Boosting immune system cells could offer a new approach to treating Lou Gehrig’s disease

ALS

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is one of those conditions that a lot of people know about but don’t know a lot about. If they are fortunate it will stay that way. ALS is a nasty neurodegenerative disease that attacks motor neurons, the cells in the brain and spinal cord that control muscle movement. As the disease progresses the individual loses their ability to walk, talk, eat, move and eventually to breathe. There are no effective treatments and no cure. But now research out of Texas is offering at least a glimmer of hope.

Dr. Stanley Appel, a neurologist at the Houston Methodist Neurological Institute noticed that many of the ALS patients he was treating had low levels of regulatory T cells, also known as Tregs. Tregs play a key role in our immune system, suppressing the action of molecules that cause inflammation and also helping prevent autoimmune disease.

In an article on Health News Digest Appel said:

Stanley Appel

Dr. Stanley Appel: Photo courtesy Australasian MND Symposium

“We found that many of our ALS patients not only had low levels of Tregs, but also that their Tregs were not functioning properly. We believed that improving the number and function of Tregs in these patients would affect how their disease progressed.”

And so that’s what he and his team did. They worked with M.D. Anderson Cancer Center’s Stem Cell Transplantation and Cellular Therapy program on a first-in-human clinical trial. They took blood from three people with different stages of ALS, separated the red and white blood cells, and returned the red blood cells to the patient. They then separated the Tregs from the white blood cells, increased their number in the lab, and then reinfused them into the patients, in a series of eight injections over the course of several months.

Their study, which appears in the journal Neurology,® Neuroimmunology & Neuroinflammation, found that the therapy appears to be safe without any serious side effects.

Jason Thonhoff, the lead author of the study, says the therapy also appeared to help slow the progression of the disease a little.

“A person has approximately 150 million Tregs circulating in their blood at any given time. Each dose of Tregs given to the patients in this study resulted in about a 30 to 40 percent increase over normal levels. Slowing of disease progression was observed during each round of four Treg infusions.”

Once the infusions stopped the disease progression resumed so clearly this is not a cure, but it does at least suggest that keeping Tregs at a healthy, high-functioning level may help slow down ALS.

CIRM is funding two clinical trials targeting ALS. One is a Phase 1 clinical trial with Clive Svendsen’s team at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the other is a Phase 3 project with Brainstorm Cell Therapeutics.

Stem Cell Roundup: Crafty Cancer, Fighting Viruses, and Brainstorm ALS Trial Expands to Canada

TGIF! Here is your weekly dose of stem cell news…

Shapeshifting cancer cells

This week’s awesome stem cell photo comes with a bizarre story and bonus video footage.

New research from Duke has found that some lung cancer cells with errors in transcription factors begin to resemble their nearest relatives – the cells of the stomach and gut. (Credit – Tata Lab, Duke University)

Researchers at Duke University were studying lung tumor samples and discovered something that didn’t quite belong. Inside the lung tumors were miniature parts of the digestive system including the stomach, duodenum and small intestine. It turns out that the lung cancer cells (and cancer cells in general) are super crafty and had turned off the expression of a gene called NKX2-1. This gene is a master switch that tells developing cells to turn into lung cells. Without this command, cells switch their identity and mature into gut tissue instead. By manipulating these master switches, cancer cells are able to develop resistance to chemotherapy and other cancer treatments.

So, what does this bizarre finding mean for cancer research? Purushothama Rao Tata, first author on the Developmental Cell study, provided an answer in a news release:

“Cancer biologists have long suspected that cancer cells could shape shift in order to evade chemotherapy and acquire resistance, but they didn’t know the mechanisms behind such plasticity. Now that we know what we are dealing with in these tumors – we can think ahead to the possible paths these cells might take and design therapies to block them.”

For more cool photos and insights into this study, watch the Duke Univeristy video below.


Secrets to the viral-fighting ability of stem cells uncovered (Todd Dubnicoff)

I’ve been writing about stem cells for many years and thought I knew most of the basic info about these amazing cells. But up until this week, I had no idea that stem cells are known to fight off viral infections much better than other cells. It does makes sense though. Stem cells give rise to and help maintain all the organs and tissues of the body. So, it would be bad news if, let’s say, a muscle stem cell multiplied to repair damaged tissue while carrying a dangerous virus.

How exactly stem cells fend off attacking viruses is a question that has eluded researchers for decades. But this week, results published in Cell by Rockefeller University scientists may provide an answer.

Stem cells lacking their protective genes are susceptible to infection by the dengue virus, in red. (Rockefeller University)

The researchers found that liver cells and stem cells defend themselves against viruses differently. In the presence of a virus, liver cells and most other cells react by releasing large amounts of interferon, a protein that acts as a distress signal to other cells in the vicinity. That signal activates hundreds of genes responsible for attracting protective immune cells to the site of infection.

Stem cells, however, are always in this state of emergency. Even in the absence of interferon, the antiviral genes were activated in stem cells. And when the stem cells were genetically engineering to lack some of the antiviral genes, the cells no longer could stop viral infection.

In a press release, senior author Charles Rice explained the importance of this work:

“By understanding more about this biology in stem cells, we may learn more about antiviral mechanisms in general.”


CIRM-funded clinical trial for ALS now available next door – in Canada (Kevin McCormack)

In kindergarten we are taught that it’s good to share. So, we are delighted that a Phase 3 clinical trial for ALS – also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – that CIRM is helping fund is now expanding its reach across the border from the U.S. into Canada.

Brainstorm Cell Therapeutics, the company behind the therapy, says it is going to open a clinical trial site in Canada because so many Canadians have asked for it.

The therapy, as we described in a recent blog post, takes mesenchymal stem cells from the patient’s own bone marrow. Those cells are then modified in the lab to be able to churn out specific proteins that can help protect the brain cells attacked by ALS. The cells are then transplanted back into the patient and the hope is they will slow down, maybe even stop the progression of the disease.

Earlier studies showed the therapy was safe and seemed to benefit some patients. Now people with ALS across our northern border will get a chance to see if it really works.

Chaim Lebovits, the president and chief executive officer of BrainStorm, said in a press release:

“Although there are thousands of patients worldwide with ALS, we initially designed the Phase 3 trial to enroll U.S.-based patients only, primarily to make it easier for patient follow-up visits at the six U.S. clinical sites. However, due to an outpouring of inquiry and support from Canadian patients wanting to enroll in the trial, we filed an amendment with the FDA [the U.S. Food and Drug Administration] to allow Canada-based ALS patients to participate.”

We are happy to share.

Tiny blood vessels in the brain can spur the growth of spinal motor neurons

Last week, researchers from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center added a new piece to the complex puzzle of what causes neurodegenerative disorders like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The team discovered that the tiny blood vessels in our brains do more than provide nutrients to and remove waste products from our brain tissue. It turns out that these blood vessels can stimulate the growth of new nerve cells called spinal motor neurons, which directly connect to the muscles in our body and control how they move. The study, which was funded in part by a CIRM Discovery research-stage Inception award, was published in the journal Stem Cell Reports.

The Cedars team used a combination of human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and organ-on-a-chip technology to model the cellular microenvironment of the spinal cord. They matured the iPSCs into both spinal motor progenitor cells and brain endothelial cells (which line the insides of blood vessels). These cells were transferred to an organ-chip where they were able to make direct contact and interact with each other.

Layers of spinal motor neuron cells (top, in blue) and capillary cells (bottom, in red) converge inside an Organ-Chip. Neurons and capillary cells interact together along the length of the chip. (Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute).

The researchers discovered that exposing the spinal motor progenitor cells to the blood vessel endothelial cells in these organ-chips activated the expression of genes that directed these progenitor cells to mature into spinal cord motor neurons.

Hundreds of spinal motor neurons spontaneously communicate through electrical signals inside an Organ-Chip. Neurons fire individually (flashing dots) and in synchronized bursts (bright waves). (Cedars-Sinai)

First author on the study, Samuel Sances, explained their findings in a news release:

“Until now, people thought these blood vessels just delivered nutrients and oxygen, removed waste and adjusted blood flow. We showed that beyond plumbing, they are genetically communicating with the neurons.”

The team also showed the power of stem cell-based organ-chip platforms for modeling diseases like ALS and answering key questions about why these diseases occur.

“What may go wrong in the spinal neurons that causes the motor neurons to die?” Sances asked. “If we can model an individual ALS patient’s tissues, we may be able to answer that question and one day rescue ALS patients’ neurons through new therapies.”

Clive Svendsen, a CIRM grantee and the senior author on the study, said that his team will conduct additional studies using organ-chip technology to study the interactions between iPSC-derived neurons and blood vessels of healthy individuals and ALS patients. Differences in these cellular interactions in diseased patient cells could offer new targets for developing ALS therapies.

The current study is a collaboration between Cedars and a Boston company called Emulate, Inc. Emulate developed the organ-chip technology and is collaborating with Svendsen at Cedars to not only model neurodegenerative diseases, but also model other organ systems. Be sure to check out our recent blog about their efforts to create a stem cell-based gut-on-a-chip, which they hope will pave the way for personalized treatments for patients with gastrointestinal diseases like Chrohn’s and inflammatory bowel disease.

Inspiring Video: UC Irvine Stem Cell Trial Gives Orange County Woman Hope in Her Fight Against ALS

Stephen Hawking

Last week, we lost one of our greatest, most influential scientific minds. Stephen Hawking, a famous British theoretical physicist and author of “A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes”, passed away at the age of 76.

Hawking lived most of his adult life in a wheelchair because he suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS causes the degeneration of the nerve cells that control muscle movement.

When Hawking was diagnosed with ALS at the age of 21, he was told he only had three years to live. But Hawking defied the odds and went on to live a life that not only revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos, but also gave hope to other patients suffering from this devastating degenerative disease.

A Story of Hope

Speaking of hope, I’d like to share another story of an Orange County woman name Lisa Wittenberg who was recently diagnosed with ALS. Her story was featured this week on KTLA5 news and is also available on the UC Irvine Health website.

VIDEO: UCI Health stem cell trial helps Orange County woman fight neurodegenerative disease ALS. Click on image to view video in new window.

In this video, Lisa describes how quickly ALS changed her life. She was with her family sledding in the snow last winter, and only a year later, she is in a wheelchair unable to walk. Lisa got emotional when she talked about how painful it is for her to see her 13-year-old son watch her battle with this disease.

But there is hope for Lisa in the form of a stem cell clinical trial at the UC Irvine CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic. Lisa enrolled in the Brainstorm study, a CIRM-funded phase 3 trial that’s testing a mesenchymal stem cell therapy called NurOwn. BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics, the company sponsoring this trial, is isolating mesenchymal stem cells from the patient’s own bone marrow. The stem cells are then cultured in the lab under conditions that convert them into biological factories secreting a variety of neurotrophic factors that help protect the nerve cells damaged by ALS. The modified stem cells are then transplanted back into the patient where they will hopefully slow the progression of the disease.

Dr. Namita Goyal, a neurologist at UC Irvine Health involved in the trial, explained in the KTLA5 video that they are hopeful this treatment will give patients more time, and optimistic that in some cases, it could improve some of their symptoms.

Don’t Give Up the Fight

The most powerful part of Lisa’s story to me was the end when she says,

“I think it’s amazing that I get to fight, but I want everybody to get to fight. Everybody with ALS should get to fight and should have hope.”

Not only is Lisa fighting by being in this ground-breaking trial, she is also participated in the Los Angeles marathon this past weekend, raising money for ALS research.

More patients like Lisa will get the chance to fight as more potential stem cell treatments and drugs enter clinical trials. Videos like the one in this blog are important for raising awareness about available clinical trials like the Brainstorm study, which, by the way, is still looking for more patients to enroll (contact information for this trial can be found on the clinicaltrials.gov website here). CIRM is also funding another stem cell trial for ALS at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. You can read more about this trial on our website.

Lisa’s powerful message of fighting ALS and having hope reminds me of one of Stephen Hawking’s most famous quotes, which I’ll leave you with:

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the Universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”


Related Links:

Breaking the isolation of rare diseases

Rare disease day

Rare Disease Day in Sacramento, California

How can something that affects 30 million Americans, one in ten people in the US, be called rare? But that’s the case with people who have a rare disease. There are around 7,000 different diseases that are categorized as rare because they affect fewer than 200,000 people. Less than five percent of these diseases have a treatment.

That’s why last Wednesday, in cities across the US, members of the rare disease community gathered to call for more support, more research, and more help for families battling these diseases. Their slogan tells their story, ‘Alone we are rare; Together we are strong.’

At the Rare Disease Day rally in Sacramento, California, I met Kerry Rivas. Kerry’s son Donovan has a life-threatening condition called Shprintzen-Goldberg Syndrome. Talk about rare. There are only 70 documented cases of the syndrome worldwide. Just getting a diagnosis for Donovan took years.

DonovanDonovan suffers from a lot of problems but the most serious affect his heart, lungs and spinal cord. Getting him the care he needs is time consuming and expensive and has forced Kerry and her family to make some big sacrifices. Even so they work hard to try and see that Donovan is able to lead as normal a life as is possible.

While the disease Kerry’s son has is rarer than most, everyone at Rare Disease Day had a similar story, and an equal commitment to doing all they can to be an effective advocate. And their voices are being heard.

To honor the occasion the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it was partnering with the National Organization of Rare Diseases (NORD) to hold listening sessions involving patients and FDA medical reviewers.

In a news release Peter L. Saltonstall, President and CEO of NORD, said:

“These listening sessions will provide FDA review division staff with better insight into what is important to patients in managing their diseases and improving their quality of life. It is important for FDA to understand, from the patient perspective, disease burden, management of symptoms, daily impact on quality of life, and patients’ risk tolerance. Patients and caregivers bring a pragmatic, realistic perspective about what they are willing to deal with in terms of potential risks and benefits for new therapies.”

FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said his agency is committed to doing everything possible to help the rare disease community:

“Despite our successes, there are still no treatments for the vast proportion of rare diseases or conditions. FDA is committed to do what we can to stimulate the development of more products by improving the consistency and efficiency of our reviews, streamlining our processes and supporting rare disease research.”

At CIRM we are also committed to doing all we can to help the cause. Many of the diseases we are currently funding in clinical trials are rare diseases like ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, SCID, spinal cord injury and sickle cell disease.

Many pharmaceutical companies are shy about funding research targeting these diseases because the number of patients involved is small, so the chances of recouping their investment or even making a profit is small.

At CIRM we don’t have to worry about those considerations. Our focus is solely on helping those in need. People like Donovan Rivas.

Can Stem Cell Therapies Help ALS Patients?

A scientist’s fifteen-year journey to develop a stem cell-based therapy that could one day help ALS patients.

Jan Kaufman

Photo of Clive Svendsen (top left) and Jan & Jeff Kaufman

“Can stem cells help me Clive?”

The sentence appeared slowly on a computer screen, each character separated by a pause while its author searched for the next character using a device controlled by his eye muscle.

The person asking the question was Jeff Kaufman, a Wisconsin man in his 40s completely paralyzed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). On the receiving end was Clive Svendsen, PhD, then a scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, determined to understand how stem cells could help patients like Jeff.

Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is a rapid, aggressive neurodegenerative disease with a two to four-year life expectancy. ALS destroys the nerve cells that send signals from the brain and spinal cord to the muscles that control movement. Denervation, or loss of nerves, causes muscle weakness and atrophy, leaving patients unable to control their own bodies. Currently there are two FDA-approved ALS drugs in the US – riluzole and a new drug called edaravone (Radicava). However, they only slow disease progression in some ALS patients by a few months and there are no effective treatments that stop or cure the disease.

Given this poor prognosis, making ALS the focus of his research career was an easy decision. However, developing a therapeutic strategy was challenging to Svendsen. “The problem with ALS is we don’t know the cause,” he said. “Around 10% of ALS cases are genetic, and we know some of the genes involved, but 90% of cases are sporadic.” He explained that this black box makes it difficult for scientists to know where to start when trying to develop treatments for sporadic ALS cases that have no drug targets.

From Parkinson’s disease to ALS

Svendsen, who moved to Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles to head the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute in 2010, has worked on ALS for the past 15 years. Before that, he studied Parkinson’s disease, a long-term neurodegenerative disorder that affects movement, balance and speech. Unlike ALS, Parkinson’s patients have a longer life expectancy and more treatment options that alleviate symptoms of the disease, making their quality of life far better than ALS patients.

Clive Svendsen, PhD, Director, Regenerative Medicine Institute. (Image courtesy of Cedars-Sinai)

“I chose to work on ALS mainly because of the effects it has on ALS families,” explained Svendsen. “Being normal one day, and then becoming rapidly paralyzed was hard to see.”

The transition from Parkinson’s to ALS was not without a scientific reason however. Svendsen was studying how an important growth factor in the brain called Glial Cell Line-Derived Neurotrophic Factor or GDNF could be used to protect dopamine neurons in order to treat Parkinson’s patients. However other research suggested that GDNF was even more effective at protecting motor neurons, the nerve cells destroyed by ALS.

Armed with the knowledge of GDNF’s ability to protect motor neurons, Svendsen and his team developed an experimental stem cell-based therapy that they hoped would treat patients with the sporadic form of ALS. Instead of using stem cells to replace the motor neurons lost to ALS, Svendsen placed his bets on making another cell type in the brain, the astrocyte.

Rooting for the underdog

Astrocytes are the underdog cells of the brain, often overshadowed by neurons that send and receive information from the central nervous system to our bodies. Astrocytes have many important roles, one of the most critical being to support the functions of neurons. In ALS, astrocytes are also affected but in a different way than motor neurons. Instead of dying, ALS astrocytes become dysfunctional and thereby create a toxic environment inhospitable to the motors neurons they are supposed to assist.

Fluorescent microscopy of astrocytes (red) and cell nuclei (blue). Image: Wikipedia.

“While the motor neurons clearly die in ALS, the astrocytes surrounding the motor neurons are also sick,” said Svendsen. “It’s a huge challenge to replace a motor neuron and make it grow a cable all the way to the muscle in an adult human. We couldn’t even get this to work in mice. So, I knew a more realistic strategy would be to replace the sick astrocytes in an ALS patients with fresh, healthy astrocytes. This potentially would have a regenerative effect on the environment around the existing motor neurons.”

The big idea was to combine both GDNF and astrocyte replacement. Svendsen set out to make healthy astrocytes from human brain stem cells that also produce therapeutic doses of GDNF and transplant these cells into the ALS patient spinal cord. Simply giving patients GDNF via pill wouldn’t work because the growth factor is unable to enter the brain or spinal cord tissue where it is needed. The hope, instead, was that the astrocytes would secrete the protective factor that would keep the patients’ motor neurons healthy and alive.

With critical funding from a CIRM Disease Team grant, Svendsen and his colleagues at Cedars-Sinai tested the feasibility of transplanting human brain stem cells (also referred to as neural progenitor cells) that secreted GDNF into a rat model of ALS. Their results were encouraging – the neural progenitor cells successfully developed into astrocytes and secreted GDNF, which collectively protected the rat motor neurons.

Svendsen describes the strategy as “a double whammy”: adding both healthy astrocytes and GDNF secretion to protect the motor neurons. “Replacing astrocytes has the potential to rejuvenate the niche where the motor neurons are. I think that’s a very powerful experimental approach to ALS.”

A fifteen year journey from bench to bedside

With promising preclinical data under his belt, Svendsen and his colleagues, including Robert Baloh, MD, PhD, director of neuromuscular medicine at the Cedars-Sinai Department of Neurology, and neurosurgeon J. Patrick Johnson, MD, designed a clinical trial that would test this experimental therapy in ALS patients. In October 2016, CIRM approved funding for a Phase I/IIa clinical trial assessing the safety of this novel human neural progenitor cell and gene therapy.

Clive Svendsen, PhD, director of the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute, and Robert Baloh, MD, PhD, director of neuromuscular medicine in the Cedars-Sinai Department of Neurology, in the lab. Svendsen is the sponsor of a current ALS clinical trial at Cedars-Sinai and the overall director of the program. Baloh is the principal investigator for the clinical trial. (Image courtesy of Cedars-Sinai)

This is a first-in-human study, and as such, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required the team to transplant the cells into only one side of the lumbar spinal cord, which effectively means that only one of the patient’s legs will get the treatment. This will allow for a comparison of the function and progression of ALS in the leg on the treated side of the spinal cord compared with the leg on the untreated side.

The trial was approved to treat a total of 18 patients and started in May 2017.

 Svendsen, who first started working on ALS back in 2002, describes his path to the clinic as a “very long and windy road.” He emphasized that this journey wouldn’t be possible without the hard work of his team, Cedars-Sinai and financial support from CIRM.

“It took ten years of preclinical studies and an enormous amount of work from many different people. Just producing the cells that we’re going to use took three years and a lot of trials and tribulations to make it a clinically viable product. It was really thanks to CIRM’s funding and the support of Cedars-Sinai that we got through it all. Without that kind of infrastructure, I can safely say we wouldn’t be here today.”

This “behind-the-scenes” view of how much time and effort it takes to translate a stem cell therapy from basic research into the clinic isn’t something that the public is often exposed to or aware of. Just as “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Svendsen stressed that good quality stem cell trials take time, and that it’s important for people know how complicated these trials are.

It’s all about the patients

So, what motivates Svendsen to continue this long and harrowing journey to develop a treatment for ALS? He said the answer is easy. “I’m doing it for the patients,” he explained. “I’m not doing this for the money or glory. I just want to develop something that works for ALS, so we can help these patients.”

Svendsen revisited his story about Jeff Kaufman, a man he befriended at the Wisconsin ALS Chapter in 2003. Jeff had three daughters and a son, a wonderful wife, and was a successful lawyer when he was diagnosed with ALS.

“Jeff had basically everything, and then he was stricken with ALS. I still remember going to his house and he could only move his eyes at that point. He tapped out the words ‘Can stem cells help me Clive?’ on his computer screen. And my heart sank because I knew how much and how long it was going to take. I was very realistic so I said, ‘Yes Jeff, but it’s going to take time and money. And even then, it’s a long shot.’ And he told me to go for it, and that stuck in my brain.”

It’s people like Jeff that make Svendsen get out of bed every morning and doggedly pursue a treatment for ALS. Sadly, Jeff passed away due to complications from ALS in 2010. Svendsen says what Jeff and other patients go through is tragic and unfair.

“There’s a gene that goes along with ALS and it’s called the ‘nice person gene,’” he said. “People with ALS are nice. I can’t explain it, but neurologists would say the same thing. You feel like it’s just not fair that it happens to those people.”

The future of stem cell therapies for ALS

It’s clear from speaking with Svendsen, that he is optimistic about the future of stem cell-based therapies for ALS. Scientists still need to unravel the actual causes of ALS. But the experimental stem cell treatments currently in development, including Svendsen’s, will hopefully prove effective at delaying disease progression and give ALS patients more quality years to live.

In the meantime, what concerns Svendsen is how vulnerable ALS patients are to being misled by unapproved stem cell clinics that claim to have cures. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of charlatans out there, and there are a lot of false claims being made. People feed off the desperation that you have in ALS. It’s not fair, and it’s completely wrong. They’ll mislead patients by saying ‘For $40,000 you can get a cure!’”

Compelling stories of patients cured of knee pain or diseases like ALS with injections of their own adult stem cells pop up in the news daily. Many of these stories refer to unapproved treatments from clinics that don’t provide scientific evidence that these treatments are safe and effective. Svendsen said there are reasonable, research-backed trials that are attempting to use adult stem cells to treat ALS. He commented, “I think it’s hard for the public to wade through all of these options and understand what’s real and what’s not real.”

Svendsen’s advice for ALS patients interested in enrolling in a stem cell trial or trying a new stem cell treatment is to be cautious. If a therapy sounds too good to be true, it probably is, and if it costs a lot of money, it probably isn’t legitimate, he explained.

He also wants patients to understand the reality of the current state of ALS stem cell trials. The approved stem cell trials he is aware of are not at the treatment stage yet.

“If you’re enrolled in a stem cell trial that is funded and reputable, then they will tell you honestly that it’s not a treatment. There is currently no approved treatment using stem cells for ALS,” Svendsen said.

This might seem like discouraging news to patients who don’t have time to wait for these trials to develop into treatments, but Svendsen pointed out that the when he started his research 15 years ago, the field of stem cell research was still in its infancy. A lot has been accomplished in the past decade-and-a-half and with talented scientists dedicated to ALS research like Svendsen, the next 15 years will likely offer new insights into ALS and hopefully stem cell-based treatments for a devastating disease that has no cure.

Svendsen hopes that one day, when someone like Jeff Kaufman asks him “Can stem cells help me Clive?” He’ll be able to say, yes they can, yes they can.

Stem Cell Stories That Caught our Eye: Duchenne muscular dystrophy and short telomeres, motor neurons from skin, and students today, stem cell scientists tomorrow

Short telomeres associated with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.

Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) is a severe muscle wasting disease that typically affects young men. There is no cure for DMD and the average life expectancy is 26. These are troubling facts that scientists at the University of Pennsylvania are hoping to change with their recent findings in Stem Cell Reports.

Muscle stem cells with telomeres shown in red. (Credit: Penn Medicine)

The team discovered that the muscle stem cells in DMD patients have shortened telomeres, which are the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes that prevent the loss of precious genetic information during cell division. Each time a cell divides, a small section of telomere is lost. This typically isn’t a problem because telomeres are long enough to protect cells through many divisions.

But it turns out this is not the case for the telomeres in the muscle stem cells of DMD patients. Because DMD patients have weak muscles, they experience constant muscle damage and their muscle stem cells have to divide more frequently (basically non-stop) to repair and replace muscle tissue. This is bad news for the telomeres in their muscle stem cells. Foteini Mourkioti, senior author on the study, explained in a news release,

“We found that in boys with DMD, the telomeres are so short that the muscle stem cells are probably exhausted. Due to the DMD, their muscle stem cells are constantly repairing themselves, which means the telomeres are getting shorter at an accelerated rate, much earlier in life. Future therapies that prevent telomere loss and keep muscle stem cells viable might be able to slow the progress of disease and boost muscle regeneration in the patients.”

With these new insights, Mourkioti and his team believe that targeting muscle stem cells before their telomeres become too short is a good path to pursue for developing new treatments for DMD.

“We are now looking for signaling pathways that affect telomere length in muscle stem cells, so that in principle we can develop drugs to block those pathways and maintain telomere length.”

Making Motor Neurons from Skin.

Skin cells and brain cells are like apples and oranges, they look completely different and have different functions. However, in the past decade, researchers have developed methods to transform skin cells into neurons to study neurodegenerative disorders and develop new strategies to treat brain diseases.

Scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis published new findings on this topic yesterday in the journal Cell Stem Cell. In a nut shell, the team discovered that a specific combination of microRNAs (molecules involved in regulating what genes are turned on and off) and transcription factors (proteins that also regulate gene expression) can turn human skin cells into motor neurons, which are the brain cells that degenerate in neurodegenerative diseases like ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Human motor neurons made from skin. (Credit: Daniel Abernathy)

This magical cocktail of factors told the skin cells to turn off genes that make them skin and turn on genes that transformed them into motor neurons. The scientists used skin cells from healthy individuals but will soon use their method to make motor neurons from patients with ALS and other motor neuron diseases. They are also interested in generating neurons from older patients who are more advanced in their disease. Andrew Yoo, senior author on the study, explained in a news release,

“In this study, we only used skin cells from healthy adults ranging in age from early 20s to late 60s. Our research revealed how small RNA molecules can work with other cell signals called transcription factors to generate specific types of neurons, in this case motor neurons. In the future, we would like to study skin cells from patients with disorders of motor neurons. Our conversion process should model late-onset aspects of the disease using neurons derived from patients with the condition.”

This research will make it easier for other scientists to grow human motor neurons in the lab to model brain diseases and potentially develop new treatments. However, this is still early stage research and more work should be done to determine whether these transformed motor neurons are the “real deal”. A similar conclusion was shared by Julia Evangelou Strait, the author of the Washington University School of Medicine news release,

“The converted motor neurons compared favorably to normal mouse motor neurons, in terms of the genes that are turned on and off and how they function. But the scientists can’t be certain these cells are perfect matches for native human motor neurons since it’s difficult to obtain samples of cultured motor neurons from adult individuals. Future work studying neuron samples donated from patients after death is required to determine how precisely these cells mimic native human motor neurons.”

Students Today, Scientists Tomorrow.

What did you want to be when you were growing up? For Benjamin Nittayo, a senior at Cal State University Los Angeles, it was being a scientist researching a cure for acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a form of blood cancer that took his father’s life. Nittayo is making his dream into a reality by participating in a summer research internship through the Eugene and Ruth Roberts Summer Student Academy at the City of Hope in Duarte California.

Nittayo has spent the past two summers doing cancer research with scientists at the Beckman Research Institute at City of Hope and hopes to get a PhD in immunology to pursue his dream of curing AML. He explained in a City of Hope news release,

“I want to carry his memory on through my work. Being in this summer student program helped me do that. It influenced the kind of research I want to get into as a scientist and it connected me to my dad. I want to continue the research I was able to start here so other people won’t have to go through what I went through. I don’t wish that on anybody.”

The Roberts Academy also hosts high school students who are interested in getting their first experience working in a lab. Some of these students are part of CIRM’s high school educational program Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge or SPARK. The goal of SPARK is to train the next generation of stem cell scientists in California by giving them hands-on training in stem cell research at leading institutes in the state.

This year, the City of Hope hosted the Annual SPARK meeting where students from the seven different SPARK programs presented their summer research and learned about advances in stem cell therapies from City of Hope scientists.

Ashley Anderson, a student at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, had the honor of giving the City of Hope SPARK student talk. She shared her work on Canavan’s disease, a progressive genetic disorder that damages the brain’s nerve cells during infancy and can cause problems with movement and muscle weakness.

Under the guidance of her mentor Yanhong Shi, Ph.D., who is a Professor of Developmental and Stem Cell Biology at City of Hope, Ashley used induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from patients with Canavan’s to generate different types of brain cells affected by the disease. Ashley helped develop a protocol to make large quantities of neural progenitor cells from these iPSCs which the lab hopes to eventually use in clinical trials to treat Canavan patients.

Ashley has always been intrigued by science, but thanks to SPARK and the Roberts Academy, she was finally able to gain actual experience doing science.

“I was looking for an internship in biosciences where I could apply my interest in science more hands-on. Science is more than reading a textbook, you need to practice it. That’s what SPARK has done for me. Being at City of Hope and being a part of SPARK was amazing. I learned so much from Dr. Shi. It’s great to physically be in a lab and make things happen.”

You can read more about Ashley’s research and those of other City of Hope SPARK students here. You can also find out more about the educational programs we fund on our website and on our blog (here and here).

Treatments, cures and clinical trials: an in-person update on CIRM’s progress

Patients and Patient Advocates are at the heart of everything we do at CIRM. That’s why we are holding three free public events in the next few months focused on updating you on the stem cell research we are funding, and our plans for the future.

Right now we have 33 projects that we have funded in clinical trials. Those range from heart disease and stroke, to cancer, diabetes, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), two different forms of vision loss, spinal cord injury and HIV/AIDS. We have also helped cure dozens of children battling deadly immune disorders. But as far as we are concerned we are only just getting started.

Over the course of the next few years, we have a goal of adding dozens more clinical trials to that list, and creating a pipeline of promising therapies for a wide range of diseases and disorders.

That’s why we are holding these free public events – something we try and do every year. We want to let you know what we are doing, what we are funding, how that research is progressing, and to get your thoughts on how we can improve, what else we can do to help meet the needs of the Patient Advocate community. Your voice is important in helping shape everything we do.

The first event is at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco on Wednesday, September 6th from noon till 1pm. The doors open at 11am for registration and a light lunch.

Gladstone Institutes

Here’s a link to an Eventbrite page that has all the information about the event, including how you can RSVP to let us know you are coming.

We are fortunate to be joined by two great scientists, and speakers – as well as being CIRM grantees-  from the Gladstone Institutes, Dr. Deepak Srivastava and Dr. Steve Finkbeiner.

Dr. Srivastava is working on regenerating heart muscle after it has been damaged. This research could not only help people recover from a heart attack, but the same principles might also enable us to regenerate other organs damaged by disease. Dr. Finkbeiner is a pioneer in diseases of the brain and has done ground breaking work in both Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease.

We have two other free public events coming up in October. The first is at UC Davis in Sacramento on October 10th (noon till 1pm) and the second at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles on October 30th (noon till 1pm). We will have more details on these events in the coming weeks.

We look forward to seeing you at one of these events and please feel free to share this information with anyone you think might be interested in attending.

Stem Cell Stories that Caught our Eye: CRISPRing Human Embryos, brain stem cells slow aging & BrainStorm ALS trial joins CIRM Alpha Clinics

Here are the stem cell stories that caught our eye this week. Enjoy!

Scientists claim first CRISPR editing of human embryos in the US.

Here’s the big story this week. Scientists from Portland, Oregon claim they genetically modified human embryos using the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology. While their results have yet to be published in a peer review journal (though the team say they are going to be published in a prominent journal next month), if they prove true, the study will be the first successful attempt to modify human embryos in the US.

A representation of an embryo being fertilized. Scientists can inject CRISPR during fertilization to correct genetic disorders. (Getty Images).

Steve Connor from MIT Technology Review broke the story earlier this week noting that the only reports of human embryo modification were published by Chinese scientists. The China studies revealed troubling findings. CRISPR caused “off-target” effects, a situation where the CRISPR machinery randomly introduces genetic errors in a cell’s DNA, in the embryos. It also caused mosaicism, a condition where the desired DNA sequences aren’t genetically corrected in all the cells of an embryo producing an individual with cells that have different genomes. Putting aside the ethical conundrum of modifying human embryos, these studies suggested that current gene editing technologies weren’t accurate enough to safely modify human embryos.

But a new chapter in human embryo modification is beginning. Shoukhrat Mitalipov (who is a member of CIRM’s Grants Working Group, the panel of scientific experts that reviews our funding applications) and his team from the Oregon Health and Science University said that they have developed a method to successfully modify donated human embryos that avoids the problems experienced by the Chinese scientists. The team found that introducing CRISPR at the same time an embryo was being fertilized led to successful correction of disease-causing mutations while avoiding mosaicism and “off-target” effects. They grew these embryos for a few days to confirm that the genetic modifications had worked before destroying them.

The MIT piece quoted a scientist who knows of Mitalipov’s work,

“It is proof of principle that it can work. They significantly reduced mosaicism. I don’t think it’s the start of clinical trials yet, but it does take it further than anyone has before.”

Does this discovery, if it’s true, open the door further for the creation of designer babies? For discussions about the future scientific and ethical implications of this research, I recommend reading Paul Knoepfler’s blog, this piece by Megan Molteni in Wired Magazine and Jessica Berg’s article in The Conversation.

Brain stem cells slow aging in mice

The quest for eternal youth might be one step closer thanks to a new study published this week in the journal Nature. Scientists from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York discovered that stem cells found in an area of the brain called the hypothalamus can slow the aging process in mice.

The hypothalamus is located smack in the center of your brain near the brain stem. It’s responsible for essential metabolic functions such as making and secreting hormones, managing body temperature and controlling feelings of hunger and thirst. Because the body’s metabolic functions decline with age, scientists have suspected that the hypothalamus plays a role in aging.

The mouse hypothalamus. (NIH, Wikimedia).

In the current study, the team found that stem cells in the hypothalamus gradually disappear as mice age. They were curious whether the disappearance of these stem cells could jump start the aging process. When they removed these stem cells, the mice showed more advanced mental and physical signs of aging compared to untreated mice.

They also conducted the opposite experiment where they transplanted hypothalamic stem cells taken from baby mice (the idea being that these stem cells would exhibit more “youthful” qualities) into the brains of middle-aged mice and saw improvements in mental and physical functions and a 10% increase in lifespan.

So what is it about these specific stem cells that slows down aging? Do they replenish the aging brain with new healthy cells or do they secrete factors that keep the brain healthy? Interestingly, the scientists found that these stem cells secreted vesicles that contained microRNAs, which are molecules that regulate gene expression by turning genes on or off.

They injected these microRNAs into the brains of middle-aged mice and found that they reversed symptoms of aging including cognitive decline and muscle degeneration. Furthermore, when they removed hypothalamic stem cells from middle-aged mice and treated them with the microRNAs, they saw the same anti-aging effects.

In an interview with Nature News, senior author on the study, Dongsheng Cai, commented that hypothalamic stem cells could have multiple ways of regulating aging and that microRNAs are just one of their tools. For this research to translate into an anti-aging therapy, “Cai suspects that anti-ageing therapies targeting the hypothalamus would need to be administered in middle age, before a person’s muscles and metabolism have degenerated beyond a point that could be reversed.”

This study and its “Fountain of Youth” implications has received ample attention from the media. You can read more coverage from The Scientist, GenBio, and the original Albert Einstein press release.

BrainStorm ALS trial joins the CIRM Alpha Clinics

Last month, the CIRM Board approved $15.9 million in funding for BrainStorm Cell Therapeutic’s Phase 3 trial that’s testing a stem cell therapy to treat patients with a devastating neurodegenerative disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).

The stem cell therapy, called NurOwn®, is made of mesenchymal stem cells extracted from a patient’s bone marrow. The stem cells are genetically modified to secrete neurotrophic factors that keep neurons in the brain healthy and prevent their destruction by diseases like ALS.

BrainStorm has tested NurOwn in early stage clinical trials in Israel and in a Phase 2 study in the US. These trials revealed that the treatment was “safe and well tolerated” and that “NurOwn also achieved multiple secondary efficacy endpoints, showing clear evidence of a clinically meaningful benefit.  Notably, response rates were higher for NurOwn-treated subjects compared to placebo at all time points in the study out to 24 weeks.”

This week, BrainStorm announced that it will launch its Phase 3 CIRM-funded trial at the UC Irvine (UCI) CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic. The Alpha Clinics are a network of top medical centers in California that specialize in delivering high quality stem cell clinical trials to patients. UCI is one of four medical centers including UCLA, City of Hope, and UCSD, that make up three Alpha Clinics currently supporting 38 stem cell trials in the state.

Along with UCI, BrainStorm’s Phase 3 trial will also be conducted at two other sites in the US: Mass General Hospital in Boston and California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. Chaim Lebovits, President and CEO, commented,

“We are privileged to have UCI and Dr. Namita Goyal join our pivotal Phase 3 study of NurOwn. Adding UCI as an enrolling center with Dr. Goyal as Principal Investigator will make the treatment more accessible to patients in California, and we welcome the opportunity to work with this prestigious institution.”

Before the Phase 3 trial can launch at UCI, it needs to be approved by our federal regulatory agency, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and an Institutional Review Board (IRB), which is an independent ethics committee that reviews biomedical research on human subjects. Both these steps are required to ensure that a therapy is safe to test in patients.

With promising data from their Phase 1 and 2 trials, BrainStorm’s Phase 3 trial will likely get the green light to move forward. Dr. Goyal, who will lead the trial at the UCI Alpha Clinic, concluded:

“NurOwn is a very promising treatment with compelling Phase 2 data in patients with ALS; we look forward to further advancing it in clinical development and confirming the therapeutic benefit with Brainstorm.”

Stem cell agency funds Phase 3 clinical trial for Lou Gehrig’s disease

ALS

At CIRM we don’t have a disease hierarchy list that we use to guide where our funding goes. We don’t rank a disease by how many people suffer from it, if it affects children or adults, or how painful it is. But if we did have that kind of hierarchy you can be sure that Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, would be high on that list.

ALS is a truly nasty disease. It attacks the neurons, the cells in our brain and spinal cord that tell our muscles what to do. As those cells are destroyed we lose our ability to walk, to swallow, to talk, and ultimately to breathe.

As Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s interim President and CEO, said in a news release, it’s a fast-moving disease:

“ALS is a devastating disease with an average life expectancy of less than five years, and individuals afflicted with this condition suffer an extreme loss in quality of life. CIRM’s mission is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs and, in keeping with this mission, our objective is to find a treatment for patients ravaged by this neurological condition for which there is currently no cure.”

Having given several talks to ALS support groups around the state, I have had the privilege of meeting many people with ALS and their families. I have seen how quickly the disease works and the devastation it brings. I’m always left in awe by the courage and dignity with which people bear it.

BrainStorm

I thought of those people, those families, today, when our governing Board voted to invest $15.9 million in a Phase 3 clinical trial for ALS run by BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics. BrainStorm is using mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) that are taken from the patient’s own bone marrow. This reduces the risk of the patient’s immune system fighting the therapy.

After being removed, the MSCs are then modified in the laboratory to  boost their production of neurotrophic factors, proteins which are known to help support and protect the cells destroyed by ALS. The therapy, called NurOwn, is then re-infused back into the patient.

In an earlier Phase 2 clinical trial, NurOwn showed that it was safe and well tolerated by patients. It also showed evidence that it can help stop, or even reverse  the progression of the disease over a six month period, compared to a placebo.

CIRM is already funding one clinical trial program focused on treating ALS – that’s the work of Dr. Clive Svendsen and his team at Cedars Sinai, you can read about that here. Being able to add a second project, one that is in a Phase 3 clinical trial – the last stage before, hopefully, getting approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for wider use – means we are one step closer to being able to offer people with ALS a treatment that can help them.

Diane Winokur, the CIRM Board Patient Advocate member for ALS, says this is something that has been a long time coming:

CIRM Board member and ALS Patient Advocate Diane Winokur

“I lost two sons to ALS.  When my youngest son was diagnosed, he was confident that I would find something to save him.  There was very little research being done for ALS and most of that was very limited in scope.  There was one drug that had been developed.  It was being released for compassionate use and was scheduled to be reviewed by the FDA in the near future.  I was able to get the drug for Douglas.  It didn’t really help him and it was ultimately not approved by the FDA.

When my older son was diagnosed five years later, he too was convinced I would find a therapy.  Again, I talked to everyone in the field, searched every related study, but could find nothing promising.

I am tenacious by nature, and after Hugh’s death, though tempted to give up, I renewed my search.  There were more people, labs, companies looking at neurodegenerative diseases.

These two trials that CIRM is now funding represent breakthrough moments for me and for everyone touched by ALS.  I feel that they are a promising beginning.  I wish it had happened sooner.  In a way, though, they have validated Douglas and Hugh’s faith in me.”

These therapies are not a cure for ALS. At least not yet. But what they will do is hopefully help buy people time, and give them a sense of hope. For a disease that leaves people desperately short of both time and hope, that would be a precious gift. And for people like Diane Winokur, who have fought so hard to find something to help their loved ones, it’s a vindication that those efforts have not been in vain.