When people ask me what I do at CIRM I sometimes half-jokingly tell them that I’m the official translator: I take complex science and turn it into everyday English. That’s important. The taxpayers of California have a right to know how their money is being spent and how it might benefit them. But that message can be even more effective when it comes from the scientists themselves.
Recently we asked some of the scientists we are funding to do research into COVID-19 to record what’s called an “elevator pitch”. This is where they prepare an explanation of their work that is in ordinary English and is quite short, short enough to say it to someone as you ride in an elevator. Hence the name.
It sounds easy enough. But it’s not. When you are used to talking in the language of science day in and day out, suddenly switching codes to talk about your work in plain English can take some practice. Also, you have spent years, often decades, on this work and to have to explain it in around one minute is no easy thing.
But our researchers rose to the challenge. Here’s some examples of just how well they did.
Don’t you love it when someone does your job for you and does it so well you have no need to add anything to it! Doesn’t happen very often – sad to say – but this week our friends at UCLA wrote a great article describing the work they are doing to target COVID-19. Best of all, all the work described is funded by CIRM. So read, and enjoy.
Two scientists in a lab at the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center
By Tiare Dunlap, UCLA
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, UCLA researchers are rising to the occasion by channeling their specialized expertise to seek new and creative ways to reduce the spread of the virus and save lives. Using years’ — or even decades’ — worth of knowledge they’ve acquired studying other diseases and biological processes, many of them have shifted their focus to the novel coronavirus, and they’re collaborating across disciplines as they work toward new diagnostic tests, treatments and vaccines.
“As a result of the pandemic, everyone on campus is committed to finding ways that their unique expertise can help out,” said Dr. Brigitte Gomperts, professor and vice chair of research in pediatric hematology-oncology and pulmonary medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a member of the UCLA Children’s Discovery and Innovation Institute. “So many of my colleagues have repurposed their labs to work on the virus. It’s very seldom that you have one thing that everybody’s working on, and it has been truly inspiring to see how everyone has come together to try and solve this.”
Here’s a look at five projects in which UCLA scientists are using stem cells — which can self-replicate and give rise to all cell types — to take on COVID-19.
Using lung organoids as models to test possible treatments
Dr. Brigitte Gomperts
Gomperts has spent years perfecting methods for creating stem cell–derived three-dimensional lung organoids. Now, she’s using those organoids to study how SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, affects lung tissue and to rapidly screen thousands of prospective treatments. Because the organoids are grown from human cells and reflect the cell types and architecture of the lungs, they can offer unprecedented insights into how the virus infects and damages the organ.
Gomperts is collaborating with UCLA colleagues Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami, a virologist, and Robert Damoiseaux, an expert in molecular screening. Their goal is to find an existing therapy that could be used to reduce the spread of infection and associated damage in the lungs.
“We’re starting with drugs that have already been tested in humans because our goal is to find a therapy that can treat patients with COVID-19 as soon as possible,” Gomperts said. Read more.
Repurposing a cancer therapy
Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami, associate professor of molecular and medical pharmacology at the Geffen School of Medicine
In addition to collaborating with Gomperts, Arumugaswami and Damoiseaux identified the cancer drug Berzosertib as a possible treatment for COVID-19 after screening 430 drug candidates. The drug, which is currently being tested in clinical trials for cancer, works by blocking a DNA repair process that is exploited by solid cancers and the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and the UCLA scientists found that it is very effective at limiting viral replication and cell death.
“Clinical trials have shown that Berzosertib blocks the DNA repair pathway in cancer cells, but has no effects on normal, healthy cells,” Arumugaswami said.
Now, Arumugaswami and Gustavo Garcia Jr., a staff research associate, are testing Berzosertib and additional drug combinations on lung organoids developed in Gomperts’ lab and stem cell–derived heart cells infected with SARS-CoV-2. They suspect that if the drug is administered soon after diagnosis, it could limit the spread of infection and prevent complications. Read more.
Studying the immune response to the virus
Dr. Gay Crooks, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and of pediatrics at the Geffen School of Medicine, and co-director of the Broad Stem Cell Research Center; and Dr. Christopher Seet,
assistant professor of hematology-oncology at the Geffen School of Medicine
Crooks and Seet are using stem cells to model how immune cells recognize and fight the virus in a lab dish. To do that, they’re infecting blood-forming stem cells — which can give rise to all blood and immune cells — from healthy donors with parts of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and then coaxing the stem cells to produce immune cells called dendritic cells. Dendritic cells devour viral proteins, chop them up into pieces and then present those pieces to other immune cells called T cells to provoke a response.
By studying that process, Crooks and Seet hope to identify which parts of the virus provoke the strongest T-cell responses. Developing an effective vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 will require a deep understanding of how the immune system responds to the virus, and this work could be an important step in that direction, giving researchers and clinicians a way to gauge the effectiveness of possible vaccines.
“When we started developing this project some years ago, we had no idea it would be so useful for studying a viral infection — any viral infection,” Crooks said. “It was only because we already had these tools in place that we could spring into action so fast.” Read more.
Developing a booster that could help a vaccine last longer
A COVID-19 vaccine will need to provide long-term protection from infection. But how long a vaccine protects from infection isn’t solely dependent on the vaccine.
The human body relies on long-living immune cells called T memory stem cells that guard against pathogens such as viruses and bacteria that the body has encountered before. Unfortunately, the body’s capacity to form T memory stem cells decreases with age. So no matter how well designed a vaccine is, older adults who don’t have enough of a response from T memory stem cells will not be protected long-term.
To address that issue, Li is developing an injectable biomaterial vaccine booster that will stimulate the formation of T memory stem cells. The booster is made up of engineered materials that release chemical messengers to stimulate the production of T memory stem cells. When combined with an eventual SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, they would prompt the body to produce immune cells primed to recognize and eliminate the virus over the long term.
“I consider it my responsibility as a scientist and an engineer to translate scientific findings into applications to help people and the community,” Li said. Read more.
Invariant natural killer T cells, or iNKT cells, are the special forces of the immune system. They’re extremely powerful and can immediately recognize and respond to many different intruders, from infections to cancer.
Yang is testing whether iNKT cells would make a particularly effective treatment for COVID-19 because they have the capacity to kill virally infected cells, offer protection from reinfection and rein in the excessive inflammation caused by a hyperactive immune response to the virus, which is thought to be a major cause of tissue damage and death in people with the disease.
One catch, though, is that iNKT cells are incredibly scarce: One drop of human blood contains around 10 million blood cells but only around 10 iNKT cells. That’s where Yang’s research comes in. Over the past several years, she has developed a method for generating large numbers of iNKT cells from blood-forming stem cells. While that work was aimed at creating a treatment for cancer, Yang’s lab has adapted its work over the past few months to test how effective stem cell–derived iNKT cells could be in fighting COVID-19. With her colleagues, she has been studying how the cells work in fighting the disease in models of SARS-CoV-2 infection that are grown from human kidney and lung cells.
“My lab has been developing an iNKT cell therapy for cancer for years,” Yang said. “This means a big part of the work is already done. We are repurposing a potential therapy that is very far along in development to treat COVID-19.” Read more.
“Our center is proud to join CIRM in supporting these researchers as they adapt projects that have spent years in development to meet the urgent need for therapies and vaccines for COVID-19,” said Dr. Owen Witte, founding director of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center. “This moment highlights the importance of funding scientific research so that we may have the foundational knowledge to meet new challenges as they arise.” Crooks, Gomperts, Seet and Yang are all members of the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. Damoiseaux is a professor of molecular and medical pharmacology and director of the Molecular Shared Resource Center at the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA
In late March the CIRM Board approved $5 million in emergency funding for COVID-19 research. The idea was to support great ideas from California’s researchers, some of which had already been tested for different conditions, and see if they could help in finding treatments or a vaccine for the coronavirus.
Less than a month later we were funding a clinical trial and two other projects, one that targeted a special kind of immune system cell that has the potential to fight the virus.
Researchers use stem cells to model the immune response to COVID-19
By Tiare Dunlap
Cities across the United States are opening back up, but we’re still a long way from making the COVID-19 pandemic history. To truly accomplish that, we need to have a vaccine that can stop the spread of infection.
But to develop an effective vaccine, we need to understand how the immune system responds to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Vaccines work by imitating infection. They expose a person’s immune system to a weakened version or component of the virus they are intended to protect against. This essentially prepares the immune system to fight the virus ahead of time, so that if a person is exposed to the real virus, their immune system can quickly recognize the enemy and fight the infection. Vaccines need to contain the right parts of the virus to provoke a strong immune response and create long-term protection.
Most of the vaccines in development for SARS CoV-2 are using part of the virus to provoke the immune system to produce proteins called antibodies that neutralize the virus. Another way a vaccine could create protection against the virus is by activating the T cells of the immune system.
T cells specifically “recognize” virus-infected cells, and these kinds of responses may be especially important for providing long-term protection against the virus. One challenge for researchers is that they have only had a few months to study how the immune system protects against SARS CoV-2, and in particular, which parts of the virus provoke the best T-cell responses.
For years, they have been perfecting an innovative technology that uses blood-forming stem cells — which can give rise to all types of blood and immune cells — to produce a rare and powerful subset of immune cells called type 1 dendritic cells. Type 1 dendritic cells play an essential role in the immune response by devouring foreign proteins, termed antigens, from virus-infected cells and then chopping them into fragments. Dendritic cells then use these protein fragments to trigger T cells to mount an immune response.
Using this technology, Crooks and Seet are working to pinpoint which specific parts of the SARS-CoV-2 virus provoke the strongest T-cell responses.
Building long-lasting immunity
“We know from a lot of research into other viral infections and also in cancer immunotherapy, that T-cell responses are really important for long-lasting immunity,” said Seet, an assistant professor of hematology-oncology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “And so this approach will allow us to better characterize the T-cell response to SARS-CoV-2 and focus vaccine and therapeutic development on those parts of the virus that induce strong T-cell immunity.”
Crooks’ and Seet’s project uses blood-forming stem cells taken from healthy donors and infected with a virus containing antigens from SARS-CoV-2. They then direct these stem cells to produce large numbers of type 1 dendritic cells using a new method developed by Seet and Suwen Li, a graduate student in Crooks’ lab. Both Seet and Li are graduates of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center’s training program.
“The dendritic cells we are able to make using this process are really good at chopping up viral antigens and eliciting strong immune responses from T cells,” said Crooks, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and of pediatrics at the medical school and co-director of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center.
When type 1 dendritic cells chop up viral antigens into fragments, they present these fragments on their cell surfaces to T cells. Our bodies produce millions and millions of T cells each day, each with its own unique antigen receptor, however only a few will have a receptor capable of recognizing a specific antigen from a virus.
When a T cell with the right receptor recognizes a viral antigen on a dendritic cell as foreign and dangerous, it sets off a chain of events that activates multiple parts of the immune system to attack cells infected with the virus. This includes clonal expansion, the process by which each responding T cell produces a large number of identical cells, called clones, which are all capable of recognizing the antigen.
“Most of those T cells will go off and fight the infection by killing cells infected with the virus,” said Seet, who, like Crooks, is also a member of the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. “However, a small subset of those cells become memory T cells — long-lived T cells that remain in the body for years and protect from future infection by rapidly generating a robust T-cell response if the virus returns. It’s immune memory.”
Producing extremely rare immune cells
This process has historically been particularly challenging to model in the lab, because type 1 dendritic cells are extremely rare — they make up less than 0.1% of cells found in the blood. Now, with this new stem cell technology, Crooks and Seet can produce large numbers of these dendritic cells from blood stem cells donated by healthy people, introduce them to parts of the virus, then see how T cells taken from the blood can respond in the lab. This process can be repeated over and over using cells taken from a wide range of healthy people.
“The benefit is we can do this very quickly without the need for an actual vaccine trial, so we can very rapidly figure out in the lab which parts of the virus induce the best T-cell responses across many individuals,” Seet said.
The resulting data could be used to inform the development of new vaccines for COVID-19 that improve T-cell responses. And the data about which viral antigens are most important to the T cells could also be used to monitor the effectiveness of existing vaccine candidates, and an individual’s immune status to the virus.
“There are dozens of vaccine candidates in development right now, with three or four of them already in clinical trials,” Seet said. “We all hope one or more will be effective at producing immediate and long-lasting immunity. But as there is so much we don’t know about this new virus, we’re still going to need to really dig in to understand how our immune systems can best protect us from infection.”
Supporting basic research into our body’s own processes that can inform new strategies to fight disease is central to the mission of the Broad Stem Cell Research Center.
“When we started developing this project some years ago, we had no idea it would be so useful for studying a viral infection, any viral infection,” Crooks said. “And it was only because we already had these tools in place that we could spring into action so fast.”
This past Friday, the CIRM Board approved funding for its first clinical study for COVID-19. In addition to this, the Board also approved two discovery stage research projects, which support promising new technologies that could be translated to enable broad use and improve patient care. Before we go into more detail, the two awards are summarized in the table below:
The discovery grant for $150,000 was given to Dr. Gay Crooks at UCLA to study how specific immune cells called T cells respond to COVID-19. The goal of this is to inform the development of vaccines and therapies that harness T cells to fight the virus. Typically, vaccine research involves studying the immune response using cells taken from infected people. However, Dr. Crooks and her team are taking T cells from healthy people and using them to mount strong immune responses to parts of the virus in the lab. They will then study the T cells’ responses in order to better understand how T cells recognize and eliminate the virus.
This method uses blood forming stem cells and then converts them into specialized immune cells called dendritic cells, which are able to devour proteins from viruses and chop them into fragments, triggering an immune response to the virus.
In a press release from UCLA, Dr. Crooks says that, “The dendritic cells we are able to make using this process are really good at chopping up the virus, and therefore eliciting a strong immune response”
The discovery grant for $149,998 was given to Dr. Brigitte Gomberts at UCLA to study a lung organoid model made from human stem cells in order to identify drugs that can reduce the number of infected cells and prevent damage in the lungs of patients with COVID-19. Dr. Gomberts will be testing drugs that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for other purposes or have been found to be safe in humans in early clinical trials. This increases the likelihood that if a successful drug is found, it can be approved more rapidly for widespread use.
In the same press release from UCLA, Dr. Gomberts discusses the potential drugs they are evaluating.
“We’re starting with drugs that have already been tested in humans because our goal is to find a therapy that can treat patients with COVID-19 as soon as possible.”