CIRM & NHLBI Create Landmark Agreement on Curing Sickle Cell Disease

CIRM Board approves first program eligible for co-funding under the agreement

Adrienne Shapiro, co-founder of Axis Advocacy, with her daughter Marissa Cors, who has Sickle Cell Disease.

Sickle Cell disease (SCD) is a painful, life-threatening blood disorder that affects around 100,000 people, mostly African Americans, in the US. Even with optimal medical care, SCD shortens expected lifespan by decades.  It is caused by a single genetic mutation that results in the production of “sickle” shaped red blood cells.  Under a variety of environmental conditions, stress or viral illness, these abnormal red blood cells cause severe anemia and blockage of blood vessels leading to painful crisis episodes, recurrent hospitalization, multi-organ damage and mini-strokes.    

On April 29th the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved $4.49 million to Dr. Mark Walters at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland to pursue a gene therapy cure for this devastating disease. The gene therapy approach uses CRISPR-Cas9 technology to correct the genetic mutation that leads to sickle cell disease. This program will be eligible for co-funding under the landmark agreement between CIRM and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) of the NIH.

This CIRM-NHLBI agreement was finalized this month to co-fund cell and gene therapy programs under the NIH “Cure Sickle Cell” initiative.  The goal is to markedly accelerate the development of cell and gene therapies for SCD. It will deploy CIRM’s resources and expertise that has led to a portfolio of over 50 clinical trials in stem cell and regenerative medicine.     

“CIRM currently has 23 clinical stage programs in cell and gene therapy.  Given the advancements in these approaches for a variety of unmet medical needs, we are excited about the prospect of leveraging this to NIH-NHLBI’s Cure Sickle Cell Initiative,” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., the President and CEO of CIRM. “We are pleased the NHLBI sees value in CIRM’s acceleration and funding program and look forward to the partnership to accelerate cures for sickle cell disease.”

“There is a real need for a new approach to treating SCD and making life easier for people with SCD and their families,” says Adrienne Shapiro, the mother of a daughter with SCD and the co-founder of Axis Advocacy, a sickle cell advocacy and education organization. “Finding a cure for Sickle Cell would mean that people like my daughter would no longer have to live their life in short spurts, constantly having their hopes and dreams derailed by ER visits and hospital stays.  It would mean they get a chance to live a long life, a healthy life, a normal life.”

CIRM is currently funding two other clinical trials for SCD using different approaches.  One of these trials is being conducted at City of Hope and the other trial is being conducted at UCLA.

Mending Stem Cells: The Past, Present & Future of Regenerative Medicine

UCSF’s Mission Bay Campus

For years we have talked about the “promise” and the “potential” of stem cells to cure patients. But more and more we are seeing firsthand how stem cells can change a patient’s life, even saving it in some cases. That’s the theme of the 4th Annual CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium.

It’s not your usual symposium because this brings together all the key players in the field – the scientists who do the research, the nurses and doctors who deliver the therapies, and the patients who get or need those therapies. And, of course, we’ll be there; because without CIRM’s funding to support that research and therapies none of this happens.

We are going to look at some of the exciting progress being made, and what is on the horizon. But along the way we’ll also tackle many of the questions that people pose to us every day. Questions such as:

  • How can you distinguish between a good clinical trial offering legitimate treatments vs a stem cell clinic offering sham treatments?
  • What about the Right to Try, can’t I just demand I get access to stem cell therapies?
  • How do I sign up for a clinical trial, and how much will it cost me?
  • What is the experience of patients that have participated in a stem cell clinical trial?

World class researchers will also talk about the real possibility of curing diseases like sickle cell disease on a national scale, which affect around 100,000 Americans, mostly African Americans and Hispanics. They’ll discuss the use of gene editing to battle hereditary diseases like Huntington’s. And they’ll highlight how they can engineer a patient’s own immune system cells to battle deadly cancers.

So, join us for what promises to be a fascinating day. It’s the cutting edge of science. And it’s all FREE.

Here’s where you can go to find out more information and to sign up for the event.

CRISPR-Cas9 101: an overview and the role it plays in developing therapies

Illustration courtesy of TED website

There has been a lot of conversation surrounding CRISPR-Cas9 in these recent months as well as many sensational news stories. Some of these stories highlight the promise this technology holds, while others emphasize a word of caution. But what exactly does this technology do and how does it work? Here is a breakdown that will help you better understand.

To start off, CRISPR is a naturally occurring process found in bacteria used as an immune system to defend against viruses. CRISPR simply put, are strands of DNA segments that contain repeating patterns. There are “scissor like” CRISPR proteins that have the ability to cut DNA segments. When a copy of a virus enters the bacteria, these “scissor like” proteins cut a segment of DNA from the virus and insert it into CRISPR. A copy of the viral DNA is made and another “attack” protein known as Cas9 attaches to it. By binding to the viral copy, Cas9 is able to sense that virus. When the same virus tries to enter the bacteria, Cas9 is able to seek and destroy it.

You can view a more detailed video explaining this concept below.

Many scientists analyzed this process in detail and it was eventually discovered that this CRISPR-Cas9 complex could be used to removed unwanted genes and insert a corrected copy, revolutionizing the way that we view the approach towards treating a wide variety of genetic diseases.

In fact, researchers at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center and the University of Massachusetts Medical School have developed a strategy using this complex to treat two inherited, lethal blood disorders, sickle cell disease (SCD) and beta thalassemia. Both of these diseases involve a mutation that effects production of red blood cells, which are produced by blood stem cells. In beta-thalassemia, the mutation prevent red blood cells from being able to carry enough oxygen, leading to anemia. In SCD, the mutations cause red blood cells to take on a “sickle” shape which can block blood vessels.

By using CRISPR-Cas9 to insert a corrected copy of the gene into a patient’s own blood stem cells, this team demonstrated that functional red blood cells can then be produced. These results pay the way for other blood disorders as well.

In a press release , Dr. Daniel Bauer, an attending physician with Dana-Farber and a senior author on both of these studies stated that,

“Combining gene editing with an autologous stem-cell transplant could be a therapy for sickle-cell disease, beta-thalassemia and other blood disorders.”

In a separate study, scientists at University of Massachusetts Medical School have developed a strategy that could be used to treat genetic disorders associated with unintentional repeats or copies of small DNA segments. These problematic small segments of DNA are called microduplications and cause as many as 143 different diseases, including limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, Hermansky-Pudlak syndrome, and Tay-Sachs.

Because these are issues caused by repeats or copies of small DNA segments, the CRISPR-Cas9 complex can be used to remove microduplications without having to insert any additional genetic material.

Dr. Scot A. Wolfe, a co-investigator of this study, stated that,

“It’s like hitting the reset button. We don’t have to add any corrective genetic material, instead the cell stitches the DNA back together minus the duplication. It’s a shortcut for gene correction with potential therapeutic appeal.”

Although there has been a lot progress made with this technology, there are still concerns that need to be addressed. An article in Science mentions how two studies have shown that CRISPR can still make unintended changes to DNA, which can be potentially dangerous. In the article, Dr. Jin-Soo Kim, a CRISPR researcher at Seoul National University is quoted as saying,

“It is now important to determine which component is responsible for the collateral mutations and how to reduce or avoid them.”

Overall, CRISPR-Cas9 has revolutionized the approach of precision medicine. A wide variety of diseases are caused by small, unexpected segments of DNA. By applying this approach found in bacteria to humans, we have uncovered a way to correct these segments at the microscopic level. However, there is still much that needs to be learned and perfected before it can be utilized in patients.

Facebook Live – Ask the Stem Cell Team about Patient Advocacy

How often do you get to ask an expert a question about something that matters deeply to you and get an answer right away? Not very often I’m guessing. That’s why CIRM’s Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team About Patient Advocacy” gives you a chance to do just that this Thursday, March 14th from noon till 1pm PST.

We have three amazing individuals who will share their experiences, their expertise and advice as Patient Advocates, and answer your questions about how to be an effective advocate for your cause.

The three are:

Gigi McMillan became a Patient Advocate when her 5-year-old son was diagnosed with a brain tumor. That led her to helping develop support systems for families going through the same ordeal, to help researchers develop appropriate consent processes and to campaign for the rights of children and their families in research.

Adrienne Shapiro comes from a family with a long history of Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) and has fought to help people with SCD have access to compassionate care. She is the co-founder of Axis Advocacy, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about SCD and support for those with it. In addition she is now on the FDA’s Patient Engagement Collaborative, a new group helping the FDA ensure the voice of the patient is heard at the highest levels.

David Higgins is a CIRM Board member and a Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s Disease. David has a family history of the disease and in 2011 was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. As a scientist and advocate he has championed research into the disease and worked to raise greater awareness about the needs of people with Parkinson’s.

Also, make sure to “like” our FaceBook page before the event to receive a notification when we’ve gone live for this and future events. If you miss the broadcast, not to worry. We’ll be posting it on our Facebook video page, our website, and YouTube channel shortly afterwards.

We want to answer your most pressing questions, so please email them directly to us beforehand at info@cirm.ca.gov.

And, of course, feel free to share this information with anyone you think might be interested.

Rare Disease Day – fighting for awareness and hope

It’s hard thinking of something as rare when one in 20 people are at risk of experiencing it in their lifetime. But that’s the situation with rare diseases. There are more than 7,000 of them and each affects under 200,000 people. In some cases they may only affect a few hundred people. But for each person that disease, though rare, poses a real threat. And that’s why Rare Disease Day was created.

Rare Disease Day is held on the last day of February each year.  The goal is to raise awareness among the general public about the huge impact these diseases have on people’s lives. That impact is not just on the person with the disease but on the whole family who are often struggling just to get a diagnosis.

Every year groups around the world, from patients and patient advocacy organizations to researchers and policymakers, stage events to mark the day. This year there are more than 460 events being held in 96 countries, everywhere from Albania and Andora to Tunisia and Uruguay.

Here in the US many groups organize events at State Capitols to educate elected officials and policy makers about the particular needs of these communities and the promise that scientific research holds to combat these conditions. Others have auctions to raise funds for research or public debates to raise awareness.

Each event is unique in its own way because each represents many different diseases, many different needs, and many different stories. The goal of these events is to put a human face on each condition, to give it visibility, so that it is no longer something most people have never heard of, instead it becomes something that affects someone you may know or who reminds you of someone you know.

Here’s a video from Spain that does just that.

You can find a complete list of events being held around the world to mark Rare Disease Day.

At CIRM we feel a special link to this day. That’s because many of the diseases we fund research into are rare diseases such as severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), and ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Sickle Cell Disease.

Evie Vaccaro, cured of SCID

These diseases affect relatively small numbers of patients so they often struggle to get funding for research. Because we do not have to worry about making a profit on any therapy we help develop we can focus our efforts on supporting those with unmet medical needs. And it’s paying off. Our support has already helped develop a therapy for SCID that has cured 40 children. We have two clinical trials underway for ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. We also have two clinical trials for Sickle Cell Disease and have reached a milestone agreement with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) on a partnership to help develop a cure for this crippling and life-threatening disorder.

The hope is that events like Rare Disease Day let people know that even though they have a condition that affects very few, that they are not alone, but that they are part of a wider, global community, a community committed to working to find treatments and cures for all of them.

Antibody effective in cure for rare blood disorders

3D illustration of an antibody binding to a designated target.
Illustration created by Audra Geras.

A variety of diseases can be traced to a simple root cause: problems in the bone marrow. The bone marrow contains specialized stem cells known as hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) that give rise to different types of blood cells. As mentioned in a previous blog about Sickle Cell Disease (SCD), one problem that can occur is the production of “sickle like” red blood cells. In blood cancers like leukemia, there is an uncontrollable production of abnormal white blood cells. Another condition, known as myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), are a group of cancers in which immature blood cells in the bone marrow do not mature and therefore do not become healthy blood cells.

For diseases that originate in the bone marrow, one treatment involves introducing healthy HSCs from a donor or gene therapy. However, before this type of treatment can take place, all of the problematic HSCs must be eliminated from the patient’s body. This process, known as pre-treatment, involves a combination of chemotherapy and radiation, which can be extremely toxic and life threatening. There are some patients whose condition has progressed to the point where their bodies are not strong enough to withstand pre-treatment. Additionally, there are long-term side effects that chemotherapy and radiation can have on infant children that are discussed in a previous blog about pediatric brain cancer.

Could there be a targeted, non-toxic approach to eliminating unwanted HSCs that can be used in combination with stem cell therapies? Researchers at Stanford say yes and have very promising results to back up their claim.

Dr. Judith Shizuru and her team at Stanford University have developed an antibody that can eliminate problematic blood forming stem cells safely and efficiently. The antibody is able to identify a protein on HSCs and bind to it. Once it is bound, the protein is unable to function, effectively removing the problematic blood forming stem cells.

Dr. Shizuru is the senior author of a study published online on February 11th, 2019 in Blood that was conducted in mice and focused on MDS. The results were very promising, demonstrating that the antibody successfully depleted human MDS cells and aided transplantation of normal human HSCs in the MDS mouse model.

This proof of concept holds promise for MDS as well as other disease conditions. In a public release from Stanford Medicine, Dr. Shizuru is quoted as saying, “A treatment that specifically targets only blood-forming stem cells would allow us to potentially cure people with diseases as varied as sickle cell disease, thalassemia, autoimmune disorders and other blood disorders…We are very hopeful that this body of research is going to have a positive impact on patients by allowing better depletion of diseased cells and engraftment of healthy cells.”

The research mentioned was partially funded by us at CIRM. Additionally, we recently awarded a $3.7 million dollar grant to use the same antibody in a human clinical trial for the so-called “bubble baby disease”, which is also known as severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). You can read more about that award on a previous blog post linked here.

Tips on how to be a great Patient Advocate from three of the best Advocates around

No one sets out to be a Patient Advocate. It’s something that you become because of something that happens to you. Usually it’s because you, or  a loved one or a friend, becomes ill and you want to help find a treatment. Whatever the reason, it is the start of a journey that often throws you into a world that you know nothing about: a world of research studies and scientific terminology, of talking to and trying to understand medical professionals, and of watching someone you love struggle.

It’s a tough, demanding, sometimes heart-breaking role. But it’s also one of the most important roles you can ever take on. Patient Advocates not only care for people afflicted with a particular disease or disorder, they help them navigate a new and scary world, they help raise money for research, and push researchers to work harder to find new treatments, maybe even cures. And they remind all of us that in the midst of pain and suffering the human touch, a simple kindness is the most important gift of all.

But what makes a great Patient Advocate, what skills do you need and how can you get them? At CIRM we are blessed to have some of the most amazing Patient Advocates you will ever meet. So we asked three of them to join us for a special Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team” event to share their knowledge, experience and expertise with you.

The Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team About Patient Advocacy” event will be on Thursday, March 14th from noon till 1pm PST.

The three experts are:

Gigi McMillan

Gigi McMillan became a Patient Advocate when her 5-year-old son was diagnosed with a brain tumor. That has led her to helping develop support systems for families going through the same ordeal, to help researchers develop appropriate consent processes and to campaign for the rights of children and their families in research.

Adrienne Shapiro

Adrienne Shapiro comes from a family with a long history of Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) and has fought to help people with SCD have access to compassionate care. She is the co-founder of Axis Advocacy, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about SCD and support for those with it. In addition she is now on the FDA’s Patient Engagement Collaborative, a new group helping the FDA ensure the voice of the patient is heard at the highest levels.

David Higgins

David Higgins is a CIRM Board member and a Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s Disease. David has a family history of the disease and in 2011 was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. As a scientist and advocate he has championed research into the disease and strived to raise greater awareness about the needs of people with Parkinson’s.

Please join us for our Facebook Live event on Patient Advocates on Thursday, March 14 from noon till 1pm and feel free to share information about the event with anyone you think would be interested.

Also, make sure to “like” our FaceBook page before the event to receive a notification when we’ve gone live for this and future events. If you miss the broadcast, not to worry. We’ll be posting it on our Facebook video page, our website, and YouTube channel shortly afterwards.

We want to answer your most pressing questions, so please email them directly to us beforehand at info@cirm.ca.gov.

Gene therapy and blood stem cells cure sickle cell disease patients

Sickle-shaped blood cells. The cells become lodged in blood vessels, causing strokes or excruciating pain as blood stops flowing. Photo courtesy of Omikron/Science Source

Blood is the lifeline of the body. The continuous, unimpeded circulation of blood maintains oxygen flow throughout the body and enables us to carry out our everyday activities. Unfortunately, there are individuals whose own bodies are in a constant battle that prevents this from occurring seamlessly. They have something known as sickle cell disease (SCD), an inherited condition caused by a mutation in a single gene. Rather than producing normal, circular red blood cells, their bodies produce sickle shaped cells (hence the name) that can become lodged in blood vessels, preventing blood flow. The lack of blood flow can cause agonizing pain, known as crises, as well as strokes. Chronic crises can cause organ damage, which can eventually lead to organ failure. Additionally, since the misshapen cells don’t survive long in the body, people with SCD have a greater risk of being severely anemic and are more prone to infections. Monthly blood transfusions are often needed to help temporarily alleviate symptoms. Due to the debilitating nature of SCD, important aspects of everyday life such as employment and health insurance can be extremely challenging to find and maintain.

An estimated 100,000 people in the United States are living with SCD. Around the world, about 300,000 infants are born with the condition each year, a statistic that will increase to 400,000 by 2050 according to one study. Many people with SCD do not live past the age of 50. It is most prevalent in individuals with sub-Saharan African descent followed by people of Hispanic descent. Experts have stated that advances in treatment have been limited in part because SCD is concentrated in poorer minority communities.

Despite these grim statistics and prognosis, there is hope.

The New York Times and Boston Herald recently released featured articles that tell the personal stories of patients enrolled in a clinical trial conducted by bluebird bio. The trial uses gene therapy in combination with hematopoietic (blood) stem cells (HSCs) to give rise to normal red blood cells in SCD patients.

Here are the stories of these patients. To read the full New York Times article, click here. For the Boston Herald article, click here.

Brothers, Emmanuel “Manny” 21 and Aiden Johnson 7 at their home in Brockton, Massachusetts. Both brothers were born with sickle cell disease. Photo courtesy of Matt Stone for MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

Emmanuel “Manny” Johnson was the very first patient in the SCD trial. He was motivated to participate in the trial not just for himself but for his younger brother Aiden Johnson, who was also born with SCD. Manny has a tattoo with Aiden’s name written inside a red sickle cell awareness ribbon.

In the article Manny is quoted as saying “It’s not only that we share the same blood disease, it’s like I have to do better for him.”

Since receiving the treatment, Manny’s SCD symptoms have disappeared.

Brandon Williams received the stem cell gene therapy to replace sickle cells with healthy red blood cells. The tattoo on his right forearm is in honor of his sister, Britney, who died of sickle cell disease. Photo courtesy of Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

For Brandon Williams of Chicago, the story of SCD is a very personal one. At just 21 years old, Brandon had suffered four strokes by the time he turned 18. His older sister, Britney Williams, died of sickle cell disease at the age of 22. Brandon was devastated and felt that his own life could end at any moment. He was then told about the SCD trial and decided to enroll. Following the treatment, his symptoms have vanished along with the pain and fear inflicted by the disease.

Carmen Duncan participated in the stem cell gene therapy trial and no longer has sickle-cell symptoms. She wants to join the military, something that wasn’t an option until now. Photo courtesy of Sean Rayford for The New York Times

The NY Times piece also profiles Carmen Duncan, a 20 year old from Charleston, South Carolina. She had her spleen removed when she was just two years old as a result of complications form SCD. Duncan spent a large portion of her childhood in hospitals, coping with the pain in her arms and legs from blocked blood vessels. She enrolled in the SCD trial as well and she no longer has any signs of SCD. Duncan had aspirations to join the military but was unable to because of her condition. Now that she is symptom free, she plans to enlist.

This SCD clinical trial has multiple trial sites across the US, one which is the UCSF Alpha Stem Cell Clinic , a CIRM funded clinic specializing in the delivery of stem cell clinical trials to patients. CIRM awarded a $7,999,999 grant to help establish this site.

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.

It’s not goodbye to Dr. Bert Lubin, it’s au revoir

DrB Lubin-098

Dr. Bert Lubin has been a fixture at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland long before it was even called that. When he started there 43 years ago it was just a small community hospital and through his commitment to helping those in need he has helped build it into a remarkable institution.

Over the years he started one of the first newborn screening programs for sickle cell disease, created the world’s first non-profit sibling cord blood donor program and along the way boosted the research budget from $500,000 to $60 million without ever losing sight of the hospital’s primary goal, serving the community.

But with someone like Bert, nothing is ever enough. He became a national leader in the fight to develop better treatments and even a cure for sickle cell disease and then joined the CIRM Board to help us find better treatments and even cures for a wide variety of diseases and disorders.

“I got a sense of the opportunities that stem cell therapies would have for a variety of things, certainly including Sickle Cell Disease and I thought if there’s a chance to be on the Board as an advocate for that population I think I’d be a good spokesperson.  I just thought this was an exciting opportunity.”

He says the Stem Cell Agency has done a great job in advancing the field, and establishing California as a global leader.

“I think we are seeing advances in stem cell therapies. I’m proud of the progress we are making and I’m proud of the cures we are providing and I think it’s wonderful that the state had the vision to do something as big as this and to be a leader in the world in that regard.”

Now, after almost eight years Bert is stepping down from the CIRM Board. But he’s not stepping away from CIRM.

I feel committed to CIRM, I don’t need to be on the Board to be committed to CIRM. I don’t see myself leaving, I’m just re-purposing what is my role in my CIRM. I’m recycling and reinventing.

To mark this transition to the next phase of his career, the staff at Children’s put together this video tribute for Bert. It’s a sweet, glowing and heart warming thank you to someone who has done so much for so many people. And plans on doing even more in the years to come.