Gene therapy is life-changing for children with a life-threatening brain disorder

If you have never heard of AADC deficiency count yourself lucky. It’s a rare, incurable condition that affects only around 135 children worldwide but it’s impact on those children and their families is devastating. The children can’t speak, can’t feed themselves or hold up their head, they have severe mood swings and often suffer from insomnia.

But Dr. Krystof Bankiewicz, a doctor and researcher at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), is using techniques he developed treating Parkinson’s disease to help those children. Full disclosure here, CIRM is funding Dr. Bankiewicz’s Parkinson’s clinical trial.

In AADC deficiency the children lack a critical enzyme that helps the brain make serotonin and dopamine, so called “chemical messengers” that help the cells in the brain communicate with each other. In his AADC clinical trial Dr. Bankiewicz and his team created a tiny opening in the skull and then inserted a functional copy of the AADC gene into two regions of the brain thought to have most benefit – the substantia nigra and ventral tegmental area of the brainstem.

Image showing target areas for AADC gene insertion: Courtesy UCSF

When the clinical trial began none of the seven children were able to sit up on their own, only two had any ability to control their head movement and just one could grasp an object in their hands. Six of the seven were described as moody or irritable and six suffered from insomnia.

In a news release Dr. Bankiewicz says the impact of the gene therapy was quite impressive: “Remarkably, these episodes were the first to disappear and they never returned. In the months that followed, many patients experienced life-changing improvements. Not only did they begin laughing and have improved mood, but some were able to start speaking and even walking.”

Those weren’t the only improvements, at the end of one year:

  • All seven children had better control of their head and body.
  • Four of the children were able to sit up by themselves.
  • Three patients could grasp and hold objects.
  • Two were able to walk with some support.

Two and a half years after the surgery:

  • One child was able to walk without any support.
  • One child could speak with a vocabulary of 50 words.
  • One child could communicate using an assistive device.

The parents also reported big improvements in mood and ability to sleep.

UCSF posted some videos of the children before and after the surgery and you can see for yourself the big difference in the children. It’s not a cure, but for families that had nothing in the past, it is a true gift.

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

Hollywood and Patient Advocacy – two people who are on our Board but never boring

At first glance Lauren Miller Rogen and Dr. David Higgins seem an unlikely pair. She’s an actor, writer, director and has worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. He has a doctorate in molecular biology and genetics and has worked at some of the most well-known companies in biotech. But together they make a great team.

Lauren and David are both on the CIRM Board. She’s a patient advocate for Alzheimer’s and the driving force (with her husband Seth) of HFC (Hilarity for Charity), which has raised millions of dollars to help families battling the disease and to educate young people about the condition. It’s also made a lot of people laugh along the way. David is a patient advocate for Parkinson’s and has been instrumental is creating support groups that help patients and families cope with the disease.

Together they are a force for good. And they’re also really funny. And that’s why we invited them to be guests on the CIRM Podcast, Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation. They are smart, engaging, witty, and they don’t pull punches.

I know you are going to enjoy the show.

We’ve got cash, here’s how you can get some

When the voters of California approved Proposition 14 last November (thanks folks) they gave us $5.5 billion to continue the work we started way back in 2014. It’s a great honor, and a great responsibility.

It’s also a great opportunity to look at what we do and how we do it and try to come up with even better ways of funding groundbreaking research and helping create a new generation of researchers.

In addition to improving on what we already do, Prop 14 introduced some new elements, some new goals for us to add to the mix, and we are in the process of fleshing out how we can best do that.

Because of all these changes we decided it would be a good idea to hold a “Town Hall” meeting and let everyone know what these changes are and how they may impact applications for funding.

The Town Hall, on Tuesday June 29, was a great success with almost 200 participants. But we know that not everyone who wanted to attend could, so here’s the video of the event, and below that are the questions that were posed by people during the meeting, and the answers to those questions.

Having seen the video we would be eternally grateful if you could respond to a short online survey, to help us get a better idea of your research and education needs and to be better able to serve you and identify potential areas of opportunity for CIRM. Here’s a link to that survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/VQMYPDL

We know that there may be issues or questions that are not answered here, so feel free to send those to us at info@cirm.ca.gov and we will make sure you get an answer.

Are there any DISC funding opportunities specific to early-stage investigators?

DISC funding opportunities are open to all investigators.  There aren’t any that are specific to junior investigators.

Are DISC funding opportunities available for early-mid career researchers based out of USA such as Australia?

Sorry, you have to be in California for us to fund your work.

Does tumor immunology/ cancer immunotherapy fall within the scope of the CIRM discovery grants?

Yes, they do.  Here is a link to various CIRM DISC Awards that fall within the cancer category.  https://www.cirm.ca.gov/grants?disease_focus%5B%5D=1427&program_type%5B%5D=1230

Will Disc1 (Inception awards) and/or seed funding mechanisms become available again?

CIRM is anticipating launching a program to meet this need toward the end of this year.

For DISC award is possible to contact a grant advisor for advice before applying?

Please email discovery@cirm.ca.gov to discuss Discovery stage applications before applying

Is co-funding requirement a MUST for clinical trials?

Co-funding requirements vary.  Please refer to the following link for more information: https://www.cirm.ca.gov/sites/default/files/files/about_cirm/CLIN2_Mini_Brochure2.pdf

Hi, when will reviews for DISC 2: CIRM Quest – Discovery Stage Research Projects (deadline March 2021) be available? Thanks!

Review summaries for the March 2021 Discovery submitted applications will be available by mid-August, with final board funding decisions at the August 24th Application Review Subcommittee Meeting

Has CIRM project made it to Phase III or product launch with FDA approval? What is CIRM strategy for start-up biotech companies?

CIRM has funded several late-stage Phase III/potentially pivotal clinical trials. You can view them here: https://www.cirm.ca.gov/our-impact/funding-clinical-trials

CIRM funding supports non-profit academic grantees as well as companies of all sizes.

I am studying stem cells using mouse. Is my research eligible for the CIRM grants?

Yes it is.

Your programs more specifically into stem cell research would be willing to take patients that are not from California?

Yes, we have treated patients who are not in California. Some have come to California for treatment and others have been treated in other states in the US by companies that are based here in California.

Can you elaborate how the preview of the proposals works? Who reviews them and what are the criteria for full review?

The same GWG panel both previews and conducts the full review. The panel first looks through all the applications to identify what each reviewer believes represents the most likely to be impactful and meet the goals of the CIRM Discovery program. Those that are selected by any reviewer moves forward to the next full review step.

If you meet your milestones-How likely is it that a DISC recipient gets a TRAN award?

The milestones are geared toward preparation of the TRAN stage.  However, this is a different application and review that is not guaranteed to result in funding.

Regarding Manufacturing Public Private partnerships – What specific activities is CIRM thinking about enabling these partnerships? For example, are out of state for profit commercial entities able to conduct manufacturing at CA based manufacturing centers even though the clinical program may be primarily based out of CA? If so, what percent of the total program budget must be expended in CA? How will CIRM enable GMP manufacturing centers interact with commercial entities?

We are in the early stages of developing this concept with continued input from various stakeholders. The preliminary vision is to build a network of academic GMP manufacturing centers and industry partners to support the manufacturing needs of CIRM-funded projects in California.

We are in the process of widely distributing a summary of the manufacturing workshop. Here’s a link to it:

If a center is interested in being a sharing lab or competency hub with CIRM, how would they go about it?

CIRM will be soliciting applications for Shared Labs/Competency hubs in potential future RFAs. The survey asks several questions asking for feedback on these concepts so it would really help us if you could complete the survey.

Would preclinical development of stem cell secretome-derived protein therapies for rare neuromuscular diseases and ultimately, age-related muscle wasting be eligible for CIRM TRAN1 funding? The goal is to complete IND-enabling studies for a protein-based therapy that enhances tissue regeneration to treat a rare degenerative disease. the screening to identify the stem-cell secreted proteins to develop as therapeutics is done by in vitro screening with aged/diseased primary human progenitor cells to identify candidates that enhance their differentiation . In vivo the protein therapeutic signals to several cell types , including precursor cells to improve tissue homeostasis.

I would suggest reaching out to our Translation team to discuss the details as it will depend on several factors. You can email the team at translational@cirm.ca.gov

Here are the slides used in the presentations.

Heads or tails? Stem cells help guide the decision

Two cell embryo

There are many unknown elements for what triggers the cells in an embryo to start dividing and multiplying and becoming every single cell in the body. Now researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco have uncovered one of those elements, how embryos determine which cells become the head and which the tail.

In this CIRM-funded study the Gladstone team, led by Dr. Todd McDevitt, discovered almost by chance how the cells align in a heads-to-tail arrangement.

Todd McDevitt

They had created an organoid made from brain cells when they noticed that some of the cells were beginning to gather in an elongated fashion, in the same way that spinal cords do in a developing fetus.

In a news article, Nick Elder, a graduate student at Gladstone and the co-author of the study, published in the journal Development, says this was not what they had anticipated would happen: “Organoids don’t typically have head-tail directionality, and we didn’t originally set out to create an elongating organoid, so the fact that we saw this at all was very surprising.”

Further study enabled the team to identify which molecules were involved in signaling specific genes to switch on and off. These were similar to the process previously identified in developing mouse embryos.

“This is such a critical point in the early development of any organism, so having a new model to observe it and study it in the lab is very exciting,” says McDevitt.

This is not just of academic interest either, it could have real world implications in helping understand what causes miscarriages or birth defects.

“We can use this organoid to get at unresolved human developmental questions in a way that doesn’t involve human embryos,” says Dr. Ashley Libby, another member of the team. “For instance, you could add chemicals or toxins that a pregnant woman might be exposed to, and see how they affect the development of the spinal cord.”

Physicians and patient advocates on the front lines of the fight for a more equitable health system

Over the last year there has been increasing awareness of the inequalities in the American healthcare system. At every level there is evidence of bias, discrimination and unequal access to the best care. Sometimes unequal access to any care. That is, hopefully, changing but only if the new awareness is matched with action.

At the recent World Stem Cell Summit CIRM helped pull together a panel of physicians and patient advocates who have been leading the charge for change for years. The panel was called ‘Addressing Disparities, Promoting Equity and Inclusion in Clinical Research.’

The panelists include:

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Ysabel Duron – Founder of The Latino Cancer Institute & CIRM Board member
Adrienne Shapiro – sickle cell disease patient advocate, Founder of Axis Advocacy – Sickle Cell Disease support and advocacy group
Dr. Leah Ke‘ala‘aumoe Dowsett – Clinical geneticist, serves on hospital DEI committee, Board member Association of Native Hawaiian Physicians
Dr. Nathan Chomilo – Co-Founder, Minnesota Doctors for Health Equity and head of the Minnesota COVID Vaccine Equity Program

The conversation they had was informative, illuminating and fascinating. But it didn’t sugar coat where we are, and the hard work ahead of us to get to where we need to be.

Enjoy the event, with apologies for the inept cameo appearance by me at the beginning of the video. Technology clearly isn’t my forte.

An Open Letter to CIRM for World Sickle Cell Day

Nancy M. Rene

Dear CIRM,

World Sickle Cell Day is this Saturday June 19th. The goal of this day is to increase knowledge of the disease and understanding of the challenges faced.

It is a day that I greet with very mixed feelings.  I’m of course extremely grateful to CIRM for the time and money spent looking for a cure.  The work of doctors, of researchers, the courage of families in the sickle cell community who are taking part in studies, and of course those of you who worked so hard for the original funding for CIRM, I applaud all of you, yet it’s hard to wait for a cure.

While I wait I worry. I worry about my friends who are not getting good care.  They are the ones who can’t find a doctor to treat them, not able to take advantage of the medications that are already approved.  They are the ones who walk into the Emergency Room hoping for knowledgeable treatment while understanding that they may be accused of being a drug seeker,  turned away in excruciating pain. They are the ones who succumb after years of poor care.

With sickle cell disease there is the same level of understanding about medical malpractice that we had of police brutality before George Floyd. We hardly remember Rodney King or Eric Garner. As a country we were aware that something was wrong but we tended to retreat in denial after each terrible headline.

That’s where we are with sickle cell disease.  We may see a heart-wrenching story and watch televised reports with interest, but after all, it’s easier to live in disbelief, to think that medical care is not that bad, rather than understand that people are being dismissed and denied treatment. We call it structural racism without understanding what that term really means.

While I wait I must acknowledge that change is coming.  We have a Sickle Cell Data Collection Project in California that helps us track healthcare for sickle cell disease. This is data that we can use to point to structural weakness and address health disparities.  NASEM, the National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine, has published a huge report with significant suggestions for improving sickle cell care. Many scientists, researchers and advocates took part in this landmark study, detailing what has gone wrong in health care and how to improve the work. And of course we have CIRM. I am very thankful for the leadership and pioneering work of doctors Donald Kohn, Matthew Porteus, Mark Walters, and Joseph Rosenthal who are using their knowledge and experience in this fight.

When we have successful research on stem cell transplants for sickle cell disease, many of us with sickle cell family members will want to relax, but we can’t forget those who may not be able to get a curative transplant. I hope Dr Niihara at Emmaus, and Dr. Love of Global Blood Therapeutics will continue their important work finding effective treatments. We must continue this fight on all fronts.

World Sickle Cell Day will come again next year.  Let’s see what it brings.

A sickle cell grandmother,

Nancy M. René

Sometimes a cold stare is a good thing

A retina of a patient with macular degeneration. (Photo credit: Paul Parker/SPL)

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of vision loss and blindness in the elderly in the U.S. It’s estimated that some 11 million Americans could have some form of the disease, a number that is growing every year. So if you are going to develop a treatment for this condition, you need to make sure it can reach a lot of people easily. And that’s exactly what some CIRM-supported researchers are doing.

Let’s back up a little first. AMD is a degenerative condition where the macular, the small central portion of your retina, is slowly worn away. That’s crucial because the retina is the light-sensing nerve tissue at the back of your eye. At first you notice that your vision is getting blurry and it’s hard to read fine print or drive a car. As it progresses you develop dark, blurry areas in the center of your vision.

There are two kinds of AMD, a wet form and a dry form. The dry form is the most common, affecting 90% of patients. There is no cure and no effective treatment. But researchers at the University of Southern California (USC), the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) and a company called Regenerative Patch Technologies are developing a method that is looking promising.

They are using stem cells to grow retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) cells, the kind attacked by the disease, and putting them on a tiny synthetic scaffold which is then placed at the back of the eye. The hope is these RPE cells will help slow down the progression of the disease or even restore vision.

Early results from a CIRM-funded clinical trial are encouraging. Of the five patients enrolled in the Phase 1/2a trial, four maintained their vision in the treated eye, two showed improvement in the stability of their vision, and one patient had a 17-letter improvement in their vision on a reading chart. In addition, there were no serious side effects or unanticipated problems.

So now the team are taking this approach one step further. In a study published in Scientific Reports, they say they have developed a way to cryopreserve or freeze this cell and scaffold structure.

In a news release, Dr. Dennis Clegg of UCSB, says the frozen implants are comparable to the non-frozen ones and this technique will extend shelf life and enable on-demand distribution to distant clinical sites, increasing the number of patients able to benefit from such treatments.

“It’s a major advance in the development of cell therapies using a sheet of cells, or a monolayer of cells, because you can freeze them as the final product and ship them all over the world.”

Cool.

Two voices, one message, watch out for predatory stem cell clinics

Last week two new papers came out echoing each other about the dangers of bogus “therapies” being offered by predatory stem cell clinics and the risks they pose to patients.

The first was from the Pew Charitable Trusts entitled: ‘Harms Linked to Unapproved Stem Cell Interventions Highlight Need for Greater FDA Enforcement’ with a subtitle: Unproven regenerative medical products have led to infections, disabilities, and deaths.’

That pretty much says everything you need to know about the report, and in pretty stark terms; need for greater FDA enforcement and infections, disabilities and deaths.

Just two days later, as if in response to the call for greater enforcement, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) came out with its own paper titled: ‘Important Patient and Consumer Information About Regenerative Medicine Therapies.’ Like the Pew report the FDA’s paper highlighted the dangers of unproven and unapproved “therapies” saying it “has received reports of blindness, tumor formation, infections, and more… due to the use of these unapproved products.”

The FDA runs down a list of diseases and conditions that predatory clinics claim they can cure without any evidence that what they offer is even safe, let alone effective. It says Regenerative Medicine therapies have not been approved for the treatment of:

  • Arthritis, osteoarthritis, rheumatism, hip pain, knee pain or shoulder pain.
  • Blindness or vision loss, autism, chronic pain or fatigue.
  • Neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
  • Heart disease, lung disease or stroke.

The FDA says it has warned clinics offering these “therapies” to stop or face the risk of legal action, and it warns consumers: “Please know that if you are being charged for these products or offered these products outside of a clinical trial, you are likely being deceived and offered a product illegally.”

It tells consumers if you are offered one of these therapies – often at great personal cost running into the thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars – you should contact the FDA at ocod@fda.hhs.gov.

The Pew report highlights just how dangerous these “therapies” are for patients. They did a deep dive into health records and found that between 2004 and September 2020 there were more than 360 reported cases of patients experiencing serious side effects from a clinic that offered unproven and unapproved stem cell procedures.

Those side effects include 20 deaths as well as serious and even lifelong disabilities such as:

  • Partial or complete blindness (9).
  • Paraplegia (1).
  • Pulmonary embolism (6).
  • Heart attack (5).
  • Tumors, lesions, or other growths (16).
  • Organ damage or failure in several cases that resulted in death.

More than one hundred of the patients identified had to be hospitalized.

The most common type of procedures these patients were given were stem cells taken from their own body and then injected into their eye, spine, hip, shoulder, or knee. The second most common was stem cells from a donor that were then injected.

The Pew report cites the case of one California-based stem cell company that sold products manufactured without proper safety measures, “including a failure to properly screen for communicable diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B and C.” Those products led to at least 13 people being hospitalized due to serious bacterial infection in Texas, Arizona, Kansas, and Florida.

Shocking as these statistics are, the report says this is probably a gross under count of actual harm caused by the bogus clinics. It says the clinics themselves rarely report adverse events and many patients don’t report them either, unless they are so serious that they require medical intervention.

The Pew report concludes by saying the FDA needs more resources so it can more effectively act against these clinics and shut them down when necessary. It says the agency needs to encourage doctors and patients to report any unexpected side effects, saying: “devising effective strategies to collect more real-world evidence of harm can help the agency in its efforts to curb the growth of this unregulated market and ensure that the regenerative medicine field develops into one that clinicians and patients can trust and safely access.”

We completely support both reports and will continue to work with the FDA and anyone else opposed to these predatory clinics. You can read more here about what we have been doing to oppose these clinics, and here is information that will help inform your decision if you are thinking about taking part in a stem cell clinical trial but are not sure if it’s a legitimate one.

Paving the Way

When someone scores a goal in soccer all the attention is lavished on them. Fans chant their name, their teammates pile on top in celebration, their agent starts calling sponsors asking for more money. But there’s often someone else deserving of praise too, that’s the player who provided the assist to make the goal possible in the first place. With that analogy in mind, CIRM just provided a very big assist for a very big goal.

The goal was scored by Jasper Therapeutics. They have just announced data from their Phase 1 clinical trial treating people with Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS). This is a group of disorders in which immature blood-forming cells in the bone marrow become abnormal and leads to low numbers of normal blood cells, especially red blood cells. In about one in three patients, MDS can progress to acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a rapidly progressing cancer of the bone marrow cells.

The most effective way to treat, and even cure, MDS/AML is with a blood stem cell transplant, but this is often difficult for older patients, because it involves the use of toxic chemotherapy to destroy their existing bone marrow blood stem cells, to make room for the new, healthy ones. Even with a transplant there is often a high rate of relapse, because it’s hard for chemotherapy to kill all the cancer cells.

Jasper has developed a therapy, JSP191, which is a monoclonal antibody, to address this issue. JSP191 helps supplement the current treatment regimen by clearing all the remaining abnormal cells from the bone marrow and preventing relapse. In addition it also means the patients gets smaller doses of chemotherapy with lower levels of toxicity. In this Phase 1 study six patients, between the ages of 65 and 74, were given JSP191 – in combination with low-dose radiation and chemotherapy – prior to getting their transplant. The patients were followed-up at 90 days and five of the six had no detectable levels of MDS/AML, and the sixth patient had reduced levels. None of the patients experienced serious side effects.

Clearly that’s really encouraging news. And while CIRM didn’t fund this clinical trial, it wouldn’t have happened without us paving the way for this research. That’s where the notion of the assist comes in.

CIRM support led to the development of the JSP191 technology at Stanford. Our CIRM funds were used in the preclinical studies that form the scientific basis for using JSP191 in an MDS/AML setting.

Not only that, but this same technique was also used by Stanford’s Dr. Judy Shizuru in a clinical trial for children born with a form of severe combined immunodeficiency, a rare but fatal immune disorder in children. A clinical trial that CIRM funded.

It’s a reminder that therapies developed with one condition in mind can often be adapted to help treat other similar conditions. Jasper is doing just that. It hopes to start clinical trials this year using JSP191 for people getting blood stem cell transplants for severe autoimmune disease, sickle cell disease and Fanconi anemia.

How stem cells play “follow the leader”

Todd McDevitt, PhD., Photo: courtesy Gladstone Institutes

It’s hard enough trying to follow the movements of individuals in a crowd of people but imagine how much harder it is to follow the movements of stem cells, crowded into a tiny petri dish. Well, researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco have done just that.

In a CIRM-funded study ($5.85M) Dr. Todd McDevitt and his team created a super smart artificial intelligence way of tracking the movements of hundreds of stem cells growing together in a colony, and even identify “leaders” in the pack.

In our bodies groups of stem cells are able to move in specific ways to form different organs and tissues when exposed to the right environment. Unfortunately, we are still trying to learn what “the right environment” is for different organs.

In a news release, McDevitt, the senior author of the paper published in the journal Stem Cell Reports, says this method of observing cells may help us better understand that.

“If I wanted to make a new human heart right now, I know what types of cells are needed, and I know how to grow them independently in dishes. But we really don’t know how to get those cells to come together to form something as complex as a heart. To accomplish that, we need more insights into how cells work cooperatively to arrange themselves.”

Normally scientists watch cells by tagging them with a fluorescent marker so they can see them under a microscope. But this is slow, painstaking work and not particularly accurate. This new method used a series of what are called “neural networks”, which are artificial intelligence (AI) programs that can detect patterns in the movements of the cells. When combined together the networks proved to be able to track the movement of 95 percent of the cells. Humans by comparison can only manage up to 90 percent. But the nets were not only sharper, they were also faster, much faster, some 500 times faster.

This enhanced ability to watch the cells showed that instead of being static most of the time, as had previously been thought, they were actually on the move a lot of the time. They would move around for 15 minutes and then take a breather for ten minutes (time for the stem cell equivalent of a cup of tea perhaps).  

Some cells moved around a lot in one direction, while others just seemed to shuffle around in the same area. Some cells even seemed to act as “leaders” while other cells appeared to be “followers” and shuffle along behind them.

None of this would have been visible without the power of the AI networks and McDevitt says being able to tap into this could help researchers better understand how to use these complex movements.

“This technique gives us a much more comprehensive view of how cells behave, how they work cooperatively, and how they come together in physical space to form complex organs.

Follow the Leader is not just a kids’ game anymore. Now it’s a scientific undertaking.