An Open Letter to CIRM for World Sickle Cell Day

Nancy M. Rene

Dear CIRM,

World Sickle Cell Day is this Saturday June 19th. The goal of this day is to increase knowledge of the disease and understanding of the challenges faced.

It is a day that I greet with very mixed feelings.  I’m of course extremely grateful to CIRM for the time and money spent looking for a cure.  The work of doctors, of researchers, the courage of families in the sickle cell community who are taking part in studies, and of course those of you who worked so hard for the original funding for CIRM, I applaud all of you, yet it’s hard to wait for a cure.

While I wait I worry. I worry about my friends who are not getting good care.  They are the ones who can’t find a doctor to treat them, not able to take advantage of the medications that are already approved.  They are the ones who walk into the Emergency Room hoping for knowledgeable treatment while understanding that they may be accused of being a drug seeker,  turned away in excruciating pain. They are the ones who succumb after years of poor care.

With sickle cell disease there is the same level of understanding about medical malpractice that we had of police brutality before George Floyd. We hardly remember Rodney King or Eric Garner. As a country we were aware that something was wrong but we tended to retreat in denial after each terrible headline.

That’s where we are with sickle cell disease.  We may see a heart-wrenching story and watch televised reports with interest, but after all, it’s easier to live in disbelief, to think that medical care is not that bad, rather than understand that people are being dismissed and denied treatment. We call it structural racism without understanding what that term really means.

While I wait I must acknowledge that change is coming.  We have a Sickle Cell Data Collection Project in California that helps us track healthcare for sickle cell disease. This is data that we can use to point to structural weakness and address health disparities.  NASEM, the National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine, has published a huge report with significant suggestions for improving sickle cell care. Many scientists, researchers and advocates took part in this landmark study, detailing what has gone wrong in health care and how to improve the work. And of course we have CIRM. I am very thankful for the leadership and pioneering work of doctors Donald Kohn, Matthew Porteus, Mark Walters, and Joseph Rosenthal who are using their knowledge and experience in this fight.

When we have successful research on stem cell transplants for sickle cell disease, many of us with sickle cell family members will want to relax, but we can’t forget those who may not be able to get a curative transplant. I hope Dr Niihara at Emmaus, and Dr. Love of Global Blood Therapeutics will continue their important work finding effective treatments. We must continue this fight on all fronts.

World Sickle Cell Day will come again next year.  Let’s see what it brings.

A sickle cell grandmother,

Nancy M. René

Latest CIRM TRAN1 awards focus on CAR-based cell therapy to treat cancer

Earlier this week the CIRM ICOC Board awarded $14.5 million to fund three translational stage research projects (TRAN1), whose goal is to support early development activities necessary for advancement to a clinical study or broad end use of a potential therapy. Although all three projects have their distinct area of focus, they all utilize CAR-based cell therapy to treat a certain type of cancer. This approach involves obtaining T cells, which are an immune system cell that can destroy foreign or abnormal cells, and modifying them with a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR). This enables the newly created CAR-engineered cells to identify specific tumor signals and destroy the cancer. In the sections below we will take a deeper look at each one of these recently approved projects.

TRAN1-12245

Image Description: Hideho Okada, M.D., Ph.D.

$2,663,144 was awarded to the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) to develop specialized CAR-T cells that are able to recognize and destroy tumor cells in glioblastoma, an aggressive type of cancer that occurs in the brain and spinal cord. The specialized CAR-T cells have been created such that they are able to detect two specific signals expressed in glioblastoma. Hideho Okada, M.D., Ph.D. and his team at UCSF will test the therapy in mice with human glioblastoma grafts. They will be looking at preclinical safety and if the CAR-T cell therapy is able to produce a desired or intended result.

TRAN1-12250

Image Description: Lili Yang, Ph.D.

$5,949,651 was awarded to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to develop specialized CAR-engineered cells from human blood stem cells to treat multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer. Lili Yang, Ph.D. and her team have developed a method using human blood stem cells to create invariant natural killer T (iNKT) cells, a special kind of T cell with unique features that can more effectively attack tumor cells using multiple mechanisms and migrate to and infiltrate tumor sites. After being modified with CAR, the newly created CAR-iNKT cells are able to target a specific signal present in multiple myeloma. The team will test the therapy in mice with human multiple myeloma. They will be looking at preclinical safety and if the CAR-iNKT cells are able to produce a desired or intended result.

TRAN1-12258

Image Description: Cristina Puig-Saus, Ph.D.

Another $5,904,462 was awarded to UCLA to develop specialized CAR-T cells to treat melanoma, a form of skin cancer. Cristina Puig-Saus, Ph.D. and her team will use naïve/memory progenitor T cells (TNM), a subset of T cells enriched with stem cells and memory T cells, an immune cell that remains long after an infection has been eliminated. After modification with CAR, the newly created CAR-TNM cells will target a specific signal present in melanoma. The team will test the therapy in mice with human melanoma. They will be looking at preclinical safety and if the CAR-TNM cells are able to produce a desired or intended result.

CIRM Board Approves Continued Funding for SPARK and Alpha Stem Cell Clinics

Yesterday the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved $8.5 million to continue funding of the Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge (SPARK) and Alpha Stem Cell Clinics (ASCC).

This past February, the Board approved continued funding for stem cell focused educational programs geared towards undergraduate, masters, pre/postdoctoral, and medical students. The SPARK program is an existing CIRM educational program that provides for a summer internship for high school students.

To continue support for SPARK, the Board has approved $5.1 million to be allocated to ten new awards ($509,000 each) with up to a five-year duration to support 500 trainees.  The funds will enable high school students all across California to directly take part in summer research at various institutions with a stem cell, gene therapy, or regenerative medicine focus.  The goal of these programs is to prepare and inspire the next generation of scientists and provide opportunities for California’s diverse population, including those who might not have the opportunity to take part in summer research internships due to socioeconomic constraints.

CIRM’s ASCC Network is a unique regenerative medicine-focused clinical trial network that currently consists of five medical centers across California who specialize in accelerating stem cell and gene-therapy clinical trials by leveraging of resources to promote efficiency, sharing expertise, and enhancing chances of success for the patients. To date, over 105 trials in various disease indications have been supported by the ASCC Network.  While there are plans being developed for a significant ASCC Network expansion by some time next year, funding for all five sites has ended or are approaching the end of their current award period. To maintain the level of activity of the ASCC Network until expansion funding is available next year, the Board approved $3.4 million to be allocated to five supplemental awards (up to $680,000 each) in order to provide continued funding to all five sites; the host institutions will be required to match the CIRM award.  These funds will support talent retention and program key activities such as the coordination of clinical research, management of patient and public inquiries, and other operational activities vital to the ASCC Network.

“Education and infrastructure are two funding pillars critical for creating the next generation of researchers and conducting stem cell based clinical trials” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., President and CEO of CIRM.  “The importance of these programs was acknowledged in Proposition 14 and we expect that they will continue to be important components of CIRM’s programs and strategic direction in the years to come.”

The Board also awarded $14.5 million to fund three translational stage research projects (TRAN1), whose goal is to support early development activities necessary for advancement to a clinical study or broad end use of a potential therapy.

The awards are summarized in the table below:

ApplicationTitleInstitution Award
TRAN1-12245  Development of novel synNotch CART cell therapy in patients with recurrent EGFRvIII+ glioblastoma    UCSF    $2,663,144
TRAN1-12258  CAR-Tnm cell therapy for melanoma targeting TYRP-1    UCLA  $5,904,462  
TRAN1-12250HSC-Engineered Off-The-Shelf CAR-iNKT Cell Therapy for Multiple Myeloma  UCLA  $5,949,651

CIRM Builds Out World Class Team With 5 New hires

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Study Shows CIRM-Supported Therapy Cures More than 95% of Children Born with a Fatal Immune Disorder

Dr. Donald B. Kohn; Photo courtesy UCLA

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that an experimental form of stem cell and gene therapy has cured 48 of 50 children born with a deadly condition called ADA-SCID.

Children with ADA-SCID, (severe combined immunodeficiency due to adenosine deaminase deficiency) lack a key enzyme that is essential for a healthy, functioning immune system. As a result, even a simple infection could prove fatal to these children and, left untreated, most will die within the first two years of life.

In the study, part of which was supported by CIRM, researchers at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) in London took some of the children’s own blood-forming stem cells and, in the lab, corrected the genetic mutation that causes ADA-SCID. They then returned those cells to the children. The hope was that over time the corrected stem cells would create a new blood supply and repair the immune system.

In the NEJM study the researchers reported outcomes for the children two and three years post treatment.

“Between all three clinical trials, 50 patients were treated, and the overall results were very encouraging,” said Dr. Don Kohn, a distinguished professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a member of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA. “All the patients are alive and well, and in more than 95% of them, the therapy appears to have corrected their underlying immune system problems.”

Two of the children did not respond to the therapy and both were returned to the current standard-of-care therapy. One subsequently underwent a bone marrow transplant. None of the children in the study experienced serious side-effects.

“This is encouraging news for all families affected by this rare but deadly condition,” says Maria T. Millan, MD, President and CEO of CIRM. “It’s also a testament to the power of persistence. Don Kohn has been working on developing this kind of therapy for 35 years. To see it paying off like this is a remarkable testament to his skill as a researcher and determination to help these patients.”

Remembering Eli Broad, philanthropist and stem cell champion

Eli Broad, Photo by Nancy Pastor

The world of stem cell research lost a good friend this weekend. Eli Broad, a generous supporter of science, education and the arts, passed away at the age of 87.

Eli came from humble origins, born in the Bronx to an immigrant father who worked as a house painter and a mother who was a seamstress. He went to Michigan State University, working a number of jobs to pay his way, including selling women’s shoes, working as a door-to-door salesman for garbage disposal units, and delivering rolls of film to be developed. He graduated in three years and then became the youngest person ever to pass the CPA exam in Michigan.

He started out as an accountant but quickly switched to housing and development and was a millionaire by the time he was 30. As his wealth grew so did his interest in using that money to support causes dear to him and his wife Edythe.

With the passage of Proposition 71 in 2004 Broad put up money to help create the Broad Stem Cell Centers at UCLA, UC San Francisco and the University of Southern California. Those three institutions became powerhouses in stem cell research and the work they do is a lasting legacy to the generosity of the Broads.

Rosa Dilani, histology core manager at the Eli and Edythe Broad CIRM Center, explains the lab’s function to Eli Broad after the Oct. 29 ribbon cutting of the new building. In the background are U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (in purple) and Bob Klein in gray suit.

“Science has lost one of its greatest philanthropic supporters,” says Jonathan Thomas, PhD, JD, Chair of the CIRM Board. ” Eli and Edye Broad set the table for decades of transformative work in stem cell and gene therapy through their enthusiastic support for Proposition 71 and funding at a critical time in the early days of regenerative medicine. Their recent additional generous contributions to USC, UCLA and UCSF helped to further advance that work.  Eli and Edye understood the critical role of science in making the world a better place.  Through these gifts and their enabling support of the Broad Institute with Harvard and MIT, they have left a lasting legacy in the advancement of medicine that cannot be overstated.”

Through the Broad Foundation he helped fund groundbreaking work not just in science but also education and the arts. Gerun Riley, President of the Broad Foundation says Eli was always interested in improving the lives of others.

“As a businessman Eli saw around corners, as a philanthropist he saw the problems in the world and tried to fix them, as a citizen he saw the possibility in our shared community, and as a husband, father, mentor and friend he saw the potential in each of us.”

Eli and Edythe Broad

CIRM funded stem cell therapy could one day help stroke and dementia patients

Image Description: Microscope images showing brain tissue that has been damaged by white matter stroke (left) and then repaired by the new glial cell therapy (right). Myelin (seen in red), is a substance that protects the connections between neurons and is lost due to white matter stroke. As seen at right, the glial cell therapy (green) restores lost myelin and improves connections in the brain. | Credit: UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center/Science Translational Medicine

Dementia is a general term that describes problems with memory, attention, communication, and physical coordination. One of the major causes of dementia is white matter strokes, which occurs when multiple strokes (i.e. a lack of blood supply to the brain) gradually damages the connecting areas of the brain (i.e. white matter).

Currently, there are no therapies capable of stopping the progression of white matter strokes or enhancing the brain’s limited ability to repair itself after they occur.

However, a CIRM-funded study ($2.09 million) conducted by S. Thomas Carmichael, M.D., Ph.D. and his team at UCLA showed that a one-time injection of an experimental stem cell therapy can repair brain damage and improve memory function in mice with conditions that mimic human strokes and dementia.

The therapy consists of glial cells, which are a special type of cell present in the central nervous system that surround and protect neurons. The glial cells are derived from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCS), stem cells that are derived from skin or blood cells through the process of reprogramming and have the ability to become virtually any type of cell.

Dr. Carmichael and his team injected the newly developed glial cells into the brains of mice that had damage similar to humans in the early to middle stages of dementia. The team found that the cell therapy traveled to the damaged areas of the brain and secreted chemicals that stimulated the brain’s own stem cells to start repairing the damage. This not only limited the progression of damage, but also enhanced the formation of new neural connections and increased the production of myelin, a fatty substance that covers and protects neurons.

In a press release from UCLA, Francesca Bosetti, Ph.D., Pharm.D., Program Director at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes, was optimistic about what these findings could mean for patients with strokes or dementia.

“These preliminary results suggest that glial cell-based therapies may one day help combat the white matter damage that many stroke and vascular dementia patients suffer every year.”

Another interesting finding from this study is that even if the injected cells were eliminated a few months after they had been transplanted, the mice’s recovery was unaffected. The researchers believe that this indicates that the therapy primarily serves as a way to stimulate the brain’s own repair process.

In the same press release, Dr. Carmichael elaborates on this concept.

“Because the cell therapy is not directly repairing the brain, you don’t need to rely on the transplanted cells to persist in order for the treatment to be successful.”

The team is now conducting the additional studies necessary to apply to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permission to test the therapy in a clinical trial in humans. If the therapy is shown to be safe and effective through clinical trials in humans, the team envisions that it could be used at hospitals as a one-time treatment for people with early signs of white matter stroke.

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

CIRM funding helps improve immune cell therapy to combat HIV

Image description: T cell infected with HIV.
Image Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

In June of last year we wrote about how Dr. Scott Kitchen and his team at UCLA are engineering blood forming stem cells in order to fight HIV, a potentially deadly virus that attacks the immune system and can worsen into AIDS if left untreated. HIV causes havoc in the body by attacking T cells, a vital part of the body’s immune system that helps fight off infections and diseases.

Dr. Kitchen’s approach uses what is called Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T gene therapy. This is a type of immune therapy that involves genetically modifying the body’s own blood forming stem cells to create T cells that have the ability to fight HIV. These newly formed immune cells have the potential to not only destroy HIV-infected cells but to create “memory cells” that could provide lifelong protection from HIV infection.

Flash forward to April of this year and the results of the CIRM funded study ($1.7M) have been published in PLOS Pathogens.

Unfortunately, although the previously designed CAR T gene therapy was still able to create HIV fighting immune cells, the way the CAR T gene therapy was designed still had the potential to allow for HIV infection.

For this new study, the team modified the CAR T gene therapy such that the cells would be resistant to infection and allow for a more efficient and longer-lasting cell response against HIV than before.

While the previous approach allowed for the continuous production of new HIV-fighting T cells that persisted for more than two years, these cells are inactivated until they come across the HIV virus. The improved CAR T gene therapy engineers the body’s immune response to HIV rather than waiting for the virus to induce a response. This is similar in concept to how a vaccine prepares the immune system to respond against a virus. The new approach also creates a significant number of “memory” T cells that are capable of quickly responding to reactivated HIV. 

The hope is that these findings can influence the development of T cells that are able carry “immune system” memory with the ability to recognize and kill virus-infected or cancerous cells. 

To date, CIRM has also funded four separate clinical trials related to the treatment of HIV/AIDS totaling over $31 million.

Three UC’s Join Forces to Launch CRISPR Clinical Trial Targeting Sickle Cell Disease

Sickle shaped red blood cells

The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), in collaboration with UC Berkeley (UCB) and UC Los Angeles (UCLA), have been given permission by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to launch a first-in-human clinical trial using CRISPR technology as a gene-editing technique to cure Sickle Cell Disease.

This research has been funded by CIRM from the early stages and, in a co-funding partnership with theNational Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute under the Cure Sickle Cell initiatve, CIRM supported the work that allowed this program to gain FDA permission to proceed into clinical trials.    

Sickle Cell Disease is a blood disorder that affects around 100,000 people, mostly Black and Latinx people in the US. It is caused by a single genetic mutation that results in the production of “sickle” shaped red blood cells. Normal red blood cells are round and smooth and flow easily through blood vessels. But the sickle-shaped ones are rigid and brittle and clump together, clogging vessels and causing painful crisis episodes, recurrent hospitalization, multi-organ damage and mini-strokes.    

The three UC’s have combined their respective expertise to bring this program forward.

The CRISPR-Cas9 technology was developed by UC Berkeley’s Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna, PhD. UCLA is a collaborating site, with expertise in genetic analysis and cell manufacturing and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland is the lead clinical center, leveraging its renowned expertise in cord blood and marrow transplantation and in gene therapy for sickle cell disease.

The approach involves retrieving blood stem cells from the patient and, using a technique involving electrical pulses, these cells are treated to correct the mutation using CRISPR technology. The corrected cells will then be transplanted back into the patient.

Dr. Mark Walters

In a news release, UCSF’s Dr. Mark Walters, the principal investigator of the project, says using this new gene-editing approach could be a game-changer. “This therapy has the potential to transform sickle cell disease care by producing an accessible, curative treatment that is safer than the current therapy of stem cell transplant from a healthy bone marrow donor. If this is successfully applied in young patients, it has the potential to prevent irreversible complications of the disease. Based on our experience with bone marrow transplants, we predict that correcting 20% of the genes should be sufficient to out-compete the native sickle cells and have a strong clinical benefit.”

Dr. Maria T. Millan, President & CEO of CIRM, said this collaborative approach can be a model for tackling other diseases. “When we entered into our partnership with the NHLBI we hoped that combining our resources and expertise could accelerate the development of cell and gene therapies for SCD. And now to see these three UC institutions collaborating on bringing this therapy to patients is truly exciting and highlights how working together we can achieve far more than just operating individually.”

The 4-year study will include six adults and three adolescents with severe sickle cell disease. It is planned to begin this summer in Oakland and Los Angeles.

The three UCs combined to produce a video to accompany news about the trial. Here it is:

CIRM funding helps identify potential COVID-19 treatment

The steps of the virus growth cycle that can be targeted with therapies: The virus enters a host cell (1), the virus’s genetic instructions are released, taking over cellular machinery (2), the virus is replicated within the cell (3) and copies of the virus exit the cell in search of new host cells to infect (4). Drugs like berzosertib might disrupt steps 2 and 3.  Image credit: Marc Roseboro/California NanoSytems Institute at UCLA

During the global pandemic, many researchers have responded to the needs of patients severely afflicted with COVID-19 by repurposing existing therapies being developed to treat patients.  CIRM responded immediately to the pandemic and to researchers wanting to help by providing $5 million in emergency funding for COVID-19 related projects. 

One of these grants ($349,999), awarded to Dr. Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami at UCLA, has aided a study that has singled out a compound that shows promise for treating SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

In the spirit of banding together to help patients severely affected by COVID-19, the project was a collaboration among scientists from UCLA and other universities in California, Delaware and Germany, as well as a German pharmaceutical company.

The compound is named berzosertib and is licensed by the company Merck KGaA in Darmstadt, Germany.  Prior to the pandemic, it was developed for potential use, in combination with chemotherapy, as a possible treatment for small-cell lung cancer, ovarian cancer, and other types of solid tumors.

The team screened 430 drugs from among the approximately 200,000 compounds in CNSI’s Molecular Screening Shared Resource libraries before zeroing in on berzosertib as the most promising candidate.  They limited their search to compounds that either had been approved, or are already in the process of being evaluated, for safety in humans.

In a press release from UCLA, Dr. Arumugawami explains the rationale behind screening a potential drug candidate.

“That way, the compounds have cleared the first regulatory hurdle and could be deployed for further clinical trials on COVID-19 faster than drugs that have not been tested in humans.”

The researchers, led by Dr. Arumugaswami and Dr. Robert Damoiseaux from UCLA, conducted a series of experiments using different cell types in lab dishes to look at how effective the compound was at blocking SARS-CoV-2 from replicating.  Unlike other approaches which attack the virus directly, targeting replication could help better address the ability of the virus to mutate. 

For this study, the team used cells from the kidney, heart and lungs, all of which are organs that the virus is known to attack. The researchers pretreated cells with berzosertib, exposed the cells to SARS-CoV-2, allowed 48 hours for infection to set in, and then evaluated the results.

The team found that the compound consistently stalled SARS-CoV-2 replication without damaging the cells. The scientists also tested the drug against SARS and MERS, both of which are other types of coronaviruses that triggered deadly outbreaks earlier in the 2000s. They found that it was effective in stopping the replication of those viruses as well.

In the same press release from UCLA, Dr. Damoiseaux expressed optimism for what these findings could mean as a potential treatment.

“This is a chance to actually find a drug that might be broader in spectrum, which could also help fight coronaviruses that are yet to come.”

The next steps for this research would be to explore the mechanism through which the compound blocks coronavirus replication.  Understanding this and conducting preclinical studies are both necessary before the compound could be tested in clinical trials for COVID-19.

The full results of this study were published in Cell Reports.

The study’s co-corresponding author is Ulrich Betz of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany; the company also provided partial funding and clinical-grade berzosertib for the research. Other co-authors are from UCLA, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, UC Irvine, University of Delaware, the Leibniz Institute for Experimental Virology in Germany, Heidelberg University in Germany and Scripps Research Institute.

In addition to CIRM, the study was also funded by CNSI, the Broad Stem Cell Research Center, the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, the National Eye Institute, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.