Rare Disease, Type 1 Diabetes, and Heart Function: Breakthroughs for Three CIRM-Funded Studies

This past week, there has been a lot of mention of CIRM funded studies that really highlight the importance of the work we support and the different disease areas we make an impact on. This includes important research related to rare disease, Type 1 Diabetes (T1D), and heart function. Below is a summary of the promising CIRM-funded studies released this past week for each one of these areas.

Rare Disease

Comparison of normal (left) and Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease (PMD) brains (right) at age 2. 

Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease (PMD) is a rare genetic condition affecting boys. It can be fatal before 10 years of age and symptoms of the disease include weakness and breathing difficulties. PMD is caused by a disruption in the formation of myelin, a type of insulation around nerve fibers that allows electrical signals in the brain to travel quickly. Without proper signaling, the brain has difficulty communicating with the rest of the body. Despite knowing what causes PMD, it has been difficult to understand why there is a disruption of myelin formation in the first place.

However, in a CIRM-funded study, Dr. David Rowitch, alongside a team of researchers at UCSF, Stanford, and the University of Cambridge, has been developing potential stem cell therapies to reverse or prevent myelin loss in PMD patients.

Two new studies, of which Dr. Rowitch is the primary author, published in Cell Stem Cell, and Stem Cell Reports, respectively report promising progress in using stem cells derived from patients to identify novel PMD drugs and in efforts to treat the disease by directly transplanting neural stem cells into patients’ brains. 

In a UCSF press release, Dr. Rowitch talks about the implications of his findings, stating that,

“Together these studies advance the field of stem cell medicine by showing how a drug therapy could benefit myelination and also that neural stem cell transplantation directly into the brains of boys with PMD is safe.”

Type 1 Diabetes

Viacyte, a company that is developing a treatment for Type 1 Diabetes (T1D), announced in a press release that the company presented preliminary data from a CIRM-funded clinical trial that shows promising results. T1D is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s own immune system destroys the cells in the pancreas that make insulin, a hormone that enables our bodies to break down sugar in the blood. CIRM has been funding ViaCyte from it’s very earliest days, investing more than $72 million into the company.

The study uses pancreatic precursor cells, which are derived from stem cells, and implants them into patients in an encapsulation device. The preliminary data showed that the implanted cells, when effectively engrafted, are capable of producing circulating C-peptide, a biomarker for insulin, in patients with T1D. Optimization of the procedure needs to be explored further.

“This is encouraging news,” said Dr. Maria Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “We are very aware of the major biologic and technical challenges of an implantable cell therapy for Type 1 Diabetes, so this early biologic signal in patients is an important step for the Viacyte program.”

Heart Function

Although various genome studies have uncovered over 500 genetic variants linked to heart function, such as irregular heart rhythms and heart rate, it has been unclear exactly how they influence heart function.

In a CIRM-funded study, Dr. Kelly Frazer and her team at UCSD studied this link further by deriving heart cells from induced pluripotent stem cells. These stem cells were in turn derived from skin samples of seven family members. After conducting extensive genome-wide analysis, the team discovered that many of these genetic variations influence heart function because they affect the binding of a protein called NKX2-5.

In a press release by UCSD, Dr. Frazer elaborated on the important role this protein plays by stating that,

“NKX2-5 binds to many different places in the genome near heart genes, so it makes sense that variation in the factor itself or the DNA to which it binds would affect that function. As a result, we are finding that multiple heart-related traits can share a common mechanism — in this case, differential binding of NKX2-5 due to DNA variants.”

The full results of this study were published in Nature Genetics.

Moving a great idea targeting diabetes out of the lab and into a company

Tejal Desai in her lab at UCSF: Photo courtesy Todd Dubnicoff

It’s always gratifying to see research you have helped support go from being an intriguing idea to something with promise to a product that is now the focus of a company. It’s all the more gratifying if the product in question might one day help millions of people battling diabetes.

That’s the case with a small pouch being developed by a company called Encellin. The pouch is the brainchild of Tejal Desai, Ph.D., a professor of bioengineering at UCSF and a CIRM grantee.

Encellin’s encapsulation device

“It’s a cell encapsulation device, so this material can essentially protect beta cells from the immune system while allowing them to function by secreting insulin. We are placing stem cell-derived beta cells into the pouch which is then implanted under the skin. The cells are then able to respond to changes in sugar or glucose levels in the blood by pumping out insulin.  By placing the device in a place that is accessible we can easily remove it if we have to, but also we can recharge it and put in new cells as well.”

While the pouch was developed in Dr. Desai’s lab, the idea to take it from a promising item and try to turn it into a real-world therapy came from one of Dr. Desai’s former students, Crystal Nyitray, Ph.D.

Crystal Nyitray: Photo courtesy FierceBiotech

After getting her PhD, Nyitray went to work for the pharmaceutical giant Sanofi. In an article in FierceBiotech she says that’s where she realized that the pouch she had been working on at UCSF had real potential.

“During that time, I started to realize we really had something, that everything that pharma or biotech was looking at was something we had been developing from the ground up with those specific questions in mind,”

So Dr. Nyitray went to work for QB3, the institute created by UC San Francisco to help startups develop their ideas and get funding. The experience she gained there gave her the confidence to be the co-founder and CEO of Encellin.

Dr. Desai is a scientific advisor to Encellin. She says trying to create a device that contains insulin-secreting cells is not new. Many previous attempts failed because once the device was placed in the body, the immune system responded by creating fibrosis or scarring around it which blocked the ability of the cells to get out.

But she thinks their approach has an advantage over previous attempts.

“This is not a new idea, the idea has been around for 40 or more years but getting it to work is hard. We have a convergence of getting the right cell types and combining that with our knowledge of immunology and then the material science where we can design materials at this scale to get the kind of function that we need.

Dr. Nyitray ““If we can reduce fibrosis, it really helps the cells get nutrients better, survive better and signal more effectively. It’s really critical to their success.”

Dr. Desai says the device is still in the early stages of being tested, but already it’s showing promise.

“We have done testing in animals. Where the company is taking this is now to see if we can take this to larger animals and then ultimately people.”

She says without CIRM’s support none of this would have happened.

“CIRM has been really instrumental in helping us refine the cell technology piece of it, to get really robust cells and also to support the development to push the materials, to understand the biology, to really understand what was happening with the cell material interface. We know we have a lot of challenges ahead, but we are really excited to see if this could work.”

We are excited too. We are looking forward to seeing what Encellin does in the coming years. It could change the lives of millions of people around the world.

No pressure. 

A future scientist’s journey

All this week we have been highlighting blogs from our SPARK (Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative medicine Knowledge) students. SPARK gives high school students a chance to spend their summer working in a world class stem cell research facility here in California. In return they write about their experiences and what they learned.

The standard for blogs this year was higher than ever, so choosing a winner was particularly tough. In the end we chose Abigail Mora, who interned at UC San Francisco. We felt the obstacles she overcame in getting to this point made her story all the more remarkable and engaging.

Abigail Mora

When I was 15, my mother got sick and went to several doctors. Eventually, she found out that she was pregnant with a 3-month-old baby. A month after, my mom fell from the stairs, which were not high but still dangerous. Luckily, everything seemed to be okay with the baby. In the last week of her six-month pregnancy, she went in the clinic for a regular check-up but she ended up giving birth to my brother, who was born prematurely. She stayed in the clinic for a month and my brother also had to stay so that his lungs could develop properly.

When he came home, I was so happy. I spent a lot of time with him and was like his second mom. After an initial period of hard time, he grew into a healthy kid. Then I moved to San Francisco with my aunt, leaving my parents and siblings in Mexico so that I could become a better English speaker and learn more about science. My experience with my brother motivated me to learn more about the condition of premature babies, since there are many premature babies who are not as fortunate. I want to study neurodevelopment in premature kids, and how it may go wrong.

I was so happy when I got into the SEP High School Program, which my chemistry teacher introduced me to, and I found the research of Eric Huang’s lab at UCSF about premature babies and stem cell development in the brain super interesting. I met Lakisha and Jean, and they introduced me to the lab and helped me walk through the training process.

My internship experience was outstanding: I enjoyed doing research and how my mentor Jiapei helped me learn new things about the brain. I learned that there are many different cell types in the brain, like microglia, progenitor cells, and intermediate progenitors.

As all things in life can be challenging, I was able to persevere with my mentor’s help. For example, when I first learned how to cut mouse brains using a cryostat, I found it hard to pick up the tissue onto slides. After practicing many times, I became more familiar with the technique and my slices got better. Another time, I was doing immunostaining and all the slices fell from the slide because we didn’t bake the slides long enough. I was sad, but we learned from our mistakes and there are a lot of trials and errors in science.

I’ve also learned that in science, since we are studying the unknown, there is not a right or wrong answer. We use our best judgement to draw conclusions from what we observe, and we repeat the experiment if it’s not working.

The most challenging part of this internship was learning and understanding all the new words in neuroscience. Sometimes, I got confused with the abbreviations of these words. I hope in the future I can explain as well as my mentor Jiapei explained to me.

My parents are away from me but they support me, and they think that this internship will open doors to better opportunities and help me grow as a person.

I want to become a researcher because I want to help lowering the risk of neurodevelopmental disorders in premature babies. Many of these disorders, such as autism or schizophrenia, don’t have cures. These are some of the hardest diseases to cure because people aren’t informed about them and not enough research has been done. Hopefully, one day I can work on developing a cure for these disorders.

CIRM’s Stephen Lin, PhD, who heads the SPARK program and Abigail after her blog won first prize

Next generation of stem cell scientists leave their mark

One of the favorite events of the year for the team here at CIRM is our annual SPARK (Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge) conference. This is where high school students, who spent the summer interning at world class stem cell research facilities around California, get to show what they learned. It’s always an engaging, enlightening, and even rather humbling experience.

The students, many of whom are first generation Californians, start out knowing next to nothing about stem cells and end up talking as if they were getting ready for a PhD. Most say they went to their labs nervous about what lay ahead and half expecting to do menial tasks such as rinsing out beakers. Instead they were given a lab coat, safety glasses, stem cells and a specific project to work on. They learned how to handle complicated machinery and do complex scientific experiments.

But most importantly they learned that science is fun, fascinating, frustrating sometimes, but also fulfilling. And they learned that this could be a future career for them.

We asked all the students to blog about their experiences and the results were extraordinary. All talked about their experiences in the lab, but some went beyond and tied their internship to their own lives, their past and their hopes for the future.

Judging the blogs was a tough assignment, deciding who is the best of a great bunch wasn’t easy. But in the end, we picked three students who we thought captured the essence of the SPARK program. This week we’ll run all those blogs.

We begin with our third place blog by Dayita Biswas from UC Davis.

Personal Renaissance: A Journey from Scientific Curiosity to Confirmed Passions

By Dayita Biswas

As I poured over the pages of my battered Campbell textbook, the veritable bible for any biology student, I saw unbelievable numbers like how the human body is comprised of over 30 trillion cells! Or how we have over 220 different types of cells— contrary to my mental picture of a cell as a circle. Science, and biology in particular, has no shortage of these seemingly impossible Fermi-esque statistics that make one do a double-take. 

My experience in science had always been studying from numerous textbooks in preparation for a test or competitions, but textbooks only teach so much. The countless hours I spent reading actually demotivated me and I constantly asked myself what was the point of learning about this cycle or that process — the overwhelming “so what?” question. Those intriguing numbers that piqued my interest were quickly buried under a load of other information that made science a static stream of words across a page. 

That all changed this summer when I had the incredible opportunity to work in the Nolta lab under my mentor, Whitney Cary. This internship made science so much more tangible and fun to be a part of.  It was such an amazing environment, being in the same space with people who all have the same goals and passion for science that many high school students are not able to truly experience. Everyone was so willing to explain what they were doing, and even went out of their way to help if I needed papers or had dumb questions.

This summer, my project was to create embryoid bodies and characterize induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from children who had Jordan’s Syndrome, an extremely rare neurodevelopmental disease whose research has applications in Alzheimer’s and autism.

 I had many highs and lows during this research experience. My highs were seeing that my iPSCs were happy and healthy. I enjoyed learning lab techniques like micro-pipetting, working in a biological safety hood, feeding, freezing, and passaging cells. My lows were having to bleach my beloved iPSCs days after they failed to survive, and having unsuccessful protocols. However, while my project consistently failed, these failures taught me more than my successes.

I learned that there is a large gap between being able to read about techniques and being “book smart” and actually being able to think critically about science and perform research. Science, true science, is more than words on a page or fun facts to spout at a party. Science is never a straight or easy answer, but the mystery and difficulty is part of the reason it is so interesting. Long story short: research is hard and it takes time and patience, it involves coming in on weekends to feed cells, and staying up late at night reading papers.         

The most lasting impact that this summer research experience had was that everything we learn in school and the lab are all moving us towards the goal of helping real people. This internship renewed my passion for biology and cemented my dream of working in this field. It showed me that I don’t have to wait to be a part of dynamic science and that I can be a small part of something that will change, benefit, and save lives.

This internship meant being a part of something bigger than myself, something meaningful. We must always think critically about what consequences our actions will have because what we do as scientists and researchers— and human beings will affect the lives of real people. And that is the most important lesson anyone can hope to learn.

                                                                                                   

And here’s a bonus, a video put together by the SPARK students at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

One family’s fight to save their son’s life, and how stem cells made it possible

CIRM’s mission is very simple: to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. Anne Klein’s son, Everett, was a poster boy for that statement. Born with a fatal immune disorder Everett faced a bleak future. But Anne and husband Brian were not about to give up. The following story is one Anne wrote for Parents magazine. It’s testament to the power of stem cells to save lives, but even more importantly to the power of love and the determination of a family to save their son.

My Son Was Born With ‘Bubble Boy’ Disease—But A Gene Therapy Trial Saved His Life

Everett Schmitt. Photo: Meg Kumin

I wish more than anything that my son Everett had not been born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). But I know he is actually one of the lucky unlucky ones. By Anne Klein

As a child in the ’80s, I watched a news story about David Vetter. David was known as “the boy in the bubble” because he was born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a rare genetic disease that leaves babies with very little or no immune system. To protect him, David lived his entire life in a plastic bubble that kept him separated from a world filled with germs and illnesses that would have taken his life—likely before his first birthday.

I was struck by David’s story. It was heartbreaking and seemed so otherworldly. What would it be like to spend your childhood in an isolation chamber with family, doctors, reporters, and the world looking in on you? I found it devastating that an experimental bone marrow transplant didn’t end up saving his life; instead it led to fatal complications. His mother, Carol Ann Demaret, touched his bare hand for the first and last time when he was 12 years old.

I couldn’t have known that almost 30 years later, my own son, Everett, would be born with SCID too.

Everett’s SCID diagnosis

At birth, Everett was big, beautiful, and looked perfectly healthy. My husband Brian and I already had a 2-and-a-half-year-old son, Alden, so we were less anxious as parents when we brought Everett home. I didn’t run errands with Alden until he was at least a month old, but Everett was out and about with us within a few days of being born. After all, we thought we knew what to expect.

But two weeks after Everett’s birth, a doctor called to discuss Everett’s newborn screening test results. I listened in disbelief as he explained that Everett’s blood sample indicated he may have an immune deficiency.

“He may need a bone marrow transplant,” the doctor told me.

I was shocked. Everett’s checkup with his pediatrician just two days earlier went swimmingly. I hung up and held on to the doctor’s assurance that there was a 40 percent chance Everett’s test result was a false positive.

After five grueling days of waiting for additional test results and answers, I received the call: Everett had virtually no immune system. He needed to be quickly admitted to UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in California so they could keep him isolated and prepare to give him a stem cell transplant. UCSF diagnosed him specifically with SCID-X1, the same form David battled.

Beginning SCID treatment

The hospital was 90 miles and more than two hours away from home. Our family of four had to be split into two, with me staying in the hospital primarily with Everett and Brian and Alden remaining at home, except for short visits. The sudden upheaval left Alden confused, shaken, and sad. Brian and I quickly transformed into helicopter parents, neurotically focused on every imaginable contact with germs, even the mildest of which could be life-threatening to Everett.

When he was 7 weeks old, Everett received a stem cell transplant with me as his donor, but the transplant failed because my immune cells began attacking his body. Over his short life, Everett has also spent more than six months collectively in the hospital and more than three years in semi-isolation at home. He’s endured countless biopsies, ultrasounds, CT scans, infusions, blood draws, trips to the emergency department, and medical transports via ambulance or helicopter.

Gene therapy to treat SCID

At age 2, his liver almost failed and a case of pneumonia required breathing support with sedation. That’s when a doctor came into the pediatric intensive care unit and said, “When Everett gets through this, we need to do something else for him.” He recommended a gene therapy clinical trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that was finally showing success in patients over age 2 whose transplants had failed. This was the first group of SCID-X1 patients to receive gene therapy using a lentiviral vector combined with a light dose of chemotherapy.

After the complications from our son’s initial stem cell transplant, Brian and I didn’t want to do another stem cell transplant using donor cells. My donor cells were at war with his body and cells from another donor could do the same. Also, the odds of Everett having a suitable donor on the bone marrow registry were extremely small since he didn’t have one as a newborn. At the NIH, he would receive a transplant with his own, perfectly matched, gene-corrected cells. They would be right at home.

Other treatment options would likely only partially restore his immunity and require him to receive infusions of donor antibodies for life, as was the case with his first transplant. Prior gene therapy trials produced similarly incomplete results and several participants developed leukemia. The NIH trial was the first one showing promise in fully restoring immunity, without a risk of cancer. Brian and I felt it was Everett’s best option. Without hesitation, we flew across the country for his treatment. Everett received the gene therapy in September 2016 when he was 3, becoming the youngest patient NIH’s clinical trial has treated.

Everett’s recovery

It’s been more than two years since Everett received gene therapy and now more than ever, he has the best hope of developing a fully functioning immune system. He just received his first vaccine to test his ability to mount a response. Now 6 years old, he’s completed kindergarten and has been to Disney World. He plays in the dirt and loves shows and movies from the ’80s (maybe some of the same ones David enjoyed).

Everett knows he has been through a lot and that his doctors “fixed his DNA,” but he’s focused largely on other things. He’s vocal when confronted with medical pain or trauma, but seems to block out the experiences shortly afterwards. It’s sad for Brian and me that Everett developed these coping skills at such a young age, but we’re so grateful he is otherwise expressive and enjoys engaging with others. Once in the middle of the night, he woke us up as he stood in the hallway, exclaiming, “I’m going back to bed, but I just want you to know that I love you with all my heart!”

I wish more than anything that Everett had not been born with such a terrible disease and I could erase all the trauma, isolation, and pain. But I know that he is actually one of the lucky unlucky ones. Everett is fortunate his disease was caught early by SCID newborn screening, which became available in California not long before his birth. Without this test, we would not have known he had SCID until he became dangerously ill. His prognosis would have been much worse, even under the care of his truly brilliant and remarkable doctors, some of whom cared for David decades earlier.

Carol-Ann-mother-of-David-Vetter-meeting-Everett-Schmitt
Everett Schmitt meeting David Vetter’s mom Carol Ann Demaret. Photo – Brian Schmitt

When Everett was 4, soon after the gene therapy gave him the immunity he desperately needed, our family was fortunate enough to cross paths with David’s mom, Carol Ann, at an Immune Deficiency Foundation event. Throughout my life, I had seen her in pictures and on television with David. In person, she was warm, gracious, and humble. When I introduced her to Everett and explained that he had SCID just like David, she looked at Everett with loving eyes and asked if she could touch him. As she touched Everett’s shoulder and they locked eyes, Brian and I looked on with profound gratitude.

Anne Klein is a parent, scientist, and a patient advocate for two gene therapy trials funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. She is passionate about helping parents of children with SCID navigate treatment options for their child.

You can read about the clinical trials we are funding for SCID here, here, here and here.

Regulated, reputable, and reliable – distinguishing legitimate clinical trials from predatory clinics

Here at CIRM, we get calls every day from patients asking us if there are any trials or therapies available to treat their illness or an illness affecting a loved one. Unfortunately, there are some predatory clinics that try to take advantage of this desperation by advertising unproven and unregulated treatments for a wide range of diseases such as Diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), and Multiple Sclerosis (MS).

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times describes how one of these predatory stem cell clinics is in a class action lawsuit related to false advertising of 100% patient satisfaction. Patients were led to believe that this percentage was related to the effectiveness of the treatment, when in fact it had to do with satisfaction related to hospitality, hotel stay, and customer service. These kinds of deceptive tactics are commonplace for sham clinics and are used to convince people to pay tens of thousands of dollars for sham treatments.

But how can a patient or loved one distinguish a legitimate clinical trial or treatment from those being offered by predatory clinics? We have established the “fundamental three R’s” to help in making this distinction.

REGULATED

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a regulated process that it uses in evaluating potential treatments from researchers seeking approval to test these in a clinical trial setting.  This includes extensive reviews by scientific peers in the community that are well informed on specific disease areas. Those that adhere to these regulations get an FDA seal of approval and are subject to extensive oversight to protect patients participating in this trial. Additionally, these regulations ensure that the potential treatments are properly evaluated for effectiveness. The 55 clinical trials that we have currently funded as well as the clinical trials being conducted in our Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network all have this FDA seal of approval. In contrast to this, the treatments offered at predatory clinics have not gone through the rigorous standards necessary to obtain FDA approval.

REPUTABLE

We have partnered with reputable institutions to carry out the clinical trials we have funded and establish our Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network. These are institutions that adhere to the highest scientific standards necessary to effectively evaluate potential treatments and communicate these results with extreme accuracy. These institutions have expert scientists, doctors, and nurses in the field and adhere to rigorous standards that have earned these institutions a positive reputation for carrying out their work.  The sites for the Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network include City of Hope, UCSF, UC San Diego, UCLA, UC Davis, and UC Irvine.  In regards to the clinical trials we have directly funded, we have collaborated with other prestigious institutions such as Stanford and USC.  All these institutions have a reputation for being respected by established societies and other professionals in the field. The reputation that predatory clinics have garnered from patients, scientists, and established doctors has been a negative one. An article published in The New York Times has described the tactics used by these predatory clinics as unethical and their therapies have often been shown to be ineffective.

RELIABLE

The clinical trials we fund and those offered at our Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network are reliable because they are trusted by patients, patient advocacy groups, and other experts in the field of regenerative medicine. A part of being reliable involves having extensive expertise and training to properly evaluate and administer treatments in a clinical trial setting. The doctors, nurses, and other experts involved in clinical trials given the go-ahead by the FDA have extensive training to carry out these trials.  These credentialed specialists are able to administer high quality clinical care to patients.  In a sharp contrast to this, an article published in Reuters showed that predatory clinics not only administer unapproved stem cell treatments to patients, but they use doctors that have not received training related to the services they provide.

Whenever you are looking at a potential clinical trial or treatment for yourself or a loved one, just remember the 3 R’s we have laid out in this blog.

Regulated, reputable, and reliable.

Advancing stem cell research in many ways

Speakers at the Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium: Photo by Marco Sanchez

From Day One CIRM’s goal has been to advance stem cell research in California. We don’t do that just by funding the most promising research -though the 51 clinical trials we have funded to date clearly shows we do that rather well – but also by trying to bring the best minds in the field together to overcome problems.

Over the years we have held conferences, workshops and symposiums on everything from Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy and tissue engineering. Each one attracted the key players and stakeholders in the field, brainstorming ideas to get past obstacles and to explore new ways of developing therapies. It’s an attempt to get scientists, who would normally be rivals or competitors, to collaborate and partner together in finding the best way forward.

It’s not easy to do, and the results are not always obvious right away, but it is essential if we hope to live up to our mission of accelerating stem cell therapies to patients with unmet medical needs.

For example. This past week we helped organize two big events and were participants in another.

The first event we pulled together, in partnership with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, was a workshop called “Brainstorm Neurodegeneration”. It brought together leaders in stem cell research, genomics, big data, patient advocacy and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to tackle some of the issues that have hampered progress in finding treatments for things like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS and Huntington’s disease.

We rather ambitiously subtitled the workshop “a cutting-edge meeting to disrupt the field” and while the two days of discussions didn’t resolve all the problems facing us it did produce some fascinating ideas and some tantalizing glimpses at ways to advance the field.

Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium: Photo by Marco Sanchez

Two days later we partnered with UC San Francisco to host the Fourth Annual CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium. This brought together the scientists who develop therapies, the doctors and nurses who deliver them, and the patients who are in need of them. The theme was “The Past, Present & Future of Regenerative Medicine” and included both a look at the initial discoveries in gene therapy that led us to where we are now as well as a look to the future when cellular therapies, we believe, will become a routine option for patients. 

Bringing these different groups together is important for us. We feel each has a key role to play in moving these projects and out of the lab and into clinical trials and that it is only by working together that they can succeed in producing the treatments and cures patients so desperately need.

Cierra Jackson: Photo by Marco Sanchez

As always it was the patients who surprised us. One, Cierra Danielle Jackson, talked about what it was like to be cured of her sickle cell disease. I think it’s fair to say that most in the audience expected Cierra to talk about her delight at no longer having the crippling and life-threatening condition. And she did. But she also talked about how hard it was adjusting to this new reality.

Cierra said sickle cell disease had been a part of her life for all her life, it shaped her daily life and her relationships with her family and many others. So, to suddenly have that no longer be a part of her caused a kind of identity crisis. Who was she now that she was no longer someone with sickle cell disease?

She talked about how people with most diseases were normal before they got sick, and will be normal after they are cured. But for people with sickle cell, being sick is all they have known. That was their normal. And now they have to adjust to a new normal.

It was a powerful reminder to everyone that in developing new treatments we have to consider the whole person, their psychological and emotional sides as well as the physical.

CIRM’s Dr. Maria Millan (right) at a panel presentation at the Stanford Drug Discovery Symposium. Panel from left to right are: James Doroshow, NCI; Sandy Weill, former CEO Citigroup; Allan Jones, CEO Allen Institute

And so on to the third event we were part of, the Stanford Drug Discovery Symposium. This was a high level, invitation-only scientific meeting that included some heavy hitters – such as Nobel Prize winners Paul Berg and  Randy Schekman, former FDA Commissioner Robert Califf. Over the course of two days they examined the role that philanthropy plays in advancing research, the increasingly important role of immunotherapy in battling diseases like cancer and how tools such as artificial intelligence and big data are shaping the future.

CIRM’s President and CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, was one of those invited to speak and she talked about how California’s investment in stem cell research is delivering Something Better than Hope – which by a happy coincidence is the title of our 2018 Annual Report. She highlighted some of the 51 clinical trials we have funded, and the lives that have been changed and saved by this research.

The presentations at these conferences and workshops are important, but so too are the conversations that happen outside the auditorium, over lunch or at coffee. Many great collaborations have happened when scientists get a chance to share ideas, or when researchers talk to patients about their ideas for a successful clinical trial.

It’s amazing what happens when you bring people together who might otherwise never have met. The ideas they come up with can change the world.

CIRM-funded therapy helps “bubble babies” lead a normal life

Ja’Ceon Golden; ‘cured” of SCID

At CIRM we are very cautious about using the “c” word. Saying someone has been “cured” is a powerful statement but one that loses its meaning when over used or used inappropriately. However, in the case of a new study from U.C. San Francisco and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, saying “cure” is not just accurate, it’s a celebration of something that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago.

The research focuses on children with a specific form of Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) called X-Linked SCID. It’s also known as “bubble baby” disease because children born with this condition lack a functioning immune system, so even a simple infection could be fatal and in the past they were kept inside sterile plastic bubbles to protect them.

In this study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers took blood stem cells from the child and, in the lab, genetically re-engineered them to correct the defective gene, and then infused them back into the child. Over time they multiplied and created a new blood supply, one free of the defect, which helped repair the immune system.

In a news release Dr. Ewelina Mamcarz, the lead author of the study, announced that ten children have been treated with this method.

“These patients are toddlers now, who are responding to vaccinations and have immune systems to make all immune cells they need for protection from infections as they explore the world and live normal lives. This is a first for patients with SCID-X1.”

The ten children were treated at both St. Jude and at UCSF and CIRM funded the UCSF arm of the clinical trial.

The story, not surprisingly, got a lot of attention in the media including this fine piece by CNN.

Oh, and by the way we are also funding three other clinical trials targeting different forms of SCID. One with UCLA’s Don Kohn,  one with Stanford’s Judy Shizuru, and one with UCSF’s Mort Cowan

200 years later, the search for a cure for Parkinson’s continues

On the surface, actor Michael J. Fox, singer Neil Diamond, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and Scottish comedian Billy Connolly would appear to have little in common. Except for one thing. They all have Parkinson’s Disease (PD).

Their celebrity status has helped raise public awareness about the condition, but studies show that awareness doesn’t amount to an understanding of PD or the extent to which it impacts someone’s life. In fact a study in the UK found that many people still don’t think PD is a serious condition.

To try and help change that people around the world will be holding events today, April 11th, World Parkinson’s Day.

The disease was first described by James Parkinson in 1817 in “An Essay on the Shaking Palsy”. In the essay Parkinson described a pattern of trembling in the hands and fingers, slower movement and loss of balance. Our knowledge about the disease has advanced in the last 200 years and now there are treatments that can help slow down the progression of the disease. But those treatments only last for a while, and so there is a real need for new treatments.  

That’s what Jun Takahashi’s team at Kyoto University in Japan hope to provide. In a first-of-its-kind procedure they took skin cells from a healthy donor and reprogrammed them to become induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), or stem cells that become any type of cell. These iPSCs were then turned into the precursors of dopamine-producing neurons, the cells destroyed by PD, and implanted into 12 brain regions known to be hotspots for dopamine production.

The procedure was carried out in October and the patient, a male in his 50s, is still healthy. If his symptoms continue to improve and he doesn’t experience any bad side effects, he will receive a second dose of dopamine-producing stem cells. Six other patients are scheduled to receive this same treatment.

Earlier tests in monkeys showed that the implanted stem cells improved Parkinson’s symptoms without causing any serious side effects.

Dompaminergic neurons derived from stem cells

Scientists at UC San Francisco are trying a different approach, using gene therapy to tackle one of the most widely recognized symptoms of PD, muscle movement.

In the study, published in the journal Annals of Neurology, the team used an inactive virus to deliver a gene to boost production of dopamine in the brain. In a Phase 1 clinical trial 15 patients, whose medication was no longer able to fully control their movement disorder, were treated with this approach. Not only were they able to reduce their medication – up to 42 percent in some cases – the medication they did take lasted longer before causing dyskinesia, an involuntary muscle movement that is a common side effect of the PD medication.

In a news article Dr. Chad Christine, the first author of the study, says this approach may also help reduce other symptoms.

“Since many patients were able to substantially reduce the amount of Parkinson’s medications, this gene therapy treatment may also help patients by reducing dose-dependent side effects, such as sleepiness and nausea.” 

At CIRM we have a long history of funding research into PD. Over the years we have invested more than $55 million to try and develop new treatments for the disease.

In June 2018, the CIRM Board awarded $5.8 million to UC San Francisco’s Krystof Bankiewicz and Cedars-Sinai’s Clive Svendsen. They are using neural progenitor cells, which have the ability to multiply and turn into other kinds of brain cells, and engineering them to express the growth factor GDNF which is known to protect the cells damaged in PD. The hope is that when transplanted into the brain of someone with PD, it will help slow down, or even halt the progression of the disease. 

The CIRM funding will hopefully help the team do the pre-clinical research needed to get the FDA’s go-ahead to test this approach in a clinical trial. 

David Higgins, CIRM Board member and Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s Disease

At the time of the award David Higgins, PhD, the CIRM Board Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s Disease, said: “One of the big frustrations for people with Parkinson’s, and their families and loved ones, is that existing therapies only address the symptoms and do little to slow down or even reverse the progress of the disease. That’s why it’s important to support any project that has the potential to address Parkinson’s at a much deeper, longer-lasting level.”

But we don’t just fund the research, we try to bring the scientific community together to help identify obstacles and overcome them. In March of 2013, in collaboration with the Center for Regenerative Medicine (CRM) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), we held a two-day workshop on cell therapies for Parkinson’s Disease. The experts outlined the steps needed to help bring the most promising research to patients.

Around one million Americans are currently living with Parkinson’s Disease. Worldwide the number is more than ten million. Those numbers are only expected to increase as the population ages. There is clearly a huge need to develop new treatments and, hopefully one day, a cure.

Till then days like April 11th will be an opportunity to remind ourselves why this work is so important.

Mending Stem Cells: The Past, Present & Future of Regenerative Medicine

UCSF’s Mission Bay Campus

For years we have talked about the “promise” and the “potential” of stem cells to cure patients. But more and more we are seeing firsthand how stem cells can change a patient’s life, even saving it in some cases. That’s the theme of the 4th Annual CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium.

It’s not your usual symposium because this brings together all the key players in the field – the scientists who do the research, the nurses and doctors who deliver the therapies, and the patients who get or need those therapies. And, of course, we’ll be there; because without CIRM’s funding to support that research and therapies none of this happens.

We are going to look at some of the exciting progress being made, and what is on the horizon. But along the way we’ll also tackle many of the questions that people pose to us every day. Questions such as:

  • How can you distinguish between a good clinical trial offering legitimate treatments vs a stem cell clinic offering sham treatments?
  • What about the Right to Try, can’t I just demand I get access to stem cell therapies?
  • How do I sign up for a clinical trial, and how much will it cost me?
  • What is the experience of patients that have participated in a stem cell clinical trial?

World class researchers will also talk about the real possibility of curing diseases like sickle cell disease on a national scale, which affect around 100,000 Americans, mostly African Americans and Hispanics. They’ll discuss the use of gene editing to battle hereditary diseases like Huntington’s. And they’ll highlight how they can engineer a patient’s own immune system cells to battle deadly cancers.

So, join us for what promises to be a fascinating day. It’s the cutting edge of science. And it’s all FREE.

Here’s where you can go to find out more information and to sign up for the event.