Jill Helms is not your average Stanford University faculty member. Yes, she is a professor in the Department of Surgery. Yes, she has published lots of scientific studies. Yes, she is a stem cell scientist (funded by CIRM). And yes, she is playing a leading role in Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics, a company focused on tissue repair and regeneration. But she is so much more than all that.
She is a brilliant public speaker, a fashionista, and has ridden her horse to work (well, Stanford is referred to as The Farm, so why not!) and she lives on a farm of her own called “Follow Your Bliss.” The name comes from philosopher Joseph Campbell who wrote, “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of path that has been there all the while, waiting for you. And the life you ought to be living is the one you are living.”
Dr. Helms says that pretty much sums up her life. She says she feels enormously blessed.
Well, we felt enormously blessed when she agreed to sit down with us and chat about her work, her life and her love of fashion for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine podcast, Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation.
One of our favorite things to do at CIRM is deliver exciting news about CIRM projects. This usually entails discussion of recent discoveries that made headlines, or announcing the launch of a new CIRM-funded clinical trial …. tangible signs of progress towards addressing unmet medical needs through advances in stem technology.
But there are equally exciting signs of progress that are not always so obvious to the untrained eye- those that we are privileged to witness behind the scenes at CIRM. These efforts don’t always lead to a splashy news article or even to a scientific publication, but they nonetheless drive the evolution of new ideas and can help steer the field away from futile lines of investigation. Dozens of such projects are navigating uncharted waters by filling knowledge gaps, breaking down technical barriers, and working closely with regulatory agencies to define novel and safe paths to the clinic.
These efforts can remain “hidden” because they are in the intermediate stages of the long, arduous and expensive journey from “bench to beside”. For the pioneering projects that CIRM funds, this journey is unique and untrod, and can be fraught with false starts. But CIRM has developed tools to track the momentum of these programs and provide continuous support for those with the most promise. In so doing, we have watched projects evolve as they wend their way to the clinic. We wanted to share a few examples of how we do this with our readers, but first… a little background for our friends who are unfamiliar with the nuts and bolts of inventing new medicines.
A common metaphor for bringing scientific discoveries to market is a pipeline, which begins in a laboratory where a discovery occurs, and ends with government approval to commercialize a new medicine, after it is proven to be safe and effective. In between discovery and approval is a stage called “Translation”, where investigators develop ways to transition their “research level” processes to “clinically compatible” ones, which only utilize substances that are of certified quality for human use.
Investigators must also work out novel ways to manufacture the product at larger scale and transition the methods used for testing in animal models to those that can be implemented in human subjects.
A key milestone in Translation is the “preIND” (pre Investigational New Drug (IND) meeting, where an investigator presents data and plans to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for feedback before next stage of development begins, the pivotal testing needed to show it is both safe and effective.
These “IND enabling studies” are rigorous but necessary to support an application for an IND and the initiation of clinical trials, beginning with phase 1 to assess safety in a small number of individuals, and phase 2, where an expanded group is evaluated to see if the therapy has any benefits for the patient. Phase 3 trials are studies of very large numbers of individuals to gain definitive evidence of safety and therapeutic effect, generally the last step before applying to the FDA for market approval. An image of the pipeline and the stages described are provided in our diagram below.
The pipeline can be notoriously long and tricky, with plenty of twists, turns, and unexpected obstacles along the way. Many more projects enter than emerge from this gauntlet, but as we see from these examples of ‘works in progress”, there is a lot of momentum building.
Caption for Graphic:This graphic shows the number of CIRM-funded projects and the stages they have progressed through multiple rounds of CIRM funding. For example, the topmost arrow shows that are about 19 projects at the translational stage of the pipeline that received earlier support through one of CIRM’s Discovery stage programs. Many of these efforts came out of our pre-2016 funding initiatives such as Early Translation, Basic Biology and New Faculty Awards. In another example, you can see that about 15 awards that were first funded by CIRM at the IND enabling stage have since progressed into a phase 1 or phase 2 clinical trials. While most of these efforts also originated in some of CIRM’s pre-2016 initiatives such as the Disease Team Awards, others have already progressed from CIRM’s newer programs that were launched as part of the “2.0” overhaul in 2016 (CLIN1).
The number of CIRM projects that have evolved and made their way down the pipeline with CIRM support is impressive, but it is clearly an under-representation, as there are other projects that have progressed outside of CIRM’s purview, which can make things trickier to verify.
We also track projects that have spun off or been licensed to commercial organizations, another very exciting form of “progression”. Perhaps those will contribute to another blog for another day! In the meantime, here are a just a few examples of some of the progressors that are depicted on the graphic.
Project: stem cell therapy to enhance bone healing in theelderly
– Currently funded stage: IND enabling development, CLIN1-11256 (Dr. Zhu, Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics)
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.
governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM)
awarded $3.9 million to Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics for a promising approach to treat a
degenerative condition that can cause chronic, progressive back pain.
As we get
older, the bones, joints and ligaments in our back become weak and less able to
hold the spinal column in alignment. As
a result, an individual vertebral bone in our spine may slip forward over the
one below it, compressing the nerves in the spine, and causing lower back pain
or radiating pain. This condition,
called degenerative spondylolisthesis, primarily affects individuals over the
age of 50 and, if left untreated, can cause intense pain and further
degeneration of adjacent regions of the spine.
treatment usually involves taking bone from one of the patient’s other bones,
and moving it to the site of the injury.
The transplanted bone contains stem cells necessary to generate new
bone. However, there is a caveat to this
approach— as we get older the grafts become less effective because the stem
cells in our bones are less efficient at making new bone. The end result is little or no bone
Ankasa has developed ART352-L, a protein-based drug product
meant to enhance the bone healing properties of these bone grafts. ART352-L works by stimulating bone stem cells
to increase the amount of bone produced
by the graft.
The award is in the form of a CLIN1 grant, with the goal of
completing the testing needed to apply to the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) for permission to start a clinical trial in people.
This is a project that CIRM has supported through earlier
phases of research.
“We are excited to see the development that this approach has made since its early stages and reflects our commitment to supporting the most promising science and helping it advance to the clinic,” says Maria T. Millan, MD, President & CEO of CIRM. “There is an unmet medical need in older patients with bone disorders such as degenerative spondylolisthesis. As our population ages, it is important for us to invest in potential treatments such as these that can help alleviate a debilitating condition that predisposes to additional and fatal medical complications.”
See the animated video below for a descriptive and visual synopsis of degenerative spondylolisthesis.
CIRM funds research trying to solve the Alzheimer’s puzzle
In science, there are a lot of terms that could easily mystify people without a research background; “translational” is not one of them. Translational research simply means to take findings from basic research and advance them into something that is ready to be tested in people in a clinical trial.
Yesterday our Governing Board approved $15 million in funding for four projects as part of our Translational Awards program, giving them the funding and support that we hope will ultimately result in them being tested in people.
Those projects use a variety of different approaches in tackling some very different diseases. For example, researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco received $5.9 million to develop a new way to help the more than five million Americans battling Alzheimer’s disease. They want to generate brain cells to replace those damaged by Alzheimer’s, using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) – an adult cell that has been changed or reprogrammed so that it can then be changed into virtually any other cell in the body.
CIRM’s mission is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs and Alzheimer’s – which has no cure and no effective long-term treatments – clearly represents an unmet medical need.
Another project approved by the Board is run by a team at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI). They got almost $4.5 million for their research helping people with sickle cell anemia, an inherited blood disorder that causes intense pain, and can result in strokes and organ damage. Sickle cell affects around 100,000 people in the US, mostly African Americans.
The CHORI team wants to use a new gene-editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9 to develop a method of editing the defective gene that causes Sickle Cell, creating a healthy, sickle-free blood supply for patients.
Right now, the only effective long-term treatment for sickle cell disease is a bone marrow transplant, but that requires a patient to have a matched donor – something that is hard to find. Even with a perfect donor the procedure can be risky, carrying with it potentially life-threatening complications. Using the patient’s own blood stem cells to create a therapy would remove those complications and even make it possible to talk about curing the disease.
While damaged cartilage isn’t life-threatening it does have huge quality of life implications for millions of people. Untreated cartilage damage can, over time lead to the degeneration of the joint, arthritis and chronic pain. Researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) were awarded $2.5 million to develop an off-the-shelf stem cell product that could be used to repair the damage.
The fourth and final award ($2.09 million) went to Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics, which hopes to create a stem cell therapy for osteonecrosis. This is a painful, progressive disease caused by insufficient blood flow to the bones. Eventually the bones start to rot and die.
As Jonathan Thomas, Chair of the CIRM Board, said in a news release, we are hoping this is just the next step for these programs on their way to helping patients:
“These Translational Awards highlight our goal of creating a pipeline of projects, moving through different stages of research with an ultimate goal of a successful treatment. We are hopeful these projects will be able to use our newly created Stem Cell Center to speed up their progress and pave the way for approval by the FDA for a clinical trial in the next few years.”