Stem Cell Agency’s Diane Winokur hailed as Visionary

Diane and JT

CIRM Board member Diane Winokur with CIRM Board Chair Jonathan Thomas at FFB Awards dinner

Generally speaking, I am not a huge fan of gala dinners. It’s not that I don’t like seeing people who do remarkable things getting a well-deserved honor. It’s just that the dinners often go on too long and the food is usually not very good (hey, this is San Francisco, those things matter). But last night’s Foundation Fighting Blindness Visionary Awards in San Francisco was definitely an exception to that rule.

Academy of Sciences Grand Opening

Academy of Sciences in San Francisco

Now it may be that the awards were held in the spectacular Academy of Sciences building in Golden Gate Park, or that the food was delicious. But I think the real reason is that CIRM Board member Diane Winokur was one of those being honored. The other honoree was Dr. Jacque Duncan, an amazing physician at UC San Francisco who has dedicated her life to battling diseases of the retina. The whole event was deeply emotional, and truly inspiring.

Now, Diane is a remarkable woman in many respects. She’s the Board’s Patient Advocate member for ALS (better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) and multiple sclerosis. But Diane also considers herself a Patient Advocate for all Californians and works hard to help advance the research that could help them. She has a personal connection to vision loss as well; one of her dear friends has lost his sight because of retinitis pigmentosa, and his daughter is losing hers because of the same disease.

Diane at podiumDiane highlighted the work that CIRM is doing to help battle vision destroying diseases; how we have invested more than $125 million in 25 different projects. She talked about the encouraging news from clinical trials we are funding targeting retinitis pigmentosa and dry age-related macular degeneration. Diane said:

“These stem cell clinical trials show that progress is being made. Not as fast as we would like, but as everyone here knows, good science takes time. As a patient advocate on the CIRM Board it’s my role to represent the patient, to be their voice in making decisions about what projects to fund.

Patients are at the heart of everything we do at CIRM, from deciding on funding issues to supporting clinical trials. That’s why I feel so honored to get this award. It comes from an organization, that is equally committed to doing all it can to help people in need, to putting the patient at the center of everything they do.”

It’s clear that patients really are at the heart of the work the Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB) does. As the organizations CEO Benjamin Yerxa said:

“We support 77 labs in the US, often funding projects no one else would. We do this because we know it is necessary to advance the field. And we are going to keep doing this as best we can, as fast as we can, for as long as we can, because we know so many people are depending on us to help them.”

The other honoree, Jacque Duncan, said after attending many previous Visionary Award dinners and seeing the people being honored it was humbling to be in that company. She talked about the exciting progress being made in the field and the people who are making it possible.

“None of this happens by chance. The path to developing new treatments takes the passion of scientists and doctors, and the commitment of patients to raising the funds needed to do this research. One gala dinner at a time, one Vision Walk at a time. All of this creates community and a common purpose. I truly believe that because of this, tomorrow will be brighter than today.”

Perhaps it’s only appropriate to leave the last word to Diane, who ended her speech saying:

“The Nobel prize winning physicist Heinrich Rohrer once said that science means constantly walking a tightrope between blind faith and curiosity; between expertise and creativity; between bias and openness; between experience and epiphany; in short, between an old today and a new tomorrow.

I believe that working together, CIRM and the Foundation Fighting Blindness, we can create that new tomorrow.”

jCyte Shares Encouraging Update on Clinical Trial for Retinitis Pigmentosa

Stepping out of the darkness into light. That’s how patients are describing their experience after participating in a CIRM-funded clinical trial targeting a rare form of vision loss called retinitis pigmentosa (RP). jCyte, the company conducting the trial, announced 12 month results for its candidate stem cell-based treatment for RP.

RP is a genetic disorder that affects approximately 1 in 40,000 individuals and 1.5 million people globally. It causes the destruction of the light-sensing cells at the back of the eye called photoreceptors. Patients experience symptoms of vision loss starting in their teenage years and eventually become legally blind by middle age. While there is no cure for RP, there is hope that stem cell-based therapies could slow its progression in patients.

Photoreceptors look healthy in a normal retina (left). Cells are damaged in the retina of an RP patient (right). (Source National Eye Institute)

jCyte is one of the leaders in developing cell-based therapies for RP. The company, which was founded by UC Irvine scientists led by Dr. Henry Klassen, is testing a product called jCell, which is composed of pluripotent stem cell-derived progenitor cells that develop into photoreceptors. When transplanted into the back of the eye, they are believed to release growth factors that prevent further damage to the surviving cells in the retina. They also can integrate into the patient’s retina and develop into new photoreceptor cells to improve a patient’s vision.

Positive Results

At the Annual Ophthalmology Innovation Summit in November, jCyte announced results from its Phase 1/2a trial, which was a 12-month study testing two different doses of transplanted cells in 28 patients. The company reported a “favorable safety profile and indications of potential benefit” to patient vision.

The patients received a single injection of cells in their worst eye and their visual acuity (how well they can see) was then compared between the treated and untreated eye. Patients who received the lower dose of 0.5 million cells were able to see one extra letter on an eye chart with their treated eye compared to their untreated eye while patients that received the larger dose of 3 million cells were able to read 9 more letters. Importantly, none of the patients experienced any significant side effects from the treatment.

According to the company’s news release, “patient feedback was particularly encouraging. Many reported improved vision, including increased sensitivity to light, improved color discrimination and reading ability and better mobility. In addition, 22 of the 28 patients have been treated in their other eye as part of a follow-on extension study.”

One of these patients is Rosie Barrero. She spoke to us earlier this year about how the jCyte trial has not only improved her vision but has also given her hope. You can watch her video below.

Next Steps

These results suggest that the jCell therapy is safe (at least at the one year mark) to use in patients and that larger doses of jCell are more effective at improving vision in patients. jCyte CEO, Paul Bresge commented on the trial’s positive results:

Paul Bresge

“We are very encouraged by these results. Currently, there are no effective therapies to offer patients with RP. We are moving forward as quickly as possible to remedy that. The feedback we’ve received from trial participants has been remarkable. We look forward to moving through the regulatory process and bringing this easily-administered potential therapy to patients worldwide.”

Bresge and his company will be able to navigate jCell through the regulatory process more smoothly with the product’s recent Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy (RMAT) designation from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA grants RMAT to regenerative medicine therapies for serious diseases that have shown promise in early-stage clinical trials. The designation allows therapies to receive expedited review as they navigate their way towards commercialization.

jCyte is now evaluating the safety and efficacy of jCell in a Phase2b trial in a larger group of up to 85 patients. CIRM is also funding this trial and you can read more about it on our website.


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

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

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

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

As one stakeholder told us at the time:

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

Changing the conversation

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

21 century cures

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

Partnering with the NIH

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

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

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

A model for the future

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

dr_collins

Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the NIH

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

CIRM-Funded Clinical Trials Targeting Brain and Eye Disorders

This blog is part of our Month of CIRM series, which features our Agency’s progress towards achieving our mission to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.

 This week, we’re highlighting CIRM-funded clinical trials to address the growing interest in our rapidly expanding clinical portfolio. Our Agency has funded a total of 40 trials since its inception. 23 of these trials were funded after the launch of our Strategic Plan in 2016, bringing us close to the half way point of our goal to fund 50 new clinical trials by 2020.

Today we are featuring CIRM-funded trials in our neurological and eye disorders portfolio.  CIRM has funded a total of nine trials targeting these disease areas, and seven of these trials are currently active. Check out the infographic below for a list of our currently active trials.

For more details about all CIRM-funded clinical trials, visit our clinical trials page and read our clinical trials brochure which provides brief overviews of each trial.

CIRM-funded life-saving stem cell therapy gets nod of approval from FDA

Cured_AR_2016_coverIf you have read our 2016 Annual Report (and if you haven’t you should, it’s brilliant) or just seen the cover you’ll know that it features very prominently a young girl named Evie Padilla Vaccaro.

Evie was born with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency or SCID – also known as “bubble baby disease”; we’ve written about it here. SCID is a rare but deadly immune disorder which leaves children unable to fight off simple infections. Many children with SCID die in the first few years of life.

Fortunately for Evie and her family, Dr. Don Kohn and his team at UCLA, working with a UK-based company called Orchard Therapeutics Ltd., have developed a treatment called OTL-101. This involves taking the patient’s own blood stem cells, genetically modifying them to correct the SCID mutation, and then returning the cells to the patient. Those modified cells create a new blood supply, and repair the child’s immune system.

Evie was treated with OTL-101 when she was a few months old. She is cured. And she isn’t the only one. To date more than 40 children have been treated with this method. All have survived and are doing well.

Orchard Therapeutics

 FDA acknowledgement

Because of that success the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted OTL-101 Rare Pediatric Disease Designation. This status is given to a treatment that targets a serious or life-threatening disease that affects less than 200,000 people, most of whom are under 18 years of age.

The importance of the Rare Pediatric Disease Designation is that it gives the company certain incentives for the therapy’s development, including priority review by the FDA. That means if it continues to show it is safe and effective it may have a faster route to being made more widely available to children in need.

In a news release Anne Dupraz, PhD, Orchard’s Chief Regulatory Officer, welcomed the decision:

“Together with Orphan Drug and Breakthrough Therapy Designations, this additional designation is another important development step for the OTL-101 clinical program. It reflects the potential of this gene therapy treatment to address the significant unmet medical need of children with ADA-SCID and eligibility for a Pediatric Disease Priority Review voucher at time of approval.”

Creating a trend

This is the second time in less than two weeks that a CIRM-funded therapy has been awarded Rare Pediatric Disease designation. Earlier this month Capricor Therapeutics was given that status for its treatment for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.

Two other CIRM-funded clinical trials – Humacyte and jCyte – have been given Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy Designation (RMAT) by the FDA. This makes them eligible for earlier and faster interactions with the FDA, and also means they may be able to apply for priority review and faster approval.

All these are encouraging signs for a couple of reasons. It suggests that the therapies are showing real promise in clinical trials. And it shows that the FDA is taking steps to encourage those therapies to advance as quickly – and safely of course – as possible.

Credit where credit is due

In the past we have been actively critical of the FDA’s sluggish pace in moving stem cell therapies out of the lab and into clinical trials where they can be tested in people. So when the FDA does show signs of changing the way it works it’s appropriate that that we are actively supportive.

Getting these designations is, of course, no guarantee the therapies will ultimately prove to be successful. But if they are, creating faster pathways means they can get to patients, the people who really need them, at a much faster pace.

 

 

 

 

 

Throwback Thursday: Progress to a Cure for Diseases of Blindness

Welcome back to our “Throwback Thursday” series on the Stem Cellar. Over the years, we’ve accumulated an arsenal of exciting stem cell stories about advances towards stem cell-based cures for serious diseases. This month we’re featuring stories about CIRM-funded clinical trials for blindness.

2017 has been an exciting year for two CIRM-funded clinical trials that are testing stem cell-based therapies for diseases of blindness. A company called Regenerative Patch Technologies (RPT) is transplanting a sheet of embryonic stem cell-derived retinal support cells into patients with the dry form of age-related macular degeneration, a disease that degrades the eye’s macula, the center of the retina that controls central vision. The other trial, sponsored by a company called jCyte, is using human retinal progenitor cells to treat retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disease that destroys the light-sensing cells in the retina, causing tunnel vision and eventually blindness.

 

Both trials are in the early stages, testing the safety of their respective stem cell therapies. But the teams are hopeful that these treatments will stop the progression of or even restore some form of vision in patients. In the past few months, both RPT and jCyte have shared exciting news about the progress of these trials which are detailed below.

Macular Degeneration Trial Gets a New Investor

In April, RPT announced that they have a new funding partner to further develop their stem cell therapy for age-related macular degeneration (AMD). They are partnering with Japan’s Santen Pharmaceutical Company, which specializes in developing ophthalmology or eye therapies.

AMD is the leading cause of blindness in elderly people and is projected to affect almost 200 million people worldwide by 2020. There is no cure or treatment that can restore vision in AMD patients, but stem cell transplants offer a potential therapeutic option.

RPT believes that their newfound partnership with Santen will accelerate the development of their stem cell therapy and ultimately fulfill an unmet medical need. RPT’s co-founder, Dr. Dennis Clegg, commented in a CIRM news release, “the ability to partner with a global leader in ophthalmology like Santen is very exciting. Such a strong partnership will greatly accelerate RPT’s ability to develop our product safely and effectively.”

This promising relationship highlights CIRM’s efforts to partner our clinical programs with outside investors to boost their chance of success. It also shows confidence in the future success of RPT’s stem cell-based therapy for AMD.

Retinitis Pigmentosa Trial Advances to Phase 2 and Receives RMAT Status

In May, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved jCyte’s RP trial for Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy (RMAT) status, which could pave the way for accelerated approval of this stem cell therapy for patients with RP.

RMAT is a new status established under the 21st Century Cures Act – a law enacted by Congress in December of 2016 to address the need for a more efficient regulatory approval process for stem cell therapies that can treat serious or life-threatening diseases. Trial sponsors of RMAT designated therapies can meet with the FDA earlier in the trial process and are eligible for priority review and accelerated approval.

jCyte’s RMAT status is well deserved. Their Phase 1 trial was successful, proving the treatment was safe and well-tolerated in patients. More importantly, some of the patients revealed that their sight has improved following their stem cell transplant. We’ve shared the inspiring stories of two patients, Rosie Barrero and Kristin Macdonald, previously on the Stem Cellar.

Rosie Barrero

Kristin MacDonald

Both Rosie and Kristin were enrolled in the Phase 1 trial and received an injection of retinal progenitor cells in a single eye. Rosie said that she went from complete darkness to being able to see shapes, colors, and the faces of her family and friends. Kristin was the first patient treated in jCyte’s trial, and she said she is now more sensitive to light and can see shapes well enough to put on her own makeup.

Encouraged by these positive results, jCyte launched its Phase 2 trial in April with funding from CIRM. They will test the same stem cell therapy in a larger group of 70 patients and monitor their progress over the next year.

Progress to a Cure for Blindness

We know very well that scientific progress takes time, and unfortunately we don’t know when there will be a cure for blindness. However, with the advances that these two CIRM-funded trials have made in the past year, our confidence that these stem cell treatments will one day benefit patients with RP and AMD is growing.

I’ll leave you with an inspiring video of Rosie Barrero about her experience with RP and how participating in jCytes trial has changed her life. Her story is an important reminder of why CIRM exists and why supporting stem cell research in particular, and research in general, is vital for the future health of patients.


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jCyte gets FDA go-ahead for Fast Track review process of Retinitis Pigmentosa stem cell therapy

21 century cures

When the US Congress approved, and President Obama signed into law, the 21st Century Cures Act last year there was guarded optimism that this would help create a more efficient and streamlined, but no less safe, approval process for the most promising stem cell therapies.

Even so many people took a wait and see approach, wanting a sign that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would follow the recommendations of the Act rather than just pay lip service to it.

This week we saw encouraging signs that the FDA is serious when it granted Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy (RMAT) status to the CIRM-funded jCyte clinical trial for a rare form of blindness. This is a big deal because RMAT seeks to accelerate approval for stem cell therapies that demonstrate they can help patients with unmet medical needs.

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jCyte co-founder Dr. Henry Klassen

jCyte’s work is targeting retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a genetic disease that slowly destroys the cells in the retina, the part of the eye that converts light into electrical signals which the brain then interprets as vision. At first people with RP lose their night and peripheral vision, then the cells that help us see faces and distinguish colors are damaged. RP usually strikes people in their teens and, by the time they are 40, many people are legally blind.

jCyte’s jCell therapy uses what are called retinal progenitor cells, injected into the eye, which then release protective factors to help repair and rescue diseased retinal cells. The hope is this will stop the disease’s progression and even restore some vision to people with RP.

Dr. Henry Klassen, jCyte’s co-founder and a professor at UC Irvine, was understandably delighted by the designation. In a news release, he said:

“This is uplifting news for patients with RP. At this point, there are no therapies that can help them avoid blindness. We look forward to working with the FDA to speed up the clinical development of jCell.”

FDA

On the FDA’s blog – yes they do have one – it says researchers:

“May obtain the RMAT designation for their drug product if the drug is intended to treat serious or life-threatening diseases or conditions and if there is preliminary clinical evidence indicating that the drug has the potential to address unmet medical needs for that disease or condition. Sponsors of RMAT-designated products are eligible for increased and earlier interactions with the FDA, similar to those interactions available to sponsors of breakthrough-designated therapies. In addition, they may be eligible for priority review and accelerated approval.”

Paul Bresge

jCyte CEO Paul Bresge

jCyte is one of the first to get this designation, a clear testimony to the quality of the work done by Dr. Klassen and his team. jCyte CEO Paul Bresge says it may help speed up their ability to get this treatment to patients.

 

“We are gratified by the FDA’s interest in the therapeutic potential of jCell and greatly appreciate their decision to provide extra support. We are seeing a lot of momentum with this therapy. Because it is well-tolerated and easy to administer, progress has been rapid. I feel a growing sense of excitement among patients and clinicians. We look forward to getting this critical therapy over the finish line as quickly as possible.”

Regular readers of this blog will already be familiar with the story of Rosie Barrero, one of the first group of people with RP who got the jCell therapy. Rosie says it has helped restore some vision to the point where she is now able to read notes she wrote ten years ago, distinguish colors and, best of all, see the faces of her children.

RMAT is no guarantee the therapy will be successful. But if the treatment continues to show promise, and is safe, it could mean faster access to a potentially life-changing therapy, one that could ultimately rescue many people from a lifetime of living in the dark.

 

 

jCyte starts second phase of stem cell clinical trial targeting vision loss

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How retinitis pigmentosa destroys vision

Studies show that Americans fear losing their vision more than any other sense, such as hearing or speech, and almost as much as they fear cancer, Alzheimer’s and HIV/AIDS. That’s not too surprising. Our eyes are our connection to the world around us. Sever that connection, and the world is a very different place.

For people with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), the leading cause of inherited blindness in the world, that connection is slowly destroyed over many years. The disease eats away at the cells in the eye that sense light, so the world of people with RP steadily becomes darker and darker, until the light goes out completely. It often strikes people in their teens, and many are blind by the time they are 40.

There are no treatments. No cures. At least not yet. But now there is a glimmer of hope as a new clinical trial using stem cells – and funded by CIRM – gets underway.

klassenWe have talked about this project before. It’s run by UC Irvine’s Dr. Henry Klassen and his team at jCyte. In the first phase of their clinical trial they tested their treatment on a small group of patients with RP, to try and ensure that their approach was safe. It was. But it was a lot more than that. For people like Rosie Barrero, the treatment seems to have helped restore some of their vision. You can hear Rosie talk about that in our recent video.

Now the same treatment that helped Rosie, is going to be tested in a much larger group of people, as jCyte starts recruiting 70 patients for this new study.

In a news release announcing the start of the Phase 2 trial, Henry Klassen said this was an exciting moment:

“We are encouraged by the therapy’s excellent safety track record in early trials and hope to build on those results. Right now, there are no effective treatments for retinitis pigmentosa. People must find ways to adapt to their vision loss. With CIRM’s support, we hope to change that.”

The treatment involves using retinal progenitor cells, the kind destroyed by the disease. These are injected into the back of the eye where they release factors which the researchers hope will help rescue some of the diseased cells and regenerate some replacement ones.

Paul Bresge, CEO of jCyte, says one of the lovely things about this approach, is its simplicity:

“Because no surgery is required, the therapy can be easily administered. The entire procedure takes minutes.”

Not everyone will get the retinal progenitor cells, at least not to begin with. One group of patients will get an injection of the cells into their worst-sighted eye. The other group will get a sham injection with no cells. This will allow researchers to compare the two groups and determine if any improvements in vision are due to the treatment or a placebo effect.

The good news is that after one year of follow-up, the group that got the sham injection will also be able to get an injection of the real cells, so that if the therapy is effective they too may be able to benefit from it.

Rosie BarreroWhen we talked to Rosie Barrero about the impact the treatment had on her, she said it was like watching the world slowly come into focus after years of not being able to see anything.

“My dream was to see my kids. I always saw them with my heart, but now I can see them with my eyes. Seeing their faces, it’s truly a miracle.”

We are hoping this Phase 2 clinical trial gives others a chance to experience similar miracles.


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A stem cell clinical trial for blindness: watch Rosie’s story

Everything we do at CIRM is laser-focused on our mission: to accelerate stem cell treatments for patients with unmet medical needs. So, you might imagine what a thrill it is to meet the people who could be helped by the stem cell research we fund. People like Rosie Barrero who suffers from Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), an inherited, incurable form of blindness, which she describes as “an impressionist painting in a foggy room”.

The CIRM team first met Rosie Barrero back in 2012 at one of our governing Board meetings. She and her husband, German, attended the meeting to advocate for a research grant application submitted by UC Irvine’s Henry Klassen. The research project aimed to bring a stem cell-based therapy for RP to clinical trials. The Board approved the project giving a glimmer of hope to Rosie and many others stricken with RP.

Now, that hope has become a reality in the form of a Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved clinical trial which Rosie participated in last year. Sponsored by jCyte, a company Klassen founded, the CIRM-funded trial is testing the safety and effectiveness of a non-surgical treatment for RP that involves injecting stem cells into the eye to help save or even restore the light-sensing cells in the back of the eye. The small trial has shown no negative side effects and a larger, follow-up trial, also funded by CIRM, is now recruiting patients.

Almost five years after her first visit, Rosie returned to the governing Board in February and sprinkled in some of her witty humor to describe her preliminary yet encouraging results.

“It has made a difference. I’m still afraid of public speaking but early on [before the clinical trial] it was much easier because I couldn’t see any of you. But, hello everybody! I can see you guys. I can see this room. I can see a lot of things.”

After the meeting, she sat down for an interview with the Stem Cellar team to talk about her RP story and her experience as a clinical trial participant. The three-minute video above is based on that interview. Watch it and be inspired!

Eye on the prize: two stem cell studies restore vision in blind mice

For the 39 million people in the world who are blind, a vision-restoring therapy would be the ultimate prize. So far, this prize has remained out of reach, but two studies published this week have entered the ring as promising contenders in the fight against blindness.

In the red corner, we have a study published in Stem Cell Reports from the RIKEN Institute in Japan led by scientist Masayo Takahashi. Her team restored vision in blind mice with an advanced stage of retinal disease by transplanting sheets of light-sensing photoreceptor cells that were made from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).

In the blue corner, we have a study published in Cell Stem Cell from the Buck Institute in California led by scientist Deepak Lamba. His team restored long-term vision in blind mice by transplanting embryonic stem cell-derived photoreceptor cells and preventing the immune system from rejecting the transplant.

Transplanting Retinal sheets

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Synaptic integration of graft retina into model mouse
Credit: RIKEN

Let’s first talk about the Riken study led by Masayo Takahashi. She is well known for her pioneering work on iPSC-derived treatments for macular degeneration – a disease that damages the retina and causes blindness.

In previous work, Takahashi and her team transplanted sheets of mouse stem cell-derived retinal progenitor cells, which mature into light-sensing cells called photoreceptors, into the eyes of mice. The cells within the sheet formed connections with the resident cells in the mouse eye, proving the feasibility of transplanting retinal sheets to restore vision.

In their current study, published in Stem Cell Reports, Takahashi’s team found that the retinal sheets could restore vision in mice that had a very severe form of retinal disease that left them unable to see light. After the mice received the retinal transplants, they responded to light, which they were unable to do previously. Like their other findings, they found that the cells in the transplant made connections with the host cells in the eye including nerve cells that send light-sensing signals to the brain.

First author on the study, Michiko Mandai explained the importance of their findings and their future plans in a news release,

“These results are a proof of concept for using iPSC-derived retinal tissue to treat retinal degeneration. We are planning to proceed to clinical trials in humans after a few more necessary studies using human iPSC-derived retinal tissue in animals. Clinical trials are the only way to determine how many new connections are needed for a person to be able to ‘see’ again.”

While excited by their results, Mandai and the rest of the RIKEN team aren’t claiming the prize for a successful treatment that will cure blindness in people just yet. Mandai commented,

“We cannot expect to restore practical vision at the moment. We will start from seeing a simple light, then possibly move on to larger figures in the next stage.”

Blocking the immune system

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Image showing transplanted GFP-expressing human stem cell derived photoreceptors (green) integrated in a host rodent retina stained for Otx2 (red).
Credit Jie Zhu, Buck Institute for Research on Aging

In the Buck Institute study, Lamba and his team took on the challenge of answering a controversial question about why retinal cell transplants typically don’t survive long-term in the eye. Some scientists think that the transplanted cells die off over time because they don’t integrate into the eye while others think that they are rejected and killed off by the immune system.

To answer this question, Lamba transplanted human embryonic stem cell-derived retinal cells into immunodeficient mice that lacked a protein receptor that’s vital for a functioning immune system. The retinal cells transplanted into immunodeficient mice survived much better than retinal cells transplanted into normal mice and developed into ten times as many photoreceptors that integrated themselves into the host eye.

Their next step was to transplant the retinal cells into mice that were blind and also lacked the same immune receptor as the other mice. After the transplant, the blind mice became responsive to light and showed brain activity associated with sensing light. Their newfound ability to see lasted for nine months to a year following the transplant.

Lamba believes that backing down the immune response is responsible for the long-term vision restoration in the blind mice. He explained the importance of their findings in a Buck Institute news release,

“That finding gives us a lot of hope for patients, that we can create some sort of advantage for these stem cell therapies so it won’t be just a transient response when these cells are put in, but a sustained vision for a long time. Even though the retina is often considered to be ‘immune privileged,’ we have found that we can’t ignore cell rejection when trying to transplant stem cells into the eye.”

In the future, Lamba will explore the potential for using drugs that target the specific protein receptor they blocked earlier to improve the outcome of embryonic stem cell-derived retinal transplants,

“We can also potentially identify other small molecules or recombinant proteins to reduce this interleukin 2 receptor gamma activity in the body – even eye-specific immune responses – that might reduce cell rejection. Of course it is not validated yet, but now that we have a target, that is the future of how we can apply this work to humans.”

Who will be the winner?

The Buck Institute study is interesting because it suggests that embryonic stem cell-based transplants combined with immunosuppression could be a promising strategy to improve vision in patients. But it also begs the question of whether the field should focus instead on iPSC-based therapies where a patient’s own stem cells are used to make the transplanted cells. This strategy would side step the immune response and prevent patients from a taking a lifetime of immunosuppressive drugs.

However, I’m not saying that RIKEN’s iPSC-based strategy is necessarily the way to go for treating blindness (at least not yet). It takes a lot of time and money to make iPSC lines and it’s not feasible given our current output to generate iPSC lines for every blind patient.

So, it sounds like a winner in this fight to cure blindness won’t be announced any time soon. In the meantime, both teams need to conduct further preclinical studies before they can move on to testing these treatments in human clinical trials.

Here at CIRM, we’re funding a promising Phase 1 clinical trial sponsored by jCyte for a form of blindness called Retinis Pigmentosa. Based on preliminary results with a small cohort of patient, the treatment seems safe and may even be showing hints of effectiveness in some patients.

Ultimately, more is better. As the number of stem cell clinical trials for blindness grows, the sooner we can find out which therapies work best for which patients.