CIRM Alpha Clinics Network charts a new course for delivering stem cell treatments

Sometimes it feels like finding a cure is the easy part; getting it past all the hurdles it must overcome to be able to reach patients is just as big a challenge. Fortunately, a lot of rather brilliant minds are hard at work to find the most effective ways of doing just that.

Last week, at the grandly titled Second Annual Symposium of the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network, some of those minds gathered to talk about the issues around bringing stem cell therapies to the people who need them, the patients.

The goal of the Alpha Clinics Network is to accelerate the development and delivery of stem cell treatments to patients. In doing that one of the big issues that has to be addressed is cost; how much do you charge for a treatment that can change someone’s life, even save their life? For example, medications that can cure Hepatitis C cost more than $80,000. So how much would a treatment cost that can cure a disease like Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID)? CIRM-funded researchers have come up with a cure for SCID, but this is a rare disease that affects between 40 – 100 newborns every year, so the huge cost of developing this would fall on a small number of patients.

The same approach that is curing SCID could also lead to a cure for sickle cell disease, something that affects around 100,000 people in the US, most of them African Americans. Because we are adding more people to the pool that can be treated by a therapy does that mean the cost of the treatment should go down, or will it stay the same to increase profits?

Jennifer Malin, United Healthcare

Jennifer Malin from United Healthcare did a terrific job of walking us through the questions that have to be answered when trying to decide how much to charge for a drug. She also explored the thorny issue of who should pay; patients, insurance companies, the state? As she pointed out, it’s no use having a cure if it’s priced so high that no one can afford it.

Joseph Alvarnas, the Director of Value-based Analytics at City of Hope – where the conference was held – said that in every decision we make about stem cell therapies we “must be mindful of economic reality and inequality” to ensure that these treatments are available to all, and not just the rich.

“Remember, the decisions we make now will influence not just the lives of those with us today but also the lives of all those to come.”

Of course long before you even have to face the question of who will pay for it, you must have a treatment to pay for. Getting a therapy through the regulatory process is challenging at the best of times. Add to that the fact that many researchers have little experience navigating those tricky waters and you can understand why it takes more than eight years on average for a cell therapy to go from a good idea to a clinical trial (in contrast it takes just 3.2 years for a more traditional medication to get into a clinical trial).

Sunil Kadim, QuintilesIMS

Sunil Kadam from QuintilesIMS talked about the skills and expertise needed to navigate the regulatory pathway. QuintilesIMS partners with CIRM to run the Stem Cell Center, which helps researchers apply for and then run a clinical trial, providing the guidance that is essential to keeping even the most promising research on track.

But, as always, at the heart of every conference, are the patients and patient advocates. They provided the inspiration and a powerful reminder of why we all do what we do; to help find treatments and cures for patients in need.

The Alpha Clinic Network is only a few years old but is already running 35 different clinical trials involving hundreds of patients. The goal of the conference was to discuss lessons learned and share best practices so that number of trials and patients can continue to increase.

The CIRM Board is also doing its part to pick up the pace, approving funding for up to two more Alpha Clinic sites.  The deadline to apply to be one of our new Alpha Clinics sites is May 15th, and you can learn more about how to apply on our funding page.

Since joining CIRM I have been to many conferences but this was, in my opinion, the best one I have ever intended. It brought together people from every part of the field to give the most complete vision for where we are, and where we are headed. The talks were engaging, and inspiring.

Kristin Macdonald was left legally blind by retinitis pigmentosa, a rare vision-destroying disease. A few years ago she became the first person to be treated with a CIRM-funded therapy aimed to restoring some vision. She says it is helping, that for years she lived in a world of darkness and, while she still can’t see clearly, now she can see light. She says coming out of the darkness and into the light has changed her world.

Kristin Macdonald

In the years to come the Alpha Clinics Network hopes to be able to do the same, and much more, for many more people in need.

To read more about the Alpha Clinics Meeting, check out our Twitter Moments.

Stem Cell Stories that Caught our Eye: stem cell insights into anorexia, Zika infection and bubble baby disease

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.

Stem cell model identifies new culprit for anorexia.

Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa are often thought to be caused by psychological disturbances or societal pressure. However, research into the genes of anorexia patients suggests that what’s written in your DNA can be associated with an increased vulnerability to having this disorder. But identifying individual genes at fault for a disease this complex has remained mostly out of scientists’ reach, until now.

A CIRM-funded team from the UC San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine reported this week that they’ve developed a stem cell-based model of anorexia and used it to identify a gene called TACR1, which they believe is associated with an increased likelihood of getting anorexia.

They took skin samples from female patients with anorexia and reprogrammed them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These stem cells contained the genetic information potentially responsible for causing their anorexia. The team matured these iPSCs into brain cells, called neurons, in a dish, and then studied what genes got activated. When they looked at the genes activated by anorexia neurons, they found that TACR1, a gene associated with psychiatric disorders, was switched on higher in anorexia neurons than in healthy neurons. These findings suggest that the TACR1 gene could be an identifier for this disease and a potential target for developing new treatments.

In a UCSD press release, Professor and author on the study, Alysson Muotri, said that they will follow up on their findings by studying stem cell lines derived from a larger group of patients.

Alysson Muotri UC San Diego

“But more to the point, this work helps make that possible. It’s a novel technological advance in the field of eating disorders, which impacts millions of people. These findings transform our ability to study how genetic variations alter brain molecular pathways and cellular networks to change risk of anorexia nervosa — and perhaps our ability to create new therapies.”

Anorexia is a disease that affects 1% of the global population and although therapy can be an effective treatment for some, many do not make a full recovery. Stem cell-based models could prove to be a new method for unlocking new clues into what causes anorexia and what can cure it.

Nature versus Zika, who will win?

Zika virus is no longer dominating the news headlines these days compared to 2015 when large outbreaks of the virus in the Southern hemisphere came to a head. However, the threat of Zika-induced birth defects, like microcephaly to pregnant women and their unborn children is no less real or serious two years later. There are still no effective vaccines or antiviral drugs that prevent Zika infection but scientists are working fast to meet this unmet need.

Speaking of which, scientists at UCLA think they might have a new weapon in the war against Zika. Back in 2013, they reported that a natural compound in the body called 25HC was effective at attacking viruses and prevented human cells from being infected by viruses like HIV, Ebola and Hepatitis C.

When the Zika outbreak hit, they thought that this compound could potentially be effective at preventing Zika infection as well. In their new study published in the journal Immunity, they tested a synthetic version of 25HC in animal and primate models, they found that it protected against infection. They also tested the compound on human brain organoids, or mini brains in a dish made from pluripotent stem cells. Brain organoids are typically susceptible to Zika infection, which causes substantial cell damage, but this was prevented by treatment with 25HC.

Left to right: (1) Zika virus (green) infects and destroys the formation of neurons (pink) in human stem cell-derived brain organoids.  (2) 25HC blocks Zika infection and preserves neuron formation in the organoids. (3) Reduced brain size and structure in a Zika-infected mouse brain. (4) 25HC preserves mouse brain size and structure. Image courtesy of UCLA Stem Cell.

A UCLA news release summarized the impact that this research could have on the prevention of Zika infection,

“The new research highlights the potential use of 25HC to combat Zika virus infection and prevent its devastating outcomes, such as microcephaly. The research team will further study whether 25HC can be modified to be even more effective against Zika and other mosquito-borne viruses.”

Harnessing a naturally made weapon already found in the human body to fight Zika could be an alternative strategy to preventing Zika infection.

Gene therapy in stem cells gives hope to bubble-babies.

Last week, an inspiring and touching story was reported by Erin Allday in the San Francisco Chronicle. She featured Ja’Ceon Golden, a young baby not even 6 months old, who was born into a life of isolation because he lacked a properly functioning immune system. Ja’Ceon had a rare disease called severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), also known as bubble-baby disease.

 

Ja’Ceon Golden is treated by patient care assistant Grace Deng (center) and pediatric oncology nurse Kat Wienskowski. Photo: Santiago Mejia, The Chronicle.

Babies with SCID lack the body’s immune defenses against infectious diseases and are forced to live in a sterile environment. Without early treatment, SCID babies often die within one year due to recurring infections. Bone marrow transplantation is the most common treatment for SCID, but it’s only effective if the patient has a donor that is a perfect genetic match, which is only possible for about one out of five babies with this disease.

Advances in gene therapy are giving SCID babies like Ja’Ceon hope for safer, more effective cures. The SF Chronicle piece highlights two CIRM-funded clinical trials for SCID run by UCLA in collaboration with UCSF and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In these trials, scientists isolate the bone marrow stem cells from SCID babies, correct the genetic mutation causing SCID in their stem cells, and then transplant them back into the patient to give them a healthy new immune system.

The initial results from these clinical trials are promising and support other findings that gene therapy could be an effective treatment for certain genetic diseases. CIRM’s Senior Science Officer, Sohel Talib, was quoted in the Chronicle piece saying,

“Gene therapy has been shown to work, the efficacy has been shown. And it’s safe. The confidence has come. Now we have to follow it up.”

Ja’Ceon was the first baby treated at the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital and so far, he is responding well to the treatment. His great aunt Dannie Hawkins said that it was initially hard for her to enroll Ja’Ceon in this trial because she was a partial genetic match and had the option of donating her own bone-marrow to help save his life. In the end, she decided that his involvement in the trial would “open the door for other kids” to receive this treatment if it worked.

Ja’Ceon Golden plays with patient care assistant Grace Deng in a sterile play area at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital.Photo: Santiago Mejia, The Chronicle

It’s brave patients and family members like Ja’Ceon and Dannie that make it possible for research to advance from clinical trials into effective treatments for future patients. We at CIRM are eternally grateful for their strength and the sacrifices they make to participate in these trials.

Raising awareness about Rare Disease Day

rare-disease-day-logo

One of the goals we set ourselves at CIRM in our 2016 Strategic Plan was to fund 50 new clinical trials over the next five years, including ten rare or orphan diseases. Since then we have funded 13 new clinical trials including four targeting rare diseases (retinitis pigmentosa, severe combined immunodeficiency, ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy). It’s a good start but clearly, with almost 7,000 rare diseases, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is still so much work to do.

And all around the world people are doing that work. Today we have asked Emily Walsh, the Community Outreach Director at the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance,  to write about the efforts underway to raise awareness about rare diseases, and to raise funds for research to develop new treatments for them.

“February 28th marks the annual worldwide event for Rare Disease Day. This is a day dedicated to raising awareness for rare diseases that affect people all over the world. The campaign works to target the general public as well as policy makers in hopes of bringing attention to diseases that receive little attention and funding. For the year 2017 it was decided that the focus would fall on “research,” with the slogan, “With research, possibilities are limitless.”

Getting involved for Rare Disease Day means taking this message and spreading it far and wide. Awareness for rare diseases is extremely important, especially among researchers, universities, students, companies, policy makers, and clinicians. It has long been known that the best advocates for rare diseases are the patients themselves. They use their specific perspectives to raise their voice, share their story, and shed light on the areas where additional funding and research are most necessary.

To see how you can help support the Rare Disease Day efforts this year, click here.

Groups like the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance and the Mesothelioma Group are adding their voices to the cause to raise awareness about mesothelioma cancer, a rare form of cancer caused by exposure and inhalation of airborne asbestos fibers

Rare diseases affect 300 million people worldwide, but only 5% of them have an FDA approved treatment or cure. Malignant mesothelioma is among the 95 percent that doesn’t have a treatment or cure.

Asbestos has been used throughout history in building materials because of its fire retardant properties. Having a home with asbestos insulation, ceiling tiles, and roof shingles meant that the house was safer. However, it was found that once asbestos crumbled and became powder-like, the tiny fibers could become airborne and be inhaled and lodge themselves in lung tissue causing mesothelioma. The late stage discovery of mesothelioma is often what causes it to have such a high mortality rate. Symptoms can have a very sudden onset, even though the person may have been exposed decades prior.

Right now, treatment for mesothelioma includes the usual combination of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, but researchers are looking at other approaches to see if they can be more effective or can help in conjunction with the standard methods. For example one drug, Defactinib, has shown some promise in inhibiting the growth and spread of cancer stem cells – these are stem cells that can evade chemotherapy and cause patients to relapse.”

Some people might ask why spend limited resources on something that affects so few people. But the lessons we learn in developing treatments for a rare disease can often lead us to treatments for diseases that affect many millions of people.

But numbers aside, there is no hierarchy of need, no scale to say the suffering of people with Huntington’s disease is any greater or less than that of people with Alzheimer’s. We are not in the business of making value judgements about who has the greatest need. We are in the business of accelerating treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. And those suffering from rare disease are very clearly  people in need.

 


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