Promising Approach to Curing Spina Bifida Gets $5.6 Million from Stem Cell Agency

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Every day in the U.S. four children are born with spina bifida. It is the most common cause of lifelong paralysis and also frequently leads to other serious health problems affecting the bowel and bladder. The impact on families is enormous. A new approach to repairing the defect that causes spina bifida was today awarded $5.66 million by the Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

In spina bifida the spinal cord doesn’t form properly, in many cases leaving a section of it open, exposing tissues and nerves. The current standard of care is surgery, but even this leaves almost 60% of children unable to walk independently. Diana Farmer MD, and Aijun Wang PhD at U.C. Davis will use mesenchymal stem cells, taken from a donor placenta, and place them on a form of synthetic scaffold over the injury site in the womb. Tests in animals show this approach was able to repair the defect and prevent paralysis.

“Spina bifida is a devastating condition for babies born with this disorder and the families who care for them,” says Maria T. Millan, MD, President & CEO of CIRM. “CIRM has funded this important work from its earliest stages and we are committed to working with Dr. Farmer’s team to moving this work to the stage where it can be tested in patients.”

The CLIN1 award will provide funding to enable the UC Davis team to do the final testing and preparations needed to apply to the FDA for permission to start a clinical trial.

Dr. Farmer says she and Dr. Wang, have been working on this approach for more than ten years and are excited about being able to take the next step.

“There were many times of frustration, many times when cell types we explored and worked with didn’t work,” says Dr. Farmer. “But it’s the patients, seeing them, talking to them and working with them, that keeps me motivated to do the science, to keep persevering.”

If this therapy is successful it will have a huge economic impact on California, and on the rest of the world. Because spina bifida is a lifelong condition involving many operations, many stays in the hospital and, in some cases, lifelong use of a wheelchair this has a huge financial, and psychological, burden on the family.

“It affects them in so many ways; parents having to miss work or take time off work to care for their child, other children in the family feeling neglected because their brother or sister needs so much attention,” says Dr. Farmer. “That’s why we are so grateful to CIRM. Because this is a rare disease and finding funding for those is hard. CIRM has been a perfect partner in helping bring this approach, blending stem cell therapy and tissue engineering, together to help these families.”

This video shows English bulldogs treated with this approach who are now able to walk:

Hits and Myths as people celebrate Stem Cell Awareness Day

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Stem Cell Awareness Day at UC Davis

Every year, the second Wednesday in October is set aside as Stem Cell Awareness Day, a time to celebrate the progress being made in the field and to remind us of the challenges that lie ahead.

While the event began here in California in 2008, with then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger highlighting the work of CIRM, saying: ”The discoveries being made today in our Golden State will have a great impact on many around the world for generations to come.” It has since grown to become a global event.

Here in California, for example, UC Davis and the University of Southern California (USC) both held events to mark the day.

At UC Davis Jan Nolta, PhD., the Director of the Stem Cell Program, introduced a series of speakers who highlighted the terrific work being done at the university. Peter Belafsky talked about using stem cells to repair damaged trachea and to help people who are experiencing voice or swallowing disorders. Mark Lee highlighted the progress being made in using stem cells to repair hard-to-heal broken bones. Aijun Wang focused on some really exciting work that could one day lead to a therapy for spina bifida (including some ridiculously cute video of English bulldogs who are able to walk again because of this therapy.)

USC hosted 100 local high school students for a panel presentation and discussion about careers in stem cell research. The panel featured four scientists talking about their experience, why the students should think about a career in science and how to go about planning one. USC put together a terrific video of the researchers talking about their experiences, something that can help any student around the US consider becoming part of the future of stem cell research.

Similar events were held in other institutions around California. But the celebration wasn’t limited to the Golden State. At the Texas Heart Institute in Houston, Texas, they held an event to talk to the public about the clinical trials they are supporting using stem cells to help people suffering from heart failure or other heart-related issues.

RegMedNet

Finally, the UK-based RegMedNet, a community site that unites the diverse regenerative medicine community, marked the day by exploring some of the myths and misconceptions still surrounding stem cells and stem cell research.

You can read those here.

Every group takes a different approach to celebrating Stem Cell Awareness Day, but each is united by a common desire, to help people understand the progress being made in finding new treatments and even cures for people with unmet medical needs.

A brief history of the Stem Cell Agency

On Wednesday, August 15 the California State Assembly Select Committee on Biotechnology held an informational hearing on CIRM as part of its mission of ensuring the legislature is up to date and informed about the biotech industry in California. The committee heard from CIRM’s President and CEO Dr. Maria T. Millan and the Vice Chair of our Board, Senator Art Torres (Ret.); two of CIRM’s Patient Advocates (Pawash Priyank and Don Reed) and Dr. Jan Nolta, the Director of the Institute for Regenerative Cures at UC Davis.

The final speaker was David Jensen, whose California Stem Cell Report blog has charted the history of CIRM since its inception. At CIRM we know that not everyone agrees with us all the time, or supports all the decisions we have made in the years since we were approved by voters in 2004, but we do pride ourselves on being open to a thoughtful, vigorous debate on all aspects of stem cell research. David’s presentation to the committee was nothing if not thoughtful, and we thought you might enjoy reading it and so we are presenting it here in its entirety.

For those who prefer to watch than read, here is a video of the entire hearing:

https://www.assembly.ca.gov/media/assembly-select-committee-biotechnology-20180815/video

California’s Stem Cell “Gold Rush:” A Brief Overview of the State’s $3 Billion Stem Cell Agency
Prepared testimony by David Jensen, publisher/editor of the California Stem Cell Report, before the Assembly Select Committee on Biotechnology, Aug. 15, 2018
I was in Mazatlan in Mexico in the fall of 2004 when I first heard about the creation of
California’s stem cell agency. I was reading the Wall Street Journal online and saw a headline that said a new Gold Rush was about to begin in California — this one involving stem cells instead of nuggets.

“Holy Argonauts,” I said to myself, using the term, of course, that refers to the tens of thousands of people who rushed to the California gold fields in 1849. I wanted to know more about what was likely to happen with this new stem cell gold rush.

Today, nearly 14 years later, I still want to know more about the California Institute for
Regenerative Medicine or CIRM, as the agency is formally known. But I can tell you that certain facts are clear.

Borrowing and Autonomy
The agency is unique in California history and among the states throughout the nation. It is the first state agency to fund scientific research with billions of dollars – all of it borrowed. At one point in its history, it is safe to say that the agency was the largest single source of funding in the world for human embryonic stem cell research.

The agency operates with financial and oversight autonomy that is rare in California government, courtesy of the ballot initiative that created it. But that measure also proved to be both a blessing and a curse. The agency’s financial autonomy has allowed it to provide a reasonably steady stream of cash over a number of years, something that is necessary to sustain the long-term research that is critical for development of widely available treatments.

At the same time, the ballot measure carried the agency’s death warrant — no more money after the $3 billion was gone. Cash for new awards is now expected to run out at the end of next year. Over its life, the agency has had a national and somewhat more modestly global impact, both as a source of funding and international cooperation, but also in staying the course on human embryonic stem cell research when the federal government was backing away from it.

Beyond that, the stem cell agency is the only state department whose primary objective is to produce a marketable commercial product. In this case, a cure or treatment for afflictions now nearly untreatable.

Finally, I am all but certain that CIRM is the only state agency that takes back money when a project winds up on the rocks. By the end of last month, that figure totalled in recent years more than $34 million in two big categories of awards. This sort of cash recovery is not a practice that occurs with federal research dollars. With CIRM the money goes back into the pot for more research aimed at treating horrible afflictions.

Evaluations of the Research Effort
Nonetheless the agency has hit some shoals from time to time. In 2010, the agency’s governing board commissioned a $700,000 study of its efforts by the prestigious Institute of Medicine. Two years later, the IOM reported to CIRM that it had some significant flaws.

The IOM study said that the agency had “achieved many notable results.” But it also
recommended sweeping changes to remove conflict of interest problems, clean up a troubling dual-executive arrangement and fundamentally change the nature of the governing board.

The report said,“Far too many board members represent organizations that receive CIRM funding or benefit from that funding. These competing personal and professional interests compromise the perceived independence of the ICOC (the CIRM governing board), introduce potential bias into the board’s decision making, and threaten to undermine confidence in the board.”

The conflict issues are built in by the ballot measure, which gave potential recipient institutions seats on the 29-member governing board. Indeed, in 2017, the last time I calculated the correlation between the board and awards, roughly 90 percent of the money given out by CIRM had gone to institutions with ties to members of the governing board.

About two months after the IOM presented its report, the CIRM board approved a new policy that bars 13 of its 29 members from voting on any grants whatsoever to help deal with questions concerning conflicts of interest on the board.

Other studies about the agency’s performance resulted from a 2010 law in which the legislature modified the initiative to require triennial performance audits that would be paid for by the agency itself. The requirement specifically excluded “scientific performance” from the audit.

The first audit results came in 2012 and contained 27 recommendations for improvement. The most recent performance audit came last spring. The audit firm, Moss Adams, recommended improvements in the areas of private fund-raising, retention of staff and better utilization of board members. The board was told that the agency had made “incredible progress” and that the auditors “usually see a lot of good things.”

The Story of CIRM 2.0
In recent years the agency has been on a self-improvement regime. The effort began in 2014 and was dubbed CIRM 2.0 — a term that was originally coined by a stem cell researcher at UC Davis.

The new direction and emphasis was described by the agency as “radical.” It was aimed at improving speed, efficiency and innovation. And it seems to have largely succeeded.
In 2014, it took almost two years for a good idea to go from application to the final funding stage. The goal was to shorten that to 120 days. Delays in funding are of particular concern to businesses, often for cash flow reasons, but they also mean delays in actually developing a treatment.

This week, the agency said the cash delivery figure now stands at less than 90 days for clinical awards and about 120 days for translational awards.

In 2014, the agency was participating in nine clinical trials, the last stage before a treatment is certified by the federal government for widespread use. Today the agency is involved in 49. In 2014, about 50 patients were involved in those trials. Today the figure is more than 800.

One of the more interesting aspects of CIRM 2.0 marked a departure from what might be called an academic pass-fail approach to the “final exam” for applications from scientists. Instead, CIRM is engaged in a more partner-oriented approach that can be found in some businesses.

Instead of flatly failing an application that is not quite ready for prime time, the idea is to coach applicants along to help bring them up to approval level. Today the agency can count 30 applications that won approval through that process. All of which is work could have slipped away in the more distant past.

CIRM and the Biotech Biz
CIRM is now much more engaged with industry than during its earlier years, when it drew bitter criticism from some business executives. Engagement with biotech firms is critical to bringing a treatment to the public. CIRM is not in the business of actually manufacturing, marketing and selling products. That is a matter left to the private sector.

One reason for closer business connections involves maturation of the work in the field, which has brought research closer to reality. But it is also due to a different focus within the agency as top management has changed.

One of the more difficult areas involving stem cell research and likely treatments is their cost. It is rare to hear researchers or companies talk forthrightly in public about specific dollar amounts. But the cost of drugs and treatment are high visibility matters for patients and elected officials. And estimates of stem cell treatments have run up to at least $900,000.

In 2010, the California legislature moved to help assure affordability by requiring grantees to submit affordable access plans with the caveat that the agency could waive that requirement. How that will ultimately play out as actual products come into the marketplace is yet to be determined.

The Public Policy Questions
A number of significant public policy questions surround the California’s stem cell program involving its creation and execution. They include:
● Is a ballot initiative the best way to approach research and create new state programs?
The initiative is very difficult to alter when changes are needed or priorities change. .
● Does the state have higher health priorities, such as prenatal health care, than supplying
researchers with cash that they could well secure from other sources?
● Is borrowing money to finance the research the best way to go about it? The interest
expense raise the total cost of a $20 million research award to $40 million.
● Should executives of potential recipient institutions serve on the board that awards their employers hundreds of millions of dollars?

This is just a short list of some of the policy matters. Other questions can and should be asked in the wake of the agency’s nearly 14 years of work.

Lives Saved but No Widespread Therapies
Returning to our earlier list of the clear facts about CIRM, another fact is that lives have been saved as the result of clinical trials that the agency it has helped to finance. The youngster from Folsom mentioned earlier in this hearing is one of a number of cases.

That said, these patients received treatment in clinical trials, which may or may not succeed in producing a commercial product that is available to the general public.

Little doubt exists that the agency has advanced the stem cell field and is building towards a critical mass in California. The burgeoning research program at UC Davis, with $138 million in CIRM funding, is one example. Another is the $50 million Alpha Clinic network aimed at creating powerful collaboration within institutions and throughout the state. In addition to Davis, UC San Francisco, UCLA, UC Irvine, UC San Diego and the City of Hope in the Los Angeles area are all part of the Alpha network.

Nonetheless, CIRM has not yet backed a stem cell treatment that is ready for widespread use and fulfilled the voter expectations from 2004 that stem cell cures were right around the corner.

The agency itself also has something of a deadline that is right around the corner in political and scientific terms. Backers of the agency are hoping for another ballot initiative in November 2020 that would pump $5 billion into the program and stave off its slow demise as research winds down. Development of a stem cell treatment that would resonate with voters would be an invaluable development to encourage voters to continue this unique experiment — even if California’s stem cell gold rush does not quite measure up to the dramatic events of 169 years ago.
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Stem cell summer: high school students document internships via social media, Part 2

Well, just like that, summer vacation is over. Most kids in California are back in school now and probably one of the first questions they’ll ask their friends is, “what did you do this summer?”. For 58 talented high school students, their answer will be, “I became a stem cell scientist.”

Best Instagram Post Award: Mia Grossman

Those students participated in a CIRM-funded internship called the Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative medicine Knowledge, or SPARK for short, with seven programs throughout Northern and Southern California which include Caltech, Cedars-Sinai, City of Hope, Stanford, UC Davis, UCSF and the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland. Over the course of about 8 eight weeks, the interns gained hands-on training in stem cell research at some of the leading research institutes in California. Last week, they all met for the annual SPARK conference, this year at the UC Davis Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing, to present their research results and to hear from expert scientists and patient advocates.

As part of their curriculum, the students were asked to write a blog and to post Instagram photos (follow #cirmsparklab) to document their internship experiences. Several CIRM team member selected their favorite entries and presented awards to the winning interns at the end of the conference. We featured two of the winners in a blog from last week.

Our two winners featured today are Cedars-Sinai SPARK student, Mia Grossman – a senior at Beverly Hills High School – one of the Instagram Award winners (see her looping video above) and UC Davis SPARK student Anna Guzman – a junior at Sheldon High School – one of the Blog Award winners. Here’s her blog:

The Lab: A Place I Never Thought I’d Be
By Anna Guzman

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Anna Guzman

My CIRM SPARK journey started long before I ever stepped foot in the Institute for Regenerative Cures at UC Davis. Instead, my journey started two years earlier, when my older sister came home from the same internship with stories of passaged cells, images of completed western blots, and a spark in her eye when she described the place she had come to love. Barely 14 years old, I listened wide-eyed as my sister told us about the place she disappeared to each morning, stories of quirky professors, lovable mentors, and above all, the brilliant flame that everyone in her lab shared for learning. But even as she told her stories around the dinner table, I imagined this cold place where my charismatic, intelligent, and inquisitive sister was welcomed. I imagined the chilling concentration of dozens of geniuses bent over their work, of tissue culture rooms where every tiny movement was a potential disaster, and above all, of a labyrinth of brilliant discoveries and official sounding words with the door securely locked to 16 year old girls – girls who had no idea what they wanted to do with their life, who couldn’t confidently rattle words like “CRISPR,” “mesenchymal” and “hematopoietic” off their tongues. In short, this wasn’t a place for me.

But somehow I found myself applying for the CIRM SPARK internship. Seconds after I arrived for my first day at the place I was sure I would not belong, I realized how incorrect my initial assumption of the lab was. Instead of the intimidating and sophisticated environment filled with eye-rolling PhDs who scoffed at the naïve questions of a teenager, I found a room filled with some of the kindest, funniest, warmest people I had ever met. I soon found that the lab was a place of laughter and jokes across bays, a place of smiles in the hallways and mentors who tirelessly explained theory after theory until the intoxicating satisfaction of a lightbulb sparked on inside my head. The lab was a place where my wonderful mentor Julie Beegle patiently guided me through tissue culture, gently reminding me again and again how to avoid contamination and never sighing when I bubbled up the hemocytometer, miscalculated transduction rates, or asked question after question after question. Despite being full of incredibly brilliant scholars with prestigious degrees and publications, the lab was a place where I was never made to feel small or uneducated, never made to feel like there was something I couldn’t understand. So for me, the lab became a place where I could unashamedly fuel my need to understand everything, to ask hundreds of questions until the light bulbs sputtered on and a spark, the same spark that had glowed in the eyes of my sister years ago, burned brightly. The lab became a place where it was always okay to ask why.

At moments towards the middle of the internship, when my nerves had dissolved into a foundation of tentative confidence, and I had started to understand the words that tumbled out of my mouth, I’d be working in the biosafety cabinet or reading a protocol to my mentor and think, Wow. That’s Me. That’s me counting colonies and loading gels without the tell-tale nervous quiver of a beginner’s hand. That’s me explaining my project to another intern without an ambiguous question mark marring the end of the sentence. That’s me, pipetting and centrifuging and talking and understanding – doing all the things that I was certain that I would never be able to do. That’s the best thing that the CIRM SPARK internship has taught me. Being an intern in this wonderful place with these amazing people has taught me to be assured in my knowledge, unashamed in my pursuit of the answer, and confident in my belief that maybe I belong here. These feelings will stay with me as I navigate the next two years of high school and the beginning of the rest of my life. I have no doubt that I will feel unsure again, that I will question whether I belong and wonder if I am enough. But then I will remember how I felt here, confident, and unashamed, and assured in the place where I never thought I’d be.

It was not until the end of my internship, as I stood up to present a journal article to a collection of the very people who had once terrified me, that I realized the biggest thing I was wrong about two years ago. I was wrong when I assumed that this was a place where I would never belong. Instead, as I stood in front of this community of amazingly brilliant and kind people, my mouth forming words that I couldn’t have dreamed of understanding a month ago, I realized that this was precisely where I belonged. This was the place for me.

Stem cell summer: high school students document internships via social media, Part 1

My fellow CIRM team members and I just got back from two days in Sacramento where we attended one of our favorite annual events: the CIRM SPARK Student Conference. SPARK, which is short for Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative medicine Knowledge, is a CIRM-funded education program that offers California High School students an invaluable opportunity to gain hands-on training in stem cell research at some of the leading research institutes in California.

This meeting represents the culmination of the students’ internships in the lab this summer and gives each student the chance to present their project results and to hear from stem cell research experts and patient advocates. Every summer, without fail, I’m blown away by how much the students accomplish in such a short period of time and by the poise and clarity with which they describe their work. This year was no exception.

Best Instagram Post Award: Skyler Wong

To document the students’ internship experiences, we include a social media curriculum to the program. Each student posts Instagram photos and writes a blog essay describing their time in the lab. Members of the CIRM team reviewed and judged the Instagram posts and blogs. It was a very difficult job selecting only three Instagrams out of over 400 (follow them at #cirmsparklab) that were posted over the past eight weeks. Equally hard was choosing three blogs from the 58 student essays which seem to get better in quality each year.

Over the next week or so, we’re going to feature the three Instagram posts and three blogs that were ultimately awarded. Our two winners featured today are UC Davis SPARK student, Skyler Wong, a rising senior at Sheldon High School was one of the Instagram Award winners (see his photo above) and Stanford SPARK student Angelina Quint, a rising senior at Redondo Union High School, was one of the Blog Award winners. Here’s her blog:

Best Blog Award:
My SPARK 2018 summer stem cell research internship experience
By Angelina Quint

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Angelina Quint

Being from Los Angeles, I began the SIMR program as a foreigner to the Bay Area. As my first research experience, I was even more so a foreigner to a laboratory setting and the high-tech equipment that seemingly occupied every edge and surface of Stanford’s Lorry I. Lokey Stem Cell building. Upon first stepping foot into my lab at the beginning of the summer, an endless loop of questions ran through my brain as I ventured deeper into this new, unfamiliar realm of science. Although excited, I felt miniscule in the face of my surroundings—small compared to the complexity of work that laid before me. Nonetheless, I was ready to delve deep into the unknown, to explore this new world of discovery that I had unlocked.

Participating in the CIRM research program, I was given the extraordinary opportunity to pursue my quest for knowledge and understanding. With every individual I met and every research project that I learned about, I became more invigorated to investigate and discover answers to the questions that filled my mind. I was in awe of the energy in the atmosphere around me—one that buzzed with the drive and dedication to discover new avenues of thought and complexity. And as I learned more about stem cell biology, I only grew more and more fascinated by the phenomenon. Through various classes taught by experts in their fields on topics spanning from lab techniques to bone marrow transplants, I learned the seemingly limitless potential of stem cell research. With that, I couldn’t help but correlate this potential to my own research; anything seemed possible.

However, the journey proved to be painstakingly arduous. I soon discovered that a groundbreaking cure or scientific discovery would not come quickly nor easily. I faced roadblocks daily, whether it be in the form of failed gel experiments or the time pressures that came with counting colonies. But to each I learned, and to each I adapted and persevered. I spent countless hours reading papers and searching for online articles. My curiosity only grew deeper with every paper I read—as did my understanding. And after bombarding my incredibly patient mentors with an infinite number of questions and thoughts and ideas, I finally began to understand the scope and purpose of my research. I learned that the reward of research is not the prestige of discovering the next groundbreaking cure, but rather the knowledge that perseverance in the face of obstacles could one day transform peoples’ lives for the better.

As I look back on my journey, I am filled with gratitude for the lessons that I have learned and for the unforgettable memories that I have created. I am eternally grateful to my mentors, Yohei and Esmond, for their guidance and support along the way. Inevitably, the future of science is uncertain. But one thing is always guaranteed: the constant, unhindered exchange of knowledge, ideas, and discovery between colleagues passionate about making a positive difference in the lives of others. Like a stem cell, I now feel limitless in my ability to expand my horizons and contribute to something greater and beyond myself. Armed with the knowledge and experiences that I have gained through my research, I aspire to share with others in my hometown the beauty of scientific discovery, just as my mentors have shared with me. But most of all, I hope that through my continued research, I can persist in fighting for new ways to help people overcome the health-related challenges at the forefront of our society.

 

Starving stem cells of oxygen can help build stronger bones

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J. Kent Leach: Photo courtesy UC Davis

We usually think that starving something of oxygen is going to make it weaker and maybe even kill it. But a new study by J. Kent Leach at UC Davis shows that instead of weakening bone defects, depriving them of oxygen might help boost their ability to create new bone or repair existing bone.

Leach says in the past the use of stem cells to repair damaged or defective bone had limited success because the stem cells often didn’t engraft in the bone or survive long if they did. That was because the cells were being placed in an environment that lacked oxygen (concentration levels in bone range from 3% to 8%) so the cells found it hard to survive.

However, studies in the lab had shown that if you preconditioned mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), by exposing them to low oxygen levels before you placed them on the injury site, you helped prolong their viability. That was further enhanced by forming the MSCs into three dimensional clumps called spheroids.

Lightbulb goes off

In the  current study, published in Stem Cells, Leach says the earlier spheroid results  gave him an idea:

“We hypothesized that preconditioning MSCs in hypoxic (low oxygen) culture before spheroid formation would increase cell viability, proangiogenic potential (ability to create new blood vessels), and resultant bone repair compared with that of individual MSCs.”

So, the researchers placed one group of human MSCs, taken from bone marrow, in a dish with just 1% oxygen, and another identical group of MSCs in a dish with normal oxygen levels. After three days both groups were formed into spheroids and placed in an alginate hydrogel, a biopolymer derived from brown seaweed that is often used to build cellular cultures.

Seaweed

Brown seaweed

The team found that the oxygen-starved cells lasted longer than the ones left in normal oxygen, and the longer those cells were deprived of oxygen the better they did.

Theory is great, how does it work in practice?

Next was to see how those two groups did in actually repairing bones in rats. Leach says the results were encouraging:

“Once again, the oxygen-deprived, spheroid-containing gels induced significantly more bone healing than did gels containing either preconditioned individual MSCs or acellular gels.”

The team say this shows the use of these oxygen-starved cells could be an effective approach to repairing hard-to-heal bone injuries in people.

“Short‐term exposure to low oxygen primes MSCs for survival and initiates angiogenesis (the development of new blood vessels). Furthermore, these pathways are sustained through cell‐cell signaling following spheroid formation. Hypoxic (low oxygen) preconditioning of MSCs, in synergy with transplantation of cells as spheroids, should be considered for cell‐based therapies to promote cell survival, angiogenesis, and bone formation.”

CIRM & Dr. Leach

While CIRM did not fund this study we have invested more than $1.8 million in another study Dr. Leach is doing to develop a new kind of imaging technology that will help us see more clearly what is happening in bone and cartilage-targeted therapies.

In addition, back in March of 2012, Dr. Leach spoke to the CIRM Board about his work developing new approaches to growing bone.

 

Stem cell roundup: summer scientists, fat-blocking cells & recent human evolution

Stem cell photo of the week: high schooler becoming a stem cell pro this summer

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High school student Anna Guzman learning important lab skills at UC Davis

This summer’s CIRM SPARK Programs, stem cell research internships for high school students, are in full swing. Along with research assignments in top-notch stem cell labs, we’ve asked the students to chronicle their internship experiences through Instagram. And today’s stem cell photo of the week is one of those student-submitted posts. The smiling intern in this photo set is Anna Guzman, a rising junior from Sheldon High School who is in the UC Davis SPARK Program. In her post, she describes the lab procedure she is doing:

“The last step in our process to harvest stem cells from a sample of umbilical cord blood! We used a magnet to isolate the CD34 marked stem cells [blood stem cells] from the rest of the solution.”

Only a few days in and Anna already looks like a pro! It’s important lab skills like this one that could land Anna a future job in the stem cell field. Check out #cirmsparklab on Instagram to view the ever-growing number of posts.

Swiss team identifies a cell type that block formation of fat cells

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(Left) Mature human fat cells grown in a Petri dish (green, lipid droplets). (Right) A section of mouse fat tissue showing, in the middle, a blood vessel (red circle) surrounded by fat cell blocking cells called Aregs (arrows). [Bart Deplancke/EPFL]

Liposuction surgery helps slim and reshape areas of a person’s body through the removal of excess fat tissue. While the patient is certainly happy to get rid of those extra pounds, that waste product is sought after by researchers because it’s a rich source of regenerative cells including fat stem cells.

The exact populations of cells in this liposuction tissue has been unclear, so a collaboration of Swiss researchers – at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETHZ) – used a cutting-edge technique allowing them to examine the gene activity within single cells.

The analysis was successful in identifying several newly defined subpopulations of cells in the fat tissue. To their surprise, one of those cell types did not specialize into fat cells but instead did the opposite: they inhibited other fat stem cells from giving rise to fat cells. The initial experiments were carried out in mice, but the team went on to show similar fat-blocking cells in human tissue. Further experiments will explore the tantalizing prospect of applying these cells to control obesity and the many diseases, like diabetes, that result from it.

The study was published June 20st in Nature.

Connection identified between recent human evolution & risk for premature birth
Evidence of recent evolution in a human gene that’s critical for maintaining pregnancy may help explain why some populations have a higher risk for giving birth prematurely than others. That’s according to a recent report by researchers at the University of Stanford School of Medicine.

The study, funded in part by CIRM’s Genomics Initiative, compared DNA from people with East Asian, European and African ancestry. They specifically examined the gene encoding the progesterone hormone receptor which helps keep a pregnant woman from going into labor too soon. The gene is also associated with preterm births, the leading cause of infant death in the U.S.

The team was very surprise to find that people with East Asian ancestry had an evolutionarily new version of the gene while the European and African populations had mixtures of new and ancient versions. These differences may explain why the risk for premature birth among East Asian populations is lower than among pregnant women of European and African descent, though environment clearly plays a role as well.

Pediatrics professor Gary Shaw, PhD, one of the team leaders, put the results in perspective:

“Preterm birth has probably been with us since the origin of the human species,” said Shaw in a press release, “and being able to track its evolutionary history in a way that sheds new light on current discoveries about prematurity is really exciting.”

The study was published June 21st in The American Journal of Human Genetics.

School’s Out! Stem cells are in! High school students start CIRM-funded summer research internships.

Robotic engineering, coding, video game design, filmmaking, soccer and swimming: these are just a few of the many activities that are vying for the attention of high school students once school lets out for the summer.

But a group of about 50 high schoolers in California have chosen a different path: they will be diving into the world of stem cell biology. Each student earned a spot in one of seven CIRM-funded SPARK Programs across California. That’s short for Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge (yes, technically it should be SPARMK but we like SPARK better).

The SPARK students will gain hands-on training in stem cell research at some of the leading research institutes in California by conducting a six-week research internship in a stem cell lab. Maybe I’m bias, as the Program Director at CIRM who oversees the SPARK programs, but I think they’ve made a great decision. Stem cell research is one of, if not the most exciting and cutting-edge fields of research science out there today.

The pace of progress is so rapid in the field that a large workforce over the next century is critical to sustain CIRM’s mission to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. That’s why the Agency has invested over $4 million to support over 400 SPARK interns since 2012.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure to be in Sacramento to welcome the UC Davis SPARK interns on their first day of their program which is led by Gerhard Bauer, director of the Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) laboratory at the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures. The other programs, like the one at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles (see photo below), are also starting this week or next.

CedarSinaiSPARK2018

Because everything we do at CIRM is focused on the patient, the SPARK programs are required to include patient engagement as part of the students’ internships. Here are some Instagram posts from last year that highlight those patient-centered activities.

CedarSinaiSPARK2017Patients

And speaking of Instagram, we have also included a social media component to the program. We believe it’s critical for scientists to connect with the public about the important work they do. During the UC Davis orientation, Jan Nolta, PhD, the director of the Stem Cell Program at UC Davis School of Medicine, pointed out to the students that making the science accessible and understandable to the public, makes stem cell research less scary and, as a result, it’s more likely to gain public support.

So, as part of their curriculum, the interns will share a few Instagrams per week that capture their summer in the lab. You can follow their posts at #CIRMSPARKLab. In addition to communicating through photos, the students will describe their internship experiences by writing a blog. We’ll post the most outstanding blogs later this summer. In the meantime, you can read last summer’s winning blogs.

At the end of their program, the students get to show off their hard work by presenting their research at the SPARK annual conference which will be held this year at UC Davis. It’s going to be an exciting summer!

UC Davis Stem Cell Director Jan Nolta Shares Her Thoughts on the Importance of Mentoring Young Scientists

Dr. Jan Nolta (UC Davis Health)

Jan Nolta is a scientific rockstar. She is a Professor at UC Davis and the Director of the Stem Cell Program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. Her lab’s research is dedicated to developing stem cell-based treatments for Huntington’s disease (HD). Jan is a tireless advocate for both stem cell and HD research and you’ll often see her tweeting away about the latest discoveries in the field to her followers.

What I admire most about Dr. Nolta is her dedication to educating and mentoring young students. Dr. Nolta helped write the grant that funded the CIRM Bridges master’s program at Sacramento State in 2009. Over the years, she has mentored many Bridges students (we blogged about one student earlier this year) and also high school students participating in CIRM’s SPARK high school internship program. Many of her young trainees have been accepted to prestigious colleges and universities and gone on to pursue exciting careers in STEM.

I reached out to Dr. Nolta and asked her to share her thoughts on the importance of mentoring young scientists and supporting their career ambitions. Below is a summary of our conversation. I hope her passion and devotion will inspire you to think about how you can get involved with student mentorship in your own career.


Describe your career path from student to professor.

I was an undergraduate student at Sacramento State University. I was a nerdy student and did research on sharks. I was planning to pursue a medical degree, but my mentor, Dr. Laurel Heffernan, encouraged me to consider science. I was flabbergasted at the suggestion and asked, “people pay you to do this stuff??” I didn’t know that you could be paid to do lab research. My life changed that day.

I got my PhD at the University of Southern California. I studied stem cell gene therapy under Don Kohn, who was a fabulous mentor. After that, I worked in LA for 15 years and then went back home to UC Davis in 2007 to direct their Stem Cell Program.

It was shortly after I got to Davis that I reconnected with my first mentor, Dr. Heffernan, and we wrote the CIRM Bridges grant. Davis has a large shared translational lab with seven principle investigators including myself and many of the Bridges students work there. Being a scientist can be stressful with grant deadlines and securing funding. Mentoring students is the best part of the job for me.

Why is it important to fund educational programs like Bridges and SPARK?

There is a serious shortage of well-trained specialists in regenerative medicine in all areas of the workforce. The field of regenerative medicine is still relatively new and there aren’t enough people with the required skills to develop and manufacture stem cell treatments. The CIRM Bridges program is critical because it trains students who will fill those key manufacturing and lab manager jobs. Our Bridges program at Sacramento State is a two-year master’s program in stem cell research and lab management. They are trained at the UC Davis Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) training facility and learn how to make induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and other stem cell products. There aren’t that many programs like ours in the country and all of our students get competitive job offers after they complete our program.

We are equally passionate about our high school SPARK program. It’s important to capture students’ interests early whether they want to be a scientist or not. It’s important they get exposed to science as early as possible and even if they aren’t going to be a scientist or healthcare professional, it’s important that they know what it’s about. It’s inspiring how many of these students stay in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) because of this unique SPARK experience.

Jan Nolta with the 2016 UC Davis SPARK students.

Can you share a student success story?

I’m so proud of Ranya Odeh. She was a student in our 2016 SPARK program who worked in my lab. Ranya received a prestigious scholarship to Stanford largely due to her participation in the CIRM SPARK program. I got to watch her open the letter on Instagram, and it was a really incredible experience to share that part of her life.

I’m also very proud of our former Bridges student Jasmine Carter. She was a mentor to one of our SPARK students Yasmine this past summer. She was an excellent role model and her passion for teaching and research was an inspiration to all of us. Jasmine was hoping to get into graduate school at UC Davis this fall. She not only was accepted into the Neuroscience Graduate Program, but she also received a prestigious first year program fellowship!

UC Davis Professors Jan Nolta and Kyle Fink with CIRM Bridges student Jasmine Carter

[Side note: We’ve featured Ranya and Jasmine previously on the Stem Cellar and you can read about their experiences here and here.]

Why is mentoring important for young students?

I can definitely relate to the importance of having a mentor. I was raised by a single mom, and without scholarships and great mentors, there’s no way I would be where I am today. I’m always happy to help other students who think maybe they can’t do science because of money, or because they think that other people know more than they do or are better trained. Everybody who wants to work hard and has a passion for science deserves a chance to shine. I think these CIRM educational programs really help the students see that they can be what they dream they can be.

What are your favorite things about being a mentor?

Everyday our lab is full of students, science, laughter and fun. I love coming in to the lab. Our young people bring new ideas, energy and great spirit to our team. I think every team should have young trainees and high school kids working with them because they see things in a different way.

Do you have advice for mentoring young scientists?

You can sum it up in one word: Listen. Ask them right away what their dreams are, where do they imagine themselves in the future, and how can you help them get there. Encourage them to always ask questions and let them know that they aren’t bothering you when they do. I also let my students know that I’m happy to be helping them and that the experience is rewarding for me as well.

So many students are shy when they first start in the lab and don’t get all that they can out of the experience. I always tell my students of any age: what you really want to do is try in life. Follow your tennis ball. Like when a golden retriever sees a tennis ball going by, everything else becomes secondary and they follow that ball. You need to find what that tennis ball is for you and then just try to follow it.

What advice can you give to students who want to be scientific professors or researchers?

Find somebody who is a good mentor and cares about you. Don’t go into a lab where the Principle Investigator (PI) is not there most of the time. You will get a lot more out of the experience if you can get input from the PI.

A good mentor is more present in the lab and will take you to meetings and introduce you to people. I find that often students read papers from well-established scientists, and they think that their positions are unattainable. But if they can meet them in person at a conference or a lecture, they will realize that all of the established scientists are people too. I want young students to know that they can do it too and these careers are attainable for anybody.

New CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic offers HOPE for boys with deadly disease

UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures

For people battling Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD), a rare and fatal genetic disorder that slowly destroys muscles, hope has often been in short supply. There is no cure and treatments are limited. But now a new clinical trial at the site of one of the newest CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network members could change that.

The HOPE-2 clinical trial has treated its first patient at UC Davis Medical Center, inaugurating the institution’s Alpha Stem Cell Clinic. The clinic is part of a CIRM-created network of top California medical centers that specialize in delivering stem cell clinical trials to patients. The key to the Network’s success is the ability to accelerate the delivery of treatments to patients through partnerships with patients, medical providers and clinical trial sponsors.

UC Davis is one of five medical centers that now make up the network (the others are UC San Francisco, UCLA/UC Irvine, UC San Diego and City of Hope).

Jan NoltaIn a news release, Jan Nolta, the director of the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures, says the UC Davis Alpha Clinic is well equipped to move promising therapies out of the lab and into clinical trials and people.

“We have the full range of resource experts in regenerative medicine, from the cellular to the clinical trials level. We’re also excited about the prospect of being able to link with other Alpha Stem Cell Clinics around the state to help speed the process of testing and refining treatments so we can get therapies to patients in need.”

The news of this first patient is a cause for double celebration at CIRM. The trial is run by Capricor and CIRM funded the first phase of this work. You can read the story of Caleb Sizemore, who took part in that trial or watch this video of him talking about his fight.

When the CIRM Board approved funding for the UC Davis Alpha Clinic in October of 2017, Abla Creasey, CIRM’s Vice President for Therapeutics and Strategic Infrastructure, said:

“The Alpha Clinics are a one-of-a-kind network that gives patients access to the highest quality stem cell trials for a breadth of diseases including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and spinal cord injury. Expanding our network will allow more patients to participate in stem cell trials and will advance the development of stem cell treatments that could help or possibly cure patients.”

The UC Davis Alpha Clinic provides a one-stop shop for delivering stem cell therapies, gene therapies and immunotherapies, as well as conducting follow-up visits. It’s this type of CIRM-funded infrastructure that helps steer potential clinical trial participants away from illegitimate, unproven and potentially harmful fee-for-service stem cell treatments.

The DMD trial is the first of what we are confident will be many high-quality trials at the Clinic, bringing promising stem cell therapies to patients with unmet medical needs.