Stem cell stories that caught our eye: developing the nervous system, aging stem cells and identical twins not so identical

Here are the stem cell stories that caught our eye this week. Enjoy!

New theory for how the nervous system develops.

There’s a new theory on the block for how the nervous system is formed thanks to a study published yesterday by UCLA stem cell scientists in the journal Neuron.

The theory centers around axons, thin extensions projecting from nerve cells that transmit electrical signals to other cells in the body. In the developing nervous system, nerve cells extend axons into the brain and spinal cord and into our muscles (a process called innervation). Axons are guided to their final destinations by different chemicals that tell axons when to grow, when to not grow, and where to go.

Previously, scientists believed that one of these important chemical signals, a protein called netrin 1, exerted its influence over long distances in a gradient-like fashion from a structure in the developing nervous system called the floor plate. You can think of it like a like a cell phone tower where the signal is strongest the closer you are to the tower but you can still get some signal even when you’re miles away.

The UCLA team, led by senior author and UCLA professor Dr. Samantha Butler, questioned this theory because they knew that neural progenitor cells, which are the precursors to nerve cells, produce netrin1 in the developing spinal cord. They believed that the netrin1 secreted from these progenitor cells also played a role in guiding axon growth in a localized manner.

To test their hypothesis, they studied neural progenitor cells in the developing spines of mouse embryos. When they eliminated netrin1 from the neural progenitor cells, the axons went haywire and there was no rhyme or reason to their growth patterns.

Left: axons (green, pink, blue) form organized patterns in the normal developing mouse spinal cord. Right: removing netrin1 results in highly disorganized axon growth. (UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center/Neuron)

A UCLA press release explained what the scientists discovered next,

“They found that neural progenitors organize axon growth by producing a pathway of netrin1 that directs axons only in their local environment and not over long distances. This pathway of netrin1 acts as a sticky surface that encourages axon growth in the directions that form a normal, functioning nervous system.”

Like how ants leave chemical trails for other ants in their colony to follow, neural progenitor cells leave trails of netrin1 in the spinal cord to direct where axons go. The UCLA team believes they can leverage this newfound knowledge about netrin1 to make more effective treatments for patients with nerve damage or severed nerves.

In future studies, the team will tease apart the finer details of how netrin1 impacts axon growth and how it can be potentially translated into the clinic as a new therapeutic for patients. And from the sounds of it, they already have an idea in mind:

“One promising approach is to implant artificial nerve channels into a person with a nerve injury to give regenerating axons a conduit to grow through. Coating such nerve channels with netrin1 could further encourage axon regrowth.”

Age could be written in our stem cells.

The Harvard Gazette is running an interesting series on how Harvard scientists are tackling issues of aging with research. This week, their story focused on stem cells and how they’re partly to blame for aging in humans.

Stem cells are well known for their regenerative properties. Adult stem cells can rejuvenate tissues and organs as we age and in response to damage or injury. However, like most house hold appliances, adult stem cells lose their regenerative abilities or effectiveness over time.

Dr. David Scadden, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, explained,

“We do think that stem cells are a key player in at least some of the manifestations of age. The hypothesis is that stem cell function deteriorates with age, driving events we know occur with aging, like our limited ability to fully repair or regenerate healthy tissue following injury.”

Harvard scientists have evidence suggesting that certain tissues, such as nerve cells in the brain, age sooner than others, and they trigger other tissues to start the aging process in a domino-like effect. Instead of treating each tissue individually, the scientists believe that targeting these early-onset tissues and the stem cells within them is a better anti-aging strategy.

David Sadden, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.
(Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer)

Dr. Scadden is particularly interested in studying adult stem cell populations in aging tissues and has found that “instead of armies of similarly plastic stem cells, it appears there is diversity within populations, with different stem cells having different capabilities.”

If you lose the stem cell that’s the best at regenerating, that tissue might age more rapidly.  Dr. Scadden compares it to a game of chess, “If we’re graced and happen to have a queen and couple of bishops, we’re doing OK. But if we are left with pawns, we may lose resilience as we age.”

The Harvard Gazette piece also touches on a changing mindset around the potential of stem cells. When stem cell research took off two decades ago, scientists believed stem cells would grow replacement organs. But those days are still far off. In the immediate future, the potential of stem cells seems to be in disease modeling and drug screening.

“Much of stem cell medicine is ultimately going to be ‘medicine,’” Scadden said. “Even here, we thought stem cells would provide mostly replacement parts.  I think that’s clearly changed very dramatically. Now we think of them as contributing to our ability to make disease models for drug discovery.”

I encourage you to read the full feature as I only mentioned a few of the highlights. It’s a nice overview of the current state of aging research and how stem cells play an important role in understanding the biology of aging and in developing treatments for diseases of aging.

Identical twins not so identical (Todd Dubnicoff)

Ever since Takahashi and Yamanaka showed that adult cells could be reprogrammed into an embryonic stem cell-like state, researchers have been wrestling with a key question: exactly how alike are these induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to embryonic stem cells (ESCs)?

It’s an important question to settle because iPSCs have several advantages over ESCs. Unlike ESCs, iPSCs don’t require the destruction of an embryo so they’re mostly free from ethical concerns. And because they can be derived from a patient’s cells, if iPSC-derived cell therapies were given back to the same patient, they should be less likely to cause immune rejection. Despite these advantages, the fact that iPSCs are artificially generated by the forced activation of specific genes create lingering concerns that for treatments in humans, delivering iPSC-derived therapies may not be as safe as their ESC counterparts.

Careful comparisons of DNA between iPSCs and ESCs have shown that they are indeed differences in chemical tags found on specific spots on the cell’s DNA. These tags, called epigenetic (“epi”, meaning “in addition”) modifications can affect the activity of genes independent of the underlying genetic sequence. These variations in epigenetic tags also show up when you compare two different preparations, or cell lines, of iPSCs. So, it’s been difficult for researchers to tease out the source of these differences. Are these differences due to the small variations in DNA sequence that are naturally seen from one cell line to the other? Or is there some non-genetic reason for the differences in the iPSCs’ epigenetic modifications?

Marian and Vivian Brown, were San Francisco’s most famous identical twins. Photo: Christopher Michel

A recent CIRM-funded study by a Salk Institute team took a clever approach to tackle this question. They compared epigenetic modifications between iPSCs derived from three sets of identical twins. They still found several epigenetic variations between each set of twins. And since the twins have identical DNA sequences, the researchers could conclude that not all differences seen between iPSC cell lines are due to genetics. Athanasia Panopoulos, a co-first author on the Cell Stem Cell article, summed up the results in a press release:

“In the past, researchers had found lots of sites with variations in methylation status [specific term for the epigenetic tag], but it was hard to figure out which of those sites had variation due to genetics. Here, we could focus more specifically on the sites we know have nothing to do with genetics. The twins enabled us to ask questions we couldn’t ask before. You’re able to see what happens when you reprogram cells with identical genomes but divergent epigenomes, and figure out what is happening because of genetics, and what is happening due to other mechanisms.”

With these new insights in hand, the researchers will have a better handle on interpreting differences between individual iPSC cell lines as well as their differences with ESC cell lines. This knowledge will be important for understanding how these variations may affect the development of future iPSC-based cell therapies.

A life-threatening childhood disease and the CIRM-funded team seeking a stem cell cure featured in new video

“My hope for Brooke is she can one day look back and we have to remind her of the disease she once had.”

That’s Clay Emerson’s biggest hope for his young daughter Brooke, who has cystinosis, a life-threatening genetic disease that appears by the age of two and over time causes damage to many organs, especially the kidneys and eyes but also the liver, muscle, brain, pancreas and other tissues. The Emersons and other families affected by the disease are featured in a recent video produced by the Cystinosis Research Foundation.

I doubt many can watch the seven-minute piece without getting a lump in their throat or watery eyes. One of many heart wrenching scene shows Brooke’s mother, Jill Emerson, preparing a day’s worth of medicine that she administers through a tube connected to Brook’s stomach.

“Brooke takes about 20 doses of medication a day and that’s throughout the 24hr period in a day. The poor kid hasn’t had a full night’s sleep ever in her entire life because I have to wake her up to take her life-saving medicine.”

Jill Emerson prepares a day’s worth of medicine for her daughter Brooke. Unfortunately, the treatments only slow the progression of cystinosis but don’t cure it. (Video Still: Cystinosis Research Foundation)

But these treatments only slow down the progression of this incurable disease. Even perfect compliance with taking the medicine doesn’t stop severe complications of the disease including kidney failure, diabetes, muscle weakness, and difficulty swallowing just to name a few. Cystinosis also shorten life spans. Natalie, the video’s narrator, a young woman with cystinosis wonders how much time she has left:

“There are people in their 20s who have recently died from cystinosis. I am 25 years old and I often think about how long I have to live. I’m praying for a cure for all of us.”

Her prayers may be answered in the form of a stem cell gene therapy treatment. UCSD researcher Dr. Stephanie Cherqui, who is also featured in the video, received $5 million in CIRM funding to bring her team’s therapy to clinical trials in people.

At a cellular level, cystinosis is caused by mutations in a gene called CTNS which lead to an accumulation of the amino acid cysteine. The excess cysteine eventually forms crystals causing devastating damage to cells throughout the body. Cherqui’s treatment strategy is to take blood stem cells from affected individuals, insert a good copy of the CTNS gene using genome editing into the cells’ DNA, and then transplant the cells back into the patient.

Cystinosis_Cherqui

Dr. Stephanie Cherqui and her team are working hard to bring a stem cell gene therapy treatment for cystinosis to clinical trials. (Video Still: Cystinosis Research Foundation)

Her team has preliminary evidence that the strategy works in mice. Now, they will use the CIRM grant to complete these pre-clinical studies and prepare the genetically engineered blood stem cells for use in patients. These steps are necessary to get the green light from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to begin clinical trials, hopefully some time this year.

Cherqui says that if all goes well, the treatment approach may have benefits beyond cystinosis:

“If we can bring this to the finish line, we can then show the way to maybe hundreds, maybe thousands of other genetic diseases. So this could be a real benefit to mankind.”

Bye Bye bubble baby disease: promising results from stem cell gene therapy trial for SCID

Evangelina Padilla-Vaccaro
(Front cover of CIRM’s 2016 Annual Report)

You don’t need to analyze any data to know for yourself that Evangelina Vaccaro’s experimental stem cell therapy has cured her of a devastating, often fatal disease of the immune system. All you have to do is look at a photo or video of her to see that she’s now a happy, healthy 5-year-old with a full life ahead of her.

But a casual evaluation of one patient won’t get therapies approved in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Instead, a very careful collection of quantitative data from a series of clinical trial studies is a must to prove that a treatment is safe and effective. Each study’s results also provide valuable information on how to tweak the procedures to improve each follow on clinical trial.

A CIRM-funded clinical trial study published this week by a UCLA research team in the Journal of Clinical Investigation did just that. Of the ten participants in the trial, nine including Evangelina were cured of adenosine deaminase-deficient severe combined immunodeficiency, or ADA-SCID, a disease that is usually fatal within the first year of life if left untreated.

In the past, children with SCID were isolated in a germ-free sterile clear plastic bubbles, thus the name “bubble baby disease”. [Credit: Baylor College of Medicine Archives]

ADA-SCID, also referred to as bubble baby disease, is so lethal because it destroys the ability to fight off disease. Affected children have a mutation in the adenosine deaminase gene which, in early development, causes the death of cells that normally would give rise to the immune system. Without those cells, ADA-SCID babies are born without an effective immune system. Even the common cold can be fatal so they must be sheltered in clean environments with limited physical contact with family and friends and certainly no outdoor play.

A few treatments exist but they have limitations. The go-to treatment is a blood stem cell transplant (also known as a bone marrow transplant) from a sibling with matched blood. The problem is that a match isn’t always available and a less than perfect match can lead to serious, life-threatening complications. Another treatment called enzyme replacement therapy (ERT) involves a twice-weekly injection of the missing adenosine deaminase enzyme. This approach is not only expensive but its effectiveness in restoring the immune system varies over a lifetime.

Evangelina being treated by Don Kohn and his team in 2012.  Photo: UCLA

The current study led by Don Kohn, avoids donor cells and enzyme therapy altogether by fixing the mutation in the patient’s own cells. Blood stem cells are isolated from a bone marrow sample and taken back to the lab where a functional copy of the adenosine deaminase gene is inserted into the patient’s cells. When those cells are ready, the patient is subjected to drugs – the same type that are used in cancer therapy – that kill off a portion of the patient’s faulty immune system to provide space in the bone marrow. Then the repaired blood stem cells are transplanted back into the body where they settle into the bone marrow and give rise to a healthy new immune system.

The ten patients were treated between 2009 and 2012 and their health was followed up for at least four years. As of June 2016, nine of the patients in the trial – (all infants except for an eight-year old) – no longer need enzyme injections and have working immune systems that allow them to play outside, attend school and survive colds and other infections that inevitably get passed around the classroom. The tenth patient was fifteen years old at the time of the trial and their treatment was not effective suggesting that early intervention is important. No serious side effects were seen in any of the patients.

Evangelina V

Evangelina Vaccaro (far right), who received Dr. Kohn’s treatment for bubble baby disease in 2012, with her family before her first day of school. Photo: UCLA, courtesy of the Vaccaro family

Now, this isn’t the first ever stem cell gene therapy clinical trial to successfully treat ADA-SCID. Kohn’s team and others have carried out clinical trials over the past few decades, and this current study builds upon the insights of those previous results. In a 2014 press release reporting preliminary results of this week’s published journal article, Kohn described the importance of these follow-on clinical trials for ensuring the therapy’s success:

UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center
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Don Kohn

“We were very happy that over the course of several clinical trials and after making refinements and improvements to the treatment protocol, we are now able to provide a cure for babies with this devastating disease using the child’s own cells.”

The team’s next step is getting FDA approval to use this treatment in all children with ADA-SCID. To reach this aim, the team is carrying out another clinical trial which will test a frozen preparation of the repaired blood stem cells. Being able to freeze the therapy product buys researchers more time to do a thorough set of safety tests on the cells before transplanting them into the patient. A frozen product is also much easier to transport for treating children who live far from the laboratories that perform the gene therapy. In November of last year, CIRM’s governing Board awarded Kohn’s team $20 million to support this project.

If everything goes as planned, this treatment will be the first stem cell gene therapy ever approved in the U.S. We look forward to adding many new photos next to Evangelina’s as more and more children are cured of ADA-SCID.

Stem Cell Stories that Caught our Eye: stem cell insights into anorexia, Zika infection and bubble baby disease

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Stem cell model identifies new culprit for anorexia.

Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa are often thought to be caused by psychological disturbances or societal pressure. However, research into the genes of anorexia patients suggests that what’s written in your DNA can be associated with an increased vulnerability to having this disorder. But identifying individual genes at fault for a disease this complex has remained mostly out of scientists’ reach, until now.

A CIRM-funded team from the UC San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine reported this week that they’ve developed a stem cell-based model of anorexia and used it to identify a gene called TACR1, which they believe is associated with an increased likelihood of getting anorexia.

They took skin samples from female patients with anorexia and reprogrammed them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These stem cells contained the genetic information potentially responsible for causing their anorexia. The team matured these iPSCs into brain cells, called neurons, in a dish, and then studied what genes got activated. When they looked at the genes activated by anorexia neurons, they found that TACR1, a gene associated with psychiatric disorders, was switched on higher in anorexia neurons than in healthy neurons. These findings suggest that the TACR1 gene could be an identifier for this disease and a potential target for developing new treatments.

In a UCSD press release, Professor and author on the study, Alysson Muotri, said that they will follow up on their findings by studying stem cell lines derived from a larger group of patients.

Alysson Muotri UC San Diego

“But more to the point, this work helps make that possible. It’s a novel technological advance in the field of eating disorders, which impacts millions of people. These findings transform our ability to study how genetic variations alter brain molecular pathways and cellular networks to change risk of anorexia nervosa — and perhaps our ability to create new therapies.”

Anorexia is a disease that affects 1% of the global population and although therapy can be an effective treatment for some, many do not make a full recovery. Stem cell-based models could prove to be a new method for unlocking new clues into what causes anorexia and what can cure it.

Nature versus Zika, who will win?

Zika virus is no longer dominating the news headlines these days compared to 2015 when large outbreaks of the virus in the Southern hemisphere came to a head. However, the threat of Zika-induced birth defects, like microcephaly to pregnant women and their unborn children is no less real or serious two years later. There are still no effective vaccines or antiviral drugs that prevent Zika infection but scientists are working fast to meet this unmet need.

Speaking of which, scientists at UCLA think they might have a new weapon in the war against Zika. Back in 2013, they reported that a natural compound in the body called 25HC was effective at attacking viruses and prevented human cells from being infected by viruses like HIV, Ebola and Hepatitis C.

When the Zika outbreak hit, they thought that this compound could potentially be effective at preventing Zika infection as well. In their new study published in the journal Immunity, they tested a synthetic version of 25HC in animal and primate models, they found that it protected against infection. They also tested the compound on human brain organoids, or mini brains in a dish made from pluripotent stem cells. Brain organoids are typically susceptible to Zika infection, which causes substantial cell damage, but this was prevented by treatment with 25HC.

Left to right: (1) Zika virus (green) infects and destroys the formation of neurons (pink) in human stem cell-derived brain organoids.  (2) 25HC blocks Zika infection and preserves neuron formation in the organoids. (3) Reduced brain size and structure in a Zika-infected mouse brain. (4) 25HC preserves mouse brain size and structure. Image courtesy of UCLA Stem Cell.

A UCLA news release summarized the impact that this research could have on the prevention of Zika infection,

“The new research highlights the potential use of 25HC to combat Zika virus infection and prevent its devastating outcomes, such as microcephaly. The research team will further study whether 25HC can be modified to be even more effective against Zika and other mosquito-borne viruses.”

Harnessing a naturally made weapon already found in the human body to fight Zika could be an alternative strategy to preventing Zika infection.

Gene therapy in stem cells gives hope to bubble-babies.

Last week, an inspiring and touching story was reported by Erin Allday in the San Francisco Chronicle. She featured Ja’Ceon Golden, a young baby not even 6 months old, who was born into a life of isolation because he lacked a properly functioning immune system. Ja’Ceon had a rare disease called severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), also known as bubble-baby disease.

 

Ja’Ceon Golden is treated by patient care assistant Grace Deng (center) and pediatric oncology nurse Kat Wienskowski. Photo: Santiago Mejia, The Chronicle.

Babies with SCID lack the body’s immune defenses against infectious diseases and are forced to live in a sterile environment. Without early treatment, SCID babies often die within one year due to recurring infections. Bone marrow transplantation is the most common treatment for SCID, but it’s only effective if the patient has a donor that is a perfect genetic match, which is only possible for about one out of five babies with this disease.

Advances in gene therapy are giving SCID babies like Ja’Ceon hope for safer, more effective cures. The SF Chronicle piece highlights two CIRM-funded clinical trials for SCID run by UCLA in collaboration with UCSF and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In these trials, scientists isolate the bone marrow stem cells from SCID babies, correct the genetic mutation causing SCID in their stem cells, and then transplant them back into the patient to give them a healthy new immune system.

The initial results from these clinical trials are promising and support other findings that gene therapy could be an effective treatment for certain genetic diseases. CIRM’s Senior Science Officer, Sohel Talib, was quoted in the Chronicle piece saying,

“Gene therapy has been shown to work, the efficacy has been shown. And it’s safe. The confidence has come. Now we have to follow it up.”

Ja’Ceon was the first baby treated at the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital and so far, he is responding well to the treatment. His great aunt Dannie Hawkins said that it was initially hard for her to enroll Ja’Ceon in this trial because she was a partial genetic match and had the option of donating her own bone-marrow to help save his life. In the end, she decided that his involvement in the trial would “open the door for other kids” to receive this treatment if it worked.

Ja’Ceon Golden plays with patient care assistant Grace Deng in a sterile play area at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital.Photo: Santiago Mejia, The Chronicle

It’s brave patients and family members like Ja’Ceon and Dannie that make it possible for research to advance from clinical trials into effective treatments for future patients. We at CIRM are eternally grateful for their strength and the sacrifices they make to participate in these trials.

Stem Cell Stories That Caught Our Eye: Three new ways to target cancer stem cells

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Targeting cancer stem cells. This week, three studies came out with novel ways for targeting cancer stem cells in different types of cancers. Here’s a brief run-down of this trifecta of cancer stem cell-crushing stories:

Take your vitamins! Scientists in the UK were experimenting on cancer stem cells and comparing natural substances to on-the-market cancer drugs to determine whether any of the natural substances were effective at disrupting the metabolism (the chemical reactions that keep cells alive and functioning) of cancer stem cells. Interestingly, they found that ascorbic acid, which you’ll know as Vitamin C, was ten times better at curbing cancer stem cell growth compared to a cancer drug called 2-DG.

Vitamin C has popped up as an anti-cancer treatment in the past when Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling found that it dramatically reduced the death rate in breast cancer patients. However this current study is the first to show that Vitamin C has a direct effect on cancer stem cells.

In coverage by ScienceDaily, the UK team hinted at plans to test Vitamin C in clinical trials:

“Vitamin C is cheap, natural, non-toxic and readily available so to have it as a potential weapon in the fight against cancer would be a significant step. Our results indicate it is a promising agent for clinical trials, and a as an add-on to more conventional therapies, to prevent tumour recurrence, further disease progression and metastasis.”

 

A gene called ZEB1 determines how aggressive brain tumors are. A team from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center was interested to know how cancer stem cells in aggressive brain tumors called gliomas survive, reproduce and affect patient survival. In a study published in Scientific Reports, they studied the genetic information of over 4000 brain tumor samples and found ZEB1, a gene that regulates tumor growth and is associated with patient survival.

They found that patients with a healthy copy of the ZEB1 gene had a higher survival rate and less aggressive tumors compared to patients that didn’t have ZEB1 or had a mutated version of the gene.

In coverage by ScienceDaily, the senior author on the study explained how their study’s findings will allow for more personalized treatments for patients with glioma based on whether they have ZEB1 or not:

“Patients without the gene in their tumors have more aggressive cancers that act like stem cells by developing into an uncontrollable number of cell types. This new information could help us to measure the mutation in these patients so that we are able to provide a more accurate prognosis and treatment plan.”

 

Beating resistant tumors by squashing cancer stem cells. Our final cancer stem cell story today comes from the UCLA School of Dentistry. This team is studying another type of aggressive cancer called a squamous cell carcinoma that causes tumors in the head and neck. Often these tumors resist treatment and spread to a patient’s lymph nodes, which quickly reduces their survival rate.

The UCLA team thought that maybe pesky cancer stem cells were to blame for the aggressive and resistant nature of these head and neck tumors. In a study published in Cell Stem Cell, they developed a mouse model of head and neck carcinoma and isolated cancer stem cells from the tumors of these mice. When they studied these stem cells, they found that they expressed unique proteins compared to non-cancer cells. These included Bmi1, a well-known stem cell protein, and AP-1, a transcription factor protein that regulates other cancer genes.

At left, head and neck squamous cell carcinoma invasive growth, and at right, cancer stem cells (shown in red) in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. (Image Demeng Chen and Cun-Yu Wang/UCLA)

After identifying the culprits, the team developed a new combination strategy that targeted the cancer stem cells while also killing off the tumors using chemotherapy drugs.

In a UCLA Newsroom press release, the lead scientist on the study Dr. Cun-Yu Wang explained the importance of their study for the future treatment of cancer and solid tumors:

“This study shows that for the first time, targeting the proliferating tumor mass and dormant cancer stem cells with combination therapy effectively inhibited tumor growth and prevented metastasis compared to monotherapy in mice. Our discovery could be applied to other solid tumors such as breast and colon cancer, which also frequently metastasizes to lymph nodes or distant organs.”

A Clinical Trial Network Focused on Stem Cell Treatments is Expanding

Geoff Lomax is a Senior Officer of CIRM’s Strategic Initiatives.

California is one of the world-leaders in advancing stem cell research towards treatments and cures for patients with unmet medical needs. California has scientists at top universities and companies conducting cutting edge research in regenerative medicine. It also has CIRM, California’s Stem Cell Agency, which funds promising stem cell research and is advancing stem cell therapies into clinical trials. But the real clincher is that California has something that no one else has: a network of medical centers dedicated to stem cell-based clinical trials for patients. This first-of-its-kind system is called the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network.

Get to Know Our Alpha Clinics

In 2014, CIRM launched its Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network to accelerate the development and delivery of stem cell treatments to patients. The network consists of three Alpha Clinic sites at UC San Diego, City of Hope in Duarte, and a joint clinic between UC Los Angeles and UC Irvine. Less than three years since its inception, the Alpha Clinics are conducting 34 stem cell clinical trials for a diverse range of diseases such as cancer, heart disease and sickle cell anemia. You can find a complete list of these clinical trials on our Alpha Clinics website. Below is an informational video about our Alpha Clinics Network.

So far, hundreds of patients have been treated at our Alpha Clinics. These top-notch medical centers use CIRM-funding to build teams specialized in overseeing stem cell trials. These teams include patient navigators who provided in-depth information about clinical trials to prospective patients and support them during their treatment. They also include pharmacists who work with patients’ cells or manufactured stem cell-products before the therapies are given to patients. And lastly, let’s not forget the doctors and nurses that are specially trained in the delivery of stem cell therapies to patients.

The Alpha Clinics Network also offers resources and tools for clinical trial sponsors, the people responsible for conducting the trials. These include patient education and recruitment tools and access to over 20 million patients in California to support successful recruitment. And because the different clinical trial sites are in the same network, sponsors can benefit from sharing the same approval measures for a single trial at multiple sites.

Looking at the big picture, our Alpha Clinics Network provides a platform where patients can access the latest stem cell treatments, and sponsors can access expert teams at multiple medical centers to increase the likelihood that their trial succeeds.

The Alpha Clinics Network is expanding

This collective expertise has resulted in a 3-fold (from 12 to 36 – two trials are being conducted at two sites) increase in the number of stem cell clinical trials at the Alpha Clinic sites since the Network’s inception. And the number continues to rise every quarter. Given this impressive track record, CIRM’s Board voted in February to expand our Alpha Clinics Network. The Board approved up to $16 million to be awarded to two additional medical centers ($8 million each) to create new Alpha Clinic sites and work with the current Network to accelerate patient access to stem cell treatments.

CIRM’s Chairman Jonathan Thomas explained,

Jonathan Thomas

“We laid down the foundation for conducting high quality stem cell trials when we started this network in 2014. The success of these clinics in less than three years has prompted the CIRM Board to expand the Network to include two new trial sites. With this expansion, CIRM is building on the current network’s momentum to establish new and better ways of treating patients with stem cell-based therapies.”

The Alpha Clinics Network plays a vital role in CIRM’s five-year strategic plan to fund 50 new clinical trials by 2020. In fact, the Alpha Clinic Network supports clinical trials funded by CIRM, industry sponsors and other sources. Thus, the Network is on track to becoming a sustainable resource to deliver stem cell treatments indefinitely.

In addition to expanding CIRM’s Network, the new sites will develop specialized programs to train doctors in the design and conduct of stem cell clinical trials. This training will help drive the development of new stem cell therapies at California medical centers.

Apply to be one our new Alpha Clinics!

For the medical centers interested in joining the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network, the deadline for applications is May 15th, 2017. Details on this funding opportunity can be found on our funding page.

The CIRM Team looks forward to working with prospective applicants to address any questions. The Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network will also be showcasing it achievement at its Second Annual Symposium, details may be found on the City of Hope Alpha Clinics website.

City of Hope Medical Center and Alpha Stem Cell Clinic


Related Links:

Rare diseases are not so rare

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Brenden Whittaker – cured in a CIRM-funded clinical trial focusing on his rare disease

It seems like a contradiction in terms to say that there are nearly 7,000 diseases, affecting 30 million people, that are considered rare in the US. But the definition of a rare disease is one that affects fewer than 200,000 people and the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center (GARD) has a database that lists every one of them.

Those range from relatively well known conditions such as sickle cell disease and cerebral palsy, to lesser known ones such as attenuated familial adenomatous polyposis (AFAP) – an inherited condition that increases your risk of colon cancer.

Because disease like these are so rare, in the past many individuals with them felt isolated and alone. Thanks to the internet, people are now able to find online support groups where they can get advice on coping strategies, ideas on potential therapies and, just as important, can create a sense of community.

One of the biggest problems facing the rare disease community is a lack of funding for research to develop treatments or cures. Because these diseases affect fewer than 200,000 people most pharmaceutical companies don’t invest large sums of money developing treatments; they simply wouldn’t be able to get a big enough return on their investment. This is not a value judgement. It’s just a business reality.

And that’s where CIRM comes in. We were created, in part, to help those who can’t get help from other sources. This week alone, for example, our governing Board is meeting to vote on funding clinical trials for two rare and deadly diseases – ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Severe Combined Immunodeficiency or SCID. This kind of funding can mean the difference between life and death.

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For proof, you need look no further than Evie Vaccaro, the young girl we feature on the front of our 2016 Annual Report. Evie was born with SCID and faced a bleak future. But UCLA researcher Don Kohn, with some help from CIRM, developed a therapy that cured Evie. This latest clinical trial could help make a similar therapy available to other children with SCID.

But with almost 7,000 rare diseases it’s clear we can’t help everyone. In fact, there are only around 450 FDA-approved therapies for all these conditions. That’s why the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) and groups like them are organizing events around the US on February 28th, which has been designated as Rare Disease Day. The goal is to raise awareness about rare diseases, and to advocate for action to help this community. Here’s a link to Advocacy Events in different states around the US.

Alone, each of these groups is small and easily overlooked. Combined they have a powerful voice, 30 million strong, that demands to be heard.

 

 

Stem Cell Stories That Caught our Eye: Making blood and muscle from stem cells and helping students realize their “pluripotential”

Stem cells offer new drug for blood diseases. A new treatment for blood disorders might be in the works thanks to a stem cell-based study out of Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s hospital. Their study was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

The teams made induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from the skin of patients with a rare blood disorder called Diamond-Blackfan anemia (DBA) – a bone marrow disease that prevents new blood cells from forming. iPSCs from DBA patients were then specialized into blood progenitor cells, the precursors to blood cells. However, these precursor cells were incapable of forming red blood cells in a dish like normal precursors do.

Red blood cells were successfully made via induced pluripotent stem cells from a Diamond-Blackfan anemia patient. Image: Daley lab, Boston Children’s

Red blood cells were successfully made via induced pluripotent stem cells from a Diamond-Blackfan anemia patient. Image: Daley lab, Boston Children’s

The blood progenitor cells from DBA patients were then used to screen a library of compounds to identify drugs that could get the DBA progenitor cells to develop into red blood cells. They found a compound called SMER28 that had this very effect on progenitor cells in a dish. When the compound was tested in zebrafish and mouse models of DBA, the researchers observed an increase in red blood cell production and a reduction of anemia symptoms.

Getting pluripotent stem cells like iPSCs to turn into blood progenitor cells and expand these cells into a population large enough for drug screening has not been an easy task for stem cell researchers.

Co-first author on the study, Sergei Doulatov, explained in a press release, “iPS cells have been hard to instruct when it comes to making blood. This is the first time iPS cells have been used to identify a drug to treat a blood disorder.”

In the future, the researchers will pursue the questions of why and how SMER28 boosts red blood cell generation. Further work will be done to determine whether this drug will be a useful treatment for DBA patients and other blood disorders.

 

Students realize their “pluripotential”. In last week’s stem cell stories, I gave a preview about an exciting stem cell “Day of Discovery” hosted by USC Stem Cell in southern California. The event happened this past Saturday. Over 500 local middle and high school students attended the event and participated in lab tours, poster sessions, and a career resource fair. Throughout the day, they were engaged by scientists and educators about stem cell science through interactive games, including the stem cell edition of Family Feud and a stem cell smartphone videogame developed by USC graduate students.

In a USC press release, Rohit Varma, dean of the Keck School of Medicine of USC, emphasized the importance of exposing young students to research and scientific careers.

“It was a true joy to welcome the middle and high school students from our neighboring communities in Boyle Heights, El Sereno, Lincoln Heights, the San Gabriel Valley and throughout Los Angeles. This bright young generation brings tremendous potential to their future pursuits in biotechnology and beyond.”

Maria Elena Kennedy, a consultant to the Bassett Unified School District, added, “The exposure to the Keck School of Medicine of USC is invaluable for the students. Our students come from a Title I School District, and they don’t often have the opportunity to come to a campus like the Keck School of Medicine.”

The day was a huge success with students posting photos of their experiences on social media and enthusiastically writing messages like “stem cells are our future” and “USC is my goal”. One high school student acknowledged the opportunity that this day offers to students, “California currently has biotechnology as the biggest growing sector. Right now, it’s really important that students are visiting labs and learning more about the industry, so they can potentially see where they’re going with their lives and careers.”

You can read more about USC’s Stem Cell Day of Discovery here. Below are a few pictures from the event courtesy of David Sprague and USC.

Students have fun with robots representing osteoblast and osteoclast cells at the Stem Cell Day of Discovery event held at the USC Health Sciences Campus in Los Angeles, CA. February 4th, 2017. The event encourages students to learn more about STEM opportunities, including stem cell study and biotech, and helps demystify the fields and encourage student engagement. Photo by David Sprague

Students have fun with robots representing osteoblast and osteoclast cells at the USC Stem Cell Day of Discovery. Photo by David Sprague

Dr. Francesca Mariana shows off a mouse skeleton that has been dyed to show bones and cartilage at the Stem Cell Day of Discovery event held at the USC Health Sciences Campus in Los Angeles, CA. February 4th, 2017. The event encourages students to learn more about STEM opportunities, including stem cell study and biotech, and helps demystify the fields and encourage student engagement. Photo by David Sprague

Dr. Francesca Mariana shows off a mouse skeleton that has been dyed to show bones and cartilage. Photo by David Sprague

USC masters student Shantae Thornton shows students how cells are held in long term cold storage tanks at -195 celsius at the Stem Cell Day of Discovery event held at the USC Health Sciences Campus in Los Angeles, CA. February 4th, 2017. The event encourages students to learn more about STEM opportunities, including stem cell study and biotech, and helps demystify the fields and encourage student engagement. Photo by David Sprague

USC masters student Shantae Thornton shows students how cells are held in long term cold storage tanks at -195 celsius. Photo by David Sprague

Genesis Archila, left, and Jasmine Archila get their picture taken at the Stem Cell Day of Discovery event held at the USC Health Sciences Campus in Los Angeles, CA. February 4th, 2017. The event encourages students to learn more about STEM opportunities, including stem cell study and biotech, and helps demystify the fields and encourage student engagement. Photo by David Sprague

Genesis Archila, left, and Jasmine Archila get their picture taken at the USC Stem Cell Day of Discovery. Photo by David Sprague

New stem cell recipes for making muscle: new inroads to study muscular dystrophy (Todd Dubnicoff)

Embryonic stem cells are amazing because scientists can change or specialize them into virtually any cell type. But it’s a lot easier said than done. Researchers essentially need to mimic the process of embryo development in a petri dish by adding the right combination of factors to the stem cells in just the right order at just the right time to obtain a desired type of cell.

Making human muscle tissue from embryonic stem cells has proven to be a challenge. The development of muscle, as well as cartilage and bone, are well characterized and known to form from an embryonic structure called a somite. Researches have even been successful working out the conditions for making somites from animal stem cells. But those recipes didn’t work well with human stem cells.

Now, a team of researchers at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA has overcome this roadblock by carrying out a systematic approach using human tissue. As described in Cell Reports, the scientists isolated somites from early human embryos and studied their gene activity. By comparing somites that were just beginning to emerge with fully formed somites, the researchers pinpointed differences in gene activity patterns. With this data in hand, the team added factors to the cells that were known to affect the activity of those genes. Through some trial and error, they produced a recipe – different than those used in animal cells – that could convert 90 percent of the human stem cells into somites in only four days. Those somites could then readily transform into muscle or bone or cartilage.

This new method for making human muscle will be critical for the lab’s goal to develop therapies for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, an incurable muscle wasting disease that strikes young boys and is usually fatal by their 20’s.

The new protocol turned 90 percent of human pluripotent stem cells into somite cells in just four days; those somite cells then generated (left to right) cartilage, bone and muscle cells.  Image: April Pyle Lab/UCLA

The new protocol turned 90 percent of human pluripotent stem cells into somite cells in just four days; those somite cells then generated (left to right) cartilage, bone and muscle cells. Image: April Pyle Lab/UCLA

Stories that caught our eye: $20.5 million in new CIRM discovery awards, sickle cell disease cell bank, iPSC insights

CIRM Board launches a new voyage of Discovery (Kevin McCormack).
Basic or early stage research is the Rodney Dangerfield of science; it rarely gets the respect it deserves. Yesterday, the CIRM governing Board showed that it not only respects this research, but also values its role in laying the foundation for everything that follows.

The CIRM Board approved 11 projects, investing more than $20.5 million in our Discovery Quest, early stage research program. Those include programs using gene editing techniques to develop a cure for a rare but fatal childhood disease, finding a new approach to slowing down the progress of Parkinson’s disease, and developing a treatment for the Zika virus.

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Electron micrograph of Zika virus (red circles). Image: CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith

The goal of the Discovery Quest program is to identify and explore promising new stem cell therapies or technologies to improve patient care.

In a news release Randy Mills, CIRM’s President & CEO, said we hope this program will create a pipeline of projects that will ultimately lead to clinical trials:

“At CIRM we never underestimate the importance of early stage scientific research; it is the birth place of groundbreaking discoveries. We hope these Quest awards will not only help these incredibly creative researchers deepen our understanding of several different diseases, but also lead to new approaches on how best to use stem cells to develop treatments.”

Creating the world’s largest stem cell bank for sickle cell disease (Karen Ring).
People typically visit the bank to deposit or take out cash, but with advancements in scientific research, people could soon be visiting banks to receive life-saving stem cell treatments. One of these banks is already in the works. Scientists at the Center for Regenerative Medicine (CReM) at Boston Medical Center are attempting to generate the world’s largest stem cell bank focused specifically on sickle cell disease (SCD), a rare genetic blood disorder that causes red blood cells to take on an abnormal shape and can cause intense pain and severe organ damage in patients.

To set up their bank, the team is collecting blood samples from SCD patients with diverse ethnic backgrounds and making induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from these samples. These patient stem cell lines will be used to unravel new clues into why this disease occurs and to develop new potential treatments for SCD. More details about this new SCD iPSC bank can be found in the latest edition of the journal Stem Cell Reports.

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Gustavo Mostoslavsky, M.D., PH.D., Martin Steinberg, M.D., George Murphy PH.D.
Photo: Boston Medical Center

In a news release, CReM co-founder and Professor, Gustavo Mostoslavsky, touched on the future importance of their new stem cell bank:

“In addition to the library, we’ve designed and are using gene editing tools to correct the sickle hemoglobin mutation using the stem cell lines. When coupled with corrected sickle cell disease specific iPSCs, these tools could one day provide a functional cure for the disorder.”

For researchers interested in using these new stem cell lines, CReM is making them available to researchers around the world as part of the NIH’s NextGen Consortium study.

DNA deep dive reveals ways to increase iPSC efficiency (Todd Dubnicoff)
Though the induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell technique was first described ten years ago, many researchers continue to poke, prod and tinker with the method which reprograms an adult cell, often from skin, into an embryonic stem cell-like state which can specialize into any cell type in the body. Though this breakthrough in stem cell research is helping scientists better understand human disease and develop patient-specific therapies, the technique is hampered by its low efficiency and consistency.

This week, a CIRM-funded study from UCLA reports new insights into the molecular changes that occur during reprogramming that may help pave the way toward better iPS cell methods. The study, published in Cell, examined the changes in DNA during the reprogramming process.

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Senior authors Kathrin Plath and Jason Ernst and first authors Petko Fiziev and Constantinos Chronis.
Photo: UCLA

In a skin cell, the genes necessary for embryonic stem cell-like, or pluripotent, characteristics are all turned off. One way this shut down in gene activity occurs is through tight coiling of the DNA where the pluripotent genes are located. This physically blocks proteins called transcriptions factors from binding the DNA and activating those pluripotent genes within skin cells. On the other hand, regions of DNA carrying skin-related genes are loosely coiled, so that transcription factors can access the DNA and turn on those genes.

The iPS cell technique works by artificially adding four pluripotent transcriptions factors into skin cells which leads to changes in DNA coiling such that skin-specific genes are turned off and pluripotent genes are turned on. The UCLA team carefully mapped the areas where the transcription factors are binding to DNA during the reprogramming process. They found that the shut down of the skin genes and activation of the pluripotent genes occurs at the same time. The team also found that three of the four iPS cell factors must physically interact with each other to locate and activate the areas of DNA that are responsible for reprogramming.

Using the findings from those experiments, the team was able to identify a fifth transcription factor that helps shut down the skin-specific gene more effectively and, in turn, saw a hundred-fold increase in reprogramming efficiency. These results promise to help the researchers fine-tune the iPS cell technique and make its clinical use more practical.

Stem Cell Profiles in Courage: Brenden Whittaker

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Brenden Whittaker: Photo Colin McGuire

It’s not often you meet someone who says one of their favorite things in the world is mowing the lawn. But then, there aren’t many people in the world like Brenden Whittaker. In fact, as of this writing, he may be unique.

Brenden was born with severe chronic granulomatous disease (x-CGD), a rare genetic disorder that left him with an impaired immune system that was vulnerable to repeated bacterial and fungal infections. Over 22 years Brenden was in and out of the hospital hundreds of times, he almost died a couple of times, and lost parts of his lungs and liver.

Then he became the first person to take part in a clinical trial to treat x-CGD. UCLA researcher Don Kohn had developed a technique that removed Brenden’s blood stem cells, genetically re-engineered them to correct the mutation that caused the disease, and then returned those stem cells to Brenden. Over time they created a new blood system, and restored Brenden’s immune system.

He was cured.

We profiled Brenden for our 2016 Annual Report. Here’s an extended version of the interview we did with him, talking about his life before and after he was cured.

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Brenden with a CIRM Game Ball – signed by everyone at CIRM

Brenden’s story:

I still think about it, my disease, every few days or so and it’s weird because in the past I was sick so often; before this year, I was sick consistently for about 5 years and going to doctor’s appointments 2 or 3 times a week and being in the hospital. So, it’s weird having a cough and not having to be rushed to the ER, not having to call someone every time the smallest thing pops up, and not having to worry about what it means.

It’s been good but it’s been weird to not have to do that.  It’s a nice problem to have.

What are you doing now that you didn’t do before?

Cutting the grass is something I couldn’t do before, that I’ve taken up now. Most people look at me as if I’m crazy when I say it, but I love cutting grass, and I wasn’t able to do it for 22 years of my life.

People will complain about having to pick up after their dog goes to the bathroom and now I can follow my dog outside and can pick up after her. It really is just the little things that people don’t think of. I find enjoyment in the small things, things I couldn’t do before but now I can and not have to worry about them.

The future

I was in the boy scouts growing up so I love camping, building fires, just being outdoors. I hiked on the Appalachian Trail. Now I’ll be able to do more of that.

I have a part time job at a golf course and I’m actually getting ready to go back to school full time in January. I want to get into pre-med, go to medical school and become a doctor. All the experience I’ve had has just made me more interested in being a doctor, I just want to be in a position where I can help people going through similar things, and going through all this just made me more interested in it.

Before the last few months I couldn’t schedule my work more than a week in advance because I didn’t know if I was going to be in the hospital or what was going on. Now my boss jokes that I’m giving him plans for the next month or two. It’s amazing how far ahead you can plan when you aren’t worried about being sick or having to go to the hospital.

I’d love to do some traveling. Right now most of my traveling consists of going to and from Boston (for medical check-ups), but I would love to go to Europe, go through France and Italy. That would be a real cool trip. I don’t need to see everything in the world but just going to other countries, seeing cities like London, Paris and Rome, seeing how people live in other cultures, that would be great.

Advice for others

I do think about the fact that when I was born one in a million kids were diagnosed with this disease and there weren’t any treatments. Many people only lived a few years. But to be diagnosed now you can have a normal life. That’s something all on its own. It’s almost impossible for me to fathom it’s happening, after all the years and doctor’s appointments and illnesses.

So, for people going through anything like this, I’d say just don’t give up. There are new advances being made every day and you have to keep fighting and keep getting through it, and some day it will all work out.


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