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.

brenden_stories_of_hope

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.”

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: glowing stem cells and new insights into Zika and SCID

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.

Glowing stem cells help scientists understand how cells work. (Karen Ring)
It’s easy to notice when something is going wrong. It’s a lot harder to notice when something is going right. The same thing can be said for biology. Scientists dedicate their careers to studying unhealthy cells, trying to understand why people get certain diseases and what’s going wrong at the cellular level to cause these problems. But there is a lot to be said for doing scientific research on healthy cells so that we can better understand what’s happening when cells start to malfunction.

A group from the Allen Institute for Cell Science is doing just this. They used a popular gene-editing technology called CRISPR/Cas9 to genetically modify human stem cell lines so that certain parts inside the cell will glow different colors when observed under a fluorescent microscope. Specifically, the scientists inserted the genetic code to produce fluorescent proteins in both the nucleus and the mitochondria of the stem cells. The final result is a tool that allows scientists to study how stem cells specialize into mature cells in various tissues and organs.

Glowing human stem cells. The edges of the cells are shown in purple while the DNA in the cell’s nucleus is in blue. (Allen Institute for Cell Science).

Glowing human stem cells. The edges of the cells are shown in purple while the DNA in the cell’s nucleus is in blue. (Allen Institute for Cell Science).

The director of stem cells and gene editing at the Allen Institute, Ruwanthi Gunawardane, explained how their technology improves upon previous methods for getting cells to glow in an interview with Forbes:

 “We’re trying to understand how the cell behaves, how it functions, but flooding it with some external protein can really mess it up. The CRISPR system allows us to go into the DNA—the blueprint—and insert a gene that allows the cell to express the protein in its normal environment. Then, through live imaging, we can watch the cell and understand how it works.”

The team has made five of these glowing stem cell lines available for use by the scientific community through the Coriell Institute for Medical Research (which also works closely with the CIRM iPSC Initiative). Each cell line is unique and has a different cellular structure that glows. You can learn more about these cell lines on the Coriell Allen Institute webpage and by watching this video:

 

Zika can take multiple routes to infect a child’s brain. (Kevin McCormack)
One of the biggest health stories of 2016 has been the rapid, indeed alarming, spread of the Zika virus. It went from an obscure virus to a global epidemic found in more than 70 countries.

The major concern about the virus is its ability to cause brain defects in the developing brain. Now researchers at Harvard have found that it can do this in more ways than previously believed.

Up till now, it was believed that Zika does its damage by grabbing onto a protein called AXL on the surface of brain cells called neural progenitor cells (NPCs). However, the study, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, showed that even when AXL was blocked, Zika still managed to infiltrate the brain.

Using induced pluripotent stem cell technology, the researchers were able to create NPCs and then modify them so they had no AXL expression. That should, in theory, have been able to block the Zika virus. But when they exposed those cells to the virus they found they were infected just as much as ordinary brain cells exposed to the virus were.

Caption: Zika virus (light blue) spreads through a three-dimensional model of a developing brain. Image by Max Salick and Nathaniel Kirkpatrick/Novartis

Caption: Zika virus (light blue) spreads through a three-dimensional model of a developing brain. Image by Max Salick and Nathaniel Kirkpatrick/Novartis

In a story in the Harvard Gazette, Kevin Eggan, one of the lead researchers, said this shows scientists need to re-think their approach to countering the virus:

“Our finding really recalibrates this field of research because it tells us we still have to go and find out how Zika is getting into these cells.”

 

Treatment for a severe form of bubble baby disease appears on the horizon. (Todd Dubnicoff)
Without treatment, kids born with bubble baby disease typically die before reaching 12 months of age. Formally called severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), this genetic blood disorder leaves infants without an effective immune system and unable to fight off even minor infections. A bone marrow stem cell transplant from a matched sibling can treat the disease but this is only available in less than 20 percent of cases and other types of donors carry severe risks.

In what is shaping up to be a life-changing medical breakthrough, a UCLA team has developed a stem cell/gene therapy treatment that corrects the SCID mutation. Over 40 patients have participated to date with a 100% survival rate and CIRM has just awarded the team $20 million to continue clinical trials.

There’s a catch though: other forms of SCID exist. The therapy described above treats SCID patients with a mutation in a gene responsible for producing a protein called ADA. But an inherited mutation in another gene called Artemis, leads to a more severe form of SCID. These Artemis-SCID infants have even less success with a standard bone marrow transplant compared to those with ADA-SCID. Artemis plays a role in DNA damage repair something that occurs during the chemo and radiation therapy sessions that are often necessary for blood marrow transplants. So Artemis-SCID patients are hyper-sensitive to the side of effects of standard treatments.

A recent study by UCSF scientists in Human Gene Therapy, funded in part by CIRM, brings a lot of hope to these Artemis-SCID patient. Using a similar stem cell/gene therapy method, this team collected blood stem cells from the bone marrow of mice with a form of Artemis-SCID. Then they added a good copy of the human Artemis gene to these cells. Transplanting the blood stem cells back to mice, restored their immune systems which paves the way for delivering this approach to clinic to also help the Artemis-SCID patients in desperate need of a treatment.

Key Steps Along the Way To Finding Treatments for HIV on World AIDS Day

Today, December 1st,  is World AIDS Day. It’s a day to acknowledge the progress that is being made in HIV prevention and treatment around the world but also to renew our commitment to a future free of HIV. This year’s theme is Leadership. Commitment. Impact.  At CIRM we are funding a number of projects focused on HIV/AIDS, so we asked Jeff Sheehy, the patient advocate for HIV/AIDS on the CIRM Board to offer his perspective on the fight against the virus.

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At CIRM we talk about and hope for cures, but our actual mission is “accelerating stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.”

For those of us in the HIV/AIDS community, we are tremendously excited about finding a cure for HIV.  We have the example of Timothy Brown, aka the “Berlin Patient”, the only person cured of HIV.

Multiple Shots on Goal

Different approaches to a cure are under investigation with multiple clinical trials.  CIRM is funding three clinical trials using cell/gene therapy in attempts to genetically modify blood forming stem cells to resist infection with HIV.  While we hope this leads to a cure, community activists have come together to urge a look at something short of a “home run.”

A subset of HIV patients go on treatment, control the virus in their blood to the point where it can’t be detected by common diagnostic tests, but never see their crucial immune fighting CD4 T cells return to normal levels after decimation by HIV.

For instance, I have been on antiretroviral therapy since 1997.  My CD4 T cells had dropped precipitously, dangerous close to the level of 200.  At that level, I would have had an AIDS diagnosis and would have been extremely vulnerable to a whole host of opportunistic infections.  Fortunately, my virus was controlled within a few weeks and within a year, my CD T cells had returned to normal levels.

For the immunological non-responders I described above, that doesn’t happen.  So while the virus is under control, their T cell counts remain low and they are very susceptible to opportunistic infections and are at much greater risk of dying.

Immunological non-responders (INRs) are usually patients who had AIDS when they were diagnosed, meaning they presented with very low CD4 T cell counts.  Many are also older.  We had hoped that with frequent testing, treatment upon diagnosis and robust healthcare systems, this population would be less of a factor.  Yet in San Francisco with its very comprehensive and sophisticated testing and treatment protocols, 16% of newly diagnosed patients in 2015 had full blown AIDS.

Until we make greater progress in testing and treating people with HIV, we can expect to see immunological non-responders who will experience sub-optimal health outcomes and who will be more difficult to treat and keep alive.

Boosting the Immune System

A major cell/gene trial for HIV targeted this population.  Their obvious unmet medical need and their greater morbidity/mortality balanced the risks of first in man gene therapy.  Sangamo, a CIRM grantee, used zinc finger nucleases to snip out a receptor, CCR5, on the surface of CD4 T cells taken from INR patients.  That receptor is a door that HIV uses to enter cells.  Some people naturally lack the receptor and usually are unable to be infected with HIV.  The Berlin Patient had his entire immune system replaced with cells from someone lacking CCR5.

Most of the patients in that first trial saw their CD4 T cells rise sharply.  The amount of HIV circulating in their gut decreased.  They experienced a high degree of modification and persistence in T stem cells, which replenish the T cell population.  And most importantly, some who regularly experienced opportunistic infections such as my friend and study participant Matt Sharp who came down with pneumonia every winter, had several healthy seasons.

Missed Opportunities

Unfortunately, the drive for a cure pushed development of the product in a different direction.  This is in large part to regulatory challenges.  A prior trial started in the late 90’s by Chiron tested a cytokine, IL 2, to see if administering it could increase T cells.  It did, but proving that these new T cells did anything was illusive and development ceased.  Another cytokine, IL 7, was moving down the development pathway when the company developing it, Cytheris, ceased business.  The pivotal trial would have required enrolling 4,000 participants, a daunting and expensive prospect.  This was due to the need to demonstrate clinical impact of the new cells in a diverse group of patients.

Given the unmet need, HIV activists have looked at the Sangamo trial, amongst others, and have initiated a dialogue with the FDA.  Activists are exploring seeking orphan drug status since the population of INRs is relatively small.

Charting a New Course

They have also discussed trial designs looking at markers of immune activity and discussed potentially identifying a segment of INRs where clinical efficacy could be shown with far, far fewer participants.

Activists are calling for companies to join them in developing products for INRs.  I’ve included the press release issued yesterday by community advocates below.

With the collaboration of the HIV activist community, this could be a unique opportunity for cell/gene companies to actually get a therapy through the FDA. On this World AIDS Day, let’s consider the value of a solid single that serves patients in need while work continues on the home run.

NEWS RELEASE: HIV Activists Seek to Accelerate Development of Immune Enhancing Therapies for Immunologic Non-Responders.

Dialogues with FDA, scientists and industry encourage consideration of orphan drug designations for therapies to help the immunologic non-responder population and exploration of novel endpoints to reduce the size of efficacy trials.

November 30, 2016 – A coalition of HIV/AIDS activists are calling for renewed attention to HIV-positive people termed immunologic non-responders (INRs), who experience sub-optimal immune system reconstitution despite years of viral load suppression by antiretroviral therapy. Studies have shown that INR patients remain at increased risk of illness and death compared to HIV-positive people who have better restoration of immune function on current drug therapies. Risk factors for becoming an INR include older age and a low CD4 count at the time of treatment initiation. To date, efforts to develop immune enhancing interventions for this population have proven challenging, despite some candidates from small companies showing signs of promise.

“We believe there is an urgent need to find ways to encourage and accelerate development of therapies to reduce the health risks faced by INR patients,” stated Nelson Vergel of the Program for Wellness Restoration (PoWeR), who initiated the activist coalition. “For example, Orphan Drug designations[i] could be granted to encourage faster-track approval of promising therapies.  These interventions may eventually help not only INRs but also people with other immune deficiency conditions”.

Along with funding, a major challenge for approval of any potential therapy is proving its efficacy. While INRs face significantly increased risk of serious morbidities and mortality compared to HIV-positive individuals with more robust immune reconstitution, demonstrating a reduction in the incidence of these outcomes would likely require expensive and lengthy clinical trials involving thousands of individuals. Activists are therefore encouraging the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), industry and researchers to evaluate potential surrogate markers of efficacy such as relative improvements in clinical problems that may be more frequent in INR patients, such as upper respiratory infections, gastrointestinal disease, and other health issues.

“Given the risks faced by INR patients, every effort should be made to assess whether less burdensome pathways toward approval are feasible, without compromising the regulatory requirement for compelling evidence of safety and efficacy”, said Richard Jefferys of the Treatment Action Group.

The coalition is advocating that scientists, biotech and pharmaceutical companies pursue therapeutic candidates for INRs. For example, while gene and anti-inflammatory therapies for HIV are being assessed in the context of cure research, there is also evidence that they may have potential to promote immune reconstitution and reduce markers associated with risk of morbidity and mortality in INR patients. Therapeutic research should also be accompanied by robust study of the etiology and mechanisms of sub-optimal immune responses.

“While there is, appropriately, a major research focus on curing HIV, we must be alert to evidence that candidate therapies could have benefits for INR patients, and be willing to study them in this context”, argued Matt Sharp, a coalition member and INR who experienced enhanced immune reconstitution and improved health and quality of life after receiving an experimental gene therapy.

The coalition has held an initial conference call with FDA to discuss the issue. Minutes are available online.

The coalition is now aiming to convene a broader dialogue with various drug companies on the development of therapies for INR patients. Stakeholders who are interested in becoming involved are encouraged to contact coalition representatives.

[i] The Orphan Drug Act incentivizes the development of treatments for rare conditions. For more information, see:  http://www.fda.gov/ForIndustry/DevelopingProductsforRareDiseasesConditions/ucm2005525.htm

For more information:

Richard Jefferys

Michael Palm Basic Science, Vaccines & Cure Project Director
Treatment Action Group richard.jefferys@treatmentactiongroup.org

Nelson Vergel, Program for Wellness Restoration programforwellness@gmail.com

 

 

Stem cell agency funds clinical trials in three life-threatening conditions

strategy-wide

A year ago the CIRM Board unanimously approved a new Strategic Plan for the stem cell agency. In the plan are some rather ambitious goals, including funding ten new clinical trials in 2016. For much of the last year that has looked very ambitious indeed. But today the Board took a big step towards reaching that goal, approving three clinical trials focused on some deadly or life-threatening conditions.

The first is Forty Seven Inc.’s work targeting colorectal cancer, using a monoclonal antibody that can strip away the cancer cells ability to evade  the immune system. The immune system can then attack the cancer. But just in case that’s not enough they’re going to hit the tumor from another side with an anti-cancer drug called cetuximab. It’s hoped this one-two punch combination will get rid of the cancer.

Finding something to help the estimated 49,000 people who die of colorectal cancer in the U.S. every year would be no small achievement. The CIRM Board thought this looked so promising they awarded Forty Seven Inc. $10.2 million to carry out a clinical trial to test if this approach is safe. We funded a similar approach by researchers at Stanford targeting solid tumors in the lung and that is showing encouraging results.

Our Board also awarded $7.35 million to a team at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles that is using stem cells to treat pulmonary hypertension, a form of high blood pressure in the lungs. This can have a devastating, life-changing impact on a person leaving them constantly short of breath, dizzy and feeling exhausted. Ultimately it can lead to heart failure.

The team at Cedars-Sinai will use cells called cardiospheres, derived from heart stem cells, to reduce inflammation in the arteries and reduce blood pressure. CIRM is funding another project by this team using a similar  approach to treat people who have suffered a heart attack. This work showed such promise in its Phase 1 trial it’s now in a larger Phase 2 clinical trial.

The largest award, worth $20 million, went to target one of the rarest diseases. A team from UCLA, led by Don Kohn, is focusing on Adenosine Deaminase Severe Combined Immune Deficiency (ADA-SCID), which is a rare form of a rare disease. Children born with this have no functioning immune system. It is often fatal in the first few years of life.

The UCLA team will take the patient’s own blood stem cells, genetically modify them to fix the mutation that is causing the problem, then return them to the patient to create a new healthy blood and immune system. The team have successfully used this approach in curing 23 SCID children in the last few years – we blogged about it here – and now they have FDA approval to move this modified approach into a Phase 2 clinical trial.

So why is CIRM putting money into projects that it has either already funded in earlier clinical trials or that have already shown to be effective? There are a number of reasons. First, our mission is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. Each of the diseases funded today represent an unmet medical need. Secondly, if something appears to be working for one problem why not try it on another similar one – provided the scientific rationale and evidence shows it is appropriate of course.

As Randy Mills, our President and CEO, said in a news release:

“Our Board’s support for these programs highlights how every member of the CIRM team shares that commitment to moving the most promising research out of the lab and into patients as quickly as we can. These are very different projects, but they all share the same goal, accelerating treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.”

We are trying to create a pipeline of projects that are all moving towards the same goal, clinical trials in people. Pipelines can be horizontal as well as vertical. So we don’t really care if the pipeline moves projects up or sideways as long as they succeed in moving treatments to patients. And I’m guessing that patients who get treatments that change their lives don’t particularly

Advancements in gene editing make blind rats see light

Gene editing is a rapidly advancing technology that scientists are using to manipulate the genomes of cells with precision and accuracy. Many of these experiments are being conducted on stem cells to genetic mutations in an attempt to find cures for various diseases like cancer, HIV and blindness.

Speaking of blindness, researchers from the Salk Institute reported today that they’ve improved upon the current CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology and found a more efficient way to edit the genomes of cells in living animals. They used their technology on blind rats that had a genetic disease called retinitis pigmentosa (RP) and found that the rats were able to see light following the treatment.

The really exciting part about their findings is that their CRISPR technology works well on dividing cells like stem cells and progenitor cells, which is typically how scientists use the CRISPR technology, but it also works on adult cells that do not divide – a feat that hasn’t been accomplished before.

Their results, which were published today in the journal Nature, offer a new tool that scientists can use to target cells that no longer divide in tissues and organs like the eye, brain, pancreas and heart.

According to a Salk news release:

“The new Salk technology is ten times more efficient than other methods at incorporating new DNA into cultures of dividing cells, making it a promising tool for both research and medicine. But, more importantly, the Salk technique represents the first time scientists have managed to insert a new gene into a precise DNA location in adult cells that no longer divide, such as those of the eye, brain, pancreas or heart, offering new possibilities for therapeutic applications in these cells.”

CRISPR gene edited neurons, which are non-dividing brain cells, are shown in green while cell nuclei are shown in blue. (Salk)

CRISPR gene edited neurons, which are non-dividing brain cells, are shown in green while cell nuclei are shown in blue. (Salk)

Salk Professor and senior author on the study, Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, explained the big picture of their findings:

“We are very excited by the technology we discovered because it’s something that could not be done before. For the first time, we now have a technology that allows us to modify the DNA of non-dividing cells, to fix broken genes in the brain, heart and liver. It allows us for the first time to be able to dream of curing diseases that we couldn’t before, which is exciting.”

If you want to learn more about the science behind their new CRISPR gene editing technology, check out the Salk news release and coverage in Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News. You can also watch this short three minute video about the study made by the Salk Institute.