Replacement brain cells offer hope for Parkinson’s treatment

A colony of iPSCs from a Parkinson’s patient (left) and dopaminergic neurons made from these iPSCs (right) to model PD. (Image credit: Jeanne Loring)

A new study that used adult blood stem cells to create replacement brain nerve cells appears to help rats with Parkinson’s.

In Parkinson’s, the disease attacks brain nerve cells that produce a chemical called dopamine. The lack of dopamine produces a variety of symptoms including physical tremors, depression, anxiety, insomnia and memory problems. There is no cure and while there are some effective treatments they tend to wear off over time.

In this study, researchers at Arizona State University took blood cells from humans and, using the iPSC method, changed those into dopamine-producing neurons. They then cultured those cells in the lab before implanting them in the brains of rats which had Parkinson’s-like symptoms.

They found that rats given cells that had been cultured in the lab for 17 days survived in greater numbers and seemed to be better at growing new connections in their brains, compared to rats given cells that had been cultured for 24 or 37 days.

In addition, those rats given larger doses of the cells experienced a complete reversal of their symptoms, compared to rats given smaller doses.

In a news release, study co-author Dr. Jeffrey Kordower, said: “We cannot be more excited by the opportunity to help individuals who suffer from [a] genetic form of Parkinson’s disease, but the lessons learned from this trial will also directly impact patients who suffer from sporadic, or non-genetic forms of this disease.”

The study, published in the journal npj Regenerative Medicine, says this approach might also help people suffering from other neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s or Huntington’s disease.

Google eases ban on ads for stem cell therapies

What started out as an effort by Google to crack down on predatory stem cell clinics advertising bogus therapies seems to be getting diluted. Now the concern is whether that will make it easier for these clinics to lure unsuspecting patients to pay good money for bad treatments?

A little background might help here. For years Google placed no restrictions on ads by clinics that claimed their stem cell “therapies” could cure or treat all manner of ailments. Then in September of 2019 Google changed its policy and announced it was going to restrict advertisements for stem cell clinics offering unproven, cellular and gene therapies.

This new policy was welcomed by people like Dr. Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell scientist at UC Davis and longtime critic of these clinics. In his blog, The Niche, he said it was great news:

“Google Ads for stem cell clinics have definitely driven hundreds if not thousands of customers to unproven stem cell clinics. It’s very likely that many of the patients who have ended up in the hospital due to bad outcomes from clinic injections first went to those firms because of Google ads. These ads and certain particularly risky clinics also are a real threat to the legitimate stem cell and gene therapy fields.”

Now the search-engine giant seems to be adjusting that policy. Google says that starting July 11 it will permit ads for stem cell therapies approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That’s fine. Anything that has gone through the FDA’s rigorous approval process deserves to be allowed to advertise.

The real concern lies with another adjustment to the policy where Google says it will allow companies to post ads as long as they are “exclusively educational or informational in nature, regardless of regulatory approval status.” The problem is, Google doesn’t define what constitutes “educational or informational”. That leaves the door open for these clinics to say pretty much anything they want and claim it meets the new guidelines.

To highlight that point Gizmodo did a quick search on Google using the phrase “stem cells for neuropathy” and quickly came up with a series of ads that are offering “therapies” clearly not approved by the FDA. One ad claimed it was “FDA registered”, a meaningless phrase but one clearly designed to add an air of authenticity to whatever remedy they were peddling.

The intent behind Google’s change of policy is clearly good, to allow companies offering FDA-approved therapies to advertise. However, the outcome may not be quite so worthy, and might once again put patients at risk of being tricked into trying “therapies” that will almost certainly not do them any good, and might even put them in harm’s way.

Smoking marijuana could be bad for your heart, but there is an unusual remedy

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Smoking medical marijuana: Photo courtesy Elsa Olofsson

Millions of Americans use marijuana for medical reasons, such as reducing anxiety or helping ease the side effects of cancer therapy. Millions more turn to it for recreational reasons, saying it helps them relax. Now a new study says those who smoke marijuana regularly might be putting themselves at increased risk of heart disease and heart attack.

There has long been debate about the benefits versus the risks for using cannabis, with evidence on both sides to support each position. For example some studies have shown taking oral cannabinoids can help people cope with the nausea brought on by chemotherapy. Other studies have shown that regular use of marijuana can cause problems such as marijuana use disorder, a condition where the user is showing physical or psychological problems but has difficulty controlling or reducing their use of cannabis.

Now this latest study, from researchers at Stanford Medicine,  shows that THC, the psychoactive part of the drug, can cause inflammation in endothelial cells. These are the cells that line the interior of blood vessels. When these cells become inflamed it can cause a constriction of the vessels and reduce blood flow. Over time this can create conditions that increase the risk of heart disease and heart attack.

The researchers, led by Dr. Joe Wu, began by analyzing data from the UK Biobank. This included information about some 35,000 people who reported smoking marijuana. Of these around 11,000 smoked more than once a month. The researchers found that regular marijuana smokers:

  • Were significantly more likely than others to have a heart attack.
  • Were also more likely to have their first heart attack before the age of 50, increasing their risk of subsequent attacks.

The team then used the iPSC method to create human endothelial cells and, in the lab, found that THC appeared to promote inflammation in the cells. They also found signs it created early indications of atherosclerosis, where there is a buildup of fat and plaque in the arteries.

They then tested mice which had been bred to have high levels of cholesterol and who were given a high fat diet. Some of the mice were then injected with THC, at a level comparable to smoking one marijuana cigarette a day. Those mice had far larger amounts of atherosclerosis plaque in their arteries compared to the mice who didn’t get the THC.

In a news release, Dr.Wu, the lead author of the study, said: “There’s a growing public perception that marijuana is harmless or even beneficial. Marijuana clearly has important medicinal uses, but recreational users should think carefully about excessive use.”

On the bright side, the team also reported that the damage caused by THC can be stopped by genistein, a naturally occurring compound found in soy and fava beans. The study, in the journal Cell, also found that genistein blocked the bad impact of THC without impeding the good impacts.

“As more states legalize the recreational use of marijuana, users need to be aware that it could have cardiovascular side effects,” said Dr. Wu. “But genistein works quite well to mitigate marijuana-induced damage of the endothelial vessels without blocking the effects marijuana has on the central nervous system, and it could be a way for medical marijuana users to protect themselves from a cardiovascular standpoint.”

Study shows sleep deprivation impairs stem cells in the cornea 

We spend around one third of our life sleeping—or at least we should. Not getting enough sleep can have serious consequences on many aspects of our health and has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. 

A study by the American Sleep Apnea Association found that some 70 percent of Americans report getting too little sleep at least one night a month, and 11 percent report not enough sleep every night. Over time that can take a big toll on your mental and physical health. Now a new study says that impact can also put you at increased risk for eye disease.  

The study published in the journal Stem Cell Reports, looked at how sleep deprivation affects corneal stem cells. These cells are essential in replacing diseased or damaged cells in the cornea, the transparent tissue layer that covers and protects the eye.  

Researchers Wei Li, Zugou Liu and colleagues from Xiamen University, China and Harvard Medical School, USA, found that, in mice short-term sleep deprivation increased the rate at which stem cells in the cornea multiplied. Having too many new cells created vision problems.  

They also found that long-term sleep deprivation had an even bigger impact on the health of the cornea. Sleep-deprived mice had fewer active stem cells and so were not as effective in replacing damaged or dying cells. That in turn led to a thinning of the cornea and a loss of transparency in the remaining cells.  

The cornea— the transparent tissue layer covering the eye—is maintained by stem cells, which divide to replace dying cells and to repair small injuries.

The findings suggest that sleep deprivation negatively affects the stem cells in the cornea, possibly leading to vision impairment in the long run. It’s not clear if these findings also apply to people, but if they do, the implications could be enormous.  

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is also heavily involved in searching for treatments for diseases or conditions that affect vision. We have invested almost $150 million in funding 31 projects on vision loss including a clinical trial with UCLA’s Dr. Sophie Deng targeting the cornea, and other clinical trials for age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. 

Shared with permission from International Society for Stem Cell Research. Read the source release here

It’s hard to be modest when people keep telling you how good you are

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I have a confession. Deep down I’m shallow. So when something I am part of is acknowledged as one of the best, I delight in it (my fellow bloggers Katie and Esteban also delight in it, I am just more shameless about letting everyone know.)

And that is just what happened with this blog, The Stem Cellar. We have been named as one of the “22 best biology and stem cell blogs of 2022”. And not just by anyone. We were honored by Dr. Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell scientist, avid blogger and all-round renaissance man (full disclosure, Paul is a recipient of CIRM funding but that has nothing to do with this award. Obviously.)

We are particularly honored to be on the list because Paul includes some heavy hitters including The Signals Blog, a site that he describes this way:

“This one from our friends in Canada is fantastic. They literally have dozens of authors, which is probably the most of any stem cell-related website, and their articles include many interesting angles. They post really often too. I might rank Signal and The Stem Cellar as tied for best stem cell blog in 2021.”

Now I’m really blushing.

Other highly regarded blogs are EuroStemCell, the Mayo Clinic Regenerative Medicine Blog and Stem Cell Battles (by Don Reed, a good friend of CIRM’s)

Another one of the 22 is David Jensen’s California Stem Cell report which is dedicated to covering the work of, you guessed it, CIRM. So, not only are we great bloggers, we are apparently great to blog about. 

As a further demonstration of my modesty I wanted to point out that Paul regularly produces ‘best of’ lists, including his recent “50 influencers on stem cells on Twitter to follow” which we were also on.

The bootcamp helping in the fight against rare diseases

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Dr. Emil Kakkis at the Rare Entrepreneur Bootcamp

Imagine you or someone you love is diagnosed with a rare disease and then told, “There is no cure, there are no treatments and because it’s so rare no one is even doing any research into developing a treatment.” Sadly for millions of people that’s an all-too-common occurrence.

There are around 7,000 rare diseases affecting some 25-30 million Americans. Some of these are ultra-rare conditions where worldwide there may be only a few hundred people, or even a few dozen, diagnosed with it. And of all these rare diseases, only 5% have an approved therapy.

For the people struggling with a rare disease, finding a sense of hope in the face of all this can be challenging. Some say it feels as if they have been abandoned by the health care system. Others fight back, working to raise both awareness about the disease and funds to help support research to develop a treatment. But doing that without experience in the world of fund raising and drug development can pose a whole new series of challenges.

That’s where Ultragenyx comes into the picture. The company has a simple commitment to patients. “We aim to develop safe and effective treatments for many serious rare diseases as fast as we can, and we are committed to helping the whole rare disease community move forward by sharing our science and expertise to advance future development, whether by us or others.”

They live up to that commitment by hosting a Rare Entrepreneur Bootcamp. Every year they bring together a dozen or so patient or family organizations that are actively raising funds for a potential treatment approach and give them a 3-day crash course in what they’ll need to know to have a chance to succeed in rare disease drug development.

A panel discussion at the Rare Entrepreneur Bootcamp

Dr. Emil Kakkis, the founder of Ultragenyx, calls these advocates “warriors” because of all the battles they are going to face. He told them, “Get used to hearing no, because you are going to hear that a lot. But keep fighting because that’s the only way you get to ‘yes’.”

The bootcamp brings in experts to coach and advise the advocates on everything from presentation skills when pitching a potential investor, to how to collaborate with academic researchers, how to design a clinical trial, what they need to understand about manufacturing or intellectual property rights.

In a blog about the event, Arjun Natesan, vice president of Translational Research at Ultragenyx, wrote, “We are in a position to share what we’ve learned from bringing multiple drugs to market – and making the process easier for these organizations aligns with our goal of treating as many rare disease patients as possible. Our aim is to empower these organizations with guidance and tools and help facilitate their development of life-changing rare disease treatments.”

For the advocates it’s not just a chance to gain an understanding of the obstacles ahead and how to overcome them, it’s also a chance to create a sense of community. Meeting others who are fighting the same fight helps them realize they are not alone, that they are part of a bigger, albeit often invisible, community, working tirelessly to save the lives of their children or loved ones.  

CIRM also has a commitment to supporting the search for treatments for rare diseases. We are funding more than two dozen clinical trials, in addition to many earlier stage research projects, targeting rare conditions.

New funding opportunity in CIRM’s Discovery stage programs: the Foundation Awards 

Applications for CIRM’s new Discovery stage Foundation Awards (DISC 0) are due May 26th, 2022 by 2:00 PM PDT. 

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is pleased to announce a brand new funding opportunity within our Discovery stage programs, the DISC 0 Foundation Awards which will support rigorous studies addressing critical basic knowledge gaps in the biology of stem cells and regenerative medicine approaches, and to advance stem cell-based tools.

Projects funded through the Foundation Awards should propose impactful or innovative research that culminates in a discovery or technology that would:

  • Advance our understanding of the biology of stem or progenitor cells that is relevant to human biology and disease; or 
  • Advance the application of genetic research that is relevant to human biology and disease and pertains to stem cells and regenerative medicine; or
  • Advance the development or use of human stem cells as tools for biomedical innovation; or 
  • Lead to the greater applicability of regenerative medicine discoveries to communities representing the full spectrum of diversity.

Please visit our website to access the DISC 0 PA and read about program requirements. Applications are due May 26th, 2022 by 2:00 PM PDT.

We look forward to your applications!

Stem cell agency invests in therapy using killer cells to target colorectal, breast and ovarian cancers

While there have been some encouraging advances in treating cancer in recent decades, there are still many cancers that either resist treatment or recur after treatment. Today the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved investing in a therapy targeting some of these hard-to-treat tumors.

BioEclipse Therapeutics Inc. was awarded nearly $8M to test a therapy using immune cells loaded with a cancer-killing virus that targets cancer tissue but spares healthy tissue.

This is the 78th clinical trial funded directly by the Stem Cell Agency.

BioEclipse combines two approaches—an immune cell called a cytokine-induced killer (CIK) cell and a virus engineered to kill cancer cells called an oncolytic virus (OV)—to create what they call “a multi-mechanistic, targeted treatment.”

They will use the patient’s own immune cells and, in the lab, combine them with the OV. The cell/virus combination will then be administered back to the patient. The job of the CIK cells is to carry the virus to the tumors. The virus is designed to specifically attack and kill tumors and stimulate the patient’s immune system to attack the tumor cells. The goal is to eradicate the primary tumor and prevent relapse and recurrence.

“With the intent to develop this treatment for chemotherapy-resistant or refractory solid tumors—including colorectal cancer, triple negative breast cancer, ovarian cancer, gastric cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma, and osteosarcoma—it addresses a significant unmet medical need in fatal conditions for which there are limited treatment options,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, President and CEO of CIRM.  

The CIRM Board also approved more than $18 million in funding four projects under the Translation Projects program. The goal of this program is to support promising regenerative medicine (stem cell-based or gene therapy) projects that accelerate completion of translational stage activities necessary for advancement to clinical study or broad end use.

The awards went to:

ApplicationTitleInstitutionAward Amount
TRAN1-133442Optogenetic therapy for treating retinitis pigmentosa and
other inherited retinal diseases  
  Paul Bresge Ray Therapeutics Inc.  $3,999,553  
TRAN3-13332Living Synthetic Vascular Grafts with Renewable Endothelium    Aijun Wang UC Davis  $3,112,567    
TRAN1-13370Next generation affinity-tuned CAR for prostate cancer    Preet Chaudhary University of Southern California  $5,805,144  
TRAN1-3345Autologous MPO Knock-Out Hematopoietic Stem and
Progenitor Cells for Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension  
  Don Kohn UC Los Angeles  $5,207,434  

How two women are fighting back against Lou Gehrig’s disease

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Mary Ann Wittenberg (left) and Nadia Sethi

Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS, is a nasty degenerative condition that destroys the brain cells controlling movement. People with ALS suffer a progressive loss of ability to walk, talk, eat and breathe.

The average life expectancy for someone diagnosed with ALS is just two to five years. It has a devastating impact on the people diagnosed and their families.

On the latest episode of our podcast, Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation, we talk to two women who have suffered a loss in this fight, but who are using their experience with ALS to help others battling the disease.

Nadia Sethi became the Director of Community Engagement and Outreach at the ALS Therapy Development Institute after losing her husband to ALS. 

Mary Ann Wittenberg’s husband Harry fought the disease in a public way, starting a blog called “Welcome to My World, How Life Has Changed and Making it Work.” Mary Ann is now carrying on that mission of demystifying the disease.

Their courage and determination to turn a tragedy into something positive, to help others, and to hopefully play a role in finding treatments to help people with ALS, is deeply moving and inspiring.

We hope you enjoy this special episode of ‘Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation’.

CIRM has invested more than $92 million in 33 different projects targeting ALS. You can read about them on our ALS Fact Sheet.

UCLA-led team creates first comprehensive map of human blood stem cell development

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Human blood stem cells emerging from specialized endothelial cells in the wall of an embryonic aorta. UCLA scientists’ confirmation of this process clarifies a longstanding controversy about the stem cells’ cellular origin. Image Credit: Hanna Mikkola Lab/UCLA, Katja Schenke-Layland Lab/University of Tübingen, Nature

California researchers from UCLA and colleagues have created a first-of-its-kind roadmap that traces each step in the development of blood stem cells in the human embryo, providing scientists with a blueprint for producing fully functional blood stem cells in the lab. 

The research, published in the journal Nature, could help expand treatment options for blood cancers like leukemia and inherited blood disorders such as sickle cell disease, said UCLA’s Dr. Hanna Mikkola, who led the study. 

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has funded and supported Mikkola’s earlier blood stem cell research through various grants

Overcoming Limitations 

Blood stem cells, also called hematopoietic stem cells, can make unlimited copies of themselves and differentiate into every type of blood cell in the human body. For decades, doctors have used blood stem cells from the bone marrow of donors and the umbilical cords of newborns in life-saving transplant treatments for blood and immune diseases.  

However, these treatments are limited by a shortage of matched donors and hampered by the low number of stem cells in cord blood. 

Researchers have long sought to create blood stem cells in the lab from human pluripotent stem cells, which can potentially give rise to any cell type in the body. But success has been elusive, in part because scientists have lacked the instructions to make lab-grown cells become self-renewing blood stem cells rather than short-lived blood progenitor cells, which can only produce limited blood cell types. 

“Nobody has succeeded in making functional blood stem cells from human pluripotent stem cells because we didn’t know enough about the cell we were trying to generate,” said Mikkola. 

A New Roadmap

The new roadmap will help researchers understand the fundamental differences between the two cell types, which is critical for creating cells that are suitable for use in transplantation therapies, said UCLA scientist Vincenzo Calvanese, a co–first author of the research, along with UCLA’s Sandra Capellera-Garcia and Feiyang Ma. 

Researchers Vincenzo Calvanese and Hanna Mikkola. | Credit: Eddy Marcos Panos (left); Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

“We now have a manual of how hematopoietic stem cells are made in the embryo and how they acquire the unique properties that make them useful for patients,” said Calvanese, who is also a group leader at University College London.  

The research team created the resource using new technologies that enable scientists to identify the unique genetic networks and functions of thousands of individual cells and to reveal the location of these cells in the embryo. 

The data make it possible to follow blood stem cells as they emerge and migrate through various locations during their development, starting from the aorta and ultimately arriving in the bone marrow. Importantly, the map unveils specific milestones in their maturation process, including their arrival in the liver, where they acquire the special abilities of blood stem cells. 

The research group also pinpointed the exact precursor in the blood vessel wall that gives rise to blood stem cells. This discovery clarifies a longstanding controversy about the stem cells’ cellular origin and the environment that is needed to make a blood stem cell rather than a blood progenitor cell. 

Through these insights into the different phases of human blood stem cell development, scientists can see how close they are to making a transplantable blood stem cell in the lab. 

A Better Understanding of Blood Cancers

In addition, the map can help scientists understand how blood-forming cells that develop in the embryo contribute to human disease. For example, it provides the foundation for studying why some blood cancers that begin in utero are more aggressive than those that occur after birth. 

“Now that we’ve created an online resource that scientists around the world can use to guide their research, the real work is starting,” Mikkola said. “It’s a really exciting time to be in the field because we’re finally going to be seeing the fruits of our labor.” 

Read the full release here