Going the extra mile to save a patient’s life

You can tell an awful lot about a company by the people it hires and the ability it gives them to do their job in an ethical, principled way. By that measure Rocket Pharma is a pretty darn cool company.

Rocket Pharma is running a CIRM-funded clinical trial for Leukocyte Adhesion Deficiency-I (LAD-I), a rare genetic immune disorder that leaves patients vulnerable to repeated infections that often results in death within the first two years of life. The therapy involves taking some of the child’s own blood stem cells and, in the lab, correcting the mutation that causes LAD-I, then returning those cells to the patient. Hopefully those blood stem cells then create a new, healthy blood supply and repair the immune system.

So far, they have treated the majority of the nine patients in this Phase 1/2 clinical trial. Here’s the story of three of those children, all from the same family. Every patient’s path to the treatment has been uniquely challenging. For one family, it’s been a long, rough road, but one that shows how committed Rocket Pharma (Rocket) is to helping people in need.

The patient, a young girl, is from India. The family has already lost one child to what was almost certainly LAD-I, and now they faced the very real prospect of losing their daughter too. She had already suffered numerous infections and the future looked bleak. Fortunately, the team at Rocket heard about her and decided they wanted to help enroll her in their clinical trial.

Dr. Gayatri Rao, Rocket Pharmaceuticals

Dr. Gayatri Rao, the Global Program Head for the LAD-I therapy, this patient was about 6 months old when they heard about her: “She had already been in and out of the hospital numerous times so the family were really interested in enrolling the patient. But getting the family to the US was daunting.”

Over the course of several months, the team at Rocket helped navigate the complicated immigration process. Because the parents and child would need to make several trips to the US for treatment and follow-up exams they would need multiple-entry visas. “Just to get all the paper work necessary was a monumental task. Everything had to be translated because the family didn’t speak English. By the time the family flew to Delhi for their visa interview they had a dossier that filled a 3 inch binder.”  Rocket worked closely with partners in India to provide the family on-the-ground support every step of the way.  To help ensure the family received the visas they needed, Rocket also reached out to members of Congress and six members wrote in support of the family’s application.

Finally, everything fell into place. The family had the visas, all the travel arrangements were made. The Rocket team had even found an apartment near the UCLA campus where the family would stay during the treatment and stocked it with Indian food.

But on the eve of their flight to the US, the coronavirus pandemic hit. International flights were cancelled. Borders were closed. A year of work was put on hold and, more important, the little girl’s life hung in the balance.

Over the course of the next few months the little girl suffered several infections and had to be hospitalized. The family caught COVID and had to undergo quarantine till they recovered. But still the Rocket team kept working on a plan to bring them to the US. Finally, in late January, as vaccines became available and international flights opened up once again, the family were able to come to the US. One west-coast based Rocket team member even made sure that upon arriving to the apartment in UCLA, there was a home-cooked meal, a kitchen stocked with groceries, and handmade cards welcoming them to help transition the family into their new temporary “home.” They are now in living in that apartment near UCLA, waiting for the treatment to start.

Gayatri says it would have been easy to say: “this is too hard” and try to find another patient in the trial, but no one at Rocket wanted to do that: “Once a patient gets identified, we feel like we know them and the team feels invested in doing everything we can for them. We know it may not work out. But at the end of the day, we recognize that this child often has no other choices, and that motivates us to keep going despite the challenges.  If anything, this experience has taught us that with persistence and creativity, we can surmount these challenges.”

Maybe doing the right thing brings its own rewards, because this earlier this month Rocket was granted Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy (RMAT) designation for their treatment for LAD-I. This is a big deal because it means the therapy has already shown it appears to be safe and potentially beneficial to patients, so the designation means that if it continues to be safe and effective it may be eligible for a faster, more streamlined approval process. And that means it can get to the patients who need it, outside of a clinical trial, faster.

CIRM Board Approves Four New Clinical Trials

A breakdown of CIRM’s clinical trials by disease area

This past Thursday the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved four new clinical trials in addition to ten new discovery research awards.

These new awards bring the total number of CIRM-funded clinical trials to 68.  Additionally, these new additions have allowed the state agency to exceed the goal of commencing 50 new trials outlined in its five year strategic plan.

$8,970,732 was awarded to Dr. Steven Deeks at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) to conduct a clinical trial that modifies a patient’s own immune cells in order to treat and potentially cure HIV. 

Current treatment of HIV involves the use of long-term antiretroviral therapy (ART).  However, many people are not able to access and adhere to long-term ART.

Dr. Deeks and his team will take a patient’s blood and extract T cells, a type of immune cell.  The T cells are then genetically modified to express two different chimeric antigen receptors (CAR), which enable the newly created duoCAR-T cells to recognize and destroy HIV infected cells.  The modified T cells are then reintroduced back into the patient.

The goal of this one time therapy is to act as a long-term control of HIV with patients no longer needing to take ART, in effect a form of HIV cure.  This approach would also address the needs of those who are not able to respond to current approaches, which is estimated to be 50% of those affected by HIV globally. 

$3,728,485 was awarded to Dr. Gayatri Rao from Rocket Pharmaceuticals to conduct a clinical trial using a gene therapy for infantile malignant osteopetrosis (IMO), a rare and life-threatening disorder that develops in infancy.  IMO is caused by defective bone cell function, which results in blindness, deafness, bone marrow failure, and death very early in life. 

The trial will use a gene therapy that targets IMO caused by mutations in the TCIRG1 gene.  The team will take a young child’s own blood stem cells and inserting a functional version of the TCIRG1 gene.  The newly corrected blood stem cells are then introduced back into the child, with the hope of halting or preventing the progression of IMO in young children before much damage can occur. 

Rocket Pharmaceuticals has used the same gene therapy approach for modifying blood stem cells in a separate CIRM funded trial for a rare pediatric disease, which has shown promising results.

$8,996,474 was awarded to Dr. Diana Farmer at UC Davis to conduct a clinical trial of in utero repair of myelomeningocele (MMC), the most severe form of spina bifida.  MMC is a birth defect that occurs due to incomplete closure of the developing spinal cord, resulting in neurological damage to the exposed cord.  This damage leads to lifelong lower body paralysis, and bladder and bowel dysfunction.

Dr. Farmer and her team will use placenta tissue to generate mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs).  The newly generated MSCs will be seeded onto an FDA approved dural graft and the product will be applied to the spinal cord while the infant is still developing in the womb.  The goal of this therapy is to help promote proper spinal cord formation and improve motor function, bladder function, and bowel function. 

The clinical trial builds upon the work of CIRM funded preclinical research.

$8,333,581 was awarded to Dr. David Williams at Boston Children’s Hospital to conduct a gene therapy clinical trial for sickle cell disease (SCD).  This is the second project that is part of an agreement between CIRM and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the National Institutes of Health, to co-fund cell and gene therapy programs under the NHLBI’s  “Cure Sickle Cell” Initiative.  The goal of this agreement is to markedly accelerate clinical development of cell and gene therapies to cure SCD.

SCD is an inherited disease caused by a single gene mutation resulting in abnormal hemoglobin, which causes red blood cells to ‘sickle’ in shape.  Sickling of red blood cells clogs blood vessels and leads to progressive organ damage, pain crises, reduced quality of life, and early death. 

The team will take a patient’s own blood stem cells and insert a novel engineered gene to silence abnormal hemoglobin and induce normal fetal hemoglobin expression.  The modified blood stem cells will then be reintroduced back into the patient.  The goal of this therapy is to aid in the production of normal shaped red blood cells, thereby reducing the severity of the disease.

“Today is a momentus occasion as CIRM reaches 51 new clinical trials, surpassing one of the goals outlined in its five year strategic plan,” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., President and CEO of CIRM.  “These four new trials, which implement innovative approaches in the field of regenerative medicine, reflect CIRM’s ever expanding and diverse clinical portfolio.”

The Board also approved ten awards that are part of CIRM’s Quest Awards Prgoram (DISC2), which promote promising new technologies that could be translated to enable broad use and improve patient care.

The awards are summarized in the table below:

  APPLICATION  TITLE  INSTITUTION  AWARD AMOUNT  
    DISC2-12169  Human-induced pluripotent stem cell-derived glial enriched progenitors to treat white matter stroke and vascular dementia.  UCLA  $250,000
  DISC2-12170Development of COVID-19 Antiviral Therapy Using Human iPSC-Derived Lung Organoids  UC San Diego  $250,000
  DISC2-12111Hematopoietic Stem Cell Gene Therapy for X-linked Agammaglobulinemia  UCLA  $250,000
  DISC2-12158Development of a SYF2 antisense oligonucleotide (ASO) treatment for ALSUniversity of Southern California  $249,997
    DISC2-12124Dual angiogenic and immunomodulating nanotechnology for subcutaneous stem cell derived islet transplantation for the treatment of diabetes  Lundquist Institute  $250,000
  DISC2-12105Human iPSC-derived chimeric antigen receptor-expressing macrophages for cancer treatment  UC San Diego  $250,000
  DISC2-12164Optimization of a human interneuron cell therapy for traumatic brain injury  UC Irvine  $250,000
  DISC2-12172Combating COVID-19 using human PSC-derived NK cells  City of Hope  $249,998
  DISC2-12126The First Orally Delivered Cell Therapy for the Treatment of Inflammatory Bowel Disease  Vitabolus Inc.  $249,000
    DISC2-12130Transplantation of Pluripotent Stem Cell Derived Microglia for the Treatment of Adult-onset Leukoencephalopathy (HDLS/ALSP)  UC Irvine  $249,968