California’s Stem Cell Agency Accelerates Treatments to Patients

The following article is an Op Ed that appeared in today’s print version of the San Francisco Chronicle

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Biotechnology was born in California in the 1970s based on the discovery out of one of its universities and California is responsible for an industry that has impacted the lives of billions of people worldwide. In 2004, the voters of California approved Proposition 71, creating the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and setting the state on the path to becoming a global leader in stem cell research. Today the therapies resulting from the institute’s work are not just changing lives, they are already saving lives.

Lives like Evie Vaccaro, who is alive today because of a treatment CIRM is funding. Vaccaro was born with SCID, also known as “bubble baby disease,” an immune disorder that often kills babies in their first two years. Vaccaro and dozens of other babies were given stem cell treatments thanks to the institute. All are showing improvement; some are now several years past treatment and considered cured.

An accident left Jake Javier from Danville paralyzed from the chest down on the eve of his high school graduation. Javier was treated in a CIRM-funded clinical trial. Today he has regained the use of his arms and hands, is driving a car and is a sophomore at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Five other patients treated at the same time as Javier have all experienced improvements meaning that instead of needing round-the-clock care, they can lead independent lives.

A study by the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development estimated it takes at least 10 years and $2.6 billion to develop one successful drug. In 14 years, and with just $3 billion, CIRM has funded 1,000 different projects, enrolled 900 patients, and supported 49 different clinical trials targeting diseases such as cancer, kidney failure and leukemia. Four of these programs have received an expedited designation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, meaning they could get faster approval to help more patients

We have created a network of world class medical clinics that have expertise in delivering treatments to patients. The CIRM Alpha Clinics offer treatments based on solid science, unlike the unlicensed clinics sprouting up around California that peddle unproven and potentially harmful therapies that cost patients thousands of dollars.

CIRM has:

  • Supported the creation of 12 stem-cell research facilities in California
  • Attracted hundreds of top-tier researchers to California
  • Trained a new generation of stem-cell scientists
  • Brought clinical trials to California — for example, one targeting ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease
  • Deployed rigorous scientific standards and support so our programs have a “seal of approval” to attract $2.7 billion in additional investments from industry and other sources.

We recently have partnered with the National Institutes of Health to break down barriers and speed up the approval process to bring curative treatments to patients with Sickle Cell Disease.

Have we achieved all we wanted to? Of course not. The first decade of CIRM’s life was laying the groundwork, developing the knowledge and expertise and refining processes so that we can truly accelerate progress. As a leader in this burgeoning field of regenerative medicine, CIRM needs to continue its mission of accelerating stem-cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.

Dr. Maria T. Millan is President and CEO and Jonathan Thomas, JD, PhD, is the Board Chairman of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine. 

 

 

A stepping stone for bringing stem cell therapy to patients with ALS

ALS Picture1

Imagine being told that you have a condition that gradually causes you to lose the ability to control your body movements, from picking up a pencil to walking to even breathing. Such is the reality for the nearly 6,000 people who are diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) every year, in the United States alone.

ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a neurodegenerative disease that causes the degradation of motor neurons, or nerves that are responsible for all voluntary muscle movements, like the ones mentioned above. It is a truly devastating disease with a particularly poor prognosis of two to five years from the time of diagnosis to death. There are only two approved drugs for ALS and these do not stop it but only slow progression of the disease; and even then only for some patients, not all.

A ray of hope for such a bleak treatment landscape, has been the advent of stem cell therapy options over the past decade. Of particular excitement is the recent discovery made Nasser Aghdami’s group at the Royan Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Technology in Iran.

Two small Phase I clinical trials detailed in Cell Journal demonstrated that injecting mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), derived from the patient’s own bone marrow, was safe when administered via injection into the bloodstream or the spinal cord. Previous studies had shown that MSCs both revived motor neurons and extended the lifespan in a rodent model of the disease.

In humans, many studies have shown that MSCs taken from bone marrow are safe for use in humans, but these studies have disagreed about whether injection via the bloodstream or spinal cord route is the most effective way to deliver the therapy. This report confirms that both routes of administration are safe as no adverse clinical events were observed for either group throughout the study time frame.

While an important stepping stone, there is still a long way to go. For example, while no adverse clinical events were observed in either group, the overall ALS-FRS score, a clinical scale to determine ALS disease progression, worsened in all patients over the course of the study. Whether this was just due to natural progression of the disease, or because of the stem cell treatment is difficult to determine given the small size of the cohort.

One reason the scientists suggest that could explain the disease decline is because the MSCs were taken from the ALS patients themselves, which means these cells were likely not functioning optimally prior to re-introduction into the patient. To remedy this, they hope to test the effect of MSCs taken from healthy donors in both injection routes in the future. They also need a larger cohort of patients to determine whether or not there is a difference in the therapeutic effect of administering stem cells via the two different routes.

While it may seem that the results from this clinical trial are not particularly groundbreaking or innovative, it is important to remember that these incremental improvements through clinical trials are critical for bringing safe and effective therapies to the market. For more information on the different phases of clinical trials, please refer to this video.

CIRM is also funding clinical trials targeting ALS. One is a Phase 1 trial out of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and another is a Phase 3 trial with the company Brainstorm Cell Therapeutics.

What makes an expert an expert?

When we launched our Facebook Live “Ask the Expert” series earlier this year we wanted to create an opportunity for people to hear from and question experts about specific diseases or disorders. The experts we turned to were medical ones, neurologists and neuroscientists in the case of the first two Facebook Live events, stroke and ALS.

Then we learned about a blog post on the ALS Advocacy website questioning our use of the word “expert”. The author, Cathy Collet, points out that doctors or scientists are far from the only experts about these conditions, that there are many people who, by necessity, have become experts on a lot of issues relating to ALS and any other disease.

Cathy Collet ALS

 

Here’s Cathy’s blog. After you read it please let us know what you think: should we come up with a different title for the series, if so what would you suggest?

 

 

 

“Over the years I’ve experienced many “Ask the Experts” sessions related to ALS.  It’s always a panel of neuroscientists who talk a lot about ALS research and then take a few questions.

The “Expert” crown defaults to them.  They speak from the dais.  We get to listen a lot and ask.  They are by default “The Experts” in the fight against ALS.

But wait, there are all kinds of people with superb and valuable knowledge related to ALS –

  • There are people who know a lot about insurance.
  • There are people who know a lot about communication technology.
  • There are people who know a lot about low-tech hacks.
  • There are people who know a lot about suction machines.
  • There are people who know a lot about breathing.
  • There are people who know a lot about the FDA.
  • There are people who know a lot about moving a person on and off a commode.
  • There are people who know a lot about taxes.
  • There are people who know a lot about drugs.
  • There are people who know a lot about data.
  • There are people who know a lot about choking.
  • There are people who know a lot about financing research.
  • There are people who know a lot about stem cells.
  • There are people who know a lot about feeding tubes and nutrition.
  • There are people who know a lot about what’s important in living with the beast ALS.
  • There are people who know a lot about primary care in ALS.
  • There are people who know a lot about constipation.

Our default implication for the word experts being neuroscientists is revealing. There are many people in the fight against ALS, including those living with it, who know a lot.  We still live in a hierarchy where people with ALS and caregivers are at the bottom.

Words matter.  “Expert” is not a royal title to be owned by anyone by default.

It’s time for simple changes to some traditions.  “Ask the Neuroscientists,” anyone?

 

By the way, our next Facebook Live “Ask the ?” feature is targeting Sickle Cell Disease. It will be from noon till 1pm on Tuesday August 28th. More details, and maybe even a new name, to follow.

 

ALS is in the spotlight in CIRM’s “Ask the Expert About ALS & Stem Cells” Facebook Live event

The Catch

San Francisco 49ers Dwight Clark makes his iconic “Catch” against the Dallas Cowboys

American Football great Dwight Clark was renowned for having the safest hands in the game when he played for the San Francisco 49ers. But in September 2015 he was diagnosed with ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) after not being able to use those hands to open a package of sugar. Less than three years later he was dead.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – ALS’ formal title – is a nasty disease that relentlessly destroys the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control movement and breathing. It is always fatal. There are only two drugs approved for ALS and they don’t work for most people. There is no cure.

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That’s why CIRM chose ALS to be the subject of its latest Facebook Live Ask the Expert event (click here for the event’s FaceBook Live page). There’s a real need for new approaches to help people battling this deadly condition. And CIRM is funding two clinical trials that hope to do just that.

This Ask the Expert event will feature Clive Svendsen, PhD, Director of Cedars-Sinai’s Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute, and Robert Baloh, MD, PhD, Director of Neuromuscular Medicine at Cedars-Sinai. They’ll be joined by Ralph Kern, MD, Chief Operating Officer and Chief Medical Officer at  BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics. The panel will be completed by CIRM Senior Science Officer Lila Collins.

The four will discuss the clinical trials that CIRM is funding with Cedars-Sinai and BrainStorm, and look at other promising research taking place.

Ask the Experts About ALS and Stem Cells is an opportunity for everyone in the ALS community to hear about the very latest in stem cell research targeting this devastating disease,” Svendsen said. “There has recently been some progress in the search for new treatments, which has energized all of us looking for effective therapies—and one day, a cure.”

Because Facebook Live is an interactive event people will be able to post comments and ask questions of the experts.

Dr. Baloh says we are now at a crucial time in the search for new approaches to help people with ALS.

“Many researchers believe that stem cells and gene therapies hold great promise for finding effective treatments, and more trials are needed to explore that potential.”

Our Facebook Live event, “Ask the Experts About ALS and Stem Cells” is tomorrow – Tuesday, July 31st – from noon till 1pm PST. You can join us by logging on to Facebook and going to the FaceBook Live broadcast link at: https://bit.ly/2uYQ8wM

Also, make sure to “like” our FaceBook page before the event to receive a notification when we’ve gone live for this and future events.

We want to hear from you, so you will be able to post questions in real-time for the experts to answer or, you can email them directly to us beforehand at info@cirm.ca.gov

If you miss the event, not to worry. A recording of the session will be available in our FaceBook videos page shortly after the broadcast ends.

We look forward to seeing you there.

 

Boosting immune system cells could offer a new approach to treating Lou Gehrig’s disease

ALS

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is one of those conditions that a lot of people know about but don’t know a lot about. If they are fortunate it will stay that way. ALS is a nasty neurodegenerative disease that attacks motor neurons, the cells in the brain and spinal cord that control muscle movement. As the disease progresses the individual loses their ability to walk, talk, eat, move and eventually to breathe. There are no effective treatments and no cure. But now research out of Texas is offering at least a glimmer of hope.

Dr. Stanley Appel, a neurologist at the Houston Methodist Neurological Institute noticed that many of the ALS patients he was treating had low levels of regulatory T cells, also known as Tregs. Tregs play a key role in our immune system, suppressing the action of molecules that cause inflammation and also helping prevent autoimmune disease.

In an article on Health News Digest Appel said:

Stanley Appel

Dr. Stanley Appel: Photo courtesy Australasian MND Symposium

“We found that many of our ALS patients not only had low levels of Tregs, but also that their Tregs were not functioning properly. We believed that improving the number and function of Tregs in these patients would affect how their disease progressed.”

And so that’s what he and his team did. They worked with M.D. Anderson Cancer Center’s Stem Cell Transplantation and Cellular Therapy program on a first-in-human clinical trial. They took blood from three people with different stages of ALS, separated the red and white blood cells, and returned the red blood cells to the patient. They then separated the Tregs from the white blood cells, increased their number in the lab, and then reinfused them into the patients, in a series of eight injections over the course of several months.

Their study, which appears in the journal Neurology,® Neuroimmunology & Neuroinflammation, found that the therapy appears to be safe without any serious side effects.

Jason Thonhoff, the lead author of the study, says the therapy also appeared to help slow the progression of the disease a little.

“A person has approximately 150 million Tregs circulating in their blood at any given time. Each dose of Tregs given to the patients in this study resulted in about a 30 to 40 percent increase over normal levels. Slowing of disease progression was observed during each round of four Treg infusions.”

Once the infusions stopped the disease progression resumed so clearly this is not a cure, but it does at least suggest that keeping Tregs at a healthy, high-functioning level may help slow down ALS.

CIRM is funding two clinical trials targeting ALS. One is a Phase 1 clinical trial with Clive Svendsen’s team at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the other is a Phase 3 project with Brainstorm Cell Therapeutics.

Straight to brain: A better approach to ALS cell therapies?

Getting the go ahead to begin a clinical trial by no means marks an end to a research team’s laboratory studies. A clinical trial is merely one experiment and is designed to answer a specific set of questions about a specific course of treatment. There will inevitably be more questions to pursue back in the lab in parallel with an ongoing clinical trial to potentially enhance the treatment.

That’s the scenario for Cedar-Sinai’s current CIRM-funded clinical trial testing a cell therapy for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Animal studies published this week in Stem Cells suggests that an additional route of therapy delivery may have potential and should also be considered.

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Microscopy image showing transplanted neural progenitor cells (green), the protein GDNF (red) and motor neurons (blue) together in brain tissue. Credit: Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute

ALS is an incurable disease that destroys motor neurons responsible for communicating muscle movement between the brain and the rest of the body via the spinal cord. ALS sufferers lose the use of their limbs and eventually the muscles that control breathing. They rarely live more than 3 to 5 years after diagnosis.

The CIRM-funded trial uses neural progenitor cells – which are similar to stem cells but can only specialize into different types of brain cells – that are genetically engineered to release a protein called GDNF that helps protect the motor neurons from destruction. These cells are being transplanted into the spinal cords of the clinical trial participants.

While earlier animal studies showed that the GDNF-producing progenitor cells can protect motor neurons in the spinal cord, the researchers also recognized that motor neurons within the brain are also involved in ALS. So, for the current study, the team tested the effects of implanting the GDNF-producing cells into the brains of rats with symptoms mimicking an inherited form of ALS.

The team first confirmed that the cells survived, specialized into the right type of brain cells and released GDNF into the brain. More importantly, they went on to show that the transplanted cells not only protected the motor neurons in the brain but also delayed the onset of the disease and extended the survival of the ALS rats.

These results suggest that future clinical trials should test transplantation of the cells into the brain in addition to the spinal cord. The team will first need to carry out more animal studies to determine the cell doses that would be most safe and effective. As first author Gretchen Thomsen, PhD, mentions in a press release, the eventual benefit to patients could be enormous:

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Gretchen Thomsen

“If we are able in the future to reproduce our research results in humans, we could improve both the quality and length of life for patients diagnosed with this devastating disease.”

 

 

Breaking the isolation of rare diseases

Rare disease day

Rare Disease Day in Sacramento, California

How can something that affects 30 million Americans, one in ten people in the US, be called rare? But that’s the case with people who have a rare disease. There are around 7,000 different diseases that are categorized as rare because they affect fewer than 200,000 people. Less than five percent of these diseases have a treatment.

That’s why last Wednesday, in cities across the US, members of the rare disease community gathered to call for more support, more research, and more help for families battling these diseases. Their slogan tells their story, ‘Alone we are rare; Together we are strong.’

At the Rare Disease Day rally in Sacramento, California, I met Kerry Rivas. Kerry’s son Donovan has a life-threatening condition called Shprintzen-Goldberg Syndrome. Talk about rare. There are only 70 documented cases of the syndrome worldwide. Just getting a diagnosis for Donovan took years.

DonovanDonovan suffers from a lot of problems but the most serious affect his heart, lungs and spinal cord. Getting him the care he needs is time consuming and expensive and has forced Kerry and her family to make some big sacrifices. Even so they work hard to try and see that Donovan is able to lead as normal a life as is possible.

While the disease Kerry’s son has is rarer than most, everyone at Rare Disease Day had a similar story, and an equal commitment to doing all they can to be an effective advocate. And their voices are being heard.

To honor the occasion the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it was partnering with the National Organization of Rare Diseases (NORD) to hold listening sessions involving patients and FDA medical reviewers.

In a news release Peter L. Saltonstall, President and CEO of NORD, said:

“These listening sessions will provide FDA review division staff with better insight into what is important to patients in managing their diseases and improving their quality of life. It is important for FDA to understand, from the patient perspective, disease burden, management of symptoms, daily impact on quality of life, and patients’ risk tolerance. Patients and caregivers bring a pragmatic, realistic perspective about what they are willing to deal with in terms of potential risks and benefits for new therapies.”

FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said his agency is committed to doing everything possible to help the rare disease community:

“Despite our successes, there are still no treatments for the vast proportion of rare diseases or conditions. FDA is committed to do what we can to stimulate the development of more products by improving the consistency and efficiency of our reviews, streamlining our processes and supporting rare disease research.”

At CIRM we are also committed to doing all we can to help the cause. Many of the diseases we are currently funding in clinical trials are rare diseases like ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, SCID, spinal cord injury and sickle cell disease.

Many pharmaceutical companies are shy about funding research targeting these diseases because the number of patients involved is small, so the chances of recouping their investment or even making a profit is small.

At CIRM we don’t have to worry about those considerations. Our focus is solely on helping those in need. People like Donovan Rivas.

Stem cell agency funds Phase 3 clinical trial for Lou Gehrig’s disease

ALS

At CIRM we don’t have a disease hierarchy list that we use to guide where our funding goes. We don’t rank a disease by how many people suffer from it, if it affects children or adults, or how painful it is. But if we did have that kind of hierarchy you can be sure that Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, would be high on that list.

ALS is a truly nasty disease. It attacks the neurons, the cells in our brain and spinal cord that tell our muscles what to do. As those cells are destroyed we lose our ability to walk, to swallow, to talk, and ultimately to breathe.

As Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s interim President and CEO, said in a news release, it’s a fast-moving disease:

“ALS is a devastating disease with an average life expectancy of less than five years, and individuals afflicted with this condition suffer an extreme loss in quality of life. CIRM’s mission is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs and, in keeping with this mission, our objective is to find a treatment for patients ravaged by this neurological condition for which there is currently no cure.”

Having given several talks to ALS support groups around the state, I have had the privilege of meeting many people with ALS and their families. I have seen how quickly the disease works and the devastation it brings. I’m always left in awe by the courage and dignity with which people bear it.

BrainStorm

I thought of those people, those families, today, when our governing Board voted to invest $15.9 million in a Phase 3 clinical trial for ALS run by BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics. BrainStorm is using mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) that are taken from the patient’s own bone marrow. This reduces the risk of the patient’s immune system fighting the therapy.

After being removed, the MSCs are then modified in the laboratory to  boost their production of neurotrophic factors, proteins which are known to help support and protect the cells destroyed by ALS. The therapy, called NurOwn, is then re-infused back into the patient.

In an earlier Phase 2 clinical trial, NurOwn showed that it was safe and well tolerated by patients. It also showed evidence that it can help stop, or even reverse  the progression of the disease over a six month period, compared to a placebo.

CIRM is already funding one clinical trial program focused on treating ALS – that’s the work of Dr. Clive Svendsen and his team at Cedars Sinai, you can read about that here. Being able to add a second project, one that is in a Phase 3 clinical trial – the last stage before, hopefully, getting approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for wider use – means we are one step closer to being able to offer people with ALS a treatment that can help them.

Diane Winokur, the CIRM Board Patient Advocate member for ALS, says this is something that has been a long time coming:

CIRM Board member and ALS Patient Advocate Diane Winokur

“I lost two sons to ALS.  When my youngest son was diagnosed, he was confident that I would find something to save him.  There was very little research being done for ALS and most of that was very limited in scope.  There was one drug that had been developed.  It was being released for compassionate use and was scheduled to be reviewed by the FDA in the near future.  I was able to get the drug for Douglas.  It didn’t really help him and it was ultimately not approved by the FDA.

When my older son was diagnosed five years later, he too was convinced I would find a therapy.  Again, I talked to everyone in the field, searched every related study, but could find nothing promising.

I am tenacious by nature, and after Hugh’s death, though tempted to give up, I renewed my search.  There were more people, labs, companies looking at neurodegenerative diseases.

These two trials that CIRM is now funding represent breakthrough moments for me and for everyone touched by ALS.  I feel that they are a promising beginning.  I wish it had happened sooner.  In a way, though, they have validated Douglas and Hugh’s faith in me.”

These therapies are not a cure for ALS. At least not yet. But what they will do is hopefully help buy people time, and give them a sense of hope. For a disease that leaves people desperately short of both time and hope, that would be a precious gift. And for people like Diane Winokur, who have fought so hard to find something to help their loved ones, it’s a vindication that those efforts have not been in vain.

Raising awareness about Rare Disease Day

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One of the goals we set ourselves at CIRM in our 2016 Strategic Plan was to fund 50 new clinical trials over the next five years, including ten rare or orphan diseases. Since then we have funded 13 new clinical trials including four targeting rare diseases (retinitis pigmentosa, severe combined immunodeficiency, ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy). It’s a good start but clearly, with almost 7,000 rare diseases, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is still so much work to do.

And all around the world people are doing that work. Today we have asked Emily Walsh, the Community Outreach Director at the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance,  to write about the efforts underway to raise awareness about rare diseases, and to raise funds for research to develop new treatments for them.

“February 28th marks the annual worldwide event for Rare Disease Day. This is a day dedicated to raising awareness for rare diseases that affect people all over the world. The campaign works to target the general public as well as policy makers in hopes of bringing attention to diseases that receive little attention and funding. For the year 2017 it was decided that the focus would fall on “research,” with the slogan, “With research, possibilities are limitless.”

Getting involved for Rare Disease Day means taking this message and spreading it far and wide. Awareness for rare diseases is extremely important, especially among researchers, universities, students, companies, policy makers, and clinicians. It has long been known that the best advocates for rare diseases are the patients themselves. They use their specific perspectives to raise their voice, share their story, and shed light on the areas where additional funding and research are most necessary.

To see how you can help support the Rare Disease Day efforts this year, click here.

Groups like the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance and the Mesothelioma Group are adding their voices to the cause to raise awareness about mesothelioma cancer, a rare form of cancer caused by exposure and inhalation of airborne asbestos fibers

Rare diseases affect 300 million people worldwide, but only 5% of them have an FDA approved treatment or cure. Malignant mesothelioma is among the 95 percent that doesn’t have a treatment or cure.

Asbestos has been used throughout history in building materials because of its fire retardant properties. Having a home with asbestos insulation, ceiling tiles, and roof shingles meant that the house was safer. However, it was found that once asbestos crumbled and became powder-like, the tiny fibers could become airborne and be inhaled and lodge themselves in lung tissue causing mesothelioma. The late stage discovery of mesothelioma is often what causes it to have such a high mortality rate. Symptoms can have a very sudden onset, even though the person may have been exposed decades prior.

Right now, treatment for mesothelioma includes the usual combination of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, but researchers are looking at other approaches to see if they can be more effective or can help in conjunction with the standard methods. For example one drug, Defactinib, has shown some promise in inhibiting the growth and spread of cancer stem cells – these are stem cells that can evade chemotherapy and cause patients to relapse.”

Some people might ask why spend limited resources on something that affects so few people. But the lessons we learn in developing treatments for a rare disease can often lead us to treatments for diseases that affect many millions of people.

But numbers aside, there is no hierarchy of need, no scale to say the suffering of people with Huntington’s disease is any greater or less than that of people with Alzheimer’s. We are not in the business of making value judgements about who has the greatest need. We are in the business of accelerating treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. And those suffering from rare disease are very clearly  people in need.

 


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Using stem cells to fix bad behavior in the brain

 

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Gladstone Institutes Steven Finkbeiner and Gaia Skibinski: Photo courtesy Chris Goodfellow, Gladstone Institutes

Diseases of the brain have many different names, from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to ALS and Huntington’s, but they often have similar causes. Researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco are using that knowledge to try and find an approach that might be effective against all of these diseases. In a new CIRM-funded study, they have identified one protein that could help do just that.

Many neurodegenerative diseases are caused by faulty proteins, which start to pile up and cause damage to neurons, the brain cells that are responsible for processing and transmitting information. Ultimately, the misbehaving proteins cause those cells to die.

The researchers at the Gladstone found a way to counter this destructive process by using a protein called Nrf2. They used neurons from humans (made from induced pluripotent stem cells – iPSCs – hence the stem cell connection here) and rats. They then tested these cells in neurons that were engineered to have two different kinds of mutations found in  Parkinson’s disease (PD) plus the Nrf2 protein.

Using a unique microscope they designed especially for this study, they were able to track those transplanted neurons and monitor what happened to them over the course of a week.

The neurons that expressed Nrf2 were able to render one of those PD-causing proteins harmless, and remove the other two mutant proteins from the brain cells.

In a news release to accompany the study in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, first author Gaia Skibinski, said Nrf2 acts like a house-cleaner brought in to tidy up a mess:

“Nrf2 coordinates a whole program of gene expression, but we didn’t know how important it was for regulating protein levels until now. Over-expressing Nrf2 in cellular models of Parkinson’s disease resulted in a huge effect. In fact, it protects cells against the disease better than anything else we’ve found.”

Steven Finkbeiner, the senior author on the study and a Gladstone professor, said this model doesn’t just hold out hope for treating Parkinson’s disease but for treating a number of other neurodegenerative problems:

“I am very enthusiastic about this strategy for treating neurodegenerative diseases. We’ve tested Nrf2 in models of Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and ALS, and it is the most protective thing we’ve ever found. Based on the magnitude and the breadth of the effect, we really want to understand Nrf2 and its role in protein regulation better.”

The next step is to use this deeper understanding to identify other proteins that interact with Nrf2, and potentially find ways to harness that knowledge for new therapies for neurodegenerative disorders.