The Alpha Stem Cell Clinics: Innovation for Breakthrough Stem Cell Treatments

During this third week of the Month of CIRM, we are focusing on CIRM’s Infrastructure programs which are all focused on helping to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.

So here is the question of the day: What is the world’s largest network of medical centers dedicated to providing stem cell treatments to patients?

The answer is the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network.

The CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network consists of leading medical institutions throughout California.

The ASCC Network consists of six leading medical centers throughout California. In 2015, the Network was launched in southern California at the City of Hope, UC Irvine, UC Los Angeles, and UC San Diego. In September 2017, CIRM awarded funding to UC Davis and UC San Francisco to enable the Network to better serve patients throughout the state. Forty stem cell clinical trials have been conducted within the Network with hundreds of patients being treat for a variety of conditions, including:

  • Cancers of the blood, brain, lung and other sites
  • Organ diseases of the heart and kidney
  • Pediatric diseases
  • Traumatic injury to the brain and spine

A complete list of clinical trials may be found on our website.

The Alpha Clinics at UC Los Angeles and San Francisco are working collaboratively on breakthrough treatments for serious childhood diseases. This video highlights a CIRM-funded clinical trial at the UCLA Alpha Clinic that is designed to restore the immune system of patients with life-threatening immune deficiencies. A similar breakthrough treatment is also being used at the UCLA Alpha Clinic to treat sickle cell disease. A video describing this treatment is below.

Why do we need a specialized Network for stem cell clinical trials?

Stem cell treatments are unique in many ways. First, they consist of cells or cell products that frequently require specialized processing. For example, the breakthrough treatments for children, described above, requires the bone marrow to be genetically modified to correct defects. This “gene therapy” is performed in the Alpha Clinic laboratories, which are specifically designed to implement cutting edge gene therapy techniques on the patient’s stem cells.

Many of the cancer clinical trials also take the patient’s own cells and then process them in a laboratory. This processing is designed to enhance the patient’s ability to fight cancer using their own immune cells. Each Alpha Clinic has specialized laboratories to process cells, and the sites at City of Hope and UC Davis have world-class facilities for stem cell manufacturing. The City of Hope and Davis facilities produce high quality therapeutic products for commercial and academic clinical trial sponsors. Because of this ability, the Network has become a prime location internationally for clinical trials requiring processing and manufacturing services.

Another unique feature of the Network is its partnership with CIRM, whose mission is to accelerate stem cell treatments for patients with unmet medical needs. Often, this means developing treatments for rare diseases in which the patient population is comparatively small. For example, there about 40-100 immune deficient children born each year in the United States. We are funding clinical trials to help treat those children. The Network is also treating rare brain and blood cancers.

To find patients that may benefit from these treatments, the Network has developed the capacity to confidentially query over 20 million California patient records. If a good match is found, there is a procedure in place, that is reviewed by an ethics committee, where the patient’s doctor can be notified of the trial and pass that information to the patient. For patients that are interested in learning more, each Alpha Clinic has a Patient Care Coordinator with the job of coordinating the process of educating patients about the trial and assisting them if they choose to participate.

How Can I Learn More?

If you are a patient or a family member and would like to learn more about the CIRM Alpha Clinics, click here. There is contact information for each clinic so you can learn more about specific trials, or you can visit our Alpha Clinics Trials page for a complete list of trials ongoing in the Network.

If you are a patient or a trial sponsor interested in learning more about the services offered through our Alpha Clinics Network, visit our website.

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Building California’s stem cell research community, from the ground up

For week three of the Month of CIRM, our topic is infrastructure. What is infrastructure? Read on for a big picture overview and then we’ll fill in the details over the course of the week.

When CIRM was created in 2001, our goal was to grow the stem cell research field in California. But to do that, we first had to build some actual buildings. Since then, our infrastructure programs have taken on many different forms, but all have been focused on a single mission – helping accelerate stem cell research to patients with unmet medical needs.
CIRM_Infrastucture-program-iconScreen Shot 2017-10-16 at 10.58.38 AM

In the early 2000’s, stem cell scientists faced a quandary. President George W. Bush had placed limits on how federal funds could be used for embryonic stem cell research. His policy allowed funding of research involving some existing embryonic stem cell lines, but banned research that developed or conducted research on new stem lines.

Many researchers felt the existing lines were not the best quality and could only use them in a limited capacity. But because they were dependent on the government to fund their work, had no alternative but to comply. Scientists who chose to use non-approved lines were unable to use their federally funded labs for stem cell work.

The creation of CIRM changed that. In 2008, CIRM launched its Major Facilities Grant Program. The program had two major goals:

1) To accommodate the growing numbers of stem cell researchers coming in California as a result of CIRM’s grants and funding.

2) To provide new research space that didn’t have to comply with the federal restrictions on stem cell research.

Over the next few years, the program invested $271million to help build 12 new research facilities around California from Sacramento to San Diego. The institutions used CIRM’s funding to leverage and attract an additional $543 million in funds from private donors and institutions to construct and furnish the buildings.

These world-class laboratories gave scientists the research space they needed to work with any kind of stem cell they wanted and develop new potential therapies. It also enabled the institutions to bring together under one roof, all the stem cell researchers, who previously had been scattered across each campus.

One other important benefit was the work these buildings provided for thousands of construction workers at a time of record unemployment in the industry. Here’s a video about the 12 facilities we helped build:

But building physical facilities was just our first foray into developing infrastructure. We were far from finished.

In the early days of stem cell research, many scientists used cells from different sources, created using different methods. This meant it was often hard to compare results from one study to another. So, in 2013 CIRM created an iPSC Repository, a kind of high tech stem cell bank. The repository collected tissue samples from people who have different diseases, turned those samples into high quality stem cell lines – the kind known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) – and then made those samples available to researchers around the world. This not only gave researchers a powerful resource to use in developing a deeper understanding of different diseases, but because the scientists were all using the same cell lines that meant their findings could be compared to each other.

That same year we also launched a plan to create a new, statewide network of clinics that specialize in using stem cells to treat patients. The goal of the Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network is to support and accelerate clinical trials for programs funded by the agency, academic researchers or industry. We felt that because stem cell therapies are a completely new way of treating diseases and disorders, we needed a completely new way of delivering treatments in a safe and effective manner.

The network began with three clinics – UC San Diego, UCLA/UC Irvine, and City of Hope – but at our last Board meeting was expanded to five with the addition of UC Davis and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland. This network will help the clinics streamline challenging processes such as enrolling patients, managing regulatory procedures and sharing data and will speed the testing and distribution of experimental stem cell therapies. We will be posting a more detailed blog about how our Alpha Clinics are pushing innovative stem cell treatments tomorrow.

As the field advanced we knew that we had to find a new way to help researchers move their research out of the lab and into clinical trials where they could be tested in people. Many researchers were really good at the science, but had little experience in navigating the complex procedures needed to get the green light from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to test their work in a clinical trial.

So, our Agency created the Translating (TC) and Accelerating Centers (AC). The idea was that the TC would help researchers do all the preclinical testing necessary to apply for permission from the FDA to start a clinical trial. Then the AC would help the researchers set up the trial and actually run it.

In the end, one company, Quintiles IMS, won both awards so we combined the two entities into one, The Stem Cell Center, a kind of one-stop-shopping home to help researchers move the most promising treatments into people.

That’s not the whole story of course – I didn’t even mention the Genomics Initiative – but it’s hard to cram 13 years of history into a short blog. And we’re not done yet. We are always looking for new ways to improve what we do and how we do it. We are a work in progress, and we are determined to make as much progress as possible in the years to come.

Saving Ronnie: Stem Cell & Gene Therapy for Fatal Bubble Baby Disease [Video]

During this second week of the Month of CIRM, we’ve been focusing on the people who are critical to accomplishing our mission to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.

These folks include researchers, like Clive Svendsen and his team at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center who are working tirelessly to develop a stem cell therapy for ALS. My colleague Karen Ring, CIRM’s Social Media and Website Manager, featured Dr. Svendsen and his CIRM-funded clinical trial in Monday’s blog. And yesterday, in recognition of Stem Cell Awareness Day, Kevin McCormack, our Senior Director of Public Communications, blogged about the people within the stem cell community who have made, and continue to make, the day so special.

Today, in a new video, I highlight a brave young patient, Ronnie, and his parents who decided to participate in a CIRM-funded clinical trial run by St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and UC San Francisco in an attempt to save Ronnie’s life from an often-fatal disease called severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). This disorder, also known as bubble baby disease, leaves newborns without a functioning immune system which can turn a simple cold into a potentially deadly infection.

Watch this story’s happy ending in the video above.

For more details about all CIRM-funded clinical trials, visit our clinical trials page and read our clinical trials brochure which provides brief overviews of each trial.

CIRM Board Appoints Dr. Maria Millan as President and CEO

Dr. Maria Millan, President and CEO of CIRM, at the September Board meeting. (Todd Dubnicoff, CIRM)

Yesterday was a big day for CIRM. Our governing Board convened for its September ICOC meeting and appointed Dr. Maria Millan as our new President and CEO. Dr. Millan has been serving as the Interim President/CEO since July, replacing former President Dr. Randal Mills.

Dr. Millan has been at CIRM since 2012 and was instrumental in the development of CIRM’s infrastructure programs including the Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network and the agency’s Strategic Plan, a five-year plan that lays out our agency’s goals through 2020. Previously, Dr. Millan was the Vice President of Therapeutics at CIRM, helping the agency fund 23 new clinical trials since the beginning of 2016.

The Board vote to appoint Dr. Millan as President and CEO was unanimous and enthusiastic. Chairman of the Board, Jonathan Thomas, shared the Board’s sentiments when he said,

“Dr. Millan is absolutely the right person for this position. Having seen Dr. Millan as the Interim CEO of CIRM for three months and how she has operated in that position, I am even more enthusiastic than I was before. I am grateful that we have someone of Maria’s caliber to lead our Agency.”

Dr. Millan has pursued a career devoted to helping patients. Before working at CIRM, she was an organ transplant surgeon and researcher and served as an Associate Professor of Surgery and Director of the Pediatric Organ Transplant Program at Stanford University. Dr. Millan was also the Vice President and Chief Medical Officer at StemCells, Inc.

In her permanent role as President, Dr. Millan is determined to keep CIRM on track to achieve the goals outlined in our strategic plan and to achieve its mission to accelerate treatments to patients with unmet needs. She commented in a CIRM press release,

“I joined the CIRM team because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of patients. They are the reason why CIRM exists and why we fund stem cell research. I am humbled and very honored to be CIRM’s President and look forward to further implementing our agency’s Strategic Plan in the coming years.”

The Board also voted to fund two new Alpha Stem Cell Clinics at UC Davis and UC San Francisco and five new clinical trials. Three of the clinical awards went to projects targeting cancer.

The City of Hope received $12.8 million to fund a Phase 1 trial targeting malignant gliomas (an aggressive brain cancer) using CAR-T cell therapy. Forty Seven Inc. received $5 million for a Phase 1b clinical trial treating acute myeloid leukemia. And Nohla Therapeutics received $6.9 million for a Phase 2 trial testing a hematopoietic stem cell and progenitor cell therapy to help patients suffering from neutropenia, a condition that leaves people susceptible to deadly infections, after receiving chemotherapy for acute myeloid leukemia.

The other two trials target diabetes and end stage kidney failure. ViaCyte, Inc. was awarded $20 million to fund a Phase 1/2 clinical trial to test its PEC-Direct islet cell replacement therapy for high-risk type 1 diabetes. Humacyte Inc. received $14.1 million to fund a Phase 3 trial that is comparing the performance of its acellular bioengineered vessel with the current standard of dialysis treatment for kidney disease patients.

The Board also awarded $5.2 million to Stanford Medicine for a late stage preclinical project that will use CRISPR gene editing technology to correct the sickle cell disease mutation in blood-forming stem cells to treat patients with sickle cell disease. This award was particularly well timed as September is Sickle Cell Awareness month.

The Stanford team, led by Dr. Matthew Porteus, hopes to complete the final experiments required for them to file an Investigational New Drug (IND) application with the FDA so they can be approved to start a clinical trial hopefully sometime in 2018. You can read more about Dr. Porteus’ work here and you can read our past blogs featuring Sickle Cell Awareness here and here.

With the Board’s vote yesterday, CIRM’s clinical trial count rises to 40 funded trials since its inception. 23 of these trials were funded after the launch of our Strategic Plan bringing us close to the half way point of funding 50 new clinical trials by 2020. With more “shots-on-goal” CIRM hopes to increase the chances that one of these trials will lead to an FDA-approved therapy for patients.


Related Links:

From trauma to treatment: a Patient Advocate’s journey from helping her son battle a deadly disease to helping others do the same

Everett SCID 1

For every clinical trial CIRM funds we create a Clinical Advisory Panel or CAP. The purpose of the CAP is to make recommendations and provide guidance and advice to both CIRM and the Project Team running the trial. It’s part of our commitment to doing everything we can to help make the trial a success and get therapies to the people who need them most, the patients.

Each CAP consists of three to five members, including a Patient Advocate, an external scientific expert, and a CIRM Science Officer.

Having a Patient Advocate on a CAP fills a critical need for insight from the patient’s perspective, helping shape the trial, making sure that it is being carried out in a way that has the patient at the center. A trial designed around the patient, and with the needs of the patient in mind, is much more likely to be successful in recruiting and retaining the patients it needs to see if the therapy works.

One of the clinical trials we are currently funding is focused on severe combined immunodeficiency disease, or SCID. It’s also known as “bubble baby” disease because children with SCID are born without a functioning immune system, so even a simple virus or infection can prove fatal. In the past some of these children were kept inside sterile plastic bubbles to protect them, hence the name “bubble baby.”

Everett SCID family

Anne Klein is the Patient Advocate on the CAP for the CIRM-funded SCID trial at UCSF and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Her son Everett was born with SCID and participated in this clinical trial. We asked Anne to talk about her experience as the mother of a child with SCID, and being part of the research that could help cure children like Everett.

“When Everett was born his disease was detected through a newborn screening test. We found out he had SCID on a Wednesday, and by  Thursday we were at UCSF (University of California, San Francisco). It was very sudden and quite traumatic for the family, especially Alden (her older son). I was abruptly taken from Alden, who was just two and a half years old at the time, for two months. My husband, Brian Schmitt, had to immediately drop many responsibilities required to effectively run his small business. We weren’t prepared. It was really hard.”

(Everett had his first blood stem cell transplant when he was 7 weeks old – his mother Anne was the donor. It helped partially restore his immune system but it also resulted in some rare, severe complications as a result of his mother’s donor cells attacking his body. So when, three years later, the opportunity to get a stem cell therapy came along Anne and her husband, Brian, decided to say yes. After some initial problems following the transplant, Everett seems to be doing well and his immune system is the strongest it has ever been.)

“It’s been four years, a lot of ups and downs and a lot of trauma. But it feels like we have turned a corner. Everett can go outside now and play, and we’re hanging out more socially because we no longer have to be so concerned about him being exposed to germs or viruses.

His doctor has approved him to go to daycare, which is amazing. So, Everett is emerging into the “normal” world for the first time. It’s nerve wracking for us, but it’s also a relief.”

Everett SCID in hospital

How Anne came to be on the CAP

“Dr. Cowan from UCSF and Dr. Malech from the NIH (National Institutes of Health) reached out to me and asked me about it a few months ago. I immediately wanted to be part of the group because, obviously, it is something I am passionate about. Knowing families with SCID and what they go through, and what we went through, I will do everything I can to help make this treatment more available to as many people as need it.

I can provide insight on what it’s like to have SCID, from the patient perspective; the traumas you go through. I can help the doctors and researchers understand how the medical community can be perceived by SCID families, how appreciative we are of the medical staff and the amazing things they do for us.

I am connected to other families, both within and outside of the US, affected by this disease so I can help get the word out about this treatment and answer questions for families who want to know. It’s incredibly therapeutic to be part of this wider community, to be able to help others who have been diagnosed more recently.”

The CAP Team

“They were incredibly nice and when I did speak they were very supportive and seemed genuinely interested in getting feedback from me. I felt very comfortable. I felt they were appreciative of the patient perspective.

I think when you are a research scientist in the lab, it’s easy to miss the perspective of someone who is actually experiencing the disease you are trying to fix.

At the NIH, where Everett had his therapy, the stem cell lab people work so hard to process the gene corrected cells and get them to the patient in time. I looked through the window into the hall when Everett was getting his therapy and the lab staff were outside, in their lab coats, watching him getting his new cells infused. They wanted to see the recipient of the life-saving treatment that they prepared.

It is amazing to see the process that the doctors go through to get treatments approved. I like being on the CAP and learning about the science behind it and I think if this is successful in treating others, then that would be the best reward.”

The future:

“We still have to fly back to the NIH, in Bethesda, MD, every three months for checkups. We’ll be doing this for 15 years, until Everett is 18. It will be less frequent as Everett gets older but this kind of treatment is so new that it’s still important to do this kind of follow-up. In between those trips we go to UCSF every month, and Kaiser every 1-3 weeks, sometimes more.

I think the idea of being “cured”, when you have been through this, is a difficult thing to think about. It’s not a word I use lightly as it’s a very weighted term. We have been given the “all clear” before, only to be dealt setbacks later. Once he’s in school and has successfully conquered some normal childhood illnesses, both Brian and I will be able to relax more.

One of Everett’s many doctors once shared with me that, in the past, he sometimes had to tell parents of very sick children with SCID that there was nothing else they could do to help them. So now to have a potential treatment like this, he was so excited about a stem cell therapy showing such promise.

One thing we think about Everett and Alden, is that they are both so young and have been through so much already. I’m hoping that they can forget all this and have a chance to grow up and lead a normal life.”

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: bubble baby therapy a go in UK, in-utero stem cell trial and novel heart disease target

There were lots of CIRM mentions in the news this week. Here are two brief recaps written by Karen Ring to get you up to speed. A third story by Todd Dubnicoff summarizes an promising finding related to heart disease by researchers in Singapore.  

CIRM-funded “bubble baby” disease therapy gets special designation by UK.
Orchard Therapeutics, a company based in the UK and the US, is developing a stem cell-based gene therapy called OTL-101 to treat a primary immune disease called adenosine-deaminase deficient severe combined immunodeficiency (ADA-SCID), also known as “bubble baby disease”. CIRM is funding a Phase 1/2 clinical trial led by Don Kohn of UCLA in collaboration with Orchard and the University College in London.

In July, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) awarded OTL-101 Rare Pediatric Disease Designation (read more about it here), which makes the therapy eligible for priority review by the FDA, and could give it a faster route to being made more widely available to children in need.

On Tuesday, Orchard announced further good news that OTL-101 received “Promising Innovative Medicine Designation” by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). In a news release, the company explained how this designation bodes well for advancing OTL-101 from clinical trials into patients,

“The designation as Promising Innovative Medicine is the first step of a two-step process under which OTL-101 can benefit from the Early Access to Medicine Scheme (“EAMS”). Nicolas Koebel, Senior Vice President for Business Operations at Orchard, added: “With this PIM designation we can potentially make OTL-101 available to UK patients sooner under the Early Access to Medicine Scheme”.

CIRM funded UCSF clinical trial mentioned in SF Business Times
Ron Leuty, reporter at the San Francisco Business Times, published an article about a CIRM-funded trial out of UCSF that is targeting a rare genetic blood disease called alpha thalassemia major, describing it as, “The world’s first in-utero blood stem cell transplant, soon to be performed at the University of California, San Francisco, could point the way toward pre-birth cures for a range of blood diseases, such as sickle cell disease.”

Alpha Thalassemia affects the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen because of a reduction in a protein called hemoglobin. The UCSF trial, spearheaded by UCSF Pediatric surgeon Dr. Tippi MacKenzie, is hoping to use stem cells from the mother to treat babies in the womb to give them a better chance at surviving after birth.

In an interview with Leuty, Tippi explained,

“Our goal is to put in enough cells so the baby won’t need another transplant. But even if we fall short, if we can just establish 1 percent maternal cells circulating in the child, it will establish tolerance and then they can get the booster transplant.”

She also emphasized the key role that CIRM funded played in the development and launch of this clinical trial.

“CIRM is about more than funding for studies, MacKenzie said. Agency staff has provided advice about how to translate animal studies into work in humans, she said, as well as hiring an FDA consultant, writing an investigational new drug application and setting up a clinical protocol.”

“I’m a clinician, but running a clinical trial is different,” MacKenzie said. “CIRM’s been incredibly helpful in helping me navigate that.”

Heart, heal thyself: the story of Singheart
When you cut your finger or scrape a knee, a scab forms, allowing the skin underneath to regenerate and repair itself. The heart is not so lucky – it has very limited self-healing abilities. Instead, heart muscle cells damaged after a heart attack form scar tissue, making each heart beat less efficient. This condition can lead to chronic heart disease, the number one killer of both men and women in the US.

A mouse heart cell with 2 nuclei (blue) and Singheart RNA labelled by red fluorescent dyes.
Credit: A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore

Research has shown that newborn mice retain the ability to completely regenerate and repair injuries to the heart because their heart muscle cells, or cardiomyocytes, are still able to divide and replenish damaged cells. But by adulthood, the mouse cardiomyocytes lose the ability to stimulate the necessary cell division processes. A research team in Singapore wondered what was preventing cardiomyocytes cell division in adult mice and if there was some way to lift that block.

This week in Nature Communications, they describe the identification of a molecule they call Singheart that may be the answer to their questions. Using tools that allow the analysis of gene activity in single cells revealed that a rare population of diseased cardiomyocytes are able to crank up genes related to cell division. And further analysis showed Singheart, a specialized genetic molecule called a long non-coding RNA, played a role in blocking this cell division gene.

As lead author Dr. Roger Foo, a principal investigator at Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) and the National University Health System (NUHS), explained in a press release, these findings may lead to new self-healing strategies for heart disease,

“There has always been a suspicion that the heart holds the key to its own healing, regenerative and repair capability. But that ability seems to become blocked as soon as the heart is past its developmental stage. Our findings point to this potential block that when lifted, may allow the heart to heal itself.”

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: new baldness treatments?, novel lung stem cells, and giraffe stem cells

Novel immune system/stem cell interaction may lead to better treatments for baldness. When one thinks of the immune system it’s usually in terms of the body’s ability to fight off a bad cold or flu virus. But a team of UCSF researchers this week report in Cell that a particular cell of the immune system is key to instructing stem cells to maintain hair growth. Their results suggest that the loss of these immune cells, called regulatory T cells (Tregs for short), may be the cause of baldness seen in alopecia areata, a common autoimmune disorder and may even play a role in male pattern baldness.

Alopecia, a common autoimmune disorder that causes baldness. Image: Shutterstock

While most cells of the immune system recognize and kill foreign or dysfunctional cells in our bodies, Tregs act to subdue those cells to avoid collateral damage to perfectly healthy cells. If Tregs become impaired, it can lead to autoimmune disorders in which the body attacks itself.

The UCSF team had previously shown that Tregs allow microorganisms that are beneficial to skin health in mice to avoid the grasp of the immune system. In follow up studies they intended to examine what happens to skin health when Treg cells were inhibited in the skin of the mice. The procedure required shaving away small patches of hair to allow observation of the skin. Over the course of the experiment, the scientists notice something very curious. Team lead Dr. Michael Rosenblum recalled what they saw in a UCSF press release:

“We quickly noticed that the shaved patches of hair never grew back, and we thought, ‘Hmm, now that’s interesting. We realized we had to delve into this further.”

That delving showed that Tregs are located next to hair follicle stem cells. And during the hair growth, the Tregs grow in number and surround the stem cells. Further examination, found that Tregs trigger the stem cells through direct cell to cell interactions. These mechanisms are different than those used for their immune system-inhibiting function.

With these new insights, Dr. Rosenblum hopes this new-found role for Tregs in hair growth may lead to better treatments for Alopecia, one of the most common forms of autoimmune disease.

Novel lung stem cells bring new insights into poorly understood chronic lung disease. Pulmonary fibrosis is a chronic lung disease that’s characterized by scarring and changes in the structure of tiny blood vessels, or microvessels, within lungs. This so-called “remodeling” of lung tissue hampers the transfer of oxygen from the lung to the blood leading to dangerous symptoms like shortness of breath. Unfortunately, the cause of most cases of pulmonary fibrosis is not understood.

This week, Vanderbilt University Medical Center researchers report in the Journal of Clinical Investigation the identification of a new type of lung stem cell that may play a role in lung remodeling.

Susan Majka and Christa Gaskill, and colleagues are studying certain lung stem cells that likely contribute to the pathobiology of chronic lung diseases.  Photo by: Susan Urmy

Up until now, the cells that make up the microvessels were thought to contribute to the detrimental changes to lung tissue in pulmonary fibrosis or other chronic lung diseases. But the Vanderbilt team wasn’t convinced since these microvessel cells were already fully matured and wouldn’t have the ability to carry out the lung remodeling functions.

They had previously isolated stem cells from both mouse and human lung tissue located near microvessels. In this study, they tracked these mesenchymal progenitor cells (MPCs) in normal and disease inducing scenarios. The team’s leader, Dr. Susan Majka, summarized the results of this part of the study in a press release:

“When these cells are abnormal, animals develop vasculopathy — a loss of structure in the microvessels and subsequently the lung. They lose the surfaces for gas exchange.”

The team went on to find differences in gene activity in MPCs from healthy versus diseased lungs. They hope to exploit these differences to identify molecules that would provide early warnings of the disease. Dr. Majka explains the importance of these “biomarkers”:

“With pulmonary vascular diseases, by the time a patient has symptoms, there’s already major damage to the microvasculature. Using new biomarkers to detect the disease before symptoms arise would allow for earlier treatment, which could be effective at decreasing progression or even reversing the disease process.”

The happy stem cell story of Mahali the giraffe. We leave you this week with a feel-good story about Mahali, a 14-year old giraffe at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado. Mahali had suffered from chronic arthritis in his front left leg. As a result, he could not move well and was kept isolated from his herd.

Giraffes at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. Photo: Denver Post

The zoo’s head veterinarian, Dr. Liza Dadone, decided to try a stem cell therapy procedure to bring Mahali some relief and a better quality of life. It’s the first time such a treatment would be performed on a giraffe. With the help of doctors at Colorado State University’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital, 100 million stem cells grown from Mahali’s blood were injected into his arthritic leg.

Before treatment, thermograph shows inflammation (red/yellow) in Mahali’s left front foot (seen at far right of each image); after treatment inflammation resolved (blue/green). Photos: Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

In a written statement to the Colorado Gazette, Dr. Dadone summarized the positive outcome:

“Prior to the procedure, he was favoring his left front leg and would lift that foot off the ground almost once per minute. Since then, Mahali is no longer constantly lifting his left front leg off the ground and has resumed cooperating for hoof care. A few weeks ago, he returned to life with his herd, including yard access. On the thermogram, the marked inflammation up the leg has mostly resolved.”

Now, Dr. Dadone made sure to state that other treatments and medicine were given to Mahali in addition to the stem cell therapy. So, it’s not totally clear to what extent the stem cells contributed to Mahali’s recovery. Maybe future patients will receive stem cells alone to be sure. But for now, we’re just happy for Mahali’s new lease on life.

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: spinal cord injury trial update, blood stem cells in lungs, and using parsley for stem cell therapies

More good news on a CIRM-funded trial for spinal cord injury. The results are now in for Asterias Biotherapeutics’ Phase 1/2a clinical trial testing a stem cell-based therapy for patients with spinal cord injury. They reported earlier this week that six out of six patients treated with 10 million AST-OPC1 cells, which are a type of brain cell called oligodendrocyte progenitor cells, showed improvements in their motor function. Previously, they had announced that five of the six patients had shown improvement with the jury still out on the sixth because that patient was treated later in the trial.

 In a news release, Dr. Edward Wirth, the Chief Medical officer at Asterias, highlighted these new and exciting results:

 “We are excited to see the sixth and final patient in the AIS-A 10 million cell cohort show upper extremity motor function improvement at 3 months and further improvement at 6 months, especially because this particular patient’s hand and arm function had actually been deteriorating prior to receiving treatment with AST-OPC1. We are very encouraged by the meaningful improvements in the use of arms and hands seen in the SciStar study to date since such gains can increase a patient’s ability to function independently following complete cervical spinal cord injuries.”

Overall, the trial suggests that AST-OPC1 treatment has the potential to improve motor function in patients with severe spinal cord injury. So far, the therapy has proven to be safe and likely effective in improving some motor function in patients although control studies will be needed to confirm that the cells are responsible for this improvement. Asterias plans to test a higher dose of 20 million cells in AIS-A patients later this year and test the 10 million cell dose in AIS-B patients that a less severe form of spinal cord injury.

 Steve Cartt, CEO of Asterias commented on their future plans:

 “These results are quite encouraging, and suggest that there are meaningful improvements in the recovery of functional ability in patients treated with the 10 million cell dose of AST-OPC1 versus spontaneous recovery rates observed in a closely matched untreated patient population. We look forward to reporting additional efficacy and safety data for this cohort, as well as for the currently-enrolling AIS-A 20 million cell and AIS-B 10 million cell cohorts, later this year.”

Lungs aren’t just for respiration. Biology textbooks may be in need of some serious rewrites based on a UCSF study published this week in Nature. The research suggests that the lungs are a major source of blood stem cells and platelet production. The long prevailing view has been that the bone marrow was primarily responsible for those functions.

The new discovery was made possible by using special microscopy that allowed the scientists to view the activity of individual cells within the blood vessels of a living mouse lung (watch the fascinating UCSF video below). The mice used in the experiments were genetically engineered so that their platelet-producing cells glowed green under the microscope. Platelets – cell fragments that clump up and stop bleeding – were known to be produced to some extent by the lungs but the UCSF team was shocked by their observations: the lungs accounted for half of all platelet production in these mice.

Follow up experiments examined the movement of blood cells between the lung and bone marrow. In one experiment, the researchers transplanted healthy lungs from the green-glowing mice into a mouse strain that lacked adequate blood stem cell production in the bone marrow. After the transplant, microscopy showed that the green fluorescent cells from the donor lung traveled to the host’s bone marrow and gave rise to platelets and several other cells of the immune system. Senior author Mark Looney talked about the novelty of these results in a university press release:

Mark Looney, MD

“To our knowledge this is the first description of blood progenitors resident in the lung, and it raises a lot of questions with clinical relevance for the millions of people who suffer from thrombocytopenia [low platelet count].”

If this newfound role of the lung is shown to exist in humans, it may provide new therapeutic approaches to restoring platelet and blood stem cell production seen in various diseases. And it will give lung transplants surgeons pause to consider what effects immune cells inside the donor lung might have on organ rejection.

Add a little vanilla to this stem cell therapy. Typically, the only connection between plants and stem cell clinical trials are the flowers that are given to the patient by friends and family. But research published this week in the Advanced Healthcare Materials journal aims to use plant husks as part of the cell therapy itself.

Though we tend to focus on the poking and prodding of stem cells when discussing the development of new therapies, an equally important consideration is the use of three-dimensional scaffolds. Stem cells tend to grow better and stay healthier when grown on these structures compared to the flat two-dimensional surface of a petri dish. Various methods of building scaffolds are under development such as 3D printing and designing molds using materials that aren’t harmful to human tissue.

Human fibroblast cells growing on decellularized parsley.
Image: Gianluca Fontana/UW-Madison

But in the current study, scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison took a creative approach to building scaffolds: they used the husks of parsley, vanilla and orchid plants. The researchers figured that millions of years of evolution almost always leads to form and function that is much more stable and efficient than anything humans can create. Lead author Gianluca Fontana explained in a university press release how the characteristics of plants lend themselves well to this type of bioengineering:

Gianluca Fontana, PhD

“Nature provides us with a tremendous reservoir of structures in plants. You can pick the structure you want.”

The technique relies on removing all the cells of the plant, leaving behind its outer layer which is mostly made of cellulose, long chains of sugars that make up plant cell walls. The resulting hollow, tubular husks have similar shapes to those found in human intestines, lungs and the bladder.

The researchers showed that human stem cells not only attach and grow onto the plant scaffolds but also organize themselves in alignment with the structures’ patterns. The function of human tissues rely on an organized arrangement of cells so it’s possible these plant scaffolds could be part of a tissue replacement cell product. Senior author William Murphy also points out that the scaffolds are easily altered:

William Murphy, PhD

“They are quite pliable. They can be easily cut, fashioned, rolled or stacked to form a range of different sizes and shapes.”

And the fact these scaffolds are natural products that are cheap to manufacture makes this a project well worth watching.

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

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

Stem cell model identifies new culprit for anorexia.

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

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

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

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

Alysson Muotri UC San Diego

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

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

Nature versus Zika, who will win?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: building an embryo and reviving old blood stem cells

Building an embryo in the lab from stem cells
The human body has been studied for centuries yet little is known about the first 14 days of human development when the fertilized embryo implants into the mother’s uterus and begins to divide and grow. Being able to precisely examine this critical time window may help researchers better understand why 75% of conceptions never implant and why 30% of pregnancies end in miscarriage.

This lack of knowledge is due in part to a lack of embryos to study. Researchers rely on embryos donated by couples who’ve gone through in vitro fertilization to get pregnant and have left over embryos that are otherwise discarded. Using mouse stem cells, a research team from Cambridge University reports today in Nature that they’ve generated a cellular structure that has the hallmarks of a fertilized embryo.

embryo

Stem cell-modeled mouse embryo (left) Mouse embryo (right); The red part is embryonic and the blue extra-embryonic.
Credit: Sarah Harrison and Gaelle Recher, Zernicka-Goetz Lab, University of Cambridge

This technique has been tried before without success. The breakthrough here was in the types of cells used. Rather that only relying on embryonic stems cells (ESCs), this study also included extra-embryonic trophoblast stem cells (TSCs), the cell type that goes on to form the placenta.

When grown on a 3D scaffold made from biological materials, the two cell types self-organized themselves into a pattern that closely resembles the early development of a true embryo. In a press release that was picked up by many media outlets, senior author Zernicka-Goetz spoke about the importance of including both TSCs and ESCs:

“We knew that interactions between the different types of stem cell are important for development, but the striking thing that our new work illustrates is that this is a real partnership – these cells truly guide each other. Without this partnership, the correct development of shape and form and the timely activity of key biological mechanisms doesn’t take place properly.”

The researchers think that lab-made embryos from mouse or human stem cells have little chance of developing into a fetus because other cell types critical for continued growth are not included. And there’s much to be learned by focusing on these very early events:

“We are very optimistic that this will allow us to study key events of this critical stage of human development without actually having to work on embryos.  Knowing how development normally occurs will allow us to understand why it so often goes wrong,” says Zernicka-Goetz.

Reviving old blood stem cells, part 1: repair the garbage collectors
One of the reasons that our bodies begin to deteriorate in old age is a weakening, dysfunctional immune system that increases the risk for serious infection, blood cancers and chronic inflammatory diseases like atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Reporting this week in Nature, a UCSF research team presents evidence that a breakdown in our cell’s natural garbage collecting system may be partially to blame.

The team focused on a process called autophagy (literally meaning self “auto”-eating “phagy”) that keeps cells functioning properly by degrading faulty proteins and cellular structures. In particular, they examined autophagy in blood-forming stem cells, which give rise to all the cell types of the immune system. They found that autophagy was not working in 70 percent of blood stem cells from old mice. And these cells had all the hallmarks of an old cell. And the other 30 percent? In those cells, autophagy was fully functional and they looked like blood stem cells found in young mice.

The team went on to show that in blood stem cells, autophagy had an additional role that until now had not been observed: it helped slow the activity of the stem cells back to its default state by gobbling up excess mitochondria, the structures that produces a cell’s energy needs. Without this quieting of the stem cell, the over-active mitochondria led to chemical modification of the cell’s DNA that disrupted the blood stem cells’ ability to give rise to a proper balance of immune cells. In fact, young mice with genetic modifications that block autophagy generated blood stem cells with these old age-related characteristics.

But the researchers were also able to restore autophagy in blood stem cells collected from old mice by adding various drugs. Team lead Emmanuelle Passegué is optimistic this result could be translated into a therapeutic approach:

“This discovery might provide an interesting therapeutic angle to use in re-activating autophagy in all of the old HSCs, to slow the aging of the blood system and to improve engraftment during bone marrow or HSC transplantation,” Passegué said in a university press release.

Reviving old blood stem cells, part 2: fix the aging neighborhood
Another study this week focused on age-related disruptions in the function of blood stem cells but in this case an aging neighborhood is to blame. Blood stem cells form and hang out in areas of the bone marrow called niches. Researchers at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and the University of Ulm in Germany reported this week in EMBO that the age of the niche affects blood stem cell function.

bonemarrow

Microscopy of bone marrow. Red staining indicates osteopotin, blue staining indicates cell nuclei. Credit: University of Ulm

 

When blood stem cells from two-year old mice were transplanted into the bone marrow of eight-week old mice, the older stem cells took on characteristics of young stem cells including an enhance ability to form all the different cell types of the immune system. In trying to understand what was going on, the researchers focused on a bone marrow cell called an osteoblast which gives rise to bone. Osteoblasts produce osteopontin, a protein that plays an important role in the structure of the bone marrow. The team showed that as the bone marrow ages, osteopontin levels go down. And this reduction had effects on the health of blood stem cells. But, as team lead Hartmut Geiger mentions in a press release, this impact could be reversed which points to a potential new therapeutic strategy for age-related disease:

“We show that the place where HSCs form in the bone marrow loses osteopontin upon aging, but if you give back the missing protein to the blood-forming cells they suddenly rejuvenate and act younger. Our study points to exciting novel ways to have a better immune system and possibly less blood cancer upon aging by therapeutically targeting the place where blood stem cells form.”