How two women are fighting back against Lou Gehrig’s disease

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Mary Ann Wittenberg (left) and Nadia Sethi

Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS, is a nasty degenerative condition that destroys the brain cells controlling movement. People with ALS suffer a progressive loss of ability to walk, talk, eat and breathe.

The average life expectancy for someone diagnosed with ALS is just two to five years. It has a devastating impact on the people diagnosed and their families.

On the latest episode of our podcast, Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation, we talk to two women who have suffered a loss in this fight, but who are using their experience with ALS to help others battling the disease.

Nadia Sethi became the Director of Community Engagement and Outreach at the ALS Therapy Development Institute after losing her husband to ALS. 

Mary Ann Wittenberg’s husband Harry fought the disease in a public way, starting a blog called “Welcome to My World, How Life Has Changed and Making it Work.” Mary Ann is now carrying on that mission of demystifying the disease.

Their courage and determination to turn a tragedy into something positive, to help others, and to hopefully play a role in finding treatments to help people with ALS, is deeply moving and inspiring.

We hope you enjoy this special episode of ‘Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation’.

CIRM has invested more than $92 million in 33 different projects targeting ALS. You can read about them on our ALS Fact Sheet.

Joining the movement to fight rare diseases

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It’s hard to think of something as being rare when it affects up to 30 million Americans and 300 million people worldwide. But the truth is there are more than 6,000 conditions – those affecting 200,000 people or fewer – that are considered rare.  

Today, February 28th, is Rare Disease Day. It’s a day to remind ourselves of the millions of people, and their families, struggling with these diseases. These conditions are also called or orphan diseases because, in many cases, drug companies were not interested in adopting them to develop treatments.

At the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), we have no such reservations. In fact last Friday our governing Board voted to invest almost $12 million to support a clinical trial for IPEX syndrome. IPEX syndrome is a condition where the body can’t control or restrain an immune response, so the person’s immune cells attack their own healthy tissue. This leads to the development of Type 1 diabetes, severe eczema, damage to the small intestines and kidneys and failure to thrive. It’s diagnosed in infancy, most of those affected are boys, and it is often fatal.

Taylor Lookofsky (who has IPEX syndrome) and his father Brian

IPEX is one of two dozen rare diseases that CIRM is funding a clinical trial for. In fact, more than one third of all the projects we fund target a rare disease or condition. Those include:

Some might question the wisdom of investing hundreds of millions of dollars in conditions that affect a relatively small number of patients. But if you see the faces of these patients and get to know their families, as we do, you know that often agencies like CIRM are their only hope.

Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President and CEO, says the benefits of one successful approach can often extend far beyond one rare disease.

“Children with IPEX syndrome clearly represent a group of patients with an unmet medical need, and this therapy could make a huge difference in their lives. Success of this treatment in this rare disease presents far-reaching potential to develop treatments for a larger number of patients with a broad array of immune disorders.”

CIRM is proud to fund and spread awareness of rare diseases and invites you to watch this video about how they affect families around the world.

A step forward in finding a treatment for a deadly neurological disorder

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MRI section of a brain affected by ALS with the front section of the brain highlighted

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a nasty disease that steadily attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. It’s pretty much always fatal within a few years. As if that wasn’t bad enough, ALS also can overlap with a condition called frontotemporal dementia (ALS/FTD). Together these conditions cause devastating symptoms of muscle weakness along with changes in memory, behavior and personality.

Now researchers at Cambridge University in the UK have managed to grow groups of cells called “mini-brains” that mimic ALS/FTD and could lead to new approaches to treating this deadly combination.

We have written about these mini-brains before. Basically, they are created, using the iPSC method, that takes skin or blood cells from a patient with a particular condition, in this case ALS/FTD, and turns them into the kind of nerve cells in the brain affected by the disease. Because they came from someone who had ALS/FTD they display many of the characteristics of the disease and this gives researchers a great tool to study the condition.

This kind of approach has been done before and given researchers a glimpse into what is happening in the brains of people with ALS/FTD. But in the past those cells were in a kind of clump, and it wasn’t possible to get enough nutrients to the cells in the middle of the clump for the mini-brain to survive for long.

What is different about the Cambridge team is that they were able to create these mini-brains using thin, slices of cells. That meant all the cells could get enough nutrients to survive a long time, giving the team a better model to understand what is happening in ALS/FTD.

In a news release, Dr András Lakatos, the senior author of the study, said: “Neurodegenerative diseases are very complex disorders that can affect many different cell types and how these cells interact at different times as the diseases progress.

“To come close to capturing this complexity, we need models that are more long-lived and replicate the composition of those human brain cell populations in which disturbances typically occur, and this is what our approach offers. Not only can we see what may happen early on in the disease – long before a patient might experience any symptoms – but we can also begin to see how the disturbances change over time in each cell.”

Thanks to these longer-lived cells the team were able to see changes in the mini-brains at a very early stage, including damage to DNA and cell stress, changes that affected other cells which play a role in muscle movements and behavior.

Because the cells developed using the iPSC method are from a patient with ALS/FTD, the researchers were able to use them to screen many different medications to see if any had potential as a therapy. They identified one, GSK2606414, that seemed to help in reducing the build-up of toxic proteins, reduced cell stress and the loss of nerve cells.

The team acknowledge that these results are promising but also preliminary and will require much more research to verify them.

CIRM has funded three clinical trials targeting ALS. You can read about that work here.

You can’t take it if you don’t make it

Biomedical specialist Mamadou Dialio at work in the Cedars-Sinai Biomanufacturing Center. Photo by Cedars-Sinai.

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.

CIRM is funding Dr. Svendsen’s work in developing therapies for ALS and other diseases and disorders.  

A guide to healing

Dr. Evan Snyder

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.”

The discovery is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)

A true Hall of Fame winner

Dr. Larry Goldstein: Photo courtesy UCSD

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.

Dr. Goldstein – everyone calls him Larry – was the founder and director of the UCSD Stem Cell Program and the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center at UC San Diego Health and is founding scientific director of the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine.

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.”

You can read about Larry’s CIRM-supported work here.

You can watch an interview with did with Larry a few years ago.

Blood-brain barrier chip created with stem cells expands potential for personalized medicine

An Organ-Chip used in the study to create a blood-brain barrier (BBB).

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.

Stem cell model reveals deeper understanding into “ALS resilient” neurons

A descriptive illustration of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Courtesy of ALS Foundation website.

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.

In a press release, Dr. Hedlund is quoted as saying,

“This cell culture system can help identify new genes contributing to the resilience in oculomotor neurons that could be used in gene therapy to strengthen sensitive motor neurons.”

CIRM is currently funding two clinical trials for ALS, one of which is being conducted by Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the other by Brainstorm Cell Therapeutics. The latter of the trials is currently recruiting patients and information on how to enroll can be found here.

Advancing stem cell research in many ways

Speakers at the Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium: Photo by Marco Sanchez

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 disease, cerebral 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 way forward.

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 Huntington’s disease.

We rather 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.

Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium: Photo by Marco Sanchez

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. 

Bringing these 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.

Cierra Jackson: Photo by Marco Sanchez

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.

CIRM’s Dr. Maria Millan (right) at a panel presentation at the Stanford Drug Discovery Symposium. Panel from left to right are: James Doroshow, NCI; Sandy Weill, former CEO Citigroup; Allan Jones, CEO Allen Institute

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 trial.

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.

Organoids revolutionize approach to studying a variety of diseases

Organoids

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).

Spinal muscular atrophy

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 organoids.

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.

In an article in Science and Technology Research News lead researcher Shi-Yan Ng said this approach could help unlock clues to other diseases such as ALS.

“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.