COVID-19 and social and racial injustice are two of the biggest challenges facing the US right now. This Thursday, October 8th, we are holding a conversation that explores finding answers to both.
The CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network Symposium is going to feature presentations about advances in stem cell and regenerative research, highlighting treatments that are already in the clinic and being offered to patients.
But we’re also going to dive a little deeper into the work we support, and use it to discuss two of the most pressing issues of the day.
One of the topics being featured is research into COVID-19. To date CIRM has funded 17 different projects, including three clinical trials. We’ll talk about how these are trying to find ways to help people infected with the virus, seeing if stem cells can help restore function to organs and tissues damaged by the virus, and if we can use stem cells to help develop safe and effective vaccines.
Immediately after that we are going to use COVID-19 as a way of exploring how the people most at risk of being infected and suffering serious consequences, are also the ones most likely to be left out of the research and have most trouble accessing treatments and vaccines.
Study after study highlights how racial and ethnic minorities are underrepresented in clinical trials and disproportionately affected by debilitating diseases. We have a responsibility to change that, to ensure that the underserved are given the same opportunity to take part in clinical trials as other communities.
How do we do that, how do we change a system that has resisted change for so long, how do we overcome the mistrust that has built up in underserved communities following decades of abuse? We’ll be talking about with experts who are on the front lines of this movement.
It promises to be a lively meeting. We’d love to see you there. It’s virtual – of course – it’s open to everyone, and it’s free.
Recently, The New York Times released a powerful article that tells the stories of four different families navigating the challenges of having a family member with a rare disease. One of these stories focused on Matt Wilsey, a tech entrepreneur and investor in California’s Silicon Valley, and his daughter Grace, who was born with an extremely rare genetic disorder named NGLY1 deficiency. This genetic disorder causes developmental delay, intellectual disability, seizures, and other movement issues.
Matt decided to put his entrepreneurial and networking skills to good use in order to form Grace Science Foundation, an organization whose focus is to pioneer approaches to scientific discovery in order to develop a cure for NGLY1 deficiency. One researcher that Matt brought on board was Carolyn Bertozzi, Ph.D., a chemist from Stanford University. A graduate student in her laboratory, Ian Blong, Ph.D., decided to study NGLY1 and was able to complete his dissertation while working on this topic at Stanford University.
In exploring the various options afforded to him by the CIRM, Ian found Dr. Bertozzi’s lab at UC Berkeley, where he focused on early stage discovery research. His master’s thesis project focused on how to generate rare neuronal and and neural crest cells from human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Both of these stem cell types can generate virtually any kind of cell, but iPSCs are unique in that they can be generated from the adult cells (such as skin) of a patient.
Ian decided to continue his studies in Dr. Bertozzi’s lab by continuing his research in a Ph.D. program at UC Berkeley. He credits the SFSU CIRM Bridges Program with giving him the opportunity to work under a prestigious PI and in her lab at UC Berkeley, which allowed him to continue his studies there.
“The CIRM Bridges Program gave me the confidence and resources to pursue my dreams. Being able to have the capability of going to Berkeley and do research with top tier scientists along with the support from CIRM. Without CIRM, I wouldn’t have had the courage to go to those universities to get my foot in the door.”
Eventually, Dr. Bertozzi move her operations to Stanford University and Ian continued his Ph.D. studies there. Stanford provided him the opportunity to focus more on the translational stage, which is an area of research aimed at developing a therapeutic candidate. Going into his Ph.D. work, Ian was able to build upon his previous “discovery stage” knowledge of generating neuronal and neural crest cells from iPSCS and hESCs.
An area of his work at Stanford focused on generating neural crest cells from iPSCs of those with NGLY1 deficiency. The goal was to identify a phenotype, which is an observable characteristic such as physical form. Identifying this would help better understand potential differentiation pathways that underlie NGLY1 deficiency, which could lead to the development a potential treatment for the condition.
Flash forward to present day and Ian is still using the knowledge he learned from his time in the SFSU CIRM Bridges to Stem Cell Research Program. He is currently a scientist at the healthcare company Roche, where his focus is on manufacturing future diagnostics and therapeutics on a much larger scale, a complex and extremely critical process necessary in widely distributing potential stem cell-based treatments.
Ian’s experience and opportunities provided to him is just one of the many examples of how the various CIRM Bridges Programs across California have given students the resources needed to become the next generation of scientists.
When people ask me what I do at CIRM I sometimes half-jokingly tell them that I’m the official translator: I take complex science and turn it into everyday English. That’s important. The taxpayers of California have a right to know how their money is being spent and how it might benefit them. But that message can be even more effective when it comes from the scientists themselves.
Recently we asked some of the scientists we are funding to do research into COVID-19 to record what’s called an “elevator pitch”. This is where they prepare an explanation of their work that is in ordinary English and is quite short, short enough to say it to someone as you ride in an elevator. Hence the name.
It sounds easy enough. But it’s not. When you are used to talking in the language of science day in and day out, suddenly switching codes to talk about your work in plain English can take some practice. Also, you have spent years, often decades, on this work and to have to explain it in around one minute is no easy thing.
But our researchers rose to the challenge. Here’s some examples of just how well they did.
The neurological origins of mental illness continue to remain a mystery and along with it any potential treatments for these conditions. However, Dr. Sergiu Pasca and his team at Stanford University have come one step closer to unlocking these mysteries for schizophrenia, a mental disorder characterized by disruptions in thought processes, perceptions, emotional responsiveness, and social interactions.
A common genetic defect called 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, or 22q11DS for short, has been linked to an astonishing 30-fold increased risk for developing schizophrenia. With help from CIRM funding, Dr. Pasca and his team have linked this genetic defect to an electrical defect in nerve cells.
To look at this more closely, the Stanford team generated tiny clusters of brain cells, called cortical spheroids which contain brain nerve cells, in a dish using skin cells from 22q11DS carriers and those from normal patients. The team then measured the resting membrane potential of these nerve cells, which is the voltage difference between the inner and outer part of the cell. This measurement is important because it keeps the nerve cells ready to fire while also preventing them from firing at random.
Dr. Pasca and his team found abnormal levels of resting membrane potential in nerve cells in the cortical spheroids made from 22q11DS carriers. They also found that the the 22q11DS-derived nerve cells spontaneously fired four times as frequently as nerve cells derived from normal patients. What’s even more promising is that the team found that treating the 22q11DS-derived nerve cells with any of three different antipsychotic drugs effectively reversed the defects in resting membrane potential and helped in prevent spontaneous firing.
In a press release, Dr. Pasca elaborated more on the team’s findings.
“We can’t test hallucinations in a dish. But the fact that the cellular malfunctions we identified in a dish were reversed by drugs that relieve symptoms in people with schizophrenia suggests that these cellular malfunctions could be related to the disorder’s behavioral manifestations.”
The full results of this study were published in Nature Medicine.
Whenever you are designing something new you always have to keep in mind who the end user is. You can make something that works perfectly fine for you, but if it doesn’t work for the end user, the people who are going to work with it day in and day out, you have been wasting your time. And their time too.
At CIRM our end users are the patients. Everything we do is about them. Starting with our mission statement: to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. Everything we do, every decision we make, has to keep the needs of the patient in mind.
So, when we were planning our recent 2020 Grantee Meeting (with our great friends and co-hosts UC Irvine and UC San Diego) one of the things we wanted to make sure didn’t get lost in the mix was the face and the voice of the patients. Often big conferences like this are heavy on science with presentations from some of the leading researchers in the field. And we obviously wanted to make sure we had that element at the Grantee meeting. But we also wanted to make sure that the patient experience was front and center.
And we did just that. But more on that in a minute. First, let’s talk about why the voice of the patient is important.
Some years ago, Dr. David Higgins, a CIRM Board member and patient advocate for Parkinson’s Disease (PD), said that when researchers are talking about finding treatments for PD they often focus on the dyskinesia, the trembling and shaking and muscle problems. However, he said if you actually asked people with PD you’d find they were more concerned with other aspects of the disease, the insomnia, anxiety and depression among other things. The key is you have to ask.
So, we asked some of our patient advocates if they would be willing to be part of the Grantee Meeting. All of them, without hesitation, said yes. They included Frances Saldana, a mother who lost three of her children to Huntington’s disease; Kristin MacDonald, who lost her sight to a rare disorder but regained some vision thanks to a stem cell therapy and is hoping the same therapy will help restore some more; Pawash Priyank, whose son Ronnie was born with a fatal immune disorder but who, thanks to a stem cell/gene therapy treatment, is now healthy and leading a normal life.
Because of the pandemic everything was virtual, but it was no less compelling for that. We interviewed each of the patients or patient advocates beforehand and those videos kicked off each session. Hearing, and seeing, the patients and patient advocates tell their stories set the scene for what followed. It meant that the research the scientists talked about took on added significance. We now had faces and names to highlight the importance of the work the scientists were doing. We had human stories. And that gave a sense of urgency to the work the researchers were doing.
But that wasn’t all. After all the video presentations each session ended with a “live” panel discussion. And again, the patients and patient advocates were a key part of that. Because when scientists talk about taking their work into a clinical trial they need to know if the way they are setting up the trial is going to work for the patients they’re hoping to recruit. You can have the best scientists, the most promising therapy, but if you don’t design a clinical trial in a way that makes it easy for patients to be part of it you won’t be able to recruit or retain the people you need to test the therapy.
Patient voices count. Patient stories count.
But more than anything, hearing and seeing the people we are trying to help reminds us why we do this work. It’s so easy to get caught up in the day to day business of our jobs, struggling to get an experiment to work, racing to get a grant application in before the deadline. Sometimes we get so caught up in the minutiae of work we lose sight of why we are doing it. Or who we are doing it for.
At CIRM we have a saying; come to work every day as if lives depend on you, because lives depend on you. Listening to the voices of patients, seeing their faces, hearing their stories, reminds us not to waste a moment. Because lives depend on all of us.
Here’s one of the interviews that was featured at the event. I do apologize in advance for the interviewer, he’s rubbish at his job.
An antibody therapeutic, magrolimab, being tested for myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a group of cancers in which the bone marrow does not produce enough healthy blood cells , was granted breakthrough therapy designation with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Breakthrough therapy designations from the FDA are intended to help expedite the development of new treatments. They require preliminary clinical evidence that demonstrates that the treatment may have substantial improvement in comparison to therapy options currently available. CIRM funded a Phase 1b trial in MDS and acute myeloid leukemia (AML), another type of blood cancer, that provided the data on which the breakthrough therapy designation is based.
Cancer cells express a signal known as CD47, which sends a “don’t eat me” message to macrophages, white blood cells that are part of the immune system designed to “eat” and destroy unhealthy cells. Magrolimab works by blocking the signal, enabling the body’s own immune system to detect and destroy the cancer cells.
Magrolimab was initially developed by a team led by Irv Weissman, M.D. at Stanford University with the support of CIRM awards. This led to the formation of Forty Seven, Inc., which was subsequently acquired by Gilead Sciences in April 2020 for $4.9 billion (learn more about other highlighted partnership events on CIRM’s Industry Alliance Program website by clicking here).
In CIRM’s 2019-2020 18-Month Report, Mark Chao, M.D., Ph.D., who co-founded Forty Seven, Inc. and currently serves as the VP of oncology clinical research at Gilead Sciences, credits CIRM with helping progress this treatment.
“CIRM’s support has been instrumental to our ability to rapidly progress Forty Seven’s CD47 antibody targeting approach.”
Magrolimab is currently being studied as a combination therapy with azacitidine, a chemotherapy drug, in a Phase 3 clinical trial in previously untreated higher risk MDS. This is one of the last steps before seeking FDA approval for widespread commercial use.
In a press release, Merdad Parsey, M.D., Ph.D., Chief Medical Officer at Gilead Sciences discusses the significance of the designation from the FDA and the importance of the treatment.
“The Breakthrough Therapy designation recognizes the potential for magrolimab to help address a significant unmet medical need for people with MDS and underscores the transformative potential of Gilead’s immuno-oncology therapies in development.”
Single-cell. It is the new buzzword in biology. Single-cell biology refers to the in-depth characterization of individual cells in an organ or similar microenvironment. Every organ, like the brain or heart, is composed of thousands to millions of cells. Single-cell biology breaks those organs down into their individual cell components to study the diversity within those cells. For example, the heart is composed of cardiomyocytes, but within that bulk population of cardiomyocytes there are specialized cardiomyocytes for the different chambers of the heart and others that control beating, plus others not even known yet. Single-cell studies characterize cell-to-cell variability in the body down to this level of detail to gain knowledge of tissues in a way that was not possible before.
The majority of single-cell studies are based on next generation sequencing technologies of genetic material such as DNA or RNA. The cost of sequencing each base of DNA or RNA has dropped precipitously since the first human genome was published in 2000, often compared to the trend seen with Moore’s Law in computing. As a result it is now possible to sequence every gene that is expressed in an individual cell, called the transcriptome, for thousands and thousands of cells.
The explosion of data coming from these technologies requires new approaches to study and analyze the information. The scale of the genetic sequences that can be generated is so big that it is often not possible anymore for scientists to interpret the data manually as had been traditionally done. To apply this exciting field to stem cell research and therapies, CIRM funded the Genomics Initiative which created the Centers of Excellence in Stem Cell Genomics (CESCG). The goal of the CESCG is to create novel genomic information and create new bioinformatics tools (i.e. computer software) specifically for stem cell research, some of which was highlighted in past blogs. Some of the earliest single-cell gene expression atlases of the human body were created under the CESCG.
The latest study from CESCG investigators creates both new information and new tools for single-cell genomics. In work funded by the Genomics Initiative, Stephen Quake and colleagues at Stanford University and the Chan-Zuckerberg Biohub studied tumor formation using single-cell approaches. Drawing from one of the earliest published single-cell studies, the team had surveyed human brain transcriptome diversity that included samples from the brain cancer, glioblastoma.
Recognizing that the data coming from these studies would eventually become too large and numerous to classify all of the cell types by hand, they created a new bioinformatics tool called Northstar to apply artificial intelligence to automatically classify cell types generated by single-cell studies. The cell classifications generated by Northstar were similar to the original classifications created manually several years ago including the identification of specific cancerous cells.
Some of the features that make Northstar a powerful bioinformatics tool for these studies are that the software is scalable for large numbers of cells, it performs the computations to classify cells very fast, and it requires relatively low computer processing power to go through literally millions of data points.
The scalability of the tool was demonstrated on the Tabula Muris data collection, a single-cell compendium of 20 mouse organs with over 200,000 cells of data. Finally, Northstar was used to classify the tumors from new single-cell data generated by the CESCG via samples of 11 patient pancreatic cancer patients obtained from Stanford Hospital. Northstar correctly found the origins of cancerous cells from the specific diagnoses of pancreatic cancer that the patients had, for example cancerous cells in the endocrine cell lineage from a patient diagnosed with neuroendocrine pancreas cancer. Furthermore, Northstar identified previously unknown origins of cancerous cell clusters from other patients with pancreatic cancer. These new computational tools demonstrate how big data from genomic studies can become important contributors to personalized medicine.
This week saw the launch of the 45th startup company enabled by CIRM funding of translational research at California academic institutions. Graphite Bio officially launched with the help of $45M in funding led by bay area venture firms Versant Ventures and Samsara BioCapital to spinout a novel CRISPR gene editing platform from Stanford University to treat severe diseases. Graphite Bio’s lead candidate is for sickle cell disease and it harnesses CRISPR gene correction technology to correct the single DNA mutation in sickle cell disease and to restore normal hemoglobin expression in the red blood cells of sickle cell patients (Learn more about CRISPR from a previous blog post linked here).
Matt Porteus, M.D., Ph.D and Maria Grazia Roncarolo, M.D., both from Stanford University, are the company’s scientific founders. Dr. Porteus, Dr. Roncarolo, and the Stanford team are currently supported by a CIRM late stage preclinical grant to complete the final preclinical studies and to file an Investigational New Drug application with the FDA, which will enable Graphite Bio to commence clinical studies of the CRISPR sickle cell disease gene therapy candidate in sickle cell patients in 2021.
Josh Lehrer, M.D., was appointed CEO of Graphite Bio and elaborated on the company’s gene editing approach in a news release.
“Our flexible, site-specific approach is extremely powerful and could be used to definitively correct the underlying causes of many severe genetic diseases, and also is applicable to broader disease areas. With backing from Versant and Samsara, we look forward to progressing our novel medicines into the clinic for patients with high unmet needs.”
In a press release, Dr. Porteus take a retrospective look on his preclinical research and its progress towards a clinical trial.
“It is gratifying to see our work on new gene editing approaches being translated into novel therapies. I’m very excited to be working with Versant again on a start-up and I look forward to collaborating with Samsara and the Graphite Bio team to bring a new generation of genetic treatments to patients.”
CIRM’s funding of late stage preclinical projects such this one is critical to its funding model, which de-risks the discovery, translational development and clinical proof of concept of innovative stem cell-based treatments until they can attract industry partnerships. You can learn more about CIRM-enabled spinout companies and CIRM’s broader effort to facilitate industry partnering for its portfolio projects on CIRM’s Industry Alliance Program website.
You can contact CIRM’s Director of Business Development at the email below to learn more about the Industry Alliance Program.
One of our favorite things to do at CIRM is deliver exciting news about CIRM projects. This usually entails discussion of recent discoveries that made headlines, or announcing the launch of a new CIRM-funded clinical trial …. tangible signs of progress towards addressing unmet medical needs through advances in stem technology.
But there are equally exciting signs of progress that are not always so obvious to the untrained eye- those that we are privileged to witness behind the scenes at CIRM. These efforts don’t always lead to a splashy news article or even to a scientific publication, but they nonetheless drive the evolution of new ideas and can help steer the field away from futile lines of investigation. Dozens of such projects are navigating uncharted waters by filling knowledge gaps, breaking down technical barriers, and working closely with regulatory agencies to define novel and safe paths to the clinic.
These efforts can remain “hidden” because they are in the intermediate stages of the long, arduous and expensive journey from “bench to beside”. For the pioneering projects that CIRM funds, this journey is unique and untrod, and can be fraught with false starts. But CIRM has developed tools to track the momentum of these programs and provide continuous support for those with the most promise. In so doing, we have watched projects evolve as they wend their way to the clinic. We wanted to share a few examples of how we do this with our readers, but first… a little background for our friends who are unfamiliar with the nuts and bolts of inventing new medicines.
A common metaphor for bringing scientific discoveries to market is a pipeline, which begins in a laboratory where a discovery occurs, and ends with government approval to commercialize a new medicine, after it is proven to be safe and effective. In between discovery and approval is a stage called “Translation”, where investigators develop ways to transition their “research level” processes to “clinically compatible” ones, which only utilize substances that are of certified quality for human use.
Investigators must also work out novel ways to manufacture the product at larger scale and transition the methods used for testing in animal models to those that can be implemented in human subjects.
A key milestone in Translation is the “preIND” (pre Investigational New Drug (IND) meeting, where an investigator presents data and plans to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for feedback before next stage of development begins, the pivotal testing needed to show it is both safe and effective.
These “IND enabling studies” are rigorous but necessary to support an application for an IND and the initiation of clinical trials, beginning with phase 1 to assess safety in a small number of individuals, and phase 2, where an expanded group is evaluated to see if the therapy has any benefits for the patient. Phase 3 trials are studies of very large numbers of individuals to gain definitive evidence of safety and therapeutic effect, generally the last step before applying to the FDA for market approval. An image of the pipeline and the stages described are provided in our diagram below.
The pipeline can be notoriously long and tricky, with plenty of twists, turns, and unexpected obstacles along the way. Many more projects enter than emerge from this gauntlet, but as we see from these examples of ‘works in progress”, there is a lot of momentum building.
Caption for Graphic:This graphic shows the number of CIRM-funded projects and the stages they have progressed through multiple rounds of CIRM funding. For example, the topmost arrow shows that are about 19 projects at the translational stage of the pipeline that received earlier support through one of CIRM’s Discovery stage programs. Many of these efforts came out of our pre-2016 funding initiatives such as Early Translation, Basic Biology and New Faculty Awards. In another example, you can see that about 15 awards that were first funded by CIRM at the IND enabling stage have since progressed into a phase 1 or phase 2 clinical trials. While most of these efforts also originated in some of CIRM’s pre-2016 initiatives such as the Disease Team Awards, others have already progressed from CIRM’s newer programs that were launched as part of the “2.0” overhaul in 2016 (CLIN1).
The number of CIRM projects that have evolved and made their way down the pipeline with CIRM support is impressive, but it is clearly an under-representation, as there are other projects that have progressed outside of CIRM’s purview, which can make things trickier to verify.
We also track projects that have spun off or been licensed to commercial organizations, another very exciting form of “progression”. Perhaps those will contribute to another blog for another day! In the meantime, here are a just a few examples of some of the progressors that are depicted on the graphic.
Project: stem cell therapy to enhance bone healing in theelderly
– Currently funded stage: IND enabling development, CLIN1-11256 (Dr. Zhu, Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics)
Imagine having a tool you could use to quickly test lots of different drugs against a disease to see which one works best. That’s been a goal of stem cell researchers for many years but turning that idea into a reality hasn’t been easy. That may be about to change.
The disease in question is called long QT syndrome (LQTS). This is a heart rhythm condition that can cause fast, chaotic heartbeats. Some people with the condition have seizures. In some severe cases, particularly in younger people, LQTS can cause sudden death.
There are a number of medications that can help keep LQTS under control. One of these is mexiletine. It’s effective at stabilizing the heart’s rhythm, but it also comes with some side effects such as stomach pain, chest discomfort, drowsiness, headache, and nausea.
The team wanted to find a way to test different forms of that medication to see if they could find one that worked better and was safer to take. So they used induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from patients with LQTS to do just that.
iPSCs are cells that are made from human tissue – usually skin – that can then be turned into any other cell in the body. In this case, they took tissue from people with LQTS and then turned them into heart cells called cardiomyocytes, the kind affected by the disease. The beauty of this technique is that even though these cells came from another source, they now look and act like cardiomyocytes affected by LQTS.
In a news release Stanford’s Dr. Mark Mercola, the senior author of the study, said using these kinds of cells gave them a powerful tool.
“Drugs for heart disease are typically developed using overly simplified models, like tumor cells engineered in a specific way to mimic a biochemical event. Consequently, drugs like this one, mexiletine, have undesirable properties of concern in treating patients. Here, we used cells from a patient to generate that person’s heart muscle cells in a dish so we could visualize both the good and bad effects of the drug.”
The researchers then used these man-made cardiomyocytes to test various drugs that were very similar in structure to mexiletine. They were looking for ones that could help stabilize the heart arrhythmia but didn’t produce the unpleasant side effects. And they found some promising candidates.
Study first author, Dr. Wesley McKeithan, says the bigger impact of the study is that they were able to show how this kind of cell from patients with a particular disease can be used to “guide drug development and identify better drug improvement and optimization in a large-scale manner.”
“Our approach shows the feasibility of introducing human disease models early in the drug development pipeline and opens the door for precision drug design to improve therapies for patients.”