Building California’s stem cell research community, from the ground up

For week three of the Month of CIRM, our topic is infrastructure. What is infrastructure? Read on for a big picture overview and then we’ll fill in the details over the course of the week.

When CIRM was created in 2001, our goal was to grow the stem cell research field in California. But to do that, we first had to build some actual buildings. Since then, our infrastructure programs have taken on many different forms, but all have been focused on a single mission – helping accelerate stem cell research to patients with unmet medical needs.
CIRM_Infrastucture-program-iconScreen Shot 2017-10-16 at 10.58.38 AM

In the early 2000’s, stem cell scientists faced a quandary. President George W. Bush had placed limits on how federal funds could be used for embryonic stem cell research. His policy allowed funding of research involving some existing embryonic stem cell lines, but banned research that developed or conducted research on new stem lines.

Many researchers felt the existing lines were not the best quality and could only use them in a limited capacity. But because they were dependent on the government to fund their work, had no alternative but to comply. Scientists who chose to use non-approved lines were unable to use their federally funded labs for stem cell work.

The creation of CIRM changed that. In 2008, CIRM launched its Major Facilities Grant Program. The program had two major goals:

1) To accommodate the growing numbers of stem cell researchers coming in California as a result of CIRM’s grants and funding.

2) To provide new research space that didn’t have to comply with the federal restrictions on stem cell research.

Over the next few years, the program invested $271million to help build 12 new research facilities around California from Sacramento to San Diego. The institutions used CIRM’s funding to leverage and attract an additional $543 million in funds from private donors and institutions to construct and furnish the buildings.

These world-class laboratories gave scientists the research space they needed to work with any kind of stem cell they wanted and develop new potential therapies. It also enabled the institutions to bring together under one roof, all the stem cell researchers, who previously had been scattered across each campus.

One other important benefit was the work these buildings provided for thousands of construction workers at a time of record unemployment in the industry. Here’s a video about the 12 facilities we helped build:

But building physical facilities was just our first foray into developing infrastructure. We were far from finished.

In the early days of stem cell research, many scientists used cells from different sources, created using different methods. This meant it was often hard to compare results from one study to another. So, in 2013 CIRM created an iPSC Repository, a kind of high tech stem cell bank. The repository collected tissue samples from people who have different diseases, turned those samples into high quality stem cell lines – the kind known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) – and then made those samples available to researchers around the world. This not only gave researchers a powerful resource to use in developing a deeper understanding of different diseases, but because the scientists were all using the same cell lines that meant their findings could be compared to each other.

That same year we also launched a plan to create a new, statewide network of clinics that specialize in using stem cells to treat patients. The goal of the Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network is to support and accelerate clinical trials for programs funded by the agency, academic researchers or industry. We felt that because stem cell therapies are a completely new way of treating diseases and disorders, we needed a completely new way of delivering treatments in a safe and effective manner.

The network began with three clinics – UC San Diego, UCLA/UC Irvine, and City of Hope – but at our last Board meeting was expanded to five with the addition of UC Davis and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland. This network will help the clinics streamline challenging processes such as enrolling patients, managing regulatory procedures and sharing data and will speed the testing and distribution of experimental stem cell therapies. We will be posting a more detailed blog about how our Alpha Clinics are pushing innovative stem cell treatments tomorrow.

As the field advanced we knew that we had to find a new way to help researchers move their research out of the lab and into clinical trials where they could be tested in people. Many researchers were really good at the science, but had little experience in navigating the complex procedures needed to get the green light from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to test their work in a clinical trial.

So, our Agency created the Translating (TC) and Accelerating Centers (AC). The idea was that the TC would help researchers do all the preclinical testing necessary to apply for permission from the FDA to start a clinical trial. Then the AC would help the researchers set up the trial and actually run it.

In the end, one company, Quintiles IMS, won both awards so we combined the two entities into one, The Stem Cell Center, a kind of one-stop-shopping home to help researchers move the most promising treatments into people.

That’s not the whole story of course – I didn’t even mention the Genomics Initiative – but it’s hard to cram 13 years of history into a short blog. And we’re not done yet. We are always looking for new ways to improve what we do and how we do it. We are a work in progress, and we are determined to make as much progress as possible in the years to come.

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Caught our eye: new Americans 4 Cures video, better mini-brains reveal Zika insights and iPSC recipes go head-to-head

How stem cell research gives patients hope (Karen Ring).
You can learn about the latest stem cell research for a given disease in seconds with a quick google search. You’ll find countless publications, news releases and blogs detailing the latest advancements that are bringing scientists and clinicians closer to understanding why diseases happen and how to treat or cure them.

But one thing these forms of communications lack is the personal aspect. A typical science article explains the research behind the study at the beginning and ends with a concluding statement usually saying how the research could one day lead to a treatment for X disease. It’s interesting, but not always the most inspirational way to learn about science when the formula doesn’t change.

However, I’ve started to notice that more and more, institutes and organizations are creating videos that feature the scientists/doctors that are developing these treatments AND the patients that the treatments could one day help. This is an excellent way to communicate with the public! When you watch and listen to a patient talk about their struggles with their disease and how there aren’t effective treatments at the moment, it becomes clear why funding and advancing research is important.

We have a great example of a patient-focused stem cell video to share with you today thanks to our friends at Americans for Cures, a non-profit organization that advocates for stem cell research. They posted a new video this week in honor of Stem Cell Awareness Day featuring patients and patient advocates responding to the question, “What does stem cell research give you hope for?”. Many of these patients and advocates are CIRM Stem Cell Champions that we’ve featured on our website, blog, and YouTube channel.

Americans for Cures is encouraging viewers to take their own stab at answering this important question by sharing a short message (on their website) or recording a video that they will share with the stem cell community. We hope that you are up for the challenge!

Mini-brains help uncover some of Zika’s secrets (Kevin McCormack).
One of the hardest things about trying to understand how a virus like Zika can damage the brain is that it’s hard to see what’s going on inside a living brain. That’s not surprising. It’s not considered polite to do an autopsy of someone’s brain while they are still using it.

Human organoid_800x533

Microscopic image of a mini brain organoid, showing layered neural tissue and different groups of neural stem cells (in blue, red and magenta) giving rise to neurons (green). Image: Novitch laboratory/UCLA

But now researchers at UCLA have come up with a way to mimic human brains, and that is enabling them to better understand how Zika inflicts damage on a developing fetus.

For years researchers have been using stem cells to help create “mini brain organoids”, essentially clusters of some of the cells found in the brain. They were helpful in studying some aspects of brain behavior but limited because they were very small and didn’t reflect the layered complexity of the brain.

In a study, published in the journal Cell Reports, UCLA researchers showed how they developed a new method of creating mini-brain organoids that better reflected a real brain. For example, the organoids had many of the cells found in the human cortex, the part of the brain that controls thought, speech and decision making. They also found that the different cells could communicate with each other, the way they do in a real brain.

They used these organoids to see how the Zika virus attacks the brain, damaging cells during the earliest stages of brain development.

In a news release, Momoko Watanabe, the study’s first author, says these new organoids can open up a whole new way of looking at the brain:

“While our organoids are in no way close to being fully functional human brains, they mimic the human brain structure much more consistently than other models. Other scientists can use our methods to improve brain research because the data will be more accurate and consistent from experiment to experiment and more comparable to the real human brain.”

iPSC recipes go head-to-head: which one is best?
In the ten years since the induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technique was first reported, many different protocols, or recipes, for reprogramming adult cells, like skin, into iPSCs have been developed. These variations bring up the question of which reprogramming recipe is best. This question isn’t the easiest to answer given the many variables that one needs to test. Due to the cost and complexity of the methods, comparisons of iPSCs generated in different labs are often performed. But one analysis found significant lab-to-lab variability which can really muck up the ability to make a fair comparison.

A Stanford University research team, led by Dr. Joseph Wu, sought to eliminate these confounding variables so that any differences found could be attributed specifically to the recipe. So, they tested six different reprogramming methods in the same lab, using cells from the same female donor. And in turn, these cells were compared to a female source of embryonic stem cells, the gold standard of pluripotent stem cells. They reported their findings this week in Nature Biomedical Engineering.

Previous studies had hinted that the reprogramming protocol could affect the ability to fully specialize iPSCs into a particular cell type. But based on their comparisons, the protocol chosen did not have a significant impact on how well iPSCs can be matured. Differences in gene activity are a key way that researchers do side-by-side comparisons of iPSCs and embryonic stem cells. And based on the results in this study, the reprogramming method itself can influence the differences. A gene activity comparison of all the iPSCs with the embryonic stem cells found the polycomb repressive complex – a set of genes that play an important role in embryonic development and are implicated in cancer – had the biggest difference.

In a “Behind the Paper” report to the journal, first author Jared Churko, says that based on these findings, their lab now mostly uses one reprogramming protocol – which uses the Sendai virus to deliver the reprogramming genes to the cells:

“The majority of our hiPSC lines are now generated using Sendai virus. This is due to the ease in generating hiPSCs using this method as well as the little to no chance of transgene integration [a case in which a reprogramming gene inserts into the cells’ DNA which could lead to cancerous growth].”

Still, he adds a caveat that the virus does tend to linger in the cells which suggests that:

“cell source or reprogramming method utilized, each hiPSC line still requires robust characterization prior to them being used for downstream experimentation or clinical use.”

 

Stem Cell Stories That Caught Our Eye: Halting Brain Cancer, Parkinson’s disease and Stem Cell Awareness Day

Stopping brain cancer in its tracks.

Experiments by a team of NIH-funded scientists suggests a potential method for halting the expansion of certain brain tumors.Michelle Monje, M.D., Ph.D., Stanford University.

Scientists at Stanford Medicine discovered that you can halt aggressive brain cancers called high-grade gliomas by cutting off their supply of a signaling protein called neuroligin-3. Their research, which was funded by CIRM and the NIH, was published this week in the journal Nature. 

The Stanford team, led by senior author Michelle Monje, had previously discovered that neuroligin-3 dramatically spurred the growth of glioma cells in the brains of mice. In their new study, the team found that removing neuroligin-3 from the brains of mice that were transplanted with human glioma cells prevented the cancer cells from spreading.

Monje explained in a Stanford news release,

“We thought that when we put glioma cells into a mouse brain that was neuroligin-3 deficient, that might decrease tumor growth to some measurable extent. What we found was really startling to us: For several months, these brain tumors simply didn’t grow.”

The team is now exploring whether targeting neuroligin-3 will be an effective therapeutic treatment for gliomas. They tested two inhibitors of neuroligin-3 secretion and saw that both were effective in stunting glioma growth in mice.

Because blocking neuroligin-3 doesn’t kill glioma cells and gliomas eventually find ways to grow even in the absence of neuroligin-3, Monje is now hoping to develop a combination therapy with neuroligin-3 inhibitors that will cure patients of high-grade gliomas.

“We have a really clear path forward for therapy; we are in the process of working with the company that owns the clinically characterized compound in an effort to bring it to a clinical trial for brain tumor patients. We will have to attack these tumors from many different angles to cure them. Any measurable extension of life and improvement of quality of life is a real win for these patients.”

Parkinson’s Institute CIRM Research Featured on KTVU News.

The Bay Area Parkinson’s Institute and Clinical Center located in Sunnyvale, California, was recently featured on the local KTVU news station. The five-minute video below features patients who attend the clinic at the Parkinson’s Institute as well as scientists who are doing cutting edge research into Parkinson’s disease (PD).

Parkinson’s disease in a dish. Dopaminergic neurons made from PD induced pluripotent stem cells. (Image courtesy of Birgitt Schuele).

One of these scientists is Dr. Birgitt Schuele, who recently was awarded a discovery research grant from CIRM to study a new potential therapy for Parkinson’s using human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) derived from PD patients. Schuele explains that the goal of her team’s research is to “generate a model for Parkinson’s disease in a dish, or making a brain in a dish.”

It’s worth watching the video in its entirety to learn how this unique institute is attempting to find new ways to help the growing number of patients being diagnosed with this degenerative brain disease.

Click on photo to view video.

Mark your calendars for Stem Cell Awareness Day!

Every year on the second Wednesday of October is Stem Cell Awareness Day (SCAD). This is a day that our agency started back in 2009, with a proclamation by former California Mayor Gavin Newsom, to honor the important accomplishments made in the field of stem cell research by scientists, doctors and institutes around the world.

This year, SCAD is on October 11th. Our Agency will be celebrating this day with a special patient advocate event on Tuesday October 10th at the UC Davis MIND Institute in Sacramento California. CIRM grantees Dr. Jan Nolta, the Director of UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures, and Dr. Diana Farmer, Chair of the UC Davis Department of Surgery, will be talking about their CIRM-funded research developing stem cell models and potential therapies for Huntington’s disease and spina bifida (a birth defect where the spinal cord fails to fully develop). You’ll also hear an update on  CIRM’s progress from our President and CEO (Interim), Maria Millan, MD, and Chairman of the Board, Jonathan Thomas, PhD, JD. If you’re interested in attending this event, you can RSVP on our Eventbrite Page.

Be sure to check out a list of other Stem Cell Awareness Day events during the month of October on our website. You can also follow the hashtag #StemCellAwarenessDay on Twitter to join in on the celebration!

One last thing. October is an especially fun month because we also get to celebrate Pluripotency Day on October 4th. OCT4 is an important gene that maintains stem cell pluripotency – the ability of a stem cell to become any cell type in the body – in embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells. Because not all stem cells are pluripotent (there are adult stem cells in your tissues and organs) it makes sense to celebrate these days separately. And who doesn’t love having more reasons to celebrate science?

Bioengineers make breathtaking step toward building a lung

Tissue engineers have made amazing progress when it comes to using stem cells to build tissues such as blood vessels, which have relatively simple tubular shape. In fact, a late stage CIRM-funded clinical trial run by Humacyte is testing an engineered vein to improve dialysis treatment for people with kidney disease. Building a lung that works properly, on the other hand, has proven elusive due in no small part to its extremely intricate structure. But in a Science Advances report published yesterday, Columbia University bioengineers describe a potentially breakthrough method for building a functional lung in the lab.

Building a better lung that removes and repopulates lung cells without hurting blood vessels. Figure courtesy of N. Valerio Dorrello and Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, Columbia University.

Lung disease tends to not get as much attention as other deadly diseases like cancer and heart failure. Yet it’s the world’s third leading cause of death with 400,000 deaths per year in just the United States. The only true treatment is a very drastic one: a lung transplant. This option is not very attractive even to those with severe disease because it’s a very expensive procedure that only has a 10-20% survival rate after 10 years. On top of that, donor lungs are in very short supply. So, clinicians and their patients are in desperate need for other approaches.

Tissue engineering approaches to building a lung face many challenges due to the organ’s complex structure. How complex, you ask? Science writer and scientist, Shelly Fan, uses a great analogy to describe it in her Singularity Hub article about this study:

“The lung is a real jungle: at the microscopic level, the tree-like airways contain alveoli, tiny bubble-like structures where the lungs exchange gas with our blood. Both arteries and veins enwrap the alveoli like two sets of mesh pockets.”

Now, one approach to building an organ is to start from scratch by manufacturing a synthetic scaffold resembling the shape of the organ and then seeding it with stem cells or other precursor cells. But because of this complicated microscopic jungle, bioengineers have steered clear of this path. Instead, the Columbia team has generated a natural scaffold by removing the cells from rat lungs using detergents. What’s left behind is a lung “skeleton” of proteins and molecules called the extracellular matrix that’s devoid of cells.

Building a better lung that removes and repopulates lung cells without hurting blood vessels. Figure courtesy of N. Valerio Dorrello and Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, Columbia University.

In previous experiments using rat lungs, the team stripped out the lung cells, called epithelial cells, which are the type typically damaged in lung disease. Their method also removed the blood vessel cells, called endothelial cells, which make up the vascular system that is key to taking up the oxygen inhaled into the lungs. While repopulating the functional epithelial cells has been achieved, restoring the blood vessels is another story as mentioned in a university press release:

“An intact vascular network—missing in these scaffolds—is critical not only for maintaining the blood-gas barrier and allowing for proper graft function, but also for supporting the cells introduced to regenerate the lung. This has proved to be a daunting challenge.”

So, the current study attempted to only clear out the lung epithelial cells without disturbing the blood vessels to see if they would have better results. This approach makes sense on another level when envisioning future clinical applications: the therapy would be less complex if you only had to remove the diseased cells, which typically are the lung epithelial cells.

The researchers devised a cell removal method that was specific to the airways so that only epithelial cells would be cleared away. A battery of tests showed that, that although the lungs lost much of their ability to inflate and expand, the blood system remained intact after the procedure. The team then introduced either human epithelial cells or human induced pluripotent stem cell-derived epithelial cells into the scaffold. Within a day, they watched as the cells began to repopulate the lung in the correct areas. Follow-up experiments showed that the addition of new epithelial cells restored a good portion of the lungs expansion abilities.

Lead author, Dr. N. Valerio Dorrello, gave a big picture perspective on how this proof-of-concept study could one day help those who suffer from lung disease:

Nicolino Valerio Dorrello, MD

“Every day, I see children in intensive care with severe lung disease who depend on mechanical ventilation support. The approach we established could lead to entirely new treatment modalities for these patients, designed to regenerate lungs by treating their injured epithelium.”

CIRM-funded scientists discover a new way to make stem cells using antibodies

Just as learning a new skill takes time to hone, scientific discoveries take time to perfect. Such is the case with induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), the Nobel Prize winning technology that reprograms mature adult cells back into a pluripotent stem cell state. iPSCs are a powerful tool because they can develop into any cell found in the body. Scientists use iPSCs to model diseases in a dish, screen for new drugs, and to develop stem cell-based therapies for patients.

iPSCs grown in a cell culture dish.

The original iPSC technology, discovered by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka in 2006, requires viral delivery of four transcription factor genes, Oct4, Sox2, Klf4, and c-Myc, into the nucleus of an adult cell. These genes are inserted into the genome where they are activated to churn out their respective proteins. The combined expression of these four factors (OSKM) turns off the genetic programming of an adult cell and turns on the programming for a pluripotent stem cell.

The technology is pretty neat and allows scientists to make iPSCs from patients using a variety of different tissue sources including skin, blood, and even urine. However, there is a catch. Inserting reprogramming genes into a cell’s genome can be disruptive if the reprogramming genes fail to switch off or can cause cancer if nefarious oncogenes are turned on.

In response to this concern, scientists are developing alternative methods for making iPSCs using non-invasive methods. A CIRM-funded team from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) published such a study yesterday in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

Led by senior author and CIRM grantee Dr. Kristin Baldwin, the TSRI team screened a large library of antibodies – proteins that recognize and bind to specific molecules – to identify ones that could substitute for the OSKM reprogramming factors. The hope was that some of these antibodies would bind to proteins on the surface of cells and turn on a molecular signaling cascade from the outside that would turn on the appropriate reprogramming genes from the inside of the cell.

The scientists screened over 100 million antibodies and found ones that could replace three of the four reprogramming factors (Oct4, Sox2, and c-Myc) when reprogramming mouse skin cells into iPSCs. They were unable to find an antibody to replace Klf4 in the current study but have it on their to-do list for future studies.

Dr. Baldwin explained how her team’s findings improve upon previous reprogramming methods in a TSRI news release,

Kristen Baldwin

“This result suggests that ultimately we might be able to make IPSCs without putting anything in the cell nucleus, which potentially means that these stem cells will have fewer mutations and overall better properties.”

 

Other groups have published other non-invasive iPSC reprogramming methods using cocktails of chemicals, proteins or microRNAs in place of virally delivering genes to make iPSCs. However, Baldwin’s study is the first (to our knowledge) to use antibodies to achieve this feat.

An added benefit to antibody reprogramming is that the team was able to learn more about the signaling pathways that were naturally activated by the iPSC reprogramming antibodies.

“The scientists found that one of the Sox2-replacing antibodies binds to a protein on the cell membrane called Basp1. This binding event blocks Basp1’s normal activity and thus removes the restraints on WT1, a transcription factor protein that works in the cell nucleus. WT1, unleashed, then alters the activity of multiple genes, ultimately including Sox2’s, to promote the stem cell state using a different order of events than when using the original reprogramming factors.”

iPSCs made by antibody reprogramming could address some of the long-standing issues associated with more traditional reprogramming methods and could offer further insights into the complex signaling required to turn adult cells back into a pluripotent state. Baldwin and her team are now on the hunt for antibodies that will reprogram human (rather than mouse) cells into iPSCs. Stay tuned!

Stem Cell Stories That Caught our Eye: Duchenne muscular dystrophy and short telomeres, motor neurons from skin, and students today, stem cell scientists tomorrow

Short telomeres associated with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.

Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) is a severe muscle wasting disease that typically affects young men. There is no cure for DMD and the average life expectancy is 26. These are troubling facts that scientists at the University of Pennsylvania are hoping to change with their recent findings in Stem Cell Reports.

Muscle stem cells with telomeres shown in red. (Credit: Penn Medicine)

The team discovered that the muscle stem cells in DMD patients have shortened telomeres, which are the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes that prevent the loss of precious genetic information during cell division. Each time a cell divides, a small section of telomere is lost. This typically isn’t a problem because telomeres are long enough to protect cells through many divisions.

But it turns out this is not the case for the telomeres in the muscle stem cells of DMD patients. Because DMD patients have weak muscles, they experience constant muscle damage and their muscle stem cells have to divide more frequently (basically non-stop) to repair and replace muscle tissue. This is bad news for the telomeres in their muscle stem cells. Foteini Mourkioti, senior author on the study, explained in a news release,

“We found that in boys with DMD, the telomeres are so short that the muscle stem cells are probably exhausted. Due to the DMD, their muscle stem cells are constantly repairing themselves, which means the telomeres are getting shorter at an accelerated rate, much earlier in life. Future therapies that prevent telomere loss and keep muscle stem cells viable might be able to slow the progress of disease and boost muscle regeneration in the patients.”

With these new insights, Mourkioti and his team believe that targeting muscle stem cells before their telomeres become too short is a good path to pursue for developing new treatments for DMD.

“We are now looking for signaling pathways that affect telomere length in muscle stem cells, so that in principle we can develop drugs to block those pathways and maintain telomere length.”

Making Motor Neurons from Skin.

Skin cells and brain cells are like apples and oranges, they look completely different and have different functions. However, in the past decade, researchers have developed methods to transform skin cells into neurons to study neurodegenerative disorders and develop new strategies to treat brain diseases.

Scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis published new findings on this topic yesterday in the journal Cell Stem Cell. In a nut shell, the team discovered that a specific combination of microRNAs (molecules involved in regulating what genes are turned on and off) and transcription factors (proteins that also regulate gene expression) can turn human skin cells into motor neurons, which are the brain cells that degenerate in neurodegenerative diseases like ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Human motor neurons made from skin. (Credit: Daniel Abernathy)

This magical cocktail of factors told the skin cells to turn off genes that make them skin and turn on genes that transformed them into motor neurons. The scientists used skin cells from healthy individuals but will soon use their method to make motor neurons from patients with ALS and other motor neuron diseases. They are also interested in generating neurons from older patients who are more advanced in their disease. Andrew Yoo, senior author on the study, explained in a news release,

“In this study, we only used skin cells from healthy adults ranging in age from early 20s to late 60s. Our research revealed how small RNA molecules can work with other cell signals called transcription factors to generate specific types of neurons, in this case motor neurons. In the future, we would like to study skin cells from patients with disorders of motor neurons. Our conversion process should model late-onset aspects of the disease using neurons derived from patients with the condition.”

This research will make it easier for other scientists to grow human motor neurons in the lab to model brain diseases and potentially develop new treatments. However, this is still early stage research and more work should be done to determine whether these transformed motor neurons are the “real deal”. A similar conclusion was shared by Julia Evangelou Strait, the author of the Washington University School of Medicine news release,

“The converted motor neurons compared favorably to normal mouse motor neurons, in terms of the genes that are turned on and off and how they function. But the scientists can’t be certain these cells are perfect matches for native human motor neurons since it’s difficult to obtain samples of cultured motor neurons from adult individuals. Future work studying neuron samples donated from patients after death is required to determine how precisely these cells mimic native human motor neurons.”

Students Today, Scientists Tomorrow.

What did you want to be when you were growing up? For Benjamin Nittayo, a senior at Cal State University Los Angeles, it was being a scientist researching a cure for acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a form of blood cancer that took his father’s life. Nittayo is making his dream into a reality by participating in a summer research internship through the Eugene and Ruth Roberts Summer Student Academy at the City of Hope in Duarte California.

Nittayo has spent the past two summers doing cancer research with scientists at the Beckman Research Institute at City of Hope and hopes to get a PhD in immunology to pursue his dream of curing AML. He explained in a City of Hope news release,

“I want to carry his memory on through my work. Being in this summer student program helped me do that. It influenced the kind of research I want to get into as a scientist and it connected me to my dad. I want to continue the research I was able to start here so other people won’t have to go through what I went through. I don’t wish that on anybody.”

The Roberts Academy also hosts high school students who are interested in getting their first experience working in a lab. Some of these students are part of CIRM’s high school educational program Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge or SPARK. The goal of SPARK is to train the next generation of stem cell scientists in California by giving them hands-on training in stem cell research at leading institutes in the state.

This year, the City of Hope hosted the Annual SPARK meeting where students from the seven different SPARK programs presented their summer research and learned about advances in stem cell therapies from City of Hope scientists.

Ashley Anderson, a student at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, had the honor of giving the City of Hope SPARK student talk. She shared her work on Canavan’s disease, a progressive genetic disorder that damages the brain’s nerve cells during infancy and can cause problems with movement and muscle weakness.

Under the guidance of her mentor Yanhong Shi, Ph.D., who is a Professor of Developmental and Stem Cell Biology at City of Hope, Ashley used induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from patients with Canavan’s to generate different types of brain cells affected by the disease. Ashley helped develop a protocol to make large quantities of neural progenitor cells from these iPSCs which the lab hopes to eventually use in clinical trials to treat Canavan patients.

Ashley has always been intrigued by science, but thanks to SPARK and the Roberts Academy, she was finally able to gain actual experience doing science.

“I was looking for an internship in biosciences where I could apply my interest in science more hands-on. Science is more than reading a textbook, you need to practice it. That’s what SPARK has done for me. Being at City of Hope and being a part of SPARK was amazing. I learned so much from Dr. Shi. It’s great to physically be in a lab and make things happen.”

You can read more about Ashley’s research and those of other City of Hope SPARK students here. You can also find out more about the educational programs we fund on our website and on our blog (here and here).

Hearts and brains are center stage at CIRM Patient Advocate event

Describing the work of a government agency is not the most exciting of topics. Books on the subject would probably be found in the “Self-help for Insomniacs” section of a good bookstore (there are still some around). But at CIRM we are fortunate. When we talk about what we do, we don’t talk about the mechanics of our work, we talk about our mission: accelerating stem cell therapies to people with unmet medical needs.

Yesterday at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco we did just that, talking about the progress being made in stem cell research to an audience of friends, supporters and patient advocates. We had a lot to talk about, including the 35 clinical trials we have funded so far, and our goals and hopes for the future.

We were lucky to have Dr. Deepak Srivastava and Dr. Steve Finkbeiner from Gladstone join us to talk about their work. Some people are good scientists, some are good communicators. Deepak and Steve are great scientists and equally great communicators.

Deepak Srivastava highlighted ongoing stem cell research at the Gladstone
(Photo: Todd Dubnicoff/CIRM)

Deepak is the Director of the Roddenberry Stem Cell Center at Gladstone (and yes, it’s named after Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek fame) and an expert on heart disease. He talked about how advances in research have enabled us to turn heart scar tissue cells into new heart muscle cells, creating the potential to use a person’s own cells to help them recover from a heart attack.

“If you have a heart attack, your heart turns that muscle into scar tissue which affects the heart’s ability to pump blood around the body. We identified a combination of factors that support cells that are already in your heart and we have found a way of converting those scar cells into muscle. This could help repair the heart enough so you may not need a transplant, but you can lead a much more normal life.”

He said this research is now advancing to the point where they hope it could be ready for testing in people in the not too distant future and joked that his father, who has had a heart attack, volunteered to be the second person to try it. “Not the first but definitely the second.”

Steve, who is the Director of the Taube/Koret Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research, specializes in problems in the brain; everything from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to schizophrenia and ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

He talked about his uncle, who has end stage Parkinson’s disease, and how he sees first-hand how devastating this neurodegenerative disease is, and how that personal connection helps motivate him to work ever harder.

He talked about how so many therapies that look promising in mice fail when they are tested in people:

“A huge motivation for me has been to try and figure out a more reliable way to test these potential therapies and to move discoveries from the lab and into clinical trials in patients.”

Steve is using ordinary skin cells or tissue samples, taken from people with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and other neurological conditions, and using the iPSC technique developed by Shinya Yamanaka (who is a researcher at Gladstone and also Director of CIRA in Japan) turns them into the kinds of cells found in the brain. These cells then enable him to study how these different diseases affect the brain, and come up with ways that might stop their progress.

Steve Finkbeiner is using human stem cells to model brain diseases
(Photo: Todd Dubnicoff/CIRM)

He uses a robotic microscope – developed at Gladstone – that allows his team to study these cells and test different potential therapies 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This round-the-clock approach will hopefully help speed up his ability to find something that help patients.

The CIRM speakers – Dr. Maria Millan, our interim President and CEO – and Sen. Art Torres (ret.) the Vice Chair of our Board and a patient advocate for colorectal cancer – talked about the progress we are making in helping push stem cell research forward.

Dr. Millan focused on our clinical trial work and how our goal is to create a pipeline of promising projects from the work being done by researchers like Deepak and Steve, and move those out of the lab and into clinical trials in people as quickly as possible.

Sen. Art Torres (Ret.)
(Photo: Todd Dubnicoff/CIRM)

Sen. Torres focused on the role of the patient advocate at CIRM and how they help shape and influence everything we do, from the Board’s deciding what projects to support and fund, to our creating Clinical Advisory Panels which involve a patient advocate helping guide clinical trial teams.

The event is one of a series that we hold around the state every year, reporting back to our friends and supporters on the progress being made. We feel, as a state agency, that we owe it to the people of California to let them know how their money is being spent.

We are holding two more of these events in the near future, one at UC Davis in Sacramento on October 10th, and one at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on October 30th.

Stem cell therapy for Parkinson’s disease shows promise in monkeys

Tremors, muscle stiffness, shuffling, slow movement, loss of balance. These are all symptoms of Parkinson’s disease (PD), a neurodegenerative disorder that progressively destroys the dopamine-producing neurons in the brain that control movement.

While there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease, there are drugs like Levodopa and procedures like deep brain stimulation that alleviate or improve some Parkinsonian symptoms. What they don’t do, however, is slow or reverse disease progression.

Scientists are still trying to figure out what causes Parkinson’s patients to lose dopaminergic neurons, and when they do, they hope to stop the disease in its early stages before it can cause the debilitating symptoms mentioned above. In the meantime, some researchers see hope for treating Parkinson’s in the form of stem cell therapies that can replace the brain cells that are damaged or lost due to the disease.

Dopaminergic neurons derived from induced pluripotent stem cells. (Xianmin Zeng, Buck Institute)

Promising results in monkeys

This week, a team of Japanese scientists reported in the journal Nature that they treated monkeys with Parkinson’s-like symptoms by transplanting dopaminergic neurons made from human stem cells into their brains. To prevent the monkeys from rejecting the human cells, they were treated with immunosuppressive drugs. These transplanted neurons survived for more than two years without causing negative side effects, like tumor growth, and also improved PD symptoms, making it easier for the monkeys to move around.

The neurons were made from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are stem cells that can become any cell type in the body and are made by transforming mature human cells, like skin, back to an embryonic-like state. The scientists transplanted neurons made from the iPSCs of healthy people and PD patients into the monkeys and saw that both types of neurons survived and functioned properly by producing dopamine in the monkey brains.

Experts in the field spoke to the importance of these findings in an interview with Nature News. Anders Bjorklund, a neuroscientist at Lund University in Sweden, said “it’s addressing a set of critical issues that need to be investigated before one can, with confidence, move to using the cells in humans,” while Lorenz Studer, a stem-cell scientist at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, said that “there are still issues to work out, such as the number of cells needed in each transplant procedure. But the latest study is ‘a sign that we are ready to move forward.’”

Next stop, human trials

Jun Takahashi

Looking ahead, Jun Takahashi, the senior author on the study, explained that his team hopes to launch a clinical trial testing this iPSC-based therapy by the end of 2018. Instead of developing personalized iPSC therapies for individual PD patients, which can be time consuming and costly, Takahashi plans to make special donor iPSC lines (called human leukocyte antigen or HLA-homozygous iPSCs) that are immunologically compatible with a larger population of patients.

In a separate study published at the same time in Nature Communications, Takahashi and colleagues showed that transplanting neurons derived from immune-matched monkey iPSCs improved their survival and dampened the immune response.

The Nature News article does a great job highlighting the findings and significance of both studies and also mentions other research projects using stem cells to treat PD in clinical trials.

“Earlier this year, Chinese researchers began a Parkinson’s trial that used a different approach: giving patients neural-precursor cells made from embryonic stem cells, which are intended to develop into mature dopamine-producing neurons. A year earlier, in a separate trial, patients in Australia received similar cells. But some researchers have expressed concerns that the immature transplanted cells could develop tumour-causing mutations.

Meanwhile, researchers who are part of a Parkinson’s stem-cell therapy consortium called GForce-PD, of which Takahashi’s team is a member, are set to bring still other approaches to the clinic. Teams in the United States, Sweden and the United Kingdom are all planning trials to transplant dopamine-producing neurons made from embryonic stem cells into humans. Previously established lines of embryonic stem cells have the benefit that they are well studied and can be grown in large quantities, and so all trial participants can receive a standardized treatment.”

You can read more coverage on these research studies in STATnews, The San Diego Union Tribune, and Scientific American.

For a list of projects CIRM is funding on Parkinson’s disease, visit our website.

Researchers, beware: humanized mice not human enough to study stem cell transplants

A researcher’s data is only as good as the experimental techniques used to obtain those results. And a Stanford University study published yesterday in Cell Reports, calls into question the accuracy of a widely used method in mice that helps scientists gauge the human immune system’s response to stem cell-based therapies. The findings, funded in part by CIRM, urge a healthy dose of caution before using promising results from these mouse experiments as a green light to move on to human clinical trials.

Humanized mice aren’t quite human. Illustration: Pascal Gerard

Immune rejection of stem cell-based products is a major obstacle to translating these therapies from cutting-edge research into everyday treatments for the general population for people. If the genetic composition between the transplanted cells and the patient are mismatched, the patient’s immune system will see that cell therapy as foreign and will attack it. Unlike therapies derived from embryonic stem cells or from another person, induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) are exciting because scientists can potentially develop stem cell-based therapies from a patient’s own cells which relieves most of the immune rejection fears.

But manufacturing iPSC-derived therapies for each patient can take months, not to mention a lot of money, to complete. Some patients with life-threatening conditions like a heart attack or stroke don’t have the luxury of waiting that long. So even with these therapies, many researchers are working towards developing non-matched cell products which would be available “off-the-shelf. In all of these cases, immune-suppressing drugs would be needed which have their own set of concerns due to dangerous side effects, like serious infection or cancer. So, before testing in humans begins, it’s important to be able to test various immune-suppressing drugs and doses in animals to understand how well a stem cell-based therapy will survive once transplanted.

But how do you test a human immune response to a human cell product in an animal? Believe it or not, researchers – some of whom are authors in this Cell Reports publication – developed “humanized mice” back in the 1980’s. These mice were engineered to lack their own immune system to allow the engraftment of a human immune system. Over the years, advances in this mouse experimental system has gotten it closer and closer to imitating a human immune system response to transplantation of mismatched cell product.

Close but no cigar, it seems.

The team in the current study performed a detailed analysis of the immune response in two different strains of humanized mice. Both groups of animals did not mount a normal, healthy immune response and so they could not completely reject transplants of various human stem cells or stem cell-based products. Now, if you didn’t know about the abnormally weak immune response in these humanized mice, you might conclude that very little immunosuppression would be needed for a given cell therapy to keep a patient’s immune system in check. But conclusively making that interpretation is not possible, according to team lead Dr. Joseph Wu, director of Stanford’s Cardiovascular Institute:

Joseph Wu. Photo: Steve Fisch/Stanford University

“In an ideal situation, these humanized mice would reject foreign stem cells just as a human patient would”, he said in a press release. “We could then test a variety of immunosuppressive drugs to learn which might work best in patients, or to screen for new drugs that could inhibit this rejection. We can’t do that with these animals.”

To uncover what was happening, the team took a step back and, rather than engrafting a human immune system into the mice, they engrafted immune cells from an unrelated mouse strain. Think of it as a mouse-ified mouse, if you will. When mouse iPSCs or human embryonic stem cells were transplanted into these mouse, the engrafted mouse immune system effectively rejected the stem cells. So, compared to these mice, some elements of the immune system in the humanized mouse strains are not quite capturing the necessary complexity to truly reproduce a human immune response.

More work will be needed to understand the underlying mechanisms of this difference. Other experiments in this study suggest that signals that inhibit the immune response may be elevated in the humanized mouse models. Dr. Leonard Shultz, a pioneer in the development of humanized mice at Jackson Laboratory and an author of this study, is optimistic about building a better model:

“The immune system is highly complex and there still remains much we need to learn. Each roadblock we identify will only serve as a landmark as we navigate the future. Already, we’ve seen recent improvements in humanized mouse models that foster enhancement of human immune function.”

Until then, the team urges other scientists to tread carefully when drawing conclusions from the humanized mice in use today.

CIRM weekly stem cell roundup: minibrain model of childhood disease; new immune insights; patient throws out 1st pitch

New human Mini-brain model of devastating childhood disease.
The eradication of Aicardi-Goutieres Syndrome (AGS) can’t come soon enough. This rare but terrible inherited disease causes the immune system to attack the brain. The condition leads to microcephaly (an abnormal small head and brain size), muscle spasms, vision problems and joint stiffness during infancy. Death or a persistent comatose state is common by early childhood. There is no cure.

Though animal models that mimic AGS symptoms are helpful, they don’t reflect the human disease closely enough to provide researchers with a deeper understanding of the mechanisms of the disease. But CIRM-funded research published this week may be a game changer for opening up new therapeutic strategies for the children and their families that are suffering from AGS.

Organoid mini-brains are clusters of cultured cells self-organized into miniature replicas of organs. Image courtesy of Cleber A. Trujillo, UC San Diego.

To get a clearer human picture of the disease, Dr. Alysson Muotri of UC San Diego and his team generated AGS patient-derived induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These iPSCs were then grown into “mini-brains” in a lab dish. As described in Cell Stem Cell, their examination of the mini-brains revealed an excess of chromosomal DNA in the cells. This abnormal build up causes various toxic effects on the nerve cells in the mini-brains which, according to Muotri, had the hallmarks of AGS in patients:

“These models seemed to mirror the development and progression of AGS in a developing fetus,” said Muotri in a press release. “It was cell death and reduction when neural development should be rising.”

In turns out that the excess DNA wasn’t just a bunch of random sequences but instead most came from so-called LINE1 (L1) retroelements. These repetitive DNA sequences can “jump” in and out of DNA chromosomes and are thought to be remnants of ancient viruses in the human genome. And it turns out the cell death in the mini-brains was caused by the immune system’s anti-viral response to these L1 retroelements. First author Charles Thomas explained why researchers may have missed this in their mouse models:

“We uncovered a novel and fundamental mechanism, where chronic response to L1 elements can negatively impact human neurodevelopment. This mechanism seems human-specific. We don’t see this in the mouse.”

The team went on to test the anti-retroviral effects of HIV drugs on their AGS models. Sure enough, the drugs decreased the amount of L1 DNA and cell growth rebounded in the mini-brains. The beauty of using already approved drugs is that the route to clinical trials is much faster and in fact a European trial is currently underway.

For more details, watch this video interview with Dr. Muotri:

New findings about immune cell development may open door to new cancer treatments
For those of you who suffer with seasonal allergies, you can blame your sniffling and sneezing on an overreaction by mast cells. These white blood cells help jump start the immune system by releasing histamines which makes blood vessels leaky allowing other immune cells to join the battle to fight disease or infection. Certain harmless allergens like pollen are mistaken as dangerous and can also cause histamine release which triggers tearing and sneezing.

Mast cells in lab dish. Image: Wikipedia.

Dysfunction of mast cells are also involved in some blood cancers. And up until now, it was thought a protein called stem cell factor played the key role in the development of blood stem cells into mast cells. But research reported this week by researchers at Karolinska Institute and Uppsala University found cracks in that previous hypothesis. Their findings published in Blood could open the door to new cancer therapies.

The researchers examine the effects of the anticancer drug Glivec – which blocks the function of stem cell factor – on mast cells in patients with a form of leukemia. Although the number of mature mast cells were reduced by the drug, the number of progenitor mast cells were not. The progenitors are akin to teenagers in that they’re at an intermediate stage of development, more specialized than stem cells but not quite mast cells. The team went on to confirm that stem cell factor was not required for the mast cell progenitors to survive, multiply and mature. Instead, their work identified two other growth factors, interleukin 3 and 6, as important for mast cell development.

In a press release, lead author Joakim Dahlin, explained how these new insights could lead to new therapies:

“The study increases our understanding of how mast cells are formed and could be important in the development of new therapies, for example for mastocytosis for which treatment with imatinib/Glivec is not effective. One hypothesis that we will now test is whether interleukin 3 can be a new target in the treatment of mast cell-driven diseases.”

Patient in CIRM-funded trial regains use of arms, hands and fingers will throw 1st pitch in MLB game.
We end this week with some heart-warming news from Asterias Biotherapeutics. You avid Stem Cellar readers will remember our story about Lucas Lindner several weeks back. Lucas was paralyzed from the neck down after a terrible car accident. Shortly after the accident, in June of 2016, he enrolled in Asterias’ CIRM-funded trial testing an embryonic stem cell-based therapy to treat his injury. And this Sunday, August 13th, we’re excited to report that due to regaining the use of his arms, hands and fingers since the treatment, he will throw out the first pitch of a Major League Baseball game in Milwaukee. Congrats to Lucas!

For more about Lucas’ story, watch this video produced by Asterias Biotherapeutics: