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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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, 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, 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Talking research, unscrupulous clinics, and sustaining the momentum
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.
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
“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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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:
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).
In 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.
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.
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.
“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:
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.”
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.
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
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.
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
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
“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.
Every four minutes someone in the US is diagnosed with a blood cancer. It might be lymphoma or leukemia, myeloma or myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS). While we have made great strides in treating some of these over the years, we still have a long way to go. Need proof? Well, every nine minutes someone in the US dies from a blood cancer.
Because of that need, the CIRM Board last week approved $3.5 million to help fund the search for a more effective, more efficient way to treat people suffering from blood cancer.
The Board funded a program by Angiocrine Biosciences, a San Diego-based company that is developing a new method for transplanting cord blood into patients.
Now cord blood transplants have been around for decades and they can be very effective. But they can also cause serious, even life-threatening complications. And they have limitations. For example some cord blood units are small and don’t have as many stem cells as the doctors would like. As a result, patients may need to spend longer in the hospital recovering from the procedure, putting them at increased risk of viral infections or pneumonia. Alternatively, doctors could use more than one cord blood unit for each transplant and while that seems to be an effective alternative, some studies suggest it can also carry an increased risk for serious complications such as Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) where the newly transplanted cells attack the patient’s body.
To get around these issues, Angiocrine is developing a product called AB-110. This takes stem cells from cord blood, uses a specialized manufacturing facility to expand their numbers and then mixes them with genetically modified endothelial cells, the kind of cell that forms the lining of blood vessels.
It’s hoped that AB-110 will reduce the complications and increase the chances the transplanted cells will successfully engraft, meaning they start growing and creating new, healthy, blood cells.
In a news release CIRM’s President and CEO, C. Randal Mills, PhD, says this program fits in perfectly with our mission of accelerating stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs:
“This project aims to do precisely that, speeding up the body’s ability to create new white blood cells and platelets – both essential qualities when treating deadly diseases like leukemia and lymphoma. Under CIRM 2.0, we are trying to create a pipeline of products that move out of the lab and into clinical trials in people, and we’re hopeful this program will demonstrate it’s potential and get approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to begin a clinical trial.”
Everyone at Angiocrine and CIRM will work as hard as we can to move this research toward a clinical trial as fast as we can. But in the meantime there are tens of thousands of critically ill people in desperate need of a life-saving transplant.
One way of helping those in need is for new parents to donate their child’s umbilical cord blood to the state’s umbilical cord blood collection program. This is a safe procedure that doesn’t harm the baby but could save someone’s life.
The cord blood program is housed at the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures – a facility CIRM helped build and where we fund many great projects. This program is particularly important because it collects and stores cord blood units that reflect the state’s diverse communities, and that are available to all those in need of a transplant.
The bank also is a rich source of cord blood units for research, particularly for stem cell research, which will hopefully lead to even more effective therapies in the future.
When we announced that one of the researchers we fund – Dr. Henry Klassen at the University of California, Irvine – has begun his clinical trial to treat the vision-destroying disease retinitis pigmentosa, we celebrated the excitement felt by the researchers and the hope from people with the disease.
But we missed out one group. The people who make the cells that are being used in the treatment. That’s like praising a champion racecar driver for their skill and expertise, and forgetting to mention the people who built the car they drive.
Prof. Gerhard Bauer
In this case the “car” was built by the Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) team, led by Prof. Gerhard Bauer, at the University of California Davis (UC Davis).
Turns out that Gerhard and his team have been involved in more than just one clinical trial and that the work they do is helping shape stem cell research around the U.S. So we decided to get the story behind this work straight from the horse’s mouth (and if you want to know why that’s a particularly appropriate phrase to use here read this previous blog about the origins of GMP)
When did the GMP facility start, what made you decide this was needed at UC Davis?
Gerhard: In 2006 the leadership of the UC Davis School of Medicine decided that it would be important for UC Davis to have a large enough manufacturing facility for cellular and gene therapy products, as this would be the only larger academic GMP facility in Northern CA, creating an important resource for academia and also industry. So, we started planning the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures and large GMP facility with a team of facility planners, architects and scientists, and by 2007 we had our designs ready and applied for the CIRM major facilities grant, one of the first big grants CIRM offered. We were awarded the grant and started construction in 2008. We opened the Institute and GMP facility in April of 2010.
How does it work? Do you have a number of different cell lines you can manufacture or do people come to you with cell lines they want in large numbers?
Gerhard: We perform client driven manufacturing, which means the clients tell us what they need manufactured. We will, in conjunction with the client, obtain the starting product, for instance cells that need to undergo a manufacturing process to become the final product. These cells can be primary cells or also cell lines. Cell lines may perhaps be available commercially, but often it is necessary to derive the primary cell product here in the GMP facility; this can, for instance, be done from whole donor bone marrow, from apheresis peripheral blood cells, from skin cells, etc.
How many cells would a typical – if there is such a thing – order request?
Gerhard: This depends on the application and can range from 1 million cells to several billions of cells. For instance, for an eye clinical trial using autologous (from the patient themselves) hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells, a small number, such as a million cells may be sufficient. For allogeneic (from an unrelated donor) cell banks that are required to treat many patients in a clinical trial, several billion cells would be needed. We therefore need to be able to immediately and adequately adjust to the required manufacturing scale.
Why can’t researchers just make their own cells in their own lab or company?
Gerhard: For clinical trial products, there are different, higher, standards than apply for just research laboratory products. There are federal regulations that guide the manufacturing of products used in clinical trials, in this special case, cellular products. In order to produce such products, Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) rules and regulations, and guidelines laid down by both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Pharmacopeia need to be followed.
The goal is to manufacture a safe, potent and non-contaminated product that can be safely used in people. If researchers would like to use the cells or cell lines they developed in a clinical trial they have to go to a GMP manufacturer so these products can actually be used clinically. If, however, they have their own GMP facility they can make those products in house, provided of course they adhere to the rules and regulations for product manufacturing under GMP conditions.
Besides the UC Irvine retinitis pigmentosa trial now underway what other kinds of clinical trials have you supplied cells for?
Gerhard: A UC Davis sponsored clinical trial in collaboration with our Eye Center for the treatment of blindness (NCT01736059), which showed remarkable vision recovery in two out of the six patients who have been treated to date (Park et al., PMID:25491299, ), and also an industry sponsored clinical gene therapy trial for severe kidney disease. Besides cellular therapy products, we also manufacture clinical grade gene therapy vectors and specialty drug formulations.
For several years we have been supplying clinicians with a UC Davis GMP facility developed formulation of the neuroactive steroid “allopregnanolone” that was shown to act on resident neuronal stem cells. We saved several lives of patients with intractable seizures, and the formulation is also applied in clinical trials for the treatment of traumatic brain injury, Fragile X syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease.
What kinds of differences are you seeing in the industry, in the kinds of requests you get now compared to when you started?
Gerhard: In addition, gene therapy vector manufacturing and formulation work is really needed by several clients. One of the UC Davis specialties is “next generation” gene-modified mesenchymal stem cells, and we are contacted often to develop those products.
Where will we be in five years?
Gerhard: Most likely, some of the Phase I/II clinical trials (these are early stage clinical trials with, usually, relatively small numbers of patients involved) will have produced encouraging results, and product manufacturing will need to be scaled up to provide enough cellular products for Phase III clinical trials (much larger trials with many more people) and later for a product that can be licensed and marketed.
We are already working with companies that anticipate such scale up work and transitioning into manufacturing for marketing; we are planning this upcoming process with them. We also believe that certain cellular products will replace currently available standard medical treatments as they may turn out to produce superior results.
What does the public not know about the work you do that you think they should know?
Gerhard: The public should know that UC Davis has the largest academic Good Manufacturing Practice Facility in Northern California, that its design was well received by the FDA, that we are manufacturing a wide variety of products – currently about 16 – that we are capable of manufacturing several products at one time without interfering with each other, and that we are happy to work with clients from both academia and private industry through both collaborative and Fee-for-Service arrangements.
We are also very proud to have, during the last 5 years, contributed to saving several lives with some of the novel products we manufactured. And, of course, we are extremely grateful to CIRM for building this state-of-the-art facility.
You can see a video about the building of the GMP facility at UC Davis here.