CIRM’s Randy Mills: New FDA rules for stem cells won’t fix the problem

For the last two days the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been holding a hearing in Bethesda, Maryland on new regulations that would tighten control over stem cell treatments. The FDA invited public testimony during the hearing on the regulations that would impact many of the clinics that currently offer unproven therapies

The testimony has been impassioned to say the least. Supporters of the clinics say they offer a valuable service and that patients should be allowed to decide for themselves how they want their own cells to be used. Opponents say the clinics are little more than snake oil sales people, offering bogus, unproven treatments.

One of those presenting was Randy Mills, CIRM’s President and CEO. Randy has been very vocal in the past about the need for the FDA to change the way it regulates stem cell therapies.

In California Healthline Randy explained why he thinks the rules the FDA is proposing will not fix the problem, and may even make it worse:

FDA Must Find A Middle Ground For Sake Of Patients

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Randy Mills

We aren’t happy, as a lot of people aren’t happy, with the proliferation of these stem cell clinics — some of which are probably doing good work. But some are clearly making rather outlandish claims for which there’s no real data. 

There are a couple of conditions coming together to create this storm.

One is that the need is very real. These patients are really struggling. They don’t have alternatives. They’re desperate and they need help. It’s not in the realm of possibility to talk to somebody who is suffering as badly as these patients are and to say, ‘You have to wait a few more decades for the science to catch up.’

On the other hand, we have a regulatory paradigm that only provides two pathways to put a cell therapy onto the market. One pathway is the most intense regulatory requirement anywhere in the world for any product — the biologics license application through the FDA, which takes 10 to 20 years and costs over $1 billion.

The other is through the exemptions the FDA has made, which require absolutely no pre-market approval whatsoever. You can be on the market in days, with no data.

The regulatory burden associated with one is massive and the other is almost nonexistent.

So it’s not at all surprising that we’re seeing a proliferation of these stem cell clinics popping up that are operating under the assumption that they fall under the exemption.

What the FDA is doing now is saying, ‘We’re not happy with this. We’re going to define some terms more narrowly than in the past … and make it more difficult to legally be on the market under the less burdensome regulatory pathway.’

That’s what this meeting is about.

The problem with their strategy is twofold. It doesn’t address the patients, or the need side of the equation. And I don’t think it has a chance of actually working because the FDA will acknowledge that they do not have the resources to enforce these types of regulations at the clinic level.

They would have to be essentially regulating the practice of physicians, which is well beyond their capabilities. Even if they were able to enforce it, it would just drive these patients somewhere else.

We’re advocating for the creation of some middle pathway that would bring essentially unregulated therapies into the regulatory fold, but in a manner which could be complied with.

I would rather know these clinics are being regulated and collecting data than have them operating under the radar screen of the FDA. I would like there to be a formal pre-market review of these therapies before they’re put on the market. I would like there to be safety and efficacy data.

I’m going to try hard to get the FDA to see that just plugging this hole won’t make the problem go away.

Thinking that they’re going to strengthen the regulation and that patients are going to be satisfied that there’s absolutely no chance for help is naive.

There isn’t a lot of evidence to suggest these types of procedures are overly risky. It’s not that they don’t have risk, but everything in medicine does. If you’re a patient who has absolutely no alternative, you’re probably willing to take the chance.

Young man with spinal cord injury regains use of hands and arms after stem cell therapy

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Kris Boesen – Photo courtesy USC

Hope is such a fragile thing. We cling to it in bad times. It offers us a sense that we can bear whatever hardships we are facing today, and that tomorrow will be better.

Kris Boesen knows all about holding on to hope during bad times. On March 6th of this year he was left paralyzed from the neck down after a car accident. Kris and his parents were warned the damage might be permanent.

Kris says at that point, life was pretty bleak:

“I couldn’t drink, couldn’t feed myself, couldn’t text or pretty much do anything, I was basically just existing. I wasn’t living my life, I was existing.”

For Kris and his family hope came in the form of a stem cell clinical trial, run by Asterias Biotherapeutics and funded by CIRM. The Asterias team had already enrolled three patients in the trial, each of whom had 2 million cells transplanted into their necks, primarily to test for safety. In early April Kris became the first patient in the trial to get a transplant of 10 million stem cells.

Within two weeks he began to show signs of improvement, regaining movement and strength in his arms and hands:

“Now I have grip strength and do things like open a bottle of soda and feed myself. Whereas before I was relying on my parents, now after the stem cell therapy I am able to live my life.”

The therapy involves human embryonic stem cells that have been differentiated, or converted, into cells called oligodendrocyte progenitors. These are capable of becoming the kind of cells which help protect nerve cells in the central nervous system, the area damaged in spinal cord injury.

The surgery was performed by Keck Medicine of USC’s Dr. Charles Liu. In a news release about the procedure, he says improvements of the kind Kris has experienced can make a huge difference in someone’s life:

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Dr. Charles Liu, Keck School of Medicine: Photo courtesy USC

“As of 90 days post-treatment, Kris has gained significant improvement in his motor function, up to two spinal cord levels. In Kris’ case, two spinal cord levels means the difference between using your hands to brush your teeth, operate a computer or do other things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do, so having this level of functional independence cannot be overstated.”

We blogged about this work as recently as last week, when Asterias announced that the trial had passed two important safety hurdles.  But Kris’ story is the first to suggest this treatment might actually be working.

Randy Mills, CIRM’s President & CEO, says:

 “With each patient treated in this clinical trial we learn.  We gain more experience, all of which helps us put into better context the significance of this type of event for all people afflicted with debilitating spinal cord injuries. But let us not lose sight of the individual here.  While each participant in a clinical trial is part of the group, for them success is binary.  They either improve or they do not.  Kris bravely and selflessly volunteered for this clinical trial so that others may benefit from what we learn.  So it is fitting that today we celebrate Kris’ improvements and stop to thank all those participating in clinical trials for their selfless efforts.”

For patient advocates like Roman Reed, this was a moment to celebrate. Roman has been championing stem cell research for years and through his Roman Reed Foundation helped lay the groundwork for the research that led to this clinical trial:

This is clear affirmative affirmation that we are making Medical History!  We were able to give a paralyzed quadriplegic patient back the use of his hands! With only half a clinical dosage. Now this person may hold and grasp his loved ones hands in his own hands because of the actions of our last two decades for medical research for paralysis CURE! CARPE DIEM!”

It’s not unheard of for people with the kind of injury Kris had to make a partial recovery, to regain some use of their arms and hands, so it’s impossible to know right now if the stem cell transplant was the deciding factor.

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Kris at home: photo courtesy USC

Kris’ dad, Rodney, says he doesn’t care how it happened, he’s just delighted it did:

“He’s going to have a life, even if (the progress) stops just this second, and this is what he has, he’s going to have a better life than he would have definitely had before, because there are so many things that this opens up the world for him, he’s going to be able to use his hands.”

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: functioning liver tissue, making new bone, stem cells and mental health

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Functioning liver tissue. Scientists are looking to stem cells as a potential alternative treatment to liver transplantation for patients with end-stage liver disease. Efforts are still in their early stages but a study published this week in Stem Cells Translational Medicine, shows how a CIRM-funded team at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) successfully generated partially functional liver tissue from mouse and human stem cells.

Biodegradable scaffold (left) and human tissue-engineered liver (right) (Photo courtesy of The Saban Research Institute at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles)

Biodegradable scaffold (left) and human tissue-engineered liver (right) (Photo courtesy of The Saban Research Institute at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles)

The lab had previously developed a protocol to make intestinal organoids from mouse and human stem cells. They were able to tweak the protocol to generate what they called liver organoid units and transplanted the tissue-engineered livers into mice. The transplants developed cells and structures found in normal healthy livers, but their organization was different – something that the authors said they would address in future experiments.

Impressively, when the tissue-engineered liver was transplanted into mice with liver failure, the transplants had some liver function and the liver cells in these transplants were able to grow and regenerate like in normal livers.

In a USC press release, Dr. Kasper Wang from CHLA and the Keck school of medicine at USC commented:

“A cellular therapy for liver disease would be a game-changer for many patients, particularly children with metabolic disorders. By demonstrating the ability to generate hepatocytes comparable to those in native liver, and to show that these cells are functional and proliferative, we’ve moved one step closer to that goal.”

 

Making new bone. Next up is a story about making new bone from stem cells. A group at UC San Diego published a study this week in the journal Science Advances detailing a new way to make bone forming cells called osteoblasts from human pluripotent stem cells.

Stem cell-derived osteoblasts (bone cells). Image credit Varghese lab/UCSD.

Stem cell-derived osteoblasts (bone cells). Image credit Varghese lab/UCSD.

One way that scientists can turn pluripotent stem cells into mature cells like bone is to culture the stem cells in a growth medium supplemented with small molecules that can influence the fate of the stem cells. The group discovered that by adding a single molecule called adenosine to the growth medium, the stem cells turned into osteoblasts that developed vascularized bone tissue.

When they transplanted the stem cell-derived osteoblasts into mice with bone defects, the transplanted cells developed new bone tissue and importantly didn’t develop tumors.

 In a UC newsroom release, senior author on the study and UC San Diego Bioengineering Professor Shyni Varghese concluded:

“It’s amazing that a single molecule can direct stem cell fate. We don’t need to use a cocktail of small molecules, growth factors or other supplements to create a population of bone cells from human pluripotent stem cells like induced pluripotent stem cells.”

 

Stem cells and mental health. Brad Fikes from the San Diego Union Tribune wrote a great article on a new academic-industry partnership whose goal is to use human stem cells to find new drugs for mental disorders. The project is funded by a $15.4 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Academic scientists, including Rusty Gage from the Salk Institute and Hongjun Song from Johns Hopkins University, are collaborating with pharmaceutical company Janssen and Cellular Dynamics International to develop induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from patients with mental disorders like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The scientists will generate brain cells from the iPSCs and then work with the companies to test for potential drugs that could be used to treat these disorders.

In the article, Fred Gage explained that the goal of this project will be used to help patients rather than generate data points:

Rusty Gage, Salk Institute.

Rusty Gage, Salk Institute.

“Gage said the stem cell project is focused on getting results that make a difference to patients, not simply piling up research information. Being able to replicate results is critical; Gage said. Recent studies have found that many research findings of potential therapies don’t hold up in clinical testing. This is not only frustrating to patients, but failed clinical trials are expensive, and must be paid for with successful drugs.”

“The future of this will require more patients, replication between labs, and standardization of the procedures used.”

Clearing the first hurdle: spinal cord injury trial passes safety review

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Jake Javier, participant in Asterias clinica trial

Starting a clinical trial is like taking a step into the unknown. It’s moving a potential therapy out of the lab and testing it in people. To reach this point the researchers have done a lot of work trying to ensure the therapy is safe. But that work was done in the lab, and on mice or other animals. Now it’s time to see what happens when you try it in the real world.

It can be quite nerve wracking for everyone involved: both the researchers, because years of hard work are at stake, and the patients, because they’re getting something that has never been tested in humans before; something that could, potentially, change their lives.

Today we got some good news about one clinical trial we are funding, the Asterias Biotherapeutics spinal cord injury trial. Asterias announced that its Data Monitoring Committee (DMC) has reviewed the safety data from the first two groups of patients treated and found no problems or bad side effects.

That’s an important first step in any clinical trial because it shows that, at the very least, the therapy is not going to make the patient’s condition any worse.

The big question now, is will it make their condition better? That’s something we’ll come back to at a later date when we have a better idea how the people treated in the trial are doing. But for now let’s take a deeper dive into the safety data.

Asterias – by the numbers

This current trial is a Phase 1/2a trial. The people enrolled have all experienced injuries in the C5-C7 vertebrae – that’s high up in the neck – and have essentially lost all feeling and movement below the injury site. All are treated between two weeks and one month after the injury was sustained.

The therapy involves transplants of Asterias’ AST-OPC1 cells which were made from human embryonic stem cells. The AST-OPC1 cells have been turned into oligodendrocyte progenitors, which are capable of becoming the kind of cells which help protect nerve cells in the central nervous system, the area damaged in spinal cord injury.

The first group of three patients in the Asterias trial was given 2 million cells. The second group of five patients received 10 million cells. The DMC said the safety data from those patients looked fine, that there were no signs of problems.

As Dr. Edward Wirth, the Chief Medical Officer at Asterias, said in a news release, this means the company can plan for its next phase:

“The positive safety data in the previous phase 1 study and in the ongoing phase 1/2a study gives us the confidence to now proceed to administration of 20 million cells, which based on our significant pre-clinical research is likely well within the dosing range where we would expect to see clinically meaningful improvement in these patients.”

Asterias is now looking to enroll 5-8 patients for this 20 million cell phase.

jake and family

For people like Jake Javier this news is not about numbers or data, it’s personal. Earlier this summer Jake broke his neck at a pool party, celebrating graduating from high school. It left him paralyzed from the chest down with extremely limited use of his arms and hands. On July 7th Jake was enrolled in the Asterias trial, and had ten million cells transplanted into his neck.

It could be months, even as much as one year, before we know if those cells are having any beneficial effect on Jake. But at least for now we know they don’t seem to be having any negative effects.

“First do no harm” is the cardinal rule that all budding physicians are taught. This trial seems to be meeting that benchmark. Our hope now is that it will do a lot more, and truly make a difference in the lives of people like Jake.

As Randy Mills, CIRM’s President and CEO, said in a news release:

“I recently met with Jake and heard first-hand what he and his family are going through in the aftermath of his injury. But I also saw a young man with remarkable courage and determination. It is because of Jake, and the others who volunteer to take part in clinical trials, that progress is possible. They are true heroes.”


* On a side note, Roman Reed, a great champion of stem cell research and a patient advocate extraordinaire, helped make much of this story happen. He helped Jake enroll in the Asterias trial ,and the research that led to this therapy was pioneered by Dr. Hans Keirstead who was funded by the Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act.

 

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Here’s a new gene editing strategy to treat genetic blood disorders

If you’re taking a road trip across the country, you have a starting point and an ending point. How you go from point A to point B could be one of a million different routes, but the ultimate outcome is the same: reaching your final destination.

Yesterday scientists from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital published exciting findings in the journal Nature Medicine on a new gene editing strategy that could offer a different route for treating genetic blood disorders such as sickle cell disease (SCD) and b-thalassemia.

The scientists used a gene editing tool called CRISPR. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about CRISPR in the general media as the next, hot technology that could possibly help bring cures for serious diseases.

In simple terms, CRISPR acts as molecular scissors that facilitate cutting and pasting of DNA sequences at specific locations in the genome. For blood diseases like SCD and b-thalassemia, in which blood cells have abnormal hemoglobin, CRISPR gene editing offers ways to turn on and off genes that cause the clinical symptoms of these diseases.

Fetal vs. Adult hemoglobin

Before I get into the meat of this story, let’s take a moment to discuss hemoglobin. What is it? It’s a protein found in red blood cells that transports oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Hemoglobin is made up of different subunits and the composition of these hemoglobin subunits change as newborns develop into adults.

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Healthy red blood cell (left), sickle cell (right).

Fetal hemoglobin (HbF) is comprised of a and g subunits while adult hemoglobin (HbA) is typically comprised of a and b subunits. Patients with SCD and b-thalassemia typically have mutations in the b globin gene. In SCD, this causes blood cells to take on an unhealthy, sickle cell shape that can clog vessels and eventually cause premature death. In b-thalassemia, the b-globin gene isn’t synthesized into protein at the proper levels and patients suffer from anemia (low red blood cell count).

One way that scientists are attempting to combat the negative side effects of mutant HbF is to tip the scales towards maintaining expression of the fetal g-globin gene. The idea spawned from individuals with hereditary persistence of fetal hemoglobin (HPFH), a condition where the hemoglobin composition fails to transition from HbF to HbA, leaving high levels of HbF in adult blood. Individuals who have HPFH and are predisposed to SCD or b-thalassemia amazingly don’t have clinical symptoms, suggesting that HbF plays either a protective or therapeutic role.

The current study is taking advantage of this knowledge in their attempt to treat blood disorders. Mitchell Weiss, senior author on the study and chair of the St. Jude Department of Hematology, explained the thought process behind their study:

“It has been known for some time that individuals with genetic mutations that persistently elevate fetal hemoglobin are resistant to the symptoms of sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia, genetic forms of severe anemia that are common in many regions of the world. We have found a way to use CRISPR gene editing to produce similar benefits.”

CRISPRing blood stem cells for therapeutic purposes

Weiss and colleagues engineered red blood cells to have elevated levels of HbF in hopes of preventing symptoms of SCD. They used CRISPR to create a small deletion in a sequence of DNA, called a promoter, that controls expression of the hemoglobin g subunit 1 (HBG1) gene. The deletion elevates the levels of HbF in blood cells and closely mimics genetic mutations found in HPFH patients.

Weiss further explained the genome editing process in a news release:

Mitchell Weiss

Mitchell Weiss

“Our work has identified a potential DNA target for genome editing-mediated therapy and offers proof-of-principle for a possible approach to treat sickle cell and beta-thalassemia. We have been able to snip that DNA target using CRISPR, remove a short segment in a “control section” of DNA that stimulates gamma-to-beta switching, and join the ends back up to produce sustained elevation of fetal hemoglobin levels in adult red blood cells.”

The scientists genetically modified hematopoietic stem cells and blood progenitor cells from healthy individuals to make sure that their CRISPR gene editing technique was successful. After modifying the stem cells, they matured them into red blood cells in the lab and observed that the levels of HbF increased from 5% to 20%.

Encouraged by these results, they tested the therapeutic potential of their CRISPR strategy on hematopoietic stem cells from three SCD patients. While 25% of unmodified SCD blood stem cells developed red blood cells with a sickle cell shape under low-oxygen conditions (to induce stress), CRISPR edited SCD stem cells generated way fewer sickle cells (~4%) and had a higher level of HbF expression.

Many routes, one destination

The authors concluded that their genome editing technique is successful at switching hemoglobin expression from the adult form back to the fetal form. With further studies and safety testing, this strategy could be one day be developed into a treatment for patients with SCD and b-thalassemia

But the authors were also humble in their findings and admitted that there are many different genome editing strategies or routes for developing therapies for inherited blood diseases.

“Our results represent an additional approach to these existing innovative strategies and compare favorably in terms of the levels of fetal hemoglobin that are produced by our experimental system.”

My personal opinion is the more strategies thrown into the pipeline the better. As things go in science, many of these strategies won’t be successful in reaching the final destination of curing one of these diseases, but with more shots on goal, our chances of developing a treatment that works there are a lot higher.


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Unlocking the secrets of how stem cells decide what kind of cell they’re going to be

Laszlo Nagy, Ph.D., M.D.

Laszlo Nagy, Ph.D., M.D.: Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute

Before joining CIRM I thought OCT4 was a date on the calendar. But a new study says it may be a lot closer to a date with destiny, because this study says OCT4 helps determine what kinds of cell a stem cell will become.

Now, before we go any further I should explain for people who have as strong a science background as I do – namely none – that OCT4 is a transcription factor, this is a protein that helps regulate gene activity by turning certain genes on at certain points, and off at others.

The new study, by researches at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP), found that OCT4 plays a critical role in priming genes that cause stem cells to differentiate or change into other kinds of cells.

Why is this important? Well, as we search for new ways of treating a wide variety of different diseases we need to find the most efficient and effective way of turning stem cells into the kind of cells we need to regenerate or replace damaged tissue. By understanding the mechanisms that determine how a stem cell differentiates, we can better understand what we need to do in the lab to generate the specific kinds of cells needed to replace those damaged by, say, heart disease or cancer.

The study, published in the journal Molecular Cell, shows how OCT4 works with other transcription factors, sometimes directing a cell to go in one direction, sometimes in another. For example, it collaborates with a vitamin A (aka retinoic acid) receptor (RAR) to convert a stem cell into a neuronal precursor, a kind of early stage brain cell. However, if OCT4 interacts with another transcription factor called beta-catenin then the stem cell goes in another regulatory direction altogether.

In an interview with PhysOrg News, senior author Laszlo Nagy said this finding could help develop more effective methods for producing specific cell types to be used in therapies:

“Our findings suggest a general principle for how the same differentiation signal induces distinct transitions in various types of cells. Whereas in stem cells, OCT4 recruits the RAR to neuronal genes, in bone marrow cells, another transcription factor would recruit RAR to genes for the granulocyte program. Which factors determine the effects of differentiation signals in bone marrow cells – and other cell types – remains to be determined.”

In a way it’s like programming all the different devices that are attached to your TV at home. If you hit a certain combination of buttons you get to one set of stations, hit another combination and you get to Netflix. Same basic set up, but completely different destinations.

“In a sense, we’ve found the code for stem cells that links the input—signals like vitamin A and Wnt—to the output—cell type. Now we plan to explore whether other transcription factors behave similarly to OCT4—that is, to find the code in more mature cell types.”

 

 

Cloning breakthrough: Dolly the sheep has sister clones and they’re healthy

On the topic of famous farm animals, a few come to mind: Babe the pig, Old Yeller, Mr. Ed, and the cast of Charlotte’s Web. Many of us grew up with these fictional characters and hold them near and dear to our heart, but what about real, living farm animals? The first that comes to my mind is Dolly the sheep.

Back in 1996, scientists made a major breakthrough when they cloned a sheep which they named after the famous singer and actress Dolly Parton. This famous sheep was born in a test tube – a product of a scientific process called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). It involves transferring the nucleus (which contains a cell’s genetic material) from an adult cell – a mammary gland cell in the case of Dolly – into an unfertilized egg cell that has had its own nucleus removed. Much like jumping a car, scientists use an electric shock to trigger the egg cell to divide and develop into an embryo that has the exact genetic makeup as the original organism it was derived from.

Are cloned animals healthy?

SCNT is a very inefficient process with a high failure rate during embryonic and fetal development. Dolly was a huge achievement for scientists as she was the first mammal to be successfully cloned using SCNT. Unfortunately, even though Dolly lived to the age of six and a half years, she wasn’t the healthiest of sheep. She suffered from a severe form of arthritis and tumors in her lungs and was eventually put down to relieve her from pain. Scientists hypothesized that the lung cancer was likely caused by a common virus that infects sheep, but they questioned whether some of Dolly’s other symptoms were caused by accelerated aging resulting from the cloning process.

Whether cloned animals are physically healthy and age normally are questions that have spurred much debate amongst scientists since Dolly’s inception. Further experiments have shown that cloned mammals that survive past their infancy are typically healthy, but some experiments in mice showed that cloned mice tended to be more obese, have diabetic symptoms, and live shorter lives. Concerns about the safety of cloning prompted many countries to ban reproductive cloning in mammals until more was known about the process.

Good news for Dolly’s sisters

Dolly’s 20th anniversary since her birth was earlier this year, and in celebration, many journals and news outlets wrote about the progress of SCNT and cloning over the past two decades. This week, a new study added an exciting new chapter to these recent stories about Dolly.

Published in Nature Communications, scientists from the University of Nottingham in Britain reported that cloned sheep are healthy and live normal lives. They studied 13 cloned sheep, four of which were Dolly’s sisters cloned from the same mammary gland cell line as Dolly. These sheep were between 7-9 years of age which is near the end of a healthy sheep’s average lifespan of 10 years.

Cloned sheep, sisters to the famous Dolly the Sheep. (University of Nottingham)

Cloned sheep, sisters to the famous Dolly the Sheep. (University of Nottingham)

The scientists wanted to know whether cloning had any negative impact on the health and lifespan of these sheep. Lead author on the study, Dr. Kevin Sinclair, explained to the Washington Post:

“When we did the study, these clones were already 2½ years older than Dolly was when she died. And they appeared to be perfectly healthy, but we wanted to see if they might be harboring subtle defects.”

They conducted studies that assessed symptoms typically caused by aging in both humans and sheep. These included tests for blood pressure, insulin sensitivity, arthritis, and heart disease. They also conducted MRI scans and X-rays to look at the integrity of their bones, joints, and muscles.

On the whole, the sheep were healthy and their tests yielded normal results. A few of the cloned sheep had early signs of arthritis, but their conditions were similar to normal non-cloned sheep of the same age. The scientists concluded that there were no obvious signs of premature aging in this group of cloned sheep and that the cloning process did not have negative effects on the health and lifespan of these animals.

“It was quite obvious that the concerns of Dolly just didn’t relate,” Sinclair said. “So you can’t extend beyond the Dolly experience and say this premature aging applies to all clones.”

Cloning breakthrough but questions remain about safety

This study, which many scientists are considering as a “breakthrough in cloning”, has received a lot of attention in the media from major news outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, Statnews, and NPR.

The New York Times piece does a great job of discussing how the advancements in cloning could have positive impacts on reproductive technology, the farming industry (raising cloned farm animals as a food source), therapeutic development, and saving endangered species. But the article also balances this optimism with caution over the safety and ethics behind reproductive cloning. They posed the cloning safety question to Dr. Sinclair, the lead author on the study, whose response was positive but referenced the remaining issue of cloning being an inefficient process:

“If they [cloned sheep] could speak, they would say ‘yes; it’s perfectly safe. They’re perfectly healthy, and they’re old ladies now, and for them, their whole process worked perfectly. But there are others who struggled to adapt after birth.”

The STATNews piece also made a good point that further scientific studies on the cloned sheep need to be done to test for molecular signs of aging such as shortened telomeres, before the scientists can truly claim that these sheep are living normal healthy lives. The cloned sheep probably will live for another year at which point the scientists said they will conduct further experiments to look for other signs of aging at the cellular level.

CIRM Board targets diabetes and kidney disease with big stem cell research awards

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A recent study  estimated there may be more than 500 million people worldwide who have diabetes. That’s an astounding figure and makes diabetes one of the largest chronic disease epidemics in human history.

One of the most serious consequences of untreated or uncontrolled diabetes is kidney damage. That can lead to fatigue, weakness, confusion, kidney failure and even death. So two decisions taken by the CIRM Board today were good news for anyone already suffering from either diabetes or kidney disease. Or both.

The Board awarded almost $10 million to Humacyte to run a Phase 3 clinical trial of an artificial vein needed by people undergoing hemodialysis – that’s the most common form of dialysis for people with kidney damage. Hemodialysis helps clean out impurities and toxins from the blood. Without it waste will build up in the kidneys with devastating consequences.

The artificial vein is a kind of bioengineered blood vessel. It is implanted in the individual’s arm and, during dialysis, is connected to a machine to move the blood out of the body, through a filter, and then back into the body. The current synthetic version of the vein is effective but is prone to clotting and infections, and has to be removed regularly. All this puts the patient at risk.

Humacyte’s version – called a human acellular vessel or HAV – uses human cells from donated aortas that are then seeded onto a biodegradable scaffold and grown in the lab to form the artificial vein. When fully developed the structure is then “washed” to remove all the cellular tissue, leaving just a collagen tube. That is then implanted in the patient, and their own stem cells grow onto it, essentially turning it into their own tissue.

In earlier studies Humacyte’s HAV was shown to be safer and last longer than current versions. As our President and CEO, Randy Mills, said in a news release, that’s clearly good news for patients:

“This approach has the potential to dramatically improve our ability to care for people with kidney disease. Being able to reduce infections and clotting, and increase the quality of care the hemodialysis patients get could have a significant impact on not just the quality of their life but also the length of it.”

There are currently almost half a million Americans with kidney disease who are on dialysis. Having something that makes life easier, and hopefully safer, for them is a big plus.

The Humacyte trial is looking to enroll around 350 patients at three sites in California; Sacramento, Long Beach and Irvine.

While not all people with diabetes are on dialysis, they all need help maintaining healthy blood sugar levels, particularly people with type 1 diabetes. That’s where the $3.9 million awarded to ViaCyte comes in.

We’re already funding a clinical trial with ViaCyte  using an implantable delivery system containing stem cell-derived cells that is designed to measure blood flow, detect when blood sugar is low, then secrete insulin to restore it to a healthy level.

This new program uses a similar device, called a PEC-Direct. Unlike the current clinical trial version, the PEC-Direct allows the patient’s blood vessels to directly connect, or vasularize, with the cells inside it. ViaCyte believes this will allow for a more robust engraftment of the stem cell-derived cells inside it and that those cells will be better able to produce the insulin the body needs.

Because it allows direct vascularization it means that people who get the delivery system  will also need to get chronic immune suppression to stop their body’s immune system attacking it. For that reason it will be used to treat patients with type 1 diabetes that are at high risk for acute complications such as severe hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) events associated with hypoglycemia unawareness syndrome.

In a news release Paul Laikind, Ph.D., President and CEO of ViaCyte, said this approach could help patients most at risk.

“This high-risk patient population is the same population that would be eligible for cadaver islet transplants, a procedure that can be highly effective but suffers from a severe lack of donor material. We believe PEC-Direct could overcome the limitations of islet transplant by providing an unlimited supply of cells, manufactured under cGMP conditions, and a safer, more optimal route of administration.”

The Board also approved more than $13.6 million in awards under our Discovery program. You can see the winners here.

 

CIRM-funded stem cell clinical trial for retinitis pigmentosa focuses on next stage

rp1

How retinitis pigmentosa erodes normal vision

The failure rate for clinical trials is depressingly high. A study from Tufts University in 2010  found that for small molecules – the substances that make up more than 90 percent of the drugs on the market today – the odds of getting from a Phase 1 trial to approval by the Food and Drug Administration are just 13 percent. For stem cell therapies the odds are even lower.

That’s why, whenever a stem cell therapy shows good results it’s an encouraging sign, particularly when that therapy is one that we at CIRM are funding. So we were more than a little happy to hear that Dr. Henry Klassen and his team at jCyte and the University of California, Irvine have apparently cleared the first hurdle with their treatment for retinitis pigmentosa (RP).

jCyte has announced that the first nine patients treated for RP have shown no serious side effects, and they are now planning the next phase of their Phase 1/2a safety trial.

In a news release Klassen, the co-founder of jCyte, said:

“We are pleased with the results. Retinitis pigmentosa is an incurable retinal disease that first impacts people’s night vision and then progressively robs them of sight altogether. This is an important milestone in our effort to treat these patients.”

The therapy involves injecting human retinal progenitor cells into one eye to help save the light sensing cells that are destroyed by the disease. This enables the researchers to compare the treated eye with the untreated eye to see if there are any changes or improvements in vision.

So far, the trial has undergone four separate reviews by the Data Safety Monitoring Board (DSMB), an independent group of experts that examines data from trials to ensure they meet all safety standards and that results show patients are not in jeopardy. Results from the first nine people treated are encouraging.

The approach this RP trial is taking has a couple of advantages. Often when transplanting organs or cells from one person into another, the recipient has to undergo some kind of immunosuppression, to stop their body rejecting the transplant. But earlier studies show that transplanting these kinds of progenitor cells into the eye doesn’t appear to cause any immunological response. That means patients in the study don’t have to undergo any immunosuppression. Because of that, the procedure is relatively simple to perform and can be done in a doctor’s office rather than a hospital. For the estimated 1.5 million people worldwide who have RP that could make getting treatment relatively easy.

Of course the big question now is not only was it safe – it appears to be – but does it work? Did any of those people treated experience improvements in their vision? We will share those results with you as soon as the researchers make them available.

Next step for the clinical trial is to recruit more patients, and treat them with a higher number of cells. There’s still a long way to go before we will know if this treatment works, if it either slows down, stops, or better still helps reverse some of the effects of RP. But this is a really encouraging first step.


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Salk Scientists Unlock New Secrets of Autism Using Human Stem Cells

Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder whose mental, physical, social and emotional symptoms are highly variable from person to person. Because individuals exhibit different combinations and severities of symptoms, the concept of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is now used to define the range of conditions.

There are many hypotheses for why autism occurs in humans (which some estimates suggest now affects around 3.5 million people in the US). Some of the disorders are thought to be at the cellular level, where nerve cells do not develop normally and organize properly in the brain, and some are thought to be at the molecular level where the building blocks in cells don’t function properly. Scientists have found these clues by using tools such as studying human genetics and animal models, imaging the brains of ASD patients, and looking at the pathology of ASD brains to see what has gone wrong to cause the disease.

Unfortunately, these tools alone are not sufficient to recreate all aspects of ASD. This is where cellular models have stepped in to help. Scientists are now developing human stem cell derived models of ASD to create “autism in a dish” and are finding that the nerve cells in these models show characteristics of these disorders.

Stem cell models of autism and ASD

We’ve reported on some of these studies in previous blogs. A group from UCSD lead by CIRM grantee Alysson Muotri used induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS cells to model non-syndromic autism (where autism is the primary diagnosis). The work has been dubbed the “Tooth Fairy Project” – parents can send in their children’s recently lost baby teeth which contain cells that can be reprogrammed into iPS cells that can then be turned into brain cells that exhibit symptoms of autism. By studying iPS cells from individuals with non-syndromic autism, the team found a mutation in the TRPC6 gene that was linked to abnormal brain cell development and function and is also linked to Rett syndrome – a rare form of autism predominantly seen in females.

Another group from Yale generated “mini-brains” or organoids derived from the iPS cells of ASD patients. They specifically found that ASD mini-brains had an increased number of a type of nerve cell called inhibitory neurons and that blocking the production of a protein called FOXG1 returned these nerve cells back to their normal population count.

Last week, a group from the Salk Institute in collaboration with scientists at UC San Diego published findings about another stem cell model for ASD that offers new clues into the early neurodevelopmental defects seen in ASD patients.  This CIRM-funded study was led by senior author Rusty Gage and was published last week in the Nature journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Unlocking clues to autism using patient stem cells

Gage and his team were fascinated by the fact that as many as 30 percent of people with ASD experience excessive brain growth during early in development. The brains of these patients have more nerve cells than healthy individuals of the same age, and these extra nerve cells fail to organize properly and in some cases form too many nerve connections that impairs their overall function.

To understand what is going wrong in early stages of ASD, Gage generated iPS cells from ASD individuals who experienced abnormal brain growth at an early age (their brains had grown up to 23 percent faster when they were toddlers compared to normal toddlers). They closely studied how these ASD iPS cells developed into brain stem cells and then into nerve cells in a dish and compared their developmental progression to that of healthy iPS cells from normal individuals.

Neurons derived from people with ASD (bottom) form fewer inhibitory connections (red) compared to those derived from healthy individuals (top panel). (Salk Institute)

Neurons derived from people with ASD (bottom) form fewer inhibitory connections (red) compared to those derived from healthy individuals (top panel). (Salk Institute)

They quickly observed a problem with neurogenesis – a term used to describe how brain stem cells multiply and create new nerve cells in the brain. Brain stem cells derived from ASD iPS cells displayed more neurogenesis than normal brain stem cells, and thus were creating an excess amount of nerve cells. The scientists also found that the extra nerve cells failed to form as many synaptic connections with each other, an essential process that allows nerve cells to send signals and form a functional network of communication, and also behaved abnormally and overall had less activity compared to healthy neurons. Interestingly, they saw fewer inhibitory neuron connections in ASD neurons which is contrary to what the Yale study found.

The abnormal activity observed in ASD neurons was partially corrected when they treated the nerve cells with a drug called IGF-1, which is currently being tested in clinical trials as a possible treatment for autism. According to a Salk news release, “the group plans to use the patient cells to investigate the molecular mechanisms behind IGF-1’s effects, in particular probing for changes in gene expression with treatment.”

Will stem cells be the key to understanding autism?

It’s clear that human iPS cell models of ASD are valuable in helping tease apart some of the mechanisms behind this very complicated group of disorders. Gage’s opinion is that:

“This technology allows us to generate views of neuron development that have historically been intractable. We’re excited by the possibility of using stem cell methods to unravel the biology of autism and to possibly screen for new drug treatments for this debilitating disorder.”

However, to me it’s also clear that different autism stem cell models yield different results, but these differences are likely due to which populations the iPS cells are derived from. Creating more cell lines from different ASD subpopulations will surely answer more questions about the developmental differences and differences in brain function seen in adults.

Lastly, one of the co-authors on the study, Carolina Marchetto, made a great point in the Salk news release by acknowledging that their findings are based on studying cells in a dish, not actual patient’s brains. However, Marchetto believes that these cells are useful tools for studying autism:

“It never fails to amaze me when we can see similarities between the characteristics of the cells in the dish and the human disease.”

Rusty Gage and Carolina Marchetto. (Salk Institute)

Rusty Gage and Carolina Marchetto. (Salk Institute)


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