Creating a New Model for Diversity in Scientific and Medical Research

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Nature Cell Biology cover

The global pandemic has highlighted many of the inequities in our health care system, with the virus hitting communities of color the hardest. That has led to calls for greater diversity, equity and inclusion at every level of scientific research and, ultimately, of medical care. A recently released article in the journal Nature Cell Biology, calls for “new models for basic and disease research that reflect diverse ancestral backgrounds and sex and ensure that diverse populations are included among donors and research participants.”

The authors of the article are Dr. Maria T. Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO; Rick Horwitz Senior Advisor and Executive Director, Emeritus, Allen Institute for Cell Science; Dr. Ekemini Riley, President, Coalition for Aligning Science; and Dr. Ruwanthi N. Gunawardane, Executive Director of the Allen Institute for Cell Science.

Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO, says we need to make these issues a part of everything we do. “At CIRM we have incorporated the principles of promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in our research funding programs, education programs and future programs. We believe this is essential to ensure that the therapies our support helps advance will reach all patients in need and in particular communities that are disproportionately affected and/or under-served.”

The article highlights how, in addition to cultural, environmental, and socioeconomic factors, genetic factors also appear to play a role in the way disease affects different people. For example, 50 percent of people in South Asia have genetic traits that increases their risk for severe COVID-19, in contrast only 16 percent of Europeans have those traits.

But while some studies have shown how African American men are at greater risk for prostate cancer than white men, most of the research in this and other areas has been done on white populations of European ancestry. Efforts are already underway to change these disparities. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has sponsored the All of Us Research Program, which is inviting one million people across the U.S. to help build one of the most diverse health databases in history.

The article in Nature Cell Biology stresses the need to account for diversity at the individual molecular, cellular and tissue level. The authors make the point that diversity in those taking part in clinical trials is essential, but equally essential is that diverse biology is accounted for in the scientific work that leads to the development of potential therapies in order to increase the likelihood of success.

That’s why the authors of the article say: “If we are to truly understand human biology, address health disparities, and personalize our treatments, we need to go beyond our important, ongoing efforts in addressing diversity and inclusion in the workforce and the delivery of healthcare. We need to improve the data we generate by including diverse populations among donors and research participants. This will require new models and tools for basic and disease research that more closely reflect the diversity of human tissues, across diverse donor backgrounds.”

“Greater diversity in biological studies is not only the right thing to do, it is crucial to helping researchers make new discoveries that benefit everyone,” said Ru Gunawardane, Executive Director of the Allen Institute for Cell Science.

To do this they propose creating “a suite” of research cells, such as human induced pluripotent stem cell (hiPSC) lines from a diverse group of individuals to reflect the racial, ethnic and gender composition of the population. Human iPSCs are cells taken from any tissue (usually skin or blood) from a child or adult that have been genetically modified to behave like an embryonic stem cell. As the name implies, these cells are pluripotent, which means that they can become any type of adult cell.

CIRM has already created one version of what this suite would look like, through its iPSC Repository, a collection of more than 2,600 hiPSCs from individuals of diverse ancestries, including African, Hispanic, Native American, East and South Asian, and European. The Allen Institute for Cell Science also has a collection that could serve as a model for this kind of repository. Its collection of over 50 hiPSC

lines have been thoroughly analyzed on both a genomic and biological level and could also be broken down to include diversity in donor ethnicity and sex.

Currently researchers use cells from different lines and often follow very different procedures in using them, making it hard to compare results from one study to another. Having a diverse and well defined collection of research cells and cell models that are created by standardized procedures, could make it easier to compare results from different studies and share knowledge within the scientific community. By incorporating diversity in the very early stages of scientific research, the scientists and therapy developers gain a more complete picture of the biology disease and potential treatments.  

Bridges Scholar Spotlight: Samira Alwahabi

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For more than a decade, CIRM has funded a number of educational and research training programs to give students the opportunity to explore stem cell science. One such project, the Bridges to Stem Cell Research program, helps train future generation of scientists by preparing undergraduate and master’s students from several California universities for careers in stem cell research.

Last summer, the Pacific Division of AAAS organized a ‘Moving on from COVID-19’ virtual forum specifically focused on students of science presenting their future career and research plans through 3-5 minute descriptive videos. 

Samira Alwahabi, a Bridges scholar and undergraduate student majoring in Biological Sciences at California State University, Fullerton was one of the many participants who submitted a video detailing their current work and future aspirations. Alwahabi is a CIRM intern conducting research in the Kuo lab at the Stanford University School of Medicine where she focuses on the identification and characterization of human distal lung stem cells as well as the effects of the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus on the human distal lung through the use of organoids. Her video, which you can watch below, was recognized for “Best Video Submission by an Undergraduate Student.” 

We reached out to Samira to congratulate her and she shared a few words with us about her experience with the Bridges program:

I am very grateful to the CSUF Bridges to Stem Cell Research program for giving me the opportunity to pursue research in the Kuo Lab at Stanford University. The past 11 months have been nothing less than exceptional! I have learned more than I could have even imagined and have been able to really solidify my future career goals through hands-on practice and interactions with professionals at all levels in the field of medical research. The CIRM Bridges program has allowed me to better understand how medical advancements are made and helped to further strengthen my interest in medicine. My future career goals include a career in medicine as a physician, where I will be able to use my research experience to better understand medical innovations that translate into improved quality of care for my patients. 

Congratulations Samira!

Sweating bullets and other stories from the front line

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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the 2020 election became one of the most contentious in living history it suddenly made trying to get a proposition on the ballot in California a lot harder. That meant the fate of Proposition 14, a ballot initiative refunding CIRM, California’s Stem Cell Agency, was in doubt. And if the agency went down, then a vital source of future funding for scientific research that could change and even save lives would also disappear.

It was a pretty nerve-racking time for all of us involved. We waited day after day after day after day before the election was finally called. Happily, it was in our favor. But only just!

In this podcast we talk to two of the key figures in this saga. Melissa King and Maria Bonneville. Melissa was part of the team that helped secure the votes needed to pass Proposition 14, and Maria helped keep CIRM on track to cope with whatever the outcome of the election was. 

I hope you enjoy this latest episode of our podcast ‘Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation.’

COVID is a real pain in the ear

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The more you learn about COVID-19 the more there is to dislike about it. The global death toll from the virus is now more than five million and for those who survive there can be long-term health consequences. We know COVID can attack the lungs, heart and brain. Now we are learning it can also mess up your ears causing hearing problems, ringing in the ear (tinnitus) and leave you dizzy.

Viral infections are a known cause of hearing loss and other kinds of infection. That’s why, before the pandemic started, Dr. Konstantina Stantovic at Massachusetts Eye and Ear and Dr. Lee Gherke at MIT had been studying how and why things like measles, mumps and hepatitis affected people’s hearing. After COVID hit they heard reports of patients experiencing sudden hearing loss and other problems, so they decided to take a closer look.

They took cells from ten patients who had all experienced some hearing or ear-related problems after testing positive for COVID and, using the iPSC method, turned those cells into the kind found in the inner ear including hair cells, supporting cells, nerve fibers, and Schwann cells.  

They then compared those to cells from patients who had similar hearing issues but who had not been infected with COVID. They found that the hair and Schwann cells both had proteins the virus can use to infect cells. That’s important because hair cells help with balance and the Schwann cells play a protective role for neuronal axons, which help different nerve cells in the brain communicate with each other.

In contrast, some of the other cells in the inner ear didn’t have those proteins and so were protected from COVID.

In a news release Dr. Stankovic says it’s not known how many people infected with COVID experienced hearing issues. “Initially this was because routine testing was not readily available for patients who were diagnosed with COVID, and also, when patients were having more life-threatening complications, they weren’t paying much attention to whether their hearing was reduced or whether they had tinnitus. We still don’t know what the incidence is, but our findings really call for increased attention to audio vestibular symptoms in people with Covid exposure.”

The doctors are not sure how the virus gets into the inner ear but speculate that it may enter through the Eustachian tube, that’s a small passageway that connects your throat to your middle ear. When you sneeze, swallow, or yawn, your Eustachian tubes open, preventing air pressure and fluid from building up inside your ear. They think that might allow particles from the nose to spread to the ear.

The study is published in the journal Communications Medicine.

CIRM has funded 17 different projects targeting COVID-19, several of which are still active.

Beware of misleading headlines and claims

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Coronavirus particles, illustration.

When the COVID pandemic broke out researchers all over the world scrambled to find new approaches to tackling the virus. Some of these, such as the vaccines, proved remarkably effective. Others, such as the anti-parasite medication ivermectin or the anti-malaria drug chloroquine, were not only not helpful, they were sometimes harmful.

Part of the problem was the understandable desire to find something, anything that would protect people from the virus. But another part of the problem was that even with research that was based on solid science, the reporting of that research in the media sometimes tilted towards hype rather than hard evidence.

A new study in the journal Stem Cell Reports takes a look at the explosion of research targeting COVID. They highlighted the lack of rigor that sometimes accompanied that research, and the lack of regulation that allowed some predatory clinics to offer stem cell “therapies” that had never been tested in people let alone shown to be either safe or effective.

Dr. Leigh Turner, from the University of California Irvine and a co-author of the study, warned against studies that were cutting ethical and scientific corners. “Scientists, regulators, and policymakers must guard against the proliferation of poorly designed, underpowered, and duplicative studies that are launched with undue haste because of the pandemic, but are unlikely to provide convincing, clinically meaningful safety and efficacy data.”

The researchers cited an earlier study (by UC Davis’ Dr. Paul Knoepfler and Dr. Mina Kim) that looked at 70 clinical trials involving cell-based treatments for COVID-19. Drs. Knoepfler and Kim found that most were small, involving around 50 patients, and only 22.8% were randomized, double-blinded, and controlled experiments. They say even if these produced promising results they would have to be tested in much larger numbers to be of real benefit.

Another issue that Turner and his team highlighted was the hype that sometimes accompanied this work, citing news releases that over-hyped findings and failed to mention study limitations to gain more media coverage.

In a news release Dr. Laertis Ikonomou, of the University at Buffalo and a co-author of the study, said over-hyping treatments is nothing new but that it seemed to become even more common during COVID.

“Therefore, it is even more important to communicate promising developments in COVID-19-related science and clinical management [responsibly]. Key features of good communication are an accurate understanding of new findings, including study limitations and avoidance of sensationalist language.”

“Realistic time frames for clinical translation are equally important as is the realization that promising interventions at preliminary stages may not always translate to proven treatments following rigorous testing.”

They also warned about clinics advertising “stem cell therapies” that were unproven and unlicensed and often involved injecting the patients’ own cells back into them. The researchers say it’s time that the FDA and other authorities cracked down on companies taking advantage of patients in this way.

“If companies and affiliated clinicians are not fined, forced to return to patients whatever profits they have made, confronted with criminal charges, subject to revocation of medical licensure, or otherwise subject to serious legal and financial consequences, it is possible that more businesses will be drawn to this space because of the profits that can be generated from selling unlicensed and unproven cell-based products in the midst of a pandemic.”

At a time when so many were dying or suffering long-term health problems as a result of COVID, it’s unconscionable that others were happy to cash in on the fear and pain to make a quick buck.

When the pandemic broke out the CIRM Board voted to approved $5 million in emergency funding to help develop new therapies to combat the virus. Altogether we funded 17 different projects including three clinical trials.

Study shows that COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective in people with cancer

As we have seen in the US and all around the world, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can cause severe complications and even death in many patients. In the early days of the pandemic, CIRM authorized $5 million in emergency funding for projects targeting the virus. To date CIRM has funded 20 projects related to COVID-19 research, including three clinical studies.

Luckily there have been several vaccines developed that are extremely effective at protecting individuals from the virus. These vaccines work by priming the body’s immune system to produce antibodies that are able to recognize and destroy SARS-CoV-2.

However, one question that remains is if patients with a weakened immune system, such as those receiving active cancer treatment, would be able to produce the antibodies after vaccination. Fortunately, a review of 200 patients with a wide spectrum of cancer diagnoses conducted by researchers at Montefiore Health System and Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, NY, found that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective in people with cancer.

The study looked at the rate of seroconversion, which indicates the presence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, in patients with solid tumors and blood cancers. The higher the rate of seroconversion, the more protection from COVID the patient has. The results showed that overall 94 percent of patients demonstrated seroconversion. Patients with solid tumors had a higher seroconversion rate compared to patients with blood cancers. Among patients with solid tumors 98 percent showed seroconversion while those with blood cancers showed a seroconversion rate of 85 percent.

The seroconversion rate also varied between those that received different cancer treatments. Those that received therapies for blood cancers that work by killing B cells (such as rituximab or CAR-T therapies) showed seroconversion rates of 70 percent. For those who had recently had bone marrow or stem cell transplants, the success rate was 74 percent. But the researchers stated that those rates were still much higher than expected.

In a news release, Amit Verma, M.B.B.S., senior co-author on the study, stresses the importance of cancer patients getting vaccinated.

“Vaccination among these populations have been lower, even though these groups were hardest hit by the pandemic. It’s important to stress how well these patient populations did with the vaccines.”

The full results of the study were published in Cancer Cell.

CIRM funding helps identify potential COVID-19 treatment

The steps of the virus growth cycle that can be targeted with therapies: The virus enters a host cell (1), the virus’s genetic instructions are released, taking over cellular machinery (2), the virus is replicated within the cell (3) and copies of the virus exit the cell in search of new host cells to infect (4). Drugs like berzosertib might disrupt steps 2 and 3.  Image credit: Marc Roseboro/California NanoSytems Institute at UCLA

During the global pandemic, many researchers have responded to the needs of patients severely afflicted with COVID-19 by repurposing existing therapies being developed to treat patients.  CIRM responded immediately to the pandemic and to researchers wanting to help by providing $5 million in emergency funding for COVID-19 related projects. 

One of these grants ($349,999), awarded to Dr. Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami at UCLA, has aided a study that has singled out a compound that shows promise for treating SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

In the spirit of banding together to help patients severely affected by COVID-19, the project was a collaboration among scientists from UCLA and other universities in California, Delaware and Germany, as well as a German pharmaceutical company.

The compound is named berzosertib and is licensed by the company Merck KGaA in Darmstadt, Germany.  Prior to the pandemic, it was developed for potential use, in combination with chemotherapy, as a possible treatment for small-cell lung cancer, ovarian cancer, and other types of solid tumors.

The team screened 430 drugs from among the approximately 200,000 compounds in CNSI’s Molecular Screening Shared Resource libraries before zeroing in on berzosertib as the most promising candidate.  They limited their search to compounds that either had been approved, or are already in the process of being evaluated, for safety in humans.

In a press release from UCLA, Dr. Arumugawami explains the rationale behind screening a potential drug candidate.

“That way, the compounds have cleared the first regulatory hurdle and could be deployed for further clinical trials on COVID-19 faster than drugs that have not been tested in humans.”

The researchers, led by Dr. Arumugaswami and Dr. Robert Damoiseaux from UCLA, conducted a series of experiments using different cell types in lab dishes to look at how effective the compound was at blocking SARS-CoV-2 from replicating.  Unlike other approaches which attack the virus directly, targeting replication could help better address the ability of the virus to mutate. 

For this study, the team used cells from the kidney, heart and lungs, all of which are organs that the virus is known to attack. The researchers pretreated cells with berzosertib, exposed the cells to SARS-CoV-2, allowed 48 hours for infection to set in, and then evaluated the results.

The team found that the compound consistently stalled SARS-CoV-2 replication without damaging the cells. The scientists also tested the drug against SARS and MERS, both of which are other types of coronaviruses that triggered deadly outbreaks earlier in the 2000s. They found that it was effective in stopping the replication of those viruses as well.

In the same press release from UCLA, Dr. Damoiseaux expressed optimism for what these findings could mean as a potential treatment.

“This is a chance to actually find a drug that might be broader in spectrum, which could also help fight coronaviruses that are yet to come.”

The next steps for this research would be to explore the mechanism through which the compound blocks coronavirus replication.  Understanding this and conducting preclinical studies are both necessary before the compound could be tested in clinical trials for COVID-19.

The full results of this study were published in Cell Reports.

The study’s co-corresponding author is Ulrich Betz of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany; the company also provided partial funding and clinical-grade berzosertib for the research. Other co-authors are from UCLA, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, UC Irvine, University of Delaware, the Leibniz Institute for Experimental Virology in Germany, Heidelberg University in Germany and Scripps Research Institute.

In addition to CIRM, the study was also funded by CNSI, the Broad Stem Cell Research Center, the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, the National Eye Institute, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Scientists look at how the lung and brain respond differently to SARS-CoV-2 infection

UC San Diego School of Medicine researchers found approximately 10-fold higher SARS-CoV-2 infection (green) in lung organoids (left), compared to brain organoids (right). Image courtesy of UCSD Health

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic early last year, scientists all over the world are still trying to better understand SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Although the more commonly known symptoms involve respiratory issues, there have been other long term problems observed in recovered patients. These consist of heart issues, fatigue, and neurological issues such as loss of taste and smell and “brain fog”.

To better understand this, Dr. Tariq Rana and a team of researchers at the UC San Diego School of Medicine are using stem cells to create lung and brain organoids to better understand how the virus interacts with the various organ systems and to better develop therapies that block infection. Organoids are 3D models made of cells that can be used to analyze certain features of the human organ being modeled. Although they are far from perfect replicas, they can be used to study physical structure and other characteristics. 

The team’s lung and brain organoids produced molecules ACE2 and TMPRSS2, which sit like doorknobs on the outer surfaces of cells. SARS-CoV-2 is able to use these doorknobs to enter cells and establish infection.

Dr. Rana and his team then developed a pseudovirus, a noninfectious version of SARS-CoV-2, and attached a fluorescent label, allowing them to measure how effectively the virus binds in human lung and brain organoids as well as to evaluate the cells’ response. The team was surprised to see an approximately 10-fold higher SARS-CoV-2 infection in lung organoids compared to brain organoids. Additionally, treatment with TMPRSS2 inhibitors reduced infection levels in both organoids.

Besides differences in infection levels, the lung and brain organoids also differed in their responses to the virus. Infected lung organoids pumped out molecules intended to summon help from the immune system while infected brain organoids upped their production of molecules that plays a fundamental role in pathogen recognition and activation of the body’s own immune defenses.

In a news release from UC San Diego Health, Dr. Rana elaborates on the results of his study.

“We’re finding that SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t infect the entire body in the same way. In different cell types, the virus triggers the expression of different genes, and we see different outcomes.”

The next steps for Rana and his team is to develop SARS-CoV-2 inhibitors and test out how well they work in organoid models derived from people of a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds that represent California’s diverse population. To carry out this research, CIRM awarded Dr. Rana a grant of $250,000, which is part of the $5 million in emergency funding for COVID-19 research that CIRM authorized at the beginning of the pandemic.

The full results of this study can be found in Stem Cell Reports.

Everything you wanted to know about COVID vaccines but never got a chance to ask

All this month we are using our blog and social media to highlight a new chapter in CIRM’s life, thanks to the voters approving Proposition 14. We are looking back at what we have done since we were created in 2004, and also looking forward to the future. Today we feature a rare treat, an interview with Moderna’s Dr. Derrick Rossi.

Moderna co-founder Dr. Derrick Rossi

It’s not often you get a chance to sit down with one of the key figures in the fight against the coronavirus and get to pick his brain about the best ways to beat it. We were fortunate enough to do that on Wednesday, talking to Dr. Derrick Rossi, the co-founder of Moderna, about the vaccine his company has developed.

CIRM’s President and CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, was able to chat to Dr. Rossi for one hour about his background (he got support from CIRM in his early post-doctoral research at Stanford) and how he and his colleagues were able to develop the COVID-19 vaccine, how the vaccine works, how effective it is, how it performs against new variations of the virus.

He also told us what he would have become if this science job hadn’t worked out.

All in all it was a fascinating conversation with someone whose work is offering a sense of hope for millions of people around the world.

If you missed it first time around you can watch it here.

How a CIRM scholar helped create a life-saving COVID vaccine

Dr. Derrick Rossi might be the most famous man whose name you don’t recognize. Dr. Rossi is the co-founder of Moderna. Yes, that Moderna. The COVID-19 vaccine Moderna. The vaccine that in clinical trials proved to be around 95 percent effective against the coronavirus.

Dr. Rossi also has another claim to fame. He is a former CIRM scholar. He did some of his early research, with our support, in the lab of Stanford’s Dr. Irv Weissman.

So how do you go from a lowly post doc doing research in what, at the time, was considered a rather obscure scientific field, to creating a company that has become the focus of the hopes of millions of people around the world?  Well, join us on Wednesday, January 27th at 9am (PST) to find out.

CIRM’s President and CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, will hold a live conversation with Dr. Rossi and we want you to be part of it. You can join us to listen in, and even post questions for Dr. Rossi to answer. Think of the name dropping credentials you’ll get when say to your friends; “Well, I asked Dr. Rossi about that and he told me…..”

Being part of the conversation is as simple as clicking on this link:

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

We look forward to seeing you there.