If someone told you they were working on lungs in a dish you might be forgiven for thinking that’s the worst idea for a new recipe you have ever heard of. But in the case of Dr. Evan Snyder and his team at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute it could be a recipe for a powerful new tool against COVID-19.
Earlier this month the CIRM Board approved almost $250,000 for Dr. Snyder and his team to use human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs), a type of stem cell that can be created by reprogramming skin or blood cells, to create any other cell in the body, including lung cells.
These cells will then be engineered to become 3D lung organoids or “mini lungs in a dish”. The importance of this is that these cells resemble human lungs in a way animal models do not. They have the same kinds of cells, structures and even blood vessels that lungs do.
These cells will then be infected with the coronavirus and then be used to test two drugs to see if those drugs are effective against the virus.
In a news release Dr. Snyder says these cells have some big advantages over animal models, the normal method for early stage testing of new therapies.
“Mini lungs will also help us answer why some people with COVID-19 fare worse than others. Because they are made from hiPSCs, which come from patients and retain most of the characteristics of those patients, we can make ‘patient-specific’ mini lungs. We can compare the drug responses of mini lungs created from Caucasian, African American, and Latino men and women, as well as patients with a reduced capacity to fight infection to make sure that therapies work effectively in all patients. If not, we can adjust the dose or drug regime to help make the treatment more effective.
“We can also use the mini lungs experimentally to evaluate the effects of environmental toxins that come from cigarette smoking or vaping to make sure the drugs are still effective; and emulate the microenvironmental conditions in the lungs of patients with co-morbidities such as diabetes, and heart or kidney disease.”
To date CIRM has funded 15 projects targeting COVID-19, including three that are in clinical trials.
Sometimes it’s the smallest things that make the biggest difference. In the case of a clinical trial that CIRM is funding, all it takes to be part of it is four teaspoons of blood.
The clinical trial is being run by Dr. John Zaia and his team at the City of Hope in Duarte, near Los Angeles, in partnership with tgen and the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network. They are going to use blood plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 to treat people newly infected with the virus. The hope is that antibodies in the plasma, which can help fight infections, will reduce the severity or length of infection in others.
People who have had the virus and are interested in taking part are asked to give four teaspoons of blood, to see if they have enough antibodies. If they do they can then either donate plasma – to help newly infected people – or blood to help with research into COVID-19.
As a sign of how quickly Dr. Zaia and his team are working, while we only approved the award in late April, they already have their website up and running, promoting the trial and trying to recruit both recovered COVID-19 survivors and current patients.
The site does a great job of explaining what they are trying to do and why people should take part. Here’s one section from the site.
Why should I participate in your study?
By participating in our study, you will learn whether you have developed antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. To do so, you just need to donate a small sample of blood (approximately 4 teaspoons).
If testing show you have enough antibodies, you will have the option of donating plasma that will be used to treat severely ill COVID-19 patients and may help save lives.
If you don’t want to donate plasma, you can still donate blood (approximately 3.5 tablespoons), which will be studied and help researchers learn more about COVID-19.
By donating blood or plasma, you will help us gain information that may be of significant value for patient management in future epidemic seasons.
You don’t even have to live close to one of the clinical trial sites because the team can send you a blood collection kit and information about a blood lab near you so you can donate there. They may even send a nurse to collect your blood.
The team is also trying to ensure they reach communities that are often overlooked in clinical trials. That’s why the website is also in Spanish and Vietnamese.
Finally, the site is also being used to help recruit treating physicians who can collect the blood samples and help infuse newly infected patients.
We often read about clinical trials in newspapers and online. Now you get a chance to not only see one working in real time, you can get to be part of it.
In late March the CIRM Board approved $5 million in emergency funding for COVID-19 research. The idea was to support great ideas from California’s researchers, some of which had already been tested for different conditions, and see if they could help in finding treatments or a vaccine for the coronavirus.
Less than a month later we were funding a clinical trial and two other projects, one that targeted a special kind of immune system cell that has the potential to fight the virus.
Researchers use stem cells to model the immune response to COVID-19
By Tiare Dunlap
Cities across the United States are opening back up, but we’re still a long way from making the COVID-19 pandemic history. To truly accomplish that, we need to have a vaccine that can stop the spread of infection.
But to develop an effective vaccine, we need to understand how the immune system responds to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Vaccines work by imitating infection. They expose a person’s immune system to a weakened version or component of the virus they are intended to protect against. This essentially prepares the immune system to fight the virus ahead of time, so that if a person is exposed to the real virus, their immune system can quickly recognize the enemy and fight the infection. Vaccines need to contain the right parts of the virus to provoke a strong immune response and create long-term protection.
Most of the vaccines in development for SARS CoV-2 are using part of the virus to provoke the immune system to produce proteins called antibodies that neutralize the virus. Another way a vaccine could create protection against the virus is by activating the T cells of the immune system.
T cells specifically “recognize” virus-infected cells, and these kinds of responses may be especially important for providing long-term protection against the virus. One challenge for researchers is that they have only had a few months to study how the immune system protects against SARS CoV-2, and in particular, which parts of the virus provoke the best T-cell responses.
For years, they have been perfecting an innovative technology that uses blood-forming stem cells — which can give rise to all types of blood and immune cells — to produce a rare and powerful subset of immune cells called type 1 dendritic cells. Type 1 dendritic cells play an essential role in the immune response by devouring foreign proteins, termed antigens, from virus-infected cells and then chopping them into fragments. Dendritic cells then use these protein fragments to trigger T cells to mount an immune response.
Using this technology, Crooks and Seet are working to pinpoint which specific parts of the SARS-CoV-2 virus provoke the strongest T-cell responses.
Building long-lasting immunity
“We know from a lot of research into other viral infections and also in cancer immunotherapy, that T-cell responses are really important for long-lasting immunity,” said Seet, an assistant professor of hematology-oncology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “And so this approach will allow us to better characterize the T-cell response to SARS-CoV-2 and focus vaccine and therapeutic development on those parts of the virus that induce strong T-cell immunity.”
Crooks’ and Seet’s project uses blood-forming stem cells taken from healthy donors and infected with a virus containing antigens from SARS-CoV-2. They then direct these stem cells to produce large numbers of type 1 dendritic cells using a new method developed by Seet and Suwen Li, a graduate student in Crooks’ lab. Both Seet and Li are graduates of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center’s training program.
“The dendritic cells we are able to make using this process are really good at chopping up viral antigens and eliciting strong immune responses from T cells,” said Crooks, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and of pediatrics at the medical school and co-director of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center.
When type 1 dendritic cells chop up viral antigens into fragments, they present these fragments on their cell surfaces to T cells. Our bodies produce millions and millions of T cells each day, each with its own unique antigen receptor, however only a few will have a receptor capable of recognizing a specific antigen from a virus.
When a T cell with the right receptor recognizes a viral antigen on a dendritic cell as foreign and dangerous, it sets off a chain of events that activates multiple parts of the immune system to attack cells infected with the virus. This includes clonal expansion, the process by which each responding T cell produces a large number of identical cells, called clones, which are all capable of recognizing the antigen.
“Most of those T cells will go off and fight the infection by killing cells infected with the virus,” said Seet, who, like Crooks, is also a member of the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. “However, a small subset of those cells become memory T cells — long-lived T cells that remain in the body for years and protect from future infection by rapidly generating a robust T-cell response if the virus returns. It’s immune memory.”
Producing extremely rare immune cells
This process has historically been particularly challenging to model in the lab, because type 1 dendritic cells are extremely rare — they make up less than 0.1% of cells found in the blood. Now, with this new stem cell technology, Crooks and Seet can produce large numbers of these dendritic cells from blood stem cells donated by healthy people, introduce them to parts of the virus, then see how T cells taken from the blood can respond in the lab. This process can be repeated over and over using cells taken from a wide range of healthy people.
“The benefit is we can do this very quickly without the need for an actual vaccine trial, so we can very rapidly figure out in the lab which parts of the virus induce the best T-cell responses across many individuals,” Seet said.
The resulting data could be used to inform the development of new vaccines for COVID-19 that improve T-cell responses. And the data about which viral antigens are most important to the T cells could also be used to monitor the effectiveness of existing vaccine candidates, and an individual’s immune status to the virus.
“There are dozens of vaccine candidates in development right now, with three or four of them already in clinical trials,” Seet said. “We all hope one or more will be effective at producing immediate and long-lasting immunity. But as there is so much we don’t know about this new virus, we’re still going to need to really dig in to understand how our immune systems can best protect us from infection.”
Supporting basic research into our body’s own processes that can inform new strategies to fight disease is central to the mission of the Broad Stem Cell Research Center.
“When we started developing this project some years ago, we had no idea it would be so useful for studying a viral infection, any viral infection,” Crooks said. “And it was only because we already had these tools in place that we could spring into action so fast.”
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a desire to continue to conduct ongoing clinical trials while maintaining social distancing as much as possible. Clinical trial participants have been hesitant to attend routine check-ups and monitoring due to the risk of exposure and health-care workers are stretched beyond their capacity treating COVID-19 patients. As a result of this, many clinical trials have been put on hold.
Since the coronavirus began to spread, Science 37, a company that supports virtual clinical trials conducted mostly online, began to receive hundreds of inquiries every week from pharmaceutical companies, medical centers, and individual investigators. These inquiries revolve around how best to transition to a virtual clinical trial structure, where consultations are performed online and paperwork and data are collected remotely as much as possible.
In an article published in the journal Nature, Jonathan Cotliar, chief medical officer of Science 37, discusses the impact that COVID-19 has had on the company.
“It’s exponentially accelerated the adoption curve of what we were already doing. That’s been a bit surreal.”
One example of a virtual clinical trial was conducted at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis by Dr. David Boulware and his colleagues. They conducted a randomized, controlled, virtual trial of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to find out if it was effective at protecting people from COVID-19 (the results found that it was not). The trial included more than 800 participants and sent them medicine by FedEx delivery while monitoring their health via virtual appointments.
It is anticipated that even as the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing measures come to an end, virtual clinical trials will continue to be used in the future. Patient advocates have long pushed for these kinds of trials to ease the burden of clinical trial participation, which tends to be more challenging for underrepresented and underserved communities. As a result of the increase in virtual trials, the FDA has released guidelines for conducting virtual trials in order to streamline the process. It is possible that virtual trials might speed up enrollment of participants, which could help speed up the drug-development process while still maintaining rigorous standards.
The COVID-19 virus targets many different parts of the body, often with deadly or life-threatening consequences. This past Friday the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved investments in three early-stage research programs taking different approaches to battling the virus.
Dr. Jianhua Yu at the Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope was awarded $150,000 to use stem cells from umbilical cord blood to attack the virus. Dr. Yu and his team have many years of experience in taking cord blood cells and turning them into what are called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) natural killer (NK) cells. The goal is to deploy these CAR NK cells to specifically target cells infected with COVID-19. This leverages the body of work at the City of Hope to develop this technology for cancer.
Dr. Helen Blau of Stanford University was awarded $149,996 to target recovery of muscle stem cells of the diaphragm in COVID-19 patients who have an extended period on a ventilator.
Patients with severe coronavirus often suffer respiratory failure and end up on mechanical ventilation that takes over the work of breathing. Over time, the diaphragm, the main muscle responsible for inhaling and exhaling, weakens and atrophies. There is no treatment for this kind of localized muscle wasting and it is anticipated that some of these patients will take months, if not years, to fully recover. Dr. Blau’s team proposes to develop a therapy with Prostaglandin E2 and Bupivacaine based on data generated by Dr. Blau’s group that these drugs, already approved by the FDA for other indications, have the potential to stimulate muscle stem cell recovery.
Dr. Albert Wong, also from Stanford University, was awarded $149,999 to develop vaccine candidates against COVID-19.
Most vaccine candidates are focused on getting the body to produce an antibody response to block the virus. However, Dr. Wong thinks that to be truly effective, a vaccine also needs to produce a CD8+ T cell response to augment an effective immune response to remove the COVID-19 infected cells that are hijacked by the virus to spread and cause illness. This team will use the experience it gained using CIRM funds to vaccine against glioblastoma, a deadly brain cancer, to advance a similar approach to produce an effective cellular immune response to combat COVID-19.
“CIRM is committed to supporting novel, multi-pronged approaches to battle this COVID-19 crisis that leverage solid science and knowledge gained in other areas.” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, the President & CEO of CIRM. “These three projects highlight three very different approaches to combatting the acute devastating health manifestations of COVID-19 as well as the debilitating sequelae that impact the ability to recover from the acute illness. Through this COVID funding opportunity, CIRM is enabling researchers to re-direct work they have already done, often with CIRM support, to quickly develop new approaches to COVID-19.”
Frances Saldana is one of the most remarkable women I know. She has lost all three of her children to Huntington’s disease (HD) – a nasty, fatal disease that steadily destroys the nerve cells in the brain – but still retains a fighting spirit and a commitment to finding a cure for HD. She is the President Emeritus for HD-Care, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about HD, and finding money for research to cure it. She recently wrote a Mother’s Day blog for HD-Care about the similarities between HD and COVID-19. As May is National Huntington’s Disease Awareness Month we wanted to share her blog with you.
COVID-19 has consumed our entire lives, and for many, our livelihoods. This is a pandemic like we have never experienced in our lifetime, bringing out in many families fear, financial devastation, disabilities, isolation, suffering, and worst of all, loss of life. But through all this, the pandemic has uncovered emotions in many who rose to the occasion – a fight and stamina beyond human belief.
As a family member who has lost all of my children to Huntington’s disease, it makes me so sad to watch and hear about the suffering that people all over the world are currently experiencing with COVID-19. This devastation is nothing new to Huntington’s disease families. Although Huntington’s disease (HD) is not contagious, it is genetic, and much of the uncertainty and fears that families are experiencing are so similar to what HD families experience….in slow motion, with unanswered questions such as:
Who in my family is carrying the mutant HD gene? (Who in my family is carrying the coronavirus?)
Who in my family will inherit the mutant HD gene? (Who will get infected by the COVID-19?)
Will my loved on live long enough to benefit from a treatment for HD? (Will there be a vaccination soon if my loved one is infected by COVID-19?)
How long will my HD family member live? (Will my affected COVID-19 loved one survive after being placed on a ventilator?)
Is my HD family member going to die? (Will my COVID-19 family member die?)
In watching some of the footage of COVID-19 patients on TV and learning about the symptoms, it appears that those with a severe case of the virus go through similar symptoms as HD patients who are in the late and end-of-life stages: pneumonia, sepsis, pain, and suffering, to name a few, although for HD families, the journey goes on for years or even decades, and then carries on to the next generation, and not one HD patient will survive the disease. Not yet!
Scientists are working furiously all over the world to find a treatment for COVID-19. The same goes for scientists focused on Huntington’s disease research. Without their brilliant work we would have no hope. Without funding there would be no science. I have been saying for the last 20 years that we will have a treatment for Huntington’s disease in the next couple of years, but with actual facts and successful clinical trials, there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel and we have much to be thankful for. I feel it in my heart that a treatment will be found for both COVID-19 and Huntington’s disease very soon.
The month of May happens to be National Huntington’s Disease Awareness Month. Mother’s Day also falls in the month of May. Huntington’s disease “Warrior Moms” are exemplary women, and I have been blessed to have known a few. Driven by love for their children, they’ve worn many hats as caregivers, volunteers, and HD community leaders in organizations such as HD-CARE, HDSA, WeHaveAFace, Help4HD, HD Support &Care Network, and many others.
The mothers have often also been forced to take on the role of breadwinners when the father of the family has unexpectedly become debilitated from HD. In spite of carrying a heavy cross, HD Warrior Moms persevere, and they do it with endless love, often taking care of HD family members from one generation to the next. They are the front-line workers in the HD community, tirelessly protecting their families and at the same time doing all they can to provide a meaningful quality of life.
Many HD Warrior moms have lost their children in spite of their fierce fight to save them, but they keep their memory alive, never losing hope for a treatment that will end the pain, suffering, and loss of life. Many HD Warrior Moms have lost the fight themselves, not from HD, but from a broken heart. These are the HD Warrior Moms.
Today the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved new clinical trials for COVID-19 and sickle cell disease (SCD) and two earlier stage projects to develop therapies for COVID-19.
Dr. Michael Mathay, of the University of California at San Francisco, was awarded $750,000 for a clinical trial testing the use of Mesenchymal Stromal Cells for respiratory failure from Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). In ARDS, patients’ lungs fill up with fluid and are unable to supply their body with adequate amounts of oxygen. It is a life-threatening condition and a major cause of acute respiratory failure. This will be a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial with an emphasis on treating patients from under-served communities.
This award will allow Dr. Matthay to expand his current Phase 2 trial to additional underserved communities through the UC Davis site.
“Dr. Matthay indicated in his public comments that 12 patients with COVID-related ARDS have already been enrolled in San Francisco and this funding will allow him to enroll more patients suffering from COVID- associated severe lung injury,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO. “CIRM, in addition to the NIH and the Department of Defense, has supported Dr. Matthay’s work in ARDS and this additional funding will allow him to enroll more COVID-19 patients into this Phase 2 blinded randomized controlled trial and expand the trial to 120 patients.”
The Board also approved two early stage research projects targeting COVID-19.
Dr. Stuart Lipton at Scripps Research Institute was awarded $150,000 to develop a drug that is both anti-viral and protects the brain against coronavirus-related damage.
Justin Ichida at the University of Southern California was also awarded $150,00 to determine if a drug called a kinase inhibitor can protect stem cells in the lungs, which are selectively infected and killed by the novel coronavirus.
“COVID-19 attacks so many parts of the body, including the lungs and the brain, that it is important for us to develop approaches that help protect and repair these vital organs,” says Dr. Millan. “These teams are extremely experienced and highly renowned, and we are hopeful the work they do will provide answers that will help patients battling the virus.”
The Board also awarded Dr. Pierre Caudrelier from ExcellThera $2 million to conduct a clinical trial to treat sickle cell disease patients
SCD is an inherited blood disorder caused by a single gene mutation that results in the production of “sickle” shaped red blood cells. It affects an estimated 100,000 people, mostly African American, in the US and can lead to multiple organ damage as well as reduced quality of life and life expectancy. Although blood stem cell transplantation can cure SCD fewer than 20% of patients have access to this option due to issues with donor matching and availability.
Dr. Caudrelier is using umbilical cord stem cells from healthy donors, which could help solve the issue of matching and availability. In order to generate enough blood stem cells for transplantation, Dr. Caudrelier will be using a small molecule to expand these blood stem cells. These cells would then be transplanted into twelve children and young adults with SCD and the treatment would be monitored for safety and to see if it is helping the patients.
“CIRM is committed to finding a cure for sickle cell disease, the most common inherited blood disorder in the U.S. that results in unpredictable pain crisis, end organ damage, shortened life expectancy and financial hardship for our often-underserved black community” says Dr. Millan. “That’s why we have committed tens of millions of dollars to fund scientifically sound, innovative approaches to treat sickle cell disease. We are pleased to be able to support this cell therapy program in addition to the gene therapy approaches we are supporting in partnership with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the NIH.”
Andy McMahon is one of the most understated, humble and low-key people you are ever likely to meet. He’s also one of the smartest. And he has a collection of titles to prove it. He is the W.M. Keck Provost and University Professor in USC’s departments of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine, and Biological Sciences at the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the European Molecular Biology Organization, and the Royal Society.
Now you can add to that list that Andy is a member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Election to the NAS is no ordinary honor. It’s one of the highest in the scientific world.
In a USC news release Dean Laura Mosqueda from the Keck School praised Andy saying: “We’re delighted that Dr. McMahon is being recognized as a newly elected member of the National Academy of Sciences. Because new members are elected by current members, this represents recognition of Dr. McMahon’s achievements by his most esteemed peers in all scientific fields.”
Not surprisingly CIRM has funded some of Andy’s work – well, we do pride ourselves on working with the best and brightest scientists – and that research is taking on added importance with the spread of COVID-19. Andy’s area of specialty is kidneys, trying to develop new ways to repair damaged or injured kidneys. Recent studies show that between 3 and 9 percent of patients with COVID-19 develop an acute kidney injury; in effect their kidneys suddenly stop working and many of these patients have to undergo dialysis to stay alive.
Even those who recover are at increased risk for developing more chronic, even end-stage kidney disease. That’s where Andy’s work could prove most useful. His team are using human stem cells to create mini artificial kidneys that have many of the same properties as the real thing. These so-called “organoids” enable us to study chronic kidney disease, come up with ideas to repair damage or slow down the progression of the disease, even help improve the chances of a successful transplant if that becomes necessary.
To help with the coronavirus pandemic, many scientists are repurposing previously developed approaches or treatments to see if they can be used to treat patients with COVID-19. Capricor Therapeutics, lead by Dr. Linda Marbán, is using cardiosphere derived cells (CDCs), which are stem cells derived from heart tissue, to treat critically ill patients with COVID-19.
When a patient contracts the virus, their body produces cytokines, proteins that play an important role in the immune response. Unfortunately, having too many cytokines, known as a “cytokine storm”, leads to a severe immune reaction that can cause pneumonia, organ failure, and death. CDCs in previous studies have been shown to help regulate the immune response and cytokines, which could help patients with COVID-19.
Over the course of one month, six critically ill patients with COVID-19, five of whom were on mechanical ventilators, were treated with CDCs. In these compassionate care cases, five male patients and one female patient received treatment. Of the five patients on ventilator support, four patients no longer required ventilator support within just one to four days after treatment. Although these results are promising, it is important to remember that this treatment is in very early testing and will need to demonstrate significant improvement in larger patient groups.
Following a review of the results of this small study, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved treatment of up to an 20 additional COVID-19 patients.
In a press release, Dr. Marbán discuses the results of the compassionate care study and treatment of additional COVID-19 patients.
“As the global medical community continues to come together in its battle against COVID-19, the results of our initial compassionate care cases are extremely promising and what we had anticipated. We look forward to continuing to treat additional patients under our recently approved expanded access program Investigational New Drug application.”
While the world has been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic, the virus poses an increased threat to people with Parkinson’s disease (PD). Having a compromised immune system, particularly involving the lungs, means people with PD are at higher risk of some of the more dangerous complications of COVID-19. So, this seems like an appropriate time for CIRM to hold a special Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team” About Parkinson’s disease.
We are holding the event on Tuesday, May 5th at noon PDT.
The initial reason for the Facebook Live was the CIRM Board approving almost $8 million for Dr. Krystof Bankiewicz at Brain Neurotherapy Bio, Inc. to run a Phase 1 clinical trial targeting PD. Dr. Bankiewicz is using a gene therapy approach to promote the production of a protein called GDNF, which is best known for its ability to protect dopaminergic neurons, the kind of cell damaged by Parkinson’s. The approach seeks to increase dopamine production in the brain, alleviating PD symptoms and potentially slowing down the disease progress.
Dr. Bankiewicz will be joined by two of CIRM’s fine Science Officers, Dr. Lila Collins and Dr. Kent Fitzgerald. They’ll talk about the research targeting Parkinson’s that CIRM is funding plus other promising research taking place.
And we are delighted to have a late addition to the team. Our CIRM Board member and patient advocate for Parkinson’s disease, Dr. David Higgins. David has a long history of advocacy for PD and adds the invaluable perspective of someone living with PD.
As always, we want this to be as interactive as possible, so we want to get your questions. You can do this on the day, posting them alongside the live feed, or you can send them to us ahead of time at email@example.com. We’ll do our best to answer as many as we can on the day, and those we don’t get to during the broadcast we’ll answer in a later blog.