Using the AIDS virus to help children battling a deadly immune disorder

Ronnie Kashyap, patient in SCID clinical trial: Photo Pawash Priyank

More than 35 million people around the world have been killed by HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. So, it’s hard to think that the same approach the virus uses to infect cells could also be used to help children battling a deadly immune system disorder. But that’s precisely what researchers at UC San Francisco and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital are doing.

The disease the researchers are tackling is a form of severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). It’s also known as ‘bubble baby’ disease because children are born without a functioning immune system and in the past were protected from germs within the sterile environment of a plastic bubble. Children with this disease often die of infections, even from a common cold, in the first two years of life.

The therapy involves taking the patient’s own blood stem cells from their bone marrow, then genetically modifying them to correct the genetic mutation that causes SCID. The patient is then given low-doses of chemotherapy to create space in their bone marrow for the news cells. The gene-corrected stem cells are then transplanted back into the infant, creating a new blood supply and a repaired immune system.

Unique delivery system

The novel part of this approach is that the researchers are using an inactivated form of HIV as a means to deliver the correct gene into the patient’s cells. It’s well known that HIV is perfectly equipped to infiltrate cells, so by taking an inactivated form – meaning it cannot infect the individual with HIV – they are able to use that infiltrating ability for good.

The results were announced at the American Society of Hematology (ASH) Annual Meeting and Exposition in Atlanta.

The researchers say seven infants treated and followed for up to 12 months, have all produced the three major immune system cell types affected by SCID. In a news release, lead author Ewelina Mamcarz, said all the babies appear to be doing very well:

“It is very exciting that we observed restoration of all three very important cell types in the immune system. This is something that’s never been done in infants and a huge advantage over prior trials. The initial results also suggest our approach is fundamentally safer than previous attempts.”

One of the infants taking part in the trial is Ronnie Kashyap. We posted a video of his story on our blog, The Stem Cellar.

If the stem cell-gene therapy combination continues to show it is both safe and effective it would be a big step forward in treating SCID. Right now, the best treatment is a bone marrow transplant, but only around 20 percent of infants with SCID have a sibling or other donor who is a good match. The other 80 percent have to rely on a less well-matched bone marrow transplant – usually from a parent – that can still leave the child prone to life-threatening infections or potentially fatal complications such as graft-versus-host disease.

CIRM is funding two other clinical trials targeting SCID. You can read about them here and here.

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Progress to a Cure for Bubble Baby Disease

Welcome back to our “Throwback Thursday” series on the Stem Cellar. Over the years, we’ve accumulated an arsenal of exciting stem cell stories about advances towards stem cell-based cures for serious diseases. Today we’re featuring stories about the progress of CIRM-funded clinical trials for the treatment of a devastating, usually fatal, primary immune disease that strikes newborn babies.

evangelina in a bubble

Evie, a former “bubble baby” enjoying life by playing inside a giant plastic bubble

‘Bubble baby disease’ will one day be a thing of the past. That’s a bold statement, but I say it with confidence because of the recent advancements in stem cell gene therapies that are curing infants of this life-threatening immune disease.

The scientific name for ‘bubble baby disease’ is severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). It prevents the proper development of important immune cells called B and T cells, leaving newborns without a functioning immune system. Because of this, SCID babies are highly susceptible to deadly infections, and without treatment, most of these babies do not live past their first year. Even a simple cold virus can be fatal.

Scientists are working hard to develop stem cell-based gene therapies that will cure SCID babies in their first months of life before they succumb to infections. The technology involves taking blood stem cells from a patient’s bone marrow and genetically correcting the SCID mutation in the DNA of these cells. The corrected stem cells are then transplanted back into the patient where they can grow and regenerate a healthy immune system. Early-stage clinical trials testing these stem cell gene therapies are showing very encouraging results. We’ll share a few of these stories with you below.

CIRM-funded trials for SCID

CIRM is funding three clinical trials, one from UCLA, one at Stanford and one from UCSF & St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, that are treating different forms of SCID using stem cell gene therapies.

Adenosine Deaminase-Deficient SCID

The first trial is targeting a form of the disease called adenosine deaminase-deficient SCID or ADA-SCID. Patients with ADA-SCID are unable to make an enzyme that is essential for the function of infection-fighting immune cells called lymphocytes. Without working lymphocytes, infants eventually are diagnosed with SCID at 6 months. ADA-SCID occurs in approximately 1 in 200,000 newborns and makes up 15% of SCID cases.

CIRM is funding a Phase 2 trial for ADA-SCID that is testing a stem cell gene therapy called OTL-101 developed by Dr. Don Kohn and his team at UCLA and a company called Orchard Therapeutics. 10 patients were treated in the trial, and amazingly, nine of these patients were cured of their disease. The 10th patient was a teenager who received the treatment knowing that it might not work as it does in infants. You can read more about this trial in our blog from earlier this year.

In a recent news release, Orchard Therapeutics announced that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has awarded Rare Pediatric Disease Designation to OTL-101, meaning that the company will qualify for priority review for drug approval by the FDA. You can read more about what this designation means in this blog.

X-linked SCID

The second SCID trial CIRM is funding is treating patients with X-linked SCID. These patients have a genetic mutation on a gene located on the X-chromosome that causes the disease. Because of this, the disease usually affects boys who have inherited the mutation from their mothers. X-linked SCID is the most common form of SCID and appears in 1 in 60,000 infants.

UCSF and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital are conducting a Phase 1/2 trial for X-linked SCID. The trial, led by Dr. Brian Sorrentino, is transplanting a patient’s own genetically modified blood stem cells back into their body to give them a healthy new immune system. Patients do receive chemotherapy to remove their diseased bone marrow, but doctors at UCSF are optimizing low doses of chemotherapy for each patient to minimize any long-term effects. According to a UCSF news release, the trial is planning to treat 15 children over the next five years. Some of these patients have already been treated and we will likely get updates on their progress next year.

CIRM is also funding a third clinical trial out of Stanford University that is hoping to make bone marrow transplants safer for X-linked SCID patients. The team, led by Dr. Judy Shizuru, is developing a therapy that will remove unhealthy blood stem cells from SCID patients to improve the survival and engraftment of healthy bone marrow transplants. You can read more about this trial on our clinical trials page.

SCID Patients Cured by Stem Cells

These clinical trial results are definitely exciting, but what is more exciting are the patient stories that we have to share. We’ve spoken with a few of the families whose children participated in the UCLA and UCSF/St. Jude trials, and we asked them to share their stories so that other families can know that there is hope. They are truly inspiring stories of heartbreak and joyful celebration.

Evie is a now six-year-old girl who was diagnosed with ADA-SCID when she was just a few months old. She is now cured thanks to Don Kohn and the UCLA trial. Her mom gave a very moving presentation about Evie’s journey at the CIRM Bridges Trainee Annual Meeting this past July.  You can watch the 20-minute talk below:

Ronnie’s story

Ronnie SCID kid

Ronnie: Photo courtesy Pawash Priyank

Ronnie, who is still less than a year old, was diagnosed with X-linked SCID just days after he was born. Luckily doctors told his parents about the UCSF/St. Jude trial and Ronnie was given the life-saving stem cell gene therapy before he was six months old. Now Ronnie is building a healthy immune system and is doing well back at home with his family. Ronnie’s dad Pawash shared his families moving story at our September Board meeting and you can watch it here.

Our mission at CIRM is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. We hope that by funding promising clinical trials like the ones mentioned in this blog, that one day soon there will be approved stem cell therapies for patients with SCID and other life-threatening diseases.

How a tiny patch of skin helped researchers save the life of a young boy battling a deadly disease

 

EB boy

After receiving his new skin, the boy plays on the grounds of the hospital in Bochum, Germany. Credit: RUB

By any standards epidermolysis bullosa (EB) is a nasty disease. It’s a genetic condition that causes the skin to blister, break and tear off. At best, it’s painful and disfiguring. At worst, it can be fatal. Now researchers in Italy have come up with an approach that could offer hope for people battling the condition.

EB is caused by genetic mutations that leave the top layer of skin unable to anchor to inner layers. People born with EB are often called “Butterfly Children” because, as the analogy goes, their skin is as fragile as the wings of a butterfly. There are no cures and the only treatment involves constantly dressing the skin, sometimes several times a day. With each change of dressing, layers of skin can be peeled away, causing pain.

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Hands of a person with EB

Life and death for one boy

For Hassan, a seven-year old boy admitted to the Burn Unit of the Children’s Hospital in Bochum, Germany, the condition was particularly severe. Since birth Hassan had repeatedly developed blisters all over his body, but several weeks before being admitted to the hospital his condition took an even more serious turn. He had lost skin on around 80 percent of his body and he was battling severe infections. His life hung in the balance.

Hassan’s form of EB was caused by a mutation in a single gene, called LAMB3. Fortunately, a team of researchers at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy had been doing work in this area and had a potential treatment.

To repair the damage the researchers took a leaf out of the way severe burns are treated, using layers of skin to replace the damaged surface. In this case the team took a tiny piece of skin, about half an inch square, from Hassan and, in the laboratory, used a retrovirus to deliver a corrected version of the defective gene into the skin cells.

 

They then used the stem cells in the skin to grow sizable sheets of new skin, ranging in size from about 20 to 60 square inches, and used that to replace the damaged skin.

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In the study, published in the journal Nature, the researchers say the technique worked quickly:

“Upon removal of the non-adhering gauze (ten days after grafting) epidermal engraftment was evident. One month after grafting, epidermal regeneration was stable and complete. Thus approximately 80% of the patient’s TBSA (total body surface area) was restored by the transgenic epidermis.”

The engrafted skin not only covered all the damaged areas, it also proved remarkably durable. In the two years since the surgery the skin has remained, in the words of the researchers, “stable and robust, and does not blister, itch, or require ointment or medications.”

In an interview in Science, Jakub Tolar, an expert on EB at the University of Minnesota, talked about the significance of this study:

“It is very unusual that we would see a publication with a single case study anymore, but this one is a little different. This is one of these [studies] that can determine where the future of the field is going to go.”

Because the treatment focused on one particular genetic mutation it won’t be a cure for all EB patients, but it could provide vital information to help many people with the disease. The researchers identified a particular category of cells that seemed to play a key role in helping repair the skin. These cells, called holoclones, could be an important target for future research.

The researchers also said that if a child is diagnosed with EB at birth then skin cells can be taken and turned into a ready-made supply of the sheets that can be used to treat skin lesions when they develop. This would enable doctors to treat problems before they become serious, rather than have to try and repair the damage later.

As for Hassan, he is now back in school, leading a normal life and is even able to play soccer.

 

 

CIRM Board invests in three new stem cell clinical trials targeting arthritis, cancer and deadly infections

knee

Arthritis of the knee

Every day at CIRM we get calls from people looking for a stem cell therapy to help them fight a life-threatening or life-altering disease or condition. One of the most common calls is about osteoarthritis, a painful condition where the cartilage that helps cushion our joints is worn away, leaving bone to rub on bone. People call asking if we have something, anything, that might be able to help them. Now we do.

At yesterday’s CIRM Board meeting the Independent Citizens’ Oversight Committee or ICOC (the formal title of the Board) awarded almost $8.5 million to the California Institute for Biomedical Research (CALIBR) to test a drug that appears to help the body regenerate cartilage. In preclinical tests the drug, KA34, stimulated mesenchymal stem cells to turn into chondrocytes, the kind of cell found in healthy cartilage. It’s hoped these new cells will replace those killed off by osteoarthritis and repair the damage.

This is a Phase 1 clinical trial where the goal is primarily to make sure this approach is safe in patients. If the treatment also shows hints it’s working – and of course we hope it will – that’s a bonus which will need to be confirmed in later stage, and larger, clinical trials.

From a purely selfish perspective, it will be nice for us to be able to tell callers that we do have a clinical trial underway and are hopeful it could lead to an effective treatment. Right now the only alternatives for many patients are powerful opioids and pain killers, surgery, or turning to clinics that offer unproven stem cell therapies.

Targeting immune system cancer

The CIRM Board also awarded Poseida Therapeutics $19.8 million to target multiple myeloma, using the patient’s own genetically re-engineered stem cells. Multiple myeloma is caused when plasma cells, which are a type of white blood cell found in the bone marrow and are a key part of our immune system, turn cancerous and grow out of control.

As Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO, said in a news release:

“Multiple myeloma disproportionately affects people over the age of 65 and African Americans, and it leads to progressive bone destruction, severe anemia, infectious complications and kidney and heart damage from abnormal proteins produced by the malignant plasma cells.  Less than half of patients with multiple myeloma live beyond 5 years. Poseida’s technology is seeking to destroy these cancerous myeloma cells with an immunotherapy approach that uses the patient’s own engineered immune system T cells to seek and destroy the myeloma cells.”

In a news release from Poseida, CEO Dr. Eric Ostertag, said the therapy – called P-BCMA-101 – holds a lot of promise:

“P-BCMA-101 is elegantly designed with several key characteristics, including an exceptionally high concentration of stem cell memory T cells which has the potential to significantly improve durability of response to treatment.”

Deadly infections

The third clinical trial funded by the Board yesterday also uses T cells. Researchers at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles were awarded $4.8 million for a Phase 1 clinical trial targeting potentially deadly infections in people who have a weakened immune system.

Viruses such as cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr, and adenovirus are commonly found in all of us, but our bodies are usually able to easily fight them off. However, patients with weakened immune systems resulting from chemotherapy, bone marrow or cord blood transplant often lack that ability to combat these viruses and it can prove fatal.

The researchers are taking T cells from healthy donors that have been genetically matched to the patient’s immune system and engineered to fight these viruses. The cells are then transplanted into the patient and will hopefully help boost their immune system’s ability to fight the virus and provide long-term protection.

Whenever you can tell someone who calls you, desperately looking for help, that you have something that might be able to help them, you can hear the relief on the other end of the line. Of course, we explain that these are only early-stage clinical trials and that we don’t know if they’ll work. But for someone who up until that point felt they had no options and, often, no hope, it’s welcome and encouraging news that progress is being made.

 

 

Turning the corner with the FDA and NIH; CIRM creates new collaborations to advance stem cell research

FDAThis blog is part of the Month of CIRM series on the Stem Cellar

A lot can change in a couple of years. Just take our relationship with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

When we were putting together our Strategic Plan in 2015 we did a survey of key players and stakeholders at CIRM – Board members, researchers, patient advocates etc. – and a whopping 70 percent of them listed the FDA as the biggest impediment for the development of stem cell treatments.

As one stakeholder told us at the time:

“Is perfect becoming the enemy of better? One recent treatment touted by the FDA as a regulatory success had such a high clinical development hurdle placed on it that by the time it was finally approved the standard of care had evolved. When it was finally approved, five years later, its market potential had significantly eroded and the product failed commercially.”

Changing the conversation

To overcome these hurdles we set a goal of changing the regulatory landscape, finding a way to make the system faster and more efficient, but without reducing the emphasis on the safety of patients. One of the ways we did this was by launching our “Stem Cell Champions” campaign to engage patients, patient advocates, the public and everyone else who supports stem cell research to press for change at the FDA. We also worked with other organizations to help get the 21st Century Cures Act passed.

21 century cures

Today the regulatory landscape looks quite different than it did just a few years ago. Thanks to the 21st Century Cures Act the FDA has created expedited pathways for stem cell therapies that show promise. One of those is called the Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy (RMAT) designation, which gives projects that show they are both safe and effective in early-stage clinical trials the possibility of an accelerated review by the FDA. Of the first projects given RMAT designation, three were CIRM-funded projects (Humacyte, jCyte and Asterias)

Partnering with the NIH

Our work has also paved the way for a closer relationship with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is looking at CIRM as a model for advancing the field of regenerative medicine.

In recent years we have created a number of innovations including introducing CIRM 2.0, which dramatically improved our ability to fund the most promising research, making it faster, easier and more predictable for researchers to apply. We also created the Stem Cell Center  to make it easier to move the most promising research out of the lab and into clinical trials, and to give researchers the support they need to help make those trials successful. To address the need for high-quality stem cell clinical trials we created the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network. This is a network of leading medical centers around the state that specialize in delivering stem cell therapies, sharing best practices and creating new ways of making it as easy as possible for patients to get the care they need.

The NIH looked at these innovations and liked them. So much so they invited CIRM to come to Washington DC and talk about them. It was a great opportunity so, of course, we said yes. We expected them to carve out a few hours for us to chat. Instead they blocked out a day and a half and brought in the heads of their different divisions to hear what we had to say.

A model for the future

We hope the meeting is, to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart at the end of Casablanca, “the start of a beautiful friendship.” We are already seeing signs that it’s not just a passing whim. In July the NIH held a workshop that focused on what will it take to make genome editing technologies, like CRISPR, a clinical reality. Francis Collins, NIH Director, invited CIRM to be part of the workshop that included thought leaders from academia, industry and patients advocates. The workshop ended with a recommendation that the NIH should consider building a center of excellence in gene editing and transplantation, based on the CIRM model (my emphasis).  This would bring together a multidisciplinary disease team including, process development, cGMP manufacturing, regulatory and clinical development for Investigational New Drug (IND) filing and conducting clinical trials, all under one roof.

dr_collins

Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the NIH

In preparation, the NIH visited the CIRM-funded Stem Cell Center at the City of Hope to explore ways to develop this collaboration. And the NIH has already begun implementing these suggestions starting with a treatment targeting sickle cell disease.

There are no guarantees in science. But we know that if you spend all your time banging your head against a door all you get is a headache. Today it feels like the FDA has opened the door and that, together with the NIH, they are more open to collaborating with organizations like CIRM. We have removed the headache, and created the possibility that by working together we truly can accelerate stem cell research and deliver the therapies that so many patients desperately need.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stem Cell Stories that Caught Our Eye: New law to protect consumers; using skin to monitor blood sugar; and a win for the good guys

Hernendez

State Senator Ed Hernandez

New law targets stem cell clinics that offer therapies not approved by the FDA

For some time now CIRM and others around California have been warning consumers about the risks involved in going to clinics that offer stem cell therapies that have not been tested in a clinical trial or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in patients.

Now a new California law, authored by State Senator Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) attempts to address that issue. It will require medical clinics whose stem cell treatments are not FDA approved, to post notices and provide handouts to patients warning them about the potential risk.

In a news release Sen. Hernandez said he hopes the new law, SB 512, will protect consumers from early-stage, unproven experimental therapies:

“There are currently over 100 medical offices in California providing non-FDA approved stem cell treatments. Patients spend thousands of dollars on these treatments, but are totally unaware of potential risks and dangerous side effects.”

Sen. Hernandez’s staffer Bao-Ngoc Nguyen crafted the bill, with help from CIRM Board Vice Chair Sen. Art Torres, Geoff Lomax and UC Davis researcher Paul Knoepfler, to ensure it targeted only clinics offering non-FDA approved therapies and not those offering FDA-sanctioned clinical trials.

For example the bill would not affect CIRM’s Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network because all the therapies offered there have been given the green light by the FDA to work with patients.

Blood_Glucose_Testing 

Using your own skin as a blood glucose monitor

One of the many things that people with diabetes hate is the constant need to monitor their blood sugar level. Usually that involves a finger prick to get a drop of blood. It’s simple but not much fun. Attempts to develop non-invasive monitors have been tried but with limited success.

Now researchers at the University of Chicago have come up with another alternative, using the person’s own skin to measure their blood glucose level.

Xiaoyang Wu and his team accomplished this feat in mice by first creating new skin from stem cells. Then, using the gene-editing tool CRISPR, they added in a protein that sticks to sugar molecules and another protein that acts as a fluorescent marker. The hope was that the when the protein sticks to sugar in the blood it would change shape and emit fluorescence which could indicate if blood glucose levels were too high, too low, or just right.

The team then grafted the skin cells back onto the mouse. When those mice were left hungry for a while then given a big dose of sugar, the skin “sensors” reacted within 30 seconds.

The researchers say they are now exploring ways that their findings, published on the website bioRxiv, could be duplicated in people.

While they are doing that, we are supporting ViaCytes attempt to develop a device that doesn’t just monitor blood sugar levels but also delivers insulin when needed. You can read about our recent award to ViaCyte here.

Deepak

Dr. Deepak Srivastava

Stem Cell Champion, CIRM grantee, and all-round-nice guy named President of Gladstone Institutes

I don’t think it would shock anyone to know that there are a few prima donnas in the world of stem cell research. Happily, Dr. Deepak Srivastava is not one of them, which makes it such a delight to hear that he has been appointed as the next President of the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco.

Deepak is a gifted scientist – which is why we have funded his work – a terrific communicator and a really lovely fella; straight forward and down to earth.

In a news release announcing his appointment – his term starts January 1 next year – Deepak said he is honored to succeed the current President, Sandy Williams:

“I joined Gladstone in 2005 because of its unique ability to leverage diverse basic science approaches through teams of scientists focused on achieving scientific breakthroughs for mankind’s most devastating diseases. I look forward to continue shaping this innovative approach to overcome human disease.”

We wish him great success in his new role.

 

 

 

UCLA launches CIRM-funded clinical trial using engineered blood stem cells to fight hard-to-treat cancers

It’s not uncommon for biomedical institutes as well as their funding partners to announce through press releases that a clinical trial they’re running has gotten off the ground and has started to enroll patients. For an outsider looking in, it may seem like they’re jumping the gun a bit. No patients have received the therapy. No cures have been declared. So why all the hubbub at the start?

The reality is this: the launch of a clinical trial isn’t a beginning. It represents many years of effort by many researchers and a lot of funding to take an idea and develop it into a tangible product that has been given clearance to be tested in people to potentially save their lives. That’s why this important milestone deserves to be recognized. So, we were excited to get the word out, in the form of a press release , that UCLA had announced this morning the launch of a CIRM-funded clinical trial testing a therapy for hard-to-treat cancers.

The UCLA clinical trial procedure will genetically alter a patient’s hematopoietic stem cells and T cells to give rise to a steady supply of T cells that are efficient cancer killers.

It’s estimated that metastasis, or the spread of cancer to other parts of the body, is responsible for 90% of cancer deaths. Though radiation and chemotherapy treatments can stop a tumor in its tracks, a small population of cancer stem cells in the tumor lie dormant and can evade those anti-cancer approaches. Because of their unlimited potential to divide, the cancer stem cells regrow the tumor leading to its inevitable return and spread. Oncologists clearly need new approaches to help patients with this unmet medical need.

That’s where today’s clinical trial launch comes into the picture. Dr. Antonio Ribas, a member of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center, and his team will genetically engineer cancer-killing white blood cells called T cells and blood-forming stem cells collected from patients to produce a protein receptor that recognizes a protein found almost exclusively on the surface of many types of cancer. When the T cells are transfused back into the patient, they can more efficiently track down and eradicate hard-to-treat cancer stem cells. At the same time, the transfused blood stem cells – which specialize into all the various immune system cells – will provide a long-term supply of T cells for continued protection against reoccurrence of the tumor.

“Few options exist for the treatment of patients whose cancers have metastasized due to resistance to current therapies,” Ribas said in the UCLA press release. “This clinical trial will allow us to try a new approach that engineers the body’s immune system to fight metastasized tumors similar to how it fights germs and viruses.”

 

And as Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO (interim), described in our accompanying press release, CIRM will be an ever-present partner to help Ribas’ team get the clinical trial smoothly out of the starting gate and provide the support needed to carry the therapy to its completion:

“This trial is the first step in developing a therapy that could alleviate the complications resulting from cancer metastases as well as potentially improving outcomes in cancer patients where there are currently no effective treatment options. We are confident that CIRM’s funding and partnership, in combination with the expertise provided by our Alpha Stem Cell Clinic network, will give provide critical support for the successful conduct of this important clinical trial.”

 

 

 

To learn more about this clinical trial, visit its page at clinicaltrials.gov. If you think you might be eligible to enroll, please contact Clinical Research Coordinator Justin Tran by email at justintran@mednet.ucla.edu or by phone at 310-206-2090.

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: skin grafts fight diabetes, reprogramming the immune system, and Asterias expands spinal cord injury trial sites

Here are the stem cell stories that caught our eye this week.

Skin grafts fight diabetes and obesity.

An interesting new gene therapy strategy for fighting type 1 diabetes and obesity surfaced this week. Scientists from the University of Chicago made genetically engineered skin grafts that secrete a peptide hormone called glucagon-liked peptide-1 (GLP-1). This peptide is released by cells in the intestine and can lower blood sugar levels by stimulating pancreatic islet cells to secrete insulin (a hormone that promotes the absorption of glucose from the blood).

The study, which was published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, used CRISPR gene editing technology to introduce a mutation to the GLP-1 gene in mouse and human skin stem cells. This mutation stabilized the GLP-1 peptide, allowing it to hang around in the blood for longer. The team matured these stem cells into skin grafts that secreted the GLP-1 into the bloodstream of mice when treated with a drug called doxycycline.

When fed a high-fat diet, mice with a skin graft (left), genetically altered to secrete GLP-1 in response to the antibiotic doxycycline, gained less weight than normal mice (right). (Image source: Wu Laboratory, the University of Chicago)

On a normal diet, mice that received the skin graft saw a rise in their insulin levels and a decrease in their blood glucose levels, proving that the gene therapy was working. On a high fat diet, mice with the skin graft became obese, but when they were treated with doxycycline, GLP-1 secreted from their grafts reduced the amount of weight gain. So not only does their engineered skin graft technology look like a promising new strategy to treat type 1 diabetes patients, it also could be used to control obesity. The beauty of the technology is in its simplicity.

An article in Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News that covered this research explained that Xiaoyang Wu, the senior author on the study, and his team “worked with skin because it is a large organ and easily accessible. The cells multiply quickly and are easily transplanted. And, transplanted cells can be removed, if needed. “Skin is such a beautiful system,” Wu says, noting that its features make it a perfect medium for testing gene therapies.”

Wu concluded that, “This kind of therapy could be potentially effective for many metabolic disorders.” According to GenBio, Wu’s team “is now testing the gene-therapy technique in combination with other medications.” They also hope that a similar strategy could be used to treat patients that can’t make certain proteins like in the blood clotting disorder hemophilia.

How to reprogram your immune system (Kevin McCormack)

When your immune system goes wrong it can cause all manner of problems, from type 1 diabetes to multiple sclerosis and cancer. That’s because an overactive immune system causes the body to attack its own tissues, while an underactive one leaves the body vulnerable to outside threats such as viruses. That’s why scientists have long sought ways to correct those immune dysfunctions.

Now researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco think they have found a way to reprogram specific cells in the immune system and restore a sense of health and balance to the body. Their findings are published in the journal Nature.

The researchers identified a drug that targets effector T cells, which get our immune system to defend us against outside threats, and turns them into regulatory T cells, which control our immune system and stops it from attacking our own body.

Why would turning one kind of T cell into another be helpful? Well, in some autoimmune diseases, the effector T cells become overly active and attack healthy tissues and organs, damaging and even destroying them. By converting them to regulatory T cells you can prevent that happening.

In addition, some cancers can hijack regulatory T cells and suppress the immune system, allowing the disease to spread. By turning those cells into effector T cells, you can boost the immune system and give it the strength to fight back and, hopefully, kill the cancer.

In a news release, Gladstone Senior Investigator Sheng Ding, the lead scientists on the study, said their findings could have several applications:

“Our findings could have a significant impact on the treatment of autoimmune diseases, as well as on stem cell and immuno-oncology therapies.” 

Gladstone scientists Sheng Ding (right) and Tao Xu (left) discovered how to reprogram cells in our immune system. (Gladstone Institutes)

CIRM-funded spinal cord injury trial expands clinical sites

We have another update from CIRM’s clinical trial front. Asterias Biotherapeutics, which is testing a stem cell treatment for complete cervical (neck) spinal cord injury, is expanding its clinical sites for its CIRM-funded SCiStar Phase 1/2a trial. The company is currently treating patients at six sites in the US, and will be expanding to include two additional sites at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia and the UC San Diego Medical Center, which is part of the UCSD Health CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic.

In a company news release, Ed Wirth, Chief Medical Officer of Asterias said,

Ed Wirth

“We are excited about the clinical site openings at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and UC San Diego Health. These sites provide additional geographical reach and previous experience with spinal cord injury trials to our SCiStar study. We have recently reported completion of enrollment in four out of five cohorts in our SCiStar study so we hope these institutions will also participate in a future, larger study of AST-OPC1.”

The news release also gave a recap of the trial’s positive (but still preliminary) results this year and their plans for completing trial enrollment.

“In June 2017, Asterias reported 9 month data from the AIS-A 10 million cell cohort that showed improvements in arm, hand and finger function observed at 3-months and 6-months following administration of AST-OPC1 were confirmed and in some patients further increased at 9-months. The company intends to complete enrollment of the entire SCiStar study later this year, with multiple safety and efficacy readouts anticipated during the remainder of 2017 and 2018.”

Scientists fix heart disease mutation in human embryos using CRISPR

Last week the scientific community was buzzing with the news that US scientists had genetically modified human embryos using CRISPR gene editing technology. While the story broke before the research was published, many journalists and news outlets weighed in on the study’s findings and the ethical implications they raise. We covered this initial burst of news in last week’s stem cell stories that caught our eye.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov (Leah Nash, New York Times)

After a week of suspense, the highly-anticipated study was published yesterday in the journal Nature. The work was led by senior author Dr. Shoukhrat Mitalipov from Oregon Health and Sciences University (and a member of CIRM’s Grants Working Group, the panel of experts who review applications to us for funding) in collaboration with scientists from the Salk Institute and Korea’s Institute for Basic Science.

In brief, the study revealed that the teams’ CRISPR technology could correct a genetic mutation that causes a disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) in 72% of human embryos without causing off-target effects, which are unwanted genome modifications caused by CRISPR. These findings are a big improvement over previous studies by other groups that had issues with off-target effects and mosaicism, where CRISPR only correctly modifies mutations in some but not all cells in an embryo.

Newly fertilized eggs before gene editing, left, and embryos after gene editing and a few rounds of cell division. (Image from Shoukrat Mitalipov in New York Times)

Mitalipov spoke to STATnews about a particularly interesting discovery that he and the other scientists made in the Nature study,

“The main finding is that the CRISPR’d embryos did not accept the “repair DNA” that the scientists expected them to use as a replacement for the mutated gene deleted by CRISPR, which the embryos inherited from their father. Instead, the embryos used the mother’s version of the gene, called the homologue.”

Sharon Begley, the author of the STATnews article, argued that this discovery means that “designer babies” aren’t just around the corner.

“If embryos resist taking up synthetic DNA after CRISPR has deleted an unwanted gene, then “designer babies,” created by inserting a gene for a desirable trait into an embryo, will likely be more difficult than expected.”

Ed Yong from the Atlantic also took a similar stance towards Mitalipov’s study in his article titled “The Designer Baby Era is Not Upon Us”. He wrote,

“The bigger worry is that gene-editing could be used to make people stronger, smarter, or taller, paving the way for a new eugenics, and widening the already substantial gaps between the wealthy and poor. But many geneticists believe that such a future is fundamentally unlikely because complex traits like height and intelligence are the work of hundreds or thousands of genes, each of which have a tiny effect. The prospect of editing them all is implausible. And since genes are so thoroughly interconnected, it may be impossible to edit one particular trait without also affecting many others.”

Dr. Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, who’s a corresponding author on the paper and a former CIRM grantee from the Salk Institute, commented on the impact that this research could have on human health in a Salk news release.

Co-authors Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte and Jun Wu. (Salk Institute)

“Thanks to advances in stem cell technologies and gene editing, we are finally starting to address disease-causing mutations that impact potentially millions of people. Gene editing is still in its infancy so even though this preliminary effort was found to be safe and effective, it is crucial that we continue to proceed with the utmost caution, paying the highest attention to ethical considerations.”

Pam Belluck from The New York Times also suggested that this research could have a significant impact on how we prevent disease in newborns.

“This research marks a major milestone and, while a long way from clinical use, it raises the prospect that gene editing may one day protect babies from a variety of hereditary conditions.”

So when will the dawn of CRISPR babies arrive? Ed Yong took a stab at answering this million dollar question with help from experts in the field.

“Not for a while. The technique would need to be refined, tested on non-human primates, and shown to be safe. “The safety studies would likely take 10 to 15 years before FDA or other regulators would even consider allowing clinical trials,” wrote bioethicist Hank Greely in a piece for Scientific American. “The Mitalipov research could mean that moment is 9 years and 10 months away instead of 10 years, but it is not close.” In the meantime, Mitalipov’s colleague Sanjiv Kaul says, “We’ll get the method to perfection so that when it’s possible to use it in a clinical trial, we can.”

Stem Cell Stories that Caught our Eye: CRISPRing Human Embryos, brain stem cells slow aging & BrainStorm ALS trial joins CIRM Alpha Clinics

Here are the stem cell stories that caught our eye this week. Enjoy!

Scientists claim first CRISPR editing of human embryos in the US.

Here’s the big story this week. Scientists from Portland, Oregon claim they genetically modified human embryos using the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology. While their results have yet to be published in a peer review journal (though the team say they are going to be published in a prominent journal next month), if they prove true, the study will be the first successful attempt to modify human embryos in the US.

A representation of an embryo being fertilized. Scientists can inject CRISPR during fertilization to correct genetic disorders. (Getty Images).

Steve Connor from MIT Technology Review broke the story earlier this week noting that the only reports of human embryo modification were published by Chinese scientists. The China studies revealed troubling findings. CRISPR caused “off-target” effects, a situation where the CRISPR machinery randomly introduces genetic errors in a cell’s DNA, in the embryos. It also caused mosaicism, a condition where the desired DNA sequences aren’t genetically corrected in all the cells of an embryo producing an individual with cells that have different genomes. Putting aside the ethical conundrum of modifying human embryos, these studies suggested that current gene editing technologies weren’t accurate enough to safely modify human embryos.

But a new chapter in human embryo modification is beginning. Shoukhrat Mitalipov (who is a member of CIRM’s Grants Working Group, the panel of scientific experts that reviews our funding applications) and his team from the Oregon Health and Science University said that they have developed a method to successfully modify donated human embryos that avoids the problems experienced by the Chinese scientists. The team found that introducing CRISPR at the same time an embryo was being fertilized led to successful correction of disease-causing mutations while avoiding mosaicism and “off-target” effects. They grew these embryos for a few days to confirm that the genetic modifications had worked before destroying them.

The MIT piece quoted a scientist who knows of Mitalipov’s work,

“It is proof of principle that it can work. They significantly reduced mosaicism. I don’t think it’s the start of clinical trials yet, but it does take it further than anyone has before.”

Does this discovery, if it’s true, open the door further for the creation of designer babies? For discussions about the future scientific and ethical implications of this research, I recommend reading Paul Knoepfler’s blog, this piece by Megan Molteni in Wired Magazine and Jessica Berg’s article in The Conversation.

Brain stem cells slow aging in mice

The quest for eternal youth might be one step closer thanks to a new study published this week in the journal Nature. Scientists from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York discovered that stem cells found in an area of the brain called the hypothalamus can slow the aging process in mice.

The hypothalamus is located smack in the center of your brain near the brain stem. It’s responsible for essential metabolic functions such as making and secreting hormones, managing body temperature and controlling feelings of hunger and thirst. Because the body’s metabolic functions decline with age, scientists have suspected that the hypothalamus plays a role in aging.

The mouse hypothalamus. (NIH, Wikimedia).

In the current study, the team found that stem cells in the hypothalamus gradually disappear as mice age. They were curious whether the disappearance of these stem cells could jump start the aging process. When they removed these stem cells, the mice showed more advanced mental and physical signs of aging compared to untreated mice.

They also conducted the opposite experiment where they transplanted hypothalamic stem cells taken from baby mice (the idea being that these stem cells would exhibit more “youthful” qualities) into the brains of middle-aged mice and saw improvements in mental and physical functions and a 10% increase in lifespan.

So what is it about these specific stem cells that slows down aging? Do they replenish the aging brain with new healthy cells or do they secrete factors that keep the brain healthy? Interestingly, the scientists found that these stem cells secreted vesicles that contained microRNAs, which are molecules that regulate gene expression by turning genes on or off.

They injected these microRNAs into the brains of middle-aged mice and found that they reversed symptoms of aging including cognitive decline and muscle degeneration. Furthermore, when they removed hypothalamic stem cells from middle-aged mice and treated them with the microRNAs, they saw the same anti-aging effects.

In an interview with Nature News, senior author on the study, Dongsheng Cai, commented that hypothalamic stem cells could have multiple ways of regulating aging and that microRNAs are just one of their tools. For this research to translate into an anti-aging therapy, “Cai suspects that anti-ageing therapies targeting the hypothalamus would need to be administered in middle age, before a person’s muscles and metabolism have degenerated beyond a point that could be reversed.”

This study and its “Fountain of Youth” implications has received ample attention from the media. You can read more coverage from The Scientist, GenBio, and the original Albert Einstein press release.

BrainStorm ALS trial joins the CIRM Alpha Clinics

Last month, the CIRM Board approved $15.9 million in funding for BrainStorm Cell Therapeutic’s Phase 3 trial that’s testing a stem cell therapy to treat patients with a devastating neurodegenerative disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).

The stem cell therapy, called NurOwn®, is made of mesenchymal stem cells extracted from a patient’s bone marrow. The stem cells are genetically modified to secrete neurotrophic factors that keep neurons in the brain healthy and prevent their destruction by diseases like ALS.

BrainStorm has tested NurOwn in early stage clinical trials in Israel and in a Phase 2 study in the US. These trials revealed that the treatment was “safe and well tolerated” and that “NurOwn also achieved multiple secondary efficacy endpoints, showing clear evidence of a clinically meaningful benefit.  Notably, response rates were higher for NurOwn-treated subjects compared to placebo at all time points in the study out to 24 weeks.”

This week, BrainStorm announced that it will launch its Phase 3 CIRM-funded trial at the UC Irvine (UCI) CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic. The Alpha Clinics are a network of top medical centers in California that specialize in delivering high quality stem cell clinical trials to patients. UCI is one of four medical centers including UCLA, City of Hope, and UCSD, that make up three Alpha Clinics currently supporting 38 stem cell trials in the state.

Along with UCI, BrainStorm’s Phase 3 trial will also be conducted at two other sites in the US: Mass General Hospital in Boston and California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. Chaim Lebovits, President and CEO, commented,

“We are privileged to have UCI and Dr. Namita Goyal join our pivotal Phase 3 study of NurOwn. Adding UCI as an enrolling center with Dr. Goyal as Principal Investigator will make the treatment more accessible to patients in California, and we welcome the opportunity to work with this prestigious institution.”

Before the Phase 3 trial can launch at UCI, it needs to be approved by our federal regulatory agency, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and an Institutional Review Board (IRB), which is an independent ethics committee that reviews biomedical research on human subjects. Both these steps are required to ensure that a therapy is safe to test in patients.

With promising data from their Phase 1 and 2 trials, BrainStorm’s Phase 3 trial will likely get the green light to move forward. Dr. Goyal, who will lead the trial at the UCI Alpha Clinic, concluded:

“NurOwn is a very promising treatment with compelling Phase 2 data in patients with ALS; we look forward to further advancing it in clinical development and confirming the therapeutic benefit with Brainstorm.”