How two California researchers are advancing world class science to develop real life solutions

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In our recently launched 5-year Strategic Plan, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) profiled two researchers who have leveraged CIRM funding to translate basic biological discoveries into potential real-world solutions for devastating diseases.

Dr. Joseph Wu is director of the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute and the recipient of several CIRM awards. Eleven of them to be exact! Over the past 10 years, Dr. Wu’s lab has extensively studied the application of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) for cardiovascular disease modeling, drug discovery, and regenerative medicine. 

Dr. Wu’s extensive studies and findings have even led to a cancer vaccine technology that is now being developed by Khloris Biosciences, a biotechnology company spun out by his lab. 

Through CIRM funding, Dr. Wu has developed a process to produce cardiomyocytes (cardiac muscle cells) derived from human embryonic stem cells for clinical use and in partnership with the agency. Dr. Wu is also the principal investigator in the first-in-US clinical trial for treating ischemic heart disease. His other CIRM-funded work has also led to the development of cardiomyocytes derived from human induced pluripotent stem cells for potential use as a patch.

Over at UCLA, Dr. Lili Yang and her lab team have generated invariant Natural Killer T cells (iNKT), a special kind of immune system cell with unique features that can more effectively attack tumor cells. 

More recently, using stem cells from donor cord-blood and peripheral blood samples, Dr. Yang and her team of researchers were able to produce up to 300,000 doses of hematopoietic stem cell-engineered iNKT (HSC–iNKT) cells. The hope is that this new therapy could dramatically reduce the cost of producing immune cell products in the future. 

Additionally, Dr. Yang and her team have used iNKT cells to develop both autologous (using the patient’s own cells), and off-the-shelf anti-cancer therapeutics (using donor cells), designed to target blood cell cancers.

The success of her work has led to the creation of a start-up company called Appia Bio. In collaboration with Kite Pharma, Appia Bio is planning on developing and commercializing the promising technology. 

CIRM has been an avid supporter of Dr. Yang and Dr. Wu’s research because they pave the way for development of next-generation therapies. Through our new Strategic Plan, CIRM will continue to fund innovative research like theirs to accelerate world class science to deliver transformative regenerative medicine treatments in an equitable manner to a diverse California and the world.

Visit this page to learn more about CIRM’s new 5-year Strategic Plan and stay tuned as we share updates on our 5-year goals here on The Stem Cellar.

UCLA gene therapy offers children with LAD-1 a new chance at living a normal life

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Photo courtesy of Tamara Hogue/UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center

Leukocyte adhesion deficiency type 1 (LAD-1) is a rare pediatric disorder that causes the immune system to malfunction, resulting in recurrent, often severe, bacterial and fungal infections as well as delayed wound healing. This is because of a missing protein that would normally enable white blood cells to stick to blood vessel walls- a crucial step that is needed before moving outside the vessel walls and into tissues to fight infections. If left undiagnosed and untreated, LAD-1 is fatal and most children with the disorder will die before the age of 2.

When Marley Gaskins was finally diagnosed with LAD-1 at age 8 (an extraordinary feat on its own) she had already spent countless hours hospitalized and required round the clock attention and care. The only possible cure was a risky bone marrow transplant from a matched donor, a procedure so rarely performed that there is no data to determine the survival rate.

In search of a better treatment option, Marley’s family came across a clinical trial for children with LAD-1 led by Dr. Donald Kohn, MD, a researcher in the UCLA Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research. 

The novel clinical trial, sponsored by Rocket Pharmaceuticals and CIRM, uses gene therapy in a treatment that works by harvesting the defective blood-making stem cells, correcting the mutation in a lab, and then transplanting the properly functioning cells back into the child’s body. The process eliminates the potential rejection risks of a bone marrow transplant because the corrected cells are the patient’s own.

For Marley’s family, the decision was a no-brainer. “I didn’t hesitate in letting her be a participant in the trial,” Marley’s mother, Tamara Hogue explains, “because I knew in my heart that this would give her a chance at having a normal life.”

In 2019, 9-year-old Marley became the first LAD-1 patient ever to receive the stem cell gene therapy. In the following year, five more children received the gene therapy at UCLA, including three siblings. And Last week, Dr. Kohn reported at the American Society of Hematology Annual Meeting and Exposition that all the children “remain healthy and disease-free”. 

More than two years out of treatment, Marley’s life and daily activities are no longer constricted by the frequent and severe infections that kept her returning to the hospital for months at a time. Instead, she enjoys being an average 12-year-old: going camping, getting her ears pierced, and most importantly, attending what she calls “big school” in the coming year. For patients and families alike, the gene therapy’s success has been like a rebirth. Doctors expect that the one-time therapy will keep LAD-1 patients healthy for life.

One step closer to making ‘off-the-shelf’ immune cell therapy for cancer a reality 

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Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses a person’s own immune system to fight cancer. It comes in a variety of forms including targeted antibodies, cancer vaccines, and adoptive cell therapies. While immunotherapies have revolutionized the treatment of aggressive cancers in recent decades, they must be created on a patient-specific basis and as a result can be time consuming to manufacture/process and incredibly costly to patients already bearing the incalculable human cost of suffering from the cruelest disease.

Fortunately, the rapid progress that has led to the present era of cancer immunotherapy is expected to continue as scientists look for ways to improve efficacy and reduce cost. Just this week, a CIRM-funded study published in Cell Reports Medicine revealed a critical step forward in the development of an “off-the-shelf” cancer immunotherapy by researchers at UCLA. “We want cell therapies that can be mass-produced, frozen and shipped to hospitals around the world,” explains Lili Yang, the study’s senior author. 

Lili Yang, the study’s senior author and a member of UCLA’s Broad Stem Cell Research Center

In order to fulfil this ambitious goal, Yang and her colleagues developed a new method for producing large numbers of a specialized T cell known as invariant natural killer T (iNKT) cells. iNKT cells are rare but powerful immune cells that don’t carry the risk of graft-versus-host disease, which occurs when transplanted cells attack a recipient’s body, making them better suited to treat a wide range of patients with various cancers.

Using stem cells from donor cord-blood and peripheral blood samples, the team of researchers discovered that one cord blood donation could produce up to 5,000 doses of the therapy and one peripheral blood donation could produce up to 300,000 doses. The high yield of the resulting cells, called hematopoietic stem cell-engineered iNKT (HSC–iNKT) cells,could dramatically reduce the cost of producing immune cell products in the future. 

In order to test the efficacy of the HSC–iNKT cells, researchers conducted two very important tests. First, they compared its cancer fighting abilities to another set of immune cells called natural killer cells. The results were promising. The HSC–iNKT cells were significantly better at killing several types of tumor cells such as leukemia, melanoma, and lung cancer. Then, the HSC–iNKT cells were frozen and thawed, just as they would be if they were to one day become an off-the-shelf cell therapy. Researchers were once again delighted when they discovered that the HSC–iNKT cells sustained their tumor-killing efficacy.

Next, Yang and her team added a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) to the HSC–iNKT cells. CAR is a specialized molecule that can enable immune cells to recognize and kill a specific type of cancer. When tested in the lab, researchers found that CAR-equipped HSC–iNKT cells eliminated the specific cancerous tumors they were programmed to destroy. 

This study was made possible in part by three grants from CIRM.

Paving the way for a treatment for dementia

What happens in a stroke

When someone has a stroke, the blood flow to the brain is blocked. This kills some nerve cells and injures others. The damaged nerve cells are unable to communicate with other cells, which often results in people having impaired speech or movement.

While ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes affect large blood vessels and usually produce recognizable symptoms there’s another kind of stroke that is virtually silent. A ‘white’ stroke occurs in blood vessels so tiny that the impact may not be noticed. But over time that damage can accumulate and lead to a form of dementia and even speed up the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Now Dr. Tom Carmichael and his team at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA have developed a potential treatment for this, using stem cells that may help repair the damage caused by a white stroke. This was part of a CIRM-funded study (DISC2-12169 – $250,000).

Instead of trying to directly repair the damaged neurons, the brain nerve cells affected by a stroke, they are creating support cells called astrocytes, to help stimulate the body’s own repair mechanisms.

In a news release, Dr. Irene Llorente, the study’s first author, says these astrocytes play an important role in the brain.

“These cells accomplish many tasks in repairing the brain. We wanted to replace the cells that we knew were lost, but along the way, we learned that these astrocytes also help in other ways.”

The researchers took skin tissue and, using the iPSC method (which enables researchers to turn cells into any other kind of cell in the body) turned it into astrocytes. They then boosted the ability of these astrocytes to produce chemical signals that can stimulate healing among the cells damaged by the stroke.

These astrocytes were then not only able to help repair some of the damaged neurons, enabling them to once again communicate with other neurons, but they also helped another kind of brain cell called oligodendrocyte progenitor cells or OPCs. These cells help make a protective sheath around axons, which transmit electrical signals between brain cells. The new astrocytes stimulated the OPCs into repairing the protective sheath around the axons.

Mice who had these astrocytes implanted in them showed improved memory and motor skills within four months of the treatment.  

And now the team have taken this approach one step further. They have developed a method of growing these astrocytes in large amounts, at very high quality, in a relatively short time. The importance of that is it means they can produce the number of cells needed to treat a person.

“We can produce the astrocytes in 35 days,” Llorente says. “This process allows rapid, efficient, reliable and clinically viable production of our therapeutic product.”

The next step is to chat with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to see what else they’ll need to do to show they are ready for a clinical trial.

The study is published in the journal Stem Cell Research.

New Study Shows CIRM-Supported Therapy Cures More than 95% of Children Born with a Fatal Immune Disorder

Dr. Donald B. Kohn; Photo courtesy UCLA

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that an experimental form of stem cell and gene therapy has cured 48 of 50 children born with a deadly condition called ADA-SCID.

Children with ADA-SCID, (severe combined immunodeficiency due to adenosine deaminase deficiency) lack a key enzyme that is essential for a healthy, functioning immune system. As a result, even a simple infection could prove fatal to these children and, left untreated, most will die within the first two years of life.

In the study, part of which was supported by CIRM, researchers at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) in London took some of the children’s own blood-forming stem cells and, in the lab, corrected the genetic mutation that causes ADA-SCID. They then returned those cells to the children. The hope was that over time the corrected stem cells would create a new blood supply and repair the immune system.

In the NEJM study the researchers reported outcomes for the children two and three years post treatment.

“Between all three clinical trials, 50 patients were treated, and the overall results were very encouraging,” said Dr. Don Kohn, a distinguished professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a member of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA. “All the patients are alive and well, and in more than 95% of them, the therapy appears to have corrected their underlying immune system problems.”

Two of the children did not respond to the therapy and both were returned to the current standard-of-care therapy. One subsequently underwent a bone marrow transplant. None of the children in the study experienced serious side-effects.

“This is encouraging news for all families affected by this rare but deadly condition,” says Maria T. Millan, MD, President and CEO of CIRM. “It’s also a testament to the power of persistence. Don Kohn has been working on developing this kind of therapy for 35 years. To see it paying off like this is a remarkable testament to his skill as a researcher and determination to help these patients.”

Remembering Eli Broad, philanthropist and stem cell champion

Eli Broad, Photo by Nancy Pastor

The world of stem cell research lost a good friend this weekend. Eli Broad, a generous supporter of science, education and the arts, passed away at the age of 87.

Eli came from humble origins, born in the Bronx to an immigrant father who worked as a house painter and a mother who was a seamstress. He went to Michigan State University, working a number of jobs to pay his way, including selling women’s shoes, working as a door-to-door salesman for garbage disposal units, and delivering rolls of film to be developed. He graduated in three years and then became the youngest person ever to pass the CPA exam in Michigan.

He started out as an accountant but quickly switched to housing and development and was a millionaire by the time he was 30. As his wealth grew so did his interest in using that money to support causes dear to him and his wife Edythe.

With the passage of Proposition 71 in 2004 Broad put up money to help create the Broad Stem Cell Centers at UCLA, UC San Francisco and the University of Southern California. Those three institutions became powerhouses in stem cell research and the work they do is a lasting legacy to the generosity of the Broads.

Rosa Dilani, histology core manager at the Eli and Edythe Broad CIRM Center, explains the lab’s function to Eli Broad after the Oct. 29 ribbon cutting of the new building. In the background are U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (in purple) and Bob Klein in gray suit.

“Science has lost one of its greatest philanthropic supporters,” says Jonathan Thomas, PhD, JD, Chair of the CIRM Board. ” Eli and Edye Broad set the table for decades of transformative work in stem cell and gene therapy through their enthusiastic support for Proposition 71 and funding at a critical time in the early days of regenerative medicine. Their recent additional generous contributions to USC, UCLA and UCSF helped to further advance that work.  Eli and Edye understood the critical role of science in making the world a better place.  Through these gifts and their enabling support of the Broad Institute with Harvard and MIT, they have left a lasting legacy in the advancement of medicine that cannot be overstated.”

Through the Broad Foundation he helped fund groundbreaking work not just in science but also education and the arts. Gerun Riley, President of the Broad Foundation says Eli was always interested in improving the lives of others.

“As a businessman Eli saw around corners, as a philanthropist he saw the problems in the world and tried to fix them, as a citizen he saw the possibility in our shared community, and as a husband, father, mentor and friend he saw the potential in each of us.”

Eli and Edythe Broad

Three UC’s Join Forces to Launch CRISPR Clinical Trial Targeting Sickle Cell Disease

Sickle shaped red blood cells

The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), in collaboration with UC Berkeley (UCB) and UC Los Angeles (UCLA), have been given permission by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to launch a first-in-human clinical trial using CRISPR technology as a gene-editing technique to cure Sickle Cell Disease.

This research has been funded by CIRM from the early stages and, in a co-funding partnership with theNational Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute under the Cure Sickle Cell initiatve, CIRM supported the work that allowed this program to gain FDA permission to proceed into clinical trials.    

Sickle Cell Disease is a blood disorder that affects around 100,000 people, mostly Black and Latinx people in the US. It is caused by a single genetic mutation that results in the production of “sickle” shaped red blood cells. Normal red blood cells are round and smooth and flow easily through blood vessels. But the sickle-shaped ones are rigid and brittle and clump together, clogging vessels and causing painful crisis episodes, recurrent hospitalization, multi-organ damage and mini-strokes.    

The three UC’s have combined their respective expertise to bring this program forward.

The CRISPR-Cas9 technology was developed by UC Berkeley’s Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna, PhD. UCLA is a collaborating site, with expertise in genetic analysis and cell manufacturing and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland is the lead clinical center, leveraging its renowned expertise in cord blood and marrow transplantation and in gene therapy for sickle cell disease.

The approach involves retrieving blood stem cells from the patient and, using a technique involving electrical pulses, these cells are treated to correct the mutation using CRISPR technology. The corrected cells will then be transplanted back into the patient.

Dr. Mark Walters

In a news release, UCSF’s Dr. Mark Walters, the principal investigator of the project, says using this new gene-editing approach could be a game-changer. “This therapy has the potential to transform sickle cell disease care by producing an accessible, curative treatment that is safer than the current therapy of stem cell transplant from a healthy bone marrow donor. If this is successfully applied in young patients, it has the potential to prevent irreversible complications of the disease. Based on our experience with bone marrow transplants, we predict that correcting 20% of the genes should be sufficient to out-compete the native sickle cells and have a strong clinical benefit.”

Dr. Maria T. Millan, President & CEO of CIRM, said this collaborative approach can be a model for tackling other diseases. “When we entered into our partnership with the NHLBI we hoped that combining our resources and expertise could accelerate the development of cell and gene therapies for SCD. And now to see these three UC institutions collaborating on bringing this therapy to patients is truly exciting and highlights how working together we can achieve far more than just operating individually.”

The 4-year study will include six adults and three adolescents with severe sickle cell disease. It is planned to begin this summer in Oakland and Los Angeles.

The three UCs combined to produce a video to accompany news about the trial. Here it is:

Progress in the fight against Sickle Cell Disease

Marissa Cors, sickle cell disease patient advocate

Last November Marissa Cors, a patient advocate in the fight against Sickle Cell Disease (SCD), told the Stem Cellar “A stem cell cure will end generations of guilt, suffering, pain and early death. It will give SCD families relief from the financial, emotional and spiritual burden of caring someone living with SCD. It will give all of us an opportunity to have a normal life. Go to school, go to work, live with confidence.” With each passing month it seems we are getting closer to that day.

CIRM is funding four clinical trials targeting SCD and another project we are supporting has just been given the green light by the Food and Drug Administration to start a clinical trial. Clearly progress is being made.

Yesterday we got a chance to see that progress. We held a Zoom event featuring Marissa Cors and other key figures in the fight against SCD, CIRM Science Officer Dr. Ingrid Caras and Evie Junior. Evie is a pioneer in this struggle, having lived with sickle cell all his life but now hoping to live his life free of the disease. He is five months past a treatment that holds out the hope of eradicating the distorted blood cells that cause such devastation to people with the disease.

You can listen to his story, and hear about the other progress being made. Here’s a recording of the Zoom event.

You can also join Marissa every week on her live event on Facebook, Sickle Cell Experience Live.

UCLA scientists discover how SARS-CoV-2 causes multiple organ failure in mice

Heart muscle cells in an uninfected mouse (left) and a mouse infected with SARS-CoV-2 (right) with mitochondria seen in pink. The disorganization of the cells and mitochondria in the image at right is associated with irregular heartbeat and death.
Image credit: UCLA Broad Stem Cell Center

As the worldwide coronavirus pandemic rages on, scientists are trying to better understand SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and the effects that it may have beyond those most commonly observed in the lungs. A CIRM-funded project at UCLA, co-led by Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami, Ph.D. and Arjun Deb, M.D. discovered that SARS-CoV-2 can cause organ failure in the heart, kidney, spleen, and other vital organs of mice.

Mouse models are used to better understand the effects that a disease can have on humans. SARS-CoV-2 relies on a protein named ACE2 to infect humans. However, the virus doesn’t recognize the mouse version of the ACE2 protein, so healthy mice exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus don’t get sick.

To address this, past experiments by other research teams have genetically engineered mice to have the human version of the ACE2 protein in their lungs. These teams then infected the mice, through the nose, with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Although this process led to viral infection in the mice and caused pneumonia, they don’t get as broad a range of other symptoms as humans do.

Previous research in humans has suggested that SARS-CoV-2 can circulate through the bloodstream to reach multiple organs. To evaluate this further, the UCLA researchers genetically engineered mice to have the human version of the ACE2 protein in the heart and other vital organs. They then infected half of the mice by injecting SARS-CoV-2 into their bloodstreams and compared them to mice that were not infected. The UCLA team tracked overall health and analyzed how levels of certain genes and proteins in the mice changed.

Within seven days, all of the mice infected with the virus had stopped eating, were completely inactive, and had lost an average of about 20% of their body weight. The genetically engineered mice that had not been infected with the virus did not lose a significant amount of weight. Furthermore, the infected mice had altered levels of immune cells, swelling of the heart tissue, and deterioration of the spleen. All of these are symptoms that have been observed in people who are critically ill with COVID-19.

What’s even more surprising is that the UCLA team also found that genes that help cells generate energy were shut off in the heart, kidney, spleen and lungs of the infected mice. The study also revealed that some changes were long-lasting throughout the organs in mice with SARS-CoV-2. Not only were genes turned off in some cells, the virus made epigenetic changes, which are chemical alterations to the structure of DNA that can cause more lasting effects. This might help explain why some people that have contracted COVID-19 have symptoms for weeks or months after they no longer have traces of the virus in their body.

In a UCLA press release, Dr. Deb discusses the importance and significance of their findings.

“This mouse model is a really powerful tool for studying SARS-CoV-2 in a living system. Understanding how this virus can hijack our cells might eventually lead to new ways to prevent or treat the organ failure that can accompany COVID-19 in humans.”

The full results of this study were published in JCI Insight.

Explaining COVID can be a pitch

When people ask me what I do at CIRM I sometimes half-jokingly tell them that I’m the official translator: I take complex science and turn it into everyday English. That’s important. The taxpayers of California have a right to know how their money is being spent and how it might benefit them. But that message can be even more effective when it comes from the scientists themselves.

Recently we asked some of the scientists we are funding to do research into COVID-19 to record what’s called an “elevator pitch”. This is where they prepare an explanation of their work that is in ordinary English and is quite short, short enough to say it to someone as you ride in an elevator. Hence the name.

It sounds easy enough. But it’s not. When you are used to talking in the language of science day in and day out, suddenly switching codes to talk about your work in plain English can take some practice. Also, you have spent years, often decades, on this work and to have to explain it in around one minute is no easy thing.

But our researchers rose to the challenge. Here’s some examples of just how well they did.