CIRM Board invests $5 million in emergency funding for coronavirus

Coronavirus

In response to the crisis caused by the COVID-19 virus in California and around the world the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) today held an emergency meeting to approve $5 million in rapid research funds targeting the virus.

“These are clearly extraordinary times and they require an extraordinary response from all of us,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “Our mission is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. California researchers have made us aware that they are pursuing potential stem cell based approaches to the COVID-19 crisis and we felt it was our responsibility to respond by doing all we can to support this research and doing so as quickly as we possibly can.”

The Board’s decision enables CIRM to allocate $5 million in funding for peer-reviewed regenerative medicine and stem cell research that could quickly advance treatments for COVID-19. The funding will be awarded as part of an expedited approval process.

To qualify applicants would go through a full review by CIRM’s independent Grants Working Group.

  • Approved projects will be immediately forwarded to the CIRM Board for a vote
  • Projects approved by the Board would go through an accelerated contract process to ensure funds are distributed as quickly as possible

“Our hope is that we can go from application to funding within 30 to 40 days,” says Jonathan Thomas, PhD, JD, Chair of the CIRM Board. “This is a really tight timeframe, but we can’t afford to waste a moment. There is too much at stake. The coronavirus is creating an unprecedented threat to all of us and, as one of the leading players in regenerative medicine, we are committed to doing all we can to develop the tools and promote the research that will help us respond to that threat.”

Only projects that target the development or testing of a treatment for COVID-19 are eligible. They must also meet other requirements including being ready to start work within 30 days of approval and propose achieving a clear deliverable within six months. The proposed therapy must also involve a stem cell or a drug or antibody targeting stem cells.

The award amounts and duration of the award are as follows:

Award Amount and Duration Limits

Project StageSpecific ProgramAward Amount*Award Duration
Clinical trialCLIN2$750,00024 months
Late stage preclinicalCLIN1$400,00012 months
TranslationalTRAN1$350,00012 months
DiscoveryDISC2$150,00012 months

CIRM Board members were unanimous in their support for the program. Al Rowlett, the patient advocate for mental health, said: “Given the complexity of this situation and the fact that many of the individuals I represent aren’t able to advocate for themselves, I wholeheartedly support this.”

Dr. Os Steward, from UC Irvine agreed: “I think that this is a very important thing for CIRM to do for a huge number of reasons. The concept is great and CIRM is perfectly positioned to do this.”

“All hands are on deck world-wide in this fight against COVID-19.” says Dr. Millan. “CIRM will deploy its accelerated funding model to arm our stem cell researchers in this multi-pronged and global attack on the virus.”

You can learn more about the program, including how to apply, on our website.

Ask the Stem Cell Team About Autism

On March 19th we held a special Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team About Autism” event. We were fortunate enough to have two great experts – Dr. Alysson Muotri from UC San Diego, and CIRM’s own Dr. Kelly Shepard. As always there is a lot of ground to cover in under one hour and there are inevitably questions we didn’t get a chance to respond to. So, Dr. Shepard has kindly agreed to provide answers to all the key questions we got on the day.

If you didn’t get a chance to see the event you can watch the video here. And feel free to share the link, and this blog, with anyone you think might be interested in the material.

Dr. Kelly Shepard

Can umbilical cord blood stem cells help reduce some of the symptoms?

This question was addressed by Dr. Muotri in the live presentation. To recap, a couple of clinical studies have been reported from scientists at Duke University and Sutter Health, but the results are not universally viewed as conclusive.  The Duke study, which focused on very young children, reported some improvements in behavior for some of the children after treatment, but it is important to note that this trial had no placebo control, so it is not clear that those patients would not have improved on their own. The Duke team has moved forward with larger trial and placebo control.

Does it have to be the child’s own cord blood or could donated blood work too?

In theory, a donated cord product could be used for similar purposes as a child’s own cord, but there is a caveat- the donated cord tissues must have some level of immune matching with the host in order to not be rejected or lead to other complications, which under certain circumstances, could be serious.

Some clinics claim that the use of fetal stem cells can help stimulate improved blood and oxygen flow to the brain. Could that help children with autism?

Fetal stem cells have been tested in FDA approved/sanctioned clinical trials for certain brain conditions such as stroke and Parkinson Disease, where there is clearer understanding of how and which parts of the brains are affected, which nerve cells have been lost or damaged, and where there is a compelling biological rationale for how certain properties the transplanted cells, such as their anti-inflammatory properties, could provide benefit.

Alysson Muotri in his lab and office at Sanford Consortium in La Jolla, California; Photograph by David Ahntholz http://www.twopointpictures.com http://www.davidahntholz.com

In his presentation, Dr. Muotri noted that neurons are not lost in autistic brains, so there is nothing that would be “replaced” by such a treatment. And although some forms of autism might include inflammation that could potentially be mitigated, it is unlikely that  the degree of benefit that might come from reducing inflammation would be worth the risks of the treatment, which includes intracranial injection of donated material.  Unfortunately, we still do not know enough about the specific causes and features of autism to determine if and to what extent stem cell treatments could prove helpful. But we are learning more every day, especially with some of the new technologies and discoveries that have been enabled by stem cell technology. 

Some therapies even use tissue from sheep claiming that a pill containing sheep pancreas can migrate to and cure a human pancreas, pills containing sheep brains can help heal human brains. What are your thoughts on those?

For some conditions, there may be a scientific rationale for how a specific drug or treatment could be delivered orally, but this really depends on the underlying biology of the condition, the means by which the drug exerts its effect, and how quickly that drug or substance will be digested, metabolized, or cleared from the body’s circulation. Many drugs that are delivered orally do not reach the brain because of the blood-brain barrier, which serves to isolate and protect the brain from potentially harmful substances in the blood circulation. For such a drug to be effective, it would have to be stable within the body for a period of time, and be something that could exert its effects on the brain either directly or indirectly.

Sheep brain or pancreas (or any other animal tissue consumed) in a pill form would be broken down into basic components immediately by digestion, i.e. amino acids, sugars, much like any other meat or food. Often complex treatments designed to be specifically targeted to the brain are delivered by intra-cranial/intrathecal injection, or by developing special strategies to evade the blood brain barrier, a challenge that is easier said than done. For autism, there is still a lot to be learned regarding how a therapeutic intervention might work to help people, so for now, I would caution against the use of dietary supplements or pills that are not prescribed or recommended by your doctor. 

What are the questions parents should ask before signing up for any stem cell therapy

There is some very good advice about this on the both the CIRM and ISSCR websites, including a handbook for patients that includes questions to ask anyone offering you a stem cell treatment, and also some fundamental facts that everyone should know about stem cells. https://www.closerlookatstemcells.org/patient-resources/

What kinds of techniques do we have now that we didn’t have in the past that can help us better understand what is happening in the brain of a child with autism.

We covered this in the online presentation. Some of the technologies discussed include:

– “disease in a dish” models from patient derived stem cells for studying causes of autism

–  new ways to make human neurons and other cell types for study

– organoid technology, to create more realistic brain tissues for studying autism

– advances in genomics and sequencing technologies to identify “signatures” of autism to help identify the underlying differences that could lead to a diagnosis

Alysson, you work with things called “brain organoids” explain what those are and could they help us in uncovering clues to the cause of autism and even possible therapies?

We blogged about this work when it was first published and you can read about it on our blog here.

Can stem cells help people who have had a stroke? Ask the experts.

Stroke is the third leading cause of death and disability in the US. Every 45 seconds someone in the US has a stroke. Every year around 275,000 people die from a stroke many more survive but are often impaired by the brain attack. The impact is not just physical, but psychological and emotional. It takes an enormous toll on individuals and their families. So, it’s not surprising that there is a lot of research underway to try and find treatments to help people, including using stem cells.

That’s why CIRM is hosting a special Facebook Live ‘Ask the Stem Cell Team About Stroke event on Wednesday, March 25th at noon PDT. Just head over to our Facebook Page on the 25th at noon to hear from two great guests.

We will be joined by Dr. Tom Carmichael, a Professor of Neurology and the Co-Director of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Center. He has a number of CIRM grants focused on helping repair the damage caused by strokes.

CIRM Senior Science Officer, Dr. Lila Collins, will also join us to talk about other stem cell research targeting stroke, its promise and some of the problems that still need to be overcome.

You will have a chance to ask questions of both our experts, either live on the day or by sending us questions in advance at info@cirm.ca.gov.

Why “Ask the Stem Cell Team” Remains Important

These are definitely strange, unusual and challenging times. Every day seems to bring new restrictions on what we can and should do. All, of course, in the name of protecting us and helping us avoid a potentially deadly virus. We all hope this will soon pass but we also know the bigger impact of the coronavirus is likely to linger for many months, perhaps even years.

With that in mind a few people have asked us why we are still going ahead with our Facebook Live ‘Ask the Stem Cell Team About Autism’ event this Thursday, March 19th at 12pm PDT. It’s a good question. And the answer is simple. Because there is still a need for good, thoughtful information about the potential for stem cells to help families who have a loved one with autism. And because we still need to do all we can to dispel the bad information out there and warn people about the bogus clinics offering unproven therapies.

In many ways Facebook Live is the perfect way to deliver this information. It allows us to reach out to large numbers of people without having them in the same room. We can educate not contaminate.

And we have some great experts to discuss the use of stem cells in helping people with autism.

The event features Dr. Alysson Muotri from UC San Diego. We have written about his work with stem cells for autism in the past. And CIRM’s own Associate Director for Discovery and Translation, Dr. Kelly Shepard.

But we also want you to be a part of this as well. So, join us online for the event. You can post comments and questions during the event, and we’ll do our best to answer them. Or you can send us in questions ahead of time to info@cirm.ca.gov.

If you were unable to tune in while we were live, not to worry, you you can watch it here on our Facebook page

You can bank on CIRM

Way back in 2013, the CIRM Board invested $32 million in a project to create an iPSC Bank. The goal was simple;  to collect tissue samples from people who have different diseases, turn those samples into high quality stem cell lines – the kind known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) – and create a facility where those lines can be stored and distributed to researchers who need them.

Fast forward almost seven years and that idea has now become the largest public iPSC bank in the world. The story of how that happened is the subject of a great article (by CIRM’s Dr. Stephen Lin) in the journal Science Direct.

Dr. Stephen Lin

In 2013 there was a real need for the bank. Scientists around the world were doing important research but many were creating the cells they used for that research in different ways. That made it hard to compare one study to another and come up with any kind of consistent finding. The iPSC Bank was designed to change that by creating one source for high quality cells, collected, processed and stored under a single, consistent method.

Tissue samples – either blood or skin – were collected from thousands of individuals around California. Each donor underwent a thorough consent process – including being shown a detailed brochure – to explain what iPS cells are and how the research would be done.

The diseases to be studied through this bank include:

  • Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD)
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Cardiomyopathies (heart conditions)
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Diabetic Retinopathy
  • Epilepsy
  • Fatty Liver diseases
  • Hepatitis C (HCV)
  • Intellectual Disabilities
  • Primary Open Angle Glaucoma
  • Pulmonary Fibrosis

The samples were screened to make sure they were safe – for example the blood was tested for HBV and HIV – and then underwent rigorous quality control testing to make sure they met the highest standards.

Once approved the samples were then turned into iPSCs at a special facility at the Buck Institute in Novato and those lines were then made available to researchers around the world, both for-profit and non-profit entities.

Scientists are now able to use these cells for a wide variety of uses including disease modeling, drug discovery, drug development, and transplant studies in animal research models. It gives them a greater ability to study how a disease develops and progresses and to help discover and test new drugs or other therapies

The Bank, which is now run by FUJIFILM Cellular Dynamics, has become a powerful resource for studying genetic variation between individuals, helping scientists understand how disease and treatment vary in a diverse population. Both CIRM and Fuji Film are committed to making even more improvements and additions to the collection in the future to ensure this is a vital resource for researchers for years to come.

Ask the Stem Cell Team About Autism

Do an online search for “autism stem cells” and you quickly come up with numerous websites offering stem cell therapies for autism. They offer encouraging phrases like “new and effective approach” and “a real, lasting treatment.” They even include dense scientific videos featuring people like Dr. Arnold Caplan, a professor at Case Western Reserve University who is known as the “father of the mesenchymal stem” (it would be interesting to know if Dr. Caplan knows he is being used as a marketing tool?)

The problem with these sites is that they are offering “therapies” that have never been proven to be safe, let alone effective. They are also very expensive and are not covered by insurance. Essentially they are preying on hope, the hope that any parent of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will do anything and everything they can to help their child.

But there is encouraging news about stem cells and autism, about their genuine potential to help children with ASD. That’s why we are holding a special Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team” about Autism on Thursday, March 19th at noon (PDT).    

The event features Dr. Alysson Muotri from UC San Diego. We have written about his work with stem cells for autism in the past. And CIRM’s own Associate Director for Discovery and Translation, Dr. Kelly Shephard.

We’ll take a look at Dr. Muotri’s work and also discuss the work of other researchers in the field, such as Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg’s work at Duke University.

But we also want you to be a part of this as well. So, join us online for the event. You can post comments and questions during the event, and we’ll do our best to answer them. Or you can send us in questions ahead of time to info@cirm.ca.gov.

If you missed the “broadcast” not to worry, you can watch it here:

Big time validation for early support

It’s not every day that a company and a concept that you helped support from the very beginning gets snapped up for $4.9 billion. But that’s what is happening with Forty Seven Inc. and their anti-cancer therapies. Gilead, another California company by the way, has announced it is buying Forty Seven Inc. for almost $5 billion.

The deal gives Gilead access to Forty Seven’s lead antibody therapy, magrolimab, which switches off CD47, a kind of “do not eat me” signal that cancer cells use to evade the immune system.

CIRM has supported this program from its very earliest stages, back in 2013, when it was a promising idea in need of funding. Last year we blogged about the progress it has made from a hopeful concept to an exciting therapy.

When Forty Seven Inc. went public in 2018, Dr. Irv Weissman, one of the founders of the company, attributed a lot of their success to CIRM’s support.

Dr. Irv Weissman

“The story of the funding of this work all of the way to its commercialization and the clinical trials reported in the New England Journal of Medicine is simply this: CIRM funding of a competitive grant took a mouse discovery of the CD47 ‘don’t eat me’ signal through all preclinical work to and through a phase 1 IND with the FDA. Our National Institutes of Health (NIH) did not fund any part of the clinical trial or preclinical run up to the trial, so it is fortunate for those patients and those that will follow, if the treatment continues its success in larger trials, that California voters took the state’s right action to fund research not funded by the federal government.”

Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO, says the deal is a perfect example of CIRM’s value to the field of regenerative medicine and our ability to work with our grantees to make them as successful as possible.

“To say this is incredible would be an understatement! Words cannot describe how excited we are that this novel approach to battling currently untreatable malignancies has the prospect of making it to patients in need and this is a major step. Speaking on behalf of CIRM, we are very honored to have been a partner with Forty Seven Inc. from the very beginning.

CIRM Senior Science Officer, Dr. Ingrid Caras, was part of the team that helped a group of academic scientists take their work out of the lab and into the real world.

“I had the pleasure of working with and helping the Stanford team since CIRM provided the initial funding to translate the idea of developing CD47 blockade as a therapeutic approach. This was a team of superb scientists who we were fortunate to work closely with them to navigate the Regulatory environment and develop a therapeutic product. We were able to provide guidance as well as funding and assist in the ultimate success of this project.”

Forty Seven Inc. is far from the only example of this kind of support and collaboration. We have always seen ourselves as far more than just a funding agency. Money is important, absolutely. But so too is bringing the experience and expertise of our team to help academic scientists take a promising idea and turn it into a successful therapy.

After all that’s what our mission is, doing all we can to accelerate stem cell therapies to patients with unmet medical needs. And after a deal like this, Forty Seven Inc. is definitely accelerating its work.

How quitting smoking helps your lungs regenerate; a discovery could lead to new ways to repair damaged lungs; and encouraging news in a stroke recovery trial

Photo courtesy Lindsay Fox

Smoking is one of the leading causes of preventable death not just in the US, but worldwide. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tobacco causes an estimated seven million deaths around the world, every single year. And for every person who dies, another 30 live with a serious smoking-related illness. Clearly quitting is a good idea. Now a new study adds even more incentive to do just that.

Scientists at the Welcome Trust Sanger Institute and University College London in the UK, found that quitting smoking did more than just stop further damage to the lungs. They found that cells in the lining of the lungs that were able to avoid being damaged, were able to regrow and repopulate the lung, helping repair damaged areas.

In an article in Science Daily Dr Peter Campbell, a joint senior author of the study, said: “People who have smoked heavily for 30, 40 or more years often say to me that it’s too late to stop smoking — the damage is already done. What is so exciting about our study is that it shows that it’s never too late to quit — some of the people in our study had smoked more than 15,000 packs of cigarettes over their life, but within a few years of quitting many of the cells lining their airways showed no evidence of damage from tobacco.”

The study is published in the journal Nature.

Researchers at UCLA have also made a discovery that could help people with lung disease.

They examined the lungs of people with cancer and compared them to the lungs of healthy people. They were able to identify a group of molecules, called the Wnt/beta-catenin signaling pathway, that appear to influence the activity of stem cells that are key to maintaining healthy lungs. Too much activity can tilt the balance away from healthy lungs to ones with mutations that are more prone to developing tumors.

In a news release Dr. Brigitte Gomperts, the lead author of the study, says although this work has only been done in mice so far it has tremendous potential: “We think this could help us develop a new therapy that promotes airway health. This could not only inform the treatment of lung cancer, but help prevent its progression in the first place.”

The study is published in the journal Cell Reports.

CIRM has funded some of Dr. Gomperts earlier work in this area.

And there’s encouraging news for people trying to recover from a stroke. Results from ReNeuron’s Phase 2 clinical trial show the therapy appears to help people who have experienced some level of disability following a stroke.

ReNeuron says its CTX therapy – made from neural stem cells – was given to 23 people who had moderate to severe disability resulting from an ischemic stroke. The patients were, on average, seven months post stroke.

In the study, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, researchers used the Modified Rankin Scale (mRS), a measure of disability and dependence to assess the impact of the therapy. The biggest improvements were seen in a group of 14 patients who had limited movement of one arm.

  • 38.5% experienced at least a one-point improvement on mRS six months after being treated.
  • 50% experienced a one-point improvement 12 months after being treated.

If that doesn’t seem like a big improvement, then consider this. Moving from an mRS 3 to 2 means that a person with a stroke regains their ability to live independently.

The therapy is now being tested in a larger patient group in the PISCES III clinical trial.

Enabling the Best Choice for Patients: The Need for Effective Patient Navigation

Making sure patients get the treatment they need and not a “snake oil” substitute

We are at a turning point in regenerative medicine as the first wave of treatments have obtained FDA approval. But at the same time as we see the advance of scientifically rigorous research and regulated products we are also witnessing the continued proliferation of “unproven treatments.” This dueling environment can be overwhelming and distracting to individuals and families trying to manage life-threatening diseases.

How does a patient navigate this environment and get trusted and reliable information to help sort through their options?

CIRM teamed up with the CURA Foundation to organize a roundtable discussion intended to answer this question. The conversation included thought leaders involved in patient advocacy, therapy research and development, public policy and research funding. The roundtable was divided into three segments designed to discuss:

  1. Examples of state-of-the-art patient navigation systems,
  2. Policy, research and infrastructure needs required to expand navigation systems, and
  3. Communication needs for engaging patients and the broader community.

Examples of Navigation Systems:

This session was framed around the observation that patients often do not get the best medicines or treatments available for their condition. For example, in the area of cancer care there is evidence that the top 25% of cancers are not being treated optimally. Historic barriers to optimal treatment include cost pressures that may block access to treatments, lack of knowledge about the available treatments or the absence of experts in the location where the patient is being treated.  Much of the session focused on how these barriers are being overcome by partnerships between health care provides, employers and patients.

For example, new technologies such as DNA sequencing and other cell-based markers enable better diagnosis of a patient’s underlying disease. This information can be collected by a community hospital and shared with experts who work with the treating doctor to consider the best options for the patient. If patients need to access a specialty center for treatment, there are new models for the delivery of such care. Emphasis is placed on building a relationship with the patient and their family by surrounding them with a team that can address any questions that arise. The model of patient-centered care is being embraced by employers who are purchasing suites of services for their employees.

Patient advocacy groups have also supported efforts to get the best information about the patients’ underlying disease. Advocacy organizations have been building tools to connect patients with researchers with the aim of allowing secure and responsible sharing of medical information to drive the patient-centered development of new treatments. In a related initiative, the American Society of Hematology is creating a data hub for clinical trials for sickle cell disease. Collectively, these efforts are designed to accelerate new treatments by allowing critical data to be shared among researchers.

Essential Policy Infrastructure for Regenerative Medicine:

Session two dovetailed nicely with first discussion. There was continued emphasis on the need for additional evidence (data) to demonstrate that regenerative medicine treatments are having a significant effect on the patient’s disease. Various speakers echoed the need for patients in clinical trials to work with researchers to determine the benefits of treatments. Success stories with gene therapies in blood diseases were cited as proof of concept where treatments being evaluated in clinical trials are demonstrating a significant and sustained impact on diseases. Evidence of benefit is needed by both regulatory bodies that approve the treatments, such as the FDA, and by public and private payers / insurers that pay for treatments and patients that need to know the best option for their particular disease.

In addition, various speakers cited the continued proliferation of “unproven treatments” being marketed by for-profit centers. There was broad concern that the promotion of treatment where there is no evidence of effectiveness will mislead some patients and potentially harm the scientifically rigorous development of new treatments. Particularly for “stem cell” treatments, there was a desire to develop evaluation criteria that are clear and transparent to allow legitimate treatments to be distinguished from those with no evidence of effectiveness. One participant suggested there be a scorecard approach where specific treatments could be rated against specific indicators of safety, medical benefit and value in relation to alternative treatments. The idea would be to make this information widely available to patients, medical providers and the public to inform everything from medical decision making to advertising.

Communicating the Vision

The final session considered communication needs for the field of regenerative medicine. Patients and patient advocacy organizations described how they are using social media and other networking tools to share information and experiences in navigating their treatment options. Patient advocacy groups also described the challenges from providers of unproven treatments. In one case, a for profit “pop up” clinic had used the group’s videos in an attempt to legitimize their unproven treatment.

There was general consensus among the panelists that the field of regenerative medicine needs “trusted intermediaries” who can evaluate claims and help patients distinguish between high quality research and “snake oil”. These intermediaries should have the capacity to compile the most reliable evidence and utilize it to determine what options are available to patients. In addition, there needs to be shared decision making model where patients have the opportunity to explore options in an unbiased environment so they may make the best decision based on their specific needs and values.

Creating this kind of Navigation System will not be easy but the alternative is unacceptable. Too many vulnerable patients are being taken advantage of by the growing number of “predatory clinics” hawking expensive therapies that are both unproven and unapproved. We owe it to these patients to create a simple way for them to identify what are the most promising therapies, ones that have the highest chance of being both safe and effective. The roundtable discussion marked a starting point, bringing together many of the key players in the field, highlighting the key issues and beginning to identify possible solutions.

‘A Tornado at the Front Door, a Tsunami at the Back Door’

CIRM funds a lot of research and all of it has life-saving potential. But every once in a while you come across a story about someone benefiting from CIRM-supported research that highlights why the work we do is so important. This story is about a brilliant researcher at UC San Diego developing a treatment for a really rare disease, one that was unlikely to get funding from a big pharmaceutical company because it offered little chance for a return on its investment. At CIRM we don’t have to worry about things like that. Stories like this are our return on investment.

Our thanks to our colleagues at UCSD News for allowing us to run this piece in full.

Jordan Janz and Dr. Stephanie Cherqui in her lab at the UC San Diego School of Medicine: Photo courtesy UC San Diego

====================================

By Heather Buschman, PhD

Born with a rare disease called cystinosis, 20-year-old Jordan Janz arrived at a crossroads: continue life as-is, toward a future most likely leading to kidney failure and an early death or become the first patient in the world to undergo a new gene-and-stem cell therapy developed over more than a decade by UC San Diego School of Medicine researchers

For the majority of Jordan Janz’s 20 years of life, most neighbors in his tiny Canadian town never knew he was sick. Janz snowboarded, hunted and fished. He hung with friends, often playing ice hockey video games. He worked in shipping and receiving for a company that makes oil pumps.

But there were times when Janz was younger that he vomited up to 13 times each day. He received a growth hormone injection every day for six years. He needed to swallow 56 pills every day just to manage his symptoms. And the medication required around-the-clock administration, which meant his mother or another family member had to get up with him every night.

“I was tired for school every day,” Janz said. “I was held back in second grade because I missed so much school. And because the medication had a bad odor to it, when I did go to school kids would ask, ‘What’s that smell?’ It was hard.”

Janz was born with cystinosis, a rare metabolic disorder that’s detected in approximately one in 100,000 live births worldwide. People with cystinosis inherit a mutation in the gene that encodes a protein called cystinosin. Cystinosin normally helps cells transport the amino acid cystine. Because cells in people with cystinosis don’t produce the cystinosin protein, cystine accumulates. Over the years, cystine crystals build up and begin to damage tissues and organs, from the kidneys and liver to muscles, eyes and brain. Numerous symptoms and adverse consequences result.

These days, Janz manages his condition. There’s a time-release version of the symptom-relieving medication now that allows him to go 12 hours between doses, allowing for a good night’s sleep. But there’s no stopping the relentless accumulation of cystine crystals, no cure for cystinosis.  

In October 2019, Janz became the first patient to receive treatment as part of a Phase I/II clinical trial to test the safety and efficacy of a unique gene therapy approach to treating cystinosis. The treatment was developed over more than a decade of research by Stephanie Cherqui, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics, and her team at University of California San Diego School of Medicine.

“The day they started looking for people for the trial, my mom picked up the phone, found a number for Dr. Cherqui, called her and put my name in as a candidate,” Janz said.

Janz’s mom, Barb Kulyk, has long followed Cherqui’s work. Like many parents of children with cystinosis, Kulyk has attended conferences, read up on research and met many other families, doctors and scientists working on the condition. Kulyk says she trusts Cherqui completely. But she was understandably nervous for her son to be the first person ever to undergo a completely new therapy.

“It’s like giving birth,” she said shortly before Janz received his gene therapy. “You’re really looking forward to the outcome, but dreading the process.”

The treatment

Cherqui’s gene therapy approach involves genetical modifying the patient’s own stem cells. To do this, her team obtained hematopoietic stem cells from Janz’s bone marrow. These stem cells are the precursors to all blood cells, including both red blood cells and immune cells. The scientists then re-engineered Janz’s stem cells in a lab using gene therapy techniques to introduce a normal version of the cystinosin gene. Lastly, they reinfused Janz with his own now-cystinosin-producing cells. The approach is akin to a bone marrow transplant — the patient is both donor and recipient.

“A bone marrow transplant can be very risky, especially when you take hematopoietic stem cells from a another person. In that case, there’s always the chance the donor’s immune cells will attack the recipient’s organs, so-called graft-versus-host disease,” Cherqui explained. “It’s a great advantage to use the patient’s own stem cells.”

As is the case for other bone marrow transplants, Janz’s gene-modified stem cells are expected to embed themselves in his bone marrow, where they should divide and differentiate to all types of blood cells. Those cells are then expected to circulate throughout his body and embed in his tissues and organs, where they should produce the normal cystinosin protein. Based on Cherqui’s preclinical data, she expects the cystinosin protein will be transferred to the surrounding diseased cells. At that point, Janz’s cells should finally be able to appropriately transport cystine for disposal — potentially alleviating his symptoms.

Before receiving his modified stem cells, Janz had to undergo chemotherapy to make space in his bone marrow for the new cells. Not unexpectedly, Janz experienced a handful of temporary chemotherapy-associated side-effects, including immune suppression, hair loss and fatigue. He also had mucositis, an inflammation of mucous membranes lining the digestive tract, which meant he couldn’t talk or eat much for a few days.

Now, only three months after his transfusion of engineered stem cells, Cherqui reports that Janz is making a good recovery, though it’s still too early to see a decrease in his cystinosis-related symptoms.

“I’ve been sleeping at least 10 hours a day for the last few weeks,” Janz said. “It’s crazy, but I know my body is just working hard to, I guess, create a new ‘me.’ So it’s no wonder I’m tired. But I’m feeling okay overall.

“One of the hardest parts for me is being inactive for so long. I’m not used to doing nothing all day. But I’m taking an online course while I wait for my immune system to rebuild. And I’m getting pretty good at video games.”

Like all Phase I/II clinical trials, the current study is designed to first test the safety and tolerability of the new treatment. Janz knows the treatment might not necessarily help him.

“When we started this trial, my mom explained it like this: ‘We have a tornado at the front door and a tsunami at the back door, and we have to pick one to go through. Neither will be any fun and we don’t know what’s going to happen, but you have to believe you will make it and go.

“So we weighed the pros and cons and, basically, if I don’t do this trial now, when I’m older I might not be healthy and strong enough for it. So I decided to go for it because, even if there are consequences from the chemotherapy, if it works I could live 20 years longer than I’m supposed to and be healthy for the rest of my life. That’s worth it.”

Besides the possible benefit to himself, Janz also sees his participation in the clinical trial as a way to contribute to the tight-knit community of families with children who have cystinosis.

“I’m willing to do if it helps the kids,” he said. “Somebody has to do it. I don’t have the money to donate to scientific conferences and stuff like that, but I can do this trial.”

The trial

If the treatment continues to meet certain criteria for safety and efficacy for Janz and one other participant after three months, two more adult participants will be enrolled. Three months after that, if the treatment continues to be safe and effective, the trial might enroll two adolescent participants. To participate in the clinical trial, individuals must meet specific eligibility requirements.

Later in the trial, Cherqui and team will begin measuring how well the treatment actually works. The specific objectives include assessing the degree to which gene-modified stem cells establish themselves in  bone marrow, how they affect cystine levels and cystine crystal counts in blood and tissues.

“This trial is the first to use gene-modified hematopoietic stem cell gene therapy to treat a multi-organ degenerative disorder for which the protein is anchored in the membrane of the lysosomes, as opposed to secreted enzymes,” Cherqui said. “We were amazed when we tested this approach in the mouse model of cystinosis — autologous stem cell transplantation reversed the disease. The tissues remained healthy, even the kidneys and the eyes.”

Trial participants are closely monitored for the first 100 days after treatment, then tested again at six, nine, 12, 18 and 24 months post-gene therapy for a variety of factors, including vital signs, cystine levels in a number of organs, kidney function, hormone function and physical well-being.

“If successful in clinical trials, this approach could provide a one-time, lifelong therapy that may prevent the need for kidney transplantation and long-term complications caused by cystine buildup,” Cherqui said.

The future

For the trial participants, all of the pre-treatment tests, the treatment itself, and monitoring afterward means a lot of travel to and long stays in San Diego.

It’s tough on Kulyk and Janz. They have to fly in from Alberta, Canada and stay in a San Diego hotel for weeks at a time. Kulyk has two older adult children, as well as a 12-year-old and a seven-year-old at home. 

“I’ve missed a lot of things with my other kids, but none of them seem to hold any grudges,” she said. “They seem to be totally fine and accepting. They’re like, ‘We’re fine, mom. You go and take care of Jordan.’”

Janz is looking forward to getting back home to his friends, his dog and his job, which provided him with paid leave while he received treatment and recovers.

For Cherqui, the search for a cystinosis cure is more than just a scientific exercise. Cherqui began working on cystinosis as a graduate student more than 20 years ago. At the time, she said, it was simply a model in which to study genetics and gene therapy.

“When you read about cystinosis, it’s just words. You don’t put a face to it. But after I met all the families, met the kids, and now that I’ve seen many of them grow up, and some of them die of the disease — now it’s a personal fight, and they are my family too.”

Patients with cystinosis typically experience kidney failure in their 20s, requiring kidney dialysis or transplantation for survival. For those born with cystinosis who make it into adulthood, the average lifespan is approximately 28 years old.

“I’m optimistic about this trial because it’s something we’ve worked so hard for and now it’s actually happening, and these families have so much hope for a better treatment,” Cherqui said. “After all the years of painstaking laboratory research, we now need to move into the clinic. If this works, it will be wonderful. If it doesn’t, we will all be disappointed but a least we’ll be able to say we tried.”

Nancy Stack, who founded the Cystinosis Research Foundation after her own daughter, Natalie, was diagnosed with the disease, calls Cherqui “the rock star of our community.”

“She cares deeply about the patients and is always available to talk, to explain her work and to give us hope,” Stack said. “She said years ago that she would never give up until she found the cure — and now we are closer to a cure than ever before.” (Read more about Natalie here.)

In addition to cystinosis, Cherqui says this type of gene therapy approach could also lead to treatment advancements for other multi-organ degenerative disorders, such as Friedreich’s ataxia and Danon disease, as well as other kidney, genetic and systemic diseases similar to cystinosis.

While they wait for the long-term results of the treatment, Kulyk is cautiously hopeful.

“Moms are used to being able to fix everything for their children — kiss boo-boos make them better, make cupcakes for school, whip up Halloween costumes out of scraps, pull a coveted toy out of thin air when it has been sold out for months.

“But we have not been able to fix this, to take it away. I not only want this disease gone for my child, I want cystinosis to be nothing more than a memory for all the children and adults living with it. I know that even if and when Jordan is cured, there will still be so much work to do, in terms of regulatory approvals and insurance coverage.

“Having hope for your child’s disease to be cured is a slippery slope. We have all been there, held hope in our hands and had to let go. But, I find myself in a familiar place, holding onto hope again and this time I am not letting go.”

Video of Dr. Cherqui and Jordan Janz talking about the therapy

For more information about the Phase I/II clinical trial for cystinosis and to learn how to enroll, call 1-844-317-7836 or email alphastemcellclinic@ucsd.edu.

Cherqui’s research has been funded by the Cystinosis Research Foundation, California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), and National Institutes of Health. She receives additional support from the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center and CIRM-funded Alpha Stem Cell Clinic at UC San Diego Health, and AVROBIO.