Celebrating a young life that almost wasn’t

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning life lessons in the lab

Rohan Upadhyay, CIRM SPARK student 2021

One of the most amazing parts of an amazing job is getting to know the students who take part in CIRM’s SPARK (Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge) program. It’s an internship giving high school students, that reflect the diversity of California, a chance to work in a world-class stem cell research facility.

This year because of the pandemic I didn’t get a chance to meet them in person but reading the blogs they wrote about their experiences I feel as if I know them anyway.

The blogs were fun, creative, engaging and dealt with many issues, as well as stem cell and gene therapy research.

A common theme was how hard the students, many of whom knew little about stem cells before they started, had to work just to understand all the scientific jargon.

Areana Ramirez, who did her internship at UC Davis summed it up nicely when she wrote:

“Despite the struggles of taking over an hour to read a scientific article and researching what every other word meant, it was rewarding to know that all of the strain I had put on my brain was going toward a larger understanding of what it means to help others. I may not know everything about osteogenic differentiation or the polyamine pathway, but I do know the adversities that patients with Snyder-Robinson are facing and the work that is being done to help them. I do know how hard each one of our mentors are working to find new cures and are coming up with innovating ideas that will only help humankind.”

Lauren Ginn at City of Hope had the same experience, but said it taught her a valuable lesson:

“Make no mistake, searching for answers through research can sometimes feel like shooting arrows at a bulls-eye out of sight. Nonetheless, what CIRM SPARK has taught me is the potential for exploration that lies in the unknown. This internship showed me that there is so much more to science than the facts printed in textbooks.”

Rohan Upadhyay at UC Davis discovered that even when something doesn’t work out, you can still learn a lot:

“I asked my mentor (Gerhard Bauer) about what he thought had occurred. But unlike the textbooks there was no obvious answer. My mentor and I could only speculate what had occurred. It was at this point that I realized the true nature of research: every research project leads to more questions that need to be answered. As a result there is no endpoint to research. Instead there are only new beginnings.”

Melanie Nguyen, also at UC Davis, wrote her blog as a poem. But she saved the best part for the prose at the end:

“Like a hematopoietic stem cell, I have learned that I am able to pursue my different interests, to be multi-potential. One can indulge in the joys of biology while simultaneously live out their dreams of being an amateur poet. I choose it all. Similarly, a bone marrow stem cell can become whatever it may please—red, white, platelet. It’s ability to divide and differentiate is the source of its ingenuity. I view myself in the same light. Whether I can influence others with research, words, or stories, I know that with each route I will be able to make change in personalized ways.”

For Lizbeth Bonilla, at Stanford, her experiences transcended the personal and took on an even bigger significance:

“As a first-generation Mexican American, my family was thrilled about this internship and opportunity especially knowing it came from a prestigious institution. Unfortunately there is very little to no representation in our community in regards to the S.T.E.M. field. Our dreams of education and prosperity for the future have to be compromised because of the lack of support and resources. To maintain pride in our culture, we focus on work ethics and family, hoping it will be the next generations’ time to bring successful opportunities home. However, while this is a hope widely shared the effort to have it realized is often limited to men. A Latina woman’s success and interest in education are still celebrated, but not expected. As a first-generation Latina, I want to prove that I can have a career and hopefully contribute to raising the next leading generation, not with the hope that dreams are possible but to be living proof that they are.”

Reading the blogs it was sometimes easy to forget these are 16 and 17 year old students. They write with creativity, humor, thoughtfulness and maturity. They learned a lot about stem cell research over the summer. But I think they also learned a lot more about who they are as individuals and what they can achieve.

Retooling a COVID drug to boost its effectiveness

Coronavirus particles, illustration.

When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out scientists scrambled to find existing medications that might help counter the life-threatening elements of the virus. One of the first medications that showed real promise was remdesivir. It’s an anti-viral drug that was originally developed to target novel, emerging viruses, viruses like COVID19. It was approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in October 2020.

Remdesivir showed real benefits for some patients, reducing recovery time for those in the hospital, but it also had problems. It had to be delivered intravenously, meaning it could only be used in a hospital setting. And it was toxic if given in too high a dose.

In a new study – partially funded by CIRM (DISC2 COVID19-12022 $228,229) – researchers at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) found that by modifying some aspects of remdesivir they were able to make it easier to take and less toxic.

In a news release about the work Dr. Robert Schooley, a first author on the study, says we still need medications like this.

“Although vaccine development has had a major impact on the epidemic, COVID-19 has continued to spread and cause disease — especially among the unvaccinated. With the evolution of more transmissible viral variants, breakthrough cases of COVID are being seen, some of which can be severe in those with underlying conditions. The need for effective, well-tolerated antiviral drugs that can be given to patents at high risk for severe disease at early stages of the illness remains high.”

To be effective remdesivir must be activated by several enzymes in the body. It’s a complex process and explains why the drug is beneficial for some areas, such as the lung, but can be toxic to other areas, such as the liver. So, the researchers set out to overcome those problems.

The team created what are called lipid prodrugs, these are compounds that do not dissolve in water and are used to improve how a drug interacts with cells or other elements; they are often used to reduce the bad side effects of a medication. By inserting a modified form of remdesivir into this lipid prodrug, and then attaching it to an enzyme called a lipid-phosphate (which acts as a delivery system, bringing along the remdesivir prodrug combo), they were able to create an oral form of remdesivir.

Dr. Aaron Carlin, a co-first author of the study, says they were trying to create a hybrid version of the medication that would work equally well regardless of the tissue it interacted with.

“The metabolism of remdesivir is complex, which may lead to variable antiviral activity in different cell types. In contrast, these lipid-modified compounds are designed to be activated in a simple uniform manner leading to consistent antiviral activity across many cell types.”

When they tested the lipid prodrugs in animal models and human cells they found they were effective against COVID-19 in different cell types, including the liver. They are now working on further developing and testing the lipid prodrug to make sure it’s safe for people and that it can live up to their hopes of reducing the severity of COVID-19 infections and speed up recovery.

The study is published in the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.

How regrowing tiny hairs could restore hearing loss

Man getting fitted with hearing aids

Hearing loss is something that affect tens of millions of Americans. Usually people notice those changes as they get older but the damage can be done years before that through the use of some prescription drugs or exposure to loud noise (I knew I shouldn’t have sat in the 6th row of that Led Zeppelin concert!)

Now researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) have identified the mechanism that appears to stop cells that are crucial to hearing from regenerating.

In a news release Dr. Neil Segil says this could, in theory, help reverse some hearing loss.  “Permanent hearing loss affects more than 60 percent of the population that reaches retirement age. Our study suggests new gene engineering approaches that could be used to channel some of the same regenerative capability present in embryonic inner ear cells.”

The inner ear has two types of cells that are crucial for hearing; “hair cells” are sensory receptors and these help the brain detect sounds, and support cells that play, as the name implies, an important structural and supporting role for the hair cells.

In people, once the hair cells are damaged that’s it, you can’t repair or replace them and the resulting hearing loss is permanent. But mice, in the first few days of life, have ability to turn some of their support cells into hair cells, thus repairing any damage. So Segil and the team set out to identify how mice were able to do that and see if those lessons could be applied to people.

They identified specific proteins that played a key role in turning genes on and off, regulating if and when the support cells could turn into hair cells. They found that one molecule, H3K4mel, was particularly important in activating the correct genetic changes need to turn the support cells into hair cells. But in mice, levels of H3K4mel disappeared quickly after birth, so the team found a drug that helped preserve the molecule, meaning the support cells retained the ability to turn into hair cells.

Now, obviously because this was just done in mice there’s a lot more work that needs to be done to see if it can also work in people, but Segil says it’s certainly an encouraging and intriguing start.

“Our study raises the possibility of using therapeutic drugs, gene editing, or other strategies to make epigenetic modifications that tap into the latent regenerative capacity of inner ear cells as a way to restore hearing. Similar epigenetic modifications may also prove useful in other non-regenerating tissues, such as the retina, kidney, lung, and heart.”

The study is published in the journal Developmental Cell

CIRM has funded several projects targeting hearing loss. You can find them here.

Gene therapy is life-changing for children with a life-threatening brain disorder

If you have never heard of AADC deficiency count yourself lucky. It’s a rare, incurable condition that affects only around 135 children worldwide but it’s impact on those children and their families is devastating. The children can’t speak, can’t feed themselves or hold up their head, they have severe mood swings and often suffer from insomnia.

But Dr. Krystof Bankiewicz, a doctor and researcher at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), is using techniques he developed treating Parkinson’s disease to help those children. Full disclosure here, CIRM is funding Dr. Bankiewicz’s Parkinson’s clinical trial.

In AADC deficiency the children lack a critical enzyme that helps the brain make serotonin and dopamine, so called “chemical messengers” that help the cells in the brain communicate with each other. In his AADC clinical trial Dr. Bankiewicz and his team created a tiny opening in the skull and then inserted a functional copy of the AADC gene into two regions of the brain thought to have most benefit – the substantia nigra and ventral tegmental area of the brainstem.

Image showing target areas for AADC gene insertion: Courtesy UCSF

When the clinical trial began none of the seven children were able to sit up on their own, only two had any ability to control their head movement and just one could grasp an object in their hands. Six of the seven were described as moody or irritable and six suffered from insomnia.

In a news release Dr. Bankiewicz says the impact of the gene therapy was quite impressive: “Remarkably, these episodes were the first to disappear and they never returned. In the months that followed, many patients experienced life-changing improvements. Not only did they begin laughing and have improved mood, but some were able to start speaking and even walking.”

Those weren’t the only improvements, at the end of one year:

  • All seven children had better control of their head and body.
  • Four of the children were able to sit up by themselves.
  • Three patients could grasp and hold objects.
  • Two were able to walk with some support.

Two and a half years after the surgery:

  • One child was able to walk without any support.
  • One child could speak with a vocabulary of 50 words.
  • One child could communicate using an assistive device.

The parents also reported big improvements in mood and ability to sleep.

UCSF posted some videos of the children before and after the surgery and you can see for yourself the big difference in the children. It’s not a cure, but for families that had nothing in the past, it is a true gift.

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

Hollywood and Patient Advocacy – two people who are on our Board but never boring

At first glance Lauren Miller Rogen and Dr. David Higgins seem an unlikely pair. She’s an actor, writer, director and has worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. He has a doctorate in molecular biology and genetics and has worked at some of the most well-known companies in biotech. But together they make a great team.

Lauren and David are both on the CIRM Board. She’s a patient advocate for Alzheimer’s and the driving force (with her husband Seth) of HFC (Hilarity for Charity), which has raised millions of dollars to help families battling the disease and to educate young people about the condition. It’s also made a lot of people laugh along the way. David is a patient advocate for Parkinson’s and has been instrumental is creating support groups that help patients and families cope with the disease.

Together they are a force for good. And they’re also really funny. And that’s why we invited them to be guests on the CIRM Podcast, Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation. They are smart, engaging, witty, and they don’t pull punches.

I know you are going to enjoy the show.

Sometimes a cold stare is a good thing

A retina of a patient with macular degeneration. (Photo credit: Paul Parker/SPL)

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of vision loss and blindness in the elderly in the U.S. It’s estimated that some 11 million Americans could have some form of the disease, a number that is growing every year. So if you are going to develop a treatment for this condition, you need to make sure it can reach a lot of people easily. And that’s exactly what some CIRM-supported researchers are doing.

Let’s back up a little first. AMD is a degenerative condition where the macular, the small central portion of your retina, is slowly worn away. That’s crucial because the retina is the light-sensing nerve tissue at the back of your eye. At first you notice that your vision is getting blurry and it’s hard to read fine print or drive a car. As it progresses you develop dark, blurry areas in the center of your vision.

There are two kinds of AMD, a wet form and a dry form. The dry form is the most common, affecting 90% of patients. There is no cure and no effective treatment. But researchers at the University of Southern California (USC), the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) and a company called Regenerative Patch Technologies are developing a method that is looking promising.

They are using stem cells to grow retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) cells, the kind attacked by the disease, and putting them on a tiny synthetic scaffold which is then placed at the back of the eye. The hope is these RPE cells will help slow down the progression of the disease or even restore vision.

Early results from a CIRM-funded clinical trial are encouraging. Of the five patients enrolled in the Phase 1/2a trial, four maintained their vision in the treated eye, two showed improvement in the stability of their vision, and one patient had a 17-letter improvement in their vision on a reading chart. In addition, there were no serious side effects or unanticipated problems.

So now the team are taking this approach one step further. In a study published in Scientific Reports, they say they have developed a way to cryopreserve or freeze this cell and scaffold structure.

In a news release, Dr. Dennis Clegg of UCSB, says the frozen implants are comparable to the non-frozen ones and this technique will extend shelf life and enable on-demand distribution to distant clinical sites, increasing the number of patients able to benefit from such treatments.

“It’s a major advance in the development of cell therapies using a sheet of cells, or a monolayer of cells, because you can freeze them as the final product and ship them all over the world.”

Cool.

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.

How stem cells play “follow the leader”

Todd McDevitt, PhD., Photo: courtesy Gladstone Institutes

It’s hard enough trying to follow the movements of individuals in a crowd of people but imagine how much harder it is to follow the movements of stem cells, crowded into a tiny petri dish. Well, researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco have done just that.

In a CIRM-funded study ($5.85M) Dr. Todd McDevitt and his team created a super smart artificial intelligence way of tracking the movements of hundreds of stem cells growing together in a colony, and even identify “leaders” in the pack.

In our bodies groups of stem cells are able to move in specific ways to form different organs and tissues when exposed to the right environment. Unfortunately, we are still trying to learn what “the right environment” is for different organs.

In a news release, McDevitt, the senior author of the paper published in the journal Stem Cell Reports, says this method of observing cells may help us better understand that.

“If I wanted to make a new human heart right now, I know what types of cells are needed, and I know how to grow them independently in dishes. But we really don’t know how to get those cells to come together to form something as complex as a heart. To accomplish that, we need more insights into how cells work cooperatively to arrange themselves.”

Normally scientists watch cells by tagging them with a fluorescent marker so they can see them under a microscope. But this is slow, painstaking work and not particularly accurate. This new method used a series of what are called “neural networks”, which are artificial intelligence (AI) programs that can detect patterns in the movements of the cells. When combined together the networks proved to be able to track the movement of 95 percent of the cells. Humans by comparison can only manage up to 90 percent. But the nets were not only sharper, they were also faster, much faster, some 500 times faster.

This enhanced ability to watch the cells showed that instead of being static most of the time, as had previously been thought, they were actually on the move a lot of the time. They would move around for 15 minutes and then take a breather for ten minutes (time for the stem cell equivalent of a cup of tea perhaps).  

Some cells moved around a lot in one direction, while others just seemed to shuffle around in the same area. Some cells even seemed to act as “leaders” while other cells appeared to be “followers” and shuffle along behind them.

None of this would have been visible without the power of the AI networks and McDevitt says being able to tap into this could help researchers better understand how to use these complex movements.

“This technique gives us a much more comprehensive view of how cells behave, how they work cooperatively, and how they come together in physical space to form complex organs.

Follow the Leader is not just a kids’ game anymore. Now it’s a scientific undertaking.

CIRM Builds Out World Class Team With 5 New hires

Kevin Marks, CIRM’s new General Counsel. Photo courtesy Modern-Counsel.com

Following the passage of Proposition 14 CIRM has hired five new employees to help increase the team’s ability to respond to new challenges and responsibilities.

Prop 14, which was approved by voters in November 2020, gives CIRM $5.5 billion in new funding. Those funds mean CIRM can once again fund research from Discovery, through Translational and Clinical, as well as create new education and training programs. Prop 14 also adds new areas of focus for the Stem Cell Agency including creating an Accessibility and Affordability Working Group, expanding the Alpha Stem Cell Clinic network and creating new Centers of Excellence in underserved parts of California. To meet those new responsibilities the Agency has hired a highly talented group of individuals. Those include:

Kevin Marks is CIRM’s new General Counsel. Kevin studied Russian at college and originally wanted to be a diplomat, but when that didn’t work out he turned to the law. He became a highly accomplished, skilled advisor with global and domestic expertise and a history of delivering innovative legal and business results. He has served as Vice President and Head of Legal and Compliance at Roche Molecular Solutions, VP and General Counsel at Roche Molecular Diagnostics and VP and General Counsel at Roche Palo Alto, LLC.

“We are so delighted to have Kevin Marks join CIRM as a member of our executive Leadership Team,” says Maria T. Millan, MD, CIRM’s President and CEO. “He brings unique qualifications and critical skills during the formative phase and launch of our new strategic plan for California’s $5.5B investment in stem cell, genomics and regenerative medicine research and therapy development. As general counsel, he will oversee the legal department, human resources, grants management and operations at the Agency. Kevin has an established track record with global and domestic expertise and a history of delivering innovative legal and business solutions.”

“He is revered by his colleagues as an exceptional leader in his profession and in the community. Kevin is known for developing people as well as programs, and for promoting racial, ethnic and gender diversity.”

“I am incredibly honored to be joining CIRM at this stage of its journey,” says Marks. “I see the opportunity to contribute to positive patient outcomes–especially those patients with unmet medical needs–by working towards accelerating stem cell research in California as a member of the CIRM team as rewarding and perfectly aligned with my professional and personal goals.”

Pouneh Simpson as Director of Finance. Pouneh comes to CIRM from the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services in California, where she served as the Recovery Financial Administration Chief. At OES she worked with local, state, and federal government stakeholders on disaster recovery planning, exercises, and grant administration, specifically, overseeing the grant processing of all disaster recovery activity.

Prior to that Pouneh worked as the Chief Financial Officer of the Veterans Homes, where she managed finances at eight Veterans Homes with over 2,800 positions and $365 million in General Fund support. She also led the writing of legislation, regulations, policies and procedures for Cal Vet, overhauling the business and financial portions of eight Veterans Homes.

Mitra Hooshmand, PhD. as Senior Science Officer for Special Projects and Initiatives. Mitra joins CIRM after more than five years of leadership experience at Americans for Cures, a stem cell advocacy group. During this time, she mobilized hundreds of stakeholders, from scientists to national and local patient advocacy organizations, to generate support for CIRM’s mission.

Mitra has a PhD. in Anatomy and Biology from the University of California at Irvine. She also worked as a Project Scientist at the Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center at UC Irvine, where she conducted and published academic and industry-partnered research in studies investigating the therapeutic benefit of human neural stem cell transplantation in preclinical models of spinal cord injury and aging.

Vanessa Singh, as Human Resources Manager. Vanessa has 15 years of experience working for the state of California, working at the Departments of General Services, Insurance and Human Services. In those roles she gained experience in performing, processing, developing, implementing, and advising on many personnel aspects such as compensation, benefits, classifying positions, recruitment and hiring, salary structure (exempt and civil service), organization structure, and retirement.

When COVID struck Vanessa stepped up to help. She worked as a Case Investigator for San Bernardino Local Health Jurisdiction, Department of Public Health, doing contact tracing. She talked to people diagnosed with coronavirus and collected information on people they may have had close contact with who may have been exposed to the virus.

Claudette Mandac as Project Manager Review. Claudette has more than seven years’ experience with UCSF’s Human Research Protection Program. In that role she prepared protocols for scientific, regulatory and ethical review, pre-screening submissions to ensure they were complete and consistent, and then routing them to the appropriate reviewers for administrative, expedited or Committee review. She also managed an Institutional Review Board Committee, preparing and distributing protocols for review by designated scientific and nonscientific reviewers, coordinating meetings, recruiting and training members, and maintaining records of conflicts of interest. At UCSF she annually helped process up to 3,000 IRB modifications, continuing reviews, and post-approval safety reports for domestic and international socio-behavioral or biomedical research.

Claudette has two degrees from U.C. Berkeley; one in Arts and History and another in Science, Conservation and Resource Studies.