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.

“A new awakening”: One patient advocate’s fight for her daughters life

We often talk about the important role that patient advocates play in helping advance research. That was demonstrated in a powerful way last week when the CIRM Board approved almost $12 million to fund a clinical trial targeting a rare childhood disorder called cystinosis.

The award, to Stephanie Cherqui and her team at UC San Diego (in collaboration with UCLA) was based on the scientific merits of the program. But without the help of the cystinosis patient advocate community that would never have happened. Years ago the community held a series of fundraisers, bake sales etc., and used the money to help Dr. Cherqui get her research started.

That money enabled Dr. Cherqui to get the data she needed to apply to CIRM for funding to do more detailed research, which led to her award last week. There to celebrate the moment was Nancy Stack. Her testimony to the Board was a moving celebration of how long they have worked to get to this moment, and how much hope this research is giving them.

Nancy Stack is pictured in spring 2018 with her daughter Natalie Stack and husband Geoffrey Stack. (Lar Wanberg/Cystinosis Research Foundation)

Hello my name is Nancy Stack and I am the founder and president of the Cystinosis Research Foundation.  Our daughter Natalie was diagnosed with cystinosis when she was an infant. 

Cystinosis is a rare disease that is characterized by the abnormal accumulation of cystine in every cell in the body.  The build-up of cystine eventually destroys every organ in the body including the kidneys, eyes, liver, muscles, thyroid and brain.  The average age of death from cystinosis and its complications is 28 years of age.

For our children and adults with cystinosis, there are no healthy days. They take between 8-12 medications around the clock every day just to stay alive – Natalie takes 45 pills a day.  It is a relentless and devastating disease.

Medical complications abound and our children’s lives are filled with a myriad of symptoms and treatments – there are g-tube feedings, kidney transplants, bone pain, daily vomiting,  swallowing difficulties, muscle wasting, severe gastrointestinal side effects and for some blindness.   

We started the Foundation in 2003.  We have worked with and funded Dr. Stephanie Cherqui since 2006.   As a foundation, our resources are limited but we were able to fund the initial grants for Stephanie’s  Stem Cell studies. When CIRM awarded a grant to Stephanie in 2016, it allowed her to complete the studies, file the IND and as a result, we now have FDA approval for the clinical trial. Your support has changed the course of this disease. 

When the FDA approved the clinical trial for cystinosis last year, our community was filled with a renewed sense of hope and optimism.  I heard from 32 adults with cystinosis – all of them interested in the clinical trial.  Our adults know that this is their only chance to live a full life. Without this treatment, they will die from cystinosis.  In every email I received, there was a message of hope and gratitude. 

I received an email from a young woman who said this, “It’s a new awakening to learn this morning that human clinical trials have been approved by the FDA. I reiterate my immense interest to participate in this trial as soon as possible because my quality of life is at a low ebb and the trial is really my only hope. Time is running out”. 

And a mom of a 19 year old young man who wants to be the first patient in the trial wrote and said this, “On the day the trial was announced I started to cry tears of pure happiness and I thought, a mother somewhere gets to wake up and have a child who will no longer have cystinosis. I felt so happy for whom ever that mom would be….I never imagined that the mom I was thinking about could be me. I am so humbled to have this opportunity for my son to try to live disease free.

My own daughter ran into my arms that day and we cried tears of joy – finally, the hope we had clung to was now a reality. We had come full circle.  I asked Natalie how it felt to know that she could be cured and she said, “I have spent my entire life thinking that I would die from cystinosis in my 30s but now, I might live a full life and I am thinking about how much that changes how I think about my future. I never planned too far ahead but now I can”. 

As a mother, words can’t possible convey what it feels like to know that my child has a chance to live a long, healthy life free of cystinosis – I can breathe again. On behalf of all the children and adults with cystinosis, thank you for funding Dr. Cherqui, for caring about our community, for valuing our children and for making this treatment a reality.  Our community is ready to start this trial – thank you for making this happen.

*************

CIRM will be celebrating the role of patient advocates at a free event in Los Angeles tomorrow. It’s at the LA Convention Center and here are the details. And did I mention it’s FREE!

Tue, June 25, 2019 – 6:00 PM – 7:00 PM PDT

Petree Hall C., Los Angeles Convention Center, 1201 South Figueroa Street Los Angeles, CA 90015

And on Wednesday, USC is holding an event highlighting the progress being made in fighting diseases that destroy vision. Here’s a link to information about the event.

Taking the message to the people: fighting for the future of stem cell research in California

Stem cells have been in the news a lot this week, and not necessarily for the right reason.

First, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) won a big legal decision in its fight to crack down on clinics offering bogus, unproven and unapproved stem cell therapies.

But then came news that another big name celebrity, in this case Star Trek star William Shatner, was going to one of these clinics for an infusion of what he called “restorative cells”.

It’s a reminder that for every step forward we take in trying to educate the public about the dangers of clinics offering unproven therapies, we often take another step back when a celebrity essentially endorses the idea.

So that’s why we are taking our message directly to the people, as often as we can and wherever we can.

In June we are going to be holding a free, public event in Los Angeles to coincide with the opening of the International Society for Stem Cell Research’s Annual Conference, the biggest event on the global stem cell calendar. There’s still time to register for that by the way. The event is from 6-7pm on Tuesday, June 25th in Petree Hall C., at the Los Angeles Convention Center at 1201 South Figueroa Street, LA 90015.

The event is open to everyone and it’s FREE. We have created an Eventbrite page where you can get all the details and RSVP if you are coming.

It’s going to be an opportunity to learn about the real progress being made in stem cell research, thanks in no small part to CIRM’s funding. We’re honored to be joined by UCLA’s Dr. Don Kohn, who has helped cure dozens of children born with a fatal immune system disorder called severe combined immunodeficiency, also known as “bubble baby disease”. And we’ll hear from the family of one of those children whose life he helped save.

And because CIRM is due to run out of money to fund new projects by the end of this year you’ll also learn about the very real concerns we have about the future of stem cell research in California and what can be done to address those concerns. It promises to be a fascinating evening.

But that’s not all. Our partners at USC will be holding another public event on stem cell research, on Wednesday June 26th from 6.30p to 8pm. This one is focused on treatments for age-related blindness. This features some of the top stem cell scientists in the field who are making encouraging progress in not just slowing down vision loss, but in some cases even reversing it.

You can find out more about that event here.

We know that we face some serious challenges in trying to educate people about the risks of going to a clinic offering unproven therapies. But we also know we have a great story to tell, one that shows how we are already changing lives and saving lives, and that with the support of the people of California we’ll do even more in the years to come.

Rats, research and the road to new therapies

Don Reed

Don Reed has been a champion of CIRM even before there was a CIRM. He’s a pioneer in pushing for funding for stem cell research and now he’s working hard to raise awareness about the difference that funding is making.

In a recent article on Daily Kos, Don highlighted one of the less celebrated partners in this research, the humble rat.

A BETTER RAT? Benefit #62 of the California Stem Cell Agency

By Don C. Reed

When I told my wife Gloria I was writing an article about rats, she had several comments, including: “Oo, ugh!” and also “That’s disgusting!”

Obviously, there are problems with rats, such as when they chew through electrical wires, which may cause a short circuit and burn down the house. Also, they are blamed for carrying diseased fleas in their ears and spreading the Black Plague, which in 1340 killed half of China and one-third of Europe—but this is not certain. The plague may in fact have been transmitted by human-carried parasites.

But there are positive aspects to rats as well. For instance: “…a rat paired with  another that has a disability…will be very kind to the other rat. Usually, help is offered with food, cleaning, and general care.”—GUIDE TO THE RAT, by Ginger Cardinal.

Above all, anyone who has ever been sick owes a debt to rats, specifically the Norway rat with that spectacular name, rattus norvegicus domesticus, found in labs around the world.

I first realized its importance on March 1, 2002, when I held in my hand a rat which had been paralyzed, but then recovered the use of its limbs.

The rat’s name was Fighter, and she had been given a derivative of embryonic stem cells, which restored function to her limbs. (This was the famous stem cell therapy begun by Hans Keirstead with a Roman Reed grant, developed by Geron, and later by CIRM and Asterias, which later benefited humans.)

As I felt the tiny muscles struggling to be free, it was like touching tomorrow— while my paralyzed son, Roman Reed, sat in his wheelchair just a few feet away.

Was it different working with rats instead of mice? I had heard that the far smaller lab mice were more “bitey” than rats.  

Wanting to know more about the possibilities of a “better rat”, I went to the CIRM website, (www.cirm.ca.gov) hunted up the “Tools and Technology III” section, and the following complicated sentence::

“Embryonic stem cell- based generation of rat models for assessing human cellular therapies.”

Hmm. With science writing, it always takes me a couple of readings to know what they were talking about. But I recognized some of the words, so that was a start.

“Stemcells… rat models… human therapies….”  

I called up Dr. Qilong Ying, Principle Investigator (PI) of the study.

As he began to talk, I felt a “click” of recognition, as if, like pieces of a puzzle, facts were fitting together.

It reminded me of Jacques Cousteau, the great underwater explorer, when he tried to invent a way to breathe underwater. He had the compressed air tank, and a mouthpiece that would release air—but it came in a rush, not normal breathing.

So he visited his friend, race car mechanic Emil Gagnan, and told him, “I need something that will give me air, but only when I inhale,”– and Gagnan said: “Like that?” and pointed to a metal contraption on a nearby table.

It was something invented for cars. But by adding it to what Cousteau already had, the Cousteau-Gagnan SCUBA (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) gear was born—and the ocean could now be explored.

Qi-Long Ying’s contribution to science may also be a piece of the puzzle of cure…

A long-term collaboration with Dr. Austin Smith centered on an attempt to do with rats what had done with mice.

In 2007, the  Nobel Prize in Medicine had been won by Dr. Martin Evans, Mario Capecchi, and Oliver Smithies. Working independently, they developed “knock-out” and “knock-in” mice, meaning to take out a gene, or put one in.  

But could they do the same with rats?

 “We and others worked very, very hard, and got nowhere,” said Dr. Evans.

Why was this important?

Many human diseases cannot be mimicked in the mouse—but might be in the rat. This is for several reasons: the rat is about ten times larger; its internal workings are closer to those of a human; and the rat is considered several million years closer (in evolutionary terms) to humans than the mouse.

In 2008 (“in China, that is the year of the rat,” noted Dr. Ying in our conversation) he received the first of three grants from CIRM.

“We proposed to use the classical embryonic stem cell-based gene-targeting technology to generate rat models mimicking human heart failure, diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases…”

How did he do?

In 2010, Science Magazine honored him with inclusion in their “Top 10 Breakthroughs for using embryonic stem cell-based gene targeting to produce the world’s first knockout rats, modified to lack one or more genes…”

And in 2016, he and Dr. Smith received the McEwen Award for Innovation,  the highest honor bestowed by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR).

Using knowledge learned from the new (and more relevant to humans) lab rat, it may be possible to develop methods for the expansion of stem cells directly inside the patient’s own bone marrow. Stem cells derived in this fashion would be far less likely to be rejected by the patient.  To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, they would be “of the patient, by the patient and for the patient—and shall not perish from the patient”—sorry!

Several of the rats generated in Ying’s lab (to mimic human diseases) were so successful that they have been donated to the Rat Research Resource center so that other scientists can use them for their study.

“Maybe in the future we will develop a cure for some diseases because of knowledge from using rat models,” said Ying. “I think it’s very possible. So we want more researchers from USC and beyond to come and use this technology.”

And it all began with the humble rat…

Stem Cell Agency Invests in New Immunotherapy Approach to HIV, Plus Promising Projects Targeting Blindness and Leukemia

HIV AIDS

While we have made great progress in developing therapies that control the AIDS virus, HIV/AIDS remains a chronic condition and HIV medicines themselves can give rise to a new set of medical issues. That’s why the Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has awarded $3.8 million to a team from City of Hope to develop an HIV immunotherapy.

The City of Hope team, led by Xiuli Wang, is developing a chimeric antigen receptor T cell or CAR-T that will enable them to target and kill HIV Infection. These CAR-T cells are designed to respond to a vaccine to expand on demand to battle residual HIV as required.

Jeff Sheehy

CIRM Board member Jeff Sheehy

Jeff Sheehy, a CIRM Board member and patient advocate for HIV/AIDS, says there is a real need for a new approach.

“With 37 million people worldwide living with HIV, including one million Americans, a single treatment that cures is desperately needed.  An exciting feature of this approach is the way it is combined with the cytomegalovirus (CMV) vaccine. Making CAR T therapies safer and more efficient would not only help produce a new HIV treatment but would help with CAR T cancer therapies and could facilitate CAR T therapies for other diseases.”

This is a late stage pre-clinical program with a goal of developing the cell therapy and getting the data needed to apply to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permission to start a clinical trial.

The Board also approved three projects under its Translation Research Program, this is promising research that is building on basic scientific studies to hopefully create new therapies.

  • $5.068 million to University of California at Los Angeles’ Steven Schwartz to use a patient’s own adult cells to develop a treatment for diseases of the retina that can lead to blindness
  • $4.17 million to Karin Gaensler at the University of California at San Francisco to use a leukemia patient’s own cells to develop a vaccine that will stimulate their immune system to attack and destroy leukemia stem cells
  • Almost $4.24 million to Stanford’s Ted Leng to develop an off-the-shelf treatment for age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of vision loss in the elderly.

The Board also approved funding for seven projects in the Discovery Quest Program. The Quest program promotes the discovery of promising new stem cell-based technologies that will be ready to move to the next level, the translational category, within two years, with an ultimate goal of improving patient care.

Application Title Institution CIRM Committed Funding
DISC2-10979 Universal Pluripotent Liver Failure Therapy (UPLiFT)

 

Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles $1,297,512

 

DISC2-11105 Pluripotent stem cell-derived bladder epithelial progenitors for definitive cell replacement therapy of bladder cancer

 

Stanford $1,415,016
DISC2-10973 Small Molecule Proteostasis Regulators to Treat Photoreceptor Diseases

 

U.C. San Diego $1,160,648
DISC2-11070 Drug Development for Autism Spectrum Disorder Using Human Patient iPSCs

 

Scripps $1,827,576
DISC2-11183 A screen for drugs to protect against chemotherapy-induced hearing loss, using sensory hair cells derived by direct lineage reprogramming from hiPSCs

 

University of Southern California $833,971
DISC2-11199 Modulation of the Wnt pathway to restore inner ear function

 

Stanford $1,394,870
DISC2-11109 Regenerative Thymic Tissues as Curative Cell Therapy for Patients with 22q11 Deletion Syndrome

 

Stanford $1,415,016

Finally, the Board approved the Agency’s 2019 research budget. Given CIRM’s new partnership with the National Heart, Lung, Blood Institute (NHLBI) to accelerate promising therapies that could help people with Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) the Agency is proposing to set aside $30 million in funding for this program.

barbara_lee_official_photo

Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA 13th District)

“I am deeply grateful for organizations like CIRM and NHLBI that do vital work every day to help people struggling with Sickle Cell Disease,” said Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA 13th District). “As a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, I know well the importance of this work. This innovative partnership between CIRM and NHLBI is an encouraging sign of progress, and I applaud both organizations for their tireless work to cure Sickle Cell Disease.”

Under the agreement CIRM and the NHLBI will coordinate efforts to identify and co-fund promising therapies targeting SCD.  Programs that are ready to start an IND-enabling or clinical trial project for sickle cell can apply to CIRM for funding from both agencies. CIRM will share application information with the NHLBI and CIRM’s Grants Working Group (GWG) – an independent panel of experts which reviews the scientific merits of applications – will review the applications and make recommendations. The NHLBI will then quickly decide if it wants to partner with CIRM on co-funding the project and if the CIRM governing Board approves the project for funding, the two organizations will agree on a cost-sharing partnership for the clinical trial. CIRM will then set the milestones and manage the single CIRM award and all monitoring of the project.

“This is an extraordinary opportunity to create a first-of-its-kind partnership with the NHLBI to accelerate the development of curative cell and gene treatments for patients suffering with Sickle Cell Disease” says Maria T. Millan, MD, President & CEO of CIRM. “This allows us to multiply the impact each dollar has to find relief for children and adults who battle with this life-threatening, disabling condition that results in a dramatically shortened lifespan.  We are pleased to be able to leverage CIRM’s acceleration model, expertise and infrastructure to partner with the NHLBI to find a cure for this condition that afflicts 100,000 Americans and millions around the globe.”

The budget for 2019 is:

Program type 2019
CLIN1 & 2

CLIN1& 2 Sickle Cell Disease

$93 million

$30 million

TRANSLATIONAL $20 million
DISCOVER $0
EDUCATION $600K

 

 

Hits and Myths as people celebrate Stem Cell Awareness Day

UC Davis #1

Stem Cell Awareness Day at UC Davis

Every year, the second Wednesday in October is set aside as Stem Cell Awareness Day, a time to celebrate the progress being made in the field and to remind us of the challenges that lie ahead.

While the event began here in California in 2008, with then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger highlighting the work of CIRM, saying: ”The discoveries being made today in our Golden State will have a great impact on many around the world for generations to come.” It has since grown to become a global event.

Here in California, for example, UC Davis and the University of Southern California (USC) both held events to mark the day.

At UC Davis Jan Nolta, PhD., the Director of the Stem Cell Program, introduced a series of speakers who highlighted the terrific work being done at the university. Peter Belafsky talked about using stem cells to repair damaged trachea and to help people who are experiencing voice or swallowing disorders. Mark Lee highlighted the progress being made in using stem cells to repair hard-to-heal broken bones. Aijun Wang focused on some really exciting work that could one day lead to a therapy for spina bifida (including some ridiculously cute video of English bulldogs who are able to walk again because of this therapy.)

USC hosted 100 local high school students for a panel presentation and discussion about careers in stem cell research. The panel featured four scientists talking about their experience, why the students should think about a career in science and how to go about planning one. USC put together a terrific video of the researchers talking about their experiences, something that can help any student around the US consider becoming part of the future of stem cell research.

Similar events were held in other institutions around California. But the celebration wasn’t limited to the Golden State. At the Texas Heart Institute in Houston, Texas, they held an event to talk to the public about the clinical trials they are supporting using stem cells to help people suffering from heart failure or other heart-related issues.

RegMedNet

Finally, the UK-based RegMedNet, a community site that unites the diverse regenerative medicine community, marked the day by exploring some of the myths and misconceptions still surrounding stem cells and stem cell research.

You can read those here.

Every group takes a different approach to celebrating Stem Cell Awareness Day, but each is united by a common desire, to help people understand the progress being made in finding new treatments and even cures for people with unmet medical needs.

Timing is a critical factor in kidney development

Through countless studies, it’s clear that genes and environmental factors are important for determining cellular identity. Now, a research team at the University of Southern California  (USC) have found that timing is another critical factor in determining cell fate during organ development.

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Developing human nephron, the filtering unit of the kidney. Image by Nils O. Lindstrom and Tracy Tran/McMahon Lab USC Stem Cell

In findings published in Development Cell, Dr. Andy McMahon’s group shows that development of the nephron, the filtering structure of the kidney, is acutely dependent on when cells arrive in that developmental region. Cells that arrive in the developing nephron early become part of the tubule, which is responsible for reabsorption of water and salt, whereas cells that arrive late become part of the glomerulus, the structure that is responsible for filtering blood.

The scientists verified that timing influenced cell identity with a combination of microscopy, which allowed them to follow particular cell types as they developed, and single-cell RNA sequencing, which allowed them to determine how gene expression changes in a population of cells.

In a press release, Dr. McMahon details the importance of these findings:

“By studying normal human nephron development, we’re gaining important information about how to replicate this intricate process in the laboratory. The hope is that laboratory-grown nephrons can be used to further study the process of development, screen potential therapies to treat disease, and eventually provide the building blocks to assemble functional kidneys for transplantation into patients.”

Understanding kidney development is crucial because approximately 30 million people suffer from chronic kidney disease and it is the ninth leading cause of death in the United States alone. Insights into the basics of kidney biology can provide important advances to develop novel therapeutics for this devastating condition.

Friday Stem Cell Round: Ask the Expert Facebook Live, Old Brain Cells Reveal Insights and Synthetic Development

Stem Cell Photo of the Week: We’re Live on Facebook Live!

Our stem cell photo of the week is a screenshot from yesterday’s Facebook Live event: “Ask the Expert: Stem Cells and Stroke”. It was our first foray into Facebook Live and, dare I say, it was a success with over 150 comments and 4,500 views during the live broadcast.

FacebookLive_AskExperts_Stroke_IMG_1656

Screen shot of yesterday’s Facebook Live event. Panelists included (from top left going clockwise): Sonia Coontz, Kevin McCormack, Gary Steinberg, MD, PhD and Lila Collins, PhD.

Our panel included Dr. Gary Steinberg, MD, PhD, the Chair of Neurosurgery at Stanford University, who talked about promising clinical trial results testing a stem cell-based treatment for stroke. Lila Collins, PhD, a Senior Science Officer here at CIRM, provided a big picture overview of the latest progress in stem cell therapies for stroke. Sonia Coontz, a patient of Dr. Steinberg’s, also joined the live broadcast. She suffered a devastating stroke several years ago and made a remarkable recovery after getting a stem cell therapy. She had an amazing story to tell. And Kevin McCormack, CIRM’s Senior Director of Public Communications, moderated the discussion.

Did you miss the Facebook Live event? Not to worry. You can watch it on-demand on our Facebook Page.

What other disease areas would you like us to discuss? We plan to have these Ask the Expert shows on a regular basis so let us know by commenting here or emailing us at info@cirm.ca.gov!

Brain cells’ energy “factories” may be to blame for age-related disease

Salk Institute researchers published results this week that shed new light on why the brains of older individuals may be more prone to neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. To make this discovery, the team applied a technique they devised back in 2015 which directly converts skin cells into brain cells, aka neurons. The method skips the typical intermediate step of reprogramming the skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).

They collected skin samples from people ranging in age from 0 to 89 and generated neurons from each. With these cells in hand, the researchers then examined how increased age affects the neurons’ mitochondria, the structures responsible for producing a cell’s energy needs. Previous studies have shown a connection between faulty mitochondria and age-related disease.

While the age of the skin cells had no bearing on the health of the mitochondria, it was a different story once they were converted into neurons. The mitochondria in neurons derived from older individuals clearly showed signs of deterioration and produced less energy.

Aged-mitochondria-green-in-old-neurons-gray-appear-mostly-as-small-punctate-dots-rather-than-a-large-interconnected-network-300x301

Aged mitochondria (green) in old neurons (gray) appear mostly as small punctate dots rather than a large interconnected network. Credit: Salk Institute.

The researchers think this stark difference in the impact of age on skin cells vs. neurons may occur because neurons have higher energy needs. So, the effects of old age on mitochondria only become apparent in the neurons. In a press release, Salk scientist Jerome Mertens explained the result using a great analogy:

“If you have an old car with a bad engine that sits in your garage every day, it doesn’t matter. But if you’re commuting with that car, the engine becomes a big problem.”

The team is now eager to use this method to examine mitochondrial function in neurons derived from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patient skin samples and compared them with skin-derived neurons from similarly-aged, healthy individuals.

The study, funded in part by CIRM, was published in Cell Reports.

“Synthetically” Programming embryo development

One of the most intriguing, most fundamental questions in biology is how an embryo, basically a non-descript ball of cells, turns into a complex animal with eyes, a brain, a heart, etc. A deep understanding of this process will help researchers who aim to rebuild damaged or diseased organs for patients in need.

3-layer_1.16.9

Researchers programmed cells to self-assemble into complex structures such as this one with three differently colored layers. Credit: Wendell Lim/UCSF

A fascinating report published this week describes a system that allows researchers to program cells to self-organize into three-dimensional structures that mimic those seen during early development. The study applied a customizable, synthetic signaling molecule called synNotch developed in the Wendell Lim’s UCSF lab by co-author Kole Roybal, PhD, now an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at UCSF, and Leonardo Morsut, PhD, now an assistant professor of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine at the University of Southern California.

A UCSF press release by Nick Weiler describes how synNotch was used:

“The researchers engineered cells to respond to specific signals from neighboring cells by producing Velcro-like adhesion molecules called cadherins as well as fluorescent marker proteins. Remarkably, just a few simple forms of collective cell communication were sufficient to cause ensembles of cells to change color and self-organize into multi-layered structures akin to simple organisms or developing tissues.”

Senior author Wendell Lim also explained how this system could overcome the challenges facing those aiming to build organs via 3D bioprinting technologies:

“People talk about 3D-printing organs, but that is really quite different from how biology builds tissues. Imagine if you had to build a human by meticulously placing every cell just where it needs to be and gluing it in place. It’s equally hard to imagine how you would print a complete organ, then make sure it was hooked up properly to the bloodstream and the rest of the body. The beauty of self-organizing systems is that they are autonomous and compactly encoded. You put in one or a few cells, and they grow and organize, taking care of the microscopic details themselves.”

Study was published in Science.

Stem Cell Roundup: Protein shows promise in treating deadliest form of breast cancer: mosquito spit primes our body for disease

Triple negative breast cancerTriple negative breast cancer is more aggressive and difficult to treat than other forms of the disease and, as a result, is more likely to spread throughout the body and to recur after treatment. Now a team at the University of Southern California have identified a protein that could help change that.

The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, showed that a protein called TAK1 allows cancer cells from the tumor to migrate to the lungs and then form new tumors which can spread throughout the body. There is already an FDA-approved drug called OXO that has been shown to block TAK1, but this does not survive in the blood so it’s hard to deliver to the lungs.

The USC team found a way of using nanoparticles, essentially a tiny delivery system, to take OXO and carry it to the lungs to attack the cancer cells and stop them spreading.

triple_negative_breast_cancer_particle_graphic-768x651In a news release Min Yu, the principal investigator on the team, said that although this has only been tested in mice the results are encouraging:

“For patients with triple-negative breast cancer, systemic chemotherapies are largely ineffective and highly toxic. So, nanoparticles are a promising approach for delivering more targeted treatments, such as OXO, to stop the deadly process of metastasis.”

Mosquito spit and your immune system

Mosquito

Mosquito bite: Photo courtesy National Academy of Sciences

Anyone who has ever been bitten by a mosquito knows that it can be itchy and irritable for hours afterwards. But now scientists say the impact of that bite can last for much longer, days in fact, and even help prime your body for disease.

The scientists say that every time a mosquito bites you they inject saliva into the bite to keep the blood flowing freely. But that saliva also has an impact on your immune system, leaving it more vulnerable to diseases like malaria.

OK, so that’s fascinating, and really quite disgusting, but what does it have to do with stem cells? Well, researchers at the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) Malaria and Vector Research Laboratory in Phnom Penh, Cambodia engrafted human stem cells into mice to study the problem.

They found that mice with the human stem cells developed more severe symptoms of dengue fever if they were bitten by a mosquito than if they were just injected with dengue fever.

In an article in Popular Science Jessica Manning, an infectious disease expert at the NIH, said previously we had no idea that mosquito spit had such a big impact on us:

“The virus present in that mosquito’s saliva, it’s like a Trojan horse. Your body is distracted by the saliva [and] having an allergic reaction when really it should be having an antiviral reaction and fighting against the virus. Your body is unwittingly helping the virus establish infection because your immune system is sending in new waves of cells that this virus is able to infect.”

The good news is that if we can develop a vaccine against the saliva we may be able to protect people against malaria, dengue fever, Zika and other mosquito-borne diseases.

The moment of truth. A video about the stem cell therapy that could help millions of people going blind.

“No matter how much one prepares, the first patient is always something very special.” That’s how Dr. Mark Humayun describes his feelings as he prepared to deliver a CIRM-funded stem cell therapy to help someone going blind from dry age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

Humayun, an ophthalmologist and stem cell researcher at USC, spent years developing this therapy and so it’s understandable that he might be a little nervous finally getting a chance to see if it works in people.

It’s quite a complicated procedure, involving turning embryonic stem cells into the kind of cells that are destroyed by AMD, placing those cells onto a specially developed synthetic scaffold and then surgically implanting the cells and scaffold onto the back of the eye.

There’s a real need for a treatment for AMD, the leading cause of vision loss in the US. Right now, there is no effective therapy for AMD and some three million Americans are facing the prospect of losing their eyesight.

The first, preliminary, results of this trial were released last week and they were encouraging. You can read about them on our blog.

Thanks to USC you can also see the team that developed and executed this promising approach. They created a video capturing the moment the team were finally taking all that hard work and delivering it where it matters, to the patient.

Watching the video it’s hard not to think you are watching a piece of history, something that has the potential to do more than just offer hope to people losing their vision, it has the potential to stop and even reverse that process.

The video is a salute to the researchers who developed the therapy, and the doctors, nurses and Operating Room team who delivered it. It’s also a salute to the person lying down, the patient who volunteered to be the first to try this. Everyone in that room is a pioneer.