Stem cell agency invests in therapy using killer cells to target colorectal, breast and ovarian cancers

While there have been some encouraging advances in treating cancer in recent decades, there are still many cancers that either resist treatment or recur after treatment. Today the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved investing in a therapy targeting some of these hard-to-treat tumors.

BioEclipse Therapeutics Inc. was awarded nearly $8M to test a therapy using immune cells loaded with a cancer-killing virus that targets cancer tissue but spares healthy tissue.

This is the 78th clinical trial funded directly by the Stem Cell Agency.

BioEclipse combines two approaches—an immune cell called a cytokine-induced killer (CIK) cell and a virus engineered to kill cancer cells called an oncolytic virus (OV)—to create what they call “a multi-mechanistic, targeted treatment.”

They will use the patient’s own immune cells and, in the lab, combine them with the OV. The cell/virus combination will then be administered back to the patient. The job of the CIK cells is to carry the virus to the tumors. The virus is designed to specifically attack and kill tumors and stimulate the patient’s immune system to attack the tumor cells. The goal is to eradicate the primary tumor and prevent relapse and recurrence.

“With the intent to develop this treatment for chemotherapy-resistant or refractory solid tumors—including colorectal cancer, triple negative breast cancer, ovarian cancer, gastric cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma, and osteosarcoma—it addresses a significant unmet medical need in fatal conditions for which there are limited treatment options,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, President and CEO of CIRM.  

The CIRM Board also approved more than $18 million in funding four projects under the Translation Projects program. The goal of this program is to support promising regenerative medicine (stem cell-based or gene therapy) projects that accelerate completion of translational stage activities necessary for advancement to clinical study or broad end use.

The awards went to:

ApplicationTitleInstitutionAward Amount
TRAN1-133442Optogenetic therapy for treating retinitis pigmentosa and
other inherited retinal diseases  
  Paul Bresge Ray Therapeutics Inc.  $3,999,553  
TRAN3-13332Living Synthetic Vascular Grafts with Renewable Endothelium    Aijun Wang UC Davis  $3,112,567    
TRAN1-13370Next generation affinity-tuned CAR for prostate cancer    Preet Chaudhary University of Southern California  $5,805,144  
TRAN1-3345Autologous MPO Knock-Out Hematopoietic Stem and
Progenitor Cells for Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension  
  Don Kohn UC Los Angeles  $5,207,434  

How two women are fighting back against Lou Gehrig’s disease

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Mary Ann Wittenberg (left) and Nadia Sethi

Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS, is a nasty degenerative condition that destroys the brain cells controlling movement. People with ALS suffer a progressive loss of ability to walk, talk, eat and breathe.

The average life expectancy for someone diagnosed with ALS is just two to five years. It has a devastating impact on the people diagnosed and their families.

On the latest episode of our podcast, Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation, we talk to two women who have suffered a loss in this fight, but who are using their experience with ALS to help others battling the disease.

Nadia Sethi became the Director of Community Engagement and Outreach at the ALS Therapy Development Institute after losing her husband to ALS. 

Mary Ann Wittenberg’s husband Harry fought the disease in a public way, starting a blog called “Welcome to My World, How Life Has Changed and Making it Work.” Mary Ann is now carrying on that mission of demystifying the disease.

Their courage and determination to turn a tragedy into something positive, to help others, and to hopefully play a role in finding treatments to help people with ALS, is deeply moving and inspiring.

We hope you enjoy this special episode of ‘Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation’.

CIRM has invested more than $92 million in 33 different projects targeting ALS. You can read about them on our ALS Fact Sheet.

Chance discovery could lead to a treatment for skin ulcers

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Dr. Antoni Ribas in his research lab on the UCLA Campus: Photo courtesy Ann Johansson

When UCLA’s Dr. Antoni Ribas was researching a potential therapy for melanoma, a form of skin cancer, he stumbled upon something unexpected. That unexpected discovery has now resulted in him getting a $5 million dollar award from the the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) to develop a therapy to accelerate wound healing in legs.

Venous skin ulcers are open sores on the legs that can take weeks, sometimes even years, to heal and that can cause serious complications if not treated. Around 1% of Americans have venous skin ulcers. They are usually caused by insufficient blood flow from the veins of the legs back to the heart.  The resulting increased blood pressure and swelling in the legs can cause an open wound to form that is painful and difficult to heal, seriously impacting quality of life.   Those most at risk of developing venous leg ulcers are older people, women and non-white populations.

There are no drugs approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for this condition and sometimes these ulcers can lead to serious skin and bone infections and, in rare cases, even skin cancer.

In a news release from UCLA, Dr. Ribas describes how his team were testing a drug called vemurafenib on patients with melanoma. Vemurafenib falls into a category of targeted cancer drugs called BRAF inhibitors, which can shrink or slow the growth of metastatic melanoma in people whose tumors have a mutation to the BRAF gene. 

“We noticed that in the first two months of taking this BRAF inhibitor, patients would begin showing a thickening or overgrowth of the skin. It was somewhat of a paradox – the drug stopped the growth of skin cancer cells with the BRAF mutation, but it stimulated the growth of healthy skin cells.”

That’s when the team realized that the drug’s skin stimulating effect could be put to good use for a whole other group of patients – those with chronic wounds. 

“Aside from a few famous cases, discovering a side effect that becomes a therapeutic isn’t that common,” Ribas said. “For this reason, I had to work hard to convince somebody in my lab to follow my crazy idea and take time away from immunotherapy research and do wound healing experiments.”

Thanks to that “crazy idea” Dr. Ribas and his team are now testing a gel called LUT017 that stimulates skin stem cells to proliferate and produce more keratinocytes, a kind of cell essential for repairing skin and accelerating wound healing.

The CLIN1 grant of $5,005,126 will help them manufacture and test LUT017 in pre-clinical models and apply to the FDA for permission to study it in a clinical trial in people.

Maria T. Millan, CIRM’s President and CEO says “This program adds to CIRM’s diverse portfolio of regenerative medicine approaches to tackle chronic, debilitating that lead to downstream complications, hospitalization, and a poor quality of life.”

Using reengineered human skin cells to treat COVID-19

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Investigators at Cedars-Sinai have identified a potential new therapy for COVID-19: a biologic substance created by reengineered human skin cells.   

In the study—co-funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM)—scientists found the substance stopped SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, from reproducing itself. The substance also protected infected cells when tested in human lung cells.  

Although still in the early stages, the findings open the possibility of having a new therapy for COVID-19 patients, of which there are few. Current COVID-19 treatments primarily focus on preventing the virus from replicating. This new potential treatment inhibits replication but also protects or repairs tissue, which is important because COVID-19 can cause symptoms that affect patients long after the viral infection has been cleared. 

The potential therapy investigated in this study was created by scientists using skin cells called dermal fibroblasts. The investigators engineered the cells to produce therapeutic extracellular vesicles (EVs), which are nanoparticles that serve as a communication system between cells and tissue. Engineering these fibroblasts allowed them to secrete EVs—which the investigators dubbed “ASTEX”—with the ability to repair tissue. 

The study tested ASTEX by applying it to human lung epithelial cells, cells that line the pulmonary tract and are the targets of SARS-CoV-2 infection. They discovered that ASTEX prevented cells from launching an inflammatory process that could lead to cell death. Cells treated with ASTEX also made fewer of a type of protein called ACE that SARS-CoV-2 may use to infect cells. 

The team compared the new potential treatment with remdesivir, a drug currently used to treat COVID-19, and found that remdesivir did not inhibit production of ACE. Instead, remdesivir stops the virus from latching on to a protein called ACE2. ASTEX, therefore, may present another way to prevent the virus from entering cells. 

“We were surprised to find this potential therapy shuts down a novel pathway for viral replication and also protects infected cells,” said Ahmed G. Ibrahim, PhD, MPH, assistant professor in the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai and first author of the study. 

Investigators at Cedars-Sinai are planning future studies.  

The details of the potential therapy are published in the journal Biomaterials and Biosystems. Read the source article here

Promoting stem cell therapies, racial justice and fish breeding

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Jan Nolta, PhD, in her lab at UC Davis; Photo courtesy UC Davis

Working at CIRM you get to meet many remarkable people and Dr. Jan Nolta certainly falls into that category. Jan is the Director of the Stem Cell Program at UC Davis School of Medicine. She also directs the Institute for Regenerative Cures and is scientific director of both the Good Manufacturing Practice clean room facility at UC Davis and the California Umbilical Cord Blood Collection Program.

As if that wasn’t enough Jan is part of the team helping guide UC Davis’ efforts to expand its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion using a variety of methods including telemedicine, to reach out into rural and remote communities.

She is on the Board of several enterprises, is the editor of the journal Stem Cells and, in her copious spare time, has dozens of aquariums and is helping save endangered species.

So, it’s no wonder we wanted to chat to her about her work and find out what makes her tick. Oh, and what rock bands she really likes. You might be surprised!

That’s why Jan is the guest on the latest edition of our podcast ‘Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation’.

I hope you enjoy it.

HOPE for patients with a muscle destroying disease

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Caleb Sizemore, photo by Todd Dubnicoff

Caleb Sizemore says growing up with Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) was tough. The disease is a rare genetic disorder that slowly destroys a person’s muscles, impairing their ability to walk or breathe. Eventually it attacks the heart leading to premature death.

Caleb says the disease meant “I was limited in what I could do, where I couldn’t play sports and where I was teased and bullied sometimes for being different.”

In the past people with DMD – almost all of whom are boys – lost the ability to walk by the age of 12, and many died in their 20’s. But a new treatment – originally funded by CIRM – is showing promise in helping reverse some of the damage caused by the disease.

Dr. Craig McDonald working with a person who has DMD: Photo courtesy UC Davis

Results from a clinical trial – published in the journal Lancet – showed that the therapy helped halt the decline in muscle strength in the arms and hands, and in MRI’s appeared to improve heart function.

In a news release, Dr. Craig McDonald, a UC Davis professor and the lead author of the study, said: “The trial produced statistically significant and unprecedented stabilization of both skeletal muscle deterioration affecting the arms and heart deterioration of structure and function in non-ambulatory DMD patients.”

The therapy, called CAP-1002, uses cells derived from the human heart that have previously demonstrated the ability to reduce muscle inflammation and enhance cell regeneration. The clinical trial, called HOPE-2 (Halt cardiomyopathy progression in Duchenne).

Dr. McDonald says with current treatments only having a limited impact on the disease, CAP-1002 may have a big impact on the people affected by DMD and their families.

“The trial showed consistent benefits of this cell-based therapy. It suggests that this infusion may be an important treatment option for the boys and young men who have this debilitating disorder.”

The team now hope to be able to apply to the Food and Drug Administration for permission to start a bigger clinical trial involving more patients.

Caleb Sizemore took part in an earlier clinical trial involving this approach. He says MRI’s showed that the therapy appeared to reduce scarring on his heart and gave him greater energy.

In 2017 Caleb talked to the CIRM governing Board about DMD and his part in the clinical trial. You can see that video here.

Stem Cell Agency Hires New Vice President of Medical Affairs & Policy

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Dr. Sean Turbeville

Sean Turbeville PhD. is joining the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) as the Vice President of Medical Affairs and Policy.

Dr. Turbeville has almost 20 years of experience in Medical Affairs, creating strategies and teams for biopharma and digital healthcare companies. He has experience supporting the development of therapies in cancer, neurology, metabolic and genetic disorders and in working with Regulatory Authorities such as the Food and Drug Administration, EMA and others.  

Sean has a PhD in Epidemiology from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center where he later taught courses as an Adjunct Associate Professor. He is the owner of two global regulatory resources for biopharma, “The Global Regulatory Framework for Medical Information in the Pharmaceutical Industry” and “The Global Guide to Compassionate Use Programs”. Before joining CIRM, Dr. Turbeville was the President of Matanzas Group, a Medical Affairs consultancy providing a range of Medical Affairs services to over 20 small, growing biopharmaceutical companies.  

CIRM’s Vice Chair, Sen. (ret) Art Torres says Dr. Turbeville is a great addition to the team: “Sean’s expertise will be invaluable to our working group and to our coordination with the Governor and Legislature on affordability and accessibility issues affecting patients.”

“I am honored to work at CIRM, where science, business, regulatory and policy work together to accelerate world class science and provide Californians equal accessibility to novel therapies,” says Dr. Turbeville. “It’s a unique opportunity to give back to the state that has given me and my family so much.”   

The VP of Medical Affairs and Policy is a new position and Dr. Turbeville will have responsibility for overseeing a Medical Affairs Team that will work with the CIRM team, the Accessibility and Affordability Working Group and the board to develop healthcare policy, reimbursement strategy, post-market activities and research. He will also oversee and develop CIRM’s infrastructure programs for clinical trials and the delivery of therapies, in particular the Alpha Clinics Network and the future Community Care Centers of Excellence.

“As CIRM drives more transformative regenerative therapies to the clinics, we set a bold strategic goal to deliver a roadmap for access and affordability of these treatments to all patient communities. We are extremely excited to have Sean as a qualified leader and expert in the field to lead this charge,” says Maria Millan, CIRM’s President and CEO. “He has been a mission-driven patient advocate and board member of the Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation which he joined after losing his father. In this role, he drove the creation of alliances with companies to increase access to clinical trials for patients with this devastating cancer.”

Dr. Turbeville joins the growing ranks of new team members that CIRM has hired since the passage of Proposition 14 in November 2020. CIRM is rebuilding and expanding its team to meet new challenges and advance the mission of the agency.

Among the new hires is Linda Nevin, PhD, who joined us as a Senior Science Officer on the Review and Portfolio Development Team. Linda is a former Associate Editor for the journal PLOS Medicine and brings detailed experience with data sharing, health equity research, large cohort studies, and machine learning in medicine.Linda got her PhD in Neuroscience from UCSF and has a BS/MS in Biological Sciences from Stanford.

Katie Sharify is the new Communications Team Coordinator, but she has a long history of involvement with CIRM. More than ten years ago Katie was a patient in the first clinical trial CIRM funded, a stem cell therapy aimed at helping people with spinal cord injuries. Since then, Katie has been a tireless supporter and advocate on behalf of CIRM, so we were delighted to be able to make her a full-time member of the team.

Maziar Shah Mohammed, PhD, a Senior Science Officer in our Scientific Programs group, has undergraduate and master’s degrees in Materials Science and Engineering and he got his PhD in Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering from McGill University in Canada. He comes to CIRM with experience in academic research, the medical device industry and, most recently as a Lead Reviewer at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH).

Lisa McGinley, PhD, joined CIRM as a Senior Science Officer in Therapeutics and Development. She has expertise in stem cell therapy discovery, development and translation in cardiovascular and neurology spaces. She received her PhD in Regenerative Medicine from the National University of Ireland, Galway and completed her postdoctoral fellowship in Bioengineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Most recently she was an Assistant Professor in Neurology at the University of Michigan, where she led an NIH-funded collaborative stem cell initiative developing therapeutics for ALS and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Treecy Truc Nguyen is CIRM’s new Project Manager in the Therapeutics Development group. Treecy got her BSHS and MPH from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. Before joining CIRM she was the Senior Systems Manager at The Unity Council, a non-profit community development organization committed to social equality and improving the quality of life in traditionally underserved communities.

The new team members are:

  • Claudette Mandac
    Project Manager, Review 
  • Mitra Hooshmand
    SSO, Special Projects and Strategic Initiatives
  • Vanessa Singh
    HR Manager
  • Pouneh Simpson
    Director of Finance
  • Alexandra Caraballo
    Grants Management Specialist
  • Kevin Marks
    General Counsel
  • Michael Bunch
    Business Services Officer
  • Rosa Canet-Aviles
    Vice President, Science
  • Uta Grieshammer
    SSO, Science
  • Linda Nevin
    SSO, Review and Portfolio
  • Stephanie Bautista
    Executive Assistant to the President
  • Mason Saia
  • Software Engineer
  • Marianne Villablanca
    Associate Director, Board Relations
  • Katie Sharify
    Communications Team Coordinator
  • Lisa McGinley
    SSO, Therapeutics
  • Esteban Cortez
    Director, Marketing and Communications
  • Maziar Shah Mohammadi
    SSO, Scientific Programs
  • Treecy Truc Nguyen
    Project Manager, Therapeutics
  • Sean Turbeville
    Vice President, Medical Affairs & Policy

Joining the movement to fight rare diseases

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It’s hard to think of something as being rare when it affects up to 30 million Americans and 300 million people worldwide. But the truth is there are more than 6,000 conditions – those affecting 200,000 people or fewer – that are considered rare.  

Today, February 28th, is Rare Disease Day. It’s a day to remind ourselves of the millions of people, and their families, struggling with these diseases. These conditions are also called or orphan diseases because, in many cases, drug companies were not interested in adopting them to develop treatments.

At the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), we have no such reservations. In fact last Friday our governing Board voted to invest almost $12 million to support a clinical trial for IPEX syndrome. IPEX syndrome is a condition where the body can’t control or restrain an immune response, so the person’s immune cells attack their own healthy tissue. This leads to the development of Type 1 diabetes, severe eczema, damage to the small intestines and kidneys and failure to thrive. It’s diagnosed in infancy, most of those affected are boys, and it is often fatal.

Taylor Lookofsky (who has IPEX syndrome) and his father Brian

IPEX is one of two dozen rare diseases that CIRM is funding a clinical trial for. In fact, more than one third of all the projects we fund target a rare disease or condition. Those include:

Some might question the wisdom of investing hundreds of millions of dollars in conditions that affect a relatively small number of patients. But if you see the faces of these patients and get to know their families, as we do, you know that often agencies like CIRM are their only hope.

Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President and CEO, says the benefits of one successful approach can often extend far beyond one rare disease.

“Children with IPEX syndrome clearly represent a group of patients with an unmet medical need, and this therapy could make a huge difference in their lives. Success of this treatment in this rare disease presents far-reaching potential to develop treatments for a larger number of patients with a broad array of immune disorders.”

CIRM is proud to fund and spread awareness of rare diseases and invites you to watch this video about how they affect families around the world.

Stem Cell Agency Board Approves Funding for Rare Immune Disorder

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Taylor Lookofsky (center), a person with IPEX syndrome, with his father Brian and Dr. Rosa Bacchetta

IPEX syndrome is a rare condition where the body can’t control or restrain an immune response, so the person’s immune cells attack their own healthy tissue. The syndrome mostly affects boys, is diagnosed in the first year of life and is often fatal. Today the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) invested almost $12 million in a therapy being tested in a clinical trial to help these patients.

Children born with IPEX syndrome have abnormalities in the FOXP3 gene. This gene controls the production of a type of immune cell called a T Regulatory or Treg cell. Without a normal FOXP3 +Treg cells other immune cells attack the body leading to the development of IPEX syndrome, Type 1 diabetes, severe eczema, damage to the small intestines and kidneys and failure to thrive.

Current treatments involve the use of steroids to suppress the immune system – which helps ease symptoms but doesn’t slow down the progression of the disease – or a bone marrow stem cell transplant.  However, a transplant requires a healthy, closely matched donor to reduce the risk of a potentially fatal transplant complication called graft vs host disease, in which the donated immune cells attack the recipient’s tissues.

Dr. Rosa Bacchetta and her team at Stanford University have developed a therapy using the patient’s own natural CD4 T cells that, in the lab, have been genetically modified to express the FoxP3 gene and converted into Treg cells. Those cells are then re-infused into the patient with a goal of determining if this approach is both safe and beneficial. Because the cells come from the patients there will be fewer concerns about the need for immunosuppressive treatment to stop the body rejecting the cells. It will also help avoid the problems of finding a healthy donor and graft vs host disease.

Dr. Bacchetta has received approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to test this approach in a Phase 1 clinical trial for patients suffering with IPEX syndrome.

“Children with IPEX syndrome clearly represent a group of patients with an unmet medical need, and this therapy could make a huge difference in their lives,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, the President and CEO of CIRM. “Success of this treatment in this rare disease presents far-reaching potential to develop treatments for a larger number of patients with a broad array of immune disorders resulting from dysfunctional regulatory T cells.”

In addition to a strong scientific recommendation to fund the project the review team also praised it for the applicants’ commitment to the principles of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in their proposal. The project proposes a wide catchment area, with a strong focus on enrolling people who are low-income, uninsured or members of traditionally overlooked racial and ethnic minority communities.

It’s nice to be appreciated

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Photo: courtesy City of Hope

No one likes to be taken for granted, to feel that people only like you because you have scads of cash and they want some of it. That’s why it’s so lovely when you feel you are appreciated because of all the things money makes possible.

That’s how it felt when we saw City of Hope’s news release about our funding to train the next generation of scientists and leaders in the field of regenerative medicine. CIRM has awarded COH $4.86 million as part of its Research Training Program in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine.

The program provides stem cell and gene therapy research training for up to 6 graduate students and 12 postdocs at the Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope. In addition to 3 years of research, the training includes coursework, patient engagement and community outreach activities.

In a news release, Dr. Nadia Carlesso, chair of the Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, said this funding is important in training a new generation of scientists.

“This program originates from City of Hope’s longstanding expertise in conducting clinical trials and applying fundamental stem cell biology and gene therapy to the treatment of diseases. The program reflects City of Hope’s commitment to ensuring that future scientific leaders understand the varied needs of diverse patient populations, and the inequities that presently affect both biomedical research and the development of and access to innovative therapies.”

Students in the program will have access to world class research facilities and will also benefit from the fact that their classrooms and laboratories are within walking distance from where patients are treated. We believe the best scientists need to have experience in working both at the laboratory bench and at the bedside, not only developing new therapies, but being able to deliver those therapies in a caring, compassionate way.