Getting under the skin of people with type 1 diabetes – but in a good way

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As someone with a family history of type 1 diabetes (T1D) I know how devastating the condition can be. I also know how challenging it can be to keep it under control and the consequences of failing to do that. Not maintaining healthy blood sugar levels can have a serious impact on the heart, kidney, eyes, nerves, and blood vessels. It can even be fatal.

Right now, controlling T1D means being careful about what you eat, when you eat and how much you eat. It also means regularly checking your blood throughout the day to see if the glucose level is too high or too low. If it’s too high you need to inject insulin; if it’s too low you need to take a fast-acting carbohydrate such as fruit juice or glucose to try and restore it to a healthy level.

That’s why two new approaches to T1D that CIRM has supported are so exciting. They both use small devices implanted under the skin that contain stem cells. The cells can both monitor blood sugar and, if it’s too high, secrete insulin to bring it down.

We sat down with two key members of the Encellin and ViaCyte teams, Dr. Crystal Nyitray and Dr. Manasi Jaiman, to talk about their research, how it works, and what it could mean for people with T1D. That’s in the latest episode of our podcast ‘Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation’.

I think you are going to enjoy it.

This is the size of the implant that ViaCyte is using.
This is the size of the implant Encellin is using

Dr. Crystal Nyitray, CEO & Co-founder Encellin

Dr. Manasi Jaiman, Vice President, Clinical Development ViaCyte

National Academy of Medicine honors CIRM Grantees

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As someone who is not always as diligent as he would like to be about sending birthday cards on time, I’m used to sending belated greetings to people. So, I have no shame in sending belated greetings to four CIRM grantees who were inducted into the National Academy of Medicine in 2020.

I say four, but it’s really three and a half. I’ll explain that later.

Being elected to the National Academy of Medicine is, in the NAM’s own modest opinion, “considered one of the highest honors in the fields of health and medicine and recognizes individuals who have demonstrated outstanding professional achievement and commitment to service.”

To be fair, NAM is right. The people elected are among the best and brightest in their field and membership is by election from the other members of NAM, so they are not going to allow any old schmuck into the Academy (which could explain why I am still waiting for my membership).

The CIRM grantees elected last year are:

Dr. Antoni Ribas: Photo courtesy UCLA

Antoni Ribas, MD, PhD, professor of medicine, surgery, and molecular and medical pharmacology, U. C. Los Angeles.

Dr. Ribas is a pioneer in cancer immunology and has devoted his career to developing new treatments for malignant melanoma. When Dr. Ribas first started malignant melanoma was an almost always fatal skin cancer. Today it is one that can be cured.

In a news release Dr. Ribas said it was a privilege to be honored by the Academy: “It speaks to the impact immunotherapy has played in cancer research. When I started treating cases of melanoma that had metastasized to other organs, maybe 1 in 20 responded to treatment. Nobody in their right mind wanted to be a specialist in this field. It was the worst of the worst cancers.”

Looks like he chose his career path wisely.

Dr. Jeffrey Goldberg: Photo courtesy Stanford

Jeffrey Louis Goldberg, MD, PhD, professor and chair of ophthalmology, Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.

Dr. Goldberg was honored for his contribution to the understanding of vision loss and ways to reverse it. His lab has developed artificial retinas that transmit images down the optic nerve to the brain through tiny silicon chips implanted in the eye. He has also helped use imaging technology to better improve our ability to detect damage in photoreceptor cells (these are cells in the retina that are responsible for converting light into signals that are sent to the brain and that give us our color vision and night vision)

In a news release he expressed his gratitude saying: “I look forward to serving the goals of the National Academies, and to continuing my collaborative research efforts with my colleagues at the Byers Eye Institute at Stanford and around the world as we further our efforts to combat needless blindness.”

Dr. Mark Anderson; photo courtesy UCSF

Mark S. Anderson, MD, PhD, professor in Diabetes Research, Diabetes Center, U. C. San Francisco.

Dr. Anderson was honored for being a leader in the study of autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes. This focus extends into the lab, where his research examines the genetic control of autoimmune diseases to better understand the mechanisms by which immune tolerance is broken.

Understanding what is happening with the immune system, figuring out why it essentially turns on the body, could one day lead to treatments that can stop that, or even reverse it by boosting immune activity.

Dr. John Dick: Photo courtesy University Health Network, Toronto

Remember at the beginning I said that three and a half CIRM grantees were elected to the Academy, well, Canadian researcher, Dr. John Dick is the half. Why? Well, because the award we funded actually went to UC San Diego’s Dennis Carson but it was part of a Collaborative Funding Partnership Program with Dr. Dick at the University of Toronto. So, we are going to claim him as one of our own.

And he’s a pretty impressive individual to partner with. Dr. Dick is best known for developing a test that led to the discovery of leukemia stem cells. These are cells that can evade surgery, chemotherapy and radiation and which can lead to patients relapsing after treatment. His work helped shape our understanding of cancer and revealed a new strategy for curing it.

Creating a better way to treat type 1 diabetes

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The cell encapsulation device (right) that is being developed by Encellin, a San Francisco–based biotechnology company. Photo courtesy of Encellin

Type 1 diabetes (t1d) affects every aspect of a person’s life, from what they eat and when they eat, to when they exercise and how they feel physically and emotionally. Because the peak age for being diagnosed with t1d is around 13 or 14 years of age it often hits at a time when a child is already trying to cope with big physical and emotional changes. Add in t1d and you have a difficult time made a lot more challenging.

There are ways to control the disease. Regular blood sugar monitoring and insulin injections can help people manage their condition but those come with their own challenges. Now researchers are taking a variety of different approaches to developing new, innovative ways of helping people with t1d.

One of those companies is Encellin. They are developing a pouch-like device that can be loaded with stem cells and then implanted in the body. The pouch acts like a mini factory, releasing therapies when they are needed.

This work began at UC San Francisco in the lab of Dr. Tejal Desai – with help from CIRM funding – that led to the creation of Encellin. We recently sat down – virtually of course – with Dr. Grace Wei, the co-founder of the company to chat about their work, and their hopes for the future.

Dr. Grace Wei

She said the decision to target t1d was an easy one:

Type 1 diabetes is an area of great need. It’s very difficult to manage at any age but particularly in children. It affects what they can eat, what they can do, it’s a big burden on the family and can become challenging to manage when people get older.

“It’s an autoimmune disease so everyone’s disease progression is a bit different. People think it’s just a matter of you having too much blood sugar and not enough insulin, but the problem with medicines like insulin is that they are not dynamic, they don’t respond to the needs of your body as they occur. That means people can over-regulate and give themselves too much insulin for what their body needs and if it happens at night, it can be deadly.

Dr. Wei says stem cell research opens up the possibility of developing dynamic therapies, living medicines that are delivered to you by cells that respond to your dynamic needs. That’s where their pouch, called a cell encapsulation device (CED) comes in.

The pouch is tiny, only about the size of a quarter, and it can be placed just under the skin. Encellin is filling the pouch with glucose-sensitive, insulin producing islet cells, the kind of cells destroyed by t1d. The idea is that the cells can monitor blood flow and, when blood sugar is low, secrete insulin to restore it to a healthy level. 

Another advantage of the pouch is that it may eliminate the need for the patient to take immunosuppressive medications.

“The pouch is really a means to protect both the patient receiving the cells and the cells themselves. Your body tends to not like foreign objects shoved into it and the pouch in one respect protects the cells you are trying to put into the person. But you also want to be able to protect the person, and that means knowing where the cells are and having a means to remove them if you need to. That’s why it’s good to have a pouch that you can put in the body, take it out if you need, and replace if needed.”

Dr. Wei says it’s a little like making tea with a tea bag. When the need arises the pouch can secrete insulin but it does so in a carefully controlled manner.

“These are living cells and they are responsive, it’s not medicine where you can overdose, these cells are by nature self-regulating.”

They have already tested their approach with a variety of different kinds of islets, in a variety of different kinds of model.

“We’ve tested for insulin production, glucose stimulation and insulin response. We have tested them in a number of animal models and those studies are supporting our submission for a first-in-human safety clinical trial.”

Dr. Wei says if this approach works it could be used for other metabolic conditions such as parathyroid disorders. And she says a lot of this might not be possible without the early funding and support from CIRM.

“CIRM had the foresight to invest in groups that are looking ahead and said it would be great to have renewable cells to transplant into the body  (that function properly. We are grateful that groundwork that has been laid and are looking forward to advancing this work.”

And we are looking forward to working with them to help advance that work too.

Scientists develop immune evading pancreas organoids to treat type 1 diabetes

By Stephen Lin, PhD., CIRM Senior Science Officer

A diabetic child is checking her blood sugar level (self glycaemia).

Type 1 diabetes affects millions of people.  It is a disease where beta islet cells in the pancreas are targeted by the body’s own immune system, destroying the ability to produce insulin.  Without insulin, the body cannot break down sugars from the bloodstream that produce energy for organs and that can lead to many significant health problems including damage to the eyes, nerves, and kidneys.  It is a life-long condition, most commonly triggered in children and teenagers.  However, type 1 diabetes can manifest at any time.  I have a family member who developed type 1 diabetes well into adulthood and had to dramatically alter his lifestyle to live with it. 

Fortunately most people can now live with the disease.  There was a time, dating back to ancient civilizations when getting type 1 diabetes meant early death.  Thankfully, over the past hundred years, treatments have been developed to address the disease.  The first widespread treatment developed in the 1920s was injections of animal insulin isolated from pancreatic islets in cattle and pigs.  Over 50 years later the first genetically engineered human insulin was produced using E. coli bacteria, and variations of this are still used today. However, the disease is still very challenging to manage.  My family member constantly monitors his blood sugar and gives himself injections of insulin to regulate his blood sugar. 

A therapy that can self-regulate blood sugar levels for diabetes would greatly improve the lives of millions of people that deal with the disease.  Pancreatic islet cells transplanted into patients can act as a natural rheostat to continually control blood sugar levels.  Pancreas organ transplantation and islet cell transplantation are treatment options that will accomplish this.  Both options are limited in supply and patients must be kept on life-long immunosuppression so the body does not reject the transplant.  Pancreatic beta cells are also being developed from pluripotent stem cells (these are cells that have the ability to be turned into almost any other kind of cell in the body). 

Now in an advance using pluripotent stem cells, Dr. Ronald Evans and his team at the Salk Institute have created cell clusters called organoids that mimic several properties of the pancreas.  Previously, in work supported by CIRM, the team discovered that a genetic switch called ERR-gamma caused the cells to both produce insulin and be functional to respond to sugar levels in the bloodstream.  They incorporated these findings to create their functional islet clusters that they term “human islet-like islet organoids” (HILOs).  Knowing that the immune system is a major barrier for long term cell replacement therapy, Dr. Evans’ team engineered the HILOs, in work also funded by CIRM, to be resistant to immune cells by expressing the checkpoint protein PD-L1.   PD-L1 is a major target for immunotherapies whose discovery led to a Nobel Prize in 2018.  Expressing PD-L1 acts as an immune blocker.  

When the PD-L1 engineered HILOs were transplanted into diabetic mice with functioning immune systems, they were able to sustain blood glucose control for time periods up to 50 days.  The researchers also saw significantly less mobilization of immune cells after transplantation.  The hope is that these engineered HILOs can eventually be developed as a long term therapy for type 1 diabetes patients without the need for lifelong immunosuppression. 

In a press release, the Salk researchers acknowledge that more research needs to be done before this system can be advanced to clinical trials.  For example, the transplanted organoids need to be tested in mice for longer periods of time to confirm that their effects are long-lasting. More work needs to be done to ensure they would be safe to use in humans, as well. However, the proof of concept has now been established to move forward with these efforts.  Concludes Dr. Evan’s in the announcement, “We now have a product that could potentially be used in patients without requiring any kind of device.”

The full study was published in Nature.

Human immune cells made using pluripotent stem cells in world first

Dr. Andrew Elfanty (left) and Dr. Ed Stanley (right), Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia

Our immune system is the first line of defense our bodies use to fight off infections and disease. One crucial component of this defense mechanism are lymphocytes, which are specialized cells that give rise to various kinds of immune cells, such as a T cell, designed to attack and destroy harmful foreign bodies. Problems in how certain immune cells are formed can lead to diseases such as leukemia and other immune system related disorders.

But how exactly do immune cells form early on in the body?

Dr. Andrew Elfanty and Dr. Ed Stanley at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Australia have reproduced and visualized a method in the laboratory used to create human immune cells from pluripotent stem cells, a kind of stem cell that can make virtually any kind of cell in the body. Not only can this unlock a better understanding of leukemia and other immune related diseases, it could potentially lead to a patient’s own skin cells being used to produce new cells for cancer immunotherapy or to test autoimmune disease therapies.

Dr. Elefanty and Dr. Stanley used genetic engineering and a unique way of growing stem cells to make this discovery.

As observed in this video, the team was able to engineer pluripotent stem cells to glow green when they expressed a specific protein found in early immune cells. These cells can be seen migrating along blood vessels outlined in red. These cells go on to populate the thymus, which as we discussed in an earlier blog, is an organ that is crucial in developing functional T cells.

In a press release from Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Dr. Stanley talks about the important role these early immune cells might play.

“We think these early cells might be important for the correct maturation of the thymus, the organ that acts as a nursery for T-cells”

In addition to this, the team also isolated the green, glowing pluripotent stem cells and showed that they could be used for multiple immune cell types, including those necessary for shaping the development of the immune system as a whole.

In the same press release, Dr. Elefanty discusses the future direction that their research could lead to.

“Although a clinical application is likely still years away, we can use this new knowledge to test ideas about how diseases like childhood leukemia and type 1 diabetes develop. Understanding more about the steps these cells go through, and how we can more efficiently nudge them down a desired pathway, is going to be crucial to that process.”

The full results to this study were published in Nature Cell Biology.

The Top CIRM Blogs of 2019

This year the most widely read blog was actually one we wrote back in 2018. It’s the transcript of a Facebook Live: “Ask the Stem Cell Team” event about strokes and stroke recovery. Because stroke is the third leading cause of death and disability in the US it’s probably no surprise this blog has lasting power. So many people are hoping that stem cells will help them recover from a stroke.

But of the blogs that we wrote and posted this year there’s a really interesting mix of topics.

The most read 2019 blog was about a potential breakthrough in the search for a treatment for type 1 diabetes (T1D).  Two researchers at UC San Francisco, Dr. Matthias Hebrok and Dr. Gopika Nair developed a new method of replacing the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas that are destroyed by type 1 diabetes. 

Dr. Matthias Hebrok
Dr. Gopika Nair

Dr. Hebrok described it as a big advance saying: “We can now generate insulin-producing cells that look and act a lot like the pancreatic beta cells you and I have in our bodies. This is a critical step towards our goal of creating cells that could be transplanted into patients with diabetes.”

It’s not too surprising a blog about type 1 diabetes was at the top. This condition affects around 1.25 million Americans, a huge audience for any potential breakthrough. However, the blog that was the second most read is the exact opposite. It is about a rare disease called cystinosis. How rare? Well, there are only around 500 children and young adults in the US, and just 2,000 worldwide diagnosed with this condition.  

It might be rare but its impact is devastating. A genetic mutation means children with this condition lack the ability to clear an amino acid – cysteine – from their body. The buildup of cysteine leads to damage to the kidneys, eyes, liver, muscles, pancreas and brain.

Dr. Stephanie Cherqui

UC San Diego researcher Dr. Stephanie Cherqui and her team are taking the patient’s own blood stem cells and, in the lab, genetically re-engineering them to correct the mutation, then returning the cells to the patient. It’s hoped this will create a new, healthy blood system free of the disease.

Dr. Cherqui says if it works, this could help not just people with cystinosis but a wide array of other disorders: “We were thrilled that the stem cells and gene therapy worked so well to prevent tissue degeneration in the mouse model of cystinosis. This discovery opened new perspectives in regenerative medicine and in the application to other genetic disorders. Our findings may deliver a completely new paradigm for the treatment of a wide assortment of diseases including kidney and other genetic disorders.”

Sickled cells

The third most read blog was about another rare disease, but one that has been getting a lot of media attention this past year. Sickle cell disease affects around 100,000 Americans, mostly African Americans. In November the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Oxbryta, a new therapy that reduces the likelihood of blood cells becoming sickle shaped and clumping together – causing blockages in blood vessels.

But our blog focused on a stem cell approach that aims to cure the disease altogether. In many ways the researchers in this story are using a very similar approach to the one Dr. Cherqui is using for cystinosis. Genetically correcting the mutation that causes the problem, creating a new, healthy blood system free of the sickle shaped blood cells.

Two other blogs deserve honorable mentions here as well. The first is the story of James O’Brien who lost the sight in his right eye when he was 18 years old and now, 25 years later, has had it restored thanks to stem cells.

The fifth most popular blog of the year was another one about type 1 diabetes. This piece focused on the news that the CIRM Board had awarded more than $11 million to Dr. Peter Stock at UC San Francisco for a clinical trial for T1D. His approach is transplanting donor pancreatic islets and parathyroid glands into patients, hoping this will restore the person’s ability to create their own insulin and control the disease.

2019 was certainly a busy year for CIRM. We are hoping that 2020 will prove equally busy and give us many new advances to write about. You will find them all here, on The Stem Cellar.

The Most Important Gift of All

Photo courtesy American Hospital Association

There are many players who have a key role in helping make a stem cell therapy work. The scientists who develop the therapy, the medical team who deliver it and funders like CIRM who provide the money to make this all happen. But vital as they are, in some therapies there is another, even more important group; the people who donate life-saving organs and tissues for transplant and research.

Organ and tissue donation saves lives, increases knowledge of diseases, and allow for the development of novel medications to treat them. When individuals or their families authorize donation for transplant or medical research, they allow their loved ones to build a long-lasting legacy of hope that could not be accomplished in any other way.

Four of CIRM’s clinical trials involve organ donations – three kidney transplant programs (you can read about those here, here and here) and one targeting type 1 diabetes.

Dr. Nikole Neidlinger, the Chief Medical Officer with Donor Network West – the federally designated organ and tissue recovery organization for Northern California and Nevada – says it is important to recognize the critical contribution made in a time of grief and crisis by the families of deceased donors. 

“For many families who donate, a loved one has died, and they are in shock. Even so, they are willing to say yes to giving others a second chance at life and to help others to advance science. Without them, none of this would be possible. It’s the ultimate act of generosity and compassion.”

The latest CIRM-funded clinical trial involving donated tissue is with Dr. Peter Stock and his team at UCSF. They are working on a treatment for type 1 diabetes (T1D), where the body’s immune system destroys its own pancreatic beta cells. These cells are necessary to produce insulin, which regulates blood sugar levels in the body.

In the past people have tried transplanting beta cells, from donated pancreatic islets, into patients with type 1 diabetes to try and reverse the course of the disease. However, this requires islets from multiple donors and the shortage of organ and tissue donors makes this difficult to do.

Dr. Stock’s clinical trial at UCSF aims to address these limitations.  He is going to transplant both pancreatic islets and parathyroid glands, from the same donor, into T1 patients. It’s hoped this combination approach will increase beta cell survival, potentially boosting long-term insulin production and removing the need for multiple donors.  And because the transplant is placed in the patient’s forearm, it makes it easier to monitor the effectiveness and accessibility of the islet transplants. Of equal importance, the development of this site will facilitate the transplantation of stem cell derived beta cells, which are very close to clinical application.

“As a transplant surgeon, it is an absolute privilege to be able to witness the life-saving organ transplants made possible by the selfless generosity of the donor families. It is hard to imagine how families have the will to think about helping others at a time of their greatest grief. It is this willingness to help others that restores my faith in humanity”

Donor Network West plays a vital role in this process. In 2018 alone, the organization recovered 702 donor samples for research. Thanks to the generosity of the donors/donor families, the donor network has been able to provide parathyroid and pancreas tissue essential to make this clinical trial a success”

“One organ donor can save the lives of up to eight people and a tissue donor can heal more than 75 others,” says Dr. Neidlinger. “For families, the knowledge that they are transforming someone’s life, and possibly preventing another family from experiencing this same loss, can serve as a silver lining during their time of sorrow. .”

Organs that can be donated

Kidney (x2), Heart, Lungs (x2), Liver, Pancreas, Intestine

Tissue that can be donated

Corneas, Heart valves, Skin, Bone, Tendons, Cartilage, Veins

Currently, there are over 113,000 people in the U.S. waiting for an organ transplant, of which 84 % are in need of kidneys.  Sadly, 22 people die every day waiting for an organ transplant that does not come in time. The prospect of an effective treatment for type 1 diabetes means hope for thousands of people living with the chronic condition.

The challenges of living with IPEX

Last week the CIRM Board awarded $5.53 million to Dr. Rosa Bacchetta at Stanford to complete the work necessary to conduct a clinical trial for IPEX syndrome. This is a rare disease caused by mutations in the FOXP3 gene which leaves people with the condition vulnerable to immune system attacks on their organs and tissues. These attacks can be devastating, even fatal.

At the Board meeting Taylor Lookofsky, a young man with IPEX syndrome, talked about the impact the condition has had on his life. The transcript of his talk is below.

It’s a powerful reminder that syndromes like this, because they affect a small number of people, are often overlooked and have few resources devoted to finding new treatments and cures. After reading Taylor’s story you come to appreciate his courage and determination, and why the funding CIRM provides is so important in helping researchers like Dr. Bacchetta find therapies to help people like Taylor.

Brian Lookofsky (Taylor’s father), Taylor Lookofsky and Dr. Rosa Bacchetta at the CIRM Board meeting

“Good morning, my name is Taylor Lookofsky and I would first like to thank Rosa, who is one of the many doctors in my life. Rosa presented me with this amazing opportunity to come and speak to you today about my life and the challenges living with IPEX.

  • I’d like to give you some background into my health challenges I’ve faced my entire life. Now to give some context to my years of struggle, I am 28 years old, not 10 years younger as some may have assumed.
  • My first diagnosis came at the age of 1 ½ years old -type 1 diabetes.
  • Soon after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, I had to have a feeding tube inserted in my abdomen as I was restricted from eating almost all foods due to unknown food allergies. I was not allowed to ingest ANY food until the age of 6 years old. When I was finally introduced to food, any food ingested was tasteless and felt like sandpaper on my tongue since I had to train myself to eat.
  • Around age 10, I would be faced with the beginning of a never-ending battle with my dermatitis. I remember specific details where my mother had taken me to a dermatologist to try and figure out what was happening to my skin as it was red, blotchy, oozing. I remember shivering so badly that my mom had to ask the doctor’s office to turn the air down.
  • At age 18 I had been formally diagnosed with IPEX. I lost my hair and my skin started a battle that was more intense than any previous episode. I remember taking showers and clumps of my hair would fall out, and I would cry in the shower not knowing what was going on.
  • At age 20, I would go through the most horrific episode with my skin to date. I was bed ridden, on pain meds and could not sleep. I had gone to all of my doctors trying to figure out what had triggered this event, and no doctor could figure out what was happening, leaving me extremely frustrated, depressed and drained of all energy. I went to the burn center as a last resort and was then treated like a burn patient. To care for these wounds, I would bathe, take a sponge and physically scrape these wounds to keep them infection free and as clean as possible. When I would exit the bath, I felt like a dried-up sponge and my skin was so tight that any movement would make my skin crack open and start bleeding. To add to this, I had to use medicated wraps to help with the healing process.
  • In an ongoing attempt to treat my many symptoms, I took a series of medications that came with side effects. I have had at least 15 surgeries to remove squamous cells caused by one of the medications: In 2018, my colon perforated. As a result, I now have a colostomy bag.

The IPEX symptoms have affected me not just physically, but mentally as well. I had lost all my hair and growth has been permanently stunted, and I have not reached the point in puberty as my male counterparts. I would go day by day and see all my peers and be envious that they were tall, had beards and hair, had relationships, and the confidence that I was lacking and admittedly, still lack to this day at times.

I’ve felt hopeless because there have been so few treatment options and with the treatment currently available, I have tried hundreds of medications and creams, and have had my blood drawn countless times in hopes of finding a medication that works for me, or a cure for this insufferable disease. However, nothing. As a result, I have been battling depression singe age 20. There were days that went by where I thought “I just don’t want to be here if this is what life is going to be like.” 

The funding needed for Dr. Rosa’s therapy would be life changing in the way of new treatment options and potentially lead to a cure for this horrific disease.

I am determined to see that there is so much more to life than what society is telling me. I’ve decided that I would not conform to societies rules, and instead, tell society how I am going to live my unique and authentic life with IPEX.

I appreciate your time and consideration to fund this important research.”

Rare Disease, Type 1 Diabetes, and Heart Function: Breakthroughs for Three CIRM-Funded Studies

This past week, there has been a lot of mention of CIRM funded studies that really highlight the importance of the work we support and the different disease areas we make an impact on. This includes important research related to rare disease, Type 1 Diabetes (T1D), and heart function. Below is a summary of the promising CIRM-funded studies released this past week for each one of these areas.

Rare Disease

Comparison of normal (left) and Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease (PMD) brains (right) at age 2. 

Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease (PMD) is a rare genetic condition affecting boys. It can be fatal before 10 years of age and symptoms of the disease include weakness and breathing difficulties. PMD is caused by a disruption in the formation of myelin, a type of insulation around nerve fibers that allows electrical signals in the brain to travel quickly. Without proper signaling, the brain has difficulty communicating with the rest of the body. Despite knowing what causes PMD, it has been difficult to understand why there is a disruption of myelin formation in the first place.

However, in a CIRM-funded study, Dr. David Rowitch, alongside a team of researchers at UCSF, Stanford, and the University of Cambridge, has been developing potential stem cell therapies to reverse or prevent myelin loss in PMD patients.

Two new studies, of which Dr. Rowitch is the primary author, published in Cell Stem Cell, and Stem Cell Reports, respectively report promising progress in using stem cells derived from patients to identify novel PMD drugs and in efforts to treat the disease by directly transplanting neural stem cells into patients’ brains. 

In a UCSF press release, Dr. Rowitch talks about the implications of his findings, stating that,

“Together these studies advance the field of stem cell medicine by showing how a drug therapy could benefit myelination and also that neural stem cell transplantation directly into the brains of boys with PMD is safe.”

Type 1 Diabetes

Viacyte, a company that is developing a treatment for Type 1 Diabetes (T1D), announced in a press release that the company presented preliminary data from a CIRM-funded clinical trial that shows promising results. T1D is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s own immune system destroys the cells in the pancreas that make insulin, a hormone that enables our bodies to break down sugar in the blood. CIRM has been funding ViaCyte from it’s very earliest days, investing more than $72 million into the company.

The study uses pancreatic precursor cells, which are derived from stem cells, and implants them into patients in an encapsulation device. The preliminary data showed that the implanted cells, when effectively engrafted, are capable of producing circulating C-peptide, a biomarker for insulin, in patients with T1D. Optimization of the procedure needs to be explored further.

“This is encouraging news,” said Dr. Maria Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “We are very aware of the major biologic and technical challenges of an implantable cell therapy for Type 1 Diabetes, so this early biologic signal in patients is an important step for the Viacyte program.”

Heart Function

Although various genome studies have uncovered over 500 genetic variants linked to heart function, such as irregular heart rhythms and heart rate, it has been unclear exactly how they influence heart function.

In a CIRM-funded study, Dr. Kelly Frazer and her team at UCSD studied this link further by deriving heart cells from induced pluripotent stem cells. These stem cells were in turn derived from skin samples of seven family members. After conducting extensive genome-wide analysis, the team discovered that many of these genetic variations influence heart function because they affect the binding of a protein called NKX2-5.

In a press release by UCSD, Dr. Frazer elaborated on the important role this protein plays by stating that,

“NKX2-5 binds to many different places in the genome near heart genes, so it makes sense that variation in the factor itself or the DNA to which it binds would affect that function. As a result, we are finding that multiple heart-related traits can share a common mechanism — in this case, differential binding of NKX2-5 due to DNA variants.”

The full results of this study were published in Nature Genetics.

Moving a great idea targeting diabetes out of the lab and into a company

Tejal Desai in her lab at UCSF: Photo courtesy Todd Dubnicoff

It’s always gratifying to see research you have helped support go from being an intriguing idea to something with promise to a product that is now the focus of a company. It’s all the more gratifying if the product in question might one day help millions of people battling diabetes.

That’s the case with a small pouch being developed by a company called Encellin. The pouch is the brainchild of Tejal Desai, Ph.D., a professor of bioengineering at UCSF and a CIRM grantee.

Encellin’s encapsulation device

“It’s a cell encapsulation device, so this material can essentially protect beta cells from the immune system while allowing them to function by secreting insulin. We are placing stem cell-derived beta cells into the pouch which is then implanted under the skin. The cells are then able to respond to changes in sugar or glucose levels in the blood by pumping out insulin.  By placing the device in a place that is accessible we can easily remove it if we have to, but also we can recharge it and put in new cells as well.”

While the pouch was developed in Dr. Desai’s lab, the idea to take it from a promising item and try to turn it into a real-world therapy came from one of Dr. Desai’s former students, Crystal Nyitray, Ph.D.

Crystal Nyitray: Photo courtesy FierceBiotech

After getting her PhD, Nyitray went to work for the pharmaceutical giant Sanofi. In an article in FierceBiotech she says that’s where she realized that the pouch she had been working on at UCSF had real potential.

“During that time, I started to realize we really had something, that everything that pharma or biotech was looking at was something we had been developing from the ground up with those specific questions in mind,”

So Dr. Nyitray went to work for QB3, the institute created by UC San Francisco to help startups develop their ideas and get funding. The experience she gained there gave her the confidence to be the co-founder and CEO of Encellin.

Dr. Desai is a scientific advisor to Encellin. She says trying to create a device that contains insulin-secreting cells is not new. Many previous attempts failed because once the device was placed in the body, the immune system responded by creating fibrosis or scarring around it which blocked the ability of the cells to get out.

But she thinks their approach has an advantage over previous attempts.

“This is not a new idea, the idea has been around for 40 or more years but getting it to work is hard. We have a convergence of getting the right cell types and combining that with our knowledge of immunology and then the material science where we can design materials at this scale to get the kind of function that we need.

Dr. Nyitray ““If we can reduce fibrosis, it really helps the cells get nutrients better, survive better and signal more effectively. It’s really critical to their success.”

Dr. Desai says the device is still in the early stages of being tested, but already it’s showing promise.

“We have done testing in animals. Where the company is taking this is now to see if we can take this to larger animals and then ultimately people.”

She says without CIRM’s support none of this would have happened.

“CIRM has been really instrumental in helping us refine the cell technology piece of it, to get really robust cells and also to support the development to push the materials, to understand the biology, to really understand what was happening with the cell material interface. We know we have a lot of challenges ahead, but we are really excited to see if this could work.”

We are excited too. We are looking forward to seeing what Encellin does in the coming years. It could change the lives of millions of people around the world.

No pressure.