Study Identifies Safer Stem Cell Therapies

To reject or not reject, that is the question facing the human immune system when new tissue or cells are transplanted into the body.

Stem cell-therapy promises hope for many debilitating diseases that currently have no cures. However, the issue of immune rejection has prompted scientists to carefully consider how to develop safe stem cell therapies that will be tolerated by the human immune system.

Before the dawn of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), embryonic stem cells (ESCs) were suggested as a potential source for transplantable cells and tissue. However, ESCs run into a couple of issues, including their origin, and the fact that ESC-derived cells likely would be rejected when transplanted into most areas of a human due to differences in genetic backgrounds.

The discovery of iPSCs in the early 2000’s gave new hope to the field of stem cell therapy. By generating donor cells and tissue from a patient’s own iPSCs, transplanting those cells/tissue back into the same individual shouldn’t – at least theoretically – cause an immune reaction. This type of transplantation is called “autologous” meaning that the stem cell-derived cells have the same genetic background as the person.

Unfortunately, scientists have run up against a roadblock in iPSC-derived stem cell therapy. They discovered that even cells derived from a patient’s own iPSCs can cause an immune reaction when transplanted into that patient. The answers as to why this occurs remained largely unanswered until recently.

In a paper published last week in Cell Stem Cell, scientists from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) reported that different mature cell types derived from human iPSCs have varying immunogenic effects (the ability to cause an immune reaction) when transplanted into “humanized” mice that have a human immune system. This study along with the research conducted to generate the humanized mice was funded by CIRM grants (here, here).

In this study, retinal pigment epithelial cells (RPE) and skeletal muscle cells (SMC) derived from human iPSCs were transplanted into humanized mice. RPEs were tolerated by the immune system while SMCs were rejected. (Adapted from Zhao et al. 2015)

Scientists took normal mice and replaced their immune system with a human one. They then took human iPSCs generated from the same human tissue used to generate the humanized mice and transplanted different cell types derived from the iPSCs cells into these mice.

Because they were introducing cells derived from the same source of human tissue that the mouse’s immune system was derived from, in theory, the mice should not reject the transplant. However, they found that many of the transplants did indeed cause an immune reaction.

Interestingly, they found that certain mature cell types derived from human iPSCs created a substantial immune reaction while other cell types did not. The authors focused on two specific cell types, smooth muscle cells (SMC) and retinal pigment epithelial cells (RPE), to get a closer look at what was going on.

iPSC-derived smooth muscle cells created a large immune response when transplanted into humanized mice. However, when they transplanted iPSC-derived retinal epithelial cells (found in the retina of the eye), they didn’t see the same immune reaction. As a control, they transplanted RPE cells made from human ESCs, and as expected, they saw an immune response to the foreign ESC-derived RPE cells.

RPE_1

iPSC derived RPE cells (green) do not cause an immune reaction (red) after transplantation into humanized mice while H9 embryonic stem cell derived RPE cells do. (Zhao et al. 2015)

When they looked further to determine why the humanized mice rejected the muscle cells but accepted the retinal cells, they found that SMCs had a different gene expression profile and higher expression of immunogenic molecules. The iPSC-derived RPE cells had low expression of these same immunogenic molecules, which is why they were well tolerated in the humanized mice.

Results from this study suggest that some cell types generated from human iPSCs are safer for transplantation than others, an issue which can be addressed by improving the differentiation techniques used to produce mature cells from iPSCs. This study also suggests that iPSC-derived RPE cells could be a safe and promising stem cell therapy for the treatment of eye disorders such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD). AMD is a degenerative eye disease that can cause vision impairment or blindness and usually affects older people over the age of 50. Currently there is no treatment for AMD, a disease that affects approximately 50 million people around the world. (However there is a human iPSC clinical trial for AMD out of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Japan that has treated one patient but is currently on hold due to safety issues.)

The senior author on this study, Dr. Yang Xu, commented on the importance of this study in relation to AMD in a UCSD press release:

Dr. Yang Xu

Dr. Yang Xu

Immune rejection is a major challenge for stem cell therapy. Our finding of the lack of immune rejection of human iPSC-derived retinal pigment epithelium cells supports the feasibility of using these cells for treating macular degeneration. However, the inflammatory environment associated with macular degeneration could be an additional hurdle to be overcome for the stem cell therapy to be successful.

Xu makes an important point by acknowledging that iPSC-derived RPE cells aren’t a sure bet for curing AMD just yet. More research needs to be done to address other issues that occur during AMD in order for this type of stem cell therapy to be successful.

 


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One man’s story points to hope against a deadly skin cancer

One of the great privileges and pleasures of working at the stem cell agency is the chance to meet and work with some remarkable people, such as my colleagues here at CIRM and the researchers we support. But for me the most humbling, and by far the most rewarding experience, is having a chance to get to know the people we work for, the patients and patient advocates.

Norm Beegun, got stem cell therapy for metastatic melanoma

Norm Beegun, got stem cell therapy for metastatic melanoma

At our May Board meeting I got to meet a gentleman who exemplifies everything that I truly admire about the patients and patient advocates. His name is Norm Beegun. And this is his story.

Norm lives in Los Angeles. In 2002 he went to see his regular doctor, an old high school friend, who suggested that since it had been almost ten years since he’d had a chest x-ray it might be a good idea to get one. At first Norm was reluctant. He felt fine, was having no health problems and didn’t see the need. But his friend persisted and so Norm agreed. It was a decision that changed, and ultimately saved, his life.

The x-ray showed a spot on his lung. More tests were done. They confirmed it was cancer; stage IV melanoma. They did a range of other examinations to see if they could spot any signs of the cancer on his skin, any potential warnings signs that they had missed. They found nothing.

Norm underwent surgery to remove the tumor. He also tried several other approaches to destroy the cancer. None of them worked; each time the cancer returned; each time to a different location.

Then a nurse who was working with him on these treatments suggested he see someone named Dr. Robert Dillman, who was working on a new approach to treating metastatic melanoma, one involving cancer stem cells.

Norm got in touch with Dr. Dillman and learned what the treatment involved; he was intrigued and signed up. They took some cells from Norm’s tumor and processed them, turning them into a vaccine, a kind of personalized therapy that would hopefully work with Norm’s own immune system to destroy the cancer.

That was in 2004. Once a month for the next six months he was given injections of the vaccine. Unlike the other therapies he had tried this one had no side effects, no discomfort, no pain or problems. All it did was get rid of the cancer. Regular scans since then have shown no sign that the melanoma has returned. Theoretically that could be because the new therapy destroyed the standard tumor cells as well as the cancer stem cells that lead to recurrence.

Norm says when you are diagnosed with an incurable life-threatening disease, one with a 5-year survival rate of only around 15%, you will try anything; so he said it wasn’t a hard decision to take part in the clinical trial, he felt he had nothing to lose.

“I didn’t know if it would help me. I didn’t think I’d be cured. But I wanted to be a guinea pig and perhaps help others.”

When he was diagnosed his son had just won a scholarship to play football at the University of California, Berkeley. Norm says he feared he would never be able to see his son play. But thanks to cleverly scheduling surgery during the off-season and having a stem cell therapy that worked he not only saw his son play, he never missed a game.

Norm returned to Berkeley on May 21st, 2015. He came to address the CIRM Board in support of an application by a company called NeoStem (which has just changed its name to Caladrius Biosciences). This was the company that had developed the cell therapy for metastatic melanoma that Norm took.

“Talking about this is still very emotional. When I got up to talk to the CIRM Board about this therapy, and ask them to support it, I wanted to let them know my story, the story of someone who had their life saved by this treatment. Because of this I am here today. Because of this I was able to see my son play. But just talking about it left me close to tears.”

It left many others in the room close to tears as well. The CIRM Board voted to fund the NeoStem application, investing $17.7 million to help the company carry out a Phase 3 clinical trial, the last hurdle it needs to clear to prove to the Food and Drug Administration that this should be approved for use in metastatic melanoma.

Norm says he is so grateful for the extra years he has had, and he is always willing to try and support others going through what he did:

“I counsel other people diagnosed with metastatic melanoma. I feel that I want to help others, to give them a sense of hope. It is such a wonderful feeling, being able to show other people that you can survive this disease.”

When you get to meet people like Norm, how could you not love this job.

A Christmas miracle or untested therapy? Why even feel-good stem cell stories need to be checked for accuracy

We’ve written several pieces over the last couple of years about the trend for professional athletes to turn to untested and/or unproven stem cell therapies to help them bounce back from injuries. This week, however, came news of something a little more worrying. Ice hockey legend Gordie Howe was given stem cells to help him recover from a series of debilitating strokes. As is often the case with these stories it’s not just the nature of the treatment that raises questions, it’s also the way the media has covered it.

Gordie Howe - photo courtesy Sean Hagen from Maple Ridge, Canada

Gordie Howe – photo courtesy Sean Hagen from Maple Ridge, Canada

The facts are pretty straightforward. Howe’s strokes left him “essentially bedridden with little ability to eat or communicate on his own”, according to a statement issued by his family. Two companies – Stemedica and Novastem – then “volunteered” their services, delivering a stem cell therapy to Howe. According to the family “The response was truly miraculous.”

And that was often the extent of the digging that dozens of media outlets that reported the news did. They reported the facts of the stroke, and then just reprinted the statement from the family without questioning what kinds of cells, how they might work, etc etc. They didn’t bother to interview other stem cell scientists about this kind of approach to see if it was something that might benefit other stroke patients. They didn’t even take a closer look at the two companies involved to see what their track record on this kind of research is.

In short, it’s clearly a feel-good story about a sports legend and no one wanted to be the one to say, “hey, wait a minute here, how do we know this is real.”

No one, except Dr. Paul Knoepfler. Paul, as regular readers of this blog know, is a CIRM-funded stem cell researcher at the University of California, Davis and an avid blogger. In a post on his blog he took a much closer look at the story, posed some thoughtful questions and raised some doubts about it. He also reached out to Stemedica who, to their credit, responded promptly to his questions. You can read what they had to say here.

Paul, like the rest of us, would love to be able to say that this kind of approach worked for Gordie Howe and could work for millions of others left disabled by strokes. But Paul, unlike many news outlets that reported the story, isn’t willing to just accept it on face value.

There’s an old adage in journalism: “If your mother tells you she loves you, check to see if it’s true.” It basically means don’t accept anything on face value; dig a little deeper to see if it’s really true. Paul is doing that, and doing it very well. Other journalists might do well to follow his lead.