CIRM funding helps improve immune cell therapy to combat HIV

Image description: T cell infected with HIV.
Image Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

In June of last year we wrote about how Dr. Scott Kitchen and his team at UCLA are engineering blood forming stem cells in order to fight HIV, a potentially deadly virus that attacks the immune system and can worsen into AIDS if left untreated. HIV causes havoc in the body by attacking T cells, a vital part of the body’s immune system that helps fight off infections and diseases.

Dr. Kitchen’s approach uses what is called Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T gene therapy. This is a type of immune therapy that involves genetically modifying the body’s own blood forming stem cells to create T cells that have the ability to fight HIV. These newly formed immune cells have the potential to not only destroy HIV-infected cells but to create “memory cells” that could provide lifelong protection from HIV infection.

Flash forward to April of this year and the results of the CIRM funded study ($1.7M) have been published in PLOS Pathogens.

Unfortunately, although the previously designed CAR T gene therapy was still able to create HIV fighting immune cells, the way the CAR T gene therapy was designed still had the potential to allow for HIV infection.

For this new study, the team modified the CAR T gene therapy such that the cells would be resistant to infection and allow for a more efficient and longer-lasting cell response against HIV than before.

While the previous approach allowed for the continuous production of new HIV-fighting T cells that persisted for more than two years, these cells are inactivated until they come across the HIV virus. The improved CAR T gene therapy engineers the body’s immune response to HIV rather than waiting for the virus to induce a response. This is similar in concept to how a vaccine prepares the immune system to respond against a virus. The new approach also creates a significant number of “memory” T cells that are capable of quickly responding to reactivated HIV. 

The hope is that these findings can influence the development of T cells that are able carry “immune system” memory with the ability to recognize and kill virus-infected or cancerous cells. 

To date, CIRM has also funded four separate clinical trials related to the treatment of HIV/AIDS totaling over $31 million.

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

Sickle shaped red blood cells

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Mark Walters

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

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

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

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

Prime Time for Rocket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going the extra mile to save a patient’s life

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

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

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

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

Dr. Gayatri Rao, Rocket Pharmaceuticals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A word from our Chair, several in fact

In 2005, the New Oxford American Dictionary named “podcast” its word of the year. At the time a podcast was something many had heard of but not that many actually tuned in to. My how times have changed. Now there are some two million podcasts to chose from, at least according to the New York Times, and who am I to question them.

Yesterday, in the same New York Times, TV writer Margaret Lyons, wrote about how the pandemic helped turn her from TV to podcasts: “Much in the way I grew to prefer an old-fashioned phone call to a video chat, podcasts, not television, became my go-to medium in quarantine. With their shorter lead times and intimate production values, they felt more immediate and more relevant than ever before.”

I mention this because an old colleague of ours at CIRM, Neil Littman, has just launched his own podcast and the first guest on it was Jonathan Thomas, Chair of the CIRM Board. Their conversation ranged from CIRM’s past to the future of the regenerative field as a whole, with a few interesting diversions along the way. It’s fun listening. And as Margaret Lyons said it might be more immediate and more relevant than ever before.

Scientists use stem cells to create Neanderthal-like “mini-brain”

Alysson R. Muotri, Ph.D.

The evolution of modern day humans has always been a topic that has been shrouded in mystery. Some of what is known is that Neanderthals, an archaic human species that lived on this planet up until about 11,700 years ago, interbred with our species (Homo sapiens) at some point in time. Although their brains were about as big as ours, anthropologists think they must have worked differently due to the fact that they never achieved the sophisticated technology and artistry modern humans have.

Since brains do not fossilize, it has been challenging to see how these two early human species have changed over time. To help answer this question, Dr. Alysson Muotri and his team at UC San Diego created so-called “mini-brains” using stem cells and gene editing technology to better understand how the Neanderthal brain might have functioned.

For this study, Dr. Muotri and his team closely evaluated the differences in genes between modern day humans and Neanderthals. They found a total of 61 different genes, but for this study focused on one in particular that plays a role in influencing early brain development.

Brain organoids that carry a Neanderthal gene.
Image courtesy of the Muotri Lab and UCSD

Using gene editing technology, the team introduced the Neanderthal version of the gene into human stem cells. These stem cells, which have the ability to become various cell types, were then used to create brain cells. These cells eventually formed brain organoids or “mini-brains”, 3D models made of cells that can be used to analyze certain features of the human brain. Although they are far from perfect replicas, they can be used to study physical structure and other characteristics. In a previous CIRM funded study, Dr. Muotri had used “mini-brains” to model an autism spectrum disorder and help test treatments.

Dr. Muotri and his team found that the Neanderthal-like brain organoids looked very different than modern human brain organoids, having a distinctly different shape. Upon further analysis, the team found that modern and Neanderthal-like brain organoids also differed in the way their cells grow. Additionally, the way in which connections between neurons formed as well as the proteins involved in forming these connections differed between the two organoids. Finally, electrical impulses displayed higher activity at earlier stages, but didn’t synchronize in networks in Neanderthal-like brain organoids.

According to Muotri, the neural network changes in Neanderthal-like brain organoids mimic the way newborn primates acquire new abilities more rapidly than human newborns.

In a news release from UCSD, Dr. Muotri discusses the next steps in advancing this research.

“This study focused on only one gene that differed between modern humans and our extinct relatives. Next we want to take a look at the other 60 genes, and what happens when each, or a combination of two or more, are altered. We’re looking forward to this new combination of stem cell biology, neuroscience and paleogenomics.”

The full results of this study were published in Science.

Everything you wanted to know about COVID vaccines but never got a chance to ask

All this month we are using our blog and social media to highlight a new chapter in CIRM’s life, thanks to the voters approving Proposition 14. We are looking back at what we have done since we were created in 2004, and also looking forward to the future. Today we feature a rare treat, an interview with Moderna’s Dr. Derrick Rossi.

Moderna co-founder Dr. Derrick Rossi

It’s not often you get a chance to sit down with one of the key figures in the fight against the coronavirus and get to pick his brain about the best ways to beat it. We were fortunate enough to do that on Wednesday, talking to Dr. Derrick Rossi, the co-founder of Moderna, about the vaccine his company has developed.

CIRM’s President and CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, was able to chat to Dr. Rossi for one hour about his background (he got support from CIRM in his early post-doctoral research at Stanford) and how he and his colleagues were able to develop the COVID-19 vaccine, how the vaccine works, how effective it is, how it performs against new variations of the virus.

He also told us what he would have become if this science job hadn’t worked out.

All in all it was a fascinating conversation with someone whose work is offering a sense of hope for millions of people around the world.

If you missed it first time around you can watch it here.

CIRM funded researchers discover link between Alzheimer’s gene and COVID-19

Dr. Yanhong Shi (left) and Dr. Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami (right)

All this month we are using our blog and social media to highlight a new chapter in CIRM’s life, thanks to the voters approving Proposition 14. We are looking back at what we have done since we were created in 2004, and also looking forward to the future. Today we focus on groundbreaking CIRM funded research related to COVID-19 that was recently published.

It’s been almost a year since the world started hearing about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.  In our minds, the pandemic has felt like an eternity, but scientists are still discovering new things about how the virus works and if genetics might play a role in the severity of the virus.  One population study found that people who have ApoE4, a gene type that has been found to increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, had higher rates of severe COVID-19 and hospitalizations.

It is this interesting observation that led to important findings of a study funded by two CIRM awards ($7.4M grant and $250K grant) and conducted by Dr. Yanhong Shi at City of Hope and co-led by Dr. Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami, a member of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center.  The team found that the same gene that increases the risk for Alzheimer’s disease can increase the susceptibility and severity of COVID-19.

At the beginning of the study, the team was interested in the connection between SARS-CoV-2 and its effect on the brain.  Due to the fact that patients typically lose their sense of taste and smell, the team theorized that there was an underlying neurological effect of the virus.  

The team first created neurons and astrocytes.  Neurons are cells that function as the basic working unit of the brain and astrocytes provide support to them.  The neurons and astrocytes were generated from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are a kind of stem cell that can become virtually any type of cell and can be created by “reprogramming” the skin cells of patients.  The newly created neurons and astrocytes were then infected with SARS-CoV-2 and it was found that they were susceptible to infection.

Next, the team used iPSCs to create brain organoids, which are 3D models that mimic certain features of the human brain.  They were able to create two different organoid models: one that contained astrocytes and one without them.  They infected both brain organoid types with the virus and discovered that those with astrocytes boosted SARS-CoV-2 infection in the brain model. 

The team then decided to further study the effects of ApoE4 on susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2.  They did this by generating neurons from iPSCs “reprogrammed” from the cells of an Alzheimer’s patient.  Because the iPSCs were derived from an Alzheimer’s patient, they contained ApoE4.  Using gene editing, the team modified some of the ApoE4 iPSCs created so that they contained ApoE3, which is a gene type considered neutral.  The ApoE3 and ApoE4 iPSCs were then used to generate neurons and astrocytes.

The results were astounding.  The ApoE4 neurons and astrocytes both showed a higher susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2 infection in comparison to the ApoE3 neurons and astrocytes.  Moreover, while the virus caused damage to both ApoE3 and ApoE4 neurons, it appeared to have a slightly more severe effect on ApoE4 neurons and a much more severe effect on ApoE4 astrocytes compared to ApoE3 neurons and astrocytes. 

“Our study provides a causal link between the Alzheimer’s disease risk factor ApoE4 and COVID-19 and explains why some (e.g. ApoE4 carriers) but not all COVID-19 patients exhibit neurological manifestations” says Dr. Shi. “Understanding how risk factors for neurodegenerative diseases impact COVID-19 susceptibility and severity will help us to better cope with COVID-19 and its potential long-term effects in different patient populations.”

In the last part of the study, the researchers tested to see if the antiviral drug remdesivir inhibits virus infection in neurons and astrocytes.  They discovered that the drug was able to successfully reduce the viral level in astrocytes and prevent cell death.  For neurons, it was able to rescue them from steadily losing their function and even dying. 

The team says that the next steps to build on their findings is to continue studying the effects of the virus and better understand the role of ApoE4 in the brains of people who have COVID-19.  Many people that developed COVID-19 have recovered, but long-term neurological effects such as severe headaches are still being seen months after. 

“COVID-19 is a complex disease, and we are beginning to understand the risk factors involved in the manifestation of the severe form of the disease” says Dr. Arumugaswami.  “Our cell-based study provides possible explanation to why individuals with Alzheimer’s’ disease are at increased risk of developing COVID-19.”

The full results to this study were published in Cell Stem Cell.

Progress in the fight against Sickle Cell Disease

Marissa Cors, sickle cell disease patient advocate

Last November Marissa Cors, a patient advocate in the fight against Sickle Cell Disease (SCD), told the Stem Cellar “A stem cell cure will end generations of guilt, suffering, pain and early death. It will give SCD families relief from the financial, emotional and spiritual burden of caring someone living with SCD. It will give all of us an opportunity to have a normal life. Go to school, go to work, live with confidence.” With each passing month it seems we are getting closer to that day.

CIRM is funding four clinical trials targeting SCD and another project we are supporting has just been given the green light by the Food and Drug Administration to start a clinical trial. Clearly progress is being made.

Yesterday we got a chance to see that progress. We held a Zoom event featuring Marissa Cors and other key figures in the fight against SCD, CIRM Science Officer Dr. Ingrid Caras and Evie Junior. Evie is a pioneer in this struggle, having lived with sickle cell all his life but now hoping to live his life free of the disease. He is five months past a treatment that holds out the hope of eradicating the distorted blood cells that cause such devastation to people with the disease.

You can listen to his story, and hear about the other progress being made. Here’s a recording of the Zoom event.

You can also join Marissa every week on her live event on Facebook, Sickle Cell Experience Live.

Inspiring new documentary about stem cell research

Poster for the documentary “Ending Disease”

2020 has been, to say the very least, a difficult and challenging year for all of us. But while the focus of the world has, understandably, been on the coronavirus there was also some really promising advances in stem cell research. Those advances are captured in a great new documentary called Ending Disease.

The documentary is by Emmy award-winning filmmaker Joe Gantz. In it he follows ten people who are facing life-threatening or life-changing diseases and injuries and who turn to pioneering stem cell therapies for help.

It’s an inspiring documentary, one that reminds you of the real need for new treatments and the tremendous hope and promise of stem cell therapies. Here’s a look at a trailer for Ending Disease.

You can see an exclusive screening of Ending Disease on Friday, January 8th, 2021 at 5:00pm PST.

After the livestream, there will be a live Q&A session where former members of the successful Proposition 14 campaign team – which refunded CIRM with an additional $5.5 billion – will be joined by CIRM’s President and CEO Dr. Maria Millan, talking about what lies ahead for CIRM and the future of stem cell research.

To purchase a ticket, click here. It only costs $12 and 50% of the ticket sales proceeds will go to Americans for Cures to help them continue to advocate for the advancement of stem cell research, and more importantly, for the patients and families to whom stem cell research provides so much hope.

If you need any extra persuading that it’s something you should definitely put on our calendar, here’s a letter from the film maker Joe Gantz.

I am the director of the documentary Ending Disease: The Stem Cell, Anti-Cancer T-Cell, & Antibody Revolution In Medicine, a film that will help inform people about the progress that’s been made in this field and how people with their lives on the line are now able to benefit from these new regenerative therapies. 

I was granted unprecedented access to ten of the first generation of clinical trials using stem cell and regenerative medicine to treat and cure many of the most devastating diseases and conditions including: brain cancer, breast cancer, leukemia and lymphoma, HIV, repairing a broken spinal cord, retinitis pigmentosa and SCID. The results are truly inspiring.

This is personal for me.  After spending four years making this documentary, I was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Upon diagnosis, I immediately felt the same desperation as millions of families who are in search of a medical breakthrough. I understood, on a personal level, what the patients we followed in the film all knew: when you are diagnosed with a disease, there is a narrow window of time in which you can effectively seek a life-saving treatment or cure. If treatment becomes available outside of that window, then it is too late. However, Ending Disease shows that with continued support for regenerative medicine, we can create a near future in which one-time cures and highly mitigating therapies are available to patients for a whole host of diseases.

Best regards,

Joe