It’s hard to be modest when people keep telling you how good you are

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I have a confession. Deep down I’m shallow. So when something I am part of is acknowledged as one of the best, I delight in it (my fellow bloggers Katie and Esteban also delight in it, I am just more shameless about letting everyone know.)

And that is just what happened with this blog, The Stem Cellar. We have been named as one of the “22 best biology and stem cell blogs of 2022”. And not just by anyone. We were honored by Dr. Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell scientist, avid blogger and all-round renaissance man (full disclosure, Paul is a recipient of CIRM funding but that has nothing to do with this award. Obviously.)

We are particularly honored to be on the list because Paul includes some heavy hitters including The Signals Blog, a site that he describes this way:

“This one from our friends in Canada is fantastic. They literally have dozens of authors, which is probably the most of any stem cell-related website, and their articles include many interesting angles. They post really often too. I might rank Signal and The Stem Cellar as tied for best stem cell blog in 2021.”

Now I’m really blushing.

Other highly regarded blogs are EuroStemCell, the Mayo Clinic Regenerative Medicine Blog and Stem Cell Battles (by Don Reed, a good friend of CIRM’s)

Another one of the 22 is David Jensen’s California Stem Cell report which is dedicated to covering the work of, you guessed it, CIRM. So, not only are we great bloggers, we are apparently great to blog about. 

As a further demonstration of my modesty I wanted to point out that Paul regularly produces ‘best of’ lists, including his recent “50 influencers on stem cells on Twitter to follow” which we were also on.

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.”

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.

CIRM-supported therapy for blood cancers gets FDA fast track

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People often complain about how long it can take to turn a scientific discovery into an approved therapy for patients. And they’re right. It can take years, decades even. But for Immune-Onc Therapeutics the path to FDA approval may just have been shortened.

Back in April of 2021 the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved investing $6 million in Immune-Onc to conduct a clinical trial for patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML). AML and CMML are both types of blood cancer. AML affects approximately 20,000 people in the United States each year and has a 5-year survival rate of about 25 percent. Anywhere from 15-30 percent of CMML cases eventually progress into AML.

Dr. Paul Woodard and his team are treating patients with an antibody therapy called IO-202 that targets leukemic stem cells.  The antibody works by blocking a signal named LILRB4 which is associated with decreased rates of survival in AML patients.  The goal is to attain complete cancer remissions and prolonged survival.

Well, they must be doing something right because they just received Fast Track designation from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for IO-202. Getting this designation is a big deal because its goal is to speed up the development and review of drugs to treat serious conditions and fill an unmet medical need to get important new medicines to patients earlier.

Getting a Fast Track designation means the team at Immune-Onc may be:

  • Eligible for more written communications and even face-to-face meetings with the FDA to discuss the development plan of IO-202
  • Eligible for Accelerated Approval and Priority Review if relevant criteria are met, which may result in faster approval.

In a press release Dr. Woodard said this was great news.  “We are pleased that the FDA has granted IO-202 Fast Track designation in recognition of its potential to improve outcomes for people with relapsed or refractory AML. We look forward to working closely with the FDA to accelerate the clinical development of IO-202, which is currently being evaluated as a monotherapy and in combination with other agents in a Phase 1 dose escalation and expansion trial in patients with AML with monocytic differentiation and in chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML).”

The FDA also granted IO-202 Orphan Drug Designation for treatment of AML in 2020. That’s defined as a therapy that’s intended for the treatment, prevention or diagnosis of a rare disease or condition, affecting less than 200,000 persons in the US.

Getting Orphan Drug Designation qualifies Immune-Onc for incentives including tax credits for clinical trials and the potential for seven years of market exclusivity if and when it is fully approved by the FDA.

Overcoming obstacles and advancing treatments to patients

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UC Davis GMP Manufacturing facility: Photo courtesy UC Davis

When you are trying to do something that has never been done before, there are bound to be challenges to meet and obstacles to overcome. At the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) we are used to coming up with great ideas and hearing people ask “Well, how are you going to do that?”

Our new 5-year Strategic Plan is how. It’s the roadmap that will help guide us as we work to overcome critical bottlenecks in bringing regenerative medicine therapies to people in need.

Providing more than money

People often think of CIRM as a funding agency, providing the money needed to do research. That’s true, but it’s only part of the story. With every project we fund, we also offer a lot of support. That’s particularly true at the clinical stage, where therapies are being tested in people. Projects we fund in clinical trials don’t just get money, they also have access to:

  • Alpha Stem Cells Clinic Network – This is a group of specialized medical centers that have the experience and expertise to deliver new stem cell and gene therapies.
  • The CIRM Cell and Gene Therapy Center – This helps with developing projects, overcoming manufacturing problems, and offers guidance on working with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to get permission to run clinical trials.
  • CIRM Clinical Advisory Panels (CAPs) – These are teams put together to help advise researchers on a clinical trial and to overcome problems. A crucial element of a CAP is a patient advocate who can help design a trial around the needs of the patients, to help with patient recruitment and retention.

Partnering with key stakeholders

Now, we want to build on this funding model to create new ways to support researchers in bringing their work to patients. This includes earlier engagement with regulators like the FDA to ensure that projects match their requirements. It includes meetings with insurers and other healthcare stakeholders, to make sure that if a treatment is approved, that people can get access to it and afford it.

In the past, some in the regenerative medicine field thought of the FDA as an obstacle to approval of their work. But as David Martin, a CIRM Board member and industry veteran says, the FDA is really a key ally.

“Turning a promising drug candidate into an approved therapy requires overcoming many bottlenecks… CIRM’s most effective and committed partner in accelerating this is the FDA.”

Removing barriers to manufacturing

Another key area highlighted in our Strategic Plan is overcoming manufacturing obstacles. Because these therapies are “living medicines” they are complex and costly to produce. There is often a shortage of skilled technicians to do the jobs that are needed, and the existing facilities may not be able to meet the demand for mass production once the FDA gives permission to start a clinical trial. 

To address all these issues CIRM wants to create a California Manufacturing Network that combines academic innovation and industry expertise to address critical manufacturing bottlenecks. It will also coordinate training programs to help build a diverse and expertly trained manufacturing workforce.

CIRM will work with academic institutions that already have their own manufacturing facilities (such as UC Davis) to help develop improved ways of producing therapies in sufficient quantities for research and clinical trials. The Manufacturing Network will also involve industry partners who can develop facilities capable of the large-scale production of therapies that will be needed when products are approved by the FDA for wider use.

CIRM, in collaboration with this network, will also help develop education and hands-on training programs for cell and gene therapy manufacturing at California community colleges and universities. By providing internships and certification programs we will help create a talented, diverse workforce that is equipped to meet the growing demands of the industry.

You can read more about these goals in our 2022-27 Strategic Plan.

Sharing ideas and data to advance regenerative medicine

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If Kindergarten kids can learn to share why can’t scientists?

When I was a kid, we were always told to share our toys. It was a good way of teaching children the importance of playing nice with the other kids and avoiding conflicts.

Those same virtues apply to science. Sharing data, knowledge and ideas doesn’t just create a sense of community. It also helps increase the odds that scientists can build on the knowledge gained by others to advance their own work, and the field as a whole.

That’s why advancing world class science through data sharing is one of the big goals in CIRM’s new Strategic Plan. There’s a very practical reason why this is needed. Although most scientists today fully appreciate and acknowledge the importance of data sharing, many still resist the idea. This is partly for competitive reasons: the researchers want to publish their findings first and take the credit.

But being first isn’t just about ego. It is also crucial in getting promotions, being invited to prestigious meetings, winning awards, and in some cases, getting the attention of biopharma. So, there are built-in incentives to avoiding data sharing.

That’s unfortunate because scientific progress is often dependent on collaboration and building upon the work of other researchers.

CIRM’s goal is to break down those barriers and make it easier to share data. We will do that by building what are called “knowledge networks.” These networks will streamline data sharing from CIRM-funded projects and combine that with research data from other organizations, publishers and California academic institutions. We want to create incentives for scientists to share their data, rather than keep it private.

We are going to start by creating a knowledge network for research targeting the brain and spinal cord. We hope this will have an impact on studying everything from stroke and Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s and psychiatric disorders. The network will eventually cover all aspects of research—from the most basic science to clinical trials—because knowledge gained in one area can help influence research done in another.

To kick start this network, CIRM will partner with other funding agencies, disease foundations and research institutions to enable scientists to have access to this data such that data from one platform can be used to analyze data from another platform. This will amplify the power of data analysis and allow researchers to build upon the work of others rather than repeat already existing research.

As one of our Board members, Dr. Keith Yamamoto said in our Strategic Plan, “Making such data sharing and analysis across CIRM projects operational and widely accessible would leverage CIRM investments, serving the biomedical research enterprise broadly.”

It’s good for science, but ultimately and more importantly, it’s good for all of us because it will speed up the development of new approaches and new therapies for a wide range of diseases and disorders.

Visit this page to learn more about CIRM’s new 5-year Strategic Plan and stay tuned as we share updates on our 5-year goals here on The Stem Cellar.

Teaching stem cells to play video games

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video games atari pong
Pong video game

Back when I was growing up, shortly after the extinction of the dinosaurs, there was a popular video game called Pong. It was, in fact, pretty much the only video game at the time. It was a pretty simple game. You moved a “paddle” to hit a ball and knock it back across the screen to your opponent. If your opponent missed it you won the point. It was a really simplified form of video ping pong (hence the name). 

So why am I telling you this? Well, researchers in the UK and Australia have devised a way of teaching blobs of brain cells how to play Pong. I kid you not. 

Playing Pong

What they did was turn stem cells into brain cells, as part of a system called Dishbrain. Using software, they helped these neurons or brain cells communicate with each other through electrical stimulation and recordings. 

In an article in Newsweek, (yup, Newsweek is still around) the researchers explained that using these electrical signals they could help the cells identify where the “ball” was. For example, if the signals came from the left that meant the “ball” was on the right. 

In the study they say: “Using this DishBrain system, we have demonstrated that a single layer of in vitro (in a dish) cortical neurons can self-organize and display intelligent and sentient behavior when embodied in a simulated game-world.” We have shown that even without a substantial filtering of cellular activity, statistically robust differences over time and against controls could be observed in the behavior of neuronal cultures in adapting to goal directed tasks.”

Now you might think this was just something the researchers dreamed up to pass time during COVID, but they say understanding how these brain cells can learn and respond could help them develop other methods of using neurons that might be even cooler than playing video games. 

The study is published in the journal BioRXiv

Lack of diversity leaves cloud hanging over asthma drug study

Asthma spacer, photo courtesy Wiki Media Creative Commons

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If you want to know if a new drug or therapy is going to work in the people it affects the most you need to test the drug or therapy in the people most affected by the disease. That would seem blindingly obvious, wouldn’t it? Apparently not.

Case in point. A new asthma medication, one that seemingly shows real promise in reducing attacks in children, was tested on an almost entirely white patient population, even though Black and Puerto Rican children are far more likely to suffer from asthma.

The study enrolled more than 400 children, between the ages of 6 and 11, with moderate to serious uncontrolled asthma and treated them with a medication called Dupixent. The results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, were impressive. Children given Dupixent had an average drop in severe asthma attacks of 65 percent compared to children given a placebo.

The only problem is 90 percent of the children in the study were white. Why is that a problem? Because, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, only 9.5 percent of white children have asthma, compared to 24 percent of Puerto Rican children and 18 percent of Black children. So, the groups most likely to suffer from the disease were disproportionately excluded from a study about a treatment for the disease.

Some people might think, “So what! If the medication works for one kid it will work for another, what does race have to do with it?” Quite a lot actually.

A study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology concluded that: “Race/ethnicity modified the association between total IgE (an antibody in the blood that is a marker for asthma) and asthma exacerbations. Elevated IgE level was associated with worse asthma outcomes in Puerto Ricans… Our findings suggest that eligibility for asthma biologic therapies differs across pediatric racial/ethnic populations.”

The article concluded by calling for “more studies in diverse populations for equitable treatment of minority patients with asthma.” Something that clearly didn’t happen in the Dupixent study.

While that’s more than disappointing, it’s not surprising. A recent study of vaccine clinical trials in JAMA Network Open found that:

  • Overall, white individuals made up almost 80 percent of people enrolled.
  • Black individuals were represented only 10.6 percent of the time.
  • Latino participants were represented just 11.6 percent of the time. 

Additionally, in pediatric trials, Black participants were represented just over 10 percent of the time and Latino participants were represented 22.5 percent of the time. The study concluded by saying that “diversity enrollment targets are needed for vaccine trials in the US.”

I would expand on that, saying they are needed for all clinical trials. That’s one of the many reasons why we at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) are making Diversity, Equity and Inclusion an important part of everything we do, such as requiring all applicants to have a written DEI plan if they want funding from us. Dr. Maria Millan, our President and CEO, recently co-authored an article in Nature Cell Biology, driving home the need for greater diversity in basic science and research in general.

DEI has become an important part of the conversation this past year. But the Dupixent trial shows that if we are truly serious about making it part of what we do, we have to stop talking and start acting.

How some brilliant research may have uncovered a potential therapy for Alzheimer’s 

Dr. Nicole Koutsodendris, photo courtesy Gladstone Institutes

In the world of scientific research, the people doing clinical trials tend to suck up all the oxygen in the room. They’re the stars, the ones who are bringing potential therapies to patients. However, there’s another group of researchers who toil away in the background, but who are equally deserving of praise and gratitude. 

Dr. Lana Zholudeva, photo courtesy Gladstone Institutes

These are the scientists who do basic or discovery-level research. This is where all great therapies start. This is where a researcher gets an idea and tests it to see if it holds promise. A good idea and a scientist who asks a simple question, “I wonder if…..”  

Dr. Yadong Huang, Photo courtesy Gladstone Institutes

In our latest “Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation” podcast we talk to three researchers who are asking those questions and getting some truly encouraging answers. They are scientists at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco: one seasoned scientist and two young post-docs trying to make a name for themselves. And they might just have discovered a therapy that could help people battling Alzheimer’s disease. 

Enjoy the podcast.