In the United States alone, there are approximately 1.1 million people living with Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), a virus that weakens the immune system by destroying important cells that fight off disease and infection. This number is much larger on a global scale, with 36.9 million people living with HIV as of 2017. If left untreated, the immune system becomes so weakened that the condition worsens into acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), which is usually fatal.
Current treatment for HIV focuses on the use of antiretroviral therapy (ART). This treatment is able to suppress replication of the virus, but it does not eliminate it from the body entirely. In order to be sustainable, ART must be taken throughout the course of a lifetime, otherwise HIV rebounds and the replication of the virus renews, fueling the development of AIDS.
The ability of HIV to rebound is related to the fact that it is able to integrate its DNA into various cells inside the body and beyond the reach of ART. Here they are able to remain dormant and ready to replicate as soon as ART is not interfering. It is because of this that ART is not sufficient on its own to cure HIV, but a group of scientists have uncovered a promising breakthrough to change that.
In a major collaboration, researchers at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University and the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) have for the first time eliminated HIV from the DNA of living mice. This study marks a critical step toward the development of a possible cure for human HIV infection.
The team of researchers was able to do this with the help of a new technology called long-acting slow-effective release (LASER) ART. LASER ART is able to target HIV sanctuaries and maintain replication at low levels for extended periods of time. Immediately after administering LASER ART, the team used a gene editing technology known as CRISPR to remove the final remnants of HIV DNA hidden inside cells.
In a press release, Dr. Kamel Khalili, senior investigator for this study, was quoted as saying,
“Our study shows that treatment to suppress HIV replication and gene editing therapy, when given sequentially, can eliminate HIV from cells and organs of infected animals…We now have a clear path to move ahead to trials in non-human primates and possibly clinical trials in human patients within the year.”
The full results of this study were published in Nature Communications.
To learn more about how CRISPR technology works, you can read more about it on a previous blog post.
We often talk about the important role that patient advocates play in helping advance research. That was demonstrated in a powerful way last week when the CIRM Board approved almost $12 million to fund a clinical trial targeting a rare childhood disorder called cystinosis.
The award, to Stephanie Cherqui and her team at UC San Diego (in collaboration with UCLA) was based on the scientific merits of the program. But without the help of the cystinosis patient advocate community that would never have happened. Years ago the community held a series of fundraisers, bake sales etc., and used the money to help Dr. Cherqui get her research started.
That money enabled Dr. Cherqui to get the data she needed to apply to CIRM for funding to do more detailed research, which led to her award last week. There to celebrate the moment was Nancy Stack. Her testimony to the Board was a moving celebration of how long they have worked to get to this moment, and how much hope this research is giving them.
Hello my name is Nancy Stack and I am the founder and president of the Cystinosis Research Foundation. Our daughter Natalie was diagnosed with cystinosis when she was an infant.
a rare disease that is characterized by the abnormal accumulation of cystine in
every cell in the body. The build-up of
cystine eventually destroys every organ in the body including the kidneys,
eyes, liver, muscles, thyroid and brain.
The average age of death from cystinosis and its complications is 28
years of age.
children and adults with cystinosis, there are no healthy days. They take
between 8-12 medications around the clock every day just to stay alive –
Natalie takes 45 pills a day. It is a
relentless and devastating disease.
complications abound and our children’s lives are filled with a myriad of
symptoms and treatments – there are g-tube feedings, kidney transplants, bone
pain, daily vomiting, swallowing
difficulties, muscle wasting, severe gastrointestinal side effects and for some
the Foundation in 2003. We have worked
with and funded Dr. Stephanie Cherqui since 2006. As a foundation, our resources are limited
but we were able to fund the initial grants for Stephanie’s Stem Cell studies. When CIRM awarded a grant
to Stephanie in 2016, it allowed her to complete the studies, file the IND and
as a result, we now have FDA approval
for the clinical trial. Your support has changed the course of this
When the FDA
approved the clinical trial for cystinosis last year, our community was filled
with a renewed sense of hope and optimism.
I heard from 32 adults with cystinosis – all of them interested in the
clinical trial. Our adults know that
this is their only chance to live a full life. Without this treatment, they
will die from cystinosis. In every
email I received, there was a message of hope and gratitude.
I received an
email from a young woman who said this, “It’s a new awakening to learn this
morning that human clinical trials have been approved by the FDA. I reiterate
my immense interest to participate in this trial as soon as possible because my
quality of life is at a low ebb and the trial is really my only hope. Time is
And a mom of a 19 year old young man who wants to be the first
patient in the trial wrote and said this, “On the day the trial was announced I started to cry tears of pure
happiness and I thought, a mother somewhere gets to wake up and have a child who
will no longer have cystinosis. I felt so happy for whom ever that mom would
be….I never imagined that the mom I was thinking about could be me. I am so
humbled to have this opportunity for my son to try to live disease free.
My own daughter ran into my arms that day and we cried tears of
joy – finally, the hope we had clung to was now a reality. We had come full
circle. I asked Natalie how it felt to
know that she could be cured and she said, “I have spent my entire life thinking
that I would die from cystinosis in my 30s but now, I might live a full life
and I am thinking about how much that changes how I think about my future. I never
planned too far ahead but now I can”.
As a mother, words can’t possible convey what it feels like to know that my child has a chance to live a long, healthy life free of cystinosis – I can breathe again. On behalf of all the children and adults with cystinosis, thank you for funding Dr. Cherqui, for caring about our community, for valuing our children and for making this treatment a reality. Our community is ready to start this trial – thank you for making this happen.
CIRM will be celebrating the role of patient advocates at a free event in Los Angeles tomorrow. It’s at the LA Convention Center and here are the details. And did I mention it’s FREE!
Tue, June 25, 2019 – 6:00 PM – 7:00 PM PDT
Petree Hall C., Los Angeles Convention Center, 1201 South Figueroa Street Los Angeles, CA 90015
And on Wednesday, USC is holding an event highlighting the progress being made in fighting diseases that destroy vision. Here’s a link to information about the event.
Blood stem cells offer promise for a variety of immune and blood related disorders such as sickle cell disease and leukemia. Like other stem cells, blood stem cells have the ability to generate additional blood stem cells in a process called self-renewal. Additionally, they are able to generate blood cells in a process called differentiation. These newly generated blood cells have the potential to be utilized for transplantations and gene therapies.
However, two limitations have hindered the progress made in this field. One problem relates to the amount of blood stem cells needed to make a potential transplantation or gene therapy viable. Unfortunately, it has been challenging to isolate and grow blood stem cells in large quantity needed for these approaches. A part of this reason relates to getting the blood stem cells to self-renew rather than differentiate.
The second problem involves the existing blood stem cells in the patient’s body prior to transplantation. In order for the procedure to work, the patient’s own blood stem cells must be eliminated to make space for the transplanted blood stem cells. This is done through a process known as conditioning, which typically involves chemotherapy and/or radiation. Unfortunately, chemotherapy and radiation can cause life-threatening side effects due to its toxicity, particularly in pediatric patients, such as growth retardation, infertility and secondary cancer in later life. Very sick or elderly patients are unable to tolerate this conditioning process, making them ineligible for transplants.
A CIRM funded study by a team at Stanford and the University of Tokyo has unlocked the code related to the generation of blood stem cells.
The collaborative team was able to modify the components used to grow blood stem cells. By making these modifications, which effects the growth and physical conditions of blood stem cells, the researchers have shown for the first time that it’s possible to get blood stem cells from mice to renew themselves hundreds or even thousands of times within a period of just 28 days.
Furthermore, the team showed that when they transplanted the newly grown cells into mice that had not undergone conditioning, the donor cells had engrafted and remained functional.
The team also found that gene editing technology such as CRISPR could be used while growing an adequate supply of blood stem cells for transplantation. This opens the possibility of obtaining a patient’s own blood stem cells, correcting the problematic gene, and reintroducing these back to the patient.
In a news release, Dr. Hiromitsu Nakauchi, a senior author of the study, is quoted as saying,
“For 50 years, researchers from laboratories around the world have been seeking ways to grow these cells to large numbers. Now we’ve identified a set of conditions that allows these cells to expand in number as much as 900-fold in just one month. We believe this approach could transform how [blood] stem cell transplants and gene therapy are performed in humans.”
At CIRM we are very cautious about using the “c” word. Saying someone has been “cured” is a powerful statement but one that loses its meaning when over used or used inappropriately. However, in the case of a new study from U.C. San Francisco and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, saying “cure” is not just accurate, it’s a celebration of something that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago.
The research focuses on children with a specific form of Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) called X-Linked SCID. It’s also known as “bubble baby” disease because children born with this condition lack a functioning immune system, so even a simple infection could be fatal and in the past they were kept inside sterile plastic bubbles to protect them.
In this study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers took blood stem
cells from the child and, in the lab, genetically re-engineered them to correct
the defective gene, and then infused them back into the child. Over time they
multiplied and created a new blood supply, one free of the defect, which helped
repair the immune system.
In a news
release Dr. Ewelina Mamcarz, the lead author of the study, announced that
ten children have been treated with this method.
“These patients are toddlers now, who are responding to
vaccinations and have immune systems to make all immune cells they need for
protection from infections as they explore the world and live normal lives.
This is a first for patients with SCID-X1.”
The ten children were treated at both St. Jude and at UCSF
funded the UCSF arm of the clinical trial.
The story, not surprisingly, got a lot of attention in the
media including this fine
piece by CNN.
On the surface, actor Michael J. Fox, singer Neil Diamond, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and Scottish comedian Billy Connolly would appear to have little in common. Except for one thing. They all have Parkinson’s Disease (PD).
Their celebrity status has helped raise public awareness about the condition, but studies show that awareness doesn’t amount to an understanding of PD or the extent to which it impacts someone’s life. In fact a study in the UK found that many people still don’t think PD is a serious condition.
To try and help change that people around the world will be
holding events today, April 11th, World Parkinson’s Day.
The disease was first described by James Parkinson in 1817 in “An Essay on the Shaking Palsy”. In the essay Parkinson described a pattern of trembling in the hands and fingers, slower movement and loss of balance. Our knowledge about the disease has advanced in the last 200 years and now there are treatments that can help slow down the progression of the disease. But those treatments only last for a while, and so there is a real need for new treatments.
That’s what Jun Takahashi’s team at Kyoto University in
Japan hope to provide. In a first-of-its-kind procedure they took skin cells
from a healthy donor and reprogrammed them to become induced pluripotent stem
cells (iPSCs), or stem cells that become any type of cell. These iPSCs were
then turned into the precursors of dopamine-producing neurons, the cells
destroyed by PD, and implanted into 12 brain regions known to be hotspots for
was carried out in October and the patient, a male in his 50s, is still
healthy. If his symptoms continue to improve and he doesn’t experience any bad
side effects, he will receive a second dose of dopamine-producing stem
cells. Six other patients are scheduled to receive this same treatment.
Earlier tests in monkeys showed that the implanted stem cells improved Parkinson’s symptoms without causing any serious side effects.
Scientists at UC San
Francisco are trying a different approach, using gene therapy to tackle one of
the most widely recognized symptoms of PD, muscle movement.
In the study,
published in the journal Annals
of Neurology, the team used
an inactive virus to deliver a gene to boost production of dopamine in the
brain. In a Phase 1 clinical trial 15 patients, whose medication was no longer
able to fully control their movement disorder, were treated with this approach.
Not only were they able to reduce their medication – up to 42 percent in some
cases – the medication they did take lasted longer before causing dyskinesia,
an involuntary muscle movement that is a common side effect of the PD
In a news article Dr. Chad Christine, the first author of the
study, says this approach may also help reduce other symptoms.
“Since many patients were able to substantially
reduce the amount of Parkinson’s medications, this gene therapy treatment may
also help patients by reducing dose-dependent side effects, such as sleepiness
At CIRM we have
a long history of funding research into PD. Over the years we have invested
more than $55 million to try and develop new treatments for the disease.
In June 2018, the CIRM Board awarded $5.8 million to UC San Francisco’s Krystof Bankiewicz and Cedars-Sinai’s Clive Svendsen. They are using neural progenitor cells, which have the ability to multiply and turn into other kinds of brain cells, and engineering them to express the growth factor GDNF which is known to protect the cells damaged in PD. The hope is that when transplanted into the brain of someone with PD, it will help slow down, or even halt the progression of the disease.
The CIRM funding
will hopefully help the team do the pre-clinical research needed to get the
FDA’s go-ahead to test this approach in a clinical trial.
At the time of the award David Higgins, PhD, the CIRM Board Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s Disease, said: “One of the big frustrations for people with Parkinson’s, and their families and loved ones, is that existing therapies only address the symptoms and do little to slow down or even reverse the progress of the disease. That’s why it’s important to support any project that has the potential to address Parkinson’s at a much deeper, longer-lasting level.”
But we don’t just fund the research, we try to bring the scientific community together to help identify obstacles and overcome them. In March of 2013, in collaboration with the Center for Regenerative Medicine (CRM) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), we held a two-day workshop on cell therapies for Parkinson’s Disease. The experts outlined the steps needed to help bring the most promising research to patients.
Around one million Americans are currently living with Parkinson’s Disease. Worldwide the number is more than ten million. Those numbers are only expected to increase as the population ages. There is clearly a huge need to develop new treatments and, hopefully one day, a cure.
Till then days like April 11th will be an
opportunity to remind ourselves why this work is so important.
There has been a lot of conversation surrounding CRISPR-Cas9 in these recent months as well as many sensational news stories. Some of these stories highlight the promise this technology holds, while others emphasize a word of caution. But what exactly does this technology do and how does it work? Here is a breakdown that will help you better understand.
To start off, CRISPR is a naturally occurring process found in bacteria used as an immune system to defend against viruses. CRISPR simply put, are strands of DNA segments that contain repeating patterns. There are “scissor like” CRISPR proteins that have the ability to cut DNA segments. When a copy of a virus enters the bacteria, these “scissor like” proteins cut a segment of DNA from the virus and insert it into CRISPR. A copy of the viral DNA is made and another “attack” protein known as Cas9 attaches to it. By binding to the viral copy, Cas9 is able to sense that virus. When the same virus tries to enter the bacteria, Cas9 is able to seek and destroy it.
You can view a more detailed video explaining this concept below.
Many scientists analyzed this process in detail and it was eventually discovered that this CRISPR-Cas9 complex could be used to removed unwanted genes and insert a corrected copy, revolutionizing the way that we view the approach towards treating a wide variety of genetic diseases.
In fact, researchers at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center and the University of Massachusetts Medical School have developed a strategy using this complex to treat two inherited, lethal blood disorders, sickle cell disease (SCD) and beta thalassemia. Both of these diseases involve a mutation that effects production of red blood cells, which are produced by blood stem cells. In beta-thalassemia, the mutation prevent red blood cells from being able to carry enough oxygen, leading to anemia. In SCD, the mutations cause red blood cells to take on a “sickle” shape which can block blood vessels.
By using CRISPR-Cas9 to insert a corrected copy of the gene into a patient’s own blood stem cells, this team demonstrated that functional red blood cells can then be produced. These results pay the way for other blood disorders as well.
In a press release , Dr. Daniel Bauer, an attending physician with Dana-Farber and a senior author on both of these studies stated that,
“Combining gene editing with an autologous stem-cell transplant could be a therapy for sickle-cell disease, beta-thalassemia and other blood disorders.”
In a separate study, scientists at University of Massachusetts Medical School have developed a strategy that could be used to treat genetic disorders associated with unintentional repeats or copies of small DNA segments. These problematic small segments of DNA are called microduplications and cause as many as 143 different diseases, including limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, Hermansky-Pudlak syndrome, and Tay-Sachs.
Because these are issues caused by repeats or copies of small DNA segments, the CRISPR-Cas9 complex can be used to remove microduplications without having to insert any additional genetic material.
Dr. Scot A. Wolfe, a co-investigator of this study, stated that,
“It’s like hitting the reset button. We don’t have to add any corrective genetic material, instead the cell stitches the DNA back together minus the duplication. It’s a shortcut for gene correction with potential therapeutic appeal.”
Although there has been a lot progress made with this technology, there are still concerns that need to be addressed. An article in Science mentions how two studies have shown that CRISPR can still make unintended changes to DNA, which can be potentially dangerous. In the article, Dr. Jin-Soo Kim, a CRISPR researcher at Seoul National University is quoted as saying,
“It is now important to determine which component is responsible for the collateral mutations and how to reduce or avoid them.”
Overall, CRISPR-Cas9 has revolutionized the approach of precision medicine. A wide variety of diseases are caused by small, unexpected segments of DNA. By applying this approach found in bacteria to humans, we have uncovered a way to correct these segments at the microscopic level. However, there is still much that needs to be learned and perfected before it can be utilized in patients.
At CIRM we are always happy to highlight success stories, particularly when they involve research we are funding. But we are also mindful of the need not to overstate a finding. To quote the Greek philosopher Aristotle (who doesn’t often make an appearance on this blog), “one swallow does not a summer make”. In other words, one good result doesn’t mean you have proven something works. But it might mean that you are on the right track. And that’s why we are welcoming the news about a clinical trial we are funding with Sangamo Therapeutics.
The trial is for the treatment of beta-thalassemia, (beta-thal) a severe form of anemia caused by a genetic mutation. People with beta-thal require life-long blood transfusions because they have low levels of hemoglobin, a protein needed to help the blood carry oxygen around the body. Those low levels of oxygen can cause anemia, fatigue, weakness and, in severe cases, can lead to organ damage and even death. The life expectancy for people with the more severe forms of the condition is only 30-50 years.
In this clinical
trial the Sangamo team takes
a patient’s own blood stem cells and, using a gene-editing technology called
zinc finger nuclease (ZFN), inserts a working copy of the defective hemoglobin
gene. These modified cells are given back to the patient, hopefully generating
a new, healthy, blood supply which potentially will eliminate the need for
chronic blood transfusions.
announced that the first patient treated in this clinical trial seems to be
doing rather well.
The therapy, called
ST-400, was given to a patient who has the most severe form of beta-thal. In
the two years before this treatment the patient was getting a blood transfusion
every other week. While the treatment initially caused an allergic reaction,
the patient quickly rebounded and in the seven weeks afterwards:
Demonstrated evidence of being able to
produce new blood cells including platelets and white blood cells
Showed that the genetic edits made by
ST-400 were found in new blood cells
Hemoglobin levels – the amount of
oxygen carried in the blood – improved.
In the first few weeks
after the therapy the patient needed some blood transfusions but in the next
five weeks didn’t need any.
Obviously, this is
encouraging. But it’s also just one patient. We don’t yet know if this will
continue to help this individual let alone help any others. A point Dr. Angela
Smith, one of the lead researchers on the project, made in a news
“While these data are very early
and will require confirmation in additional patients as well as longer
follow-up to draw any clinical conclusion, they are promising. The detection of
indels in peripheral blood with increasing fetal hemoglobin at seven weeks is
suggestive of successful gene editing in this transfusion-dependent beta
thalassemia patient. These initial results are especially encouraging given the
patient’s β0/ β0 genotype, a patient population
which has proved to be difficult-to-treat and where there is high unmet medical
a first step. But a promising one. And that’s always a great way to start.
Don Reed has been a champion of CIRM even before there was a CIRM. He’s a pioneer in pushing for funding for stem cell research and now he’s working hard to raise awareness about the difference that funding is making.
In a recent article on Daily Kos, Don highlighted one of the less celebrated partners in this research, the humble rat.
A BETTER RAT? Benefit #62 of the California Stem Cell Agency
By Don C. Reed
When I told my wife Gloria I was writing an article about rats, she had several comments, including: “Oo, ugh!” and also “That’s disgusting!”
Obviously, there are problems with rats, such as
when they chew through electrical wires, which may cause a short circuit
and burn down the house. Also, they are blamed for carrying diseased
fleas in their ears and spreading the Black Plague, which in 1340 killed
half of China and one-third of Europe—but this is not certain. The
plague may in fact have been transmitted by human-carried parasites.
But there are positive aspects to rats as well. For
instance: “…a rat paired with another that has a disability…will be
very kind to the other rat. Usually, help is offered with food,
cleaning, and general care.”—GUIDE TO THE RAT, by Ginger Cardinal.
Above all, anyone who has ever been sick owes a
debt to rats, specifically the Norway rat with that spectacular name,
rattus norvegicus domesticus, found in labs around the world.
I first realized its importance on March 1, 2002,
when I held in my hand a rat which had been paralyzed, but then
recovered the use of its limbs.
The rat’s name was Fighter, and she had been given a derivative of embryonic stem cells, which restored function to her limbs. (This was the famous stem cell therapy begun by Hans Keirstead with a Roman Reed grant, developed by Geron, and later by CIRM and Asterias, which later benefited humans.)
As I felt the tiny muscles struggling to be free,
it was like touching tomorrow— while my paralyzed son, Roman Reed, sat
in his wheelchair just a few feet away.
Was it different working with rats instead of mice? I had heard that the far smaller lab mice were more “bitey” than rats.
Wanting to know more about the possibilities of a “better rat”, I went to the CIRM website, (www.cirm.ca.gov) hunted up the “Tools and Technology III” section, and the following complicated sentence::
“Embryonic stem cell- based generation of rat models for assessing human cellular therapies.”
Hmm. With science writing, it always takes me a
couple of readings to know what they were talking about. But I
recognized some of the words, so that was a start.
“Stemcells… rat models… human therapies….”
I called up Dr. Qilong Ying, Principle Investigator (PI) of the study.
As he began to talk, I felt a “click” of recognition, as if, like pieces of a puzzle, facts were fitting together.
It reminded me of Jacques Cousteau, the great
underwater explorer, when he tried to invent a way to breathe
underwater. He had the compressed air tank, and a mouthpiece that would
release air—but it came in a rush, not normal breathing.
So he visited his friend, race car mechanic Emil
Gagnan, and told him, “I need something that will give me air, but only
when I inhale,”– and Gagnan said: “Like that?” and pointed to a metal
contraption on a nearby table.
It was something invented for cars. But by adding
it to what Cousteau already had, the Cousteau-Gagnan SCUBA (Self
Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) gear was born—and the ocean
could now be explored.
Qi-Long Ying’s contribution to science may also be a piece of the puzzle of cure…
A long-term collaboration with Dr. Austin Smith centered on an attempt to do with rats what had done with mice.
In 2007, the Nobel Prize in Medicine had been won by Dr. Martin Evans, Mario Capecchi, and Oliver Smithies. Working independently, they developed “knock-out” and “knock-in” mice, meaning to take out a gene, or put one in.
But could they do the same with rats?
“We and others worked very, very hard, and got nowhere,” said Dr. Evans.
Why was this important?
Many human diseases cannot be mimicked in the
mouse—but might be in the rat. This is for several reasons: the rat is
about ten times larger; its internal workings are closer to those of a
human; and the rat is considered several million years closer (in
evolutionary terms) to humans than the mouse.
In 2008 (“in China, that is the year of the rat,” noted Dr. Ying in our conversation) he received the first of three grants from CIRM.
“We proposed to use the classical embryonic stem
cell-based gene-targeting technology to generate rat models mimicking
human heart failure, diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases…”
How did he do?
In 2010, Science Magazine honored him with
inclusion in their “Top 10 Breakthroughs for using embryonic stem
cell-based gene targeting to produce the world’s first knockout rats,
modified to lack one or more genes…”
And in 2016, he and Dr. Smith received the McEwen Award for Innovation, the highest honor bestowed by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR).
Using knowledge learned from the new (and more
relevant to humans) lab rat, it may be possible to develop methods for
the expansion of stem cells directly inside the patient’s own bone
marrow. Stem cells derived in this fashion would be far less likely to
be rejected by the patient. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, they would
be “of the patient, by the patient and for the patient—and shall not
perish from the patient”—sorry!
Several of the rats generated in Ying’s lab (to mimic human diseases) were so successful that they have been donated to the Rat Research Resource center so that other scientists can use them for their study.
“Maybe in the future we will develop a cure for some diseases because of knowledge from using rat models,” said Ying. “I think it’s very possible. So we want more researchers from USC and beyond to come and use this technology.”
To Mend: (verb used with object) to make (something broken, worn, torn or otherwise damaged) whole, sound or usable by repairing.
It’s remarkable to believe, but today doctors literally have the tools to repair damaged cells. These tools are being used to treat people with diseases that were once incurable. The field of regenerative medicine has made tremendous progress in the last 15 years, but how did these tools come about and what is the experience of patients being treated with them?
These questions, and hopefully yours too, are going to be answered at the fourth annual CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Symposium on April 18, 2019 at the University of California at San Francisco.
The symposium is free, and the program is designed with patients and the public in mind, so don’t be shy and put your scientific thinking caps on! A complete agenda may be found here
Perhaps one of the most remarkable discoveries in the past decade are new tools that enable doctors to “edit” or correct a patient’s own DNA. DNA correction tools came about because of a remarkable string of scientific breakthroughs. The symposium will dive into this history and discuss how these tools are being used today to treat patients.
One specific example of the promise that DNA editing holds is for those with sickle cell disease (SCD), a condition where patients’ blood forming stem cells contain a genetic error that causes the disease. The symposium will describe how the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network, a series of medical centers across California whose focus is on stem cell clinical trials, are supporting work aimed at mending blood cells to cure debilitating diseases like SCD.
Doctors, nurses and patients involved with these trials will be telling their stories and describing their experiences. One important focus will be how Alpha Clinic teams are partnering with community members to ensure that patients, interested in new treatments, are informed about the availability of clinical trials and receive sufficient information to make the best treatment choices.
The fourth annual CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Symposium is an opportunity for patients, their families and the public to meet the pioneers who are literally mending a patients own stem cells to cure their disease.
Claude Vorilhorn, founder of Raelism; Photo: courtesy thoughtco.com
Remember the Raelians? Probably not. But way back in 2002 the group, some described them as a cult, claimed it had created the world’s first cloned baby. The news made headlines all around the world raising fears we were stepping into uncharted scientific territory. Several weeks later the scientist brought in by the Raelians to verify their claims called it an “elaborate hoax.”
He Jiankui: Photo courtesy MIT Technology Review
Fast forward 16 years and a Chinese scientist named He Jiankui of Shenzhen claims he has created the first genetically modified humans. Again, it is generating headlines around the world and alarming people. In an interview with CNBC, Hank Greely, a bioethicist at Stanford, said if it happened it was “criminally reckless and I unequivocally condemn the experiment.”
The question now is did it happen, or is this just another “elaborate hoax”?
The concerns about this story are real. The scientist claims he used CRISPR to modify embryos during fertility treatments, resulting in the birth of twin girls.
CRISPR has been making headlines all of its own in the last few years as a fast, cheap and efficient way of editing genes. CIRM supports research using CRISPR for problems such as sickle cell disease. The difference being that our research works with adults so any changes in their genes are just for them. Those changes are not passed on to future generations.
The work making headlines around the world used CRISPR on embryos, meaning a child born from one of those embryos would pass those changes on to future generations. In effect, creating a new kind of human being.
This approach raises all sorts of serious issues – scientific, ethical and moral – not the least of which is that the technique could create unknown mutations down the road that would be passed on to future generations. That’s why in the US the editing of embryos for pregnancy is banned.
But almost as soon as the news was announced there were questions raised about it. The research was not published anywhere. A hospital that the researchers named in their ethical approval documents is denying any involvement.
If it did happen, it could open a new, and potentially frightening chapter in science. In an interview on CNN, Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, called the use of CRISPR in this manner as “genetic Russian Roulette.”
“If true, this experiment is monstrous. Gene editing itself is experimental and is still associated with off-target mutations, capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer.”
And in an interview on the BBC, Prof Robert Winston, Professor of Science and Society at Imperial College London, said: “If this is a false report, it is scientific misconduct and deeply irresponsible. If true, it is still scientific misconduct.”
Our best hope right now is that this is just a repeat of the Raelians. Our worst fear, is that it’s not.