While doctors are still trying to better understand how to treat some of the most severe cases of COVID-19, researchers are looking at their current scientific “toolkit” to see if any potential therapies for other diseases could also help treat patients with COVID-19. One example of this is a treatment developed by Fate Therapeutics called FT516, which received support in its early stages from a Late Stage Preclinical grant awarded by CIRM.
FT516 uses induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are a kind of stem cell made from reprogrammed skin or blood cells. These newly made stem cells have the potential to become any kind of cell in the body. For FT516, iPSCs are transformed into natural killer (NK) cells, which are a type of white blood cell that are a vital part of the immune system and play a role in fighting off viral infections.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, FT516 was used in a clinical trial to treat patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and B-cell lymphoma, which are two different kinds of blood cancer.
Due to the natural ability of NK cells to fight off viruses, it is believed that FT516 may also help play a role in diminishing viral replication of the novel coronavirus in COVID-19 patients. In fact, Fate Therapeutics, in partnership with the University of Minnesota, has treated their first COVID-19 patient with FT516 in a new clinical trial.
In a news release, Dr. Joshua Rhein, Physician at the University of Minnesota running the trial site, elaborates on how FT516 could help COVID-19 patients.
“The medical research community has been mobilized to meet the unique challenges that COVID-19 presents. There are limited treatment options for COVID-19, and we have been inundated daily with reports of varying quality describing the potential of numerous therapies. We know that NK cells play an important role in responding to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, and that these cells often become depleted in infected patients. Our intent is to replenish NK cells in order to restore a functional immune system and directly target the virus.”
In its own response to the coronavirus pandemic, CIRM has funded three clinical trials as part of $5 million in emergency funding for COVID-19 related projects. They include the following: a convalescent plasma study conducted by Dr. John Zaia at City of Hope, a treatment for acute respiratory distress syndrome (a serious and lethal consequence of COVID-19) conducted by Dr. Michael Matthay at UCSF, and a study that also uses NK cells to treat COVID-19 patients conducted by Dr. Xiaokui Zhang at Celularity Inc. Visit our dashboard page to learn more about these clinical projects.
One of the hottest areas in cancer research right now is the use of CAR-T treatments. These use the patient’s own re-engineered immune system cells to target and kill the tumor. But the thing that makes it so appealing – using the patient’s own cells – also makes it really complicated and expensive. Creating a custom-made therapy from each patient’s own cells takes time and costs a lot of money. But now a new approach could change that.
Fate Therapeutics has developed an off-the-shelf therapy (thanks to CIRM funding) that could, theoretically, be stored at hospitals and clinics around the country and used whenever it’s needed for anyone who needs it.
Equally impressive is that 42 days after being treated with FT516, the man showed no signs of leukemia in either his bone marrow or blood.
FT516 is designed to provide a one-two combination attack on cancer. It’s made up of the wonderfully named natural killer (NK) cells, which are a critical part of our immune system defenses against cancer. These NK cells are created by using the iPSC process and have been genetically modified to express a protein that boosts their cancer-killing abilities.
Because these cells are manufactured they can, if effective, be produced in large numbers and stored for whenever needed. That would not only dramatically reduce costs but also make them more widely available when they are needed.
This is only one patient and the follow-up is still relatively short. Even so, the results are encouraging and certainly give hope that Fate is on to something big. We’ll be keeping track and let you know how things progress.
With more than 17,000 members from nearly 100 countries, the American Society of Hematology (ASH) is an organization composed of clinicians and scientists around the world working to conquer various blood diseases. Currently, they are having their 61st Annual ASH Meeting to highlight some of the exciting work going on in the field. Four of our CIRM funded trials have released promising results at this conference and we wanted to take the opportunity to highlight them below.
Sangamo Therapeutics is conducting a CIRM-funded clinical trial for beta-thalassemia, a severe form of anemia caused by mutations in the hemoglobin gene. The therapy Sangamo is testing takes a patient’s own blood stem cells and, using a gene-editing technology called zinc finger nuclease (ZFN), provides a functional copy of the hemoglobin gene. These modified cells are then given back to the patient. The company announced preliminary results from their first three patients treated. in the clinical trials at the ASH 2019 Conference as well.
Some of the highlights are the following:
The first three patients experienced prompt hematopoietic reconstitution, meaning that their supply of blood stem cells was restored.
The first three patients experienced no clonal hematopoiesis, meaning that the blood stem cells did not create cells with mutations in the DNA
Additional study results are expected in late 2020 once enrollment is complete and all six patients have longer follow-up
You can read more detailed results regarding the first three patients in the press release.
Forty Seven, Inc.
In another CIRM funded trial, Forty Seven, Inc. is testing a treatment for myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML). The treatment involves an antibody called magrolimab in combination with the chemotherapy drug azacitidine. Cancer cells express a signal that send a “don’t eat me” message to white blood cells that are part of the immune system designed to “eat” and destroy unhealthy cells. Magrolimab works by blocking the signal, enabling the body’s own immune system to detect these evasive cancer cells. The goal is to use both magrolimab and azacitidine to make the cancer stem cells vulnerable to being attacked and destroyed by the immune system.
Of the 46 patients evaluated, 24 patients had untreated higher-risk MDS and 22 patients had untreated AML. None of the patients were eligible for treatment with chemotherapy.
In higher-risk MDS, the overall response rate (ORR), which is the proportion of patients in a trial whose tumor is destroyed or significantly reduced by a treatment, was 92%.
Within this group of patients with an ORR, the following was observed:
12 patients (50%) achieved a complete response (CR), meaning that they experienced a disappearance of all signs of cancer in response to treatment.
Two patients (8%) achieved hematologic (blood) improvement.
Additionally, two patients (8%) achieved stable disease, meaning the cancer is neither increasing nor decreasing in extent or severity.
In untreated AML, the ORR was 64% and the following was observed within this group patients with an ORR:
Nine patients (41%) achieved a CR
Three patients (14%) achieved a CR with an incomplete blood count recovery (CRi)
One patient (5%) achieved a morphologic leukemia-free state (MLFS), which is defined as the disappearance of all cells with morphologic characteristics of leukemia, accompanied by bone marrow recovery, in response to treatment.
Seven patients (32%) achieved stable disease (SD)
The median time to response among MDS and AML patients treated with the combination was 1.9 months.
More details regarding these results are available via the news release.
Onceternal Therapeutics, which is conducting a CIRM-funded trial for a treatment for lymphoma and leukemia, presented results at the 2019 ASH Meeting. The treatment involves an antibody called cirmtuzumab (named after yours truly) being used with a cancer fighting drug called ibrutinib. The antibody recognizes and attaches to a protein on the surface of cancer stem cells. This attachment disables the protein, which slows the growth of the leukemia and makes it more vulnerable to anti-cancer drugs.
Some of the results presented are summarized as follows:
Twenty-nine of the 34 patients achieved a response, for an overall best objective response rate of 85%.
One patient achieved a complete response (CR) and remained in remission six months after completion of the trial and discontinuation of all anti-CLL therapy. In addition, three patients met radiographic and hematologic response criteria for Clinical CR.
Five patients had stable disease.
The total clinical benefit rate was 100%.
None of the patients died or saw their disease progress.
Patients achieved responses rapidly, with 68% of patients achieving a clinical response by three months on the combination therapy.
The rise in leukemic cell counts that is typically seen in the first six months with ibrutinib by itself was blunted with the addition of cirmtuzumab, and leukemic cell counts returned toward baseline and normal levels rapidly.
Last, but not least, Rocket Pharmaceuticals presented results at the 2019 ASH Conference related to a CIRM-funded trial for Leukocyte Adhesion Deficiency-I (LAD-I), a rare pediatric disease caused by a mutation in a specific gene that affects the body’s ability to combat infections. As a result, there is low expression of neutrophil (CD18). The company is testing a treatment that uses a patient’s own blood stem cells and inserts a functional version of the gene. These modified stem cells are then reintroduced back into the patient. The goal is to establish functional immune cells, enabling the body to combat infections.
Here are some of the highlights from the presentation:
Initial results from the first pediatric patient treated demonstrate early evidence of safety and potential effectiveness.
The patient exhibited early signs of engraftment
The patient also displayed visible improvement of multiple disease-related skin lesions after receiving therapy
No safety issues related to administration have been identified
More detailed results on this trial are available via the news release.
Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML) are both types of blood cancers that can be difficult to treat. CIRM is fundingForty Seven, Inc. to conduct a clinical trial to treat patients with these blood cancers with an antibody called 5F9. CIRM has also given multiple awards prior to the clinical trial to help in developing the antibody.
Cancer cells express a signal known as CD47, which sends a “don’t eat me” message to macrophages, which are white blood cells that are part of the immune system designed to “eat” and destroy unhealthy cells. The antibody works by blocking the signal, enabling the body’s own immune system to detect and destroy the cancer cells.
In a press release, Forty Seven, Inc. announced early clinical results from their CIRM funded trial using the antibody to treat patients with AML and MDS. Some patients received just the antibody while others received the antibody in combination with azacitidine, a chemotherapy drug used to treat these cancers.
Here is a synopsis of the trial:
35 patients treated in a Phase 1 clinical trial have been evaluated for a response assessment to-date.
10 of these have MDS or AML and only received the 5F9 antibody.
11 of these have higher-risk MDS and received the 5F9 antibody along with the chemotherapy drug azacitidine.
14 of these have untreated AML and received the 5F9 antibody along with the chemotherapy drug azacitidine.
For the 11 patients with higher-risk MDS treated with the antibody and chemotherapy, they found that:
All 11 patients achieved an objective response rate (ORR),meaning that there was a reduction in tumor burden of a predefined amount.
Six of these patients achieved a complete response (CR), indicatinga disappearance of all signs of cancer in response to treatment.
For the 14 patients with untreated AML treated with the antibody and chemotherapy, they found that:
Nine of these patients achieved an ORR.
Five of theseninepatients achieved a CR.
Two of these nine patientsachieved a morphologic leukemia-free state (MLFS), indicating the disappearance of all cells with formal and structural characteristics of leukemia, accompanied by bone marrow recovery, in response to treatment.
The remaining five patients achieved stable disease (SD), meaning that the tumor is neither growing nor shrinking.
The results also showed that:
There was no evidence of increased toxicities when the antibody was used alongside the chemotherapy drugs, demonstrating tolerance and safety of the treatment.
No responding MDS or AML patient has relapsed or progressed on the antibody in combination with chemotherapy, with a median follow-up of 3.8 months.
The median time to response was rapid at 1.9 months.
Several patients have experienced deepening responses over time resulting in complete remissions.
Based on the favorable results observed in this clinical trial to-date, expansion cohorts have been initiated, meaning that additional patients will be enrolled in a phase I trial. This will include patients with both higher-risk MDS and untreated AML as well as using the antibody in combination with chemotherapy.
In the press release, Dr. David Sallman, an investigator in the clinical trial, is quoted as saying,
“These new data for 5F9 show encouraging clinical activity in a broad population of patients with MDS and AML, who may be unfit for existing therapeutic options or at higher-risk for developing rapidly-advancing disease. Despite an evolving treatment landscape, physicians continue to seek new therapies for MDS and AML that can be used safely in combination with standard-of-care to help patients more rapidly achieve durable responses. To that end, I am excited to see meaningful clinical activity in a majority of patients treated with 5F9 in combination with azacitidine, with a median time to response of under two months and no relapses or progressions among responding patients.”
The “Valley of Death” sounds like a scary place from “Lord of the Rings” or “Game of Thrones” that our heroes have to navigate to reach safety. The reality is not that different. It’s the space that young companies have to navigate from having a good idea to getting financial backing, so they can move their projects towards the clinic. At the other side of the Valley are deep-pocket investors, waiting to see what makes it through before deciding if they want to support them.
It’s a Catch 22 situation. Without financing companies can’t make it through the Valley; but they need to get through before the folks with money will considering investing. As a result many companies languish or even fail to make it through the Valley of Death. Without that financial support promising therapies are lost before they even get a chance to show their potential.
CIRM was created, in part, to help those great ideas get through the Valley. That’s why it is so gratifying to hear the news today from ViaCyte – that is developing a promising approach to treating type 1 diabetes – that they have secured $80 million in additional financing.
The money comes from Bain Capital Life Sciences, TPG and RA Capital Management and several other investors. It’s important because it is a kind of vote of confidence in ViaCyte, suggesting these deep-pocket investors believe the company’s approach has real potential.
In a news release Adam Koppel, a Managing Director at Bain, said:
“ViaCyte is the clear leader in beta cell replacement, and we are excited about the lasting impact that it’s stem cell-derived therapies can potentially have on improving treatment and quality of life for people living with insulin-requiring diabetes. We look forward to partnering with ViaCyte’s management team to accelerate the development of ViaCyte’s transformative cell therapies to help patients.”
CIRM has been a big supporter of ViaCyte for several years, investing more than $70 million to help them develop a cell therapy that can be implanted under the skin that is capable of delivering insulin to people with type 1 diabetes when needed. The fact that these investors are now stepping up to help it progress suggests we are not alone in thinking this project has tremendous promise.
But ViaCyte is far from the only company that has benefitted from CIRM’s early and consistent support. This year alone CIRM-funded companies have raised more than $1.0 billion in funding from outside investors; a clear sign of validation not just for the companies and their therapies, but also for CIRM and its judgement.
Humacyte raising $225 million for its program to help people battling kidney failure
Forty Seven Inc. raising $113 million from an Initial Public Offering for its programs targeting different forms of cancer
We have shown there is a path through the Valley of Death. We are hoping to lead many more companies through that in the coming years, so they can bring their therapies to people who really need them, the patients.
For years chemotherapy has been a mainstay in the war against cancer. While it can be very effective it can also come with some nasty side effects. Since chemo works by killing rapidly growing cells, it not only hits the cancer cells, but can also hit other rapidly growing cells too, including those in our hair roots, which is why many people undergoing chemo lose their hair.
So, the key to a truly effective anti-cancer therapy is one that does as much damage as possible to the cancer cells, and as little as possible to all the healthy cells in the body. A therapy being developed by Cellerant Therapeutics seems to have found that sweet spot in a new therapy targeting acute myeloid leukemia (AML).
AML starts in the bone marrow and quickly moves into the blood, where it can spread to other parts of the body. It is the second most common form of leukemia and claims around 10,000 lives in the US every year. Chemotherapy is the main weapon used against AML but it can also cause nausea, hair loss and other complications and in most cases has limited effectiveness because, over time, the leukemia cells get used to it.
In a study published in the journal Blood Advances, Cellerant researchers explain the limitations of existing treatments.
“The current standard of care for acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is largely ineffective with very high relapse rates and low survival rates, mostly due to the inability to eliminate a rare population of leukemic stem cells (LSCs) that initiate tumor growth and are resistant to standard chemotherapy.”
Cellerant has developed a therapy called CLT030 which targets CLL1, a marker found on the surface of leukemia cells but not on normal blood stem cells. Preclinical studies in mice show CLT030 is able to zero in on this surface marker and attack the leukemia but do little damage to blood or other surrounding cells.
In a news release, Ram Mandalam, President and CEO of Cellerant, said this is encouraging news:
“AML remains a significant unmet medical need, and our therapy, CLT030, that can target leukemic stem cells precisely while minimally affecting normal hematopoietic stem cells could improve outcomes while avoiding much of the toxicities associated with conventional chemotherapy and other targeted therapeutics.”
Mandalam says they are now doing the late-stage preclinical testing to be able to apply to the Food and Drug Administration for permission to start a clinical trial. CIRM is funding this stage of the research.
Thelma, participant in the CAMELLIA clinical trial
You have almost certainly never heard of Thelma, or met her, or know anything about her. She’s a lady living in England who, if it wasn’t for a CIRM-funded therapy, might not be living at all. She’s proof that what we do, is helping people.
Thelma is featured in a video about a treatment for acute myeloid leukemia, one of the most severe forms of blood cancer. Thelma took part in a clinical trial, called CAMELLIA, at Oxford Cancer Centre in Oxford, UK. The clinical trial uses a therapy that blocks a protein called CD47 that is found on the surface of cancer cells, including cancer stem cells which can evade traditional therapies. The video was shot to thank the charity Bloodwise for raising the funds to pay for the trial.
Prof. Paresh Vyas of Oxford University, who was part of the clinical trial team that treated Thelma, says patients with this condition face long odds.
“Patients with acute myeloid leukemia have the most aggressive blood cancer. We really haven’t had good treatments for this condition for the last 40 years.”
While this video was shot in England, featuring English nurses and doctors and patients, the therapy itself was developed here in California, first at Stanford University under the guidance of Irv Weissman and, more recently, at Forty Seven Inc. That company is now about to test their approach in a CIRM-funded clinical trial here in the US.
This is an example of how CIRM doesn’t just fund research, we invest in it. We help support it at every stage, from the earliest research through to clinical trials. Without our early support this work may not have made it this far.
The Forty Seven Inc. therapy uses the patient’s own immune system to help fight back against cancer stem cells. It’s looking very promising. But you don’t have to take our word for it. Take Thelma’s.
As we mentioned in last Thursday’s blog, during the month of October we’ll be looking back at what CIRM has done since the agency was created by the people of California back in 2004. To start things off, we’ll be focusing on CIRM-funded clinical trials this week. Supporting clinical trials through our funding and partnership is a critical cornerstone to achieving our mission: to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.
Over the next four days, we will post infographics that summarize CIRM-funded trials focused on therapies for cancer, neurologic disorders, heart and metabolic disease, and blood disorders. Today, we review the nine CIRM-funded clinical trial projects that target cancer. The therapeutic strategies are as varied as the types of cancers the researchers are trying to eradicate. But the common element is developing cutting edge methods to outsmart the cancer cell’s ability to evade standard treatment.
New stem cell target for acute myeloid leukemia (Karen Ring). A new treatment for acute myeloid leukemia, a type of blood cancer that turns bone marrow stem cells cancerous, could be in the works in the form of a cancer stem cell destroying antibody.
Scientists from the NYU Langone Medical Center and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center identified a protein called CD99 that appears more abundantly on the surface of abnormal blood cancer stem cells compared to healthy blood stem cells. They developed an antibody that specifically recognizes and kills the CD99 wielding cancer stem cells while leaving the healthy blood stem cells unharmed.
The CD99 antibody was effective at killing human AML stem cells in a dish and in mice that were transplanted with the same type of cancer stem cells. Further studies revealed that the CD99 antibody when attached to the surface of cancer stem cells, sets off a cascade of enzyme activity that causes these cells to die. These findings suggest that cancer stem cells express more CD99 as a protective mechanism against cell death.
“Our findings not only identify a new molecule expressed on stem cells that drive these human malignancies, but we also show that antibodies against this target can directly kill human AML stem cells. While we still have important details to work out, CD99 is likely to be an exploitable therapeutic target for most AML and MDS patients, and we are working urgently to finalize a therapy for human testing.”
While this work is still in the early stages, Dr. Park stressed that his team is actively working to translate their CD99 antibody therapy into clinical trials.
“With the appropriate support, we believe we can rapidly determine the best antibodies for use in patients, produce them at the quality needed to verify our results, and apply for permission to begin clinical trials.”
Peculiar stem cell function may help treat blindness (Todd Dubnicoff). Scientists at the National Eye Institute (NEI) have uncovered a novel function that stem cells use to carry out their healing powers and it may lead to therapies for glaucoma, the leading cause of blindness in United States. Reporting this week in Stem Cells Translational Medicine, the researchers show that stem cells send out regenerative signals by shedding tiny vesicles called exosomes. Once thought to be merely a garbage disposal system, exosomes are now recognized as an important means of communication between cells. As they bud off from the cells, the exosomes carry proteins and genetic material that can be absorbed by other cells.
Microscopy image shows exosomes (green) surrounding retinal ganglion cells (orange and yellow). Credit: Ben Mead
The researchers at NEI isolated exosomes from bone marrow stem cells and injected them into the eyes of rats with glaucoma symptoms. Without treatment, these animals lose about 90 percent of their retinal ganglion cells, the cells responsible for forming the optic nerve and for sending visual information to the brain. With the exosome treatment, the rats only lost a third of the retinal ganglion cells. The team determined that microRNAs – small genetic molecules that can inhibit gene activity – inside the exosome were responsible for the effect.
Exosomes have some big advantages over stem cells when comes to developing and manufacturing therapies which lead author Ben Mead explains in a press release picked up by Eureka Alert:
“Exosomes can be purified, stored and precisely dosed in ways that stem cells cannot.”
We’ll definitely keep our eyes on this development. If these glaucoma studies continue to look promising it stands to reason that there would be exosome applications in many other diseases.