Learning life lessons in the lab

Rohan Upadhyay, CIRM SPARK student 2021

One of the most amazing parts of an amazing job is getting to know the students who take part in CIRM’s SPARK (Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge) program. It’s an internship giving high school students, that reflect the diversity of California, a chance to work in a world-class stem cell research facility.

This year because of the pandemic I didn’t get a chance to meet them in person but reading the blogs they wrote about their experiences I feel as if I know them anyway.

The blogs were fun, creative, engaging and dealt with many issues, as well as stem cell and gene therapy research.

A common theme was how hard the students, many of whom knew little about stem cells before they started, had to work just to understand all the scientific jargon.

Areana Ramirez, who did her internship at UC Davis summed it up nicely when she wrote:

“Despite the struggles of taking over an hour to read a scientific article and researching what every other word meant, it was rewarding to know that all of the strain I had put on my brain was going toward a larger understanding of what it means to help others. I may not know everything about osteogenic differentiation or the polyamine pathway, but I do know the adversities that patients with Snyder-Robinson are facing and the work that is being done to help them. I do know how hard each one of our mentors are working to find new cures and are coming up with innovating ideas that will only help humankind.”

Lauren Ginn at City of Hope had the same experience, but said it taught her a valuable lesson:

“Make no mistake, searching for answers through research can sometimes feel like shooting arrows at a bulls-eye out of sight. Nonetheless, what CIRM SPARK has taught me is the potential for exploration that lies in the unknown. This internship showed me that there is so much more to science than the facts printed in textbooks.”

Rohan Upadhyay at UC Davis discovered that even when something doesn’t work out, you can still learn a lot:

“I asked my mentor (Gerhard Bauer) about what he thought had occurred. But unlike the textbooks there was no obvious answer. My mentor and I could only speculate what had occurred. It was at this point that I realized the true nature of research: every research project leads to more questions that need to be answered. As a result there is no endpoint to research. Instead there are only new beginnings.”

Melanie Nguyen, also at UC Davis, wrote her blog as a poem. But she saved the best part for the prose at the end:

“Like a hematopoietic stem cell, I have learned that I am able to pursue my different interests, to be multi-potential. One can indulge in the joys of biology while simultaneously live out their dreams of being an amateur poet. I choose it all. Similarly, a bone marrow stem cell can become whatever it may please—red, white, platelet. It’s ability to divide and differentiate is the source of its ingenuity. I view myself in the same light. Whether I can influence others with research, words, or stories, I know that with each route I will be able to make change in personalized ways.”

For Lizbeth Bonilla, at Stanford, her experiences transcended the personal and took on an even bigger significance:

“As a first-generation Mexican American, my family was thrilled about this internship and opportunity especially knowing it came from a prestigious institution. Unfortunately there is very little to no representation in our community in regards to the S.T.E.M. field. Our dreams of education and prosperity for the future have to be compromised because of the lack of support and resources. To maintain pride in our culture, we focus on work ethics and family, hoping it will be the next generations’ time to bring successful opportunities home. However, while this is a hope widely shared the effort to have it realized is often limited to men. A Latina woman’s success and interest in education are still celebrated, but not expected. As a first-generation Latina, I want to prove that I can have a career and hopefully contribute to raising the next leading generation, not with the hope that dreams are possible but to be living proof that they are.”

Reading the blogs it was sometimes easy to forget these are 16 and 17 year old students. They write with creativity, humor, thoughtfulness and maturity. They learned a lot about stem cell research over the summer. But I think they also learned a lot more about who they are as individuals and what they can achieve.

SPARKing the genius of the next generation of scientists

Dr. Kelly Shepard, SPARK program director

After almost 18 months – and counting – that have put us all to the test, made us wear masks, work from home, limit contact with all but the closest of family and friends it’s a wonderful thing to be able to get a glimpse of the future and feel that we are in good hands.

That’s how it felt this week when we held our SPARK conference. SPARK stands for Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge. The program helps high school students, that reflect the diversity of California, to take part in summer research at various institutions with a stem cell, gene therapy, or regenerative medicine focus. 

We hope the experience will inspire these students to become the next generation of scientists. Many of the students are first generation Americans, many also come from families with limited resources and without our help might not be able to afford an internship like this.

As part of the program we ask the students to not only do stem cell research and prepare a poster of their work, we also ask them to blog about it. And the blogs they write are things of beauty.

It’s hard to pick winners from so many fine writers, but in the end a team of CIRMites managed to identify a few we thought really stood out. First was Hassan Samiullah who spent his internship at Cedars-Sinai. Hassan wrote three blogs charting his journey at the research facility, working with mice and a deadly brain cancer. This is part of one of his entries.

“When many of us think of scientists, we think of crazy people performing crazy procedures in a lab. While I won’t try refuting the first part, the crazy procedures can actually be very consequential to society at large. What is now common knowledge was once found in the discussion section of a research paper. The therapies we will use to treat cancer tomorrow are being tested in labs today, even if they’re being injected into mice brains.” 

We liked his writing because he explained complex science clearly, with humor and obvious delight that he got to work in a research facility with “real” scientists. Crazy or otherwise. Here is his final blog which, I think, reflects the skill and creativity he brought to the task.

I’m almost at the end of my 7.5-week internship at Cedars-Sinai through the CIRM SPARK program. Looking back at the whole experience, I don’t think I’ve ever been through anything that’s required as much critical thinking.

I remember seeing pX330-dual-U6-Pten-Cdkn2a-Ex2-chimeric-BB-CBh-espCas9, and not having the slightest idea of what any of it meant. Sure, I understood the basics of what I was told: it’s a plasmid that can be transfected into mice brains to model glioblastoma tumors. But what do any of those strings of letters and numbers have to do with that? Well, I saw “Pten” and read it aloud: “P-t-e-n.” After I spelled it out like a kindergartener, I finally made a realization. p10 is a gene—specifically a tumor suppressor gene. I figured that the two jumbles of letters and numbers to the right must also be genes. Sure enough, the plasmid contains three mutated genes that get incorporated into a mouse’s genome, eventually leading to cancer. We didn’t actually end up using this model, however. Part of being in science is procedures not working out as expected.

Resilience is key.

When I found out that the image analysis software I was supposed to use didn’t support the type of data collection I needed to perform, I had to burn a little midnight oil to count the cells of interest manually. It proved to be well worth the effort: we found that mice tumors treated with radiation saw increased interactions between immune cells and endogenous (brain-resident) stem cells, even though they had fewer cells from the original tumor (difference wasn’t statistically significant due to an outlier in the control group). This is an important finding because it may explain the common narrative of glioblastoma: many patients see their tumors recede but suffer an aggressive relapse. This relapse may be due to immune cells’ interacting with stem cells to make them resistant to future treatments.

Understanding stem cells are so critical to cancer research, just as they are to many other fields of research. It is critical for everyone involved in science, medicine, healthcare, and policymaking to recognize and act on the potential of the regenerative medicine field to dramatically improve the quality of life for so many people.

This is just the beginning of my journey in science! I really look forward to seeing what’s next.

We look forward to it too Hassan.

Hassan wasn’t the only one we singled out for praise. Sheila Teker spent her summer at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute. She says her internship didn’t get off to a very encouraging start.

“When the CHORI security guard implied that “kids aren’t allowed” on my first day–likely assuming I was a 10-year-old smuggling myself into a highly professional laboratory – I’d also personally doubted my presence there. Being 16, I wasn’t sure I’d fit in with others in such an intimidating environment; and never did I think, applying for this program, that I could be working with stem cells. I’d heard about stem cells in the news, science classes, and the like, but even doing any cell culturing at all seemed inaccessible to me. At my age, I’d become accustomed to and discouraged by rejection since I was perceived as “too young” for anything.”

Over the course of the summer Sheila showed that while you might question her age, no one should ever question her talent and determination.  

Finally, we thought Alvin Cheng of Stanford also deserved recognition for his fine writing, starting with a really fun way to introduce his research into lower back pain.

“Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated”, Mary Shelley wrote her in 1831 edition of “Frankenstein”. Decades prior, Luigi Galvani discovered with his wife how a dead frog’s leg could twitch when an electric spark was induced. ‘Galvanism’ became the scientific basis behind the infamous novel and bioelectricity.”

While many of the students had to do their research remotely this year, that did not stop them doing amazing work. And working remotely might actually be good training for the future. CIRM’s Dr. Kelly Shepard, the Associate Director of Discovery and Translation and who runs the SPARK program, pointed out to the students that scientists now do research on the international space station from their labs here on earth, so the skills these SPARK students learned this past summer might prove invaluable in years to come.

Regardless of where they work, we see great things in the futures of these young scientists.

A little history in the making by helping the tiniest patients

Dr. Diana Farmer stands with Dr. Aijun Wang and their UC Davis research team.

It’s appropriate that at the start of Women’s History Month, UC Davis’ Dr. Diana Farmer is making a little history of her own. She launched the world’s first clinical trial using stem cells to treat spina bifida before the child is born.

Spina bifida is a birth defect caused when a baby’s spinal cord fails to develop properly in the womb. In myelomeningocele, the most severe form of spina bifida, a portion of the spinal cord or nerves is exposed in a sac through an opening in the spine. Most people with myelomeningocele have changes in their brain structure, leg weakness, and bladder and bowel dysfunction. 

Illustration of spina bifida

While surgery can help, Dr. Farmer says it is far from perfect: “Currently, the standard of care for our patients is fetal surgery, which, while promising, still leaves more than half of children with spina bifida unable to walk independently. There is an extraordinary need for a treatment that prevents or lessens the severity of this devastating condition. Our team has spent more than a decade working up to this point of being able to test such a promising therapy.” 

The team at UC Davis – in a CIRM-funded study – will use a stem cell “patch” that is placed over the exposed spinal cord, then surgically close the opening, hopefully allowing the stem cells to regenerate and protect the spinal cord.

In a news release Dr. Aijun Wang, a stem cell bioengineer, says the team has been preparing for this trial for years, helping show in animals that it is safe and effective. He is hopeful it will prove equally safe and effective in people: “Our cellular therapy approach, in combination with surgery, should encourage tissue regeneration and help patients avoid devastating impairments throughout their lives.” 

Dr. Farmer says the condition, while rare, disproportionately affects Latinx babies and if the procedure works could have an enormous impact on their lives and the lives of their families: “A successful treatment for MMC would relieve the tremendous emotional and economic cost burden on families. We know it initially costs approximately $532,000 per child with spina bifida. But the costs are likely several million dollars more due to ongoing treatments, not to mention all the pain and suffering, specialized childcare, and lost time for unpaid caregivers such as parents.”

Here is video of two English bulldogs who had their spinal injuries repaired at UC Davis using stem cells. This was part of the research that led to the clinical trial led by Dr. Farmer and Dr. Wang.

Partners in health

From left to right: Heather Dahlenburg, Jan Nolta, Jeannine Logan White, Sheng Yang
From left to right: Heather Dahlenburg, staff research associate; Jan Nolta, director of the Stem Cell Program; Jeannine Logan White, advanced cell therapy project manager; Sheng Yang, graduate student, Bridges Program, Humboldt State University, October 18, 2019. (AJ Cheline/UC Davis)

At CIRM we are modest enough to know that we can’t do everything by ourselves. To succeed we need partners. And in UC Davis we have a terrific partner. The work they do in advancing stem cell research is exciting and really promising. But it’s not just the science that makes them so special. It’s also their compassion and commitment to caring for patients.

What follows is an excerpt from an article by Lisa Howard on the work they do at UC Davis. When you read it you’ll see why we are honored to be a part of this research.

Gene therapy research at UC Davis

UC Davis’ commitment to stem cell and gene therapy research dates back more than a decade.

In 2010, with major support from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), UC Davis launched the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures, which includes research facilities as well as a Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) facility.

In 2016, led by Fred Meyers, a professor in the School of Medicine, UC Davis launched the Center for Precision Medicine and Data Sciences, bringing together innovations such as genomics and biomedical data sciences to create individualized treatments for patients.

Last year, the university launched the Gene Therapy Center, part of the IMPACT Center program.

Led by Jan Nolta, a professor of cell biology and human anatomy and the director of the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures, the new center leverages UC Davis’ network of expert researchers, facilities and equipment to establish a center of excellence aimed at developing lifelong cures for diseases.

Nolta began her career at the University of Southern California working with Donald B. Kohn on a cure for bubble baby disease, a condition in which babies are born without an immune system. The blood stem cell gene therapy has cured more than 50 babies to date.

Work at the UC Davis Gene Therapy Center targets disorders that potentially can be treated through gene replacement, editing or augmentation.

“The sectors that make up the core of our center stretch out across campus,” said Nolta. “We work with the MIND Institute a lot. We work with the bioengineering and genetics departments, and with the Cancer Center and the Center for Precision Medicine and Data Sciences.”

A recent UC Davis stem cell study shows a potential breakthrough for healing diabetic foot ulcers with a bioengineered scaffold made up of human mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). Another recent study revealed that blocking an enzyme linked with inflammation enables stem cells to repair damaged heart tissue. A cell gene therapy study demonstrated restored enzyme activity in Tay-Sachs disease affected cells in humanized mouse models.

Several cell and gene therapies have progressed to the point that ongoing clinical trials are being conducted at UC Davis for diseases, including sickle-cell anemia, retinopathy, muscle injury, dysphasia, advanced cancer, and Duchenne muscular dystrophy, among others.

“Some promising and exciting research right now at the Gene Therapy Center comes from work with hematopoietic stem cells and with viral vector delivery,” said Nolta.

Hematopoietic stem cells give rise to other blood cells. A multi-institutional Phase I clinical trial using hematopoietic stem cells to treat HIV-lymphoma patients is currently underway at UC Davis.

.Joseph Anderson

Joseph Anderson

“We are genetically engineering a patient’s own blood stem cells with genes that block HIV infection,” said Joseph Anderson, an associate professor in the UC Davis Department of Internal Medicine. The clinical trial is a collaboration with Mehrdad Abedi, the lead principal investigator.

“When the patients receive the modified stem cells, any new immune system cell, like T-cell or macrophage, that is derived from one of these stem cells, will contain the HIV-resistant genes and block further infection,” said Anderson.

He explained that an added benefit with the unique therapy is that it contains an additional gene that “tags” the stem cells. “We are able to purify the HIV-resistant cells prior to transplantation, thus enriching for a more protective cell population.

Kyle David Fink

Kyle David Fink

Kyle David Fink, an assistant professor of neurology at UC Davis, is affiliated with the Stem Cell Program and Institute for Regenerative Cures. His lab is focused on leveraging institutional expertise to bring curative therapies to rare, genetically linked neurological disorders.

“We are developing novel therapeutics targeted to the underlying genetic condition for diseases such as CDKL5 deficiency disorder, Angelman, Jordan and Rett syndromes, and Juvenile Huntington’s disease,” said Fink.

The lab is developing therapies to target the underlying genetic condition using DNA-binding domains to modify gene expression in therapeutically relevant ways. They are also creating novel delivery platforms to allow these therapeutics to reach their intended target: the brain.

“The hope is that these highly innovative methods will speed up the progress of bringing therapies to these rare neurodegenerative disease communities,” said Fink.Jasmine Carter, a graduate research assistant at the UC Davis Stem Cell Program.

Jasmine Carter, a graduate research assistant at the UC Davis Stem Cell Program, October 18, 2019. (AJ Cheline/UC Davis)

Developing potential lifetime cures

Among Nolta’s concerns is how expensive gene therapy treatments can be.

“Some of the therapies cost half a million dollars and that’s simply not available to everyone. If you are someone with no insurance or someone on Medicare, which reimburses about 65 percent, it’s harder for you to get these life-saving therapies,” said Nolta.

To help address that for cancer patients at UC Davis, Nolta has set up a team known as the “CAR T Team.”

Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy is a type of immunotherapy in which a patient’s own immune cells are reprogrammed to attack a specific protein found in cancer cells.

“We can develop our own homegrown CAR T-cells,” said Nolta. “We can use our own good manufacturing facility to genetically engineer treatments specifically for our UC Davis patients.”

Although safely developing stem cell treatments can be painfully slow for patients and their families hoping for cures, Nolta sees progress every day. She envisions a time when gene therapy treatments are no longer considered experimental and doctors will simply be able to prescribe them to their patients.

“And the beauty of the therapy is that it can work for the lifetime of a patient,” said Nolta.

California Stem Cell and Regenerative Therapy Task Force holds meeting to consider options for patient protection

Dr. Maria Millan, President and CEO of CIRM, attended the meeting to discuss the importance of having systems in place for patient protection.

What procedures are in place to ensure the quality and safety of stem cell treatments? How can patients guard against deceptive promotional practices for treatments that have no basis in science? What new procedures are needed to support patients and the development of new treatments?

These questions and others were discussed this past Wednesday by the Medical Board of California’s Stem Cell and Regenerative Therapy Task Force. The task force  held an interested parties meeting to receive information and input on options to promote consumer protection.

CIRM, the Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network, and the Department of Public Health gave formal presentations to the task force.

Dr. Maria Millan started by providing the task force with an overview of the field in general and the 56 CIRM funded Clinical Trials to illustrate the enormous promise of the field. She then contrasted this promise against numerous reports of patients being harmed by unproven and unregulated stem cell treatments provided by practitioners operating outside their field of training. Dr. Millan emphasized the critical importance of having systems in place to provide assurance to patients that treatments are appropriate for their particular disease.  She elaborated on CIRM’s core mantra that stem cell treatments be regulated, reputable and reliable. We discussed the three Rs in this posting. The fundamental aim is to put the patient interests at the center of a system that meets all regulatory and professional standards of care.

Dr. Mehrdad Abedi, Director of the UC Davis Alpha Stem Cell Clinic provided concrete examples of how they are implementing the 3Rs in their operations. Dr. Abedi emphasized the importance of best practices for manufacturing and processing stem cell products and for clinical care. He cited the operations at the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures and the various oversight committees tasked with protecting the rights and interests of patients.  Collectively, this approach, embraced by all the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics, serves to ensure all clinical trials regulated, reputable and reliable.

State of the art materials processing at the UC Davis Center for Regenerative Cures

Dr. Charity Dean of the Department of Public Health described the role of the Food and Drug Branch in licensing facilities involved in the preparation, processing and labeling of drugs. This authority extends to facilities outside of California that ship products into the state. Dr. Dean illustrated how the Department of Public Health’s Food and Drug Branch licenses manufactures, and this licensing system is designed to protect patients using such products.

After discussion and public comment, the task force co-chair, Dr. Krauss suggested the Medical Board would consider options for patient protection, include:

  • Guidance and education materials for medical practitioners
  • Sample informed consent documents designed to inform patients about the potential risks and benefits of stem cell treatments
  • Public education materials
  • An adverse event reporting system

From bench to bedside: a Q&A with stem cell expert Jan Nolta

At CIRM we are privileged to work with many remarkable people who combine brilliance, compassion and commitment to their search for new therapies to help people in need. One of those who certainly fits that description is UC Davis’ Jan Nolta.

This week the UC Davis Newsroom posted a great interview with Jan. Rather than try and summarize what she says I thought it would be better to let her talk for herself.

Jan Nolta
Jan Nolta

Talking research, unscrupulous clinics, and sustaining the momentum

(SACRAMENTO) —

In 2007, Jan Nolta returned to Northern California from St. Louis to lead what was at the time UC Davis’ brand-new stem cell program. As director of the UC Davis Stem Cell Program and the Institute for Regenerative Cures, she has overseen the opening of the institute, more than $140 million in research grants, and dozens upon dozens of research studies. She recently sat down to answer some questions about regenerative medicine and all the work taking place at UC Davis Health.

Q: Turning stem cells into cures has been your mission and mantra since you founded the program. Can you give us some examples of the most promising research?

I am so excited about our research. We have about 20 different disease-focused teams. That includes physicians, nurses, health care staff, researchers and faculty members, all working to go from the laboratory bench to patient’s bedside with therapies.

Perhaps the most promising and exciting research right now comes from combining blood-forming

stem cells with gene therapy. We’re working in about eight areas right now, and the first cure, something that we definitely can call a stem cell “cure,” is coming from this combined approach.

Soon, doctors will be able to prescribe this type of stem cell therapy. Patients will use their own bone marrow or umbilical cord stem cells. Teams such as ours, working in good manufacturing practice facilities, will make vectors, essentially “biological delivery vehicles,” carrying a good copy of the broken gene. They will be reinserted into a patient’s cells and then infused back into the patient, much like a bone marrow transplant.

“Perhaps the most promising and exciting research right now comes from combining blood-forming stem cells with gene therapy.”

Along with treating the famous bubble baby disease, where I had started my career, this approach looks very promising for sickle cell anemia. We’re hoping to use it to treat several different inherited metabolic diseases. These are conditions characterized by an abnormal build-up of toxic materials in the body’s cells. They interfere with organ and brain function. It’s caused by just a single enzyme. Using the combined stem cell gene therapy, we can effectively put a good copy of the gene for that enzyme back into a patient’s bone marrow stem cells. Then we do a bone marrow transplantation and bring back a person’s normal functioning cells.

The beauty of this therapy is that it can work for the lifetime of a patient. All of the blood cells circulating in a person’s system would be repaired. It’s the number one stem cell cure happening right now. Plus, it’s a therapy that won’t be rejected. These are a patient’s own stem cells. It is just one type of stem cell, and the first that’s being commercialized to change cells throughout the body.

Q: Let’s step back for a moment. In 2004, voters approved Proposition 71. It has funded a majority of the stem cell research here at UC Davis and throughout California. What’s been the impact of that ballot measure and how is it benefiting patients?

We have learned so much about different types of stem cells, and which stem cell will be most appropriate to treat each type of disease. That’s huge. We had to first do that before being able to start actual stem cell therapies. CIRM [California Institute for Regenerative Medicine] has funded Alpha Stem Cell Clinics. We have one of them here at UC Davis and there are only five in the entire state. These are clinics where the patients can go for high-quality clinical stem cell trials approved by the FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration]. They don’t need to go to “unapproved clinics” and spend a lot of money. And they actually shouldn’t.

“By the end of this year, we’ll have 50 clinical trials.”

By the end of this year, we’ll have 50 clinical trials [here at UC Davis Health]. There are that many in the works.

Our Alpha Clinic is right next to the hospital. It’s where we’ll be delivering a lot of the immunotherapies, gene therapies and other treatments. In fact, I might even get to personally deliver stem cells to the operating room for a patient. It will be for a clinical trial involving people who have broken their hip. It’s exciting because it feels full circle, from working in the laboratory to bringing stem cells right to the patient’s bedside.

We have ongoing clinical trials for critical limb ischemia, leukemia and, as I mentioned, sickle cell disease. Our disease teams are conducting stem cell clinical trials targeting sarcoma, cellular carcinoma, and treatments for dysphasia [a swallowing disorder], retinopathy [eye condition], Duchenne muscular dystrophy and HIV. It’s all in the works here at UC Davis Health.

There’s also great potential for therapies to help with renal disease and kidney transplants. The latter is really exciting because it’s like a mini bone marrow transplant. A kidney recipient would also get some blood-forming stem cells from the kidney donor so that they can better accept the organ and not reject it. It’s a type of stem cell therapy that could help address the burden of being on a lifelong regime of immunosuppressant drugs after transplantation.

Q: You and your colleagues get calls from family members and patients all the time. They frequently ask about stem cell “miracle” cures. What should people know about unproven treatments and unregulated stem cell clinics?

That’s a great question.The number one rule is that if you’re asked to pay money for a stem cell treatment, don’t do it. It’s a big red flag.

When it comes to advertised therapies: “The number one rule is that if you’re asked to pay money for a stem cell treatment, don’t do it. It’s a big red flag.”

Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous people out there in “unapproved clinics” who prey on desperate people. What they are delivering are probably not even stem cells. They might inject you with your own fat cells, which contain very few stem cells. Or they might use treatments that are not matched to the patient and will be immediately rejected. That’s dangerous. The FDA is shutting these unregulated clinics down one at a time. But it’s like “whack-a-mole”: shut one down and another one pops right up.

On the other hand, the Alpha Clinic is part of our mission is to help the public get to the right therapy, treatment or clinical trial. The big difference between those who make patients pay huge sums of money for unregulated and unproven treatments and UC Davis is that we’re actually using stem cells. We produce them in rigorously regulated cleanroom facilities. They are certified to contain at least 99% stem cells.

Patients and family members can always call us here. We can refer them to a genuine and approved clinical trial. If you don’t get stem cells at the beginning [of the clinical trial] because you’re part of the placebo group, you can get them later. So it’s not risky. The placebo is just saline. I know people are very, very desperate. But there are no miracle cures…yet. Clinical trials, approved by the FDA, are the only way we’re going to develop effective treatments and cures.

Q: Scientific breakthroughs take a lot of patience and time. How do you and your colleagues measure progress and stay motivated?   

Motivation?  “It’s all for the patients.”

It’s all for the patients. There are not good therapies yet for many disorders. But we’re developing them. Every day brings a triumph. Measuring progress means treating a patient in a clinical trial, or developing something in the laboratory, or getting FDA approval. The big one will be getting biological license approval from the FDA, which means a doctor can prescribe a stem cell or gene therapy treatment. Then it can be covered by a patient’s health insurance.

I’m a cancer survivor myself, and I’m also a heart patient. Our amazing team here at UC Davis has kept me alive and in great health. So I understand it from both sides. I understand the desperation of “Where do I go?” and “What do I do right now?” questions. I also understand the science side of things. Progress can feel very, very slow. But everything we do here at the Institute for Regenerative Cures is done with patients in mind, and safety.

We know that each day is so important when you’re watching a loved one suffer. We attend patient events and are part of things like Facebook groups, where people really pour their hearts out. We say to ourselves, “Okay, we must work harder and faster.” That’s our motivation: It’s all the patients and families that we’re going to help who keep us working hard.

Promising Approach to Curing Spina Bifida Gets $5.6 Million from Stem Cell Agency

300px-Spina-bifida

Every day in the U.S. four children are born with spina bifida. It is the most common cause of lifelong paralysis and also frequently leads to other serious health problems affecting the bowel and bladder. The impact on families is enormous. A new approach to repairing the defect that causes spina bifida was today awarded $5.66 million by the Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

In spina bifida the spinal cord doesn’t form properly, in many cases leaving a section of it open, exposing tissues and nerves. The current standard of care is surgery, but even this leaves almost 60% of children unable to walk independently. Diana Farmer MD, and Aijun Wang PhD at U.C. Davis will use mesenchymal stem cells, taken from a donor placenta, and place them on a form of synthetic scaffold over the injury site in the womb. Tests in animals show this approach was able to repair the defect and prevent paralysis.

“Spina bifida is a devastating condition for babies born with this disorder and the families who care for them,” says Maria T. Millan, MD, President & CEO of CIRM. “CIRM has funded this important work from its earliest stages and we are committed to working with Dr. Farmer’s team to moving this work to the stage where it can be tested in patients.”

The CLIN1 award will provide funding to enable the UC Davis team to do the final testing and preparations needed to apply to the FDA for permission to start a clinical trial.

Dr. Farmer says she and Dr. Wang, have been working on this approach for more than ten years and are excited about being able to take the next step.

“There were many times of frustration, many times when cell types we explored and worked with didn’t work,” says Dr. Farmer. “But it’s the patients, seeing them, talking to them and working with them, that keeps me motivated to do the science, to keep persevering.”

If this therapy is successful it will have a huge economic impact on California, and on the rest of the world. Because spina bifida is a lifelong condition involving many operations, many stays in the hospital and, in some cases, lifelong use of a wheelchair this has a huge financial, and psychological, burden on the family.

“It affects them in so many ways; parents having to miss work or take time off work to care for their child, other children in the family feeling neglected because their brother or sister needs so much attention,” says Dr. Farmer. “That’s why we are so grateful to CIRM. Because this is a rare disease and finding funding for those is hard. CIRM has been a perfect partner in helping bring this approach, blending stem cell therapy and tissue engineering, together to help these families.”

This video shows English bulldogs treated with this approach who are now able to walk:

New CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic offers HOPE for boys with deadly disease

UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures

For people battling Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD), a rare and fatal genetic disorder that slowly destroys muscles, hope has often been in short supply. There is no cure and treatments are limited. But now a new clinical trial at the site of one of the newest CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network members could change that.

The HOPE-2 clinical trial has treated its first patient at UC Davis Medical Center, inaugurating the institution’s Alpha Stem Cell Clinic. The clinic is part of a CIRM-created network of top California medical centers that specialize in delivering stem cell clinical trials to patients. The key to the Network’s success is the ability to accelerate the delivery of treatments to patients through partnerships with patients, medical providers and clinical trial sponsors.

UC Davis is one of five medical centers that now make up the network (the others are UC San Francisco, UCLA/UC Irvine, UC San Diego and City of Hope).

Jan NoltaIn a news release, Jan Nolta, the director of the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures, says the UC Davis Alpha Clinic is well equipped to move promising therapies out of the lab and into clinical trials and people.

“We have the full range of resource experts in regenerative medicine, from the cellular to the clinical trials level. We’re also excited about the prospect of being able to link with other Alpha Stem Cell Clinics around the state to help speed the process of testing and refining treatments so we can get therapies to patients in need.”

The news of this first patient is a cause for double celebration at CIRM. The trial is run by Capricor and CIRM funded the first phase of this work. You can read the story of Caleb Sizemore, who took part in that trial or watch this video of him talking about his fight.

When the CIRM Board approved funding for the UC Davis Alpha Clinic in October of 2017, Abla Creasey, CIRM’s Vice President for Therapeutics and Strategic Infrastructure, said:

“The Alpha Clinics are a one-of-a-kind network that gives patients access to the highest quality stem cell trials for a breadth of diseases including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and spinal cord injury. Expanding our network will allow more patients to participate in stem cell trials and will advance the development of stem cell treatments that could help or possibly cure patients.”

The UC Davis Alpha Clinic provides a one-stop shop for delivering stem cell therapies, gene therapies and immunotherapies, as well as conducting follow-up visits. It’s this type of CIRM-funded infrastructure that helps steer potential clinical trial participants away from illegitimate, unproven and potentially harmful fee-for-service stem cell treatments.

The DMD trial is the first of what we are confident will be many high-quality trials at the Clinic, bringing promising stem cell therapies to patients with unmet medical needs.

 

The Journey of a Homegrown Stem Cell Research All-Star

Nothing makes a professional sports team prouder than its homegrown talent. Training and mentoring a promising, hard-working athlete who eventually helps carry the team to a championship can lift the spirits of an entire city.

Gerhard and Brian 1

Brian Fury

Here at CIRM, we hold a similar sense of pride in Brian Fury, one of our own homegrown all-stars. Nearly a decade ago, Brian was accepted into the inaugural class of CIRM’s Bridges program which provides paid stem cell research internships to students at California universities and colleges that don’t have major stem cell research programs. The aim of the program, which has trained over 1200 students to date, is to build the stem cell work force here in California to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.

A CIRM full circle
Today, Brian is doing just that as manager of manufacturing at the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures (IRC) where he leads the preparation of stem cell therapy products for clinical trials in patients. It was at UC Davis that he did his CIRM Bridges internship as a Sacramento State masters student back in 2009. So, he’s really come full circle, especially considering he currently works in a CIRM-funded facility and manufactures stem cell therapy products for CIRM-funded clinical trials.

gerhardbauer

Gerhard Bauer

“Many of the technicians we have in the [cell manufacturing] facility are actually from the Bridges program CIRM has funded, and were educated by us,” Gerhard Bauer, Brian’s boss and director of the facility, explained to me. “Brian, in particular, has made me incredibly proud. To witness that the skills and knowledge I imparted onto my student would make him such an integral part of our program and would lead to so many novel products to be administered to people, helping with so many devastating diseases is a very special experience. I treasure it every day.”

“It sustains me”
Brian’s career path wasn’t always headed toward stem cell science. In a previous life, he was an undergrad in computer management information systems. It was a required biology class at the time that first sparked his interest in the subject. He was fascinated by the course and was inspired by his professor, Cathy Bradshaw. He still recalls a conversation he had with her to better understand her enthusiasm for biology:

“I asked her, ‘what is it about biology that really made you decide this is what you wanted to do?’ And she just said, ‘It sustains me. It is air in my lungs.’ It was what she lived and breathed. That really stuck with me early on.“

Still, Brian went on to earn his computer degree and worked as a computer professional for several years after college. But when the dot com boom went bust in the early 2000’s, Brian saw it as a sign to re-invent himself. Remembering that course with Professor Bradshaw, he went back to school to pursue a biology degree at Sacramento State University.

On a path before there was a path
Not content with just his textbooks and lectures at Sac State, Brian offered to volunteer in any lab he could find, looking for opportunities to get hands-on experience:

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Brian at work during his Sacramento State days.

“I was really hungry to get involved and I really wanted to not just be in class and learning about all these amazing things in biology but I also wanted to start putting them to work. And so, I looked for any opportunity that I could to become actively involved in actually seeing how biology really works and not just the theory.”

This drive to learn led to several volunteer stints in labs on campus as well as a lab manager job. But it was an opportunity he pursued as he was finishing up his degree that really set in motion his current career path. Gerhard Bauer happened to be giving a guest lecture at Sac State about UC Davis’ efforts to develop a stem cell-based treatment for HIV. Hearing that talk was an epiphany for Brian. “That’s really what hooked me in and helped determine that this is definitely the field that I want to enter into. It was my stepping off point.”

GerhardBrianJan

Brian Fury (center) flanked by mentors Gerhard Bauer (left) and Jan Nolta (right)

Inspired, Brian secured a volunteering gig on that project at UC Davis – along with all his other commitments at Sac State – working under Bauer and Dr. Jan Nolta, the director of the UC Davis Stem Cell Program.

That was 2008 and this little path Brian was creating by himself was just about to get some serious pavement. The next year, Sacramento State was one of sixteen California schools that was awarded the CIRM Bridges to Stem Cell Research grant. Their five-year, $3 million award (the total CIRM investment for all the schools was over $55 million) helped support a full-blown, stem cell research-focused master’s program which included 12-month, CIRM-funded internships. One of the host researchers for the internships was, you guessed it, Jan Nolta at UC Davis.

Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) was a good move
Applying to this new program was a no brainer for Brian and, sure enough, he was one of ten students selected for the first-year class. His volunteer HIV project in the Nolta lab seamlessly dovetailed into his Bridges internship project. He was placed under the mentorship of Dr. Joseph Anderson, a researcher in the Nolta lab at the time, and gained many important skills in stem cell research. Brian’s project focused on a stem cell and gene therapy approach to making HIV-resistant immune cells with the long-term goal of eradicating the virus in patients. In fact, follow on studies by the Anderson lab have helped lead to a CIRM-funded clinical trial, now underway at UC Davis, that’s testing a stem cell-based treatment for HIV/AIDs patients.

After his Bridges internship came to a close, Brian worked on a few short-term research projects at UC Davis but then found himself in a similar spot: needing to strike out on a career path that wasn’t necessarily clearly paved. He reached out to Nolta and Bauer and basically cut to the chase in an email asking, “do you know anybody?”. Bauer reply immediately, “yeah, me!”. It was late 2011 and UC Davis had built a Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) facility with the help of a CIRM Major Facility grant. Bauer only had one technician at the time and work was starting to pick up.

gmp_facility

The Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) facility in UC Davis’ Institute for Regenerative Cures.

A GMP facility is a specialized laboratory where clinical-grade cell products are prepared for use in people. To ensure the cells are not contaminated, the entire lab is sealed off from the outside environment and researchers must don full-body lab suits. We produced the video below about the GMP facility just before it opened.

Bauer knew Brian would be perfect at their GMP facility:

“Brian was a student in the first cohort of CIRM Bridges trainees and took my class Bio225 – stem cell biology and manufacturing practices. He excelled in this class, and I also could observe his lab skills in the GMP training part incorporated in this class. I was very lucky to be able to hire Brian then, since I knew what excellent abilities he had in GMP manufacturing.”

CIRM-supported student now supporting CIRM-funded clinical trials

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Brian Fury suited up in GMP facility

Since then, Brian has worked his way up to managing the entire GMP facility and its production of cell therapy products. At last count, he and the five people he supervises are juggling sixteen cell manufacturing projects. One of his current clients is Angiocrine which has a CIRM-funded clinical trial testing a cell therapy aimed to improve the availability and engraftment of blood stem cell transplants. This treatment is geared for cancer patients who have had their cancerous bone marrow removed by chemotherapy.

When a company like Angiocrine approaches Brian at the GMP facility, they already have a well-defined method for generating their cell product. Brian’s challenge is figuring out how to scale up that process to make enough cells for all the patients participating in the clinical trial. And on top of that, he must design the procedures for the clean room environment of the GMP facility, where every element of making the cells must be written down and tracked to demonstrate safety to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The right time, the right place…and a whole bunch of determination and passion
It’s extremely precise and challenging work but that’s what makes it so exciting for Brian. He tells me he’s never bored and always wakes up looking forward to what each day’s challenges will bring and figuring out how he and his team are going get these products into the clinic. It’s a responsibility he takes very seriously because he realizes what it means for his clients:

“I invest as much energy and passion and commitment into these projects as I would my own family. This is extremely important to me and I feel so incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to work on things like this. The reality is, in the GMP, people are bringing their life’s work to us in the hopes we can help people on the other end. They share all their years of development, knowledge and experience and put it in our hands and hope we can scale this up to make it meaningful for patients in need of these treatments.”

Despite all his impressive accomplishments, Brian is a very modest guy using phrases like “I was just in the right place at the right time,” during our conversation. But I was glad to hear him add “and I was the right candidate”. Because it’s clear to me that his determination and passion are the reasons for his success and is the epitome of the type of researcher CIRM had hoped its investment in the Bridges program and our SPARK high school internship program would produce for the stem cell research field.

That’s why we’ll be brimming over with an extra dose of pride on the day that one of Brian’s CIRM-funded stem cell therapy products reaches the goal line with an FDA approval.

Rare disease underdogs come out on top at CIRM Board meeting

 

It seems like an oxymoron but one in ten Americans has a rare disease. With more than 7,000 known rare diseases it’s easy to see how each one could affect thousands of individuals and still be considered a rare or orphan condition.

Only 5% of rare diseases have FDA approved therapies

rare disease

(Source: Sermo)

People with rare diseases, and their families, consider themselves the underdogs of the medical world because they often have difficulty getting a proper diagnosis (most physicians have never come across many of these diseases and so don’t know how to identify them), and even when they do get a diagnosis they have limited treatment options, and those options they do have are often very expensive.  It’s no wonder these patients and their families feel isolated and alone.

Rare diseases affect more people than HIV and Cancer combined

Hopefully some will feel less isolated after yesterday’s CIRM Board meeting when several rare diseases were among the big winners, getting funding to tackle conditions such as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, Severe Combined Immunodeficiency or SCID, Canavan disease, Tay-Sachs and Sandhoff disease. These all won awards under our Translation Research Program except for the SCID program which is a pre-clinical stage project.

As CIRM Board Chair Jonathan Thomas said in our news release, these awards have one purpose:

“The goal of our Translation program is to support the most promising stem cell-based projects and to help them accelerate that research out of the lab and into the real world, such as a clinical trial where they can be tested in people. The projects that our Board approved today are a great example of work that takes innovative approaches to developing new therapies for a wide variety of diseases.”

These awards are all for early-stage research projects, ones we hope will be successful and eventually move into clinical trials. One project approved yesterday is already in a clinical trial. Capricor Therapeutics was awarded $3.4 million to complete a combined Phase 1/2 clinical trial treating heart failure associated with Duchenne muscular dystrophy with its cardiosphere stem cell technology.  This same Capricor technology is being used in an ongoing CIRM-funded trial which aims to heal the scarring that occurs after a heart attack.

Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) is a genetic disorder that is marked by progressive muscle degeneration and weakness. The symptoms usually start in early childhood, between ages 3 and 5, and the vast majority of cases are in boys. As the disease progresses it leads to heart failure, which typically leads to death before age 40.

The Capricor clinical trial hopes to treat that aspect of DMD, one that currently has no effective treatment.

As our President and CEO Randy Mills said in our news release:

Randy Mills, Stem Cell Agency President & CEO

Randy Mills, Stem Cell Agency President & CEO

“There can be nothing worse than for a parent to watch their child slowly lose a fight against a deadly disease. Many of the programs we are funding today are focused on helping find treatments for diseases that affect children, often in infancy. Because many of these diseases are rare there are limited treatment options for them, which makes it all the more important for CIRM to focus on targeting these unmet medical needs.”

Speaking on Rare Disease Day (you can read our blog about that here) Massachusetts Senator Karen Spilka said that “Rare diseases impact over 30 Million patients and caregivers in the United States alone.”

Hopefully the steps that the CIRM Board took yesterday will ultimately help ease the struggles of some of those families.