Stem cell stories that caught our eye: turning on T cells; fixing our brains; progress and trends in stem cells; and one young man’s journey to recover from a devastating injury

Healthy_Human_T_Cell

A healthy T cell

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Directing the creation of T cells. To paraphrase the GOP Presidential nominee, any sane person LOVES, LOVES LOVES their T cells, in a HUGE way, so HUGE. They scamper around the body getting rid of viruses and the tiny cancers we all have in us all the time. A CIRM-funded team at CalTech has worked out the steps our genetic machinery must take to make more of them, a first step in letting physicians turn up the action of our immune systems.

We have known for some time the identity of the genetic switch that is the last, critical step in turning blood stem cells into T cells, but nothing in our body is as simple as a single on-off event. The Caltech team isolated four genetic factors in the path leading to that main switch and, somewhat unsuspected, they found out those four steps had to be activated sequentially, not all at the same time. They discovered the path by engineering mouse cells so that the main T cell switch, Bcl11b, glows under a microscope when it is turned on.

“We identify the contributions of four regulators of Bcl11b, which are all needed for its activation but carry out surprisingly different functions in enabling the gene to be turned on,” said Ellen Rothenberg, the senior author in a university press release picked up by Innovations Report. “It’s interesting–the gene still needs the full quorum of transcription factors, but we now find that it also needs them to work in the right order.”

Video primer on stem cells in the brain.  In conjunction with an article in its August issue, Scientific American posted a video from the Brain Forum in Switzerland of Elena Cattaneo of the University of Milan explaining the basics of adult versus pluripotent stem cells, and in particular how we are thinking about using them to repair diseases in the brain.

The 20-minute talk gives a brief review of pioneers who “stood alone in unmarked territory.” She asks how can stem cells be so powerful; and answers by saying they have lots of secrets and those secrets are what stem cell scientist like her are working to unravel.  She notes stem cells have never seen a brain, but if you show them a few factors they can become specialized nerves. After discussing collaborations in Europe to grow replacement dopamine neurons for Parkinson’s disease, she went on to describe her own effort to do the same thing in Huntington’s disease, but in this case create the striatal nerves lost in that disease.

The video closes with a discussion of how basic stem cell research can answer evolutionary questions, in particular how genetic changes allowed higher organisms to develop more complex nervous systems.

kelley and kent

CIRM Science Officers Kelly Shepard and Kent Fitzgerald

A stem cell review that hits close to home.  IEEE Pulse, a publication for scientists who mix engineering and medicine and biology, had one of their reporters interview two of our colleagues on CIRM’s science team. They asked senior science officers Kelly Shepard and Kent Fitzgerald to reflect on how the stem cell field has progressed based on their experience working to attract top researchers to apply for our grants and watching our panel of outside reviewers select the top 20 to 30 percent of each set of applicants.

One of the biggest changes has been a move from animal stem cell models to work with human stem cells, and because of CIRM’s dedicated and sustained funding through the voter initiative Proposition 71, California scientists have led the way in this change. Kelly described examples of how mouse and human systems are different and having data on human cells has been critical to moving toward therapies.

Kelly and Kent address several technology trends. They note how quickly stem cell scientists have wrapped their arms around the new trendy gene editing technology CRISPR and discuss ways it is being used in the field. They also discuss the important role of our recently developed ability to perform single cell analysis and other technologies like using vessels called exosomes that carry some of the same factors as stem cells without having to go through all the issues around transplanting whole cells.

“We’re really looking to move things from discovery to the clinic. CIRM has laid the foundation by establishing a good understanding of mechanistic biology and how stem cells work and is now taking the knowledge and applying it for the benefit of patients,” Kent said toward the end of the interview.

jake and family

Jake Javier and his family

Jake’s story: one young man’s journey to and through a stem cell transplant; As a former TV writer and producer I tend to be quite critical about the way TV news typically covers medical stories. But a recent story on KTVU, the Fox News affiliate here in the San Francisco Bay Area, showed how these stories can be done in a way that balances hope, and accuracy.

Reporter Julie Haener followed the story of Jake Javier – we have blogged about Jake before – a young man who broke his spine and was then given a stem cell transplant as part of the Asterias Biotherapeutics clinical trial that CIRM is funding.

It’s a touching story that highlights the difficulty treating these injuries, but also the hope that stem cell therapies holds out for people like Jake, and of course for his family too.

If you want to see how a TV story can be done well, this is a great example.

Stem cell transplant offers Jake a glimpse of hope

Jake

Jake Javier surrounded by friends; Photo courtesy Julie Haener KTVU

On Thursday, July 7th, Jake Javier became the latest member of a very select group. Jake underwent a stem cell transplant for a spinal cord injury at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center here in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The therapy is part of the CIRM-funded clinical trial run by Asterias Biotherapeutics. For Asterias it meant it had hit a significant milestone (more on that later). But for Jake, it was something far more important. It was the start of a whole new phase in his life.

Jake seriously injured his spinal cord in a freak accident after diving into a swimming pool just one day before he was due to graduate from San Ramon Valley high school. Thanks, in part, to the efforts of the tireless patient advocate and stem cell champion Roman Reed, Jake was able to enroll in the Asterias trial.

astopc1The goal of the trial is to test the safety of transplanting three escalating doses of AST-OPC1 cells. These are a form of cell called oligodendrocyte progenitors, which are capable of becoming several different kinds of brain cells, some of which play a supporting role and help protect nerve cells in the central nervous system – the area damaged in spinal cord injury.

To be eligible, individuals have to have experienced a severe neck injury in the last 30 days, one that has left them with no sensation or movement below the level of their injury, and that means they have typically lost all lower limb function and most hand and arm function.

The first group of three patients was completed in August of last year. This group was primarily to test for safety, to make sure this approach was not going to cause any harm to patients. That’s why the individuals enrolled were given the relatively small dose of 2 million cells. So far none of the patients have experienced any serious side effects, and some have even shown some small improvements.

In contrast, the group Jake is in were given 10 million cells each. Jake was the fifth person treated in this group. That means Asterias can now start assessing the safety data from this group and, if there are no problems, can plan on enrolling people for group 3 in about two months. That group of patients will get 20 million cells.

It’s these two groups, Jakes and group 3, that are getting enough cells that it’s hoped they will see some therapeutic benefits.

In a news release, Steve Cartt, President and CEO of Asterias, said they are encouraged by the progress of the trial so far:

“Successful completion of enrollment and dosing of our first efficacy cohort receiving 10 million cells in our ongoing Phase 1/2a clinical study represents a critically important milestone in our AST-OPC1 clinical program for patients with complete cervical spinal cord injuries. In addition, while it is still very early in the development process and the patient numbers are quite small, we are encouraged by the upper extremity motor function improvements we have observed so far in patients previously enrolled and dosed in the very low dose two million cell cohort that had been designed purely to evaluate safety.”

 

jake and familyJake and his family are well aware that this treatment is not going to be a cure, that he won’t suddenly get up and walk again. But it could help him in other, important ways, such as possibly getting back some ability to move his hands.

The latest news is that Jake is doing well, that he experienced some minor problems after the surgery but is bouncing back and is in good spirits.

Jake’s mother Isabelle said this has been an overwhelming experience for the family, but they are getting through it thanks to the love and support of everyone who hears Jake’s story. She told CIRM:

 “We are all beyond thrilled to have an opportunity of this magnitude. Just the thought of Jake potentially getting the use of his hands back gives him massive hope. Jake has a strong desire to recover to the highest possible level. He is focused and dedicated to this process. You have done well to choose him for your research. He will make you proud.”

He already has.

Jake and Brady gear

New England Patriots star quarterback Tom Brady signed a ball and jersey for Jake after hearing about the accident


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