Can Stem Cell Therapies Help ALS Patients?

A scientist’s fifteen-year journey to develop a stem cell-based therapy that could one day help ALS patients.

Jan Kaufman

Photo of Clive Svendsen (top left) and Jan & Jeff Kaufman

“Can stem cells help me Clive?”

The sentence appeared slowly on a computer screen, each character separated by a pause while its author searched for the next character using a device controlled by his eye muscle.

The person asking the question was Jeff Kaufman, a Wisconsin man in his 40s completely paralyzed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). On the receiving end was Clive Svendsen, PhD, then a scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, determined to understand how stem cells could help patients like Jeff.

Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is a rapid, aggressive neurodegenerative disease with a two to four-year life expectancy. ALS destroys the nerve cells that send signals from the brain and spinal cord to the muscles that control movement. Denervation, or loss of nerves, causes muscle weakness and atrophy, leaving patients unable to control their own bodies. Currently there are two FDA-approved ALS drugs in the US – riluzole and a new drug called edaravone (Radicava). However, they only slow disease progression in some ALS patients by a few months and there are no effective treatments that stop or cure the disease.

Given this poor prognosis, making ALS the focus of his research career was an easy decision. However, developing a therapeutic strategy was challenging to Svendsen. “The problem with ALS is we don’t know the cause,” he said. “Around 10% of ALS cases are genetic, and we know some of the genes involved, but 90% of cases are sporadic.” He explained that this black box makes it difficult for scientists to know where to start when trying to develop treatments for sporadic ALS cases that have no drug targets.

From Parkinson’s disease to ALS

Svendsen, who moved to Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles to head the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute in 2010, has worked on ALS for the past 15 years. Before that, he studied Parkinson’s disease, a long-term neurodegenerative disorder that affects movement, balance and speech. Unlike ALS, Parkinson’s patients have a longer life expectancy and more treatment options that alleviate symptoms of the disease, making their quality of life far better than ALS patients.

Clive Svendsen, PhD, Director, Regenerative Medicine Institute. (Image courtesy of Cedars-Sinai)

“I chose to work on ALS mainly because of the effects it has on ALS families,” explained Svendsen. “Being normal one day, and then becoming rapidly paralyzed was hard to see.”

The transition from Parkinson’s to ALS was not without a scientific reason however. Svendsen was studying how an important growth factor in the brain called Glial Cell Line-Derived Neurotrophic Factor or GDNF could be used to protect dopamine neurons in order to treat Parkinson’s patients. However other research suggested that GDNF was even more effective at protecting motor neurons, the nerve cells destroyed by ALS.

Armed with the knowledge of GDNF’s ability to protect motor neurons, Svendsen and his team developed an experimental stem cell-based therapy that they hoped would treat patients with the sporadic form of ALS. Instead of using stem cells to replace the motor neurons lost to ALS, Svendsen placed his bets on making another cell type in the brain, the astrocyte.

Rooting for the underdog

Astrocytes are the underdog cells of the brain, often overshadowed by neurons that send and receive information from the central nervous system to our bodies. Astrocytes have many important roles, one of the most critical being to support the functions of neurons. In ALS, astrocytes are also affected but in a different way than motor neurons. Instead of dying, ALS astrocytes become dysfunctional and thereby create a toxic environment inhospitable to the motors neurons they are supposed to assist.

Fluorescent microscopy of astrocytes (red) and cell nuclei (blue). Image: Wikipedia.

“While the motor neurons clearly die in ALS, the astrocytes surrounding the motor neurons are also sick,” said Svendsen. “It’s a huge challenge to replace a motor neuron and make it grow a cable all the way to the muscle in an adult human. We couldn’t even get this to work in mice. So, I knew a more realistic strategy would be to replace the sick astrocytes in an ALS patients with fresh, healthy astrocytes. This potentially would have a regenerative effect on the environment around the existing motor neurons.”

The big idea was to combine both GDNF and astrocyte replacement. Svendsen set out to make healthy astrocytes from human brain stem cells that also produce therapeutic doses of GDNF and transplant these cells into the ALS patient spinal cord. Simply giving patients GDNF via pill wouldn’t work because the growth factor is unable to enter the brain or spinal cord tissue where it is needed. The hope, instead, was that the astrocytes would secrete the protective factor that would keep the patients’ motor neurons healthy and alive.

With critical funding from a CIRM Disease Team grant, Svendsen and his colleagues at Cedars-Sinai tested the feasibility of transplanting human brain stem cells (also referred to as neural progenitor cells) that secreted GDNF into a rat model of ALS. Their results were encouraging – the neural progenitor cells successfully developed into astrocytes and secreted GDNF, which collectively protected the rat motor neurons.

Svendsen describes the strategy as “a double whammy”: adding both healthy astrocytes and GDNF secretion to protect the motor neurons. “Replacing astrocytes has the potential to rejuvenate the niche where the motor neurons are. I think that’s a very powerful experimental approach to ALS.”

A fifteen year journey from bench to bedside

With promising preclinical data under his belt, Svendsen and his colleagues, including Robert Baloh, MD, PhD, director of neuromuscular medicine at the Cedars-Sinai Department of Neurology, and neurosurgeon J. Patrick Johnson, MD, designed a clinical trial that would test this experimental therapy in ALS patients. In October 2016, CIRM approved funding for a Phase I/IIa clinical trial assessing the safety of this novel human neural progenitor cell and gene therapy.

Clive Svendsen, PhD, director of the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute, and Robert Baloh, MD, PhD, director of neuromuscular medicine in the Cedars-Sinai Department of Neurology, in the lab. Svendsen is the sponsor of a current ALS clinical trial at Cedars-Sinai and the overall director of the program. Baloh is the principal investigator for the clinical trial. (Image courtesy of Cedars-Sinai)

This is a first-in-human study, and as such, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required the team to transplant the cells into only one side of the lumbar spinal cord, which effectively means that only one of the patient’s legs will get the treatment. This will allow for a comparison of the function and progression of ALS in the leg on the treated side of the spinal cord compared with the leg on the untreated side.

The trial was approved to treat a total of 18 patients and started in May 2017.

 Svendsen, who first started working on ALS back in 2002, describes his path to the clinic as a “very long and windy road.” He emphasized that this journey wouldn’t be possible without the hard work of his team, Cedars-Sinai and financial support from CIRM.

“It took ten years of preclinical studies and an enormous amount of work from many different people. Just producing the cells that we’re going to use took three years and a lot of trials and tribulations to make it a clinically viable product. It was really thanks to CIRM’s funding and the support of Cedars-Sinai that we got through it all. Without that kind of infrastructure, I can safely say we wouldn’t be here today.”

This “behind-the-scenes” view of how much time and effort it takes to translate a stem cell therapy from basic research into the clinic isn’t something that the public is often exposed to or aware of. Just as “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Svendsen stressed that good quality stem cell trials take time, and that it’s important for people know how complicated these trials are.

It’s all about the patients

So, what motivates Svendsen to continue this long and harrowing journey to develop a treatment for ALS? He said the answer is easy. “I’m doing it for the patients,” he explained. “I’m not doing this for the money or glory. I just want to develop something that works for ALS, so we can help these patients.”

Svendsen revisited his story about Jeff Kaufman, a man he befriended at the Wisconsin ALS Chapter in 2003. Jeff had three daughters and a son, a wonderful wife, and was a successful lawyer when he was diagnosed with ALS.

“Jeff had basically everything, and then he was stricken with ALS. I still remember going to his house and he could only move his eyes at that point. He tapped out the words ‘Can stem cells help me Clive?’ on his computer screen. And my heart sank because I knew how much and how long it was going to take. I was very realistic so I said, ‘Yes Jeff, but it’s going to take time and money. And even then, it’s a long shot.’ And he told me to go for it, and that stuck in my brain.”

It’s people like Jeff that make Svendsen get out of bed every morning and doggedly pursue a treatment for ALS. Sadly, Jeff passed away due to complications from ALS in 2010. Svendsen says what Jeff and other patients go through is tragic and unfair.

“There’s a gene that goes along with ALS and it’s called the ‘nice person gene,’” he said. “People with ALS are nice. I can’t explain it, but neurologists would say the same thing. You feel like it’s just not fair that it happens to those people.”

The future of stem cell therapies for ALS

It’s clear from speaking with Svendsen, that he is optimistic about the future of stem cell-based therapies for ALS. Scientists still need to unravel the actual causes of ALS. But the experimental stem cell treatments currently in development, including Svendsen’s, will hopefully prove effective at delaying disease progression and give ALS patients more quality years to live.

In the meantime, what concerns Svendsen is how vulnerable ALS patients are to being misled by unapproved stem cell clinics that claim to have cures. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of charlatans out there, and there are a lot of false claims being made. People feed off the desperation that you have in ALS. It’s not fair, and it’s completely wrong. They’ll mislead patients by saying ‘For $40,000 you can get a cure!’”

Compelling stories of patients cured of knee pain or diseases like ALS with injections of their own adult stem cells pop up in the news daily. Many of these stories refer to unapproved treatments from clinics that don’t provide scientific evidence that these treatments are safe and effective. Svendsen said there are reasonable, research-backed trials that are attempting to use adult stem cells to treat ALS. He commented, “I think it’s hard for the public to wade through all of these options and understand what’s real and what’s not real.”

Svendsen’s advice for ALS patients interested in enrolling in a stem cell trial or trying a new stem cell treatment is to be cautious. If a therapy sounds too good to be true, it probably is, and if it costs a lot of money, it probably isn’t legitimate, he explained.

He also wants patients to understand the reality of the current state of ALS stem cell trials. The approved stem cell trials he is aware of are not at the treatment stage yet.

“If you’re enrolled in a stem cell trial that is funded and reputable, then they will tell you honestly that it’s not a treatment. There is currently no approved treatment using stem cells for ALS,” Svendsen said.

This might seem like discouraging news to patients who don’t have time to wait for these trials to develop into treatments, but Svendsen pointed out that the when he started his research 15 years ago, the field of stem cell research was still in its infancy. A lot has been accomplished in the past decade-and-a-half and with talented scientists dedicated to ALS research like Svendsen, the next 15 years will likely offer new insights into ALS and hopefully stem cell-based treatments for a devastating disease that has no cure.

Svendsen hopes that one day, when someone like Jeff Kaufman asks him “Can stem cells help me Clive?” He’ll be able to say, yes they can, yes they can.

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Stem cell agency funds Phase 3 clinical trial for Lou Gehrig’s disease

ALS

At CIRM we don’t have a disease hierarchy list that we use to guide where our funding goes. We don’t rank a disease by how many people suffer from it, if it affects children or adults, or how painful it is. But if we did have that kind of hierarchy you can be sure that Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, would be high on that list.

ALS is a truly nasty disease. It attacks the neurons, the cells in our brain and spinal cord that tell our muscles what to do. As those cells are destroyed we lose our ability to walk, to swallow, to talk, and ultimately to breathe.

As Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s interim President and CEO, said in a news release, it’s a fast-moving disease:

“ALS is a devastating disease with an average life expectancy of less than five years, and individuals afflicted with this condition suffer an extreme loss in quality of life. CIRM’s mission is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs and, in keeping with this mission, our objective is to find a treatment for patients ravaged by this neurological condition for which there is currently no cure.”

Having given several talks to ALS support groups around the state, I have had the privilege of meeting many people with ALS and their families. I have seen how quickly the disease works and the devastation it brings. I’m always left in awe by the courage and dignity with which people bear it.

BrainStorm

I thought of those people, those families, today, when our governing Board voted to invest $15.9 million in a Phase 3 clinical trial for ALS run by BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics. BrainStorm is using mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) that are taken from the patient’s own bone marrow. This reduces the risk of the patient’s immune system fighting the therapy.

After being removed, the MSCs are then modified in the laboratory to  boost their production of neurotrophic factors, proteins which are known to help support and protect the cells destroyed by ALS. The therapy, called NurOwn, is then re-infused back into the patient.

In an earlier Phase 2 clinical trial, NurOwn showed that it was safe and well tolerated by patients. It also showed evidence that it can help stop, or even reverse  the progression of the disease over a six month period, compared to a placebo.

CIRM is already funding one clinical trial program focused on treating ALS – that’s the work of Dr. Clive Svendsen and his team at Cedars Sinai, you can read about that here. Being able to add a second project, one that is in a Phase 3 clinical trial – the last stage before, hopefully, getting approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for wider use – means we are one step closer to being able to offer people with ALS a treatment that can help them.

Diane Winokur, the CIRM Board Patient Advocate member for ALS, says this is something that has been a long time coming:

CIRM Board member and ALS Patient Advocate Diane Winokur

“I lost two sons to ALS.  When my youngest son was diagnosed, he was confident that I would find something to save him.  There was very little research being done for ALS and most of that was very limited in scope.  There was one drug that had been developed.  It was being released for compassionate use and was scheduled to be reviewed by the FDA in the near future.  I was able to get the drug for Douglas.  It didn’t really help him and it was ultimately not approved by the FDA.

When my older son was diagnosed five years later, he too was convinced I would find a therapy.  Again, I talked to everyone in the field, searched every related study, but could find nothing promising.

I am tenacious by nature, and after Hugh’s death, though tempted to give up, I renewed my search.  There were more people, labs, companies looking at neurodegenerative diseases.

These two trials that CIRM is now funding represent breakthrough moments for me and for everyone touched by ALS.  I feel that they are a promising beginning.  I wish it had happened sooner.  In a way, though, they have validated Douglas and Hugh’s faith in me.”

These therapies are not a cure for ALS. At least not yet. But what they will do is hopefully help buy people time, and give them a sense of hope. For a disease that leaves people desperately short of both time and hope, that would be a precious gift. And for people like Diane Winokur, who have fought so hard to find something to help their loved ones, it’s a vindication that those efforts have not been in vain.

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

svend

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.

 

A Dream made me change my mind. Almost.

Dream Alliance

Dream Alliance: photo courtesy Daily Telegraph, UK

On Friday I was faced with the real possibility that a horse had made an ass out of me.

Over the years we have written many articles about the risks of unproven stem cell therapies, treatments that have not yet been shown in clinical trials to be safe and effective. Often we have highlighted the cases of high profile athletes who have undergone stem cell treatments for injuries when there is little evidence that the treatments they are getting work.

Well, on Friday I saw an athlete who bounced back from a potentially career-ending injury to enjoy an amazing career thanks to a stem cell treatment. I wondered if I was going to have to revise my thoughts on this topic. Then my wife pointed out to me that the athlete was a horse.

We had been watching the movie Dark Horse, a truly delightful true story about a group of working class people in a Welsh mining village who bred and raised a horse that went on to great success as a race horse – often beating out thoroughbreds that were worth millions of dollars.

 

At one point the horse, Dream Alliance, suffered an almost fatal injury. Everyone assumed his career was over. But thanks to a stem cell treatment he was able to return to the track and became the first horse to win a major race after undergoing stem cell surgery.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that stem cells can help heal serious injuries in horses, the researchers at UC Davis have been using them to help treat horses for years – with great success. The danger comes in then assuming that just because stem cells work for horses, they’ll work for people. And that if they can cure one kind of injury, why not another.

That thought was driven home to me on Saturday when I was giving a talk to a support group for ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a nasty, rapidly progressive disease that attacks the motor nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, destroying a person’s ability to move, eat, speak or breath.

One person asked about a clinic they had been talking to which claimed it might be able to help them. The clinic takes fat from the person with ALS, isolates the stem cells in the fat and injects it back into the person. The clinic claims it’s been very effective in treating injuries such as torn muscles, and that it also works for other problems like Parkinson’s so it might help someone with ALS.

And that’s the problem. We hear about one success story that seems to prove stem cells can do amazing things, and then we are tempted to hope that if it works for one kind of injury, it might work for another, or even for a neurodegenerative disease.

And hope doesn’t come cheap. The cost of the procedure was almost $10,000.

If you have a disease like ALS for which there is no cure, and where the life expectancy is between two to five years, you can understand why someone would be tempted to try anything, no matter how implausible. What is hard is when you have to tell them that without any proof that it works, and little scientific rational as to why it would work, that it’s hard to recommend they try using their own fat cells to treat their ALS.

At CIRM we are investing more than $56.5 million in 21 different projects targeting ALS.   We are hopeful one of them, Clive Svendsen’s research at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center,  will soon get approval from the FDA to start a clinical trial.

Much as we would like to believe in miracles, medical breakthroughs usually only come after years of hard, methodical work. It would be great if injecting your own fat-derived stem cells into your body could cure you of all manner of ailments. But there’s no evidence to suggest it will.

The movie Dark Horse shows that for one horse, for one group of people in a small Welsh mining village, stem cells helped create a happy ending. We are hoping stem cells will one day offer the same sense of hope and possibility for people battling deadly diseases like ALS. But that day is not yet here.