CIRM funded study results in the first ever in utero stem cell transplant to treat alpha thalassemia

Mackenzie

Dr. Tippi MacKenzie (left) of UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco, visits with newborn Elianna and parents Nichelle Obar and Chris Constantino. Photo by Noah Berger

Imagine being able to cure a genetic disorder before a baby is even born. Thanks to a CIRM funded study, what would have been a mere dream a couple of years ago has become a reality.

Drs. Tippi MacKenzie and Juan Gonzalez Velez of the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) have successfully treated alpha thalassemia in Elianna Constantino, using stem cells from her mother’s bone marrow. Alpha thalassemia is part of a group of blood disorders that impairs the body’s ability to produce hemoglobin, the molecule that is responsible for transporting oxygen throughout the body on red blood cells. Present in approximately 5% of the population, alpha thalassemia is particularly prevalent among individuals of Asian heritage. Treatment options for this disease are severely limited, generally requiring multiple rounds of blood transfusions or a bone marrow transplant which requires immunosuppressive therapy. Normally, fetuses die in the womb or the pregnancy is aborted because of the poor prognosis.

The revolutionary treatment pioneered at UCSF involved isolating blood stem cells (cells that are capable of turning into all blood cell types) from the mother’s bone marrow and injecting these cells into Elianna’s bloodstream via the umbilical vein. The doctors were able to observe the development of healthy blood cells in the baby’s blood stream, allowing for efficient oxygen transport throughout the baby’s body. Because the cells were transplanted at the fetal stage, a time when the immune system is not fully developed, there was low risk of rejection and the transplant occurred without aggressive immunosuppressive therapy.

The baby was born healthy earlier this year and has been allowed to return home. While it is still too early to tell how effective this treatment will be in the long term, it is very encouraging that both the mother and baby have endured the treatment thus far.

In a press release, Dr. MacKenzie states:

“Her healthy birth suggests that fetal therapy is a viable option to offer to families with this diagnosis.”

The in utero stem cell transplant was performed as part of a clinical trial conducted at the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals in San Francisco and Oakland. The trial is currently enrolling 10 pregnant women to test the safety and effectiveness of this treatment over a wider population.

If successful, this type of treatment is particularly exciting because it could be expanded to other types of hereditary blood disorders such as sickle cell anemia and hemophilia.

 

 

 

Stem Cell Roundup: New understanding of Huntington’s; how stem cells can double your DNA; and using “the Gary Oldman of cell types” to reverse aging

This week’s roundup highlights how we are constantly finding out new and exciting ways that stem cells could help change the way we treat disease.

Our Cool Stem Cell Image of the Week comes from our first story, about unlocking some of the secrets of Huntington’s disease. It comes from the Laboratory of Stem Cell Biology and Molecular Embryology at The Rockefeller University

Huntington's neurons

A new approach to studying and developing therapies for Huntington’s disease

Researchers at Rockefeller University report new findings that may upend the way scientists study and ultimately develop therapies for Huntington’s disease, a devastating, inherited neurodegenerative disorder that has no cure. Though mouse models of the disease are well-established, the team wanted to focus on human biology since our brains are more complex than those of mice. So, they used CRISPR gene editing technology in human embryonic stem cells to introduce the genetic mutations that cause HD.

Though symptoms typically do not appear until adulthood, the researchers were surprised to find that in their human cell-based model of HD, abnormalities in nerve cells occur at the earliest steps in brain development. These results suggest that HD therapies should focus on treatments much earlier in life.

The researchers observed another unexpected twist: cells that lack Huntingtin, the gene responsible for HD, are very similar to cells found in HD. This suggests that too little Huntingtin may be causing the disease. Up until now, the prevailing idea has been that Huntington’s symptoms are caused by the toxicity of too much mutant Huntingtin activity.

We’ll certainly be keeping an eye on how further studies using this new model affect our understanding of and therapy development for HD.

This study was published in Development and was picked by Science Daily.

How you can double your DNA

dna

As you can imagine we get lots of questions about stem cell research here at CIRM. Last week we got an email asking if a stem cell transplant could alter your DNA? The answer is, under certain circumstances, yes it could.

A fascinating article in the Herald Review explains how this can happen. In a bone marrow transplant bad blood stem cells are killed and replaced with healthy ones from a donor. As those cells multiply, creating a new blood supply, they also carry the DNA for the donor.

But that’s not the only way that people may end up with dual DNA. And the really fascinating part of the article is how this can cause all sorts of legal and criminal problems.

One researcher’s efforts to reverse aging

gary-oldman

Gary Oldman: Photo courtesy Variety

“Stem cells are the Gary Oldman of cell types.” As a fan of Gary Oldman (terrific as Winston Churchill in the movie “Darkest Hour”) that one line made me want to read on in a profile of Stanford University researcher Vittorio Sebastiano.

Sebastiano’s goal is, to say the least, rather ambitious. He wants to reverse aging in people. He believes that if you can induce a person’s stem cells to revert to a younger state, without changing their function, you can effectively turn back the clock.

Sebastiano says if you want to achieve big things you have to think big:

“Yes, the ambition is huge, the potential applications could be dramatic, but that doesn’t mean that we are going to become immortal in some problematic way. After all, one way or the other, we have to die. We will just understand aging in a better way, and develop better drugs, and keep people happier and healthier for a few more years.”

The profile is in the journal Nautilus.

Stories that caught our eye: How dying cells could help save lives; could modified blood stem cells reverse diabetes?; and FDA has good news for patients, bad news for rogue clinics

Gunsmoke

Growing up I loved watching old cowboy movies. Invariably the hero, even though mortally wounded, would manage to save the day and rescue the heroine and/or the town.

Now it seems some stem cells perform the same function, dying in order to save the lives of others.

Researchers at Kings College in London were trying to better understand Graft vs Host Disease (GvHD), a potentially fatal complication that can occur when a patient receives a blood stem cell transplant. In cases of GvHD, the transplanted donor cells turn on the patient and attack their healthy cells and tissues.

Some previous research had found that using bone marrow cells called mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) had some success in combating GvHD. But it was unpredictable who it helped and why.

Working with mice, the Kings College team found that the MSCs were only effective if they died after being transplanted. It appears that it is only as they are dying that the MSCs engage with the individual’s immune system, telling it to stop attacking healthy tissues. The team also found that if they kill the MSCs just before transplanting them into mice, they were just as effective.

In a news article on HealthCanal, lead researcher Professor Francesco Dazzi, said the next step is to see if this will apply to, and help, people:

“The side effects of a stem cell transplant can be fatal and this factor is a serious consideration in deciding whether some people are suitable to undergo one. If we can be more confident that we can control these lethal complications in all patients, more people will be able to receive this life saving procedure. The next step will be to introduce clinical trials for patients with GvHD, either using the procedure only in patients with immune systems capable of killing mesenchymal stem cells, or killing these cells before they are infused into the patient, to see if this does indeed improve the success of treatment.”

The study is published in Science Translational Medicine.

Genetically modified blood stem cells reverse diabetes in mice (Todd Dubnicoff)

When functioning properly, the T cells of our immune system keep us healthy by detecting and killing off infected, damaged or cancerous cells in our body. But in the case of type 1 diabetes, a person’s own T cells turn against the body by mistakenly targeting and destroying perfectly normal islet cells in the pancreas, which are responsible for producing insulin. As a result, the insulin-dependent delivery of blood sugar to the energy-hungry organs is disrupted leading to many serious complications. Blood stem cell transplants have been performed to treat the disease by attempting to restart the immune system. The results have failed to provide a cure.

Now a new study, published in Science Translational Medicine, appears to explain why those previous attempts failed and how some genetic rejiggering could lead to a successful treatment for type 1 diabetes.

An analysis of the gene activity inside the blood stem cells of diabetic mice and humans reveals that these cells lack a protein called PD-L1. This protein is known to play an important role in putting the brakes on T cell activity. Because T cells are potent cell killers, it’s important for proteins like PD-L1 to keep the activated T cells in check.

Cell based image for t 1 diabetes

Credit: Andrea Panigada/Nancy Fliesler

Researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital hypothesized that adding back PD-L1 may prevent T cells from the indiscriminate killing of the body’s own insulin-producing cells. To test this idea, the research team genetically engineered mouse blood stem cells to produce the PD-L1 protein. Experiments with the cells in a petri dish showed that the addition of PD-L1 did indeed block the attack-on-self activity. And when these blood stem cells were transplanted into a diabetic mouse strain, the disease was reversed in most of the animals over the short term while a third of the mice had long-lasting benefits.

The researchers hope this targeting of PD-L1 production – which the researchers could also stimulate with pharmacological drugs – will contribute to a cure for type 1 diabetes.

FDA’s new guidelines for stem cell treatments

Gottlieb

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb

Yesterday Scott Gottlieb, the Commissioner at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), laid out some new guidelines for the way the agency regulates stem cells and regenerative medicine. The news was good for patients, not so good for clinics offering unproven treatments.

First the good. Gottlieb announced new guidelines encouraging innovation in the development of stem cell therapies, and faster pathways for therapies, that show they are both safe and effective, to reach the patient.

At the same time, he detailed new rules that provide greater clarity about what clinics can do with stem cells without incurring the wrath of the FDA. Those guidelines detail the limits on the kinds of procedures clinics can offer and what ways they can “manipulate” those cells. Clinics that go beyond those limits could be in trouble.

In making the announcement Gottlieb said:

“To be clear, we remain committed to ensuring that patients have access to safe and effective regenerative medicine products as efficiently as possible. We are also committed to making sure we take action against products being unlawfully marketed that pose a potential significant risk to their safety. The framework we’re announcing today gives us the solid platform we need to continue to take enforcement action against a small number of clearly unscrupulous actors.”

Many of the details in the announcement match what CIRM has been pushing for some years. Randy Mills, our previous President and CEO, called for many of these changes in an Op Ed he co-wrote with former US Senator Bill Frist.

Our hope now is that the FDA continues to follow this promising path and turns these draft proposals into hard policy.

 

Surprise findings about bone marrow transplants could lead to more effective stem cell therapies

Surgery_0

Bone marrow transplant: Photo courtesy FierceBiotech

Some medical therapies have been around for so long that we naturally assume we understand how they work. That’s not always the case. Take aspirin for example. It’s been used for more than 4,000 years to treat pain and inflammation but it was only in the 1970’s that we really learned how it works.

The same is now true for bone marrow transplants. Thanks to some skilled research at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Bone marrow transplants have been used for decades to help treat deadly blood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma. The first successful bone marrow transplant was in the late 1950’s, involving identical twins, one of whom had leukemia. Because the twins shared the same genetic make-up the transplant avoided potentially fatal problems like graft-vs-host-disease, where the transplanted cells attack the person getting them. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that doctors were able to perform transplants involving people who were not related or who did not share the same genetic make-up.

In a bone marrow or blood stem cell transplant, doctors use radiation or chemotherapy to destroy the bone marrow in a patient with, say, leukemia. Then cancer-free donor blood stem cells are transplanted into the patient to help create a new blood system, and rebuild their immune system.

Surprise findings

In the study, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, the researchers were able to isolate a specific kind of stem cell that helps repair and rebuild the blood and immune system.

The team found that a small subset of blood stem cells, characterized by having one of three different kinds of protein on their surface – CD34 positive, CD45RA negative and CD90 positive – did all the work.

In a news release Dr. Hans-Peter Kiem, a senior author on the study, says some of their initial assumptions about how bone marrow transplants work were wrong:

“These findings came as a surprise; we had thought that there were multiple types of blood stem cells that take on different roles in rebuilding a blood and immune system. This population does it all.”

Tracking the cells

The team performed bone-marrow transplants on monkeys and then followed those animals over the next seven years, observing what happened as the donor cells grew and multiplied.

They tracked hundreds of thousands of cells in the blood and found that, even though the cells with those three proteins on the surface made up just five percent of the total blood supply, they were responsible for rebuilding the entire blood and immune system.

Study co-author Dr. Jennifer Adair said they saw evidence of this rebuilding within 10 days of the transplant:

“Our ability to track individual blood cells that developed after transplant was critical to demonstrating that these really are stem cells.”

Hope for the future

It’s an important finding because it could help researchers develop new ways of delivering bone marrow transplants that are both safer and more effective. Every year some 3,000 people die because they cannot find a matching donor. Knowing which stem cells are specifically responsible for an effective transplant could help researchers come up with ways to get around that problem.

Although this work was done in monkeys, the scientists say humans have similar kinds of stem cells that appear to act in the same way. Proving that’s the case will obviously be the next step in this research.

 

Confusing cancer to kill it

Kipps

Thomas Kipps, MD, PhD: Photo courtesy UC San Diego

Confusion is not a state of mind that we usually seek out. Being bewildered is bad enough when it happens naturally, so why would anyone actively pursue it? But now some researchers are doing just that, using confusion to not just block a deadly blood cancer, but to kill it.

Today the CIRM Board approved an investment of $18.29 million to Dr. Thomas Kipps and his team at UC San Diego to use a one-two combination approach that we hope will kill Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL).

This approach combines two therapies, cirmtuzumab (a monoclonal antibody developed with CIRM funding, hence the name) and Ibrutinib, a drug that has already been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for patients with CLL.

As Dr. Maria Millan, our interim President and CEO, said in a news release, the need for a new treatment is great.

“Every year around 20,000 Americans are diagnosed with CLL. For those who have run out of treatment options, the only alternative is a bone marrow transplant. Since CLL afflicts individuals in their 70’s who often have additional medical problems, bone marrow transplantation carries a higher risk of life threatening complications. The combination approach of  cirmtuzumab and Ibrutinib seeks to offer a less invasive and more effective alternative for these patients.”

Ibrutinib blocks signaling pathways that leukemia cells need to survive. Disrupting these pathways confuses the leukemia cell, leading to its death. But even with this approach there are cancer stem cells that are able to evade Ibrutinib. These lie dormant during the therapy but come to life later, creating more leukemia cells and causing the cancer to spread and the patient to relapse. That’s where cirmtuzumab comes in. It works by blocking a protein on the surface of the cancer stem cells that the cancer needs to spread.

It’s hoped this one-two punch combination will kill all the cancer cells, increasing the number of patients who go into complete remission and improve their long-term cancer control.

In an interview with OncLive, a website focused on cancer professionals, Tom Kipps said Ibrutinib has another advantage for patients:

“The patients are responding well to treatment. It doesn’t seem like you have to worry about stopping therapy, because you’re not accumulating a lot of toxicity as you would with chemotherapy. If you administered chemotherapy on and on for months and months and years and years, chances are the patient wouldn’t tolerate that very well.”

The CIRM Board also approved $5 million for Angiocrine Bioscience Inc. to carry out a Phase 1 clinical trial testing a new way of using cord blood to help people battling deadly blood disorders.

The standard approach for this kind of problem is a bone marrow transplant from a matched donor, usually a family member. But many patients don’t have a potential donor and so they often have to rely on a cord blood transplant as an alternative, to help rebuild and repair their blood and immune systems. However, too often a single cord blood donation does not have enough cells to treat an adult patient.

Angiocrine has developed a product that could help get around that problem. AB-110 is made up of cord blood-derived hematopoietic stem cells (these give rise to all the other types of blood cell) and genetically engineered endothelial cells – the kind of cell that lines the insides of blood vessels.

This combination enables the researchers to take cord blood cells and greatly expand them in number. Expanding the number of cells could also expand the number of patients who could get these potentially life-saving cord blood transplants.

These two new projects now bring the number of clinical trials funded by CIRM to 35. You can read about the other 33 here.

 

 

 

One man’s journey with leukemia has turned into a quest to make bone marrow stem cell transplants safer

Dr. Lukas Wartman in his lab in March 2011 (left), before he developed chronic graft-versus-host disease, and last month at a physical therapy session (right). (Photo by Whitney Curtis for Science Magazine)

I read a story yesterday in Science Magazine that really stuck with me. It’s about a man who was diagnosed with leukemia and received a life-saving stem cell transplant that is now threatening his health.

The man is name Lukas Wartman and is a doctor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. He was first diagnosed with a type of blood cancer called acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in 2003. Since then he has taken over 70 drugs and undergone two rounds of bone marrow stem cell transplants to fight off his cancer.

The first stem cell transplant was from his brother, which replaced Wartman’s diseased bone marrow, containing blood forming stem cells and immune cells, with healthy cells. In combination with immunosuppressive drugs, the transplant worked without any complications. Unfortunately, a few years later the cancer returned. This time, Wartman opted for a second transplant from an unrelated donor.

While the second transplant and cancer-fighting drugs have succeeded in keeping his cancer at bay, Wartman is now suffering from something equally life threatening – a condition called graft vs host disease (GVHD). In a nut shell, the stem cell transplant that cured him of cancer and saved his life is now attacking his body.

GVHD, a common side effect of bone marrow transplants

GVHD is a disease where donor transplanted immune cells, called T cells, expand and attack the cells and tissues in your body because they see them as foreign invaders. GVHD occurs in approximately 50% of patients who receive bone marrow, peripheral blood or cord blood stem cell transplants, and typically affects the skin, eyes, mouth, liver and intestines.

The main reason why GVHD is common following blood stem cell transplants is because many patients receive transplants from unrelated donors or family members who aren’t close genetic matches. Half of patients who receive these types of transplants develop an acute form of GVHD within 100 days of treatment. These patients are put on immunosuppressive steroid drugs with the hope that the patient’s body will eventually kill off the aggressive donor T cells.

This was the case for Wartman after the first transplant from his brother, but the second transplant from an unrelated donor eventually caused him to develop the chronic form of GVHD. Wartman is now suffering from weakened muscles, dry eyes, mouth sores and skin issues as the transplanted immune cells slowly attack his body from within. Thankfully, his major organs are still untouched by GVHD, but Wartman knows it could be only a matter of time before his condition worsens.

Dr. Lukas Wartman has to use eye drops every 20 minutes to deal with dry eyes caused by GVHD. (Photo by Whitney Curtis for Science Magazine)

Hope for GVHD sufferers

Wartman along with other GVHD patients are basically guinea pigs in a field where effective drugs are still being developed and tested. Many of these patients, including Wartman, have tried many unproven treatments or drugs for other disease conditions in desperate hope that something will work. It’s a situation that is heartbreaking not only for the patient but also for their families and doctors.

There is hope for GVHD patients however. Science Magazine mentioned two promising drugs for GVHD, ibrutinib and ruxolitinib. Both received breakthrough therapy designation from the US Food and Drug Administration and could be the first approved treatments for GVHD.

Another promising therapy is called Prochymal. It’s a stem cell therapy developed by former CIRM President and CEO, Dr. Randy Mills, at Osiris Therapeutics. Prochymal is already approved to treat the acute form of GVHD in Canada, and is currently being tested in phase 3 trials in the US in young children and adults.

While CIRM isn’t currently funding clinical trials for GVHD, we are funding a trial out of Stanford University led by Dr. Judy Shizuru that aims to improve the outcome of bone marrow stem cell transplants in patients. Shizuru says that these transplants are “the most powerful form of cell therapy out there, for cancers or deficiencies in blood formation” but they come with their own set of potentially deadly side effects such as GVHD.

Shizuru is testing an antibody drug that blocks a signaling protein called CD117, which sits on the surface of blood stem cells and acts as an elimination signal. By turning off this protein, her team improved the engraftment of bone marrow stem cells in mice that had leukemia and removed their need for chemotherapy treatment. The therapy is in a Phase 1 trial for patients with an immune disease called severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) who receive bone marrow transplants, but Shizuru said that her hope is the drug could also treat patients with certain cancers or blood diseases.

Advocating for better GVHD treatments

The reason the article in Science Magazine spoke to me is because of the power of Wartman’s story. Wartman’s battle with ALL and now GVHD has transformed him into one of the strongest patient voices advocating for the development of new GVHD treatments. Jon Cohen, the author of the Science Magazine article, explained:

“The urgency of his case has turned Wartman into one of the world’s few patients who advocate for GVHD research, prevention, and treatment. ‘Most people it affects suffer quietly,” says Wartman. ‘They’re grateful they’re alive, and they’re beaten down. It’s the paradox of being cured and dying of the cure. Even if you can get past that, you don’t have the energy to advocate, and that’s really tragic.’”

Patients like Wartman are an inspiration not only to other people with GVHD, but also to funding agencies and scientists working to advance GVHD research towards a cure. We don’t want these patients to suffer quietly. Wartman’s story is an important reminder that there’s a lot more work to do to make bone marrow transplants safer – so that they save lives without later putting those lives at risk.

Stem Cell Stories that Caught our Eye: finding the perfect match, imaging stem cells and understanding gene activity

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

LAPD officer in search of the perfect match.

LAPD Officer Matthew Medina with his wife, Angelee, and their daughters Sadie and Cassiah. (Family photo)

This week, the San Diego Union-Tribune featured a story that tugs at your heart strings about an LAPD officer in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant. Matthew Medina is a 40-year-old man who was diagnosed earlier this year with aplastic anemia, a rare disorder that prevents the bone marrow from producing enough blood cells and platelets. Patients with this disorder are prone to chronic fatigue and are at higher risk for infection and uncontrolled bleeding.

Matthew needs a bone marrow transplant to replace his diseased bone marrow with healthy marrow from a donor, but so far, he has yet to find a match. Part of the reason for this difficulty is the lack of diversity in the national bone marrow registry, which has over 25 million registered donors, the majority of which are white Americans of European decent. As a Filipino, Matthew has a 40% chance of finding a perfect match in the national registry compared to a 75% chance if he were white. An even more unsettling fact is that Filipinos make up less than 1% of donors on the national registry.

Matthew has a sister, but unfortunately, she wasn’t a match. For now, Matthew is being kept alive with blood transfusions at his home in Bellflower while he waits for good news. With the support of his family and friends, the hope is that he won’t have to wait for long. Already 1000 people in his local community have signed up to be bone marrow donors.

On a larger scale, organizations like A3M and Mixed Marrow are hoping to help patients like Matthew by increasing the diversity of the national bone marrow registry. A3M specifically recruits Asian donors while Mixed Match focuses on people with multi-ethnic backgrounds. Ayumi Nagata, a recruitment manager at A3M, said their main challenge is making healthy people realize the importance of being a bone marrow donor.

“They could be the cure for someone’s cancer or other disease and save their life. How often do we have that kind of opportunity?”

An algorithm that makes it easier to see stem cell development.

To understand how certain organs like the brain develop, scientists rely on advanced technologies that can track individual stem cells and monitor their fate as they mature into more specialized cells. Scientists can observe stem cell development with fluorescent proteins that light up when a stem cell expresses specific transcription factors that help decide the cell’s fate. Using a time-lapse microscope, these fluorescent stem cells can easily be identified and tracked throughout their lifetime.

But the pictures don’t always come out crystal clear. Just as a dirty camera lens makes for a dirty picture, images produced by time-lapse microscopy images can be plagued by shadows, artifacts and lighting inconsistencies, making it difficult to observe the orchestrated expression of transcription factors involved in a stem cell’s development.

This week in the journal Nature Communications, a team of scientists from Germany reported a solution that gives a clear view of stem cell development. The team developed a computer algorithm called BaSiC that acts like a filter and removes the background noise from time-lapse images of individual cells. Unlike previous algorithms, BaSiC requires fewer reference images to make its corrections.

The software BaSiC improves microscope images. (Credit: Tingying Peng / TUM/HMGU)

In coverage by Phys.org, author Dr. Tingying Peng explained the advantages of their algorithm,

“Contrary to other programs, BaSiC can correct changes in the background of time-lapse videos. This makes it a valuable tool for stem cell researchers who want to detect the appearance of specific transcription factors early on.”

The team proved that BaSiC is an effective image correcting tool by using it to study the development of hematopoietic or blood stem cells. They took time-lapse videos of blood stem cells over six days and observed that the stem cells chose between two developmental tracks that produced different types of mature blood cells. Using BaSiC, they found that blood stem cells that specialized into white blood cells expressed the transcription factor Pu.1 while the stem cells that specialized into red blood cells did not. Without the algorithm, they didn’t see this difference.

Senior author on the study, Dr. Nassir Navab, concluded by highlighting the importance of their technology and sharing his team’s vision for the future.

“Using BaSiC, we were able to make important decision factors visible that would otherwise have been drowned out by noise. The long-term goal of this research is to facilitate influencing the development of stem cells in a targeted manner, for example to cultivate new heart muscle cells for heat-attack patients. The novel possibilities for observation are bringing us a step closer to this goal.”

Silenced vs active genes: it’s like oil and water (Todd Dubicoff)

The DNA from just one of your cells would be an astounding six feet in length if stretched out end to end. To fit into a nucleus that is a mere 4/10,000th of an inch in diameter, DNA’s double helical structure is organized into intricate twists within twists with the help of proteins called histones.

Together the DNA and histones are called chromatin. And it turns out that chromatin isn’t just for stuffing all that genetic material into a tiny space. The amount of DNA folding also affects the regulation of genes. Areas of chromatin that are less densely packed are more accessible to DNA-binding proteins called transcription factors that activate gene activity. Other regions, called heterochromatin, are compacted which leads to silencing of genes because transcription factors are shut out.

But there’s a wrinkle in this story. More recently, scientists have shown that large proteins are able to wriggle their way into heterochromatin while smaller proteins cannot. So, there must be additional factors at play. This week, a CIRM-funded research project published in Nature provides a possible explanation.

Liquid-like fusion of heterochromatin protein 1a droplets is shown in the embryo of a fruit fly. (Credit: Amy Strom/Berkeley Lab)

Examining the nuclei of fruit fly embryos, a UC Berkeley research team report that various regions of heterochromatin coalesce into liquid droplets which physically separates them from regions where gene activity is high. This phenomenon, called phase-phase separation, is what causes oil droplets to fuse together when added to water. Lead author Dr. Amy Strom explained the novelty of this finding and its implications in a press release:

“We are excited about these findings because they explain a mystery that’s existed in the field for a decade. That is, if compaction [of chromatin] controls access to silenced [DNA] sequences, how are other large proteins still able to get in? Chromatin organization by phase separation means that proteins are targeted to one liquid or the other based not on size, but on other physical traits, like charge, flexibility, and interaction partners.”

Phase-phase separation can also affect other cell components, and problems with it have been linked to neurological disorders like dementia. In diseases like Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s, proteins aggregate causing them to become more solid than liquid over time. Strom is excited about how phase-phase separation insights could lead to novel therapeutic strategies:

“If we can better understand what causes aggregation, and how to keep things more liquid, we might have a chance to combat these types of disease.”

Engineered bone tissue improves stem cell transplants

Bone marrow transplants are currently the only approved stem cell-based therapy in the United States. They involve replacing the hematopoietic, or blood-forming stem cells, found in the bone marrow with healthy stem cells to treat patients with cancers, immune diseases and blood disorders.

For bone marrow transplants to succeed, patients must undergo radiation therapy to wipe out their diseased bone marrow, which creates space for the donor stem cells to repopulate the blood system. Radiation can lead to complications including hair loss, nausea, fatigue and infertility.

Scientists at UC San Diego have a potential solution that could make current bone marrow transplants safer for patients. Their research, which was funded in part by a CIRM grant, was published yesterday in the journal PNAS.

Engineered bone with functional bone marrow in the center. (Varghese Lab)

Led by bioengineering professor Dr. Shyni Varghese, the team engineered artificial bone tissue that contains healthy donor blood stem cells. They implanted the engineered bone under the skin of normal mice and watched as the “accessory bone marrow” functioned like the real thing by creating new blood cells.

The implant lasted more than six months. During that time, the scientists observed that the cells within the engineered bone structure matured into bone tissue that housed the donor bone marrow stem cells and resembled how bones are structured in the human body. The artificial bones also formed connections with the mouse circulatory system, which allowed the host blood cells to populate the implanted bone tissue and the donor blood cells to expand into the host’s bloodstream.

Normal bone structure (left) and engineered bone (middle) are very similar. Bone tissue shown on top right and bone marrow cells on bottom right. (Varghese lab)

The team also implanted these artificial bones into mice that received radiation to mimic the procedures that patients typically undergo before bone marrow transplants. The engineered bone successfully repopulated the blood systems of the irradiated mice, similar to how blood stem cell functions in normal bone.

In a UC San Diego news release, Dr. Varghese explained how their technology could be translated into the clinic,

“We’ve made an accessory bone that can separately accommodate donor cells. This way, we can keep the host cells and bypass irradiation. We’re working on making this a platform to generate more bone marrow stem cells. That would have useful applications for cell transplantations in the clinic.”

The authors concluded that engineered bone tissue would specifically benefit patients who needed bone marrow transplants for non-cancerous bone marrow-related diseases such as sickle cell anemia or thalassemia where there isn’t a need to destroy cancer-causing cells.

Mixed Matches: How Your Heritage Can Save a Life

Today we bring you a guest blog from Athena Mari Asklipiadis. She’s the founder of Mixed Marrow, which is an organization dedicated to finding bone marrow and blood cell donors to patients of multiethnic descent. Athena helped produce a 2016 documentary film called Mixed Match that encourages mixed race and minority donors to register as adult donors.

Athena Asklipiadis

Due to the lack of diversity on the national and world bone marrow donor registries, Mixed Marrow was started in 2009 to increase the numbers of mixed race donors.

Prior to Mixed Marrow starting, other ethnic recruiters like Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches (A3M), based in Los Angeles, CA and Asian American Donor Program (AADP), based in Alameda, CA had been raising awareness in the Asian and minority communities for decades.  Closing the racial gap on the registry was something I was very much interested in helping them with so I began my outreach on the most familiar medium I knew—social media.

Because matching relies heavily on similar inherited genetic markers, I was particularly astonished seeing the less than 3% (back in 2009) sliver of the ethnic pie that mixed race donors made up.  Caucasians made up for about 70% at the time, with all minorities making up for the difference.  The ethnic breakdown made sense when comparing against actual population numbers, but a larger pool of minority donors was definitely something needed especially when multiracial people were being reported as the fastest growing demographic in the US.  Odds were just not in the favor of non-white searching patients.

Current Be The Match ethnic breakdown as of 2016.

After getting to know a local mixed race searching patient, Krissy Kobata, and hearing of her struggles finding a match, I knew I had to do my best to reach out to fellow multiracial people, most of which were young and likely online.  At the time, I was engaged with fellow hapas (half in Hawaiian Pidgin, referring mixed heritage) and mixed people via multiracial community Facebook groups and other internet forums.  One common thing I noticed, unlike topics like identity, food and culture– health was definitely not widely talked about. So with that lack of awareness, Mixed Marrow began as a facebook page and later as a website.  With the help of organizations like A3M supplying Be The Match testing kits, Mixed Marrow was able to also exist outside of the virtual world by hosting donor recruitment drives at different cultural and college events.

Athena Asklipiadis, Krissy Kobata and Mixed Match director, Jeff Chiba Stearns

After about a year of advocacy, in 2010, I connected with filmmaker Jeff Chiba Stearns to pitch an idea for a documentary on the patients I worked with.  Telling their stories in words and on flyers was not effective enough for me, I felt that more people would be inclined to register as a donor if they got to know the patients as well as I did.  Thus, the film Mixed Match was born.

Still from Mixed Match, Imani (center) and parents, Darrick and Tammy.

Still from Mixed Match, Imani mother, Tammy.

Over the course of the next 6 years, Jeff and I went on a journey across the US to gather not only patient stories, but input from pioneers in stem cell transplantation like Dr. Paul Terasaki and Dr. John E. Wagner.  It was so important to share these transplant tales while being as accurate and informed as possible.

Still from Mixed Match – Dr. Paul Teriyaki.

Our goal was to educate audiences and present a call-to-action where everyone can learn how they can save a life. Mixed Match not only highlights bone marrow and peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donation, but it also shares the possibilities of umbilical cord stem cells.

Mixed Match director, Jeff Chiba Stearns decided a great way to explain stem cell science and matching was through animation.  Stearns, with the help of animator, Kaho Yoshida, was able to reach across to non-medical expert audiences and create digestible and engaging imagery to teach what is usually very complex science.

Animation Still from Mixed Match.

At every screening we also make sure to host a bone marrow registry drive so audiences have the opportunity to sign up.  We have partnered with both the US national registry, Be The Match and Canadian Blood Services’ One Match registry.

Bone marrow drive at a Mixed Match screening in Toronto.

Nearly 8 years and about 40 cities later, Mixed Marrow has managed to spread advocacy for the need for more mixed race donors all over the US and even other countries like Canada, Japan, Korea and Austria all the while being completely volunteer-run.  It is our hope that through social media and film, Mixed Match, we can help share these important stories and save lives.

Further Information

Curing the Incurable through Definitive Medicine

“Curing the Incurable”. That was the theme for the first annual Center for Definitive and Curative Medicine (CDCM) Symposium held last week at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, California.

The CDCM is a joint initiative amongst Stanford Healthcare, Stanford Children’s Health and the Stanford School of Medicine. Its mission is to foster an environment that accelerates the development and translation of cell and gene therapies into clinical trials.

The research symposium focused on “the exciting first-in-human cell and gene therapies currently under development at Stanford in bone marrow, skin, cardiac, neural, pancreatic and neoplastic diseases.” These talks were organized into four different sessions: cell therapies for neurological disorders, stem cell-derived tissue replacement therapies, genome-edited cell therapies and anti-cancer cell-based therapies.

A few of the symposium speakers are CIRM-funded grantees, and we’ll briefly touch on their talks below.

Targeting cancer

The keynote speaker was Irv Weissman, who talked about hematopoietic or blood-forming stem cells and their value as a cell therapy for patients with blood disorders and cancer. One of the projects he discussed is a molecule called CD47 that is found on the surface of cancer cells. He explained that CD47 appears on all types of cancer cells more abundantly than on normal cells and is a promising therapeutic target for cancer.

Irv Weissman

Irv Weissman

“CD47 is the first gene whose overexpression is common to all cancer. We know it’s molecular mechanism from which we can develop targeted therapies. This would be impossible without collaborations between clinicians and scientists.”

 

At the end of his talk, Weissman acknowledged the importance of CIRM’s funding for advancing an antibody therapeutic targeting CD47 into a clinical trial for solid cancer tumors. He said CIRM’s existence is essential because it “funds [stem cell-based] research through the [financial] valley of death.” He further explained that CIRM is the only funding entity that takes basic stem cell research all the way through the clinical pipeline into a therapy.

Improving bone marrow transplants

judith shizuru

Judith Shizuru

Next, we heard a talk from Judith Shizuru on ways to improve current bone-marrow transplantation techniques. She explained how this form of stem cell transplant is “the most powerful form of cell therapy out there, for cancers or deficiencies in blood formation.” Inducing immune system tolerance, improving organ transplant outcomes in patients, and treating autoimmune diseases are all applications of bone marrow transplants. But this technique also carries with it toxic and potentially deadly side effects, including weakening of the immune system and graft vs host disease.

Shizuru talked about her team’s goal of improving the engraftment, or survival and integration, of bone marrow stem cells after transplantation. They are using an antibody against a molecule called CD117 which sits on the surface of blood stem cells and acts as an elimination signal. By blocking CD117 with an antibody, they improved the engraftment of bone marrow stem cells in mice and also removed the need for chemotherapy treatment, which is used to kill off bone marrow stem cells in the host. Shizuru is now testing her antibody therapy in a CIRM-funded clinical trial in humans and mentioned that this therapy has the potential to treat a wide variety of diseases such as sickle cell anemia, leukemias, and multiple sclerosis.

Tackling stroke and heart disease

img_1327We also heard from two CIRM-funded professors working on cell-based therapies for stroke and heart disease. Gary Steinberg’s team is using human neural progenitor cells, which develop into cells of the brain and spinal cord, to treat patients who’ve suffered from stroke. A stroke cuts off the blood supply to the brain, causing the death of brain cells and consequently the loss of function of different parts of the body.  He showed emotional videos of stroke patients whose function and speech dramatically improved following the stem cell transplant. One of these patients was Sonia Olea, a young woman in her 30’s who lost the ability to use most of her right side following her stroke. You can read about her inspiring recover post stem cell transplant in our Stories of Hope.

Dr. Joe Wu. (Image Source: Sean Culligan/OZY)

Dr. Joe Wu. (Image Source: Sean Culligan/OZY)

Joe Wu followed with a talk on adult stem cell therapies for heart disease. His work, which is funded by a CIRM disease team grant, involves making heart cells called cardiomyocytes from human embryonic stem cells and transplanting these cells into patient with end stage heart failure to improve heart function. His team’s work has advanced to the point where Wu said they are planning to file for an investigational new drug (IND) application with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in six months. This is the crucial next step before a treatment can be tested in clinical trials. Joe ended his talk by making an important statement about expectations on how long it will take before stem cell treatments are available to patients.

He said, “Time changes everything. It [stem cell research] takes time. There is a lot of promise for the future of stem cell therapy.”