Hataalii Tiisyatonii Begay (HT) is paving the road for newborns with SCID. When HT was born in 2018 in a remote part of the Navajo nation, he was quickly diagnosed with a rare and -usually fatal- condition. Today, thanks to a therapy developed at UCSF and funded by CIRM, he’s a healthy four-year-old boy running around in cowboy boots.
The disorder is Artemis-SCID, a form of severe combined immunodeficiency disease. Children born with this condition have no functioning immune system so even a simple infection can prove life-threatening or fatal.
Currently, the only approved treatment for Artemis-SCID is a bone-marrow transplant, but many children are unable to find a healthy matched donor for that procedure. Even when they do find a donor, they often need regular injections of antibodies to boost their immune system.
In this clinical trial, UCSF doctors Morton Cowan and Jennifer Puck are using the patient’s own blood stem cells, taken from their bone marrow. In the lab, the cells are modified to correct the genetic mutation that causes Artemis-SCID and then re-infused back into the patients. The goal is that over the course of several months these cells will create a new blood supply, one that is free of Artemis-SCID, and that will in turn help repair the child’s immune system.
In April 2022, HT finally moved back home to Arizona. Nowadays, HT is off his medication and living the life of a normal and happy young child. On the Arizona ranch, there are horses to pet, cattle and sheep to tend, and streams to cool his hands in.
Watch the video below to find out more about HT’s journey and the team at UCSF behind the pioneering trial.
Three families battling a life-threatening immune disorder got some great news last week. A clinical trial that could save the life of their child has once again been given the go-ahead by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The clinical trial is the work of UCLA’s Dr. Don Kohn, and was strongly supported by CIRM. It is targeting ADA-SCID, a condition where the child is born without a functioning immune system so even a simple infection could prove fatal. In the past they were called “bubble babies” because some had been placed inside sterile plastic bubbles to protect them from germs.
Dr. Kohn’s approach – using the patient’s own blood stem cells, modified in the lab to correct the genetic mutation that causes the problem – had shown itself to be amazingly effective. In a study in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, the researchers showed that of 50 patients treated all had done well and 97 percent were considered cured.
UCLA licensed the therapy to Orchard Therapeutics, who planned to complete the testing needed to apply for permission to make it more widely available. But Orchard ran into problems and shelved the therapy.
After lengthy negotiations Orchard returned the therapy to UCLA last year and now the FDA has given clearance for UCLA to resume treating patients. That is expected to start early next year using CIRM funds left over when Orchard halted its work.
One of the people who played a big role in helping persuade Orchard to return the therapy to UCLA is Alysia Vaccaro. She is the mother of Evie, a child born with ADA-SCID who was cured by Dr. Kohn and his team and is now a thriving 9 year old.
You can watch an interview we did with Alysia about the impact this research has had on her family, and how important it is for other families with ADA-SCID kids.
When someone scores a goal in soccer all the attention is lavished on them. Fans chant their name, their teammates pile on top in celebration, their agent starts calling sponsors asking for more money. But there’s often someone else deserving of praise too, that’s the player who provided the assist to make the goal possible in the first place. With that analogy in mind, CIRM just provided a very big assist for a very big goal.
The goal was scored by Jasper Therapeutics. They have just announced data from their Phase 1 clinical trial treating people with Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS). This is a group of disorders in which immature blood-forming cells in the bone marrow become abnormal and leads to low numbers of normal blood cells, especially red blood cells. In about one in three patients, MDS can progress to acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a rapidly progressing cancer of the bone marrow cells.
The most effective way to treat, and even cure, MDS/AML is with a blood stem cell transplant, but this is often difficult for older patients, because it involves the use of toxic chemotherapy to destroy their existing bone marrow blood stem cells, to make room for the new, healthy ones. Even with a transplant there is often a high rate of relapse, because it’s hard for chemotherapy to kill all the cancer cells.
Jasper has developed a therapy, JSP191, which is a monoclonal antibody, to address this issue. JSP191 helps supplement the current treatment regimen by clearing all the remaining abnormal cells from the bone marrow and preventing relapse. In addition it also means the patients gets smaller doses of chemotherapy with lower levels of toxicity. In this Phase 1 study six patients, between the ages of 65 and 74, were given JSP191 – in combination with low-dose radiation and chemotherapy – prior to getting their transplant. The patients were followed-up at 90 days and five of the six had no detectable levels of MDS/AML, and the sixth patient had reduced levels. None of the patients experienced serious side effects.
Clearly that’s really encouraging news. And while CIRM didn’t fund this clinical trial, it wouldn’t have happened without us paving the way for this research. That’s where the notion of the assist comes in.
CIRM support led to the development of the JSP191 technology at Stanford. Our CIRM funds were used in the preclinical studies that form the scientific basis for using JSP191 in an MDS/AML setting.
Not only that, but this same technique was also used by Stanford’s Dr. Judy Shizuru in a clinical trial for children born with a form of severe combined immunodeficiency, a rare but fatal immune disorder in children. A clinical trial that CIRM funded.
It’s a reminder that therapies developed with one condition in mind can often be adapted to help treat other similar conditions. Jasper is doing just that. It hopes to start clinical trials this year using JSP191 for people getting blood stem cell transplants for severe autoimmune disease, sickle cell disease and Fanconi anemia.
You can’t look at this photo and not smile. This is Evie Vaccaro, and it’s clear she is just bursting with energy and vitality. Sometimes it feels like I have known Evie all her life. In a way I have. And I feel so fortunate to have done so, and that’s why this photo is so powerful, because it’s a life that almost ended before it had a chance to start.
Evie was born with a rare condition called Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID). Children with this condition lack a functioning immune system so even a simple cold or diaper rash can prove fatal. Imagine how perilous their lives are in a time of COVID-19. These children used to be called “bubble babies” because they were often kept inside sterile plastic bubbles to keep them alive. Many died before their second birthday.
Today there is no need for plastic bubbles. Today, we have a cure. That’s a word we use very cautiously, but in Evie’s case, and the case of more than 40 other children, we use it with pride.
Dr. Don Kohn at UCLA has developed a method of taking the child’s own blood stem cells and, in the lab, inserting a corrected copy of the gene that caused SCID, and then returning those cells to the child. Because they are stem cells they multiply and renew and replicate themselves, creating a new blood supply, one free of the SCID mutation. The immune system is restored. The children are cured.
This is a story we have told several times before, but we mention it again because, well, it never gets old, and because Evie is on the front and back cover of our upcoming Annual Report. The report is actually a look back on the last 18 months in CIRM’s life, reporting on the progress we have made in advancing stem cell research, in saving and changing lives, and in producing economic benefits for California (billions of dollars in sales revenue and taxes and thousands of jobs).
Evie’s story, Evie’s photo, is a reminder of what is possible thanks to the voters of California who created CIRM back in 2004. Hers is just one of the stories in the report. I think, you’ll enjoy reading all of them.
Like many kids, let’s face it, many adults too, Ronav “Ronnie” Kashyap is getting a little bored stuck inside all day during the coronavirus pandemic. This video, shot by his dad Pawash, shows Ronnie trying to amuse himself by pretending to be hard at work.
In Ronnie’s case he was rushed to UC San Francisco shortly after his birth when a newborn screening test showed he had SCID. He spent the next several months there, in isolation with his parents, preparing for the test. Doctors took his own blood stem cells and, in the lab, corrected the genetic mutation that causes SCID. The cells were then re-infused into Ronnie where they created a new blood supply and repaired his immune system.
How good is his immune system today? Last year his parents, Upasana and Pawash, were concerned about taking Ronnie to a crowded shopping mall for fear he might catch a cold. Their doctor reassured them that he would be fine. So, they went. The doctor was right, Ronnie was fine. However, Upasana and Pawash both caught colds!
Just a few weeks ago Ronnie started pre-school. He loves it. He loves having other kids to play with and his parents love it because it helps him burn off some energy. But they also love it because it showed Ronnie is now leading a normal life, one where they don’t have to worry about everything he does, every person he comes into contact with.
Sounds a bit like how the rest of us are living right now doesn’t it. And the fears that Ronnie’s parents had, that even a casual contact with a friend, a family member or stranger, might prove life-threatening, are ones many of us are experiencing now.
When Ronnie was born he faced long odds. At the time there were only a handful of scientists working to find treatments for SCID. But they succeeded. Now, Ronnie, and all the other children who have been helped by this therapy are living proof that good science can overcome daunting odds to find treatments, and even cures, for the most life-threatening of conditions.
Today there are thousands, probably tens of thousands of scientists around the world searching for treatments and cures for COVID-19. And they will succeed.
Till then the rest of us will have to be like Ronnie. Stay at home, stay safe, and enjoy the luxury of being bored.
By Kelly Shepard, PhD., CIRM’s Associate Director, Discovery & Translation
CIRM has previously blogged about advances in treating certain forms of “bubble baby” disease”, where a person is born with a defect in their blood forming stem cells that results in a deficient immune system, rendering them vulnerable to lethal infections by all manner of bacteria, virus or germ.
If a suitable donor can be found, or if the patient’s own defective cells can be corrected through gene therapy approaches, it is now possible to treat or cure such disorders through a bone marrow transplant. In this procedure, healthy blood stem cells are infused into the patient, taking up residence in his or her bone marrow and dividing to give rise to functioning immune cells such as T cells and B cells.
Unfortunately, there is another type of “bubble baby” disease that cannot be treated by providing healthy blood stem cells, because the defective immune system is caused by a different culprit altogether- a missing or dysfunctional thymus.
T Cells Go to School
What is a thymus? Most of us give little thought to this leaf-shaped organ, which is large and important in our early childhoods, but becomes small and inconspicuous as we age. This transformation belies the critical role a thymus plays in the development of our adaptive immune systems, which takes place in our youth: to prepare our bodies to fight infections for the rest of our lives.
One might think of the thymus as a “school”, where immature T cells go to “learn” how to recognize and attack foreign antigens (surface markers), such as those found on microorganisms or tissues from other individuals. The thymus also “teaches” our immune system to distinguish “self” from “other” by eliminating any T cells that attack our own tissues. Without this critical function, our immune system could inadvertently turn against us, causing serious autoimmune disorders such as ulcerative colitis and myasthenia gravis.
Many children with a severely deficient or absent thymus, referred to as athymia, have inherited a chromosome that is missing a key stretch of genes on a region called 22q11. Doctors believe perhaps 1/2000-1/4000 babies are born with some type of deletion in this region, which leads to a variable spectrum of disorders called 22q11 syndrome that can affect just about any part of the body, and can even cause learning disabilities and mental illness.
Individuals with one form of 22q11, called DiGeorge Syndrome, are particularly affected in the heart, thymus, and parathyroid glands. In the United States, about 20 infants are born per year with the “complete” and most severe form of DiGeorge Syndrome, who lack a thymus altogether, and have severely depressed numbers of T cells for fighting infections. Without medical intervention, this condition is usually fatal by 24 months of age.
Optimism and Setback
Although there are no therapies approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for pediatric athymia, Dr. Mary Louise Markert at Duke University and Enzyvant, Inc. have been pioneering an experimental approach to treat children with complete DiGeorge syndrome.
In this procedure, discarded thymic tissues are collected from infants undergoing cardiac surgery, where some of the thymus needs to be removed in order for the surgeon to gain access to the heart. These tissues are processed to remove potentially harmful donor T cells and then transplanted into the thigh of an athymic DiGeorge patient.
Results from early clinical trials seemed promising, with more than 70% of patients surviving, including several who are now ten years post-transplant. Based on those results, in June of 2019 Enzyvant applied to the FDA for a Biologics License Application (BLA), which is needed to be able to sell the therapy in the US. Unfortunately, only a few months later, Enzyvant announced that the FDA had declined to approve the BLA due to manufacturing concerns.
While it may be possible to address these issues in time, the need to step back to the drawing board was a devastating blow to the DiGeorge Community, who have waited decades for a promising treatment to emerge on the horizon.
Despite the setback, there is reason to hope. In early 2019, CIRM granted a “Quest” Award to team of investigators at Stanford University to develop a novel stem cell based approach for treating thymic deficiency. Co-led by Katja Weinacht, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist, and Vittorio Sebastiano, a stem cell expert and developmental biologist, the team’s strategy is to coax induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) in the laboratory to differentiate into thymic tissue, which could then be transplanted into patients using the route pioneered by Duke and Enzyvant.
The beauty of this new approach is that pluripotent stem cells are essentially immortal in culture, providing an inexhaustible supply of fresh thymic cells for transplant, thereby allowing greater control over the quality and consistency of donor tissues. A second major advantage is the possibility of using pluripotent cells from the patient him/herself as the source, which should be perfectly immune-matched and alleviate the risk of rejection and autoimmunity that comes with use of donated tissues.
Sounds easy, so what are the challenges? As with many regenerative medicine approaches, the key is getting a pluripotent stem cell to differentiate into the right type of cells in the lab, which is a very different environment than what cells experience naturally when they develop in the context of an embryo and womb, where many cells are interacting and providing complex, instructive cues to one another. The precise factors and timing all need to be worked out and in most cases, this is done with an incomplete knowledge of human development.
A second challenge relates to using cells from DiGeorge patients to produce thymic tissue, which are missing several genes on their 22nd chromosome and will likely require sophisticated genetic engineering to restore this ability.
Fortunately, Drs. Weinacht and Sebastiano are up to the challenge, and have already made progress in differentiating human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) into thymic lineage intermediates that appear to be expressing the right proteins at the right time. They plan to combine these cells with engineered materials to create a three-dimensional (3D) tissue that more closely resembles an authentic organ, and which can be tested for functionality in athymic mice.
There is more work to be done, but these advances, along with continued technological improvements and renewed efforts from Enzyvant, could forge a path to the clinic and lead to a brighter future for patients suffering from congenital athymia and other forms of thymic dysfunction.
satisfying to see two projects you have supported for a long time do well. That’s
particularly true when the projects in question are targeting conditions that
have no other effective therapies.
This week we learned
that a clinical trial we funded to help people with spinal cord injuries
continues to show benefits. This trial holds a special place in our hearts
because it is an extension of the first clinical trial we ever funded.
Initially it was with Geron,
and was later taken up by Asterias
Biotherapeutics, which has seen been bought by Lineage Cell Therapeutics Inc.
The therapy involved transplanting oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (OPCs), which are derived from human embryonic stem cells, into people who suffered recent spinal cord injuries that left them paralyzed from the neck down. OPCs play an important role in supporting and protecting nerve cells in the central nervous system, the area damaged in a spinal cord injury. It’s hoped the cells will help restore some of the connections at the injury site, allowing patients to regain some movement and feeling.
In a news
release, Lineage said that its OPC
therapy continues to report positive results, “where the overall safety profile
of OPC1 has remained excellent with robust motor recovery in upper extremities
maintained through Year 2 patient follow-ups available to date.”
Two years in the
patients are all continuing to do well, and no serious unexpected side effects
have been seen. They also reported:
– Motor level improvements
Five of six Cohort 2 patients achieved
at least two motor levels of improvement over baseline on at least one side as
of their 24-month follow-up visit.
In addition, one Cohort 2 patient
achieved three motor levels of improvement on one side over baseline as of the
patient’s 24-month follow-up visit; improvement has been maintained through the
patient’s 36-month follow-up visit.
Brian M. Culley, CEO of Lineage Cell Therapeutics called the news “exciting”, saying “To put these improvements into perspective, a one motor level gain means the ability to move one’s arm, which contributes to the ability to feed and clothe oneself or lift and transfer oneself from a wheelchair. These are tremendously meaningful improvements to quality of life and independence.”
The other good news came from Orchard Therapeutics, a company we have
partnered with on a therapy for Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) also
known as “bubble baby diseases” (we have blogged about this a lot including
In a news
release Orchard announced that the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has granted an accelerated
assessment for their gene therapy for metachromatic leukodystrophy (MLD). This
is a rare and often fatal condition that results in the build-up of sulfatides
in the brain, liver, kidneys and other organs. Over time this makes it harder
and harder for the person to walk, talk, swallow or eat.
Anne Dupraz-Poiseau, chief regulatory
officer of Orchard Therapeutics, says this is testimony to the encouraging
early results of this therapy. “We look forward to working with the EMA to
ensure this potentially transformative new treatment, if approved, reaches
patients in the EU as quickly as possible, and continuing our efforts to expand
patient access outside the EU.”
The accelerated assessment potentially
provides a reduced review timeline from 210 to 150 days, meaning it could be
available to a wider group of patients sooner.
CIRM’s mission is very simple: to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. Anne Klein’s son, Everett, was a poster boy for that statement. Born with a fatal immune disorder Everett faced a bleak future. But Anne and husband Brian were not about to give up. The following story is one Anne wrote for Parents magazine. It’s testament to the power of stem cells to save lives, but even more importantly to the power of love and the determination of a family to save their son.
My Son Was Born With ‘Bubble Boy’ Disease—But A Gene Therapy Trial Saved His Life
I wish more than anything that my son Everett had not been born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). But I know he is actually one of the lucky unlucky ones. By Anne Klein
As a child in the ’80s, I watched a news story about David Vetter. David was known as “the boy in the bubble” because he was born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a rare genetic disease that leaves babies with very little or no immune system. To protect him, David lived his entire life in a plastic bubble that kept him separated from a world filled with germs and illnesses that would have taken his life—likely before his first birthday.
I was struck by David’s story. It was heartbreaking and seemed so otherworldly. What would it be like to spend your childhood in an isolation chamber with family, doctors, reporters, and the world looking in on you? I found it devastating that an experimental bone marrow transplant didn’t end up saving his life; instead it led to fatal complications. His mother, Carol Ann Demaret, touched his bare hand for the first and last time when he was 12 years old.
I couldn’t have known that almost 30 years later, my own son, Everett, would be born with SCID too.
Everett’s SCID diagnosis
At birth, Everett was big, beautiful, and looked perfectly healthy. My husband Brian and I already had a 2-and-a-half-year-old son, Alden, so we were less anxious as parents when we brought Everett home. I didn’t run errands with Alden until he was at least a month old, but Everett was out and about with us within a few days of being born. After all, we thought we knew what to expect.
But two weeks after Everett’s birth, a doctor called to discuss Everett’s newborn screening test results. I listened in disbelief as he explained that Everett’s blood sample indicated he may have an immune deficiency.
“He may need a bone marrow transplant,” the doctor told me.
I was shocked. Everett’s checkup with his pediatrician just two days earlier went swimmingly. I hung up and held on to the doctor’s assurance that there was a 40 percent chance Everett’s test result was a false positive.
After five grueling days of waiting for additional test results and answers, I received the call: Everett had virtually no immune system. He needed to be quickly admitted to UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in California so they could keep him isolated and prepare to give him a stem cell transplant. UCSF diagnosed him specifically with SCID-X1, the same form David battled.
Beginning SCID treatment
The hospital was 90 miles and more than two hours away from home. Our family of four had to be split into two, with me staying in the hospital primarily with Everett and Brian and Alden remaining at home, except for short visits. The sudden upheaval left Alden confused, shaken, and sad. Brian and I quickly transformed into helicopter parents, neurotically focused on every imaginable contact with germs, even the mildest of which could be life-threatening to Everett.
When he was 7 weeks old, Everett received a stem cell transplant with me as his donor, but the transplant failed because my immune cells began attacking his body. Over his short life, Everett has also spent more than six months collectively in the hospital and more than three years in semi-isolation at home. He’s endured countless biopsies, ultrasounds, CT scans, infusions, blood draws, trips to the emergency department, and medical transports via ambulance or helicopter.
Gene therapy to treat SCID
At age 2, his liver almost failed and a case of pneumonia required breathing support with sedation. That’s when a doctor came into the pediatric intensive care unit and said, “When Everett gets through this, we need to do something else for him.” He recommended a gene therapy clinical trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that was finally showing success in patients over age 2 whose transplants had failed. This was the first group of SCID-X1 patients to receive gene therapy using a lentiviral vector combined with a light dose of chemotherapy.
After the complications from our son’s initial stem cell transplant, Brian and I didn’t want to do another stem cell transplant using donor cells. My donor cells were at war with his body and cells from another donor could do the same. Also, the odds of Everett having a suitable donor on the bone marrow registry were extremely small since he didn’t have one as a newborn. At the NIH, he would receive a transplant with his own, perfectly matched, gene-corrected cells. They would be right at home.
Other treatment options would likely only partially restore his immunity and require him to receive infusions of donor antibodies for life, as was the case with his first transplant. Prior gene therapy trials produced similarly incomplete results and several participants developed leukemia. The NIH trial was the first one showing promise in fully restoring immunity, without a risk of cancer. Brian and I felt it was Everett’s best option. Without hesitation, we flew across the country for his treatment. Everett received the gene therapy in September 2016 when he was 3, becoming the youngest patient NIH’s clinical trial has treated.
It’s been more than two years since Everett received gene therapy and now more than ever, he has the best hope of developing a fully functioning immune system. He just received his first vaccine to test his ability to mount a response. Now 6 years old, he’s completed kindergarten and has been to Disney World. He plays in the dirt and loves shows and movies from the ’80s (maybe some of the same ones David enjoyed).
Everett knows he has been through a lot and that his doctors “fixed his DNA,” but he’s focused largely on other things. He’s vocal when confronted with medical pain or trauma, but seems to block out the experiences shortly afterwards. It’s sad for Brian and me that Everett developed these coping skills at such a young age, but we’re so grateful he is otherwise expressive and enjoys engaging with others. Once in the middle of the night, he woke us up as he stood in the hallway, exclaiming, “I’m going back to bed, but I just want you to know that I love you with all my heart!”
I wish more than anything that Everett had not been born with such a terrible disease and I could erase all the trauma, isolation, and pain. But I know that he is actually one of the lucky unlucky ones. Everett is fortunate his disease was caught early by SCID newborn screening, which became available in California not long before his birth. Without this test, we would not have known he had SCID until he became dangerously ill. His prognosis would have been much worse, even under the care of his truly brilliant and remarkable doctors, some of whom cared for David decades earlier.
When Everett was 4, soon after the gene therapy gave him the immunity he desperately needed, our family was fortunate enough to cross paths with David’s mom, Carol Ann, at an Immune Deficiency Foundation event. Throughout my life, I had seen her in pictures and on television with David. In person, she was warm, gracious, and humble. When I introduced her to Everett and explained that he had SCID just like David, she looked at Everett with loving eyes and asked if she could touch him. As she touched Everett’s shoulder and they locked eyes, Brian and I looked on with profound gratitude.
Anne Klein is a parent, scientist, and a patient advocate for two gene therapy trials funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. She is passionate about helping parents of children with SCID navigate treatment options for their child.
At CIRM we are privileged to work with many remarkable people who combine brilliance, compassion and commitment to their search for new therapies to help people in need. One of those who certainly fits that description is UC Davis’ Jan Nolta.
This week the UC Davis Newsroom posted a great interview with Jan. Rather than try and summarize what she says I thought it would be better to let her talk for herself.
Talking research, unscrupulous clinics, and sustaining the momentum
In 2007, Jan Nolta
returned to Northern California from St. Louis to lead what was at the
time UC Davis’ brand-new stem cell program. As director of the UC Davis Stem Cell Program
and the Institute for Regenerative Cures, she has overseen the opening
of the institute, more than $140 million in research grants, and dozens
upon dozens of research studies. She recently sat down to answer some
questions about regenerative medicine and all the work taking place at UC Davis Health.
Q: Turning stem cells into cures has been your mission and mantra since you founded the program. Can you give us some examples of the most promising research?
I am so excited about our research. We have about 20 different disease-focused teams.
That includes physicians, nurses, health care staff, researchers and
faculty members, all working to go from the laboratory bench to
patient’s bedside with therapies.
Perhaps the most promising and
exciting research right now comes from combining blood-forming
stem cells with gene therapy. We’re working in about
eight areas right now, and the first cure, something that we definitely
can call a stem cell “cure,” is coming from this combined approach.
doctors will be able to prescribe this type of stem cell therapy.
Patients will use their own bone marrow or umbilical cord stem cells.
Teams such as ours, working in good manufacturing practice
facilities, will make vectors, essentially “biological delivery
vehicles,” carrying a good copy of the broken gene. They will be
reinserted into a patient’s cells and then infused back into the
patient, much like a bone marrow transplant.
“Perhaps the most promising and exciting research right now comes from combining blood-forming stem cells with gene therapy.”
Along with treating the famous bubble baby disease,
where I had started my career, this approach looks very promising for
sickle cell anemia. We’re hoping to use it to treat several different
inherited metabolic diseases. These are conditions characterized by an
abnormal build-up of toxic materials in the body’s cells. They interfere
with organ and brain function. It’s caused by just a single enzyme.
Using the combined stem cell gene therapy, we can effectively put a good
copy of the gene for that enzyme back into a patient’s bone marrow stem
cells. Then we do a bone marrow transplantation and bring back a
person’s normal functioning cells.
The beauty of this therapy is
that it can work for the lifetime of a patient. All of the blood cells
circulating in a person’s system would be repaired. It’s the number one
stem cell cure happening right now. Plus, it’s a therapy that won’t be
rejected. These are a patient’s own stem cells. It is just one type of
stem cell, and the first that’s being commercialized to change cells
throughout the body.
Q: Let’s step back for a moment. In 2004, voters approved Proposition 71.
It has funded a majority of the stem cell research here at UC Davis and
throughout California. What’s been the impact of that ballot measure
and how is it benefiting patients?
We have learned so
much about different types of stem cells, and which stem cell will be
most appropriate to treat each type of disease. That’s huge. We had to
first do that before being able to start actual stem cell therapies. CIRM [California Institute for Regenerative Medicine] has funded Alpha Stem Cell Clinics.
We have one of them here at UC Davis and there are only five in the
entire state. These are clinics where the patients can go for
high-quality clinical stem cell trials approved by the FDA
[U.S. Food and Drug Administration]. They don’t need to go to
“unapproved clinics” and spend a lot of money. And they actually
“By the end of this year, we’ll have 50 clinical trials.”
By the end of this year, we’ll have 50 clinical trials [here at UC Davis Health]. There are that many in the works.
Our Alpha Clinic
is right next to the hospital. It’s where we’ll be delivering a lot of
the immunotherapies, gene therapies and other treatments. In fact, I
might even get to personally deliver stem cells to the operating room
for a patient. It will be for a clinical trial involving people who have
broken their hip. It’s exciting because it feels full circle, from
working in the laboratory to bringing stem cells right to the patient’s
We have ongoing clinical trials
for critical limb ischemia, leukemia and, as I mentioned, sickle cell
disease. Our disease teams are conducting stem cell clinical trials
targeting sarcoma, cellular carcinoma, and treatments for dysphasia [a
swallowing disorder], retinopathy [eye condition], Duchenne muscular
dystrophy and HIV. It’s all in the works here at UC Davis Health.
also great potential for therapies to help with renal disease and
kidney transplants. The latter is really exciting because it’s like a
mini bone marrow transplant. A kidney recipient would also get some
blood-forming stem cells from the kidney donor so that they can better
accept the organ and not reject it. It’s a type of stem cell therapy
that could help address the burden of being on a lifelong regime of
immunosuppressant drugs after transplantation.
Q: You and
your colleagues get calls from family members and patients all the
time. They frequently ask about stem cell “miracle” cures. What should
people know about unproven treatments and unregulated stem cell clinics?
That’s a great question.The number one rule is that if
you’re asked to pay money for a stem cell treatment, don’t do it. It’s a
big red flag.
When it comes to advertised therapies: “The number one rule is that if you’re asked to pay money for a stem cell treatment, don’t do it. It’s a big red flag.”
there are unscrupulous people out there in “unapproved clinics” who
prey on desperate people. What they are delivering are probably not even
stem cells. They might inject you with your own fat cells, which
contain very few stem cells. Or they might use treatments that are not
matched to the patient and will be immediately rejected. That’s
dangerous. The FDA is shutting these unregulated clinics down one at a
time. But it’s like “whack-a-mole”: shut one down and another one pops
On the other hand, the Alpha Clinic is part of our
mission is to help the public get to the right therapy, treatment or
clinical trial. The big difference between those who make patients pay
huge sums of money for unregulated and unproven treatments and UC Davis
is that we’re actually using stem cells. We produce them in rigorously
regulated cleanroom facilities. They are certified to contain at least 99% stem cells.
and family members can always call us here. We can refer them to a
genuine and approved clinical trial. If you don’t get stem cells at the
beginning [of the clinical trial] because you’re part of the placebo
group, you can get them later. So it’s not risky. The placebo is just
saline. I know people are very, very desperate. But there are no miracle
cures…yet. Clinical trials, approved by the FDA, are the only way we’re
going to develop effective treatments and cures.
Scientific breakthroughs take a lot of patience and time. How do you and
your colleagues measure progress and stay motivated?
Motivation? “It’s all for the patients.”
all for the patients. There are not good therapies yet for many
disorders. But we’re developing them. Every day brings a triumph.
Measuring progress means treating a patient in a clinical trial, or
developing something in the laboratory, or getting FDA approval. The big
one will be getting biological license approval from the FDA, which
means a doctor can prescribe a stem cell or gene therapy treatment. Then
it can be covered by a patient’s health insurance.
I’m a cancer
survivor myself, and I’m also a heart patient. Our amazing team here at
UC Davis has kept me alive and in great health. So I understand it from
both sides. I understand the desperation of “Where do I go?” and “What
do I do right now?” questions. I also understand the science side of
things. Progress can feel very, very slow. But everything we do here at
the Institute for Regenerative Cures is done with patients in mind, and
We know that each day is so important when you’re watching
a loved one suffer. We attend patient events and are part of things
like Facebook groups, where people really pour their hearts out. We say
to ourselves, “Okay, we must work harder and faster.” That’s our
motivation: It’s all the patients and families that we’re going to help
who keep us working hard.
But then came news that another big name celebrity, in this case Star Trek star William Shatner, was going to one of these clinics for an infusion of what he called “restorative cells”.
It’s a reminder that
for every step forward we take in trying to educate the public about the
dangers of clinics offering unproven therapies, we often take another step back
when a celebrity essentially endorses the idea.
So that’s why we are
taking our message directly to the people, as often as we can and wherever we
In June we are going
to be holding a free, public event in Los Angeles to coincide with the opening
of the International Society for Stem Cell Research’s Annual Conference, the
biggest event on the global stem cell calendar. There’s still time to register for that by the way. The event is from 6-7pm on
Tuesday, June 25th in Petree Hall C., at the Los Angeles Convention
Center at 1201 South Figueroa Street, LA 90015.
It’s going to be an
opportunity to learn about the real progress being made in stem cell research,
thanks in no small part to CIRM’s funding. We’re honored to be joined by UCLA’s
Dr. Don Kohn, who has helped cure dozens of children born with a fatal immune
system disorder called severe combined immunodeficiency, also known as “bubble
baby disease”. And we’ll hear from the family of one of those children whose
life he helped save.
And because CIRM is
due to run out of money to fund new projects by the end of this year you’ll
also learn about the very real concerns we have about the future of stem cell
research in California and what can be done to address those concerns. It promises
to be a fascinating evening.
But that’s not all. Our
partners at USC will be holding another public event on stem cell research, on
Wednesday June 26th from 6.30p to 8pm. This one is focused on
treatments for age-related blindness. This features some of the top stem cell
scientists in the field who are making encouraging progress in not just slowing
down vision loss, but in some cases even reversing it.
We know that we face
some serious challenges in trying to educate people about the risks of going to
a clinic offering unproven therapies. But we also know we have a great story to
tell, one that shows how we are already changing lives and saving lives, and
that with the support of the people of California we’ll do even more in the
years to come.