Joining the movement to fight rare diseases

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It’s hard to think of something as being rare when it affects up to 30 million Americans and 300 million people worldwide. But the truth is there are more than 6,000 conditions – those affecting 200,000 people or fewer – that are considered rare.  

Today, February 28th, is Rare Disease Day. It’s a day to remind ourselves of the millions of people, and their families, struggling with these diseases. These conditions are also called or orphan diseases because, in many cases, drug companies were not interested in adopting them to develop treatments.

At the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), we have no such reservations. In fact last Friday our governing Board voted to invest almost $12 million to support a clinical trial for IPEX syndrome. IPEX syndrome is a condition where the body can’t control or restrain an immune response, so the person’s immune cells attack their own healthy tissue. This leads to the development of Type 1 diabetes, severe eczema, damage to the small intestines and kidneys and failure to thrive. It’s diagnosed in infancy, most of those affected are boys, and it is often fatal.

Taylor Lookofsky (who has IPEX syndrome) and his father Brian

IPEX is one of two dozen rare diseases that CIRM is funding a clinical trial for. In fact, more than one third of all the projects we fund target a rare disease or condition. Those include:

Some might question the wisdom of investing hundreds of millions of dollars in conditions that affect a relatively small number of patients. But if you see the faces of these patients and get to know their families, as we do, you know that often agencies like CIRM are their only hope.

Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President and CEO, says the benefits of one successful approach can often extend far beyond one rare disease.

“Children with IPEX syndrome clearly represent a group of patients with an unmet medical need, and this therapy could make a huge difference in their lives. Success of this treatment in this rare disease presents far-reaching potential to develop treatments for a larger number of patients with a broad array of immune disorders.”

CIRM is proud to fund and spread awareness of rare diseases and invites you to watch this video about how they affect families around the world.

CIRM-Funded Study Helping Babies Battle a Deadly Immune Disorder Gets Boost from FDA

Hataalii Begay, age 4, first child treated with UCSF gene therapy for Artemis-SCID

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When Hataalii Begay was born in a remote part of the Navajo nation he was diagnosed with a rare, usually fatal condition. Today, thanks to a therapy developed at UCSF and funded by CIRM, he’s a normal healthy four year old boy running around in cowboy boots.

That stem cell therapy could now help save the lives of other children born with this deadly immune disorder because it has been granted fast-track review status by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has invested $12 million to test this therapy in a clinical trial at UC San Francisco.

The disorder is Artemis-SCID, a form of severe combined immunodeficiency disease. Children born with this condition have no functioning immune system so even a simple infection can prove life-threatening or fatal.

Currently, the only approved treatment for Artemis-SCID is a bone-marrow transplant, but many children are unable to find a healthy matched donor for that procedure. Even when they do find a donor they often need regular injections of immunoglobulin to boost their immune system.

In this clinical trial, UCSF Doctors Mort Cowan and Jennifer Puck are using the patient’s own blood stem cells, taken from their bone marrow. In the lab, the cells are modified to correct the genetic mutation that causes Artemis-SCID and then re-infused back into the patients. The goal is that over the course of several months these cells will create a new blood supply, one that is free of Artemis-SCID, and that will in turn help repair the child’s immune system.

So far the team has treated ten newly-diagnosed infants and three older children who failed transplants. Dr. Cowan says early data from the trial is encouraging. “With gene therapy, we are seeing these babies getting older. They have normal T-cell immunity and are getting immunized and vaccinated. You wouldn’t know they had any sort of condition if you met them; it’s very heartening.”

Because of that encouraging data, the FDA is granting this approach Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy (RMAT) designation. RMAT is a fast-track designation that can help speed up the development, review and potential approval of treatments for serious or life-threatening diseases.

“This is great news for the team at UCSF and in particular for the children and families affected by Artemis-SCID,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, the President and CEO of CIRM. “The RMAT designation means that innovative forms of cell and gene therapies like this one may be able to accelerate their route to full approval by the FDA and be available to all the patients who need it.”

CIRM-funded stem cell clinical trial patients: Where are they now?

Ronnie with his parents Pawash Priyank and Upasana Thakur.

Since its launch in 2004, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has been a leader in growing the stem cell and regenerative medicine field while keeping the needs of patients at the core of its mission. 

To date, CIRM has:  

  • Advanced stem cell research and therapy development for more than 75 diseases. 
  • Funded 76 clinical trials with 3,200+ patients enrolled. 
  • Helped cure over 40 children of fatal immunological disorders with gene-modified cell therapies. 

One of these patients is Ronnie, who just days after being born was diagnosed with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a rare immune disorder that is often fatal within two years. 

A recent photo of Ronnie enjoying a day at the beach.

Fortunately, doctors told his parents about a CIRM-funded clinical trial conducted by UC San Francisco and St. Jude Children’s Hospital. Doctors took some of Ronnie’s own blood stem cells and, in the lab, corrected the genetic mutation that caused the condition. They then gave him a mild dose of chemotherapy to clear space in his bone marrow for the corrected cells to be placed and to grow. Over the next few months, the blood stem cells created a new blood supply and repaired Ronnie’s immune system. He is now a happy, healthy four-year-old boy who loves going to school with other children. 

Evie Junior participated in a CIRM-funded clinical trial in 2020. Photo: Jaquell Chandler

Another patient, Evie Junior, is pioneering the search for a cure for sickle cell disease: a painful, life-threatening condition.  

In July of 2020, Evie took part in a CIRM-funded clinical trial where his own blood stem cells were genetically modified to overcome the disease-causing mutation. Those cells were returned to him, and the hope is they’ll create a sickle cell-free blood supply. Evie hasn’t had any crippling bouts of pain or had to go to the hospital since his treatment.

To demonstrate treatment efficacy, study investigators will continue to monitor the recovery of Evie, Ronnie, and others who participate in clinical trials. 

CIRM’s new strategic plan seeks to help real life patients like Ronnie and Evie by optimizing its clinical trial funding partnership model to advance more therapies to FDA for approval.  

In addition, CIRM will develop ways to overcome manufacturing hurdles for the delivery of regenerative medicine therapies and create Community Care Centers of Excellence that support diverse patient participation in the rapidly maturing regenerative medicine landscape. Stay tuned as we cover these goals here on The Stem Cellar. 

To learn more about CIRM’s approach to deliver real world solutions for patients, check out our new 5-year strategic plan.  

Looking back and looking forward: good news for two CIRM-supported studies

Dr. Rosa Bacchetta on the right with Brian Lookofsky (left) and Taylor Lookofsky after CIRM funded Dr. Bacchetta’s work in October 2019. Taylor has IPEX syndrome

It’s always lovely to end the week on a bright note and that’s certainly the case this week, thanks to some encouraging news about CIRM-funded research targeting blood disorders that affect the immune system.

Stanford’s Dr. Rosa Bacchetta and her team learned that their proposed therapy for IPEX Syndrome had been given the go-ahead by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to test it in people in a Phase 1 clinical trial.

IPEX Syndrome (it’s more formal and tongue twisting name is Immune dysregulation Polyendocrinopathy Enteropathy X-linked syndrome) is a life-threatening disorder that affects children. It’s caused by a mutation in the FOXP3 gene. Immune cells called regulatory T Cells normally function to protect tissues from damage but in patients with IPEX syndrome, lack of functional Tregs render the body’s own tissues and organs to autoimmune attack that could be fatal in early childhood. 

Current treatment options include a bone marrow transplant which is limited by available donors and graft versus host disease and immune suppressive drugs that are only partially effective. Dr. Rosa Bacchetta and her team at Stanford will use gene therapy to insert a normal version of the FOXP3 gene into the patient’s own T Cells to restore the normal function of regulatory T Cells.

This approach has already been accorded an orphan drug and rare pediatric disease designation by the FDA (we blogged about it last year)

Orphan drug designation is a special status given by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for potential treatments of rare diseases that affect fewer than 200,000 in the U.S. This type of status can significantly help advance treatments for rare diseases by providing financial incentives in the form of tax credits towards the cost of clinical trials and prescription drug user fee waivers.

Under the FDA’s rare pediatric disease designation program, the FDA may grant priority review to Dr. Bacchetta if this treatment eventually receives FDA approval. The FDA defines a rare pediatric disease as a serious or life-threatening disease in which the serious or life-threatening manifestations primarily affect individuals aged from birth to 18 years and affects fewer than 200,000 people in the U.S.

Congratulations to the team and we wish them luck as they begin the trial.

Dr. Donald Kohn, Photo courtesy UCLA

Someone who needs no introduction to regular readers of this blog is UCLA’s Dr. Don Kohn. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine highlighted how his work in developing a treatment for severe combined immune deficiency (SCID) has helped save the lives of dozens of children.

Now a new study in the journal Blood shows that those benefits are long-lasting, with 90% of patients who received the treatment eight to 11 years ago still disease-free.

In a news release Dr. Kohn said: “What we saw in the first few years was that this therapy worked, and now we’re able to say that it not only works, but it works for more than 10 years. We hope someday we’ll be able to say that these results last for 80 years.”

Ten children received the treatment between 2009 and 2012. Nine were babies or very young children, one was 15 years old at the time. That teenager was the only one who didn’t see their immune system restored. Dr. Kohn says this suggests that the therapy is most effective in younger children.

Dr. Kohn has since modified the approach his team uses and has seen even more impressive and, we hope, equally long-lasting results.

Celebrating Stem Cell Awareness Day

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The second Wednesday in October is celebrated as Stem Cell Awareness Day. It’s an event that CIRM has been part of since then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger launched it back in 2008 saying: ”The discoveries being made today in our Golden State will have a great impact on many around the world for generations to come.”

In the past we would have helped coordinate presentations by scientists in schools and participated in public events. COVID of course has changed all that. So, this year, to help mark the occasion we asked some people who have been in the forefront of making Governor Schwarzenegger’s statement come true, to share their thoughts and feelings about the day. Here’s what they had to say.

What do you think is the biggest achievement so far in stem cell research?

Dr. Jan Nolta

Jan Nolta, PhD., Director of the Stem Cell Program at UC Davis School of Medicine, and directs the new Institute for Regenerative Cures. “The work of Don Kohn and his UCLA colleagues and team members throughout the years- developing stem cell gene therapy cures for over 50 children with Bubble baby disease. I was very fortunate to work with Don for the first 15 years of my career and know that development of these cures was guided by his passion to help his patients.

Dr. Clive Svendsen

Clive Svendsen, PhD. Director, Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute at Cedars-Sinai: “Without a doubt the discovery of how to make human iPSCs by Shinya Yamanaka and Jamie Thomson.”

When people ask you what kind of impact CIRM and stem cell research has had on your life what do you say?

Ronnie and his parents celebrating his 1st birthday. (Photo courtesy of Pawash Priyank)

Pawash Priyank and Upasana Thakur, parents of Ronnie, who was born with a life-threatening immune disorder but is thriving today thanks to a CIRM-funded clinical trial at UC San Francisco. “This is beyond just a few words and sentences but we will give it a shot. We are living happily today seeing Ronnie explore the world day by day, and this is only because of what CIRM does every day and what Stem cell research has done to humanity. Researchers and scientists come up with innovative ideas almost every day around the globe but unless those ideas are funded or brought to implementation in any manner, they are just in the minds of those researchers and would never be useful for humanity in any manner. CIRM has been that source to bring those ideas to the table, provide facilities and mechanisms to get those actually implemented which eventually makes babies like Ronnie survive and see the world. That’s the impact CIRM has. We have witnessed and heard several good arguments back in India in several forums which could make difference in the world in different sectors of lives but those ideas never come to light because of the lack of organizations like CIRM, lack of interest from people running the government. An organization like CIRM and the interest of the government to fund them with an interest in science and technology actually changes the lives of people when some of those ideas come to see the light of real implementation. 

What are your biggest hopes for the future at UC Davis?

Jan Nolta, PhD: “The future of stem cell and gene therapy research is very bright at UC Davis, thanks to CIRM and our outstanding leadership. We currently have 48 clinical trials ongoing in this field, with over 20 in the pipeline, and are developing a new education and technology complex, Aggie Square, next to the Institute for Regenerative Cures, where our program is housed. We are committed to our very diverse patient population throughout the Sacramento region and Northern California, and to expanding and increasing the number of novel therapies that can be brought to all patients who need them.”

What are your biggest hopes for the future at Cedars-Sinai?

Clive Svendsen, PhD: “That young investigators will get CIRM or NIH funding and be leaders in the regenerative medicine field.”

What do you hope is the future for stem cell research?

Pawash Priyank and Upasana Thakur: “We always have felt good about stem cell therapy. For us, a stem cell has transformed our lives completely. The correction of sequencing in the DNA taken out of Ronnie and injecting back in him has given him life. It has given him the immune system to fight infections. Seeing him grow without fear of doing anything, or going anywhere gives us so much happiness every hour. That’s the impact of stem cell research. With right minds continuing to research further in stem cell therapy bounded by certain good processes & laws around (so that misuse of the therapy couldn’t be done) will certainly change the way treatments are done for certain incurable diseases. I certainly see a bright future for stem cell research.”

On a personal note what is the moment that touched you the most in this journey.

Jan Nolta, PhD: “Each day a new patient or their story touches my heart. They are our inspiration for working hard to bring new options to their care through cell and gene therapy.”

Clive Svendsen, PhD: “When I realized we would get the funding to try and treat ALS with stem cells”

How important is it to raise awareness about stem cell research and to educate the next generation about it?

Pawash Priyank and Upasana Thakur: “Implementing stem cell therapy as a curriculum in the educational systems right from the beginning of middle school and higher could prevent false propaganda of it through social media. Awareness among people with accurate articles right from the beginning of their education is really important. This will also encourage the new generation to choose this as a subject in their higher studies and contribute towards more research to bring more solutions for a variety of diseases popping up every day.”

Celebrating a young life that almost wasn’t

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Klein

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

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

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

Enjoy.

New Study Shows CIRM-Supported Therapy Cures More than 95% of Children Born with a Fatal Immune Disorder

Dr. Donald B. Kohn; Photo courtesy UCLA

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that an experimental form of stem cell and gene therapy has cured 48 of 50 children born with a deadly condition called ADA-SCID.

Children with ADA-SCID, (severe combined immunodeficiency due to adenosine deaminase deficiency) lack a key enzyme that is essential for a healthy, functioning immune system. As a result, even a simple infection could prove fatal to these children and, left untreated, most will die within the first two years of life.

In the study, part of which was supported by CIRM, researchers at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) in London took some of the children’s own blood-forming stem cells and, in the lab, corrected the genetic mutation that causes ADA-SCID. They then returned those cells to the children. The hope was that over time the corrected stem cells would create a new blood supply and repair the immune system.

In the NEJM study the researchers reported outcomes for the children two and three years post treatment.

“Between all three clinical trials, 50 patients were treated, and the overall results were very encouraging,” said Dr. Don Kohn, a distinguished professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a member of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA. “All the patients are alive and well, and in more than 95% of them, the therapy appears to have corrected their underlying immune system problems.”

Two of the children did not respond to the therapy and both were returned to the current standard-of-care therapy. One subsequently underwent a bone marrow transplant. None of the children in the study experienced serious side-effects.

“This is encouraging news for all families affected by this rare but deadly condition,” says Maria T. Millan, MD, President and CEO of CIRM. “It’s also a testament to the power of persistence. Don Kohn has been working on developing this kind of therapy for 35 years. To see it paying off like this is a remarkable testament to his skill as a researcher and determination to help these patients.”

A word from our Chair, several in fact

In 2005, the New Oxford American Dictionary named “podcast” its word of the year. At the time a podcast was something many had heard of but not that many actually tuned in to. My how times have changed. Now there are some two million podcasts to chose from, at least according to the New York Times, and who am I to question them.

Yesterday, in the same New York Times, TV writer Margaret Lyons, wrote about how the pandemic helped turn her from TV to podcasts: “Much in the way I grew to prefer an old-fashioned phone call to a video chat, podcasts, not television, became my go-to medium in quarantine. With their shorter lead times and intimate production values, they felt more immediate and more relevant than ever before.”

I mention this because an old colleague of ours at CIRM, Neil Littman, has just launched his own podcast and the first guest on it was Jonathan Thomas, Chair of the CIRM Board. Their conversation ranged from CIRM’s past to the future of the regenerative field as a whole, with a few interesting diversions along the way. It’s fun listening. And as Margaret Lyons said it might be more immediate and more relevant than ever before.

Inspiring new documentary about stem cell research

Poster for the documentary “Ending Disease”

2020 has been, to say the very least, a difficult and challenging year for all of us. But while the focus of the world has, understandably, been on the coronavirus there was also some really promising advances in stem cell research. Those advances are captured in a great new documentary called Ending Disease.

The documentary is by Emmy award-winning filmmaker Joe Gantz. In it he follows ten people who are facing life-threatening or life-changing diseases and injuries and who turn to pioneering stem cell therapies for help.

It’s an inspiring documentary, one that reminds you of the real need for new treatments and the tremendous hope and promise of stem cell therapies. Here’s a look at a trailer for Ending Disease.

You can see an exclusive screening of Ending Disease on Friday, January 8th, 2021 at 5:00pm PST.

After the livestream, there will be a live Q&A session where former members of the successful Proposition 14 campaign team – which refunded CIRM with an additional $5.5 billion – will be joined by CIRM’s President and CEO Dr. Maria Millan, talking about what lies ahead for CIRM and the future of stem cell research.

To purchase a ticket, click here. It only costs $12 and 50% of the ticket sales proceeds will go to Americans for Cures to help them continue to advocate for the advancement of stem cell research, and more importantly, for the patients and families to whom stem cell research provides so much hope.

If you need any extra persuading that it’s something you should definitely put on our calendar, here’s a letter from the film maker Joe Gantz.

I am the director of the documentary Ending Disease: The Stem Cell, Anti-Cancer T-Cell, & Antibody Revolution In Medicine, a film that will help inform people about the progress that’s been made in this field and how people with their lives on the line are now able to benefit from these new regenerative therapies. 

I was granted unprecedented access to ten of the first generation of clinical trials using stem cell and regenerative medicine to treat and cure many of the most devastating diseases and conditions including: brain cancer, breast cancer, leukemia and lymphoma, HIV, repairing a broken spinal cord, retinitis pigmentosa and SCID. The results are truly inspiring.

This is personal for me.  After spending four years making this documentary, I was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Upon diagnosis, I immediately felt the same desperation as millions of families who are in search of a medical breakthrough. I understood, on a personal level, what the patients we followed in the film all knew: when you are diagnosed with a disease, there is a narrow window of time in which you can effectively seek a life-saving treatment or cure. If treatment becomes available outside of that window, then it is too late. However, Ending Disease shows that with continued support for regenerative medicine, we can create a near future in which one-time cures and highly mitigating therapies are available to patients for a whole host of diseases.

Best regards,

Joe