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.

CIRM Board Approves Funding for New Clinical Trial Targeting Brain Tumors

The governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has awarded almost $12 million to carry out a clinical trial targeting brain tumors.

This brings the total number of CIRM funded clinical trials to 83.  

$11,999,984 was awarded to Dr. Jana Portnow at the Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope. They are using Neural stem cells (NSCs) as a form of delivery vehicle to carry a cancer-killing virus that specifically targets brain tumor cells.

Glioblastoma is the most common malignant primary brain tumor in adults and each year about 12,000 Americans are diagnosed. The 5-year survival rate is only about 10%.

The current standard of care involves surgically removing the tumor followed by radiation, chemotherapy, and alternating electric field therapy. Despite these treatments, survival remains low.

The award to Dr. Portnow will fund a clinical trial to assess the safety and effectiveness of this stem cell-based treatment for Glioblastoma.

The Board also awarded $3,111,467 to Dr. Boris Minev of Calidi Biotherapeutics. This award is in the form of a CLIN1 grant, with the goal of completing the testing needed to apply to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permission to start a clinical trial in people.

This project uses donor fat-derived mesenchymal stem cells that have been loaded with oncolytic virus to target metastatic melanoma, triple negative breast cancer, and advanced head & neck squamous cell carcinoma.

“There are few options for patients with advanced solid tumor cancers such as glioblastoma, melanoma, breast cancer, and head & neck cancer,” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., President and CEO of CIRM. “Surgical resection, chemotherapy and radiation are largely  ineffective in advanced cases and survival typically is measured in months. These new awards will support novel approaches to address the unmet medical needs of patients with these devastating cancers.”

The CIRM Board also voted to approve awarding $71,949,539 to expand the CIRM Alpha Clinics Network. The current network consists of six sites and the Board approved continued funding for those and added an additional three sites. The funding is to last five years.

The goal of the Alpha Clinics award is to expand existing capacities for delivering stem cell, gene therapies and other advanced treatment to patients. They also serve as a competency hub for regenerative medicine training, clinical research, and the delivery of approved treatments.

Each applicant was required to submit a plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to support and facilitate outreach and study participation by underserved and disproportionately affected populations in the clinical trials they serve.

The successful applicants are:

ApplicationProgram TitleInstitution/Principal InvestigatorAmount awarded
INFR4-13579The Stanford Alpha Stem Cell ClinicStanford University – Matthew Porteus  $7,997,246  
INFR4-13581UCSF Alpha Stem Cell ClinicU.C. San Francisco – Mark Walters  $7,994,347  
INFR4-13586A comprehensive stem cell and gene therapy clinic to
advance new therapies for a diverse patient
population in California  
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center – Michael Lewis  $7,957,966    
INFR4-13587The City of Hope Alpha Clinic: A roadmap for equitable and inclusive access to regenerative medicine therapies for all Californians  City of Hope – Leo Wang  $8,000,000
INFR4-13596Alpha Stem Cell Clinic for Northern and Central California  U.C. Davis – Mehrdad Abedi  $7,999,997  
INFR4-13685Expansion of the Alpha Stem Cell and Gene Therapy Clinic at UCLA  U.C. Los Angeles – Noah Federman  $8,000,000
INFR4-13878Alpha Clinic Network Expansion for Cell and Gene Therapies  University of Southern California – Thomas Buchanan  $7,999,983  
INFR4-13952A hub and spoke community model to equitably deliver regenerative medicine therapies to diverse populations across four California counties  U.C. Irvine – Daniela Bota  $8,000,000
INFR4-13597UC San Diego Health CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic  U.C. San Diego – Catriona Jamieson  $8,000,000

The Board also unanimously, and enthusiastically, approved the election of Maria Gonzalez Bonneville to be the next Vice Chair of the Board. Ms. Bonneville, the current Vice President of Public Outreach and Board Governance at CIRM, was nominated by all four constitutional officers: the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the Treasurer and the Controller.

In supporting the nomination, Board member Ysabel Duron said: “I don’t think we could do better than taking on Maria Gonzalez Bonneville as the Vice Chair. She is well educated as far as CIRM goes. She has a great track record; she is empathetic and caring and will be a good steward for the taxpayers to ensure the work we do serves them well.”

In her letter to the Board applying for the position, Ms. Bonneville said: “CIRM is a unique agency with a large board and a long history. With my institutional knowledge and my understanding of CIRM’s internal workings and processes, I can serve as a resource for the new Chair. I have worked hand-in-hand with both the Chair and Vice Chair in setting agendas, prioritizing work, driving policy, and advising accordingly.  I have worked hard to build trusted relationships with all of you so that I could learn and understand what areas were of the most interest and where I could help shed light on those particular programs or initiatives. I have also worked closely with Maria Millan for the last decade, and greatly enjoy our working relationship. In short, I believe I provide a level of continuity and expertise that benefits the board and helps in times of transition.”

In accepting the position Ms. Bonneville said: “I am truly honored to be elected as the Vice Chair for the CIRM Board. I have been a part of CIRM for 11 years and am deeply committed to the mission and this new role gives me an opportunity to help support and advance that work at an exciting time in the Agency’s life. There are many challenges ahead of us but knowing the Board and the CIRM team I feel confident we will be able to meet them, and I look forward to helping us reach our goals.”

Ms. Bonneville will officially take office in January 2023.

The vote for the new Chair of CIRM will take place at the Board meeting on December 15th.

CIRM-funding supports world’s first stem cell treatment for spina bifida delivered during fetal surgery

Dr. Diana Farmer (right) meets with Emily Lofton and her baby Robbie who had stem cell treatment for spina bifida in the womb. Photo: UC Davis Health

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) recently shared some encouraging news on The Stem Cellar about a CIRM-funded stem cell clinical trial for spina bifida at UC Davis Health. 
 
Spina bifida is a birth defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly and can result in life-long walking and mobility problems for the child, even paralysis. 
 
Now, UC Davis has released more details about the clinical trial and the babies born after receiving the world’s first spina bifida treatment combining surgery with stem cells. The story was featured in BBC News and The Sacramento Bee.  
 
The first phase of the trial is funded by a $9 million grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. 
 
The one-of-a-kind treatment, delivered while a fetus is still developing in the mother’s womb, could improve outcomes for children with this birth defect. 

A Decade’s Work

“I’ve been working toward this day for almost 25 years now,” said Dr. Diana Farmer, the world’s first woman fetal surgeon, professor and chair of surgery at UC Davis Health and principal investigator on the study.  

In previous clinical trial, Farmer had helped to prove that fetal surgery reduced neurological deficits from spina bifida. Many children in that study showed improvement but still required wheelchairs or leg braces.  

Dr. Diana Farmer and Dr. Aijun Wang. Photo courtesy UC Davis Health

Farmer recruited bioengineer Dr. Aijun Wang to help take that work to the next level. Together, they researched and tested ways to use stem cells and bioengineering to advance the effectiveness and outcomes of the surgery.  

Farmer, Wang and their research team have been working on their novel approach using stem cells in fetal surgery for more than 10 years. Over that time, animal modeling has shown it is capable of preventing the paralysis associated with spina bifida. 

Preliminary work by Farmer and Wang proved that prenatal surgery combined with human placenta-derived mesenchymal stromal cells, held in place with a biomaterial scaffold to form a “patch,” helped lambs with spina bifida walk without noticeable disability. When the team refined their surgery and stem cells technique for canines, the treatment also improved the mobility of dogs with naturally occurring spina bifida. 

The CuRe Trial

When Emily and her husband Harry learned that they would be first-time parents, they never expected any pregnancy complications. But the day that Emily learned that her developing child had spina bifida was also the day she first heard about the CuRe trial, as the clinical trial is known.  

Participating in the trial would mean that she would need to temporarily move to Sacramento for the fetal surgery and then for weekly follow-up visits during her pregnancy.  

After screenings, MRI scans and interviews, Emily received the news that she was accepted into the trial. Her fetal surgery was scheduled for July 12, 2021, at 25 weeks and five days gestation.  

Farmer and Wang’s team manufactured clinical grade stem cells—mesenchymal stem cells—from placental tissue in the UC Davis Health’s CIRM-funded Institute for Regenerative Cures. The lab is a Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) Laboratory for safe use in humans. It is here that they made the stem cell patch for Emily’s fetal surgery. 

The Procedure

During Emily’s historic procedure, a small opening was made in her uterus and they floated the fetus up to that incision point so they could expose its spine and the spina bifida defect. 

Credit: UC Davis Health

Then, the stem cell patch was placed directly over the exposed spinal cord of the fetus. The fetal surgeons then closed the incision to allow the tissue to regenerate. The team declared the first-of-its-kind surgery a success. 

On Sept. 20, 2021, at 35 weeks and five days gestation, Robbie was born at 5 pounds, 10 ounces, 19 inches long via C-section. 

For Farmer, this day is what she had long hoped for, and it came with surprises. If Robbie had remained untreated, she was expected to be born with leg paralysis. 

Baby Robbie underwent treatment for spina bifida while in the womb. Photo credit: UC David Health

“It was very clear the minute she was born that she was kicking her legs and I remember very clearly saying, ‘Oh my God, I think she’s wiggling her toes!’” said Farmer. “It was amazing. We kept saying, ‘Am I seeing that? Is that real?’” 

Both mom and baby are at home and in good health. Robbie just celebrated her first birthday. 

Emily Lofton and her baby daughter Robbie who underwent treatment for spina bifida while in the womb.

The CuRe team is cautious about drawing conclusions and says a lot is still to be learned during this safety phase of the trial. The team will continue to monitor Robbie and the other babies in the trial until they are 6 years old, with a key checkup happening at 30 months to see if they are walking and potty training. 

“This experience has been larger than life and has exceeded every expectation. I hope this trial will enhance the quality of life for so many patients to come,” Emily said. “We are honored to be part of history in the making.” 


Read the official release from UC Davis Health here.  

State Stem Cell & Gene Therapy Agency Sets up Support Program to Help Patients Participate in Clinical Trials

For many patients battling deadly diseases, getting access to a clinical trial can be life-saving, but it can also be very challenging. Today the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved a concept plan to make it financially and logistically easier for patients to take part in CIRM-funded clinical trials.

The plan will create a Patient Support Program (PSP) to provide support to California patients being evaluated or enrolled in CIRM-supported clinical trials, with a particular emphasis on helping underserved populations.

“Helping scientists develop stem cell and gene therapies is just part of what we do at CIRM. If those clinical trials and resulting therapies are not accessible to the people of California, who are making all this possible, then we have not fulfilled our mission.” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., President and CEO of CIRM.

The Patient Support Plan will offer a range of services including:

  • Clinical trial navigation, directing patients to appropriate CIRM-supported clinical trials.
  • Logistical support for patients being evaluated or enrolled in clinical trials.
  • Financial support for under resourced and underserved populations in CIRM-supported clinical trials, including the CIRM Patient Assistance Fund (PAF).  This support includes transportation/travel expenses, such as gasoline, tolls, parking, airfare, taxi, train, lodging, and meals during travel.
  • Providing nurse navigator support for the psychosocial, emotional, and practical needs of patients and their families.

The funds for the PSP are set aside under Proposition 14, the voter-approved initiative that re-funded CIRM in 2020. Under Prop 14 CIRM money that CIRM grantees earn from licensing, inventions or technologies is to be spent “offsetting the costs of providing treatments and cures arising from institute-funded research to California patients who have insufficient means to purchase such treatment or cure, including the reimbursement of patient-qualified costs for research participants.”

Currently, the CIRM Licensing Revenues and Royalties Fund has a balance of $15.6 million derived from royalty payments.

“The patient support program and financial resources will not only help patients in need, it will also help increase the likelihood that these clinical trials will succeed,” says Sean Turbeville, Ph.D., Vice President of Medical Affairs and Policy at CIRM. “We know cell and gene therapies can be particularly challenging for patients and their families. The financial challenges, the long-distance traveling, extended evaluation, and family commitments can make it difficult to enroll and retain patients. The aim of the PSP is to change that.”

The overall objective of this funding opportunity is to establish a statewide program that, over five years, is expected to support hundreds of patients in need as they participate in the growing number of CIRM-supported clinical trials. The program is expected to cost between $300,000 to $500,000 a year. That money will come from the Medical Affairs budget and not out of the patient assistance fund.

The first phase of the program will identify an organization, through a competitive process, that has the expertise to provide patient support services including:

  • Maintaining a call and support center.
  • Assessing patient eligibility for financial assistance.
  • Reporting to CIRM on patients needs and center performance

 You can find more information about the Patient Support Program on our website here and here.

Funding a Clinical Trial for a Functional Cure for HIV

The use of antiretroviral drugs has turned HIV/AIDS from a fatal disease to one that can, in many cases in the US, be controlled. But these drugs are not a cure. That’s why the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) voted to approve investing $6.85 million in a therapy that aims to cure the disease.

This is the 82nd clinical trial funded by CIRM.

There are approximately 38 million people worldwide living with HIV/AIDS. And each year there are an estimated 1.5 million new cases. The vast majority of those living with HIV do not have access to the life-saving antiretroviral medications that can keep the virus under control. People who do have access to the medications face long-term complications from them including heart disease, bone, liver and kidney problems, and changes in metabolism.

The antiretroviral medications are effective at reducing the viral load in people with HIV, but they don’t eliminate it. That’s because the virus that causes AIDS can integrate its DNA into long-living cells in the body and remain dormant. When people stop taking their medications the virus is able to rekindle and spread throughout the body.

Dr. William Kennedy and the team at Excision Bio Therapeutics have developed a therapeutic candidate called EBT-101. This is the first clinical study using the CRISPR-based platform for genome editing and excision of the latent form of HIV-1, the most common form of the virus that causes AIDS in the US and Europe. The goal is to eliminate or sufficiently reduce the hidden reservoirs of virus in the body to the point where the individual is effectively cured.

“To date only a handful of people have been cured of HIV/AIDS, so this proposal of using gene editing to eliminate the virus could be transformative,” says Dr. Maria Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “In California alone there are almost 140,000 people living with HIV. HIV infection continues to disproportionately impact marginalized populations, many of whom are unable to access the medications that keep the virus under control. A functional cure for HIV would have an enormous impact on these communities, and others around the world.”

In a news release announcing they had dosed the first patient, Daniel Dornbusch, CEO of Excision, called it a landmark moment. “It is the first time a CRISPR-based therapy targeting an infectious disease has been administered to a patient and is expected to enable the first ever clinical assessment of a multiplexed, in vivo gene editing approach. We were able to reach this watershed moment thanks to years of innovative work by leading scientists and physicians, to whom we are immensely grateful. With this achievement, Excision has taken a major step forward in developing a one-time treatment that could transform the HIV pandemic by freeing affected people from life-long disease management and the stigma of disease.”

The Excision Bio Therapeutics team also scored high on their plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Reviewers praised them for adding on a partnering organization to provide commitments to serve underserved populations, and to engaging a community advisory board to help guide their patient recruitment.

CIRM has already invested almost $81 million in 20 projects targeting HIV/AIDS, including four clinical trials.

CIRM-funded stem cell-gene therapy shows promise in ALS safety trial

Senior author of the study Clive Svendsen, PhD (center)

With funding support from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), Cedars-Sinai investigators have developed an investigational therapy using support cells and a protective protein that can be delivered past the blood-brain barrier. This combined stem cell and gene therapy can potentially protect diseased motor neurons in the spinal cord of patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a fatal neurological disorder known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. 

In the first trial of its kind, the Cedars-Sinai team showed that delivery of this combined treatment is safe in humans. The findings were reported in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Medicine

What causes ALS? 

ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. About 6,000 people are diagnosed with ALS each year in the U.S., and the average survival time is two to five years.  

The disease results when the cells in the brain or spinal cord that instruct muscles to move—called motor neurons—die off. People with the disease lose the ability to move their muscles and, over time, the muscles atrophy and people become paralyzed and eventually die. There is no effective therapy for the disease. 

Using Stem Cells to Treat ALS 

In a news release, senior author Clive Svendsen, PhD, executive director of the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute, says using stem cells shows lots of promise in treating patients with ALS.  

“We were able to show that the engineered stem cell product can be safely transplanted in the human spinal cord. And after a one-time treatment, these cells can survive and produce an important protein for over three years that is known to protect motor neurons that die in ALS,” Svendsen says.  

Aimed at preserving leg function in patients with ALS, the engineered cells could pave the way to a therapeutic option for this disease that causes progressive muscle paralysis, robbing people of their ability to move, speak and breathe.   

The study used stem cells originally designed in Svendsen’s laboratory to produce a protein called glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF). This protein can promote the survival of motor neurons, which are the cells that pass signals from the brain or spinal cord to a muscle to enable movement.  

In patients with ALS, diseased glial cells can become less supportive of motor neurons, and these motor neurons progressively degenerate, causing paralysis.   

By transplanting the engineered protein-producing stem cells in the central nervous system, where the compromised motor neurons are located, these stem cells can turn into new supportive glial cells and release the protective protein GDNF, which together helps the motor neurons stay alive.   

Ensuring Safety in the Trial 

The primary goal of the trial was to ensure that delivering the cells releasing GDNF to the spinal cord did not have any safety issues or negative effects on leg function.   

In this trial, none of the 18 patients treated with the therapy—developed by Cedars-Sinai scientists and funded by CIRM—had serious side effects after the transplantation, according to the data. 

Because patients with ALS usually lose strength in both legs at a similar rate, investigators transplanted the stem cell-gene product into only one side of the spinal cord so that the therapeutic effect on the treated leg could be directly compared to the untreated leg.  

After the transplantation, patients were followed for a year so the team could measure the strength in the treated and untreated legs. The goal of the trial was to test for safety, which was confirmed, as there was no negative effect of the cell transplant on muscle strength in the treated leg compared to the untreated leg.    

What’s Next? 

Investigators expect to start a new study with more patients soon. They will be targeting lower in the spinal cord and enrolling patients at an earlier stage of the disease to increase the chances of seeing effects of the cells on the progression of ALS. 

“We are very grateful to all the participants in the study,” said Svendsen. “ALS is a very tough disease to treat, and this research gives us hope that we are getting closer to finding ways to slow down this disease.”   

The Cedars-Sinai team is also using the GDNF-secreting stem cells in another CIRM-funded clinical trial for ALS, transplanting the cells into a specific brain region, called the motor cortex that controls the initiation of movement in the hand. The clinical trial is also funded by CIRM. 

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) remains committed to funding research and clinical trials to treat ALS. To date, CIRM has provided $93 million in funding for research to treat ALS.  

Read the original source release of the study here.  

How stem cells helped Veronica fight retinitis pigmentosa and regain her vision

Veronica and Elliott

Growing up Veronica McDougall thought everyone saw the world the way she did; blurry, slightly out-of-focus and with tunnel vision.  As she got older her sight got worse and even the strongest prescription glasses didn’t help. When she was 15 her brother tried teaching her to drive. One night she got into the driver’s seat to practice and told him she couldn’t see anything. Everything was just black. After that she stopped driving.   

Veronica says high school was really hard for her, but she managed to graduate and go to community college. As her vision deteriorated, she found it was increasingly hard to read the course work and impossible to see the assignments on the blackboard. Veronica says she was lucky to have some really supportive teachers — including the now First Lady Jill Biden — but eventually she had to drop out.  

Getting a diagnosis

When she was 24, she went to see a specialist who told her she had retinitis pigmentosa, a rare degenerative condition that would eventually leave her legally blind. She says it felt like a death sentence. “All of my dreams of becoming a nurse, of getting married, of having children, of traveling – it all just shattered in that moment.” 

Veronica says she went from being a happy, positive person to an angry depressed one. She woke up each morning terrified, wondering, “Is this the day I go blind?” 

Then her mother learned about a CIRM-funded clinical trial with a company called jCyte. Veronica applied to be part of it, was accepted and was given an injection of stem cells in her left eye. She says over the course of a few weeks, her vision steadily improved. 

“About a month after treatment, I was riding in the car with my mom and suddenly, I realized I could see her out of the corner of my eye while looking straight ahead. That had never, ever happened to me before. Because, I had been losing my peripheral vision at a young age without realizing that until up to that point, I had never had that experience.” 

A second chance at life

She went back to college, threw herself into her studies, started hiking and being more active. She says it was as if she was reborn. But in her senior year, just as she was getting close to finishing her degree, her vision began to deteriorate again. Fortunately, she was able to take part in a second clinical trial, and this time her vision came back stronger than ever. 

“I’m so grateful to the researchers who gave me my sight back with the treatment they have worked their entire lives to develop. I am forever grateful for the two opportunities to even receive these two injections and to be a part of an amazing experience to see again. I feel so blessed! Thank you for giving me my life back.” 

And in getting her life back, Veronica had a chance to give life. When she was at college she met and starting dating Robert, the man who was to become her partner. They now have a little boy, Elliott.  

As for the future, Veronica hopes to get a second stem cell therapy to improve her vision even further. Veronica’s two treatments were in her left eye. She is hoping that the Food and Drug Administration will one day soon approve jCyte’s therapy, so that she can get the treatment in her right eye. Then, she says, she’ll be able to see the world as the rest of us can.  

CIRM has invested more than $150 million in programs targeting vision loss, including four clinical trials for retinitis pigmentosa

Stem Cell Agency funds clinical trial targeting scarred urethras

A urethral stricture is scarring of the tube that carries urine out of the body. If left untreated it can be intensely painful and lead to kidney stones and infections. That’s why the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is investing more than $3.8 million in a Phase 1 clinical trial to create a stem cell-based therapy for the condition.

This is the 81st clinical trial that CIRM has funded.

When a scar, or stricture, forms along the urethra it impedes the flow of urine and causes other complications. James Yoo, M.D., Ph.D., and his team at Wake Forest University Health Sciences will use epithelial and smooth muscle cells, taken from the patient’s bladder, and layer them on to a synthetic tubular scaffold. The tube will then be surgically implanted inside the urethra.

The goal is for the progenitor cells to support self-renewal of the tissue and for the entire structure to become integrated into the surrounding tissue and become indistinguishable from it, restoring normal urinary function. Dr. Yoo and his team believe their approach has the potential to be effective for at least a decade.

“While not immediately life-threatening, urethral strictures lead to multiple health complications that impair quality of life and predispose to kidney dysfunction,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “Developing an effective and durable treatment would significantly impact lives and has the potential to decrease the cumulative healthcare costs of treating recurrent kidney stones, infections and downstream kidney complications, especially of long-segment urethral strictures.”

Two reasons to remember June 19th

Today marks two significant events for the Black community. June 19th is celebrated as Juneteenth, the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to ensure that the enslaved people there were free. That moment came two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law.

June 19th is also marked as World Sickle Cell Awareness Day. It’s an opportunity to raise awareness about a disease that affects around 100,000 Americans, most of them Black, and the impact it has on the whole family and entire communities.

Sickle cell disease (SCD) is an inherited blood disorder that is caused by a genetic mutation. Instead of red blood cells being smooth and round and flowing easily through arteries and veins, the cells are sickle shaped and brittle. They can clog up arteries and veins, cutting off blood to vital organs, causing intense pain, organ damage and leading to premature death.

SCD can be cured with a bone marrow transplant, but that’s a risky procedure and most people with SCD don’t have a good match. Medications can help keep it under control but cannot cure it. People with SCD live, on average, 30 years less than a healthy adult.

CIRM has invested almost $60 million in 13 different projects, including five clinical trials, to try and develop a cure for SCD. There are encouraging signs of progress. For example, in July of 2020, Evie Junior took part in a CIRM-funded clinical trial where his own blood stem cells were removed then, in the laboratory, were genetically modified to repair the genetic mutation that causes the disease. Those cells were returned to him, and the hope is they’ll create a sickle cell-free blood supply. Evie hasn’t had any crippling bouts of pain or had to go to the hospital since his treatment.

Evie Junior: Photo by Jaquell Chandler

CIRM has also entered into a unique partnership with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) to co-fund cell and gene therapy programs under the NIH “Cure Sickle Cell” initiative.  The goal is to markedly accelerate the development of cell and gene therapies for SCD.

“There is a real need for a new approach to treating SCD and making life easier for people with SCD and their families,” says Adrienne Shapiro, the mother of a daughter with SCD and the co-founder of Axis Advocacy, a sickle cell advocacy and education organization. “Finding a cure for Sickle Cell would mean that people like my daughter would no longer have to live their life in short spurts, constantly having their hopes and dreams derailed by ER visits and hospital stays.  It would mean they get a chance to live a long life, a healthy life, a normal life.”

We will all keep working together to advance this research and develop a cure. Until then Juneteenth will be a reminder of the work that still lies ahead.

The bootcamp helping in the fight against rare diseases

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Dr. Emil Kakkis at the Rare Entrepreneur Bootcamp

Imagine you or someone you love is diagnosed with a rare disease and then told, “There is no cure, there are no treatments and because it’s so rare no one is even doing any research into developing a treatment.” Sadly for millions of people that’s an all-too-common occurrence.

There are around 7,000 rare diseases affecting some 25-30 million Americans. Some of these are ultra-rare conditions where worldwide there may be only a few hundred people, or even a few dozen, diagnosed with it. And of all these rare diseases, only 5% have an approved therapy.

For the people struggling with a rare disease, finding a sense of hope in the face of all this can be challenging. Some say it feels as if they have been abandoned by the health care system. Others fight back, working to raise both awareness about the disease and funds to help support research to develop a treatment. But doing that without experience in the world of fund raising and drug development can pose a whole new series of challenges.

That’s where Ultragenyx comes into the picture. The company has a simple commitment to patients. “We aim to develop safe and effective treatments for many serious rare diseases as fast as we can, and we are committed to helping the whole rare disease community move forward by sharing our science and expertise to advance future development, whether by us or others.”

They live up to that commitment by hosting a Rare Entrepreneur Bootcamp. Every year they bring together a dozen or so patient or family organizations that are actively raising funds for a potential treatment approach and give them a 3-day crash course in what they’ll need to know to have a chance to succeed in rare disease drug development.

A panel discussion at the Rare Entrepreneur Bootcamp

Dr. Emil Kakkis, the founder of Ultragenyx, calls these advocates “warriors” because of all the battles they are going to face. He told them, “Get used to hearing no, because you are going to hear that a lot. But keep fighting because that’s the only way you get to ‘yes’.”

The bootcamp brings in experts to coach and advise the advocates on everything from presentation skills when pitching a potential investor, to how to collaborate with academic researchers, how to design a clinical trial, what they need to understand about manufacturing or intellectual property rights.

In a blog about the event, Arjun Natesan, vice president of Translational Research at Ultragenyx, wrote, “We are in a position to share what we’ve learned from bringing multiple drugs to market – and making the process easier for these organizations aligns with our goal of treating as many rare disease patients as possible. Our aim is to empower these organizations with guidance and tools and help facilitate their development of life-changing rare disease treatments.”

For the advocates it’s not just a chance to gain an understanding of the obstacles ahead and how to overcome them, it’s also a chance to create a sense of community. Meeting others who are fighting the same fight helps them realize they are not alone, that they are part of a bigger, albeit often invisible, community, working tirelessly to save the lives of their children or loved ones.  

CIRM also has a commitment to supporting the search for treatments for rare diseases. We are funding more than two dozen clinical trials, in addition to many earlier stage research projects, targeting rare conditions.