Brave new world or dark threatening future: a clear-eyed look at genome editing and what it means for humanity

Frankenstein

   Is this the face of the future?

“Have you ever wished that there were something different about yourself? Maybe you imagined yourself taller, thinner or stronger? Smarter? More attractive? Healthier?”

That’s the question posed by UC Davis stem cell researcher (and CIRM grantee) Paul Knoepfler at the start of his intriguing new book ‘GMO Sapiens: The Life-Changing Science of Designer Babies’.

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You can find GMO Sapiens on Amazon.com

The book is a fascinating, and highly readable, and takes a unique look at the dramatic advances in technology that allow us to edit the human genome in ways that could allow us to do more than just create “designer babies”, it could ultimately help us change the definition of what it means to be human.

Paul begins by looking at the temptation to use technologies like CRISPR (we have blogged about this here), to genetically edit or alter human embryos so that the resulting child is enhanced in some ways. It could be that the editing is used to remove a genetic mutation that could cause a deadly disease (such as the BRCA1 gene that puts women at increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer) or it could be that the technique is used to give a baby blue eyes, to make it taller, more athletic, or to simply eliminate male pattern baldness later in life.

Paul says those latter examples are not as ridiculous as they sound:

Paul Knoepfler

Paul Knoepfler

“If you think these ideas sound far-fetched, consider that Americans alone spend tens of billions of dollars each year on plastic surgery procedures and creams to try to achieve these kinds of goals. Some of the time elective cosmetic surgery is done on children. In the future, we might have “cosmetic genetic surgeons” who do “surgery” on our family’s genes for cosmetic reasons. In other countries the sensibilities and cultural expectations could lead to other kinds of genetic modifications of humans for “enhancements”.

While the technology that enables us to do this is new, the ideas behind why we would want to do this are far from new. Paul delves into those ideas including a look at the growth of the eugenics movement in the late 19th and early 20th century advocating the improvement of human genetic traits through higher reproductive rates for people considered “superior”. And there was a darker side to the movement:

“Indiana had instituted the first law for sterilization of “inferior” people in the world in 1907. Astonishingly this state law and then similar laws (the original was revoked, but a new law was passed later) stayed on the books in that state until 1974.

This led to approximately 2,500 governmentally forced sterilizations. The poor, uneducated, people of color, Native Americans, and people with disabilities were disproportionately targeted.”

Paul explores the ethical and moral implications of changing our genetic code, changes that can then be passed on to future generations. While he understands the desire to use these technologies to create positive changes, he is also very clear in his concerns that we don’t yet have enough knowledge to be able to use them in a safe manner.

“CRISPR can literally re-write the genomic book inside of us. However, it remains unknown how often it might go to the wrong page or paragraph, so to speak, or stay on the right page, but make an undesired edit there.”

Tiny errors in editing the genome, particularly at such an early stage in an embryo’s development, could have profound and unintended consequences years down the road, resulting in physical or developmental problems we can’t anticipate or predict. For example, you might remove the susceptibility to one disease only to create an even larger problem, one that is now embedded in that person’s DNA and ready to be passed on to subsequent generations.

The book includes interviews with key figures in the field – scientists, bioethicists etc. – and covers a wide range of views of what we should do. For example, the Director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), Francis Collins, said that designer babies “make good Hollywood — and bad science,” while the Center for Genetics and Society has advocated for a moratorium on human genetic modification in the US.

In contrast, scientists such as Harvard professor George Church and CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley, say we need to carefully explore how to harness the potential for these technologies.

For Church it is a matter of choice:

“The new technology enables parents to make choices about their children just as they might with Ritalin or cleft palate surgery to ‘improve’ behavior or appearance.”

For Doudna it’s acknowledging the fact that you can’t put the genie back in the bottle:

“There’s no way to unlearn what is learned. We can’t put this technology to bed. If a person has basic knowledge of molecular biology they can do it. It’s not realistic to think we can block it…We want to put out there the information that people would need to make an informed decision, to encourage appropriate research and discourage forging ahead with clinical applications that could be dangerous or raise ethical issues.”

The power of Paul’s book is that while it does not offer any easy answers, it does raise many important questions.

It’s a wonderfully well-written book that anyone can read, even someone like me who doesn’t have a science background. He does a good job of leading the reader through the development of these technologies (from the basic idea of genetically altering plants to make them disease resistant) to the portrayal of these concepts in literature (Frankenstein and Brave New World) to movies (Gattaca – 4 stars on Rotten Tomatoes  a great film if you haven’t already seen it).

It’s clear where Paul stands on the issue; he believes there should be a moratorium on human genetic modification until we have a much deeper understanding of the science behind it, and the ethics and morality underpinning it:

“This is a very exciting time to be alive and we should be open to embracing change, but not blindly or in a rush. Armed with information and passion, we can have a major, positive impact on how this biotech revolution unfolds and impacts humanity.”

By the way, Paul also has one of the most widely read blogs about stem cells, where you can read more about his thoughts on CRISPR and other topics.

 

Patient Advocates find their voice in a different language

Japan conference

Packed house for stem cell conference in Tokyo – Adrienne Shapiro front row, second from right

One of the many wonderful things about travel is that it opens up your eyes and mind to the fact that, while there are many ways in which people around the world differ from each other, there are also many ways we are all essentially the same.

I was in Japan last week attending the Symposium of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Therapy. The organizers wanted to do something that hadn’t really been done in Japan before, namely engaging Patient Advocates in supporting and advancing stem cell research. They wanted the researchers at the conference to better understand how to connect with patient communities, and the benefits those connections can produce.

Adrienne’s story

To help explain the role of the Patient Advocate they invited me, to talk about our experience at CIRM, and Adrienne Shapiro, from Los Angeles, to come and talk about her experience as a champion of stem cell research for sickle cell disease. Because sickle cell disease affects less than 100,000 people in the US it is classified as a rare disease here. But the numbers affected in Japan are much, much lower so it is considered a really rare disease there. Yet none of that mattered. When Adrienne told her story, the numbers and differences melted away, and what was left was our shared humanity.

Adrienne told the audience that no one chooses to be a Patient Advocate, that it is a role thrust on you by life, by a threat to your health or the health of someone you love. Adrienne explained that she is the fourth generation of women in her family to have a child with sickle cell disease and that she hadn’t been concerned she might pass the trait on to her daughter because a test had shown that her husband didn’t have the genetic mutation that causes sickle cell (to develop the disease an individual has to inherit the genetic mutation from both parents).

But the test was wrong. At nine months Adrienne’s daughter was diagnosed as having sickle cell disease. That’s when Adrienne started fighting. Her first act was to get hospitals to start using a more expensive, but more accurate test to detect if someone carries the genetic trait. She didn’t want anyone else to have their life shaken by a false test result. She won that fight, and hasn’t stopped fighting since.

Japan brochure

Conference brochure

Working together

Adrienne told the audience that patients and researchers need to be partners, because they have shared goals. They both want to see a new treatment, even a cure, for a wide range of deadly diseases. They both want adequate funding for the research. They both want to see the research advance as rapidly as possible.

She explained that patients are not just the recipients of treatments developed in the lab, that they are also people whose lives have been profoundly changed by disease, so they are willing to do everything they can to help the researchers trying to find treatments for their problem.

She talked about Axis Advocacy, the grass-roots organization she helped co-found, and how groups like this can help researchers by educating and raising awareness among the general public about the importance of stem cell research and the need to support it. She talked about the ability of Patient Advocates to do fund raising, or political lobbying, or helping the research team design a patient-friendly clinical trial – one more likely to succeed in recruiting and retaining the patients the trial needs to produce meaningful results, something that is often a real challenge with a rare disease where there are limited numbers of patients to start with.

 

Japan interview

Adrienne and I being interviewed by a reporter with Japan’s Nikkei News

Preaching the power of the Patient Advocates

I talked to the audience of 500 – a full house to the delight of the organizers – about the role of Patient Advocates at CIRM. I explained how Patient Advocates were instrumental in passing Proposition 71, creating the stem cell institute, and now help shape everything we do from the policies we adopt to the projects we fund and even the way we help researchers design patient-friendly clinical trials. I also talked about our work with Patient Advocates to help us speed up the way the FDA works, to make it easier and faster, but no less safe, to get the most promising stem cell therapies to those in need.

But it was Adrienne’s talk about her personal experience that really captivated the audience. The Japanese researchers seemed genuinely interested in learning more about the power of Patient Advocates to help them in their work. For some in the audience this may have been the first time they had heard from a Patient Advocate, the first time they had considered the advantages in partnering with them.

If Adrienne has anything to do with it, it won’t be the last.

Speaking of the power of the Patient Advocate’s voice, Axis Advocacy just launched its new podcast, appropriately enough it’s called The Power of Voices.

How do you know what patients want if you never even ask them?

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Our mission at CIRM is to accelerate stem treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. But what if those needs are not just unmet, they’re also unknown? What happens when those developing treatments never even bother to ask those they are trying to help if this is what they really need, or want?

The question came up during a panel discussion at a meeting of the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network in San Diego earlier this month. David Higgins, a CIRM Board member and a Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s disease, highlighted the problem saying that if you ask most people what they think is the biggest problem for Parkinson’s sufferers, they would probably say the movement disorders such as tremors and muscle rigidity. But David said that if you ask people who have Parkinson’s what their biggest problems are, then movement disorder probably wouldn’t even come in the top five concerns that they really have.

David listed insomnia, severe fatigue, anxiety, and depression as far more pressing and important:

“Researchers study what they know and they look to solve the things they think they can solve, and it is sometimes very different than the things that patients would like them to solve to ease their concerns.”

That sparked a fascinating discussion about the gap between what researchers and scientists sometimes think they should be doing, the kinds of treatments they should be trying to develop, and what the people who have those conditions really want.

David Parry, who is with GlaxoSmithKline and worked in drug development and discovery for most of his career, said:

“If I told you how many times I sat in meetings with my medical discovery group and talked about what our targets should be then we’d be here all night. We focus on what we know, what we think we can fix and what will work, when maybe we need to be more mindful of what could really make a difference in the life of patients.”

Alpha clinic panelAlpha Stem Cell Clinics Network panel discussion: Left David Higgins, David Parry, Catriona Jamieson, John Zaia, John Adams

Clearly there is a gap between what we think we can fix and what we should try and fix, and the best way to close that gap is to have a conversation.

Patients and Patient Advocates need to speak up and tell researchers what their main concerns and problems are, to help the scientists understand that while they would dearly love something that saves their life, they would also appreciate something that helps improve the quality of their lives.

Researchers too need to take a step back and not just get caught up in the search for an answer to a scientific or medical puzzle, without first asking “is this a puzzle that people want solved?”

At CIRM we work hard to make sure the voices of the patients and Patient Advocates are heard at every level of the work we do; from deciding what to fund to how to design a clinical trial involving our funding. But clearly it’s important that those voices be heard at a much earlier stage, to help shape the direction the research takes long before it comes to us for funding.

Breaking down barriers

For too long there has been a communications barrier between researchers and patients. This is not something that was deliberately constructed, it is something that simply evolved over time. Now it’s time to break down that barrier, and make sure both groups are talking to each other.

When it comes to developing treatments for deadly diseases and disorders, patients and researchers should think of themselves as partners. Researchers put their minds to work developing these treatments. Patients put their bodies on the line testing them.

Without the research there is no hope. Without the patients there is no proof. So, let’s start talking to each other.

If you have any thoughts or suggestions on how we can get this conversation started we would love to hear from you.

Patients beware: warnings about shady clinics and suspect treatments

stem-cells therapy?

Every day we get a call from someone seeking help. Some are battling a life-threatening or life-changing disease. Others call on behalf of a friend or loved one. All are looking for the same thing; a treatment, better still a cure, to ease their suffering.

Almost every day we have to tell them the same thing; that the science is advancing but it’s not there yet. You can almost feel the disappointment, the sense of despair, on the other end of the line.

If it’s hard for us to share that news, imagine how much harder it is for them to hear it. Usually by the time they call us they have exhausted all the conventional therapies. In some cases they are not just running out of options, they are also running out of time.

Chasing hope

Sometimes people mention that they went to the website of a clinic that was offering treatments for their condition, claiming they had successfully treated people with that disease or disorder. This week I had three people mention the same clinic, here in the US, that was offering them “treatments” for multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injury and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Three very different problems, but the same approach was used for each one.

It’s easy to see why people would be persuaded that clinics like this could help them. Their websites are slick and well produced. They promise to take excellent care of patients, often helping take care of travel plans and accommodation.

There’s just one problem. They never offer any scientific evidence on their website that the treatments they offer work. They have testimonials, quotes from happy, satisfied patients, but no clinical studies, no results from FDA-approved clinical trials. In fact, if you explore their sites you’ll usually find an FAQ section that says something to the effect of they are “not offering stem cell therapy as a cure for any condition, disease, or injury. No statements or implied treatments on this website have been evaluated or approved by the FDA. This website contains no medical advice.”

What a damning but revealing phrase that is.

Now, it may be that the therapies they are offering won’t physically endanger patients – though without a clinical trial it’s impossible to know that – but they can harm in other ways. Financially it can make a huge dent in someone’s wallet with many treatments costing $10,000 or more. And there is also the emotional impact of giving someone false hope, knowing that there was little, if any, chance the treatment would work.

Shining a light in shady areas

U.C. Davis stem cell researcher, CIRM grantee, and avid blogger Paul Knoepfler, highlighted this in a recent post for his blog “The Niche” when he wrote:

Paul Knoepfler

Paul Knoepfler

“Patients are increasingly being used as guinea pigs in the stem cell for-profit clinic world via what I call stem cell shot-in-the-dark procedures. The clinics have no logical basis for claiming that these treatments work and are safe.

As the number of stem cell clinics continues to grow in the US and more physicians add on unproven stem cell injections into their practices as a la carte options, far more patients are being subjected to risky, even reckless physician conduct.”

As if to prove how real the problem is, within hours of posting that blog Paul posted another one, this time highlighting how the FDA had sent a Warning Letter to the Irvine Stem Cell Treatment Center saying it had serious concerns about the way it operates and the treatments it offers.

Paul has written about these practices many times in the past, sometimes incurring the wrath of the clinic owners (and very pointed letters from their lawyers). It’s to his credit that he refuses to be intimidated and keeps highlighting the potential risks that unapproved therapies pose to patients.

Making progress

As stem cell science advances we are now able to tell some patients that yes, there are promising therapies, based on good scientific research, that are being tested in clinical trials.

There are not as many as we would like and none have yet been approved by the FDA for wider use. But those will come in time.

For now we have to continue to work hard to raise awareness about the need for solid scientific evidence before more people risk undergoing an unproven stem cell therapy.

And we have to continue taking calls from people desperate for help, and tell them they have to be patient, just a little longer.

***

If you are considering a stem cell treatment, the International Society for Stem Cell Research had a terrific online resource, A Closer Look at Stem Cells. In particular, check out the Nine Things to Know about Stem Cell Treatments page.

 

A meeting of minds: breaking down communication barriers between patients and doctors

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One of the things that has always surprised me about stem cell research, or any scientific research, is that so often the people with most at stake never meet. Researchers spend most of their time in the lab trying to develop new treatments so they don’t often get to meet the people who are depending on them to save or improve their lives, the patients.

To try and change that dynamic two Canadian medical groups recently brought together a mixture of researchers, health care professionals, patients and patient advocates to find ways to improve communications between these groups. The hope was that with better communication and better information they would collectively be able to make better decisions about how to manage patient health.

Communication barriers

Lisa Willemse, a writer who has worked with CIRM on some of our projects in the past, wrote a wonderful piece about the meeting for the online magazine Medium. In it she explores some of the areas that create communication barriers between these groups and how those barriers can be overcome.

The problems caused by these barriers are not trivial. They can result in patients not knowing about potentially life-saving clinical trials in the US, or turning to unproven, experimental therapies offered at overseas clinics. (Here’s a document that addresses some of those issues)

Lisa quotes one patient as saying:

“I didn’t know what I didn’t know! I had filled out an application online was accepted to a stem cell clinic in Panama. The cost per treatment was $21,000 and I didn’t know what questions to ask!”

Finding solutions

Happily the meeting came up with some thoughtful, really positive suggestions on ways to overcome these barriers. These include:

  • Ensuring specialists and other health care practitioners are kept up-to-date with clinical trial information, since these are where they turn first for advice.
  • Providing more support for patients from health care providers. They should not be expected to have all the answers but should at least be able to advise on informed consent and provide credible resources.
  • Developing improved ways to search for relevant clinical trials.
  • Creating basic explainers on clinical trials for patients to help them determine eligibility and understand protocol.

There were also suggestions on how researchers can do a better job of communicating with non-scientists, such as using jargon-free language to answer questions and providing a list of questions people should ask when considering any stem cell therapy. Here’s an infographic we put together on that topic.

Lessons learned

This meeting is a great example of the power and importance of bringing together these different groups, all of whom have shared interests and goals. It starts with a conversation that begins to break down barriers. Hopefully it gives doctors ideas on how they can better equip patients to make informed decisions about clinical trials; by meeting patients it helps researchers put a human face on the work they are doing; and hopefully it gives patients a sense that their voices are being heard, and their needs addressed.

This was one relatively small meeting in Canada but the lessons learned apply to every state, and every country and could point the way to creating a more responsive health care system that better meets the needs of all those involved.

 

Meet the proteins that tell stem cells where to move and how

 

Protein word art

Word cloud art work which shows all the proteins identified by the researchers

The environment you grow up in can have a huge influence on how you turn out. That applies to people, and to stem cells too. Now a new study has identified 60 proteins that can have a big impact on how cells react to the world around them, and how they communicate with each other.

Just as it is easier for us to move across firm ground than it is to slosh our way through a soggy, muddy field, it’s easier for stem cells to move smoothly and quickly over a solid surface than over a soft, giving surface. This is particularly true for tumor cells, which move much faster on a hard surface than any other kind.

It’s not just speed that is affected by the kind of surface you place stem cells on. For example certain stem cells placed on a hard surface will specialize and turn into bone, whereas if you place those same cells on a very soft surface they will turn into nerve cells.

The problem is we didn’t know much about why that was the case, we didn’t understand the mechanism at play that caused those cells to behave that way.

Now we do.

A team at the University of Manchester in England tackled this problem by researching integrins; these are receptors that are responsible for cell-to-cell communication, cell growth and function. Integrins are typically found at the surfaces and edges of cells and provide proteins with a convenient place to hang out when they interact with the world around them.

The researchers looked at 2400 examples of these integrin-protein clusters and, using mass spectrometry, narrowed their search down to 60 proteins that they identified as being essential in linking information from the integrins to the rest of the cellular world.

The work was published in Nature Cell Biology. In an accompanying news release Dr. Jon Humphries, one of the lead researchers, talked about the significance of the work:

“Understanding how cells sense their environment is an important step in understanding how, for example, cancer cells move or how stem cells take on different jobs.”

His colleague, Professor Martin Humphries, says understanding how cells sense where they are and how to behave gives us new insights into how we can use that knowledge to better control their movement:

“Our findings on how cells sense their environment have unlocked an important key to understanding how we can persuade cells to form different tissues and how we might stop cell movement in diseases such as cancer.”

 

 

Stem cells could offer hope for deadly childhood muscle wasting disease

Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) is a particularly nasty rare and fatal disease. It predominantly affects boys, slowly robbing them of their ability to control their muscles. By 10 years of age, boys with DMD start to lose the ability to walk; by 12, most need a wheelchair to get around. Eventually they become paralyzed, and need round-the-clock care.

There are no effective long-term treatments and the average life expectancy is just 25.

Crucial discovery

Duchenne MD team

DMD Research team: Photo courtesy Ottawa Hospital Research Inst.

But now researchers in Canada have made a discovery that could pave the way to new approaches to treating DMD. In a study published in the journal Nature Medicine, they show that DMD is caused by defective muscle stem cells.

In a news release Dr. Michael Rudnicki, senior author of the study, says this discovery is completely changing the way they think about the condition:

“For nearly 20 years, we’ve thought that the muscle weakness observed in patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy is primarily due to problems in their muscle fibers, but our research shows that it is also due to intrinsic defects in the function of their muscle stem cells. This completely changes our understanding of Duchenne muscular dystrophy and could eventually lead to far more effective treatments.”

Loss and confused

DMD is caused by a genetic mutation that results in the loss of a protein called dystrophin. Rudnicki and his team found that without dystrophin muscle stem cells – which are responsible for repairing damage after injury – produce far fewer functional muscle fibers. The cells are also confused about where they are:

“Muscle stem cells that lack dystrophin cannot tell which way is up and which way is down. This is crucial because muscle stem cells need to sense their environment to decide whether to produce more stem cells or to form new muscle fibers. Without this information, muscle stem cells cannot divide properly and cannot properly repair damaged muscle.”

While the work was done in mice the researchers are confident it will also apply to humans, as the missing protein is almost identical in all animals.

Next steps

The researchers are already looking for ways they can use this discovery to develop new treatments for DMD, hopefully one day turning it from a fatal condition, to a chronic one.

Dr. Ronald Worton, the co-discoverer of the DMD gene in 1987, says this discovery has been a long-time coming but is both welcome and exciting:

“When we discovered the gene for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, there was great hope that we would be able to develop a new treatment fairly quickly. This has been much more difficult than we initially thought, but Dr. Rudnicki’s research is a major breakthrough that should renew hope for researchers, patients and families.”

In this video CIRM grantee, Dr. Helen Blau from Stanford University, talks about a new mouse model created by her lab that more accurately mimics the Duchenne symptoms observed in people. This opens up opportunities to better understand the disease and to develop new therapies.

 

 

 

 

 

Bridging the gap: training scientists to speak everyday English

Getting a start in your chosen career is never easy. Without experience it’s hard to get a job. And without a job you can’t get experience. That’s why the CIRM Bridges program was created, to help give undergraduate and Master’s level students a chance to get the experience they need to start a career in stem cell research.

Last week our governing Board approved a new round of funding for this program, ensuring it will continue for another 5 years.

But we are not looking to train just any student; we are looking to recruit and retain students who reflect the diversity of California, students who might not otherwise have a chance to work in a world-class stem cell research facility.

Want to know what that kind of student looks like? What kind of work they do? Well, the Bridges program at City College of San Francisco recently got its latest group of Bridges students to record an “elevator pitch”; that’s a short video where they explain what they do and why it’s important, in language anyone can understand.

They do a great job of talking about their research in a way that’s engaging and informative; no easy matter when you are discussing things as complex as using stem cells to test whether everyday chemicals can have a toxic impact on the developing brain, or finding ways to turn off the chromosome that causes Down’s syndrome.

Regular readers of the CIRM blog know we are huge supporters of anything that encourages scientists to be better communicators. We feel that anyone who gets public funding for their work has an obligation to be able to explain that work in words the public can understand. This is not just about being responsive, there’s also a certain amount of self-interest here. The better the public understands the work that scientists do, and how that might impact their health, the more they’ll support that work.

That’s why one of the new elements we have added to the Bridges program is a requirement for the students to engage in community outreach and education. We want them to be actively involved in educating diverse communities around California about the importance of stem cell research and the potential benefits for everyone.

We have also added a requirement for the students to be directly engaged with patients. Too often in the past students studied solely in the lab, learning the skills they’ll need for a career in science. But we want them to also understand whom these skills will ultimately benefit; people battling deadly diseases and disorders. The best way to do that is for the students to meet these people face-to-face, at a bone marrow drive or at a health fair for example.

When you have seen the face of someone in need, when you know their story, you are more motivated to find a way to help them. The research, even if it is at a basic level, is no longer about an abstract idea, it’s about someone you know, someone you have met.

Improving process drives progress in stem cell research

shutterstock_212888935Process is not a sexy word. No one gets excited thinking about improving a process. Yet behind every great idea, behind every truly effective program is someone who figured out a way to improve the process, to make that idea not just work, but work better.

It’s not glamorous. Sometimes it’s not even pretty. But it is essential.

Yesterday in Oakland our governing Board approved two new concepts to improve our process, to help us fund research in a way that is faster, smarter and ultimately helps us better meet our mission of accelerating the development of stem cell therapies for patients with unmet medical needs.

The new concepts are for Discovery – the earliest stage of research – and the Translational phase, a critical step in moving promising therapies out of the lab and toward clinical trials where they can be tested in people.

In a news release C. Randal Mills, Ph.D., CIRM’s President and CEO, said that these additions built on the work started when the agency launched CIRM 2.0 in January for the clinical phase of research:

“What makes this approach different is that under CIRM 2.0 we are creating a pathway for research, from Discovery to Translational and Clinical, so that if a scientist is successful with their research at one level they are able to move that ahead into the next phase. We are not interested in research just for its own sake. We are interested in research that is going to help us help patients.”

In the Discovery program, for example, we will now be able to offer financial incentives to encourage researchers who successfully complete their work to move it along into the Translational phase – either themselves or by finding a scientific partner willing to take it up and move it forward.

This does a number of things. First it helps create a pipeline for the most promising projects so ideas that in the past might have stopped once the initial study ended now have a chance to move forward. Obviously our hope is that this forward movement will ultimately lead to a clinical trial. That won’t happen with every research program we fund but this approach will certainly increase the possibility that it might.

There’s another advantage too. By scheduling the Discovery and Translational awards more regularly we are creating a grant system that has more predictability, making it easier for researchers to know when they can apply for funding.

We estimate that each year there will be up to 50 Discovery awards worth a total of $53 million; 12 Translation awards worth a total of $40 million; and 12 clinical awards worth around $100 million. That’s a total of more than $190 million every year for research.

This has an important advantage for the stem cell agency too. We have close to $1 billion left in the bank so we want to make sure we spend it as wisely as we can.

As Jonathan Thomas, Ph.D. J.D, the Chair of our Board, said, having this kind of plan helps us better plan our financial future;

“Knowing how often these programs are going to be offered, and how much money is likely to be awarded means the Board has more information to work with in making decisions on where best to allocate our funding.”

The Board also renewed funding for both the Bridges and SPARK (formerly Creativity) programs. These are educational and training programs aimed at developing the next generation of stem cell scientists. The Bridges students are undergraduate or Master’s level students. The SPARK students are all still in high school. Many in both groups come from poor or low-income communities. This program gives them a chance to work in a world-class stem cell research facility and to think about a career in science, something that for many might have been unthinkable without Bridges or SPARK.

Process isn’t pretty. But for the students who can now think about becoming a scientist, for the researchers who can plan new studies, and for the patients who can now envision a potential therapy getting into clinical trials, that process can make all the difference.

New tech tool speeds up stem cell research

It’s hard to do a good job if you don’t have the right tools. Now researchers have access to a great new tool that could really help them accelerate their work, a tool its developers say “will revolutionize the way cell biologists develop” stem cell models to test in the lab.

Fluidigm's Castillo system

Fluidigm’s Callisto system

The device is called Callisto™. It was created by Fluidigm thanks to two grants from CIRM. The goal was to develop a device that would allow researchers more control and precision in the ways that they could turn stem cells into different kinds of cell. This is often a long, labor-intensive process requiring round-the-clock maintenance of the cells to get them to make the desired transformation.

Callisto changes that. The device has 32 chambers, giving researchers more control over the conditions that cells are stored in, even allowing them to create different environmental conditions for different groups of cells. All with much less human intervention.

Lila Collins, Ph.D., the CIRM Science Officer who has worked closely with Fluidigm on this project over the years, says this system has some big advantages over the past:

“Creating the optimal conditions for reprogramming, stem cell culture and stem cells has historically been a tedious and manually laborious task. This system allows a user to more efficiently test a variety of cellular stimuli at various times without having to stay tied to the bench. Once the chip is set up in the instrument, the user can go off and do other things.”

Having a machine that is faster and easier to use is not the only advantage Callisto offers, it also gives researchers the ability to systematically and simultaneously test different combinations of factors, to see which ones are most effective at changing stem cells into different kinds of cell. And once they know which combinations work best they can use Callisto to reproduce them time after time. That consistency means researchers in different parts of the world can create cells under exactly the same conditions, so that results from one study will more readily support and reflect results from another.

In a news release about Callisto,  Fluidigm’s President and CEO Gajus Worthington, says this could be tremendously useful in developing new therapies:

“Fluidigm aims to enable important research that would otherwise be impractical. The Callisto system incorporates some of our finest microfluidic technology to date, and will allow researchers to quickly and easily create complex cell culture environments. This in turn can help reveal how stems cells make fate decisions. Callisto makes challenging applications, such as cellular reprogramming and analysis, more accessible to a wide range of scientists. We believe this will move biological discovery forward significantly.”

And as Collins points out, Callisto doesn’t just do this on a bulk level, working with millions of cells at a time, the way the current methods do:

“Using a bulk method it’s possible that one might miss an important event in the mixture. The technology in this system allows the user to stimulate and study individual cells. In this way, one could measure changes in small sub-populations and find ways to increase or decrease them.”

Having the right tools doesn’t always mean you are going to succeed, but it certainly makes it a lot easier.