Two rare diseases, two pieces of good news

Dr. Stephanie Cherqui

Last week saw a flurry of really encouraging reports from projects that CIRM has supported. We blogged about two of them last Wednesday, but here’s another two programs showing promising results.

UC San Diego researcher Dr. Stephanie Cherqui is running a CIRM-funded clinical trial for cystinosis. This is a condition where patients lack the ability to clear an amino acid called cystine from their cells. As the cystine builds up it can lead to multi-organ failure affecting the kidneys, eyes, thyroid, muscle, and pancreas.

Dr. Cherqui uses the patient’s own blood stem cells, that have been genetically corrected in the lab to remove the defective gene that causes the problem. It’s hoped these new cells will help reduce the cystine buildup.

The data presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Cell and Gene Therapy (ASCGT) focused on the first patient treated with this approach. Six months after being treated the patient is showing positive trends in kidney function. His glomerular filtration rate (a measure of how well the kidneys are working) has risen from 38 (considered a sign of moderate to severe loss of kidney function) to 52 (mild loss of kidney function). In addition, he has not had to take the medication he previously needed to control the disorder, nor has he experienced any serious side effects from the therapy.

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Dr. Linda Marban of Capricor

Capricor Therapeutics also had some positive news about its therapy for people with Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). This is a progressive genetic disorder that slowly destroys the muscles. It affects mostly boys. By their teens many are unable to walk, and most die of heart or lung failure in their 20’s. 

Capricor is using a therapy called CAP-1002, using cells derived from heart stem cells, in the HOPE-2 clinical trial.

In a news release Capricor said 12-month data from the trial showed improvements in heart function, lung function and upper body strength. In contrast, a placebo control group that didn’t get the CAP-1002 treatment saw their condition deteriorate.

Craig McDonald, M.D., the lead investigator on the study, says these results are really encouraging.  “I am incredibly pleased with the outcome of the HOPE-2 trial which demonstrated clinically relevant benefits of CAP-1002 which resulted in measurable improvements in upper limb, cardiac and respiratory function. This is the first clinical trial which shows benefit to patients in advanced stages of DMD for which treatment options are limited.”

You can read the story of Caleb Sizemore, one of the patients treated in the CIRM-funded portion of this trial.

CIRM Board Approves Clinical Trials Targeting COVID-19 and Sickle Cell Disease

Coronavirus particles, illustration.

Today the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved new clinical trials for COVID-19 and sickle cell disease (SCD) and two earlier stage projects to develop therapies for COVID-19.

Dr. Michael Mathay, of the University of California at San Francisco, was awarded $750,000 for a clinical trial testing the use of Mesenchymal Stromal Cells for respiratory failure from Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). In ARDS, patients’ lungs fill up with fluid and are unable to supply their body with adequate amounts of oxygen. It is a life-threatening condition and a major cause of acute respiratory failure. This will be a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial with an emphasis on treating patients from under-served communities.

This award will allow Dr. Matthay to expand his current Phase 2 trial to additional underserved communities through the UC Davis site.

“Dr. Matthay indicated in his public comments that 12 patients with COVID-related ARDS have already been enrolled in San Francisco and this funding will allow him to enroll more patients suffering from COVID- associated severe lung injury,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO. “CIRM, in addition to the NIH and the Department of Defense, has supported Dr. Matthay’s work in ARDS and this additional funding will allow him to enroll more COVID-19 patients into this Phase 2 blinded randomized controlled trial and expand the trial to 120 patients.”

The Board also approved two early stage research projects targeting COVID-19.

  • Dr. Stuart Lipton at Scripps Research Institute was awarded $150,000 to develop a drug that is both anti-viral and protects the brain against coronavirus-related damage.
  • Justin Ichida at the University of Southern California was also awarded $150,00 to determine if a drug called a kinase inhibitor can protect stem cells in the lungs, which are selectively infected and killed by the novel coronavirus.

“COVID-19 attacks so many parts of the body, including the lungs and the brain, that it is important for us to develop approaches that help protect and repair these vital organs,” says Dr. Millan. “These teams are extremely experienced and highly renowned, and we are hopeful the work they do will provide answers that will help patients battling the virus.”

The Board also awarded Dr. Pierre Caudrelier from ExcellThera $2 million to conduct a clinical trial to treat sickle cell disease patients

SCD is an inherited blood disorder caused by a single gene mutation that results in the production of “sickle” shaped red blood cells. It affects an estimated 100,000 people, mostly African American, in the US and can lead to multiple organ damage as well as reduced quality of life and life expectancy.  Although blood stem cell transplantation can cure SCD fewer than 20% of patients have access to this option due to issues with donor matching and availability.

Dr. Caudrelier is using umbilical cord stem cells from healthy donors, which could help solve the issue of matching and availability. In order to generate enough blood stem cells for transplantation, Dr. Caudrelier will be using a small molecule to expand these blood stem cells. These cells would then be transplanted into twelve children and young adults with SCD and the treatment would be monitored for safety and to see if it is helping the patients.

“CIRM is committed to finding a cure for sickle cell disease, the most common inherited blood disorder in the U.S. that results in unpredictable pain crisis, end organ damage, shortened life expectancy and financial hardship for our often-underserved black community” says Dr. Millan. “That’s why we have committed tens of millions of dollars to fund scientifically sound, innovative approaches to treat sickle cell disease. We are pleased to be able to support this cell therapy program in addition to the gene therapy approaches we are supporting in partnership with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the NIH.”

Promising results from CIRM-funded projects

Severe Leukocyte Adhesion Deficiency-1 (LAD-1) is a rare condition that causes the immune system to malfunction and reduces its ability to fight off viruses and bacteria. Over time the repeated infections can take a heavy toll on the body and dramatically shorten a person’s life. But now a therapy, developed by Rocket Pharmaceuticals, is showing promise in helping people with this disorder.

The therapy, called RP-L201, targets white blood cells called neutrophils which ordinarily attack and destroy invading particles. In people with LAD-1 their neutrophils are dangerously low. That’s why the new data about this treatment is so encouraging.

In a news release, Jonathan Schwartz, M.D., Chief Medical Officer of Rocket, says early results in the CIRM-funded clinical trial, show great promise:

“Patients with severe LAD-I have neutrophil CD18 expression of less than 2% of normal, with extremely high mortality in early childhood. In this first patient, an increase to 47% CD18 expression sustained over six months demonstrates that RP-L201 has the potential to correct the neutrophil deficiency that is the hallmark of LAD-I. We are also pleased with the continued visible improvement of multiple disease-related skin lesions. The second patient has recently been treated, and we look forward to completing the Phase 1 portion of the registrational trial for this program.”

The results were released at the 23rd Annual Meeting of the American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy.

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These microscopic images show gene expression in muscle stem and progenitor cells as they mature from early development to adulthood (left to right). As part of this process, the cells switch from actively expressing one key gene (green) to another (violet); this is accompanied by the growth of muscle fibers (red).
Photo courtesy: Cell Stem Cell/UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center

When you are going on a road-trip you need a map to help you find your way. It’s the same with stem cell research. If you are going to develop a new way to treat devastating muscle diseases, you need to have a map to show you how to build new muscle stem cells. And that’s what researchers at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA – with help from CIRM funding – have done.

The team took muscle progenitor cells – which show what’s happening in development before a baby is born – and compared them to muscle stem cells – which control muscle development after a baby is born. That enabled them to identify which genes are active at what stage of development.

In a news release, April Pyle, senior author of the paper, says this could open the door to new therapies for a variety of conditions:

“Muscle loss due to aging or disease is often the result of dysfunctional muscle stem cells. This map identifies the precise gene networks present in muscle progenitor and stem cells across development, which is essential to developing methods to generate these cells in a dish to treat muscle disorders.”

The study is published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

A clear vision for the future

Dr. Henry Klassen and Dr. Jing Yang, founders of jCyte

When you have worked with a group of people over many years the relationship becomes more than just a business venture, it becomes personal. That’s certainly the case with jCyte, a company founded by Drs. Henry Klassen and Jing Yang, aimed at finding a cure for a rare form of vision loss called retinitis pigmentosa. CIRM has been supporting this work since it’s early days and so on Friday, the news that jCyte has entered into a partnership with global ophthalmology company Santen was definitely a cause for celebration.

The partnership could be worth up to $252 million and includes an immediate payment of $62 million. The agreement also connects jCyte to Santen’s global business and medical network, something that could prove invaluable in bringing their jCell therapy to patients outside the US.

Here in the US, jCyte is getting ready to start a Phase 2 clinical trial – which CIRM is funding – that could prove pivotal in helping it get approval from the US Food and Drug Administration.

As Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President and CEO says, we have been fortunate to watch this company steadily progress from having a promising idea to developing a life-changing therapy.

“This is exciting news for everyone at jCyte. They have worked so hard over many years to develop their therapy and this partnership is a reflection of just how much they have achieved. For us at CIRM it’s particularly encouraging. We have supported this work from its early stages through clinical trials. The people who have benefited from the therapy, people like Rosie Barrero, are not just patients to us, they have become friends. The people who run the company, Dr. Henry Klassen, Dr. Jing Yang and CEO Paul Bresge, are so committed and so passionate about their work that they have overcome many obstacles to bring them here, an RMAT designation from the Food and Drug Administration, and a deal that will help them advance their work even further and faster. That is what CIRM is about, following the science and the mission.”

Paul Bresge, jCyte’s CEO says they couldn’t have done it without CIRM’s early and continued investment.

Paul Bresge, jCyte CEO

“jCyte is extremely grateful to CIRM, which was established to support innovative regenerative medicine programs and research such as ours.  CIRM supported our early preclinical data all the way through our late stage clinical trials.  This critical funding gave us the unique ability and flexibility to put patients first in each and every decision that we made along the way. In addition to the funding, the guidance that we have received from the CIRM team has been invaluable. jCell would not be possible without the early support from CIRM, our team at jCyte, and patients with degenerative retinal diseases are extremely appreciative for your support.”

Here is Rosie Barrero talking about the impact jCell has had on her life and the life of her family.

Why “Ask the Stem Cell Team” Remains Important

These are definitely strange, unusual and challenging times. Every day seems to bring new restrictions on what we can and should do. All, of course, in the name of protecting us and helping us avoid a potentially deadly virus. We all hope this will soon pass but we also know the bigger impact of the coronavirus is likely to linger for many months, perhaps even years.

With that in mind a few people have asked us why we are still going ahead with our Facebook Live ‘Ask the Stem Cell Team About Autism’ event this Thursday, March 19th at 12pm PDT. It’s a good question. And the answer is simple. Because there is still a need for good, thoughtful information about the potential for stem cells to help families who have a loved one with autism. And because we still need to do all we can to dispel the bad information out there and warn people about the bogus clinics offering unproven therapies.

In many ways Facebook Live is the perfect way to deliver this information. It allows us to reach out to large numbers of people without having them in the same room. We can educate not contaminate.

And we have some great experts to discuss the use of stem cells in helping people with autism.

The event features Dr. Alysson Muotri from UC San Diego. We have written about his work with stem cells for autism in the past. And CIRM’s own Associate Director for Discovery and Translation, Dr. Kelly Shepard.

But we also want you to be a part of this as well. So, join us online for the event. You can post comments and questions during the event, and we’ll do our best to answer them. Or you can send us in questions ahead of time to info@cirm.ca.gov.

If you were unable to tune in while we were live, not to worry, you you can watch it here on our Facebook page

Big time validation for early support

It’s not every day that a company and a concept that you helped support from the very beginning gets snapped up for $4.9 billion. But that’s what is happening with Forty Seven Inc. and their anti-cancer therapies. Gilead, another California company by the way, has announced it is buying Forty Seven Inc. for almost $5 billion.

The deal gives Gilead access to Forty Seven’s lead antibody therapy, magrolimab, which switches off CD47, a kind of “do not eat me” signal that cancer cells use to evade the immune system.

CIRM has supported this program from its very earliest stages, back in 2013, when it was a promising idea in need of funding. Last year we blogged about the progress it has made from a hopeful concept to an exciting therapy.

When Forty Seven Inc. went public in 2018, Dr. Irv Weissman, one of the founders of the company, attributed a lot of their success to CIRM’s support.

Dr. Irv Weissman

“The story of the funding of this work all of the way to its commercialization and the clinical trials reported in the New England Journal of Medicine is simply this: CIRM funding of a competitive grant took a mouse discovery of the CD47 ‘don’t eat me’ signal through all preclinical work to and through a phase 1 IND with the FDA. Our National Institutes of Health (NIH) did not fund any part of the clinical trial or preclinical run up to the trial, so it is fortunate for those patients and those that will follow, if the treatment continues its success in larger trials, that California voters took the state’s right action to fund research not funded by the federal government.”

Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO, says the deal is a perfect example of CIRM’s value to the field of regenerative medicine and our ability to work with our grantees to make them as successful as possible.

“To say this is incredible would be an understatement! Words cannot describe how excited we are that this novel approach to battling currently untreatable malignancies has the prospect of making it to patients in need and this is a major step. Speaking on behalf of CIRM, we are very honored to have been a partner with Forty Seven Inc. from the very beginning.

CIRM Senior Science Officer, Dr. Ingrid Caras, was part of the team that helped a group of academic scientists take their work out of the lab and into the real world.

“I had the pleasure of working with and helping the Stanford team since CIRM provided the initial funding to translate the idea of developing CD47 blockade as a therapeutic approach. This was a team of superb scientists who we were fortunate to work closely with them to navigate the Regulatory environment and develop a therapeutic product. We were able to provide guidance as well as funding and assist in the ultimate success of this project.”

Forty Seven Inc. is far from the only example of this kind of support and collaboration. We have always seen ourselves as far more than just a funding agency. Money is important, absolutely. But so too is bringing the experience and expertise of our team to help academic scientists take a promising idea and turn it into a successful therapy.

After all that’s what our mission is, doing all we can to accelerate stem cell therapies to patients with unmet medical needs. And after a deal like this, Forty Seven Inc. is definitely accelerating its work.

Stem cell transplant in utero offers potential treatment for congenital diseases

Dr. Tippi Mackenzie, UCSF
Image Credit: UCSF

Each year, around 24,000 women in the US lose a pregnancy. One reason for this unfortunate occurrence are metabolic disorders, one of which is known as Sly syndrome and is caused by a single genetic mutation. In Sly syndrome, the body’s cells lack an enzyme necessary for proper cell function. Many fetuses with this condition die before birth but those that survive are treated with regular injections of the lacking enzyme. Unfortunately, patients can eventually develop an immune response to these injections and it cannot enter the brain after birth.

However, a team of researchers at UCSF are looking at exploring a potential treatment that could be delivered in-utero. In a CIRM supported study, Dr. Tippi Mackenzie and Dr. Quoc-Hung Nguyen transplanted blood-forming stem cells from normal mice into fetal mice carrying the genetic mutation for Sly syndrome. The researchers were most interested to see whether these cells could reach the brain, and whether they would change into cells called microglia, immune cells that originate from blood-forming stem cells. In a normally developing fetus, once matured, microglia produce and store the necessary enzyme, as well as regulate the immune environment of the brain.

Stem cells transplanted in utero (green) engrafted into fetal mouse brain tissue. 
Image credit: Q-H Nguyen/MacKenzie lab.

The researchers found that the stem cells were able to engraft in the brain, liver, kidney, and other organs. Furthermore, these stem cells were able to eventually turn into the appropriate cell type needed to produce the enzyme in each of the organs.

In a press release, Dr. Mackenzie talks about the impact that this potential treatment could have.

“This group of vulnerable patients has been relatively ignored in the fetal surgery world. We know these patients could potentially benefit from a number of medical therapies. So this is our first foray into treating one of those diseases.”

In the same press release, Dr. Nguyen talks about the impact of the results from this study.

“These exciting findings are just the tip of the iceberg. They open up a whole new approach to treating a range of diseases. At the same time, there’s also a lot of work to do to optimize the treatment for humans.”

The next step for Dr. Mackenzie is to apply to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to launch a clinical trial of enzyme replacement therapy that will ultimately enroll patients with Sly syndrome and related metabolic disorders.

This approach is similar to a CIRM funded trial conducted by Dr. Mackenzie that involves a blood stem cell transplant in utero.

The full results to this study were published in Science Translational Medicine.

CIRM Board Meeting Highlights Important Updates to Clinical Trials

Dr. Maria T. Millan, President and CEO of CIRM, presenting the President’s Report

This past Thursday the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) were presented with an update on CIRM’s clinical portfolio, which to date includes 60 clinical trials in various areas including kidney failure, cancer, and other rare diseases.  The full President’s Report gives an update on 15 of these trials, in addition to our landmark Cure Sickle Cell Initiative with the NIH and our various educational programs.

Although we won’t be diving into extensive detail for all of these trials, we wanted to highlight several key updates made in this presentation to demonstrate how our clinical portfolio is maturing, with many of these trials moving towards registration. Classically, registration trials are large Phase 3 trials. Notably, some of the highlighted CIRM trials are small Phase 2 or earlier trials that seek to gain enough safety and efficacy data to support final FDA marketing approval. This is a trend with regenerative medicine programs where trial sizes are often small due to the fact that the affected populations are so small with some of these rare diseases. Despite this, the approaches could allow a so called “large effect size,” meaning the signal of clinical benefit per patient is strong enough to give a read of whether the therapy is working or not. CIRM programs often address rare unmet needs and utilize this approach.

For example, Orchard Therapeutics, which is conducting a phase 2 clinical trial for ADA Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (ADA-SCID), a rare immune disorder caused by a genetic mutation, has shown a long-term recovery of the immune system in 20 patients two years post treatment.  Orchard plans to submit a Biologics License Application (BLA) sometime in 2020, which is the key step necessary to obtain final approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a therapy.

“We are thrilled to see encouraging results for this genetically modified cell therapy approach and a path forward for FDA approval,” says Maria T. Millan, MD, President and CEO of CIRM. “CIRM is proud of the role it has played in this program.  We funded the program while it was at UCLA and it is now in partnership with Orchard Therapeutics as it takes the program through this final phase toward FDA marketing approval.  Success in this program is a game changer for patients with ADA-SCID who had no other options and who had no bone marrow transplant donors. It also opens up possibilities for future approaches for this dieaseas as well as the other 6,000 genetic diseases that currently have no treatment.”    

The trial uses a gene therapy approach that takes the patient’s own blood stem cells, introduces a functional version of the ADA gene, and reintroduces these corrected blood stem cells back into the patient. From blood tests, one can readily detect whether the approach is successful from the presence of ADA and from the presence of immune cells that were not previously present. To date, it has been awarded approximately $19 million in CIRM funding.  Additionally, it has received FDA Breakthrough Therapy as well as Orphan Drug Designations, both of which are designed to accelerate  the development of the treatment.

Another trial that was highlighted is Rocket Pharmaceutical’s clinical trial for Leukocyte Adhesion Deficiency-1 (LAD-1), a rare and fatal pediatric disease that affects the body’s ability to combat infections. They have just released initial results from their first patient. This is also a gene therapy approach using the patient’s own blood stem cells. The notable aspect of this trial is that the investigators designed this small phase 1 trial of nine patients to be “registration enabling.”  This means that, if they find compelling data, they intend to bring the experience and data from this trial to the FDA to seek agreement on what would be required to get final marketing approval in order to get this treatment to patients with severe unmet medical needs in the most timely way possible.     

Preliminary results demonstrate early evidence of safety and potential efficacy.  There were visible improvements in multiple disease-related skin lesions after receiving the therapy. They are collecting more data on more patients.  To date, it has received $6.6 million in CIRM funding.

As a unique immuno-oncology approach (using the body’s immune system to battle cancer), CIRM is funding Forty Seven Inc. to conduct a clinical trial for patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), both of which are forms of cancer.  They have received Fast Track and Orphan Drug designation from the FDA.

The trial is using an antibody blocking CD47, a “don’t eat me” signal, which allows the body’s own immune cells to seek and destroy cancerous stem cells.  This is combined with chemotherapy to render the cancer stem cells more susceptible to immune destruction.  This trial has received $5 million in CIRM funding thus far.

Other registration phase trials in the CIRM portfolio include the following Phase 3 trials:

Brainstorm Cell Therapeutics, for a fatal debilitating neurodegenerative disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease).  That company has completed enrollment and expects top line results in the final quarter of 2020.

Humacyte, which is testing bioengineered de-cellularized vessels that are implanted to create vascular access that is repopulated by the patients own stem cells to make it more like native vessel.  The company is conducting two Phase 3 trials to compare this bioengineered vessel to synthetic grafts and to the patients’ own vessels for use in hemodialysis, a “life line” for patients with end stage renal disease. Humacyte was the first US FDA Cell Therapy program to receive the Regenerative Medicine Advanced Technologies (RMAT) in March 2017. To date, these trials have been awarded $24 million in CIRM funding.

Medeor Therapeutics has received $11.2M in CIRM funding to conduct a Phase 3 trial in combined blood stem cell and kidney transplantation to induce immunologic tolerance so that the blood stem cells teach the patient’s immune system to recognize the transplanted kidney as its own.  The goal is to remove the need for chronic immunosuppressive medications, that have its own complications. If successful, transplant recipients would not need to “trade one chronic condition for another.”

‘A Tornado at the Front Door, a Tsunami at the Back Door’

CIRM funds a lot of research and all of it has life-saving potential. But every once in a while you come across a story about someone benefiting from CIRM-supported research that highlights why the work we do is so important. This story is about a brilliant researcher at UC San Diego developing a treatment for a really rare disease, one that was unlikely to get funding from a big pharmaceutical company because it offered little chance for a return on its investment. At CIRM we don’t have to worry about things like that. Stories like this are our return on investment.

Our thanks to our colleagues at UCSD News for allowing us to run this piece in full.

Jordan Janz and Dr. Stephanie Cherqui in her lab at the UC San Diego School of Medicine: Photo courtesy UC San Diego

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By Heather Buschman, PhD

Born with a rare disease called cystinosis, 20-year-old Jordan Janz arrived at a crossroads: continue life as-is, toward a future most likely leading to kidney failure and an early death or become the first patient in the world to undergo a new gene-and-stem cell therapy developed over more than a decade by UC San Diego School of Medicine researchers

For the majority of Jordan Janz’s 20 years of life, most neighbors in his tiny Canadian town never knew he was sick. Janz snowboarded, hunted and fished. He hung with friends, often playing ice hockey video games. He worked in shipping and receiving for a company that makes oil pumps.

But there were times when Janz was younger that he vomited up to 13 times each day. He received a growth hormone injection every day for six years. He needed to swallow 56 pills every day just to manage his symptoms. And the medication required around-the-clock administration, which meant his mother or another family member had to get up with him every night.

“I was tired for school every day,” Janz said. “I was held back in second grade because I missed so much school. And because the medication had a bad odor to it, when I did go to school kids would ask, ‘What’s that smell?’ It was hard.”

Janz was born with cystinosis, a rare metabolic disorder that’s detected in approximately one in 100,000 live births worldwide. People with cystinosis inherit a mutation in the gene that encodes a protein called cystinosin. Cystinosin normally helps cells transport the amino acid cystine. Because cells in people with cystinosis don’t produce the cystinosin protein, cystine accumulates. Over the years, cystine crystals build up and begin to damage tissues and organs, from the kidneys and liver to muscles, eyes and brain. Numerous symptoms and adverse consequences result.

These days, Janz manages his condition. There’s a time-release version of the symptom-relieving medication now that allows him to go 12 hours between doses, allowing for a good night’s sleep. But there’s no stopping the relentless accumulation of cystine crystals, no cure for cystinosis.  

In October 2019, Janz became the first patient to receive treatment as part of a Phase I/II clinical trial to test the safety and efficacy of a unique gene therapy approach to treating cystinosis. The treatment was developed over more than a decade of research by Stephanie Cherqui, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics, and her team at University of California San Diego School of Medicine.

“The day they started looking for people for the trial, my mom picked up the phone, found a number for Dr. Cherqui, called her and put my name in as a candidate,” Janz said.

Janz’s mom, Barb Kulyk, has long followed Cherqui’s work. Like many parents of children with cystinosis, Kulyk has attended conferences, read up on research and met many other families, doctors and scientists working on the condition. Kulyk says she trusts Cherqui completely. But she was understandably nervous for her son to be the first person ever to undergo a completely new therapy.

“It’s like giving birth,” she said shortly before Janz received his gene therapy. “You’re really looking forward to the outcome, but dreading the process.”

The treatment

Cherqui’s gene therapy approach involves genetical modifying the patient’s own stem cells. To do this, her team obtained hematopoietic stem cells from Janz’s bone marrow. These stem cells are the precursors to all blood cells, including both red blood cells and immune cells. The scientists then re-engineered Janz’s stem cells in a lab using gene therapy techniques to introduce a normal version of the cystinosin gene. Lastly, they reinfused Janz with his own now-cystinosin-producing cells. The approach is akin to a bone marrow transplant — the patient is both donor and recipient.

“A bone marrow transplant can be very risky, especially when you take hematopoietic stem cells from a another person. In that case, there’s always the chance the donor’s immune cells will attack the recipient’s organs, so-called graft-versus-host disease,” Cherqui explained. “It’s a great advantage to use the patient’s own stem cells.”

As is the case for other bone marrow transplants, Janz’s gene-modified stem cells are expected to embed themselves in his bone marrow, where they should divide and differentiate to all types of blood cells. Those cells are then expected to circulate throughout his body and embed in his tissues and organs, where they should produce the normal cystinosin protein. Based on Cherqui’s preclinical data, she expects the cystinosin protein will be transferred to the surrounding diseased cells. At that point, Janz’s cells should finally be able to appropriately transport cystine for disposal — potentially alleviating his symptoms.

Before receiving his modified stem cells, Janz had to undergo chemotherapy to make space in his bone marrow for the new cells. Not unexpectedly, Janz experienced a handful of temporary chemotherapy-associated side-effects, including immune suppression, hair loss and fatigue. He also had mucositis, an inflammation of mucous membranes lining the digestive tract, which meant he couldn’t talk or eat much for a few days.

Now, only three months after his transfusion of engineered stem cells, Cherqui reports that Janz is making a good recovery, though it’s still too early to see a decrease in his cystinosis-related symptoms.

“I’ve been sleeping at least 10 hours a day for the last few weeks,” Janz said. “It’s crazy, but I know my body is just working hard to, I guess, create a new ‘me.’ So it’s no wonder I’m tired. But I’m feeling okay overall.

“One of the hardest parts for me is being inactive for so long. I’m not used to doing nothing all day. But I’m taking an online course while I wait for my immune system to rebuild. And I’m getting pretty good at video games.”

Like all Phase I/II clinical trials, the current study is designed to first test the safety and tolerability of the new treatment. Janz knows the treatment might not necessarily help him.

“When we started this trial, my mom explained it like this: ‘We have a tornado at the front door and a tsunami at the back door, and we have to pick one to go through. Neither will be any fun and we don’t know what’s going to happen, but you have to believe you will make it and go.

“So we weighed the pros and cons and, basically, if I don’t do this trial now, when I’m older I might not be healthy and strong enough for it. So I decided to go for it because, even if there are consequences from the chemotherapy, if it works I could live 20 years longer than I’m supposed to and be healthy for the rest of my life. That’s worth it.”

Besides the possible benefit to himself, Janz also sees his participation in the clinical trial as a way to contribute to the tight-knit community of families with children who have cystinosis.

“I’m willing to do if it helps the kids,” he said. “Somebody has to do it. I don’t have the money to donate to scientific conferences and stuff like that, but I can do this trial.”

The trial

If the treatment continues to meet certain criteria for safety and efficacy for Janz and one other participant after three months, two more adult participants will be enrolled. Three months after that, if the treatment continues to be safe and effective, the trial might enroll two adolescent participants. To participate in the clinical trial, individuals must meet specific eligibility requirements.

Later in the trial, Cherqui and team will begin measuring how well the treatment actually works. The specific objectives include assessing the degree to which gene-modified stem cells establish themselves in  bone marrow, how they affect cystine levels and cystine crystal counts in blood and tissues.

“This trial is the first to use gene-modified hematopoietic stem cell gene therapy to treat a multi-organ degenerative disorder for which the protein is anchored in the membrane of the lysosomes, as opposed to secreted enzymes,” Cherqui said. “We were amazed when we tested this approach in the mouse model of cystinosis — autologous stem cell transplantation reversed the disease. The tissues remained healthy, even the kidneys and the eyes.”

Trial participants are closely monitored for the first 100 days after treatment, then tested again at six, nine, 12, 18 and 24 months post-gene therapy for a variety of factors, including vital signs, cystine levels in a number of organs, kidney function, hormone function and physical well-being.

“If successful in clinical trials, this approach could provide a one-time, lifelong therapy that may prevent the need for kidney transplantation and long-term complications caused by cystine buildup,” Cherqui said.

The future

For the trial participants, all of the pre-treatment tests, the treatment itself, and monitoring afterward means a lot of travel to and long stays in San Diego.

It’s tough on Kulyk and Janz. They have to fly in from Alberta, Canada and stay in a San Diego hotel for weeks at a time. Kulyk has two older adult children, as well as a 12-year-old and a seven-year-old at home. 

“I’ve missed a lot of things with my other kids, but none of them seem to hold any grudges,” she said. “They seem to be totally fine and accepting. They’re like, ‘We’re fine, mom. You go and take care of Jordan.’”

Janz is looking forward to getting back home to his friends, his dog and his job, which provided him with paid leave while he received treatment and recovers.

For Cherqui, the search for a cystinosis cure is more than just a scientific exercise. Cherqui began working on cystinosis as a graduate student more than 20 years ago. At the time, she said, it was simply a model in which to study genetics and gene therapy.

“When you read about cystinosis, it’s just words. You don’t put a face to it. But after I met all the families, met the kids, and now that I’ve seen many of them grow up, and some of them die of the disease — now it’s a personal fight, and they are my family too.”

Patients with cystinosis typically experience kidney failure in their 20s, requiring kidney dialysis or transplantation for survival. For those born with cystinosis who make it into adulthood, the average lifespan is approximately 28 years old.

“I’m optimistic about this trial because it’s something we’ve worked so hard for and now it’s actually happening, and these families have so much hope for a better treatment,” Cherqui said. “After all the years of painstaking laboratory research, we now need to move into the clinic. If this works, it will be wonderful. If it doesn’t, we will all be disappointed but a least we’ll be able to say we tried.”

Nancy Stack, who founded the Cystinosis Research Foundation after her own daughter, Natalie, was diagnosed with the disease, calls Cherqui “the rock star of our community.”

“She cares deeply about the patients and is always available to talk, to explain her work and to give us hope,” Stack said. “She said years ago that she would never give up until she found the cure — and now we are closer to a cure than ever before.” (Read more about Natalie here.)

In addition to cystinosis, Cherqui says this type of gene therapy approach could also lead to treatment advancements for other multi-organ degenerative disorders, such as Friedreich’s ataxia and Danon disease, as well as other kidney, genetic and systemic diseases similar to cystinosis.

While they wait for the long-term results of the treatment, Kulyk is cautiously hopeful.

“Moms are used to being able to fix everything for their children — kiss boo-boos make them better, make cupcakes for school, whip up Halloween costumes out of scraps, pull a coveted toy out of thin air when it has been sold out for months.

“But we have not been able to fix this, to take it away. I not only want this disease gone for my child, I want cystinosis to be nothing more than a memory for all the children and adults living with it. I know that even if and when Jordan is cured, there will still be so much work to do, in terms of regulatory approvals and insurance coverage.

“Having hope for your child’s disease to be cured is a slippery slope. We have all been there, held hope in our hands and had to let go. But, I find myself in a familiar place, holding onto hope again and this time I am not letting go.”

Video of Dr. Cherqui and Jordan Janz talking about the therapy

For more information about the Phase I/II clinical trial for cystinosis and to learn how to enroll, call 1-844-317-7836 or email alphastemcellclinic@ucsd.edu.

Cherqui’s research has been funded by the Cystinosis Research Foundation, California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), and National Institutes of Health. She receives additional support from the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center and CIRM-funded Alpha Stem Cell Clinic at UC San Diego Health, and AVROBIO.

Rave reviews for new Killer-T Cell study

Anytime you read a news headline that claims a new discovery “may treat all cancer” it’s time to put your skeptic’s hat on. After all, there have been so many over-hyped “discoveries” over the years that later flopped, that it would be natural to question the headline writer. And yet, this time, maybe, this one has some substance behind it.

Andrew Sewell with research fellow Garry Dolton. (Photo Credit: Cardiff University)

Researchers at the University of Cardiff in Wales have discovered a new kind of immune cell, a so-called “killer T-cell”, that appears to be able to target and kill many human cancer cells, such as those found in breast, prostate and lung cancer. At least in the lab.

The immune system is our body’s defense against all sorts of threats, from colds and flu to cancer. But many cancers are able to trick the immune system and evade detection as they spread throughout the body. The researchers found one T-cell receptor (TCR) that appears to be able to identify cancer cells and target them, but leave healthy tissues alone.

In an interview with the BBC, Prof. Andrew Sewell, the lead researcher on the study said: “There’s a chance here to treat every patient. Previously nobody believed this could be possible. It raises the prospect of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ cancer treatment, a single type of T-cell that could be capable of destroying many different types of cancers across the population.”

The study, published in the journal Nature Immunology, suggests the TCR works by using a molecule called MR1 to identify cancerous cells. MR1 is found on every cell in our body but in cancerous cells it appears to give off a different signal, which enables the TCR to identify it as a threat.

When the researchers injected this TCR into mice that had cancer it was able to clear away many of the cells. The researchers admit there is still a long way to go before they know if this approach will work in people, but Sewell says they are encouraged by their early results.

“There are plenty of hurdles to overcome. However, if this testing is successful, then I would hope this new treatment could be in use in patients in a few years’ time.”

CIRM is funding a number of clinical trials that use a similar approach to targeting cancers, taking the patient’s own immune T-cells and, in the lab, “re-educating” to be able to recognize the cancerous cells. Those cells are then returned to the patient where it’s hoped they’ll identify and destroy the cancer. You can read about those here , here, here, here, and here.