A stem cell clinical trial for blindness: watch Rosie’s story

Everything we do at CIRM is laser-focused on our mission: to accelerate stem cell treatments for patients with unmet medical needs. So, you might imagine what a thrill it is to meet the people who could be helped by the stem cell research we fund. People like Rosie Barrero who suffers from Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), an inherited, incurable form of blindness, which she describes as “an impressionist painting in a foggy room”.

The CIRM team first met Rosie Barrero back in 2012 at one of our governing Board meetings. She and her husband, German, attended the meeting to advocate for a research grant application submitted by UC Irvine’s Henry Klassen. The research project aimed to bring a stem cell-based therapy for RP to clinical trials. The Board approved the project giving a glimmer of hope to Rosie and many others stricken with RP.

Now, that hope has become a reality in the form of a Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved clinical trial which Rosie participated in last year. Sponsored by jCyte, a company Klassen founded, the CIRM-funded trial is testing the safety and effectiveness of a non-surgical treatment for RP that involves injecting stem cells into the eye to help save or even restore the light-sensing cells in the back of the eye. The small trial has shown no negative side effects and a larger, follow-up trial, also funded by CIRM, is now recruiting patients.

Almost five years after her first visit, Rosie returned to the governing Board in February and sprinkled in some of her witty humor to describe her preliminary yet encouraging results.

“It has made a difference. I’m still afraid of public speaking but early on [before the clinical trial] it was much easier because I couldn’t see any of you. But, hello everybody! I can see you guys. I can see this room. I can see a lot of things.”

After the meeting, she sat down for an interview with the Stem Cellar team to talk about her RP story and her experience as a clinical trial participant. The three-minute video above is based on that interview. Watch it and be inspired!

A patient perspective on how stem cells could give a second vision to the blind

October is Blindness Awareness month. In honor of the patients who suffer from diseases of blindness and of the scientists and doctors who work tirelessly to develop treatments and cures for these diseases, we are featuring an interview with Kristin Macdonald, a woman who is challenged by Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP).

RP is a genetically inherited disease that affects the photoreceptors at the back of the eye in an area called the retina. It’s a hard disease to diagnose because the first signs are subtle. Patients slowly lose their peripheral vision and ability to see well at night. As the disease progresses, the window of sight narrows and patients experience “tunnel vision”. Eventually, they become totally blind. Currently, there is no treatment for RP, but stem cell research might offer a glimmer of hope.

Kristin MacDonald

Kristin MacDonald

Kristin Macdonald was the first patient treated in a CIRM-funded stem cell trial for RP run by Dr. Henry Klassen at UC Irvine. She is a patient advocate and inspirational speaker for the blind and visually impaired, and is also a patient ambassador for Americans for Cures. Kristin is an amazing woman who hasn’t let RP prevent her from living her life. It was my pleasure to interview her to learn more about her life’s vision, her experience in CIRM’s RP trial, and her thoughts on patient advocacy and the importance of stem cell research.


Q: Tell us about your experience with being diagnosed with RP?

I was officially diagnosed with RP at 31. RP is a very difficult thing to diagnose, and I had to go through a series of doctors before we figured it out. The signs were there in my mid-to-late twenties, but unfortunately I didn’t really know what they were.

Being diagnosed with RP was really surprising to me. I grew up riding horses and doing everything. I had 20/20 vision and didn’t need any reading glasses. I started getting these night vision symptoms in my mid-to-late 20s in New York when I was in Manhattan. It was then that I started tripping, falling and getting clumsy. But I didn’t know what was happening and I was having such a great time with my life that I just denied it. I didn’t want to acknowledge that anything was wrong.

So I moved out to Los Angeles to pursue an acting and television career, and I just kept ignoring that thing in the brain that says “something’s wrong”. By the time I broke my arm for the second time, I had to go to see a doctor. And that’s when they diagnosed me.

Q: How did you boost yourself back up after being diagnosed with RP?

RP doesn’t come with an instruction booklet. It’s a very gradual adjustment emotionally, physically and spiritually. The first thing I did was to get out of denial, which was a really scary place to be because you can break your leg that way. You have to acknowledge what’s happening in life otherwise you’ll never get anywhere or past anything. That was my first stage of getting over denial. As I slowly started to accept things, I learned to live in the moment, which in a way is a big thing in life because we should all be living for today.

I think the fear of someone telling you that you’re going to go into the dark when you’ve always lived your life in the light can be overwhelming at times. I used to go to the mall and sometimes a door to a store would be gone or an elevator that I used to see is gone. What I did to deal with these fears and changes was to become as proactive as possible. I enlisted all of the best people around me in the business. I started doing charitable work for the Center for the Partially Sighted and for the Foundation for Fighting Blindness. I sat on the board of AIRSLA.org, an internet radio service for the blind and visually impaired, where I still do my radio show. Through that, I met other people who were going through the same type of thing and would come into my home to teach me independent living skills.

I remember the first day when an independent living counselor from the Center for the Partially Sighted came to my house and said we have to check in and see what your adjustment to blindness is like. Those words cut through me. “Adjustment to blindness”. It felt like I was going to prison, that’s how it felt like to me back then. But I am so glad I reached out to the Center for the Partially Sighted because they gave me invaluable instructions on how to function as a blind person. They helped me realize I could really live a good life and be whole, and that blindness would never define me.

I also worked a lot on my spiritual side. I read a lot of positive thinking books and found comfort in my faith in god and the support from my family, friends and my boyfriend. I can’t even enumerate how good they’ve been to me.

Q: How has being blind impacted your ability to do the things you love?

I’m a very social person, so giving up my car and suddenly being confined at night was crushing to me. And we didn’t have Uber back then! During that time, I had to learn how to lead a full life socially. I still love to do salsa dancing but it’s tricky. If I stand on the sidelines, some of the dancers will pass you by because they don’t know you’re blind. I also learned how to horseback ride and swim in the ocean – just a different way. I go in the water on a surf leash. Or I ride around the ring with my best friend guiding me.

Kristin loves to ride horses.

Kristin doesn’t let being mostly blind stop her from riding horses.

Q: What treatments have you had for RP?

I investigated just about everything that was out there. [Laughs] After I was diagnosed, I became very proactive to find treatments. But after a while, I became discouraged because these treatments either didn’t work or still needed time for the FDA to give approval.

I did participate in a study nine years ago and had genetically modified cells put into my eye. I had two surgeries: one to put the cells in and one to take them out because the treatment hadn’t done anything. I didn’t get any improvement, and that was crushing to me because I had hoped and waited so long.

I just kept praying, waiting, reading and hoping. And then boom, all the sudden I got a phone call from UC Irvine saying they wanted me to participate in their stem cell trial for RP. They said I’d be the third person in the world to have it done and the first in their clinical trial. They told me I was to be the first North American patient to have progenitor cells put in my eye, which is pretty amazing.

Q: Was it easy to decide to participate in the UC Irvine CIRM-funded trial?

Yes. But don’t get me wrong, I’m human. I was a little scared. It’s a new thing and you have to sign papers saying that you understand that we don’t exactly know what the results will be. Essentially, you are agreeing to be a pathfinder.

Luckily, I have not had any adverse effects since the trial. But I’ve always had a great deal of faith in stem cells. For years, I’ve been hearing about it and I’ve always put my hopes in stem cells thinking that that’s going to be the answer for blindness.

Q: Have you seen any improvements in your sight since participating in this trial?

I was treated a year ago in June. The stem cell transplant was in my left eye, my worse eye that has never gotten better. It’s been about 15 months now, and I started to see improvement after about two months following the treatment. When I would go into my bathroom, I noticed that it was a lot brighter. I didn’t know if I was imagining things, but I called a friend and said, “I don’t know if I’m imagining things but I’m getting more light perception in this eye.”

Sure enough, over a period of about eight months, I had gradual improvement in light perception. Then I leveled off, but now there is no question that I’m photo sensitive. When I go out, I use my sunglasses, and I see a whole lot more light.

Because I was one of the first patients in the trial, they had to give me a small dose of cells to test for safety. So it was amazing that a smaller dose of cells was still able to help me gain back some sight! One of the improvements that I’ve had is that I can actually see the image of my finger waving back and forth on my left side, which I couldn’t before when I put mascara on. I say this because I have put lip pencil all over my mouth by accident. That must have been a real sight! For a woman, putting on makeup is really important.

Q: What was your experience like participating in the UC Irvine trial?

Dr. Klassen who runs the UC Irvine stem cell trial for RP is an amazing person. He was in the room with me during the transplant procedure. I have such a high regard and respect for Dr. Klassen because he’s been working on the cure for RP as long as I’ve had it. He’s someone who’s dedicated his life to trying to find an answer to a disease that I’ve been dealing with on a day-to-day basis.

Dr. Klassen had the opportunity to become a retinal surgeon and make much more money in a different area. But because it was too crushing to talk to patients and give them such a sad diagnosis, he decided he was going to do something about it. When I heard that, I just never forgot it. He’s a wonderful man and he’s really dedicated to this cause.

Q: How have you been an advocate for RP and blindness?

I’ve been an advocate for the visually impaired in many different aspects. I have raised money for different research foundations and donated my time as a host and an MC to various charities through radio shows. I’ve had a voice in the visually impaired community in one way or another on and off for 15 years.

I also started getting involved in Americans for Cures only a few months ago. I am helping them raise awareness about Proposition 71, which created CIRM, and the importance of funding stem cell research in the future.

I may in this lifetime get actual vision again, a real second vision. But in the meantime, I’ve been working on my higher self, which is good because a friend of mine who is totally blind reminded me today, “Kristin, just remember, don’t live for tomorrow just getting that eye sight back”. My friend was born blind. I told him he is absolutely right. I know I can lead a joyful life either way. But trust me, having a cure for RP would be the icing on the cake for me.

Q: Why is it important to be a patient advocate?

I think it’s so important from a number of different aspects, and I really felt this at the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) conference in San Francisco this summer when certain people came to talk to me afterwards, especially researchers and scientists. They don’t get to see the perspective of the patient because they are on the other side of the fence.

I think it’s very important to be a patient advocate because when you have a personal story, it resonates with people much more than just reading about something or hearing about something on a ballot.  It’s really vital for the future. Everybody has somebody or knows somebody who had macular degeneration or became visually impaired. If they don’t, they need to be educated about it.

Q: Tell us about your Radio Show.

My radio show “Second Vision” is about personal development and reinventing yourself and your life’s vision when the first one fails. It was the first internet radio show to support the blind and visually impaired, so that’s why I’m passionate about it. I’ve had scores of authors on there over the years who’ve written amazing books about how to better yourself and personal stories from people who have overcome adversity from all different types of challenges in terms of emotional health, physical health or problems in their lives. You can find anything on the Second Vision website from interviews on Reiki and meditation to Erik Weihenmayer, the blind man who climbed the seven summits (the highest mountains of each of the seven continents).

Q: Why is stem cell research important?

I do think that stem cells will help people with blindness. I don’t know whether it will be a 100% treatment. Scientists may have to do something else along the way to perfect stem cell treatments whether it’s gene therapy or changing the number of cells or types of cells they inject into the eye. I really do have a huge amount of faith in stem cells. If they can regenerate other parts of the body, I think the eye will be no different.

To read more about Kristin Macdonald and her quest for a Second Vision, please visit her website.


Related Links:

Cell mate: the man who makes stem cells for clinical trials

When we announced that one of the researchers we fund – Dr. Henry Klassen at the University of California, Irvine – has begun his clinical trial to treat the vision-destroying disease retinitis pigmentosa, we celebrated the excitement felt by the researchers and the hope from people with the disease.

But we missed out one group. The people who make the cells that are being used in the treatment. That’s like praising a champion racecar driver for their skill and expertise, and forgetting to mention the people who built the car they drive.

Prof. Gerhard Bauer

Prof. Gerhard Bauer

In this case the “car” was built by the Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) team, led by Prof. Gerhard Bauer, at the University of California Davis (UC Davis).

Turns out that Gerhard and his team have been involved in more than just one clinical trial and that the work they do is helping shape stem cell research around the U.S. So we decided to get the story behind this work straight from the horse’s mouth (and if you want to know why that’s a particularly appropriate phrase to use here read this previous blog about the origins of GMP)

When did the GMP facility start, what made you decide this was needed at UC Davis?

Gerhard: In 2006 the leadership of the UC Davis School of Medicine decided that it would be important for UC Davis to have a large enough manufacturing facility for cellular and gene therapy products, as this would be the only larger academic GMP facility in Northern CA, creating an important resource for academia and also industry. So, we started planning the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures and large GMP facility with a team of facility planners, architects and scientists, and by 2007 we had our designs ready and applied for the CIRM major facilities grant, one of the first big grants CIRM offered. We were awarded the grant and started construction in 2008. We opened the Institute and GMP facility in April of 2010.

How does it work? Do you have a number of different cell lines you can manufacture or do people come to you with cell lines they want in large numbers?

Gerhard: We perform client driven manufacturing, which means the clients tell us what they need manufactured. We will, in conjunction with the client, obtain the starting product, for instance cells that need to undergo a manufacturing process to become the final product. These cells can be primary cells or also cell lines. Cell lines may perhaps be available commercially, but often it is necessary to derive the primary cell product here in the GMP facility; this can, for instance, be done from whole donor bone marrow, from apheresis peripheral blood cells, from skin cells, etc.

How many cells would a typical – if there is such a thing – order request?

Gerhard: This depends on the application and can range from 1 million cells to several billions of cells. For instance, for an eye clinical trial using autologous (from the patient themselves) hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells, a small number, such as a million cells may be sufficient. For allogeneic (from an unrelated donor) cell banks that are required to treat many patients in a clinical trial, several billion cells would be needed. We therefore need to be able to immediately and adequately adjust to the required manufacturing scale.

Why can’t researchers just make their own cells in their own lab or company?

Gerhard: For clinical trial products, there are different, higher, standards than apply for just research laboratory products. There are federal regulations that guide the manufacturing of products used in clinical trials, in this special case, cellular products. In order to produce such products, Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) rules and regulations, and guidelines laid down by both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Pharmacopeia need to be followed.

The goal is to manufacture a safe, potent and non-contaminated product that can be safely used in people. If researchers would like to use the cells or cell lines they developed in a clinical trial they have to go to a GMP manufacturer so these products can actually be used clinically. If, however, they have their own GMP facility they can make those products in house, provided of course they adhere to the rules and regulations for product manufacturing under GMP conditions.

Besides the UC Irvine retinitis pigmentosa trial now underway what other kinds of clinical trials have you supplied cells for?

Gerhard: A UC Davis sponsored clinical trial in collaboration with our Eye Center for the treatment of blindness (NCT01736059), which showed remarkable vision recovery in two out of the six patients who have been treated to date (Park et al., PMID:25491299, ), and also an industry sponsored clinical gene therapy trial for severe kidney disease. Besides cellular therapy products, we also manufacture clinical grade gene therapy vectors and specialty drug formulations.

For several years we have been supplying clinicians with a UC Davis GMP facility developed formulation of the neuroactive steroid “allopregnanolone” that was shown to act on resident neuronal stem cells. We saved several lives of patients with intractable seizures, and the formulation is also applied in clinical trials for the treatment of traumatic brain injury, Fragile X syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease.

What kinds of differences are you seeing in the industry, in the kinds of requests you get now compared to when you started?

Gerhard: In addition, gene therapy vector manufacturing and formulation work is really needed by several clients. One of the UC Davis specialties is “next generation” gene-modified mesenchymal stem cells, and we are contacted often to develop those products.

Where will we be in five years?

Gerhard: Most likely, some of the Phase I/II clinical trials (these are early stage clinical trials with, usually, relatively small numbers of patients involved) will have produced encouraging results, and product manufacturing will need to be scaled up to provide enough cellular products for Phase III clinical trials (much larger trials with many more people) and later for a product that can be licensed and marketed.

We are already working with companies that anticipate such scale up work and transitioning into manufacturing for marketing; we are planning this upcoming process with them. We also believe that certain cellular products will replace currently available standard medical treatments as they may turn out to produce superior results.

What does the public not know about the work you do that you think they should know?

Gerhard: The public should know that UC Davis has the largest academic Good Manufacturing Practice Facility in Northern California, that its design was well received by the FDA, that we are manufacturing a wide variety of products – currently about 16 – that we are capable of manufacturing several products at one time without interfering with each other, and that we are happy to work with clients from both academia and private industry through both collaborative and Fee-for-Service arrangements.

We are also very proud to have, during the last 5 years, contributed to saving several lives with some of the novel products we manufactured. And, of course, we are extremely grateful to CIRM for building this state-of-the-art facility.

You can see a video about the building of the GMP facility at UC Davis here.

Da Mayor and the clinical trial that could help save his vision

Former San Francisco Mayor and California State Assembly Speaker Willie Brown is many things, but shy is not one of them. A profile of him in the San Francisco Chronicle once described him as “Brash, smart, confident”. But for years Da Mayor – as he is fondly known in The City – said very little about a condition that is slowly destroying his vision. Mayor Brown has retinitis pigmentosa (RP).

RP is a degenerative disease that slowly destroys a person’s sight vision by attacking and destroying photoreceptors in the retina, the light-sensitive area at the back of the eye that is critical for vision. At a recent conference held by the Everylife Foundation for Rare Diseases, Mayor Brown gave the keynote speech and talked about his life with RP.

Willie Brown

He described how people thought he was being rude because he would walk by them on the streets and not say hello. The truth is, he couldn’t see them.

He was famous for driving fancy cars like Bentleys, Maseratis and Ferraris. When he stopped doing that, he said, “people thought I was broke because I no longer had expensive cars.” The truth is his vision was too poor for him to drive.

Despite its impact on his life RP hasn’t slowed Da Mayor down, but now there’s a new clinical trial underway that might help him, and others like him, regain some of that lost vision.

The trial is the work of Dr. Henry Klassen at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). Dr. Klassen just announced the treatment of their first four patients, giving them stem cells that hopefully will slow down or even reverse the progression of RP.

“We are delighted to be moving into the clinic after many years of bench research,” Klassen said in a news release.

The patients were each given a single injection of retinal progenitor cells. It’s hoped these cells will help protect the photoreceptors in the retina that have not yet been damaged by RP, and even revive those that have become impaired but not yet destroyed by the disease.

The trial will enroll 16 patients in this Phase 1 trial. They will all get a single injection of retinal cells into the eye most affected by the disease. After that, they’ll be followed for 12 months to make sure that the therapy is safe and to see if it has any beneficial effects on vision in the treated eye, compared to the untreated one.

In a news release Jonathan Thomas, Ph.D., J.D., Chair of the CIRM Board said it’s always exciting when a therapy moves out of the lab and into people:

“This is an important step for Dr. Klassen and his team, and hopefully an even more important one for people battling this devastating disease. Our mission at CIRM is to accelerate the development of stem cell therapies for patients with unmet medical needs, and this certainly fits that bill. That’s why we have invested almost $19 million in helping this therapy reach this point.”

RP hasn’t defeated Da Mayor. Willie Brown is still known as a sharp dresser and an even sharper political mind. His message to the people at the Everylife Foundation conference was, “never give up, keep striving, keep pushing, keep hoping.”

To learn more about the study or to enroll contact the UCI Alpha Stem Cell Clinic at 949-824-3990 or by email at stemcell@uci.edu.

And visit our website to watch a presentation about the trial (link) by Dr. Klassen and to hear brief remarks from one of his patients.