For years scientists have been touting the potential of CRISPR, a gene editing tool that allows you to target a specific mutation and either cut it out or replace it with the corrected form of the gene. But like all new tools it had its limitations. One important one was the difficult in delivering the corrected gene to mature cells in large numbers.
Scientists at the Gladstone Institutes and U.C. San Francisco say they think they have found a way around that. And the implications for using this technique to develop new therapies for deadly diseases are profound.
In the past scientists used inactivated viruses as a way to deliver corrected copies of the gene to patients. We have blogged about UCLA’s Dr. Don Kohn using this approach to treat children born with SCID, a deadly immune disorder. But that was both time consuming and expensive.
CRISPR, on the other hand, showed that it could be easier to use and less expensive. But getting it to produce enough cells for an effective therapy proved challenging.
The team at Gladstone and UCSF found a way around that by switching from using CRISPR to deliver a double-stranded DNA to correct the gene (which is toxic to cells in large quantities), and instead using CRISPR to deliver a single stranded DNA (you can read the full, very technical description of their approach in the study they published in the journal Nature Biotechnology).
Alex Marson, MD, PhD, director of the Gladstone-UCSF Institute of Genomic Immunology and the senior author of the study, said this more than doubled the efficiency of the process. “One of our goals for many years has been to put lengthy DNA instructions into a targeted site in the genome in a way that doesn’t depend on viral vectors. This is a huge step toward the next generation of safe and effective cell therapies.”
It has another advantage too, according to Gladstone’s Dr. Jonathan Esensten, an author of the study. “This technology has the potential to make new cell and gene therapies faster, better, and less expensive.”
The team has already used this method to generate more than one billion CAR-T cells – specialized immune system cells that can target cancers such as multiple myeloma – and says it could also prove effective in targeting some rare genetic immune diseases.
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.
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.
One of my favorite phrases is “standing room only”. I got a chance to use it last week when we held a panel discussion on whether regenerative medicine could turn back the clock on aging. The event was at the annual conference of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) and more than 150 people packed into a conference room to hear the debate (so far more than 800 also watched a live stream of the event.)
It’s not surprising the place was jammed. The speakers included:
Dr. Deepak Srivastava, the President of the Gladstone Institutes, an expert on heart disease and the former President of ISSCR.
Adrienne Shapiro, the mother of a daughter with sickle cell disease, a tireless patient advocate and supporter of regenerative medicine research, and the co-founder of Axis Advocacy, a family support organization for people with sickle cell.
And the topic is a timely one. It is estimated that as many as 90 percent of the people who die every day, die from diseases of aging such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer. So, what can be done to change that, to not just slow down or stop these diseases, but to turn back the clock, to repair the damage already done and replace cells and tissues already destroyed.
The conversation was enlightening, hopeful and encouraging, but also cautionary.
You can watch the whole event on our Youtube channel.
It is estimated that as many as 90 percent of people in industrialized countries who die every day, die from diseases of aging such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Of those still alive the numbers aren’t much more reassuring. More than 80 percent of people over the age of 65 have a chronic medical condition, while 68 percent have two or more.
Current medications can help keep some of those conditions, such as high blood pressure, under control but regenerative medicine wants to do a lot more than that. We want to turn back the clock and restore function to damaged organs and tissues and limbs. That research is already underway and we are inviting you to a public event to hear all about that work and the promise it holds.
On June 16th from 3p – 4.30p PST we are holding a panel discussion exploring the impact of regenerative medicine on aging. We’ll hear from experts on heart disease and stroke; we will look at other ground breaking research into aging; and we’ll discuss the vital role patients and patient advocates play in helping advance this work.
The discussion is taking place in San Francisco at the annual conference of the International Society for Stem Cell Research. But you can watch it from the comfort of your own home. That’s because we are going to live stream the event.
In the world of scientific research, the people doing clinical trials tend to suck up all the oxygen in the room. They’re the stars, the ones who are bringing potential therapies to patients. However, there’s another group of researchers who toil away in the background, but who are equally deserving of praise and gratitude.
These are the scientists who do basic or discovery-level research. This is where all great therapies start. This is where a researcher gets an idea and tests it to see if it holds promise. A good idea and a scientist who asks a simple question, “I wonder if…..”
In our latest “Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation” podcast we talk to three researchers who are asking those questions and getting some truly encouraging answers. They are scientists at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco: one seasoned scientist and two young post-docs trying to make a name for themselves. And they might just have discovered a therapy that could help people battling Alzheimer’s disease.
Scientists at Gladstone Institutes have discovered how to grow a first-of-its-kind organoid—a three-dimensional, organ-like cluster of cells—that mimics how gut and heart tissues arise cooperatively from stem cells.
The study was supported by a grant from CIRM and the Gladstone BioFulcrum Heart Failure Research Program.
Gladstone Senior Investigator Todd McDevitt, PhD said this first-of-its-kind organoid could serve as a new tool for laboratory research and improve our understanding of how developing organs and tissues cooperate and instruct each other.
McDevitt’s team creates heart organoids from human induced pluripotent stem cells, coaxing them into becoming heart cells by growing them in various cocktails of nutrients and other naturally occurring substances. In this case, the scientists tried a different cocktail to potentially allow a greater variety of heart cells to form.
To their surprise, they found that the new cocktail led to organoids that contained not only heart, but also gut cells.
“We were intrigued because organoids normally develop into a single type of tissue—for example, heart tissue only,” says Ana Silva, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in the McDevitt Lab and first author of the new study. “Here, we had both heart and gut tissues growing together in a controlled manner, much as they would in a normal embryo.”
The researchers also found that compared to conventional heart organoids, the new organoids resulted in much more complex and mature heart structures—including some resembling more mature-like blood vessels.
These organoids offer a promising new look into the relationship between developing tissues, which has so far relied on growing single-tissue organoids separately and then attempting to combine them. Not only that, the organoids could help clarify how the process of human development can go wrong and provide insight on congenital disorders like chronic atrial and intestinal dysrhythmias that are known to affect both heart and gut development.
“Once it became clear that the presence of the gut tissue contributed to the maturity of the heart tissue, we realized we had arrived at something new and special,” says McDevitt.
If you have read the headlines lately, you’ll know that the COVID-19 pandemic is having a huge impact on the shipping industry. Container vessels are forced to sit out at anchor for a week or more because there just aren’t enough dock workers to unload the boats. It’s a simple rule of economics, you can have all the demand you want but if you don’t have the people to help deliver on the supply side, you are in trouble.
The same is true in regenerative medicine. The field is expanding rapidly and that’s creating a rising demand for skilled workers to help keep up. That doesn’t just mean scientists, but also technicians and other skilled individuals who can ensure that our ability to manufacture and deliver these new therapies is not slowed down.
That’s one of the reasons why CIRM has been a big supporter of training programs ever since we were created by the voters of California when they approved Proposition 71. And now we are kick-starting those programs again to ensure the field has all the talented workers it needs.
Last week the CIRM Board approved 18 programs, investing more than $86 million, as part of the Agency’s Research Training Grants program. The goal of the program is to create a diverse group of scientists with the knowledge and skill to lead effective stem cell research programs.
The awards provide up to $5 million per institution, for a maximum of 20 institutions, over five years, to support the training of predoctoral graduate students, postdoctoral trainees, and/or clinical trainees.
This is a revival of an earlier Research Training program that ran from 2006-2016 and trained 940 “CIRM Scholars” including:
• 321 PhD students • 453 Postdocs • 166 MDs
These grants went to academic institutions from UC Davis in Sacramento to UC San Diego down south and everywhere in-between. A 2013 survey of the students found that most went on to careers in the industry.
56% continued to further training
14% advanced to an academic research faculty position
10.5% advanced to a biotech/industry position
12% advanced to a non-research position such as teaching, medical practice, or foundation/government work
The Research Training Grants go to:
CIRM Training Program in Translational Regenerative Medicine
TRANSCEND – Training Program to Advance Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Research, Education, and Workforce Diversity
UC Los Angeles
UCLA Training Program in Stem Cell Biology
University of Southern California
Training Program Bridging Stem Cell Research with Clinical Applications in Regenerative Medicine
UC Santa Cruz
CIRM Training Program in Systems Biology of Stem Cells
CIRM Regenerative Medicine Research Training Program
City of Hope
Research Training Program in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine
CIRM Scholar Training Program
Training the Next Generation of Biologists and Engineers for Regenerative Medicine
CIRM Cell and Gene Therapy Training Program 2.0
Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles
CIRM Training Program for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Research
UC San Diego
Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Training Grant at UCSD III
Training Scholars in Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research
UC San Francisco
Scholars Research Training Program in Regenerative Medicine, Gene Therapy, and Stem Cell Research
A Multidisciplinary Stem Cell Training Program at Sanford Burnham Prebys Institute, A Critical Component of the La Jolla Mesa Educational Network
UC Santa Barbara
CIRM Training Program in Stem Cell Biology and Engineering
CIRM Scholars Comprehensive Research Training Program
Lundquist Institute for Biomedical Innovation
Stem Cell Training Program at the Lundquist Institute
These are not the only awards we make to support training the next generation of scientists. We also have our SPARK and Bridges to Stem Cell Research programs. The SPARK awards are for high school students, and the Bridges program for graduate or Master’s level students.
There are many unknown elements for what triggers the cells in an embryo to start dividing and multiplying and becoming every single cell in the body. Now researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco have uncovered one of those elements, how embryos determine which cells become the head and which the tail.
In this CIRM-funded study the Gladstone team, led by Dr. Todd McDevitt, discovered almost by chance how the cells align in a heads-to-tail arrangement.
They had created an organoid made from brain cells when they noticed that some of the cells were beginning to gather in an elongated fashion, in the same way that spinal cords do in a developing fetus.
In a news article, Nick Elder, a graduate student at Gladstone and the co-author of the study, published in the journal Development, says this was not what they had anticipated would happen: “Organoids don’t typically have head-tail directionality, and we didn’t originally set out to create an elongating organoid, so the fact that we saw this at all was very surprising.”
Further study enabled the team to identify which molecules were involved in signaling specific genes to switch on and off. These were similar to the process previously identified in developing mouse embryos.
“This is such a critical point in the early development of any organism, so having a new model to observe it and study it in the lab is very exciting,” says McDevitt.
This is not just of academic interest either, it could have real world implications in helping understand what causes miscarriages or birth defects.
“We can use this organoid to get at unresolved human developmental questions in a way that doesn’t involve human embryos,” says Dr. Ashley Libby, another member of the team. “For instance, you could add chemicals or toxins that a pregnant woman might be exposed to, and see how they affect the development of the spinal cord.”
It’s hard enough trying to follow the movements of individuals in a crowd of people but imagine how much harder it is to follow the movements of stem cells, crowded into a tiny petri dish. Well, researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco have done just that.
In a CIRM-funded study ($5.85M) Dr. Todd McDevitt and his team created a super smart artificial intelligence way of tracking the movements of hundreds of stem cells growing together in a colony, and even identify “leaders” in the pack.
In our bodies groups of stem cells are able to move in specific ways to form different organs and tissues when exposed to the right environment. Unfortunately, we are still trying to learn what “the right environment” is for different organs.
In a news release, McDevitt, the senior author of the paper published in the journal Stem Cell Reports, says this method of observing cells may help us better understand that.
“If I wanted to make a new human heart right now, I know what types of cells are needed, and I know how to grow them independently in dishes. But we really don’t know how to get those cells to come together to form something as complex as a heart. To accomplish that, we need more insights into how cells work cooperatively to arrange themselves.”
Normally scientists watch cells by tagging them with a fluorescent marker so they can see them under a microscope. But this is slow, painstaking work and not particularly accurate. This new method used a series of what are called “neural networks”, which are artificial intelligence (AI) programs that can detect patterns in the movements of the cells. When combined together the networks proved to be able to track the movement of 95 percent of the cells. Humans by comparison can only manage up to 90 percent. But the nets were not only sharper, they were also faster, much faster, some 500 times faster.
This enhanced ability to watch the cells showed that instead of being static most of the time, as had previously been thought, they were actually on the move a lot of the time. They would move around for 15 minutes and then take a breather for ten minutes (time for the stem cell equivalent of a cup of tea perhaps).
Some cells moved around a lot in one direction, while others just seemed to shuffle around in the same area. Some cells even seemed to act as “leaders” while other cells appeared to be “followers” and shuffle along behind them.
None of this would have been visible without the power of the AI networks and McDevitt says being able to tap into this could help researchers better understand how to use these complex movements.
“This technique gives us a much more comprehensive view of how cells behave, how they work cooperatively, and how they come together in physical space to form complex organs.
Follow the Leader is not just a kids’ game anymore. Now it’s a scientific undertaking.
All the cells in your body work together and each can have a different role. Their individual function not only depends on cell type, but can also depend on their specific location and surroundings.
A CIRM supported and collaborative study at the Gladstone Institutes, UC San Francisco (UCSF), and UC Berkeley has developed a more efficient method than ever before to simultaneously map the specialized diversity and spatial location of individual cells within a tissue or a tumor.
The technique is named XYZeq and involves segmenting a tissue into microscopic regions. Within each of these microscopic grids, each cell’s genetic information is analyzed in order to better understand how each particular cell functions relative to its spacial location.
For this study, the team obtained tissue from mice with liver and spleen tumors. A slice of tissue was then placed on a slide that divides the tissue into hundreds of “microwells” the size of a grain of salt. Each cell in the tissue gets tagged with a unique “molecular barcode” that represents the microwell it’s contained in, much like a zip code. The cells are then mixed up and assigned a second barcode to ensure that each cell within a given square can be individually identified, similar to a street address within a zip code. Finally, the genetic information in the form of RNA from each cell is analyzed. Once the results are obtained, both barcodes tell the researchers exactly where in the tissue it came from.
The team found that some cell types located near the liver tumor were not evenly spaced out. They also found immune cells and specific types of stem cells clustered in certain regions of the tumor. Additionally, certain stem cells had different levels of some RNA molecules depending on how far they resided from the tumor.
The researchers aren’t entirely sure what this pattern means, but they believe that it’s possible that signals generated by or near the tumor affect what nearby cells do.
In a press release, Alex Marson, M.D., Ph.D., a senior author of the study, elaborates on what the XYZeq technology could mean for disease modeling.
“I think we’re actually taking a step toward this being the way tissues are analyzed to diagnose, characterize, or study disease; this is the pathology of the future.”
The full results of the study were published in Science Advances.