A step forward for Parkinson’s disease?

Imagine how frustrating it would be to not know whether you could physically sit through a dinner with friends or to worry about getting stuck in the grocery isle, fighting against a body that refuses to move. These nightmare-like experiences are what many Parkinson’s disease (PD) patients deal with on a daily basis.

PD affects approximately one million people in the US, and there is no prevention or cure. While substantial funding efforts are being dedicated to PD research (CIRM, Michael J. Fox Foundation, Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, to name a few), a cure is still years or maybe even decades away.

However, a new stem cell therapy from Australia has the potential to make waves in what’s been a relatively flat sea of PD stem cell therapies that haven’t yet secured the funding or jumped the regulatory hurdles to make it into clinical trials. Biotech journalist Bradley Fikes broke the story yesterday in the San Diego Union Tribune. Fikes is one of my favorite science writers so instead of attempting to re-write an already eloquent piece, I’ll just mention a few highlights.

Stem cells down under

International Stem Cell Corporation (ISCO), a company based in Carlsbad, California, has developed a stem cell therapy that involves transplanting brain stem cells into the brains of PD patients. While stem cell therapy is viewed by some as the holy grail for PD – having the potential to replace lost dopamine-producing nerve cells in the brain – so far, no stem cell-derived therapy has been approved for testing in PD patients. (Previous clinical trials using fetal stem cells didn’t pan out.)

The Australian government approved the use of ISCO’s parthenogenic stem cell therapy in twelve PD patients in a clinical trial that is slated to start in the first quarter of 2016 (pending final approval from the Royal Melbourne Hospital review board). This therapy uses brain stem cells derived from pluripotent stem cells obtained from unfertilized human eggs, thus avoiding the ethical issues attached to use of embryonic stem cells. (For sciency details check out the ISCO website).

The goal of the trial will be to determine if ISCO’s stem cell therapy is safe and also effective at reducing PD symptoms like tremors and stunted movement. Fikes explained that ISCO chose Australia for it’s proposed clinical trial for regulatory reasons.

“The nation’s clinical trial system is more ‘interactive’, which allows for better collaboration with Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration on trial design.”

A comparison of primate brains to show an increase in the number of neurons after treatment with ISCO's stem cells. The left side is a control sample. The right side is from a treated brain. — International Stem Cell Corp.

A comparison of primate brains to show an increase in the number of neurons after treatment with ISCO’s stem cells. The left side is a control sample. The right side is from a treated brain. — International Stem Cell Corp.

Great minds think alike

ISCO’s is only one of a handful of groups proposing stem cell therapies for PD. Fikes mentioned other therapies currently being tested that are derived from embryonic stem cells, induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), and adult stem cells like the mesenchymal and fat stem cells.

Jeanne Loring, Scripps Research Institute

Jeanne Loring, Scripps Research Institute

He also highlighted important ongoing research by CIRM grantee Dr. Jeanne Loring from the Scripps Research Institute. Loring founded the Summit for Stem Cell organization that’s generating iPSCs from PD patients with hopes of treating these patients with a dose of their own brain stem cells.

When asked about the ISCO study, she told Fikes that she sees ISCO as a “partner in fighting Parkinson’s.”

“The whole idea is to treat patients by whatever means possible.” – Loring


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Partnering with Big Pharma to benefit patients

Our mission at CIRM is to accelerate the development of stem cell therapies for patients with unmet medical needs. One way we have been doing that is funding promising research to help it get through what’s called the “Valley of Death.” This is the time between a product or project showing promise and the time it shows that it actually works.

Many times the big pharmaceutical companies or deep pocketed investors, whose support is needed to cover the cost of clinical trials, don’t want to get involved until they see solid proof that this approach works. However, without that support the researchers can’t do the early stage clinical trials to get that proof.

The stem cell agency has been helping get these projects through this Catch 22 of medical research, giving them the support they need to get through the Valley of Death and emerge on the other side where Big Pharma is waiting, ready to take them from there.

We saw more evidence that Big Pharma is increasingly happy doing that this week with the news that the University of California, San Diego, is teaming up with GSK to develop a new approach to treating blood cancers.

Dr. Catriona Jamieson: Photo courtesy Moores Cancer Center, UCSD

Dr. Catriona Jamieson:
Photo courtesy Moores Cancer Center, UCSD

Dr. Catriona Jamieson is leading the UCSD team through her research that aims at killing the cancer stem cells that help tumors survive chemotherapy and other therapies, and then spread throughout the body again. This is work that we have helped fund.

In a story in The San Diego Union Tribune, reporter Brad Fikes says this is a big step forward:

“London-based GSK’s involvement marks a maturation of this aspect of Jamieson’s research from basic science to the early stages of discovering a drug candidate. Accelerating such research is a core purpose of CIRM, founded in 2004 to advance stem cell technology into disease therapies and diagnostics.”

The stem cell agency’s President and CEO, Dr. C. Randal Mills, is also quoted in the piece saying:

“This is great news for Dr. Jamieson and UCSD, but most importantly it is great news for patients. Academic-industry partnerships such as this bring to bear the considerable resources necessary to meaningfully confront healthcare’s biggest challenges. We have been strong supporters of Dr. Jamieson’s work for many years and I think this partnership not only reflects the progress that she has made, but just as importantly it reflects how the field as a whole has progressed.”

As the piece points out, academic researchers are very good at the science but are not always as good at turning the results of the research into a marketable product. That’s where having an industry partner helps. The companies have the experience turning promising therapies into approved treatments.

As Scott Lippman, director of the Moores Cancer Center at UCSD, said of the partnership:

“This is a wonderful example of academia-industry collaboration to accelerate drug development and clinical impact… and opens the door for cancer stem cell targeting from a completely new angle.”

With the cost of carrying out medical research and clinical trials rising it’s hard for scientists with limited funding to go it alone. That’s why these partnerships, with CIRM and industry, are so important. Working together we make it possible to speed up the development and testing of therapies, and get them to patients as quickly as possible.