In these uncertain times, we often look to our top scientists for answers as well as potential solutions. But where does one begin to try and solve a problem of this magnitude? The first logical step is building on the supplies currently available, the work already accomplished, and the knowledge acquired.
This is the approach that the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco is taking. Various scientists at this institution have shifted their current operations towards helping with the current coronavirus pandemic. These efforts have focused on helping with diagnostics, treatment, and prevention of COVID-19.
Dr. Jennifer Doudna and Dr. Melanie Ott are collaborating in order to develop an effective method to rapidly diagnose those with COVID-19. Dr. Doudna’s work has focused on CRISPR technology, which we have talked about in detail in a previous blog post, while Dr. Ott has focused on studying viruses. By combining their expertises, these two scientists hope to develop a diagnostic tool capable of delivering rapid results and usable in areas such as airports, ports of entry, and remote communities.
Dr. Nevan Krogan has discovered all of the human host cell proteins that COVID-19 interacts with to hijack the cell’s machinery. These proteins serve as new targets for potential drug therapies.
Since the high fatality rate of the virus is driven by lung and heart failure, Dr. Ott, Dr. Bruce Conklin, and Dr. Todd McDevitt will test effects of the virus and potential drug therapies in human lung organoids and human heart cells, both developed from human stem cells.
Dr. Warner Greene, who also focuses on the study of viruses, is screening a variety of FDA-approved drugs to identify those that could be rapidly repurposed as a treatment for COVID-19 patients or even as a preventive for high risk-groups.
Dr. Leor Weinberger has developed a new approach to fight the spread of viruses. It is called therapeutic interfering particles (TIPs) and could be an alternative to a vaccine. TIPs are defective virus fragments that mimic the virus but are not able to replicate. They combat the virus by hijacking the cell machinery to transform virus-infected cells into factories that produce TIPS, amplifying the effect of TIPs in stopping the spread of virus. TIPs targeting COVID-19 would transmit along the same paths as the virus itself, and thus provide protection to even the most vulnerable populations.
You can read more about these groundbreaking projects in the news release linked here.
For years CIRM and others in the stem cell community (hello Paul Knoepfler) have been warning people about the dangers of going to clinics offering unproven and unapproved stem cell therapies. Recently the drum beat of people and organizations coming out in support of that stand has grown louder and louder. Mainstream media – TV and print – have run articles about these predatory clinics. And now, Google has joined those ranks, announcing it will restrict ads promoting these clinics.
“We regularly review and revise our
advertising policies. Today, we’re announcing a new Healthcare and
medicines policy to prohibit advertising for unproven or experimental
medical techniques such as most stem cell therapy, cellular (non-stem) therapy,
and gene therapy.”
“Google’s new policy banning
advertising for speculative medicines is a much-needed and welcome step to curb
the marketing of unscrupulous medical products such as unproven stem cell
therapies. While stem cells have great potential to help us understand and
treat a wide range of diseases, most stem cell interventions remain
experimental and should only be offered to patients through well-regulated
clinical trials. The premature marketing and commercialization of unproven stem
cell products threatens public health, their confidence in biomedical research,
and undermines the development of legitimate new therapies.”
Speaking of Deepak – we can use first
names here because we are not only great admirers of him as a physician but also
as a researcher, which is why we have funded
some of his research – he has just published a wonderfully well written
article criticizing these predatory clinics.
The article – in Scientific
American – is titled “Don’t Believe Everything You Hear About Stem Cells”
and rather than paraphrase his prose, I think it best if you read it yourself.
So, here it is.
Don’t Believe Everything You Hear about Stem Cells
The science is progressing rapidly,but bad
actors have co-opted stem cells’ hope and promise by preying on unsuspecting
patients and their families
Stem cell science is moving forward
rapidly, with potential therapies to treat intractable human diseases on the
horizon.Clinical trials are now underway to test the safety
and effectiveness of stem cell–based treatments for blindness,spinal
cord injury,heart disease,Parkinson’s
disease, and more,some with early positive results.A
sense of urgency drives the scientific community, and there is tremendous hope
to finally cure diseases that, to date, have had no treatment.
But don’t believe everything you hear about stem cells. Advertisements and pseudo news articles promote stem cell treatments for everything from Alzheimer’s disease,autism and ALS, to cerebral palsy and other diseases.The claims simply aren’t true–they’re propagated by people wanting to make money off of a desperate and unsuspecting or unknowing public.Patients and their families can be misled by deceptive marketing from unqualified physicians who often don’t have appropriate medical credentials and offer no scientific evidence of their claims.In many cases, the cells being utilized are not even true stem cells.
Advertisements for stem cell treatments are showing up everywhere, with too-good-to-be-true
claims and often a testimonial or two meant to suggest legitimacy or efficacy.Beware of the following:
• Claims that stem
cell treatments can treat a wide range of diseases using a singular stem cell
type. This is unlikely to be true.
• Claims that stem
cells taken from one area of the body can be used to treat another, unrelated
area of the body. This is also unlikely to be true.
• Patient testimonials used to validate a
particular treatment, with no scientific evidence. This is a red flag.
• Claims that
evidence doesn’t yet exist because the clinic is running a patient-funded
trial. This is a red flag; clinical trials rarely require payment for
• Claims that the
trial is listed on ClinicalTrials.gov and is therefore NIH-approved. This may
not be true. The Web site is simply a listing; not all are legitimate trials.
• The bottom line:
Does the treatment sound too good to be true? If so, it probably is. Look for
concrete evidence that the treatment works and is safe.
Hundreds of clinics offer costly, unapproved and unproven stem cell
interventions, and patients may suffer physical and financial harm as a result.A Multi-Pronged Approach to Deal with
The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR)has
long been concerned that bad actors have co-opted the hope and promise of stem
cell science to prey on unsuspecting patients and their families.
We read with sadness and disappointment the many stories of people trying unproven therapies and being harmed, including going blind from injections into the eyes or suffering from a spinal tumor after an injection of stem cells.Patients left financially strapped, with no physical improvement in their condition and no way to reclaim their losses, are an underreported and underappreciated aspect of these treatments.
Since late 2017, the Food and Drug Administration has stepped up its
regulatory enforcement of stem cell therapies and provided a framework
for regenerative medicine products that provides guidelines for work in
this space.The agency has alerted many clinics and centers
that they are not in compliance and has pledged to bring additional enforcement
action if needed.
A Multi-Pronged Approach to Deal with Bad Actors The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) has long been concerned that bad actors have co-opted the hope and promise of stem cell science to prey on unsuspecting patients and their families.
We read with sadness and disappointment the many stories of people trying
unproven therapies and being harmed, including going
blind from injections into the eyesor suffering from a spinal
tumor after an injection of stem cells.Patients left
financially strapped, with no physical improvement in their condition and no
way to reclaim their losses, are an underreported and underappreciated aspect
of these treatments.
Since late 2017, the Food and Drug Administration has stepped up its
regulatory enforcement of stem cell therapies and provided a framework
for regenerative medicine products that provides guidelines for work in
this space.The agency has alerted many clinics and centers
that they are not in compliance and has pledged to bring additional enforcement
action if needed.
In recent weeks, a federal judge granted the FDA a permanent injunction
against U.S. Stem Cell, Inc. and U.S. Stem Cell Clinic, LLC for adulterating
and misbranding its cellular products and operating outside of regulatory
authority.We hope this will send a strong message to other
clinics misleading patients with unapproved and potentially harmful cell-based
The Federal Trade Commission has also helped by identifying and curtailing
unsubstantiated medical claims in advertising by several clinics. Late in 2018
the FTC won a $3.3-million judgment against two California-based clinics for
deceptive health claims.
The Federal Trade Commission has also
helped by identifying and curtailing unsubstantiated medical claims in
advertising by several clinics. Late in 2018 the FTC won a $3.3-million
judgment against two California-based clinics for deceptive health claims.
These and other actions are needed to stem the tide of clinics offering
unproved therapies and the people who manage and operate them.
Improving Public Awareness
We’re hopeful that the FDA will help improve public awareness of these
issues and curb the abuses on ClinicalTrials.gov,a government-run Web site being misused by rogue clinics looking to
legitimize their treatments. They list pay-to-participate clinical trials on
the site, often without developing, registering or administering a real
The ISSCR Web site A Closer
Look at Stem Cellsincludes patient-focused information
about stem cells,with information written and vetted by stem
cell scientists.The site includes how and where to report
adverse events and false marketing claims by stem cell clinics.I
encourage you to visit and learn about what is known and unknown about stem
cells and their potential for biomedicine.The views expressed are those of the
author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
The invention of GPS navigation systems has made finding your way around so much easier, providing simple instructions on how to get from point A to point B. Now, a new study shows that our bodies have their own internal navigation system that helps stem cells know where to go, and when, in order to build a human heart. And the study also shows what can go wrong when even a few cells fail to follow directions.
In this CIRM-supported study, a team of researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, used a new technique called single cell RNA sequencing to study what happens in a developing heart. Single cell RNA sequencing basically takes a snapshot photo of all the gene activity in a single cell at one precise moment. Using this the researchers were able to follow the activity of tens of thousands of cells as a human heart was being formed.
“This sequencing technique allowed us
to see all the different types of cells present at various stages of heart development
and helped us identify which genes are activated and suppressed along the way. We
were not only able to uncover the existence of unknown cell types, but we also
gained a better understanding of the function and behavior of individual
cells—information we could never access before.”
Then they partnered with a team at Luxembourg Centre for Systems
Biomedicine (LCSB) of the University of Luxembourg which ran a
computational analysis to identify which genes were involved in creating
different cell types. This highlighted one specific gene, called Hand2, that controls
the activity of thousands of other genes. They found that a lack of Hand2 in
mice led to an inability to form one of the heart’s chambers, which in turn led
to impaired blood flow to the lungs. The embryo was creating the cells needed
to form the chamber, but not a critical pathway that would allow those cells to
get where they were needed when they were needed.
Gifford says this has given us a deeper insight into how
cells are formed, knowledge we didn’t have before.
“Single-cell technologies can inform us about how organs
form in ways we couldn’t understand before and can provide the underlying cause
of disease associated with genetic variations. We revealed subtle differences
in very, very small subsets of cells that actually have catastrophic
consequences and could easily have been overlooked in the past. This is the
first step toward devising new therapies.”
These therapies are needed to help treat congenital heart
defects, which are the most common and deadly birth defects. There are more
than 2.5 million Americans with these defects. Deepak Srivastava, President of
Gladstone and the leader of the study, said the knowledge gained in this study
could help developed strategies to help address that.
to see the long-term consequences in adults, and right now, we don’t really
have any way to treat them. My hope is that if we can understand the genetic
causes and the cell types affected, we could potentially intervene soon after
birth to prevent the worsening of their state over time.
The news that President Trump’s administration has told scientists employed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that they can’t buy any new human fetal tissue for research has left many scientists frustrated and worried.
The news has also highlighted the reason why voters created CIRM in the first place and the importance of having an independent source of funding for potentially life-saving research such as this.
The Trump administration imposed the suspension of all new acquisitions saying it wants to review all fetal tissue research funded by the federal government. The impact was felt immediately.
In an article on ScienceMag.com, Warner Greene, director of the Center for HIV Cure Research at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, said the decision derailed collaboration between his lab and one at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana. The research focused on an antibody that previous studies showed might prevent HIV from establishing reservoirs in the human body.
“We were all poised to go and then the bombshell was dropped. The decision completely knocked our collaboration off the rails. We were devastated.”
Right now, it’s not clear if the “halt” is temporary or permanent, or if it will ultimately be expanded beyond scientists employed by the NIH to all scientists funded by the NIH who use fetal tissue.
In 2001, President George W. Bush’s decision to impose restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research helped generate support for Proposition 71, the voter-approved initiation that created CIRM. People felt that stem cell research had potential to develop treatments and cures for deadly diseases and that if the federal government wasn’t going to support it then California would.
CIRM Board member, and Patient Advocate for HIV/AIDS, Jeff Sheehy says the current actions could have wide-reaching impact.
“While the initial focus of the emerging ban on the use of fetal tissue has been on projects related to HIV, this action undermines a spectrum of vital research initiatives that seek to cure multiple life-threatening diseases and conditions. Many regenerative medicine cell-based or gene therapies require pre-clinical safety studies in humanized mice created with fetal tissue. These mice effectively have human immune systems, which allows researchers to examine the effects of products on the immune system. Work to prevent and treat infectious diseases, including vaccine efforts, require this animal model to do initial testing. Development of vaccines to respond to actual threats requires use of this animal model. This action could have damaging effects on the health of Americans.”
A program hoping to supercharge a patient’s own immune system cells to attack and kill a treatment resistant form of prostate cancer was today awarded $3.99 million by the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM)
In the U.S., prostate cancer is the second most common cause of cancer deaths in men. An estimated 170,000 new cases are diagnosed each year and over 29,000 deaths are estimated in 2018. Early stage prostate cancer is usually managed by surgery, radiation and/or hormone therapy. However, for men diagnosed with castrate-resistant metastatic prostate cancer (CRPC) these treatments often fail to work and the disease eventually proves fatal.
Poseida Therapeutics will be funded by CIRM to develop genetically engineered chimeric antigen receptor T cells (CAR-T) to treat metastatic CRPC. In cancer, there is a breakdown in the natural ability of immune T-cells to survey the body and recognize, bind to and kill cancerous cells. Poseida is engineering T cells and T memory stem cells to express a chimeric antigen receptor that arms these cells to more efficiently target, bind to and destroy the cancer cell. Millions of these cells are then grown in the laboratory and then re-infused into the patient. The CAR-T memory stem cells have the potential to persist long-term and kill residual cancer calls.
“This is a promising approach to an incurable disease where patients have few options,” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., President and CEO of CIRM. “The use of chimeric antigen receptor engineered T cells has led to impressive results in blood malignancies and a natural extension of this promising approach is to tackle currently untreatable solid malignancies, such as castrate resistant metastatic prostate cancer. CIRM is pleased to partner on this program and to add it to its portfolio that involves CAR T memory stem cells.”
Poseida Therapeutics plans to use the funding to complete the late-stage testing needed to apply to the Food and Drug Administration for the go-ahead to start a clinical trial in people.
The CIRM Board also voted to approve investing $10 million for eight projects under its Discovery Quest Program. The Quest program promotes the discovery of promising new stem cell-based technologies that will be ready to move to the next level, the translational category, within two years, with an ultimate goal of improving patient care.
Among those approved for funding are:
Eric Adler at UC San Diego is using genetically modified blood stem cells to treat Danon Disease, a rare and fatal condition that affects the heart
Li Gan at the Gladstone Institutes will use induced pluripotent stem cells to develop a therapy for a familial form of dementia
Saul Priceman at City of Hope will use CAR-T therapy to develop a treatment for recurrent ovarian cancer
Because the amount of funding for the recommended applications exceeded the money set aside, the Application Subcommittee voted to approve partial funding for two projects, DISC2-11192 and DISC2-11109 and to recommend, at the next full Board meeting in October, that the projects get the remainder of the funds needed to complete their research.
The successful applications are:
CIRM COMMITTED FUNDING
Genetically Modified Hematopoietic Stem Cells for the
Treatment of Danon Disease
U.C San Diego
Preclinical Development of An HSC-Engineered Off-
The-Shelf iNKT Cell Therapy for Cancer
U.C. Los Angeles
Non-viral reprogramming of the endogenous TCRα
locus to direct stem memory T cells against shared
neoantigens in malignant gliomas
U.C. San Francisco
Therapeutic immune tolerant human islet-like
organoids (HILOs) for Type 1 Diabetes
Chimeric Antigen Receptor-Engineered Stem/Memory
T Cells for the Treatment of Recurrent Ovarian Cancer
City of Hope
Develop iPSC-derived microglia to treat progranulin-
Modern medicine often involves the development of a drug or treatment outside the body, which is then given to a patient to fix, improve or even prevent their condition. But what if you could regenerate or heal the body using the cells and tissue already inside a patient?
Scientists at the Gladstone Institutes are pursuing such a strategy for heart disease. In a CIRM-funded study published today in the journal Cell, the team identified four genes that can stimulate adult heart muscle cells, called cardiomyocytes, to divide and proliferate within the hearts of living mice. This discovery could be further developed as a strategy to repair cardiac tissue damage caused by heart disease and heart attacks.
Regenerating the Heart
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US and affects over 24 million people around the world. When patients experience a heart attack, blood flow is restricted to the heart, and parts of the heart muscle are damaged or die due to the lack of oxygen. The heart is unable to regenerate new healthy heart muscle, and instead, cardiac fibroblasts generate fibrous scar tissue to heal the injury. This scar tissue impairs the heart’s ability to pump blood, causing it to work harder and putting patients at risk for future heart failure.
Deepak Srivastava, President of the Gladstone Institutes and a senior investigator there, has dedicated his life’s research to finding new ways to regenerate heart tissue. Previously, his team developed methods to reprogram mouse and human cardiac fibroblasts into beating cardiomyocytes in hopes of one day restoring heart function in patients. The team is advancing this research with the help of a CIRM Discovery Stage research grant, which will aid them in developing a gene therapy product that delivers reprogramming factors into scar tissue cells to regenerate new heart muscle.
In this new study, Srivastava took a slightly different approach and attempted to coax cardiomyocytes, rather than cardiac fibroblasts, to divide and regenerate the heart. During development, fetal cardiomyocytes rapidly divide to create heart tissue. This regenerative ability is lost in adult cardiomyocytes, which are unable to divide because they’ve already exited the cell cycle (a series of phases that a cell goes through that ultimately results in its division).
Deepak Srivastava (left) and first author Tamer Mohamed (right). Photo credits: Diana Rothery.
Unlocking proliferative potential
Srivastava had a hunch that genes specifically involved in the cell division could be used to jump-start an adult cardiomyocyte’s re-entry into the cell cycle. After some research, they identified four genes (referred to as 4F) involved in controlling cell division. When these genes were turned on in adult cardiomyocytes, the cells started to divide and create new heart tissue.
This 4F strategy worked in mouse and rat cardiomyocytes and also was successful in stimulating cell division in 15%-20% of human cardiomyocytes. When they injected 4F into the hearts of mice that had suffered heart attacks, they observed an improvement in their heart function after three months and a reduction in the size of the scar tissue compared to mice that did not receive the injection.
The team was able to further refine their method by replacing two of the four genes with chemical inhibitors that had similar functions. Throughout the process, the team did not observe the development of heart tumors caused by the 4F treatment. They attributed this fact to the short-term expression of 4F in the cardiomyocytes. However, Srivastava expressed caution towards using this method in a Gladstone news release:
“In human organs, the delivery of genes would have to be controlled carefully, since excessive or unwanted cell division could cause tumors.”
First stop heart, next stop …
This study suggests that it’s possible to regenerate our tissues and organs from within by triggering adult cells to re-enter the cell cycle. While more research is needed to ensure this method is safe and worthy of clinical development, it could lead to a regenerative treatment strategy for heart failure.
Srivastava will continue to unravel the secrets to the proliferative potential of cardiomyocytes but predicts that other labs will pursue similar methods to test the regenerative potential of adult cells in other tissues and organs.
“Heart cells were particularly challenging because when they exit the cell cycle after birth, their state is really locked down—which might explain why we don’t get heart tumors. Now that we know our method is successful with this difficult cell type, we think it could be used to unlock other cells’ potential to divide, including nerve cells, pancreatic cells, hair cells in the ear, and retinal cells.”
New law targets stem cell clinics that offer therapies not approved by the FDA
For some time now CIRM and others around California have been warning consumers about the risks involved in going to clinics that offer stem cell therapies that have not been tested in a clinical trial or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in patients.
Now a new California law, authored by State Senator Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) attempts to address that issue. It will require medical clinics whose stem cell treatments are not FDA approved, to post notices and provide handouts to patients warning them about the potential risk.
In a news release Sen. Hernandez said he hopes the new law, SB 512, will protect consumers from early-stage, unproven experimental therapies:
“There are currently over 100 medical offices in California providing non-FDA approved stem cell treatments. Patients spend thousands of dollars on these treatments, but are totally unaware of potential risks and dangerous side effects.”
Sen. Hernandez’s staffer Bao-Ngoc Nguyen crafted the bill, with help from CIRM Board Vice Chair Sen. Art Torres, Geoff Lomax and UC Davis researcher Paul Knoepfler, to ensure it targeted only clinics offering non-FDA approved therapies and not those offering FDA-sanctioned clinical trials.
For example the bill would not affect CIRM’s Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network because all the therapies offered there have been given the green light by the FDA to work with patients.
Using your own skin as a blood glucose monitor
One of the many things that people with diabetes hate is the constant need to monitor their blood sugar level. Usually that involves a finger prick to get a drop of blood. It’s simple but not much fun. Attempts to develop non-invasive monitors have been tried but with limited success.
Now researchers at the University of Chicago have come up with another alternative, using the person’s own skin to measure their blood glucose level.
Xiaoyang Wu and his team accomplished this feat in mice by first creating new skin from stem cells. Then, using the gene-editing tool CRISPR, they added in a protein that sticks to sugar molecules and another protein that acts as a fluorescent marker. The hope was that the when the protein sticks to sugar in the blood it would change shape and emit fluorescence which could indicate if blood glucose levels were too high, too low, or just right.
The team then grafted the skin cells back onto the mouse. When those mice were left hungry for a while then given a big dose of sugar, the skin “sensors” reacted within 30 seconds.
The researchers say they are now exploring ways that their findings, published on the website bioRxiv, could be duplicated in people.
While they are doing that, we are supporting ViaCytes attempt to develop a device that doesn’t just monitor blood sugar levels but also delivers insulin when needed. You can read about our recent award to ViaCyte here.
Dr. Deepak Srivastava
Stem Cell Champion, CIRM grantee, and all-round-nice guy named President of Gladstone Institutes
I don’t think it would shock anyone to know that there are a few prima donnas in the world of stem cell research. Happily, Dr. Deepak Srivastava is not one of them, which makes it such a delight to hear that he has been appointed as the next President of the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco.
Deepak is a gifted scientist – which is why we have funded his work – a terrific communicator and a really lovely fella; straight forward and down to earth.
In a news release announcing his appointment – his term starts January 1 next year – Deepak said he is honored to succeed the current President, Sandy Williams:
“I joined Gladstone in 2005 because of its unique ability to leverage diverse basic science approaches through teams of scientists focused on achieving scientific breakthroughs for mankind’s most devastating diseases. I look forward to continue shaping this innovative approach to overcome human disease.”
Describing the work of a government agency is not the most exciting of topics. Books on the subject would probably be found in the “Self-help for Insomniacs” section of a good bookstore (there are still some around). But at CIRM we are fortunate. When we talk about what we do, we don’t talk about the mechanics of our work, we talk about our mission: accelerating stem cell therapies to people with unmet medical needs.
Yesterday at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco we did just that, talking about the progress being made in stem cell research to an audience of friends, supporters and patient advocates. We had a lot to talk about, including the 35 clinical trials we have funded so far, and our goals and hopes for the future.
We were lucky to have Dr. Deepak Srivastava and Dr. Steve Finkbeiner from Gladstone join us to talk about their work. Some people are good scientists, some are good communicators. Deepak and Steve are great scientists and equally great communicators.
Deepak Srivastava highlighted ongoing stem cell research at the Gladstone (Photo: Todd Dubnicoff/CIRM)
Deepak is the Director of the Roddenberry Stem Cell Center at Gladstone (and yes, it’s named after Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek fame) and an expert on heart disease. He talked about how advances in research have enabled us to turn heart scar tissue cells into new heart muscle cells, creating the potential to use a person’s own cells to help them recover from a heart attack.
“If you have a heart attack, your heart turns that muscle into scar tissue which affects the heart’s ability to pump blood around the body. We identified a combination of factors that support cells that are already in your heart and we have found a way of converting those scar cells into muscle. This could help repair the heart enough so you may not need a transplant, but you can lead a much more normal life.”
He said this research is now advancing to the point where they hope it could be ready for testing in people in the not too distant future and joked that his father, who has had a heart attack, volunteered to be the second person to try it. “Not the first but definitely the second.”
Steve, who is the Director of the Taube/Koret Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research, specializes in problems in the brain; everything from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to schizophrenia and ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
He talked about his uncle, who has end stage Parkinson’s disease, and how he sees first-hand how devastating this neurodegenerative disease is, and how that personal connection helps motivate him to work ever harder.
He talked about how so many therapies that look promising in mice fail when they are tested in people:
“A huge motivation for me has been to try and figure out a more reliable way to test these potential therapies and to move discoveries from the lab and into clinical trials in patients.”
Steve is using ordinary skin cells or tissue samples, taken from people with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and other neurological conditions, and using the iPSC technique developed by Shinya Yamanaka (who is a researcher at Gladstone and also Director of CIRA in Japan) turns them into the kinds of cells found in the brain. These cells then enable him to study how these different diseases affect the brain, and come up with ways that might stop their progress.
Steve Finkbeiner is using human stem cells to model brain diseases (Photo: Todd Dubnicoff/CIRM)
He uses a robotic microscope – developed at Gladstone – that allows his team to study these cells and test different potential therapies 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This round-the-clock approach will hopefully help speed up his ability to find something that help patients.
The CIRM speakers – Dr. Maria Millan, our interim President and CEO – and Sen. Art Torres (ret.) the Vice Chair of our Board and a patient advocate for colorectal cancer – talked about the progress we are making in helping push stem cell research forward.
Dr. Millan focused on our clinical trial work and how our goal is to create a pipeline of promising projects from the work being done by researchers like Deepak and Steve, and move those out of the lab and into clinical trials in people as quickly as possible.
Sen. Art Torres (Ret.) (Photo: Todd Dubnicoff/CIRM)
Sen. Torres focused on the role of the patient advocate at CIRM and how they help shape and influence everything we do, from the Board’s deciding what projects to support and fund, to our creating Clinical Advisory Panels which involve a patient advocate helping guide clinical trial teams.
The event is one of a series that we hold around the state every year, reporting back to our friends and supporters on the progress being made. We feel, as a state agency, that we owe it to the people of California to let them know how their money is being spent.
Patients and Patient Advocates are at the heart of everything we do at CIRM. That’s why we are holding three free public events in the next few months focused on updating you on the stem cell research we are funding, and our plans for the future.
Right now we have 33 projects that we have funded in clinical trials. Those range from heart disease and stroke, to cancer, diabetes, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), two different forms of vision loss, spinal cord injury and HIV/AIDS. We have also helped cure dozens of children battling deadly immune disorders. But as far as we are concerned we are only just getting started.
Over the course of the next few years, we have a goal of adding dozens more clinical trials to that list, and creating a pipeline of promising therapies for a wide range of diseases and disorders.
That’s why we are holding these free public events – something we try and do every year. We want to let you know what we are doing, what we are funding, how that research is progressing, and to get your thoughts on how we can improve, what else we can do to help meet the needs of the Patient Advocate community. Your voice is important in helping shape everything we do.
The first event is at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco on Wednesday, September 6th from noon till 1pm. The doors open at 11am for registration and a light lunch.
Here’s a link to an Eventbrite page that has all the information about the event, including how you can RSVP to let us know you are coming.
We are fortunate to be joined by two great scientists, and speakers – as well as being CIRM grantees- from the Gladstone Institutes, Dr. Deepak Srivastava and Dr. Steve Finkbeiner.
Dr. Srivastava is working on regenerating heart muscle after it has been damaged. This research could not only help people recover from a heart attack, but the same principles might also enable us to regenerate other organs damaged by disease. Dr. Finkbeiner is a pioneer in diseases of the brain and has done ground breaking work in both Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease.
We have two other free public events coming up in October. The first is at UC Davis in Sacramento on October 10th (noon till 1pm) and the second at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles on October 30th (noon till 1pm). We will have more details on these events in the coming weeks.
We look forward to seeing you at one of these events and please feel free to share this information with anyone you think might be interested in attending.
Here are the stem cell stories that caught our eye this week.
Skin grafts fight diabetes and obesity.
An interesting new gene therapy strategy for fighting type 1 diabetes and obesity surfaced this week. Scientists from the University of Chicago made genetically engineered skin grafts that secrete a peptide hormone called glucagon-liked peptide-1 (GLP-1). This peptide is released by cells in the intestine and can lower blood sugar levels by stimulating pancreatic islet cells to secrete insulin (a hormone that promotes the absorption of glucose from the blood).
The study, which was published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, used CRISPR gene editing technology to introduce a mutation to the GLP-1 gene in mouse and human skin stem cells. This mutation stabilized the GLP-1 peptide, allowing it to hang around in the blood for longer. The team matured these stem cells into skin grafts that secreted the GLP-1 into the bloodstream of mice when treated with a drug called doxycycline.
When fed a high-fat diet, mice with a skin graft (left), genetically altered to secrete GLP-1 in response to the antibiotic doxycycline, gained less weight than normal mice (right). (Image source: Wu Laboratory, the University of Chicago)
On a normal diet, mice that received the skin graft saw a rise in their insulin levels and a decrease in their blood glucose levels, proving that the gene therapy was working. On a high fat diet, mice with the skin graft became obese, but when they were treated with doxycycline, GLP-1 secreted from their grafts reduced the amount of weight gain. So not only does their engineered skin graft technology look like a promising new strategy to treat type 1 diabetes patients, it also could be used to control obesity. The beauty of the technology is in its simplicity.
An article in Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News that covered this research explained that Xiaoyang Wu, the senior author on the study, and his team “worked with skin because it is a large organ and easily accessible. The cells multiply quickly and are easily transplanted. And, transplanted cells can be removed, if needed. “Skin is such a beautiful system,” Wu says, noting that its features make it a perfect medium for testing gene therapies.”
Wu concluded that, “This kind of therapy could be potentially effective for many metabolic disorders.” According to GenBio, Wu’s team “is now testing the gene-therapy technique in combination with other medications.” They also hope that a similar strategy could be used to treat patients that can’t make certain proteins like in the blood clotting disorder hemophilia.
How to reprogram your immune system (Kevin McCormack)
When your immune system goes wrong it can cause all manner of problems, from type 1 diabetes to multiple sclerosis and cancer. That’s because an overactive immune system causes the body to attack its own tissues, while an underactive one leaves the body vulnerable to outside threats such as viruses. That’s why scientists have long sought ways to correct those immune dysfunctions.
Now researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco think they have found a way to reprogram specific cells in the immune system and restore a sense of health and balance to the body. Their findings are published in the journal Nature.
The researchers identified a drug that targets effector T cells, which get our immune system to defend us against outside threats, and turns them into regulatory T cells, which control our immune system and stops it from attacking our own body.
Why would turning one kind of T cell into another be helpful? Well, in some autoimmune diseases, the effector T cells become overly active and attack healthy tissues and organs, damaging and even destroying them. By converting them to regulatory T cells you can prevent that happening.
In addition, some cancers can hijack regulatory T cells and suppress the immune system, allowing the disease to spread. By turning those cells into effector T cells, you can boost the immune system and give it the strength to fight back and, hopefully, kill the cancer.
In a news release, Gladstone Senior Investigator Sheng Ding, the lead scientists on the study, said their findings could have several applications:
“Our findings could have a significant impact on the treatment of autoimmune diseases, as well as on stem cell and immuno-oncology therapies.”
Gladstone scientists Sheng Ding (right) and Tao Xu (left) discovered how to reprogram cells in our immune system. (Gladstone Institutes)
We have another update from CIRM’s clinical trial front. Asterias Biotherapeutics, which is testing a stem cell treatment for complete cervical (neck) spinal cord injury, is expanding its clinical sites for its CIRM-funded SCiStar Phase 1/2a trial. The company is currently treating patients at six sites in the US, and will be expanding to include two additional sites at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia and the UC San Diego Medical Center, which is part of the UCSD Health CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic.
“We are excited about the clinical site openings at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and UC San Diego Health. These sites provide additional geographical reach and previous experience with spinal cord injury trials to our SCiStar study. We have recently reported completion of enrollment in four out of five cohorts in our SCiStar study so we hope these institutions will also participate in a future, larger study of AST-OPC1.”
The news release also gave a recap of the trial’s positive (but still preliminary) results this year and their plans for completing trial enrollment.
“In June 2017, Asterias reported 9 month data from the AIS-A 10 million cell cohort that showed improvements in arm, hand and finger function observed at 3-months and 6-months following administration of AST-OPC1 were confirmed and in some patients further increased at 9-months. The company intends to complete enrollment of the entire SCiStar study later this year, with multiple safety and efficacy readouts anticipated during the remainder of 2017 and 2018.”