Knocking out sexually transmitted disease with stem cells and CRISPR gene editing

When used in tandem, stem cells and gene editing make a powerful pair in the development of cell therapies for genetic diseases like sickle cell anemia and bubble baby disease. But the applications of these cutting-edge technologies go well beyond cell therapies.

This week, researchers at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the UK and the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada, report their use of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and the CRISPR gene editing to better understand chlamydia, a very common sexually transmitted disease. And in the process, the researchers gained insights for developing new drug treatments.

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Human macrophage, a type of white blood cell, interacting with a Chlamydia trachomatis bacteria cell. Image: Sanger Institute / Genome Research Limited

Chlamydia is caused by infection with the bacteria Chlamydia trachomatis. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there were over 1.5 million cases of Chlamydia reported in the U.S. in 2015. And there are thought to be almost 3 million new cases each year. Men with Chlamydia usually do not face many health issues. Women, on the other hand, can suffer serious health complications like pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility.

Although it’s easily treatable with antibiotics, the disease often goes unnoticed because infected people may not show symptoms. And because of the rising fear of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, there’s a need to develop new types of drugs to treat Chlamydia.

To tackle this challenge, the research teams focused first on better understanding how the bacteria infects the human immune system. As first author Dr. Amy Yeung from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute explained in a press release, researchers knew they were up against difficult to treat foe:

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Amy Yeung

“Chlamydia is tricky to study because it can permeate and hide in macrophages [a type of white blood cell] where it is difficult to reach with antibiotics. Inside the macrophage, one or two chlamydia cells can replicate into hundreds in just a day or two, before bursting out to spread the infection.”

In the study, published in Nature Communications, the teams chose to examine human macrophages derived from iPSCs. This decision had a few advantages over previous studies.  Most Chlamydia studies up until this point had either used macrophages from mice, which don’t always accurately reflect what’s going on in the human immune system, or human macrophage cell lines, which have genetic abnormalities that allow them to divide indefinitely.

With these human iPSC-derived macrophages, the team then used CRISPR gene editing technology to systematically delete, or “knockout”, genes that may play a role in Chlamydia infection. Lead author Dr. Robert Hancock from UBC described the power of this approach:

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Robert Hancock

“We can knock out specific genes in stem cells and look at how the gene editing influences the resulting macrophages and their interaction with chlamydia. We’re effectively sieving through the genome to find key players and can now easily see genes that weren’t previously thought to be involved in fighting the infection.”

In fact, they found two genes that appear to play an important role in Chlamydia infection. When they knocked out either the IRF5 or IL-10RA gene, the macrophages were much more vulnerable to infection. The team is now eager to examine these two genes as possible targets for novel Chlamyia drug treatments. But as Dr. Gordon Dougan –the senior author from the Sanger Institute – explains, these studies could be far-reaching:

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Gordon Dougan

“This system can be extended to study other pathogens and advance our understanding of the interactions between human hosts and infections. We are starting to unravel the role our genetics play in battling infections, such as chlamydia, and these results could go towards designing more effective treatments in the future.”

Live streaming genes in living cells coming to a computer near you!

Christmas has come early to scientists at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. They’ve developed a technology that allows you to watch how individual genes move and interact in living cells. You can think of it as Facebook’s live streaming meets the adventurous Ms. Frizzle and her Magic School Bus.

Using a gene editing system called CRISPR/Cas9, the team tagged genes of interest with fluorescent proteins that light up under a microscope – allowing them to watch in real time where these genes are in a cell’s nucleus and how they interact with other genes in the genome. This research, which was funded in part by a CIRM Research Leadership award, was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Watching genes in living cells

Traditional methods for observing the locations of genes within cells, such as fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH), kill the cells – giving scientists only a snapshot of the complex interactions between genes. With this new technology, scientists can track genes in living cells and generate a 3D map of where genes are located within chromatin (the DNA/protein complex that makes up our chromosomes) during the different stages of a cell’s existence. They can also use these maps to understand changes in gene interactions caused by diseases like cancer.

Senior author on the study, Dr. Mazhar Adli, explained in a news release:

Mazhar Adli (Josh Barney, UVA Health System)

“This has been a dream for a long time. We are able to image basically any region in the genome that we want, in real time, in living cells. It works beautifully. With the traditional method, which is the gold standard, basically you will never be able to get this kind of data, because you have to kill the cells to get the imaging. But here we are doing it in live cells and in real time.”

Additionally, this new technique helps scientists conceptualize the position of genes in a 3D rather than in a linear fashion.

“We have two meters of DNA folded into a nucleus that is so tiny that 10,000 of them will fit onto the tip of a needle,” Adli explained. “We know that DNA is not linear but forms these loops, these large, three-dimensional loops. We want to basically image those kind of interactions and get an idea of how the genome is organized in three-dimensional space, because that’s functionally important.”

Not only can this CRISPR technology light up specific genes of interest, but it can also turn their activity on or off, allowing the scientists to observe the effects of one gene’s activity on others. The flexibility of this approach for visualizing genes in live cells is something that the research world currently lacks.

“We were told we would never be able to do this. There are some approaches that let you look at three-dimensional organization. But you do that experiment on hundreds of millions of cells, and you have to kill them to do it. Here, we can look at the single-cell level, and the cell is still alive, and we can take movies of what’s happening inside.”

This is a pretty nifty imaging tool for scientists that allows them to watch where genes are located and how they move as a cell develops and matures. Live-streaming the components of the genetic engine that keeps a cell running could also provide new insights into why certain genetic diseases occur and potentially open doors for developing better treatments.

Scientists tracked specific genomic locations in a living cell over time using their CRISPR/Cas9 technology. (Nature communications)

Stem Cell Stories That Caught Our Eye: Free Patient Advocate Event in San Diego, and new clues on how to fix muscular dystrophy and Huntington’s disease

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Stem cell research is advancing so fast that it’s sometimes hard to keep up. That’s one of the reasons we have our Friday roundup, to let you know about some fascinating research that came across our desk during the week that you might otherwise have missed.

Of course, another way to keep up with the latest in stem cell research is to join us for our free Patient Advocate Event at UC San Diego next Thursday, April 20th from 12-1pm.  We are going to talk about the progress being made in stem cell research, the problems we still face and need help in overcoming, and the prospects for the future.

We have four great speakers:

  • Catriona Jamieson, Director of the CIRM UC San Diego Alpha Stem Cell Clinic and an expert on cancers of the blood
  • Jonathan Thomas, PhD, JD, Chair of CIRM’s Board
  • Jennifer Briggs Braswell, Executive Director of the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center
  • David Higgins, Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s on the CIRM Board

We will give updates on the exciting work taking place at UCSD and the work that CIRM is funding. We have also set aside some time to get your thoughts on how we can improve the way we work and, of course, answer your questions.

What: Stem Cell Therapies and You: A Special Patient Advocate Event

When: Thursday, April 20th 12-1pm

Where: The Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, 2880 Torrey Pines Scenic Drive, La Jolla, CA 92037

Why: Because the people of California have a right to know how their money is helping change the face of regenerative medicine

Who: This event is FREE and open to everyone.

We have set up an EventBrite page for you to RSVP and let us know if you are coming. And, of course, feel free to share this with anyone you think might be interested.

This is the first of a series of similar Patient Advocate Update meetings we plan on holding around California this year. We’ll have news on other locations and dates shortly.

 

Fixing a mutation that causes muscular dystrophy (Karen Ring)

It’s easy to take things for granted. Take your muscles for instance. How often do you think about them? (Don’t answer this if you’re a body builder). Daily? Monthly? I honestly don’t think much about my muscles unless I’ve injured them or if they’re sore from working out.

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Heart muscle cells (green) that don’t have dystrophin protein (Photo; UT Southwestern)

But there are people in this world who think about their muscles or their lack of them every day. They are patients with a muscle wasting disease called Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). It’s the most common type of muscular dystrophy, and it affects mainly young boys – causing their muscles to progressively weaken to the point where they cannot walk or breathe on their own.

DMD is caused by mutations in the dystrophin gene. These mutations prevent muscle cells from making dystrophin protein, which is essential for maintaining muscle structure. Scientists are using gene editing technologies to find and fix these mutations in hopes of curing patients of DMD.

Last year, we blogged about a few of these studies where different teams of scientists corrected dystrophin mutations using CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology in human cells and in mice with DMD. One of these teams has recently followed up with a new study that builds upon these earlier findings.

Scientists from UT Southwestern are using an alternative form of the CRISPR gene editing complex to fix dystrophin mutations in both human cells and mice. This alternative CRISPR complex makes use of a different cutting enzyme, Cpf1, in place of the more traditionally used Cas9 protein. It’s a smaller protein that the scientists say can get into muscle cells more easily. Cpf1 also differs from Cas9 in what DNA nucleotide sequences it recognizes and latches onto, making it a new tool in the gene editing toolbox for scientists targeting DMD mutations.

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Gene-edited heart muscle cells (green) that now express dystrophin protein (Photo: UT Southwestern)

Using CRISPR/Cpf1, the scientists corrected the most commonly found dystrophin mutation in human induced pluripotent stem cells derived from DMD patients. They matured these corrected stem cells into heart muscle cells in the lab and found that they expressed the dystrophin protein and functioned like normal heart cells in a dish. CRISPR/Cpf1 also corrected mutations in DMD mice, which rescued dystrophin expression in their muscle tissues and some of the muscle wasting symptoms caused by the disease.

Because the dystrophin gene is one of the longest genes in our genome, it has more locations where DMD-causing mutations could occur. The scientists behind this study believe that CRISPR/Cpf1 offers a more flexible tool for targeting different dystrophin mutations and could potentially be used to develop an effective gene therapy for DMD.

Senior author on the study, Dr. Eric Olson, provided this conclusion about their research in a news release by EurekAlert:

“CRISPR-Cpf1 gene-editing can be applied to a vast number of mutations in the dystrophin gene. Our goal is to permanently correct the underlying genetic causes of this terrible disease, and this research brings us closer to realizing that end.”

 

A cellular traffic jam is the culprit behind Huntington’s disease (Todd Dubnicoff)

Back in the 1983, the scientific community cheered the first ever mapping of a genetic disease to a specific area on a human chromosome which led to the isolation of the disease gene in 1993. That disease was Huntington’s, an inherited neurodegenerative disorder that typically strikes in a person’s thirties and leads to death about 10 to 15 years later. Because no effective therapy existed for the disease, this discovery of Huntingtin, as the gene was named, was seen as a critical step toward a better understand of Huntington’s and an eventual cure.

But flash forward to 2017 and researchers are still foggy on how mutations in the Huntingtin gene cause Huntington’s. New research, funded in part by CIRM, promises to clear some things up. The report, published this week in Neuron, establishes a connection between mutant Huntingtin and its impact on the transport of cell components between the nucleus and cytoplasm.

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The pores in the nuclear envelope allows proteins and molecules to pass between a cell’s nucleus and it’s cytoplasm. Image: Blausen.com staff (2014).

To function smoothly, a cell must be able to transport proteins and molecules in and out of the nucleus through holes called nuclear pores. The research team – a collaboration of scientists from Johns Hopkins University, the University of Florida and UC Irvine – found that in nerve cells, the mutant Huntingtin protein clumps up and plays havoc on the nuclear pore structure which leads to cell death. The study was performed in fly and mouse models of HD, in human HD brain samples as well as HD patient nerve cells derived with the induced pluripotent stem cell technique – all with this same finding.

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Huntington’s disease is caused by the loss of a nerve cells called medium spiny neurons. Image: Wikimedia commons

By artificially producing more of the proteins that make up the nuclear pores, the damaging effects caused by the mutant Huntingtin protein were reduced. Similar results were seen using drugs that help stabilize the nuclear pore structure. The implications of these results did not escape George Yohrling, a senior director at the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, who was not involved in the study. Yohrling told Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn:

“This is very exciting research because we didn’t know what mutant genes or proteins were doing in the body, and this points to new areas to target research. Scientists, biotech companies and pharmaceutical companies could capitalize on this and maybe develop therapies for this biological process”,

It’s important to temper that excitement with a reality check on how much work is still needed before the thought of clinical trials can begin. Researchers still don’t understand why the mutant protein only affects a specific type of nerve cells and it’s far from clear if these drugs would work or be safe to use in the context of the human brain.

Still, each new insight is one step in the march toward a cure.

How Parkinson’s disease became personal for one stem cell researcher

April is Parkinson’s disease Awareness Month. This year the date is particularly significant because 2017 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of British apothecary James Parkinson’s “An Essay on the Shaking Palsy”, which is now recognized as a seminal work in describing the disease.

Schuele_headshotTo mark the occasion we talked with Dr. Birgitt Schuele, Director Gene Discovery and Stem Cell Modeling at the Parkinson’s Institute and Clinical Center in Sunnyvale, California. Dr. Schuele recently received funding from CIRM for a project using new gene-editing technology to try and halt the progression of Parkinson’s.

 

 

What got you interested in Parkinson’s research?

People ask if I have family members with Parkinson’s because a lot of people get into this research because of a family connection, but I don’t.  I was always excited by neuroscience and how the brain works, and I did my medical residency in neurology and had a great mentor who specialized in the neurogenetics of Parkinson’s. That helped fuel my interest in this area.

I have been in this field for 15 years, and over time I have gotten to know a lot of people with Parkinson’s and they have become my friends, so now I’m trying to find answers and also a cure for Parkinson’s. For me this has become personal.

I have patients that I talk to every couple of months and I can see how their disease is progressing, and especially for people with early or young onset Parkinson’s. It’s devastating. It has a huge effect on the person and their family, and on relationships, even how they have to talk to their kids about their risk of getting the disease themselves. It’s hard to see that and the impact it has on people’s lives. And because Parkinson’s is progressive, I get to see, over the years, how it affects people, it’s very hard.

Talk about the project you are doing that CIRM is funding

It’s very exciting. The question for Parkinson’s is how do you stop disease progression, how do you stop the neurons from dying in areas affected by the disease. One protein, identified in 1997 as a genetic form of Parkinson’s, is alpha-synuclein. We know from studying families that have Parkinson’s that if you have too much alpha-synuclein you get early onset, a really aggressive form of Parkinson’s.

I followed a family that carries four copies of this alpha-synuclein gene (two copies is the normal figure) and the age of onset in this family was in their mid 30’s. Last year I went to a funeral for one of these family members who died from Parkinson’s at age 50.

We know that this protein is bad for you, if you have too much it kills brains cells. So we have an idea that if you lower levels of this protein it might be an approach to stop or shield those cells from cell death.

We are using CRISPR gene editing technology to approach this. In the Parkinson’s field this idea of down-regulation of alpha-synuclein protein isn’t new, but previous approaches worked at the protein level, trying to get rid of it by using, for example, immunotherapy. But instead of attacking the protein after it has been produced we are starting at the genomic level. We want to use CRISPR as a way to down-regulate the expression of the protein, in the same way we use a light dimmer to lower the level of light in a room.

But this is a balancing act. Too much of the protein is bad, but so is too little. We know if you get rid of the protein altogether you get negative effects, you cause complications. So we want to find the right level and that’s complex because the right level might vary from person to person.

We are starting with the most extreme levels, with people who have twice as much of this protein as is normal. Once we understand that better, then we can look at people who have levels that are still higher than normal but not at the upper levels we see in early-onset Parkinson’s. They have more subtle changes in their production or expression of this protein. It’s a little bit of a juggling act and it might be different for different patients. We start with the most severe ones and work our way to the most common ones.

One of the frustrations I often hear from patients is that this is all taking so long. Why is that?

Parkinson’s has been overall frustrating for researchers as well. Around 100 years ago, Dr. Lewy first described the protein deposits and the main neuropathology in Parkinson’s. About 20 years ago, mutations in the alpha-synuclein gene were discovered, and now we know approximately 30 genes that are associated with, or can cause Parkinson’s. But it was all very descriptive. It told us what is going on but not why.

Maybe we thought it was straight forward and maybe researchers only focused on what we knew at that point. In 1957, the neurotransmitter dopamine was identified and since the 1960s people have focused on Parkinson’s as a dopamine-deficient problem because we saw the amazing effects L-Dopa had on patients and how it could help ease their symptoms.

But I would say in the last 15 years we have looked at it more closely and realized it’s more complicated than that. There’s also a loss of sense of smell, there’s insomnia, episodes of depression, and other things that are not physical symptoms. In the last 10 years or so we have really put the pieces together and now see Parkinson’s as a multi-system disease with neuronal cell death and specific protein deposits called Lewy Bodies. These Lewy Bodies contain alpha-synuclein and you find them in the brain, the gut and the heart and these are organs people hadn’t looked at because no one made the connection that constipation or depression could be linked to the disease. It turns out that Parkinson’s is much more complicated than just a problem in one particular region of the brain.

The other reason for slow progress is that we don’t have really good models for the disease that are predictive for clinical outcomes. This is why probably many clinical trials in the neurodegenerative field have failed to date. Now we have human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from people with Parkinson’s, and iPSC-derived neurons allow us to better model the disease in the lab, and understand its underlying mechanisms  more deeply. The technology has now advanced so that the ability to differentiate these cells into nerve cells is better, so that you now have iPSC-derived neurons in a dish that are functionally active, and that act and behave like dopamine-producing neurons in the brain. This is an important advance.

Will this lead to a clinical trial?

That’s the idea, that’s our hope.

We are working with professor Dr. Deniz Kirik at the University of Lund in Sweden. He’s an expert in the field of viral vectors that can be used in humans – it’s a joint grant between us – and so what we learn from the human iPS cultures, he’ll transfer to an animal model and use his gene vector technology to see if we can see the same effects in vivo, in mice.

We are using a very special Parkinson’s mouse model – developed at UC San Francisco – that has the complete human genomic structure of the alpha-synuclein gene. If all goes well, we hope that ultimately we could be ready in a couple of years to think about preclinical testing and then clinical trials.

What are your hopes for the future?

My hope is that I can contribute to stopping disease progression in Parkinson’s. If we can develop a drug that can get rid of accumulated protein in someone’s brain that should stop the cells from dying. If someone has early onset PD and a slight tremor and minor walking problems, stopping the disease and having a low dose of dopamine therapy to control symptoms is almost a cure.

The next step is to develop better biomarkers to identify people at risk of developing Parkinson’s, so if you know someone is a few years away from developing symptoms, and you have the tools in place, you can start treatment early and stop the disease from kicking in, even before you clinically have symptoms.

Thinking about people who have been diagnosed with a disease, who are ten years into the disease, who already have side effects from the disease, it’s a little harder to think of regenerative medicine, using embryonic or iPSCs for this. I think that it will take longer to see results with this approach, but that’s the long-term hope for the future. There are many  groups working in this space, which is critical to advance the field.

Why is Parkinson’s Awareness Month important?

It’s important because, while a lot of people know about the disease, there are also a lot of misconceptions about Parkinson’s.

Parkinson’s is confused with Alzheimer’s or dementia and cognitive problems, especially the fact that it’s more than just a gait and movement problem, that it affects many other parts of the body too.

Stem Cell Stories that Caught our Eye: stem cell insights into anorexia, Zika infection and bubble baby disease

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Stem cell model identifies new culprit for anorexia.

Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa are often thought to be caused by psychological disturbances or societal pressure. However, research into the genes of anorexia patients suggests that what’s written in your DNA can be associated with an increased vulnerability to having this disorder. But identifying individual genes at fault for a disease this complex has remained mostly out of scientists’ reach, until now.

A CIRM-funded team from the UC San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine reported this week that they’ve developed a stem cell-based model of anorexia and used it to identify a gene called TACR1, which they believe is associated with an increased likelihood of getting anorexia.

They took skin samples from female patients with anorexia and reprogrammed them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These stem cells contained the genetic information potentially responsible for causing their anorexia. The team matured these iPSCs into brain cells, called neurons, in a dish, and then studied what genes got activated. When they looked at the genes activated by anorexia neurons, they found that TACR1, a gene associated with psychiatric disorders, was switched on higher in anorexia neurons than in healthy neurons. These findings suggest that the TACR1 gene could be an identifier for this disease and a potential target for developing new treatments.

In a UCSD press release, Professor and author on the study, Alysson Muotri, said that they will follow up on their findings by studying stem cell lines derived from a larger group of patients.

Alysson Muotri UC San Diego

“But more to the point, this work helps make that possible. It’s a novel technological advance in the field of eating disorders, which impacts millions of people. These findings transform our ability to study how genetic variations alter brain molecular pathways and cellular networks to change risk of anorexia nervosa — and perhaps our ability to create new therapies.”

Anorexia is a disease that affects 1% of the global population and although therapy can be an effective treatment for some, many do not make a full recovery. Stem cell-based models could prove to be a new method for unlocking new clues into what causes anorexia and what can cure it.

Nature versus Zika, who will win?

Zika virus is no longer dominating the news headlines these days compared to 2015 when large outbreaks of the virus in the Southern hemisphere came to a head. However, the threat of Zika-induced birth defects, like microcephaly to pregnant women and their unborn children is no less real or serious two years later. There are still no effective vaccines or antiviral drugs that prevent Zika infection but scientists are working fast to meet this unmet need.

Speaking of which, scientists at UCLA think they might have a new weapon in the war against Zika. Back in 2013, they reported that a natural compound in the body called 25HC was effective at attacking viruses and prevented human cells from being infected by viruses like HIV, Ebola and Hepatitis C.

When the Zika outbreak hit, they thought that this compound could potentially be effective at preventing Zika infection as well. In their new study published in the journal Immunity, they tested a synthetic version of 25HC in animal and primate models, they found that it protected against infection. They also tested the compound on human brain organoids, or mini brains in a dish made from pluripotent stem cells. Brain organoids are typically susceptible to Zika infection, which causes substantial cell damage, but this was prevented by treatment with 25HC.

Left to right: (1) Zika virus (green) infects and destroys the formation of neurons (pink) in human stem cell-derived brain organoids.  (2) 25HC blocks Zika infection and preserves neuron formation in the organoids. (3) Reduced brain size and structure in a Zika-infected mouse brain. (4) 25HC preserves mouse brain size and structure. Image courtesy of UCLA Stem Cell.

A UCLA news release summarized the impact that this research could have on the prevention of Zika infection,

“The new research highlights the potential use of 25HC to combat Zika virus infection and prevent its devastating outcomes, such as microcephaly. The research team will further study whether 25HC can be modified to be even more effective against Zika and other mosquito-borne viruses.”

Harnessing a naturally made weapon already found in the human body to fight Zika could be an alternative strategy to preventing Zika infection.

Gene therapy in stem cells gives hope to bubble-babies.

Last week, an inspiring and touching story was reported by Erin Allday in the San Francisco Chronicle. She featured Ja’Ceon Golden, a young baby not even 6 months old, who was born into a life of isolation because he lacked a properly functioning immune system. Ja’Ceon had a rare disease called severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), also known as bubble-baby disease.

 

Ja’Ceon Golden is treated by patient care assistant Grace Deng (center) and pediatric oncology nurse Kat Wienskowski. Photo: Santiago Mejia, The Chronicle.

Babies with SCID lack the body’s immune defenses against infectious diseases and are forced to live in a sterile environment. Without early treatment, SCID babies often die within one year due to recurring infections. Bone marrow transplantation is the most common treatment for SCID, but it’s only effective if the patient has a donor that is a perfect genetic match, which is only possible for about one out of five babies with this disease.

Advances in gene therapy are giving SCID babies like Ja’Ceon hope for safer, more effective cures. The SF Chronicle piece highlights two CIRM-funded clinical trials for SCID run by UCLA in collaboration with UCSF and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In these trials, scientists isolate the bone marrow stem cells from SCID babies, correct the genetic mutation causing SCID in their stem cells, and then transplant them back into the patient to give them a healthy new immune system.

The initial results from these clinical trials are promising and support other findings that gene therapy could be an effective treatment for certain genetic diseases. CIRM’s Senior Science Officer, Sohel Talib, was quoted in the Chronicle piece saying,

“Gene therapy has been shown to work, the efficacy has been shown. And it’s safe. The confidence has come. Now we have to follow it up.”

Ja’Ceon was the first baby treated at the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital and so far, he is responding well to the treatment. His great aunt Dannie Hawkins said that it was initially hard for her to enroll Ja’Ceon in this trial because she was a partial genetic match and had the option of donating her own bone-marrow to help save his life. In the end, she decided that his involvement in the trial would “open the door for other kids” to receive this treatment if it worked.

Ja’Ceon Golden plays with patient care assistant Grace Deng in a sterile play area at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital.Photo: Santiago Mejia, The Chronicle

It’s brave patients and family members like Ja’Ceon and Dannie that make it possible for research to advance from clinical trials into effective treatments for future patients. We at CIRM are eternally grateful for their strength and the sacrifices they make to participate in these trials.

Growing a rat pancreas in a mouse with stem cells & CRISPR: a solution for the organ shortage crisis?

Right now, about 120,000 Americans are on a waiting list for an organ transplant and 22 will die today before any organs become available. The plain truth is there aren’t enough organ donors to meet the demand. And according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the number of available organ donors has remained static over the past decade. How can we overcome this crisis?

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The need for organ transplants is growing but the number of donors is stagnant. Image: U.S. Dept. Human Health Services

One answer may be stem cells. These “blank slate” cells can specialize into virtually any cell type in the body which has many scientists pursuing the holy grail of stem cell research: creating an unlimited supply of human organs. Today, a team of Salk Institute scientists report in Cell that they’ve taken an early but important step toward that goal by showing it’s possible to grow rat organs within a mouse. The results bode well for not only organ transplants but also for the study of human development and disease.

Chimera – monster or medical marvel?
Our regular Stem Cellar readers will be familiar with several fascinating studies using stem cell-based 3D bioprinters or bioscaffolds which aim to one day enable the manufacturing of human tissues and organs. Instead of taking this engineering approach, the Salk team seeks a strategy in which chimeric animals are bred to grow human organs. The term “chimeric” is borrowed from Greek mythology that told tales of the chimera, a monster with a lion’s heads, a goat’s body and a serpent’s tail.

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The chimera of Greek Mythology: part lion, goat and snake. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The team’s first set of experiments explored the feasibility of this method by first focusing on rat-mouse chimeras. Reprogramming skin cells collected from rat tails, the scientists generated induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) – cells with the embryonic stem cell-like ability to become any cell type – and injected them into very early stage mouse embryos. The embryos were then implanted into surrogate female mice and successfully carried to term. Examination of the resulting mouse pups showed that their tissues and organs contained a patchwork of both rat and mouse cells.

And for my next trick, I will make a rat pancreas in a mouse
Now, if the ultimate goal is to grow organs that are 100% human in a host animal, an organ that merely has a random patchwork human cells would miss the mark. To show there’s a way around this problem, the Salk team used the CRISPR gene-editing technique to generate mouse embryos that lacked a gene that’s critical for the development of the pancreas. Without the gene, no pancreas forms and the mice died shortly after birth. But when the rat iPSCs were integrated into the gene edited mice embryos, the rat cells picked up the slack as the embryo developed, resulting in chimeric mice with rat pancreases.

Using the same CRISPR gene editing strategy, the researchers also grew rat hearts, and if you can believe it, rat eyes in the chimeric mice. On top of that, the mice in these experiments were healthy with most reaching adulthood and one living two years, an elderly age for mice.

A first step toward growing patient-specific human organs in large animals
One small, actually big, problem is that mice are much too little to serve as chimeric hosts for human organs. So the team repeated these mixed species experiments in pigs which are much better matched to humans. In this case, they added human iPSCs to the pig embryos, implanted them into female pigs and let the embryos develop for four weeks. Although it wasn’t as efficient as the rat-mouse chimeras, the researchers did indeed observe human cells that had incorporated into the chimera and were showing the early signs of specializing in different cell types within the implanted pig embryos.

This work is the first time human iPSCs have been incorporated into large animal species (they also got it to work with cattle) and many years of lab work remain before this approach can help solves the organ shortage crisis. But the potential applications are spellbinding. Imagine a patient in need of an organ transplant: a small skin biopsy is collected to make iPSCs and, using this chimeric animal approach, a patient-derived organ could be grown.

Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, the study’s team leader, talked about this possibility and more in a press release:

“Of course, the ultimate goal of chimeric research is to learn whether we can use stem-cell and gene-editing technologies to generate genetically-matched human tissues and organs, and we are very optimistic that continued work will lead to eventual success. But in the process we are gaining a better understanding of species evolution as well as human embryogenesis and disease that is difficult to get in other ways.”

Ethical concerns
Now, if the idea of breeding pigs or cows with human organs make you a little uneasy, you aren’t alone.  In fact, the National Institutes of Health announced in 2015 that they had halted funding research that introduces human stem cells into other animals. They want more time “to evaluate the state of the science in this area, the ethical issues that should be considered, and the relevant animal welfare concerns associated with these types of studies.”  To read more discussion on this topic, read this MIT Technology Review article from a year ago.

 

Stem Cell Profiles in Courage: Brenden Whittaker

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Brenden Whittaker: Photo Colin McGuire

It’s not often you meet someone who says one of their favorite things in the world is mowing the lawn. But then, there aren’t many people in the world like Brenden Whittaker. In fact, as of this writing, he may be unique.

Brenden was born with severe chronic granulomatous disease (x-CGD), a rare genetic disorder that left him with an impaired immune system that was vulnerable to repeated bacterial and fungal infections. Over 22 years Brenden was in and out of the hospital hundreds of times, he almost died a couple of times, and lost parts of his lungs and liver.

Then he became the first person to take part in a clinical trial to treat x-CGD. UCLA researcher Don Kohn had developed a technique that removed Brenden’s blood stem cells, genetically re-engineered them to correct the mutation that caused the disease, and then returned those stem cells to Brenden. Over time they created a new blood system, and restored Brenden’s immune system.

He was cured.

We profiled Brenden for our 2016 Annual Report. Here’s an extended version of the interview we did with him, talking about his life before and after he was cured.

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Brenden with a CIRM Game Ball – signed by everyone at CIRM

Brenden’s story:

I still think about it, my disease, every few days or so and it’s weird because in the past I was sick so often; before this year, I was sick consistently for about 5 years and going to doctor’s appointments 2 or 3 times a week and being in the hospital. So, it’s weird having a cough and not having to be rushed to the ER, not having to call someone every time the smallest thing pops up, and not having to worry about what it means.

It’s been good but it’s been weird to not have to do that.  It’s a nice problem to have.

What are you doing now that you didn’t do before?

Cutting the grass is something I couldn’t do before, that I’ve taken up now. Most people look at me as if I’m crazy when I say it, but I love cutting grass, and I wasn’t able to do it for 22 years of my life.

People will complain about having to pick up after their dog goes to the bathroom and now I can follow my dog outside and can pick up after her. It really is just the little things that people don’t think of. I find enjoyment in the small things, things I couldn’t do before but now I can and not have to worry about them.

The future

I was in the boy scouts growing up so I love camping, building fires, just being outdoors. I hiked on the Appalachian Trail. Now I’ll be able to do more of that.

I have a part time job at a golf course and I’m actually getting ready to go back to school full time in January. I want to get into pre-med, go to medical school and become a doctor. All the experience I’ve had has just made me more interested in being a doctor, I just want to be in a position where I can help people going through similar things, and going through all this just made me more interested in it.

Before the last few months I couldn’t schedule my work more than a week in advance because I didn’t know if I was going to be in the hospital or what was going on. Now my boss jokes that I’m giving him plans for the next month or two. It’s amazing how far ahead you can plan when you aren’t worried about being sick or having to go to the hospital.

I’d love to do some traveling. Right now most of my traveling consists of going to and from Boston (for medical check-ups), but I would love to go to Europe, go through France and Italy. That would be a real cool trip. I don’t need to see everything in the world but just going to other countries, seeing cities like London, Paris and Rome, seeing how people live in other cultures, that would be great.

Advice for others

I do think about the fact that when I was born one in a million kids were diagnosed with this disease and there weren’t any treatments. Many people only lived a few years. But to be diagnosed now you can have a normal life. That’s something all on its own. It’s almost impossible for me to fathom it’s happening, after all the years and doctor’s appointments and illnesses.

So, for people going through anything like this, I’d say just don’t give up. There are new advances being made every day and you have to keep fighting and keep getting through it, and some day it will all work out.


Related Links:

Stem cell and gene therapy research gets a good report card from industry leader

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Panel discussion at ARM State of the industry briefing: left to Right Robert Preti, Chair ARM; Jeff Walsh, bluebird bio; Manfred Rudiger, Kiadis Pharma; Barbara Sasu, Pfizer;  Thomas Farrell, Bellicum Pharmaceuticals. Photo courtesy ARM.

The state of the regenerative medicine field is strong and getting stronger. That was the bottom line verdict at the 2017 Cell and Gene Therapies State of the Industry briefing in San Francisco.

The briefing, an annual update on the field presented by the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine (ARM), gave a “by the numbers” look at the field and apart from one negative spot everything is moving in the right direction.

Robert Preti, Chair of ARM’s Board, said worldwide there are more than 750 regenerative companies working in the stem cell and gene therapy space. And those companies are increasingly moving the research out of the lab and into clinical trials in people.

For example, at the end of 2016 there were 802 clinical trials underway. That is a 21 percent growth over 2015. Those breakdown as follows:

Phase 1 – 271 (compared to 192 in 2015)

Phase 2 – 465 (compared to 376 in 2015)

Phase 3 – 66 (compared to 63 in 2015)

The bulk of these clinical trials, 45 percent, are focused on cancer. The second largest target, 11 percent, is on heart disease. The number of trials for neurological disorders and rare diseases are also growing in number.

Preti says the industry is at an important inflection point right now and that this growth is presenting new problems:

“The pipeline of products is robust and the technologies supporting that pipeline is even more robust. The technologies that are fueling the growth in clinical activity have accelerated so fast that we on the manufacturing side are playing catchup. We are at a point where we have to get serious about large scale commercial production.”

Preti also talked about “harmonization” of the regulatory process and the need to have a system that makes it easier for products approved for clinical trials in one country, to get approval for clinical trials in other countries.

Michael Werner, the executive director of ARM, said the organization has played a key role in helping promote the field and cited the recently passed 21st Century Cures Act as “a major win and a powerful statement of ARM’s leadership in this sector.”

But there was one area where the news wasn’t all positive, the ability of companies to raise capital. In 2015 companies raised $11 billion for research. In 2016 it was less than half of that, $5.3 billion.

With that somber note in mind it was appropriate that the panel discussion that followed the briefing was focused on the near-term and long-term challenges facing the field if it was to be commercially successful.

One of the big challenges was the issue of regulatory approval, and here the panel seemed to be more optimistic than in previous years.

Manfred Rüdiger of Kiadis Pharma said he was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to work with different regulatory agencies in the US, Canada and Europe.

“We used them as a kind of free consultancy service, listening to their advice and making the changes they suggested so that we were able to use the same manufacturing process in Europe and Canada and the US.”

Jeff Walsh of bluebird bio, said the key to having a good working relationship with regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is simple:

“Trust and transparency between you and the regulatory agencies is essential, it’s a critical factor in advancing your work. The agencies respond well when you have that trust. One thing we can’t be is afraid to ask. The agencies will tell you where their line is, but don’t be afraid to ask or to push the boundaries. This is new for everyone, companies and regulators, so if you are pushing it helps create the environment that allows you to work together to develop safe therapies that benefit patients.”

Another big issue was scalability in manufacturing; that it’s one thing to produce enough of a product to carry out a clinical trial but completely different if you are hoping to use that same product to treat millions of people spread out all over the US or the world.

And of course cost is always something that is front and center in people’s minds. How do you develop therapies that are not just safe and effective, but also affordable? How do companies ensure they will get reimbursed by health insurers for the treatments? No one had any simple answer to what are clearly very complex problems. But all recognized the need to start thinking about these now, long before the treatments themselves are even ready.

Walsh ended by saying:

“This is not just about what can you charge but what should you charge. We have a responsibility to engage with the agencies and ultimately the payers that make these decisions, in the same way we engage with regulatory agencies; with a sense of openness, trust and transparency. Too often companies wait too long, too late before turning to the payers and trying to decide what is appropriate to charge.”

 

 

Cured by Stem Cells

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To get anywhere you need a good map, and you need to check it constantly to make sure you are still on the right path and haven’t strayed off course. A year ago the CIRM Board gave us a map, a Strategic Plan, that laid out our course for the next five years. Our Annual Report for 2016, now online, is our way of checking that we are still on the right path.

I think, without wishing to boast, that it’s safe to say not only are we on target, but we might even be a little bit ahead of schedule.

The Annual Report is chock full of facts and figures but at the heart of it are the stories of the people who are the focus of all that we do, the patients. We profile six patients and one patient advocate, each of whom has an extraordinary story to tell, and each of whom exemplifies the importance of the work we support.

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Brenden Whittaker: Cured

Two stand out for one simple reason, they were both cured of life-threatening conditions. Now, cured is not a word we use lightly. The stem cell field has been rife with hyperbole over the years so we are always very cautious in the way we talk about the impact of treatments. But in these two cases there is no need to hold back: Evangelina Padilla Vaccaro and Brenden Whittaker have been cured.

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Evangelina: Cured

 

In the coming weeks we’ll feature our conversations with all those profiled in the Annual Report, giving you a better idea of the impact the stem cell treatments have had on their lives and the lives of their family. But today we just wanted to give a broad overview of the Annual Report.

The Strategic Plan was very specific in the goals it laid out for us. As an agency we had six big goals, but each Team within the agency, and each individual within those teams had their own goals. They were our own mini-maps if you like, to help us keep track of where we were individually, knowing that every time an individual met a goal they helped the Team get closer to meeting its goals.

As you read through the report you’ll see we did a pretty good job of meeting our targets. In fact, we missed only one and we’re hoping to make up for that early in 2017.

But good as 2016 was, we know that to truly fulfill our mission of accelerating treatments to patients with unmet medical needs we are going to have do equally well, if not even better, in 2017.

That work starts today.

 

Translating great stem cell ideas into effective therapies

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CIRM funds research trying to solve the Alzheimer’s puzzle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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