Month of CIRM: Battling COVID-19

All this month we are using our blog and social media to highlight a new chapter in CIRM’s life, thanks to the people of California approving Proposition 14. We are looking back at what we have done since we were created in 2004, and also looking forward to the future.

Dr. John Zaia, City of Hope stem cell researcher

The news that effective vaccines have been developed to help fight COVID-19 was a truly bright spot at the end of a very dark year. But it will be months, in some countries years, before we have enough vaccines to protect everyone. That’s why it’s so important to keep pushing for more effective ways to help people who get infected with the virus.

One of those ways is in a clinical study that CIRM is funding with City of Hope’s Dr. John Zaia. Dr. Zaia and his team, in partnership with the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) in Flagstaff, Arizona, are using something called convalescent plasma to try and help people who have contracted the virus. Here’s the website they have created for the study.

Plasma is a part of our blood that carries proteins, called antibodies, that help defend our bodies against viral infections. When a patient recovers from COVID-19, their blood plasma contains antibodies against the virus. The hope is that those antibodies can now be used as a potential treatment for COVID-19 to help people who are newly infected. 

To carry out the study they are using clinical trial sites around California, including some of the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Network clinics.

For the study to succeed they’ll first need people who have recovered from the virus to donate blood. That’s particularly appropriate in January because this is National Volunteer Blood Donor Month.

The team has three elements to their approach:

  • A rapid-response screening program to screen potential COVID-19 convalescent plasma donors, particularly in underserved communities.
  • A laboratory center that can analyze the anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies properties in COVID-19 convalescent plasma.
  • An analysis of the clinical course of the disease in COVID-19 patients to identify whether antibody properties correlate with clinical benefit of COVID-19 convalescent plasma.

There’s reason to believe this approach might work. A study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that blood plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 can help older adults and prevent them from getting seriously ill with the virus if they get the plasma within a few days of becoming infected.

We are used to thinking of blood donations as being used to help people after surgery or who have been in an accident. In this study the donations serve another purpose, but one that is no less important. The World Health Organization describes blood as “the most precious gift that anyone can give to another person — the gift of life. A decision to donate your blood can save a life, or even several if your blood is separated into its components — red cells, platelets and plasma.”

That plasma could help in developing more effective treatments against the virus. Because until we have enough vaccines for everyone, we are still going to need as much help as we can get in fighting COVID-19. The recent surge in cases throughout the US and Europe are a reminder that this virus is far from under control. We have already lost far too many people. So, if you have recently recovered from the virus, or know someone who has, consider donating blood to this study. It could prove to be a lifesaver.

For more information about the study and how you can be part of it, click here.

Month of CIRM: Reviewing Review

Dr. Gil Sambrano, Vice President Portfolio & Review

All this month we are using our blog and social media to highlight a new chapter in CIRM’s life, thanks to the voters approving Proposition 14. We are looking back at what we have done since we were created in 2004, and also looking forward to the future. Today we take a look at our Review team.

Many people who have to drive every day don’t really think about what’s going on under the hood of their car. As long as the engine works and gets them from A to B, they’re happy. I think the same is true about CIRM’s Review team. Many people don’t really think about all the moving parts that go into reviewing a promising new stem cell therapy.

But that’s a shame, because they are really missing out on watching a truly impressive engine at work.

Just consider the simple fact that since CIRM started about 4,000 companies, groups and individuals have applied to us for funding. Just take a moment to consider that number. Four thousand. Then consider that at no time have there been more than 5 people working in the review team. That’s right. Just 5 people. And more recently there have been substantially fewer. That’s a lot of projects and not a lot of people to review them. So how do they do it? Easy. They’re brilliant.

First, as applications come in they are scrutinized to make sure they meet specific eligibility requirements; do they involve stem cells, is the application complete, is it the right stage of research, is the budget they are proposing appropriate for the work they want to do etc. If they pass that initial appraisal, they then move on to the second round, the Grants Working Group or GWG.

The GWG consists of independent scientific experts from all over the US, all over the world in fact. However, none are from California because we want to ensure there are no possible conflicts of interest. When I say experts, I do mean experts. These are among the top in their field and are highly sought after to do reviews with the National Institutes of Health etc.

Mark Noble, PhD, the Director of the Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Institute at the University of Rochester, is a long-time member of the GWG. He says it’s a unique group of people:

“It’s a wonderful scientific education because you come to these meetings and someone is putting in a grant on diabetes and someone’s putting in a  grant on repairing the damage to the heart or spinal cord injury or they have a device that will allow you to transplant cells better and there are people  in the room that are able to talk knowledgeably about each of these areas and understand how this plays into medicine and how it might work in terms of actual financial development and how it might work in the corporate sphere and how it fits in to unmet medical needs . I don’t know of any comparable review panels like this that have such a broad remit and bring together such a breadth of expertise which means that every review panel you come to you are getting a scientific education on all these different areas, which is great.”

The GWG reviews the projects for scientific merit: does the proposal seem plausible, does the team proposing it have the experience and expertise to do the work etc. The reviewers put in a lot of work ahead of time, not just reviewing the application, but looking at previous studies to see if the new application has evidence to support what this team hope to do, to compare it to other efforts in the same field. There are disagreements, but also a huge amount of respect for each other.

Once the GWG makes its recommendations on which projects to fund and which ones not to, the applications move to the CIRM Board, which has the final say on all funding decisions. The Board is given detailed summaries of each project, along with the recommendations of the GWG and our own CIRM Review team. But the Board is not told the identity of any of the applicants, those are kept secret to avoid even the appearance of any conflict of interest.

The Board is not required to follow the recommendations of the GWG, though they usually do. But the Board is also able to fund projects that the GWG didn’t place in the top tier of applications. They have done this on several occasions, often when the application targeted a disease or disorder that wasn’t currently part of the agency’s portfolio.

So that’s how Review works. The team, led by Dr. Gil Sambrano, does extraordinary work with little fanfare or fuss. But without them CIRM would be a far less effective agency.

The passage of Proposition 14 means we now have a chance to resume full funding of research, which means our Review team is going to be busier than ever. They have already started making changes to the application requirements. To help let researchers know what those changes are we are holding a Zoom webinar tomorrow, Thursday, at noon PST. If you would like to watch you can find it on our YouTube channel. And if you have questions you would like to ask send them to info@cirm.ca.gov

A Month of CIRM: Where we’ve been, where we’re going

All this month we are using our blog and social media to highlight a new chapter in CIRM’s life, thanks to the voters approving Proposition 14. We are looking back at what we have done since we were created in 2004, and also looking forward to the future. We kick off this event with a letter from our the Chair of our Board, Jonathan Thomas.

When voters approved Proposition 14 last November, they gave the Stem Cell Agency a new lease on life and a chance to finish the work we began with the approval of Proposition 71 in 2004. It’s a great honor and privilege. It’s also a great responsibility. But I think looking back at what we have achieved over the last 16 years shows we are well positioned to seize the moment and take CIRM and regenerative medicine to the next level and beyond.

When we started, we were told that if we managed to get one project into a clinical trial by the time our money ran out we would have done a good job. As of this moment we have 68 clinical trials that we have funded plus another 31 projects in clinical trials where we helped fund crucial early stage research. That inexorable march to therapies and cures will resume when we take up our first round of Clinical applications under Prop 14 in March.

But while clinical stage projects are the end game, where we see if therapies really work and are safe in people, there’s so much more that we have achieved since we were created. We have invested $900 million in  basic research, creating a pipeline of the most promising stem cell research programs, as well as investing heavily on so-called “translational” projects, which move projects from basic science to where they’re ready to apply to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to begin clinical trials.

We have funded more than 1,000 projects, with each one giving us valuable information to help advance the science. Our funding has helped attract some of the best stem cell scientists in the world to California and, because we only fund research in California, it has persuaded many companies to either move here or open offices here to be eligible for our support. We have helped create the Alpha Stem Cell Clinics, a network of leading medical centers around the state that have the experience and expertise to deliver stem cell therapies to patients. All of those have made California a global center in the field.

That result is producing big benefits for the state. An independent Economic Impact Analysis reported that by the end of 2018 we had already helped generate an extra $10.7 billion in new sales revenue and taxes for California, hundreds of millions more in federal taxes and created more than 56,000 new jobs.

As if that wasn’t enough, we have also:

  • Helped develop the largest iPSC research bank in the world.
  • Created the CIRM Center of Excellence in Stem Cell Genomics to accelerate fundamental understanding of human biology and disease mechanisms.
  • Helped fund the construction of 12 world class stem cell institutes throughout the state.
  • Reached a unique partnership with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institutes to find a cure for sickle cell disease.
  • Used our support for stem cell research to leverage an additional $12 billion in private funding for the field.
  • Enrolled more than 2700 patients in CIRM funded clinical trials

In many ways our work is just beginning. We have laid the groundwork, helped enable an extraordinary community of researchers and dramatically accelerated the field. Now we want to get those therapies (and many more) over the finish line and get them approved by the FDA so they can become available to many more people around the state, the country and the world.

We also know that we have to make these therapies available to all people, regardless of their background and ability to pay. We have to ensure that underserved communities, who were often left out of research in the past, are an integral part of this work and are included in every aspect of that research, particularly clinical trials. That’s why we now require anyone applying to us for funding to commit to engaging with underserved communities and to have a written plan to show how they are going to do that.

Over the coming month, you will hear more about some of the remarkable things we have managed to achieve so far and get a better sense of what we hope to do in the future. We know there will be challenges ahead and that not everything we do or support will work. But we also know that with the team we have built at CIRM, the brilliant research community in California and the passion and drive of the patient advocate community we will live up to the responsibility the people of California placed in us when they approved Proposition 14.

Inspiring new documentary about stem cell research

Poster for the documentary “Ending Disease”

2020 has been, to say the very least, a difficult and challenging year for all of us. But while the focus of the world has, understandably, been on the coronavirus there was also some really promising advances in stem cell research. Those advances are captured in a great new documentary called Ending Disease.

The documentary is by Emmy award-winning filmmaker Joe Gantz. In it he follows ten people who are facing life-threatening or life-changing diseases and injuries and who turn to pioneering stem cell therapies for help.

It’s an inspiring documentary, one that reminds you of the real need for new treatments and the tremendous hope and promise of stem cell therapies. Here’s a look at a trailer for Ending Disease.

You can see an exclusive screening of Ending Disease on Friday, January 8th, 2021 at 5:00pm PST.

After the livestream, there will be a live Q&A session where former members of the successful Proposition 14 campaign team – which refunded CIRM with an additional $5.5 billion – will be joined by CIRM’s President and CEO Dr. Maria Millan, talking about what lies ahead for CIRM and the future of stem cell research.

To purchase a ticket, click here. It only costs $12 and 50% of the ticket sales proceeds will go to Americans for Cures to help them continue to advocate for the advancement of stem cell research, and more importantly, for the patients and families to whom stem cell research provides so much hope.

If you need any extra persuading that it’s something you should definitely put on our calendar, here’s a letter from the film maker Joe Gantz.

I am the director of the documentary Ending Disease: The Stem Cell, Anti-Cancer T-Cell, & Antibody Revolution In Medicine, a film that will help inform people about the progress that’s been made in this field and how people with their lives on the line are now able to benefit from these new regenerative therapies. 

I was granted unprecedented access to ten of the first generation of clinical trials using stem cell and regenerative medicine to treat and cure many of the most devastating diseases and conditions including: brain cancer, breast cancer, leukemia and lymphoma, HIV, repairing a broken spinal cord, retinitis pigmentosa and SCID. The results are truly inspiring.

This is personal for me.  After spending four years making this documentary, I was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Upon diagnosis, I immediately felt the same desperation as millions of families who are in search of a medical breakthrough. I understood, on a personal level, what the patients we followed in the film all knew: when you are diagnosed with a disease, there is a narrow window of time in which you can effectively seek a life-saving treatment or cure. If treatment becomes available outside of that window, then it is too late. However, Ending Disease shows that with continued support for regenerative medicine, we can create a near future in which one-time cures and highly mitigating therapies are available to patients for a whole host of diseases.

Best regards,

Joe

Persistence pays off in search for clue to heart defects

A team of scientists led by Benoit Bruneau (left), including Irfan Kathiriya (center) and Kavitha Rao (right), make inroads into understanding what genes are improperly deployed in some cases of congenital heart disease.  Photo courtesy Gladstone Institute

For more than 20 years Dr. Benoit Bruneau has been trying to identify the causes of congenital heart disease, the most common form of birth defect in the U.S. It turns out that it’s not one cause, but many.

Congenital heart disease covers a broad range of defects, some relatively minor and others life-threatening and even fatal. It’s been known that a mutation in a gene called TBX5 is responsible for some of these defects, so, in a CIRM-funded study ($1.56 million), Bruneau zeroed in on this mutation to see if it could help provide some answers.

In the past Bruneau, the director of the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease, had worked with a mouse model of TBX5, but this time he used human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These are cells that can be manipulated in the lab to become any kind of cell in the human body. In a news release Bruneau says this was an important step forward.

“This is really the first time we’ve been able to study this genetic mutation in a human context. The mouse heart is a good proxy for the human heart, but it’s not exactly the same, so it’s important to be able to carry out these experiments in human cells.”

The team took some iPSCs, changed them into heart cells, and used a gene editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9 to create the kinds of mutations in TBX5 that are seen in people with congenital heart disease. What they found was some genes were affected a lot, some not so much. Which is what you might expect in a condition that causes so many different forms of problems.

“It makes sense that some are more affected than others, but this is the first experimental data in human cells to show that diversity,” says Bruneau.

But they didn’t stop there. Oh no. Then they did a deep dive analysis to understand how the different ways that different cells were impacted related to each other. They found some cells were directly affected by the TBX5 mutation but others were indirectly affected.

The study doesn’t point to a simple way of treating congenital heart disease but Bruneau says it does give us a much better understanding of what’s going wrong, and perhaps will give us better ideas on how to stop that.

“Our new data reveal that the genes are really all part of one network—complex but singular—which needs to stay balanced during heart development. That means if we can figure out a balancing factor that keeps this network functioning, we might be able to help prevent congenital heart defects.”

The study is published in the journal Developmental Cell.

CIRM-Funded Project Targeting Sickle Cell Disease Gets Green Light for Clinical Trial

Dr. Matthew Porteus

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted Investigational New Drug (IND) permission enabling Graphite Bio to test the investigational, potentially revolutionary gene editing therapy GPH101 developed under the supervision of Matthew Porteus, MD, PhD, in a clinical trial for people with sickle cell disease (SCD).

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has been supporting this project with a $5.2 million grant, enabling Dr. Porteus and his team at the Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at Stanford University to conduct the preclinical manufacturing and safety studies required by the FDA.

“We congratulate the Graphite Bio team for obtaining the IND, a critical step in bringing the GPH101 gene therapy forward for Sickle Cell Disease,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO. “CIRM is committed to the national Cure Sickle Cell initiative and are delighted that this technology, the product of CIRM funded research conducted by Dr. Porteus at Stanford, is progressing to the next stage of development”

Sickle cell disease is caused by a genetic mutation that turns normally smooth, round red blood cells into rigid, sickle shaped cells. Those cells clump together, clogging up blood vessels, causing intense pain, damaging organs and increasing the risk of strokes and premature death. There are treatments that help control the damage, but the only cure is a bone marrow stem cell transplant, which can only happen if the patient has a stem cell donor (usually a close relative) who has matching bone marrow.  

The investigational therapy GPH101 harnesses the power of CRISPR and natural DNA repair mechanisms to cut out the single mutation in the sickle globin gene and paste in the correct “code.” Correction of this mutation would reverse the defect and result in healthy non-sickling red blood cells.  

CEDAR, a Phase 1/2, multi-center, open-label clinical study is designed to evaluate the safety, preliminary efficacy and pharmacodynamics of GPH101 in adult and adolescent patients with severe SCD.

For patient advocate Nancy Rene, the news is personal: “It’s always exciting to hear about the progress being made in sickle cell research.  If successful it will mean that my grandson, and especially other young adults, can look forward to a life free of pain and organ damage.  They can actually begin to plan their lives, thinking about careers and families. I want to thank Dr. Porteus and all of the scientists who are working so hard for people with sickle cell disease. This is wonderful news.”

CIRM has funded four clinical trials for Sickle Cell Disease using different approaches and has a unique partnership with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institutes under the NIH “Cure Sickle Cell” initiative.

Making a good thing better

Thomas Edison

Legend has it that Thomas Edison “failed” 1,000 times before he managed to create the incandescent lightbulb. Edison says he didn’t get discouraged, instead he looked at each unsuccessful experiment as being one step closer to finding the method that really worked. That’s a lesson in optimism and persistence for all of us.

Lineage Cell Therapeutics has that same spirit. Lineage is trying to develop a stem cell therapy to help people with spinal cord injuries. CIRM invested $14.3 million in the first version of this approach which produced encouraging results. But encouraging is not enough. So, Lineage set about doing a complete overhaul of the therapy known as OPC1.

The idea behind it is to turn embryonic stem cells into oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (OPCs). These OPCs are precursors to cells that play an important role in supporting and protecting nerve cells in the central nervous system, the area damaged in a spinal cord injury. By transplanting these cells at the injury site it’s hoped they will help restore some of the broken connections, allowing patients to regain some movement and feeling.

In the original trial many patients, who had been paralyzed from the chest down, regained some use of their arms, hands and even fingers. This was better than any previous therapy had managed. But for Lineage it wasn’t good enough. So, they set about redesigning their whole manufacturing process, making improvements at every step along the way.

In a news release they outlined those improvements:

  • A new ready-to-inject formulation of OPC1, which enables clinical use at a much larger number of spinal cord treatment centers, accelerating enrollment for a larger and potentially registrational clinical trial.
  • Elimination of dose preparation, reducing overall preparation time from 24 hours to 30 minutes and cutting logistics costs by approximately 90%.
  • A 10 to 20-fold increase in OPC1 production scale, sufficient to support late-stage clinical development and which can be further scaled to meet initial commercial use.
  • A 50-75% reduction in product impurities.
  • Improvements in OPC1 functional activity, as assessed by cellular migration and secretion of key growth factors.

They also came up with new quality control tests to make sure everything was working well and eliminated all animal-based production reagents.

Brian Culley, Lineage CEO was, understandably, enthusiastic about the changes and its prospects for helping people with spinal cord injuries:

“Manufacturing is the foundation of cell therapy and the significant enhancements we have achieved with OPC1 marks the second time we have successfully transformed a research-grade production process into one capable of supporting a successful commercial product. Our objective is to be the premier allogeneic cell therapy company and our dedication to manufacturing excellence allows us not only to reduce or eliminate certain regulatory and commercial hurdles, but also establish strong competitive barriers in our field.”

Lineage are now hoping to go back to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the near future and get permission to run another clinical trial.

Here are stories of the impact the first generation of this approach have already had on people.

You can’t take it if you don’t make it

Biomedical specialist Mamadou Dialio at work in the Cedars-Sinai Biomanufacturing Center. Photo by Cedars-Sinai.

Following the race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 has been a crash course in learning how complicated creating a new therapy is. It’s not just the science involved, but the logistics. Coming up with a vaccine that is both safe and effective is difficult enough, but then how do you make enough doses of it to treat hundreds of millions of people around the world?

That’s a familiar problem for stem cell researchers. As they develop their products they are often able to make enough cells in their own labs. But as they move into clinical trials where they are testing those cells in more and more people, they need to find a new way to make more cells. And, of course, they need to plan ahead, hoping the therapy is approved by the Food and Drug Administration, so they will need to be able to manufacture enough doses to meet the increased demand.

We saw proof of that planning ahead this week with the news that Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles has opened up a new Biomanufacturing Center.

Dr. Clive Svendsen, executive director of the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute, said in a news release, the Center will manufacture the next generation of drugs and regenerative medicine therapies.

“The Cedars-Sinai Biomanufacturing Center leverages our world-class stem-cell expertise, which already serves scores of clients, to provide a much-needed biomanufacturing facility in Southern California. It is revolutionary by virtue of elevating regenerative medicine and its therapeutic possibilities to an entirely new level-repairing the human body.”

This is no ordinary manufacturing plant. The Center features nine “clean rooms” that are kept free from dust and other contaminants. Everyone working there has to wear protective suits and masks to ensure they don’t bring anything into the clean rooms.

The Center will specialize in manufacturing induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs. Dhruv Sareen, PhD, executive director of the Biolmanufacturing Center, says iPSCs are cells that can be turned into any other kind of cell in the body.

“IPSCs are powerful tools for understanding human disease and developing therapies. These cells enable us to truly practice precision medicine by developing drug treatments tailored to the individual patient or groups of patients with similar genetic profiles.”

The Biomanufacturing Center is designed to address a critical bottleneck in bringing cell- and gene-based therapies to the clinic. After all, developing a therapy is great, but it’s only half the job. Making enough of it to help the people who need it is the other half.

CIRM is funding Dr. Svendsen’s work in developing therapies for ALS and other diseases and disorders.  

A guide to healing

Dr. Evan Snyder

Having grown up in an era where to find your way around you had to use paper maps, a compass and a knowledge of the stars (OK, I’m not actually that old!) I’m forever grateful to whoever invented the GPS. It’s a lifesaver, and I daresay has also saved more than a few marriages!

Having a way to guide people where they need to be is amazing. Now researchers at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute have come up with a similar tool for stem cells. It’s a drug that can help guide stem cells to go where they need to go, to repair damaged tissue and improve the healing process.

In a news release Evan Snyder, MD, PhD, the senior author of the study, explained in wonderfully simply terms what they have done:

“The ability to instruct a stem cell where to go in the body or to a particular region of a given organ is the Holy Grail for regenerative medicine. Now, for the first time ever, we can direct a stem cell to a desired location and focus its therapeutic impact.”

More than a decade ago Snyder and his team discovered that when our body suffers an injury the result is often inflammation and that this then sends out signals for stem cells to come and help repair the damage. This is fine when the problem is a cut or sprain, short term issues in need of a quick fix. But what happens if it’s something more complex, such as a heart attack or stroke where the need is more long term.

In the study, funded in part by CIRM, the team took a molecule, called CXCL12, known to help guide stem cells to damaged tissue, and used it to create a drug called SDV1a. Snyder says this new drug has several key properties.

“Since inflammation can be dangerous, we modified CXCL12 by stripping away the risky bit and maximizing the good bit. Now we have a drug that draws stem cells to a region of pathology, but without creating or worsening unwanted inflammation.”

To test the drug to see how well it worked the team implanted SDV1a and some human brain stem cells into mice with Sandhoff disease, a condition that progressively destroys cells in the brain and spinal cord. They were able to demonstrate that the drug helped the stem cells migrate to where they were needed and to help in repairing the damage. The treated mice had a longer lifespan and better motor function, as well as developing symptoms later than untreated mice.

The team is now testing this drug to see if it has any impact on ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. And Snyder says there are other areas where it could prove effective.

“We are optimistic that this drug’s mechanism of action may potentially benefit a variety of neurodegenerative disorders, as well as non-neurological conditions such as heart disease, arthritis and even brain cancer. Interestingly, because CXCL12 and its receptor are implicated in the cytokine storm that characterizes severe COVID-19, some of our insights into how to selectively inhibit inflammation without suppressing other normal processes may be useful in that arena as well.”

CIRM’s President & CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, says this kind of work highlights the important role the stem cell agency plays, in providing long-term support for promising but early stage research.

“Thanks to decades of investment in stem cell science, we are making tremendous progress in our understanding of how these cells work and how they can be harnessed to help reverse injury or disease. Dr. Snyder’s group has identified a drug that could boost the ability of neural stem cells to home to sites of injury and initiate repair. This candidate could help speed the development of stem cell treatments for conditions such as spinal cord injury and Alzheimer’s disease.”

The discovery is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)