CIRM Board Approves $19.7 Million in Awards for Translational Research Program

In addition to approving funding for breast cancer related brain metastases last week, the CIRM Board also approved an additional $19.7 million geared towards our translational research program. The goal of this program is to help promising projects complete the testing needed to begin talking to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about holding a clinical trial.

Before getting into the details of each project, here is a table with a brief synopsis of the awards:

TRAN1 – 11532

Illustration of a healthy eye vs eye with AMD

$3.73 million was awarded to Dr. Mark Humayun at USC to develop a novel therapeutic product capable of slowing the progression of age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

AMD is an eye disease that causes severe vision impairment, resulting in the inability to read, drive, recognize faces, and blindness if left untreated.  It is the leading cause of vision loss in the U.S. and currently affects over 2 million Americans.  By the year 2050, it is projected that the number of affected individuals will more than double to over 5 million.  A layer of cells in the back of the eye called the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) provide support to photoreceptors (PRs), specialized cells that play an important role in our ability to process images.  The dysfunction and/or loss of RPE cells plays a critical role in the loss of PRs and hence the vision problems observed in AMD.  One form of AMD is known as dry AMD (dAMD) and accounts for about 90% of all AMD cases.

The approach that Dr. Humayun is developing will use a biologic product produced by human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). This material will be injected into the eye of patients with early development of dAMD, supporting the survival of photoreceptors in the affected retina.

TRAN1 – 11579

Illustration depicting the role neuronal relays play in muscle sensation

$6.23 million was awarded to Dr. Mark Tuszynski at UCSD to develop a neural stem cell therapy for spinal cord injury (SCI).

According to data from the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, as of 2018, SCI affects an estimated 288,000 people in the United States alone, with about 17,700 new cases each year. There are currently no effective therapies for SCI. Many people suffer SCI in early adulthood, leading to life-long disability and suffering, extensive treatment needs and extremely high lifetime costs of health care.

The approach that Dr. Tuszynski is developing will use hESCs to create neural stem cells (NSCs).  These newly created NSCs would then be grafted at the site of injury of those with SCI.  In preclinical studies, the NSCs have been shown to support the formation of neuronal relays at the site of SCI.  The neuronal relays allow the sensory neurons in the brain to communicate with the motor neurons in the spinal cord to re-establish muscle control and movement.

TRAN1 – 11548

Graphic depicting the challenges of traumatic brain injury (TBI)

$4.83 million was awarded to Dr. Brian Cummings at UC Irvine to develop a neural stem cell therapy for traumatic brain injury (TBI).

TBI is caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head that disrupts the normal function of the brain, resulting in emotional, mental, movement, and memory problems. There are 1.7 million people in the United States experiencing a TBI that leads to hospitalization each year. Since there are no effective treatments, TBI is one of the most critical unmet medical needs based on the total number of those affected and on a cost basis.

The approach that Dr. Cummings is developing will also use hESCs to create NSCs.  These newly created NSCs would be integrated with injured tissue in patients and have the ability to turn into the three main cell types in the brain; neurons, astrocytes, and oligodendrocytes.  This would allow for TBI patients to potentially see improvements in issues related to memory, movement, and anxiety, increasing independence and lessening patient care needs.

TRAN1 – 11628

Illustration depicting the brain damage that occurs under hypoxic-ischemic conditions

$4.96 million was awarded to Dr. Evan Snyder at Sanford Burnham Prebys to develop a neural stem cell therapy for perinatal hypoxic-ischemic brain injury (HII).

HII occurs when there is a lack of oxygen flow to the brain.  A newborn infant’s body can compensate for brief periods of depleted oxygen, but if this lasts too long, brain tissue is destroyed, which can cause many issues such as developmental delay and motor impairment.  Current treatment for this condition is whole-body hypothermia (HT), which consists of significantly reducing body temperature to interrupt brain injury.  However, this is not very effective in severe cases of HII. 

The approach that Dr. Snyder is developing will use an established neural stem cell (NSC) line.   These NSCs would be injected and potentially used alongside HT treatment to increase protection from brain injury.

CIRM-funded study helps unlock some of the genetic secrets behind macular degeneration

Retina affected by age-related macular degeneration

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of vision loss in people over 60. It affects 10 million Americans. That’s more than cataracts and glaucoma combined. The causes of AMD are not known but are believed to involve a mixture of hereditary and environmental factors. There is no treatment for it.

Now, in a CIRM-funded study, researchers at UC San Diego (UCSD) have used stem cells to help identify genetic elements that could provide some clues as to the cause, and maybe give some ideas on how to treat it.

Before we get into what the researchers did let’s take a look at what AMD does. At a basic level it attacks the retina, the thin layer of tissue that lines the back of the eye. The retina receives light, turns it into electrical signals and sends it to the brain which turns it into a visual image.

The disease destroys the macula, the part of the retina that controls our central vision. At first, sight becomes blurred or fuzzy but over time it progresses to the point where central vision is almost completely destroyed.

To try and understand why this happens the team at UCSD took skin samples from six people with AMD and, using the iPSC method, turned those cells into the kinds of cell found in the retina. Because these cells came from people who had AMD they now displayed the same characteristics as AMD-affected retinal cells. This allowed the researchers to create what is called a “disease-in-a-dish” model that allowed them to see, in real time, what is happening in AMD.

They were able to identify a genetic variant that reduces production of a protein called VEGFA, which is known to promote the growth of new blood vessels.

In a news release Kelly Frazer, director of the Institute for Genomic Medicine at UCSD and the lead author of the study, said the results were unexpected.

Kelly Frazer, PhD, UC San Diego

“We didn’t start with the VEGFA gene when we went looking for genetic causes of AMD. But we were surprised to find that with samples from just six people, this genetic variation clearly emerged as a causal factor.”

Frazer says this discovery, published in the journal Stem Cell Reports, could ultimately lead to new approaches to developing new treatments for AMD.

CIRM already funds one clinical trial-stage project targeting AMD.

The most popular Stem Cellar posts of 2018

The blog

You never know when you write something if people are going to read it. Sometimes you wonder if anyone is going to read it. So, it’s always fun, and educational, to look back at the end of the year and see which pieces got the most eyeballs.

It isn’t always the ones you think will draw the biggest audiences. Sometimes it is diseases that are considered “rare” (those affecting fewer than 200,000 people) that get the most attention.

Maybe it’s because those diseases have such a powerful online community which shares news, any news, about their condition of interest with everyone they know. Whatever the reason, we are always delighted to share encouraging news about research we are funding or encouraging research that someone else is funding.

That was certainly the case with the top two stories this year. Both were related to ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.  It’s a particularly nasty condition. People diagnosed with ALS have a life expectancy of just 2 to 5 years. So it’s probably not a big surprise that stories suggesting stem cells could expand that life span got a big reception.

Whatever the reason, we’re just happy to share hopeful news with everyone who comes to our blog.

And so, without further ado, here is the list of the most popular Stem Cellar Blog Posts for 2018.

All of us in the Communications team at CIRM consider it an honor and privilege to be able to work here and to meet many of the people behind these stories; the researchers and the patients and patient advocates. They are an extraordinary group of individuals who help remind us why we do this work and why it is important. We love our work and we hope you enjoy it too. We plan to be every bit as active and engaged in 2019.

Stem Cell Agency’s Diane Winokur hailed as Visionary

Diane and JT

CIRM Board member Diane Winokur with CIRM Board Chair Jonathan Thomas at FFB Awards dinner

Generally speaking, I am not a huge fan of gala dinners. It’s not that I don’t like seeing people who do remarkable things getting a well-deserved honor. It’s just that the dinners often go on too long and the food is usually not very good (hey, this is San Francisco, those things matter). But last night’s Foundation Fighting Blindness Visionary Awards in San Francisco was definitely an exception to that rule.

Academy of Sciences Grand Opening

Academy of Sciences in San Francisco

Now it may be that the awards were held in the spectacular Academy of Sciences building in Golden Gate Park, or that the food was delicious. But I think the real reason is that CIRM Board member Diane Winokur was one of those being honored. The other honoree was Dr. Jacque Duncan, an amazing physician at UC San Francisco who has dedicated her life to battling diseases of the retina. The whole event was deeply emotional, and truly inspiring.

Now, Diane is a remarkable woman in many respects. She’s the Board’s Patient Advocate member for ALS (better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) and multiple sclerosis. But Diane also considers herself a Patient Advocate for all Californians and works hard to help advance the research that could help them. She has a personal connection to vision loss as well; one of her dear friends has lost his sight because of retinitis pigmentosa, and his daughter is losing hers because of the same disease.

Diane at podiumDiane highlighted the work that CIRM is doing to help battle vision destroying diseases; how we have invested more than $125 million in 25 different projects. She talked about the encouraging news from clinical trials we are funding targeting retinitis pigmentosa and dry age-related macular degeneration. Diane said:

“These stem cell clinical trials show that progress is being made. Not as fast as we would like, but as everyone here knows, good science takes time. As a patient advocate on the CIRM Board it’s my role to represent the patient, to be their voice in making decisions about what projects to fund.

Patients are at the heart of everything we do at CIRM, from deciding on funding issues to supporting clinical trials. That’s why I feel so honored to get this award. It comes from an organization, that is equally committed to doing all it can to help people in need, to putting the patient at the center of everything they do.”

It’s clear that patients really are at the heart of the work the Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB) does. As the organizations CEO Benjamin Yerxa said:

“We support 77 labs in the US, often funding projects no one else would. We do this because we know it is necessary to advance the field. And we are going to keep doing this as best we can, as fast as we can, for as long as we can, because we know so many people are depending on us to help them.”

The other honoree, Jacque Duncan, said after attending many previous Visionary Award dinners and seeing the people being honored it was humbling to be in that company. She talked about the exciting progress being made in the field and the people who are making it possible.

“None of this happens by chance. The path to developing new treatments takes the passion of scientists and doctors, and the commitment of patients to raising the funds needed to do this research. One gala dinner at a time, one Vision Walk at a time. All of this creates community and a common purpose. I truly believe that because of this, tomorrow will be brighter than today.”

Perhaps it’s only appropriate to leave the last word to Diane, who ended her speech saying:

“The Nobel prize winning physicist Heinrich Rohrer once said that science means constantly walking a tightrope between blind faith and curiosity; between expertise and creativity; between bias and openness; between experience and epiphany; in short, between an old today and a new tomorrow.

I believe that working together, CIRM and the Foundation Fighting Blindness, we can create that new tomorrow.”

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.

Stem Cell Patch Restores Vision in Patients with Age-Related Macular Degeneration

Stem cell-derived retinal pigmented epithelial cells. Cell borders are green and nuclei are red. (Photo Credit: Dennis Clegg, UCSB Center for Stem Cell Biology and Engineering)

Two UK patients suffering from vision loss caused by age-related macular degeneration (AMD) have regained their sight thanks to a stem cell-based retinal patch developed by researchers from UC Santa Barbara (UCSB). The preliminary results of this promising Phase 1 clinical study were published yesterday in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

AMD is one of the leading causes of blindness and affects over six million people around the world. The disease causes the blurring or complete loss of central vision because of damage to an area of the retina called the macula. There are different stages (early, intermediate, late) and forms of AMD (wet and dry). The most common form is dry AMD which occurs in 90% of patients and is characterized by a slow progression of the disease.

Patching Up Vision Loss

In the current study, UCSB researchers engineered a retinal patch from human embryonic stem cells. These stem cells were matured into a layer of cells at the back of the eye, called the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), that are damaged in AMD patients. The RPE layer was placed on a synthetic patch that is implanted under the patient’s retina to replace the damaged cells and hopefully improve the patient’s vision.

The stem cell-based eyepatches are being implanted in patients with severe vision loss caused by the wet form of AMD in a Phase 1 clinical trial at the Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust in London, England. The trial was initiated by the London Project to Cure Blindness, which was born from a collaboration between UCSB Professor Peter Coffey and Moorsfields retinal surgeon Lyndon da Cruz. Coffey is a CIRM grantee and credited a CIRM Research Leadership award as one of the grants that supported this current study.

The trial treated a total of 10 patients with the engineered patches and reported 12-month data for two of these patients (a woman in her 60s and a man in his 80s) in the Nature Biotech study. All patients were given local immunosuppression to prevent the rejection of the implanted retinal patches. The study reported “three serious adverse events” that required patients to be readmitted to the hospital, but all were successfully treated. 12-months after treatment, the two patients experienced a significant improvement in their vision and went from not being able to read at all to reading 60-80 words per minute using normal reading glasses.

Successfully Restoring Sight

Douglas Waters, the male patient reported on, was diagnosed with wet AMD in July 2015 and received the treatment in his right eye a few months later. He spoke about the remarkable improvement in his vision following the trial in a news release:

“In the months before the operation my sight was really poor, and I couldn’t see anything out of my right eye. I was struggling to see things clearly, even when up-close. After the surgery my eyesight improved to the point where I can now read the newspaper and help my wife out with the gardening. It’s brilliant what the team have done, and I feel so lucky to have been given my sight back.”

This treatment is “the first description of a complete engineered tissue that has been successfully used in this way.” It’s exciting not only that both patients had a dramatic improvement in their vision, but also that the engineered patches were successful at treating an advanced stage of AMD.

The team will continue to monitor the patients in this trial for the next five years to make sure that the treatment is safe and doesn’t cause tumors or other adverse effects. Peter Coffey highlighted the significance of this study and what it means for patients suffering from AMD in a UCSB news release:

Peter Coffey

“This study represents real progress in regenerative medicine and opens the door to new treatment options for people with age-related macular degeneration. We hope this will lead to an affordable ‘off-the-shelf’ therapy that could be made available to NHS patients within the next five years.”

Throwback Thursday: Progress to a Cure for Diseases of Blindness

Welcome back to our “Throwback Thursday” series on the Stem Cellar. Over the years, we’ve accumulated an arsenal of exciting stem cell stories about advances towards stem cell-based cures for serious diseases. This month we’re featuring stories about CIRM-funded clinical trials for blindness.

2017 has been an exciting year for two CIRM-funded clinical trials that are testing stem cell-based therapies for diseases of blindness. A company called Regenerative Patch Technologies (RPT) is transplanting a sheet of embryonic stem cell-derived retinal support cells into patients with the dry form of age-related macular degeneration, a disease that degrades the eye’s macula, the center of the retina that controls central vision. The other trial, sponsored by a company called jCyte, is using human retinal progenitor cells to treat retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disease that destroys the light-sensing cells in the retina, causing tunnel vision and eventually blindness.

 

Both trials are in the early stages, testing the safety of their respective stem cell therapies. But the teams are hopeful that these treatments will stop the progression of or even restore some form of vision in patients. In the past few months, both RPT and jCyte have shared exciting news about the progress of these trials which are detailed below.

Macular Degeneration Trial Gets a New Investor

In April, RPT announced that they have a new funding partner to further develop their stem cell therapy for age-related macular degeneration (AMD). They are partnering with Japan’s Santen Pharmaceutical Company, which specializes in developing ophthalmology or eye therapies.

AMD is the leading cause of blindness in elderly people and is projected to affect almost 200 million people worldwide by 2020. There is no cure or treatment that can restore vision in AMD patients, but stem cell transplants offer a potential therapeutic option.

RPT believes that their newfound partnership with Santen will accelerate the development of their stem cell therapy and ultimately fulfill an unmet medical need. RPT’s co-founder, Dr. Dennis Clegg, commented in a CIRM news release, “the ability to partner with a global leader in ophthalmology like Santen is very exciting. Such a strong partnership will greatly accelerate RPT’s ability to develop our product safely and effectively.”

This promising relationship highlights CIRM’s efforts to partner our clinical programs with outside investors to boost their chance of success. It also shows confidence in the future success of RPT’s stem cell-based therapy for AMD.

Retinitis Pigmentosa Trial Advances to Phase 2 and Receives RMAT Status

In May, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved jCyte’s RP trial for Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy (RMAT) status, which could pave the way for accelerated approval of this stem cell therapy for patients with RP.

RMAT is a new status established under the 21st Century Cures Act – a law enacted by Congress in December of 2016 to address the need for a more efficient regulatory approval process for stem cell therapies that can treat serious or life-threatening diseases. Trial sponsors of RMAT designated therapies can meet with the FDA earlier in the trial process and are eligible for priority review and accelerated approval.

jCyte’s RMAT status is well deserved. Their Phase 1 trial was successful, proving the treatment was safe and well-tolerated in patients. More importantly, some of the patients revealed that their sight has improved following their stem cell transplant. We’ve shared the inspiring stories of two patients, Rosie Barrero and Kristin Macdonald, previously on the Stem Cellar.

Rosie Barrero

Kristin MacDonald

Both Rosie and Kristin were enrolled in the Phase 1 trial and received an injection of retinal progenitor cells in a single eye. Rosie said that she went from complete darkness to being able to see shapes, colors, and the faces of her family and friends. Kristin was the first patient treated in jCyte’s trial, and she said she is now more sensitive to light and can see shapes well enough to put on her own makeup.

Encouraged by these positive results, jCyte launched its Phase 2 trial in April with funding from CIRM. They will test the same stem cell therapy in a larger group of 70 patients and monitor their progress over the next year.

Progress to a Cure for Blindness

We know very well that scientific progress takes time, and unfortunately we don’t know when there will be a cure for blindness. However, with the advances that these two CIRM-funded trials have made in the past year, our confidence that these stem cell treatments will one day benefit patients with RP and AMD is growing.

I’ll leave you with an inspiring video of Rosie Barrero about her experience with RP and how participating in jCytes trial has changed her life. Her story is an important reminder of why CIRM exists and why supporting stem cell research in particular, and research in general, is vital for the future health of patients.


Related Links:

Creating partnerships to help get stem cell therapies over the finish line

Lewis, Clark, Sacagawea

Lewis & Clark & Sacagawea:

Trying to go it alone is never easy. Imagine how far Lewis would have got without Clark, or the two of them without Sacagawea. Would Batman have succeeded without Robin; Mickey without Minnie Mouse? Having a partner whose skills and expertise complements yours just makes things easier.

That’s why some recent news about two CIRM-funded companies running clinical trials was so encouraging.

Viacyte Gore

First ViaCyte, which is developing an implantable device to help people with type 1 diabetes, announced a collaborative research agreement with W. L. Gore & Associates, a global materials science company. On every level it seems like a natural fit.

ViaCyte has developed a way of maturing embryonic stem cells into an early form of the cells that produce insulin. They then insert those cells into a permeable device that can be implanted under the skin. Inside the device, the cells mature into insulin-producing cells. While ViaCyte has experience developing the cells, Gore has experience in the research, development and manufacturing of implantable devices.

Gore-tex-fabricWhat they hope to do is develop a kind of high-tech version of what Gore already does with its Gore-Tex fabrics. Gore-Tex keeps the rain out but allows your skin to breathe. To treat diabetes they need a device that keeps the immune system out, so it won’t attack the cells inside, but allows those cells to secrete insulin into the body.

As Edward Gunzel, Technical Leader for Gore PharmBIO Products, said in a news release, each side brings experience and expertise that complements the other:

“We have a proven track record of developing and commercializing innovative new materials and products to address challenging implantable medical device applications and solving difficult problems for biologics manufacturers.  Gore and ViaCyte began exploring a collaboration in 2016 with early encouraging progress leading to this agreement, and it was clear to us that teaming up with ViaCyte provided a synergistic opportunity for both companies.  We look forward to working with ViaCyte to develop novel implantable delivery technologies for cell therapies.”

AMD2

How macular degeneration destroys central vision

Then last week Regenerative Patch Technologies (RPT), which is running a CIRM-funded clinical trial targeting age-related macular degeneration (AMD), announced an investment from Santen Pharmaceutical, a Japanese company specializing in ophthalmology research and treatment.

The investment will help with the development of RPT’s therapy for AMD, a condition that affects millions of people around the world. It’s caused by the deterioration of the macula, the central portion of the retina which is responsible for our ability to focus, read, drive a car and see objects like faces in fine details.

RPE

RPT is using embryonic stem cells to produce the support cells, or RPE cells, needed to replace those lost in AMD. Because these cells exist in a thin sheet in the back of the eye, the company is assembling these sheets in the lab by growing the RPE cells on synthetic scaffolds. These sheets are then surgically implanted into the eye.

In a news release, RPT’s co-founder Dennis Clegg says partnerships like this are essential for small companies like RPT:

“The ability to partner with a global leader in ophthalmology like Santen is very exciting. Such a strong partnership will greatly accelerate RPT’s ability to develop our product safely and effectively.”

These partnerships are not just good news for those involved, they are encouraging for the field as a whole. When big companies like Gore and Santen are willing to invest their own money in a project it suggests growing confidence in the likelihood that this work will be successful, and that it will be profitable.

As the current blockbuster movie ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is proving; with the right partner you can not only make magic, you can also make a lot of money. For potential investors those are both wonderfully attractive qualities. We’re hoping these two new partnerships will help RPT and ViaCyte advance their research. And that these are just the first of many more to come.