Getting the inside scoop on the stem cell agency

There’s a wonderful moment at the end of the movie The Candidate (starring Robert Redford, 87% approval on Rotten Tomatoes!) about a modern political campaign for a US Senate seat. Redford (spoiler alert) plays a come-from-behind candidate and at the end when he wins he turns to his campaign manager and says “Now what?”.

I think that’s how a lot of people associated with Proposition 71 felt when it was approved by California voters in 2004, creating CIRM. Now what? During the campaign you are so focused on crossing the finish line that when the campaign is over you have to pause because you just realized it wasn’t the finishing line, it was actually the starting line.

For us “now what” involved hiring a staff, creating oversight groups of scientists and ethics experts, developing strategies and then mechanisms for funding, and then mechanisms for tracking that funding to make sure it was being used properly. It was creating something from scratch and trying to do something that no state agency had done before.

Fifteen years later we are coming to the end of the funding provided by Prop 71 and that question keeps popping up again, “Now what?” And that’s what we are going to be talking about in our next Facebook Live.

We have three great experts on our panel. They are scientists and researchers and leaders in biotech, but also members of our CIRM Board. We rely on their experience and expertise in making key decisions and you can rely on them to pull back the curtain and talk about the things that matter most to them in helping advance our mission, and in helping secure our legacy.

Anne-Marie Duliege MD, has more than 25 years of experience in the medical world, starting out as a pediatrician and then moving into research. She has experience developing new therapies for auto-immune disorders, lung problems and infectious diseases.

Like Anne-Marie, Joe Panetta, has years of experience working in the research field, and is currently President & CEO of Biocom, the California association that advocates for more than 1,200 companies, universities and research institutes working in biotechnology.

Finally, Dave Martin MD, came to CIRM after stints at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), UC San Francisco, Genentech, Chiron and several other highly-regarded organizations. He is also the co-founder, chairman and CEO of AvidBiotics, a privately held biotechnology company in South San Francisco.

Each brings a different perspective to the work that we do at CIRM, and each enriches it not just with their intelligence and experience, but also with their compassion for the patients and commitment to our mission.

So, join us on Thursday, July 25th from noon till 1pm (PDT) for a special Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team” to understand how we got where we are, how the rest of the field is doing, and what happens next. It promises to be a fascinating hour.

Breaking bad news to stem cell researchers

It’s never easy to tell someone that they are too late, that they missed the deadline. It’s particularly hard when you know that the person you are telling that to has spent years working on a project and now needs money to take it to the next level. But in science, as in life, it’s always better to tell people what they need to know rather than what they would like to hear.

And so, we have posted a notice on our website for researchers thinking about applying for funding that, except in a very few cases, they are too late, that there is no money available for new projects, whether it’s Discovery, Translational or Clinical.

Here’s that notice:

CIRM anticipates that the budget allocation of funds for new awards under the CIRM clinical program (CLIN1, CLIN2 and CLIN3) may be depleted within the next two to three months. CIRM will accept applications for the monthly deadline on June 28, 2019 but will suspend application submissions after that date until further notice. All applicants should note that the review of submitted applications may be halted at any point in the process if funds are depleted prior to completion of the 3-month review cycle. CIRM will notify applicants of such an occurrence. Therefore, submission and acceptance of an application to CIRM does not guarantee the availability of funds or completion of a review cycle.

The submission of applications for the CIRM/NHLBI Cure Sickle Cell Initiative (CLIN1 SCD, CLIN2 SCD) are unaffected and application submissions for this program will remain open.

We do, of course, have enough money set aside to continue funding all the projects our Board has already approved, but we don’t have money for new projects (except for some sickle cell disease projects).

In truth our funding has lasted a lot longer than anyone anticipated. When Proposition 71 was approved the plan was to give CIRM $300 million a year for ten years. That was back in 2004. So what happened?

Well, in the early years stem cell science was still very much in its infancy with most of the work being done at a basic or Discovery level. Those typically don’t require very large sums so we were able to fund many projects without hitting our $300m target. As the field progressed, however, more and more projects were at the clinical trial stage and those need multiple millions of dollars to be completed. So, the money went out faster.

To date we have funded 55 clinical trials and our early support has helped more than a dozen other projects get into clinical trials. This includes everything from cancer and stroke, to vision loss and diabetes. It’s a good start, but we feel there is so much more to do.

Followers of news about CIRM know there is talk about a possible ballot initiative next year that would provide another $5.5 billion in funding for us to help complete the mission we have started.

Over the years we have built a pipeline of promising projects and without continued support many of those projects face a difficult future. Funding at the federal level is under threat and without CIRM there will be a limited number of funding alternatives for them to turn to.

Telling researchers we don’t have any money to support their work is hard. Telling patients we don’t have any money to support work that could lead to new treatments for them, that’s hardest of all.

Taking the message to the people: fighting for the future of stem cell research in California

Stem cells have been in the news a lot this week, and not necessarily for the right reason.

First, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) won a big legal decision in its fight to crack down on clinics offering bogus, unproven and unapproved stem cell therapies.

But then came news that another big name celebrity, in this case Star Trek star William Shatner, was going to one of these clinics for an infusion of what he called “restorative cells”.

It’s a reminder that for every step forward we take in trying to educate the public about the dangers of clinics offering unproven therapies, we often take another step back when a celebrity essentially endorses the idea.

So that’s why we are taking our message directly to the people, as often as we can and wherever we can.

In June we are going to be holding a free, public event in Los Angeles to coincide with the opening of the International Society for Stem Cell Research’s Annual Conference, the biggest event on the global stem cell calendar. There’s still time to register for that by the way. The event is from 6-7pm on Tuesday, June 25th in Petree Hall C., at the Los Angeles Convention Center at 1201 South Figueroa Street, LA 90015.

The event is open to everyone and it’s FREE. We have created an Eventbrite page where you can get all the details and RSVP if you are coming.

It’s going to be an opportunity to learn about the real progress being made in stem cell research, thanks in no small part to CIRM’s funding. We’re honored to be joined by UCLA’s Dr. Don Kohn, who has helped cure dozens of children born with a fatal immune system disorder called severe combined immunodeficiency, also known as “bubble baby disease”. And we’ll hear from the family of one of those children whose life he helped save.

And because CIRM is due to run out of money to fund new projects by the end of this year you’ll also learn about the very real concerns we have about the future of stem cell research in California and what can be done to address those concerns. It promises to be a fascinating evening.

But that’s not all. Our partners at USC will be holding another public event on stem cell research, on Wednesday June 26th from 6.30p to 8pm. This one is focused on treatments for age-related blindness. This features some of the top stem cell scientists in the field who are making encouraging progress in not just slowing down vision loss, but in some cases even reversing it.

You can find out more about that event here.

We know that we face some serious challenges in trying to educate people about the risks of going to a clinic offering unproven therapies. But we also know we have a great story to tell, one that shows how we are already changing lives and saving lives, and that with the support of the people of California we’ll do even more in the years to come.

Rare Disease Gets Big Boost from California’s Stem Cell Agency

UC Irvine’s Dr. Leslie Thompson and patient advocate Frances Saldana after the CIRM Board vote to approve funding for Huntington’s disease

If you were looking for a poster child for an unmet medical need Huntington’s disease (HD) would be high on the list. It’s a devastating disease that attacks the brain, steadily destroying the ability to control body movement and speech. It impairs thinking and often leads to dementia. It’s always fatal and there are no treatments that can stop or reverse the course of the disease. Today the Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) voted to support a project that shows promise in changing that.

The Board voted to approve $6 million to enable Dr. Leslie Thompson and her team at the University of California, Irvine to do the late stage testing needed to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration for permission to start a clinical trial in people. The therapy involves transplanting stem cells that have been turned into neural stem cells which secrete a molecule called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which has been shown to promote the growth and improve the function of brain cells. The goal is to slow down the progression of this debilitating disease.

“Huntington’s disease affects around 30,000 people in the US and children born to parents with HD have a 50/50 chance of getting the disease themselves,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, the President and CEO of CIRM. “We have supported Dr. Thompson’s work for a number of years, reflecting our commitment to helping the best science advance, and are hopeful today’s vote will take it a crucial step closer to a clinical trial.”

Another project supported by CIRM at an earlier stage of research was also given funding for a clinical trial.

The Board approved almost $12 million to support a clinical trial to help people undergoing a kidney transplant. Right now, there are around 100,000 people in the US waiting to get a kidney transplant. Even those fortunate enough to get one face a lifetime on immunosuppressive drugs to stop the body rejecting the new organ, drugs that increase the risk for infection, heart disease and diabetes.  

Dr. Everett Meyer, and his team at Stanford University, will use a combination of healthy donor stem cells and the patient’s own regulatory T cells (Tregs), to train the patient’s immune system to accept the transplanted kidney and eliminate the need for immunosuppressive drugs.

The initial group targeted in this clinical trial are people with what are called HLA-mismatched kidneys. This is where the donor and recipient do not share the same human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), proteins located on the surface of immune cells and other cells in the body. Around 50 percent of patients with HLA-mismatched transplants experience rejection of the organ.

In his application Dr. Meyer said they have a simple goal: “The goal is “one kidney for life” off drugs with safety for all patients. The overall health status of patients off immunosuppressive drugs will improve due to reduction in side effects associated with these drugs, and due to reduced graft loss afforded by tolerance induction that will prevent chronic rejection.”

Midwest universities are making important tools to advance stem cell research

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iPSCs are not just pretty, they’re also pretty remarkable

Two Midwest universities are making headlines for their contributions to stem cell research. Both are developing important tools to advance this field of study, but in two unique ways.

Scientists at the University of Michigan (UM), have compiled an impressive repository of disease-specific stem cell lines. Cell lines are crucial tools for scientists to study the mechanics of different diseases and allows them to do so without animal models. While animal models have important benefits, such as the ability to study a disease within the context of a living mammal, insights gained from such models can be difficult to translate to humans and many diseases do not even have good models to use.

The stem cell lines generated at the Reproductive Sciences Program at UM, are thanks to numerous individuals who donated extra embryos they did not use for in vitro fertilization (IVF). Researchers at UM then screened these embryos for abnormalities associated with different types of disease and generated some 36 different stem cell lines. These have been donated to the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry, and include cell lines for diseases such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s Disease and hemophilia.

Using one such cell line, Dr. Peter Todd at UM, found that the genetic abnormality associated with Fragile X Syndrome, a genetic mutation that results in developmental delays and learning disabilities, can be corrected by using a novel biological tool. Because Fragile X Syndrome does not have a good animal model, this stem cell line was critical for improving our understanding of this disease.

In the next state over, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM), researchers are doing similar work but using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) for their work.

The Human Stem Cell Gene Editing Service has proved to be an important resource in expediting research projects across campus. They use CRISPR-Cas9 technology (an efficient method to mutate or edit the DNA of any organism), to generate human stem cell lines that contain disease specific mutations. Researchers use these cell lines to determine how the mutation affects cells and/or how to correct the cellular abnormality the mutation causes. Unlike the work at UM, these stem cell lines are derived from iPSCs  which can be generated from easy to obtain human samples, such as skin cells.

The gene editing services at UWM have already proved to be so popular in their short existence that they are considering expanding to be able to accommodate off-campus requests. This highlights the extent to which both CRISPR technology and stem cell research are being used to answer important scientific questions to advance our understanding of disease.

CIRM also created an iPSC bank that researchers can use to study different diseases. The  Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell (iPSC) Repository is  the largest repository of its kind in the world and is used by researchers across the globe.

The iPSC Repository was created by CIRM to house a collection of stem cells from thousands of individuals, some healthy, but some with diseases such as heart, lung or liver disease, or disorders such as autism. The goal is for scientists to use these cells to better understand diseases and develop and test new therapies to combat them. This provides an unprecedented opportunity to study the cell types from patients that are affected in disease, but for which cells cannot otherwise be easily obtained in large quantities.

New hope for stem cell therapy in patients with leukemia

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Leukemia white blood cell

Of the many different kinds of cancer that affect humans, leukemia is the most common in young people. As with many types cancer, doctors mostly turn to chemotherapy to treat patients. Chemotherapy, however, comes with its own share of issues, primarily severe side effects and the constant threat of disease recurrence.

Stem cell therapy treatment has emerged as a potential cure for some types of cancer, with leukemia patients being among the first groups of patients to receive this type of treatment. While exciting because of the possibility of a complete cure, stem cell therapy comes with its own challenges. Let’s take a closer look.

Leukemia is characterized by abnormal white blood cells (also known as the many different types of cells that make up our immune system) that are produced at high levels. Stem cell therapy is such an appealing treatment option because it involves replacing the patient’s aberrant blood stem cells with healthy ones from a donor, which provides the possibility of complete and permanent remission for the patient.

Unfortunately, in approximately half of patients who receive this therapy, the donor cells (which turn into immune cells), can also destroy the patients healthy tissue (i.e. liver, skin etc…), because the transplanted blood stem cells recognize patient’s tissue as foreign. While doctors try to lessen this type of response (also known as graft versus host disease (GVHD)), by suppressing the patient’s immune system, this procedure lessens the effectiveness of the stem cell therapy itself.

Now scientists at the University of Zurich have made an important discovery – published in the journal Science Translational Medicine – that could mitigate this potentially fatal response in patients. They found that a molecule called GM-CSF, is a critical mediator of the severity of GVHD. Using a mouse model, they showed that if the donor cells were unable to produce GM-CSF, then mice fared significantly better both in terms of less damage to tissues normally affected by GVHD, such as the skin, and overall survival.

While exciting, the scientists were concerned about narrowing in on this molecule as a potential target to lessen GVHD, because GM-CSF, an important molecule in the immune system, might also be important for ensuring that the donor immune cells do their jobs properly. Reassuringly, the researchers found that blocking GM-CSF’s function had no effect on the ability of the donor cells to exert their anti-cancer effect. This was surprising because previously the ability of donor cells to cause GVHD, versus protect patients from the development of cancer was thought to occur via the same biological mechanisms.

Most excitingly, however, was that finding that high levels of GM-CSF are also observed in patient samples, and that the levels of GM-CSF correlate to the severity of GVHD. Dr. Burkhard Becher and his colleagues, the authors of this study, now want to run a clinical trial to determine whether blocking GM-CSF blocks GVHD in humans like it does in mice. In a press release, Dr. Becher states the importance of these findings:

“If we can stop the graft-versus-host response while preserving the anti-cancer effect, this procedure can be employed much more successfully and with fewer risks to the patient. This therapeutic strategy holds particular promise for patients with the poorest prognosis and highest risk of fatality.”

How stem cells may help children battling birth injuries

From time to time we invite patients or patient advocates to post a guest blog on the Stem Cellar. Today we are featuring Brigitta Burguess, a mother and writer from Michigan, who focuses on pregnancy, parenting, and children with disabilities. Brigitta writes for the HIE Help Center, a website that offers information and supportive resources for families of children with disabilities.

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Because stem cells are the building blocks of the immune system, they possess the ability to develop into other types of cells. You can use stem cells to help repair tissues, organs, and blood vessels, and even treat a host of different diseases. This is done through stem cell harvesting and stem cell therapy. In stem cell therapy, stem cells are injected into injured tissues in the hopes of replacing damaged tissue and preserving existing tissues.

Cord Blood

Every part of the human body contains stem cells. However, many areas of the body do not contain enough stem cells to make harvesting them worthwhile. Cord blood, the leftover blood collected from a baby’s umbilical cord or a mother’s placenta after birth, is especially beneficial because:

  • It provides a rich source of stem cells that can be changed into other types of cells and help to maintain and repair tissues
  • Its stem cells are immature and have not developed the ability to attack foreign cells, which makes them perfect for transplant
  • Its stem cells differ from embryonic stem cells in that they are considered adult stem cells and do not require the destruction of an embryo to harvest
  • It can be used to treat blood disorders, immune deficiencies, and certain cancers
  • Storing cord blood can help family and community members receive gene therapy treatment for the aforementioned conditions and diseases

The Applications of Stem Cell Therapy for Kids

Today, over 2,000 total cord blood stem cell transplants are performed annually, with the total number of cord blood banks worldwide reaching over 150. The innovations in stem cell therapy have made waves over the past four decades. Today, more than 80 difference diseases are being treated with cord blood stem cells.

In 2012, many clinical trials revealed that cord blood transplants were an effective treatment for cerebral palsy. Researchers also believe that cord blood stem cells have great potential in treating the neonatal brain injuries such as hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE). As of right now, there is no indication that stem cell therapy can cure these conditions, but there is some evidence that it can lessen the severity of symptoms.

It is important to note that there is thus far no cure for hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) and resulting motor, cognitive, and/or intellectual disorders. Stem cell therapy seeks to limit the damage caused by HIE and reduce the severity of disabilities caused by HIE, but it is not a cure.

Because stem cell therapy is still in clinical trials, parents should think twice before going down this untested path, as no formal guidelines about administration protocol, dosages, safety, or treatment timeline have yet been established. Clinical trials are important for ensuring that treatments are safe and effective – unregulated treatments bear significant risk.

To learn more about stem cell therapy trials for hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy, please visit the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) Clinical Trial Recruitment Center.

 

Has Regenerative Medicine Come of Age?

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For the past few years the Signals blog site –  which offers an insiders’ perspectives on the world of regenerative medicine and stem cell research – has hosted what it calls a “Blog Carnival”. This is an event where bloggers from across the stem cell field are invited to submit a piece based on a common theme. This year’s theme is “Has Regenerative Medicine Come of Age?” Here’s my take on that question:

Many cultures have different traditions to mark when a child comes of age. A bar mitzvah is a Jewish custom marking a boy reaching his 13th birthday when he is considered accountable for his own actions. Among Latinos in the US a quinceañera is the name given to the coming-of-age celebration on a girl’s 15th birthday.

Regenerative Medicine (RM) doesn’t have anything quite so simple or obvious, and yet the signs are strong that if RM hasn’t quite come of age, it’s not far off.

For example, look at our experience at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). When we were created by the voters of California in 2004 the world of stem cell research was still at a relatively immature phase. In fact, CIRM was created just six years after scientists first discovered a way to derive stem cells from human embryos and develop those cells in the laboratory. No surprise then that in the first few years of our existence we devoted a lot of funding to building world class research facilities and investing in basic research, to gain a deeper understanding of stem cells, what they could do and how we could use them to develop therapies.

Fast forward 14 years and we now have funded 49 projects in clinical trials – everything from stroke and cancer to spinal cord injury and HIV/AIDS – and our early funding also helped another 11 projects get into clinical trials. Clearly the field has advanced dramatically.

In addition the FDA last year approved the first two CAR-T therapies – Kymriah and Yescarta – another indication that progress is being made at many levels.

But there is still a lot of work to do. Many of the trials we are funding at the Stem Cell Agency are either Phase 1 or 2 trials. We have only a few Phase 3 trials on our books, a pattern reflected in the wider RM field. For some projects the results are very encouraging – Dr. Gary Steinberg’s work at Stanford treating people recovering from a stroke is tremendously promising. For others, the results are disappointing. We have cancelled some projects because it was clear they were not going to meet their goals. That is to be expected. These clinical trials are experiments that are testing, often for the first time ever in people, a whole new way of treating disease. Failure comes with the territory.

As the number of projects moving out of the lab and into clinical trials increases so too are the other signs of progress in RM. We recently held a workshop bringing together researchers and regulators from all over the world to explore the biggest problems in manufacturing, including how you go from making a small batch of stem cells for a few patients in an early phase clinical trial to mass producing them for thousands, if not millions of patients. We are also working with the National Institutes of Health and other stakeholders in discussing the idea of reimbursement, figuring out who pays for these therapies so they are available to the patients who need them.

And as the field advances so too do the issues we have to deal with. The discovery of the gene-editing tool CRISPR has opened up all sorts of possible new ways of developing treatments for deadly diseases. But it has also opened up a Pandora’s box of ethical issues that the field as a whole is working hard to respond to.

These are clear signs of a maturing field. Five years ago, we dreamed of having these kinds of conversations. Now they are a regular feature of any RM conference.

The simple fact that we can pose a question asking if RM has come of age is a sign all by itself that we are on the way.

Like little kids sitting in the back of a car, anxious to get to their destination, we are asking “Are we there yet?” And as every parent in the front seat of their car responds, “Not yet. But soon.”

Regenerative Medicine by the numbers: a snapshot of how the field is progressing

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Statistics don’t usually make for very exciting blog fodder, but they can be useful in charting progress. Case in point, the recent quarterly report from the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine (ARM), a global advocate and industry group for the field.

In the report ARM takes an in-depth look at cell therapy, gene therapy, tissue engineering and other trends in the regenerative medicine field.

Among the more notable findings are:

  • Companies in the regenerative medicine space collectively raised more than $4.1 billion in the second quarter of this year, up 164 percent over the same period in 2017.
  • Companies focused on cell therapy raised $2.2 billion, up 416 percent over the same period last year.
  • More and more companies in the space are turning to the public markets. So far this year they collectively raised $913.4 million in IPOs (initial public offerings – the very first sale of a company’s stock to the public), up from $254 million during all of last year.
  • Nearly 977 clinical trials testing such therapies are in progress across the globe; more than half of them are trying to treat cancer.

In a news release, Janet Lynch Lambert, ARM’s CEO, was understandably upbeat:

“There has been a tremendous amount of forward momentum during the first half of this year, both clinically and commercially. We’re excited for the continued growth of the regenerative medicine sector, and what it means for patients worldwide.”

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Promising Advances in Alzheimer’s Research Could Create More Advanced Therapy Options

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Photo Courtesy of NIH

New developments in Alzheimer’s research are bringing us closer to more precise therapies for this debilitating disease.

Alzheimer’s disease, is characterized by the formation of amyloid plaques in the brain, which interfere with the normal communication flow between brain cells, leading to debilitating symptoms like memory loss and impaired decision-making. These plaques are made out of beta-amyloid proteins that stick together.

Over the past few years, researchers from several institutions have been working to develop antibodies that bind to and neutralize the toxic effects of the beta-amyloid. The search for effective antibodies, although promising, has been riddled with setbacks. Knowing this, a team of researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA, decided to approach this issue from a different angle – by conducting experiments to identify a better way of targeting beta-amyloid. Their goal was to develop a more efficient antibody to be used in Alzheimer’s therapy.

Principal investigator Dominic Walsh and team came up with a novel technique to collect beta-amyloid and to prepare it in the laboratory.

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Dominic Walsh, PH.D.

“Many different efforts are currently underway to find treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, and anti-[beta-amyloid] antibodies are currently the furthest advanced,” says Walsh. “But the question remains: what are the most important forms of [beta-amyloid] to target? Our study points to some interesting answers,” the lead researcher adds, and these answers are now reported in an open access paper published in the journal Nature Communications.”

Beta-amyloid can be found in many forms. At one end of the spectrum, it exists as a single protein, or monomer, which isn’t necessarily toxic.

At the other end, there is the beta-amyloid plaque, in which many beta-amyloid proteins become tangled together. Beta-amyloid plaques are large enough to be observed using a traditional microscope, and they are involved in the development of Alzheimer’s.

In the current study, as well as in a previous one, Walsh and team looked at beta-amyloid structures to identify the ones that are most harmful in the brain.

Typically specialists use synthetic beta-amyloid samples to create a laboratory model of Alzheimer’s disease in the brain. Very few scientists actually collect beta-amyloid from the brains of individuals diagnosed with the disease.

In the current study, Walsh and team focused on finding better a more specific antibody to target the toxic forms of beta-amyloid but not the less harmful forms. To do so, they developed a novel screening test that requires extracting beta-amyloid from brain samples from people with Alzheimer’s. They added these extracts to induced pluripotent stem cell-derived human neurons and observed the ability of the different antibodies to block the toxic effects of the beta-amyloid.

This screening test allowed the team to discover a particular antibody — called “1C22” — that is able to block toxic forms of beta-amyloid more effectively than other antibodies currently being tested in clinical trials.

Walsh explained the implications of their novel screening method:

“We anticipate that this primary screening technique will be useful in the search to identify more potent anti-[beta-amyloid] therapeutics in the future.”