Patients at the heart of Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Symposium

I have been to a lot of stem cell conferences over the years and there’s one recent trend I really like: the growing importance and frequency of the role played by patient advocates.

There was a time, not so long ago, when having a patient advocate speak at a scientific conference was almost considered a novelty. But more and more it’s being seen for what it is, an essential item on the agenda. After all, they are the reason everyone at that conference is working. It’s all about the patients.

That message was front and center at the 3rd Annual CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium at UCLA last week. The theme of the symposium was the Delivery of Stem Cell Therapeutics to Patients. There were several fascinating scientific presentations, highlighting the progress being made in stem cell research, but it was the voices of the patient advocates that were loudest and most powerful.

First a little background. The CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network consists of six major medical centers – UCLA/UC Irvine (joint hosts of this conference), UC San Diego, City of Hope, UC San Francisco and UC Davis. The Network was established with the goal of accelerating the development and delivery of high-quality stem cell clinical trials to patients. This meeting brought together clinical investigators, scientists, patients, patient advocates, and the public in a thoughtful discussion on how novel stem cell therapies are now a reality.

It was definitely thoughtful. Gianna McMillan, the Co-Founder and Executive Director of “We Can, Pediatric Brain Tumor Network” set the tone with her talk titled, “Tell Me What I Need to Know”. At age 5 her son was diagnosed with a brain tumor, sending her life into a tailspin. The lessons she learned from that experience – happily her son is now a healthy young man – drive her determination to help others cope with similar situations.

Calling herself an “in the trenches patient advocate champion” she says:

“In the old days doctors made decisions on behalf of the patients who meekly and gratefully did what they were told. It’s very different today. Patients are better informed and want to be partners in the treatment they get. But yet this is not an equal partnership, because subjects (patients) are always at a disadvantage.”

She said patients often don’t speak the language of the disease or understand the scientific jargon doctors use when they talk about it. At the same time patients are wrestling with overwhelming emotions such as fear and anxiety because their lives have been completely overturned.

Yet she says a meaningful partnership is possible as long as doctors keep three basic questions in mind when dealing with people who are getting a new diagnosis of a life-threatening or life-changing condition:

  • Tell me what I need to know
  • Tell me in language I can understand
  • Tell me again and again

It’s a simple formula, but one that is so important that it needs to be stated over and over again. “Tell me again. And again. And again.”

David Mitchell, the President and Founder of Patients for Affordable Drugs, tackled another aspect of the patient experience: the price of therapies. He posed the question “What good is a therapy if no one can afford it?”

David’s organization focuses on changing policy at the state and federal level to lower the price of prescription drugs. He pointed out that many other countries charge lower prices for drugs than the US, in part because those countries’ governments negotiate directly with drug companies on pricing.

He says if we want to make changes in this country that benefit patients then patient have to become actively involved in lobbying their government, at both the state and local level, for more balanced prices, and in supporting candidates for public office who support real change in drug-pricing policy.

It’s encouraging to see that just as the field of stem cell research is advancing so too is the prominence of the patient’s voice. The CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network is pushing the field forward in exciting ways, and the patients are becoming an increasingly important, and vital part of that. And that is as it should be.

CIRM-funded clinical trial takes a combination approach to treating deadly blood cancers

Stained blood smear shows enlarged chronic lymphocytic leukemia cells among normal red blood cells. (UCSD Health)

A diagnosis of cancer often means a tough road ahead, with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation used to try and kill the tumor. Even then, sometimes cancer cells manage to survive and return later, spreading throughout the body. Now researchers at UC San Diego and Oncternal Therapeutics are teaming up with a combination approach they hope will destroy hard-to-kill blood cancers like leukemia.

The combination uses a monoclonal antibody called cirmtuzumab (so called because CIRM funding helped develop it) and a more traditional anti-cancer therapy called ibrutinib. Here’s how it is hoped this approach will work.

Ibrutinib is already approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat blood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma. But while it can help, it doesn’t always completely eradicate all the cancer cells. Some cancer stem cells are able to lie dormant during treatment and then start proliferating and spreading the cancer later. That’s why the team are pairing ibrutinib with cirmtuzumab.

In a news release announcing the start of the trial, UCSD’s Dr. Thomas Kipps,  said they hope this one-two punch combination will be more effective.

Thomas Kipps, UCSD

“As a result {of the failure to kill all the cancer cells}, patients typically need to take ibrutinib indefinitely, or until they develop intolerance or resistance to this drug. Cirmtuzumab targets leukemia and cancer stem cells, which are like the seeds of cancer. They are hard to find and difficult to destroy. By blocking signaling pathways that promote neoplastic-cell growth and survival, cirmtuzumab may have complementary activity with ibrutinib in killing leukemia cells, allowing patients potentially to achieve complete remissions that permit patients to stop therapy altogether.”

Because this is an early stage clinical trial, the goal is to first make sure the approach is safe, and second to identify the best dose and treatment schedule for patients.

The researchers hope to recruit 117 patients around the US. Some will get the cirmtuzumab and ibrutinib combination, some will get ibrutinib alone to see if one approach is more effective than the other.

CIRM has a triple investment in this research. Not only did our funding help develop cirmtuzumab, but CIRM is also funding this clinical trial and one of the trial sites is at UCSD, one of the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics.

CIRM’s Dr. Ingrid Caras says this highlights our commitment to our mission of accelerating stem cell therapies to patients with unmet medical needs.

“Our partnership with UC San Diego and the Alpha Stem Cell Clinics has enabled this trial to more quickly engage potential patient-participants. Being among the first to try new therapies requires courage and CIRM is grateful to the patients who are volunteering to be part of this clinical trial.”


Related Links:

Scientists repair spinal cord injuries in monkeys using human stem cells

Human neuronal stem cells extend axons (green). (Image UCSD)

An exciting development for spinal cord injury research was published this week in the journal Nature Medicine. Scientists from the University of San Diego School of Medicine transplanted human neural progenitor cells (NPCs) into rhesus monkeys that had spinal cord injuries. These cells, which are capable of turning into other cells in the brain, survived and robustly developed into nerve cells that improved the monkeys’ use of their hands and arms.

The scientists grafted 20 million human NPCs derived from embryonic stem cells into two-week-old spinal cord lesions in the monkeys. These stem cells were delivered with growth factors to improve their survival and growth. The monkeys were also treated with immunosuppressive drugs to prevent their immune system from rejecting the human cells.

After nine months, they discovered that the NPCs had developed into nerve cells within the injury site that extended past the injury into healthy tissue. These nerve extensions are called axons, which allow nerves to transmit electrical signals and instructions to other brain cells. During spinal cord injury, nerve cells and their axon extensions are damaged. Scientists have found it difficult to regenerate these damaged cells because of the inhibitory growth environment created at the injury site. You can compare it to the build-up of scar tissue after a heart attack. The heart has difficulty regenerating healthy heart muscle, which is instead replaced by fibrous scar tissue.

Excitingly, the UCSD team was able to overcome this hurdle in their current study. When they transplanted human NPCs with growth factors into the monkeys, they found that the cells were not affected by the inhibitory environment of the injury and were able to robustly develop into nerve cells and send out axon extensions.

Large numbers of human axons (green) emerge from a lesion/graft sites. Many axons travel along the interface (indicated by arrows) between spinal cord white matter (nerve fibers covered with myelin) and spinal cord gray matter (nerves without the whitish myelin sheathing). Image courtesy of Mark Tuszynski, UC San Diego School of Medicine.

The senior scientist on the study, Dr. Mark Tuszynski, explained how their findings in a large animal model are a huge step forward for the field in a UCSD Health news release:

“While there was real progress in research using small animal models, there were also enormous uncertainties that we felt could only be addressed by progressing to models more like humans before we conduct trials with people. We discovered that the grafting methods used with rodents didn’t work in larger, non-human primates. There were critical issues of scale, immunosuppression, timing and other features of methodology that had to be altered or invented. Had we attempted human transplantation without prior large animal testing, there would have been substantial risk of clinical trial failure, not because neural stem cells failed to reach their biological potential but because of things we did not know in terms of grafting and supporting the grafted cells.”

Dr. Tuszynski is a CIRM-grantee whose earlier research involved optimizing stem cell treatments for rodent models of spinal cord injury. We’ve blogged about that research previously on the Stem Cellar here and here.

Tuszynski recently was awarded a CIRM discovery stage research grant to develop a candidate human neural stem cell line that is optimized to repair the injured spinal cord and can be used in human clinical trials. He expressed cautious optimism about the future of this treatment for spinal cord injury patients emphasizing the need for patience and more research before arriving at clinical trials:

“We seem to have overcome some major barriers, including the inhibitory nature of adult myelin against axon growth. Our work has taught us that stem cells will take a long time to mature after transplantation to an injury site, and that patience will be required when moving to humans. Still, the growth we observe from these cells is remarkable — and unlike anything I thought possible even ten years ago. There is clearly significant potential here that we hope will benefit humans with spinal cord injury.”


Related Links:

Alpha clinics and a new framework for accelerating stem cell treatments

IMG_1215

Last week, at the World Stem Cell Summit in Miami, CIRM took part in a panel discussion about the role and importance of Alpha Clinics in not just delivering stem cell therapies, but in helping create a new, more collaborative approach to medicine. The Alpha Clinic concept is to create  a network of top medical centers that specialize in delivering stem cell clinical trials to patients.

The panel was moderated by Dr. Tony Atala, Director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. He said the term Alpha Clinic came from CIRM and the Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network that we helped create. That network now has five specialist health care centers that deliver stem cell therapies to patients: UC San Diego, UCLA/UC Irvine, City of Hope, UC Davis, and  UCSF/Children’s Hospital Oakland.

This is a snapshot of that conversation.

Alpha Clinics Advancing Stem Cell Trials

Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO:

“The idea behind the Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network is that CIRM is in the business of accelerating treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. We fund research from the earliest discovery stage to clinical trials. What was anticipated is that, if the goal is to get these discoveries into the clinics then we’ll need a specific set of expertise and talents to deliver those treatments safely and effectively, to gather data from those trials and move the field forward. So, we set out to create a learning network, a sharing network and a network that is more than the sum of its parts.”

Dr. Joshua Hare,  Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute, University of Miami, said that idea of collaboration is critical to advancing the field:

 

“What we learned is that having the Alpha Stem Cell Clinic concept helps investigators in other areas learn from what earlier researchers have done, helping accelerate their work.

For example, we have had a lot of experience in working with rare diseases and we can use the experience we have in treating one disease area in working in others. This shared experience can help us develop deeper understanding in terms of delivering therapies and dosing.”

Susan Solomon, CEO New York Stem Cell Foundation Research Institute. NYSCF has several clinical trials underway. She says in the beginning it was hard finding reputable clinics that could deliver these potentially ground breaking but still experimental therapies:

 

“My motivation was born out of my own frustration at the poor choices we had in dealing with some devastating diseases, so in order to move things ahead we had to have an alpha clinic that is not just doing clinical trials but is working to overcome obstacles in the field.”

Greg Simon represented the, Biden Cancer Initiative, whose  mission is to develop and drive implementation of solutions to accelerate progress in cancer prevention, detection, diagnosis, research, and care, and to reduce disparities in cancer outcomes. He says part of the problem is that people think there are systems already in place that promote collaboration and cooperation, but that’s not really the case.  

 

“In the Cancer Moonshot and the Biden Cancer Initiative we are trying to create the cancer research initiative that people think we already have. People think doctors share knowledge. They don’t. People think they can just sign up for clinical trials. They can’t. People think there are standards for describing a cancer. There aren’t. So, all the things you think you know about the science behind cancer are wrong. We don’t have the system people think is in place. But we want to create that.

If we are going to have a unified system we need common standards through cancer research, shared knowledge, and clinical trial reforms. All my professional career it was considered unethical to refer to a clinical trial as a treatment, it was research. That’s no longer the case. Many people are now told this is your last best hope for treatment and it’s changed the way people think about clinical trials.”

The Process

Maria Millan says we are seeing these kinds of change – more collaboration, more transparency –  taking place across the board:

“We see the research in academic institutions that then moved into small companies that are now being approved by the FDA. Academic centers, in conjunction with industry partners, are helping create networks and connections that advance therapies.

This gives us the opportunity to have clinical programs and dialogues about how we can get better, how we can create a more uniform, standard approach that helps us learn from each trial and develop common standards that investigators know have to be in place.

Within the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network the teams coming in can access what we have pulled together already – a database of 20 million patients, a single IRB approval, so that if a cliinical trial is approved for one Alpha Clinic it can also be offered at another.”

Greg Simon says to see the changes really take hold we need to ensure this idea of collaboration starts at the very beginning of the chain:

“If we don’t have a system of basic research where people share data, where people are rewarded for sharing data, journals that don’t lock up the data behind a paywall. If we don’t have that system, we don’t have the ability to move therapies along as quickly as we could.

“Nobody wants to be the last person to die from a cancer that someone figured out a treatment for a year earlier. It’s not that the science is so hard, or the diseases are so hard, it the way we approach them that’s so hard. How do we create the right system?”

More may not necessarily be better

Susan Solomon:

“There are tremendous number of advances moving to the clinic, but I am concerned about the need for more sharing and the sheer number of clinical trials. We have to be smart about how we do our work. There is some low hanging fruit for some clinical trials in the cancer area, but you have to be really careful.”

Greg Simon

“We have too many bad trials, we don’t need more, we need better quality trials.

We have made a lot of progress in cancer. I’m a CLL survivor and had zero problems with the treatment and everything went well.

We have pediatric cancer therapies that turned survival from 10 % to 80%. But the question is why doesn’t more progress happen. We tend to get stuck in a way of thinking and don’t question why it has to be that way. We think of funding because that’s the way funding cycles work, the NIH issues grants every year, so we think about research on a yearly basis. We need to change the cycle.”

Maria Millan says CIRM takes a two pronged approach to improving things, renovating and creating:

“We renovate when we know there are things already in place that can be improved and made better; and we create if there’s nothing there and it needs to be created. We want to be as efficient as we can and not waste time and resources.”

She ended by saying one of the most exciting things today is that the discussion now has moved to how we are going to cover this for patients. Greg Simon couldn’t agree more.

“The biggest predictor of survivability of cancer is health insurance. We need to do more than just develop treatments. We need to have a system that enables people to get access to these therapies.”

Harnessing the body’s immune system to tackle cancer

Often on the Stem Cellar we write about work that is in a clinical trial. But getting research to that stage takes years and years of dedicated work. Over the next few months, we are profiling some of the scientists we fund who are doing Discovery (early stage) and Translational (pre-clinical) research, to highlight the importance of this work in developing the treatments that could ultimately save lives. 

This second profile in the series is by Ross Okamura, Ph.D., a science officer in CIRM’s Discovery & Translation Program.

Your immune system is your body’s main protection against disease; harnessing this powerful defense system to target a given disorder is known as immunotherapy.  There are different types of immunotherapies that have been developed over the years. These include vaccines to help generate antibodies against viruses, drugs to direct immune cell function and most recently, the engineering of immune cells to fight cancer.

Understanding How Immunotherapies Work

One of the more recent immunotherapy approaches to fight cancer that has seen rapid development is equipping a subset of immune cells (T cells) with a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR). In brief, CAR T ceIls are first removed from the patient and then engineered to recognize a specific feature of the targeted cancer cells.  This direct targeting of T cells to the cancer allows for an effective anti-cancer therapy made from your own immune system.

Simplified explanation of how CAR T cell therapies fight cancer. (Memorial Sloan Kettering)

For the first time this fall, two therapeutics employing CAR T cells targeting different types of blood cancers were approved for use by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) based on remarkable results found during the clinical trials. Specifically, Kymriah (developed by Novartis) was approved for treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukemia and Yescarta (developed by Kite Pharma) was approved for treatment of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

There are drawbacks to the CAR T approach, however. Revving up the immune system to attack tumors can cause dangerous side effects. When CAR T cells enter the body, they trigger the release of proteins called cytokines, which join in the attack on the tumors. But this can also create what’s referred to as a cytokine storm or cytokine release syndrome (CRS), which can lead to a range of responses, from a mild fever to multi-organ failure and death. Balancing treatments to resolve CRS after it’s detected while still maintaining the treatment’s cancer-killing abilities is a significant challenge that remains to be overcome.  A second issue is that cancer cells can evade the immune system by no longer producing the target that the CAR-T therapy was designed to recognize. When this happens, the patient subsequently experiences a cancer relapse that is no longer treatable by the same cell therapy.

Natural Killer (NK) T cells represent another type of anti-cancer immunotherapy that is also being tested in clinical trials. NK cells are part of the innate immune system responsible for defending your body against both infection and tumor formation.  NK cells target stressed cells by releasing cell-penetrating proteins that poke holes in the cells leading to induced cell death.  As an immunotherapy, NK cells have the potential to avoid both the issues of CRS and cancer cell immune evasion as they release a more limited array of cytokines and do not rely on a specific single target to recognize tumors.  NK cells instead selectively target tumor cells due to the presence of stress-induced proteins on the cancer cells. In addition, the cancer cells lack other proteins that would normally send out a “I’m a healthy cell you can ignore me” message to NK cells. Without that message, NK cells target and kill those cancer cells.

Developing new immunotherapies against cancer

Dan Kaufman, UCSD

Dr. Dan Kaufman of the University of California at San Diego is a physician-scientist whose research group developed a method to produce functional NK cells from human pluripotent stem cells (PSC).  In order to overcome a major hurdle in the use of NK cells as an anti-cancer therapeutic, Dr. Kaufman is exploring using stem cells as a limitless source to produce a scalable, standardized, off-the-shelf product that could treat thousands of patients.  CIRM is currently funding Dr. Kaufman’s work under both a Discovery Quest award and a just recently funded Translational research award in order to try to advance this candidate approach.

In the CIRM Translational award, Dr. Kaufman is looking to cure acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) which in the US has a 5-year survival rate of 27% (National Cancer Institute, 2017) and is estimated to kill over 10,000 individuals this year (American Cancer Society, 2017).  He has previously shown that his stem cell-derived NK cells can kill human cancer cells in a dish and in mouse models, and his goals are to perform preliminary safety studies and to develop a process to scale his production of NK cells to support a clinical trial in people.  Since NK cells don’t require the patient and the donor to be a genetic match to be effective, a bank of PSC-derived NK cells derived from a single donor could potentially treat thousands of patients.

Looking forward, CIRM is also providing Discovery funding to Dr. Kaufman to explore ways to improve his existing approach against leukemia as well as expand the potential of his stem cell-derived NK cell therapeutic by engineering his cells to directly target solid tumors like ovarian cancer.

The field of pluripotent stem cell-based immunotherapies is full of game-changing potential and important innovations like Dr. Kaufman’s are still in the early stages.  CIRM recognizes the importance of supporting early stage research and is currently investing $27.9 million to fund 8 active Discovery and Translation awards in the cancer immunotherapy area.

Scientists find switch that targets immunotherapies to solid tumors

Cancer immunotherapies harness the power of the patient’s own immune system to fight cancer. One type of immunotherapy, called adoptive T cell therapy, uses immune cells called CD8+ Killer T cells to target and destroy tumors. These T cells are made in the spleen and lymph nodes and they can migrate to different locations in the body through a part of our circulatory system known as the lymphatic system.

CD8+ T cells can also leave the circulation and travel into the body’s tissues to fight infection and cancer. Scientists from the Scripps Research Institute and UC San Diego are interested in learning how these killer T cells do just that in hopes of developing better immunotherapies that can specifically target solid tumors.

In a study published last week in the journal Nature, the teams discovered that a gene called Runx3 acts as a switch that programs CD8+ T cells to set up shop within tissues outside of the circulatory system, giving them access to solid tumors.

“Runx3 works on chromosomes inside killer T cells to program genes in a way that enables the T cells to accumulate in a solid tumor,” said Matthew Pipkin, co-senior author and Associate Professor at The Scripps Research Institute.

Study authors Adam Getzler, Dapeng Wang and Matthew Pipkin of The Scripps Research Institute collaborated with scientists at the University of California, San Diego.

They discovered Runx3 by comparing what genes were expressed in CD8+ T cells found in the lymphatic system to CD8+ T cells that were found in tissues outside of the circulation. They then screened thousands of potential factors for their ability to influence CD8+ T cells to infiltrate solid tumors.

“We found a distinct pattern,” Pipkin said. “The screens showed that Runx3 is one at the top of a list of regulators essential for T cells to reside in non-lymphoid tissues.”

The team then set out to prove that Runx3 was a key factor in getting CD8+ T cells to localize at the site of solid tumors. To do this, they took T cells that either overexpressed Runx3 or did not express Runx3 in these cells. The T cells were then transplanted into mice with melanoma through a process known as adoptive cell transfer. Overexpression of Runx3 in T cells not only reduced tumor size but also extended lifespan in the mice. On the other hand, removing Runx3 expression had a negative impact on their survival rate.

This research, which was supported in part by CIRM funding, offers a new strategy for developing better cancer immunotherapies for solid tumors.

Pipkin concluded in a Scripps Research Institutes News Release,

“Knowing that modulating Runx3 activity in T cells influences their ability to reside in solid tumors opens new opportunities for improving cancer immunotherapy. We could probably use Runx3 to reprogram adoptively transferred cells to help drive them to amass in solid tumors.”

CIRM-Funded Research Makes Multiple Headlines this Week

When it rains it pours.

This week, multiple CIRM-funded studies appeared in the news, highlighting the exciting progress our Agency is making towards funding innovative stem cell research and promoting the development of promising stem cell therapies for patients.

Below are highlights.


Fate Therapeutics Partners with UC San Diego to Develop Cancer Immunotherapy

Last week, Dr. Dan Kaufman and his team at UC San Diego, received a $5.15 million therapeutic translational research award from CIRM to advance the clinical development of a stem cell-derived immunotherapy for acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), a rare form of blood cancer.

Today, it was announced that the UCSD team is entering into a research collaboration with a San Diego biopharmaceutical company Fate Therapeutics to develop a related immunotherapy for blood cancers. The therapy consists of immune cells called chimeric antigen receptor-targeted natural killer (CAR NK) cells that can target tumor cells and stop their growth. Fate Therapeutics has developed an induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) platform to develop and optimize CAR NK cell therapies targeting various cancers.

According to an article by GenBio, this new partnership is already bearing fruit.

“In preclinical studies using an ovarian cancer xenograft model, Dr. Kaufman and Fate Therapeutics had shown that a single dose of CAR-targeted NK cells derived from iPSCs engineered with the CAR construct significantly inhibited tumor growth and increased survival compared to NK cells containing a CAR construct commonly used for T-cell immunotherapy.”

 


City of Hope Brain Cancer Trial Featured as a Key Trial to Watch in 2018

Xconomy posted a series this week forecasting Key Clinical Data to look out for next year. Today’s part two of the series mentioned a recent CIRM-funded trial for glioblastoma, an aggressive, deadly brain cancer.

Christine Brown and her team at the City of Hope are developing a CAR-T cell therapy that programs a patient’s own immune cells to specifically target and kill cancer cells, including cancer stem cells, in the brain. You can read more about this therapy and the Phase 1 trial on our website.

Alex Lash, Xconomy’s National Biotech Editor, argued that good results for this trial would be a “huge step forward for CAR-T”.

Alex Lash

“While CAR-T has proven its mettle in certain blood cancers, one of the biggest medical questions in biotech is whether the killer cells can also eat up solid tumors, which make up the majority of cancer cases. Glioblastoma—an aggressive and usually incurable brain cancer—is a doozy of a solid tumor.”


ViaCyte Receives Innovative New Product Award for Type 1 Diabetes

Last week, San Diego-based ViaCyte was awarded the “Most Innovative New Product Award” by CONNECT, a start-up accelerator focused on innovation, for its PEC-Direct product candidate. The product is a cell-based therapy that’s currently being tested in a CIRM-funded clinical trial for patients with high-risk type 1 diabetes.

In a company news release published today, ViaCyte’s CEO Paul Laikind commented on what the award signifies,

Paul Laikind

“This award acknowledges how ViaCyte has continually broken new ground in stem cell research, medical device engineering, and cell therapy scaling and manufacturing. With breakthrough technology, clinical stage product candidates, an extensive intellectual property estate, and a strong and dedicated team, ViaCyte has all the pieces to advance a transformative new life-saving approach that could help hundreds of thousands of people with high-risk type 1 diabetes around the world.”

Hey, what’s the big idea? CIRM Board is putting up more than $16.4 million to find out

Higgins

David Higgins, CIRM Board member and Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s disease; Photo courtesy San Diego Union Tribune

When you have a life-changing, life-threatening disease, medical research never moves as quickly as you want to find a new treatment. Sometimes, as in the case of Parkinson’s disease, it doesn’t seem to move at all.

At our Board meeting last week David Higgins, our Board member and Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s disease, made that point as he championed one project that is taking a new approach to finding treatments for the condition. As he said in a news release:

“I’m a fourth generation Parkinson’s patient and I’m taking the same medicines that my grandmother took. They work but not for everyone and not for long. People with Parkinson’s need new treatment options and we need them now. That’s why this project is worth supporting. It has the potential to identify some promising candidates that might one day lead to new treatments.”

The project is from Zenobia Therapeutics. They were awarded $150,000 as part of our Discovery Inception program, which targets great new ideas that could have a big impact on the field of stem cell research but need some funding to help test those ideas and see if they work.

Zenobia’s idea is to generate induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) that have been turned into dopaminergic neurons – the kind of brain cell that is dysfunctional in Parkinson’s disease. These iPSCs will then be used to screen hundreds of different compounds to see if any hold potential as a therapy for Parkinson’s disease. Being able to test compounds against real human brain cells, as opposed to animal models, could increase the odds of finding something effective.

Discovering a new way

The Zenobia project was one of 14 programs approved for the Discovery Inception award. You can see the others on our news release. They cover a broad array of ideas targeting a wide range of diseases from generating human airway stem cells for new approaches to respiratory disease treatments, to developing a novel drug that targets cancer stem cells.

Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President and CEO, said the Stem Cell Agency supports this kind of work because we never know where the next great idea is going to come from:

“This research is critically important in advancing our knowledge of stem cells and are the foundation for future therapeutic candidates and treatments. Exploring and testing new ideas increases the chances of finding treatments for patients with unmet medical needs. Without CIRM’s support many of these projects might never get off the ground. That’s why our ability to fund research, particularly at the earliest stage, is so important to the field as a whole.”

The CIRM Board also agreed to invest $13.4 million in three projects at the Translation stage. These are programs that have shown promise in early stage research and need funding to do the work to advance to the next level of development.

  • $5.56 million to Anthony Oro at Stanford to test a stem cell therapy to help people with a form of Epidermolysis bullosa, a painful, blistering skin disease that leaves patients with wounds that won’t heal.
  • $5.15 million to Dan Kaufman at UC San Diego to produce natural killer (NK) cells from embryonic stem cells and see if they can help people with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) who are not responding to treatment.
  • $2.7 million to Catriona Jamieson at UC San Diego to test a novel therapeutic approach targeting cancer stem cells in AML. These cells are believed to be the cause of the high relapse rate in AML and other cancers.

At CIRM we are trying to create a pipeline of projects, ones that hold out the promise of one day being able to help patients in need. That’s why we fund research from the earliest Discovery level, through Translation and ultimately, we hope into clinical trials.

The writer Victor Hugo once said:

“There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.”

We are in the business of finding those ideas whose time has come, and then doing all we can to help them get there.

 

 

 

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: the tale of a tail that grows back and Zika’s devious Trojan Horse

The tale of a tail that grows back (Kevin McCormack)

Ask people what they know about geckos and the odds are they’ll tell you geckos have English accents and sell car insurance. Which tells you a lot more about the power of advertising than it does about the level of knowledge about lizards. Which is a shame, because the gecko has some amazing qualities, not the least of which is its ability to re-grow its tail. Now some researchers have discovered how it regenerates its tail, and what they’ve learned could one day help people with spinal cord injuries.

Geckos often detach a bit of their tail when being pursued by a predator, then grow a new one over the course of 30 days. Researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada found that the lizards use a combination of stem cells and proteins to do that.

They found that geckos have stem cells in their tail called radial glias. Normally these cells are dormant but that changes when the lizard loses its tail. As Matthew Vickaryous, lead author of the study, said in a news release:

“But when the tail comes off everything temporarily changes. The cells make different proteins and begin proliferating more in response to the injury. Ultimately, they make a brand new spinal cord. Once the injury is healed and the spinal cord is restored, the cells return to a resting state.”

Vickaryous hopes that understanding how the gecko can repair what is essentially an injury to its spinal cord, we’ll be better able to develop ways to help people with the same kind of injury.

The study is published in the Journal of Comparative Neurology.

Zika virus uses Trojan Horse strategy to infect developing brain
In April 2015, the World Health Organization declared that infection by Zika virus and its connection to severe birth defects was an international public health emergency. The main concern has been the virus’ link to microcephaly, a condition in which abnormal brain development causes a smaller than normal head size at birth. Microcephaly leads to number of problems in these infants including developmental delays, seizures, hearing loss and difficulty swallowing.

A false color micrograph shows microglia cells (green) infected by the Zika virus (blue). Image Muotri lab/UCSD

Since that time, researchers have been racing to better understand how Zika infection affects brain development with the hope of finding treatment strategies. Now, a CIRM-funded study in Human Molecular Genetics reports important new insights about how Zika virus may be transmitted from infected pregnant women to their unborn babies.

The UCSD researchers behind the study chose to focus on microglia cells. In a press release, team leader Alysson Muotri explained their rationale for targeting these cells:

“During embryogenesis — the early stages of prenatal development — cells called microglia form in the yolk sac and then disperse throughout the central nervous system (CNS) of the developing child. Considering the timing of [Zika] transmission, we hypothesized that microglia might be serving as a Trojan horse to transport the virus during invasion of the CNS.”

In the developing brain, microglia continually travel throughout the brain and clear away dead or infected cells. Smuggling itself aboard microglia would give Zika a devious way to slip through the body’s defenses and infect other brain cells. And that’s exactly what Dr. Muotri’s team found.

Using human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), they generated brain stem cells – the kind found in the developing brain – and in lab dish infected them with Zika virus. When iPSC-derived microglia were added to the infected neural stem cells, the microglia gobbled them up and destroyed them, just as they would do in the brain. But when those microglia were placed next to uninfected brain stem cells, the Zika virus was easily transmitted to those cells. Muotri summed up the results this way:

“Our findings show that the Zika virus can infect these early microglia, sneaking into the brain where they transmit the virus to other brain cells, resulting in the devastating neurological damage we see in some newborns.”

The team went on to show that an FDA-approved drug to treat hepatitis – a liver disease often caused by viral infection – was effective at decreasing the infection of brain stem cells by Zika-carrying microglia. Since these studies were done in petri dishes, more research will be required to confirm that the microglia are a true drug target for stopping the devastating impact of Zika on newborns.

CIRM stories that caught our eye: UCSD team stops neuromuscular disease in mice, ALS trial enrolls 1st patients and Q&A with CIRM Prez

Ordinarily, we end each week at the Stem Cellar with a few stem cell stories that caught our eye. But, for the past couple of weeks we’ve been busy churning out stories related to our Month of CIRM blog series, which we hope you’ve found enlightening. To round out the series, we present this “caught our eye” blog of CIRM-specific stories from the last half of October.

Stopping neurodegenerative disorder with blood stem cells. (Karen Ring)

CIRM-funded scientists at the UC San Diego School of Medicine may have found a way to treat a progressive neuromuscular disorder called Fredreich’s ataxia (FA). Their research was published last week in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

FA is a genetic disease that attacks the nervous tissue in the spinal cord leading to the loss of sensory nerve cells that control muscle movement. Early on, patients with FA experience muscle weakness and loss of coordination. As the disease progresses, FA can cause scoliosis (curved spine), heart disease and diabetes. 1 in 50,000 Americans are afflicted with FA, and there is currently no effective treatment or cure for this disease.

cherqui

In this reconstituted schematic, blood stem cells transplanted in a mouse model of Friedreich’s ataxia differentiate into microglial cells (red) and transfer mitochondrial protein (green) to neurons (blue), preventing neurodegeneration. Image courtesy of Stephanie Cherqui, UC San Diego School of Medicine.

UCSD scientists, led by CIRM grantee Dr. Stephanie Cherqui, found in a previous study that transplanting blood stem and progenitor cells was an effective treatment for preventing another genetic disease called cystinosis in mice. Cherqui’s cystinosis research is currently being funded by a CIRM late stage preclinical grant.

In this new study, the UCSD team was curious to find out whether a similar stem cell approach could also be an effective treatment for FA. The researchers used an FA transgenic mouse model that was engineered to harbor two different human mutations in a gene called FXN, which produces a mitochondrial protein called frataxin. Mutations in FXN result in reduced expression of frataxin, which eventually leads to the symptoms experienced by FA patients.

When they transplanted healthy blood stem and progenitor cells (HSPCs) from normal mice into FA mice, the cells developed into immune cells called microglia and macrophages. They found the microglia in the brain and spinal cord and the macrophages in the spinal cord, heart and muscle tissue of FA mice that received the transplant. These normal immune cells produced healthy frataxin protein, which was transferred to disease-affected nerve and muscle cells in FA mice.

Cherqui explained their study’s findings in a UC San Diego Health news release:

“Transplantation of wildtype mouse HSPCs essentially rescued FA-impacted cells. Frataxin expression was restored. Mitochondrial function in the brains of the transgenic mice normalized, as did in the heart. There was also decreased skeletal muscle atrophy.”

In the news release, Cherqui’s team acknowledged that the FA mouse model they used does not perfectly mimic disease progression in humans. In future studies, the team will test their method on other mouse models of FA to ultimately determine whether blood stem cell transplants will be an effective treatment option for FA patients.

Brainstorm’s CIRM funded clinical trial for ALS enrolls its first patients
“We have been conducting ALS clinical trials for more than two decades at California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC) and this is, by far, the most exciting trial in which we have been involved to date.”

Those encouraging words were spoken by Dr. Robert Miller, director of CPMC’s Forbes Norris ALS Research Center in an October 16th news release posted by Brainstorm Cell Therapeutics. The company announced in the release that they had enrolled the first patients in their CIRM-funded, stem cell-based clinical trial for the treatment of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

BrainStorm

Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is a cruel, devastating disease that gradually destroys motor neurons, the cells in the brain or spinal cord that instruct muscles to move. People with the disease lose the ability to move their muscles and, over time, the muscles atrophy leading to paralysis. Most people with ALS die within 3 to 5 years from the onset of symptoms and there is no effective therapy for the disease.

Brainstorm’s therapy product, called NurOwn®, is made from mesenchymal stem cells that are taken from the patient’s own bone marrow. These stem cells are then modified to boost their production and release of factors, which are known to help support and protect the motor neurons destroyed by the disease. Because the cells are derived directly from the patient, no immunosuppressive drugs are necessary, which avoids potentially dangerous side effects. The trial aims to enroll 200 patients and is a follow up of a very promising phase 2 trial. CIRM’s $16 million grant to the Israeli company which also has headquarters in the United States will support clinical studies at multiple centers in California. And Abla Creasey, CIRM’s Senior Director of Strategic Infrastructure points out in the press release, the Agency support of this trial goes beyond this single grant:

“Brainstorm will conduct this trial at multiple sites in California, including our Alpha Clinics Network and will also manufacture its product in California using CIRM-funded infrastructure.”

An initial analysis of the effectiveness of NurOwn® in this phase 3 trial is expected in 2019.

CIRM President Maria Millan reflects on her career, CIRM’s successes and the outlook for stem cell biology 

MariaMillan-085_600px

Maria T. Millan, M.D., CIRM President and CEO

RegMedNet a networking website that provides content related to the regenerative medicine community, published an interview this morning with Maria Millan, M.D., CIRM’s new President and CEO. The interview covers the impressive accomplishments that Dr. Millan had achieved before coming to CIRM, with details that even some of us CIRM team members may not have been aware of. In addition to describing her pre-CIRM career, Dr. Millan also describes the Agency’s successes during her term as Vice President of CIRM’s Therapeutics group and she gives her take on future of Agency and the stem cell biology field in general over the next five years and beyond. File this article under “must read”.