Following the race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 has been a crash course in learning how complicated creating a new therapy is. It’s not just the science involved, but the logistics. Coming up with a vaccine that is both safe and effective is difficult enough, but then how do you make enough doses of it to treat hundreds of millions of people around the world?
That’s a familiar problem for stem cell researchers. As they develop their products they are often able to make enough cells in their own labs. But as they move into clinical trials where they are testing those cells in more and more people, they need to find a new way to make more cells. And, of course, they need to plan ahead, hoping the therapy is approved by the Food and Drug Administration, so they will need to be able to manufacture enough doses to meet the increased demand.
We saw proof of that planning ahead this week with the news that Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles has opened up a new Biomanufacturing Center.
Dr. Clive Svendsen, executive director of the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute, said in a news release, the Center will manufacture the next generation of drugs and regenerative medicine therapies.
“The Cedars-Sinai Biomanufacturing Center leverages our world-class stem-cell expertise, which already serves scores of clients, to provide a much-needed biomanufacturing facility in Southern California. It is revolutionary by virtue of elevating regenerative medicine and its therapeutic possibilities to an entirely new level-repairing the human body.”
This is no ordinary manufacturing plant. The Center features nine “clean rooms” that are kept free from dust and other contaminants. Everyone working there has to wear protective suits and masks to ensure they don’t bring anything into the clean rooms.
The Center will specialize in manufacturing induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs. Dhruv Sareen, PhD, executive director of the Biolmanufacturing Center, says iPSCs are cells that can be turned into any other kind of cell in the body.
“IPSCs are powerful tools for understanding human disease and developing therapies. These cells enable us to truly practice precision medicine by developing drug treatments tailored to the individual patient or groups of patients with similar genetic profiles.”
The Biomanufacturing Center is designed to address a critical bottleneck in bringing cell- and gene-based therapies to the clinic. After all, developing a therapy is great, but it’s only half the job. Making enough of it to help the people who need it is the other half.
Having grown up in an era where to find your way around you had to use paper maps, a compass and a knowledge of the stars (OK, I’m not actually that old!) I’m forever grateful to whoever invented the GPS. It’s a lifesaver, and I daresay has also saved more than a few marriages!
Having a way to guide people where they need to be is amazing. Now researchers at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute have come up with a similar tool for stem cells. It’s a drug that can help guide stem cells to go where they need to go, to repair damaged tissue and improve the healing process.
In a news release Evan Snyder, MD, PhD, the senior author of the study, explained in wonderfully simply terms what they have done:
“The ability to instruct a stem cell where to go in the body or to a particular region of a given organ is the Holy Grail for regenerative medicine. Now, for the first time ever, we can direct a stem cell to a desired location and focus its therapeutic impact.”
More than a decade ago Snyder and his team discovered that when our body suffers an injury the result is often inflammation and that this then sends out signals for stem cells to come and help repair the damage. This is fine when the problem is a cut or sprain, short term issues in need of a quick fix. But what happens if it’s something more complex, such as a heart attack or stroke where the need is more long term.
In the study, funded in part by CIRM, the team took a molecule, called CXCL12, known to help guide stem cells to damaged tissue, and used it to create a drug called SDV1a. Snyder says this new drug has several key properties.
“Since inflammation can be dangerous, we modified CXCL12 by stripping away the risky bit and maximizing the good bit. Now we have a drug that draws stem cells to a region of pathology, but without creating or worsening unwanted inflammation.”
To test the drug to see how well it worked the team implanted SDV1a and some human brain stem cells into mice with Sandhoff disease, a condition that progressively destroys cells in the brain and spinal cord. They were able to demonstrate that the drug helped the stem cells migrate to where they were needed and to help in repairing the damage. The treated mice had a longer lifespan and better motor function, as well as developing symptoms later than untreated mice.
The team is now testing this drug to see if it has any impact on ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. And Snyder says there are other areas where it could prove effective.
“We are optimistic that this drug’s mechanism of action may potentially benefit a variety of neurodegenerative disorders, as well as non-neurological conditions such as heart disease, arthritis and even brain cancer. Interestingly, because CXCL12 and its receptor are implicated in the cytokine storm that characterizes severe COVID-19, some of our insights into how to selectively inhibit inflammation without suppressing other normal processes may be useful in that arena as well.”
CIRM’s President & CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, says this kind of work highlights the important role the stem cell agency plays, in providing long-term support for promising but early stage research.
“Thanks to decades of investment in stem cell science, we are making tremendous progress in our understanding of how these cells work and how they can be harnessed to help reverse injury or disease. Dr. Snyder’s group has identified a drug that could boost the ability of neural stem cells to home to sites of injury and initiate repair. This candidate could help speed the development of stem cell treatments for conditions such as spinal cord injury and Alzheimer’s disease.”
You know you are working with some of the finest scientific minds in the world when they get elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS). It’s the science equivalent of the baseball, football or even Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. People only get in if their peers vote them in. It’s considered one of the highest honors in science, one earned over many decades of hard work. And when it comes to hard work there are few people who work harder than U.C. San Diego’s Dr. Lawrence Goldstein, one of the newly elected members of the NAS.
For more than 25 years Larry’s work has targeted the brain and, in particular, Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
In 2012 his team was the first to create stem cell models for two different forms of Alzheimer’s, the hereditary and the sporadic forms. This gave researchers a new way of studying the disease, helping them better understand what causes it and looking at new ways of treating it.
His work has also helped develop a deeper understanding of the genetics of Alzheimer’s and to identify possible new targets for stem cell and other therapies.
Larry was typically modest when he heard the news, saying: “I have been very fortunate to have wonderful graduate students and fellows who have accomplished a great deal of excellent research. It is a great honor for me and for all of my past students and fellows – I am obviously delighted and hope to contribute to the important work of the National Academy of Sciences.”
But Larry doesn’t intend to rest on his laurels. He says he still has a lot of work to do, including “raising funding to test a new drug approach for Alzheimer’s disease that we’ve developed with CIRM support.”
Jennifer Briggs Braswell, PhD, worked with Larry at UCSD from 2005 to 2018. She says Larry’s election to the NAS is well deserved:
“His high quality publications, the pertinence of his studies in neurodegeneration to our current problems, and his constant, unwavering devotion to the next generation of scientists is matched only by his dedication to improving public understanding of science to motivate social, political, and financial support.
“He has been for me a supportive mentor, expressing enthusiastic belief in the likely success of my good ideas and delivering critique with kindness and sympathy. He continues to inspire me, our colleagues at UCSD and other communities, advocate publicly for the importance of science, and work tirelessly on solutions for neurodegenerative disorders.”
The brain is a complex part of the human body that allows for the formation of thoughts and consciousness. In many ways it is the essence of who we are as individuals. Because of its importance, our bodies have developed various layers of protection around this vital organ, one of which is called the blood-brain barrier (BBB).
The BBB is a thin border of various cell types around the brain that regulate what can enter the brain tissue through the bloodstream. Its primary purpose is to prevent toxins and other unwanted substances from entering the brain and damaging it. Unfortunately this barrier can also prevent helpful medications, designed to fix problems, from reaching the brain.
Several brain disorders, such as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS – also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s Disease (PD), and Huntington’s Disease (HD) have been linked to defective BBBs that keep out critical biomolecules needed for healthy brain activity.
In a CIRM-funded study, a team at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center created a BBB through the use of stem cells and an Organ-Chip made from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These are a specific type of stem cells that can turn into any type of cell in the body and can be generated from a person’s own cells. In this study, iPSCs were created from adult blood samples and used to make the neurons and other supporting cells that make up the BBB. These cells were then placed inside an Organ-Chip which recreates the environment that cells normally experience within the human body.
Inside the 3-D Organ-Chip, the cells were able to form a BBB that functions as it does in the body, with the ability to block entry of certain drugs. Most notably, when the BBB was generated from cell samples of patients with HD, the BBB malfunctioned in the same way that it does in patients with the disease.
These findings expand the potential for personalized medicine for various brain disorders linked to problems in the BBB. In a press release, Dr. Clive Svendsen, director of the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute and senior author of the study, was quoted as saying,
“The study’s findings open a promising pathway for precision medicine. The possibility of using a patient-specific, multicellular model of a blood barrier on a chip represents a new standard for developing predictive, personalized medicine.”
The full results of the study were published in the scientific journal Cell Stem Cell.
Understanding the basic biology of how a cell functions can be crucial to being able to better understand a disease and unlock a potential approach for a treatment. Stem cells are unique in that they give scientists the opportunity to create a controlled environment of cells that might be otherwise difficult to study. Dr. Eva Hedlund and a team of researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden utilize a stem cell model approach to uncover findings related to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that destroys motor neurons, a type of nerve cell, that are important for voluntary muscle movement. When motor neurons can no longer send signals to the muscles, the muscles begin to deteriorate, a process formally known as atrophy. The progressive atrophy leads to muscle paralysis, including those in the legs and feet, arms and hands, and those that control swallowing and breathing. It affects about 30,000 people in the United States alone, with 5,000 new cases diagnosed each year. There is currently no cure.
In a previous study, researchers at the Karolinska Institute were able to successfully create oculomotor neurons from embryonic stem cells. For reasons not yet fully understood, oculomotor neurons are “ALS resilient” and can survive all stages of the disease.
In the current study, published in Stem Cell Reports, Dr. Hedlund and her team found that the oculomotor neurons they generated appeared more resilient to ALS-like degeneration when compared to spinal cord motor neurons, something commonly observed in humans. Furthermore, they discovered that their “ALS resilient” neurons generated from stem cells activate a survival-enhancing signal known as Akt, which is common in oculomotor neurons in humans and could explain their resilience. These results could potentially aid in identifying genetic targets for treatments protecting sensitive neurons from the disease.
From Day One CIRM’s goal has been to advance stem cell research in California. We don’t do that just by funding the most promising research -though the 51 clinical trials we have funded to date clearly shows we do that rather well – but also by trying to bring the best minds in the field together to overcome problems.
Over the years we
have held conferences, workshops and symposiums on everything from Parkinson’s
palsy and tissue
engineering. Each one attracted the key players and stakeholders in the
field, brainstorming ideas to get past obstacles and to explore new ways of
developing therapies. It’s an attempt to get scientists, who would normally be
rivals or competitors, to collaborate and partner together in finding the best
It’s not easy to do,
and the results are not always obvious right away, but it is essential if we
hope to live up to our mission of accelerating stem cell therapies to patients
with unmet medical needs.
For example. This
past week we helped organize two big events and were participants in another.
The first event we
pulled together, in partnership with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, was a
workshop called “Brainstorm Neurodegeneration”. It brought together leaders in stem
cell research, genomics, big data, patient advocacy and the Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) to tackle some of the issues that have hampered progress
in finding treatments for things like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS and
ambitiously subtitled the workshop “a cutting-edge meeting to disrupt the field”
and while the two days of discussions didn’t resolve all the problems facing us
it did produce some fascinating ideas and some tantalizing glimpses at ways to
advance the field.
Two days later we partnered with UC San Francisco to host the Fourth Annual CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium. This brought together the scientists who develop therapies, the doctors and nurses who deliver them, and the patients who are in need of them. The theme was “The Past, Present & Future of Regenerative Medicine” and included both a look at the initial discoveries in gene therapy that led us to where we are now as well as a look to the future when cellular therapies, we believe, will become a routine option for patients.
different groups together is important for us. We feel each has a key role to
play in moving these projects and out of the lab and into clinical trials and
that it is only by working together that they can succeed in producing the
treatments and cures patients so desperately need.
As always it was the patients who surprised us. One, Cierra Danielle Jackson, talked about what it was like to be cured of her sickle cell disease. I think it’s fair to say that most in the audience expected Cierra to talk about her delight at no longer having the crippling and life-threatening condition. And she did. But she also talked about how hard it was adjusting to this new reality.
Cierra said sickle
cell disease had been a part of her life for all her life, it shaped her daily
life and her relationships with her family and many others. So, to suddenly
have that no longer be a part of her caused a kind of identity crisis. Who was
she now that she was no longer someone with sickle cell disease?
She talked about how
people with most diseases were normal before they got sick, and will be normal
after they are cured. But for people with sickle cell, being sick is all they
have known. That was their normal. And now they have to adjust to a new normal.
It was a powerful
reminder to everyone that in developing new treatments we have to consider the
whole person, their psychological and emotional sides as well as the physical.
And so on to the third event we were part of, the Stanford Drug Discovery Symposium. This was a high level, invitation-only scientific meeting that included some heavy hitters – such as Nobel Prize winners Paul Berg and Randy Schekman, former FDA Commissioner Robert Califf. Over the course of two days they examined the role that philanthropy plays in advancing research, the increasingly important role of immunotherapy in battling diseases like cancer and how tools such as artificial intelligence and big data are shaping the future.
CIRM’s President and CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, was one of those invited to speak and she talked about how California’s investment in stem cell research is delivering Something Better than Hope – which by a happy coincidence is the title of our 2018 Annual Report. She highlighted some of the 51 clinical trials we have funded, and the lives that have been changed and saved by this research.
The presentations at
these conferences and workshops are important, but so too are the conversations
that happen outside the auditorium, over lunch or at coffee. Many great
collaborations have happened when scientists get a chance to share ideas, or
when researchers talk to patients about their ideas for a successful clinical
It’s amazing what happens when you bring people together who might otherwise never have met. The ideas they come up with can change the world.
There are limitations to studying cells under a microscope. To understand some of the more complex processes, it is critical to see how these cells behave in an environment that is similar to conditions in the body. The production of organoids has revolutionized this approach.
Organoids are three-dimensional structures derived from stem cells that have similar characteristics of an actual organ. There have been several studies recently published that have used this approach to understand a wide scope of different areas.
In one such instance, researchers at The University of Cambridge were able to grow a “mini-brain” from human stem cells. To demonstrate that this organoid had functional capabilities similar to that of an actual brain, the researchers hooked it up to a mouse spinal cord and surrounding muscle. What they found was remarkable– the “mini-brain” sent electrial signals to the spinal cord that made the surrounding muscles twitch. This model could pave the way for studying neurodegenerative diseases such as spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Speaking of SMA, researchers in Singapore have used organoids to come up with some findings that might be able to help people battling the condition.
SMA is a neurodegenerative disease caused by a protein
deficiency that results in nerve degeneration, paralysis and even premature
death. The fact that it mainly affects children makes it even worse. Not much
is known how SMA develops and even less how to treat or prevent it.
That’s where the research from the A*STAR’s Institute of
Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) comes in. Using the iPSC method
they turned tissue samples from healthy people and people with SMA into spinal
They then compared the way the cells
developed in the organoids and found that the motor nerve cells from healthy
people were fully formed by day 35. However, the cells from people with SMA
started to degenerate before they got to that point.
They also found that the protein
problem that causes SMA to develop did so by causing the motor nerve cells to
divide, something they don’t normally do. So, by blocking the mechanism that
caused the cells to divide they were able to prevent the cells from dying.
“We are one of the first labs to report the formation of spinal organoids. Our study presents a new method for culturing human spinal-cord-like tissues that could be crucial for future research.”
Just yesterday the CIRM Board awarded almost $4 million to Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics to try and develop a treatment for another debilitating back problem called degenerative spondylolisthesis.
And finally, organoid modeling was used to better understand and study an infectious disease. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin created fallopian tube organoids from normal human cells. Fallopian tubes are the pair of tubes found inside women along which the eggs travel from the ovaries to the uterus. The scientists observed the effects of chronic infections of Chlamydia, a sexually transmittable infection. It was discovered that chronic infections lead to permanent changes at the DNA level as the cells age. These changes to DNA are permanent even after the infection is cleared, and could be indicative of the increased risk of cervical cancer observed in women with Chlamydia or those that have contracted it in the past.
It’s hard thinking of something as rare when one in 20 people are at risk of experiencing it in their lifetime. But that’s the situation with rare diseases. There are more than 7,000 of them and each affects under 200,000 people. In some cases they may only affect a few hundred people. But for each person that disease, though rare, poses a real threat. And that’s why Rare Disease Day was created.
Rare Disease Day is held on the last day of February each year. The goal is to raise awareness among the general public about the huge impact these diseases have on people’s lives. That impact is not just on the person with the disease but on the whole family who are often struggling just to get a diagnosis.
Every year groups around the world, from patients and patient advocacy organizations to researchers and policymakers, stage events to mark the day. This year there are more than 460 events being held in 96 countries, everywhere from Albania and Andora to Tunisia and Uruguay.
Here in the US many groups organize events at State Capitols
to educate elected officials and policy makers about the particular needs of
these communities and the promise that scientific
research holds to combat these conditions. Others have auctions to raise
funds for research or public debates to raise awareness.
Each event is unique in its own way because each represents many different diseases, many different needs, and many different stories. The goal of these events is to put a human face on each condition, to give it visibility, so that it is no longer something most people have never heard of, instead it becomes something that affects someone you may know or who reminds you of someone you know.
Here’s a video from Spain that does just that.
You can find a complete list of events being held around the
world to mark Rare
At CIRM we feel a special link to this day. That’s because many of the diseases we fund research into are rare diseases such as severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), and ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Sickle Cell Disease.
These diseases affect relatively small numbers of patients so they often struggle to get funding for research. Because we do not have to worry about making a profit on any therapy we help develop we can focus our efforts on supporting those with unmet medical needs. And it’s paying off. Our support has already helped develop a therapy for SCID that has cured 40 children. We have two clinical trials underway for ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. We also have two clinical trials for Sickle Cell Disease and have reached a milestone agreement with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) on a partnership to help develop a cure for this crippling and life-threatening disorder.
The hope is that events like Rare Disease Day let people
know that even though they have a condition that affects very few, that they
are not alone, but that they are part of a wider, global community, a community
committed to working to find treatments and cures for all of them.
Clive Svendsen, PhD, left, director of the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute, and Samuel Sances, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the institute, with the January 2019 special edition of National Geographic. The magazine cover features a striking image of spinal cord tissue that was shot by Sances in his lab. Photo by Cedars-Sinai.
National Geographic is one of those iconic magazines that everyone knows about but few people read. Which is a shame, because it’s been around since 1888 and has helped make generations of readers aware about the world around them. And now, it’s shifting gears and helping people know more about the world inside them. That’s because a special January edition of National Geographic highlights stem cells.
The issue, called ‘The Future of Medicine’, covers a wide range of issues including stem cell research being done at Cedars-Sinai by Clive Svendsen and his team (CIRM is funding Dr. Svendsen’s work in a clinical trial targeting ALS, you can read about that here). The team is using stem cells and so-called Organ-Chips to develop personalized treatments for individual patients.
Here’s how it works. Scientists take blood or skin cells from individual patients, then using the iPSC method, turn those into the kind of cell in the body that is diseased or damaged. Those cells are then placed inside a device the size of an AA battery where they can be tested against lots of different drugs or compounds to see which ones might help treat that particular problem.
This approach is still in the development phase but if it works it would enable doctors to tailor a treatment to a patient’s specific DNA profile, reducing the risk of complications and, hopefully, increasing the risk it will be successful. Dr. Svendsen says it may sound like science fiction, but this is not far away from being science fact.
“I think we’re entering a new era of medicine—precision medicine. In the future, you’ll have your iPSC line made, generate the cell type in your body that is sick and put it on a chip to understand more about how to treat your disease.”
Dr. Svendsen isn’t the only connection CIRM has to the article. The cover photo for the issue was taken by Sam Sances, PhD, who received a CIRM stem cell research scholarship in 2010-2011. Sam says he’s grateful to CIRM for being a longtime supporter of his work. But then why wouldn’t we be. Sam – who is still just 31 years old – is clearly someone to watch. He got his first research job, as an experimental coordinator, with Pacific Ag Research in San Luis Obispo when he was still in high school.
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.