Stem Cell Agency Board Approves Funding for Rare Immune Disorder

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Taylor Lookofsky (center), a person with IPEX syndrome, with his father Brian and Dr. Rosa Bacchetta

IPEX syndrome is a rare condition where the body can’t control or restrain an immune response, so the person’s immune cells attack their own healthy tissue. The syndrome mostly affects boys, is diagnosed in the first year of life and is often fatal. Today the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) invested almost $12 million in a therapy being tested in a clinical trial to help these patients.

Children born with IPEX syndrome have abnormalities in the FOXP3 gene. This gene controls the production of a type of immune cell called a T Regulatory or Treg cell. Without a normal FOXP3 +Treg cells other immune cells attack the body leading to the development of IPEX syndrome, Type 1 diabetes, severe eczema, damage to the small intestines and kidneys and failure to thrive.

Current treatments involve the use of steroids to suppress the immune system – which helps ease symptoms but doesn’t slow down the progression of the disease – or a bone marrow stem cell transplant.  However, a transplant requires a healthy, closely matched donor to reduce the risk of a potentially fatal transplant complication called graft vs host disease, in which the donated immune cells attack the recipient’s tissues.

Dr. Rosa Bacchetta and her team at Stanford University have developed a therapy using the patient’s own natural CD4 T cells that, in the lab, have been genetically modified to express the FoxP3 gene and converted into Treg cells. Those cells are then re-infused into the patient with a goal of determining if this approach is both safe and beneficial. Because the cells come from the patients there will be fewer concerns about the need for immunosuppressive treatment to stop the body rejecting the cells. It will also help avoid the problems of finding a healthy donor and graft vs host disease.

Dr. Bacchetta has received approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to test this approach in a Phase 1 clinical trial for patients suffering with IPEX syndrome.

“Children with IPEX syndrome clearly represent a group of patients with an unmet medical need, and this therapy could make a huge difference in their lives,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, the President and CEO of CIRM. “Success of this treatment in this rare disease presents far-reaching potential to develop treatments for a larger number of patients with a broad array of immune disorders resulting from dysfunctional regulatory T cells.”

In addition to a strong scientific recommendation to fund the project the review team also praised it for the applicants’ commitment to the principles of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in their proposal. The project proposes a wide catchment area, with a strong focus on enrolling people who are low-income, uninsured or members of traditionally overlooked racial and ethnic minority communities.

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.  

Physicians and patient advocates on the front lines of the fight for a more equitable health system

Over the last year there has been increasing awareness of the inequalities in the American healthcare system. At every level there is evidence of bias, discrimination and unequal access to the best care. Sometimes unequal access to any care. That is, hopefully, changing but only if the new awareness is matched with action.

At the recent World Stem Cell Summit CIRM helped pull together a panel of physicians and patient advocates who have been leading the charge for change for years. The panel was called ‘Addressing Disparities, Promoting Equity and Inclusion in Clinical Research.’

The panelists include:

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Ysabel Duron – Founder of The Latino Cancer Institute & CIRM Board member
Adrienne Shapiro – sickle cell disease patient advocate, Founder of Axis Advocacy – Sickle Cell Disease support and advocacy group
Dr. Leah Ke‘ala‘aumoe Dowsett – Clinical geneticist, serves on hospital DEI committee, Board member Association of Native Hawaiian Physicians
Dr. Nathan Chomilo – Co-Founder, Minnesota Doctors for Health Equity and head of the Minnesota COVID Vaccine Equity Program

The conversation they had was informative, illuminating and fascinating. But it didn’t sugar coat where we are, and the hard work ahead of us to get to where we need to be.

Enjoy the event, with apologies for the inept cameo appearance by me at the beginning of the video. Technology clearly isn’t my forte.