Normally if you meet someone who has a mini-fridge filled with brains, your first thought is to call the police. But when that someone is Dr. Alysson Muotri, a professor at U.C. San Diego, your second thought is “do tell me more.”
Alysson is a researcher who is fascinated by the human brain. He is working on many levels to try and unlock its secrets and give us a deeper understanding of how our brains evolved and how they work.
One of the main focuses of his work is autism (he has a son on the autism spectrum) and he has found a way to see what is happening inside the cells affected by autism—work that is already leading to the possibility of new treatments.
As for those mini-brains in his lab? Those are brain organoids, clumps of neurons and other cells that resemble—on a rudimentary level—our brains. They are ideal tools for seeing how our brains are organized, how the different cells signal and interact with each other. He’s already sent some of these brain organoids into space.
Alysson talks about all of this, plus how our brains compare to those of Neanderthals, on the latest episode of our podcast, Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation.
At CIRM, the bread and butter of what we do is funding research and hopefully advancing therapies to patients. But the jam, that’s our education programs. Helping train the next generation of stem cell and gene therapy scientists is really inspiring. Watching these young students – and some are just high school juniors – come in and grasp the science and quickly become fluent in talking about it and creating their own experiments shows the future is in good hands.
Right now we fund several programs, such as our SPARK and Bridges internships, but they can’t cover everything, so last week the CIRM Board approved a new training program called COMPASS (Creating Opportunities through Mentorship and Partnership Across Stem Cell Science). The program will fill a critical need for skilled research practitioners who understand and contribute at all levels in the translation of science to medicine, from bench to bedside.
The objective of the COMPASS Training Program is to prepare a diverse group of undergraduate students for careers in regenerative medicine through the creation of novel recruitment and support mechanisms that identify and foster untapped talent within populations that are historically under-represented in the biomedical sciences. It will combine hands-on research with mentorship experiences to enhance transition of students to successful careers. A parallel objective is to foster greater awareness and appreciation of diversity, equity and inclusion in trainees, mentors, and other program participants
The CIRM Board approved investing $58.22 million for up to 20 applications for a five-year duration.
“This new program highlights our growing commitment to creating a diverse workforce, one that taps into communities that have been historically under-represented in the biomedical sciences,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “The COVID19 pandemic made it clear that the benefits of scientific discovery are not always accessible to communities that most need them. CIRM is committed to tackling these challenges by creating a diverse and dedicated workforce that can meet the technical demands of taking novel treatment ideas and making them a reality.”
The Board also approved a new $80 million concept plan to expand the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network. The Network clinics are all in top California medical centers that have the experience and the expertise to deliver high-quality FDA-authorized stem cell clinical trials to patients.
There are currently five Alpha Clinics – UC San Diego; UCLA/UC Irvine; City of Hope; UCSF; UC Davis – and since 2015 they have hosted more than 105 clinical trials, enrolled more than 750 patients in these trials, and generated more than $95 million in industry contracts.
Each award will provide up to $8 million in funding over a five-year period. The clinics will have to include:
A demonstrated ability to offer stem cell and gene therapies to patients as part of a clinical trial.
Programs to help support the career development of doctors, nurses, researchers or other medical professionals essential for regenerative medicine clinical trials.
A commitment to data sharing and meeting CIRM’s requirements addressing issues of diversity, equity and inclusion and meeting the needs of California’s diverse patient population.
Every year millions of Americans suffer damage to their cartilage, either in their knee or other joints, that can eventually lead to osteoarthritis, pain and immobility. Today the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved two projects targeting repair of damaged cartilage.
The projects were among 17 approved by CIRM as part of the DISC2 Quest Discovery Program. The program promotes the discovery of promising new stem cell-based and gene therapy technologies that could be translated to enable broad use and ultimately, improve patient care.
Dr. Darryl D’Lima and his team at Scripps Health were awarded $1,620,645 to find a way to repair a torn meniscus. Every year around 750,000 Americans experience a tear in their meniscus, the cartilage cushion that prevents the bones in the knee grinding against each other. These injuries accelerate the early development of osteoarthritis, for which there is no effective treatment other than total joint replacement, which is a major operation. There are significant socioeconomic benefits to preventing disabling osteoarthritis. The reductions in healthcare costs are also likely to be significant.
The team will use stem cells to produce meniscal cells in the lab. Those are then seeded onto a scaffold made from collagen fibers to create tissue that resembles the knee meniscus. The goal is to show that, when placed in the knee joint, this can help regenerate and repair the damaged tissue.
This research is based on an earlier project that CIRM funded. It highlights our commitment to helping good science progress, hopefully from the bench to the bedside where it can help patients.
Dr. Kevin Stone and his team at The Stone Research Foundation for Sports Medicine and Arthritis were awarded $1,316,215 to develop an approach to treat and repair damaged cartilage using a patient’s own stem cells.
They are using a paste combining the patient’s own articular tissue as well as Mesenchymal Stem Cells (MSC) from their bone marrow. This mixture is combined with an adhesive hydrogel to form a graft that is designed to support cartilage growth and can also stick to surfaces without the need for glue. This paste will be used to augment the use of a microfracture technique, where micro-drilling of the bone underneath the cartilage tear brings MSCs and other cells to the fracture site. The hope is this two-pronged approach will produce an effective and functional stem cell-based cartilage repair procedure.
If effective this could produce a minimally invasive, low cost, one-step solution to help people with cartilage injuries and arthritis.
The full list of DISC2 grantees is:
Principal Investigator and Institution
Preclinical development of an exhaustion-resistant CAR-T stem cell for cancer immunotherapy
Ansuman Satpathy – Stanford University
Generating deeper and more durable BCMA CAR T cell responses in Multiple Myeloma through non-viral knockin/knockout multiplexed genome engineering
Julia Carnevale – UC San Francisco
Injectable, autologous iPSC-based therapy for spinal cord injury
Sarah Heilshorn – Stanford University
New noncoding RNA chemical entity for heart failure with preserved ejection fraction.
Eduardo Marban – Cedars-Sinai Medical Center
Modulation of oral epithelium stem cells by RSpo1 for the prevention and treatment of oral mucositis
Jeffrey Linhardt – Intact Therapeutics Inc.
Transplantation of genetically corrected iPSC-microglia for the treatment of Sanfilippo Syndrome (MPSIIIA)
10 years ago I was presented with an incredibly unique opportunity- to become the fifth patient with spinal cord injuries to participate in the world’s first clinical trial testing a treatment made from human embryonic stem cells. It was not only a risky and potentially life-changing decision, but also one that I had to make in less than a week.
To make matters more complicated, I was to be poked, prodded, and extensively scanned on a daily basis for several months as part of the follow-up process. I lived nearly two hours away from the hospital and I was newly paralyzed. How would this work? I wanted my decision-making process to be solely based on the amazing science and the potential that with my participation, the field might advance. Instead, I found myself spending countless hours contemplating the extra work I was asking my family to take on in addition to nursing me back to life.
In this instance, I was “lucky”. I had access to family and friends who were able and willing to make any kind of sacrifice to ensure my happiness. I lived quite a distance away from the hospital, but everyone around me had a car. They had the means to skip work, keep the gas tank filled, and make the tedious journey. I also had an ally, which was perhaps my biggest advantage. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) was the funding agency behind the groundbreaking clinical trial and I’ll never forget the kind strangers who sat on my bedside and delighted me with stories of hope and science.
Accelerating the research
The field of regenerative medicine has gained so much momentum since my first introduction to stem cells in a small hospital room. Throughout the decade and especially in recent years there have been benchmark FDA approvals, increased funding and regulatory support. The passage of Proposition 14 in 2020 has positioned CIRM to continue to accelerate research from discovery to clinical and to drive innovative, real-world solutions resulting in transformative treatments for patients.
Now, thanks to Prop 14 we have some new goals, including working to try and ensure that the treatments our funding helps develop are affordable and accessible to a diverse community of patients in an equitable manner, including those often overlooked or underrepresented in the past. Unsurprisingly, one of the big goals outlined in our new 5-year Strategic Plan is to deliver real world solutions through the expansion of the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics network and the creation of a network of Community Care Centers of Excellence.
The Alpha Stem Cell Clinics and Community Care Centers of Excellence will work in collaboration to achieve a wide set of goals. These goals include enabling innovative clinical research in regenerative medicine, increasing diverse patient access to transformative therapies, and improving patient navigation of clinical trials.
Breaking down the barriers
The dilemma surrounding the four-hour long round-trip journey for an MRI or a vial of blood isn’t just unique to me and my experience participating in a clinical trial. It is well recognized and documented that geographic disparities in clinical trial sites as well as limited focus on community outreach and education about clinical trials impede patient participation and contribute to the well-documented low participation of under-represented patients in clinical studies.
As outlined in our Strategic Plan, the Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network and Community Care Centers will collaboratively extend geographic access to CIRM-supported clinical trials across the state. Community Care Centers will have direct access and knowledge about the needs of their patient populations including, culturally and linguistically effective community-based education and outreach. In parallel, Alpha Stem Cell Clinics will be designed to support the anticipated outreach and education efforts of future Community Care Centers.
To learn more about CIRM’s approach to deliver real world solutions for patients, check out our new 5-year Strategic Plan.
Hematologic malignancies are cancers that affect the blood, bone marrow and lymph nodes and include different forms of leukemia and lymphoma. Current treatments can be effective, but in those patients that do not respond, there are few treatment options. Today, the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved investing $4.1 million in a therapy aimed at helping patients who have failed standard therapy.
Dr. Ezra Cohen, at the University of California San Diego, and Oncternal Therapeutics are targeting a protein called ROR1 that is found in B cell malignancies, such as leukemias and lymphomas, and solid tumors such as breast, lung and colon. They are using a molecule called a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) that can enable a patient’s own T cells, an important part of the immune system, to target and kill their cancer cells. These cells are derived from a related approach with an antibody therapy that targets ROR1-binding medication called Cirmtuzumab, also created with CIRM support. This CAR-T product is designed to recognize and kill cancer stem cells that express ROR1.
This is a late-stage preclinical project so the goal is to show they can produce enough high-quality cells to treat patients, as well as complete other regulatory measures needed for them to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permission to test the therapy in a clinical trial in people.
If given the go-ahead by the FDA the therapy will target patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), mantle cell lymphoma (MCL) and acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).
“CAR-T cell therapies represent a transformational advance in the treatment of hematologic malignancies,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, CIRM’s President and CEO. “This approach addresses the need to develop new therapies for patients whose cancers are resistant to standard chemotherapies, who have few therapeutic options and a very poor chance or recovery.”
If you have read the headlines lately, you’ll know that the COVID-19 pandemic is having a huge impact on the shipping industry. Container vessels are forced to sit out at anchor for a week or more because there just aren’t enough dock workers to unload the boats. It’s a simple rule of economics, you can have all the demand you want but if you don’t have the people to help deliver on the supply side, you are in trouble.
The same is true in regenerative medicine. The field is expanding rapidly and that’s creating a rising demand for skilled workers to help keep up. That doesn’t just mean scientists, but also technicians and other skilled individuals who can ensure that our ability to manufacture and deliver these new therapies is not slowed down.
That’s one of the reasons why CIRM has been a big supporter of training programs ever since we were created by the voters of California when they approved Proposition 71. And now we are kick-starting those programs again to ensure the field has all the talented workers it needs.
Last week the CIRM Board approved 18 programs, investing more than $86 million, as part of the Agency’s Research Training Grants program. The goal of the program is to create a diverse group of scientists with the knowledge and skill to lead effective stem cell research programs.
The awards provide up to $5 million per institution, for a maximum of 20 institutions, over five years, to support the training of predoctoral graduate students, postdoctoral trainees, and/or clinical trainees.
This is a revival of an earlier Research Training program that ran from 2006-2016 and trained 940 “CIRM Scholars” including:
• 321 PhD students • 453 Postdocs • 166 MDs
These grants went to academic institutions from UC Davis in Sacramento to UC San Diego down south and everywhere in-between. A 2013 survey of the students found that most went on to careers in the industry.
56% continued to further training
14% advanced to an academic research faculty position
10.5% advanced to a biotech/industry position
12% advanced to a non-research position such as teaching, medical practice, or foundation/government work
The Research Training Grants go to:
CIRM Training Program in Translational Regenerative Medicine
TRANSCEND – Training Program to Advance Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Research, Education, and Workforce Diversity
UC Los Angeles
UCLA Training Program in Stem Cell Biology
University of Southern California
Training Program Bridging Stem Cell Research with Clinical Applications in Regenerative Medicine
UC Santa Cruz
CIRM Training Program in Systems Biology of Stem Cells
CIRM Regenerative Medicine Research Training Program
City of Hope
Research Training Program in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine
CIRM Scholar Training Program
Training the Next Generation of Biologists and Engineers for Regenerative Medicine
CIRM Cell and Gene Therapy Training Program 2.0
Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles
CIRM Training Program for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Research
UC San Diego
Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Training Grant at UCSD III
Training Scholars in Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research
UC San Francisco
Scholars Research Training Program in Regenerative Medicine, Gene Therapy, and Stem Cell Research
A Multidisciplinary Stem Cell Training Program at Sanford Burnham Prebys Institute, A Critical Component of the La Jolla Mesa Educational Network
UC Santa Barbara
CIRM Training Program in Stem Cell Biology and Engineering
CIRM Scholars Comprehensive Research Training Program
Lundquist Institute for Biomedical Innovation
Stem Cell Training Program at the Lundquist Institute
These are not the only awards we make to support training the next generation of scientists. We also have our SPARK and Bridges to Stem Cell Research programs. The SPARK awards are for high school students, and the Bridges program for graduate or Master’s level students.
When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out scientists scrambled to find existing medications that might help counter the life-threatening elements of the virus. One of the first medications that showed real promise was remdesivir. It’s an anti-viral drug that was originally developed to target novel, emerging viruses, viruses like COVID19. It was approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in October 2020.
Remdesivir showed real benefits for some patients, reducing recovery time for those in the hospital, but it also had problems. It had to be delivered intravenously, meaning it could only be used in a hospital setting. And it was toxic if given in too high a dose.
In a new study – partially funded by CIRM (DISC2 COVID19-12022 $228,229) – researchers at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) found that by modifying some aspects of remdesivir they were able to make it easier to take and less toxic.
In a news release about the work Dr. Robert Schooley, a first author on the study, says we still need medications like this.
“Although vaccine development has had a major impact on the epidemic, COVID-19 has continued to spread and cause disease — especially among the unvaccinated. With the evolution of more transmissible viral variants, breakthrough cases of COVID are being seen, some of which can be severe in those with underlying conditions. The need for effective, well-tolerated antiviral drugs that can be given to patents at high risk for severe disease at early stages of the illness remains high.”
To be effective remdesivir must be activated by several enzymes in the body. It’s a complex process and explains why the drug is beneficial for some areas, such as the lung, but can be toxic to other areas, such as the liver. So, the researchers set out to overcome those problems.
The team created what are called lipid prodrugs, these are compounds that do not dissolve in water and are used to improve how a drug interacts with cells or other elements; they are often used to reduce the bad side effects of a medication. By inserting a modified form of remdesivir into this lipid prodrug, and then attaching it to an enzyme called a lipid-phosphate (which acts as a delivery system, bringing along the remdesivir prodrug combo), they were able to create an oral form of remdesivir.
Dr. Aaron Carlin, a co-first author of the study, says they were trying to create a hybrid version of the medication that would work equally well regardless of the tissue it interacted with.
“The metabolism of remdesivir is complex, which may lead to variable antiviral activity in different cell types. In contrast, these lipid-modified compounds are designed to be activated in a simple uniform manner leading to consistent antiviral activity across many cell types.”
When they tested the lipid prodrugs in animal models and human cells they found they were effective against COVID-19 in different cell types, including the liver. They are now working on further developing and testing the lipid prodrug to make sure it’s safe for people and that it can live up to their hopes of reducing the severity of COVID-19 infections and speed up recovery.
Pregnant women often tread uncertain waters in regards to their health and well-being as well as that of their babies. Many conditions can arise and one of these is preeclampsia, a type of pregnancy complication that occurs in approximately one in 25 pregnancies in the United States according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). It occurs when expecting mothers develop high blood pressure, typically after 20 weeks of pregnancy, and that in turn reduces the blood supply to the baby. This can lead to serious, even fatal, complications for both the mother and baby.
A CIRM supported study using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), a kind of stem cell that can turn into virtually any cell type, was able to create a “disease in a dish” model in order to better understand preeclampsia.
For this study, Mariko Horii, M.D., and her team of researchers at the UC San Diego School of Medicine obtained cells from the placenta of babies born under preeclampsia conditions. These cells were then “reprogrammed” into a stem cell-like state, otherwise known as iPSCs. The iPSCs were then turned into cells resembling placental cells in early pregnancy. This enabled the team to create the preeclampsia “disease in the dish” model. Using this model, they were then able to study the processes that cause, result from, or are otherwise associated with preeclampsia.
The findings revealed that cellular defects observed are related to an abnormal response in the environment in the womb. Specifically, they found that preeclampsia was associated with a low-oxygen environment in the uterus. The researchers used a computer modeling system at UC San Diego known as Comet to detail the differences between normal and preeclampsia placental tissue.
Horii and her team hope that these findings not only shed more light on the environment in the womb observed in preeclampsia, but also provided insight for future development of diagnostic tools and identification of potential medications. Furthermore, they hope that their iPSC disease model can be used to study other placenta-associated pregnancy disorders such as fetal growth restriction, miscarriage, and preterm birth.
The team’s next steps are to develop a 3D model to better study the relationship between environment and development of placental disease.
In a news release from UC San Diego, Horri elaborates more on these future goals.
“Currently, model systems are in two-dimensional cultures with single-cell types, which are hard to study as the placenta consists of maternal and fetal cells with multiple cell types, such as placental cells (fetal origin), maternal immune cells and maternal endometrial cells. Combining these cell types together into a three-dimensional structure will lead to a better understanding of the more complex interactions and cell-to-cell signaling, which can then be applied to the disease setting to further understand pathophysiology.”
The full study was published in Scientific Reports.
According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD), a disease is consider rare if it affects fewer than 200,000 people. If you combine the over 7,000 known rare diseases, about 30 million people in the U.S. are affected by one of these conditions. A majority of these conditions have no cure or have very few treatment options, but a CIRM funded trial (approximately $12 million) for a rare pediatric disease has showed promising results in one patient using a gene therapy approach. The hope for the field as a whole is that this proof of concept might pave the way to use gene therapy to treat other diseases.
Cystinosis is a rare disease that primarily affects children and young adults, and leads to premature death, usually in early adulthood. Patients inherit defective copies of a gene that results in abnormal accumulation of cystine (hence the name cystinosis) in all cells of the body. This buildup of cystine can lead to multi-organ failure, with some of earliest and most pronounced effects on the kidneys, eyes, thyroid, muscle, and pancreas. Many patients suffer end-stage kidney failure and severe vision defects in childhood, and as they get older, they are at increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, bone defects, and neuromuscular problems. There is currently a drug treatment for cystinosis, but it only delays the progression of the disease, has severe side effects, and is expensive.
Dr. Stephane Cherqui at UC San Diego (UCSD), in partnership with AVROBIO, is conducting a clinical trial that uses a gene therapy approach to modify a patient’s own blood stem cells with a functional version of the defective gene. The corrected stem cells are then reintroduced into the patient with the hope that they will give rise to blood cells that will reduce cystine buildup in the body.
22 year old Jordan Janz was born with cystinosis and was taking anywhere from 40 to 60 pills a day as part of his treatment. Unfortunately the medication affected his body odor, leaving him smelling like rotten eggs or stinky cheese. In 2019, Jordan was the first of three patients to participate in Dr. Cherqui’s trial and the results have been remarkable. Tests have shown that the cystine in his eyes, skin and muscle have greatly decreased. Instead of the 40-60 pills a day, he just takes vitamins and specific nutrients his body needs. What’s more is that he no longer has a problem with body odor caused by the pills he once had to take. Although it will take much more time know if Jordan was cured of the disease, he says that he feels “essentially cured”.
“I have more of a life now. I’m going to school. I’m hoping to open up my own business one day.”
You can learn more about Jordan by watching the video below:
Although gene therapy approaches still need to be closely studied, they have enormous potential for treating patients. CIRM has funded other clinical trials that use gene therapy approaches for different genetic diseases including X-SCID, ADA-SCID, ART-SCID, X-CGD, and sickle cell disease.
The problem with trying to write about something like Women’s History Month is where do you start? Even if you narrow it down to women in science the list is vast.
I suppose you could always start with Maria Salomea Skłodowska who is better known as Marie Curie. She not only discovered radium and polonium, but she was also the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (in Physics). When she later won another Nobel (in Chemistry) she became the first person ever to win two Nobels and is still the only person ever to win in two different fields. Not a bad place to start.
Or how about Agnes Pockels (1862–1935). Even as a child Agnes was fascinated by science but, in Germany at the time, women were not allowed to attend university. So, she depended on her younger brother to send her his physics textbooks when he was finished with them. Agnes studied at home while taking care of her elderly parents. Doing the dishes Agnes noticed how oils and soaps could impact the surface tension of water. So, she invented a method of measuring that surface tension. She wrote a paper about her findings that was published in Nature, and went on to become a highly respected and honored pioneer in the field.
Fast forward to today we could certainly do worse than profile the two women who won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work with the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9; Jennifer Doudna at the University of California, Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier at the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin. Their pioneering work showed how you could use CRISPR to make precise edits in genes, creating the possibility of using it to edit human genes to eliminate or cure diseases. In fact, some CIRM-funded research is already using this approach to try and cure sickle cell disease.
In awarding the Nobel to Charpentier and Doudna, Pernilla Wittung Stafshede, a biophysical chemist and member of the Nobel chemistry committee, said: “The ability to cut DNA where you want has revolutionized the life sciences. The ‘genetic scissors’ were discovered just eight years ago but have already benefited humankind greatly.”
Appropriately enough none of that work would have been possible without the pioneering work of another woman, Barbara McClintock. She dedicated her career to studying the genetics of corn and developed a technique that enabled her to identify individual chromosomes in different strains of corn.
At the time it was thought that genes were stable and were arranged in a linear fashion on chromosomes, like beads on a string. McClintock’s work showed that genes could be mobile, changing position and altering the work of other genes. It took a long time before the scientific world caught up with her and realized she was right. But in 1983 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work.
Katherine Johnson is another brilliant mind whose recognition came later in life. But when it did, it made her a movie star. Kind of. Johnson was a mathematician, a “computer” in the parlance of the time. She did calculations by hand, enabling NASA to safely launch and recover astronauts in the early years of the space race.
Johnson and the other Black “computers” were segregated from their white colleagues until the last 1950’s, when signs dictating which restrooms and drinking fountains they could use were removed. She was so highly regarded that when John Glenn was preparing for the flight that would make him the first American to orbit the earth he asked for her to manually check the calculations a computer had made. He trusted her far more than any machine.
Johnson and her co-workers were overlooked until the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures” brought their story to life. She was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, by President Obama.
There are so many extraordinary women scientists we could talk about who have made history. But we should also remind ourselves that we are surrounded by remarkable women right now, women who are making history in their own way, even if we don’t recognized it at the moment. Researchers that CIRM funds, Dr. Catriona Jamieson at UC San Diego, Dr. Jan Nolta at UC Davis, Dr. Jane Lebkowski with Regenerative Patch technologies and so many others. They’re all helping to change the world. We just don’t know it yet.
If you would like to learn about other women who have made extraordinary contributions to science you can read about them here and here and here.