How stem cells helped Veronica fight retinitis pigmentosa and regain her vision

Veronica and Elliott

Growing up Veronica McDougall thought everyone saw the world the way she did; blurry, slightly out-of-focus and with tunnel vision.  As she got older her sight got worse and even the strongest prescription glasses didn’t help. When she was 15 her brother tried teaching her to drive. One night she got into the driver’s seat to practice and told him she couldn’t see anything. Everything was just black. After that she stopped driving.   

Veronica says high school was really hard for her, but she managed to graduate and go to community college. As her vision deteriorated, she found it was increasingly hard to read the course work and impossible to see the assignments on the blackboard. Veronica says she was lucky to have some really supportive teachers — including the now First Lady Jill Biden — but eventually she had to drop out.  

Getting a diagnosis

When she was 24, she went to see a specialist who told her she had retinitis pigmentosa, a rare degenerative condition that would eventually leave her legally blind. She says it felt like a death sentence. “All of my dreams of becoming a nurse, of getting married, of having children, of traveling – it all just shattered in that moment.” 

Veronica says she went from being a happy, positive person to an angry depressed one. She woke up each morning terrified, wondering, “Is this the day I go blind?” 

Then her mother learned about a CIRM-funded clinical trial with a company called jCyte. Veronica applied to be part of it, was accepted and was given an injection of stem cells in her left eye. She says over the course of a few weeks, her vision steadily improved. 

“About a month after treatment, I was riding in the car with my mom and suddenly, I realized I could see her out of the corner of my eye while looking straight ahead. That had never, ever happened to me before. Because, I had been losing my peripheral vision at a young age without realizing that until up to that point, I had never had that experience.” 

A second chance at life

She went back to college, threw herself into her studies, started hiking and being more active. She says it was as if she was reborn. But in her senior year, just as she was getting close to finishing her degree, her vision began to deteriorate again. Fortunately, she was able to take part in a second clinical trial, and this time her vision came back stronger than ever. 

“I’m so grateful to the researchers who gave me my sight back with the treatment they have worked their entire lives to develop. I am forever grateful for the two opportunities to even receive these two injections and to be a part of an amazing experience to see again. I feel so blessed! Thank you for giving me my life back.” 

And in getting her life back, Veronica had a chance to give life. When she was at college she met and starting dating Robert, the man who was to become her partner. They now have a little boy, Elliott.  

As for the future, Veronica hopes to get a second stem cell therapy to improve her vision even further. Veronica’s two treatments were in her left eye. She is hoping that the Food and Drug Administration will one day soon approve jCyte’s therapy, so that she can get the treatment in her right eye. Then, she says, she’ll be able to see the world as the rest of us can.  

CIRM has invested more than $150 million in programs targeting vision loss, including four clinical trials for retinitis pigmentosa

Creating a ‘bespoke’ approach to rare diseases

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Up until recently the word “bespoke” meant just one thing to me, a hand-made suit, customized and fitted to you. There’s a street in London, Saville Row, that specializes in these suits. They’re gorgeous. They’re also very expensive and so I thought I’d never have a bespoke anything.

I was wrong. Because CIRM is now part of a bespoke arrangement. It has nothing to do with suits, it’s far more important than that. This bespoke group is aiming to create tailor-made gene therapies for rare diseases.

It’s called the Bespoke Gene Therapy Consortium (BGTC). Before we go any further I should warn you there’s a lot of acronyms heading your way. The BGTC is part of the Accelerating Medicines Partnership® (AMP®) program. This is a public-private partnership between the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and multiple public and private organizations, such as CIRM.

The program is managed by the Foundation for the NIH (FNIH) and it aims to develop platforms and standards that will speed the development and delivery of customized or ‘bespoke’ gene therapies that could treat the millions of people affected by rare diseases.

Why is it necessary? Well, it’s estimated that there are around 7,000 rare diseases and these affect between 25-30 million Americans. Some of these diseases affect only a few hundred, or even a few dozen people. With so few people they almost always struggle to raise the funds needed to do research to find an effective therapy. However, many of these rare diseases are linked to a mutation or defect in a single gene, which means they could potentially be treated by highly customizable, “bespoke” gene therapy approaches.

Right now, individual disease programs tend to try individual approaches to developing a treatment. That’s time consuming and expensive. The newly formed BGTC believes that if we create a standardized approach, we could develop a template that can be widely used to develop bespoke gene therapies quickly, more efficiently and less expensively for a wide array of rare diseases.

“At CIRM we have funded several projects using gene therapy to help treat, and even cure, people with rare diseases such as severe combined immunodeficiency,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, the President and CEO of CIRM. “But even an agency with our resources can only do so much. This agreement with the Bespoke Gene Therapy Consortium will enable us to be part of a bigger partnership, one that can advance the field, overcome obstacles and lead to breakthroughs for many rare diseases.”

With gene therapy the goal is to identify the genetic defect that is causing the disease and then deliver a normal copy of the gene to the right tissues and organs in the body, replacing or correcting the mutation that caused the problem. But what is the best way to deliver that gene? 

The BGTC’s is focusing on using an adeno-associated virus (AAV) as a delivery vehicle. This approach has already proven effective in Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), retinitis pigmentosa (RP), and spinal muscular atrophy. The consortium will test several different approaches using AAV gene therapies starting with basic research and supporting those all the way to clinical trials. The knowledge gained from this collaborative approach, including developing ways to manufacture these AAVs and creating a standard regulatory approach, will help build a template that can then be used for other rare diseases to copy.

As part of the consortium CIRM will identify specific rare disease gene therapy research programs in California that are eligible to be part of the AMP BGTC. CIRM funding can then support the IND-enabling research, manufacturing and clinical trial activities of these programs.

“This knowledge network/consortium model fits in perfectly with our mission of accelerating transformative regenerative medicine treatments to a diverse California and world,” says Dr. Millan. “It is impossible for small, often isolated, groups of patients around the world to fund research that will help them. But pooling our resources, our skills and knowledge with the consortium means the work we support here may ultimately benefit people everywhere.”

Study shows sleep deprivation impairs stem cells in the cornea 

We spend around one third of our life sleeping—or at least we should. Not getting enough sleep can have serious consequences on many aspects of our health and has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. 

A study by the American Sleep Apnea Association found that some 70 percent of Americans report getting too little sleep at least one night a month, and 11 percent report not enough sleep every night. Over time that can take a big toll on your mental and physical health. Now a new study says that impact can also put you at increased risk for eye disease.  

The study published in the journal Stem Cell Reports, looked at how sleep deprivation affects corneal stem cells. These cells are essential in replacing diseased or damaged cells in the cornea, the transparent tissue layer that covers and protects the eye.  

Researchers Wei Li, Zugou Liu and colleagues from Xiamen University, China and Harvard Medical School, USA, found that, in mice short-term sleep deprivation increased the rate at which stem cells in the cornea multiplied. Having too many new cells created vision problems.  

They also found that long-term sleep deprivation had an even bigger impact on the health of the cornea. Sleep-deprived mice had fewer active stem cells and so were not as effective in replacing damaged or dying cells. That in turn led to a thinning of the cornea and a loss of transparency in the remaining cells.  

The cornea— the transparent tissue layer covering the eye—is maintained by stem cells, which divide to replace dying cells and to repair small injuries.

The findings suggest that sleep deprivation negatively affects the stem cells in the cornea, possibly leading to vision impairment in the long run. It’s not clear if these findings also apply to people, but if they do, the implications could be enormous.  

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is also heavily involved in searching for treatments for diseases or conditions that affect vision. We have invested almost $150 million in funding 31 projects on vision loss including a clinical trial with UCLA’s Dr. Sophie Deng targeting the cornea, and other clinical trials for age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. 

Shared with permission from International Society for Stem Cell Research. Read the source release here

Stem cell agency invests in therapy using killer cells to target colorectal, breast and ovarian cancers

While there have been some encouraging advances in treating cancer in recent decades, there are still many cancers that either resist treatment or recur after treatment. Today the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved investing in a therapy targeting some of these hard-to-treat tumors.

BioEclipse Therapeutics Inc. was awarded nearly $8M to test a therapy using immune cells loaded with a cancer-killing virus that targets cancer tissue but spares healthy tissue.

This is the 78th clinical trial funded directly by the Stem Cell Agency.

BioEclipse combines two approaches—an immune cell called a cytokine-induced killer (CIK) cell and a virus engineered to kill cancer cells called an oncolytic virus (OV)—to create what they call “a multi-mechanistic, targeted treatment.”

They will use the patient’s own immune cells and, in the lab, combine them with the OV. The cell/virus combination will then be administered back to the patient. The job of the CIK cells is to carry the virus to the tumors. The virus is designed to specifically attack and kill tumors and stimulate the patient’s immune system to attack the tumor cells. The goal is to eradicate the primary tumor and prevent relapse and recurrence.

“With the intent to develop this treatment for chemotherapy-resistant or refractory solid tumors—including colorectal cancer, triple negative breast cancer, ovarian cancer, gastric cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma, and osteosarcoma—it addresses a significant unmet medical need in fatal conditions for which there are limited treatment options,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, President and CEO of CIRM.  

The CIRM Board also approved more than $18 million in funding four projects under the Translation Projects program. The goal of this program is to support promising regenerative medicine (stem cell-based or gene therapy) projects that accelerate completion of translational stage activities necessary for advancement to clinical study or broad end use.

The awards went to:

ApplicationTitleInstitutionAward Amount
TRAN1-133442Optogenetic therapy for treating retinitis pigmentosa and
other inherited retinal diseases  
  Paul Bresge Ray Therapeutics Inc.  $3,999,553  
TRAN3-13332Living Synthetic Vascular Grafts with Renewable Endothelium    Aijun Wang UC Davis  $3,112,567    
TRAN1-13370Next generation affinity-tuned CAR for prostate cancer    Preet Chaudhary University of Southern California  $5,805,144  
TRAN1-3345Autologous MPO Knock-Out Hematopoietic Stem and
Progenitor Cells for Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension  
  Don Kohn UC Los Angeles  $5,207,434  

Joining the movement to fight rare diseases

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It’s hard to think of something as being rare when it affects up to 30 million Americans and 300 million people worldwide. But the truth is there are more than 6,000 conditions – those affecting 200,000 people or fewer – that are considered rare.  

Today, February 28th, is Rare Disease Day. It’s a day to remind ourselves of the millions of people, and their families, struggling with these diseases. These conditions are also called or orphan diseases because, in many cases, drug companies were not interested in adopting them to develop treatments.

At the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), we have no such reservations. In fact last Friday our governing Board voted to invest almost $12 million to support a clinical trial for IPEX syndrome. IPEX syndrome is a condition where the body can’t control or restrain an immune response, so the person’s immune cells attack their own healthy tissue. This leads to the development of Type 1 diabetes, severe eczema, damage to the small intestines and kidneys and failure to thrive. It’s diagnosed in infancy, most of those affected are boys, and it is often fatal.

Taylor Lookofsky (who has IPEX syndrome) and his father Brian

IPEX is one of two dozen rare diseases that CIRM is funding a clinical trial for. In fact, more than one third of all the projects we fund target a rare disease or condition. Those include:

Some might question the wisdom of investing hundreds of millions of dollars in conditions that affect a relatively small number of patients. But if you see the faces of these patients and get to know their families, as we do, you know that often agencies like CIRM are their only hope.

Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President and CEO, says the benefits of one successful approach can often extend far beyond one rare disease.

“Children with IPEX syndrome clearly represent a group of patients with an unmet medical need, and this therapy could make a huge difference in their lives. Success of this treatment in this rare disease presents far-reaching potential to develop treatments for a larger number of patients with a broad array of immune disorders.”

CIRM is proud to fund and spread awareness of rare diseases and invites you to watch this video about how they affect families around the world.

Identifying the visually impaired patients most likely to benefit from jCyte’s stem cell therapy

We have written about jCyte many times on The Stem Cellar. For one reason, they are showing really encouraging results in their treatment for retinitis pigmentosa (RP). And now they have taken an even deeper dive into those results and identified which patients may be most likely to benefit from the therapy.

RP is a rare genetic disorder that slowly destroys the rods and cones, the light sensing cells in the back of the eye. If you look at the image below the one on the left shows normal vision, the one on the right shows what happens with RP. At first you start to lose night vision, then other parts of your vision are slowly eroded until you are legally blind.

RP starts early, often people are diagnosed in their teens and are legally blind by middle age. There is no treatment, no cure. It’s estimated that as many as 100,000 people in the US have RP, as many as two million worldwide.

That’s where jCyte comes in. They developed jCell, a therapy using adult stem cells that have been changed into human retinal progenitor cells (hRPCs). These are injected into the back of the eye where they secrete small proteins called neurotrophic factors.

Dr. Henry Klassen, one of the founders of jCyte, says jCell works by preserving the remaining photoreceptors in the eye, and helping them bounce back.

“Typically, people think about the disease as a narrowing of this peripheral vision in a very nice granular way, but that’s actually not what happens. What happens in the disease is that patients lose like islands of vision. So, what we’re doing in our tests is actually measuring […] islands that the patients have at baseline, and then what we’re seeing after treatment is that the islands are expanding. It’s similar to the way that one would track, let’s say a tumor, in oncology of course we’re looking for the opposite effect. We’re looking for the islands of vision to expand.”

And in patients treated with jCell those islands of vision did expand. The team followed patients for one-year post treatment and found that patients given the highest dose, six million cells, experienced the biggest improvement and were able to read, on average, 16 more letters on a standard eye chart than they had been before treatment. In comparison people given a sham or placebo treatment only had an improvement of less than two letters.

This group also experienced improvements in their peripheral vision, their ability to distinguish objects in the foreground from the background and were better able to get around in low light.

But that’s not all. Dr. Sunil Srivastava, with the Cleveland Clinic Cole Eye Institute, did a detailed analysis of patients treated in the trial and identified central foveal thickness (CFT- the part of the eye located in the center of the retina) as an important marker for who would be most likely to benefit from jCell. People who started out with a higher CFT score were most likely to get the biggest benefits.

In a news release, jCyte CEO Dr. Shannon Blalock said the findings are really encouraging: “We look forward to working closely with our scientific advisory board and principal investigators to apply these key learnings to our upcoming pivotal study of jCell to optimize its probability of success in an effort to advance the clinical development program of our RMAT designated therapy for RP patients who currently have no treatment options.”

Meet the people who are changing the future

Kristin MacDonald

Every so often you hear a story and your first reaction is “oh, I have to share this with someone, anyone, everyone.” That’s what happened to me the other day.

I was talking with Kristin MacDonald, an amazing woman, a fierce patient advocate and someone who took part in a CIRM-funded clinical trial to treat retinitis pigmentosa (RP). The disease had destroyed Kristin’s vision and she was hoping the therapy, pioneered by jCyte, would help her. Kristin, being a bit of a pioneer herself, was the first person to test the therapy in the U.S.

Anyway, Kristin was doing a Zoom presentation and wanted to look her best so she asked a friend to come over and do her hair and makeup. The woman she asked, was Rosie Barrero, another patient in that RP clinical trial. Not so very long ago Rosie was legally blind. Now, here she was helping do her friend’s hair and makeup. And doing it beautifully too.

That’s when you know the treatment works. At least for Rosie.

There are many other stories to be heard – from patients and patient advocates, from researchers who develop therapies to the doctors who deliver them. – at our CIRM 2020 Grantee Meeting on next Monday September 14th Tuesday & September 15th.

It’s two full days of presentations and discussions on everything from heart disease and cancer, to COVID-19, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and spina bifida. Here’s a link to the Eventbrite page where you can find out more about the event and also register to be part of it.

Like pretty much everything these days it’s a virtual event so you’ll be able to join in from the comfort of your kitchen, living room, even the backyard.

And it’s free!

You can join us for all two days or just one session on one day. The choice is yours. And feel free to tell your friends or anyone else you think might be interested.

We hope to see you there.

Encouraging news for treatment targeting retinitis pigmentosa

While most people probably wouldn’t put 2020 in their list of favorite years, it’s certainly turning out to be a good one for jCyte. Earlier this year jCyte entered into a partnership with global ophthalmology company Santen Pharmaceuticals worth up to $252 million. Then earlier this week they announced some encouraging results from their Phase 2b clinical trial.

Let’s back up a bit and explain what jCyte does and why it’s so important. They have developed a therapy for retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a rare vision destroying disease that attacks the light sensitive cells at the back of the eye. People are often diagnosed when they are in their teens and most are legally blind by middle age. CIRM has supported this therapy from its early stages into clinical trials.

This latest clinical trial is one of the largest of its kind anywhere in the world. They enrolled 84 patients (although only 74 were included in the final analysis). The patients had vision measuring between 20/80 and 20/800. They were split into three groups: one group was given a sham or placebo treatment; one was given three million human retinal progenitor cells (hRPCs), the kind attacked by the disease; and one was given six million hRPCs.

jCyte CEO Paul Bresge

In an article in Endpoints News, jCyte’s CEO Paul Bresge said there was a very specific reason for this approach. “We did enroll a very wide patient population into our Phase IIb, including patients that had vision anywhere from 20/80 to 20/800, just to learn which patients would potentially be the best responders.”

The results showed that the treatment group experienced improved functional vision and greater clarity of vision compared to the sham or placebo group. Everyone had their vision measured at the start and again 12 months later. For the placebo group the mean change in their ability to read an eye chart (with glasses on) was an improvement of 2.81 letters; for the group that got three million hRPCs it was 2.96 letters, and for the group that got six million hRPCs it was 7.43 letters.

When they looked at a very specific subgroup of patients the improvement was even more dramatic, with the six million cell group experiencing an improvement of 16.27 letters.

Dr. Henry Klassen

Dr. Henry Klassen, one of the founders of jCyte, says the therapy works by preserving the remaining photoreceptors in the eye, and helping them bounce back.

“Typically, people think about the disease as a narrowing of this peripheral vision in a very nice granular way, but that’s actually not what happens. What happens in the disease is that patients lose like islands of vision. So, what we’re doing in our tests is actually measuring […] islands that the patients have at baseline, and then what we’re seeing after treatment is that the islands are expanding. It’s similar to the way that one would track, let’s say a tumor, in oncology of course we’re looking for the opposite effect. We’re looking for the islands of vision to expand.”

One patient did experience some serious side effects in the trial but they responded well to treatment.

The team now plan on carrying out a Phase 3 clinical trial starting next year. They hope that will provide enough evidence showing the treatment is both safe and effective to enable them to get approval from the US Food and Drug Administration to make it available to all who need it.

A clear vision for the future

Dr. Henry Klassen and Dr. Jing Yang, founders of jCyte

When you have worked with a group of people over many years the relationship becomes more than just a business venture, it becomes personal. That’s certainly the case with jCyte, a company founded by Drs. Henry Klassen and Jing Yang, aimed at finding a cure for a rare form of vision loss called retinitis pigmentosa. CIRM has been supporting this work since it’s early days and so on Friday, the news that jCyte has entered into a partnership with global ophthalmology company Santen was definitely a cause for celebration.

The partnership could be worth up to $252 million and includes an immediate payment of $62 million. The agreement also connects jCyte to Santen’s global business and medical network, something that could prove invaluable in bringing their jCell therapy to patients outside the US.

Here in the US, jCyte is getting ready to start a Phase 2 clinical trial – which CIRM is funding – that could prove pivotal in helping it get approval from the US Food and Drug Administration.

As Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President and CEO says, we have been fortunate to watch this company steadily progress from having a promising idea to developing a life-changing therapy.

“This is exciting news for everyone at jCyte. They have worked so hard over many years to develop their therapy and this partnership is a reflection of just how much they have achieved. For us at CIRM it’s particularly encouraging. We have supported this work from its early stages through clinical trials. The people who have benefited from the therapy, people like Rosie Barrero, are not just patients to us, they have become friends. The people who run the company, Dr. Henry Klassen, Dr. Jing Yang and CEO Paul Bresge, are so committed and so passionate about their work that they have overcome many obstacles to bring them here, an RMAT designation from the Food and Drug Administration, and a deal that will help them advance their work even further and faster. That is what CIRM is about, following the science and the mission.”

Paul Bresge, jCyte’s CEO says they couldn’t have done it without CIRM’s early and continued investment.

Paul Bresge, jCyte CEO

“jCyte is extremely grateful to CIRM, which was established to support innovative regenerative medicine programs and research such as ours.  CIRM supported our early preclinical data all the way through our late stage clinical trials.  This critical funding gave us the unique ability and flexibility to put patients first in each and every decision that we made along the way. In addition to the funding, the guidance that we have received from the CIRM team has been invaluable. jCell would not be possible without the early support from CIRM, our team at jCyte, and patients with degenerative retinal diseases are extremely appreciative for your support.”

Here is Rosie Barrero talking about the impact jCell has had on her life and the life of her family.

Helping the blind see – mice that is

When I first saw the headline for this story I thought of the nursery rhyme about the three blind mice. Finally, they’ll be able to see the farmer’s wife coming at them with a carving knife. But the real-world implications are of this are actually pretty exciting.

Researchers at the National Institute of Health’s National Eye Institute took skin cells from mice and directly reprogrammed them into becoming light sensitizing cells in the eye, the kind that are often damaged and destroyed by diseases like macular degeneration or retinitis pigmentosa.

What’s particularly interesting about this is that it bypassed the induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) stage where researchers turn the skin cells into embryonic-like cells, then turn those into the cells found in the eye.

In a news release, Anand Swaroop of the NEI says this more direct approach has a number of advantages: “This is the first study to show that direct, chemical reprogramming can produce retinal-like cells, which gives us a new and faster strategy for developing therapies for age-related macular degeneration and other retinal disorders caused by the loss of photoreceptors.”

After converting the skin cells into cells called rod photoreceptors – the light sensing cells found in the back of the eye – the team transplanted them into blind mice. One month later they tested the mice to see if there had been any change in vision. There had; 43 percent of the mice reacted to light exposure, something they hadn’t done before.

Biraj Mahato, the study’s first author, said that three months later, the transplanted cells were still alive and functioning. “Even mice with severely advanced retinal degeneration, with little chance of having living photoreceptors remaining, responded to transplantation. Such findings suggest that the observed improvements were due to the lab-made photoreceptors rather than to an ancillary effect that supported the health of the host’s existing photoreceptors.”

Obviously there is a lot of work still to do before we can even begin to think about trying something like this in people. But this is certainly an encouraging start.

In the meantime, CIRM is funding a number of stem cell programs aimed at treating vision destroying diseases like macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa.