Rats, research and the road to new therapies

Don Reed

Don Reed has been a champion of CIRM even before there was a CIRM. He’s a pioneer in pushing for funding for stem cell research and now he’s working hard to raise awareness about the difference that funding is making.

In a recent article on Daily Kos, Don highlighted one of the less celebrated partners in this research, the humble rat.

A BETTER RAT? Benefit #62 of the California Stem Cell Agency

By Don C. Reed

When I told my wife Gloria I was writing an article about rats, she had several comments, including: “Oo, ugh!” and also “That’s disgusting!”

Obviously, there are problems with rats, such as when they chew through electrical wires, which may cause a short circuit and burn down the house. Also, they are blamed for carrying diseased fleas in their ears and spreading the Black Plague, which in 1340 killed half of China and one-third of Europe—but this is not certain. The plague may in fact have been transmitted by human-carried parasites.

But there are positive aspects to rats as well. For instance: “…a rat paired with  another that has a disability…will be very kind to the other rat. Usually, help is offered with food, cleaning, and general care.”—GUIDE TO THE RAT, by Ginger Cardinal.

Above all, anyone who has ever been sick owes a debt to rats, specifically the Norway rat with that spectacular name, rattus norvegicus domesticus, found in labs around the world.

I first realized its importance on March 1, 2002, when I held in my hand a rat which had been paralyzed, but then recovered the use of its limbs.

The rat’s name was Fighter, and she had been given a derivative of embryonic stem cells, which restored function to her limbs. (This was the famous stem cell therapy begun by Hans Keirstead with a Roman Reed grant, developed by Geron, and later by CIRM and Asterias, which later benefited humans.)

As I felt the tiny muscles struggling to be free, it was like touching tomorrow— while my paralyzed son, Roman Reed, sat in his wheelchair just a few feet away.

Was it different working with rats instead of mice? I had heard that the far smaller lab mice were more “bitey” than rats.  

Wanting to know more about the possibilities of a “better rat”, I went to the CIRM website, (www.cirm.ca.gov) hunted up the “Tools and Technology III” section, and the following complicated sentence::

“Embryonic stem cell- based generation of rat models for assessing human cellular therapies.”

Hmm. With science writing, it always takes me a couple of readings to know what they were talking about. But I recognized some of the words, so that was a start.

“Stemcells… rat models… human therapies….”  

I called up Dr. Qilong Ying, Principle Investigator (PI) of the study.

As he began to talk, I felt a “click” of recognition, as if, like pieces of a puzzle, facts were fitting together.

It reminded me of Jacques Cousteau, the great underwater explorer, when he tried to invent a way to breathe underwater. He had the compressed air tank, and a mouthpiece that would release air—but it came in a rush, not normal breathing.

So he visited his friend, race car mechanic Emil Gagnan, and told him, “I need something that will give me air, but only when I inhale,”– and Gagnan said: “Like that?” and pointed to a metal contraption on a nearby table.

It was something invented for cars. But by adding it to what Cousteau already had, the Cousteau-Gagnan SCUBA (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) gear was born—and the ocean could now be explored.

Qi-Long Ying’s contribution to science may also be a piece of the puzzle of cure…

A long-term collaboration with Dr. Austin Smith centered on an attempt to do with rats what had done with mice.

In 2007, the  Nobel Prize in Medicine had been won by Dr. Martin Evans, Mario Capecchi, and Oliver Smithies. Working independently, they developed “knock-out” and “knock-in” mice, meaning to take out a gene, or put one in.  

But could they do the same with rats?

 “We and others worked very, very hard, and got nowhere,” said Dr. Evans.

Why was this important?

Many human diseases cannot be mimicked in the mouse—but might be in the rat. This is for several reasons: the rat is about ten times larger; its internal workings are closer to those of a human; and the rat is considered several million years closer (in evolutionary terms) to humans than the mouse.

In 2008 (“in China, that is the year of the rat,” noted Dr. Ying in our conversation) he received the first of three grants from CIRM.

“We proposed to use the classical embryonic stem cell-based gene-targeting technology to generate rat models mimicking human heart failure, diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases…”

How did he do?

In 2010, Science Magazine honored him with inclusion in their “Top 10 Breakthroughs for using embryonic stem cell-based gene targeting to produce the world’s first knockout rats, modified to lack one or more genes…”

And in 2016, he and Dr. Smith received the McEwen Award for Innovation,  the highest honor bestowed by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR).

Using knowledge learned from the new (and more relevant to humans) lab rat, it may be possible to develop methods for the expansion of stem cells directly inside the patient’s own bone marrow. Stem cells derived in this fashion would be far less likely to be rejected by the patient.  To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, they would be “of the patient, by the patient and for the patient—and shall not perish from the patient”—sorry!

Several of the rats generated in Ying’s lab (to mimic human diseases) were so successful that they have been donated to the Rat Research Resource center so that other scientists can use them for their study.

“Maybe in the future we will develop a cure for some diseases because of knowledge from using rat models,” said Ying. “I think it’s very possible. So we want more researchers from USC and beyond to come and use this technology.”

And it all began with the humble rat…

Stem Cell Agency celebrates 50 clinical trials with patient #1

Yesterday the CIRM Board approved funding for our 50th clinical trial (you can read about that here) It was an historic moment for us and to celebrate we decided to go back in history and hear from the very first person to be treated in a CIRM-funded clinical trial. Rich Lajara was treated in the Geron clinical trial after experiencing a spinal cord injury, thus he became CIRM’s patient #1. It’s a badge he says he is honored to wear. This is the speech Rich made to our Board.

Rich Lajara

Hello and good afternoon everyone. It’s an honor to be here today as the 50th clinical trial has been officially funded by CIRM. It was feels like it was just yesterday that I was enrolled into the first funded clinical trial by CIRM and in turn became California’s’ 1st embryonic stem cell patient.

I became paralyzed from the waist down in September 2011. It was Labor Day and I was at a river with some close friends. There was this natural granite rock slide feature next to a waterfall, it was about 60 feet long; all you had to do was get a bucket of water to get the rocks wet and slide down into a natural pool. I ended up slipping and went down head first backwards but was too far over and I slid off a 15’ ledge where the waterfall was. I was pulled from the water and banged up pretty bad. Someone said “look at that deformity on his back” and tapped my leg and asked if I could feel that. I knew immediately I was paralyzed. I thought this was the end, little did I know this was just the beginning. I call it being in the wrong place at the right time.

So, after a few days in the hospital of course everyone, as well as myself, wanted a cure. We quickly learned one didn’t exist. A close family friend had been making phone calls and was able to connect with the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation and learned about a clinical trial with “stem cells”. One of my biggest question was how any people have done this? “Close to none”, I was told.

I was also told I most likely would have no direct benefit as this was a safety trial? So why do it at all? Obviously at that time I was willing to overlook the “most likely” part because I was willing to do anything to try and get my normal life back.

Looking back the big picture was laying the ground work for others like Kris or Jake (two people enrolled in a later version of this trial). At the time I had no clue that what I was doing would be such a big deal. The data collected from me would end up being priceless. It’s stories like Jake’s and Kris’ that make me proud and reinforce my decision to have participated in California’s first stem cell clinical trial funded by prop 71.

Like I said earlier it was just the beginning for me. A couple of years later I became a patient advocate working with Americans for Cures. I have been able to meet many people in the stem cell industry and love to see the glow in their face when they learn I was California’s first embryonic stem cell patient.

I can’t even fathom all the year’s of hard work and countless hours of research that had lead up to my long anticipated surgery, but when I see their glowing smile I know they knew what it took.

I also enjoy sharing my story and bridging the gap between myths and facts about stem cells, or talking to students and helping inspire the next generation that will be in the stem cell industry.  As a matter of fact, I have 13 year old sister, Maddie, dead set on being a neurosurgeon.

Fast forward to today. Life in a wheelchair is not exactly a roll in the park (no pun intended) but I have grown accustomed to the new normal. Aside from some neuropathic pain, life is back on track.

Not once did I feel sorry for myself, I was excited to be alive. Sure I have bad days but don’t we all.

In the last 14 years CIRM has funded 50 human clinical trials, published around 2750 new peer-reviewed scientific discoveries, and they’ve transformed California into the world leader in stem cell research. As I look around the posters on the wall, of the people whose lives have been transformed by the agency, I can’t help but be struck by just how much has been achieved in such a short period of time.

While my journey might not yet be over, Evie and 40 other children like her, (children born with SCID) will never remember what it was like to live with the horrible condition they were born with because they have been cured thanks to CIRM. There are hundreds of others whose lives have been transformed because of work the agency has funded.

CIRM has proven how much can be achieved if we invest in cutting-edge medical research.

As most of you here probably know CIRM’s funding from Proposition 71 is about to run out. If I had just one message I wanted people to leave with today it would be this. Everyone in this room knows how much CIRM has done in a little over a decade and how many lives have been changed because of its existence. We have the responsibility to make sure this work continues. We have a responsibility to make sure that the stories we’ve heard today are just the beginning.

I will do everything I can to make sure the agency gets refunded and I hope that all of you will join me in that fight. I’m excited for the world of stem cells, particularly in California, and can’t wait to see what’s on the horizon.

 

Stem Cell Agency Board Approves 50th Clinical Trial

2018-12-13 01.18.50Rich Lajara

Rich Lajara, the first patient treated in a CIRM-funded clinical trial

May 4th, 2011 marked a landmark moment for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). On that day the Stem Cell Agency’s Board voted to invest in its first ever clinical trial, which was also the first clinical trial to use cells derived from embryonic stem cells. Today the Stem Cell Agency reached another landmark, with the Board voting to approve its 50th clinical trial.

“We have come a long way in the past seven and a half years, helping advance the field from its early days to a much more mature space today, one capable of producing new treatments and even cures,” says Jonathan Thomas, JD, PhD, Chair of the CIRM Board. “But we feel that in many ways we are just getting started, and we intend funding as many additional clinical trials as we can for as long as we can.”

angiocrinelogo

The project approved today awards almost $6.2 million to Angiocrine Bioscience Inc. to see if genetically engineered cells, derived from cord blood, can help alleviate or accelerate recovery from the toxic side effects of chemotherapy for people undergoing treatment for lymphoma and other aggressive cancers of the blood or lymph system.

“This is a project that CIRM has supported from an earlier stage of research, highlighting our commitment to moving the most promising research out of the lab and into people,” says Maria T. Millan, MD, President & CEO of CIRM. “Lymphoma is the most common blood cancer and the 6th most commonly diagnosed cancer in California. Despite advances in therapy many patients still suffer severe complications from the chemotherapy, so any treatment that can reduce those complications can not only improve quality of life but also, we hope, improve long term health outcomes for patients.”

The first clinical trial CIRM funded was with Geron, targeting spinal cord injury. While Geron halted the trial for business reasons (and returned the money, with interest) the mantle was later picked up by Asterias Biotherapeutics, which has now treated 25 patients with no serious side effects and some encouraging results.

Rich Lajara was part of the Geron trial, the first patient ever treated in a CIRM-funded clinical trial. He came to the CIRM Board meeting to tell his story saying when he was injured “I knew immediately I was paralyzed. I thought this was the end, little did I know this was just the beginning. I call it being in the wrong place at the right time.”

When he learned about the Geron clinical trial he asked how many people had been treated with stem cells. “Close to none” he was told. Nonetheless he went ahead with it. He says he has never regretted that decision, knowing it helped inform the research that has since helped others.

Since that first trial the Stem Cell Agency has funded a wide range of projects targeting heart disease and stroke, cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and several rare diseases. You can see the full list on the Clinical Trials Dashboard page on our website.

Rich ended by saying: “CIRM has proven how much can be achieved if we invest in cutting-edge medical research. As most of you here probably know, CIRM’s funding from Proposition 71 is about to run out. If I had just one message I wanted people to leave with today it would be this, I will do everything I can to make sure the agency gets refunded and I hope that all of you will join me in that fight. I’m excited for the world of stem cells, particularly in California and can’t wait to see what’s on the horizon.”

lubinbert-mug

The CIRM Board also took time today to honor Dr. Bert Lubin, who is stepping down after serving almost eight years on the Board.

When he joined the Board in February, 2011 Dr. Lubin said: “I hope to use my position on this committee to advocate for stem cell research that translates into benefits for children and adults, not only in California but throughout the world.”

Over the years he certainly lived up to that goal. As a CIRM Board member he has supported research for a broad range of unmet medical needs, and specifically for curative treatments for children born with a rare life-threatening conditions such as Sickle Cell Disease and Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) as well as  treatments to help people battling vision destroying diseases.

As the President & CEO of Children’s Hospital Oakland (now UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland) Dr. Lubin was a leader in helping advance research into new treatments for sickle cell disease and addressing health disparities in diseases such as asthma, diabetes and obesity.

Senator Art Torres said he has known Dr. Lubin since the 1970’s and in all that time has been impressed by his devotion to patients, and his humility, and that all Californians should be grateful to him for his service, and his leadership.

Dr. Lubin said he was “Really grateful to be on the Board and I consider it an honor to be part of a group that benefits patients.”

He said he may be stepping down from the CIRM Board but that was all: “I am going to retire the word retirement. I think it’s a mistake to stop doing work that you find stimulating. I’m going to repurpose the rest of my life, and work to make sure the treatments we’ve helped develop are available to everyone. I am so proud to be part of this. I am stepping down, but I am devoted to doing all I can to ensure that you get the resources you need to sustain this work for the future.”