Bubble baby treatment cleared to restart clinical trial

Evie Vaccaro: Photo courtesy Nancy Ramos

Three families battling a life-threatening immune disorder got some great news last week. A clinical trial that could save the life of their child has once again been given the go-ahead by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The clinical trial is the work of UCLA’s Dr. Don Kohn, and was strongly supported by CIRM. It is targeting ADA-SCID, a condition where the child is born without a functioning immune system so even a simple infection could prove fatal. In the past they were called “bubble babies” because some had been placed inside sterile plastic bubbles to protect them from germs.

Dr. Kohn’s approach – using the patient’s own blood stem cells, modified in the lab to correct the genetic mutation that causes the problem – had shown itself to be amazingly effective.  In a study in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, the researchers showed that of 50 patients treated all had done well and 97 percent were considered cured.

UCLA licensed the therapy to Orchard Therapeutics, who planned to complete the testing needed to apply for permission to make it more widely available. But Orchard ran into problems and shelved the therapy.

After lengthy negotiations Orchard returned the therapy to UCLA last year and now the FDA has given clearance for UCLA to resume treating patients. That is expected to start early next year using CIRM funds left over when Orchard halted its work.

One of the people who played a big role in helping persuade Orchard to return the therapy to UCLA is Alysia Vaccaro. She is the mother of Evie, a child born with ADA-SCID who was cured by Dr. Kohn and his team and is now a thriving 9 year old.

You can watch an interview we did with Alysia about the impact this research has had on her family, and how important it is for other families with ADA-SCID kids.

Making transplants easier for kids, and charting a new approach to fighting solid tumors.

Every year California performs around 100 kidney transplants in children but, on average, around 50 of these patients will have their body reject the transplant. These children then have to undergo regular dialysis while waiting for a new organ. Even the successful transplants require a lifetime of immunosuppression medications. These medications can prevent rejection but they also increase the risk of infection, gastrointestinal disease, pancreatitis and cancer.

Dr. Alice Bertaina and her team at Stanford University were awarded $11,998,188 to test an approach that uses combined blood stem cell (HSC) and kidney transplantation with the goal to improve outcomes with kidney transplantation in children. This approach seeks to improve on the blood stem cell preparation through an immune-based purification process.

In this approach, the donor HSC are transplanted into the patient in order to prepare for the acceptance of the donor kidney once transplanted. Donor HSC give rise to cells and conditions that re-train the immune system to accept the kidney. This creates a “tolerance” to the transplanted kidney providing the opportunity to avoid long-term need for medications that suppress the immune system.

Pre-clinical data support the idea that this approach could enable the patient to stop taking any immunosuppression medications within 90 days of the surgery.

Dr. Maria T. Millan, President and CEO of CIRM, a former pediatric transplant surgeon and tolerance researcher states that “developing a way to ensure long-term success of organ transplantation by averting immune rejection while avoiding the side-effects of life-long immunosuppression medications would greatly benefit these children.”

The CIRM Board also awarded $7,141,843 to Dr. Ivan King and Tachyon Therapeutics, Inc to test a drug showing promise in blocking the proliferation of cancer stem cells in solid tumors such as colorectal and gastrointestinal cancer.

Patients with late-stage colorectal cancer are typically given chemotherapy to help stop or slow down the progression of the disease. However, even with this intervention survival rates are low, usually not more than two years.

Tachyon’s medication, called TACH101, is intended to target colorectal cancer (CRC) stem cells as well as the bulk tumor by blocking an enzyme called KDM4, which cancer stem cells need to grow and proliferate.

In the first phase of this trial Dr. King and his team will recruit patients with advanced or metastatic solid tumors to assess the safety of TACH101, and determine what is the safest maximum dose. In the second phase of the trial, patients with gastrointestinal tumors and colorectal cancer will be treated using the dose determined in the first phase, to determine how well the tumors respond to treatment.  

The CIRM Board also awarded $5,999,919 to Dr. Natalia Gomez-Ospina and her team at Stanford University for a late-stage preclinical program targeting Severe Mucopolysaccharidosis type 1, also known as Hurler syndrome. This is an inherited condition caused by a faulty gene. Children with Hurler syndrome lack an enzyme that the body needs to digest sugar. As a result, undigested sugar molecules build up in the body, causing progressive damage to the brain, heart, and other organs. There is no effective treatment and life expectancy for many of these children is only around ten years.

Dr. Gomez-Ospina will use the patient’s own blood stem cells that have been genetically edited to restore the missing enzyme. The goal of this preclinical program is to show the team can manufacture the needed cells, to complete safety studies and to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration for an Investigational New Drug (IND), the authorization needed to begin a clinical trial in people.

Finally the Board awarded $20,401,260 to five programs as part of its Translational program. The goal of the Translational program is to support promising stem cell-based or gene projects that accelerate completion of translational stage activities necessary for advancement to clinical study or broad end use. Those can include therapeutic candidates, diagnostic methods  or devices and novel tools that address critical bottlenecks in research.

The successful applicants are:

APPLICATIONTITLEPRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR – INSTITUTIONAMOUNT  
TRAN4-14124Cell Villages and Clinical Trial in a Dish with Pooled iPSC-CMs for Drug DiscoveryNikesh Kotecha — Greenstone Biosciences  $1,350,000
TRAN1-14003Specific Targeting Hypoxia Metastatic Breast Tumor with Allogeneic Off-the-Shelf Anti-EGFR CAR NK Cells Expressing an ODD domain of HIF-1αJianhua Yu — Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope  $6,036,002  
TRAN1-13983CRISPR/Cas9-mediated gene editing of Hematopoietic
stem and progenitor cells for Friedreich’s ataxia
Stephanie Cherqui — University of California, San Diego  $4,846,579
TRAN1-13997Development of a Gene Therapy for the Treatment of
Pitt Hopkins Syndrome (PHS) – Translating from Animal Proof of Concept to Support Pre-IND Meeting
Allyson Berent — Mahzi Therapeutics  $4,000,000
TRAN1-13996Overcoming resistance to standard CD19-targeted CAR
T using a novel triple antigen targeted vector
William J Murphy — University of California, Davis  $4,168,679

Sweet 16 and counting for stem cell clinical trial

Dr. Judy Shizuru: Photo courtesy Jasper Therapeutics

Over the years the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has invested a lot in helping children born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a fatal immune disorder. And we have seen great results with some researchers reporting a 95 percent success rate in curing these children.

Now there’s more encouraging news from a CIRM-funded clinical trial with Jasper Therapeutics. They have announced that they have tested their approach in 16 patients, with encouraging results and no serious adverse events.

Let’s back up a little. Children born with SCID have no functioning immune system, so even a simple infection can prove life threatening. Left untreated, children with SCID often die in the first few years of life. Several of the approaches CIRM has funded use the child’s own blood stem cells to help fix the problem. But at Jasper Therapeutics they are using another approach. They use a bone marrow or hematopoietic stem cell transplant (HCT).   This replaces the child’s own blood supply with one that is free of the SCID mutation, which helps restore their immune system.

However, there’s a problem. Most bone marrow transplants use chemotherapy or radiation to destroy the patient’s own unhealthy blood stem cells and make room for the new, healthy ones. It can be effective, but it is also toxic and complex and can only be performed by specialized teams in major medical centers, making access particularly difficult for poor and underserved communities.

To get around that problem Jasper Therapeutics is using an antibody called JSP191 – developed with CIRM funding – that directs the patient’s own immune cells to kill diseased blood stem cells, creating room to transplant new, healthy cells. To date the therapy has already been tested in 16 SCID patients.

In addition to treating 16 patients treated without any apparent problems,  Jasper has also been granted Fast Track Designation by the US Food and Drug Administration. This can help speed up the review of treatments that target serious unmet conditions. They’ve also been granted both Orphan and Rare Pediatric Disease designations. Orphan drug designation qualifies sponsors for incentives such as tax credits for clinical trials. Rare Pediatric Disease designation means that if the FDA does eventually approve JSP191, then Jasper can apply to receive a priority review of an application to use the product for a different disease, such as someone who is getting a bone marrow transplant for sickle cell disease or severe auto immune diseases.

In a news release, Ronald Martell, President and CEO of Jasper Therapeutics said:

“The FDA’s Fast Track designation granted for JSP191 in Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) reinforces the large unmet medical need for patients with this serious disease. Along with its previous designations of Orphan and Rare Pediatric Disease for JSP191, the FDA’s Fast Track recognizes JSP191’s potential role in improving clinical outcomes for SCID patients, many of whom are too fragile to tolerate the toxic chemotherapy doses typically used in a transplant.”

CIRM Board Approves Funding for New Clinical Trial Targeting Brain Tumors

The governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has awarded almost $12 million to carry out a clinical trial targeting brain tumors.

This brings the total number of CIRM funded clinical trials to 83.  

$11,999,984 was awarded to Dr. Jana Portnow at the Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope. They are using Neural stem cells (NSCs) as a form of delivery vehicle to carry a cancer-killing virus that specifically targets brain tumor cells.

Glioblastoma is the most common malignant primary brain tumor in adults and each year about 12,000 Americans are diagnosed. The 5-year survival rate is only about 10%.

The current standard of care involves surgically removing the tumor followed by radiation, chemotherapy, and alternating electric field therapy. Despite these treatments, survival remains low.

The award to Dr. Portnow will fund a clinical trial to assess the safety and effectiveness of this stem cell-based treatment for Glioblastoma.

The Board also awarded $3,111,467 to Dr. Boris Minev of Calidi Biotherapeutics. This award is in the form of a CLIN1 grant, with the goal of completing the testing needed to apply to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permission to start a clinical trial in people.

This project uses donor fat-derived mesenchymal stem cells that have been loaded with oncolytic virus to target metastatic melanoma, triple negative breast cancer, and advanced head & neck squamous cell carcinoma.

“There are few options for patients with advanced solid tumor cancers such as glioblastoma, melanoma, breast cancer, and head & neck cancer,” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., President and CEO of CIRM. “Surgical resection, chemotherapy and radiation are largely  ineffective in advanced cases and survival typically is measured in months. These new awards will support novel approaches to address the unmet medical needs of patients with these devastating cancers.”

The CIRM Board also voted to approve awarding $71,949,539 to expand the CIRM Alpha Clinics Network. The current network consists of six sites and the Board approved continued funding for those and added an additional three sites. The funding is to last five years.

The goal of the Alpha Clinics award is to expand existing capacities for delivering stem cell, gene therapies and other advanced treatment to patients. They also serve as a competency hub for regenerative medicine training, clinical research, and the delivery of approved treatments.

Each applicant was required to submit a plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to support and facilitate outreach and study participation by underserved and disproportionately affected populations in the clinical trials they serve.

The successful applicants are:

ApplicationProgram TitleInstitution/Principal InvestigatorAmount awarded
INFR4-13579The Stanford Alpha Stem Cell ClinicStanford University – Matthew Porteus  $7,997,246  
INFR4-13581UCSF Alpha Stem Cell ClinicU.C. San Francisco – Mark Walters  $7,994,347  
INFR4-13586A comprehensive stem cell and gene therapy clinic to
advance new therapies for a diverse patient
population in California  
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center – Michael Lewis  $7,957,966    
INFR4-13587The City of Hope Alpha Clinic: A roadmap for equitable and inclusive access to regenerative medicine therapies for all Californians  City of Hope – Leo Wang  $8,000,000
INFR4-13596Alpha Stem Cell Clinic for Northern and Central California  U.C. Davis – Mehrdad Abedi  $7,999,997  
INFR4-13685Expansion of the Alpha Stem Cell and Gene Therapy Clinic at UCLA  U.C. Los Angeles – Noah Federman  $8,000,000
INFR4-13878Alpha Clinic Network Expansion for Cell and Gene Therapies  University of Southern California – Thomas Buchanan  $7,999,983  
INFR4-13952A hub and spoke community model to equitably deliver regenerative medicine therapies to diverse populations across four California counties  U.C. Irvine – Daniela Bota  $8,000,000
INFR4-13597UC San Diego Health CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic  U.C. San Diego – Catriona Jamieson  $8,000,000

The Board also unanimously, and enthusiastically, approved the election of Maria Gonzalez Bonneville to be the next Vice Chair of the Board. Ms. Bonneville, the current Vice President of Public Outreach and Board Governance at CIRM, was nominated by all four constitutional officers: the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the Treasurer and the Controller.

In supporting the nomination, Board member Ysabel Duron said: “I don’t think we could do better than taking on Maria Gonzalez Bonneville as the Vice Chair. She is well educated as far as CIRM goes. She has a great track record; she is empathetic and caring and will be a good steward for the taxpayers to ensure the work we do serves them well.”

In her letter to the Board applying for the position, Ms. Bonneville said: “CIRM is a unique agency with a large board and a long history. With my institutional knowledge and my understanding of CIRM’s internal workings and processes, I can serve as a resource for the new Chair. I have worked hand-in-hand with both the Chair and Vice Chair in setting agendas, prioritizing work, driving policy, and advising accordingly.  I have worked hard to build trusted relationships with all of you so that I could learn and understand what areas were of the most interest and where I could help shed light on those particular programs or initiatives. I have also worked closely with Maria Millan for the last decade, and greatly enjoy our working relationship. In short, I believe I provide a level of continuity and expertise that benefits the board and helps in times of transition.”

In accepting the position Ms. Bonneville said: “I am truly honored to be elected as the Vice Chair for the CIRM Board. I have been a part of CIRM for 11 years and am deeply committed to the mission and this new role gives me an opportunity to help support and advance that work at an exciting time in the Agency’s life. There are many challenges ahead of us but knowing the Board and the CIRM team I feel confident we will be able to meet them, and I look forward to helping us reach our goals.”

Ms. Bonneville will officially take office in January 2023.

The vote for the new Chair of CIRM will take place at the Board meeting on December 15th.

Pioneering a new approach to HIV/AIDS

Dr. Steven Deeks. Photo courtesy UCSF

I’ve always been impressed by the willingness of individuals to step forward and volunteer for a clinical trial. Even more so when they are the first person ever to test a first-in-human therapy. They really are pioneers in helping advance a whole new approach to treating disease. 

That’s certainly the case for the first individual treated in a CIRM-funded clinical trial to develop a functional cure for HIV/AIDS. Caring Cross announced recently that they have dosed the first patient in the trial testing their anti-HIV duoCAR-T cell therapy.  

The trial is being led by UC San Francisco’s Dr. Steven Deeks and UC Davis’ Dr. Mehrdad Abedi. Their approach involves taking a patient’s own blood and extracting T cells, a type of immune cell.  The T cells are then genetically modified to express two different chimeric antigen receptors (CAR), which enable the newly created duoCAR-T cells to recognize and destroy HIV infected cells.  The modified T cells are then reintroduced back into the patient. 

The goal of this one-time therapy is to act as a long-term control of HIV with patients no longer needing to take anti-HIV medications. If it is successful it would be, in effect, a form of functional HIV cure.   

This first phase involves giving different patients different levels of the duoCAR-T therapy to determine the best dose, and to make sure it is safe and doesn’t cause any negative side effects.  

This is obviously just the first step in a long process, but it’s an important first step and certainly one worth marking. As Dr. Deeks said in the news release, “We have reached an important milestone with the dosing of the first participant in the Phase 1/2a clinical trial evaluating a potentially groundbreaking anti-HIV duoCAR-T cell therapy. Our primary goal for this clinical trial is to establish the safety of this promising therapeutic approach.” 

Dr. Abedi, echoed that saying. “The first participant was dosed with anti-HIV duoCAR-T cells at the UC Davis medical center in mid-August. There were no adverse events observed that were related to the product and the participant is doing fine.” 

This approach carries a lot of significance not just for people with HIV in the US, but also globally. If successful it could help address the needs of people who are not able to access antiretroviral therapies or for whom those medications are no longer effective.  

Today there are an estimated 38 million people living with HIV around the world. Every year some 650,000 people die from the disease.  

Funding a Clinical Trial for a Functional Cure for HIV

The use of antiretroviral drugs has turned HIV/AIDS from a fatal disease to one that can, in many cases in the US, be controlled. But these drugs are not a cure. That’s why the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) voted to approve investing $6.85 million in a therapy that aims to cure the disease.

This is the 82nd clinical trial funded by CIRM.

There are approximately 38 million people worldwide living with HIV/AIDS. And each year there are an estimated 1.5 million new cases. The vast majority of those living with HIV do not have access to the life-saving antiretroviral medications that can keep the virus under control. People who do have access to the medications face long-term complications from them including heart disease, bone, liver and kidney problems, and changes in metabolism.

The antiretroviral medications are effective at reducing the viral load in people with HIV, but they don’t eliminate it. That’s because the virus that causes AIDS can integrate its DNA into long-living cells in the body and remain dormant. When people stop taking their medications the virus is able to rekindle and spread throughout the body.

Dr. William Kennedy and the team at Excision Bio Therapeutics have developed a therapeutic candidate called EBT-101. This is the first clinical study using the CRISPR-based platform for genome editing and excision of the latent form of HIV-1, the most common form of the virus that causes AIDS in the US and Europe. The goal is to eliminate or sufficiently reduce the hidden reservoirs of virus in the body to the point where the individual is effectively cured.

“To date only a handful of people have been cured of HIV/AIDS, so this proposal of using gene editing to eliminate the virus could be transformative,” says Dr. Maria Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “In California alone there are almost 140,000 people living with HIV. HIV infection continues to disproportionately impact marginalized populations, many of whom are unable to access the medications that keep the virus under control. A functional cure for HIV would have an enormous impact on these communities, and others around the world.”

In a news release announcing they had dosed the first patient, Daniel Dornbusch, CEO of Excision, called it a landmark moment. “It is the first time a CRISPR-based therapy targeting an infectious disease has been administered to a patient and is expected to enable the first ever clinical assessment of a multiplexed, in vivo gene editing approach. We were able to reach this watershed moment thanks to years of innovative work by leading scientists and physicians, to whom we are immensely grateful. With this achievement, Excision has taken a major step forward in developing a one-time treatment that could transform the HIV pandemic by freeing affected people from life-long disease management and the stigma of disease.”

The Excision Bio Therapeutics team also scored high on their plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Reviewers praised them for adding on a partnering organization to provide commitments to serve underserved populations, and to engaging a community advisory board to help guide their patient recruitment.

CIRM has already invested almost $81 million in 20 projects targeting HIV/AIDS, including four clinical trials.

The race to cure sickle cell disease

September is National Sickle Cell Awareness Month, a time to refocus our efforts to find new treatments, even a cure, for people with sickle cell disease. Until we get those, CIRM remains committed to doing everything we can to reduce the stigma and bias that surrounds it.

Sickle cell disease (SCD) is a rare, inherited blood disorder in which normally smooth and round red blood cells may become sickle-shaped and harden. These blood cells can clump together and clog up arteries, causing severe and unpredictable bouts of pain, organ damage, vision loss and blindness, strokes and premature death.

There is a cure, a bone marrow transplant from someone who is both a perfect match and doesn’t carry the SCD trait. However, few patients are able to find that perfect match and even if they do the procedure carries risks.

That’s why the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has invested almost $60 million in 14 projects, including five clinical trials targeting the disease. It’s also why we are partnering with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) in their Cure Sickle Cell Initiative (CureSCi).

As part of the events around National Sickle Cell Awareness Month the NHLBI is launching the Gene Therapy to Reduce All Sickle Pain (GRASP) Trial and hosting a special Journeys in Mental Health Webinar on September 27th

The GRASP Trial is a Phase 2 trial that will take place at various locations throughout the country.  It’s a collaboration between the NHLBI and CIRM. Researchers are testing whether a gene therapy approach can improve or eliminate sickle cell pain episodes.  

Shortly after being born, babies stop producing blood containing oxygen-rich fetal hemoglobin and instead produce blood with the adult hemoglobin protein. For children with sickle cell disease, the transition from the fetal to the adult form of hemoglobin marks the onset of anemia and the painful symptoms of the disorder.

Scientists previously discovered that the BCL11A gene helps to control fetal hemoglobin and that decreasing the expression of this gene can increase the amount of fetal hemoglobin while at the same time reducing the amount of sickle hemoglobin in blood.  This could result in boosting the production of normal shaped red blood cells with a goal of curing or reducing the severity of sickle cell disease.   

The approach used in this trial is similar to a bone marrow transplant, but instead of using donor stem cells, this uses the patient’s own blood stem cells with new genetic information that instructs red blood cells to silence the expression of the BCL11A gene. This approach is still being studied to make sure that it is safe and effective, but it potentially has the advantage of eliminating some of the risks of other therapies. 

In this trial, patients will have to spend some time in an inpatient unit as they undergo chemotherapy to kill some bone marrow blood stem cells and create room for the new, gene-modified cells to take root.

The trial is based on a successful pilot/phase 1 study which showed it to be both safe and effective in the initial 10 patients enrolled in the trial.

For more information about the trial, including inclusion/exclusion criteria and trial locations, please visit the CureSCi GRASP trial page.

Nancy Rene, a sickle cell disease patient advocate, says while clinical trials like this are obviously important, there’s another aspect of the treatment of people with the disease that is still too often overlooked.

“As much as I applaud CIRM for the work they are doing to find a therapy or cure for Sickle Cell, I am often dismayed by the huge gulf between research protocols and general medical practice. For every story I hear about promising research, there is often another sad tale about a sickle cell patient receiving inadequate care. This shouldn’t be an either/or proposition. Let’s continue to support ground-breaking research while we expand education and training for medical professionals in evidenced based treatment. I look forward to the day when sickle cell patients receive the kind of treatment they need to lead healthy, pain-free lives.”

The present and future of regenerative medicine

One of the great pleasures of my job is getting to meet the high school students who take part in our SPARK or Summer Internship to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge program. It’s a summer internship for high school students where they get to spend a couple of months working in a world class stem cell and gene therapy research facility. The students, many of whom go into the program knowing very little about stem cells, blossom and produce work that is quite extraordinary.

One such student is Tan Ieng Huang, who came to the US from China for high school. During her internship at U.C. San Francisco she got to work in the lab of Dr. Arnold Kriegstein. He is the Founding Director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of California, San Francisco. Not only did she work in his lab, she took the time to do an interview with him about his work and his thoughts on the field.

It’s a fascinating interview and shows the creativity of our SPARK students. You will be seeing many other examples of that creativity in the coming weeks. But for now, enjoy the interview with someone who is a huge presence in the field today, by someone who may well be a huge presence in the not too distant future.

‘a tête-à-tête with Prof. Arnold Kriegstein’

The Kriegstein lab team: Photo courtesy UCSF

Prof. Arnold Kriegstein is the Founding Director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of California, San Francisco. Prof. Kriegstein is also the Co-Founder and Scientific Advisor of Neurona Therapeutics which seeks to provide effective and safe cell therapies for chronic brain disorder. A Clinician by training, Prof. Kriegstein has been fascinated by the intricate workings of the human brain. His laboratory focuses on understanding the transcriptional and signaling networks active during brain development, the diversity of neuronal cell types, and their fate potential. For a long time, he has been interested in harnessing this potential for translational and therapeutic intervention.

During my SEP internship I had the opportunity to work in the Kriegstein lab. I was in complete awe. I am fascinated by the brain. During the course of two months, I interacted with Prof. Kriegstein regularly, in lab meetings and found his ideas deeply insightful. Here’s presenting some excerpts from some of our discussions, so that it reaches many more people seeking inspiration!

Tan Ieng Huang (TH): Can you share a little bit about your career journey as a scientist?

Prof. Arnold Kriegstein (AK): I wanted to be a doctor when I was very young, but in high school I started having some hands-on research experience. I just loved working in the lab. From then on, I was thinking of combining those interests and an MD/PhD turned out to be an ideal course for me. That was how I started, and then I became interested in the nervous system. Also, when I was in high school, I spent some time one summer at Rockefeller University working on a project that involved operant conditioning in rodents and I was fascinated by behavior and the role of the brain in learning and memory. That happened early on, and turned into an interest in cortical development and with time, that became my career.

TH: What was your inspiration growing up, what made you take up medicine as a career?

AK: That is a little hard to say, I have an identical twin brother. He and I used to always share activities, do things together. And early on we actually became eagle scouts, sort of a boy scout activity in a way. In order to become an eagle scout without having to go through prior steps, we applied to a special program that the scouts had, which allowed us to shadow physicians in a local hospital. I remember doing that at a very young age. It was a bit ironic, because one of the evenings, they showed us films of eye surgery, and my brother actually fainted when they made an incision in the eye. The reason it makes me laugh now is because my brother became an eye surgeon many years later. But I remember our early experience, we both became very fascinated by medicine and medical research.

Tan Ieng and Dr. Arnold Kriegstein at UCSF

TH: What inspired you to start the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research Institute?

AK: My interest in brain development over the years became focused on earlier stages of development and eventually Neurogenesis, you know, how neurons are actually generated during early stages of in utero brain development. In the course of doing that we discovered that the radial glial cells, which have been thought for decades to simply guide neurons as they migrate, turned out to actually be the neural stem cells, they were making the neurons and also guiding them toward the cortex. So, they were really these master cells that had huge importance and are now referred to as neural stem cells. But at that time, it was really before the stem cell field took off. But because we studied neurogenesis, because I made some contributions to understanding how the brain develops from those precursors or progenitor cells, when the field of stem cells developed, it was very simple for me to identify as someone who studied neural stem cells. I became a neural stem cell scientist. I started a neural stem cell program at Columbia University when I was a Professor there and raised 15 million dollars to seed the program and hired new scientists. It was shortly after that I was approached to join UCSF as the founder of a new stem cell program. And it was much broader than the nervous system; it was a program that covered all the different tissues and organ systems.

TH: Can you tell us a little bit about how stem cell research is contributing to the treatment of diseases? How far along are we in terms of treatments?

AK: It’s taken decades, but things are really starting to reach the clinic now. The original work was basic discovery done in research laboratories, now things are moving towards the clinic. It’s a really very exciting time. Initially the promise of stem cell science was called Regenerative medicine, the idea of replacing injured or worn-out tissues or structures with new cells and new tissues, new organs, the form of regeneration was made possible by understanding that there are stem cells that can be tweaked to actually help make new cells and tissues. Very exciting process, but in fact the main progress so far hasn’t been replacing worn out tissues and injured cells, but rather understanding diseases using human based model of disease. That’s largely because of the advent of induced pluripotent stem cells, a way of using stem cells to make neurons or heart cells or liver cells in the laboratory, and study them both in normal conditions during development and in disease states. Those platforms which are relatively easy to make now and are pretty common all over the world allow us to study human cells rather than animal cells, and the hope is that by doing that we will be able to produce conventional drugs and treatments that work much better than ones we had in the past, because they will be tested in actual human cells rather than animal cells.

TH: That is a great progress and we have started using human models because even though there are similarities with animal models, there are still many species-specific differences, right?

AK: Absolutely, in fact, one of the big problems now in Big Pharma, you know the drug companies, is that they invest millions and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars in research programs that are based on successes in treating mice, but patients don’t respond the same way. So the hope is that by starting with a treatment that works on human cells it might be more likely that the treatment will work on human patients.

TH: What are your thoughts on the current challenges and future of stem cell research?

AK: I think this is an absolute revolution in modern medicine, the advent of two things that are happening right now, first the use of induced pluripotent stem cells, the ability to make pluripotent cells from adult tissue or cells from an individual allows us to use models of diseases that I mentioned earlier from actual patients. That’s one major advance. And the other is gene editing, and the combination of gene editing and cell-based discovery science allows us to think of engineering cells in ways that can make them much more effective as a form of cell therapy and those cell therapies have enormous promise. Right now, they are being used to treat cancer, but in the future, they might be able to treat heart attack, dementia, neurodegenerative diseases, ALS, Parkinson’s disease, a huge list of disorders that are untreatable right now or incurable. They might be approached by the combination of cell-based models, cell therapies, and gene editing.

TH: I know there are still some challenges right now, like gene editing has some ethical issues because people don’t know if there can be side effects after the gene editing, what are your thoughts?

AK: You know, like many other technologies there are uncertainties, and there are some issues. Some of the problems are off-target effects, that is you try to make a change in one particular gene, and while doing that you might change other genes in unexpected ways and cause complications. But we are understanding that more and more now and can make much more precise gene editing changes in just individual genes without affecting unanticipated areas of the genome. And then there are also the problems of how to gene-edit cells in a safe way. There are certain viral factors that can be used to introduce the gene editing apparatus into a cell, and sometimes if you are doing that in a patient, you can also have unwanted side effects from the vectors that you are using, often they are modified viral vectors. So, things get complicated very quickly when you start trying to treat patients, but I think these are all tractable problems and I think in time they will all be solved. It will be a terrific, very promising future when it comes to treating patients who are currently untreatable.

TH: Do you have any advice for students who want to get into this field?

AK: Yes, I think it’s actually never been a better time and I am amazed by the technologies that are available now. Gene editing that I mentioned before but also single cell approaches, the use of single cell multiomics revealing gene expression in individual cells, the molecular understanding of how individual cells are formed, how they are shaped, how they change from one stage to another, how they can be forced into different fates. It allows you to envision true Regenerative medicine, improving health by healing or replacing injured or diseased tissues. I think this is becoming possible now, so it’s a very exciting time. Anyone who has an interest in stem cell biology or new ways of treating diseases, should think about getting into a laboratory or a clinical setting. I think this time is more exciting than it’s ever been.

TH: So excited to hear that, because in school we have limited access to the current knowledge, the state-of-art. I want to know what motivates you every day to do Research and contribute to this field?

AK: Well, you know that I have been an MD/PhD, as I mentioned before, in a way, there are two different reward systems at play. In terms of the PhD and the science, it’s the discovery part that is so exciting. Going in every day and thinking that you might learn something that no one has ever known before and have a new insight into a mechanism of how something happens, why it happens. Those kinds of new insights are terrifically satisfying, very exciting. On the MD side, the ability to help patients and improve peoples’ lives is a terrific motivator. I always wanted to do that, was very driven to become a Neurologist and treat both adult and pediatric patients with neurological problems. In the last decade or so, I’ve not been treating patients so much, and have focused on the lab, but we have been moving some of our discoveries from the laboratory into the clinic. We have just started a clinical trial, of a new cell-based therapy for epilepsy in Neurona Therapeutics, which is really exciting. I am hoping it will help the patients but it’s also a chance to actually see something that started out as a project in the laboratory become translated into a therapy for patients, so that’s an achievement that has really combined my two interests, basic science, and clinical medicine. It’s a little late in life but not too late, so I’m very excited about that.

Tan Ieng Huang, Kriegstein Lab, SEP Intern, CIRM Spark Program 2022

Stem Cell Agency Board Invests in 19 Discovery Research Programs Targeting Cancers, Heart Disease and Other Disorders

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Dr. Judy Shizuru, Stanford University

While stem cell and gene therapy research has advanced dramatically in recent years, there are still many unknowns and many questions remaining about how best to use these approaches in developing therapies. That’s why the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) today approved investing almost $25 million in 19 projects in early stage or Discovery research.

The awards are from CIRM’s DISC2 Quest program, which supports  the discovery of promising new stem cell-based and gene therapy technologies that could be translated to enable broad use and ultimately, improve patient care.

“Every therapy that helps save lives or change lives begins with a researcher asking a simple question, “What if?”, says Dr. Maria T. Millan, the President and CEO of CIRM. “Our Quest awards reflect the need to keep supporting early stage research, to gain a deeper understanding of stem cells work and how we can best tap into that potential to advance the field.”

Dr. Judy Shizuru at Stanford University was awarded $1.34 million to develop a safer, less-toxic form of bone marrow or hematopoietic stem cell transplant (HCT). HCT is the only proven cure for many forms of blood disorders that affect people of all ages, sexes, and races worldwide. However, current methods involve the use of chemotherapy or radiation to destroy the patient’s own unhealthy blood stem cells and make room for the new, healthy ones. This approach is toxic and complex and can only be performed by specialized teams in major medical centers, making access particularly difficult for poor and underserved communities.

Dr. Shizuru proposes developing an antibody that can direct the patient’s own immune cells to kill diseased blood stem cells. This would make stem cell transplant safer and more effective for the treatment of many life-threatening blood disorders, and more accessible for people in rural or remote parts of the country.

Lili Yang UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center: Photo courtesy Reed Hutchinson PhotoGraphics

Dr. Lili Yang at UCLA was awarded $1.4 million to develop an off-the-shelf cell therapy for ovarian cancer, which causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.

Dr. Yang is using immune system cells, called invariant natural killer T cells (iNKT) to attack cancer cells. However, these iNKT cells are only found in small numbers in the blood so current approaches involve taking those cells from the patient and, in the lab, modifying them to increase their numbers and strength before transplanting them back into the patient. This is both time consuming and expensive, and the patient’s own iNKT cells may have been damaged by the cancer, reducing the likelihood of success.

In this new study Dr. Yang will use healthy donor cord blood cells and, through genetic engineering, turn them into the specific form of iNKT cell therapy targeting ovarian cancer. This DISC2 award will support the development of these cells and do the necessary testing and studies to advance it to the translational stage.

Timothy Hoey and Tenaya Therapeutics Inc. have been awarded $1.2 million to test a gene therapy approach to replace heart cells damaged by a heart attack.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. with the highest incidence among African Americans. It’s caused by damage or death of functional heart muscle cells, usually due to heart attack. Because these heart muscle cells are unable to regenerate the damage is permanent. Dr. Hoey’s team is developing a gene therapy that can be injected into patients and turn their cardiac fibroblasts, cells that can contribute to scar tissue, into functioning heart muscle cells, replacing those damaged by the heart attack.

The full list of DISC2 Quest awards is:

APPLICATION NUMBERTITLE OF PROGRAMPRINCIPAL INVESTIGATORAMOUNT
  DISC2-13400  Targeted Immunotherapy-Based Blood Stem Cell Transplantation    Judy Shizuru, Stanford Universtiy  $1,341,910    
  DISC2-13505  Combating Ovarian Cancer Using Stem Cell-Engineered Off-The-Shelf CAR-iNKT Cells    Lili Yang, UCLA  $1,404,000
  DISC2-13515  A treatment for Rett syndrome using glial-restricted
neural progenitor cells  
  Alysson Muotri, UC San Diego  $1,402,240    
  DISC2-13454  Targeting pancreatic cancer stem cells with DDR1 antibodies.    Michael Karin, UC San Diego  $1,425,600  
  DISC2-13483  Enabling non-genetic activity-driven maturation of iPSC-derived neurons    Alex Savtchenko, Nanotools Bioscience  $675,000
  DISC2-13405  Hematopoietic Stem Cell Gene Therapy for Alpha
Thalassemia  
  Don Kohn, UCLA    $1,323,007  
    DISC2-13507  CAR T cells targeting abnormal N-glycans for the
treatment of refractory/metastatic solid cancers  
  Michael Demetriou, UC Irvine  $1,414,800  
  DISC2-13463  Drug Development of Inhibitors of Inflammation Using
Human iPSC-Derived Microglia (hiMG)  
  Stuart Lipton, Scripps Research Inst.  $1,658,123  
  DISC2-13390  Cardiac Reprogramming Gene Therapy for Post-Myocardial Infarction Heart Failure    Timothy Hoey, Tenaya Therapeutics  $1,215,000  
  DISC2-13417  AAV-dCas9 Epigenetic Editing for CDKL5 Deficiency Disorder    Kyle Fink, UC Davis  $1,429,378  
  DISC2-13415  Defining the Optimal Gene Therapy Approach of
Human Hematopoietic Stem Cells for the Treatment of
Dedicator of Cytokinesis 8 (DOCK8) Deficiency  
  Caroline Kuo, UCLA  $1,386,232  
  DISC2-13498  Bioengineering human stem cell-derived beta cell
organoids to monitor cell health in real time and improve therapeutic outcomes in patients  
  Katy Digovich, Minutia, Inc.  $1,198,550  
  DISC2-13469  Novel antisense therapy to treat genetic forms of
neurodevelopmental disease.  
  Joseph Gleeson, UC San Diego  $1,180,654  
  DISC2-13428  Therapeutics to overcome the differentiation roadblock in Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS)    Michael Bollong, Scripps Research Inst.  $1,244,160  
  DISC2-13456  Novel methods to eliminate cancer stem cells    Dinesh Rao, UCLA  $1,384,347  
  DISC2-13441  A new precision medicine based iPSC-derived model to study personalized intestinal fibrosis treatments in
pediatric patients with Crohn’s diseas  
  Robert Barrett Cedars-Sinai  $776,340
  DISC2-13512  Modified RNA-Based Gene Therapy for Cardiac
Regeneration Through Cardiomyocyte Proliferation
  Deepak Srivastava, Gladstone Institutes  $1,565,784
  DISC2-13510  An hematopoietic stem-cell-based approach to treat HIV employing CAR-T cells and anti-HIV broadly
neutralizing antibodies  
  Brian Lawson, The Scintillon Institute  $1,143,600  
  DISC2-13475  Developing gene therapy for dominant optic atrophy using human pluripotent stem cell-derived retinal organoid disease model    Xian-Jie Yang, UCLA  $1,345,691  

Two reasons to remember June 19th

Today marks two significant events for the Black community. June 19th is celebrated as Juneteenth, the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to ensure that the enslaved people there were free. That moment came two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law.

June 19th is also marked as World Sickle Cell Awareness Day. It’s an opportunity to raise awareness about a disease that affects around 100,000 Americans, most of them Black, and the impact it has on the whole family and entire communities.

Sickle cell disease (SCD) is an inherited blood disorder that is caused by a genetic mutation. Instead of red blood cells being smooth and round and flowing easily through arteries and veins, the cells are sickle shaped and brittle. They can clog up arteries and veins, cutting off blood to vital organs, causing intense pain, organ damage and leading to premature death.

SCD can be cured with a bone marrow transplant, but that’s a risky procedure and most people with SCD don’t have a good match. Medications can help keep it under control but cannot cure it. People with SCD live, on average, 30 years less than a healthy adult.

CIRM has invested almost $60 million in 13 different projects, including five clinical trials, to try and develop a cure for SCD. There are encouraging signs of progress. For example, in July of 2020, Evie Junior took part in a CIRM-funded clinical trial where his own blood stem cells were removed then, in the laboratory, were genetically modified to repair the genetic mutation that causes the disease. Those cells were returned to him, and the hope is they’ll create a sickle cell-free blood supply. Evie hasn’t had any crippling bouts of pain or had to go to the hospital since his treatment.

Evie Junior: Photo by Jaquell Chandler

CIRM has also entered into a unique partnership with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) to co-fund cell and gene therapy programs under the NIH “Cure Sickle Cell” initiative.  The goal is to markedly accelerate the development of cell and gene therapies for SCD.

“There is a real need for a new approach to treating SCD and making life easier for people with SCD and their families,” says Adrienne Shapiro, the mother of a daughter with SCD and the co-founder of Axis Advocacy, a sickle cell advocacy and education organization. “Finding a cure for Sickle Cell would mean that people like my daughter would no longer have to live their life in short spurts, constantly having their hopes and dreams derailed by ER visits and hospital stays.  It would mean they get a chance to live a long life, a healthy life, a normal life.”

We will all keep working together to advance this research and develop a cure. Until then Juneteenth will be a reminder of the work that still lies ahead.