Stem Cell RoundUp: CIRM Clinical Trial Updates & Mapping Human Brain

It was a very CIRMy news week on both the clinical trial and discovery research fronts. Here are some the highlights:

Stanford cancer-fighting spinout to Genentech: ‘Don’t eat me’San Francisco Business Times

Ron Leuty, of the San Francisco Business Times, reported this week on not one, but two news releases from CIRM grantee Forty Seven, Inc. The company, which originated from discoveries made in the Stanford University lab of Irv Weissman, partnered with Genentech and Merck KGaA to launch clinical trials testing their drug, Hu5F9-G4, in combination with cancer immunotherapies. The drug is a protein antibody that blocks a “don’t eat me” signal that cancer stem cells hijack into order to evade destruction by a cancer patient’s immune system.

Genentech will sponsor two clinical trials using its FDA-approved cancer drug, atezolizumab (TECENTRIQ®), in combination with Forty Seven, Inc’s product in patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and bladder cancer. CIRM has invested $5 million in another Phase 1 trial testing Hu5F9-G4 in AML patients. Merck KGaA will test a combination treatment of its drug avelumab, or Bavencio, with Forty-Seven’s Hu5F9-G4 in ovarian cancer patients.

In total, CIRM has awarded Forty Seven $40.5 million in funding to support the development of their Hu5F9-G4 therapy product.


Novel regenerative drug for osteoarthritis entering clinical trialsThe Scripps Research Institute

The California Institute for Biomedical Research (Calibr), a nonprofit affiliate of The Scripps Research Institute, announced on Tuesday that its CIRM-funded trial for the treatment of osteoarthritis will start treating patients in March. The trial is testing a drug called KA34 which prompts adult stem cells in joints to specialize into cartilage-producing cells. It’s hoped that therapy will regenerate the cartilage that’s lost in OA, a degenerative joint disease that causes the cartilage that cushions joints to break down, leading to debilitating pain, stiffness and swelling. This news is particularly gratifying for CIRM because we helped fund the early, preclinical stage research that led to the US Food and Drug Administration’s go-ahead for this current trial which is supported by a $8.4 million investment from CIRM.


And finally, for our Cool Stem Cell Image of the Week….

Genetic ‘switches’ behind human brain evolutionScience Daily

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This artsy scientific imagery was produced by UCLA researcher Luis del la Torre-Ubieta, the first author of a CIRM-funded studied published this week in the journal, Cell. The image shows slices of the mouse (bottom middle), macaque monkey (center middle), and human (top middle) brain to scale.

The dramatic differences in brain size highlights what sets us humans apart from those animals: our very large cerebral cortex, a region of the brain responsible for thinking and complex communication. Torre-Ubieta and colleagues in Dr. Daniel Geschwind’s laboratory for the first time mapped out the genetic on/off switches that regulate the growth of our brains. Their results reveal, among other things, that psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia, depression and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have their origins in gene activity occurring in the very earliest stages of brain development in the fetus. The swirling strings running diagonally across the brain slices in the image depict DNA structures, called chromatin, that play a direct role in the genetic on/off switches.

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Second “Don’t Eat Me” Signal Identified in Cancer Cells, Points to New Immunotherapies

When the immune system comes up as a topic in everyday conversation, it’s usually related to fighting off a cold or flu. While our immune cells certainly do detect and neutralize invading bacteria and viruses, they also play a critical role in killing abnormal, cancerous cells from within our bodies.

“Don’t Eat Me” Signal 101
A white blood cell called a macrophage (macro = “big”; phage = “eater”) is part of the so-called innate immune system and acts as a first line of defense by patrolling our organs and gobbling up infected as well as cancerous cells (see macrophages in action in the cool video below).

Unfortunately, cancer cells possess the ability to cloak themselves and escape a macrophage’s engulfing grasp. Nearly all cancer cells carry a protein called CD47 on their surface. When CD47 binds to a protein called SIRPalpha on the surface of macrophages, a “don’t eat me” signal is triggered and the macrophage ignores the cancer cell.

Stanford researcher Irv Weissman and his team discovered this “don’t eat me” signal several years ago and showed that adding an antibody protein that binds tightly to CD47 interferes with the CD47/SIRPalpha signal. As a result, the anti-CD47 antibody deactivates the cancer cell’s “don’t eat me” signal and restores the macrophage’s ability to detect and kill the cancer cells.

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CD47 protein on surface of cancer cells triggers “don’t eat me signal” which can be blocked with anti-CD47 antibody. Image: Acrobiosystems

Because CD47 is found on the surface of most cancer cells, this anti-CD47 antibody represents an exciting new strategy for targeting cancer stem cells – the cells thought to maintain cancer growth and cause tumor relapse – in a wide variety of cancers. In fact, CIRM has provided funding for three clinical trials, one sponsored by Stanford University and two by Forty-Seven Inc. (a company that was spun out of Stanford), that are testing anti-CD47 therapy for the treatment of the blood cancer acute myeloid leukemia (AML), as well as colon cancer and other solid tumors.

“Reaching Clinical Trials” does not equal “The Research is Done”
Although these clinical trials are underway, the Weissman team continues to seek new insights related to blocking the CD47 “don’t eat me” signal. They observed that although anti-CD47 led to increased macrophage-induced killing of most cancer cell samples tested, some were resistant to anti-CD47 and remained cloaked from macrophages. And even the cancer cells that did respond to the antibody varied widely in the amount of increased killing by macrophages.

These results suggested that alternate processes may exist that allow some cancers to evade macrophages even when the CD47 “don’t eat me” signal is blocked. In a report published this week in Nature Immunology, the researchers report the identification of a second, independent “don’t eat me” signal, which may lead to more precise methods to disarm a cancer’s evasiveness.

To track down this alternate “don’t eat me” signal, they looked for, but didn’t find, correlations between specific types of cancer cells and the cancer’s resistance to anti-CD47 treatment.  So instead they analyzed surface proteins found on the various cancer cell samples and found that cancer cells that had high levels of MHC (Major Histocompatibility Complex) class I proteins were more likely to be resistant to anti-CD47 antibodies.

A Second “Don’t Eat Me” Signal
MHC class I proteins help another arm of the immune system, the adaptive immune response, detect what’s going inside a cell. They are found on nearly all cells and display, at the cell surface, bits of proteins sampled from inside the cell. If cells of the adaptive immune response, such as T or B cells, recognize one of those protein bits as abnormal or foreign, efficient killing mechanisms are kicked into high gear to destroy those cells.

But in the case of cancers cells, the MHC class I protein are harnessed as a “don’t eat me” signal by binding to a protein called LILRB1 on macrophages. When either the MHC class I proteins or LILRB1 were blocked, the “don’t eat me” signal was lifted and restored the macrophages’ ability to kill the cancer cells both in petri dish samples as well as in mice that carried human cancers.

Graduate student and co-lead author Amira Barkal described in a press release the impact of blocking both “don’t eat me” signals at the same time:

barkalSm

Amira Barkal

“Simultaneously blocking both these pathways in mice resulted in the infiltration of the tumor with many types of immune cells and significantly promoted tumor clearance, resulting in smaller tumors overall. We are excited about the possibility of a double- or perhaps even triple-pronged therapy in humans in which we combine multiple blockades to cancer growth.”

The Big Picture for Cancer Immunotherapies
Because MHC protein class I proteins play an important role in stimulating immune cells called T cells to kill cancer cells as part of the adaptive immune response, the level of MHC protein on an individual patient’s cancer cells could serve as an indicator, or “biomarker”, for what type of cancer therapy to pursue.  The big picture implications of this idea are captured in the press release:

“Understanding the balance between adaptive and innate immunity is important in cancer immunotherapy. For example, it’s not uncommon for human cancer cells to reduce the levels of MHC class 1 on their surfaces to escape destruction by T cells. People with these types of tumors may be poor candidates for cancer immunotherapies meant to stimulate T cell activity against the cancer. But these cells may then be particularly vulnerable to anti-CD47 treatment, the researchers believe. Conversely, cancer cells with robust MHC class 1 on their surfaces may be less susceptible to anti-CD47.”

Curing the Incurable through Definitive Medicine

“Curing the Incurable”. That was the theme for the first annual Center for Definitive and Curative Medicine (CDCM) Symposium held last week at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, California.

The CDCM is a joint initiative amongst Stanford Healthcare, Stanford Children’s Health and the Stanford School of Medicine. Its mission is to foster an environment that accelerates the development and translation of cell and gene therapies into clinical trials.

The research symposium focused on “the exciting first-in-human cell and gene therapies currently under development at Stanford in bone marrow, skin, cardiac, neural, pancreatic and neoplastic diseases.” These talks were organized into four different sessions: cell therapies for neurological disorders, stem cell-derived tissue replacement therapies, genome-edited cell therapies and anti-cancer cell-based therapies.

A few of the symposium speakers are CIRM-funded grantees, and we’ll briefly touch on their talks below.

Targeting cancer

The keynote speaker was Irv Weissman, who talked about hematopoietic or blood-forming stem cells and their value as a cell therapy for patients with blood disorders and cancer. One of the projects he discussed is a molecule called CD47 that is found on the surface of cancer cells. He explained that CD47 appears on all types of cancer cells more abundantly than on normal cells and is a promising therapeutic target for cancer.

Irv Weissman

Irv Weissman

“CD47 is the first gene whose overexpression is common to all cancer. We know it’s molecular mechanism from which we can develop targeted therapies. This would be impossible without collaborations between clinicians and scientists.”

 

At the end of his talk, Weissman acknowledged the importance of CIRM’s funding for advancing an antibody therapeutic targeting CD47 into a clinical trial for solid cancer tumors. He said CIRM’s existence is essential because it “funds [stem cell-based] research through the [financial] valley of death.” He further explained that CIRM is the only funding entity that takes basic stem cell research all the way through the clinical pipeline into a therapy.

Improving bone marrow transplants

judith shizuru

Judith Shizuru

Next, we heard a talk from Judith Shizuru on ways to improve current bone-marrow transplantation techniques. She explained how this form of stem cell transplant is “the most powerful form of cell therapy out there, for cancers or deficiencies in blood formation.” Inducing immune system tolerance, improving organ transplant outcomes in patients, and treating autoimmune diseases are all applications of bone marrow transplants. But this technique also carries with it toxic and potentially deadly side effects, including weakening of the immune system and graft vs host disease.

Shizuru talked about her team’s goal of improving the engraftment, or survival and integration, of bone marrow stem cells after transplantation. They are using an antibody against a molecule called CD117 which sits on the surface of blood stem cells and acts as an elimination signal. By blocking CD117 with an antibody, they improved the engraftment of bone marrow stem cells in mice and also removed the need for chemotherapy treatment, which is used to kill off bone marrow stem cells in the host. Shizuru is now testing her antibody therapy in a CIRM-funded clinical trial in humans and mentioned that this therapy has the potential to treat a wide variety of diseases such as sickle cell anemia, leukemias, and multiple sclerosis.

Tackling stroke and heart disease

img_1327We also heard from two CIRM-funded professors working on cell-based therapies for stroke and heart disease. Gary Steinberg’s team is using human neural progenitor cells, which develop into cells of the brain and spinal cord, to treat patients who’ve suffered from stroke. A stroke cuts off the blood supply to the brain, causing the death of brain cells and consequently the loss of function of different parts of the body.  He showed emotional videos of stroke patients whose function and speech dramatically improved following the stem cell transplant. One of these patients was Sonia Olea, a young woman in her 30’s who lost the ability to use most of her right side following her stroke. You can read about her inspiring recover post stem cell transplant in our Stories of Hope.

Dr. Joe Wu. (Image Source: Sean Culligan/OZY)

Dr. Joe Wu. (Image Source: Sean Culligan/OZY)

Joe Wu followed with a talk on adult stem cell therapies for heart disease. His work, which is funded by a CIRM disease team grant, involves making heart cells called cardiomyocytes from human embryonic stem cells and transplanting these cells into patient with end stage heart failure to improve heart function. His team’s work has advanced to the point where Wu said they are planning to file for an investigational new drug (IND) application with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in six months. This is the crucial next step before a treatment can be tested in clinical trials. Joe ended his talk by making an important statement about expectations on how long it will take before stem cell treatments are available to patients.

He said, “Time changes everything. It [stem cell research] takes time. There is a lot of promise for the future of stem cell therapy.”

The Spanish Inquisition and a tale of two stem cell agencies

Monty

Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketch: Photo courtesy Daily Mail UK

It’s not often an article on stem cell research brings the old, but still much loved, British comedy series Monty Python into the discussion but a new study in the journal Cell Stem Cell does just that, comparing the impact of CIRM and the UK’s Regenerative Medicine Platform (UKRMP).

The article, written by Fiona Watt of King’s College London and Stanford’s Irv Weissman (a CIRM grantee – you can see his impressive research record here) looks at CIRM and UKRMP’s success in translating stem cell research into clinical applications in people.

It begins by saying that in research, as in real estate, location is key:

“One thing that is heavily influenced by location, however, is our source of funding. This in turn depends on the political climate of the country in which we work, as exemplified by research on stem cells.”

And, as Weissman and Watt note, political climate can have a big impact on that funding. CIRM was created by the voters of California in 2004, largely in response to President George W. Bush’s restrictions on the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. UKRMP, in contrast was created by the UK government in 2013 and designed to help strengthen the UK’s translational research sector. CIRM was given $3 billion to do its work. UKRMP has approximately $38 million.

Inevitably the two agencies took very different approaches to funding, shaped in part by the circumstances of their birth – one as a largely independent state agency, the other created as a tool of national government.

CIRM, by virtue of its much larger funding was able to create world-class research facilities, attract top scientists to California and train a whole new generation of scientists. It has also been able to help some of the most promising projects get into clinical trials. UKRMP has used its more limited funding to create research hubs, focusing on areas such as cell behavior, differentiation and manufacturing, and safety and effectiveness. Those hubs are encouraged to work collaboratively, sharing their expertise and best practices.

Weissman and Watt touch on the problems both agencies ran into, including the difficulty of moving even the best research out of the lab and into clinical trials:

“Although CIRM has moved over 20 projects into clinical trials most are a long way from becoming standard therapies. This is not unexpected, as the interval between discovery and FDA approved therapeutic via clinical trials is in excess of 10 years minimum.”

 

And here is where Monty Python enters the picture. The authors quote one of the most famous lines from the series: “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition – because our chief weapon is surprise.”

They use that to highlight the surprises and uncertainty that stem cell research has gone through in the more than ten years since CIRM was created. They point out that a whole category of cells, induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, didn’t exist until 2006; and that few would have predicted the use of gene/stem cell therapy combinations. The recent development of the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology shows the field is progressing at a rate and in directions that are hard to predict; a reminder that that researchers and funding agencies should continue to expect the unexpected.

With two such different agencies the authors wisely resist the temptation to make any direct comparisons as to their success but instead conclude:

“…both CIRM and UKRMP have similar goals but different routes (and funding) to achieving them. Connecting people to work together to move regenerative medicine into the clinic is an over-arching objective and one that, we hope, will benefit patients regardless of where they live.”