Using stem cells to take an inside approach to fixing damaged livers

Often on the Stem Cellar we write about work that is in a clinical trial. But getting research to that stage takes years and years of dedicated work. Over the next few months we are going to profile some of the scientists we fund who are doing Discovery, or early stage research, to highlight the importance of this work in developing the treatments that could ultimately save lives.

 This first profile is by Pat Olson, Ph.D., CIRM’s Vice President of Discovery & Translation

liver

Most of us take our liver for granted.  We don’t think about the fact that our liver carries out more than 500 functions in our bodies such as modifying and removing toxins, contributing to digestion and energy production, and making substances that help our blood to clot.  Without a liver we probably wouldn’t live more than a few days.

Our liver typically functions well but certain toxins, viral infections, long-term excess alcohol consumption and metabolic diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes can have devastating effects on it.  Under these conditions, functional liver cells, called hepatocytes, die and are replaced with cells called myofibroblasts.  Myofibroblasts are cells that secrete excess collagen leading to fibrosis, a form of scarring, throughout the liver.  Eventually, a liver transplant is required but the number of donor livers available for transplant is small and the number of persons needing a functional liver is large.  Every year in the United States,  around 6,000 patients receive a new liver and more than 35,000 patients die of liver disease.

Searching for options

willenbring photo

Dr. Holger Willenbring

Dr. Holger Willenbring, a physician scientist at UCSF, is one of the CIRM-funded researchers pursuing a stem cell/regenerative medicine approach to discover a treatment for patients with severe liver disease.  There are significant challenges to treating liver disease including getting fully multi-functional hepatocytes and getting them to engraft and/or grow sufficiently to achieve adequate mass for necessary liver functions.

In previous CIRM–funded discovery research, Dr. Willenbring and his team showed that they could partially reprogram human fibroblasts (the most common cell found in connective tissue) and then turn them into immature hepatocytes.  (see our Spotlight on Liver Disease video from 2012 featuring Dr. Willenbring.) These immature hepatocytes, when transplanted into an immune-deficient mouse model of human liver failure, were shown to mature over time into hepatocytes that were comparable to normal human hepatocytes both in their gene expression and their function.

This was an important finding in that it suggested that the liver environment in a living animal (in vivo), rather than in a test tube (in vitro) in the laboratory, is important for full multi-functional maturation of hepatocytes.  The study also showed that these transplanted immature human hepatocytes could proliferate and improve the survival of this mouse model of chronic human liver disease.  But, even though this model was designed to emphasizes the growth of functional human hepatocytes, the number of cells generated was not great enough to suggest that transplantation could be avoided

A new approach

Dr. Willenbring and his team are now taking the novel approach of direct reprogramming inside the mouse.  With this approach, he seeks to avoid the challenge of low engraftment and proliferation of transplanted hepatocytes generated in the lab and transplanted. Instead, they aim to take advantage of the large number of myofibroblasts in the patient’s scarred liver by turning them directly into hepatocytes.

Recently, he and his team have shown proof-of principle that they can deliver genes to myofibroblasts and turn them into hepatocytes in a mouse. In addition these in vivo myofibroblasts-derived hepatocytes are multi-functional, and can multiply in number, and can even reverse fibrosis in a mouse with liver fibrosis.

From mice to men (women too)

Our latest round of funding for Dr. Willenbring has the goal of moving and extending these studies into human cells by improving the specificity and effectiveness of reprogramming of human myofibroblasts into hepatocytes inside the animal, rather than the lab.

He and his team will then conduct studies to test the therapeutic effectiveness and initial safety of this approach in preclinical models. The ultimate goal is to generate a potential therapy that could eventually provide hope for the 35,000 patients who die of liver disease each year in the US.

 

 

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From trauma to treatment: a Patient Advocate’s journey from helping her son battle a deadly disease to helping others do the same

Everett SCID 1

For every clinical trial CIRM funds we create a Clinical Advisory Panel or CAP. The purpose of the CAP is to make recommendations and provide guidance and advice to both CIRM and the Project Team running the trial. It’s part of our commitment to doing everything we can to help make the trial a success and get therapies to the people who need them most, the patients.

Each CAP consists of three to five members, including a Patient Advocate, an external scientific expert, and a CIRM Science Officer.

Having a Patient Advocate on a CAP fills a critical need for insight from the patient’s perspective, helping shape the trial, making sure that it is being carried out in a way that has the patient at the center. A trial designed around the patient, and with the needs of the patient in mind, is much more likely to be successful in recruiting and retaining the patients it needs to see if the therapy works.

One of the clinical trials we are currently funding is focused on severe combined immunodeficiency disease, or SCID. It’s also known as “bubble baby” disease because children with SCID are born without a functioning immune system, so even a simple virus or infection can prove fatal. In the past some of these children were kept inside sterile plastic bubbles to protect them, hence the name “bubble baby.”

Everett SCID family

Anne Klein is the Patient Advocate on the CAP for the CIRM-funded SCID trial at UCSF and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Her son Everett was born with SCID and participated in this clinical trial. We asked Anne to talk about her experience as the mother of a child with SCID, and being part of the research that could help cure children like Everett.

“When Everett was born his disease was detected through a newborn screening test. We found out he had SCID on a Wednesday, and by  Thursday we were at UCSF (University of California, San Francisco). It was very sudden and quite traumatic for the family, especially Alden (her older son). I was abruptly taken from Alden, who was just two and a half years old at the time, for two months. My husband, Brian Schmitt, had to immediately drop many responsibilities required to effectively run his small business. We weren’t prepared. It was really hard.”

(Everett had his first blood stem cell transplant when he was 7 weeks old – his mother Anne was the donor. It helped partially restore his immune system but it also resulted in some rare, severe complications as a result of his mother’s donor cells attacking his body. So when, three years later, the opportunity to get a stem cell therapy came along Anne and her husband, Brian, decided to say yes. After some initial problems following the transplant, Everett seems to be doing well and his immune system is the strongest it has ever been.)

“It’s been four years, a lot of ups and downs and a lot of trauma. But it feels like we have turned a corner. Everett can go outside now and play, and we’re hanging out more socially because we no longer have to be so concerned about him being exposed to germs or viruses.

His doctor has approved him to go to daycare, which is amazing. So, Everett is emerging into the “normal” world for the first time. It’s nerve wracking for us, but it’s also a relief.”

Everett SCID in hospital

How Anne came to be on the CAP

“Dr. Cowan from UCSF and Dr. Malech from the NIH (National Institutes of Health) reached out to me and asked me about it a few months ago. I immediately wanted to be part of the group because, obviously, it is something I am passionate about. Knowing families with SCID and what they go through, and what we went through, I will do everything I can to help make this treatment more available to as many people as need it.

I can provide insight on what it’s like to have SCID, from the patient perspective; the traumas you go through. I can help the doctors and researchers understand how the medical community can be perceived by SCID families, how appreciative we are of the medical staff and the amazing things they do for us.

I am connected to other families, both within and outside of the US, affected by this disease so I can help get the word out about this treatment and answer questions for families who want to know. It’s incredibly therapeutic to be part of this wider community, to be able to help others who have been diagnosed more recently.”

The CAP Team

“They were incredibly nice and when I did speak they were very supportive and seemed genuinely interested in getting feedback from me. I felt very comfortable. I felt they were appreciative of the patient perspective.

I think when you are a research scientist in the lab, it’s easy to miss the perspective of someone who is actually experiencing the disease you are trying to fix.

At the NIH, where Everett had his therapy, the stem cell lab people work so hard to process the gene corrected cells and get them to the patient in time. I looked through the window into the hall when Everett was getting his therapy and the lab staff were outside, in their lab coats, watching him getting his new cells infused. They wanted to see the recipient of the life-saving treatment that they prepared.

It is amazing to see the process that the doctors go through to get treatments approved. I like being on the CAP and learning about the science behind it and I think if this is successful in treating others, then that would be the best reward.”

The future:

“We still have to fly back to the NIH, in Bethesda, MD, every three months for checkups. We’ll be doing this for 15 years, until Everett is 18. It will be less frequent as Everett gets older but this kind of treatment is so new that it’s still important to do this kind of follow-up. In between those trips we go to UCSF every month, and Kaiser every 1-3 weeks, sometimes more.

I think the idea of being “cured”, when you have been through this, is a difficult thing to think about. It’s not a word I use lightly as it’s a very weighted term. We have been given the “all clear” before, only to be dealt setbacks later. Once he’s in school and has successfully conquered some normal childhood illnesses, both Brian and I will be able to relax more.

One of Everett’s many doctors once shared with me that, in the past, he sometimes had to tell parents of very sick children with SCID that there was nothing else they could do to help them. So now to have a potential treatment like this, he was so excited about a stem cell therapy showing such promise.

One thing we think about Everett and Alden, is that they are both so young and have been through so much already. I’m hoping that they can forget all this and have a chance to grow up and lead a normal life.”

What’s the big idea? Or in this case, what’s the 19 big ideas?

supermarket magazineHave you ever stood in line in a supermarket checkout line and browsed through the magazines stacked conveniently at eye level? (of course you have, we all have). They are always filled with attention-grabbing headlines like “5 Ways to a Slimmer You by Christmas” or “Ten Tips for Rock Hard Abs” (that one doesn’t work by the way).

So with those headlines in mind I was tempted to headline our latest Board meeting as: “19 Big Stem Cell Ideas That Could Change Your Life!”. And in truth, some of them might.

The Board voted to invest more than $4 million in funding for 19 big ideas as part of CIRM’s Discovery Inception program. The goal of Inception is to provide seed funding for great, early-stage ideas that may impact the field of human stem cell research but need a little support to test if they work. If they do work out, the money will also enable the researchers to gather the data they’ll need to apply for larger funding opportunities, from CIRM and other institutions, in the future

The applicants were told they didn’t have to have any data to support their belief that the idea would work, but they did have to have a strong scientific rational for why it might

As our President and CEO Randy Mills said in a news release, this is a program that encourages innovative ideas.

Randy Mills, Stem Cell Agency President & CEO

Randy Mills, CIRM President & CEO

“This is a program supporting early stage ideas that have the potential to be ground breaking. We asked scientists to pitch us their best new ideas, things they want to test but that are hard to get funding for. We know not all of these will pan out, but those that do succeed have the potential to advance our understanding of stem cells and hopefully lead to treatments in the future.”

So what are some of these “big” ideas? (Here’s where you can find the full list of those approved for funding and descriptions of what they involve). But here are some highlights.

Alysson Muotri at UC San Diego has identified some anti-retroviral drugs – already approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – that could help stop inflammation in the brain. This kind of inflammation is an important component in several diseases such as Alzheimer’s, autism, Parkinson’s, Lupus and Multiple Sclerosis. Alysson wants to find out why and how these drugs helps reduce inflammation and how it works. If he is successful it is possible that patients suffering from brain inflammation could immediately benefit from some already available anti-retroviral drugs.

Stanley Carmichael at UC Los Angeles wants to use induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells – these are adult cells that have been genetically re-programmed so they are capable of becoming any cell in the body – to see if they can help repair the damage caused by a stroke. With stroke the leading cause of adult disability in the US, there is clearly a big need for this kind of big idea.

Holger Willenbring at UC San Francisco wants to use stem cells to create a kind of mini liver, one that can help patients whose own liver is being destroyed by disease. The mini livers could, theoretically, help stabilize a person’s own liver function until a transplant donor becomes available or even help them avoid the need for liver transplantation in the first place. Considering that every year, one in five patients on the US transplant waiting list will die or become too sick for transplantation, this kind of research could have enormous life-saving implications.

We know not all of these ideas will work out. But all of them will help deepen our understanding of how stem cells work and what they can, and can’t, do. Even the best ideas start out small. Our funding gives them a chance to become something truly big.


Related Links:

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.

Glimpse the future at a fun-filled Festival of Science

Hands-on science and fun

Hands-on science and fun

Imagine a giant circus but instead of performing animals you have a Robot Zoo; instead of scary clowns you have colorful chemicals in glass beakers. That’s what AT&T Park will look like this Saturday when the 5th Annual Discovery Day opens its doors.  It’s a hands-on, eye-opening, brain-engaging celebration of science for everyone.

It’s a lot of fun

You’ll get a chance to learn about the science of sports – an appropriate subject as you’ll be doing it at the home of the 3-time World Champions of baseball, the San Francisco Giants. You’ll also be able to experience some of the training it takes to become an astronaut, without any of that pesky going-into-space business.

All in all you’ll be able to visit more than 150 hands-on exhibits and activities spread throughout the park, put together by the top science organizations, institutions and companies from all over the Bay Area. We’re talking Stanford University, UCSF, The Tech Museum, the Exploratorium, KQED, US Geological Society and the list goes on and on.

Meet the future right now

Today's scientists inspiring tomorrow's

Today’s scientists inspiring tomorrow’s

You’ll get to meet the scientists who are exploring outer space and the depths of the ocean, who are doing cutting edge research into health and who are pushing the boundaries of scientific knowledge.

And you will get a chance to meet us, the CIRM Team. We’re going to be there all day talking about the exciting progress being made in the field of stem cell research, and about the 15 clinical trials we are currently funding in heart disease, diabetes, cancer, HIV/AIDS and blindness (to name just a few).

You can find us on the Promenade level at booth P50. We’re easy to spot. We’re the coolest ones around. And if you have kids who enjoy PlayDoh, we will give them a chance to use the fun stuff to make stem cells.

But best of all Discovery Day is a chance for kids to learn how amazing science can be, to meet the scientists who are helping shape their future, and to consider a future as scientists themselves. And for the rest of us, it’s a chance to remind ourselves why we fell in love with science to start with.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the whole shebang is FREE.

The event is this Saturday, November 7 from 10am – 4pm. For details on where it is and how to get there – go to Discovery Day

Fun on the field at AT&T Park

Fun on the field at AT&T Park

Using satellites to build bigger biceps

Arnold Schwarzenegger: Photo courtesy Awesome-Body.info

Arnold Schwarzenegger:
Photo courtesy Awesome-Body.info

There are several ways you can build bigger, stronger muscles. You can take the approach favored by our former Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and pump iron till your biceps are as inflated as a birthday balloon. Or you could follow the lead of a research team we are funding and try to use stem cells to do the trick.

Our muscles contain a group of stem cells called satellite cells. These normally lie dormant until the muscle is damaged and then they spring into action to repair the injury. However, satellite cells are relatively rare and are hidden in the muscle itself, making them hard to find and notoriously difficult to study. In the past researchers have struggled to get these satellite cells to grow outside the body, which made it difficult to study muscle regeneration and develop new ways of treating muscle problems.

Finding a solution

Now a team at the University of California, San Francisco has found a solution to the problem. They started by analyzing samples of 7 different kinds of muscles (in the body, legs and head) from 43 patients. In all but two samples they found that the gene PAX7 was specifically turned on in satellite cells and the PAX7 protein was present with little variation from one muscle group to another.

Upon further sleuthing, they discovered that PAX7-positive satellite cells were the real deal because they also expressed two common cell surface markers of human satellite cells: CD29 and CD56.

The researchers then transplanted PAX7-positive cells into mice that had experienced muscle injuries. As they report in the journal Stem Cell Reports these cells not only engrafted in the mice but they also created hundreds of human-derived muscle fibers. This finding shows that satellite cells were regenerating and potentially helping to heal the damaged muscle.

What’s next

As always, anything done in mice is interesting but still needs to be replicated in people before we know for sure we are on to something.

In their conclusion the team freely admit this is just a first step but, compared to where we were before, it’s a very important step. As senior author Jason Pomerantz says:

“This is the first definitive experimental description of adult human endogenous muscle stem cell function.”

Harnessing the power of satellite cells would be of tremendous benefit to people suffering from facial paralysis, loss of hand function or muscle-wasting diseases such as sarcopenia, and could even be used as a way to deliver gene therapy to people with muscular dystrophies.

Using satellite cells to do all that, would be out of this world.