Has Regenerative Medicine Come of Age?

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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.”

Can stem cells help people recovering from a stroke? You asked, and the experts answered

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We recently held our first ever Facebook Live event. It was focused on the use of stem cells and recovery from a stroke and featured three great guests: Dr. Gary Steinberg, chief of Neurosurgery at Stanford, Sonia Coontz, a patient of Dr. Steinberg’s, and CIRM’s own Science Officer Dr. Lila Collins.

We had an amazing response from people during the event and in the days since then with some 6,750 people watching the video and almost 1,000 people reacting by posting a comment or sharing it with friends. It was one of the most successful things we have ever done on Facebook so it’s not surprising that we plan on doing many more Facebook Live ‘Ask the Expert’ events in the future. We will post more details of that as we finalize them.

We tried to cover as many topics as possible during the hour but there were simply too many questions for us to get to all of them. So here is a recap of the key issues we covered, and a few we didn’t have a chance to answer.

Let’s start with Dr. Steinberg’s explanation of the research that led to his current clinical trial:

Dr. Steinberg: “I got interested in this about 18 years ago when I took human cells and transplanted them into rodent models of stroke. What we found was that when we transplanted those cells into the stroke region, the core of the stroke, they didn’t survive very well but when we moved them a few millimeters away from the stroke they not only survived but they migrated to the stroke.

The reason they migrate is that the stem cells have receptors on them that interact with chemicals given off by the stroke environment and that’s why they migrate to the stroke site. And when they get to the site they can turn into different kinds of cells. Very importantly we found these mice and rats that had behavioral problems – walking, moving – as a result of the stroke, we found we could improve their neurological outcomes with the stem cells.

With the help of CIRM, which has been very generous, we were fortunate enough to receive about $24 million in funding over the last 8 years, from 2010, to move this therapy into the clinic to understand the basic mechanisms of the recovery and to start clinical trials

One of the surprising things was that our initial notion was that the cells we transplanted into the brains would initially turn into the cells in the brain affected by the stroke and reconstitute those circuits. We were shocked to find that that was not what was happening, that only a few of the transplanted cells turned into neurons. The way they were recovering function was by secreting very powerful growth factors and molecules and proteins that enhanced native recovery or the ability of the normal brain to recover itself. Some of these processes included outgrowth of neurons, new connections, new synapses, not from the stem cells but from the native cells already in the brain.

This is not cell replacement but enhancing native recovery and, in a simple sense, what the cells are doing, we believe, is to change the adult brain, which has a hard time recovering from a stroke, into an infant brain and infants recover very well after a stroke.”

All this work was focused on ischemic strokes, where a blockage cuts off blood flow to the brain. But people like Cheryl Ward wanted to know: “Will this work for hemorrhagic stroke?” That’s where a blood vessel in the brain leaks or ruptures.

Dr. Steinberg: “I suspect we will be generalizing this therapy into hemorrhagic patients very, very soon and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work there. The reason we didn’t start there is that 85% of strokes are ischemic and only 15% are hemorrhagic so it’s a smaller population but a very, very important population because when patients have a hemorrhage from a stroke they are often more seriously disabled than from ischemic.”

Dr. Lila Collins: “I would like to highlight one trial for hemorrhagic stroke with the Mayo Clinic and that’s using mesenchymal stem cells (normally found in bone marrow or blood). It’s an early stage, Phase 1 safety study in patients with recent cerebral hemorrhage.  They are looking at improvements in neurological function and patients have to be treated within 72 hours after the stroke.”

Dr. Steinberg explained that because it’s more difficult to enroll patients within 72 hours of a stroke that we may end up offering a combination of therapies spread out over months or even years.

Dr. Steinberg: “It may be that and we may figure this out in the next 5 to 10 years, that you might want to treat patients acutely (right away) with an intravenous therapy in the first 72 hours and then you might want to come in again sub-acutely within a few months, injecting the cells into the brain near the stroke, and then maybe come in chronically a few years later if there are still problems and place the cells directly in the brain. So, lots of ways to think about how to use this in the future.”

James Russell suffered a stroke in 2014 and wrote:

“My left side was affected. My vision was also impacted. Are any stroke patients being given stem cells seeing possible improvement in visual neglect?”

Dr. Steinberg: “We don’t know the answer to that yet, it’s quite possible. It’s true these vision circuits are not dead and could be resurrected. We have not targeted visual pathways in our work, we have targeted motor functions, but I would also be optimistic that we could target patients who have vision problems from stroke. It’s a very important area.

A number of people wondered if stem cells can help people recovering from a stroke can they also help people with other neurological conditions.

Hanifa Gaphoor asked “What about Parkinson’s disease?” and Ginnievive Patch wondered “Do you feel hopeful for neurological illnesses like Huntington’s disease and ALS? Dr. Steinberg was cautiously optimistic.

Dr. Steinberg: “We’ve extended this kind of treatment not just for ischemic stroke but into traumatic brain injury (TBI) and we just completed a trial for patients with chronic TBI or who have suffered a trauma to the brain. Many other indications may be possible. In fact, now that we know these circuits are not dead or irreversibly injured, we believe we could even extend this to neurodegenerative diseases like ALS, Parkinson’s, maybe even to Alzheimer’s disease in the future. So, lots of hope but we don’t want to oversell this, and we want to make sure this is done in a rigorous fashion.”

Several people had questions about using their own adipose, or fat stem cells, in therapies being offered at clinics around the US and in other countries. Cheri Hicks asked: “I’m curious if adipose stem cell being used at clinics at various places is helpful or beneficial?”

Dr. Steinberg: “I get emails or calls from patients every week saying should I go to Russia, India or Mexico and get stem cell transplants which are done not as part of a rigorous trial and I discourage patients from getting stem cells that are not being given in a controlled fashion. For one thing, patients have been getting hurt by these treatments in these clinics; they have developed tumors and infections and other problems. In many cases we don’t even know what the cells are, there’s not published information and the patients pay cash for this, of course.”

At CIRM we also worry about people going to clinics, in the US and in other countries, where they are getting therapies that have not been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or other appropriate regulatory bodies. That’s why we have created this page on our website to help people who want a stem cell therapy but don’t know what to look for in a clinical trial or what questions to ask to make sure it’s a legitimate trial, one that’s been given the go-ahead by the FDA.

Bret Ryan asked: “What becomes of the implanted cells?”

Dr. Steinberg: We found after transplanting the cells, one week after the transplant, we see a new abnormality in the premotor cortex, the area of the brain that controls motor function. We saw a new abnormality there or a new signal that disappears after a month and never comes back. But the size of that temporary abnormality after one week correlates very closely with the degree of recovery after six months, one year and two years.

One of the interesting things is that it doesn’t seem to be necessary for the cells to survive long term to have beneficial effects. The cells we used in the SanBio trial don’t survive more than a month and yet they seem to aid recovery function in our pilot studies which is sustained for years.”

And of course, many people, such as Karen Smart, wanted to know how they could get the therapy. Right now, the clinical trial is fully enrolled but Stanford is putting together a waiting list for future trials. If you are interested and would like more information, please email: stemcellstudy@stanford.edu.

Sonia Coontz, the patient who was also a key part of the Facebook Live event, has an amazing story to tell. She was left devastated, physically and emotionally, after having a stroke. But then she heard about Dr. Steinberg’s clinical trial and it changed her life. Here’s her story.

We were thrilled to receive all of your comments and questions during our first Facebook Live event. It’s this kind of dialogue between scientists, patients and the public that will be critical for the continued support of our mission to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.

Due to the response, we plan to regularly schedule these “Ask the Expert” events. What disease area would you like us to focus on next time? Leave us a comment or email info@cirm.ca.gov

 

Can stem cells help people recover from a stroke? Join us for a Facebook Live event this Thursday, May 31 for the answers

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Stroke is one of the leading causes of death in the US and the leading cause of serious, long-term disability. But could stem cell therapies change that and help people who’ve had a brain attack?  Could stem cells help repair the damage caused by a stroke and restore a person’s ability to speak normally, to be able to walk without a limp or regain strength in their hands and arms?

To find out the answers to these and other questions joins us for “Ask the Expert”, a special Facebook Live event this Thursday, May 31, from noon till 1pm PDT

 The event will feature Dr. Gary Steinberg, the Chair of Neurosurgery at Stanford University. Dr. Steinberg is currently running a CIRM-funded clinical trial targeting stroke.

We will also be joined by CIRM Senior Science Officer Lila Collins, PhD who can talk about the broad range of other projects using stem cells to help people recover from a stroke.

We are also delighted to welcome Sonia Coontz, who suffered a devastating stroke several years ago and made a remarkable recovery after getting a stem cell therapy.

To join us for the event, all you have to do is go to our Facebook page on Thursday at noon (PDT) and you should see a video playing, which you can watch on mobile or desktop. Click the video to enter viewing mode.

Also, make sure to “like” our page before the event to receive a notification that we’ve gone live.

And we want to hear from you, so you will be able to post questions for the experts to answer or, you can email them directly to us at info@cirm.ca.gov

We look forward to seeing you there.