Stem cell byproducts provide insight into cure for spina bifida

A diagram of an infant born with spina bifida, a birth defect where there is an incomplete closing of the backbone portion of the spinal cord. Photo courtesy of the Texas Children’s Hospital website.

Some of you might remember a movie in the early 2000s by the name of “Miracle in Lane 2”. The film is based on an inspirational true story and revolves around a boy named Justin Yoder entering a soapbox derby competition. In the movie, Justin achieves success as a soapbox derby driver while adapting to the challenges of being in a wheelchair.

Scene from “Miracle in Lane 2”

The reason that Justin is unable to walk is due to a birth defect known as spina bifida, which causes an incomplete closing of the backbone portion of the spinal cord, exposing tissue and nerves. In addition to difficulties with walking, other problems associated with this condition are problems with bladder or bowel control and accumulation of fluid in the brain.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) , each year about 1,645 babies in the US are born with spina bifida, with Hispanic women having the highest rate of children born with the condition. There is currently no cure for this condition, but researchers at UC Davis are one step closer to changing that.

Dr. Aijun Wang examining cells under a microscope. He has identified stem cell byproducts that protect neurons. Photo courtesy of UC Regents/UC Davis Health

Dr. Aijun Wang, Dr. Diana Farmer, and their research team have identified crucial byproducts produced by stem cells that play an important role in protecting neurons. These byproducts could assist with improving lower-limb motion in patients with spina bifida.

Prior to this discovery, Dr. Farmer and Dr. Wang demonstrated that prenatal surgery combined with connective tissue (e.g. stromal cells) derived from stem cells improved hind limb control in dogs with spina bifida. Below you can see a clip of two English bulldogs with spina bifida who are now able to walk.

Their findings were published in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology on February 12, 2019.

The team will use their findings to perfect the neuroprotective qualities of a stem cell treatment developed to improve locomotive problems associated with spina bifida.

In a public release posted by EurekaAlert!, Dr. Wang is quoted as saying, “We are excited about what we see so far and are anxious to further explore the clinical applications of this research.”

The discovery and development of a treatment for spina bifida was funded by a $5.66 million grant from CIRM. You can read more about that award and spina bifida on a previous blog post linked here.

Frustration, failure and finally hope in the search for treatments for spina bifida

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Dr. Diana Farmer and her team at UC. Davis

By any standards Dr. Diana Farmer is a determined woman who doesn’t let setbacks and failure deter her. As a fetal and neonatal surgeon, and the chair of the Department of Surgery at UC Davis Health, Dr. Farmer has spent years trying to develop a cure for spina bifida. She’s getting closer.

Dr. Farmer and her partner in this research, Dr. Aijun Wang, have already shown they can repair the damage spina bifida causes to the spinal cord, in the womb, in sheep and bulldogs. Last year the CIRM Board voted to fund her research to get the data needed to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration for permission to start a clinical trial in people.

That work is so promising that we decided to profile Dr. Farmer in our 2018 Annual Report.

Here’s excerpts from an interview we conducted with her as part of the Annual Report.

I have been working on this since 2008. We have been thinking about how to help kids with spina bifida walk. It’s not fatal disease but it is a miserable disease.

It’s horrible for parents who think they are about to have a healthy child suddenly be faced with a baby who faces a life long struggle with their health, everything from difficulty or inability to walk to bowel and bladder problems and life-threatening infections.

As a fetal surgeon we used to only focus on fatal diseases because otherwise kids would die. But as we made progress in the field, we had the opportunity to help others who didn’t have a fatal condition, in ways we couldn’t have done in the past.

I’ve always been fascinated by the placenta, it has lots of protective properties. So, we asked the question if we were able to sample fetal cells from the placenta, could we augment those cells, and use them to tissue engineer spinal injuries, in the womb, to improve the outcome for kids with spina bifida?

Dr. Aijun Wang and I have been working on this project for the last decade.  Ten years of work has taken us to this point where we are now ready to move this to the next level.

It’s amazing to me how long this process takes and that’s why we are so grateful to CIRM because this is a rare disease and finding funding for those is hard. A lot of people are scared about funding fetal surgery and CIRM has been a perfect partner in helping bring this approach, blending stem cell therapy and tissue engineering, together.

If this therapy is successful it will have a huge economic impact on California, and on the rest of the world. Because spina bifida is a lifelong condition involving many operations, many stays in the hospital, in some cases lifelong use of a wheelchair. This has a huge financial burden on the family. And because this doesn’t just affect the child but the whole family, it has a huge psychological burden on families. It affects them in so many ways; parents having to miss work or take time off work to care for their child, other children in the family feeling neglected because their brother or sister needs so much attention.

In the MOMS Trial (a study that looked at prenatal – before birth – and postnatal – after birth – surgery to repair a defect in the spinal cord and showed that prenatal surgery had strong, long-term benefits and some risks) we showed that we could operate on the fetus before birth and help them. The fact that there was any improvement – doubling the number of kids who could walk from 20 to 40% showed this spinal cord injury is not a permanent situation and also showed there was some plasticity in the spinal cord, some potential for improvement. And so, the next question was can we do more. And that’s why we are trying this.

It’s pretty amazing. We are pretty excited.

The thing that makes surgeon-scientists feel so passionate is that we don’t just ask the fundamental questions, we ask questions in order to cure a problem in patients. I grew up in an environment where people were always asking “how can we do it better, how can we improve?”

There were many times of frustration, many times when cell types we explored and worked with didn’t work. But it’s the patients, seeing them, that keeps me motivated to do the science, to keep persevering. That’s the beauty of being a clinician-scientist. We can ask questions in a different way and look at data in a different way because we are driven by patient outcomes. So, whenever we get stuck in the rabbit hole of theoretical problems, we look to the patients for inspiration to keep going.

I am very cognizant of stirring up false hope, knowing that what occurs in animal models doesn’t always translate into humans. But we are optimistic, and I am anxious to get going.

 

Promising Approach to Curing Spina Bifida Gets $5.6 Million from Stem Cell Agency

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Every day in the U.S. four children are born with spina bifida. It is the most common cause of lifelong paralysis and also frequently leads to other serious health problems affecting the bowel and bladder. The impact on families is enormous. A new approach to repairing the defect that causes spina bifida was today awarded $5.66 million by the Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

In spina bifida the spinal cord doesn’t form properly, in many cases leaving a section of it open, exposing tissues and nerves. The current standard of care is surgery, but even this leaves almost 60% of children unable to walk independently. Diana Farmer MD, and Aijun Wang PhD at U.C. Davis will use mesenchymal stem cells, taken from a donor placenta, and place them on a form of synthetic scaffold over the injury site in the womb. Tests in animals show this approach was able to repair the defect and prevent paralysis.

“Spina bifida is a devastating condition for babies born with this disorder and the families who care for them,” says Maria T. Millan, MD, President & CEO of CIRM. “CIRM has funded this important work from its earliest stages and we are committed to working with Dr. Farmer’s team to moving this work to the stage where it can be tested in patients.”

The CLIN1 award will provide funding to enable the UC Davis team to do the final testing and preparations needed to apply to the FDA for permission to start a clinical trial.

Dr. Farmer says she and Dr. Wang, have been working on this approach for more than ten years and are excited about being able to take the next step.

“There were many times of frustration, many times when cell types we explored and worked with didn’t work,” says Dr. Farmer. “But it’s the patients, seeing them, talking to them and working with them, that keeps me motivated to do the science, to keep persevering.”

If this therapy is successful it will have a huge economic impact on California, and on the rest of the world. Because spina bifida is a lifelong condition involving many operations, many stays in the hospital and, in some cases, lifelong use of a wheelchair this has a huge financial, and psychological, burden on the family.

“It affects them in so many ways; parents having to miss work or take time off work to care for their child, other children in the family feeling neglected because their brother or sister needs so much attention,” says Dr. Farmer. “That’s why we are so grateful to CIRM. Because this is a rare disease and finding funding for those is hard. CIRM has been a perfect partner in helping bring this approach, blending stem cell therapy and tissue engineering, together to help these families.”

This video shows English bulldogs treated with this approach who are now able to walk: