Super charging killer cells to fight leukemia

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of a natural killer cell.
Photo credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Racing car drivers are forever tinkering with their cars, trying to streamline them and soup up their engines because while fast is good, faster is better. Researchers do the same things with potential anti-cancer therapies, tinkering with them to make them safer and more readily available to patients while also boosting their ability to fight cancer.

That’s what researchers at the University of California San Diego (UCSD), in a CIRM-funded study, have done. They’ve taken immune system cells – with the already impressive name of ‘natural killer’ (NK) cells – and made them even deadlier to cancers.

These natural killer (NK) cells are considered one of our immune system’s frontline weapons against outside threats to our health, things like viruses and cancer. But sometimes the cancers manage to evade the NKs and spread throughout the body or, in the case of leukemia, throughout the blood.

Lots of researchers are looking at ways of taking a patient’s own NK cells and, in the lab boosting their ability to fight these cancers. However, using a patient’s own cells is both time consuming and very, very expensive.

Dan Kaufman MD

Dr. Dan Kaufman and his team at UCSD decided it would be better to try and develop an off-the-shelf approach, a therapy that could be mass produced from a single batch of NK cells and made available to anyone in need.

Using the iPSC method (which turns tissues like skin or blood into embryonic stem cell-like cells, capable of becoming any other cell in the body) they created a line of NK cells. Then they removed a gene called CISH which slows down the activities of cytokines, acting as a kind of brake or restraint on the immune system.

In a news release, Dr. Kaufman says removing CISH had a dramatic effect, boosting the power of the NK cells.

“We found that CISH-deleted iPSC-derived NK cells were able to effectively cure mice that harbor human leukemia cells, whereas mice treated with the unmodified NK cells died from the leukemia.”

Dr. Kaufman says the next step is to try and develop this approach for testing in people, to see if it can help people whose disease is not responding to conventional therapies.

“Importantly, iPSCs provide a stable platform for gene modification and since NK cells can be used as allogeneic cells (cells that come from donors) that do not need to be matched to individual patients, we can create a line of appropriately modified iPSC-derived NK cells suitable for treating hundreds or thousands of patients as a standardized, ‘off-the-shelf’ therapy.”

The study is published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

Two rare diseases, two pieces of good news

Dr. Stephanie Cherqui

Last week saw a flurry of really encouraging reports from projects that CIRM has supported. We blogged about two of them last Wednesday, but here’s another two programs showing promising results.

UC San Diego researcher Dr. Stephanie Cherqui is running a CIRM-funded clinical trial for cystinosis. This is a condition where patients lack the ability to clear an amino acid called cystine from their cells. As the cystine builds up it can lead to multi-organ failure affecting the kidneys, eyes, thyroid, muscle, and pancreas.

Dr. Cherqui uses the patient’s own blood stem cells, that have been genetically corrected in the lab to remove the defective gene that causes the problem. It’s hoped these new cells will help reduce the cystine buildup.

The data presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Cell and Gene Therapy (ASCGT) focused on the first patient treated with this approach. Six months after being treated the patient is showing positive trends in kidney function. His glomerular filtration rate (a measure of how well the kidneys are working) has risen from 38 (considered a sign of moderate to severe loss of kidney function) to 52 (mild loss of kidney function). In addition, he has not had to take the medication he previously needed to control the disorder, nor has he experienced any serious side effects from the therapy.

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Dr. Linda Marban of Capricor

Capricor Therapeutics also had some positive news about its therapy for people with Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). This is a progressive genetic disorder that slowly destroys the muscles. It affects mostly boys. By their teens many are unable to walk, and most die of heart or lung failure in their 20’s. 

Capricor is using a therapy called CAP-1002, using cells derived from heart stem cells, in the HOPE-2 clinical trial.

In a news release Capricor said 12-month data from the trial showed improvements in heart function, lung function and upper body strength. In contrast, a placebo control group that didn’t get the CAP-1002 treatment saw their condition deteriorate.

Craig McDonald, M.D., the lead investigator on the study, says these results are really encouraging.  “I am incredibly pleased with the outcome of the HOPE-2 trial which demonstrated clinically relevant benefits of CAP-1002 which resulted in measurable improvements in upper limb, cardiac and respiratory function. This is the first clinical trial which shows benefit to patients in advanced stages of DMD for which treatment options are limited.”

You can read the story of Caleb Sizemore, one of the patients treated in the CIRM-funded portion of this trial.

A true Hall of Fame winner

Dr. Larry Goldstein: Photo courtesy UCSD

You know you are working with some of the finest scientific minds in the world when they get elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS). It’s the science equivalent of the baseball, football or even Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. People only get in if their peers vote them in. It’s considered one of the highest honors in science, one earned over many decades of hard work. And when it comes to hard work there are few people who work harder than U.C. San Diego’s Dr. Lawrence Goldstein, one of the newly elected members of the NAS.

Dr. Goldstein – everyone calls him Larry – was the founder and director of the UCSD Stem Cell Program and the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center at UC San Diego Health and is founding scientific director of the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine.

For more than 25 years Larry’s work has targeted the brain and, in particular, Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

In 2012 his team was the first to create stem cell models for two different forms of Alzheimer’s, the hereditary and the sporadic forms. This gave researchers a new way of studying the disease, helping them better understand what causes it and looking at new ways of treating it.

His work has also helped develop a deeper understanding of the genetics of Alzheimer’s and to identify possible new targets for stem cell and other therapies.

Larry was typically modest when he heard the news, saying: “I have been very fortunate to have wonderful graduate students and fellows who have accomplished a great deal of excellent research. It is a great honor for me and for all of my past students and fellows – I am obviously delighted and hope to contribute to the important work of the National Academy of Sciences.”

But Larry doesn’t intend to rest on his laurels. He says he still has a lot of work to do, including “raising funding to test a new drug approach for Alzheimer’s disease that we’ve developed with CIRM support.”

Jennifer Briggs Braswell, PhD, worked with Larry at UCSD from 2005 to 2018. She says Larry’s election to the NAS is well deserved:

“His high quality publications, the pertinence of his studies in neurodegeneration to our current problems, and his constant, unwavering devotion to the next generation of scientists is matched only by his dedication to improving public understanding of science to motivate social, political, and financial support.  

“He has been for me a supportive mentor, expressing enthusiastic belief in the likely success of my good ideas and delivering critique with kindness and sympathy.   He continues to inspire me, our colleagues at UCSD and other communities, advocate publicly for the importance of science, and work tirelessly on solutions for neurodegenerative disorders.”

You can read about Larry’s CIRM-supported work here.

You can watch an interview with did with Larry a few years ago.

Ask the Stem Cell Team About Autism

On March 19th we held a special Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team About Autism” event. We were fortunate enough to have two great experts – Dr. Alysson Muotri from UC San Diego, and CIRM’s own Dr. Kelly Shepard. As always there is a lot of ground to cover in under one hour and there are inevitably questions we didn’t get a chance to respond to. So, Dr. Shepard has kindly agreed to provide answers to all the key questions we got on the day.

If you didn’t get a chance to see the event you can watch the video here. And feel free to share the link, and this blog, with anyone you think might be interested in the material.

Dr. Kelly Shepard

Can umbilical cord blood stem cells help reduce some of the symptoms?

This question was addressed by Dr. Muotri in the live presentation. To recap, a couple of clinical studies have been reported from scientists at Duke University and Sutter Health, but the results are not universally viewed as conclusive.  The Duke study, which focused on very young children, reported some improvements in behavior for some of the children after treatment, but it is important to note that this trial had no placebo control, so it is not clear that those patients would not have improved on their own. The Duke team has moved forward with larger trial and placebo control.

Does it have to be the child’s own cord blood or could donated blood work too?

In theory, a donated cord product could be used for similar purposes as a child’s own cord, but there is a caveat- the donated cord tissues must have some level of immune matching with the host in order to not be rejected or lead to other complications, which under certain circumstances, could be serious.

Some clinics claim that the use of fetal stem cells can help stimulate improved blood and oxygen flow to the brain. Could that help children with autism?

Fetal stem cells have been tested in FDA approved/sanctioned clinical trials for certain brain conditions such as stroke and Parkinson Disease, where there is clearer understanding of how and which parts of the brains are affected, which nerve cells have been lost or damaged, and where there is a compelling biological rationale for how certain properties the transplanted cells, such as their anti-inflammatory properties, could provide benefit.

Alysson Muotri in his lab and office at Sanford Consortium in La Jolla, California; Photograph by David Ahntholz http://www.twopointpictures.com http://www.davidahntholz.com

In his presentation, Dr. Muotri noted that neurons are not lost in autistic brains, so there is nothing that would be “replaced” by such a treatment. And although some forms of autism might include inflammation that could potentially be mitigated, it is unlikely that  the degree of benefit that might come from reducing inflammation would be worth the risks of the treatment, which includes intracranial injection of donated material.  Unfortunately, we still do not know enough about the specific causes and features of autism to determine if and to what extent stem cell treatments could prove helpful. But we are learning more every day, especially with some of the new technologies and discoveries that have been enabled by stem cell technology. 

Some therapies even use tissue from sheep claiming that a pill containing sheep pancreas can migrate to and cure a human pancreas, pills containing sheep brains can help heal human brains. What are your thoughts on those?

For some conditions, there may be a scientific rationale for how a specific drug or treatment could be delivered orally, but this really depends on the underlying biology of the condition, the means by which the drug exerts its effect, and how quickly that drug or substance will be digested, metabolized, or cleared from the body’s circulation. Many drugs that are delivered orally do not reach the brain because of the blood-brain barrier, which serves to isolate and protect the brain from potentially harmful substances in the blood circulation. For such a drug to be effective, it would have to be stable within the body for a period of time, and be something that could exert its effects on the brain either directly or indirectly.

Sheep brain or pancreas (or any other animal tissue consumed) in a pill form would be broken down into basic components immediately by digestion, i.e. amino acids, sugars, much like any other meat or food. Often complex treatments designed to be specifically targeted to the brain are delivered by intra-cranial/intrathecal injection, or by developing special strategies to evade the blood brain barrier, a challenge that is easier said than done. For autism, there is still a lot to be learned regarding how a therapeutic intervention might work to help people, so for now, I would caution against the use of dietary supplements or pills that are not prescribed or recommended by your doctor. 

What are the questions parents should ask before signing up for any stem cell therapy

There is some very good advice about this on the both the CIRM and ISSCR websites, including a handbook for patients that includes questions to ask anyone offering you a stem cell treatment, and also some fundamental facts that everyone should know about stem cells. https://www.closerlookatstemcells.org/patient-resources/

What kinds of techniques do we have now that we didn’t have in the past that can help us better understand what is happening in the brain of a child with autism.

We covered this in the online presentation. Some of the technologies discussed include:

– “disease in a dish” models from patient derived stem cells for studying causes of autism

–  new ways to make human neurons and other cell types for study

– organoid technology, to create more realistic brain tissues for studying autism

– advances in genomics and sequencing technologies to identify “signatures” of autism to help identify the underlying differences that could lead to a diagnosis

Alysson, you work with things called “brain organoids” explain what those are and could they help us in uncovering clues to the cause of autism and even possible therapies?

We blogged about this work when it was first published and you can read about it on our blog here.

Ask the Stem Cell Team About Autism

Do an online search for “autism stem cells” and you quickly come up with numerous websites offering stem cell therapies for autism. They offer encouraging phrases like “new and effective approach” and “a real, lasting treatment.” They even include dense scientific videos featuring people like Dr. Arnold Caplan, a professor at Case Western Reserve University who is known as the “father of the mesenchymal stem” (it would be interesting to know if Dr. Caplan knows he is being used as a marketing tool?)

The problem with these sites is that they are offering “therapies” that have never been proven to be safe, let alone effective. They are also very expensive and are not covered by insurance. Essentially they are preying on hope, the hope that any parent of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will do anything and everything they can to help their child.

But there is encouraging news about stem cells and autism, about their genuine potential to help children with ASD. That’s why we are holding a special Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team” about Autism on Thursday, March 19th at noon (PDT).    

The event features Dr. Alysson Muotri from UC San Diego. We have written about his work with stem cells for autism in the past. And CIRM’s own Associate Director for Discovery and Translation, Dr. Kelly Shephard.

We’ll take a look at Dr. Muotri’s work and also discuss the work of other researchers in the field, such as Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg’s work at Duke University.

But we also want you to be a part of this as well. So, join us online for the event. You can post comments and questions during the event, and we’ll do our best to answer them. Or you can send us in questions ahead of time to info@cirm.ca.gov.

If you missed the “broadcast” not to worry, you can watch it here:

‘A Tornado at the Front Door, a Tsunami at the Back Door’

CIRM funds a lot of research and all of it has life-saving potential. But every once in a while you come across a story about someone benefiting from CIRM-supported research that highlights why the work we do is so important. This story is about a brilliant researcher at UC San Diego developing a treatment for a really rare disease, one that was unlikely to get funding from a big pharmaceutical company because it offered little chance for a return on its investment. At CIRM we don’t have to worry about things like that. Stories like this are our return on investment.

Our thanks to our colleagues at UCSD News for allowing us to run this piece in full.

Jordan Janz and Dr. Stephanie Cherqui in her lab at the UC San Diego School of Medicine: Photo courtesy UC San Diego

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By Heather Buschman, PhD

Born with a rare disease called cystinosis, 20-year-old Jordan Janz arrived at a crossroads: continue life as-is, toward a future most likely leading to kidney failure and an early death or become the first patient in the world to undergo a new gene-and-stem cell therapy developed over more than a decade by UC San Diego School of Medicine researchers

For the majority of Jordan Janz’s 20 years of life, most neighbors in his tiny Canadian town never knew he was sick. Janz snowboarded, hunted and fished. He hung with friends, often playing ice hockey video games. He worked in shipping and receiving for a company that makes oil pumps.

But there were times when Janz was younger that he vomited up to 13 times each day. He received a growth hormone injection every day for six years. He needed to swallow 56 pills every day just to manage his symptoms. And the medication required around-the-clock administration, which meant his mother or another family member had to get up with him every night.

“I was tired for school every day,” Janz said. “I was held back in second grade because I missed so much school. And because the medication had a bad odor to it, when I did go to school kids would ask, ‘What’s that smell?’ It was hard.”

Janz was born with cystinosis, a rare metabolic disorder that’s detected in approximately one in 100,000 live births worldwide. People with cystinosis inherit a mutation in the gene that encodes a protein called cystinosin. Cystinosin normally helps cells transport the amino acid cystine. Because cells in people with cystinosis don’t produce the cystinosin protein, cystine accumulates. Over the years, cystine crystals build up and begin to damage tissues and organs, from the kidneys and liver to muscles, eyes and brain. Numerous symptoms and adverse consequences result.

These days, Janz manages his condition. There’s a time-release version of the symptom-relieving medication now that allows him to go 12 hours between doses, allowing for a good night’s sleep. But there’s no stopping the relentless accumulation of cystine crystals, no cure for cystinosis.  

In October 2019, Janz became the first patient to receive treatment as part of a Phase I/II clinical trial to test the safety and efficacy of a unique gene therapy approach to treating cystinosis. The treatment was developed over more than a decade of research by Stephanie Cherqui, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics, and her team at University of California San Diego School of Medicine.

“The day they started looking for people for the trial, my mom picked up the phone, found a number for Dr. Cherqui, called her and put my name in as a candidate,” Janz said.

Janz’s mom, Barb Kulyk, has long followed Cherqui’s work. Like many parents of children with cystinosis, Kulyk has attended conferences, read up on research and met many other families, doctors and scientists working on the condition. Kulyk says she trusts Cherqui completely. But she was understandably nervous for her son to be the first person ever to undergo a completely new therapy.

“It’s like giving birth,” she said shortly before Janz received his gene therapy. “You’re really looking forward to the outcome, but dreading the process.”

The treatment

Cherqui’s gene therapy approach involves genetical modifying the patient’s own stem cells. To do this, her team obtained hematopoietic stem cells from Janz’s bone marrow. These stem cells are the precursors to all blood cells, including both red blood cells and immune cells. The scientists then re-engineered Janz’s stem cells in a lab using gene therapy techniques to introduce a normal version of the cystinosin gene. Lastly, they reinfused Janz with his own now-cystinosin-producing cells. The approach is akin to a bone marrow transplant — the patient is both donor and recipient.

“A bone marrow transplant can be very risky, especially when you take hematopoietic stem cells from a another person. In that case, there’s always the chance the donor’s immune cells will attack the recipient’s organs, so-called graft-versus-host disease,” Cherqui explained. “It’s a great advantage to use the patient’s own stem cells.”

As is the case for other bone marrow transplants, Janz’s gene-modified stem cells are expected to embed themselves in his bone marrow, where they should divide and differentiate to all types of blood cells. Those cells are then expected to circulate throughout his body and embed in his tissues and organs, where they should produce the normal cystinosin protein. Based on Cherqui’s preclinical data, she expects the cystinosin protein will be transferred to the surrounding diseased cells. At that point, Janz’s cells should finally be able to appropriately transport cystine for disposal — potentially alleviating his symptoms.

Before receiving his modified stem cells, Janz had to undergo chemotherapy to make space in his bone marrow for the new cells. Not unexpectedly, Janz experienced a handful of temporary chemotherapy-associated side-effects, including immune suppression, hair loss and fatigue. He also had mucositis, an inflammation of mucous membranes lining the digestive tract, which meant he couldn’t talk or eat much for a few days.

Now, only three months after his transfusion of engineered stem cells, Cherqui reports that Janz is making a good recovery, though it’s still too early to see a decrease in his cystinosis-related symptoms.

“I’ve been sleeping at least 10 hours a day for the last few weeks,” Janz said. “It’s crazy, but I know my body is just working hard to, I guess, create a new ‘me.’ So it’s no wonder I’m tired. But I’m feeling okay overall.

“One of the hardest parts for me is being inactive for so long. I’m not used to doing nothing all day. But I’m taking an online course while I wait for my immune system to rebuild. And I’m getting pretty good at video games.”

Like all Phase I/II clinical trials, the current study is designed to first test the safety and tolerability of the new treatment. Janz knows the treatment might not necessarily help him.

“When we started this trial, my mom explained it like this: ‘We have a tornado at the front door and a tsunami at the back door, and we have to pick one to go through. Neither will be any fun and we don’t know what’s going to happen, but you have to believe you will make it and go.

“So we weighed the pros and cons and, basically, if I don’t do this trial now, when I’m older I might not be healthy and strong enough for it. So I decided to go for it because, even if there are consequences from the chemotherapy, if it works I could live 20 years longer than I’m supposed to and be healthy for the rest of my life. That’s worth it.”

Besides the possible benefit to himself, Janz also sees his participation in the clinical trial as a way to contribute to the tight-knit community of families with children who have cystinosis.

“I’m willing to do if it helps the kids,” he said. “Somebody has to do it. I don’t have the money to donate to scientific conferences and stuff like that, but I can do this trial.”

The trial

If the treatment continues to meet certain criteria for safety and efficacy for Janz and one other participant after three months, two more adult participants will be enrolled. Three months after that, if the treatment continues to be safe and effective, the trial might enroll two adolescent participants. To participate in the clinical trial, individuals must meet specific eligibility requirements.

Later in the trial, Cherqui and team will begin measuring how well the treatment actually works. The specific objectives include assessing the degree to which gene-modified stem cells establish themselves in  bone marrow, how they affect cystine levels and cystine crystal counts in blood and tissues.

“This trial is the first to use gene-modified hematopoietic stem cell gene therapy to treat a multi-organ degenerative disorder for which the protein is anchored in the membrane of the lysosomes, as opposed to secreted enzymes,” Cherqui said. “We were amazed when we tested this approach in the mouse model of cystinosis — autologous stem cell transplantation reversed the disease. The tissues remained healthy, even the kidneys and the eyes.”

Trial participants are closely monitored for the first 100 days after treatment, then tested again at six, nine, 12, 18 and 24 months post-gene therapy for a variety of factors, including vital signs, cystine levels in a number of organs, kidney function, hormone function and physical well-being.

“If successful in clinical trials, this approach could provide a one-time, lifelong therapy that may prevent the need for kidney transplantation and long-term complications caused by cystine buildup,” Cherqui said.

The future

For the trial participants, all of the pre-treatment tests, the treatment itself, and monitoring afterward means a lot of travel to and long stays in San Diego.

It’s tough on Kulyk and Janz. They have to fly in from Alberta, Canada and stay in a San Diego hotel for weeks at a time. Kulyk has two older adult children, as well as a 12-year-old and a seven-year-old at home. 

“I’ve missed a lot of things with my other kids, but none of them seem to hold any grudges,” she said. “They seem to be totally fine and accepting. They’re like, ‘We’re fine, mom. You go and take care of Jordan.’”

Janz is looking forward to getting back home to his friends, his dog and his job, which provided him with paid leave while he received treatment and recovers.

For Cherqui, the search for a cystinosis cure is more than just a scientific exercise. Cherqui began working on cystinosis as a graduate student more than 20 years ago. At the time, she said, it was simply a model in which to study genetics and gene therapy.

“When you read about cystinosis, it’s just words. You don’t put a face to it. But after I met all the families, met the kids, and now that I’ve seen many of them grow up, and some of them die of the disease — now it’s a personal fight, and they are my family too.”

Patients with cystinosis typically experience kidney failure in their 20s, requiring kidney dialysis or transplantation for survival. For those born with cystinosis who make it into adulthood, the average lifespan is approximately 28 years old.

“I’m optimistic about this trial because it’s something we’ve worked so hard for and now it’s actually happening, and these families have so much hope for a better treatment,” Cherqui said. “After all the years of painstaking laboratory research, we now need to move into the clinic. If this works, it will be wonderful. If it doesn’t, we will all be disappointed but a least we’ll be able to say we tried.”

Nancy Stack, who founded the Cystinosis Research Foundation after her own daughter, Natalie, was diagnosed with the disease, calls Cherqui “the rock star of our community.”

“She cares deeply about the patients and is always available to talk, to explain her work and to give us hope,” Stack said. “She said years ago that she would never give up until she found the cure — and now we are closer to a cure than ever before.” (Read more about Natalie here.)

In addition to cystinosis, Cherqui says this type of gene therapy approach could also lead to treatment advancements for other multi-organ degenerative disorders, such as Friedreich’s ataxia and Danon disease, as well as other kidney, genetic and systemic diseases similar to cystinosis.

While they wait for the long-term results of the treatment, Kulyk is cautiously hopeful.

“Moms are used to being able to fix everything for their children — kiss boo-boos make them better, make cupcakes for school, whip up Halloween costumes out of scraps, pull a coveted toy out of thin air when it has been sold out for months.

“But we have not been able to fix this, to take it away. I not only want this disease gone for my child, I want cystinosis to be nothing more than a memory for all the children and adults living with it. I know that even if and when Jordan is cured, there will still be so much work to do, in terms of regulatory approvals and insurance coverage.

“Having hope for your child’s disease to be cured is a slippery slope. We have all been there, held hope in our hands and had to let go. But, I find myself in a familiar place, holding onto hope again and this time I am not letting go.”

Video of Dr. Cherqui and Jordan Janz talking about the therapy

For more information about the Phase I/II clinical trial for cystinosis and to learn how to enroll, call 1-844-317-7836 or email alphastemcellclinic@ucsd.edu.

Cherqui’s research has been funded by the Cystinosis Research Foundation, California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), and National Institutes of Health. She receives additional support from the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center and CIRM-funded Alpha Stem Cell Clinic at UC San Diego Health, and AVROBIO.

How early CIRM support helped an anti-cancer therapy overcome obstacles and help patients

Dr. Catriona Jamieson, UC San Diego

When you read about a new drug or therapy being approved to help patients it always seems so simple. Researchers come up with a brilliant idea, test it to make sure it is safe and works, and then get approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to sell it to people who need it.

But it’s not always that simple, or straight forward. Sometimes it can take years, with several detours along the way, before the therapy finds its way to patients.

That’s the case with a blood cancer drug called fedratinib (we blogged about it here) and the relentless efforts by U.C. San Diego researcher Dr. Catriona Jamieson to help make it available to patients. CIRM funded the critical early stage research to help show this approach could help save lives. But it took many more years, and several setbacks, before Dr. Jamieson finally succeeded in getting approval from the FDA.

The story behind that therapy, and Dr. Jamieson’s fight, is told in the San Diego Union Tribune. Reporter Brad Fikes has been following the therapy for years and in the story he explains why he found it so fascinating, and why this was a therapy that almost didn’t make it.

“Brains” in a dish that can create electrical impulses

Brain organoids in a petri dish: photo courtesy UCSD

For several years, researchers have been able to take stem cells and use them to make three dimensional structures called organoids. These are a kind of mini organ that scientists can then use to study what happens in the real thing. For example, creating kidney organoids to see how kidney disease develops in patients.

Scientists can do the same with brain cells, creating clumps of cells that become a kind of miniature version of parts of the brain. These organoids can’t do any of the complex things our brains do – such as thinking – but they do serve as useful physical models for us to use in trying to develop a deeper understanding of the brain.

Now Alysson Muotri and his team at UC San Diego – in a study supported by two grants from CIRM – have taken the science one step further, developing brain organoids that allow us to measure the level of electrical activity they generate, and then compare it to the electrical activity seen in the developing brain of a fetus. That last sentence might cause some people to say “What?”, but this is actually really cool science that could help us gain a deeper understanding of how brains develop and come up with new ways to treat problems in the brain caused by faulty circuitry, such as autism or schizophrenia.

The team developed new, more effective methods of growing clusters of the different kinds of cells found in the brain. They then placed them on a multi-electrode array, a kind of muffin tray that could measure electrical impulses. As they fed the cells and increased the number of cells in the trays they were able to measure changes in the electrical impulses they gave off. The cells went from producing 3,000 spikes a minute to 300,000 spikes a minute. This is the first time this level of activity has been achieved in a cell-based laboratory model. But that’s not all.

When they further analyzed the activity of the organoids, they found there were some similarities to the activity seen in the brains of premature babies. For instance, both produced short bursts of activity, followed by a period of inactivity.

Alysson Muotri

In a news release Muotri says they were surprised by the finding:

“We couldn’t believe it at first — we thought our electrodes were malfunctioning. Because the data were so striking, I think many people were kind of skeptical about it, and understandably so.”

Muotri knows that this research – published in the journal Cell Stem Cell – raises ethical issues and he is quick to say that these organoids are nothing like a baby’s brain, that they differ in several critical ways. The organoids are tiny, not just in size but also in the numbers of cells involved. They also don’t have blood vessels to keep them alive or help them grow and they don’t have any ability to think.

“They are far from being functionally equivalent to a full cortex, even in a baby. In fact, we don’t yet have a way to even measure consciousness or sentience.”

What these organoids do have is the ability to help us look at the structure and activity of the brain in ways we never could before. In the past researchers depended on mice or other animals to test new ideas or therapies for human diseases or disorders. Because our brains are so different than animal brains those approaches have had limited results. Just think about how many treatments for Alzheimer’s looked promising in animal models but failed completely in people.

These new organoids allow us to explore how new therapies might work in the human brain, and hopefully increase our ability to develop more effective treatments for conditions as varied as epilepsy and autism.

Seeing is believing: A new tool to help us learn about stem cells.

Cave paintings from Libya: evidence humans communicated through visual images long before they created text

There’s a large body of research that shows that many people learn better through visuals. Studies show that much of the sensory cortex in our brain is devoted to vision so our brains use images rather than text to make sense of things.

That’s why we think it just makes sense to use visuals, as much as we can, when trying to help people understand advances in stem cell research. That’s precisely what our colleagues at U.C. San Diego are doing with a new show called “Stem Cell Science with Alysson Muotri”.

Alysson is a CIRM grantee who is doing some exciting work in developing a deeper understanding of autism. He’s also a really good communicator who can distill complex ideas down into easy to understand language.

The show features Alysson, plus other scientists at UCSD who are working hard to move the most promising research out of the lab and into clinical trials in people. Appropriately the first show in the series follows that path, exploring how discoveries made using tiny Zebrafish could hopefully lead to stem cell therapies targeting blood diseases like leukemia. This first show also highlights the important role that CIRM’s Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network will play in bringing those therapies to patients.

You can find a sneak preview of the show on YouTube. The series proper will be broadcast on California local cable via the UCTV channel at 8:00 pm on Thursdays starting July 8, 2019. 

And if you really have a lot of time on your hands you can check out the more than 300 videos CIRM has produced on every aspect of stem cell research from cures for fatal diseases to questions to ask before taking part in a clinical trial.

How a see-through fish could one day lead to substitutes for bone marrow transplants

Human blood stem cells

For years researchers have struggled to create human blood stem cells in the lab. They have done it several times with animal models, but the human kind? Well, that’s proved a bit trickier. Now a CIRM-funded team at UC San Diego (UCSD) think they have cracked the code. And that would be great news for anyone who may ever need a bone marrow transplant.

Why are blood stem cells important? Well, they help create our red and white blood cells and platelets, critical elements in carrying oxygen to all our organs and fighting infections. They have also become one of the most important weapons we have to combat deadly diseases like leukemia and lymphoma. Unfortunately, today we depend on finding a perfect or near-perfect match to make bone marrow transplants as safe and effective as possible and without a perfect match many patients miss out. That’s why this news is so exciting.

Researchers at UCSD found that the process of creating new blood stem cells depends on the action of three molecules, not two as was previously thought.

Zebrafish

Here’s where it gets a bit complicated but stick with me. The team worked with zebrafish, which use the same method to create blood stem cells as people do but also have the advantage of being translucent, so you can watch what’s going on inside them as it happens.  They noticed that a molecule called Wnt9a touches down on a receptor called Fzd9b and brings along with it something called the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR). It’s the interaction of these three together that turns a stem cell into a blood cell.

In a news release, Stephanie Grainger, the first author of the study published in Nature Cell Biology, said this discovery could help lead to new ways to grow the cells in the lab.

“Previous attempts to develop blood stem cells in a laboratory dish have failed, and that may be in part because they didn’t take the interaction between EGFR and Wnt into account.”

If this new approach helps the team generate blood stem cells in the lab these could be used to create off-the-shelf blood stem cells, instead of bone marrow transplants, to treat people battling leukemia and/or lymphoma.

CIRM is also funding a number of other projects, several in clinical trials, that involve the use of blood stem cells. Those include treatments for: Beta Thalassemia; blood cancer; HIV/AIDS; and Severe Combined Immunodeficiency among others.