Stem Cell Agency Board Invests in 19 Discovery Research Programs Targeting Cancers, Heart Disease and Other Disorders

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Dr. Judy Shizuru, Stanford University

While stem cell and gene therapy research has advanced dramatically in recent years, there are still many unknowns and many questions remaining about how best to use these approaches in developing therapies. That’s why the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) today approved investing almost $25 million in 19 projects in early stage or Discovery research.

The awards are from CIRM’s DISC2 Quest program, which supports  the discovery of promising new stem cell-based and gene therapy technologies that could be translated to enable broad use and ultimately, improve patient care.

“Every therapy that helps save lives or change lives begins with a researcher asking a simple question, “What if?”, says Dr. Maria T. Millan, the President and CEO of CIRM. “Our Quest awards reflect the need to keep supporting early stage research, to gain a deeper understanding of stem cells work and how we can best tap into that potential to advance the field.”

Dr. Judy Shizuru at Stanford University was awarded $1.34 million to develop a safer, less-toxic form of bone marrow or hematopoietic stem cell transplant (HCT). HCT is the only proven cure for many forms of blood disorders that affect people of all ages, sexes, and races worldwide. However, current methods involve the use of chemotherapy or radiation to destroy the patient’s own unhealthy blood stem cells and make room for the new, healthy ones. This approach is toxic and complex and can only be performed by specialized teams in major medical centers, making access particularly difficult for poor and underserved communities.

Dr. Shizuru proposes developing an antibody that can direct the patient’s own immune cells to kill diseased blood stem cells. This would make stem cell transplant safer and more effective for the treatment of many life-threatening blood disorders, and more accessible for people in rural or remote parts of the country.

Lili Yang UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center: Photo courtesy Reed Hutchinson PhotoGraphics

Dr. Lili Yang at UCLA was awarded $1.4 million to develop an off-the-shelf cell therapy for ovarian cancer, which causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.

Dr. Yang is using immune system cells, called invariant natural killer T cells (iNKT) to attack cancer cells. However, these iNKT cells are only found in small numbers in the blood so current approaches involve taking those cells from the patient and, in the lab, modifying them to increase their numbers and strength before transplanting them back into the patient. This is both time consuming and expensive, and the patient’s own iNKT cells may have been damaged by the cancer, reducing the likelihood of success.

In this new study Dr. Yang will use healthy donor cord blood cells and, through genetic engineering, turn them into the specific form of iNKT cell therapy targeting ovarian cancer. This DISC2 award will support the development of these cells and do the necessary testing and studies to advance it to the translational stage.

Timothy Hoey and Tenaya Therapeutics Inc. have been awarded $1.2 million to test a gene therapy approach to replace heart cells damaged by a heart attack.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. with the highest incidence among African Americans. It’s caused by damage or death of functional heart muscle cells, usually due to heart attack. Because these heart muscle cells are unable to regenerate the damage is permanent. Dr. Hoey’s team is developing a gene therapy that can be injected into patients and turn their cardiac fibroblasts, cells that can contribute to scar tissue, into functioning heart muscle cells, replacing those damaged by the heart attack.

The full list of DISC2 Quest awards is:

APPLICATION NUMBERTITLE OF PROGRAMPRINCIPAL INVESTIGATORAMOUNT
  DISC2-13400  Targeted Immunotherapy-Based Blood Stem Cell Transplantation    Judy Shizuru, Stanford Universtiy  $1,341,910    
  DISC2-13505  Combating Ovarian Cancer Using Stem Cell-Engineered Off-The-Shelf CAR-iNKT Cells    Lili Yang, UCLA  $1,404,000
  DISC2-13515  A treatment for Rett syndrome using glial-restricted
neural progenitor cells  
  Alysson Muotri, UC San Diego  $1,402,240    
  DISC2-13454  Targeting pancreatic cancer stem cells with DDR1 antibodies.    Michael Karin, UC San Diego  $1,425,600  
  DISC2-13483  Enabling non-genetic activity-driven maturation of iPSC-derived neurons    Alex Savtchenko, Nanotools Bioscience  $675,000
  DISC2-13405  Hematopoietic Stem Cell Gene Therapy for Alpha
Thalassemia  
  Don Kohn, UCLA    $1,323,007  
    DISC2-13507  CAR T cells targeting abnormal N-glycans for the
treatment of refractory/metastatic solid cancers  
  Michael Demetriou, UC Irvine  $1,414,800  
  DISC2-13463  Drug Development of Inhibitors of Inflammation Using
Human iPSC-Derived Microglia (hiMG)  
  Stuart Lipton, Scripps Research Inst.  $1,658,123  
  DISC2-13390  Cardiac Reprogramming Gene Therapy for Post-Myocardial Infarction Heart Failure    Timothy Hoey, Tenaya Therapeutics  $1,215,000  
  DISC2-13417  AAV-dCas9 Epigenetic Editing for CDKL5 Deficiency Disorder    Kyle Fink, UC Davis  $1,429,378  
  DISC2-13415  Defining the Optimal Gene Therapy Approach of
Human Hematopoietic Stem Cells for the Treatment of
Dedicator of Cytokinesis 8 (DOCK8) Deficiency  
  Caroline Kuo, UCLA  $1,386,232  
  DISC2-13498  Bioengineering human stem cell-derived beta cell
organoids to monitor cell health in real time and improve therapeutic outcomes in patients  
  Katy Digovich, Minutia, Inc.  $1,198,550  
  DISC2-13469  Novel antisense therapy to treat genetic forms of
neurodevelopmental disease.  
  Joseph Gleeson, UC San Diego  $1,180,654  
  DISC2-13428  Therapeutics to overcome the differentiation roadblock in Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS)    Michael Bollong, Scripps Research Inst.  $1,244,160  
  DISC2-13456  Novel methods to eliminate cancer stem cells    Dinesh Rao, UCLA  $1,384,347  
  DISC2-13441  A new precision medicine based iPSC-derived model to study personalized intestinal fibrosis treatments in
pediatric patients with Crohn’s diseas  
  Robert Barrett Cedars-Sinai  $776,340
  DISC2-13512  Modified RNA-Based Gene Therapy for Cardiac
Regeneration Through Cardiomyocyte Proliferation
  Deepak Srivastava, Gladstone Institutes  $1,565,784
  DISC2-13510  An hematopoietic stem-cell-based approach to treat HIV employing CAR-T cells and anti-HIV broadly
neutralizing antibodies  
  Brian Lawson, The Scintillon Institute  $1,143,600  
  DISC2-13475  Developing gene therapy for dominant optic atrophy using human pluripotent stem cell-derived retinal organoid disease model    Xian-Jie Yang, UCLA  $1,345,691  

Can regenerative medicine turn back the clock on aging?

One of my favorite phrases is “standing room only”. I got a chance to use it last week when we held a panel discussion on whether regenerative medicine could turn back the clock on aging. The event was at the annual conference of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) and more than 150 people packed into a conference room to hear the debate (so far more than 800 also watched a live stream of the event.)

It’s not surprising the place was jammed. The speakers included:

  • Dr. Deepak Srivastava, the President of the Gladstone Institutes, an expert on heart disease and the former President of ISSCR.
  • Dr. Stanley “Tom” Carmichael, Chair of the Department of Neurology at UCLA and an expert on strokes and other forms of brain injury.
  • Adrienne Shapiro, the mother of a daughter with sickle cell disease, a tireless patient advocate and supporter of regenerative medicine research, and the co-founder of Axis Advocacy, a family support organization for people with sickle cell.
  • Jonathan Tomas, PhD, JD, the Chair of the CIRM Board.

And the topic is a timely one. It is estimated that as many as 90 percent of the people who die every day, die from diseases of aging such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer. So, what can be done to change that, to not just slow down or stop these diseases, but to turn back the clock, to repair the damage already done and replace cells and tissues already destroyed.

The conversation was enlightening, hopeful and encouraging, but also cautionary.

You can watch the whole event on our Youtube channel.

I think you are going to enjoy it.

Two reasons to remember June 19th

Today marks two significant events for the Black community. June 19th is celebrated as Juneteenth, the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to ensure that the enslaved people there were free. That moment came two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law.

June 19th is also marked as World Sickle Cell Awareness Day. It’s an opportunity to raise awareness about a disease that affects around 100,000 Americans, most of them Black, and the impact it has on the whole family and entire communities.

Sickle cell disease (SCD) is an inherited blood disorder that is caused by a genetic mutation. Instead of red blood cells being smooth and round and flowing easily through arteries and veins, the cells are sickle shaped and brittle. They can clog up arteries and veins, cutting off blood to vital organs, causing intense pain, organ damage and leading to premature death.

SCD can be cured with a bone marrow transplant, but that’s a risky procedure and most people with SCD don’t have a good match. Medications can help keep it under control but cannot cure it. People with SCD live, on average, 30 years less than a healthy adult.

CIRM has invested almost $60 million in 13 different projects, including five clinical trials, to try and develop a cure for SCD. There are encouraging signs of progress. For example, in July of 2020, Evie Junior took part in a CIRM-funded clinical trial where his own blood stem cells were removed then, in the laboratory, were genetically modified to repair the genetic mutation that causes the disease. Those cells were returned to him, and the hope is they’ll create a sickle cell-free blood supply. Evie hasn’t had any crippling bouts of pain or had to go to the hospital since his treatment.

Evie Junior: Photo by Jaquell Chandler

CIRM has also entered into a unique partnership with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) to co-fund cell and gene therapy programs under the NIH “Cure Sickle Cell” initiative.  The goal is to markedly accelerate the development of cell and gene therapies for SCD.

“There is a real need for a new approach to treating SCD and making life easier for people with SCD and their families,” says Adrienne Shapiro, the mother of a daughter with SCD and the co-founder of Axis Advocacy, a sickle cell advocacy and education organization. “Finding a cure for Sickle Cell would mean that people like my daughter would no longer have to live their life in short spurts, constantly having their hopes and dreams derailed by ER visits and hospital stays.  It would mean they get a chance to live a long life, a healthy life, a normal life.”

We will all keep working together to advance this research and develop a cure. Until then Juneteenth will be a reminder of the work that still lies ahead.

Join us to hear how stem cell and gene therapy are taking on diseases of aging

It is estimated that as many as 90 percent of people in industrialized countries who die every day, die from diseases of aging such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Of those still alive the numbers aren’t much more reassuring. More than 80 percent of people over the age of 65 have a chronic medical condition, while 68 percent have two or more.

Current medications can help keep some of those conditions, such as high blood pressure, under control but regenerative medicine wants to do a lot more than that. We want to turn back the clock and restore function to damaged organs and tissues and limbs. That research is already underway and we are inviting you to a public event to hear all about that work and the promise it holds.

On June 16th from 3p – 4.30p PST we are holding a panel discussion exploring the impact of regenerative medicine on aging. We’ll hear from experts on heart disease and stroke; we will look at other ground breaking research into aging; and we’ll discuss the vital role patients and patient advocates play in helping advance this work.

The discussion is taking place in San Francisco at the annual conference of the International Society for Stem Cell Research. But you can watch it from the comfort of your own home. That’s because we are going to live stream the event.

Here’s where you can see the livestream: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaUgsc5alDI

And if you have any questions you would like the panel to answer feel free to send them to us at info@cirm.ca.gov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The awards went to:

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

Chance discovery could lead to a treatment for skin ulcers

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Dr. Antoni Ribas in his research lab on the UCLA Campus: Photo courtesy Ann Johansson

When UCLA’s Dr. Antoni Ribas was researching a potential therapy for melanoma, a form of skin cancer, he stumbled upon something unexpected. That unexpected discovery has now resulted in him getting a $5 million dollar award from the the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) to develop a therapy to accelerate wound healing in legs.

Venous skin ulcers are open sores on the legs that can take weeks, sometimes even years, to heal and that can cause serious complications if not treated. Around 1% of Americans have venous skin ulcers. They are usually caused by insufficient blood flow from the veins of the legs back to the heart.  The resulting increased blood pressure and swelling in the legs can cause an open wound to form that is painful and difficult to heal, seriously impacting quality of life.   Those most at risk of developing venous leg ulcers are older people, women and non-white populations.

There are no drugs approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for this condition and sometimes these ulcers can lead to serious skin and bone infections and, in rare cases, even skin cancer.

In a news release from UCLA, Dr. Ribas describes how his team were testing a drug called vemurafenib on patients with melanoma. Vemurafenib falls into a category of targeted cancer drugs called BRAF inhibitors, which can shrink or slow the growth of metastatic melanoma in people whose tumors have a mutation to the BRAF gene. 

“We noticed that in the first two months of taking this BRAF inhibitor, patients would begin showing a thickening or overgrowth of the skin. It was somewhat of a paradox – the drug stopped the growth of skin cancer cells with the BRAF mutation, but it stimulated the growth of healthy skin cells.”

That’s when the team realized that the drug’s skin stimulating effect could be put to good use for a whole other group of patients – those with chronic wounds. 

“Aside from a few famous cases, discovering a side effect that becomes a therapeutic isn’t that common,” Ribas said. “For this reason, I had to work hard to convince somebody in my lab to follow my crazy idea and take time away from immunotherapy research and do wound healing experiments.”

Thanks to that “crazy idea” Dr. Ribas and his team are now testing a gel called LUT017 that stimulates skin stem cells to proliferate and produce more keratinocytes, a kind of cell essential for repairing skin and accelerating wound healing.

The CLIN1 grant of $5,005,126 will help them manufacture and test LUT017 in pre-clinical models and apply to the FDA for permission to study it in a clinical trial in people.

Maria T. Millan, CIRM’s President and CEO says “This program adds to CIRM’s diverse portfolio of regenerative medicine approaches to tackle chronic, debilitating that lead to downstream complications, hospitalization, and a poor quality of life.”

CIRM Board gives thumbs up to training and treatment programs

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CIRM Bridges student discusses her poster presentation

At CIRM, the bread and butter of what we do is funding research and hopefully advancing therapies to patients. But the jam, that’s our education programs. Helping train the next generation of stem cell and gene therapy scientists is really inspiring. Watching these young students – and some are just high school juniors – come in and grasp the science and quickly become fluent in talking about it and creating their own experiments shows the future is in good hands.

Right now we fund several programs, such as our SPARK and Bridges internships, but they can’t cover everything, so last week the CIRM Board approved a new training program called COMPASS (Creating Opportunities through Mentorship and Partnership Across Stem Cell Science). The program will fill a critical need for skilled research practitioners who understand and contribute at all levels in the translation of science to medicine, from bench to bedside.

The objective of the COMPASS Training Program is to prepare a diverse group of undergraduate students for careers in regenerative medicine through the creation of novel recruitment and support mechanisms that identify and foster untapped talent within populations that are historically under-represented in the biomedical sciences. It will combine hands-on research with mentorship experiences to enhance transition of students to successful careers. A parallel objective is to foster greater awareness and appreciation of diversity, equity and inclusion in trainees, mentors, and other program participants

The CIRM Board approved investing $58.22 million for up to 20 applications for a five-year duration.

“This new program highlights our growing commitment to creating a diverse workforce, one that taps into communities that have been historically under-represented in the biomedical sciences,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “The COVID19 pandemic made it clear that the benefits of scientific discovery are not always accessible to communities that most need them. CIRM is committed to tackling these challenges by creating a diverse and dedicated workforce that can meet the technical demands of taking novel treatment ideas and making them a reality.”

The Board also approved a new $80 million concept plan to expand the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network. The Network clinics are all in top California medical centers that have the experience and the expertise to deliver high-quality FDA-authorized stem cell clinical trials to patients.

There are currently five Alpha Clinics – UC San Diego; UCLA/UC Irvine; City of Hope; UCSF; UC Davis – and since 2015 they have hosted more than 105 clinical trials, enrolled more than 750 patients in these trials, and generated more than $95 million in industry contracts. 

Each award will provide up to $8 million in funding over a five-year period. The clinics will have to include:

  • A demonstrated ability to offer stem cell and gene therapies to patients as part of a clinical trial.
  • Programs to help support the career development of doctors, nurses, researchers or other medical professionals essential for regenerative medicine clinical trials.
  • A commitment to data sharing and meeting CIRM’s requirements addressing issues of diversity, equity and inclusion and meeting the needs of California’s diverse patient population.

Two Early-Stage Research Programs Targeting Cartilage Damage Get Funding from Stem Cell Agency

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Darryl D’Lima: Scripps Health

Every year millions of Americans suffer damage to their cartilage, either in their knee or other joints, that can eventually lead to osteoarthritis, pain and immobility. Today the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved two projects targeting repair of damaged cartilage.

The projects were among 17 approved by CIRM as part of the DISC2 Quest Discovery Program. The program promotes the discovery of promising new stem cell-based and gene therapy technologies that could be translated to enable broad use and ultimately, improve patient care.

Dr. Darryl D’Lima and his team at Scripps Health were awarded $1,620,645 to find a way to repair a torn meniscus. Every year around 750,000 Americans experience a tear in their meniscus, the cartilage cushion that prevents the bones in the knee grinding against each other. These injuries accelerate the early development of osteoarthritis, for which there is no effective treatment other than total joint replacement, which is a major operation. There are significant socioeconomic benefits to preventing disabling osteoarthritis. The reductions in healthcare costs are also likely to be significant.

The team will use stem cells to produce meniscal cells in the lab. Those are then seeded onto a scaffold made from collagen fibers to create tissue that resembles the knee meniscus. The goal is to show that, when placed in the knee joint, this can help regenerate and repair the damaged tissue.

This research is based on an earlier project that CIRM funded. It highlights our commitment to helping good science progress, hopefully from the bench to the bedside where it can help patients.

Dr. Kevin Stone: Photo courtesy Stone Research Foundation

Dr. Kevin Stone and his team at The Stone Research Foundation for Sports Medicine and Arthritis were awarded $1,316,215 to develop an approach to treat and repair damaged cartilage using a patient’s own stem cells.

They are using a paste combining the patient’s own articular tissue as well as Mesenchymal Stem Cells (MSC) from their bone marrow. This mixture is combined with an adhesive hydrogel to form a graft that is designed to support cartilage growth and can also stick to surfaces without the need for glue. This paste will be used to augment the use of a microfracture technique, where micro-drilling of the bone underneath the cartilage tear brings MSCs and other cells to the fracture site. The hope is this two-pronged approach will produce an effective and functional stem cell-based cartilage repair procedure.

If effective this could produce a minimally invasive, low cost, one-step solution to help people with cartilage injuries and arthritis.

The full list of DISC2 grantees is:

ApplicationTitlePrincipal Investigator and InstitutionAmount
DISC2-13212Preclinical development of an exhaustion-resistant CAR-T stem cell for cancer immunotherapy  Ansuman Satpathy – Stanford University    $ 1,420,200  
DISC2-13051Generating deeper and more durable BCMA CAR T cell responses in Multiple Myeloma through non-viral knockin/knockout multiplexed genome engineering  Julia Carnevale – UC San Francisco  $ 1,463,368  
DISC2-13020Injectable, autologous iPSC-based therapy for spinal cord injury  Sarah Heilshorn – Stanford University    $789,000
DISC2-13009New noncoding RNA chemical entity for heart failure with preserved ejection fraction.  Eduardo Marban – Cedars-Sinai Medical Center  $1,397,412  
DISC2-13232Modulation of oral epithelium stem cells by RSpo1 for the prevention and treatment of oral mucositis  Jeffrey Linhardt – Intact Therapeutics Inc.  $942,050  
DISC2-13077Transplantation of genetically corrected iPSC-microglia for the treatment of Sanfilippo Syndrome (MPSIIIA)  Mathew Blurton-Jones – UC Irvine    $1,199,922  
DISC2-13201Matrix Assisted Cell Transplantation of Promyogenic Fibroadipogenic Progenitor (FAP) Stem Cells  Brian Feeley – UC San Francisco  $1,179,478  
DISC2-13063Improving the efficacy and tolerability of clinically validated remyelination-inducing molecules using developable combinations of approved drugs  Luke Lairson – Scripps Research Inst.  $1,554,126  
DISC2-13213Extending Immune-Evasive Human Islet-Like Organoids (HILOs) Survival and Function as a Cure for T1D  Ronald Evans – The Salk Institute for Biological Studies    $1,523,285  
DISC2-13136Meniscal Repair and Regeneration  Darryl D’Lima – Scripps Health      $1,620,645  
DISC2-13072Providing a cure for sphingosine phosphate lyase insufficiency syndrome (SPLIS) through adeno-associated viral mediated SGPL1 gene therapy  Julie Saba – UC San Francisco  $1,463,400  
DISC2-13205iPSC-derived smooth muscle cell progenitor conditioned medium for treatment of pelvic organ prolapse  Bertha Chen – Stanford University  $1,420,200  
DISC2-13102RNA-directed therapy for Huntington’s disease  Gene Wei-Ming Yeo  – UC San Diego  $1,408,923  
DISC2-13131A Novel Therapy for Articular Cartilage Autologous Cellular Repair by Paste Grafting  Kevin Stone – The Stone Research Foundation for Sports Medicine and Arthritis    $1,316,215  
DISC2-13013Optimization of a gene therapy for inherited erythromelalgia in iPSC-derived neurons  Ana Moreno – Navega Therapeutics    $1,157,313  
DISC2-13221Development of a novel stem-cell based carrier for intravenous delivery of oncolytic viruses  Edward Filardo – Cytonus Therapeutics, Inc.    $899,342  
DISC2-13163iPSC Extracellular Vesicles for Diabetes Therapy  Song Li – UC Los Angeles  $1,354,928  

UCLA gene therapy offers children with LAD-1 a new chance at living a normal life

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Photo courtesy of Tamara Hogue/UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center

Leukocyte adhesion deficiency type 1 (LAD-1) is a rare pediatric disorder that causes the immune system to malfunction, resulting in recurrent, often severe, bacterial and fungal infections as well as delayed wound healing. This is because of a missing protein that would normally enable white blood cells to stick to blood vessel walls- a crucial step that is needed before moving outside the vessel walls and into tissues to fight infections. If left undiagnosed and untreated, LAD-1 is fatal and most children with the disorder will die before the age of 2.

When Marley Gaskins was finally diagnosed with LAD-1 at age 8 (an extraordinary feat on its own) she had already spent countless hours hospitalized and required round the clock attention and care. The only possible cure was a risky bone marrow transplant from a matched donor, a procedure so rarely performed that there is no data to determine the survival rate.

In search of a better treatment option, Marley’s family came across a clinical trial for children with LAD-1 led by Dr. Donald Kohn, MD, a researcher in the UCLA Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research. 

The novel clinical trial, sponsored by Rocket Pharmaceuticals and CIRM, uses gene therapy in a treatment that works by harvesting the defective blood-making stem cells, correcting the mutation in a lab, and then transplanting the properly functioning cells back into the child’s body. The process eliminates the potential rejection risks of a bone marrow transplant because the corrected cells are the patient’s own.

For Marley’s family, the decision was a no-brainer. “I didn’t hesitate in letting her be a participant in the trial,” Marley’s mother, Tamara Hogue explains, “because I knew in my heart that this would give her a chance at having a normal life.”

In 2019, 9-year-old Marley became the first LAD-1 patient ever to receive the stem cell gene therapy. In the following year, five more children received the gene therapy at UCLA, including three siblings. And Last week, Dr. Kohn reported at the American Society of Hematology Annual Meeting and Exposition that all the children “remain healthy and disease-free”. 

More than two years out of treatment, Marley’s life and daily activities are no longer constricted by the frequent and severe infections that kept her returning to the hospital for months at a time. Instead, she enjoys being an average 12-year-old: going camping, getting her ears pierced, and most importantly, attending what she calls “big school” in the coming year. For patients and families alike, the gene therapy’s success has been like a rebirth. Doctors expect that the one-time therapy will keep LAD-1 patients healthy for life.

One step closer to making ‘off-the-shelf’ immune cell therapy for cancer a reality 

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Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses a person’s own immune system to fight cancer. It comes in a variety of forms including targeted antibodies, cancer vaccines, and adoptive cell therapies. While immunotherapies have revolutionized the treatment of aggressive cancers in recent decades, they must be created on a patient-specific basis and as a result can be time consuming to manufacture/process and incredibly costly to patients already bearing the incalculable human cost of suffering from the cruelest disease.

Fortunately, the rapid progress that has led to the present era of cancer immunotherapy is expected to continue as scientists look for ways to improve efficacy and reduce cost. Just this week, a CIRM-funded study published in Cell Reports Medicine revealed a critical step forward in the development of an “off-the-shelf” cancer immunotherapy by researchers at UCLA. “We want cell therapies that can be mass-produced, frozen and shipped to hospitals around the world,” explains Lili Yang, the study’s senior author. 

Lili Yang, the study’s senior author and a member of UCLA’s Broad Stem Cell Research Center

In order to fulfil this ambitious goal, Yang and her colleagues developed a new method for producing large numbers of a specialized T cell known as invariant natural killer T (iNKT) cells. iNKT cells are rare but powerful immune cells that don’t carry the risk of graft-versus-host disease, which occurs when transplanted cells attack a recipient’s body, making them better suited to treat a wide range of patients with various cancers.

Using stem cells from donor cord-blood and peripheral blood samples, the team of researchers discovered that one cord blood donation could produce up to 5,000 doses of the therapy and one peripheral blood donation could produce up to 300,000 doses. The high yield of the resulting cells, called hematopoietic stem cell-engineered iNKT (HSC–iNKT) cells,could dramatically reduce the cost of producing immune cell products in the future. 

In order to test the efficacy of the HSC–iNKT cells, researchers conducted two very important tests. First, they compared its cancer fighting abilities to another set of immune cells called natural killer cells. The results were promising. The HSC–iNKT cells were significantly better at killing several types of tumor cells such as leukemia, melanoma, and lung cancer. Then, the HSC–iNKT cells were frozen and thawed, just as they would be if they were to one day become an off-the-shelf cell therapy. Researchers were once again delighted when they discovered that the HSC–iNKT cells sustained their tumor-killing efficacy.

Next, Yang and her team added a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) to the HSC–iNKT cells. CAR is a specialized molecule that can enable immune cells to recognize and kill a specific type of cancer. When tested in the lab, researchers found that CAR-equipped HSC–iNKT cells eliminated the specific cancerous tumors they were programmed to destroy. 

This study was made possible in part by three grants from CIRM.