CIRM Board invests $5 million in emergency funding for coronavirus

Coronavirus

In response to the crisis caused by the COVID-19 virus in California and around the world the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) today held an emergency meeting to approve $5 million in rapid research funds targeting the virus.

“These are clearly extraordinary times and they require an extraordinary response from all of us,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “Our mission is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. California researchers have made us aware that they are pursuing potential stem cell based approaches to the COVID-19 crisis and we felt it was our responsibility to respond by doing all we can to support this research and doing so as quickly as we possibly can.”

The Board’s decision enables CIRM to allocate $5 million in funding for peer-reviewed regenerative medicine and stem cell research that could quickly advance treatments for COVID-19. The funding will be awarded as part of an expedited approval process.

To qualify applicants would go through a full review by CIRM’s independent Grants Working Group.

  • Approved projects will be immediately forwarded to the CIRM Board for a vote
  • Projects approved by the Board would go through an accelerated contract process to ensure funds are distributed as quickly as possible

“Our hope is that we can go from application to funding within 30 to 40 days,” says Jonathan Thomas, PhD, JD, Chair of the CIRM Board. “This is a really tight timeframe, but we can’t afford to waste a moment. There is too much at stake. The coronavirus is creating an unprecedented threat to all of us and, as one of the leading players in regenerative medicine, we are committed to doing all we can to develop the tools and promote the research that will help us respond to that threat.”

Only projects that target the development or testing of a treatment for COVID-19 are eligible. They must also meet other requirements including being ready to start work within 30 days of approval and propose achieving a clear deliverable within six months. The proposed therapy must also involve a stem cell or a drug or antibody targeting stem cells.

The award amounts and duration of the award are as follows:

Award Amount and Duration Limits

Project StageSpecific ProgramAward Amount*Award Duration
Clinical trialCLIN2$750,00024 months
Late stage preclinicalCLIN1$400,00012 months
TranslationalTRAN1$350,00012 months
DiscoveryDISC2$150,00012 months

CIRM Board members were unanimous in their support for the program. Al Rowlett, the patient advocate for mental health, said: “Given the complexity of this situation and the fact that many of the individuals I represent aren’t able to advocate for themselves, I wholeheartedly support this.”

Dr. Os Steward, from UC Irvine agreed: “I think that this is a very important thing for CIRM to do for a huge number of reasons. The concept is great and CIRM is perfectly positioned to do this.”

“All hands are on deck world-wide in this fight against COVID-19.” says Dr. Millan. “CIRM will deploy its accelerated funding model to arm our stem cell researchers in this multi-pronged and global attack on the virus.”

You can learn more about the program, including how to apply, on our website.

How developing a treatment for a rare disease could lead to therapies for other, not-so-rare conditions

Logan Lacy, a child with AADC Deficiency: Photo courtesy Chambersburg Public Opinion

Tomorrow, the last day in February, is Rare Disease Day. It’s a day dedicated to raising awareness about rare diseases and the impact they have on patients and their families.

But the truth is rare diseases are not so rare. There are around 7,000 diseases that affect fewer than 200,000 Americans at any given time. In fact, it’s estimated that around one in 20 people will live with a rare disease at some point in their lives. Many may die from it.

This blog is about one man’s work to find a cure for one of those rare diseases, and how that could lead to a therapy for something that affects many millions of people around the world.

Dr. Krystof Bankiewicz; Photo courtesy Ohio State Medical Center

Dr. Krystof Bankiewicz is a brain surgeon at U.C. San Francisco and The Ohio State University. He is also the President and CEO at Brain Neurotherapy Bio and a world expert in delivering gene and other therapies to the brain. More than 20 years ago, he began trying to develop a treatment for Parkinson’s disease by looking at a gene responsible for AADC enzyme production, which plays an important role in the brain and central nervous system.  AADC is critical for the formation of serotonin and dopamine, chemicals that transmit signals between nerve cells, the latter of which plays a role in the development of Parkinson’s disease.

While studying the AADC enzyme, Dr. Bankiewicz learned of an extremely rare disorder where children lack the AADC enzyme that is critical for their development.  This condition significantly inhibits communication between the brain and the rest of the body, leading to extremely limited mobility, muscle spasms, and problems with overall bodily functions.  As a result of this, AADC deficient children require lifelong care, and particularly severe cases can lead to death in the first ten years of life.

“These children can’t speak. They have no muscle control, so they can’t do fundamental things such as walking, supporting their neck or lifting their arms,” says Dr. Bankiewicz. “They have involuntary movements, experience tremendously painful spasms almost like epileptic seizures. They can’t feed themselves and have to be fed through a tube in their stomach.”

So, Dr. Bankiewicz, building on his understanding of the gene that encodes AADC, developed an experimental approach to deliver a normal copy, injected directly into the midbrain, the area responsible for dopamine production. The DDC gene was inserted into a virus that acted as a kind of transport, carrying the gene into neurons, the brain cells affected by the condition. It was hoped that once inside, the gene would allow the body to produce the AADC enzyme and, in turn, enable it to produce its own dopamine .

And that’s exactly what happened.

“It’s unbelievable. In the first treated patients their motor system is dramatically improved, they are able to better control their movements, they can eat, they can sleep well. These are tremendous benefits. We have been following these children for almost three years post-treatment, and the progression we see doesn’t stop, it keeps going and we see these children keep on improving. Now they are able to get physical therapy to help them. Some are even able to go to school.”

For Dr. Bankiewicz this has been decades in the making, but that only makes it all the more gratifying: “This doesn’t happen very often in your lifetime, to be able to use all your professional experience and education to help people and see the impact it has on people’s lives.”

So far he has treated 20 patients from the US, UK and all over the world.

But he is far from finished.

Already the therapy has been given Orphan Drug Designation and Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy designation by the US Food and Drug Administration. The former is a kind of financial incentive to companies to develop drugs for rare diseases. The latter gives therapies that are proving to be both safe and effective, an accelerated path to approval for wider use. Dr. Bankiewicz hopes that will help them raise the funds needed to treat children with this rare condition.  “We want to make this affordable for families. We are not in this to make a profit; we want to get foundations and maybe even pharmaceutical companies to help us treat the kids, so they don’t have to cover the full costs themselves.”

CIRM has not funded any of this work, but the data and results from this research were important factors in our Board awarding Dr. Bankiewicz more than $5.5 million to begin a clinical trial for Parkinson’s disease. Dr. Bankiewicz is using a similar approach in that work to the one he has shown can help children with AADC deficiency.

While AADC deficiency may only affect a few hundred children worldwide, it’s estimated that Parkinson’s affects more than ten million people; one million of those in the US alone.  Developing this gene therapy technique in a rare disease, therefore, may ultimately benefit large populations of patients.

So, on this Rare Disease Day, we celebrate Dr. Bankiewicz and others whose compassion and commitment to finding treatments to help those battling rare conditions are helping change the world, one patient at a time.

You can follow the story of one child treated by Dr. Bankiewicz here.

Brain wave of an idea is picked as one of the top science stories of the year

Dr. Alysson Muotri: Photo courtesy UC San Diego

It’s always gratifying when one of the projects you have funded starts to show promising results. It says your faith in the research and the researcher were well founded. But it’s also fun when the project you fund turns up some really cool findings and is picked as a top science story of the year.

That’s what happened with UC San Diego researcher Alysson Muotri’s work on growing brain organoids (tiny clumps of brain cells, created in a dish, that can mimic some of the properties of a real brain). His work, funded by yours truly, was chosen by Discover Magazine as one of the Top Ten Science stories of 2019.

You can read about that here.

Or you can watch a video about the work.

Alysson has done some extraordinary work in the past and we look forward to seeing even more extraordinary science from him in 2020.

How early CIRM support helped an anti-cancer therapy overcome obstacles and help patients

Dr. Catriona Jamieson, UC San Diego

When you read about a new drug or therapy being approved to help patients it always seems so simple. Researchers come up with a brilliant idea, test it to make sure it is safe and works, and then get approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to sell it to people who need it.

But it’s not always that simple, or straight forward. Sometimes it can take years, with several detours along the way, before the therapy finds its way to patients.

That’s the case with a blood cancer drug called fedratinib (we blogged about it here) and the relentless efforts by U.C. San Diego researcher Dr. Catriona Jamieson to help make it available to patients. CIRM funded the critical early stage research to help show this approach could help save lives. But it took many more years, and several setbacks, before Dr. Jamieson finally succeeded in getting approval from the FDA.

The story behind that therapy, and Dr. Jamieson’s fight, is told in the San Diego Union Tribune. Reporter Brad Fikes has been following the therapy for years and in the story he explains why he found it so fascinating, and why this was a therapy that almost didn’t make it.

CIRM funded research could lead to treatment to prevent recurrence of deadly blood cancer

Chronic myelogenous leukemia

Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) is a cancer of the white blood cells. It causes them to increase in number, crowd out other blood cells, leading to anemia, infection or heavy bleeding. Up until the early 2000’s the main weapon against CML was chemotherapy, but the introduction of drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors changed that, dramatically improving long term survival rates.

However, these medications are not a cure and do not completely eradicate the leukemia stem cells that can fuel the growth of the cancer, so if people stop taking the medication the cancer can return.

Dr. John Chute: Photo courtesy UCLA

But now Dr. John Chute and a team of researchers at UCLA, in a CIRM-supported study, have found a way to target those leukemia stem cells and possibly eliminate them altogether.

The team knew that mice that had the genetic mutation responsible for around 95 percent of CML cases normally developed the disease and died with a few months. However, mice that had the CML gene but lacked another gene, one that produced a protein called pleiotrophin, had normal white blood cells and lived almost twice as long. Clearly there was something about pleiotrophin that played a key role in the growth of CML.

They tested this by transplanting blood stem cells from mice with the CML gene into healthy mice. The previously healthy mice developed leukemia and died. But when they did the same thing from mice that had the CML gene but lacked the pleiotrophin gene, the mice remained healthy.

So, Chute and his team wanted to know if the same thing happens in human cells. Studying human CML stem cells they found these had not just 100 times more pleiotrophin than ordinary cells, they were also producing their own pleiotrophin.

In a news release Chute, said this was unexpected:

“This provides an example of cancer stem cells that are perpetuating their own disease growth by hijacking a protein that normally supports the growth of the healthy blood system.”

Next Chute and the team developed an antibody that blocked the action of pleiotrophin and when they tested it in human cells the CML stem cells died.

Then they combined this antibody with a drug called imatinib (better known by its brand name, Gleevec) which targets the genetic abnormality that causes most forms of CML. They tested this in mice who had been transplanted with human CML stem cells and the cells died.

“Our results suggest that it may be possible to eradicate CML stem cells by combining this new targeted therapy with a tyrosine kinase inhibitor,” said Chute. “This could lead to a day down the road when people with CML may not need to take a tyrosine kinase inhibitor for the rest of their lives.”

The next step is for the researchers to modify the antibody so that it is better suited for humans and not mice and to see if it is effective not just in cells in the laboratory, but in people.

The study is published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation

Boosting the blood system after life-saving therapy

Following radiation, the bone marrow shows nearly complete loss of blood cells in mice (left). Mice treated with the PTP-sigma inhibitor displayed rapid recovery of blood cells (purple, right): Photo Courtesy UCLA

Chemotherapy and radiation are two of the front-line weapons in treating cancer. They can be effective, even life-saving, but they can also be brutal, taking a toll on the body that lasts for months. Now a team at UCLA has developed a therapy that might enable the body to bounce back faster after chemo and radiation, and even make treatments like bone marrow transplants easier on patients.

First a little background. Some cancer treatments use chemotherapy and radiation to kill the cancer, but they can also damage other cells, including those in the bone marrow responsible for making blood stem cells. Those cells eventually recover but it can take weeks or months, and during that time the patient may feel fatigue and be more susceptible to infections and other problems.

In a CIRM-supported study, UCLA’s Dr. John Chute and his team developed a drug that speeds up the process of regenerating a new blood supply. The research is published in the journal Nature Communications.

They focused their attention on a protein called PTP-sigma that is found in blood stem cells and acts as a kind of brake on the regeneration of those cells. Previous studies by Dr. Chute showed that, after undergoing radiation, mice that have less PTP-sigma were able to regenerate their blood stem cells faster than mice that had normal levels of the protein.

John Chute: Photo courtesy UCLA

So they set out to identify something that could help reduce levels of PTP-sigma without affecting other cells. They first identified an organic compound with the charming name of 6545075 (Chembridge) that was reported to be effective against PTP-sigma. Then they searched a library of 80,000 different small molecules to find something similar to 6545075 (and this is why science takes so long).

From that group they developed more than 100 different drug candidates to see which, if any, were effective against PTP-sigma. Finally, they found a promising candidate, called DJ009. In laboratory tests DJ009 proved itself effective in blocking PTP-sigma in human blood stem cells.

They then tested DJ009 in mice that were given high doses of radiation. In a news release Dr. Chute said the results were very encouraging:

“The potency of this compound in animal models was very high. It accelerated the recovery of blood stem cells, white blood cells and other components of the blood system necessary for survival. If found to be safe in humans, it could lessen infections and allow people to be discharged from the hospital earlier.”

Of the radiated mice, most that were given DJ009 survived. In comparison, those that didn’t get DJ009 died within three weeks.

They saw similar benefits in mice given chemotherapy. Mice with DJ009 saw their white blood cells – key components of the immune system – return to normal within two weeks. The untreated mice had dangerously low levels of those cells at the same point.

It’s encouraging work and the team are already getting ready for more research so they can validate their findings and hopefully take the next step towards testing this in people in clinical trials.

Media matters in spreading the word

Cover of New Yorker article on “The Birth Tissue Profiteers”. Illustration by Ben Jones

When you have a great story to tell the best and most effective way to get it out to the widest audience is still the media, both traditional mainstream and new social media. Recently we have seen three great examples of how that can be done and, hopefully, the benefits that can come from it.

First, let’s go old school. Earlier this month Caroline Chen wrote a wonderful in-depth article about clinics that are cashing in on a gray area in stem cell research. The piece, a collaboration between the New Yorker magazine and ProPublica, focused on the use of amniotic stem cell treatments and the gap between what the clinics who offer it are claiming it can do, and the reality.

Here’s one paragraph profiling a Dr. David Greene, who runs a company providing amniotic fluid to clinics. It’s a fine piece of writing showing how the people behind these therapies blur the lines between fact and reality, not just about the cells but also about themselves:

“Greene said that amniotic stem cells derive their healing power from an ability to develop into any kind of tissue, but he failed to mention that mainstream science does not support his claims. He also did not disclose that he lost his license to practice medicine in 2009, after surgeries he botched resulted in several deaths. Instead, he offered glowing statistics: amniotic stem cells could help the heart beat better, “on average by twenty per cent,” he said. “Over eighty-five per cent of patients benefit exceptionally from the treatment.”

Greene later backpedals on that claim, saying:

“I don’t claim that this is a treatment. I don’t claim that it cures anything. I don’t claim that it’s a permanent fix. All I discuss is maybe, potentially, people can get some improvements from stem-cell care.”

CBS2 TV Chicago

This week CBS2 TV in Chicago did their own investigative story about how the number of local clinics offering unproven and unapproved therapies is on the rise. Reporter Pam Zekman showed how misleading newspaper ads brought in people desperate for something, anything, to ease their arthritis pain.

She interviewed two patients who went to one of those clinics, and ended up out of pocket, and out of luck.

“They said they would regenerate the cartilage,” Patricia Korona recalled. She paid $4500 for injections in her knee, but the pain continued. Later X-rays were ordered by her orthopedic surgeon.

He found bone on bone,” Korona said. “No cartilage grew, which tells me it failed; didn’t work.”

John Zapfel paid $14,000 for stem cell injections on each side of his neck and his shoulder. But an MRI taken by his current doctor showed no improvement.

“They ripped me off, and I was mad.” Zapfel said.      

TV and print reports like this are a great way to highlight the bogus claims made by many of these clinics, and to shine a light on how they use hype to sell hope to people who are in pain and looking for help.

At a time when journalism seems to be increasingly under attack with accusations of “fake news” it’s encouraging to see reporters like these taking the time and news outlets devoting the resources to uncover shady practices and protect vulnerable patients.

But the news isn’t all bad, and the use of social media can help highlight the good news.

That’s what happened yesterday in our latest CIRM Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team” event. The event focused on the future of stem cell research but also included a really thoughtful look at the progress that’s been made over the last 10-15 years.

We had two great guests, UC Davis stem cell researcher and one of the leading bloggers on the field, Paul Knoepfler PhD; and David Higgins, PhD, a scientist, member of the CIRM Board and a Patient Advocate for Huntington’s Disease. They were able to highlight the challenges of the early years of stem cell research, both globally and here at CIRM, and show how the field has evolved at a remarkable rate in recent years.

Paul Knoepfler

Naturally the subject of the “bogus clinics” came up – Paul has become a national expert on these clinics and is quoted in the New Yorker article – as did the subject of the frustration some people feel at what they consider to be the too-slow pace of progress. As David Higgins noted, we all think it’s too slow, but we are not going to race recklessly ahead in search of something that might heal if we might also end up doing something that might kill.

David Higgins

A portion of the discussion focused on funding and, in particular, what happens if CIRM is no longer around to fund the most promising research in California. We are due to run out of funding for new projects by the end of this year, and without a re-infusion of funds we will be pretty much closing our doors by the end of 2020. Both Paul and David felt that could be disastrous for the field here in California, depriving the most promising projects of support at a time when they needed it most.

It’s probably not too surprising that three people so closely connected to CIRM (Paul has received funding from us in the past) would conclude that CIRM is needed for stem cell research to not just survive but thrive in California.

A word of caution before you watch: fashion conscious people may be appalled at how my pocket handkerchief took on a life of its own.

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.