Teaching stem cells to play video games

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video games atari pong
Pong video game

Back when I was growing up, shortly after the extinction of the dinosaurs, there was a popular video game called Pong. It was, in fact, pretty much the only video game at the time. It was a pretty simple game. You moved a “paddle” to hit a ball and knock it back across the screen to your opponent. If your opponent missed it you won the point. It was a really simplified form of video ping pong (hence the name). 

So why am I telling you this? Well, researchers in the UK and Australia have devised a way of teaching blobs of brain cells how to play Pong. I kid you not. 

Playing Pong

What they did was turn stem cells into brain cells, as part of a system called Dishbrain. Using software, they helped these neurons or brain cells communicate with each other through electrical stimulation and recordings. 

In an article in Newsweek, (yup, Newsweek is still around) the researchers explained that using these electrical signals they could help the cells identify where the “ball” was. For example, if the signals came from the left that meant the “ball” was on the right. 

In the study they say: “Using this DishBrain system, we have demonstrated that a single layer of in vitro (in a dish) cortical neurons can self-organize and display intelligent and sentient behavior when embodied in a simulated game-world.” We have shown that even without a substantial filtering of cellular activity, statistically robust differences over time and against controls could be observed in the behavior of neuronal cultures in adapting to goal directed tasks.”

Now you might think this was just something the researchers dreamed up to pass time during COVID, but they say understanding how these brain cells can learn and respond could help them develop other methods of using neurons that might be even cooler than playing video games. 

The study is published in the journal BioRXiv

A year unlike any other – a look back at one year post Prop 14

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State flag of California

2020 was, by any standards, a pretty wacky year. Pandemic. Political convulsions. And a huge amount of uncertainty as to the funding of life-saving therapies at CIRM. Happily those all turned out OK. We got vaccines to take care of COVID. The election was won fair and square (seriously). And Proposition 14 was approved by the voters of California, re-funding your favorite state Stem Cell Agency.

But for a while, quite a while, there was uncertainty surrounding our future. For a start, once the pandemic lockdown kicked in it was impossible for people to go out and collect the signatures needed to place Proposition 14 on the November ballot. So the organizers of the campaign reached out online, using petitions that people could print out and sign and mail in.

It worked. But even after getting all the signatures needed they faced problems such as how do you campaign to get something passed, when the normal channels are not available. The answer is you get very creative very quickly.

Bob Klein

Bob Klein, the driving force behind both Proposition 71 (the 2004 ballot initiative that created CIRM) and Proposition 14, says it was challenging:

“It was a real adventure. It’s always hard, you have a complicated message about stem cells and genetics and therapy and it’s always a challenge to get a million signatures for a ballot initiative but in the middle of a pandemic where we had to shut down the signature gathering at grocery stores and street corners, where we had to go to petitions that had to be sent to voters and get them to fill them out properly and send them back. And of course the state went into an economic recoil because of the pandemic and people were worried about the money.”

Challenging absolutely, but ultimately successful. On November 13, ten days after the election, Prop 14 was declared the winner.

As our President and CEO, Dr. Maria Millan says, we went from an agency getting ready to close its doors to one ramping up for a whole new adventure.

“We faced many challenges in 2020. CIRM’s continued existence was hinging on the passage of a new bond initiative and we began the year uncertain if it would even make it on the ballot.  We had a plan in place to wind down and close operations should additional funding not materialize.  During the unrest and challenges brought by 2020, and functioning in a virtual format, we retained our core group of talented individuals who were able to mobilize our emergency covid research funding round, continue to advance our important research programs and clinical trials and initiate the process of strategic planning in the event that CIRM was reauthorized through a new bond initiative. Fortunately, we planned for success and Proposition 14 passed against all odds!”

“When California said “Yes,” the CIRM team was positioned to launch the next Era of CIRM! We have recruited top talent to grow the team and have developed a new strategic plan and evolved our mission:  Accelerating world-class science to deliver transformative regenerative medicine treatments to a diverse California and worldwide in an equitable manner.” 

And since that close call we have been very busy. In the last year we have hired 16 new employees, everyone from a new General Counsel to the Director of Finance, and more are on the way as we ramp up our ability to turn our new vision into a reality.

We have also been working hard to ensure we could continue to fund groundbreaking research from the early-stage Discovery work, to testing therapies in patients in clinical trials. Altogether our Board has approved almost $250 million in 56 new awards since December 2020. That includes:

Clinical – $84M (9 awards)

Translational – $15M (3 awards)

Discovery – $13M (11 awards)

Education – $138M (33 awards)

We have also enrolled more than 360 new patients in clinical trials that we fund or that are being carried out in the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic network.

This is a good start, but we know we have a lot more work to do in the coming years.

The last year has flown by and brought more than its fair share of challenges. But the CIRM team has shown that it can rise to those, in person and remotely, and meet them head on. We are already looking forward to 2022. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

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.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears – we have a podcast for you.

It seems like everyone, including my dog Freddie, has a podcast these days. So now we do too.

According to the Podcasthosting.org website there are some two million podcasts in the world. Make that two million and one. That’s because CIRM is launching its own podcast and doing it with one of the biggest names in biotech.

Our podcast is called – with a nod to The Who – “Talking ’bout (Re)Generation” and the first episode features our President & CEO Dr. Maria Millan interviewing Dr. Derrick Rossi, the co-founder of Moderna. Moderna, as I am sure you know, is the maker of one of the most effective vaccines against COVID.

In the interview Dr. Rossi talks about his early days as a postdoc at Stanford – supported by CIRM – and the career arc that led him to help create the company behind the vaccine, and what his plans are for the future. It’s a fun, chatty, lively interview; one you can listen to in the car, at home or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

We want the podcast to be fun for your ear holes and interesting and engaging for your brain. We’re going to be talking to scientists and researchers, doctors and nurses, patients and patient advocates and anyone else we think has something worth listening to.

We have other episodes planned and will share those with you in the near future. In the meantime, if you have any ideas or individuals you think would make a good subject for a podcast let us know, we are always happy to hear from you.

In the meantime, enjoy the show.

Going the extra mile to save a patient’s life

You can tell an awful lot about a company by the people it hires and the ability it gives them to do their job in an ethical, principled way. By that measure Rocket Pharma is a pretty darn cool company.

Rocket Pharma is running a CIRM-funded clinical trial for Leukocyte Adhesion Deficiency-I (LAD-I), a rare genetic immune disorder that leaves patients vulnerable to repeated infections that often results in death within the first two years of life. The therapy involves taking some of the child’s own blood stem cells and, in the lab, correcting the mutation that causes LAD-I, then returning those cells to the patient. Hopefully those blood stem cells then create a new, healthy blood supply and repair the immune system.

So far, they have treated the majority of the nine patients in this Phase 1/2 clinical trial. Here’s the story of three of those children, all from the same family. Every patient’s path to the treatment has been uniquely challenging. For one family, it’s been a long, rough road, but one that shows how committed Rocket Pharma (Rocket) is to helping people in need.

The patient, a young girl, is from India. The family has already lost one child to what was almost certainly LAD-I, and now they faced the very real prospect of losing their daughter too. She had already suffered numerous infections and the future looked bleak. Fortunately, the team at Rocket heard about her and decided they wanted to help enroll her in their clinical trial.

Dr. Gayatri Rao, Rocket Pharmaceuticals

Dr. Gayatri Rao, the Global Program Head for the LAD-I therapy, this patient was about 6 months old when they heard about her: “She had already been in and out of the hospital numerous times so the family were really interested in enrolling the patient. But getting the family to the US was daunting.”

Over the course of several months, the team at Rocket helped navigate the complicated immigration process. Because the parents and child would need to make several trips to the US for treatment and follow-up exams they would need multiple-entry visas. “Just to get all the paper work necessary was a monumental task. Everything had to be translated because the family didn’t speak English. By the time the family flew to Delhi for their visa interview they had a dossier that filled a 3 inch binder.”  Rocket worked closely with partners in India to provide the family on-the-ground support every step of the way.  To help ensure the family received the visas they needed, Rocket also reached out to members of Congress and six members wrote in support of the family’s application.

Finally, everything fell into place. The family had the visas, all the travel arrangements were made. The Rocket team had even found an apartment near the UCLA campus where the family would stay during the treatment and stocked it with Indian food.

But on the eve of their flight to the US, the coronavirus pandemic hit. International flights were cancelled. Borders were closed. A year of work was put on hold and, more important, the little girl’s life hung in the balance.

Over the course of the next few months the little girl suffered several infections and had to be hospitalized. The family caught COVID and had to undergo quarantine till they recovered. But still the Rocket team kept working on a plan to bring them to the US. Finally, in late January, as vaccines became available and international flights opened up once again, the family were able to come to the US. One west-coast based Rocket team member even made sure that upon arriving to the apartment in UCLA, there was a home-cooked meal, a kitchen stocked with groceries, and handmade cards welcoming them to help transition the family into their new temporary “home.” They are now in living in that apartment near UCLA, waiting for the treatment to start.

Gayatri says it would have been easy to say: “this is too hard” and try to find another patient in the trial, but no one at Rocket wanted to do that: “Once a patient gets identified, we feel like we know them and the team feels invested in doing everything we can for them. We know it may not work out. But at the end of the day, we recognize that this child often has no other choices, and that motivates us to keep going despite the challenges.  If anything, this experience has taught us that with persistence and creativity, we can surmount these challenges.”

Maybe doing the right thing brings its own rewards, because this earlier this month Rocket was granted Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy (RMAT) designation for their treatment for LAD-I. This is a big deal because it means the therapy has already shown it appears to be safe and potentially beneficial to patients, so the designation means that if it continues to be safe and effective it may be eligible for a faster, more streamlined approval process. And that means it can get to the patients who need it, outside of a clinical trial, faster.

Month of CIRM: Battling COVID-19

All this month we are using our blog and social media to highlight a new chapter in CIRM’s life, thanks to the people of California 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.

Dr. John Zaia, City of Hope stem cell researcher

The news that effective vaccines have been developed to help fight COVID-19 was a truly bright spot at the end of a very dark year. But it will be months, in some countries years, before we have enough vaccines to protect everyone. That’s why it’s so important to keep pushing for more effective ways to help people who get infected with the virus.

One of those ways is in a clinical study that CIRM is funding with City of Hope’s Dr. John Zaia. Dr. Zaia and his team, in partnership with the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) in Flagstaff, Arizona, are using something called convalescent plasma to try and help people who have contracted the virus. Here’s the website they have created for the study.

Plasma is a part of our blood that carries proteins, called antibodies, that help defend our bodies against viral infections. When a patient recovers from COVID-19, their blood plasma contains antibodies against the virus. The hope is that those antibodies can now be used as a potential treatment for COVID-19 to help people who are newly infected. 

To carry out the study they are using clinical trial sites around California, including some of the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Network clinics.

For the study to succeed they’ll first need people who have recovered from the virus to donate blood. That’s particularly appropriate in January because this is National Volunteer Blood Donor Month.

The team has three elements to their approach:

  • A rapid-response screening program to screen potential COVID-19 convalescent plasma donors, particularly in underserved communities.
  • A laboratory center that can analyze the anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies properties in COVID-19 convalescent plasma.
  • An analysis of the clinical course of the disease in COVID-19 patients to identify whether antibody properties correlate with clinical benefit of COVID-19 convalescent plasma.

There’s reason to believe this approach might work. A study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that blood plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 can help older adults and prevent them from getting seriously ill with the virus if they get the plasma within a few days of becoming infected.

We are used to thinking of blood donations as being used to help people after surgery or who have been in an accident. In this study the donations serve another purpose, but one that is no less important. The World Health Organization describes blood as “the most precious gift that anyone can give to another person — the gift of life. A decision to donate your blood can save a life, or even several if your blood is separated into its components — red cells, platelets and plasma.”

That plasma could help in developing more effective treatments against the virus. Because until we have enough vaccines for everyone, we are still going to need as much help as we can get in fighting COVID-19. The recent surge in cases throughout the US and Europe are a reminder that this virus is far from under control. We have already lost far too many people. So, if you have recently recovered from the virus, or know someone who has, consider donating blood to this study. It could prove to be a lifesaver.

For more information about the study and how you can be part of it, click here.

Battling COVID and turning back the clock on stem cell funding

Coronavirus

Battling the virus that causes COVID-19 is something that is top of everyone’s mind right now. That’s why CIRM is funding 17 different projects targeting the virus. But one of the most valuable tools in helping develop vaccines against a wide variety of diseases in the past is now coming under threat. We’ll talk about both issues in a live broadcast we’re holding on Wednesday, October 14th at noon (PDT).

That date is significant because it’s Stem Cell Awareness Day and we thought it appropriate to host a meeting looking at two of the most important issues facing the field.

The first part of the event will focus on the 17 projects that CIRM is funding that target COVID-19. This includes three clinical trials aiming to treat people who have been infected with the virus and are experiencing some of the more severe effects, such as damaged lungs.

We’ll also look at some of the earlier stage research that includes:

  • Work to help develop a vaccine
  • Using muscle stem cells to help repair damage to the diaphragm in patients who have spent an extended period on a ventilator
  • Boosting immune system cells to help fight the virus

The second part of the event will look at ways that funding for stem cell research at the federal level is once again coming into question. The federal government has already imposed new restrictions on funding for fetal tissue research, and now there are efforts in Congress to restrict funding for embryonic stem cell research.

The impacts could be significant. Fetal tissue has been used for decades to help develop some of the most important vaccines used today including rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis A, and shingles. They have also been used to make approved drugs against diseases including hemophilia, rheumatoid arthritis, and cystic fibrosis.

We’ll look at some of the reasons why we are seeing these potential restrictions on the medical research and what impact they could have on the ability to develop new treatments for the coronavirus and other deadly diseases.

You can watch the CIRM Stem Cell Awareness Day live event by going here: https://www.youtube.com/c/CIRMTV/videos at noon on Wednesday, October 14th.

Feel free to share news about this event with anyone you think might be interested.

We look forward to seeing you there.