CIRM-funded study helps unlock some of the genetic secrets behind macular degeneration

Retina affected by age-related macular degeneration

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of vision loss in people over 60. It affects 10 million Americans. That’s more than cataracts and glaucoma combined. The causes of AMD are not known but are believed to involve a mixture of hereditary and environmental factors. There is no treatment for it.

Now, in a CIRM-funded study, researchers at UC San Diego (UCSD) have used stem cells to help identify genetic elements that could provide some clues as to the cause, and maybe give some ideas on how to treat it.

Before we get into what the researchers did let’s take a look at what AMD does. At a basic level it attacks the retina, the thin layer of tissue that lines the back of the eye. The retina receives light, turns it into electrical signals and sends it to the brain which turns it into a visual image.

The disease destroys the macula, the part of the retina that controls our central vision. At first, sight becomes blurred or fuzzy but over time it progresses to the point where central vision is almost completely destroyed.

To try and understand why this happens the team at UCSD took skin samples from six people with AMD and, using the iPSC method, turned those cells into the kinds of cell found in the retina. Because these cells came from people who had AMD they now displayed the same characteristics as AMD-affected retinal cells. This allowed the researchers to create what is called a “disease-in-a-dish” model that allowed them to see, in real time, what is happening in AMD.

They were able to identify a genetic variant that reduces production of a protein called VEGFA, which is known to promote the growth of new blood vessels.

In a news release Kelly Frazer, director of the Institute for Genomic Medicine at UCSD and the lead author of the study, said the results were unexpected.

Kelly Frazer, PhD, UC San Diego

“We didn’t start with the VEGFA gene when we went looking for genetic causes of AMD. But we were surprised to find that with samples from just six people, this genetic variation clearly emerged as a causal factor.”

Frazer says this discovery, published in the journal Stem Cell Reports, could ultimately lead to new approaches to developing new treatments for AMD.

CIRM already funds one clinical trial-stage project targeting AMD.

The most popular Stem Cellar posts of 2018

The blog

You never know when you write something if people are going to read it. Sometimes you wonder if anyone is going to read it. So, it’s always fun, and educational, to look back at the end of the year and see which pieces got the most eyeballs.

It isn’t always the ones you think will draw the biggest audiences. Sometimes it is diseases that are considered “rare” (those affecting fewer than 200,000 people) that get the most attention.

Maybe it’s because those diseases have such a powerful online community which shares news, any news, about their condition of interest with everyone they know. Whatever the reason, we are always delighted to share encouraging news about research we are funding or encouraging research that someone else is funding.

That was certainly the case with the top two stories this year. Both were related to ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.  It’s a particularly nasty condition. People diagnosed with ALS have a life expectancy of just 2 to 5 years. So it’s probably not a big surprise that stories suggesting stem cells could expand that life span got a big reception.

Whatever the reason, we’re just happy to share hopeful news with everyone who comes to our blog.

And so, without further ado, here is the list of the most popular Stem Cellar Blog Posts for 2018.

All of us in the Communications team at CIRM consider it an honor and privilege to be able to work here and to meet many of the people behind these stories; the researchers and the patients and patient advocates. They are an extraordinary group of individuals who help remind us why we do this work and why it is important. We love our work and we hope you enjoy it too. We plan to be every bit as active and engaged in 2019.

Japanese scientists implant first Parkinson’s patient with replacement neurons derived from stem cells

Parkinsons

Neurons derived from stem cells.Credit: Silvia Riccardi/SPL

Currently, more than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson’s disease (PD). By 2020, in the US alone, people living with Parkinson’s are expected to outnumber the cases of multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and Lou Gehrig’s disease combined.

There is no cure for Parkinson’s and treatment options consist of medications that patients ultimately develop tolerance to, or surgical therapies that are expensive. Therefore, therapeutic options that offer long-lasting treatment, or even a cure, are essential for treating PD.

Luckily for patients, Jun Takahashi’s team at Kyoto University has pioneered a stem cell based therapy for PD patients.

To understand their treatment strategy, however, we first have to understand what causes this disease. Parkinson’s results from decreased numbers of neurons that produce dopamine, a molecule that helps control muscle movements. Without proper dopamine production, patients experience a wide range of movement abnormalities, including the classic tremors that are associated with PD.

The current treatment options only target the symptoms, as opposed to the root cause of the disease. Takashi’s group decided to go directly to the source and improve dopamine production in these patients by correcting the dopaminergic neuron shortage.

The scientists harvested skin cells from a healthy donor and reprogrammed them to become induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), or stem cells that become any type of cell. These iPSCs were then turned into the precursors of dopamine-producing neurons and implanted into 12 brain regions known to be hotspots for dopamine production.

The procedure was carried out in October and the patient, a male in his 50s, is still healthy. If his symptoms continue to improve and he doesn’t experience any bad side effects,  he will receive a second dose of dopamine-producing stem cells. Six other patients are scheduled to receive this same treatment and Takashi hopes that, if all goes well, this type of treatment can be ready for the general public by 2023.

This treatment was first tested in monkeys, where the researchers saw that not only did the implanted stem cells improve Parkinson’s symptoms and survive in the brain for at least two years, but they also did not cause any negative side effects.

This is only the third time iPSCs have been used as a treatment option in humans. The first was for macular degeneration in 2014.

CIRM is funding a similar, albeit earlier-stage program, with Jeanne Loring at Scripps.

 

Stem Cell Agency’s Diane Winokur hailed as Visionary

Diane and JT

CIRM Board member Diane Winokur with CIRM Board Chair Jonathan Thomas at FFB Awards dinner

Generally speaking, I am not a huge fan of gala dinners. It’s not that I don’t like seeing people who do remarkable things getting a well-deserved honor. It’s just that the dinners often go on too long and the food is usually not very good (hey, this is San Francisco, those things matter). But last night’s Foundation Fighting Blindness Visionary Awards in San Francisco was definitely an exception to that rule.

Academy of Sciences Grand Opening

Academy of Sciences in San Francisco

Now it may be that the awards were held in the spectacular Academy of Sciences building in Golden Gate Park, or that the food was delicious. But I think the real reason is that CIRM Board member Diane Winokur was one of those being honored. The other honoree was Dr. Jacque Duncan, an amazing physician at UC San Francisco who has dedicated her life to battling diseases of the retina. The whole event was deeply emotional, and truly inspiring.

Now, Diane is a remarkable woman in many respects. She’s the Board’s Patient Advocate member for ALS (better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) and multiple sclerosis. But Diane also considers herself a Patient Advocate for all Californians and works hard to help advance the research that could help them. She has a personal connection to vision loss as well; one of her dear friends has lost his sight because of retinitis pigmentosa, and his daughter is losing hers because of the same disease.

Diane at podiumDiane highlighted the work that CIRM is doing to help battle vision destroying diseases; how we have invested more than $125 million in 25 different projects. She talked about the encouraging news from clinical trials we are funding targeting retinitis pigmentosa and dry age-related macular degeneration. Diane said:

“These stem cell clinical trials show that progress is being made. Not as fast as we would like, but as everyone here knows, good science takes time. As a patient advocate on the CIRM Board it’s my role to represent the patient, to be their voice in making decisions about what projects to fund.

Patients are at the heart of everything we do at CIRM, from deciding on funding issues to supporting clinical trials. That’s why I feel so honored to get this award. It comes from an organization, that is equally committed to doing all it can to help people in need, to putting the patient at the center of everything they do.”

It’s clear that patients really are at the heart of the work the Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB) does. As the organizations CEO Benjamin Yerxa said:

“We support 77 labs in the US, often funding projects no one else would. We do this because we know it is necessary to advance the field. And we are going to keep doing this as best we can, as fast as we can, for as long as we can, because we know so many people are depending on us to help them.”

The other honoree, Jacque Duncan, said after attending many previous Visionary Award dinners and seeing the people being honored it was humbling to be in that company. She talked about the exciting progress being made in the field and the people who are making it possible.

“None of this happens by chance. The path to developing new treatments takes the passion of scientists and doctors, and the commitment of patients to raising the funds needed to do this research. One gala dinner at a time, one Vision Walk at a time. All of this creates community and a common purpose. I truly believe that because of this, tomorrow will be brighter than today.”

Perhaps it’s only appropriate to leave the last word to Diane, who ended her speech saying:

“The Nobel prize winning physicist Heinrich Rohrer once said that science means constantly walking a tightrope between blind faith and curiosity; between expertise and creativity; between bias and openness; between experience and epiphany; in short, between an old today and a new tomorrow.

I believe that working together, CIRM and the Foundation Fighting Blindness, we can create that new tomorrow.”

Encouraging news about CIRM-funded clinical trial targeting vision loss

dry AMD

An eye affected by dry age-related macular degeneration

Dry age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of vision loss in the U.S. By 2020 it’s estimated that as many as three million Americans will be affected by the disease. Right now, there is no effective therapy. But that could change. A new CIRM-funded clinical trial is showing promise in helping people battling the disease not just in stabilizing their vision loss, but even reversing it.

In AMD, cells in the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye, are slowly destroyed affecting a person’s central vision. It can make it difficult to do everyday activities such as reading or watching TV and make it impossible for a person to drive.

Researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) Roski Eye Institute at the Keck School of Medicine, and Regenerative Patch Technologies, have developed a therapy using embryonic stem cells that they turned into retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) cells – the kind of cell destroyed by AMD. These cells were then placed on a synthetic scaffold which was surgically implanted in the back of the eye.

Imaging studies showed that the RPE cells appeared to integrate well into the eye and remained in place during follow-up tests 120 to 365 days after implantation.

Encouraging results

Of the five patients enrolled in the Phase 1/2a trial, four maintained their vision in the treated eye, two showed improvement in the stability of their vision, and one patient had a 17-letter improvement in their vision on a reading chart. In addition, there were no serious side effects or unanticipated problems.

There were other indications the implants were proving beneficial.  People with normal vision have the ability to focus their gaze on a single location. People with advanced AMD lose that ability. In this trial, two of the patients recovered stable fixation. These improvements were maintained in follow-up tests.

Abla-8

Abla Creasey, Ph.D., CIRM’S Vice President of Therapeutics and Strategic Infrastructure says even these small benefits are important:

“Having a therapy with a favorable safety profile, that could slow down the progression, or even reverse the vision loss would benefit millions of Americans. That’s why these results, while still in an early stage are encouraging, because the people treated in the trial are ones most severely affected by the disease who have the least potential for visual recovery.”

This study reflects CIRM’s long-term commitment to supporting the most promising stem cell research. The Stem Cell Agency began supporting USC’s Dr. Mark Humayun, the lead inventor of the implant, in 2010 and has been a partner with him and his team since then.

Dr.MarkHumayun2 copy

In a news release Dr. Humayun said they plan to recruit another 15 patients to see if these results hold up:

“Our study shows that this unique stem cell–based retinal implant thus far is well-tolerated, and preliminary results suggest it may help people with advanced dry age-related macular degeneration.”

While the results, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, are encouraging the researchers caution that this was a very early stage clinical trial, with a small number of patients. They say the next step is to continue to follow the four patients treated in this trial to see if there are any further changes to their vision, and to conduct a larger trial.

 

 

A Patient Advocate’s Personal Manifesto

Janni and Obama

President Obama and Janni Lehrer-Stein

Janni Lehrer-Stein was just 26 when she was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease and told she was going to be blind within six months. The doctor who gave her the news told her “But don’t worry, people like you are usually hit and killed by a bus long before they go completely blind.”

At the time she was recently married, had just graduated law school and landed her dream job with the government in Washington DC, litigating workplace discrimination. The news about her eyesight stopped her in her tracks.

But not for long. If you ever met Janni you would know that nothing stops her for long.

I was fortunate enough to hear Janni talk at a Foundation Fighting Blindness event in the San Francisco Bay Area last weekend. I was part of a panel discussion on new approaches to treating vision loss, including the research that CIRM is funding.

Janni didn’t talk about stem cells, instead she focused on the importance of the patient advocate voice, community, and their determination. She said one of the most important things anyone battling a life-threatening or life-changing disease or disorder needs to remember is that it’s not about disability, it’s about capability. It’s about what you can do rather than what you cannot.

Janni laid out her “manifesto” for things she says will help you keep that thought uppermost in your mind.

1) Show up. It’s that simple and that important. You have to show up. You have to get educated, you have to learn all you can about your condition so you know what you can do and what you can’t do. You have to share that information with others. You have to be there for others. Don’t just show up for yourself. Show up for others who can’t be there.

2) Share this information. Janni talked about a website called My Retina Tracker which is helping drive research into the causes of retinal diseases like retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration, and hopefully will lead to treatments and even cures. She says the more people work together, the more we combine our resources, the more effective we can be.

3) Support the researchers. Janni says while raising awareness is important, raising money is just as important. Without money there can be no research, and without research no treatments or cures. Janni says it doesn’t matter how you do it – a charity walk, a Go Fund me campaign, petitioning your state or federal elected representatives to urge them to fund research – everything counts, every dollar helps.

4) Remember you are part of a wider community. Janni says no one ever won a battle on their own; it takes a lot of people to fight and win the right to be treated equally. And it takes a lot of effort to stop those rights from being rolled back.

Janni hasn’t let losing her sight hold her back. In 2011, she was appointed by President Obama, and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, to the National Council on Disability where she served two terms advising the President and Congress on national disability policy.

Now she has returned home to the San Francisco Bay Area, but she is no less determined to make a difference and no less determined to fight for the rights of patients and patient advocates.

In an article on Medium she shares her feelings about being a patient advocate:

“The America that I so deeply respect is one that embraces, values and respects the contributions of us all. My America includes every one of us, regardless of our gender, race, age or disability. Our America is a place where, regardless of whether we are sighted or blind, we have the same opportunities, for which we are equally considered. Our America includes every one of us who wishes to make the world a more peaceful, responsible, and inclusive environment that is tolerant of all differences and abilities, physical or otherwise. To me, those differences make our lives richer, give our contributions more meaning, and lead to a brighter future for the next generation.”

 

Creating partnerships to help get stem cell therapies over the finish line

Lewis, Clark, Sacagawea

Lewis & Clark & Sacagawea:

Trying to go it alone is never easy. Imagine how far Lewis would have got without Clark, or the two of them without Sacagawea. Would Batman have succeeded without Robin; Mickey without Minnie Mouse? Having a partner whose skills and expertise complements yours just makes things easier.

That’s why some recent news about two CIRM-funded companies running clinical trials was so encouraging.

Viacyte Gore

First ViaCyte, which is developing an implantable device to help people with type 1 diabetes, announced a collaborative research agreement with W. L. Gore & Associates, a global materials science company. On every level it seems like a natural fit.

ViaCyte has developed a way of maturing embryonic stem cells into an early form of the cells that produce insulin. They then insert those cells into a permeable device that can be implanted under the skin. Inside the device, the cells mature into insulin-producing cells. While ViaCyte has experience developing the cells, Gore has experience in the research, development and manufacturing of implantable devices.

Gore-tex-fabricWhat they hope to do is develop a kind of high-tech version of what Gore already does with its Gore-Tex fabrics. Gore-Tex keeps the rain out but allows your skin to breathe. To treat diabetes they need a device that keeps the immune system out, so it won’t attack the cells inside, but allows those cells to secrete insulin into the body.

As Edward Gunzel, Technical Leader for Gore PharmBIO Products, said in a news release, each side brings experience and expertise that complements the other:

“We have a proven track record of developing and commercializing innovative new materials and products to address challenging implantable medical device applications and solving difficult problems for biologics manufacturers.  Gore and ViaCyte began exploring a collaboration in 2016 with early encouraging progress leading to this agreement, and it was clear to us that teaming up with ViaCyte provided a synergistic opportunity for both companies.  We look forward to working with ViaCyte to develop novel implantable delivery technologies for cell therapies.”

AMD2

How macular degeneration destroys central vision

Then last week Regenerative Patch Technologies (RPT), which is running a CIRM-funded clinical trial targeting age-related macular degeneration (AMD), announced an investment from Santen Pharmaceutical, a Japanese company specializing in ophthalmology research and treatment.

The investment will help with the development of RPT’s therapy for AMD, a condition that affects millions of people around the world. It’s caused by the deterioration of the macula, the central portion of the retina which is responsible for our ability to focus, read, drive a car and see objects like faces in fine details.

RPE

RPT is using embryonic stem cells to produce the support cells, or RPE cells, needed to replace those lost in AMD. Because these cells exist in a thin sheet in the back of the eye, the company is assembling these sheets in the lab by growing the RPE cells on synthetic scaffolds. These sheets are then surgically implanted into the eye.

In a news release, RPT’s co-founder Dennis Clegg says partnerships like this are essential for small companies like RPT:

“The ability to partner with a global leader in ophthalmology like Santen is very exciting. Such a strong partnership will greatly accelerate RPT’s ability to develop our product safely and effectively.”

These partnerships are not just good news for those involved, they are encouraging for the field as a whole. When big companies like Gore and Santen are willing to invest their own money in a project it suggests growing confidence in the likelihood that this work will be successful, and that it will be profitable.

As the current blockbuster movie ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is proving; with the right partner you can not only make magic, you can also make a lot of money. For potential investors those are both wonderfully attractive qualities. We’re hoping these two new partnerships will help RPT and ViaCyte advance their research. And that these are just the first of many more to come.

Three people left blind by Florida clinic’s unproven stem cell therapy

Unproven treatment

Unproven stem cell treatments endanger patients: Photo courtesy Healthline

The report makes for chilling reading. Three women, all suffering from macular degeneration – the leading cause of vision loss in the US – went to a Florida clinic hoping that a stem cell therapy would save their eyesight. Instead, it caused all three to go blind.

The study, in the latest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, is a warning to all patients about the dangers of getting unproven, unapproved stem cell therapies.

In this case, the clinic took fat and blood from the patient, put the samples through a centrifuge to concentrate the stem cells, mixed them together and then injected them into the back of the woman’s eyes. In each case they injected this mixture into both eyes.

Irreparable harm

Within days the women, who ranged in age from 72 to 88, began to experience severe side effects including bleeding in the eye, detached retinas, and vision loss. The women got expert treatment at specialist eye centers to try and undo the damage done by the clinic, but it was too late. They are now blind with little hope for regaining their eyesight.

In a news release Thomas Alibini, one of the lead authors of the study, says clinics like this prey on vulnerable people:

“There’s a lot of hope for stem cells, and these types of clinics appeal to patients desperate for care who hope that stem cells are going to be the answer, but in this case these women participated in a clinical enterprise that was off-the-charts dangerous.”

Warning signs

So what went wrong? The researchers say this clinic’s approach raised a number of “red flags”:

  • First there is almost no evidence that the fat/blood stem cell combination the clinic used could help repair the photoreceptor cells in the eye that are attacked in macular degeneration.
  • The clinic charged the women $5,000 for the procedure. Usually in FDA-approved trials the clinical trial sponsor will cover the cost of the therapy being tested.
  • Both eyes were injected at the same time. Most clinical trials would only treat one eye at a time and allow up to 30 days between patients to ensure the approach was safe.
  • Even though the treatment was listed on the clinicaltrials.gov website there is no evidence that this was part of a clinical trial, and certainly not one approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which regulates stem cell therapies.

As CIRM’s Abla Creasey told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Erin Allday, there is little evidence these fat stem cells are effective, or even safe, for eye conditions.

“There’s no doubt there are some stem cells in fat. As to whether they are the right cells to be put into the eye, that’s a different question. The misuse of stem cells in the wrong locations, using the wrong stem cells, is going to lead to bad outcomes.”

The study points out that not all projects listed on the Clinicaltrials.gov site are checked to make sure they are scientifically sound and have done the preclinical testing needed to reduce the likelihood they may endanger patients.

goldberg-jeffrey

Jeffrey Goldberg

Jeffrey Goldberg, a professor of Ophthalmology at Stanford and the co-author of the study, says this is a warning to all patients considering unproven stem cell therapies:

“There is a lot of very well-founded evidence for the positive potential of stem therapy for many human diseases, but there’s no excuse for not designing a trial properly and basing it on preclinical research.”

There are a number of resources available to people considering being part of a clinical trial including CIRM’s “So You Want to Participate in a Clinical Trial”  and the  website A Closer Look at Stem Cells , which is sponsored by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR).

CIRM is currently funding two clinical trials aimed at helping people with vision loss. One is Dr. Mark Humayun’s research on macular degeneration – the same disease these women had – and the other is Dr. Henry Klassen’s research into retinitis pigmentosa. Both these projects have been approved by the FDA showing they have done all the testing required to try and ensure they are safe in people.

In the past this blog has been a vocal critic of the FDA and the lengthy and cumbersome approval process for stem cell clinical trials. We have, and still do, advocate for a more efficient process. But this study is a powerful reminder that we need safeguards to protect patients, that any therapy being tested in people needs to have undergone rigorous testing to reduce the likelihood it may endanger them.

These three women paid $5,000 for their treatment. But the final cost was far greater. We never want to see that happen to anyone ever again.

Three stories give us a glimpse of the real possibilities for stem cell therapies

Today we’re featuring a guest blog by Lisa Willemse about the Till and McCulloch Stem Cell Meeting in Canada. Enjoy!

Stem cell treatments should be incredibly easy. Or rather, that’s what some clinics or products would have you believe. Because, on the surface, a one-stop-shop for injectable cells to cure just about any condition or topical creams to peel away the scourge of time are very easy.

Attend one stem cell research conference and you’ll be convinced that it’s much more complicated. It’s a sea of reagents and transcription factors and unknown cause-and-effect. Many researchers will spend their entire career working on just one unknown and their caution and concern when it comes to the notion of a cure is justifiable.

Whistler (Courtesy of Lisa Willemse)

Whistler (Courtesy of Lisa Willemse)

Which makes it all the more impactful when you attend a research conference and hear three talks, back-to-back, that demonstrate that we’re ticking off some of those unknowns and getting much closer to real – not sham – therapies. Therapies with a sound scientific basis that are well planned and done with patient safety (not sales) in mind. Last week’s Till and McCulloch Meetings, held in Whistler, British Columbia gave us a sense of what is possible for three conditions: macular degeneration (vision), septic shock and a rare neurologic disease (Stiff Person Syndrome). Other blogs have covered  different aspects of this meeting here and here.

Vision Repair – Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD)

As the world’s first clinical trial to use induced pluripotent stem cells launched amid sweeping regulatory changes in Japan, Dr. Masayo Takahashi’s treatment protocol for AMD has received no small amount of scrutiny. After a brief hiatus, the trial was back on track earlier this year and Takahashi’s presentation at this meeting was highly anticipated.

Dr. Masayo Takahashi

Dr. Masayo Takahashi

It did not disappoint. Takahashi spent the better part of her time outlining the steps taken to reach the point where the clinical trial was possible, including multiple studies in mice and further refinement of the treatment to ensure it would be stable in humans even with genetic changes over time. Given that one of the reasons the trial was put on hold was due to genetic mutations found in the cells prepared for the second potential human transplant, Takahashi’s careful work in ensuring the product was safe bodes well for the future of this trial.

The first patient was treated in 2014, a 78-year-old woman with wet AMD in the right eye, and although only minimal visual improvement was documented, the patient anonymously told the Japan Times, “I’m glad I received the treatment. I feel my eyesight has brightened and widened.”

Takahashi also alluded to some of the other challenges she’d had to overcome to make this trial a reality, including would-be critics who told her that the nervous system and the retina were too complicated to regenerate. Takahashi’s response? “You don’t know stem cells [and] you don’t understand the needs of the patient.”

While it was unclear when the next patient will receive treatment, Takahashi did say that three new applications for clinical trials using her refined protocols have been submitted for approval.

Septic shock  

Septic shock is not a condition that gets a lot of attention, most likely because it’s not a primary illness, but a secondary one; a drastic and often fatal immune response that severely reduces blood pressure and cell metabolism. It accounts for 20% of all intensive care unit (ICU) admissions and is the most common cause of non-coronary mortality in the ICU. For those who survive septic shock, there are significant and long-term health consequences.

Over 100 clinical trials have attempted to improve outcomes for patients with septic shock, but not one has been successfully translated into the clinical setting. Supportive care remains the mainstay of therapy.

Dr. Lauralyn McIntyre

Dr. Lauralyn McIntyre

This was the sober backdrop painted by critical care physician, Dr. Lauralyn McIntyre as she began her talk on the world’s first stem cell clinical trial for septic shock she is co-leading in Ottawa with Dr. Duncan Stewart.

Like Takahashi, McIntyre spent a good deal of time explaining the rationale and research that underpin the trial, which takes advantage of the immune-modulating properties of mesenchymal stromal cells (also called mesenchymal stem cells or MSCs) to suppress and reverse the effects of septic shock. This work includes reviews of more than 50 studies that looked at the effects of MSCs in both human trials and animal studies.

McIntyre also discussed research she did with mice in 2010 as a proof-of-concept, where the MSC therapy was delayed for six days. This delay is important as it better simulates the time frame in which most patients arrive in the hospital. As McIntryre pointed out, if the therapy only worked when given within hours of disease development, what good would it be for patients who come in on day six?

Fortunately, the therapy worked in the mice, even after a delayed timeframe, providing a green light for safety testing in humans. The small first human trial is currently underway for nine patients (with a control arm of 21) with results not yet published – although one of the patients shared his experience earlier this year. McIntyre relayed that the early data is very encouraging – enough that the team is moving ahead with a Phase 2 randomized trial in 10 centres across Canada in 2017.

Stiff Person Syndrome

Tina Ceroni’s story is much more personal. She is only the second person in the world to have received an experimental stem cell treatment for Stiff Person Syndrome, a rare neurologic condition that causes uncontrolled and sustained contractions of the arm, leg or other muscles. Often misdiagnosed initially as Multiple Sclerosis or anxiety/depression, SPS is also an autoimmune disease for which the cause is unknown.

Tina Ceroni

Tina Ceroni (The Ottawa Hospital)

I’ve written about Tina’s story before – about how she was hospitalized 47 times in one year and how a chance meeting with another SPS patient propelled Ceroni on a journey that included an intensive stem cell therapy under the guidance of Dr. Harry Atkins at the Ottawa Hospital, in which her blood stem cells were harvested from her bone marrow and used to repopulate her system after her immune system was wiped clean with chemotherapy.

Now a stem cell advocate, Ceroni’s story keeps getting better – not merely in how powerfully and passionately she tells it, but in the continued good health she enjoys after her treatment and in her efforts to share it more broadly.

Most importantly, she drives home a key message:

“My story underscores the importance of clinical trials…. My experience will help to change the future for others. I am living proof that a clinical trial for stem cell therapy can have a life-changing outcome.”

“Often hope is the only medicine we have.”

It’s important that patients like Ceroni continue share their story, not just with the research community to give a human face to the work they do, but to show that solid research is making an impact, one that can be measured in lives saved.


Lisa Willemse

Lisa Willemse

This article is published simultaneously, with permission by the author, Lisa Willemse, on the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine (OIRM) Expression blog.

Seeing is believing: how some scientists – including two funded by CIRM – are working to help the blind see

retinitis pigmentosas_1

How retinitis pigmentosa destroys vision – new stem cell research may help reverse that

“A pale hue”. For most of us that is a simple description, an observation about color. For Kristin Macdonald it’s a glimpse of the future. In some ways it’s a miracle. Kristin lost her sight to retinitis pigmentosa (RP). For many years she was virtually blind. But now, thanks to a clinical trial funded by CIRM she is starting to see again.

Kristin’s story is one of several examples of restoring sight in an article entitled “Why There’s New Hope About Ending Blindness” in the latest issue of National Geographic.  The article explores different approaches to treating people who were either born without vision or lost their vision due to disease or injury.

Two of those stories feature research that CIRM has funded. One is the work that is helping Kristin. Retinitis pigmentosa is a relatively rare condition that destroys the photoreceptors at the back of the eye, the cells that actually allow us to sense light. The National Geographic piece highlights how a research team at the University of California, Irvine, led by Dr. Henry Klassen, has been working on a way to use stem cells to replace and repair the cells damaged by RP.

“Klassen has spent 30 years studying how to coax progenitor cells—former stem cells that have begun to move toward being specific cell types—into replacing or rehabilitating failed retinal cells. Having successfully used retinal progenitor cells to improve vision in mice, rats, cats, dogs, and pigs, he’s testing a similar treatment in people with advanced retinitis pigmentosa.”

We recently blogged about this work and the fact that this team just passed it’s first major milestone – – showing that in the first nine patients treated none experienced any serious side effects. A Phase 1 clinical trial like this is designed to test for safety, so it usually involves the use of relatively small numbers of cells. The fact that some of those treated, like Kristin, are showing signs of improvement in their vision is quite encouraging. We will be following this work very closely and reporting new results as soon as they are available.

The other CIRM-supported research featured in the article is led by what the writer calls “an eyeball dream team” featuring University of Southern California’s Dr. Mark Humayun, described as “a courteous, efficient, impeccably besuited man.” And it’s true, he is.

The team is developing a stem cell device to help treat age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss in the US.

“He and his fellow principal investigator, University of California, Santa Barbara stem cell biologist Dennis Clegg, call it simply a patch. That patch’s chassis, made of the same stuff used to coat wiring for pacemakers and neural implants, is wafer thin, bottle shaped, and the size of a fat grain of rice. Onto this speck Clegg distributes 120,000 cells derived from embryonic stem cells.”

Humayun and Clegg have just started their clinical trial with this work so it is likely going to be some time before we have any results.

These are just two of the many different approaches, using several different methods, to address vision loss. The article is a fascinating read, giving you a sense of how science is transforming people’s lives. It’s also wonderfully written by David Dobbs, including observations like this:

“Neuroscientists love the eye because “it’s the only place you see the brain without drilling a hole,” as one put it to me.”

For a vision of the future, a future that could mean restoring vision to those who have lost it, it’s a terrific read.