UCLA gene therapy offers children with LAD-1 a new chance at living a normal life

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Photo courtesy of Tamara Hogue/UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center

Leukocyte adhesion deficiency type 1 (LAD-1) is a rare pediatric disorder that causes the immune system to malfunction, resulting in recurrent, often severe, bacterial and fungal infections as well as delayed wound healing. This is because of a missing protein that would normally enable white blood cells to stick to blood vessel walls- a crucial step that is needed before moving outside the vessel walls and into tissues to fight infections. If left undiagnosed and untreated, LAD-1 is fatal and most children with the disorder will die before the age of 2.

When Marley Gaskins was finally diagnosed with LAD-1 at age 8 (an extraordinary feat on its own) she had already spent countless hours hospitalized and required round the clock attention and care. The only possible cure was a risky bone marrow transplant from a matched donor, a procedure so rarely performed that there is no data to determine the survival rate.

In search of a better treatment option, Marley’s family came across a clinical trial for children with LAD-1 led by Dr. Donald Kohn, MD, a researcher in the UCLA Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research. 

The novel clinical trial, sponsored by Rocket Pharmaceuticals and CIRM, uses gene therapy in a treatment that works by harvesting the defective blood-making stem cells, correcting the mutation in a lab, and then transplanting the properly functioning cells back into the child’s body. The process eliminates the potential rejection risks of a bone marrow transplant because the corrected cells are the patient’s own.

For Marley’s family, the decision was a no-brainer. “I didn’t hesitate in letting her be a participant in the trial,” Marley’s mother, Tamara Hogue explains, “because I knew in my heart that this would give her a chance at having a normal life.”

In 2019, 9-year-old Marley became the first LAD-1 patient ever to receive the stem cell gene therapy. In the following year, five more children received the gene therapy at UCLA, including three siblings. And Last week, Dr. Kohn reported at the American Society of Hematology Annual Meeting and Exposition that all the children “remain healthy and disease-free”. 

More than two years out of treatment, Marley’s life and daily activities are no longer constricted by the frequent and severe infections that kept her returning to the hospital for months at a time. Instead, she enjoys being an average 12-year-old: going camping, getting her ears pierced, and most importantly, attending what she calls “big school” in the coming year. For patients and families alike, the gene therapy’s success has been like a rebirth. Doctors expect that the one-time therapy will keep LAD-1 patients healthy for life.

Researchers develop a stem cell-based implant for cartilage restoration and treating osteoarthritis

The Plurocart’s scaffold membrane seeded with stem cell-derived chondrocytes. Image courtesy of USC Photo/Denis Evseenko.

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Researchers at the Keck School of Medicine of USC have used a stem cell-based bio-implant to repair cartilage and delay joint degeneration in a large animal model. This paves the way to potentially treat humans with cartilage injuries and osteoarthritis, which occurs when the protective cartilage at the ends of the bones wears down over time. The disorder affects millions worldwide.

 The researchers are using this technology to manufacture the first 64 implants to be tested on humans with support from a $6 million grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

Researchers Dr. Denis Evseenko, and Dr. Frank Petrigliano led the development of the therapeutic bio-implant, called Plurocart. It’s composed of a scaffold membrane seeded with stem cell-derived chondrocytes, the cells responsible for producing and maintaining healthy articular cartilage tissue. 

In the study, the researchers implanted the Plurocart membrane into a pig model of osteoarthritis, resulting in the long-term repair of articular cartilage defects. Evseenko said the findings are significant because the implant fully integrated in the damaged articular cartilage tissue and survived for up to six months. “Previous studies have not been able to show survival of an implant for such a long time,” Evseenko added.

The researchers also found that the cartilage tissue generated was strong enough to withstand compression and elastic enough to accommodate movement without breaking.

Osteoarthritis, an often-painful disorder, can affect any joint, but most commonly affects those in our knees, hips, hands and spine. The USC researchers hope their implant will help prevent the development of arthritis and alleviate the need for invasive joint replacement surgeries.

“Many of the current options for cartilage injury are expensive, involve complex logistical planning, and often result in incomplete regeneration,” said Petrigliano. “Plurocart represents a practical, inexpensive, one-stage therapy that may be more effective in restoring damaged cartilage and improve the outcome of such procedures.”

Read the full study here and learn more about the CIRM grant here.

Lack of diversity leaves cloud hanging over asthma drug study

Asthma spacer, photo courtesy Wiki Media Creative Commons

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If you want to know if a new drug or therapy is going to work in the people it affects the most you need to test the drug or therapy in the people most affected by the disease. That would seem blindingly obvious, wouldn’t it? Apparently not.

Case in point. A new asthma medication, one that seemingly shows real promise in reducing attacks in children, was tested on an almost entirely white patient population, even though Black and Puerto Rican children are far more likely to suffer from asthma.

The study enrolled more than 400 children, between the ages of 6 and 11, with moderate to serious uncontrolled asthma and treated them with a medication called Dupixent. The results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, were impressive. Children given Dupixent had an average drop in severe asthma attacks of 65 percent compared to children given a placebo.

The only problem is 90 percent of the children in the study were white. Why is that a problem? Because, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, only 9.5 percent of white children have asthma, compared to 24 percent of Puerto Rican children and 18 percent of Black children. So, the groups most likely to suffer from the disease were disproportionately excluded from a study about a treatment for the disease.

Some people might think, “So what! If the medication works for one kid it will work for another, what does race have to do with it?” Quite a lot actually.

A study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology concluded that: “Race/ethnicity modified the association between total IgE (an antibody in the blood that is a marker for asthma) and asthma exacerbations. Elevated IgE level was associated with worse asthma outcomes in Puerto Ricans… Our findings suggest that eligibility for asthma biologic therapies differs across pediatric racial/ethnic populations.”

The article concluded by calling for “more studies in diverse populations for equitable treatment of minority patients with asthma.” Something that clearly didn’t happen in the Dupixent study.

While that’s more than disappointing, it’s not surprising. A recent study of vaccine clinical trials in JAMA Network Open found that:

  • Overall, white individuals made up almost 80 percent of people enrolled.
  • Black individuals were represented only 10.6 percent of the time.
  • Latino participants were represented just 11.6 percent of the time. 

Additionally, in pediatric trials, Black participants were represented just over 10 percent of the time and Latino participants were represented 22.5 percent of the time. The study concluded by saying that “diversity enrollment targets are needed for vaccine trials in the US.”

I would expand on that, saying they are needed for all clinical trials. That’s one of the many reasons why we at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) are making Diversity, Equity and Inclusion an important part of everything we do, such as requiring all applicants to have a written DEI plan if they want funding from us. Dr. Maria Millan, our President and CEO, recently co-authored an article in Nature Cell Biology, driving home the need for greater diversity in basic science and research in general.

DEI has become an important part of the conversation this past year. But the Dupixent trial shows that if we are truly serious about making it part of what we do, we have to stop talking and start acting.

Stem Cell Agency Board Approves Roadmap for Next Five Years

Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO

It’s hard to get somewhere if you don’t know where you are going. Without a map you can’t plan a route to your destination. That’s why the CIRM Board approved a new Strategic Plan laying out a roadmap for the Stem Cell Agency for the next five years.

The plan builds on the achievements of Proposition 71, the voter approved ballot initiative that created the Agency in 2004, including:

  • Supporting 76 clinical trials.
  • Helping cure more than 40 children born with a rare, fatal immune disorder.
  • Creating the Alpha Clinics Network that specializes in the delivery of stem cell therapies to patients.
  • Training over 3000 students and scholars to become the future workforce of regenerative medicine.
  • Stimulating California’s economy with $10.7 Billion in additional sales revenue and the creation of 56,000 new jobs (between 2004-2018)

The passage of Proposition 14 in 2020 has positioned CIRM to continue to accelerate research from discovery to clinical; to drive innovative, real-world solutions resulting in transformative treatments for patients; and to ensure the affordability and accessibility of those treatments to a diverse community of patients in an equitable manner, including those often overlooked or underrepresented in the past.

“We achieved a lot in the last 15 years and this provides a solid foundation for our strategy to bring us to the new era of CIRM and to deliver the full potential of regenerative medicine, says Dr. Maria T. Millan, the President and CEO of CIRM. “This plan lays out a roadmap for us to overcome the challenges in developing transformative therapies and making them accessible and affordable in an equitable fashion to a diverse California. The plan will guide us in that work through the development of novel scientific endeavors, effective healthcare delivery models, and expanded education and training programs.”

The Strategic Plan is organized into three main themes:

  • Advance World Class Science – Foster a culture of collaborative science by creating knowledge networks and shared research tools and technologies that encourage and facilitate data and resource sharing.
  • Deliver Real World Solutions – Accelerate approval of therapies by optimizing our support models for CIRM-funded clinical trials with attention to including underserved communities; build the California Manufacturing Network to overcome manufacturing hurdles; and expand the Alpha Clinics network and create the Community Care Centers of Excellence to deliver therapies to a diverse patient population often in underserved communities.
  • Provide Opportunity for All – Build a racially, ethnically and experientially diverse and highly skilled workforce to support the growing regenerative medicine economy in California; deliver a roadmap for access and affordability of regenerative medicine for all California patients.

Reflecting these goals, CIRM’s new mission statement is: Accelerating world class science to deliver transformative regenerative medicine treatments in an equitable manner to a diverse California and world.

“We realize that these are ambitious goals but they are achievable,” says Dr. Millan, “If CIRM is going to continue to be a global leader in the field of regenerative medicine, and to live up to the faith shown in us by the people of California, we believe we have to aim high. We have a terrific team, a clear vision and a determination to fulfill our mission. And that’s what we intend to do.”

How some brilliant research may have uncovered a potential therapy for Alzheimer’s 

Dr. Nicole Koutsodendris, photo courtesy Gladstone Institutes

In the world of scientific research, the people doing clinical trials tend to suck up all the oxygen in the room. They’re the stars, the ones who are bringing potential therapies to patients. However, there’s another group of researchers who toil away in the background, but who are equally deserving of praise and gratitude. 

Dr. Lana Zholudeva, photo courtesy Gladstone Institutes

These are the scientists who do basic or discovery-level research. This is where all great therapies start. This is where a researcher gets an idea and tests it to see if it holds promise. A good idea and a scientist who asks a simple question, “I wonder if…..”  

Dr. Yadong Huang, Photo courtesy Gladstone Institutes

In our latest “Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation” podcast we talk to three researchers who are asking those questions and getting some truly encouraging answers. They are scientists at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco: one seasoned scientist and two young post-docs trying to make a name for themselves. And they might just have discovered a therapy that could help people battling Alzheimer’s disease. 

Enjoy the podcast.


  

Newly-developed Organoid Mimics How Gut and Heart Tissues Arise Cooperatively From Stem Cells 

Microscopy image of the new type of organoid created by Todd McDevitt, Ana Silva, and their colleagues in which heart tissue (red, purple, and orange masses) and gut tissue (blue and green masses) are growing together. Captured by Ana Silva.
Microscopy image of the new type of organoid created by Todd McDevitt, Ana Silva, and their colleagues in which heart tissue (red, purple, and orange masses) and gut tissue (blue and green masses) are growing together. Captured by Ana Silva. Image courtesy of Gladstone Institutes.

Scientists at Gladstone Institutes have discovered how to grow a first-of-its-kind organoid—a three-dimensional, organ-like cluster of cells—that mimics how gut and heart tissues arise cooperatively from stem cells.  

The study was supported by a grant from CIRM and the Gladstone BioFulcrum Heart Failure Research Program. 

Gladstone Senior Investigator Todd McDevitt, PhD said this first-of-its-kind organoid could serve as a new tool for laboratory research and improve our understanding of how developing organs and tissues cooperate and instruct each other. 

McDevitt’s team creates heart organoids from human induced pluripotent stem cells, coaxing them into becoming heart cells by growing them in various cocktails of nutrients and other naturally occurring substances. In this case, the scientists tried a different cocktail to potentially allow a greater variety of heart cells to form. 

To their surprise, they found that the new cocktail led to organoids that contained not only heart, but also gut cells. 

“We were intrigued because organoids normally develop into a single type of tissue—for example, heart tissue only,” says Ana Silva, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in the McDevitt Lab and first author of the new study. “Here, we had both heart and gut tissues growing together in a controlled manner, much as they would in a normal embryo.” 

Shown here is the study’s first author, Ana Silva, a postdoctoral scholar in the McDevitt Lab. Image courtesy of Gladstone Institutes.

The researchers also found that compared to conventional heart organoids, the new organoids resulted in much more complex and mature heart structures—including some resembling more mature-like blood vessels. 

These organoids offer a promising new look into the relationship between developing tissues, which has so far relied on growing single-tissue organoids separately and then attempting to combine them. Not only that, the organoids could help clarify how the process of human development can go wrong and provide insight on congenital disorders like chronic atrial and intestinal dysrhythmias that are known to affect both heart and gut development. 

“Once it became clear that the presence of the gut tissue contributed to the maturity of the heart tissue, we realized we had arrived at something new and special,” says McDevitt. 

Read the official release about this study on Gladstone’s website

The study findings are published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

Now-Defunct For-Profit Stem Cell Clinic Ordered to Pay $5.1 Million for Scamming Patients Through False Advertising

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Photo of New York Attorney General Letitia James courtesy Wikimedia commons

A now-defunct New York City for-profit stem cell clinic — Park Avenue Stem Cell — was order by court to pay $5.1 million in potential consumer restitution, penalties, and costs for fraudulently and illegally advertising their stem cell procedures. The judgment resolves a 2019 lawsuit by New York State Attorney General Letitia James which claimed the defendants’ scammed patients out of thousands of dollars each for unproven and potentially harmful medical treatments involving stem cells. 

According to the lawsuit, the clinic falsely advertised on their website, social media, television, and foreign language newspapers that they could treat a variety of serious medical conditions — including erectile dysfunction and Parkinson’s disease — using patients’ own stem cells. Consumers paid the clinic nearly $4,000 per procedure, with some consumers paying more than $20,000 for multiple procedures. Most of the procedures involved adipose stem cells, which are derived from a patient’s own fat tissues.   

The court says the defendants misrepresented that their procedures were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), that their patients were participating in an established research study, and that their procedures had been endorsed by several scientific and medical organizations.   

As a state agency, CIRM’s duty is to educate the public about the concerns over “stem cell tourism” and the growing number of predatory clinics that advertise unproven stem cell therapies at great cost to the patient.  

In addition to hosting public forums on stem cell tourism concerns and resources for patients seeking stem cell treatments, CIRM partnered with California State Senator Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) to create a new law that attempts to address the issue. The bill, SB 512, was passed in 2017 and now requires medical clinics whose stem cell treatments are not FDA approved to post notices and provide handouts to patients warning them about the potential risk.  

Read more about this lawsuit at the New York Attorney general’s website. 

Producing insulin for people who can’t

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ViaCyte’s implantable stem cell pouch

One of the huge advantages of a stem cell agency like CIRM (not that there is anything out there quite like us, but anyway) is our ability to support projects as they progress from a great idea to a therapy actually being tested in people.

Exhibit A on that front came via a news release from ViaCyte, a company that is developing a new approach to helping people with severe Type 1 Diabetes (T1D).

Unlike type 2 diabetes, which is largely diet & lifestyle related and develops over time, T1D is an autoimmune condition where the person’s immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Without those cells and insulin the body is not able to regulate blood sugar levels and that can lead to damage to the heart, kidneys, eyes and nerves. In severe cases it can be fatal.

ViaCyte (which has been supported with more than $72 million from CIRM) has developed a pouch that can be implanted under the skin in the back. This pouch contains stem cells that over a period of a few months turn into insulin-producing pancreatic islet cells, the kind destroyed by T1D. The goal is for these cells to monitor blood flow and when they detect blood sugar or glucose levels are high, can secrete insulin to restore them to a safe level.

They tested this approach in 15 patients in a Phase 1 clinical trial in Canada. Their findings, published in the journals Cell Stem Cell and Cell Reports Medicine, show that six months after implantation, the cells had turned into insulin-producing islet cells. They also showed a rise in C-peptide levels after patients ate a meal. C-peptides are a sign your body is producing insulin so the rise in that number was a good indication the implanted cells were boosting insulin production.

As Dr. James Shapiro, the Chair of Canada Research and one of the lead authors of the study says, that’s no small achievement: “The data from these papers represent a significant scientific advance. It is the first reported evidence that differentiated stem cells implanted in patients can generate meal-regulated insulin secretion, offering real hope for the incredible potential of this treatment.”

And that wasn’t all. The researchers say that patients spent 13 percent more time in the target range for blood sugar levels than before the treatment, and some were even able to reduce the amount of insulin they injected.

Now this is only a Phase 1 clinical trial so the goal was to test the safety of the pouch, called PEC-Direct (VC-02), to see if the body would tolerate it being implanted and to see if it is effective. The beauty of this method is that the device is implanted under the skin so it can be removed easily if any problems emerge. So far none have.

Ultimately the hope is that this approach will help patients with T1D better regulate their blood sugar levels, improve their health outcomes, and one day even achieve independence from the burden of daily insulin injections.

The Evolution of World AIDS Day: Then and Now 

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TIME cover stories on AIDS through the years

A truly modern epidemic, HIV/AIDS has hit every continent on the planet and affects nearly 40 million people worldwide. Today, we celebrate World AIDS Day by commemorating those who have died from AIDS-related illness, showing support for people living with HIV, and fighting for a cure. 

World AIDS Day was first observed in 1988 and takes place on December 1st each year. The first ever global health day, the path to acceptance and scientific advancements towards HIV/AIDS hasn’t been easy. Over the past four decades, the epidemic has changed enormously and so, too, has the global agenda. Universal testing is the main key to halting the number of new infections. Scientific advances in HIV treatment have prolonged lives and, in many cases, even made the virus undetectable. But this battle is far from over. 

40 years ago, in the spring of 1981, a mystery illness began exploding across the gay communities of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Men were inexplicably coming down with cancer and other mysterious illnesses. Many of them would be dead within weeks. As more cases were confirmed across the Atlantic, it become known as the ‘gay plague’. It wasn’t until 1982 that this mysterious plague earned a name: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or AIDS. The following year, scientists uncovered the culprit behind AIDS. It was a virus, which they eventually called HIV: the human immunodeficiency virus

And the disease wasn’t just targeting homosexuals. Anyone could be infected through blood, sexual intercourse, pregnancy, and breastfeeding. However, word was to slow get out and ignorance about HIV remained rampant. By 1984, as the death toll climbs, the top priority become preventing the spread of AIDS.

As the science progressed, activism intensified. AIDS patients and their loved ones began uniting all over the world to demand greater access to experimental drugs and plead their governments for more funding. In 1990, Congress passed the largest federally funded program in the US for people living with HIV/AIDS through the Ryan White CARE Act. In 1993, President Clinton set up the White House Office of National AIDS Policy and the National Institute of Health (NIH) expanded its AIDS research.

With great funding came great scientific breakthroughs for the treatment and prevention of HIV. FDA’s approval of Atripla in 2006 marked a watershed in HIV treatment. By combining three different antiviral medications- efavirenz, emtricitabine and tenofovir- into a single fixed-dose combination pill, HIV treatment became a once-daily single tablet regimen. Between 2005 and 2018, there was a 45% decline in AIDS related deaths worldwide.

Despite tremendous biomedical and scientific progress, there’s still no cure for AIDS. As people with HIV live longer, AIDS is a topic that has drifted from the headlines. When World AIDS Day was first established in 1988, the world looked very different to how it is today. As we celebrate the progress of the past four decades on this historic day, we mustn’t lose sight of the ultimate goal that lays ahead of us. CIRM has committed nearly $80 million to HIV/AIDS research including funding four separate clinical trials.

Creating a New Model for Diversity in Scientific and Medical Research

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Nature Cell Biology cover

The global pandemic has highlighted many of the inequities in our health care system, with the virus hitting communities of color the hardest. That has led to calls for greater diversity, equity and inclusion at every level of scientific research and, ultimately, of medical care. A recently released article in the journal Nature Cell Biology, calls for “new models for basic and disease research that reflect diverse ancestral backgrounds and sex and ensure that diverse populations are included among donors and research participants.”

The authors of the article are Dr. Maria T. Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO; Rick Horwitz Senior Advisor and Executive Director, Emeritus, Allen Institute for Cell Science; Dr. Ekemini Riley, President, Coalition for Aligning Science; and Dr. Ruwanthi N. Gunawardane, Executive Director of the Allen Institute for Cell Science.

Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO, says we need to make these issues a part of everything we do. “At CIRM we have incorporated the principles of promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in our research funding programs, education programs and future programs. We believe this is essential to ensure that the therapies our support helps advance will reach all patients in need and in particular communities that are disproportionately affected and/or under-served.”

The article highlights how, in addition to cultural, environmental, and socioeconomic factors, genetic factors also appear to play a role in the way disease affects different people. For example, 50 percent of people in South Asia have genetic traits that increases their risk for severe COVID-19, in contrast only 16 percent of Europeans have those traits.

But while some studies have shown how African American men are at greater risk for prostate cancer than white men, most of the research in this and other areas has been done on white populations of European ancestry. Efforts are already underway to change these disparities. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has sponsored the All of Us Research Program, which is inviting one million people across the U.S. to help build one of the most diverse health databases in history.

The article in Nature Cell Biology stresses the need to account for diversity at the individual molecular, cellular and tissue level. The authors make the point that diversity in those taking part in clinical trials is essential, but equally essential is that diverse biology is accounted for in the scientific work that leads to the development of potential therapies in order to increase the likelihood of success.

That’s why the authors of the article say: “If we are to truly understand human biology, address health disparities, and personalize our treatments, we need to go beyond our important, ongoing efforts in addressing diversity and inclusion in the workforce and the delivery of healthcare. We need to improve the data we generate by including diverse populations among donors and research participants. This will require new models and tools for basic and disease research that more closely reflect the diversity of human tissues, across diverse donor backgrounds.”

“Greater diversity in biological studies is not only the right thing to do, it is crucial to helping researchers make new discoveries that benefit everyone,” said Ru Gunawardane, Executive Director of the Allen Institute for Cell Science.

To do this they propose creating “a suite” of research cells, such as human induced pluripotent stem cell (hiPSC) lines from a diverse group of individuals to reflect the racial, ethnic and gender composition of the population. Human iPSCs are cells taken from any tissue (usually skin or blood) from a child or adult that have been genetically modified to behave like an embryonic stem cell. As the name implies, these cells are pluripotent, which means that they can become any type of adult cell.

CIRM has already created one version of what this suite would look like, through its iPSC Repository, a collection of more than 2,600 hiPSCs from individuals of diverse ancestries, including African, Hispanic, Native American, East and South Asian, and European. The Allen Institute for Cell Science also has a collection that could serve as a model for this kind of repository. Its collection of over 50 hiPSC

lines have been thoroughly analyzed on both a genomic and biological level and could also be broken down to include diversity in donor ethnicity and sex.

Currently researchers use cells from different lines and often follow very different procedures in using them, making it hard to compare results from one study to another. Having a diverse and well defined collection of research cells and cell models that are created by standardized procedures, could make it easier to compare results from different studies and share knowledge within the scientific community. By incorporating diversity in the very early stages of scientific research, the scientists and therapy developers gain a more complete picture of the biology disease and potential treatments.