Stem cell stories that caught our eye: glowing stem cells and new insights into Zika and SCID

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Glowing stem cells help scientists understand how cells work. (Karen Ring)
It’s easy to notice when something is going wrong. It’s a lot harder to notice when something is going right. The same thing can be said for biology. Scientists dedicate their careers to studying unhealthy cells, trying to understand why people get certain diseases and what’s going wrong at the cellular level to cause these problems. But there is a lot to be said for doing scientific research on healthy cells so that we can better understand what’s happening when cells start to malfunction.

A group from the Allen Institute for Cell Science is doing just this. They used a popular gene-editing technology called CRISPR/Cas9 to genetically modify human stem cell lines so that certain parts inside the cell will glow different colors when observed under a fluorescent microscope. Specifically, the scientists inserted the genetic code to produce fluorescent proteins in both the nucleus and the mitochondria of the stem cells. The final result is a tool that allows scientists to study how stem cells specialize into mature cells in various tissues and organs.

Glowing human stem cells. The edges of the cells are shown in purple while the DNA in the cell’s nucleus is in blue. (Allen Institute for Cell Science).

Glowing human stem cells. The edges of the cells are shown in purple while the DNA in the cell’s nucleus is in blue. (Allen Institute for Cell Science).

The director of stem cells and gene editing at the Allen Institute, Ruwanthi Gunawardane, explained how their technology improves upon previous methods for getting cells to glow in an interview with Forbes:

 “We’re trying to understand how the cell behaves, how it functions, but flooding it with some external protein can really mess it up. The CRISPR system allows us to go into the DNA—the blueprint—and insert a gene that allows the cell to express the protein in its normal environment. Then, through live imaging, we can watch the cell and understand how it works.”

The team has made five of these glowing stem cell lines available for use by the scientific community through the Coriell Institute for Medical Research (which also works closely with the CIRM iPSC Initiative). Each cell line is unique and has a different cellular structure that glows. You can learn more about these cell lines on the Coriell Allen Institute webpage and by watching this video:

 

Zika can take multiple routes to infect a child’s brain. (Kevin McCormack)
One of the biggest health stories of 2016 has been the rapid, indeed alarming, spread of the Zika virus. It went from an obscure virus to a global epidemic found in more than 70 countries.

The major concern about the virus is its ability to cause brain defects in the developing brain. Now researchers at Harvard have found that it can do this in more ways than previously believed.

Up till now, it was believed that Zika does its damage by grabbing onto a protein called AXL on the surface of brain cells called neural progenitor cells (NPCs). However, the study, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, showed that even when AXL was blocked, Zika still managed to infiltrate the brain.

Using induced pluripotent stem cell technology, the researchers were able to create NPCs and then modify them so they had no AXL expression. That should, in theory, have been able to block the Zika virus. But when they exposed those cells to the virus they found they were infected just as much as ordinary brain cells exposed to the virus were.

Caption: Zika virus (light blue) spreads through a three-dimensional model of a developing brain. Image by Max Salick and Nathaniel Kirkpatrick/Novartis

Caption: Zika virus (light blue) spreads through a three-dimensional model of a developing brain. Image by Max Salick and Nathaniel Kirkpatrick/Novartis

In a story in the Harvard Gazette, Kevin Eggan, one of the lead researchers, said this shows scientists need to re-think their approach to countering the virus:

“Our finding really recalibrates this field of research because it tells us we still have to go and find out how Zika is getting into these cells.”

 

Treatment for a severe form of bubble baby disease appears on the horizon. (Todd Dubnicoff)
Without treatment, kids born with bubble baby disease typically die before reaching 12 months of age. Formally called severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), this genetic blood disorder leaves infants without an effective immune system and unable to fight off even minor infections. A bone marrow stem cell transplant from a matched sibling can treat the disease but this is only available in less than 20 percent of cases and other types of donors carry severe risks.

In what is shaping up to be a life-changing medical breakthrough, a UCLA team has developed a stem cell/gene therapy treatment that corrects the SCID mutation. Over 40 patients have participated to date with a 100% survival rate and CIRM has just awarded the team $20 million to continue clinical trials.

There’s a catch though: other forms of SCID exist. The therapy described above treats SCID patients with a mutation in a gene responsible for producing a protein called ADA. But an inherited mutation in another gene called Artemis, leads to a more severe form of SCID. These Artemis-SCID infants have even less success with a standard bone marrow transplant compared to those with ADA-SCID. Artemis plays a role in DNA damage repair something that occurs during the chemo and radiation therapy sessions that are often necessary for blood marrow transplants. So Artemis-SCID patients are hyper-sensitive to the side of effects of standard treatments.

A recent study by UCSF scientists in Human Gene Therapy, funded in part by CIRM, brings a lot of hope to these Artemis-SCID patient. Using a similar stem cell/gene therapy method, this team collected blood stem cells from the bone marrow of mice with a form of Artemis-SCID. Then they added a good copy of the human Artemis gene to these cells. Transplanting the blood stem cells back to mice, restored their immune systems which paves the way for delivering this approach to clinic to also help the Artemis-SCID patients in desperate need of a treatment.

Key Steps Along the Way To Finding Treatments for HIV on World AIDS Day

Today, December 1st,  is World AIDS Day. It’s a day to acknowledge the progress that is being made in HIV prevention and treatment around the world but also to renew our commitment to a future free of HIV. This year’s theme is Leadership. Commitment. Impact.  At CIRM we are funding a number of projects focused on HIV/AIDS, so we asked Jeff Sheehy, the patient advocate for HIV/AIDS on the CIRM Board to offer his perspective on the fight against the virus.

jeff-sheehy

At CIRM we talk about and hope for cures, but our actual mission is “accelerating stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.”

For those of us in the HIV/AIDS community, we are tremendously excited about finding a cure for HIV.  We have the example of Timothy Brown, aka the “Berlin Patient”, the only person cured of HIV.

Multiple Shots on Goal

Different approaches to a cure are under investigation with multiple clinical trials.  CIRM is funding three clinical trials using cell/gene therapy in attempts to genetically modify blood forming stem cells to resist infection with HIV.  While we hope this leads to a cure, community activists have come together to urge a look at something short of a “home run.”

A subset of HIV patients go on treatment, control the virus in their blood to the point where it can’t be detected by common diagnostic tests, but never see their crucial immune fighting CD4 T cells return to normal levels after decimation by HIV.

For instance, I have been on antiretroviral therapy since 1997.  My CD4 T cells had dropped precipitously, dangerous close to the level of 200.  At that level, I would have had an AIDS diagnosis and would have been extremely vulnerable to a whole host of opportunistic infections.  Fortunately, my virus was controlled within a few weeks and within a year, my CD T cells had returned to normal levels.

For the immunological non-responders I described above, that doesn’t happen.  So while the virus is under control, their T cell counts remain low and they are very susceptible to opportunistic infections and are at much greater risk of dying.

Immunological non-responders (INRs) are usually patients who had AIDS when they were diagnosed, meaning they presented with very low CD4 T cell counts.  Many are also older.  We had hoped that with frequent testing, treatment upon diagnosis and robust healthcare systems, this population would be less of a factor.  Yet in San Francisco with its very comprehensive and sophisticated testing and treatment protocols, 16% of newly diagnosed patients in 2015 had full blown AIDS.

Until we make greater progress in testing and treating people with HIV, we can expect to see immunological non-responders who will experience sub-optimal health outcomes and who will be more difficult to treat and keep alive.

Boosting the Immune System

A major cell/gene trial for HIV targeted this population.  Their obvious unmet medical need and their greater morbidity/mortality balanced the risks of first in man gene therapy.  Sangamo, a CIRM grantee, used zinc finger nucleases to snip out a receptor, CCR5, on the surface of CD4 T cells taken from INR patients.  That receptor is a door that HIV uses to enter cells.  Some people naturally lack the receptor and usually are unable to be infected with HIV.  The Berlin Patient had his entire immune system replaced with cells from someone lacking CCR5.

Most of the patients in that first trial saw their CD4 T cells rise sharply.  The amount of HIV circulating in their gut decreased.  They experienced a high degree of modification and persistence in T stem cells, which replenish the T cell population.  And most importantly, some who regularly experienced opportunistic infections such as my friend and study participant Matt Sharp who came down with pneumonia every winter, had several healthy seasons.

Missed Opportunities

Unfortunately, the drive for a cure pushed development of the product in a different direction.  This is in large part to regulatory challenges.  A prior trial started in the late 90’s by Chiron tested a cytokine, IL 2, to see if administering it could increase T cells.  It did, but proving that these new T cells did anything was illusive and development ceased.  Another cytokine, IL 7, was moving down the development pathway when the company developing it, Cytheris, ceased business.  The pivotal trial would have required enrolling 4,000 participants, a daunting and expensive prospect.  This was due to the need to demonstrate clinical impact of the new cells in a diverse group of patients.

Given the unmet need, HIV activists have looked at the Sangamo trial, amongst others, and have initiated a dialogue with the FDA.  Activists are exploring seeking orphan drug status since the population of INRs is relatively small.

Charting a New Course

They have also discussed trial designs looking at markers of immune activity and discussed potentially identifying a segment of INRs where clinical efficacy could be shown with far, far fewer participants.

Activists are calling for companies to join them in developing products for INRs.  I’ve included the press release issued yesterday by community advocates below.

With the collaboration of the HIV activist community, this could be a unique opportunity for cell/gene companies to actually get a therapy through the FDA. On this World AIDS Day, let’s consider the value of a solid single that serves patients in need while work continues on the home run.

NEWS RELEASE: HIV Activists Seek to Accelerate Development of Immune Enhancing Therapies for Immunologic Non-Responders.

Dialogues with FDA, scientists and industry encourage consideration of orphan drug designations for therapies to help the immunologic non-responder population and exploration of novel endpoints to reduce the size of efficacy trials.

November 30, 2016 – A coalition of HIV/AIDS activists are calling for renewed attention to HIV-positive people termed immunologic non-responders (INRs), who experience sub-optimal immune system reconstitution despite years of viral load suppression by antiretroviral therapy. Studies have shown that INR patients remain at increased risk of illness and death compared to HIV-positive people who have better restoration of immune function on current drug therapies. Risk factors for becoming an INR include older age and a low CD4 count at the time of treatment initiation. To date, efforts to develop immune enhancing interventions for this population have proven challenging, despite some candidates from small companies showing signs of promise.

“We believe there is an urgent need to find ways to encourage and accelerate development of therapies to reduce the health risks faced by INR patients,” stated Nelson Vergel of the Program for Wellness Restoration (PoWeR), who initiated the activist coalition. “For example, Orphan Drug designations[i] could be granted to encourage faster-track approval of promising therapies.  These interventions may eventually help not only INRs but also people with other immune deficiency conditions”.

Along with funding, a major challenge for approval of any potential therapy is proving its efficacy. While INRs face significantly increased risk of serious morbidities and mortality compared to HIV-positive individuals with more robust immune reconstitution, demonstrating a reduction in the incidence of these outcomes would likely require expensive and lengthy clinical trials involving thousands of individuals. Activists are therefore encouraging the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), industry and researchers to evaluate potential surrogate markers of efficacy such as relative improvements in clinical problems that may be more frequent in INR patients, such as upper respiratory infections, gastrointestinal disease, and other health issues.

“Given the risks faced by INR patients, every effort should be made to assess whether less burdensome pathways toward approval are feasible, without compromising the regulatory requirement for compelling evidence of safety and efficacy”, said Richard Jefferys of the Treatment Action Group.

The coalition is advocating that scientists, biotech and pharmaceutical companies pursue therapeutic candidates for INRs. For example, while gene and anti-inflammatory therapies for HIV are being assessed in the context of cure research, there is also evidence that they may have potential to promote immune reconstitution and reduce markers associated with risk of morbidity and mortality in INR patients. Therapeutic research should also be accompanied by robust study of the etiology and mechanisms of sub-optimal immune responses.

“While there is, appropriately, a major research focus on curing HIV, we must be alert to evidence that candidate therapies could have benefits for INR patients, and be willing to study them in this context”, argued Matt Sharp, a coalition member and INR who experienced enhanced immune reconstitution and improved health and quality of life after receiving an experimental gene therapy.

The coalition has held an initial conference call with FDA to discuss the issue. Minutes are available online.

The coalition is now aiming to convene a broader dialogue with various drug companies on the development of therapies for INR patients. Stakeholders who are interested in becoming involved are encouraged to contact coalition representatives.

[i] The Orphan Drug Act incentivizes the development of treatments for rare conditions. For more information, see:  http://www.fda.gov/ForIndustry/DevelopingProductsforRareDiseasesConditions/ucm2005525.htm

For more information:

Richard Jefferys

Michael Palm Basic Science, Vaccines & Cure Project Director
Treatment Action Group richard.jefferys@treatmentactiongroup.org

Nelson Vergel, Program for Wellness Restoration programforwellness@gmail.com

 

 

Stem cells have a neat trick to prevent tissue scarring

A CIRM-funded study from the Stanford University School of Medicine has discovered that stem cells in muscle tissue “police themselves” to reduce fibrosis or the buildup of scar tissue. The ability to prevent scarring could promote anti-aging properties by keeping muscles healthy and functional and could also benefit patients with muscle wasting diseases like muscular dystrophy. The study appeared in the journal Nature earlier this week.

The Stanford team, led by Professor Thomas Rando, was interested in understanding how healthy muscle tissue regenerates under normal conditions and in response to injury. They focused on cells called fibro-adipogenic progenitors (FAPs), which live in the muscle and produce a framework of connective tissue that promotes muscle regeneration.

By studying FAPs in mice, the scientists found that these cells produced a protein called platelet-derived growth factor receptor alpha (PDGFRa), which regulates their ability to proliferate, or make more copies of themselves. FAPs produce different versions of PDGFRa as a way to police themselves and deal with injury and disease.

The normal version of PDGFRa tells FAPs to divide and proliferate. Typically, this response is a good thing if FAPs are trying to repair tissue damage, but too much cell proliferation can lead to fibrosis and scarring. To counteract this, FAPs can produce a truncated version of PDGFRa, which tells FAPs to stop dividing and prevents tissue scarring.

Senior author on the study, Professor Thomas Rando, explained in a Stanford Medicine news release why it’s important to prevent scarring in muscle tissue:

Dr. Thomas Rando, Stanford

Dr. Thomas Rando, Stanford

“Fibrosis occurs in many degenerative diseases and also in normal aging. It negatively impacts muscle regeneration by altering the stem cell niche and inhibiting the stem cell function. In addition, as more scarring occurs, muscles become stiff and can’t contract and relax smoothly.”

 

Knowing that the truncated version of PDGFRa can stop FAPs from proliferating too much and cause scarring, the team found a way to force FAPs to generate this shortened version of PDGFRa in mice. When they tried this approach in mice, they observed that both young and old mice produced less scarring after healing from muscle injury. On the other hand, if these mice produced less of the truncated PDGFRa, the mice had more scarring than they normally would.

Nature.

Muscle tissue in old mice shows signs of scarring (left) while old mice treated with the truncated PDGFRa have reduced scarring in their muscle (right). (Nature)

Rando’s team believes that they can harness the properties of self-policing stem cells like FAPs to develop new potential therapies that can treat fibrotic diseases. In future studies, Rando hopes to apply their approach to treating muscular dystrophy – a muscle wasting disease that also is associated with increased fibrosis.

“We’d like to test this approach in a mouse model of muscular dystrophy next. Perhaps we could also use this approach to reduce fibrosis in this disease.”

CIRM-funded stem cell trial for retinitis pigmentosa makes progress

A CIRM-funded clinical trial for retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative eye disease that causes blindness, recently reached its next milestone and announced the completion of its patient enrollment for a phase I/IIa study testing a stem cell derived therapy. This is a major step forward in determining whether this approach is both safe and effective at improving sight in RP patients.

retinitis pigmentosas_1RP is a genetically inherited disease that destroys the light-sensing photoreceptor cells at the back of the eye. Symptoms of the disease typically appear in childhood and often cause blindness by the age of 40. RP affects approximately 100,000 people in the US, and there are no effective treatments.

Stem cell treatment for RP

Regenerative medicine offers a promising strategy for treating RP by replacing the lost or damaged photoreceptors in the retina with healthy retinal cells derived from human stem cells.

CIRM is funding a clinical trial that’s testing a stem cell-based treatment for advanced RP. The trial is sponsored by a California-based company called jCyte, which was founded in 2012 by Dr. Henry Klassen and Dr. Jing Yang, both currently professors at UC Irvine.

The treatment involves injecting human retinal progenitor cells, which are derived from adult stem cells, into the damaged area of the retina at the back of the eye to hopefully improve vision. These progenitor cells could either replace the damaged photoreceptors in the eye, or could help rescue the remaining photoreceptors from being destroyed.

RP clinical trials makes progress

Earlier this year, jCyte reported that they had treated the first nine patients in their phase I/IIa safety trial and did not observe any negative side effects caused by the treatment. Today, they announced that they have finished the trial enrollment with a total of 28 patients. Four different doses of retinal progenitor cells were tested in this patient group to determine both safety and the optimal dose of cells. While the results of this trial won’t be available until next year, eight of the enrolled patients have already completed the one-year study and have shown promising safety results.

In a jCyte news release, Dr. Klassen explained:

Klassen“We have successfully completed four DSMB (Data Safety Monitoring Board) reviews. So far, trial participants have had no significant side effects, with good tolerance of the injected cells. We are quite gratified by the results.”

CIRM is also happy to hear these positive findings as proving that a stem cell treatment is safe in patients is essential for moving a clinical trial forward. Jonathan Thomas, Chairman of the CIRM Governing Board commented in a CIRM news release:

Jonathan Thomas

Jonathan Thomas

“We are really encouraged by the preliminary safety results of the jCyte trial. RP is a rare disease and an unmet medical need that could benefit from advances in stem cell-based treatments. The jCyte trial will hopefully pave the way for determining how stem cells can improve vision in RP patients, and ultimately other diseases of blindness.”

Next steps

As this trial moves forward, jCyte hopes to begin planning a phase IIb trial that will determine whether their stem cell-based therapy is effective at improving vision in advanced RP patients.

“I look forward to the next stage of development towards commercialization,” said jCyte CEO Paul Bresge. “We never lose sight of our singular goal: to ultimately deliver this much-needed therapy to patients.”

If all goes well, additional RP patients will be needed to participate in the second phase of the jCyte trial. Patients who are interested in learning more about this trial or enrolling in future trials, should visit the jCyte website.

If you want to learn more about how stem cells could potentially yield new treatments for diseases of blindness, watch our video “Eyeing Stem Cell Therapies for Vision Loss”.


Related Links:

Don’t Sugar Coat it: A Patient’s Perspective on Type 1 Diabetes

John Welsh

John Welsh

“In the weeks leading up to my diagnosis, I remember making and drinking Kool-Aid at the rate of about a gallon per day, and getting up to pee and drink Kool-Aid several times a night. The exhaustion and constant thirst and the weight loss were pretty scary. Insulin saved my life, and it’s been saving my life every day for the past 40 years.” – John Welsh

 

In honor of diabetes awareness month, we are featuring a patient perspective on what it’s like to live with type 1 diabetes (T1D) and what the future of stem cell research holds in terms of a cure.

T1D is a chronic disease that destroys the insulin producing cells in your pancreas, making it very difficult for your body to maintain the proper levels of sugar in your blood. There is no cure for T1D and patients take daily shots of insulin and closely monitor their blood sugar to stay healthy and alive.

Stem cell research offers an alternative strategy for treating T1D patients by potentially replacing their lost insulin producing cells. We’ve written blogs about ongoing stem cell research for diabetes on the Stem Cellar (here) but we haven’t focused on the patient side of T1D. So today, I’m introducing you to John Welsh, a man whose has lived with T1D since 1976.

John Welsh is a MD/PhD scientist and currently works at a company called Dexcom, which make a continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) device for diabetes patients. He is also an enrolled patient in CIRM-funded stem cell clinical trial (also funded by JDRF) for T1D sponsored by the company ViaCyte. The trial is testing a device containing stem cell-derived pancreatic cells that’s placed under the skin to act as a transplanted pancreas. You can learn more about it here.

I reached out to John to see if he wanted to share his story about living with diabetes. He was not only willing but enthusiastic to speak with me. As you will read later, one of John’s passions is a “good story”. And he sure told me a good one. So before you read on, I recommend grabbing some coffee or tea, going to a quiet room, and taking the time to enjoy his interview.


Q: Describe your career path and your current job.

JW: I went to college at UC Santa Cruz and majored in biochemistry and molecular biology. I then went into the medical scientist training program (combined MD/PhD program) at UC San Diego followed by research positions in cell biology and cancer biology at UC San Francisco and Novartis. I’ve been a medical writer specializing in medical devices for type 1 diabetes since 2009. At Dexcom, I help study the benefits of CGM and get the message out to healthcare professionals.

Q: How has diabetes affected your life and what obstacles do you deal with because of diabetes?

JW: I found out I had T1D at the age of 13, and it’s been a part of my life for 40 years. It’s been a big deal in terms of what I’m not allowed to do and figuring out what would be challenging if I tried. On the other hand, having diabetes is a great motivator on a lot of levels personally, educationally and professionally. Having this disease made me want to learn everything I could about the endocrine system. From there, my interests turned to biology – molecular biology in particular – and understanding how molecules in cells work.

The challenge of having diabetes also motivated me to do things that I might not have thought about otherwise – most importantly, a career that combined science and medicine. Having to stay close to my insulin and insulin-delivery paraphernalia (early on, syringes; nowadays, the pump and glucose monitor) meant that I couldn’t do as many ridiculous adventures as I might have otherwise.

Q: Did your diagnosis motivate you to pursue a scientific career?

JW: Absolutely. If I hadn’t gotten diabetes, I probably would have gone into something like engineering. But my parents were both healthcare professionals, so a career in medicine seemed plausible. The medical scientist MD/PhD training program at UC San Diego was really cool, but very competitive. Having first-hand experience with this disease may have given me an inside track with the admissions process, and that imperative – to understand the disease and how best to manage it – has been a great motivator.

There’s also a nice social aspect to being surrounded by people whose lives are affected by T1D.

Q: Describe your treatment regimen for T1D?

JW: I travel around with two things stuck on my belly, a Medtronic pump and a Dexcom Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM) sensor. The first is an infusion port that can deliver insulin into my body. The port lasts for about three days after which you have to take it out. The port that lives under the skin surface is nine millimeters long and it’s about as thick as a mechanical pencil lead. The port is connected to a tube and the tube is connected to a pump, which has a reservoir with fast-acting insulin in it.

The insulin pump is pretty magical. It’s conceptually very simple, but it transforms the way a lot of people take insulin. You program it so that throughout the day, it squirts in a tiny bit of basal insulin at the low rate that you want. If you’re just cruising through your day, you get an infusion of insulin at a low basal rate. At mealtimes, you can give yourself an extra squirt of insulin like what happens with normal people’s pancreas. Or if you happen to notice that you have a high sugar level, you can program a correction bolus which will help to bring it back to towards the normal range. The sensor continuously interrogates the glucose concentration in under my skin. If something goes off the rails, it will beep at me.

dexcom_g4_platinum_man

Dexcom continuous glucose monitor.

As good as these devices are, they’re not a cure, they’re not perfect, and they’re not cheap, so one of my concerns as a physician and as a patient is making these transformative devices better and more widely available to people with the disease.

Q: What are the negative side effects associated with your insulin pump and sensor?

JW:  If you have an insulin pump, you carry it everywhere because it’s stuck onto you. The pump is on you for three days and it does get itchy. It’s expensive and a bit uncomfortable. And when I take my shirt off, it’s obvious that I have certain devices stuck on me.  This is a big disincentive for some of my type 1 friends, especially those who like to wear clothes without pockets. And every once-in-a-while, the pump will malfunction and you need a backup plan for getting insulin when it breaks.

On the other hand, the continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) is wonderful especially for moms and dads whose kids have T1D. CGM lets parents essentially spy on their kids. You can be on the sidelines watching your kid play soccer and you get a push notification on your phone saying that the glucose concentration is low, or is heading in that direction. The best-case scenario is that this technology helps people avoid dangerous and potentially catastrophic low blood sugars.

Q: Was the decision easy or hard to enroll in the ViaCyte trial?

JW: It was easy! I was very excited to learn about the ViaCyte trial and equally pleased to sign up for it. When I found out about it from a friend, I wanted to sign up for it right away. I went to clinicaltrials.gov and contacted the study coordinator at UC San Diego. They did a screening interview over the phone, and then they brought me in for screening lab work. After I was selected to be in the trial, they implanted a couple of larger devices (about the size of a credit card) under the skin of my lower back, and smaller devices (about the size of a postage stamp) in my arm and lower back to serve as “sentinels” that were taken out after two or three months.

ViaCyte device

ViaCyte device

I’m patient number seven in the safety part of this trial. They put the cell replacement therapy device in me without any pre-medication or immunosuppression. They tested this device first in diabetic mice and found that the stem cells in the device differentiated into insulin producing cells, much like the ones that usually live in the mouse pancreas. They then translated this technology from animal models to human trials and are hoping for the same type of result.

I had the device transplanted in March of 2015, and the plan is for in the final explant procedure to take place next year at the two-year anniversary. Once they take the device out, they will look at the cells under the microscope to see if they are alive and whether they turned into pancreatic cells that secrete insulin.

It’s been no trouble at all having this implant. I do clinic visits regularly where they do a meal challenge and monitor my blood sugar. My experience being a subject in this clinical study has been terrific. I met some wonderful people and I feel like I’m helping the community and advancing the science.

Q: Do you think that stem cell-derived therapies will be a solution for curing diabetes?

JW: T1D is a great target for stem cell therapy – the premise makes a lot of sense — so it’s logical that it’s one of the first ones to enter clinical trials. I definitely think that stem cells could offer a cure for T1D. Even 30 years ago, scientists knew that we needed to generate insulin producing cells somehow, protect them from immunological rejection, and package them up and put them somewhere in the body to act like a normal pancreas. The concept is still a good concept but the devil is in the implementation. That’s why clinical trials like the one CIRM is funding are important to figure these details out and advance the science.

Q: What is your opinion about the importance of stem cell research and advancing stem cell therapies into clinical trials?

JW: Understanding how cells determine their fate is tremendously important. I think that there’s going to be plenty of payoffs for stem cell research in the near term and more so in the intermediate and long term. Stem cell research has my full support, and it’s fun to speculate on how it might address other unmet medical needs. The more we learn about stem cell biology the better.

Q: What advice do you have for other patients dealing with diabetes or who are recently diagnosed?

JW: Don’t give up, don’t be ashamed or discouraged, and gather as much data as you can. Make sure you know where the fast-acting carbohydrates are!

Q: What are you passionate about?

JW: I love a good story, and I’m a fan of biological puzzles. It’s great having a front-row seat in the world of diabetes research, and I want to stick around long enough to celebrate a cure.


Related links:

Seeing is Believing: New Video on the Power of Stem Cells

skepticThe world is full of skeptics. Remember when you first heard about self-driving cars? I’m sure that information was met with comments like, “When pigs fly!” or “I’ll believe it when I see it!” Well, it turns out that the best way to get people to believe something is possible, is to show them.

And that’s our mission at CIRM. To show people that stem cell research is important and funding it is essential for the development of future therapies that can help patients with all sorts of diseases be they rare, acute, or chronic.

We’re doing this in multiple ways through our Stem Cellar blog and social media channels where we post about the latest advances in regenerative medicine research towards the clinic, through disease walks and support groups where we educate patients about stem cells, and through fun and engaging videos about the cutting-edge research that our agency is funding.

Last month, the world celebrated Stem Cell Awareness Day on October 12th. One of the ways we celebrated at CIRM was to give talks at local institutes about the power of stem cells for research and therapeutic development. One of these talks was at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato as part of their special public event on “Turning Promise of Regenerative Medicine into Reality” supported by the STEAM ENGINE, the teacher outreach program at the Buck Institute.

Kevin, CIRM’s communicators director, and I did a joint presentation on the different ways that scientists are using stem cells to model disease and to develop new treatments for patients. We also shared a few particularly exciting stories about new stem cell advancements that are being tested in clinical trials. One of them was a heartbreaking turned heartwarming story of Evangelina, a baby born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a disease that leaves children without a functioning immune system and often kills babies within a year of birth. Evangelina was part of a CIRM-funded clinical trial run by UC Los Angeles that transplanted the patient’s own genetically corrected blood stem cells. Evangelina is one of 30 children the UCLA team has cured and CIRM is now funding a Phase 2 clinical trial for this work.

Our talk was followed by exciting stories of stem cell research in the lab. Three talented postdoctoral fellows, who spoke about new developments in stem cell therapies for HIV, degenerative eye disease and neurodegenerative diseases. The talks were well received by the audience, who were actively speaking up to ask questions during the panel discussion with the speakers.

Panel on stem cells.

Stem cell panel: Kevin McCormack, Imilce Rodriguez-Fernandez, Joana Neves, Karen Ring.

It was a truly inspiring day full of learning and excitement about the future of stem cell research and regenerative medicine. But for the skeptics out there, don’t take my word for it, you can see for yourself by can watching the video recording here:


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Stem cell stories that caught our eye: Horse patients, Brain cancer stem cells, and a Bony Heart

Horsing around at the World Stem Cell Summit
The World Stem Cell Summit (WSCS) is coming up very shortly (December 6-9) in lovely downtown West Palm Beach, Florida. And this year it has an added attraction; horses.

For my money the WSCS is the most enjoyable of the many conferences held around the US focusing on stem cells. Most conferences have either scientists or patients and patient advocates. This brings them both together creating an event that highlights the science, the people doing it, and the people who hope to benefit from it.

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Eadweard Muybridge’s Galloping Horse
Image: Wikimedia Commons

And this year it’s not just about people, it’s also about horses. For the first time the event will feature the Equine World Stem Cell Summit. This makes sense on so many levels. Animals, large and small, have always been an important element in advancing scientific research, enabling us to test treatments and make sure they are safe before trying them out on people.

But horses are also athletes and sports has always been a powerful force in accelerating research. When you think about the “Sport of Kings” and how much money is involved in breeding and racing horses it’s not surprising that rich owners are always looking for new treatments that can help their thoroughbreds recover from injuries.

And if they help repair damaged bones and tendons in thoroughbreds, who’s to say those techniques and that research couldn’t help the rest of us.

Loss of gene allows cancer stem cells to invade the brain
A fundamental property of stem cells is their ability to self-renew and make unlimited copies of themselves. That ability is great for repairing the body but in the case of cancer stem cells, it is thought to be responsible for the uncontrolled, lethal growth of tumors.

Both stem cells and cancer stem cells rely on special cellular neighborhoods, or “niches”, to support their function. Outside of those niches, the cells don’t survive well. But cancer stem cells somehow overcome this barrier which allows them to spread and do damage to whole organs.

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Brain MRI showing glioblastoma tumor
Image: Wikimedia Commons

A study this week at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center zeroed in on the gene QK1 that, when deleted in mice, provides cancer stem cells in the brain the ability to thrive outside their niches.  They team also showed that the loss of the gene slowed a cell process called endocytosis, which normally acts to break down and recycle protein receptors on the cell surface. Those receptors are critical for the cancer stem cell’s self-renew function. So by blocking endocytosis, the gene deletion leads to an accumulation of receptors on the cell surface and in turn that boosts the cancer stem cells’ ability to divide and grow outside of its niche.

In a university press release picked up by Science Daily, team lead Jian Hu talked about exploiting this result to find new ways to defeat glioblastoma, the deadliest form of brain cancer:

“This study may lead to cancer therapeutic opportunities by targeting the mechanisms involved in maintaining cancer stem cells. Although loss of QKI allows glioma stem cells to thrive, it also renders certain vulnerabilities to the cancer cells. We hope to design new therapies to target these.”

CIRM-funded scientists uncover mystery of bone growth in the heart
Calcium helps keep our bones strong but a build-up of the mineral in our soft tissues, like the heart, is nothing but bad news for our health. The origins of this abnormal process called ectopic calcification have been a mystery to scientists because the cells responsible for forming bone and secreting calcium, called osteoblasts, are not found in the heart. So where is the calcium coming from?

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Bone-forming osteoblasts. They’re bad news when found in the heart.
Image: Amgen

This week, a CIRM-funded team at UCLA found the answer: cardiac fibroblasts. The researchers suspected that this most abundant cell in the heart was the culprit behind ectopic calcification. So, using some genetic engineering tricks, they were able to track cardiac fibroblasts with a red fluorescent tag inside mice after a heart injury.

Within a week or so after injury, the team observed that cardiac fibroblasts had clustered around the areas of calcium deposits in the heart. It turns out that those cardiac fibroblasts had taken on the properties of heart stem cells and then became bone-forming osteoblasts. To prove this finding, they took some of those cells and transplanted them into healthy mice. Sure enough, the injection sites where the cells were located began to accumulate calcium deposits.

A comparison of gene activity in these abnormal cells versus healthy cells identified a protein called EPPN1 whose levels were really elevated when these calcium deposits occurred. Blocking EPPN1 put a stop to the calcification in the heart. In a university press release, lead author Arjun Deb explained that this detective work may lead to long sought after therapies:

Everyone recognizes that calcification of the heart and blood vessels and kidneys is abnormal, but we haven’t had a single drug that can slow down or reverse calcification; our study points to some therapeutic targets.

Stem cell agency funds clinical trials in three life-threatening conditions

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A year ago the CIRM Board unanimously approved a new Strategic Plan for the stem cell agency. In the plan are some rather ambitious goals, including funding ten new clinical trials in 2016. For much of the last year that has looked very ambitious indeed. But today the Board took a big step towards reaching that goal, approving three clinical trials focused on some deadly or life-threatening conditions.

The first is Forty Seven Inc.’s work targeting colorectal cancer, using a monoclonal antibody that can strip away the cancer cells ability to evade  the immune system. The immune system can then attack the cancer. But just in case that’s not enough they’re going to hit the tumor from another side with an anti-cancer drug called cetuximab. It’s hoped this one-two punch combination will get rid of the cancer.

Finding something to help the estimated 49,000 people who die of colorectal cancer in the U.S. every year would be no small achievement. The CIRM Board thought this looked so promising they awarded Forty Seven Inc. $10.2 million to carry out a clinical trial to test if this approach is safe. We funded a similar approach by researchers at Stanford targeting solid tumors in the lung and that is showing encouraging results.

Our Board also awarded $7.35 million to a team at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles that is using stem cells to treat pulmonary hypertension, a form of high blood pressure in the lungs. This can have a devastating, life-changing impact on a person leaving them constantly short of breath, dizzy and feeling exhausted. Ultimately it can lead to heart failure.

The team at Cedars-Sinai will use cells called cardiospheres, derived from heart stem cells, to reduce inflammation in the arteries and reduce blood pressure. CIRM is funding another project by this team using a similar  approach to treat people who have suffered a heart attack. This work showed such promise in its Phase 1 trial it’s now in a larger Phase 2 clinical trial.

The largest award, worth $20 million, went to target one of the rarest diseases. A team from UCLA, led by Don Kohn, is focusing on Adenosine Deaminase Severe Combined Immune Deficiency (ADA-SCID), which is a rare form of a rare disease. Children born with this have no functioning immune system. It is often fatal in the first few years of life.

The UCLA team will take the patient’s own blood stem cells, genetically modify them to fix the mutation that is causing the problem, then return them to the patient to create a new healthy blood and immune system. The team have successfully used this approach in curing 23 SCID children in the last few years – we blogged about it here – and now they have FDA approval to move this modified approach into a Phase 2 clinical trial.

So why is CIRM putting money into projects that it has either already funded in earlier clinical trials or that have already shown to be effective? There are a number of reasons. First, our mission is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. Each of the diseases funded today represent an unmet medical need. Secondly, if something appears to be working for one problem why not try it on another similar one – provided the scientific rationale and evidence shows it is appropriate of course.

As Randy Mills, our President and CEO, said in a news release:

“Our Board’s support for these programs highlights how every member of the CIRM team shares that commitment to moving the most promising research out of the lab and into patients as quickly as we can. These are very different projects, but they all share the same goal, accelerating treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.”

We are trying to create a pipeline of projects that are all moving towards the same goal, clinical trials in people. Pipelines can be horizontal as well as vertical. So we don’t really care if the pipeline moves projects up or sideways as long as they succeed in moving treatments to patients. And I’m guessing that patients who get treatments that change their lives don’t particularly

A new and improved method for making healthy heart tissue is here

Scientists from the Gladstone Institutes have done it again. They’ve made a better and faster way of generating healthy heart tissue in mice with damaged hearts. With further advancements, their findings could potentially be translated into a new way of treating heart failure in patients.

Previously, the Gladstone team discovered that they could transform scar tissue in the damaged hearts of mice into healthy, beating heart muscle cells by a process called direct reprogramming. The team found that turning on three transcription factors, Gata4, Mef2c and Tbx5 (collectively called GMT), in the damaged hearts of mice activated heart genes that turned scar tissue cells, also known as cardiac fibroblasts, into beating heart cells or cardiomyocytes.

Their GMT direct cardiac reprogramming technology was only able to turn 10 percent of cardiac fibroblasts into cardiomyocytes in mice over the period of six to eight week. In their new CIRM-funded study published in Circulation, they improved upon their original reprogramming method by identifying two chemicals that improved the efficiency of making new heart cells. Not only were they able to create eight times the number of beating cardiomyocytes from mouse cardiac fibroblasts, but they were also able to speed up the reprogramming process to a period of just one week.

To find these chemicals, they screened a library of 5,500 small molecules. The chemicals that looked most promising for cardiac reprogramming were inhibitors of the TGF-β and WNT signaling pathways. The importance of these chemicals was explained in a Gladstone news release:

“The first chemical inhibits a growth factor that helps cells grow and divide and is important for repairing tissue after injury. The second chemical inhibits an important pathway that regulates heart development. By combining the two chemicals with GMT, the researchers successfully regenerated heart muscle and greatly improved heart function in mice that had suffered a heart attack.”

Senior author on the study, Deepak Srivastava, further explained:

“While our original process for direct cardiac reprogramming with GMT has been promising, it could be more efficient. With our screen, we discovered that chemically inhibiting two biological pathways active in embryonic formation improves the speed, quantity, and quality of the heart cells produced from our original process.”

Encouraged by their studies in mice, the scientists also tested their new and improved direct reprogramming method on human cells. Previously they found that while the same GMT transcription factors could reprogram human cardiac fibroblasts into cardiomyocytes, a combination of seven factors was required to make quality cardiomyocytes comparable to those seen in mice. But with the addition of the two inhibitors, they were able to reduce the number of reprogramming factors from seven to four, which included the GMT factors and one additional factor called Myocardin. These four factors plus the two chemical inhibitors were capable of reprograming human cardiac fibroblasts into beating heart cells.

With heart failure affecting more than 20 million people globally, the need for new therapies that can regenerate the heart is pressing. The Gladstone team is hoping to advance their research to a point where it could be tested in human patients with heart failure. First author on the study, Tamer Mohamed, concluded:

“Heart failure afflicts many people worldwide, and we still do not have an effective treatment for patients suffering from this disease. With our enhanced method of direct cardiac reprogramming, we hope to combine gene therapy with drugs to create better treatments for patients suffering from this devastating disease.”

Tamer Mohamed and Deepak Srivastava, Gladstone Institutes

Tamer Mohamed and Deepak Srivastava. Photo courtesy of Chris Goodfellow, Gladstone Institutes


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Throwback Thursday: Progress to a Cure for Type 1 Diabetes

Welcome back to our “Throwback Thursday” series on the Stem Cellar. Over the years, we’ve accumulated an arsenal of valuable stem cell stories on our blog. Some of these stories represent crucial advances towards stem cell-based cures for serious diseases and deserve a second look.

novemberawarenessmonthThis week in honor of Diabetes Awareness Month, we are featuring type 1 diabetes (T1D), a chronic disease that destroys the insulin-producing beta cells in your pancreas. Without these important cells, patients cannot maintain the proper levels of glucose, a fancy name for sugar, in their blood and are at risk for many complications including heart disease, blindness, and even death.

Cell replacement therapy is evolving into an attractive option for patients with T1D. Replacing lost beta cells in the pancreas is a more permanent and less burdensome solution than the daily insulin shots (or insulin pumps) that many T1D patients currently take.

So let’s take a look at the past year’s advances in stem cell research for diabetes.

Making Insulin-Producing Cells from Stem Cells and Skin

This year, there were a lot of exciting studies that improved upon previous methods for generating pancreatic beta cells in a dish. Here’s a brief recap of a few of the studies we covered on our blog:

  • Make pancreatic cells from stem cells. Scientists from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute developed a method that makes beta cells from T1D patient-derived induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) that behave very similarly to true beta cells both in a dish and when transplanted into diabetic mice. Their discovery has the potential to offer personalized stem cell treatments for patients with T1D in the near future and the authors of the study predicted that their technology could be ready to test in humans in the next three to five years.
  • Making functional pancreatic cells from skin. Scientists from the Gladstone Institutes used a technique called direct reprogramming to turn human skin cells directly into pancreatic beta cells without having to go all the way back to a pluripotent stem cell state. The pancreatic cells looked and acted like the real thing in a dish (they were able to secrete insulin when exposed to glucose), and they functioned normally when transplanted into diabetic mice. This study is exciting because it offers a new and more efficient method to make functioning human beta cells in mass quantities.

    Functioning human pancreatic cells after they’ve been transplanted into a mouse. (Image: Saiyong Zhu, Gladstone)

    Functioning human pancreatic cells after they’ve been transplanted into a mouse. (Image: Saiyong Zhu, Gladstone)

  • Challenges of stem cell-derived diabetes treatments. At this year’s Ogawa-Yamanaka Stem Cell Award ceremony Douglas Melton, a well-renowned diabetes researcher from Harvard, spoke about the main challenges for developing stem cell-derived diabetes treatments. The first is the need for better control over the methods that make beta cells from stem cells. The second was finding ways to make large quantities of beta cells for human transplantation. The last was finding ways to prevent a patient’s immune system from rejecting transplanted beta cells. Melton and other scientists are already working on improving techniques to make more beta cells from stem cells. As for preventing transplanted beta cells from being attacked by the patient’s immune system, Melton described two possibilities: using an encapsulation device or biological protection to mask the transplanted cells from an attack.

Progress to a Cure: Clinical Trials for Type 1 Diabetes

Speaking of encapsulation devices, CIRM is funding a Phase I clinical trial sponsored by a San Diego-based company called ViaCyte that’s hoping to develop a stem cell-based cure for patients with T1D. The treatment involves placing a small encapsulated device containing stem cell-derived pancreatic precursor cells under the skin of T1D patients. Once implanted, these precursor cells should develop into pancreatic beta cells that can secrete insulin into the patient’s blood stream. The goal of this trial is first to make sure the treatment is safe for patients and second to see if it’s effective in improving a patient’s ability to regulate their blood sugar levels.

To learn more about this exciting clinical trial, watch this fun video made by Youreka Science.

ViaCyte is still waiting on results for their Phase 1 clinical trial, but in the meantime, they are developing a modified version of their original device for T1D called PEC-Direct. This device also contains pancreatic precursor cells but it’s been designed in a way that allows the patient’s blood vessels to make direct connections to the cells inside the device. This vascularization process hopefully will improve the survival and function of the insulin producing beta cells inside the device. This study, which is in the last stage of research before clinical trials, is also being funded by CIRM, and we are excited to hear news about its progress next year.

ViaCyte's PEC-Direct device allows a patient's blood vessels to integrate and make contact with the transplanted beta cells.

ViaCyte’s PEC-Direct device allows a patient’s blood vessels to integrate and make contact with the transplanted beta cells.


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