Celebrating a young life that almost wasn’t

Often on the Stem Cellar we feature CIRM-funded work that is helping advance the field, unlocking some of the secrets of stem cells and how best to use them to develop promising therapies. But every once in a while it’s good to remind ourselves that this work, while it may often seem slow, is already saving lives.

Meet Ja’Ceon Golden. He was one of the first patients treated at U.C. San Francisco, in partnership with St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis, as part of a CIRM-funded study to treat a rare but fatal disorder called Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID). Ja’Ceon was born without a functioning immune system, so even a simple cold could have been fatal.

At UCSF a team led by Dr. Mort Cowan, took blood stem cells from Ja’Ceon and sent them to St. Jude where another team corrected the genetic mutation that causes SCID. The cells were then returned to UCSF and re-infused into Ja’Ceon.  

Over the next few months those blood stem cells grew in number and eventually helped heal his immune system.

He recently came back to UCSF for more tests, just to make sure everything is OK. With him, as she has been since his birth, was his aunt and guardian Dannie Hawkins. She says Ja’Ceon is doing just fine, that he has just started pre-K, is about to turn five years old and in January will be five years post-therapy. Effectively, Ja’Ceon is cured.

SCID is a rare disease, there are only around 70 cases in the US every year, but CIRM funding has helped produce cures for around 60 kids so far. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that a UCLA approach cured 95 percent of the children treated.

The numbers are impressive. But not nearly as impressive, or as persuasive of the power of regenerative medicine, as Ja’Ceon and Dannie’s smiles.

Ja’Ceon on his first day at pre-K. He loved it.

Paving the way for a treatment for dementia

What happens in a stroke

When someone has a stroke, the blood flow to the brain is blocked. This kills some nerve cells and injures others. The damaged nerve cells are unable to communicate with other cells, which often results in people having impaired speech or movement.

While ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes affect large blood vessels and usually produce recognizable symptoms there’s another kind of stroke that is virtually silent. A ‘white’ stroke occurs in blood vessels so tiny that the impact may not be noticed. But over time that damage can accumulate and lead to a form of dementia and even speed up the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Now Dr. Tom Carmichael and his team at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA have developed a potential treatment for this, using stem cells that may help repair the damage caused by a white stroke. This was part of a CIRM-funded study (DISC2-12169 – $250,000).

Instead of trying to directly repair the damaged neurons, the brain nerve cells affected by a stroke, they are creating support cells called astrocytes, to help stimulate the body’s own repair mechanisms.

In a news release, Dr. Irene Llorente, the study’s first author, says these astrocytes play an important role in the brain.

“These cells accomplish many tasks in repairing the brain. We wanted to replace the cells that we knew were lost, but along the way, we learned that these astrocytes also help in other ways.”

The researchers took skin tissue and, using the iPSC method (which enables researchers to turn cells into any other kind of cell in the body) turned it into astrocytes. They then boosted the ability of these astrocytes to produce chemical signals that can stimulate healing among the cells damaged by the stroke.

These astrocytes were then not only able to help repair some of the damaged neurons, enabling them to once again communicate with other neurons, but they also helped another kind of brain cell called oligodendrocyte progenitor cells or OPCs. These cells help make a protective sheath around axons, which transmit electrical signals between brain cells. The new astrocytes stimulated the OPCs into repairing the protective sheath around the axons.

Mice who had these astrocytes implanted in them showed improved memory and motor skills within four months of the treatment.  

And now the team have taken this approach one step further. They have developed a method of growing these astrocytes in large amounts, at very high quality, in a relatively short time. The importance of that is it means they can produce the number of cells needed to treat a person.

“We can produce the astrocytes in 35 days,” Llorente says. “This process allows rapid, efficient, reliable and clinically viable production of our therapeutic product.”

The next step is to chat with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to see what else they’ll need to do to show they are ready for a clinical trial.

The study is published in the journal Stem Cell Research.

Learning life lessons in the lab

Rohan Upadhyay, CIRM SPARK student 2021

One of the most amazing parts of an amazing job is getting to know the students who take part in CIRM’s SPARK (Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge) program. It’s an internship giving high school students, that reflect the diversity of California, a chance to work in a world-class stem cell research facility.

This year because of the pandemic I didn’t get a chance to meet them in person but reading the blogs they wrote about their experiences I feel as if I know them anyway.

The blogs were fun, creative, engaging and dealt with many issues, as well as stem cell and gene therapy research.

A common theme was how hard the students, many of whom knew little about stem cells before they started, had to work just to understand all the scientific jargon.

Areana Ramirez, who did her internship at UC Davis summed it up nicely when she wrote:

“Despite the struggles of taking over an hour to read a scientific article and researching what every other word meant, it was rewarding to know that all of the strain I had put on my brain was going toward a larger understanding of what it means to help others. I may not know everything about osteogenic differentiation or the polyamine pathway, but I do know the adversities that patients with Snyder-Robinson are facing and the work that is being done to help them. I do know how hard each one of our mentors are working to find new cures and are coming up with innovating ideas that will only help humankind.”

Lauren Ginn at City of Hope had the same experience, but said it taught her a valuable lesson:

“Make no mistake, searching for answers through research can sometimes feel like shooting arrows at a bulls-eye out of sight. Nonetheless, what CIRM SPARK has taught me is the potential for exploration that lies in the unknown. This internship showed me that there is so much more to science than the facts printed in textbooks.”

Rohan Upadhyay at UC Davis discovered that even when something doesn’t work out, you can still learn a lot:

“I asked my mentor (Gerhard Bauer) about what he thought had occurred. But unlike the textbooks there was no obvious answer. My mentor and I could only speculate what had occurred. It was at this point that I realized the true nature of research: every research project leads to more questions that need to be answered. As a result there is no endpoint to research. Instead there are only new beginnings.”

Melanie Nguyen, also at UC Davis, wrote her blog as a poem. But she saved the best part for the prose at the end:

“Like a hematopoietic stem cell, I have learned that I am able to pursue my different interests, to be multi-potential. One can indulge in the joys of biology while simultaneously live out their dreams of being an amateur poet. I choose it all. Similarly, a bone marrow stem cell can become whatever it may please—red, white, platelet. It’s ability to divide and differentiate is the source of its ingenuity. I view myself in the same light. Whether I can influence others with research, words, or stories, I know that with each route I will be able to make change in personalized ways.”

For Lizbeth Bonilla, at Stanford, her experiences transcended the personal and took on an even bigger significance:

“As a first-generation Mexican American, my family was thrilled about this internship and opportunity especially knowing it came from a prestigious institution. Unfortunately there is very little to no representation in our community in regards to the S.T.E.M. field. Our dreams of education and prosperity for the future have to be compromised because of the lack of support and resources. To maintain pride in our culture, we focus on work ethics and family, hoping it will be the next generations’ time to bring successful opportunities home. However, while this is a hope widely shared the effort to have it realized is often limited to men. A Latina woman’s success and interest in education are still celebrated, but not expected. As a first-generation Latina, I want to prove that I can have a career and hopefully contribute to raising the next leading generation, not with the hope that dreams are possible but to be living proof that they are.”

Reading the blogs it was sometimes easy to forget these are 16 and 17 year old students. They write with creativity, humor, thoughtfulness and maturity. They learned a lot about stem cell research over the summer. But I think they also learned a lot more about who they are as individuals and what they can achieve.

SPARKing the genius of the next generation of scientists

Dr. Kelly Shepard, SPARK program director

After almost 18 months – and counting – that have put us all to the test, made us wear masks, work from home, limit contact with all but the closest of family and friends it’s a wonderful thing to be able to get a glimpse of the future and feel that we are in good hands.

That’s how it felt this week when we held our SPARK conference. SPARK stands for Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge. The program helps high school students, that reflect the diversity of California, to take part in summer research at various institutions with a stem cell, gene therapy, or regenerative medicine focus. 

We hope the experience will inspire these students to become the next generation of scientists. Many of the students are first generation Americans, many also come from families with limited resources and without our help might not be able to afford an internship like this.

As part of the program we ask the students to not only do stem cell research and prepare a poster of their work, we also ask them to blog about it. And the blogs they write are things of beauty.

It’s hard to pick winners from so many fine writers, but in the end a team of CIRMites managed to identify a few we thought really stood out. First was Hassan Samiullah who spent his internship at Cedars-Sinai. Hassan wrote three blogs charting his journey at the research facility, working with mice and a deadly brain cancer. This is part of one of his entries.

“When many of us think of scientists, we think of crazy people performing crazy procedures in a lab. While I won’t try refuting the first part, the crazy procedures can actually be very consequential to society at large. What is now common knowledge was once found in the discussion section of a research paper. The therapies we will use to treat cancer tomorrow are being tested in labs today, even if they’re being injected into mice brains.” 

We liked his writing because he explained complex science clearly, with humor and obvious delight that he got to work in a research facility with “real” scientists. Crazy or otherwise. Here is his final blog which, I think, reflects the skill and creativity he brought to the task.

I’m almost at the end of my 7.5-week internship at Cedars-Sinai through the CIRM SPARK program. Looking back at the whole experience, I don’t think I’ve ever been through anything that’s required as much critical thinking.

I remember seeing pX330-dual-U6-Pten-Cdkn2a-Ex2-chimeric-BB-CBh-espCas9, and not having the slightest idea of what any of it meant. Sure, I understood the basics of what I was told: it’s a plasmid that can be transfected into mice brains to model glioblastoma tumors. But what do any of those strings of letters and numbers have to do with that? Well, I saw “Pten” and read it aloud: “P-t-e-n.” After I spelled it out like a kindergartener, I finally made a realization. p10 is a gene—specifically a tumor suppressor gene. I figured that the two jumbles of letters and numbers to the right must also be genes. Sure enough, the plasmid contains three mutated genes that get incorporated into a mouse’s genome, eventually leading to cancer. We didn’t actually end up using this model, however. Part of being in science is procedures not working out as expected.

Resilience is key.

When I found out that the image analysis software I was supposed to use didn’t support the type of data collection I needed to perform, I had to burn a little midnight oil to count the cells of interest manually. It proved to be well worth the effort: we found that mice tumors treated with radiation saw increased interactions between immune cells and endogenous (brain-resident) stem cells, even though they had fewer cells from the original tumor (difference wasn’t statistically significant due to an outlier in the control group). This is an important finding because it may explain the common narrative of glioblastoma: many patients see their tumors recede but suffer an aggressive relapse. This relapse may be due to immune cells’ interacting with stem cells to make them resistant to future treatments.

Understanding stem cells are so critical to cancer research, just as they are to many other fields of research. It is critical for everyone involved in science, medicine, healthcare, and policymaking to recognize and act on the potential of the regenerative medicine field to dramatically improve the quality of life for so many people.

This is just the beginning of my journey in science! I really look forward to seeing what’s next.

We look forward to it too Hassan.

Hassan wasn’t the only one we singled out for praise. Sheila Teker spent her summer at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute. She says her internship didn’t get off to a very encouraging start.

“When the CHORI security guard implied that “kids aren’t allowed” on my first day–likely assuming I was a 10-year-old smuggling myself into a highly professional laboratory – I’d also personally doubted my presence there. Being 16, I wasn’t sure I’d fit in with others in such an intimidating environment; and never did I think, applying for this program, that I could be working with stem cells. I’d heard about stem cells in the news, science classes, and the like, but even doing any cell culturing at all seemed inaccessible to me. At my age, I’d become accustomed to and discouraged by rejection since I was perceived as “too young” for anything.”

Over the course of the summer Sheila showed that while you might question her age, no one should ever question her talent and determination.  

Finally, we thought Alvin Cheng of Stanford also deserved recognition for his fine writing, starting with a really fun way to introduce his research into lower back pain.

“Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated”, Mary Shelley wrote her in 1831 edition of “Frankenstein”. Decades prior, Luigi Galvani discovered with his wife how a dead frog’s leg could twitch when an electric spark was induced. ‘Galvanism’ became the scientific basis behind the infamous novel and bioelectricity.”

While many of the students had to do their research remotely this year, that did not stop them doing amazing work. And working remotely might actually be good training for the future. CIRM’s Dr. Kelly Shepard, the Associate Director of Discovery and Translation and who runs the SPARK program, pointed out to the students that scientists now do research on the international space station from their labs here on earth, so the skills these SPARK students learned this past summer might prove invaluable in years to come.

Regardless of where they work, we see great things in the futures of these young scientists.

A conversation with Bob Klein about the past, present and future of CIRM

Bob Klein

Anyone who knows anything about CIRM knows about Bob Klein. He’s the main author and driving force behind both Proposition 71 and Proposition 14, the voter-approved ballot initiatives that first created and then refunded CIRM. It’s safe to say that without Bob there’d be no CIRM.

Recently we had the great good fortune to sit down with Bob to chat about the challenges of getting a proposition on the ballot in a time of pandemic and electoral pandemonium, what he thinks CIRM’s biggest achievements are (so far) and what his future plans are.

You can hear that conversation in the latest episode of our podcast, “Talking ’bout (re) Generation”.

Enjoy.

Retooling a COVID drug to boost its effectiveness

Coronavirus particles, illustration.

When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out scientists scrambled to find existing medications that might help counter the life-threatening elements of the virus. One of the first medications that showed real promise was remdesivir. It’s an anti-viral drug that was originally developed to target novel, emerging viruses, viruses like COVID19. It was approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in October 2020.

Remdesivir showed real benefits for some patients, reducing recovery time for those in the hospital, but it also had problems. It had to be delivered intravenously, meaning it could only be used in a hospital setting. And it was toxic if given in too high a dose.

In a new study – partially funded by CIRM (DISC2 COVID19-12022 $228,229) – researchers at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) found that by modifying some aspects of remdesivir they were able to make it easier to take and less toxic.

In a news release about the work Dr. Robert Schooley, a first author on the study, says we still need medications like this.

“Although vaccine development has had a major impact on the epidemic, COVID-19 has continued to spread and cause disease — especially among the unvaccinated. With the evolution of more transmissible viral variants, breakthrough cases of COVID are being seen, some of which can be severe in those with underlying conditions. The need for effective, well-tolerated antiviral drugs that can be given to patents at high risk for severe disease at early stages of the illness remains high.”

To be effective remdesivir must be activated by several enzymes in the body. It’s a complex process and explains why the drug is beneficial for some areas, such as the lung, but can be toxic to other areas, such as the liver. So, the researchers set out to overcome those problems.

The team created what are called lipid prodrugs, these are compounds that do not dissolve in water and are used to improve how a drug interacts with cells or other elements; they are often used to reduce the bad side effects of a medication. By inserting a modified form of remdesivir into this lipid prodrug, and then attaching it to an enzyme called a lipid-phosphate (which acts as a delivery system, bringing along the remdesivir prodrug combo), they were able to create an oral form of remdesivir.

Dr. Aaron Carlin, a co-first author of the study, says they were trying to create a hybrid version of the medication that would work equally well regardless of the tissue it interacted with.

“The metabolism of remdesivir is complex, which may lead to variable antiviral activity in different cell types. In contrast, these lipid-modified compounds are designed to be activated in a simple uniform manner leading to consistent antiviral activity across many cell types.”

When they tested the lipid prodrugs in animal models and human cells they found they were effective against COVID-19 in different cell types, including the liver. They are now working on further developing and testing the lipid prodrug to make sure it’s safe for people and that it can live up to their hopes of reducing the severity of COVID-19 infections and speed up recovery.

The study is published in the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.

How regrowing tiny hairs could restore hearing loss

Man getting fitted with hearing aids

Hearing loss is something that affect tens of millions of Americans. Usually people notice those changes as they get older but the damage can be done years before that through the use of some prescription drugs or exposure to loud noise (I knew I shouldn’t have sat in the 6th row of that Led Zeppelin concert!)

Now researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) have identified the mechanism that appears to stop cells that are crucial to hearing from regenerating.

In a news release Dr. Neil Segil says this could, in theory, help reverse some hearing loss.  “Permanent hearing loss affects more than 60 percent of the population that reaches retirement age. Our study suggests new gene engineering approaches that could be used to channel some of the same regenerative capability present in embryonic inner ear cells.”

The inner ear has two types of cells that are crucial for hearing; “hair cells” are sensory receptors and these help the brain detect sounds, and support cells that play, as the name implies, an important structural and supporting role for the hair cells.

In people, once the hair cells are damaged that’s it, you can’t repair or replace them and the resulting hearing loss is permanent. But mice, in the first few days of life, have ability to turn some of their support cells into hair cells, thus repairing any damage. So Segil and the team set out to identify how mice were able to do that and see if those lessons could be applied to people.

They identified specific proteins that played a key role in turning genes on and off, regulating if and when the support cells could turn into hair cells. They found that one molecule, H3K4mel, was particularly important in activating the correct genetic changes need to turn the support cells into hair cells. But in mice, levels of H3K4mel disappeared quickly after birth, so the team found a drug that helped preserve the molecule, meaning the support cells retained the ability to turn into hair cells.

Now, obviously because this was just done in mice there’s a lot more work that needs to be done to see if it can also work in people, but Segil says it’s certainly an encouraging and intriguing start.

“Our study raises the possibility of using therapeutic drugs, gene editing, or other strategies to make epigenetic modifications that tap into the latent regenerative capacity of inner ear cells as a way to restore hearing. Similar epigenetic modifications may also prove useful in other non-regenerating tissues, such as the retina, kidney, lung, and heart.”

The study is published in the journal Developmental Cell

CIRM has funded several projects targeting hearing loss. You can find them here.

A rare chance to help those in need

Recently the CIRM Board voted to support the creation of a Rare Disease Advisory Council (RDAC) in California. An RDAC is an advisory body providing a platform for the rare community to have a stronger voice in state government. They address the needs of rare patients and families by giving stakeholders an opportunity to make recommendations to state leaders on critical issues including the need for increased awareness, diagnostic tools and access to affordable treatments and cures.  

California is now in the process of creating an RDAC but, as a recent article in STAT highlighted, we are far from the only one.

Guadalupe Hayes-Mota

21 states give rare disease patients a seat at the table. The other 29 need to follow suit
By Guadalupe Hayes-Mota Originally published by STAT on July 26, 2021

A powerful movement is taking shape in the U.S. rare disease community that could transform the lives of millions of people. That’s right — millions. Even though a single rare disease may affect only a few individuals, there are several thousand of these problematic diseases that are difficult to identify and treat.

Since 2015, 21 U.S. states have passed legislation to create Rare Disease Advisory Councils that provide platforms for patients and family members to communicate with experts, policymakers, and the broader public. It’s critical to seize this hopeful moment because the needs of so many people living with rare diseases go unaddressed.

I know because I’m one of them.

I was born and raised in a small town in Mexico and diagnosed at birth with hemophilia, a rare genetic disease that prevents the blood from clotting after trauma or injury. While treatment existed in other parts of the world, I had only limited access to it, forcing me to live an isolated childhood indoors, protected and isolated from the world.

When my appendix burst at age 12, I underwent emergency surgery, followed by a desperate eight-hour ambulance ride to a hospital in another town in search of better medication to stop the bleeding. Doctors told my parents I was unlikely to survive, but against all odds I did — after clinically dying twice in the operating room. I am one of the few lucky people with my condition to have survived severe bleeding events without treatment.

After this traumatic incident, my family moved to a small town in California’s Mojave Desert. Navigating the health care system as an immigrant and not knowing the language was complicated. Accessing treatment and services for my disease was almost impossible at first. The nearest specialist was 90 minutes away. Thankfully, with help from the hemophilia association chapter in our area, I gained access to care and treatment.

Read the complete article here.

Building a new mouse, one stem cell at a time

Science is full of acronyms. There are days where it feels like you need a decoder ring just to understand a simple sentence. A recent study found that between 1950 and 2019 researchers used more than 1.1 million unique acronyms in scientific papers. There’s even an acronym for three letter acronyms. It’s TLAs. Which of course has one more letter than the thing it stands for.

I only mention this because I just learned a new acronym, but this one could help change the way we are able to study causes of infertility. The acronym is IVG or in vitro gametogenesis and it could enable scientists to create both sperm and egg, from stem cells, and grow them in the lab. And now scientists in Japan have done just that and allowed these fertilized eggs to then develop into mice.

The study, published in the journal Science, was led by Dr. Katsuhiko Hayashi of Kyushu University in Japan. Dr. Hayashi is something of a pioneer in the field of IVG. In the past his team were the first to produce both mouse sperm, and mouse eggs from stem cells. But they ran into a big obstacle when they tried to get the eggs to develop to a point where they were ready to be fertilized.

Over the last five years they have worked to find a way around this obstacle and, using mouse embryonic stem cells, they developed a process to help these stem cell-generated eggs mature to the point where they were viable.

In an article in STAT News Richard Anderson, Chair of Clinical Reproductive Science at the University of Edinburgh, said this was a huge achievement: “It’s a very serious piece of work. This group has done a lot of impressive things leading up to this, but this latest paper really completes the in vitro gametogenesis story by doing it in a completely stem-cell-derived way.”

The technique could prove invaluable in helping study infertility in people and, theoretically, could one day lead to women struggling with infertility to be able to use their own stem cells to create eggs or men their own sperm. However, the researchers say that even if that does become possible it’s likely a decade or more away.

While the study is encouraging on a scientific level, it’s raising some concerns on an ethical level. Should there be limits on how many of these manufactured embryos that a couple can create? Can someone create dozens or hundreds of these embryos and then sift through them, using genetic screening tools, to find the ones that have the most desirable traits?

One thing is clear, while the science is evolving, bioethicists, scholars and the public need to be discussing the implications for this work, and what kinds of restraints, if any, need to be applied before it’s RFPT (ready for prime time – OK, I made that one up.)

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

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

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

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

Image showing target areas for AADC gene insertion: Courtesy UCSF

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

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

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

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

Two and a half years after the surgery:

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

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

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

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.