Has Regenerative Medicine Come of Age?

Signals logo

For the past few years the Signals blog site –  which offers an insiders’ perspectives on the world of regenerative medicine and stem cell research – has hosted what it calls a “Blog Carnival”. This is an event where bloggers from across the stem cell field are invited to submit a piece based on a common theme. This year’s theme is “Has Regenerative Medicine Come of Age?” Here’s my take on that question:

Many cultures have different traditions to mark when a child comes of age. A bar mitzvah is a Jewish custom marking a boy reaching his 13th birthday when he is considered accountable for his own actions. Among Latinos in the US a quinceañera is the name given to the coming-of-age celebration on a girl’s 15th birthday.

Regenerative Medicine (RM) doesn’t have anything quite so simple or obvious, and yet the signs are strong that if RM hasn’t quite come of age, it’s not far off.

For example, look at our experience at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). When we were created by the voters of California in 2004 the world of stem cell research was still at a relatively immature phase. In fact, CIRM was created just six years after scientists first discovered a way to derive stem cells from human embryos and develop those cells in the laboratory. No surprise then that in the first few years of our existence we devoted a lot of funding to building world class research facilities and investing in basic research, to gain a deeper understanding of stem cells, what they could do and how we could use them to develop therapies.

Fast forward 14 years and we now have funded 49 projects in clinical trials – everything from stroke and cancer to spinal cord injury and HIV/AIDS – and our early funding also helped another 11 projects get into clinical trials. Clearly the field has advanced dramatically.

In addition the FDA last year approved the first two CAR-T therapies – Kymriah and Yescarta – another indication that progress is being made at many levels.

But there is still a lot of work to do. Many of the trials we are funding at the Stem Cell Agency are either Phase 1 or 2 trials. We have only a few Phase 3 trials on our books, a pattern reflected in the wider RM field. For some projects the results are very encouraging – Dr. Gary Steinberg’s work at Stanford treating people recovering from a stroke is tremendously promising. For others, the results are disappointing. We have cancelled some projects because it was clear they were not going to meet their goals. That is to be expected. These clinical trials are experiments that are testing, often for the first time ever in people, a whole new way of treating disease. Failure comes with the territory.

As the number of projects moving out of the lab and into clinical trials increases so too are the other signs of progress in RM. We recently held a workshop bringing together researchers and regulators from all over the world to explore the biggest problems in manufacturing, including how you go from making a small batch of stem cells for a few patients in an early phase clinical trial to mass producing them for thousands, if not millions of patients. We are also working with the National Institutes of Health and other stakeholders in discussing the idea of reimbursement, figuring out who pays for these therapies so they are available to the patients who need them.

And as the field advances so too do the issues we have to deal with. The discovery of the gene-editing tool CRISPR has opened up all sorts of possible new ways of developing treatments for deadly diseases. But it has also opened up a Pandora’s box of ethical issues that the field as a whole is working hard to respond to.

These are clear signs of a maturing field. Five years ago, we dreamed of having these kinds of conversations. Now they are a regular feature of any RM conference.

The simple fact that we can pose a question asking if RM has come of age is a sign all by itself that we are on the way.

Like little kids sitting in the back of a car, anxious to get to their destination, we are asking “Are we there yet?” And as every parent in the front seat of their car responds, “Not yet. But soon.”

For the first time, scientists entirely reprogram human skin cells to iPSCs using CRISPR

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CRISPR iPSC colony of human skin cells showing expression of SOX2 and TRA-1-60, markers of human embryonic pluripotent stem cells

Back in 2012, Shinya Yamanaka was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his group’s identification of “Yamanaka Factors,” a group of genes that are capable of turning ordinary skin cells into induced pluripotentent stem cells (iPSCs) which have the ability to become any type of cell within the body. Discovery of iPSCs was, and has been, groundbreaking because it not only allows for unprecedented avenues to study human disease, but also has implications for using a patient’s own cells to treat a wide variety of diseases.

Recently, Timo Otonkoski’s group at the University of Helsinki along with Juha Kere’s group at the Karolinska Institutet and King’s College, London have found a way to program iPSCs from skin cells using CRISPR, a gene editing technology. Their approach allows for the induction, or turning on of iPSCs using the cells own DNA, instead of introducing the previously identified Yamanka Factors into cells of interest.

As detailed in their study, published in the journal Nature Communications, this is the first instance of mature human cells being completely reprogrammed into pluripotent cells using only CRISPR. Instead of using the canonical CRISPR system that allows the CAS9 protein (an enzyme that is able to cut DNA, thus rendering a gene of interest dysfunctional) to mutate any gene of interest, this group used a modified version of the CAS9 protein, which allows them to turn on or off the gene that CAS9 is targeted to.

The robustness of their approach lies in the researcher’s identification of a DNA sequence that is commonly found near genes involved in embryonic development. As CAS9 needs to be guided to genes of interest to do its job, identification of this common motif allows multiple genes associated with pluripotency to be activated in mature human skin cells, and greatly increased the efficiency and effectiveness of this approach.

In a press release, Dr. Otonkoski further highlights the novelty and viability of this approach:

“…Reprogramming based on activation of endogenous genes rather than overexpression of transgenes is…theoretically a more physiological way of controlling cell fate and may result in more normal cells…”

 

Stem Cell Roundup: New understanding of Huntington’s; how stem cells can double your DNA; and using “the Gary Oldman of cell types” to reverse aging

This week’s roundup highlights how we are constantly finding out new and exciting ways that stem cells could help change the way we treat disease.

Our Cool Stem Cell Image of the Week comes from our first story, about unlocking some of the secrets of Huntington’s disease. It comes from the Laboratory of Stem Cell Biology and Molecular Embryology at The Rockefeller University

Huntington's neurons

A new approach to studying and developing therapies for Huntington’s disease

Researchers at Rockefeller University report new findings that may upend the way scientists study and ultimately develop therapies for Huntington’s disease, a devastating, inherited neurodegenerative disorder that has no cure. Though mouse models of the disease are well-established, the team wanted to focus on human biology since our brains are more complex than those of mice. So, they used CRISPR gene editing technology in human embryonic stem cells to introduce the genetic mutations that cause HD.

Though symptoms typically do not appear until adulthood, the researchers were surprised to find that in their human cell-based model of HD, abnormalities in nerve cells occur at the earliest steps in brain development. These results suggest that HD therapies should focus on treatments much earlier in life.

The researchers observed another unexpected twist: cells that lack Huntingtin, the gene responsible for HD, are very similar to cells found in HD. This suggests that too little Huntingtin may be causing the disease. Up until now, the prevailing idea has been that Huntington’s symptoms are caused by the toxicity of too much mutant Huntingtin activity.

We’ll certainly be keeping an eye on how further studies using this new model affect our understanding of and therapy development for HD.

This study was published in Development and was picked by Science Daily.

How you can double your DNA

dna

As you can imagine we get lots of questions about stem cell research here at CIRM. Last week we got an email asking if a stem cell transplant could alter your DNA? The answer is, under certain circumstances, yes it could.

A fascinating article in the Herald Review explains how this can happen. In a bone marrow transplant bad blood stem cells are killed and replaced with healthy ones from a donor. As those cells multiply, creating a new blood supply, they also carry the DNA for the donor.

But that’s not the only way that people may end up with dual DNA. And the really fascinating part of the article is how this can cause all sorts of legal and criminal problems.

One researcher’s efforts to reverse aging

gary-oldman

Gary Oldman: Photo courtesy Variety

“Stem cells are the Gary Oldman of cell types.” As a fan of Gary Oldman (terrific as Winston Churchill in the movie “Darkest Hour”) that one line made me want to read on in a profile of Stanford University researcher Vittorio Sebastiano.

Sebastiano’s goal is, to say the least, rather ambitious. He wants to reverse aging in people. He believes that if you can induce a person’s stem cells to revert to a younger state, without changing their function, you can effectively turn back the clock.

Sebastiano says if you want to achieve big things you have to think big:

“Yes, the ambition is huge, the potential applications could be dramatic, but that doesn’t mean that we are going to become immortal in some problematic way. After all, one way or the other, we have to die. We will just understand aging in a better way, and develop better drugs, and keep people happier and healthier for a few more years.”

The profile is in the journal Nautilus.

UCLA scientists on track to develop a stem cell replacement therapy for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy

Muscle cells generated by April Pyle’s Lab at UCLA.

Last year, we wrote about a CIRM-funded team at UCLA that’s on a mission to develop a stem cell treatment for patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). Today, we bring you an exciting update on this research just in time for the holidays (Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah and Kwanza to our readers!).

DMD is a deadly muscle wasting disease that primarily affects young boys and young men. The UCLA team is trying to generate better methods for making skeletal muscle cells from pluripotent stem cells to regenerate the muscle tissue that is lost in patients with the condition. DMD is caused by genetic mutations in the dystrophin gene, which codes for a protein that is essential for skeletal muscle function. Without dystrophin protein, skeletal muscles become weak and waste away.

In their previous study, the UCLA team used CRISPR gene editing technology to remove dystrophin mutations in induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) made from the skin cells of DMD patients. These corrected iPSCs were then matured into skeletal muscle cells that were transplanted into mice. The transplanted muscle cells successfully produced dystrophin protein – proving for the first time that DMD mutations can be corrected using human iPSCs.

A Step Forward

The team has advanced their research a step forward and published a method for making skeletal muscle cells, from DMD patient iPSCs, that look and function like real skeletal muscle tissue. Their findings, which were published today in the journal Nature Cell Biology, address a longstanding problem in the field: not being able to make stem cell-derived muscle cells that are mature enough to model DMD or to be used for cell replacement therapies.

Dr. April Pyle, senior author on the study and Associate Professor at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA explained in a news release:

April Pyle, UCLA.

“We have found that just because a skeletal muscle cell produced in the lab expresses muscle markers, doesn’t mean it is fully functional. For a stem cell therapy for Duchenne to move forward, we must have a better understanding of the cells we are generating from human pluripotent stem cells compared to the muscle stem cells found naturally in the human body and during the development process.”

By comparing the proteins expressed on the cell surface of human fetal and adult muscle cells, the team identified two proteins, ERBB3 and NGFR, that represented a regenerative population of skeletal muscle cells. They used these two markers to isolate these regenerative muscle cells, but found that the muscle fibers they created in a lab dish were smaller than those found in human muscle.

First author, Michael Hicks, discovered that using a drug to block a human developmental signaling pathway called TGF Beta pushed these ERBB3/NGFR cells past this intermediate stage and allowed them to mature into functional skeletal muscle cells similar to those found in human muscle.

Putting It All Together

In their final experiments, the team combined the new stem cell techniques developed in the current study with their previous work using CRISPR gene editing technology. First, they removed the dystrophin mutations in DMD patient iPSCs using CRISPR. Then, they coaxed the iPSCs into skeletal muscle cells in a dish and isolated the regenerative cells that expressed ERBB3 and NGFR. Mice that lacked the dystrophin protein were then transplanted with these cells and were simultaneously given an injection of a TGF Beta blocking drug.

The results were exciting. The transplanted cells were able to produce human dystrophin and restore the expression of this protein in the Duchenne mice.

Skeletal muscle cells isolated using the ERBB3 and NGFR surface markers (right) restore human dystrophin (green) after transplantation significantly greater than previous methods (left). (Image courtesy of UCLA)

Dr. Pyle concluded,

“The results were exactly what we’d hoped. This is the first study to demonstrate that functional muscle cells can be created in a laboratory and restore dystrophin in animal models of Duchenne using the human development process as a guide.”

In the long term, the UCLA team hopes to translate this research into a patient-specific stem cell therapy for DMD patients. In the meantime, the team will use funding from a recent CIRM Quest award to make skeletal muscle cells that can regenerate long-term in response to chronic injury in hopes of developing a more permanent treatment for DMD.

The UCLA study discussed in this blog received funding from Discovery stage CIRM awards, which you can read more about here and here.

Turning the corner with the FDA and NIH; CIRM creates new collaborations to advance stem cell research

FDAThis blog is part of the Month of CIRM series on the Stem Cellar

A lot can change in a couple of years. Just take our relationship with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

When we were putting together our Strategic Plan in 2015 we did a survey of key players and stakeholders at CIRM – Board members, researchers, patient advocates etc. – and a whopping 70 percent of them listed the FDA as the biggest impediment for the development of stem cell treatments.

As one stakeholder told us at the time:

“Is perfect becoming the enemy of better? One recent treatment touted by the FDA as a regulatory success had such a high clinical development hurdle placed on it that by the time it was finally approved the standard of care had evolved. When it was finally approved, five years later, its market potential had significantly eroded and the product failed commercially.”

Changing the conversation

To overcome these hurdles we set a goal of changing the regulatory landscape, finding a way to make the system faster and more efficient, but without reducing the emphasis on the safety of patients. One of the ways we did this was by launching our “Stem Cell Champions” campaign to engage patients, patient advocates, the public and everyone else who supports stem cell research to press for change at the FDA. We also worked with other organizations to help get the 21st Century Cures Act passed.

21 century cures

Today the regulatory landscape looks quite different than it did just a few years ago. Thanks to the 21st Century Cures Act the FDA has created expedited pathways for stem cell therapies that show promise. One of those is called the Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy (RMAT) designation, which gives projects that show they are both safe and effective in early-stage clinical trials the possibility of an accelerated review by the FDA. Of the first projects given RMAT designation, three were CIRM-funded projects (Humacyte, jCyte and Asterias)

Partnering with the NIH

Our work has also paved the way for a closer relationship with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is looking at CIRM as a model for advancing the field of regenerative medicine.

In recent years we have created a number of innovations including introducing CIRM 2.0, which dramatically improved our ability to fund the most promising research, making it faster, easier and more predictable for researchers to apply. We also created the Stem Cell Center  to make it easier to move the most promising research out of the lab and into clinical trials, and to give researchers the support they need to help make those trials successful. To address the need for high-quality stem cell clinical trials we created the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network. This is a network of leading medical centers around the state that specialize in delivering stem cell therapies, sharing best practices and creating new ways of making it as easy as possible for patients to get the care they need.

The NIH looked at these innovations and liked them. So much so they invited CIRM to come to Washington DC and talk about them. It was a great opportunity so, of course, we said yes. We expected them to carve out a few hours for us to chat. Instead they blocked out a day and a half and brought in the heads of their different divisions to hear what we had to say.

A model for the future

We hope the meeting is, to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart at the end of Casablanca, “the start of a beautiful friendship.” We are already seeing signs that it’s not just a passing whim. In July the NIH held a workshop that focused on what will it take to make genome editing technologies, like CRISPR, a clinical reality. Francis Collins, NIH Director, invited CIRM to be part of the workshop that included thought leaders from academia, industry and patients advocates. The workshop ended with a recommendation that the NIH should consider building a center of excellence in gene editing and transplantation, based on the CIRM model (my emphasis).  This would bring together a multidisciplinary disease team including, process development, cGMP manufacturing, regulatory and clinical development for Investigational New Drug (IND) filing and conducting clinical trials, all under one roof.

dr_collins

Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the NIH

In preparation, the NIH visited the CIRM-funded Stem Cell Center at the City of Hope to explore ways to develop this collaboration. And the NIH has already begun implementing these suggestions starting with a treatment targeting sickle cell disease.

There are no guarantees in science. But we know that if you spend all your time banging your head against a door all you get is a headache. Today it feels like the FDA has opened the door and that, together with the NIH, they are more open to collaborating with organizations like CIRM. We have removed the headache, and created the possibility that by working together we truly can accelerate stem cell research and deliver the therapies that so many patients desperately need.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stem Cell Stories that Caught Our Eye: New law to protect consumers; using skin to monitor blood sugar; and a win for the good guys

Hernendez

State Senator Ed Hernandez

New law targets stem cell clinics that offer therapies not approved by the FDA

For some time now CIRM and others around California have been warning consumers about the risks involved in going to clinics that offer stem cell therapies that have not been tested in a clinical trial or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in patients.

Now a new California law, authored by State Senator Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) attempts to address that issue. It will require medical clinics whose stem cell treatments are not FDA approved, to post notices and provide handouts to patients warning them about the potential risk.

In a news release Sen. Hernandez said he hopes the new law, SB 512, will protect consumers from early-stage, unproven experimental therapies:

“There are currently over 100 medical offices in California providing non-FDA approved stem cell treatments. Patients spend thousands of dollars on these treatments, but are totally unaware of potential risks and dangerous side effects.”

Sen. Hernandez’s staffer Bao-Ngoc Nguyen crafted the bill, with help from CIRM Board Vice Chair Sen. Art Torres, Geoff Lomax and UC Davis researcher Paul Knoepfler, to ensure it targeted only clinics offering non-FDA approved therapies and not those offering FDA-sanctioned clinical trials.

For example the bill would not affect CIRM’s Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network because all the therapies offered there have been given the green light by the FDA to work with patients.

Blood_Glucose_Testing 

Using your own skin as a blood glucose monitor

One of the many things that people with diabetes hate is the constant need to monitor their blood sugar level. Usually that involves a finger prick to get a drop of blood. It’s simple but not much fun. Attempts to develop non-invasive monitors have been tried but with limited success.

Now researchers at the University of Chicago have come up with another alternative, using the person’s own skin to measure their blood glucose level.

Xiaoyang Wu and his team accomplished this feat in mice by first creating new skin from stem cells. Then, using the gene-editing tool CRISPR, they added in a protein that sticks to sugar molecules and another protein that acts as a fluorescent marker. The hope was that the when the protein sticks to sugar in the blood it would change shape and emit fluorescence which could indicate if blood glucose levels were too high, too low, or just right.

The team then grafted the skin cells back onto the mouse. When those mice were left hungry for a while then given a big dose of sugar, the skin “sensors” reacted within 30 seconds.

The researchers say they are now exploring ways that their findings, published on the website bioRxiv, could be duplicated in people.

While they are doing that, we are supporting ViaCytes attempt to develop a device that doesn’t just monitor blood sugar levels but also delivers insulin when needed. You can read about our recent award to ViaCyte here.

Deepak

Dr. Deepak Srivastava

Stem Cell Champion, CIRM grantee, and all-round-nice guy named President of Gladstone Institutes

I don’t think it would shock anyone to know that there are a few prima donnas in the world of stem cell research. Happily, Dr. Deepak Srivastava is not one of them, which makes it such a delight to hear that he has been appointed as the next President of the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco.

Deepak is a gifted scientist – which is why we have funded his work – a terrific communicator and a really lovely fella; straight forward and down to earth.

In a news release announcing his appointment – his term starts January 1 next year – Deepak said he is honored to succeed the current President, Sandy Williams:

“I joined Gladstone in 2005 because of its unique ability to leverage diverse basic science approaches through teams of scientists focused on achieving scientific breakthroughs for mankind’s most devastating diseases. I look forward to continue shaping this innovative approach to overcome human disease.”

We wish him great success in his new role.

 

 

 

Scientists fix heart disease mutation in human embryos using CRISPR

Last week the scientific community was buzzing with the news that US scientists had genetically modified human embryos using CRISPR gene editing technology. While the story broke before the research was published, many journalists and news outlets weighed in on the study’s findings and the ethical implications they raise. We covered this initial burst of news in last week’s stem cell stories that caught our eye.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov (Leah Nash, New York Times)

After a week of suspense, the highly-anticipated study was published yesterday in the journal Nature. The work was led by senior author Dr. Shoukhrat Mitalipov from Oregon Health and Sciences University (and a member of CIRM’s Grants Working Group, the panel of experts who review applications to us for funding) in collaboration with scientists from the Salk Institute and Korea’s Institute for Basic Science.

In brief, the study revealed that the teams’ CRISPR technology could correct a genetic mutation that causes a disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) in 72% of human embryos without causing off-target effects, which are unwanted genome modifications caused by CRISPR. These findings are a big improvement over previous studies by other groups that had issues with off-target effects and mosaicism, where CRISPR only correctly modifies mutations in some but not all cells in an embryo.

Newly fertilized eggs before gene editing, left, and embryos after gene editing and a few rounds of cell division. (Image from Shoukrat Mitalipov in New York Times)

Mitalipov spoke to STATnews about a particularly interesting discovery that he and the other scientists made in the Nature study,

“The main finding is that the CRISPR’d embryos did not accept the “repair DNA” that the scientists expected them to use as a replacement for the mutated gene deleted by CRISPR, which the embryos inherited from their father. Instead, the embryos used the mother’s version of the gene, called the homologue.”

Sharon Begley, the author of the STATnews article, argued that this discovery means that “designer babies” aren’t just around the corner.

“If embryos resist taking up synthetic DNA after CRISPR has deleted an unwanted gene, then “designer babies,” created by inserting a gene for a desirable trait into an embryo, will likely be more difficult than expected.”

Ed Yong from the Atlantic also took a similar stance towards Mitalipov’s study in his article titled “The Designer Baby Era is Not Upon Us”. He wrote,

“The bigger worry is that gene-editing could be used to make people stronger, smarter, or taller, paving the way for a new eugenics, and widening the already substantial gaps between the wealthy and poor. But many geneticists believe that such a future is fundamentally unlikely because complex traits like height and intelligence are the work of hundreds or thousands of genes, each of which have a tiny effect. The prospect of editing them all is implausible. And since genes are so thoroughly interconnected, it may be impossible to edit one particular trait without also affecting many others.”

Dr. Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, who’s a corresponding author on the paper and a former CIRM grantee from the Salk Institute, commented on the impact that this research could have on human health in a Salk news release.

Co-authors Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte and Jun Wu. (Salk Institute)

“Thanks to advances in stem cell technologies and gene editing, we are finally starting to address disease-causing mutations that impact potentially millions of people. Gene editing is still in its infancy so even though this preliminary effort was found to be safe and effective, it is crucial that we continue to proceed with the utmost caution, paying the highest attention to ethical considerations.”

Pam Belluck from The New York Times also suggested that this research could have a significant impact on how we prevent disease in newborns.

“This research marks a major milestone and, while a long way from clinical use, it raises the prospect that gene editing may one day protect babies from a variety of hereditary conditions.”

So when will the dawn of CRISPR babies arrive? Ed Yong took a stab at answering this million dollar question with help from experts in the field.

“Not for a while. The technique would need to be refined, tested on non-human primates, and shown to be safe. “The safety studies would likely take 10 to 15 years before FDA or other regulators would even consider allowing clinical trials,” wrote bioethicist Hank Greely in a piece for Scientific American. “The Mitalipov research could mean that moment is 9 years and 10 months away instead of 10 years, but it is not close.” In the meantime, Mitalipov’s colleague Sanjiv Kaul says, “We’ll get the method to perfection so that when it’s possible to use it in a clinical trial, we can.”

Stem Cell Stories that Caught our Eye: CRISPRing Human Embryos, brain stem cells slow aging & BrainStorm ALS trial joins CIRM Alpha Clinics

Here are the stem cell stories that caught our eye this week. Enjoy!

Scientists claim first CRISPR editing of human embryos in the US.

Here’s the big story this week. Scientists from Portland, Oregon claim they genetically modified human embryos using the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology. While their results have yet to be published in a peer review journal (though the team say they are going to be published in a prominent journal next month), if they prove true, the study will be the first successful attempt to modify human embryos in the US.

A representation of an embryo being fertilized. Scientists can inject CRISPR during fertilization to correct genetic disorders. (Getty Images).

Steve Connor from MIT Technology Review broke the story earlier this week noting that the only reports of human embryo modification were published by Chinese scientists. The China studies revealed troubling findings. CRISPR caused “off-target” effects, a situation where the CRISPR machinery randomly introduces genetic errors in a cell’s DNA, in the embryos. It also caused mosaicism, a condition where the desired DNA sequences aren’t genetically corrected in all the cells of an embryo producing an individual with cells that have different genomes. Putting aside the ethical conundrum of modifying human embryos, these studies suggested that current gene editing technologies weren’t accurate enough to safely modify human embryos.

But a new chapter in human embryo modification is beginning. Shoukhrat Mitalipov (who is a member of CIRM’s Grants Working Group, the panel of scientific experts that reviews our funding applications) and his team from the Oregon Health and Science University said that they have developed a method to successfully modify donated human embryos that avoids the problems experienced by the Chinese scientists. The team found that introducing CRISPR at the same time an embryo was being fertilized led to successful correction of disease-causing mutations while avoiding mosaicism and “off-target” effects. They grew these embryos for a few days to confirm that the genetic modifications had worked before destroying them.

The MIT piece quoted a scientist who knows of Mitalipov’s work,

“It is proof of principle that it can work. They significantly reduced mosaicism. I don’t think it’s the start of clinical trials yet, but it does take it further than anyone has before.”

Does this discovery, if it’s true, open the door further for the creation of designer babies? For discussions about the future scientific and ethical implications of this research, I recommend reading Paul Knoepfler’s blog, this piece by Megan Molteni in Wired Magazine and Jessica Berg’s article in The Conversation.

Brain stem cells slow aging in mice

The quest for eternal youth might be one step closer thanks to a new study published this week in the journal Nature. Scientists from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York discovered that stem cells found in an area of the brain called the hypothalamus can slow the aging process in mice.

The hypothalamus is located smack in the center of your brain near the brain stem. It’s responsible for essential metabolic functions such as making and secreting hormones, managing body temperature and controlling feelings of hunger and thirst. Because the body’s metabolic functions decline with age, scientists have suspected that the hypothalamus plays a role in aging.

The mouse hypothalamus. (NIH, Wikimedia).

In the current study, the team found that stem cells in the hypothalamus gradually disappear as mice age. They were curious whether the disappearance of these stem cells could jump start the aging process. When they removed these stem cells, the mice showed more advanced mental and physical signs of aging compared to untreated mice.

They also conducted the opposite experiment where they transplanted hypothalamic stem cells taken from baby mice (the idea being that these stem cells would exhibit more “youthful” qualities) into the brains of middle-aged mice and saw improvements in mental and physical functions and a 10% increase in lifespan.

So what is it about these specific stem cells that slows down aging? Do they replenish the aging brain with new healthy cells or do they secrete factors that keep the brain healthy? Interestingly, the scientists found that these stem cells secreted vesicles that contained microRNAs, which are molecules that regulate gene expression by turning genes on or off.

They injected these microRNAs into the brains of middle-aged mice and found that they reversed symptoms of aging including cognitive decline and muscle degeneration. Furthermore, when they removed hypothalamic stem cells from middle-aged mice and treated them with the microRNAs, they saw the same anti-aging effects.

In an interview with Nature News, senior author on the study, Dongsheng Cai, commented that hypothalamic stem cells could have multiple ways of regulating aging and that microRNAs are just one of their tools. For this research to translate into an anti-aging therapy, “Cai suspects that anti-ageing therapies targeting the hypothalamus would need to be administered in middle age, before a person’s muscles and metabolism have degenerated beyond a point that could be reversed.”

This study and its “Fountain of Youth” implications has received ample attention from the media. You can read more coverage from The Scientist, GenBio, and the original Albert Einstein press release.

BrainStorm ALS trial joins the CIRM Alpha Clinics

Last month, the CIRM Board approved $15.9 million in funding for BrainStorm Cell Therapeutic’s Phase 3 trial that’s testing a stem cell therapy to treat patients with a devastating neurodegenerative disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).

The stem cell therapy, called NurOwn®, is made of mesenchymal stem cells extracted from a patient’s bone marrow. The stem cells are genetically modified to secrete neurotrophic factors that keep neurons in the brain healthy and prevent their destruction by diseases like ALS.

BrainStorm has tested NurOwn in early stage clinical trials in Israel and in a Phase 2 study in the US. These trials revealed that the treatment was “safe and well tolerated” and that “NurOwn also achieved multiple secondary efficacy endpoints, showing clear evidence of a clinically meaningful benefit.  Notably, response rates were higher for NurOwn-treated subjects compared to placebo at all time points in the study out to 24 weeks.”

This week, BrainStorm announced that it will launch its Phase 3 CIRM-funded trial at the UC Irvine (UCI) CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic. The Alpha Clinics are a network of top medical centers in California that specialize in delivering high quality stem cell clinical trials to patients. UCI is one of four medical centers including UCLA, City of Hope, and UCSD, that make up three Alpha Clinics currently supporting 38 stem cell trials in the state.

Along with UCI, BrainStorm’s Phase 3 trial will also be conducted at two other sites in the US: Mass General Hospital in Boston and California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. Chaim Lebovits, President and CEO, commented,

“We are privileged to have UCI and Dr. Namita Goyal join our pivotal Phase 3 study of NurOwn. Adding UCI as an enrolling center with Dr. Goyal as Principal Investigator will make the treatment more accessible to patients in California, and we welcome the opportunity to work with this prestigious institution.”

Before the Phase 3 trial can launch at UCI, it needs to be approved by our federal regulatory agency, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and an Institutional Review Board (IRB), which is an independent ethics committee that reviews biomedical research on human subjects. Both these steps are required to ensure that a therapy is safe to test in patients.

With promising data from their Phase 1 and 2 trials, BrainStorm’s Phase 3 trial will likely get the green light to move forward. Dr. Goyal, who will lead the trial at the UCI Alpha Clinic, concluded:

“NurOwn is a very promising treatment with compelling Phase 2 data in patients with ALS; we look forward to further advancing it in clinical development and confirming the therapeutic benefit with Brainstorm.”

Bridging the divide: stem cell students helping families with rare diseases become partners in research

Bridges & Rare Science

CIRM’s Bridges students and Rare Science’s families with rare diseases

Sometimes it’s the simplest things that make the biggest impact. For example, introducing a scientist to a patient can help them drive stem cell research forward faster than either one could do on their own.

Want proof? This year, students in CIRM’s Bridges to Stem Cell Research and Therapy program at California State University (CSU) San Marcos teamed up with parents of children with rare diseases, and the partnerships had a profound impact on all of them, one we hope might produce some long-term benefits.

Christina Waters, who helped create the partnerships, calls it “science with love.”

“We wanted to change the conversation and have researchers and families communicate, making families equal stakeholders in the research. The students bonded with the families and I truly feel that we made a difference in the lives of future researchers, in knowing how much their work can make a life changing impact on the lives of patients’ families who now have hope.”

The CIRM Bridges program helps prepare California’s undergraduate and master’s graduate students for highly productive careers in stem cell research. Students get a paid internship where they get hands-on training and education in stem cell research. They also work with patients and take part in outreach activities so they get an understanding of research that extends beyond the lab.

That’s where Christina Waters comes in. Christina is the founder of Rare Science, a non-profit group focused on rare diseases in children – we blogged about her work here – and she teamed up with CSU San Marcos to partner their Bridges students with five patient families with different rare diseases.

Cutting edge science

One of those families was Aaron Harding’s. Aaron’s son Jaxon has SYNGAP, a genetic disorder that can cause seizures, mental retardation, speech problems and autistic-like behavior. Two of the Bridges students who were doing their internship at ThermoFisher Scientific, Uju Nwizu and Emily Asbury, were given the task of using the gene-editing tool CRISPR Cas9 to help develop a deeper understanding of SYNGAP.

The students say it was an amazing experience:

Uju: “It had a huge impact on me. Every time I thought about SYNGAP I saw Jaxon’s face. This motivated me a lot.”

Emily: “People who work in labs everyday are most often working out the minutiae of research. They don’t often get a chance to see how their research can change or save the lives of real people. Meeting patients is so motivating because afterwards you aren’t just studying a mechanism, you now have a friend with the disease, so you can’t help but be personally invested in the search for a treatment.”

Emily and Uju are working to create iPSCs (induced pluripotent stem cells) that have the SYNGAP mutation. They hope these can be used to study the disease in greater depth and, maybe one day, lead to treatments for some of the symptoms.

Aaron says for families like his, knowing there are scientists working on his child’s disorder is a source of comfort, and hope:

“Personalizing diseases by connecting scientists with those they seek to impact is so important. Emily and Uju took this opportunity and ran with it, and that says a lot about them, and the team at ThermoFisher, taking on an exploring the unknown. That attitude is the heart of a scientist.”

Hearing stories like this is very gratifying, not just for the students and families involved, but for everyone here at CIRM. When we created the Bridges program our goal was to help students get the skills and experience needed to pursue a career in science. Thanks to the people at CSU San Marcos and Rare Science these students got a whole lot more.

Christina Waters: “We learned, we shared hope, we celebrated the courage of our families and the commitment of the students. It takes a village, and it is all of us working together that will make great changes for kids with rare diseases.”

For Uju and Emily, their experience in the Bridges program has made them doubly certain they want to pursue a career in science.

Uju: “I love stem cells and the promise they hold. After this program I hope to be part of a team that is committed to accelerating new stem cell therapies for rare and chronic diseases.”

Emily: “I’ve learned that I love research. After I finish my bachelor’s degree at CSU San Marcos I plan to pursue a graduate degree in molecular or cellular biology.”

 

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: spinal cord injury trial keeps pace; SMART cells make cartilage and drugs

CIRM-funded spinal cord injury trial keeping a steady pace

Taking an idea for a stem cell treatment and developing it into a Food and Drug Administration-approved cell therapy is like running the Boston Marathon because it requires incremental progress rather than a quick sprint. Asterias Biotherapeutics continues to keep a steady pace and to hit the proper milestones in its race to develop a stem cell-based treatment for acute spinal cord injury.


Just this week in fact, the company announced an important safety milestone for its CIRM-funded SciStar clinical trial. This trial is testing the safety and effectiveness of AST-OPC1, a human embryonic stem cell-derived cell therapy that aims to regenerate some of the lost movement and feeling resulting from spinal cord injuries to the neck.

Periodically, an independent safety review board called the Data Monitoring Committee (DMC) reviews the clinical trial data to make sure the treatment is safe in patients. That’s exactly what the DMC concluded as its latest review. They recommended that treatments with 10 and 20 million cell doses should continue as planned with newly enrolled clinical trial participants.

About a month ago, Asterias reported that six of the six participants who had received a 10 million cell dose – which is transplanted directly into the spinal cord at the site of injury – have shown improvement in arm, hand and finger function nine months after the treatment. These outcomes are better than what would be expected by spontaneous recovery often observed in patients without stem cell treatment. So, we’re hopeful for further good news later this year when Asterias expects to provide more safety and efficacy data on participants given the 10 million cell dose as well as the 20 million cell dose.

It’s a two-fer: SMART cells that make cartilage and release anti-inflammation drug
“It’s a floor wax!”….“No, it’s a dessert topping!”
“Hey, hey calm down you two. New Shimmer is a floor wax and a dessert topping!”

Those are a few lines from the classic Saturday Night Live skit that I was reminded of when reading about research published yesterday in Stem Cell Reports. The clever study generated stem cells that not only specialize into cartilage tissue that could help repair arthritic joints but the cells also act as a drug dispenser that triggers the release of a protein that dampens inflammation.

Using CRISPR technology, a team of researchers led by Farshid Guilak, PhD, at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, rewired stem cells’ genetic circuits to produce an anti-inflammatory arthritis drug when the cells encounter inflammation. The technique eventually could act as a vaccine for arthritis and other chronic conditions. Image: ELLA MARUSHCHENKO

The cells were devised by a research team at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. They started out with skin cells collected from the tails of mice. Using the induced pluripotent stem cell technique, the skin cells were reprogrammed into an embryonic stem cell-like state. Then came the ingenious steps. The team used the CRISPR gene-editing method to create a negative feedback loop in the cells’ inflammation response. They removed a gene that is activated by the potent inflammatory protein, TNF-alpha and replaced it with a gene that blocks TNF-alpha. Analogous experiments were carried out with another protein called IL-1.

Rheumatoid arthritis often affects the small joints causing painful swelling and disfigurement. Image: Wikipedia

Now, TNF-alpha plays a key role in triggering inflammation in arthritic joints. But this engineered cell, in the presence of TNF-alpha, activates the production of a protein that inhibits the actions of TNF-alpha. Then the team converted these stem cells into cartilage tissue and they went on to show that the cartilage was indeed resistant to inflammation. Pretty smart, huh? In fact, the researchers called them SMART cells for “Stem cells Modified for Autonomous Regenerative Therapy.” First author Dr. Jonathan Brunger summed up the approach succinctly in a press release:

“We hijacked an inflammatory pathway to create cells that produced a protective drug.”

This type of targeted treatment of arthritis would have a huge advantage over current anti-TNF-alpha therapies. Arthritis drugs like Enbrel, Humira and Remicade are very effective but they block the immune response throughout the body which carries an increased risk for serious infections and even cancer.

The team is now testing the cells in animal models of rheumatoid arthritis as well as other inflammation disorders. Those results will be important to determine whether or not this approach can work in a living animal. But senior Dr. Farshid Guilak also has an eye on future applications of SMART cells:

“We believe this strategy also may work for other systems that depend on a feedback loop. In diabetes, for example, it’s possible we could make stem cells that would sense glucose and turn on insulin in response. We are using pluripotent stem cells, so we can make them into any cell type, and with CRISPR, we can remove or insert genes that have the potential to treat many types of disorders.”