CIRM funded researchers discover link between Alzheimer’s gene and COVID-19

Dr. Yanhong Shi (left) and Dr. Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami (right)

All this month we are using our blog and social media to highlight a new chapter in CIRM’s life, thanks to the voters approving Proposition 14. We are looking back at what we have done since we were created in 2004, and also looking forward to the future. Today we focus on groundbreaking CIRM funded research related to COVID-19 that was recently published.

It’s been almost a year since the world started hearing about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.  In our minds, the pandemic has felt like an eternity, but scientists are still discovering new things about how the virus works and if genetics might play a role in the severity of the virus.  One population study found that people who have ApoE4, a gene type that has been found to increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, had higher rates of severe COVID-19 and hospitalizations.

It is this interesting observation that led to important findings of a study funded by two CIRM awards ($7.4M grant and $250K grant) and conducted by Dr. Yanhong Shi at City of Hope and co-led by Dr. Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami, a member of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center.  The team found that the same gene that increases the risk for Alzheimer’s disease can increase the susceptibility and severity of COVID-19.

At the beginning of the study, the team was interested in the connection between SARS-CoV-2 and its effect on the brain.  Due to the fact that patients typically lose their sense of taste and smell, the team theorized that there was an underlying neurological effect of the virus.  

The team first created neurons and astrocytes.  Neurons are cells that function as the basic working unit of the brain and astrocytes provide support to them.  The neurons and astrocytes were generated from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are a kind of stem cell that can become virtually any type of cell and can be created by “reprogramming” the skin cells of patients.  The newly created neurons and astrocytes were then infected with SARS-CoV-2 and it was found that they were susceptible to infection.

Next, the team used iPSCs to create brain organoids, which are 3D models that mimic certain features of the human brain.  They were able to create two different organoid models: one that contained astrocytes and one without them.  They infected both brain organoid types with the virus and discovered that those with astrocytes boosted SARS-CoV-2 infection in the brain model. 

The team then decided to further study the effects of ApoE4 on susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2.  They did this by generating neurons from iPSCs “reprogrammed” from the cells of an Alzheimer’s patient.  Because the iPSCs were derived from an Alzheimer’s patient, they contained ApoE4.  Using gene editing, the team modified some of the ApoE4 iPSCs created so that they contained ApoE3, which is a gene type considered neutral.  The ApoE3 and ApoE4 iPSCs were then used to generate neurons and astrocytes.

The results were astounding.  The ApoE4 neurons and astrocytes both showed a higher susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2 infection in comparison to the ApoE3 neurons and astrocytes.  Moreover, while the virus caused damage to both ApoE3 and ApoE4 neurons, it appeared to have a slightly more severe effect on ApoE4 neurons and a much more severe effect on ApoE4 astrocytes compared to ApoE3 neurons and astrocytes. 

“Our study provides a causal link between the Alzheimer’s disease risk factor ApoE4 and COVID-19 and explains why some (e.g. ApoE4 carriers) but not all COVID-19 patients exhibit neurological manifestations” says Dr. Shi. “Understanding how risk factors for neurodegenerative diseases impact COVID-19 susceptibility and severity will help us to better cope with COVID-19 and its potential long-term effects in different patient populations.”

In the last part of the study, the researchers tested to see if the antiviral drug remdesivir inhibits virus infection in neurons and astrocytes.  They discovered that the drug was able to successfully reduce the viral level in astrocytes and prevent cell death.  For neurons, it was able to rescue them from steadily losing their function and even dying. 

The team says that the next steps to build on their findings is to continue studying the effects of the virus and better understand the role of ApoE4 in the brains of people who have COVID-19.  Many people that developed COVID-19 have recovered, but long-term neurological effects such as severe headaches are still being seen months after. 

“COVID-19 is a complex disease, and we are beginning to understand the risk factors involved in the manifestation of the severe form of the disease” says Dr. Arumugaswami.  “Our cell-based study provides possible explanation to why individuals with Alzheimer’s’ disease are at increased risk of developing COVID-19.”

The full results to this study were published in Cell Stem Cell.

CIRM-funded study shows how cigarette smoke can worsen COVID-19 infection in the airways

Microscopic images of human stem cell–derived airway tissue models with cell nuclei (blue) and SARS-CoV-2 virus infected cells (green); tissue exposed to cigarette smoke (right) had 2 to 3 times more infected cells than non-exposed tissue (left).
Image Credit: UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center/Cell Stem Cell

In the middle of a pandemic, stress can run really high and you might be tempted to light up a cigarette to decompress from the world around you. However, a CIRM-funded study revealed that you might want to think twice before lighting up.

It is already known that cigarette smoke is one of the most common causes of lung diseases, including lung cancer, but Dr. Brigitte Gomperts and Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami at UCLA have pinpointed how smoking cigarettes may worsen infection by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in the airways of the lungs.

The team used airway stem cells from the lungs of healthy non-smoking donors to create a tissue model that replicates the way that airways behave and function in humans. The researchers then exposed these newly created airways to cigarette smoke to mimic the effects of smoking.

Next, the team infected the airway tissue exposed with cigarette smoke with SARS-CoV-2 and also infected tissue not exposed to cigarette smoke. In the tissue model exposed to smoke, the researchers saw between two and three times more infected cells.

The UCLA team determined that smoking resulted in more severe SARS-CoV-2 infection. This was due to the smoke blocking the activity of immune system messenger proteins called interferons, which play an important role in the body’s early immune response. They trigger infected cells to produce proteins to attack the virus, summon additional support from the immune system, and alert uninfected cells to prepare to fight the virus. Cigarette smoke is known to reduce the interferon response in the airways.

In a UCLA news release, Dr. Gomperts explains the results with a simple analogy.

“If you think of the airways like the high walls that protect a castle, smoking cigarettes is like creating holes in these walls. Smoking reduces the natural defenses and that allows the virus to set in.” 

The hope is that these findings will help researchers better understand COVID-19 risks for smokers and could inform the development of new therapeutic strategies to help reduce smokers’ chances of developing severe disease.

The full results to this study were published in Cell Stem Cell.

CIRM partners with UCLA scientists to take on COVID-19

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.

At UCLA, more than 230 research projects, including several being led by members of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA, are contributing to that mission.

Dr. Brititte Gomperts, Photo courtesy UCLA

“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

Dr. Vaithi Arumugaswami: Photo courtesy UCLA

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

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

Song Li, chair and professor of bioengineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering

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.

Creating an off-the-shelf cell therapy

Lili Yang, associate professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics in the UCLA College

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

CIRM Board Approves Two Additional COVID-19 Projects

Dr. Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami (left) and Dr. Song Li (right), UCLA

Today the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved two additional projects as part of the $5 million in emergency funding for COVID-19 related projects. This brings the number of projects CIRM is supporting to 11, including two clinical trials.

The Board awarded $349,999 to Dr. Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami at UCLA.  The focus of this project will be to study Berzosertib, a therapy targeting viral replication and damage in lung stem cells.  The ultimate goal would be to use this agent as a therapy to prevent COVID-19 viral replication in the lungs, thereby reducing lung injury, inflammation, and subsequent lung disease caused by the virus.  

This award is part of CIRM’s Translational Stage Research Program (TRAN1), which promotes the activities necessary for advancement to clinical study of a potential therapy.

The Board also awarded $149,916 to Dr. Song Li at UCLA.  This project will focus on developing an injectable biomaterial that can induce the formation of T memory stem cells (TMSCs), an important type of stem cell that plays a critical role in generating an immune response to combat viruses. In vaccine development, there is a major challenge that the elderly may not be able to mount a strong enough immunity.  This innovative approach seeks to address this challenge by increasing TMSCs in order to boost the immune response to vaccines against COVID-19.

This award is under CIRM’s Discovery Stage Research Program (DISC2), which promotes promising new technologies that could be translated to enable broad use and improve patient care.

“CIRM continues to support novel COVID-19 projects that build on previous knowledge acquired,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, the President & CEO of CIRM. “These two projects represent the much-needed multi-pronged approach to the COVID-19 crisis, one addressing the need for effective vaccines to prevent disease and the other to treat the severe illness resulting from infection.”