Key Steps Along the Way To Finding Treatments for HIV on World AIDS Day

Today, December 1st,  is World AIDS Day. It’s a day to acknowledge the progress that is being made in HIV prevention and treatment around the world but also to renew our commitment to a future free of HIV. This year’s theme is Leadership. Commitment. Impact.  At CIRM we are funding a number of projects focused on HIV/AIDS, so we asked Jeff Sheehy, the patient advocate for HIV/AIDS on the CIRM Board to offer his perspective on the fight against the virus.

jeff-sheehy

At CIRM we talk about and hope for cures, but our actual mission is “accelerating stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.”

For those of us in the HIV/AIDS community, we are tremendously excited about finding a cure for HIV.  We have the example of Timothy Brown, aka the “Berlin Patient”, the only person cured of HIV.

Multiple Shots on Goal

Different approaches to a cure are under investigation with multiple clinical trials.  CIRM is funding three clinical trials using cell/gene therapy in attempts to genetically modify blood forming stem cells to resist infection with HIV.  While we hope this leads to a cure, community activists have come together to urge a look at something short of a “home run.”

A subset of HIV patients go on treatment, control the virus in their blood to the point where it can’t be detected by common diagnostic tests, but never see their crucial immune fighting CD4 T cells return to normal levels after decimation by HIV.

For instance, I have been on antiretroviral therapy since 1997.  My CD4 T cells had dropped precipitously, dangerous close to the level of 200.  At that level, I would have had an AIDS diagnosis and would have been extremely vulnerable to a whole host of opportunistic infections.  Fortunately, my virus was controlled within a few weeks and within a year, my CD T cells had returned to normal levels.

For the immunological non-responders I described above, that doesn’t happen.  So while the virus is under control, their T cell counts remain low and they are very susceptible to opportunistic infections and are at much greater risk of dying.

Immunological non-responders (INRs) are usually patients who had AIDS when they were diagnosed, meaning they presented with very low CD4 T cell counts.  Many are also older.  We had hoped that with frequent testing, treatment upon diagnosis and robust healthcare systems, this population would be less of a factor.  Yet in San Francisco with its very comprehensive and sophisticated testing and treatment protocols, 16% of newly diagnosed patients in 2015 had full blown AIDS.

Until we make greater progress in testing and treating people with HIV, we can expect to see immunological non-responders who will experience sub-optimal health outcomes and who will be more difficult to treat and keep alive.

Boosting the Immune System

A major cell/gene trial for HIV targeted this population.  Their obvious unmet medical need and their greater morbidity/mortality balanced the risks of first in man gene therapy.  Sangamo, a CIRM grantee, used zinc finger nucleases to snip out a receptor, CCR5, on the surface of CD4 T cells taken from INR patients.  That receptor is a door that HIV uses to enter cells.  Some people naturally lack the receptor and usually are unable to be infected with HIV.  The Berlin Patient had his entire immune system replaced with cells from someone lacking CCR5.

Most of the patients in that first trial saw their CD4 T cells rise sharply.  The amount of HIV circulating in their gut decreased.  They experienced a high degree of modification and persistence in T stem cells, which replenish the T cell population.  And most importantly, some who regularly experienced opportunistic infections such as my friend and study participant Matt Sharp who came down with pneumonia every winter, had several healthy seasons.

Missed Opportunities

Unfortunately, the drive for a cure pushed development of the product in a different direction.  This is in large part to regulatory challenges.  A prior trial started in the late 90’s by Chiron tested a cytokine, IL 2, to see if administering it could increase T cells.  It did, but proving that these new T cells did anything was illusive and development ceased.  Another cytokine, IL 7, was moving down the development pathway when the company developing it, Cytheris, ceased business.  The pivotal trial would have required enrolling 4,000 participants, a daunting and expensive prospect.  This was due to the need to demonstrate clinical impact of the new cells in a diverse group of patients.

Given the unmet need, HIV activists have looked at the Sangamo trial, amongst others, and have initiated a dialogue with the FDA.  Activists are exploring seeking orphan drug status since the population of INRs is relatively small.

Charting a New Course

They have also discussed trial designs looking at markers of immune activity and discussed potentially identifying a segment of INRs where clinical efficacy could be shown with far, far fewer participants.

Activists are calling for companies to join them in developing products for INRs.  I’ve included the press release issued yesterday by community advocates below.

With the collaboration of the HIV activist community, this could be a unique opportunity for cell/gene companies to actually get a therapy through the FDA. On this World AIDS Day, let’s consider the value of a solid single that serves patients in need while work continues on the home run.

NEWS RELEASE: HIV Activists Seek to Accelerate Development of Immune Enhancing Therapies for Immunologic Non-Responders.

Dialogues with FDA, scientists and industry encourage consideration of orphan drug designations for therapies to help the immunologic non-responder population and exploration of novel endpoints to reduce the size of efficacy trials.

November 30, 2016 – A coalition of HIV/AIDS activists are calling for renewed attention to HIV-positive people termed immunologic non-responders (INRs), who experience sub-optimal immune system reconstitution despite years of viral load suppression by antiretroviral therapy. Studies have shown that INR patients remain at increased risk of illness and death compared to HIV-positive people who have better restoration of immune function on current drug therapies. Risk factors for becoming an INR include older age and a low CD4 count at the time of treatment initiation. To date, efforts to develop immune enhancing interventions for this population have proven challenging, despite some candidates from small companies showing signs of promise.

“We believe there is an urgent need to find ways to encourage and accelerate development of therapies to reduce the health risks faced by INR patients,” stated Nelson Vergel of the Program for Wellness Restoration (PoWeR), who initiated the activist coalition. “For example, Orphan Drug designations[i] could be granted to encourage faster-track approval of promising therapies.  These interventions may eventually help not only INRs but also people with other immune deficiency conditions”.

Along with funding, a major challenge for approval of any potential therapy is proving its efficacy. While INRs face significantly increased risk of serious morbidities and mortality compared to HIV-positive individuals with more robust immune reconstitution, demonstrating a reduction in the incidence of these outcomes would likely require expensive and lengthy clinical trials involving thousands of individuals. Activists are therefore encouraging the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), industry and researchers to evaluate potential surrogate markers of efficacy such as relative improvements in clinical problems that may be more frequent in INR patients, such as upper respiratory infections, gastrointestinal disease, and other health issues.

“Given the risks faced by INR patients, every effort should be made to assess whether less burdensome pathways toward approval are feasible, without compromising the regulatory requirement for compelling evidence of safety and efficacy”, said Richard Jefferys of the Treatment Action Group.

The coalition is advocating that scientists, biotech and pharmaceutical companies pursue therapeutic candidates for INRs. For example, while gene and anti-inflammatory therapies for HIV are being assessed in the context of cure research, there is also evidence that they may have potential to promote immune reconstitution and reduce markers associated with risk of morbidity and mortality in INR patients. Therapeutic research should also be accompanied by robust study of the etiology and mechanisms of sub-optimal immune responses.

“While there is, appropriately, a major research focus on curing HIV, we must be alert to evidence that candidate therapies could have benefits for INR patients, and be willing to study them in this context”, argued Matt Sharp, a coalition member and INR who experienced enhanced immune reconstitution and improved health and quality of life after receiving an experimental gene therapy.

The coalition has held an initial conference call with FDA to discuss the issue. Minutes are available online.

The coalition is now aiming to convene a broader dialogue with various drug companies on the development of therapies for INR patients. Stakeholders who are interested in becoming involved are encouraged to contact coalition representatives.

[i] The Orphan Drug Act incentivizes the development of treatments for rare conditions. For more information, see:  http://www.fda.gov/ForIndustry/DevelopingProductsforRareDiseasesConditions/ucm2005525.htm

For more information:

Richard Jefferys

Michael Palm Basic Science, Vaccines & Cure Project Director
Treatment Action Group richard.jefferys@treatmentactiongroup.org

Nelson Vergel, Program for Wellness Restoration programforwellness@gmail.com

 

 

Failed stem cells may cause deadly lung disease

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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.

Discovering stem cells and science at Discovery Day

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The CIRM booth at Discovery Day at AT&T Park

Someone stole my thigh bone. One minute it was there. The next, gone. I have narrowed down the list of suspects to the more than 25,000 people attending Discovery Day at San Francisco’s AT&T Park.

To be honest, the bone was just a laminated image of a bone, stuck to the image of a person drawn on a white board. We were using it, along with laminated images of a brain, liver, stomach and other organs and tissues, to show that there are many different kinds of stem cells in the body, and they all have different potential uses.

The white board and its body parts were gimmicks that we used to get kids to come up to the CIRM booth and ask what we were doing. Then, as they played with the images, and tried to guess which stem cells went where, we talked to their parents about stem cell research, and CIRM and the progress being made.

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Dr. Karen Ring explaining embryonic development to kids

We also used Play Doh so that the kids could model cell division and specialization during embryonic development. But mostly it was so the kids could play with the Play Doh while we talked to their parents.

It is shameless I know but when you are competing against more than 130 other booths for people’s attention – and some of these booths had live snakes, virtual reality devices, or they just let kids throw and hit things – you have to be creative.

And creativity was certainly the key word, because Discovery Day – part of the annual week-long Bay Area Science Fair – was filled with booths from companies and academic institutions promoting every imaginable aspect of science.

So why were we there? Well, first, education has been an important part of CIRM’s mission ever since we were created. Second, we’re a state agency that gets public funding so we feel we owe it to the public to explain how their money is being used. And third, it’s just a lot of fun.

NASA was there, talking about exploring deep space. And there were booths focused on exploring the oceans, and saving them from pollution and over-fishing. You could learn about mathematics and engineering by building wacky-looking paper airplanes that flew long distances, or you could just sit in the cockpit of a fighter jet.

discoveryday-victor

And everywhere you looked were families, with kids running up to the different booths to see what was there. All they needed was a little draw to get them to stick around for a few minutes, so you could talk to them and explain to them what stem cells are and why they are so amazing. Some of the kids were fascinated and wanted to know more: some just wanted to use the Play Doh;  at least one just wanted to eat the Play Doh, but fortunately we were able to stop that happening.

It was an amazing sight to see a baseball stadium filled with tens of thousands of people, all there to learn about science. At a time when we are told that kids don’t care about science, that they don’t like math, this was the perfect response. All you had to do was look around and see that kids were fascinated by science. They were hungry to learn how pouring carbon dioxide on a candle puts out the flame. They delighted in touching an otter pelt and feeling how silky smooth it is, and then looking at the pelt under a microscope to see just how extraordinarily dense the hairs are and how that helps waterproof the otter.

And so yes, we used Play Doh and a white board person to lure the kids to us. But it worked.

There was another booth where they had a couple of the San Francisco 49er’s cheerleaders in full uniform. I don’t actually know what that had to do with teaching science but it was very popular with some of the men. Maybe next year I could try dressing up like that. It would certainly draw a crowd.

Ingenious CIRM-funded stem cell approach to treating ALS gets go-ahead to start clinical trial

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Clive Svendsen

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, was first identified way back in 1869 but today, more than 150 years later, there are still no effective treatments for it. Now a project, funded by CIRM, has been given approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to start a clinical trial that could help change that.

Clive Svendsen and his team at Cedars-Sinai are about to start a clinical trial they hope will help slow down the progression of the disease. And they are doing it in a particularly ingenious way. More on that in a minute.

First, let’s start with ALS itself. It’s a particularly nasty, rapidly progressing disease that destroys motor neurons, those are the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control movement. People with ALS lose the ability to speak, eat, move and finally, breathe. The average life expectancy after diagnosis is just 3 – 4 years. It’s considered an orphan disease because it affects only around 30,000 people in the US; but even with those relatively low numbers that means that every 90 minutes someone in the US is diagnosed with ALS, and every 90 minutes someone in the US dies of ALS.

Ingenious approach

In this clinical trial the patients will serve as their own control group. Previous studies have shown that the rate of deterioration of muscle movement in the legs of a person with ALS is the same for both legs. So Svendsen and his team will inject specially engineered stem cells into a portion of the spine that controls movement on just one side of the body. Neither the patient nor the physician will know which side has received the cells. This enables the researchers to determine if the treated leg is deteriorating at a slower rate than the untreated leg.

The stem cells being injected have been engineered to produce a protein called glial cell line derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) that helps protect motor neurons. Svendsen and the team hope that by providing extra GDNF they’ll be able to protect the motor neurons and keep them alive.

Reaching a milestone

In a news release announcing the start of the trial, Svendsen admitted ALS is a tough disease to tackle:

“Any time you’re trying to treat an incurable disease, it is a long shot, but we believe the rationale behind our new approach is strong.”

Diane Winokur, the CIRM Board patient advocate for ALS, says this is truly a milestone:

“In the last few years, thanks to new technologies, increased interest, and CIRM support, we finally seem to be seeing some encouraging signs in the research into ALS. Dr. Svendsen has been at the forefront of this effort for the 20 years I have followed his work.  I commend him, Cedars-Sinai, and CIRM.  On behalf of those who have suffered through this cruel disease and their families and caregivers, I am filled with hope.”

You can read more about Clive Svendsen’s long journey to this moment here.

 

Creating a “Pitching Machine” to speed up our delivery of stem cell treatments to patients

hitting-machine

When baseball players are trying to improve their hitting they’ll use a pitching machine to help them fine tune their stroke. Having a device that delivers a ball at a consistent speed can help a batter be more consistent and effective in their swing, and hopefully get more hits.

That’s what we are hoping our new Translating and Accelerating Centers will do. We call these our “Pitching Machine”, because we hope they’ll help researchers be better prepared when they apply to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for approval to start a clinical trial, and be more efficient and effective in the way they set up and run that clinical trial once they get approval.

The CIRM Board approved the Accelerating Center earlier this summer. The $15 million award went to QuintilesIMS, a leading integrated information and technology-enabled healthcare service provider.

The Accelerating Center will provide key core services for researchers who have been given approval to run a clinical trial, including:

  • Regulatory support and management services
  • Clinical trial operations and management services
  • Data management, biostatistical and analytical services

The reason why these kinds of service are needed is simple, as Randy Mills, our President and CEO explained at the time:

“Many scientists are brilliant researchers but have little experience or expertise in navigating the regulatory process; this Accelerating Center means they don’t have to develop those skills; we provide them for them.”

The Translating Center is the second part of the “Pitching Machine”. That is due to go to our Board for a vote tomorrow. This is an innovative new center that will support the stem cell research, manufacturing, preclinical safety testing, and other activities needed to successfully apply to the FDA for approval to start a clinical trial.

The Translating Center will:

  • Provide consultation and guidance to researchers about the translational process for their stem cell product.
  • Initiate, plan, track, and coordinate activities necessary for preclinical Investigational New Drug (IND)-enabling development projects.
  • Conduct preclinical research activities, including pivotal pharmacology and toxicology studies.
  • Manufacture stem cell and gene modified stem cell products under the highest quality standards for use in preclinical and clinical studies.

The two centers will work together, helping researchers create a comprehensive development plan for every aspect of their project.

For the researchers this is important in giving them the support they need. For the FDA it could also be useful in ensuring that the applications they get from CIRM-funded projects are consistent, high quality and meet all their requirements.

We want to do everything we can to ensure that when a CIRM-funded therapy is ready to start a clinical trial that its application is more likely to be a hit with the FDA, and not to strike out.

Just as batting practice is crucial to improving performance in baseball, we are hoping our “Pitching Machine” will raise our game to the next level, and enable us to deliver some game-changing treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.

 

Using skin cells to repair damaged hearts

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Heart muscle  cells derived from skin cells

When someone has a heart attack, getting treatment quickly can mean the difference between life and death. Every minute delay in getting help means more heart cells die, and that can have profound consequences. One study found that heart attack patients who underwent surgery to re-open blocked arteries within 60 minutes of arriving in the emergency room had a six times greater survival rate than people who had to wait more than 90 minutes for the same treatment.

Clearly a quick intervention can be life-saving, which means an approach that uses a patient’s own stem cells to treat a heart attack won’t work. It simply takes too long to harvest the healthy heart cells, grow them in the lab, and re-inject them into the patient. By then the damage is done.

Now a new study shows that an off-the-shelf approach, using donor stem cells, might be the most effective way to go. Scientists at Shinshu University in Japan, used heart muscle stem cells from one monkey, to repair the damaged hearts of five other monkeys.

In the study, published in the journal Nature, the researchers took skin cells from a macaque monkey, turned those cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), and then turned those cells into cardiomyocytes or heart muscle cells. They then transplanted those cardiomyocytes into five other monkeys who had experienced an induced heart attack.

After 3 months the transplanted monkeys showed no signs of rejection and their hearts showed improved ability to contract, meaning they were pumping blood around the body more powerfully and efficiently than before they got the cardiomyocytes.

It’s an encouraging sign but it comes with a few caveats. One is that the monkeys used were all chosen to be as close a genetic match to the donor monkey as possible. This reduced the risk that the animals would reject the transplanted cells. But when it comes to treating people, it may not be feasible to have a wide selection of heart stem cell therapies on hand at every emergency room to make sure they are a good genetic match to the patient.

The second caveat is that all the transplanted monkeys experienced an increase in arrhythmias or irregular heartbeats. However, Yuji Shiba, one of the researchers, told the website ResearchGate that he didn’t think this was a serious issue:

“Ventricular arrhythmia was induced by the transplantation, typically within the first four weeks. However, this post-transplant arrhythmia seems to be transient and non-lethal. All five recipients of [the stem cells] survived without any abnormal behaviour for 12 weeks, even during the arrhythmia. So I think we can manage this side effect in clinic.”

Even with the caveats, this study demonstrates the potential for a donor-based stem cell therapy to treat heart attacks. This supports an approach already being tested by Capricor in a CIRM-funded clinical trial. In this trial the company is using donor cells, derived from heart stem cells, to treat patients who developed heart failure after a heart attack. In early studies the cells appear to reduce scar tissue on the heart, promote blood vessel growth and improve heart function.

The study from Japan shows the possibilities of using a ready-made stem cell approach to helping repair damage caused by a heart attacks. We’re hoping Capricor will take it from a possibility, and turn it into a reality.

If you would like to read some recent blog posts about Capricor go here and here.

Funding stem cell research targeting a rare and life-threatening disease in children

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Photo courtesy Cystinosis Research Network

If you have never heard of cystinosis you should consider yourself fortunate. It’s a rare condition caused by an inherited genetic mutation. It hits early and it hits hard. Children with cystinosis are usually diagnosed before age 2 and are in end-stage kidney failure by the time they are 9. If that’s not bad enough they also experience damage to their eyes, liver, muscles, pancreas and brain.

The genetic mutation behind the condition results in an amino acid, cystine, accumulating at toxic levels in the body. There’s no cure. There is one approved treatment but it only delays progression of the disease, has some serious side effects of its own, and doesn’t prevent the need for a  kidney transplant.

Researchers at UC San Diego, led by Stephanie Cherqui, think they might have a better approach, one that could offer a single, life-long treatment for the problem. Yesterday the CIRM Board agreed and approved more than $5.2 million for Cherqui and her team to do the pre-clinical testing and work needed to get this potential treatment ready for a clinical trial.

Their goal is to take blood stem cells from people with cystinosis, genetically-modify them and return them to the patient, effectively delivering a healthy, functional gene to the body. The hope is that these genetically-modified blood stem cells will integrate with various body organs and not only replace diseased cells but also rescue them from the disease, making them healthy once again.

In a news release Randy Mills, CIRM’s President and CEO, said orphan diseases like cystinosis may not affect large numbers of people but are no less deserving of research in finding an effective therapy:

“Current treatments are expensive and limited. We want to push beyond and help find a life-long treatment, one that could prevent kidney failure and the need for kidney transplant. In this case, both the need and the science were compelling.”

The beauty of work like this is that, if successful, a one-time treatment could last a lifetime, eliminating or reducing kidney disease and the need for kidney transplantation. But it doesn’t stop there. The lessons learned through research like this might also apply to other inherited multi-organ degenerative disorders.

Asterias’ stem cell clinical trial shows encouraging results for spinal cord injury patients

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Jake Javier; Asterias spinal cord injury clinical trial participant

When researchers are carrying out a clinical trial they have two goals: first, show that it is safe (the old “do no harm” maxim) and second, show it works. One without the other doesn’t do anyone any good in the long run.

A few weeks ago Asterias Biotherapeutics showed that their CIRM-funded stem cell therapy for spinal cord injuries appeared to be safe. Now their data suggests it’s working. And that is a pretty exciting combination.

Asterias announced the news at the annual scientific meeting of the International Spinal Cord Society in Vienna, Austria. These results cover five people who got a transplant of 10 million cells. While the language is muted, the implications are very encouraging:

“While early in the study, with only 4 of the 5 patients in the cohort having reached 90 days after dosing, all patients have shown at least one motor level of improvement so far and the efficacy target of 2 of 5 patients in the cohort achieving two motor levels of improvement on at least one side of their body has already been achieved.”

What does that mean for the people treated? A lot. Remember these are people who qualified for this clinical trial because of an injury that left them pretty much paralyzed from the chest down. Seeing an improvement of two motor levels means they are regaining some use of their arms, hands and fingers, and that means they are regaining the ability to do things like feeding, dressing and bathing themselves. In effect, it is not only improving their quality of life but it is also giving them a chance to lead an independent life.

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Kris Boesen, Asterias clinical trial participant

One of those patients is Kris Boesen who regained the use of his arms and hands after becoming the first patient in this trial to get a transplant of 10 million cells. We blogged about Kris here

Asterias says of the 5 patients who got 10 million cells, 4 are now 90 days out from their transplant. Of those:

  • All four have improved one motor level on at least one side
  • 2 patients have improved two motor levels on one side
  • One has improved two motor levels on both sides

What’s also encouraging is that none of the people treated experienced any serious side effects or adverse events from the transplant or the temporary use of immunosuppressive drugs.

Steve Cartt, CEO of Asterias, was understandably happy with the news and that it allows them to move to the next phase:

“We are quite encouraged by this first look at efficacy results and look forward to reporting six-month efficacy data as planned in January 2017.  We have also just recently been cleared to begin enrolling a new cohort and administering to these new patients a much higher dose of 20 million cells.  We look forward to begin evaluating efficacy results in this higher-dose cohort in the coming months as well.”

People with spinal cord injuries can regain some function spontaneously so no one is yet leaping to the conclusion that all the progress in this trial is due to the stem cells. But to see all of the patients in the 10 million stem cell group do well is at the very least a positive sign. Now the hope is that these folks will continue to do well, and that the next group of people who get a 20 million cell transplant will also see improvements.

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Roman Reed, spinal cord injury patient advocate

While the team at Asterias were being cautiously optimistic, Roman Reed, whose foundation helped fund the early research that led to this clinical trial, was much less subdued in his response. He was positively giddy:

“If one patient only improves out of the five, it can be an outlier, but with everyone improving out of the five this is legit, this is real. Cures are happening!”

 

CIRM’s Randy Mills: New FDA rules for stem cells won’t fix the problem

For the last two days the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been holding a hearing in Bethesda, Maryland on new regulations that would tighten control over stem cell treatments. The FDA invited public testimony during the hearing on the regulations that would impact many of the clinics that currently offer unproven therapies

The testimony has been impassioned to say the least. Supporters of the clinics say they offer a valuable service and that patients should be allowed to decide for themselves how they want their own cells to be used. Opponents say the clinics are little more than snake oil sales people, offering bogus, unproven treatments.

One of those presenting was Randy Mills, CIRM’s President and CEO. Randy has been very vocal in the past about the need for the FDA to change the way it regulates stem cell therapies.

In California Healthline Randy explained why he thinks the rules the FDA is proposing will not fix the problem, and may even make it worse:

FDA Must Find A Middle Ground For Sake Of Patients

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Randy Mills

We aren’t happy, as a lot of people aren’t happy, with the proliferation of these stem cell clinics — some of which are probably doing good work. But some are clearly making rather outlandish claims for which there’s no real data. 

There are a couple of conditions coming together to create this storm.

One is that the need is very real. These patients are really struggling. They don’t have alternatives. They’re desperate and they need help. It’s not in the realm of possibility to talk to somebody who is suffering as badly as these patients are and to say, ‘You have to wait a few more decades for the science to catch up.’

On the other hand, we have a regulatory paradigm that only provides two pathways to put a cell therapy onto the market. One pathway is the most intense regulatory requirement anywhere in the world for any product — the biologics license application through the FDA, which takes 10 to 20 years and costs over $1 billion.

The other is through the exemptions the FDA has made, which require absolutely no pre-market approval whatsoever. You can be on the market in days, with no data.

The regulatory burden associated with one is massive and the other is almost nonexistent.

So it’s not at all surprising that we’re seeing a proliferation of these stem cell clinics popping up that are operating under the assumption that they fall under the exemption.

What the FDA is doing now is saying, ‘We’re not happy with this. We’re going to define some terms more narrowly than in the past … and make it more difficult to legally be on the market under the less burdensome regulatory pathway.’

That’s what this meeting is about.

The problem with their strategy is twofold. It doesn’t address the patients, or the need side of the equation. And I don’t think it has a chance of actually working because the FDA will acknowledge that they do not have the resources to enforce these types of regulations at the clinic level.

They would have to be essentially regulating the practice of physicians, which is well beyond their capabilities. Even if they were able to enforce it, it would just drive these patients somewhere else.

We’re advocating for the creation of some middle pathway that would bring essentially unregulated therapies into the regulatory fold, but in a manner which could be complied with.

I would rather know these clinics are being regulated and collecting data than have them operating under the radar screen of the FDA. I would like there to be a formal pre-market review of these therapies before they’re put on the market. I would like there to be safety and efficacy data.

I’m going to try hard to get the FDA to see that just plugging this hole won’t make the problem go away.

Thinking that they’re going to strengthen the regulation and that patients are going to be satisfied that there’s absolutely no chance for help is naive.

There isn’t a lot of evidence to suggest these types of procedures are overly risky. It’s not that they don’t have risk, but everything in medicine does. If you’re a patient who has absolutely no alternative, you’re probably willing to take the chance.

Salk scientists explain why brain cells are genetically diverse

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I’ve always wondered why some sets of genetically identical twins become not so identical later in life. Sometimes they differ in appearance. Other times, one twin is healthy while the other is plagued with a serious disease. These differences can be explained by exposure to different environmental factors over time, but there could also be a genetic explanation involving our brains.

The brain is composed of approximately 100 billion cells called neurons, each with a DNA blueprint that contains instructions that determine the function of these neurons in the brain. Originally it was thought that all cells, including neurons, have the same DNA. But more recently, scientists discovered that the brain is genetically diverse and that neurons within the same brain can have slightly different DNA blueprints, which could give them slightly different functions.

Jumping genes and genetic diversity

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Fred “Rusty” Gage: Photo courtesy Salk Institute

Why and how neurons have differences in their DNA are questions that Salk Institute professor Fred Gage has pursued for more than a decade. In 2005, his lab discovered a mechanism during neural development that causes differences in the DNA of neurons. As a brain stem cell develops into a neuron, long interspersed nuclear elements (L1s), which are small pieces of DNA, copy and paste themselves, seemingly at random, throughout a neuron’s genome.

These elements were originally dubbed “jumping genes” because of their ability to hop around and insert themselves into DNA. It turns out that L1s do more than copy and paste themselves to create changes in DNA, they also can delete chunks of DNA. In a CIRM-funded study published this week in the journal Nature Neuroscience, Gage and colleagues at the Salk Institute reported new insights into L1 activity and how it creates genetic diversity in the brain.

Copy, paste, delete

Gage and his team had clues that L1s can cause DNA deletions in neurons back in 2013. They used a technique called single-cell sequencing to record the sequence of individual neuronal genomes and saw that some of their genomes had large sections of DNA added or missing.

They thought that L1s could be the reason for these insertions and deletions, but didn’t have proof until their current study, which used an improved method to identify areas of the neuronal genome modified by L1s. This method, combined with a computer algorithm that can easily tell the difference between various types of L1 modifications, revealed that areas of the genome with L1s were susceptible to DNA cutting caused by enzymes that home in on the L1 sequences. These breaks in the DNA then cause the observed deletions.

Gage explained their findings in a news release:

“In 2013, we discovered that different neurons within the same brain have various complements of DNA, suggesting that they function slightly differently from each other even within the same person. This recent study reveals a new and surprising form of variation that will help us understand the role of L1s, not only in healthy brains but in those affected by schizophrenia and autism.”

Jennifer Erwin, first author on the study, further elaborated:

“The surprising part was that we thought all L1s could do was insert into new places. But the fact that they’re causing deletions means that they’re affecting the genome in a more significant way,” says Erwin, a staff scientist in Gage’s group.”

Insights into brain disorders

It’s now known that L1s are important for the brain’s genetic diversity, but Gage also believes that L1s could play a role in causing brain disorders like schizophrenia and autism where there is heightened L1 activity in the neurons of these patients. In future work, Gage and his team will study how L1s can cause changes in genes associated with schizophrenia and autism and how these changes can effect brain function and cause disease.