An Open Letter to CIRM for World Sickle Cell Day

Nancy M. Rene

Dear CIRM,

World Sickle Cell Day is this Saturday June 19th. The goal of this day is to increase knowledge of the disease and understanding of the challenges faced.

It is a day that I greet with very mixed feelings.  I’m of course extremely grateful to CIRM for the time and money spent looking for a cure.  The work of doctors, of researchers, the courage of families in the sickle cell community who are taking part in studies, and of course those of you who worked so hard for the original funding for CIRM, I applaud all of you, yet it’s hard to wait for a cure.

While I wait I worry. I worry about my friends who are not getting good care.  They are the ones who can’t find a doctor to treat them, not able to take advantage of the medications that are already approved.  They are the ones who walk into the Emergency Room hoping for knowledgeable treatment while understanding that they may be accused of being a drug seeker,  turned away in excruciating pain. They are the ones who succumb after years of poor care.

With sickle cell disease there is the same level of understanding about medical malpractice that we had of police brutality before George Floyd. We hardly remember Rodney King or Eric Garner. As a country we were aware that something was wrong but we tended to retreat in denial after each terrible headline.

That’s where we are with sickle cell disease.  We may see a heart-wrenching story and watch televised reports with interest, but after all, it’s easier to live in disbelief, to think that medical care is not that bad, rather than understand that people are being dismissed and denied treatment. We call it structural racism without understanding what that term really means.

While I wait I must acknowledge that change is coming.  We have a Sickle Cell Data Collection Project in California that helps us track healthcare for sickle cell disease. This is data that we can use to point to structural weakness and address health disparities.  NASEM, the National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine, has published a huge report with significant suggestions for improving sickle cell care. Many scientists, researchers and advocates took part in this landmark study, detailing what has gone wrong in health care and how to improve the work. And of course we have CIRM. I am very thankful for the leadership and pioneering work of doctors Donald Kohn, Matthew Porteus, Mark Walters, and Joseph Rosenthal who are using their knowledge and experience in this fight.

When we have successful research on stem cell transplants for sickle cell disease, many of us with sickle cell family members will want to relax, but we can’t forget those who may not be able to get a curative transplant. I hope Dr Niihara at Emmaus, and Dr. Love of Global Blood Therapeutics will continue their important work finding effective treatments. We must continue this fight on all fronts.

World Sickle Cell Day will come again next year.  Let’s see what it brings.

A sickle cell grandmother,

Nancy M. René

CIRM-catalyzed spinout files for IPO to develop therapies for genetic diseases

Graphite Bio, a CIRM-catalyzed spinout from Stanford University that launched just 14 months ago has now filed the official SEC paperwork for an initial public offering (IPO). The company was formed by CIRM-funded researchers Matt Porteus, M.D., Ph.D. and Maria Grazia Roncarolo, M.D.

Six years ago, Dr. Porteus and Dr. Roncarolo, in conjunction with Stanford University, received a CIRM grant of approximately $875K to develop a method to use CRISPR gene editing technology to correct the blood stem cells of infants with X-linked severe combined immunodeficiency (X-SCID), a genetic condition that results in a weakened immune system unable to fight the slightest infection.

Recently, Dr. Porteus, in conjunction with Graphite, received a CIRM grant of approximately $4.85M to apply the CRISPR gene editing approach to correct the blood stem cells of patients with sickle cell disease, a condition that causes “sickle” shaped red blood cells. As a result of this shape, the cells clump together and clog up blood vessels, causing intense pain, damaging organs, and increasing the risk of strokes and premature death. The condition disproportionately affects members of the Black and Latin communities.

CIRM funding helped Stanford complete the preclinical development of the sickle cell disease gene therapy and it enabled Graphite to file an Investigational New Drug (IND) application with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), one of the last steps necessary before conducting a human clinical trial of a potential therapy. Towards the end of 2020, Graphite got the green light from the FDA to conduct a trial using the gene therapy in patients with sickle cell disease.

In a San Francisco Business Times report, Graphite CEO Josh Lehrer stated that the company’s goal is to create a platform that can apply a one-time gene therapy for a broad range of genetic diseases.

Paving the Way

When someone scores a goal in soccer all the attention is lavished on them. Fans chant their name, their teammates pile on top in celebration, their agent starts calling sponsors asking for more money. But there’s often someone else deserving of praise too, that’s the player who provided the assist to make the goal possible in the first place. With that analogy in mind, CIRM just provided a very big assist for a very big goal.

The goal was scored by Jasper Therapeutics. They have just announced data from their Phase 1 clinical trial treating people with Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS). This is a group of disorders in which immature blood-forming cells in the bone marrow become abnormal and leads to low numbers of normal blood cells, especially red blood cells. In about one in three patients, MDS can progress to acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a rapidly progressing cancer of the bone marrow cells.

The most effective way to treat, and even cure, MDS/AML is with a blood stem cell transplant, but this is often difficult for older patients, because it involves the use of toxic chemotherapy to destroy their existing bone marrow blood stem cells, to make room for the new, healthy ones. Even with a transplant there is often a high rate of relapse, because it’s hard for chemotherapy to kill all the cancer cells.

Jasper has developed a therapy, JSP191, which is a monoclonal antibody, to address this issue. JSP191 helps supplement the current treatment regimen by clearing all the remaining abnormal cells from the bone marrow and preventing relapse. In addition it also means the patients gets smaller doses of chemotherapy with lower levels of toxicity. In this Phase 1 study six patients, between the ages of 65 and 74, were given JSP191 – in combination with low-dose radiation and chemotherapy – prior to getting their transplant. The patients were followed-up at 90 days and five of the six had no detectable levels of MDS/AML, and the sixth patient had reduced levels. None of the patients experienced serious side effects.

Clearly that’s really encouraging news. And while CIRM didn’t fund this clinical trial, it wouldn’t have happened without us paving the way for this research. That’s where the notion of the assist comes in.

CIRM support led to the development of the JSP191 technology at Stanford. Our CIRM funds were used in the preclinical studies that form the scientific basis for using JSP191 in an MDS/AML setting.

Not only that, but this same technique was also used by Stanford’s Dr. Judy Shizuru in a clinical trial for children born with a form of severe combined immunodeficiency, a rare but fatal immune disorder in children. A clinical trial that CIRM funded.

It’s a reminder that therapies developed with one condition in mind can often be adapted to help treat other similar conditions. Jasper is doing just that. It hopes to start clinical trials this year using JSP191 for people getting blood stem cell transplants for severe autoimmune disease, sickle cell disease and Fanconi anemia.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears – we have a podcast for you.

It seems like everyone, including my dog Freddie, has a podcast these days. So now we do too.

According to the Podcasthosting.org website there are some two million podcasts in the world. Make that two million and one. That’s because CIRM is launching its own podcast and doing it with one of the biggest names in biotech.

Our podcast is called – with a nod to The Who – “Talking ’bout (Re)Generation” and the first episode features our President & CEO Dr. Maria Millan interviewing Dr. Derrick Rossi, the co-founder of Moderna. Moderna, as I am sure you know, is the maker of one of the most effective vaccines against COVID.

In the interview Dr. Rossi talks about his early days as a postdoc at Stanford – supported by CIRM – and the career arc that led him to help create the company behind the vaccine, and what his plans are for the future. It’s a fun, chatty, lively interview; one you can listen to in the car, at home or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

We want the podcast to be fun for your ear holes and interesting and engaging for your brain. We’re going to be talking to scientists and researchers, doctors and nurses, patients and patient advocates and anyone else we think has something worth listening to.

We have other episodes planned and will share those with you in the near future. In the meantime, if you have any ideas or individuals you think would make a good subject for a podcast let us know, we are always happy to hear from you.

In the meantime, enjoy the show.

Saying thanks and farewell to a friend

Tom Howing

In this job you get to meet a lot of remarkable people, none more so than the patients who volunteer to take part in what are giant experiments. They are courageous pioneers, willing to be among the first people to ever try a new therapy, knowing that it may not help them and, potentially, might even harm them.

Tom Howing was one such person. I got to know Tom when we were putting together our 2017 Annual Report. Back in 2015 Tom was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer that had spread throughout his body. He underwent surgery and chemotherapy. That worked for a while, but then the cancer returned. So, Tom had more surgery and chemotherapy. Again, it worked for a while but when the cancer returned again Tom was running out of options.

That’s when he learned about a clinical trial with a company called Forty Seven Inc. that was testing a new anti-cancer therapy that CIRM was supporting. Tom says he didn’t hesitate.

“When I was diagnosed with cancer I knew I had battle ahead of me. After the cancer came back again they recommended I try this CD47 clinical trial. I said absolutely, let’s give it a spin. I guess one is always a bit concerned whenever you put the adjective “experimental” in front of anything. But I’ve always been a very optimistic and positive person and have great trust and faith in my caregivers.”

Optimistic and positive are great ways to describe Tom. Happily, his optimism was rewarded. The therapy worked.

“Scans and blood tests came back showing that the cancer appears to be held in check. My energy level is fantastic. The treatment that I had is so much less aggressive than chemo, my quality of life is just outstanding.”

But after a year or so Tom had to drop out of the trial. He tried other therapies and they kept the cancer at bay. For a while. But it kept coming back. And eventually Tom ran out of options. And last week, he ran out of time.

Tom was a truly fine man. He was kind, caring, funny, gracious and always grateful for what he had. He talked often about his family and how the stem cell therapy helped him spend not just more time with them, but quality time.

He knew when he signed up for the therapy that there were no guarantees, but he wanted to try, saying that even if it didn’t help him that the researchers might learn something to help others down the line.

“The most important thing I would say is, I want people to know there is always hope and to stay positive.”

Tom ultimately lost his battle with cancer. But he never lost his spirit, his delight in his family and his desire to keep going as long as he could. In typical Tom fashion he preferred to put his concerns aside and cheer others along.

“To all those people who are putting in all the hours at the bench and microscope, it’s important for them to know that they are making a huge impact on the lives of real people and they should celebrate it and revel in it and take great pride in it.”

We consider ourselves fortunate to have known Tom and to have been with him on part of his journey. He touched our lives, as he touched the lives of so many others. Our thoughts and wishes go out to his family and friends. He will be remembered, because we never forget our friends.

A few years ago Tom came and talked to the CIRM Board. Here is the video of that event.

Charting a course for the future

A new home for stem cell research?

Have you ever been at a party where someone says “hey, I’ve got a good idea” and then before you know it everyone in the room is adding to it with ideas and suggestions of their own and suddenly you find yourself with 27 pages of notes, all of them really great ideas. No, me neither. At least, not until yesterday when we held the first meeting of our Scientific Strategy Advisory Panel.

This is a group that was set up as part of Proposition 14, the ballot initiative that refunded CIRM last November (thanks again everyone who voted for that). The idea was to create a panel of world class scientists and regulatory experts to help guide and advise our Board on how to advance our mission. It’s a pretty impressive group too. You can see who is on the SSAP here.  

The meeting involved some CIRM grantees talking a little about their work but mostly highlighting problems or obstacles they considered key issues for the future of the field as a whole. And that’s where the ideas and suggestions really started flowing hard and fast.

It started out innocently enough with Dr. Amander Clark of UCLA talking about some of the needs for Discovery or basic research. She advocated for a consortium approach (this quickly became a theme for many other experts) with researchers collaborating and sharing data and findings to help move the field along.

She also called for greater diversity in research, including collecting diverse cell samples at the basic research level, so that if a program advanced to later stages the findings would be relevant to a wide cross section of society rather than just a narrow group.

Dr. Clark also said that as well as supporting research into neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, there needed to be a greater emphasis on neurological conditions such as autism, bipolar disorder and other mental health problems.

(CIRM is already committed to both increasing diversity at all levels of research and expanding mental health research so this was welcome confirmation we are on the right track).

Dr. Mike McCun called for CIRM to take a leadership role in funding fetal tissue research, things the federal government can’t or won’t support, saying this could really help in developing an understanding of prenatal diseases.

Dr. Christine Mummery, President of ISSCR, advocated for support for early embryo research to deepen our understanding of early human development and also help with issues of infertility.

Then the ideas started coming really fast:

  • There’s a need for knowledge networks to share information in real-time not months later after results are published.
  • We need standardization across the field to make it easier to compare study results.
  • We need automation to reduce inconsistency in things like feeding and growing cells, manufacturing cells etc.
  • Equitable access to CRISPR gene-editing treatments, particularly for underserved communities and for rare diseases where big pharmaceutical companies are less likely to invest the money needed to develop a treatment.
  • Do a better job of developing combination therapies – involving stem cells and more traditional medications.

One idea that seemed to generate a lot of enthusiasm – perhaps as much due to the name that Patrik Brundin of the Van Andel Institute gave it – was the creation of a CIRM Hotel California, a place where researchers could go to learn new techniques, to share ideas, to collaborate and maybe take a nice cold drink by the pool (OK, I just made that last bit up to see if you were paying attention).

The meeting was remarkable not just for the flood of ideas, but also for its sense of collegiality.  Peter Marks, the director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (FDA-CBER) captured that sense perfectly when he said the point of everyone working together, collaborating, sharing information and data, is to get these projects over the finish line. The more we work together, the more we will succeed.

De-stressing stem cells and the Bonnie & Clyde of stem cells

Dr. John Cashman

The cells in our body are constantly signalling with each other, it’s a critical process by which cells communicate not just with other cells but also with elements within themselves. One of the most important signalling pathways is called Wnt. This plays a key role in early embryonic and later development. But when Wnt signalling goes wrong, it can also help spur the growth of cancer.

Researchers at the Human BioMolecular Research Institute (HBRI) and Stanford University, have reported on a compound that can trigger a cascade of events that create stress and ultimately impact Wnt’s ability to control the ability of cells to repair themselves.

In a news release Dr. Mark Mercola, a co-author of a CIRM-funded study – published in the journal Cell Chemical Biology – says this is important: “because it explains why stressed cells cannot regenerate and heal tissue damage. By blocking the ability to respond to Wnt signaling, cellular stress prevents cells from migrating, replicating and differentiating.”

The researchers discovered a compound PAWI-2 that shows promise in blocking the compound that causes this cascade of problems. Co-author Dr. John Cashman says PAWI-2 could lead to treatments in a wide variety of cancers such as pancreatic, breast, prostate and colon cancer.

“As anti-cancer PAWI-2 drug development progresses, we expect PAWI-2 to be less toxic than current therapeutics for pancreatic cancer, and patients will benefit from improved safety, less side effects and possibly with significant cost-savings.”

Dr. Catriona Jamieson: Photo courtesy Moores Cancer Center, UCSD

Speaking of cancer….

Stem cells have many admirable qualities. However, one of their less admirable ones is their ability to occasionally turn into cancer stem cells. Like regular stem cells these have the ability to renew and replicate themselves over time, but as cancer stem cells they use that ability to help fuel the growth and spread of cancer in the body. Now, researchers at U.C. San Diego are trying to better understand how those regular stem cells become cancer stem cells, so they can stop that process.

In a CIRM-funded study Dr. Catriona Jamieson and her team identified two molecules, APOBEC3C and ADAR1, that play a key role in this process.

In a news release Jamieson said: “APOBEC3C and ADAR1 are like the Bonnie and Clyde of pre-cancer stem cells — they drive the cells into malignancy.”

So they studied blood samples from 54 patients with leukemia and 24 without. They found that in response to inflammation, APOBEC3C promotes the rapid production of pre-leukemia stem cells. That in turn enables ADAR1 to go to work, interfering with gene expression in a way that helps those pre-leukemia stem cells turn into leukemia stem cells.

They also found when they blocked the action of ADAR1 or silenced the gene in patient cells in the laboratory, they were able to stop the formation of leukemia stem cells.

The study is published in the journal Cell Reports.

Everything you wanted to know about COVID vaccines but never got a chance to ask

All this month we are using our blog and social media to highlight a new chapter in CIRM’s life, thanks to the voters approving Proposition 14. We are looking back at what we have done since we were created in 2004, and also looking forward to the future. Today we feature a rare treat, an interview with Moderna’s Dr. Derrick Rossi.

Moderna co-founder Dr. Derrick Rossi

It’s not often you get a chance to sit down with one of the key figures in the fight against the coronavirus and get to pick his brain about the best ways to beat it. We were fortunate enough to do that on Wednesday, talking to Dr. Derrick Rossi, the co-founder of Moderna, about the vaccine his company has developed.

CIRM’s President and CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, was able to chat to Dr. Rossi for one hour about his background (he got support from CIRM in his early post-doctoral research at Stanford) and how he and his colleagues were able to develop the COVID-19 vaccine, how the vaccine works, how effective it is, how it performs against new variations of the virus.

He also told us what he would have become if this science job hadn’t worked out.

All in all it was a fascinating conversation with someone whose work is offering a sense of hope for millions of people around the world.

If you missed it first time around you can watch it here.

How a CIRM scholar helped create a life-saving COVID vaccine

Dr. Derrick Rossi might be the most famous man whose name you don’t recognize. Dr. Rossi is the co-founder of Moderna. Yes, that Moderna. The COVID-19 vaccine Moderna. The vaccine that in clinical trials proved to be around 95 percent effective against the coronavirus.

Dr. Rossi also has another claim to fame. He is a former CIRM scholar. He did some of his early research, with our support, in the lab of Stanford’s Dr. Irv Weissman.

So how do you go from a lowly post doc doing research in what, at the time, was considered a rather obscure scientific field, to creating a company that has become the focus of the hopes of millions of people around the world?  Well, join us on Wednesday, January 27th at 9am (PST) to find out.

CIRM’s President and CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, will hold a live conversation with Dr. Rossi and we want you to be part of it. You can join us to listen in, and even post questions for Dr. Rossi to answer. Think of the name dropping credentials you’ll get when say to your friends; “Well, I asked Dr. Rossi about that and he told me…..”

Being part of the conversation is as simple as clicking on this link:

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

We look forward to seeing you there.

Progress in the fight against Sickle Cell Disease

Marissa Cors, sickle cell disease patient advocate

Last November Marissa Cors, a patient advocate in the fight against Sickle Cell Disease (SCD), told the Stem Cellar “A stem cell cure will end generations of guilt, suffering, pain and early death. It will give SCD families relief from the financial, emotional and spiritual burden of caring someone living with SCD. It will give all of us an opportunity to have a normal life. Go to school, go to work, live with confidence.” With each passing month it seems we are getting closer to that day.

CIRM is funding four clinical trials targeting SCD and another project we are supporting has just been given the green light by the Food and Drug Administration to start a clinical trial. Clearly progress is being made.

Yesterday we got a chance to see that progress. We held a Zoom event featuring Marissa Cors and other key figures in the fight against SCD, CIRM Science Officer Dr. Ingrid Caras and Evie Junior. Evie is a pioneer in this struggle, having lived with sickle cell all his life but now hoping to live his life free of the disease. He is five months past a treatment that holds out the hope of eradicating the distorted blood cells that cause such devastation to people with the disease.

You can listen to his story, and hear about the other progress being made. Here’s a recording of the Zoom event.

You can also join Marissa every week on her live event on Facebook, Sickle Cell Experience Live.