Howing was one such person. I got to know Tom when we were putting together our 2017 Annual Report. Back in 2015 Tom was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer that had spread throughout his body. He underwent surgery and chemotherapy. That worked for a while, but then the cancer returned. So, Tom had more surgery and chemotherapy. Again, it worked for a while but when the cancer returned again Tom was running out of options.

That’s when he learned about a clinical trial with a company called Forty Seven Inc. that was testing a new anti-cancer therapy that CIRM was supporting. Tom says he didn’t hesitate.

“When I was diagnosed with cancer I knew I had battle ahead of me. After the cancer came back again they recommended I try this CD47 clinical trial. I said absolutely, let’s give it a spin. I guess one is always a bit concerned whenever you put the adjective “experimental” in front of anything. But I’ve always been a very optimistic and positive person and have great trust and faith in my caregivers.”

Optimistic and positive are great ways to describe Tom. Happily, his optimism was rewarded. The therapy worked.

“Scans and blood tests came back showing that the cancer appears to be held in check. My energy level is fantastic. The treatment that I had is so much less aggressive than chemo, my quality of life is just outstanding.”

But after a year or so Tom had to drop out of the trial. He tried other therapies and they kept the cancer at bay. For a while. But it kept coming back. And eventually Tom ran out of options. And last week, he ran out of time.

Tom was a truly fine man. He was kind, caring, funny, gracious and always grateful for what he had. He talked often about his family and how the stem cell therapy helped him spend not just more time with them, but quality time.

He knew when he signed up for the therapy that there were no guarantees, but he wanted to try, saying that even if it didn’t help him that the researchers might learn something to help others down the line.

“The most important thing I would say is, I want people to know there is always hope and to stay positive.”

Tom ultimately lost his battle with cancer. But he never lost his spirit, his delight in his family and his desire to keep going as long as he could. In typical Tom fashion he preferred to put his concerns aside and cheer others along.

“To all those people who are putting in all the hours at the bench and microscope, it’s important for them to know that they are making a huge impact on the lives of real people and they should celebrate it and revel in it and take great pride in it.”

We consider ourselves fortunate to have known Tom and to have been with him on part of his journey. He touched our lives, as he touched the lives of so many others. Our thoughts and wishes go out to his family and friends. He will be remembered, because we never forget our friends.

A few years ago Tom came and talked to the CIRM Board. Here is the video of that event.

Hitting our Goals: Playing Matchmaker

Way, way back in 2015 – seems like a lifetime ago doesn’t it – the team at CIRM sat down and planned out our Big 6 goals for the next five years. The end result was a Strategic Plan that was bold, ambitious and set us on course to do great things or kill ourselves trying. Well, looking back we can take some pride in saying we did a really fine job, hitting almost every goal and exceeding them in some cases. So, as we plan our next five-year Strategic Plan we thought it worthwhile to look back at where we started and what we achieved. Goal #3 was Partner.

In the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” two of the daughters sing about their hopes of finding a husband, through the services of a matchmaker:

Matchmaker, Matchmaker,
Make me a match,
Find me a find,
Catch me a catch

While CIRM isn’t in the business of finding husbands for young ladies, we have set up ourselves as matchmakers of a very different kind. Over the course of the last five years or more we have actively tried to find deep pocketed partners for some of the researchers we are funding. You could say we are changing the last line in that verse to “Catch me some cash.” And we do.

Our goal is to help these researchers have access to the kind of money they’re going to need to move their work into clinical trials and through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process, so they are available to people who need them. To do that we created what we call our Industry Alliance Program (IAP).

The goal of the IAP is simple, to be proactive in creating partnerships between industry and our grantees, helping develop direct opportunities for industry to partner with CIRM in accelerating the most promising stem cell, gene and regenerative medicine therapy programs to commercialization.

It takes a lot of money to move a promising idea out of the lab and into the arms, or other body parts, of patients; one recent estimate put that at around $1 billion. CIRM can help with providing the funding to get projects off the ground and into clinical trials, but as you get to larger clinical trials it gets a lot more expensive. The IAP brings in well-heeled investors to help cover those expense.

Back in 2015, when we were developing our Strategic Plan, we made these partnerships one of our Big 6 goals. And, as with everything we did in that plan, we set an ambitious target of “partnering 50% of unpartnered clinical projects with commercial partners.”

So, how did we go about trying to reach that goal? Our Business Development Team (Drs Shyam Patel and Sohel Talib) worked with large companies to help identify their strategic focus and then provided them with non-confidential information about projects we fund that might interest them. If they saw something they felt had promise we introduced them to the researchers behind that project. In essence, we played matchmaker.

But it wasn’t just about making introductions. We stayed involved as the two groups got to know each other, offering both scientific and legal advice, to help them overcome any reservations or obstacles they might encounter.

So how did we do? Pretty good I would have to say. By the end of 2020 we had partnered 63% of unpartnered clinical projects, 72 events altogether, generating almost $13 billion in additional investments in these projects. That money can help move these projects through the approvals process and ultimately, we hope, into the clinic.

But we’re not done. Not by a long shot. Now that we have achieved that goal we have our eyes set on even bigger things. We are now working on creating a new Strategic Plan that is considering bringing industry in to partner with projects at earlier stages or creating public-private partnerships to ensure there is enough manufacturing capacity for all the new therapies in the pipeline.

We have a lot of work to do. But thanks to the passage of Proposition 14 we now have the time and money we need to do that work. We’ve got a lot more matchmaking to do.

Three UC’s Join Forces to Launch CRISPR Clinical Trial Targeting Sickle Cell Disease

Sickle shaped red blood cells

The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), in collaboration with UC Berkeley (UCB) and UC Los Angeles (UCLA), have been given permission by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to launch a first-in-human clinical trial using CRISPR technology as a gene-editing technique to cure Sickle Cell Disease.

This research has been funded by CIRM from the early stages and, in a co-funding partnership with theNational Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute under the Cure Sickle Cell initiatve, CIRM supported the work that allowed this program to gain FDA permission to proceed into clinical trials.    

Sickle Cell Disease is a blood disorder that affects around 100,000 people, mostly Black and Latinx people in the US. It is caused by a single genetic mutation that results in the production of “sickle” shaped red blood cells. Normal red blood cells are round and smooth and flow easily through blood vessels. But the sickle-shaped ones are rigid and brittle and clump together, clogging vessels and causing painful crisis episodes, recurrent hospitalization, multi-organ damage and mini-strokes.    

The three UC’s have combined their respective expertise to bring this program forward.

The CRISPR-Cas9 technology was developed by UC Berkeley’s Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna, PhD. UCLA is a collaborating site, with expertise in genetic analysis and cell manufacturing and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland is the lead clinical center, leveraging its renowned expertise in cord blood and marrow transplantation and in gene therapy for sickle cell disease.

The approach involves retrieving blood stem cells from the patient and, using a technique involving electrical pulses, these cells are treated to correct the mutation using CRISPR technology. The corrected cells will then be transplanted back into the patient.

Dr. Mark Walters

In a news release, UCSF’s Dr. Mark Walters, the principal investigator of the project, says using this new gene-editing approach could be a game-changer. “This therapy has the potential to transform sickle cell disease care by producing an accessible, curative treatment that is safer than the current therapy of stem cell transplant from a healthy bone marrow donor. If this is successfully applied in young patients, it has the potential to prevent irreversible complications of the disease. Based on our experience with bone marrow transplants, we predict that correcting 20% of the genes should be sufficient to out-compete the native sickle cells and have a strong clinical benefit.”

Dr. Maria T. Millan, President & CEO of CIRM, said this collaborative approach can be a model for tackling other diseases. “When we entered into our partnership with the NHLBI we hoped that combining our resources and expertise could accelerate the development of cell and gene therapies for SCD. And now to see these three UC institutions collaborating on bringing this therapy to patients is truly exciting and highlights how working together we can achieve far more than just operating individually.”

The 4-year study will include six adults and three adolescents with severe sickle cell disease. It is planned to begin this summer in Oakland and Los Angeles.

The three UCs combined to produce a video to accompany news about the trial. Here it is:

Prime Time for Rocket

Rocket Pharmaceuticals, a company that specializes in developing genetic therapies for rare childhood disorders, just got a big boost from the European Medicines Agency (EMA). They were given a Priority Medicines (PRIME) designation for their therapy for Leukocyte Adhesion Deficiency-1 (LAD-1).

CIRM is funding ($6.56 million) Rocket’s clinical trial for LAD-I, an immune disorder that leaves patients vulnerable to repeated infections that often results in death within the first two years of life. The therapy involves taking some of the child’s own blood stem cells and, in the lab, correcting the mutation that causes LAD-I, then returning those cells to the patient. Hopefully those blood stem cells then create a new, healthy blood supply and repair the immune system.

The therapy, called RP-L201, is already showing promise in the clinical trial, hence the PRIME designation. The program was set up to help speed up development and evaluation of therapies that could help patients who have limited treatment options. Getting a PRIME designation means it is considered a priority by EMA and could reach patients sooner.

In the US, Rocket has won similar recognition from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and has been granted Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy (RMAT), Rare Pediatric Disease, and Fast Track designations.

In a news release Kinnari Patel, President and Chief Operating Officer of Rocket, said the designation showed that regulators understand the urgent need to develop a therapy for patients with LAD-1. “More than half of LAD-I patients suffer with a severe variant in which mortality occurs in up to 75% of young children who don’t receive a successful bone marrow transplant by the age of two. Securing all possible accelerated designations will enable us to collaborate with both the FDA and EMA to speed the development and delivery of a potential treatment for these patients.  We look forward to sharing initial Phase 2 data from our potentially registration-enabling LAD-I trial in the second quarter of 2021.”

That trial has now completed enrolling patients (nine altogether) but their treatments are not yet complete. LAD-1 patients with severe disease have low levels of a key protein called CD18, usually less than 2%. Of the first three patients treated in this trial CD18 levels are all higher than the 4-10% threshold considered necessary for these children to survive into adulthood. Another encouraging sign is that there were no serious side effects from the therapy.

Obviously there is still a long way to go before we know if this therapy really works, but the PRIME designation – along with the similar ones in the US – are recognition that this is a very promising start.

Hitting our Goals: Scoring a half century

Way, way back in 2015 – seems like a lifetime ago doesn’t it – the team at CIRM sat down and planned out our Big 6 goals for the next five years. The end result was a Strategic Plan that was bold, ambitious and set us on course to do great things or kill ourselves trying. Well, looking back we can take some pride in saying we did a really fine job, hitting almost every goal and exceeding them in some cases. So, as we plan our next five-year Strategic Plan we thought it worthwhile to look back at where we started and what we achieved. Goal #2 was Expand.

Scientist preparing a sample vial for automated analysis in the lab.

When CIRM first started there was an internal report that said if we managed to help get one project into a clinical trial before we ran out of money we would be doing well. At the time that seemed quite reasonable. The field was still very much in its infancy and most of the projects we were funding, particularly in the early days, were Discovery or basic research projects.

But as the field advanced we got a little bolder. By 2010 we were funding not just our first clinical trial, but the first clinical trial in the world using embryonic stem cells. This was the Geron trial targeting spinal cord injury. Sadly the excitement didn’t last very long. After treating just five patients Geron pulled the plug on the trial, deciding that targeting cancer was a better bet.

Happily, Geron returned all the money we had loaned them, plus interest, so we were able to use that to fund more research. Soon enough we had a number of other promising candidates heading towards a meeting with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to try and get permission to start a clinical trial.

By 2014, ten years after we began, we actually had ten projects either running or getting ready to start a clinical trial. We thought that was really good. But at CIRM, really good is never good enough.

For our Strategic Plan in 2015 we decided to shoot for the moon and aim to get another 50 clinical trials over the next five years. At the time it seemed, to be honest, a bit bonkers. How on earth were we going to do that. But then our Therapeutics team went a hunting!

In the past we had the luxury of mostly just waiting for people with promising projects to approach us for funding. With an ambitious goal of getting 50 more clinical trials, we couldn’t afford to wait. The Therapeutics team scouted around for promising projects, inside and outside California, inside and outside the US, and pitched them on the benefits of applying for funding. Slowly the numbers started to rise.

By the end of 2016 we had 12 new trials. In 2017 we were really cruising along, adding 16 more trials. 2018 there was another 14 and that was also the year we passed the 50 clinical trials total since CIRM was created. We celebrated at a Board meeting with a balloon and a cake (we’re a state agency, our budget doesn’t extend to confetti). Initially the inscription on the cake read ‘Congratulations: 50 Clinical Trails’. Happily, we were able to fix it before anyone noticed. But even with the spelling error, it would still have tasted just fine.

Patient advocate Rich Lajara with the Big Balloon celebration for funding 50 clinical trials

By the time we got to mid-2020 we were stuck on 47 and with time, and money, running out it looked like we might miss the goal. But then our team put in one last effort and with weeks to spare we funded four more clinical trials for a total of 51 (68 since we started in 2004).

So, the moral is dream big but work hard. Now let’s see what we can dream up for our next Strategic Plan.

Going the extra mile to save a patient’s life

You can tell an awful lot about a company by the people it hires and the ability it gives them to do their job in an ethical, principled way. By that measure Rocket Pharma is a pretty darn cool company.

Rocket Pharma is running a CIRM-funded clinical trial for Leukocyte Adhesion Deficiency-I (LAD-I), a rare genetic immune disorder that leaves patients vulnerable to repeated infections that often results in death within the first two years of life. The therapy involves taking some of the child’s own blood stem cells and, in the lab, correcting the mutation that causes LAD-I, then returning those cells to the patient. Hopefully those blood stem cells then create a new, healthy blood supply and repair the immune system.

So far, they have treated the majority of the nine patients in this Phase 1/2 clinical trial. Here’s the story of three of those children, all from the same family. Every patient’s path to the treatment has been uniquely challenging. For one family, it’s been a long, rough road, but one that shows how committed Rocket Pharma (Rocket) is to helping people in need.

The patient, a young girl, is from India. The family has already lost one child to what was almost certainly LAD-I, and now they faced the very real prospect of losing their daughter too. She had already suffered numerous infections and the future looked bleak. Fortunately, the team at Rocket heard about her and decided they wanted to help enroll her in their clinical trial.

Dr. Gayatri Rao, Rocket Pharmaceuticals

Dr. Gayatri Rao, the Global Program Head for the LAD-I therapy, this patient was about 6 months old when they heard about her: “She had already been in and out of the hospital numerous times so the family were really interested in enrolling the patient. But getting the family to the US was daunting.”

Over the course of several months, the team at Rocket helped navigate the complicated immigration process. Because the parents and child would need to make several trips to the US for treatment and follow-up exams they would need multiple-entry visas. “Just to get all the paper work necessary was a monumental task. Everything had to be translated because the family didn’t speak English. By the time the family flew to Delhi for their visa interview they had a dossier that filled a 3 inch binder.”  Rocket worked closely with partners in India to provide the family on-the-ground support every step of the way.  To help ensure the family received the visas they needed, Rocket also reached out to members of Congress and six members wrote in support of the family’s application.

Finally, everything fell into place. The family had the visas, all the travel arrangements were made. The Rocket team had even found an apartment near the UCLA campus where the family would stay during the treatment and stocked it with Indian food.

But on the eve of their flight to the US, the coronavirus pandemic hit. International flights were cancelled. Borders were closed. A year of work was put on hold and, more important, the little girl’s life hung in the balance.

Over the course of the next few months the little girl suffered several infections and had to be hospitalized. The family caught COVID and had to undergo quarantine till they recovered. But still the Rocket team kept working on a plan to bring them to the US. Finally, in late January, as vaccines became available and international flights opened up once again, the family were able to come to the US. One west-coast based Rocket team member even made sure that upon arriving to the apartment in UCLA, there was a home-cooked meal, a kitchen stocked with groceries, and handmade cards welcoming them to help transition the family into their new temporary “home.” They are now in living in that apartment near UCLA, waiting for the treatment to start.

Gayatri says it would have been easy to say: “this is too hard” and try to find another patient in the trial, but no one at Rocket wanted to do that: “Once a patient gets identified, we feel like we know them and the team feels invested in doing everything we can for them. We know it may not work out. But at the end of the day, we recognize that this child often has no other choices, and that motivates us to keep going despite the challenges.  If anything, this experience has taught us that with persistence and creativity, we can surmount these challenges.”

Maybe doing the right thing brings its own rewards, because this earlier this month Rocket was granted Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy (RMAT) designation for their treatment for LAD-I. This is a big deal because it means the therapy has already shown it appears to be safe and potentially beneficial to patients, so the designation means that if it continues to be safe and effective it may be eligible for a faster, more streamlined approval process. And that means it can get to the patients who need it, outside of a clinical trial, faster.