How stem cells are helping change the face of medicine, one pioneering patient at a time

One of the many great pleasures of my job is that I get to meet so many amazing people. I get to know the researchers who are changing the face of medicine, but even more extraordinary are the people who are helping them do it, the patients.

Attacking Cancer

Karl

Karl Trede

It’s humbling to meet people like Karl Trede from San Jose, California. Karl is a quiet, witty, unassuming man who when the need arose didn’t hesitate to put himself forward as a medical pioneer.

Diagnosed with throat cancer in 2006, Karl underwent surgery to remove the tumor. Several years later, his doctors told him it had returned, only this time it had spread to his lungs. They told him there was no effective treatment. But there was something else.

“One day the doctor said we have a new trial we’re going to start, would you be interested? I said “sure”. I don’t believe I knew at the time that I was going to be the first one, but I thought I’d give it a whirl.”

Karl was Patient #1 in a clinical trial at Stanford University that was using a novel approach to attack cancer stem cells, which have the ability to evade standard anti-cancer treatments and cause the tumors to regrow. The team identified a protein, called CD47, that sits on the surface of cancer stem cells and helps them evade being gobbled up and destroyed by the patient’s own immune system. They dubbed CD47 the “don’t eat me” signal and created an antibody therapy they hoped would block the signal, leaving the cancer and the cancer stem cells open to attack by the immune system.

The team did pre-clinical testing of the therapy, using mice to see if it was safe. Everything looked hopeful. Even so, this was still the first time it was being tested in a human. Karl said that didn’t bother him.

“It was an experience for me, it was eye opening. I wasn’t real concerned about being the first in a trial never tested in people before. I said we know that there’s no effective treatment for this cancer, it’s not likely but it’s possible that this could be the one and if nothing else, if it doesn’t do anything for me hopefully it does something so they learn for others.”

It’s that kind of selflessness that is typical of so many people who volunteer for clinical trials, particularly Phase 1 trials, where a treatment is often being tried in people for the first time ever. In these trials, the goal is to make sure the approach is safe, so patients are given a relatively small dose of the therapy (cells or drugs) and told ahead of time it may not do any good. They’re also told that there could be some side effects, potentially serious, even life-threatening ones. Still, they don’t hesitate.

Improving vision

Rosie Barrero certainly didn’t hesitate when she got a chance to be part of a clinical trial testing the use of stem cells to help people with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare progressive disease that destroys a person’s vision and ultimately leaves them blind.

Rosalinda Barrero

Rosie Barrero

“I was extremely excited about the clinical trial. I didn’t have any fear or trepidation about it, I would have been happy being #1, and I was #6 and that was fine with me.”

 

Rosie had what are called retinal progenitor cells injected into her eye, part of a treatment developed by Dr. Henry Klassen at the University of California, Irvine. The hope was that those cells would help repair and perhaps even replace the light-sensing cells damaged by the disease.

Following the stem cell treatment, gradually Rosie noticed a difference. It was small things at first, like being able to make out the colors of cups in her kitchen cupboard, or how many trash cans were outside their house.

“I didn’t expect to see so much, I thought it would be minor, and it is minor on paper but it is hard to describe the improvement. It’s visible, it’s visible improvement.”

These are the moments that researchers like Henry Klassen live for, and have worked so tirelessly for. These are the moments that everyone at CIRM dreams of, when the work we have championed, supported and funded shows it is working, shows it is changing people’s lives.

One year ago this month our governing Board approved a new Strategic Plan, a detailed roadmap of where we want to go in the coming years. The plan laid out some pretty ambitious goals, such as funding 50 new clinical trials in the next 5 years, and at our Board meeting next week we’ll report on how well we are doing in terms of hitting those targets.

People like Karl and Rosie help motivate us to keep trying, to keep working as hard as we can, to achieve those goals. And if ever we have a tough day, we just have to remind ourselves of what Rosie said when she realized she could once again see her children.

“Seeing their faces. It’s pretty incredible. I always saw them with my heart so I just adore them, but now I can see them with my eye.”


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A hopeful sight: therapy for vision loss cleared for clinical trial

Rosalinda Barrero

Rosalinda Barrero, has retinitis pigmentosa

Rosalinda Barrero says people often thought she was rude, or a snob, because of the way she behaved, pretending not to see them or ignoring them on the street. The truth is Rosalinda has retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a nasty disease, one that often attacks early in life and slowly destroys a person’s vision. Rosalinda’s eyes look normal but she can see almost nothing.

“I’ve lived my whole life with this. I told my daughters [as a child] I didn’t like to go Trick or Treating at Halloween because I couldn’t see. I’d trip; I’d loose my candy. I just wanted to stay home.”

Rosalinda says she desperately wants a treatment:

“Because I’m a mom and I would be so much a better mom if I could see. I could drive my daughters around. I want to do my part as a mom.”

Now a promising therapy for RP, funded by the stem cell agency, has been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to start a clinical trial in people.

The therapy was developed by Dr. Henry Klassen at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). RP is a relatively rare, inherited condition in which the light-sensitive cells at the back of the retina, cells that are essential for vision, slowly and progressively degenerate. Eventually it can result in blindness. There is no cure and no effective long-term treatment.

Dr. Klassen’s team will inject patients with stem cells, known as retinal progenitors, to help replace those cells destroyed by the disease and hopefully to save those not yet damaged.

In a news release about the therapy Dr. Klassen said the main goal of this small Phase I trial will be to make sure this approach is safe:

“This milestone is a very important one for our project. It signals a turning point, marking the beginning of the clinical phase of development, and we are all very excited about this project.”

Jonathan Thomas, the Chair of our Board, says that CIRM has invested almost $20 million to help support this work through early stage research and now, into the clinic.

“One of the goals of the agency is to provide the support that promising therapies need to progress and ultimately to get into clinical trials in patients. RP affects about 1.5 million people worldwide and is the leading cause of inherited blindness in the developed world. Having an effective treatment for it would transform people’s lives in extraordinary ways.”

Dr. Klassen says without that support it is doubtful that this work would have progressed as quickly as it has. And the support doesn’t just involve money:

“CIRM has played a critical and essential role in this project. While the funding is extremely important, CIRM also tutors and guides its grantees in the many aspects of translational development at every step of the way, and this accelerates during the later pre-clinical phase where much is at stake.”

This is now the 12th project that we are funding that has been approved by the FDA for clinical trials. It’s cause for optimism, but cautious optimism. These are small scale, early phase trials that in many cases are the first time these therapies have been tested in people. They look promising in the lab. Now it’s time to see if they are equally promising in people.

Considering we didn’t really start funding research until 2007 we have come a long way in a short time. Clearly we still have a long way to go. But the news that Dr. Klassen’s work has been given the go-ahead to take the next, big step, is a hopeful sign for Rosalinda and others with RP that we are at least heading in the right direction.

One of our recent Spotlight on Disease videos features Dr. Klassen and Rosalinda Barrero talking about RP.

This work will be one of the clinical trials being tested in our new Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network. You can read more about that network here.