CIRM-funded study helps unlock some of the genetic secrets behind macular degeneration

Retina affected by age-related macular degeneration

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of vision loss in people over 60. It affects 10 million Americans. That’s more than cataracts and glaucoma combined. The causes of AMD are not known but are believed to involve a mixture of hereditary and environmental factors. There is no treatment for it.

Now, in a CIRM-funded study, researchers at UC San Diego (UCSD) have used stem cells to help identify genetic elements that could provide some clues as to the cause, and maybe give some ideas on how to treat it.

Before we get into what the researchers did let’s take a look at what AMD does. At a basic level it attacks the retina, the thin layer of tissue that lines the back of the eye. The retina receives light, turns it into electrical signals and sends it to the brain which turns it into a visual image.

The disease destroys the macula, the part of the retina that controls our central vision. At first, sight becomes blurred or fuzzy but over time it progresses to the point where central vision is almost completely destroyed.

To try and understand why this happens the team at UCSD took skin samples from six people with AMD and, using the iPSC method, turned those cells into the kinds of cell found in the retina. Because these cells came from people who had AMD they now displayed the same characteristics as AMD-affected retinal cells. This allowed the researchers to create what is called a “disease-in-a-dish” model that allowed them to see, in real time, what is happening in AMD.

They were able to identify a genetic variant that reduces production of a protein called VEGFA, which is known to promote the growth of new blood vessels.

In a news release Kelly Frazer, director of the Institute for Genomic Medicine at UCSD and the lead author of the study, said the results were unexpected.

Kelly Frazer, PhD, UC San Diego

“We didn’t start with the VEGFA gene when we went looking for genetic causes of AMD. But we were surprised to find that with samples from just six people, this genetic variation clearly emerged as a causal factor.”

Frazer says this discovery, published in the journal Stem Cell Reports, could ultimately lead to new approaches to developing new treatments for AMD.

CIRM already funds one clinical trial-stage project targeting AMD.

Stem Cell Roundup: Jake Javier’s amazing spirit; TV report highlights clinic offering unproven stem cell therapies

JakeJavier_A_0107_20161207142726_JakeJavier_SeesTheDay

Jake Javier: Photo Michael Clemens, Sees the Day

In the Roundup we usually focus on studies that highlight advances in stem cell research but today we’re going to do something a little different. Instead of relying on print for our stories, we’re turning to video.

We begin with a piece about Jake Javier. Regular readers of our blog will remember that Jake is the young man who broke his neck the day before he graduated high school, leaving him paralyzed from the upper chest down.

After enrolling in the CIRM-funded Asterias clinical trial, and receiving a transplant of 10 million stem cells, Jake regained enough use of his arms and hands to be able to go to Cal Poly and start his life over.

This video highlights the struggles and challenges he faced in his first year, and his extraordinary spirit in overcoming them.

(thanks to Matt Yoon and his Creative Services team at Cal Poly for this video)

Going Undercover

The second video is from the NBC7 TV station in San Diego and highlights one of the big problems in regenerative medicine today, clinics offering unproven therapies. The investigative team at NBC7 went undercover at a stem cell clinic seminar where presenters talked about “the most significant breakthrough in natural medicine” for improving mobility and reducing pain. As the reporter discovered, the reality didn’t live up to the promise.

NBC7 Investigative Report

 

How Parkinson’s disease became personal for one stem cell researcher

April is Parkinson’s disease Awareness Month. This year the date is particularly significant because 2017 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of British apothecary James Parkinson’s “An Essay on the Shaking Palsy”, which is now recognized as a seminal work in describing the disease.

Schuele_headshotTo mark the occasion we talked with Dr. Birgitt Schuele, Director Gene Discovery and Stem Cell Modeling at the Parkinson’s Institute and Clinical Center in Sunnyvale, California. Dr. Schuele recently received funding from CIRM for a project using new gene-editing technology to try and halt the progression of Parkinson’s.

 

 

What got you interested in Parkinson’s research?

People ask if I have family members with Parkinson’s because a lot of people get into this research because of a family connection, but I don’t.  I was always excited by neuroscience and how the brain works, and I did my medical residency in neurology and had a great mentor who specialized in the neurogenetics of Parkinson’s. That helped fuel my interest in this area.

I have been in this field for 15 years, and over time I have gotten to know a lot of people with Parkinson’s and they have become my friends, so now I’m trying to find answers and also a cure for Parkinson’s. For me this has become personal.

I have patients that I talk to every couple of months and I can see how their disease is progressing, and especially for people with early or young onset Parkinson’s. It’s devastating. It has a huge effect on the person and their family, and on relationships, even how they have to talk to their kids about their risk of getting the disease themselves. It’s hard to see that and the impact it has on people’s lives. And because Parkinson’s is progressive, I get to see, over the years, how it affects people, it’s very hard.

Talk about the project you are doing that CIRM is funding

It’s very exciting. The question for Parkinson’s is how do you stop disease progression, how do you stop the neurons from dying in areas affected by the disease. One protein, identified in 1997 as a genetic form of Parkinson’s, is alpha-synuclein. We know from studying families that have Parkinson’s that if you have too much alpha-synuclein you get early onset, a really aggressive form of Parkinson’s.

I followed a family that carries four copies of this alpha-synuclein gene (two copies is the normal figure) and the age of onset in this family was in their mid 30’s. Last year I went to a funeral for one of these family members who died from Parkinson’s at age 50.

We know that this protein is bad for you, if you have too much it kills brains cells. So we have an idea that if you lower levels of this protein it might be an approach to stop or shield those cells from cell death.

We are using CRISPR gene editing technology to approach this. In the Parkinson’s field this idea of down-regulation of alpha-synuclein protein isn’t new, but previous approaches worked at the protein level, trying to get rid of it by using, for example, immunotherapy. But instead of attacking the protein after it has been produced we are starting at the genomic level. We want to use CRISPR as a way to down-regulate the expression of the protein, in the same way we use a light dimmer to lower the level of light in a room.

But this is a balancing act. Too much of the protein is bad, but so is too little. We know if you get rid of the protein altogether you get negative effects, you cause complications. So we want to find the right level and that’s complex because the right level might vary from person to person.

We are starting with the most extreme levels, with people who have twice as much of this protein as is normal. Once we understand that better, then we can look at people who have levels that are still higher than normal but not at the upper levels we see in early-onset Parkinson’s. They have more subtle changes in their production or expression of this protein. It’s a little bit of a juggling act and it might be different for different patients. We start with the most severe ones and work our way to the most common ones.

One of the frustrations I often hear from patients is that this is all taking so long. Why is that?

Parkinson’s has been overall frustrating for researchers as well. Around 100 years ago, Dr. Lewy first described the protein deposits and the main neuropathology in Parkinson’s. About 20 years ago, mutations in the alpha-synuclein gene were discovered, and now we know approximately 30 genes that are associated with, or can cause Parkinson’s. But it was all very descriptive. It told us what is going on but not why.

Maybe we thought it was straight forward and maybe researchers only focused on what we knew at that point. In 1957, the neurotransmitter dopamine was identified and since the 1960s people have focused on Parkinson’s as a dopamine-deficient problem because we saw the amazing effects L-Dopa had on patients and how it could help ease their symptoms.

But I would say in the last 15 years we have looked at it more closely and realized it’s more complicated than that. There’s also a loss of sense of smell, there’s insomnia, episodes of depression, and other things that are not physical symptoms. In the last 10 years or so we have really put the pieces together and now see Parkinson’s as a multi-system disease with neuronal cell death and specific protein deposits called Lewy Bodies. These Lewy Bodies contain alpha-synuclein and you find them in the brain, the gut and the heart and these are organs people hadn’t looked at because no one made the connection that constipation or depression could be linked to the disease. It turns out that Parkinson’s is much more complicated than just a problem in one particular region of the brain.

The other reason for slow progress is that we don’t have really good models for the disease that are predictive for clinical outcomes. This is why probably many clinical trials in the neurodegenerative field have failed to date. Now we have human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from people with Parkinson’s, and iPSC-derived neurons allow us to better model the disease in the lab, and understand its underlying mechanisms  more deeply. The technology has now advanced so that the ability to differentiate these cells into nerve cells is better, so that you now have iPSC-derived neurons in a dish that are functionally active, and that act and behave like dopamine-producing neurons in the brain. This is an important advance.

Will this lead to a clinical trial?

That’s the idea, that’s our hope.

We are working with professor Dr. Deniz Kirik at the University of Lund in Sweden. He’s an expert in the field of viral vectors that can be used in humans – it’s a joint grant between us – and so what we learn from the human iPS cultures, he’ll transfer to an animal model and use his gene vector technology to see if we can see the same effects in vivo, in mice.

We are using a very special Parkinson’s mouse model – developed at UC San Francisco – that has the complete human genomic structure of the alpha-synuclein gene. If all goes well, we hope that ultimately we could be ready in a couple of years to think about preclinical testing and then clinical trials.

What are your hopes for the future?

My hope is that I can contribute to stopping disease progression in Parkinson’s. If we can develop a drug that can get rid of accumulated protein in someone’s brain that should stop the cells from dying. If someone has early onset PD and a slight tremor and minor walking problems, stopping the disease and having a low dose of dopamine therapy to control symptoms is almost a cure.

The next step is to develop better biomarkers to identify people at risk of developing Parkinson’s, so if you know someone is a few years away from developing symptoms, and you have the tools in place, you can start treatment early and stop the disease from kicking in, even before you clinically have symptoms.

Thinking about people who have been diagnosed with a disease, who are ten years into the disease, who already have side effects from the disease, it’s a little harder to think of regenerative medicine, using embryonic or iPSCs for this. I think that it will take longer to see results with this approach, but that’s the long-term hope for the future. There are many  groups working in this space, which is critical to advance the field.

Why is Parkinson’s Awareness Month important?

It’s important because, while a lot of people know about the disease, there are also a lot of misconceptions about Parkinson’s.

Parkinson’s is confused with Alzheimer’s or dementia and cognitive problems, especially the fact that it’s more than just a gait and movement problem, that it affects many other parts of the body too.

Cured by Stem Cells

cirm-2016-annual-report-web-12

To get anywhere you need a good map, and you need to check it constantly to make sure you are still on the right path and haven’t strayed off course. A year ago the CIRM Board gave us a map, a Strategic Plan, that laid out our course for the next five years. Our Annual Report for 2016, now online, is our way of checking that we are still on the right path.

I think, without wishing to boast, that it’s safe to say not only are we on target, but we might even be a little bit ahead of schedule.

The Annual Report is chock full of facts and figures but at the heart of it are the stories of the people who are the focus of all that we do, the patients. We profile six patients and one patient advocate, each of whom has an extraordinary story to tell, and each of whom exemplifies the importance of the work we support.

brenden_stories_of_hope

Brenden Whittaker: Cured

Two stand out for one simple reason, they were both cured of life-threatening conditions. Now, cured is not a word we use lightly. The stem cell field has been rife with hyperbole over the years so we are always very cautious in the way we talk about the impact of treatments. But in these two cases there is no need to hold back: Evangelina Padilla Vaccaro and Brenden Whittaker have been cured.

evangelina

Evangelina: Cured

 

In the coming weeks we’ll feature our conversations with all those profiled in the Annual Report, giving you a better idea of the impact the stem cell treatments have had on their lives and the lives of their family. But today we just wanted to give a broad overview of the Annual Report.

The Strategic Plan was very specific in the goals it laid out for us. As an agency we had six big goals, but each Team within the agency, and each individual within those teams had their own goals. They were our own mini-maps if you like, to help us keep track of where we were individually, knowing that every time an individual met a goal they helped the Team get closer to meeting its goals.

As you read through the report you’ll see we did a pretty good job of meeting our targets. In fact, we missed only one and we’re hoping to make up for that early in 2017.

But good as 2016 was, we know that to truly fulfill our mission of accelerating treatments to patients with unmet medical needs we are going to have do equally well, if not even better, in 2017.

That work starts today.

 

Translating great stem cell ideas into effective therapies

alzheimers

CIRM funds research trying to solve the Alzheimer’s puzzle

In science, there are a lot of terms that could easily mystify people without a research background; “translational” is not one of them. Translational research simply means to take findings from basic research and advance them into something that is ready to be tested in people in a clinical trial.

Yesterday our Governing Board approved $15 million in funding for four projects as part of our Translational Awards program, giving them the funding and support that we hope will ultimately result in them being tested in people.

Those projects use a variety of different approaches in tackling some very different diseases. For example, researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco received $5.9 million to develop a new way to help the more than five million Americans battling Alzheimer’s disease. They want to generate brain cells to replace those damaged by Alzheimer’s, using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) – an adult cell that has been changed or reprogrammed so that it can then be changed into virtually any other cell in the body.

CIRM’s mission is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs and Alzheimer’s – which has no cure and no effective long-term treatments – clearly represents an unmet medical need.

Another project approved by the Board is run by a team at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI). They got almost $4.5 million for their research helping people with sickle cell anemia, an inherited blood disorder that causes intense pain, and can result in strokes and organ damage. Sickle cell affects around 100,000 people in the US, mostly African Americans.

The CHORI team wants to use a new gene-editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9 to develop a method of editing the defective gene that causes Sickle Cell, creating a healthy, sickle-free blood supply for patients.

Right now, the only effective long-term treatment for sickle cell disease is a bone marrow transplant, but that requires a patient to have a matched donor – something that is hard to find. Even with a perfect donor the procedure can be risky, carrying with it potentially life-threatening complications. Using the patient’s own blood stem cells to create a therapy would remove those complications and even make it possible to talk about curing the disease.

While damaged cartilage isn’t life-threatening it does have huge quality of life implications for millions of people. Untreated cartilage damage can, over time lead to the degeneration of the joint, arthritis and chronic pain. Researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) were awarded $2.5 million to develop an off-the-shelf stem cell product that could be used to repair the damage.

The fourth and final award ($2.09 million) went to Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics, which hopes to create a stem cell therapy for osteonecrosis. This is a painful, progressive disease caused by insufficient blood flow to the bones. Eventually the bones start to rot and die.

As Jonathan Thomas, Chair of the CIRM Board, said in a news release, we are hoping this is just the next step for these programs on their way to helping patients:

“These Translational Awards highlight our goal of creating a pipeline of projects, moving through different stages of research with an ultimate goal of a successful treatment. We are hopeful these projects will be able to use our newly created Stem Cell Center to speed up their progress and pave the way for approval by the FDA for a clinical trial in the next few years.”

Failed stem cells may cause deadly lung disease

pf

Breathing is something we take for granted. It’s automatic. We don’t need to think about it. But for people with pulmonary fibrosis, breathing is something that is always on their minds.

Pulmonary fibrosis (PF) is a disease where the tissue in your lungs becomes thick and stiff, even scarred, making it difficult to breathe. It can be a frightening experience; and it doesn’t just affect your lungs.

Because your lungs don’t work properly they aren’t able to move as much oxygen as you need into your bloodstream, and that can have an impact on all your other organs, such as your brain and heart. There are some treatments but no cures, in large part because we didn’t know the cause of the disease. Many patients with PF live only 3-5 years after diagnosis.

Now a new CIRM-funded study from researchers at Cedars-Sinai has uncovered clues as to the cause of the disease, and that in turn could pave the way to new treatments.

The study, published in the journal Nature, found that a class of stem cells in the lung, called AEC2s, are responsible for helping repair damage caused by things such as pollution or infection. People who have PF have far fewer of these AEC2 cells, and those cells also had a much lower concentration of a chemical substance called hyaluronan, which is essential for repair damaged tissue.

They tested this theory with laboratory mice and found that by removing hyaluronan the mice developed thick scarring in their lungs.

In a news release from Cedars-Sinai Carol Liang, the study’s first author, said knowing the cause of the problem may help identify potential solutions:

“These findings are the first published evidence that idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis is primarily a disease of AEC2 stem cell failure. In further studies, we will explore how the loss of hyaluronan promotes fibrosis and how it might be restored to cell surfaces. These endeavors could lead to new therapeutic approaches.”

Knowing that a problem with AEC2 cells causes PF means the researchers can now start testing different medications to see which ones might help boost production of replacement AEC2 cells, or help protect those still functioning.

Rare Disease Day, a chance to raise awareness and hope.

logo-rare-disease-day

Battling a deadly disease like cancer or Alzheimer’s is difficult; but battling a rare and deadly disease is doubly so. At least with common diseases there is a lot of research seeking to develop new treatments. With rare diseases there is often very little research, and so there are fewer options for treatment. Even just getting a diagnosis can be hard because most doctors may never have heard about, let alone seen, a case of a disease that only affects a few thousand individuals.

That’s why the last day of February, every year, has been designated Rare Disease Day.  It’s a time to raise awareness amongst the public, researchers, health  professionals and policy makers about the impact these diseases have on the lives of those affected by them. This means not just the individual with the problem, but their family and friends too.

There are nearly 7,000 diseases in the U.S. that are considered rare, meaning they affect fewer than 200,000 people at any given time.

No numbers no money

The reason why so many of these diseases have so few treatment options is obvious. With diseases that affect large numbers of people a new treatment or cure stands to make the company behind it a lot of money. With diseases that affect very small numbers of people the chances of seeing any return on investment are equally small.

Fortunately at CIRM we don’t have to worry about making a profit, all we are concerned with is accelerating stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. And in the case of people with rare diseases, those needs are almost invariably unmet.

That’s why over the years we have invested heavily in diseases that are often overlooked because they affect relatively small numbers of people. In fact right now we are funding clinical trials in several of these including sickle cell anemia, retinitis pigmentosa and chronic granulomatous disease. We are also funding work in conditions like Huntington’s disease, ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and SCID or “bubble baby” disease.

Focus on the people

As in everything we do our involvement is not just about funding research – important as that is – it’s also about engaging with the people most affected by these diseases, the patient advocate community. Patient advocates help us in several ways:

  • Collaborating with us and other key stakeholders to try and change the way the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) works. Our goal is to create an easier and faster, but no less safe, method of approving the most promising stem cell therapies for clinical trial. With so few available treatments for rare diseases having a smoother route to a clinical trial will benefit these communities.
  • Spreading the word to researchers and companies about CIRM 2.0, our new, faster and more streamlined funding opportunities to help us move the most promising therapies along as fast as possible. The good news is that this means anyone, anywhere can apply for funding. We don’t care how many people are affected by a disease, we only care about the quality of the proposed research project that could help them.
  • Recruiting Patient Advocates to our Clinical Advisory Panels (CAPs), teams that we assign to each project in a clinical trial to help guide and inform the researchers at every stage of their work. This not only gives each project the best possible chance of succeeding but it also helps the team stay focused on the mission, of saving, and changing, people’s lives.
  • Helping us recruit patients for clinical trials. The inability to recruit and retain enough patients to meet a project’s enrollment requirements is one of the biggest reasons many clinical trials fail. This is particularly problematic for rare diseases. By using Patient Advocates to increase our ability to enroll and retain patients we will increase the likelihood a clinical trial is able to succeed.

Organizing to fight back

There are some great organizations supporting and advocating on behalf of families affected by rare diseases, such as the EveryLife Foundation  and the National Organization for Rare Diseases (NORD).  They are working hard to raise awareness about these diseases, to get funding to do research, and to clear away some of the regulatory hurdles researchers face in being able to move the most promising therapies out of the lab and into clinical trials where they can be tested on people.

For the individuals and families affected by conditions like beta thalassemia and muscular dystrophy – potentially fatal genetic disorders – every day is Rare Disease Day. They live with the reality of these problems every single day. That’s why we are committed to working hard every single day, to find a treatment that can help them and their loved ones.