California’s stem cell agency rounds up the year with two more big hits

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CIRM Board meeting with  Jake Javier, CIRM Chair Jonathan Thomas, Vice Chair Sen. Art Torres (Ret.) and President/CEO Randy Mills

It’s traditional to end the year with a look back at what you hoped to accomplish and an assessment of what you did. By that standard 2016 has been a pretty good year for us at CIRM.

Yesterday our governing Board approved funding for two new clinical trials, one to help kidney transplant patients, the second to help people battling a disease that destroys vision. By itself that is a no small achievement. Anytime you can support potentially transformative research you are helping advance the field. But getting these two clinical trials over the start line means that CIRM has also met one of its big goals for the year; funding ten new clinical trials.

If you had asked us back in the summer, when we had funded only two clinical trials in 2016, we would have said that the chances of us reaching ten trials by the end of the year were about as good as a real estate developer winning the White House. And yet……..

Helping kidney transplant recipients

The Board awarded $6.65 million to researchers at Stanford University who are using a deceptively simple approach to help people who get a kidney transplant. Currently people who get a transplant have to take anti-rejection medications for the rest of their life to prevent their body rejecting the new organ. These powerful immunosuppressive medications are essential but also come with a cost; they increase the risk of cancer, infection and heart disease.

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CIRM President/CEO Randy Mills addresses the CIRM Board

The Stanford team will see if it can help transplant patients bypass the need for those drugs by injecting blood stem cells and T cells (which play an important role in the immune system) from the kidney donor into the kidney recipient. The hope is by using cells from the donor, you can help the recipient’s body more readily adjust to the new organ and reduce the likelihood the body’s immune system will attack it.

This would be no small feat. Every year around 17,000 kidney transplants take place in the US, and many people who get a donor kidney experience fevers, infections and other side effects as a result of taking the anti-rejection medications. This clinical trial is a potentially transformative approach that could help protect the integrity of the transplanted organ, and improve the quality of life for the kidney recipient.

Fighting blindness

The second trial approved for funding is one we are already very familiar with; Dr. Henry Klassen and jCyte’s work in treating retinitis pigmentosa (RP). This is a devastating disease that typically strikes before age 30 and slowly destroys a person’s vision. We’ve blogged about it here and here.

Dr. Klassen, a researcher at UC Irvine, has developed a method of injecting what are called retinal progenitor cells into the back of the eye. The hope is that these cells will repair and replace the cells damaged by RP. In a CIRM-funded Phase 1 clinical trial the method proved safe with no serious side effects, and some of the patients also reported improvements in their vision. This raised hopes that a Phase 2 clinical trial using a larger number of cells in a larger number of patients could really see if this therapy is as promising as we hope. The Board approved almost $8.3 million to support that work.

Seeing is believing

How promising? Well, I recently talked to Rosie Barrero, who took part in the first phase clinical trial. She told me that she was surprised how quickly she started to notice improvements in her vision:

“There’s more definition, more colors. I am seeing colors I haven’t seen in years. We have different cups in our house but I couldn’t really make out the different colors. One morning I woke up and realized ‘Oh my gosh, one of them is purple and one blue’. I was by myself, in tears, and it felt amazing, unbelievable.”

Amazing was a phrase that came up a lot yesterday when we introduced four people to our Board. Each of the four had taken part in a stem cell clinical trial that changed their lives, even saved their lives. It was a very emotional scene as they got a chance to thank the group that made those trials, those treatments possible.

We’ll have more on that in a future blog.

 

 

 

 

How stem cells are helping change the face of medicine, one pioneering patient at a time

One of the many great pleasures of my job is that I get to meet so many amazing people. I get to know the researchers who are changing the face of medicine, but even more extraordinary are the people who are helping them do it, the patients.

Attacking Cancer

Karl

Karl Trede

It’s humbling to meet people like Karl Trede from San Jose, California. Karl is a quiet, witty, unassuming man who when the need arose didn’t hesitate to put himself forward as a medical pioneer.

Diagnosed with throat cancer in 2006, Karl underwent surgery to remove the tumor. Several years later, his doctors told him it had returned, only this time it had spread to his lungs. They told him there was no effective treatment. But there was something else.

“One day the doctor said we have a new trial we’re going to start, would you be interested? I said “sure”. I don’t believe I knew at the time that I was going to be the first one, but I thought I’d give it a whirl.”

Karl was Patient #1 in a clinical trial at Stanford University that was using a novel approach to attack cancer stem cells, which have the ability to evade standard anti-cancer treatments and cause the tumors to regrow. The team identified a protein, called CD47, that sits on the surface of cancer stem cells and helps them evade being gobbled up and destroyed by the patient’s own immune system. They dubbed CD47 the “don’t eat me” signal and created an antibody therapy they hoped would block the signal, leaving the cancer and the cancer stem cells open to attack by the immune system.

The team did pre-clinical testing of the therapy, using mice to see if it was safe. Everything looked hopeful. Even so, this was still the first time it was being tested in a human. Karl said that didn’t bother him.

“It was an experience for me, it was eye opening. I wasn’t real concerned about being the first in a trial never tested in people before. I said we know that there’s no effective treatment for this cancer, it’s not likely but it’s possible that this could be the one and if nothing else, if it doesn’t do anything for me hopefully it does something so they learn for others.”

It’s that kind of selflessness that is typical of so many people who volunteer for clinical trials, particularly Phase 1 trials, where a treatment is often being tried in people for the first time ever. In these trials, the goal is to make sure the approach is safe, so patients are given a relatively small dose of the therapy (cells or drugs) and told ahead of time it may not do any good. They’re also told that there could be some side effects, potentially serious, even life-threatening ones. Still, they don’t hesitate.

Improving vision

Rosie Barrero certainly didn’t hesitate when she got a chance to be part of a clinical trial testing the use of stem cells to help people with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare progressive disease that destroys a person’s vision and ultimately leaves them blind.

Rosalinda Barrero

Rosie Barrero

“I was extremely excited about the clinical trial. I didn’t have any fear or trepidation about it, I would have been happy being #1, and I was #6 and that was fine with me.”

 

Rosie had what are called retinal progenitor cells injected into her eye, part of a treatment developed by Dr. Henry Klassen at the University of California, Irvine. The hope was that those cells would help repair and perhaps even replace the light-sensing cells damaged by the disease.

Following the stem cell treatment, gradually Rosie noticed a difference. It was small things at first, like being able to make out the colors of cups in her kitchen cupboard, or how many trash cans were outside their house.

“I didn’t expect to see so much, I thought it would be minor, and it is minor on paper but it is hard to describe the improvement. It’s visible, it’s visible improvement.”

These are the moments that researchers like Henry Klassen live for, and have worked so tirelessly for. These are the moments that everyone at CIRM dreams of, when the work we have championed, supported and funded shows it is working, shows it is changing people’s lives.

One year ago this month our governing Board approved a new Strategic Plan, a detailed roadmap of where we want to go in the coming years. The plan laid out some pretty ambitious goals, such as funding 50 new clinical trials in the next 5 years, and at our Board meeting next week we’ll report on how well we are doing in terms of hitting those targets.

People like Karl and Rosie help motivate us to keep trying, to keep working as hard as we can, to achieve those goals. And if ever we have a tough day, we just have to remind ourselves of what Rosie said when she realized she could once again see her children.

“Seeing their faces. It’s pretty incredible. I always saw them with my heart so I just adore them, but now I can see them with my eye.”


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CIRM-funded stem cell trial for retinitis pigmentosa makes progress

A CIRM-funded clinical trial for retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative eye disease that causes blindness, recently reached its next milestone and announced the completion of its patient enrollment for a phase I/IIa study testing a stem cell derived therapy. This is a major step forward in determining whether this approach is both safe and effective at improving sight in RP patients.

retinitis pigmentosas_1RP is a genetically inherited disease that destroys the light-sensing photoreceptor cells at the back of the eye. Symptoms of the disease typically appear in childhood and often cause blindness by the age of 40. RP affects approximately 100,000 people in the US, and there are no effective treatments.

Stem cell treatment for RP

Regenerative medicine offers a promising strategy for treating RP by replacing the lost or damaged photoreceptors in the retina with healthy retinal cells derived from human stem cells.

CIRM is funding a clinical trial that’s testing a stem cell-based treatment for advanced RP. The trial is sponsored by a California-based company called jCyte, which was founded in 2012 by Dr. Henry Klassen and Dr. Jing Yang, both currently professors at UC Irvine.

The treatment involves injecting human retinal progenitor cells, which are derived from adult stem cells, into the damaged area of the retina at the back of the eye to hopefully improve vision. These progenitor cells could either replace the damaged photoreceptors in the eye, or could help rescue the remaining photoreceptors from being destroyed.

RP clinical trials makes progress

Earlier this year, jCyte reported that they had treated the first nine patients in their phase I/IIa safety trial and did not observe any negative side effects caused by the treatment. Today, they announced that they have finished the trial enrollment with a total of 28 patients. Four different doses of retinal progenitor cells were tested in this patient group to determine both safety and the optimal dose of cells. While the results of this trial won’t be available until next year, eight of the enrolled patients have already completed the one-year study and have shown promising safety results.

In a jCyte news release, Dr. Klassen explained:

Klassen“We have successfully completed four DSMB (Data Safety Monitoring Board) reviews. So far, trial participants have had no significant side effects, with good tolerance of the injected cells. We are quite gratified by the results.”

CIRM is also happy to hear these positive findings as proving that a stem cell treatment is safe in patients is essential for moving a clinical trial forward. Jonathan Thomas, Chairman of the CIRM Governing Board commented in a CIRM news release:

Jonathan Thomas

Jonathan Thomas

“We are really encouraged by the preliminary safety results of the jCyte trial. RP is a rare disease and an unmet medical need that could benefit from advances in stem cell-based treatments. The jCyte trial will hopefully pave the way for determining how stem cells can improve vision in RP patients, and ultimately other diseases of blindness.”

Next steps

As this trial moves forward, jCyte hopes to begin planning a phase IIb trial that will determine whether their stem cell-based therapy is effective at improving vision in advanced RP patients.

“I look forward to the next stage of development towards commercialization,” said jCyte CEO Paul Bresge. “We never lose sight of our singular goal: to ultimately deliver this much-needed therapy to patients.”

If all goes well, additional RP patients will be needed to participate in the second phase of the jCyte trial. Patients who are interested in learning more about this trial or enrolling in future trials, should visit the jCyte website.

If you want to learn more about how stem cells could potentially yield new treatments for diseases of blindness, watch our video “Eyeing Stem Cell Therapies for Vision Loss”.


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Advancements in gene editing make blind rats see light

Gene editing is a rapidly advancing technology that scientists are using to manipulate the genomes of cells with precision and accuracy. Many of these experiments are being conducted on stem cells to genetic mutations in an attempt to find cures for various diseases like cancer, HIV and blindness.

Speaking of blindness, researchers from the Salk Institute reported today that they’ve improved upon the current CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology and found a more efficient way to edit the genomes of cells in living animals. They used their technology on blind rats that had a genetic disease called retinitis pigmentosa (RP) and found that the rats were able to see light following the treatment.

The really exciting part about their findings is that their CRISPR technology works well on dividing cells like stem cells and progenitor cells, which is typically how scientists use the CRISPR technology, but it also works on adult cells that do not divide – a feat that hasn’t been accomplished before.

Their results, which were published today in the journal Nature, offer a new tool that scientists can use to target cells that no longer divide in tissues and organs like the eye, brain, pancreas and heart.

According to a Salk news release:

“The new Salk technology is ten times more efficient than other methods at incorporating new DNA into cultures of dividing cells, making it a promising tool for both research and medicine. But, more importantly, the Salk technique represents the first time scientists have managed to insert a new gene into a precise DNA location in adult cells that no longer divide, such as those of the eye, brain, pancreas or heart, offering new possibilities for therapeutic applications in these cells.”

CRISPR gene edited neurons, which are non-dividing brain cells, are shown in green while cell nuclei are shown in blue. (Salk)

CRISPR gene edited neurons, which are non-dividing brain cells, are shown in green while cell nuclei are shown in blue. (Salk)

Salk Professor and senior author on the study, Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, explained the big picture of their findings:

“We are very excited by the technology we discovered because it’s something that could not be done before. For the first time, we now have a technology that allows us to modify the DNA of non-dividing cells, to fix broken genes in the brain, heart and liver. It allows us for the first time to be able to dream of curing diseases that we couldn’t before, which is exciting.”

If you want to learn more about the science behind their new CRISPR gene editing technology, check out the Salk news release and coverage in Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News. You can also watch this short three minute video about the study made by the Salk Institute.

A patient perspective on how stem cells could give a second vision to the blind

October is Blindness Awareness month. In honor of the patients who suffer from diseases of blindness and of the scientists and doctors who work tirelessly to develop treatments and cures for these diseases, we are featuring an interview with Kristin Macdonald, a woman who is challenged by Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP).

RP is a genetically inherited disease that affects the photoreceptors at the back of the eye in an area called the retina. It’s a hard disease to diagnose because the first signs are subtle. Patients slowly lose their peripheral vision and ability to see well at night. As the disease progresses, the window of sight narrows and patients experience “tunnel vision”. Eventually, they become totally blind. Currently, there is no treatment for RP, but stem cell research might offer a glimmer of hope.

Kristin MacDonald

Kristin MacDonald

Kristin Macdonald was the first patient treated in a CIRM-funded stem cell trial for RP run by Dr. Henry Klassen at UC Irvine. She is a patient advocate and inspirational speaker for the blind and visually impaired, and is also a patient ambassador for Americans for Cures. Kristin is an amazing woman who hasn’t let RP prevent her from living her life. It was my pleasure to interview her to learn more about her life’s vision, her experience in CIRM’s RP trial, and her thoughts on patient advocacy and the importance of stem cell research.


Q: Tell us about your experience with being diagnosed with RP?

I was officially diagnosed with RP at 31. RP is a very difficult thing to diagnose, and I had to go through a series of doctors before we figured it out. The signs were there in my mid-to-late twenties, but unfortunately I didn’t really know what they were.

Being diagnosed with RP was really surprising to me. I grew up riding horses and doing everything. I had 20/20 vision and didn’t need any reading glasses. I started getting these night vision symptoms in my mid-to-late 20s in New York when I was in Manhattan. It was then that I started tripping, falling and getting clumsy. But I didn’t know what was happening and I was having such a great time with my life that I just denied it. I didn’t want to acknowledge that anything was wrong.

So I moved out to Los Angeles to pursue an acting and television career, and I just kept ignoring that thing in the brain that says “something’s wrong”. By the time I broke my arm for the second time, I had to go to see a doctor. And that’s when they diagnosed me.

Q: How did you boost yourself back up after being diagnosed with RP?

RP doesn’t come with an instruction booklet. It’s a very gradual adjustment emotionally, physically and spiritually. The first thing I did was to get out of denial, which was a really scary place to be because you can break your leg that way. You have to acknowledge what’s happening in life otherwise you’ll never get anywhere or past anything. That was my first stage of getting over denial. As I slowly started to accept things, I learned to live in the moment, which in a way is a big thing in life because we should all be living for today.

I think the fear of someone telling you that you’re going to go into the dark when you’ve always lived your life in the light can be overwhelming at times. I used to go to the mall and sometimes a door to a store would be gone or an elevator that I used to see is gone. What I did to deal with these fears and changes was to become as proactive as possible. I enlisted all of the best people around me in the business. I started doing charitable work for the Center for the Partially Sighted and for the Foundation for Fighting Blindness. I sat on the board of AIRSLA.org, an internet radio service for the blind and visually impaired, where I still do my radio show. Through that, I met other people who were going through the same type of thing and would come into my home to teach me independent living skills.

I remember the first day when an independent living counselor from the Center for the Partially Sighted came to my house and said we have to check in and see what your adjustment to blindness is like. Those words cut through me. “Adjustment to blindness”. It felt like I was going to prison, that’s how it felt like to me back then. But I am so glad I reached out to the Center for the Partially Sighted because they gave me invaluable instructions on how to function as a blind person. They helped me realize I could really live a good life and be whole, and that blindness would never define me.

I also worked a lot on my spiritual side. I read a lot of positive thinking books and found comfort in my faith in god and the support from my family, friends and my boyfriend. I can’t even enumerate how good they’ve been to me.

Q: How has being blind impacted your ability to do the things you love?

I’m a very social person, so giving up my car and suddenly being confined at night was crushing to me. And we didn’t have Uber back then! During that time, I had to learn how to lead a full life socially. I still love to do salsa dancing but it’s tricky. If I stand on the sidelines, some of the dancers will pass you by because they don’t know you’re blind. I also learned how to horseback ride and swim in the ocean – just a different way. I go in the water on a surf leash. Or I ride around the ring with my best friend guiding me.

Kristin loves to ride horses.

Kristin doesn’t let being mostly blind stop her from riding horses.

Q: What treatments have you had for RP?

I investigated just about everything that was out there. [Laughs] After I was diagnosed, I became very proactive to find treatments. But after a while, I became discouraged because these treatments either didn’t work or still needed time for the FDA to give approval.

I did participate in a study nine years ago and had genetically modified cells put into my eye. I had two surgeries: one to put the cells in and one to take them out because the treatment hadn’t done anything. I didn’t get any improvement, and that was crushing to me because I had hoped and waited so long.

I just kept praying, waiting, reading and hoping. And then boom, all the sudden I got a phone call from UC Irvine saying they wanted me to participate in their stem cell trial for RP. They said I’d be the third person in the world to have it done and the first in their clinical trial. They told me I was to be the first North American patient to have progenitor cells put in my eye, which is pretty amazing.

Q: Was it easy to decide to participate in the UC Irvine CIRM-funded trial?

Yes. But don’t get me wrong, I’m human. I was a little scared. It’s a new thing and you have to sign papers saying that you understand that we don’t exactly know what the results will be. Essentially, you are agreeing to be a pathfinder.

Luckily, I have not had any adverse effects since the trial. But I’ve always had a great deal of faith in stem cells. For years, I’ve been hearing about it and I’ve always put my hopes in stem cells thinking that that’s going to be the answer for blindness.

Q: Have you seen any improvements in your sight since participating in this trial?

I was treated a year ago in June. The stem cell transplant was in my left eye, my worse eye that has never gotten better. It’s been about 15 months now, and I started to see improvement after about two months following the treatment. When I would go into my bathroom, I noticed that it was a lot brighter. I didn’t know if I was imagining things, but I called a friend and said, “I don’t know if I’m imagining things but I’m getting more light perception in this eye.”

Sure enough, over a period of about eight months, I had gradual improvement in light perception. Then I leveled off, but now there is no question that I’m photo sensitive. When I go out, I use my sunglasses, and I see a whole lot more light.

Because I was one of the first patients in the trial, they had to give me a small dose of cells to test for safety. So it was amazing that a smaller dose of cells was still able to help me gain back some sight! One of the improvements that I’ve had is that I can actually see the image of my finger waving back and forth on my left side, which I couldn’t before when I put mascara on. I say this because I have put lip pencil all over my mouth by accident. That must have been a real sight! For a woman, putting on makeup is really important.

Q: What was your experience like participating in the UC Irvine trial?

Dr. Klassen who runs the UC Irvine stem cell trial for RP is an amazing person. He was in the room with me during the transplant procedure. I have such a high regard and respect for Dr. Klassen because he’s been working on the cure for RP as long as I’ve had it. He’s someone who’s dedicated his life to trying to find an answer to a disease that I’ve been dealing with on a day-to-day basis.

Dr. Klassen had the opportunity to become a retinal surgeon and make much more money in a different area. But because it was too crushing to talk to patients and give them such a sad diagnosis, he decided he was going to do something about it. When I heard that, I just never forgot it. He’s a wonderful man and he’s really dedicated to this cause.

Q: How have you been an advocate for RP and blindness?

I’ve been an advocate for the visually impaired in many different aspects. I have raised money for different research foundations and donated my time as a host and an MC to various charities through radio shows. I’ve had a voice in the visually impaired community in one way or another on and off for 15 years.

I also started getting involved in Americans for Cures only a few months ago. I am helping them raise awareness about Proposition 71, which created CIRM, and the importance of funding stem cell research in the future.

I may in this lifetime get actual vision again, a real second vision. But in the meantime, I’ve been working on my higher self, which is good because a friend of mine who is totally blind reminded me today, “Kristin, just remember, don’t live for tomorrow just getting that eye sight back”. My friend was born blind. I told him he is absolutely right. I know I can lead a joyful life either way. But trust me, having a cure for RP would be the icing on the cake for me.

Q: Why is it important to be a patient advocate?

I think it’s so important from a number of different aspects, and I really felt this at the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) conference in San Francisco this summer when certain people came to talk to me afterwards, especially researchers and scientists. They don’t get to see the perspective of the patient because they are on the other side of the fence.

I think it’s very important to be a patient advocate because when you have a personal story, it resonates with people much more than just reading about something or hearing about something on a ballot.  It’s really vital for the future. Everybody has somebody or knows somebody who had macular degeneration or became visually impaired. If they don’t, they need to be educated about it.

Q: Tell us about your Radio Show.

My radio show “Second Vision” is about personal development and reinventing yourself and your life’s vision when the first one fails. It was the first internet radio show to support the blind and visually impaired, so that’s why I’m passionate about it. I’ve had scores of authors on there over the years who’ve written amazing books about how to better yourself and personal stories from people who have overcome adversity from all different types of challenges in terms of emotional health, physical health or problems in their lives. You can find anything on the Second Vision website from interviews on Reiki and meditation to Erik Weihenmayer, the blind man who climbed the seven summits (the highest mountains of each of the seven continents).

Q: Why is stem cell research important?

I do think that stem cells will help people with blindness. I don’t know whether it will be a 100% treatment. Scientists may have to do something else along the way to perfect stem cell treatments whether it’s gene therapy or changing the number of cells or types of cells they inject into the eye. I really do have a huge amount of faith in stem cells. If they can regenerate other parts of the body, I think the eye will be no different.

To read more about Kristin Macdonald and her quest for a Second Vision, please visit her website.


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Trash talking and creating a stem cell community

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Imilce Rodriguez-Fernandez likes to talk trash. No, really, she does. In her case it’s cellular trash, the kind that builds up in our cells and has to be removed to ensure the cells don’t become sick.

Imilce was one of several stem cell researchers who took part in a couple of public events over the weekend, on either side of San Francisco Bay, that served to span both a geographical and generational divide and create a common sense of community.

The first event was at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Marin County, near San Francisco. It was titled “Stem Cell Celebration” and that’s pretty much what it was. It featured some extraordinary young scientists from the Buck talking about the work they are doing in uncovering some of the connections between aging and chronic diseases, and coming up with solutions to stop or even reverse some of those changes.

One of those scientists was Imilce. She explained that just as it is important for people to get rid of their trash so they can have a clean, healthy home, so it is important for our cells to do the same. Cells that fail to get rid of their protein trash become sick, unhealthy and ultimately stop working.

Imilce is exploring the cellular janitorial services our bodies have developed to deal with trash, and trying to find ways to enhance them so they are more effective, particularly as we age and those janitorial services aren’t as efficient as they were in our youth.

Unlocking the secrets of premature aging

Chris Wiley, another postdoctoral researcher at the Buck, showed that some medications that are used to treat HIV may be life-saving on one level, preventing the onset of full-blown AIDS, but that those benefits come with a cost, namely premature aging. Chris said the impact of aging doesn’t just affect one cell or one part of the body, but ripples out affecting other cells and other parts of the body. By studying the impact those medications have on our bodies he’s hoping to find ways to maintain the benefits of those drugs, but get rid of the downside.

Creating a Community

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Across the Bay, the U.C. Berkeley Student Society for Stem Cell Research held it’s 4th annual conference and the theme was “Culturing a Stem Cell Community.”

The list of speakers was a Who’s Who of CIRM-funded scientists from U.C. Davis’ Jan Nolta and Paul Knoepfler, to U.C. Irvine’s Henry Klassen and U.C. Berkeley’s David Schaffer. The talks ranged from progress in fighting blindness, to how advances in stem cell gene editing are cause for celebration, and concern.

What struck me most about both meetings was the age divide. At the Buck those presenting were young scientists, millennials; the audience was considerably older, baby boomers. At UC Berkeley it was the reverse; the presenters were experienced scientists of the baby boom generation, and the audience were keen young students representing the next generation of scientists.

Bridging the divide

But regardless of the age differences there was a shared sense of involvement, a feeling that regardless of which side of the audience we are on we all have something in common, we are all part of the stem cell community.

All communities have a story, something that helps bind them together and gives them a sense of common purpose. For the stem cell community there is not one single story, there are many. But while those stories all start from a different place, they end up with a common theme; inspiration, determination and hope.

 

Seeing is believing: how some scientists – including two funded by CIRM – are working to help the blind see

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How retinitis pigmentosa destroys vision – new stem cell research may help reverse that

“A pale hue”. For most of us that is a simple description, an observation about color. For Kristin Macdonald it’s a glimpse of the future. In some ways it’s a miracle. Kristin lost her sight to retinitis pigmentosa (RP). For many years she was virtually blind. But now, thanks to a clinical trial funded by CIRM she is starting to see again.

Kristin’s story is one of several examples of restoring sight in an article entitled “Why There’s New Hope About Ending Blindness” in the latest issue of National Geographic.  The article explores different approaches to treating people who were either born without vision or lost their vision due to disease or injury.

Two of those stories feature research that CIRM has funded. One is the work that is helping Kristin. Retinitis pigmentosa is a relatively rare condition that destroys the photoreceptors at the back of the eye, the cells that actually allow us to sense light. The National Geographic piece highlights how a research team at the University of California, Irvine, led by Dr. Henry Klassen, has been working on a way to use stem cells to replace and repair the cells damaged by RP.

“Klassen has spent 30 years studying how to coax progenitor cells—former stem cells that have begun to move toward being specific cell types—into replacing or rehabilitating failed retinal cells. Having successfully used retinal progenitor cells to improve vision in mice, rats, cats, dogs, and pigs, he’s testing a similar treatment in people with advanced retinitis pigmentosa.”

We recently blogged about this work and the fact that this team just passed it’s first major milestone – – showing that in the first nine patients treated none experienced any serious side effects. A Phase 1 clinical trial like this is designed to test for safety, so it usually involves the use of relatively small numbers of cells. The fact that some of those treated, like Kristin, are showing signs of improvement in their vision is quite encouraging. We will be following this work very closely and reporting new results as soon as they are available.

The other CIRM-supported research featured in the article is led by what the writer calls “an eyeball dream team” featuring University of Southern California’s Dr. Mark Humayun, described as “a courteous, efficient, impeccably besuited man.” And it’s true, he is.

The team is developing a stem cell device to help treat age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss in the US.

“He and his fellow principal investigator, University of California, Santa Barbara stem cell biologist Dennis Clegg, call it simply a patch. That patch’s chassis, made of the same stuff used to coat wiring for pacemakers and neural implants, is wafer thin, bottle shaped, and the size of a fat grain of rice. Onto this speck Clegg distributes 120,000 cells derived from embryonic stem cells.”

Humayun and Clegg have just started their clinical trial with this work so it is likely going to be some time before we have any results.

These are just two of the many different approaches, using several different methods, to address vision loss. The article is a fascinating read, giving you a sense of how science is transforming people’s lives. It’s also wonderfully written by David Dobbs, including observations like this:

“Neuroscientists love the eye because “it’s the only place you see the brain without drilling a hole,” as one put it to me.”

For a vision of the future, a future that could mean restoring vision to those who have lost it, it’s a terrific read.

 

CIRM-funded stem cell clinical trial for retinitis pigmentosa focuses on next stage

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How retinitis pigmentosa erodes normal vision

The failure rate for clinical trials is depressingly high. A study from Tufts University in 2010  found that for small molecules – the substances that make up more than 90 percent of the drugs on the market today – the odds of getting from a Phase 1 trial to approval by the Food and Drug Administration are just 13 percent. For stem cell therapies the odds are even lower.

That’s why, whenever a stem cell therapy shows good results it’s an encouraging sign, particularly when that therapy is one that we at CIRM are funding. So we were more than a little happy to hear that Dr. Henry Klassen and his team at jCyte and the University of California, Irvine have apparently cleared the first hurdle with their treatment for retinitis pigmentosa (RP).

jCyte has announced that the first nine patients treated for RP have shown no serious side effects, and they are now planning the next phase of their Phase 1/2a safety trial.

In a news release Klassen, the co-founder of jCyte, said:

“We are pleased with the results. Retinitis pigmentosa is an incurable retinal disease that first impacts people’s night vision and then progressively robs them of sight altogether. This is an important milestone in our effort to treat these patients.”

The therapy involves injecting human retinal progenitor cells into one eye to help save the light sensing cells that are destroyed by the disease. This enables the researchers to compare the treated eye with the untreated eye to see if there are any changes or improvements in vision.

So far, the trial has undergone four separate reviews by the Data Safety Monitoring Board (DSMB), an independent group of experts that examines data from trials to ensure they meet all safety standards and that results show patients are not in jeopardy. Results from the first nine people treated are encouraging.

The approach this RP trial is taking has a couple of advantages. Often when transplanting organs or cells from one person into another, the recipient has to undergo some kind of immunosuppression, to stop their body rejecting the transplant. But earlier studies show that transplanting these kinds of progenitor cells into the eye doesn’t appear to cause any immunological response. That means patients in the study don’t have to undergo any immunosuppression. Because of that, the procedure is relatively simple to perform and can be done in a doctor’s office rather than a hospital. For the estimated 1.5 million people worldwide who have RP that could make getting treatment relatively easy.

Of course the big question now is not only was it safe – it appears to be – but does it work? Did any of those people treated experience improvements in their vision? We will share those results with you as soon as the researchers make them available.

Next step for the clinical trial is to recruit more patients, and treat them with a higher number of cells. There’s still a long way to go before we will know if this treatment works, if it either slows down, stops, or better still helps reverse some of the effects of RP. But this is a really encouraging first step.


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Why is a cell therapy that restores sight to the blind against the law?

FDA

A lot of people are frustrated with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and its woefully slow process for approving stem cell therapies. That’s one of the reasons why we started the CIRM Stem Cell Champions campaign, to gather as many like-minded supporters of stem cell research as possible and help to change the way the FDA works, to create a more efficient approval process.

You can read more about that campaign and watch a short video on what being a Stem Cell Champion involves (hint: not very much).

Now Randy Mills, our President and CEO, has teamed up with former US Senator Bill Frist to explain precisely why the FDA needs to change the way it regulates stem cells, and to offer a simple way to create the system that will best serve the needs of patients.

This Op Ed appeared on Fox News’ online Opinion section on Friday, May 20th.


Cell therapy reversed blindness for 47,000 patients in 2015. So why is it against the law?

By C. Randal Mills Ph.D., Sen. Bill Frist M.D.

As medical miracles go, restoring sight to the blind is right up there. A mother seeing her baby for the first time, or a child being able to count the stars is a beautiful gift, and its value cannot be overstated. Last year 47,000 Americans received that gift and had their blindness reversed through the transplantation of cells from a corneal donor’s final selfless act.

It is safe, it is effective, and because it is curative, it is a relatively cost effective procedure. It is medicine at its most beautiful. And according to FDA regulations, the distribution of this cell therapy is in violation of federal law.

That’s right. The regulation says that no matter how competent the surgeon, the FDA must first approve cells from donated corneas as if they were a drug—a process that takes over a decade and can costs billions of dollars — all for a practice that has been successfully restoring sight for more than 50 years. And this is only one example.

The good news: the FDA doesn’t always adhere to its regulations and has not in this case.

The bad news: inconsistent enforcement creates uncertainty, deterring innovation for other unmet medical needs such as arthritis, back pain, and diabetic ulcers.

How did a country known for pioneering medical breakthroughs get here?

Appropriate regulation of living cells that treat disease is inherently complex. Some therapies, like corneal cell transplants, are well-understood. Others are far more sophisticated and can involve forcing cells to change from one type to another, cutting out defective genes, and growing cells in culture to expand their numbers into the billions. Although this may sound like science fiction, it’s the type of very real science that will revolutionize the practice of medicine. And it is a challenging spectrum to regulate.

Unfortunately, what we have today amounts to a regulatory light switch for cell therapy; one that is either OFF or ON. For some cell therapies there is essentially no pre-market regulation. But at some point of added complexity, often arbitrarily decided by the FDA, the switch flips to ON and the cell becomes a drug in the minds of the Agency. And the consequences could not be more profound.

A product can be introduced through the OFF pathway in days with no FDA review and at very little cost. The ON pathway on the other hand, takes 10-20 years and can cost over a billion dollars. For cell therapy, there is no in between.

It is not possible to regulate the continuum of cell therapies fairly and effectively by using this binary approach. The system is broken and is impeding the hunt for safe and effective treatments for suffering patients.

Why? Because sensible people don’t invest significant capital gambling that the FDA will give them a pass out of its rules. They evaluate the time and cost of development assuming they will be forced down the ON pathway. They also assume that this arbitrary approach to regulation will (and often does) work against them by allowing a competitor to enter the market through the OFF pathway, placing them at a prohibitive disadvantage. The results speak for themselves. After 15 years under this paradigm we have had only a few cell therapies approved, all commercial disasters.

This is because the ON-OFF approach fails to adequately account for the difference in cell therapy complexity. To better understand, imagine this methodology applied to the regulation of automobiles. The government might permit low tech cars, say the Model T, to be sold without pre-market regulation. But if a manufacturer wanted to improve the vehicle by adding air conditioning, a radio or other such feature, the car would be subject to massive pre-market regulation. And not just on the new feature. Instead, the addition of the new feature would trigger a bumper-to-bumper evaluation of the entire car, increasing its development cost from basically nothing to that of a Lamborghini. The result would be streets full of hot, radio-less go-karts, except for a few ultra-high-end sports cars whose manufacturers are now defunct because they were never able to recoup the disproportionate costs of satisfying the regulatory system. This is what we see with cell therapies today: progress that is sluggish at best.

How can we move forward?

Ironically, the FDA identified a solution to the problem. In order to account for the broad spectrum inherent to cell therapy, in the late 90’s the FDA proposed a progressive, risk-based approach. The higher the risk, the greater the regulation. This guards against under regulation that might put patients at risk and prevents overregulation that can disincentivize the development of new or improved products.

In the FDA’s own words, the regulation they proposed would abide by a few basic principles:

  • “Under this tiered, risk-based approach, we propose to exert only the type of government regulation necessary to protect the public health.”
  • “The regulation of different types of human cells… will be commensurate with the public health risks…”
  • “These planned improvements will increase the safety of human cells… while encouraging the development of new products.”

It was a remarkably common sense approach that would have balanced safety with the need for innovation over an exceptionally broad range of technological complexity and risk.

It would have.

Unfortunately, the regulatory framework that was promised was never delivered, and it is time to resuscitate it. The burden placed on the development of cell therapies must accurately reflect the risks; must be balanced against the very real consequences of doing nothing (patients continuing to suffer); and must be consistently and fairly applied. In short, the FDA had it right and we need to give them the tools to deliver the regulatory paradigm they originally envisioned.

If we fix this highly fixable problem, we can create a system that will drive new innovations and better outcomes. Europe and Japan have already acted and are seeing the benefits. People with great ideas are coming off the bench, and game changing therapies are entering practice. While challenging the status quo does not sit well with some, particularly those who stand to prosper from the built-in barriers to entry the current structure provides, in the United States we have a responsibility to do better for patients and fix this broken system.

Randal Mills, Ph.D., is the President and CEO of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine

William “Bill” H. Frist, M.D. is a nationally-acclaimed heart and lung transplant surgeon, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader, and chairman of the Executive Board of the health service private equity firm Cressey & Company.

In the Race to Cure Blindness, Who Will Cross the Finish Line First Optogenetics or Stem Cells?

San Francisco Sunset. (Karen Ring)

San Francisco Sunset. (Karen Ring)

Before you read this blog, I wanted to share a photo that I took (yes with my iPhone 6…) last week of a beautiful sunset at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. I’m showing you this picture not to gloat that I live by the ocean, but to make a point. You’re able to enjoy this picture because you have the ability to see. But more than 20 million Americans in the US who suffer from some form of visual impairment can’t, and they are the inspiration for my blog today.

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of blindness in the US, destroys the macula, the part of the eye responsible for central vision. Others patients suffer from retinitis pigmentosa (RP), which ravages the photoreceptors in the retina located in the back inside layer of the eye causing night blindness, tunnel vision, and eventually blindness. (For more on RP and AMD, check out our Stem Cells In Your Face video on “Eyeing Stem Cell Therapies for Vision Loss). Other diseases such as cataracts, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy can also cause people to lose some or all of their vision.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for many forms of blindness, but science has advanced to the point where multiple technologies are being tested in human clinical trials with the hopes of improving sight in blind patients. The two technologies I’m going to talk about today are optogenetics and stem cells – both innovative techniques that have made rapid progress in recent years.

What is optogenetics and how will it help restore sight?

First published about in the early 2000’s, optogenetics is a relatively new and really cool technology that can control how cells function by genetically manipulating them to be responsive to light. Scientists can use optogenetics to turn the activity of nerve cells in the brain on or off, to make muscle cells contract, and now to make eye cells activate in response to light.

The technique relies on light-sensitive proteins called opsins. Through genetic engineering, opsin proteins are delivered to the surface of the desired cell, and when they are exposed to the right wave-length of light, they send signals that turn the cells’ activity on or off.

Encouraged by the success of using optogenetics to restore sight in animal models of blindness, scientists are now hoping to test it in human clinical trials. A company called RetroSense Therapeutics in Ann Arbor, Michigan has developed a gene therapy technology that uses optogenetics, and it has partially restored sight in animal models. They’re targeting retinal ganglion cells, which are nerve cells located at the inner surface of the retina, and turning them into light-sensing cells to replace the ones that have died off.

A clinical trial using RetroSense’s optogenetics therapy is already underway in patients with RP and the trial’s first patient was treated at a clinic in Texas in February. The goal of the trial is baby steps – doctors hope that patients won’t experience negative side effects and that they will go from zero vision to some vision. You can read more about this clinical trial in a piece by Katherine Bourzac in the MIT Technology Review.

Stem Cell Treatments for Blindness in the Works

I’m switching gears now to talk about stem cell therapies for blindness. This area of research has received a lot more attention from scientists compared to optogenetics probably because it’s been around longer and offers more options for therapeutic development.

To be brief, scientists are testing the potential of stem cells to treat patients with diseases like RP and AMD using different types of stem cells including pluripotent stem cells (both embryonic and induced pluripotent or iPS) and retinal progenitor cells derived from fetal tissue. A common approach with AMD is to generate retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells – support cells that keep the retina healthy – from pluripotent stem cells and transplant them into the eye. Clinical trials around the world are testing the safety and efficacy of stem-cell derived RPE cells in patients with both the dry and wet forms of AMD.

Researchers seek to restore health to the retina in the back of the eye using cells such as these precursors of an area called the RPE.

An image of RPE cells made from human  stem cells.

In the US and Korea, Ocata Therapeutics (recently acquired by Astellas Therapeutics) generated RPE cells from human embryonic stem cells and transplanted them into patients with AMD in a Phase 1 clinical trial. They reported some improvement in vision and no adverse side effects and launched a Phase 2 trial in 2015. In Japan, scientists at RIKEN transplanted a living sheet of RPE cells from an AMD patient’s own iPS cells and transplanted them patients with AMD. While the first patient did not suffer any negative side effects, the trial was put on hold due to safety issues associated with findings from the iPS cells in laboratory tests. Other stem cell clinical trials are ongoing and you can read about them in this article in Drug Discovery & Development.

CIRM is also funding stem cell trials to treat blindness. One team led by Henry Klassen at UC Irvine, is using fetal retinal progenitor cells to treat patients with RP. They inject these cells into the fluid of the eye, and the cells release proteins and growth factors that boost the health of the remaining photoreceptors in the retina of RP patients. Another team at USC and UC Santa Barbara led by Mark Humayun, David Hinton and Dennis Clegg generated monolayer sheets of RPE cells derived from embryonic stem cells and growing them on synthetic scaffolds that will be transplanted into patients with AMD. Both teams are testing the safety and usefulness of their stem cell treatments in Phase 1 clinical trials. If you want to learn more about them, check out our recent blog.

So what will it be, optogenetics or stem cells?

Artistic representation of the human eye. (Dr. Kang Zhang, Dr. Yizhi Liu)

Artistic representation of the human eye. (Dr. Kang Zhang, Dr. Yizhi Liu)

It’s hard to tell which technology will be first to succeed in restoring sight to patients suffering from blindness and which technology will be more beneficial in the long run because both have their obstacles and vices.

Current optogenetics techniques require the use of viruses to transfer genes that contain the code for making the light-sensitive opsin proteins. These viruses are injected into the eye and have to target the right cells (and not the wrong ones) and the infected cell needs to produce that opsin forever for the technology to work effectively. Then there is the issue of making sure light can reach the genetically modified cells. Luckily nerves in the eye are easier to access than nerve cells in the brain, which require invasive surgery to implant optical fibers that deliver light. However, activating the ganglion nerve cells in the eye will still be a challenge according to MIT Technology review:

“Vision that works through light-sensitive ganglion cells will likely be different than vision that relies on a healthy retina. When you go outside, for instance, it can be about 10,000 times brighter than inside. Healthy retinas rapidly adapt their sensitivity to adjust to this, but the light-sensing cells created by the gene therapy will not likely be able to adapt. For that reason, it may be necessary for the RetroSense therapy, if it works, to be coupled with some kind of video-projection glasses that can perform these adjustments and tailor the incoming light to the treated eye, sending a brighter signal indoors than it does outdoors, for example.”

 

As for stem cells, there’s always the worry that transplanting cells derived from pluripotent stem cells could cause cancer over time. The Japan iPS cell trial for AMD is a good example. It was put on hold because scientists identified potential cancer-causing mutation in a second patient’s iPS cells. (The cause of the mutation was unknown – it could have been caused by the reprogramming method, the iPS cell culturing process, or could have existed prior to reprogramming). Another issue with stem cell treatments is achieving regulatory approval. In the US, the only widely stem cell based therapy is for bone marrow transplantation. If clinical trials using stem cells to treat diseases of blindness begin to show promising results, it would a major roadblock if they can’t push past current regulatory barriers and reach the patients who need them.

So which technology will cross the finish line first in the race to cure blindness: optogenetics or stem cells? The answer is that it doesn’t matter which technology wins. The important thing is they continue to move forward and hopefully one or even both technologies will produce a safe and effective treatment to restore sight in patients suffering from blindness in the near future.