Neurona Therapeutics Update: First two patients who received treatment experienced significantly less seizures

Nearly 3.5 million Americans suffer from some form of epilepsy. It can affect people in different ways from stiff muscles or staring spells, to violent shaking and loss of consciousness.

The impact it has on people’s lives extends far beyond the condition itself. People who suffer from epilepsy experience a higher frequency of depression and other mood disorders, social isolation, challenges in school and with living independently, higher unemployment, limitations on driving, and higher risk of early death.

Medications can help control the seizures in some people, but around one-third of patients don’t respond to those drugs. The alternative is surgery, which is invasive and can cause damage to delicate brain tissue.

Neurona Therapeutics —a clinical stage biotherapeutics company— has developed a therapy called NRTX-1001, which consists of a specialized type of neuronal or brain cell derived from embryonic stem cells. These cells are injected into the brain in the area affected by the seizures where they release a neurotransmitter or chemical messenger that will block the signals in the brain causing the epileptic seizures.

So far, the first two patients treated in the groundbreaking clinical trial—both of whom entered the study with a history of significant monthly seizures that were not controlled by anti-seizure medications—have seen encouraging signs of reduction which suggest that a single dose of NRTX-1001 may have a long-lasting ability to suppress seizures.

The first patient had a 9-year history of seizures and in the six months prior to the administration of NRTX-1001, the patient experienced an average of 32 seizures per month, despite being on several antiepileptic medications. The patient received a single administration of NRTX-1001, the treatment was well tolerated, and there have been no serious or severe adverse events associated with the treatment to date. The patient reported four seizures during the first three months since receiving NRTX-1001.

The second patient treated in the trial also had drug-resistant seizures, with an average of 14 seizures per month in the six months prior to treatment. This individual received NRTX-1001 and in the first week post-treatment had not experienced any serious or severe adverse events, or seizures.

“The early clinical results with NRTX-1001 in epilepsy are very encouraging, and we look forward to enrolling additional patients in the study,” said Dr. Cory Nicholas, Neurona’s president and chief executive officer. “NRTX-1001 is designed to be an off-the-shelf, one-time administration therapy with the potential to durably eliminate seizures and provide a new regenerative cell therapeutic approach in patients for whom anti-seizure medication has failed.”

Dr. Nicholas added, “It has the potential to be disease-modifying without the tissue-destructive procedural risks associated with lobectomy. Further, there are many who are not currently eligible for lobectomy surgery who may be eligible for NRTX-1001 in the future. We are sincerely grateful to everyone involved in the development of NRTX-1001, including the first participants in this pioneering study, their families, and the respective clinical site teams.”

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine has a vested interest in seeing this therapy succeed. CIRM has invested more than $14 million over four different awards in helping this research progress from a basic or Discovery level through to the current clinical trial.

Apply Now for New Manufacturing Funding Opportunity

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has set goals through its five-year strategic plan to continue to deliver the full potential of regenerative medicine to the people of California and around the world. 

One of those goals is to overcome manufacturing hurdles for the delivery of regenerative medicine therapies by building a public-private manufacturing partnership network. 

This is essential because the field needs to create standardized manufacturing processes to transition from the production of smaller batches of therapies for use in clinical trials, to the larger batches required by full-scale commercialization. The manufacturing process for cell and gene therapies is more complex than for other biologics, so CIRM is committed to creating a network to overcome those challenges.

In working towards that goal, CIRM is pleased to announce a new funding opportunity within our Infrastructure Program, the INFR5 Cell and Gene Therapy Manufacturing Network (Phase 1) Awards.  
 
The California Cell and Gene Therapy Manufacturing Network aims to establish a statewide manufacturing network comprising academic process development and GMP manufacturing facilities as well as industry manufacturing partners that will: 

  1. Accelerate and de-risk pathways to commercialization for cell and gene therapies 
  1. Advance industry standards and incorporate quality-by-design in cell and gene therapy manufacturing, and 
  1. Build a diverse, highly skilled manufacturing workforce in California. 

CIRM will issue two phases of awards governed by two separate requests for applications (RFAs). This RFA describes the first phase of awards that will fund California academic cell and gene therapy GMP manufacturing facilities to make initial progress toward the three network goals (described above) at their individual facilities. 

To apply for this award, please visit our website to download the Program Announcement and access a link to the application.  

Update: If you’re interested in learning more about the INFR5 Phase 1 Awards, eligibility requirements, the application and review process, and more, the CIRM team hosted an informational webinar in November. Watch a video recording of the webinar here. The slide deck is available here.

Apply by Nov. 8th for CIRM Discovery stage funding!

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is pleased to announce a new opportunity within our current funding cycle for Discovery stage programs: the DISC0 Foundation Awards which focus on foundational and/or mechanistic research projects grounded in human biology and/or disease pathology.  
  
Projects funded through the Foundation Awards should propose impactful or innovative research that culminates in a discovery or technology that would:  

  • Advance our understanding of the biology of stem or progenitor cells that is relevant to human biology and disease; or   
  • Advance the application of genetic research that is relevant to human biology and disease and pertains to stem cells or regenerative medicine; or  
  • Advance the development or use of human stem cells as tools for biomedical innovation; or   
  • Lead to the greater applicability of regenerative medicine discoveries to communities representing the full spectrum of diversity.  

CIRM’s goal is that the outcomes of the projects derived from this opportunity will ultimately create new avenues and provide a rigorous foundation for translational and clinical development work.   
 
Since Proposition 14 dedicates more than a quarter of funds to support research and development of treatments for diseases and conditions of the brain and central nervous system (CNS), CIRM encourages the submission of proposals focused on increasing our understanding of the fundamental biology of CNS disorders.  
 
Please visit our website to download the DISC0 Program Announcement and read about program requirements before submitting your application. Applications are due November 8th, 2022 by 2:00 PM PST.   

The CIRM Science team recently hosted a webinar addressing DISC0 eligibility requirements, the application and review process, and how this program fits into CIRM’s overall Strategic Plan and Mission. The webinar includes a half-hour presentation by CIRM staff followed by a half-hour for Q&A. You can view the webinar below or direct any questions about the program and applications to discovery@cirm.ca.gov.

We look forward to your applications! 

Reminder! Apply now for discovery stage stem cell and gene therapy research funding

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is seeking applications for its next round of Quest Awards (DISC2) for discovery stage research.

Applications are due August 2nd, 2022, at 2:00 PM PDT. Please visit the CIRM website for full details.  

The purpose of the Quest Awards is to promote the discovery of promising new stem cell-based or gene therapy technologies that could be translated to enable broad use and ultimately, improve patient care.

Applications should propose technology that is uniquely enabled by human stem/progenitor cells or directly reprogrammed cells, or that is uniquely enabling for the advancement of stem cell-based therapies or aimed at developing a genetic therapy approach.

The expected outcome, at the end of the award, is a candidate therapeutic or technology that can immediately progress to translational stage activities. For projects that culminate in a candidate that is a diagnostic, medical device or tool, the proposed project period must not exceed 2 years and direct project costs can be up to $500,000 per award. For projects that culminate in a candidate that is a therapeutic, an applicant may request up to $1,500,000 in direct project costs for up to 3 years duration.

Important Update: Please note that the DISC2 Program Announcement has been updated since the last round of applications. Please read the new program announcement on the CIRM funding website before submitting your application.

To receive updates about future funding opportunities through CIRM, please visit our e-mail newsletter page to sign up.

Using stem cells and smart machines to warn of heart problems

Despite advances in treatments in recent years heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the US. It accounts for one in three deaths in this country, and many people are not even aware they have a problem until they have a heart attack.

One of the early warning signs of danger is a heart arrhythmia; that’s when electrical signals that control the hearts beating don’t work properly and can result in the heart beating too fast, too slow, or irregularly. However, predicting who is at risk of these arrhythmias is difficult. Now new research may have found a way to change that.

A research team at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Singapore combined stem cells with machine learning, and developed a way to predict arrhythmias, with a high degree of accuracy.

The team used stem cells to create different batches of cardiomyocytes or heart muscle cells. Some of these batches were healthy heart cells, but some had arrhythmias caused by different problems such as a genetic disorder or drug induced.

They then trained a machine learning program to use videos to scan the 3,000 different groups of cells. By studying the different beating patterns of the cells, and then using the levels of calcium in the cells, the machine was able to predict, with 90 percent accuracy, which cells were most likely to experience arrhythmias.

The researchers say their approach is faster, simpler and more accurate than current methods of trying to predict who is at risk for arrhythmias and could have a big impact on our ability to intervene before the individual suffers a fatal heart attack.

The research was published in the journal Stem Cell Reports.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine has invested more than $180 million in more than 80 different projects, including four clinical trials, targeting heart disease.

Marathon effort to raise awareness about Huntington’s disease

The COVID pandemic put a lot of things on hold over the last two years. But thanks to the vaccine and boosters more and more people are feeling comfortable about getting out and about again. Case in point, the Orange County Marathon was held for the first time in two years on Sunday, May 1st.

Because May is Huntington’s disease Awareness Month the University of California at Irvine HD-CARE group took the opportunity to use the marathon to raise awareness about the disease, raise some money, but also to celebrate each other and the work they do.

Huntington’s disease is a particularly nasty disease. It’s a rare, inherited condition that leads to the steady breakdown of nerve cells in the brain, affecting movement and thinking and can cause severe psychiatric issues including mania and bipolar disorder. Treatments are limited and there is no cure.

Frances Saldana, a great supporter of CIRM and an amazing advocate for HD, told us they wanted the event to add friendship, hope, and fun in the lives of our scientists, patient advocates, and family members as we go together on our journey in search of a treatment and/or cure for Huntington’s disease. It was a really good day, and we had a lot of fun.” 

They created a short video to highlight just how much fun they had.

It’s a lovely reminder that even in the face of an horrendous disease like HD, people can find fellowship, fun and a sense of hope.

CIRM has invested almost $36 million in funds several projects targeting Huntington’s, and you can read about those here.

IBSC directors bring in nearly $12 million to fund the future of bimolecular research at UC Santa Cruz

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Left to right: Lindsay Hinck and Camilla Forsberg

UC Santa Cruz professors Camilla Forsberg and Lindsay Hinck are not only pushing boundaries in their field as the female-led program directors of the Institute for the Biology of Stem Cells (IBSC), they’ve also been looking for ways to enhance the environment within the academic research infrastructure.

“We really wanted to make an effort to elevate everyone’s capacity for doing more research,” explains Forsberg. It was this drive that led the researchers to focus on bringing in grants to support students at different stages of their education to participate in research training programs.

So far, Fosberg and Hinck’s efforts have provided nearly $12 million in extramural funding for predoctoral and undergraduate training programs. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), which provides graduate and postdoctoral funding, is one of the five funding institutions that have supported IBSC. This funding will shape the future of the IBSC, which brings together more than 30 laboratories across the Engineering and Physical and Biological Sciences divisions, as well as the Science & Justice Research Center.

“We didn’t set out to have five training programs, but then there were more opportunities, so we kept pitching our basic mentoring philosophies to different funders,” Forsberg said. “Now we have five different programs. I guess we found a secret sauce that made our funders excited.”

Forsberg and Hinck’s secret sauce is perhaps in part due to their devotion to forming strong peer connections amongst a group of talented graduate and postdoctoral researchers. The programs aim to connect cohorts of trainees who can interact and network through the IBSC in order to form a peer support ecosystem.

Additionally, IBSC strives to build cohorts that welcome and foster diverse perspectives as they will host an upcoming pilot program that aims to demystify the lengthy path from academia to a research career.

With their lastest $1 million training grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), Forsberg and Hinck hope to provide support for postdoctoral scholars interested in the biotech industry. So far, biotech companies Jasper Therapeutics and Roche have joined the collaborative effort with IBSC to create shadowing opportunities for trainees to learn outside of the academic environment.

Furthermore, pre and postdoctoral trainees supported by these training grants can be hosted by several labs in the IBSC and beyond.

“The key thing about all these training programs is that they implement new ideas about structured graduate and postdoctoral training,” Hinck said. “While getting a training grant position is competitive, we try to make the structured training provided by the grants widely available so that all graduate students and postdoctoral scholars at UCSC can increase their skill sets. The environment that’s built around these training programs elevates opportunities for everyone.”

Read the full release here.

UC Davis Health researchers aim to use CAR T cells for HIV cure

Dr. Abedi (right) in the lab at UC Davis Health. He and his team of researchers have launched a study looking to identify a potential cure for HIV. Photo Courtesy of UC Davis Health.

Worldwide, almost 38 million people are living with HIV—the virus that can lead to AIDS— and it’s estimated that 75% of them receive antiviral treatment to keep the virus in check. In California, 150,000 people live with HIV and 68% of these individuals are virally suppressed due to treatment.  

To fight this virus, UC Davis Health researchers—with funding from a CIRM grant—have launched a study looking to identify a potential cure for HIV. Using immunotherapy, researchers will take a patient’s own white blood cells, called T-cells, and modify them so that they can identify and target HIV cells to control the virus without medication. 

Targeting HIV with CAR T cells

“For this study we will educate the cells by inserting a gene to target cells that have been infected by the HIV virus,” explained Mehrdad Abedi, professor of internal medicine, hematology and oncology and the principal investigator of the study. “The idea is these modified cells will attach to the HIV-infected cells and destroy the cells that are infected while also stopping the infected cells’ ability to replicate.” 

Modified T-cells, known as CAR T cells, are an FDA-approved treatment for different forms of cancer including acute lymphoblastic leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and multiple myeloma. With cancer, the immune system often fails to deploy T-cells right away or at all. When it does, the attack is ineffective. CAR T-cell immunotherapy changes these collected T-cells to produce chimeric antigen receptors (or CARs) that adhere to tumors to destroy them. 

Study seeking HIV patients

For the study, UC Davis Health researchers are working to identify and recruit HIV-positive patients between the ages of 18 and 65 who have had an undetectable HIV viral load for the 12 months and have been on continuous antiretroviral therapy for at least 12 months.  

Patients also need to be willing to pause their antiretroviral therapy as part of the study. 

“While it is exciting, the study will require a lot of dedication from the patient because of the time commitment involved and the necessary steps required,” said Paolo Troia-Cancio, a clinical professor of medicine with the infectious disease division with over 20 years of experience treating HIV and co-investigator on the CAR T cell study.   

The search for an HIV cure 

Three patients have been cured of HIV using bone marrow transplants, including a woman in New York who received a cord blood stem cell transplant. She received a bone marrow transplant using umbilical cord blood donor cells that bore a mutation that makes them resistant to HIV infection to treat her leukemia. 

There have also been two previous cases involving an HIV cure following allogeneic bone marrow transplants. Both patients had leukemia and received bone marrow transplants from donors who carried the same mutation that blocks HIV infection.  

“While these stories provide inspiration and hope to finding a cure for HIV, a bone marrow transplant is not a realistic option for most patients,” said Abedi. “Such transplants are highly invasive and risky, so they are generally offered only to people with cancer who have exhausted all other options.” 

Abedi and his fellow researchers see this study as a potential road map to finding a cure for HIV.  

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has funded earlier work by Dr. Abedi and his team in trying to develop a therapy to help people with HIV who also have lymphoma.  

To read the source article about this CIRM-funded study, click here

Using reengineered human skin cells to treat COVID-19

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Investigators at Cedars-Sinai have identified a potential new therapy for COVID-19: a biologic substance created by reengineered human skin cells.   

In the study—co-funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM)—scientists found the substance stopped SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, from reproducing itself. The substance also protected infected cells when tested in human lung cells.  

Although still in the early stages, the findings open the possibility of having a new therapy for COVID-19 patients, of which there are few. Current COVID-19 treatments primarily focus on preventing the virus from replicating. This new potential treatment inhibits replication but also protects or repairs tissue, which is important because COVID-19 can cause symptoms that affect patients long after the viral infection has been cleared. 

The potential therapy investigated in this study was created by scientists using skin cells called dermal fibroblasts. The investigators engineered the cells to produce therapeutic extracellular vesicles (EVs), which are nanoparticles that serve as a communication system between cells and tissue. Engineering these fibroblasts allowed them to secrete EVs—which the investigators dubbed “ASTEX”—with the ability to repair tissue. 

The study tested ASTEX by applying it to human lung epithelial cells, cells that line the pulmonary tract and are the targets of SARS-CoV-2 infection. They discovered that ASTEX prevented cells from launching an inflammatory process that could lead to cell death. Cells treated with ASTEX also made fewer of a type of protein called ACE that SARS-CoV-2 may use to infect cells. 

The team compared the new potential treatment with remdesivir, a drug currently used to treat COVID-19, and found that remdesivir did not inhibit production of ACE. Instead, remdesivir stops the virus from latching on to a protein called ACE2. ASTEX, therefore, may present another way to prevent the virus from entering cells. 

“We were surprised to find this potential therapy shuts down a novel pathway for viral replication and also protects infected cells,” said Ahmed G. Ibrahim, PhD, MPH, assistant professor in the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai and first author of the study. 

Investigators at Cedars-Sinai are planning future studies.  

The details of the potential therapy are published in the journal Biomaterials and Biosystems. Read the source article here

Rare Disease: An Uphill Battle for Diagnosis and Treatment

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From left to right: Baby Dalia pre-diagnosis, Dalia on her way to the kindergarten, and Dalia today.

When Dalia was 5 years old, she was finally diagnosed with MERRF syndrome– an extremely rare form of mitochondrial disease. By then, her parents had been searching for an answer for three frustrating years. And like most parents of a child suffering from an undiagnosed medical condition, they expected that Dalia’s diagnosis would start a path to recovery. 

Unfortunately for Dalia and millions of Americans who have a rare disease, the condition is chronic and life-threating. More than 90% of rare diseases have no treatment. None are curable. Even more heartbreaking for Dalia’s family, MERRF is degenerative. Time is of essence.

According to research published in The Journal of Rare Disorders, it takes seeing 7.3 physicians and trying for 4.8 years before getting an accurate rare disease diagnosis. This uphill battle aside, diagnosis is merely the first challenge. For the 7,000 known rare diseases, less than 600 have FDA-approved treatments.  

The irony of rare diseases is that a lot of people have them. The total number of Americans living with a rare disease is estimated at between 25-30 million. Two-thirds of these patients are children. “You feel alone, because by definition, your child’s diagnosis is exceptional. And yet, 1 in 10 Americans and 300 million people globally are living with a rare disease,” explains Jessica Fein, Dalia’s mother, in a heartfelt HuffPost article detailing her daughter’s diagnostic odyssey. 

For decades, the rare disease community has pointed to these staggering numbers to highlight that while individual diseases may be rare, the total number of people with a rare disease is large. 

In 1983, Congress passed the Orphan Drug Act in order to provide incentives for drug companies to develop treatments for rare diseases. Between 1973 and 1983, fewer than 10 treatments for rare diseases were approved. Since 1983, hundreds of drugs and biologic products for rare diseases have been approved by the FDA. While researchers have made progress in learning how to diagnose, treat, and even prevent a variety of rare diseases, there is still much to do because like Dalia, most patients living with a rare disorder have no treatments to even consider. 

Four years after her diagnosis, Dalia lost her ability to walk, talk, eat, and breathe without a ventilator. At the time she was only 9 years old. More than a decade after her diagnosis, Dalia is finally enrolled in a clinical trial. Her parents hope that awareness about rare diseases and their prevalence will lead to research, funding, advocacy and health equity. 

Here at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), we understand the importance of funding research that impacts not just the most common diseases. In fact, more than one third of all the projects we fund target a rare disease or condition such as: Retinitis pigmentosa, Sickle cell disease, Huntington’s disease, and Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.

“[If] each of us learned a bit about just one rare disease… it probably wouldn’t change the trajectory for most of the people who are currently suffering, but it might help someone be diagnosed earlier. We’ve made leaps and bounds with awareness, research and treatment for AIDS, cancer and depression, all diseases that were once unknown… Awareness and action aren’t things that can be put on the back burner until more common illnesses are cured. We must do what we can today- and every day moving forward.”