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.

CIRM funded trial for sickle cell disease gives patient a chance for a better future

Evie Junior is participating in a CIRM funded clinical trial for sickle cell disease that uses a stem cell gene therapy approach. Image credit: UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center

For Evie Junior, personal health and fitness have always been a top priority. During his childhood, he was active and played football, basketball, and baseball in the Bronx, New York. One would never guess that after playing these sports, some nights he experienced pain crises so severe that he was unable to walk. One would also be shocked to hear that he had to have his gallbladder and spleen removed as a child as well.

The health issues that Evie has faced all of his life are related to his diagnosis of sickle cell disease (SCD), a genetic, blood related disorder. SCD causes blood stem cells in the bone marrow, which make blood cells, to produce hard, “sickle” shaped red blood cells. These “sickle” shaped blood cells die early, causing there to be a lack of red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body. Due to their “sickle” shape, these cells also get stuck in blood vessels and block blood flow, resulting in excruciating bouts of pain that come on with no warning and can leave patients hospitalized for days.

SCD affects 100,000 people in the United States, the majority of whom are from the Black and Latinx communities, and millions more people around the world,. It can ultimately lead to strokes, organ damage, and early death.

Growing up with SCD inspired Evie to become an emergency medical technician, where he would be able to help patients treat their pain en route to the hospital, in much the same way he has managed his own pain crises for his whole life. Unfortunately as time passed, Evie’s pain crises became harder and harder to manage.

Then in July 2019, Evie decided to enroll in a CIRM funded clinical trial for a stem cell gene therapy to treat SCD. The therapy, developed by Dr. Don Kohn at UCLA, is intended to correct the genetic mutation in a patient’s blood stem cells to allow them to produce healthy red blood cells. Dr. Kohn has already applied the same concept to successfully treat several genetic immune system deficiencies in two other CIRM funded trials, including a cure for a form of Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, also known as bubble baby disease, as well as X-Linked Chronic Granulomatous Disease.

After some delays related to the coronavirus pandemic, Evie finally received an infusion of his own blood stem cells that had been genetically modified to overcome the mutation that causes SCD in July 2020.

Although the results are still very preliminary, so far they look very promising. Three months after his treatment, blood tests indicated that 70% of Evie’s blood stem cells had the new corrected gene. The UCLA team estimates that a 20% correction would be enough to prevent future sickle cell complications. What is also encouraging is that Evie hasn’t had a pain crisis since undergoing the treatment.

In a press release from UCLA, Dr. Kohn discusses that he is cautiously optimistic about these results.

“It’s too early to declare victory, but it’s looking quite promising at this point. Once we’re at six months to a year, if it looks like it does now, I’ll feel very comfortable that he’s likely to have a permanent benefit.”

In the same press release, Evie talks about what a cure would mean for his future and his life going forward.

“I want to be present in my kids’ lives, so I’ve always said I’m not going to have kids unless I can get this cured. But if this works, it means I could start a family one day.”

You can learn more about Evie’s story and the remarkable CIRM funded work at UCLA by watching the video below.

A look back at 15 years of CIRM funding at UCLA

Researchers in the lab of CIRM grantee Donald Kohn, M.D.
Image Credit: UCLA Broad Stem Cell Center

Since the first grant was issued in April 2006, CIRM has funded a wide range of research conducted by top scientists at UCLA for a wide range of diseases. To give a retrospective look at all the research, UCLA released a news article that describes all this work up until this past September. During this period, UCLA researchers were awarded 120 grants totaling more than $307 million. We’ll highlight some of these findings from the article below.

51 Basic Biology CIRM Grants

Basic biology research encompasses very early stage work that focuses on the very essentials such as how stem cells work, how to successfully turn a stem cell into another type of cell, and other basic mechanisms that underly the stem cell research field. This research is critical because they inform future therapies for dozens of conditions including heart disease, genetic and blood disorders, cancer, spinal cord injuries and neurological disorders.

3 Consecutive Year-Long CIRM Training Grants

These CIRM grants are essential in training the next generation of scientists and physicians in the regenerative medicine field. The CIRM training grants supported 146 graduate students, post‐doctoral fellows, and clinical fellows working in UCLA laboratories by providing them year-long  training fellowships. This program was so successful that the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center funded 26 additional fellowships to supplement CIRM’s support.

5 COVID-19 Related Grants

Shortly after the coronavirus pandemic, CIRM authorized  $5 million in emergency funding to fund COVID-19 related projects. UCLA has received a $1.02 million to support four discovery research projects and one translational project. Discovery research promotes promising new technologies that could be translated to enable broad use and improve patient care. Translational research takes it a step further by promoting the activities necessary for advancement to clinical study of a potential therapy.

1 Alpha Stem Cell Clinic (ASCC) Grant

One award was used to establish the UCLA‐UCI Alpha Stem Cell Clinic. It is one of five leading medical centers throughout California that make up the CIRM ASSC Network, which specializes in the delivery of stem cell therapies by providing world-class, state of the art infrastructure to support clinical research.

8 Clinical Trials

Out of the 64 CIRM-funded clinical trials to date, eight of these have been conducted at UCLA. Most notably, this includes a stem cell gene therapy approach developed by Donald Kohn, M.D. The approach was used in three different clinical trials for the following genetic diseases: X-linked chronic granulomatous disease (X-CGD), bubbly baby disease (also known as SCID), and sickle cell disease. The SCID trial resulted in over 50 infants being cured of the disease, including little Evie. The other five clinical trials conducted at UCLA were for corneal damage, lung damage, skin cancer, sarcomas, and solid tumors.

Wide Reach of Conditions

CIRM grants at UCLA have supported research related to many conditions, including the following:

To read the full UCLA article that discusses some of the other grants, click here.

CIRM & CZI & MOU for COVID-19

Too many acronyms? Not to worry. It is all perfectly clear in the news release we just sent out about this.

A new collaboration between the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) will advance scientific efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by collaborating on disseminating single-cell research that scientists can use to better understand the SARS-CoV-2 virus and help develop treatments and cures.

CIRM and CZI have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that will combine CIRM’s infrastructure and data collection and analysis tools with CZI’s technology expertise. It will enable CIRM researchers studying COVID-19 to easily share their data with the broader research community via CZI’s cellxgene tool, which allows scientists to explore and visualize measurements of how the virus impacts cell function at a single-cell level. CZI recently launched a new version of cellxgene and is supporting the single-cell biology community by sharing COVID-19 data, compiled by the global Human Cell Atlas effort and other related efforts, in an interactive and scalable way.

“We are pleased to be able to enter into this partnership with CZI,” said Dr. Maria T. Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO. “This MOU will allow us to leverage our respective investments in genomics science in the fight against COVID-19. CIRM has a long-standing commitment to generation and sharing of sequencing and genomic data from a wide variety of projects. That’s why we created the CIRM genomics award and invested in the Stem Cell Hub at the University of California, Santa Cruz, which will process the large complex datasets in this collaboration.”  

“Quickly sharing scientific data about COVID-19 is vital for researchers to build on each other’s work and accelerate progress towards understanding and treating a complex disease,” said CZI Single-Cell Biology Program Officer Jonah Cool. “We’re excited to partner with CIRM to help more researchers efficiently share and analyze single-cell data through CZI’s cellxgene platform.”

In March 2020, the CIRM Board approved $5 million in emergency funding to target COVID-19. To date, CIRM has funded 17 projects, some of which are studying how the SARS-CoV-2 virus impacts cell function at the single-cell level.

Three of CIRM’s early-stage COVID-19 research projects will plan to participate in this collaborative partnership by sharing data and analysis on cellxgene.   

  • Dr. Evan Snyder and his team at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute are using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), a type of stem cell that can be created by reprogramming skin or blood cells, to create lung organoids. These lung organoids will then be infected with the novel coronavirus in order to test two drug candidates for treating the virus.
  • Dr. Brigitte Gomperts at UCLA is studying a lung organoid model made from human stem cells in order to identify drugs that can reduce the number of infected cells and prevent damage in the lungs of patients with COVID-19.
  • Dr. Justin Ichida at the University of Southern California is trying to determine if a drug called a kinase inhibitor can protect stem cells in the lungs and other organs, which the novel coronavirus selectively infects and kills.

“Cumulative data into how SARS-CoV-2 affects people is so powerful to fight the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Stephen Lin, PhD, the Senior CIRM Science Officer who helped develop the MOU. “We are grateful that the researchers are committed to sharing their genomic data with other researchers to help advance the field and improve our understanding of the virus.”

CZI also supports five distinct projects studying how COVID-19 progresses in patients at the level of individual cells and tissues. This work will generate some of the first single-cell biology datasets from donors infected by SARS-CoV-2 and provide critical insights into how the virus infects humans, which cell types are involved, and how the disease progresses. All data generated by these grants will quickly be made available to the scientific community via open access datasets and portals, including CZI’s cellxgene tool.

CIRM partners with UCLA scientists to take on COVID-19

Don’t you love it when someone does your job for you and does it so well you have no need to add anything to it! Doesn’t happen very often – sad to say – but this week our friends at UCLA wrote a great article describing the work they are doing to target COVID-19. Best of all, all the work described is funded by CIRM. So read, and enjoy.

Two scientists in a lab at the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center

By Tiare Dunlap, UCLA

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, UCLA researchers are rising to the occasion by channeling their specialized expertise to seek new and creative ways to reduce the spread of the virus and save lives. Using years’ — or even decades’ — worth of knowledge they’ve acquired studying other diseases and biological processes, many of them have shifted their focus to the novel coronavirus, and they’re collaborating across disciplines as they work toward new diagnostic tests, treatments and vaccines.

At UCLA, more than 230 research projects, including several being led by members of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA, are contributing to that mission.

Dr. Brititte Gomperts, Photo courtesy UCLA

“As a result of the pandemic, everyone on campus is committed to finding ways that their unique expertise can help out,” said Dr. Brigitte Gomperts, professor and vice chair of research in pediatric hematology-oncology and pulmonary medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a member of the UCLA Children’s Discovery and Innovation Institute. “So many of my colleagues have repurposed their labs to work on the virus. It’s very seldom that you have one thing that everybody’s working on, and it has been truly inspiring to see how everyone has come together to try and solve this.”

Here’s a look at five projects in which UCLA scientists are using stem cells — which can self-replicate and give rise to all cell types — to take on COVID-19.

Using lung organoids as models to test possible treatments 

Dr. Brigitte Gomperts

Gomperts has spent years perfecting methods for creating stem cell–derived three-dimensional lung organoids. Now, she’s using those organoids to study how SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, affects lung tissue and to rapidly screen thousands of prospective treatments. Because the organoids are grown from human cells and reflect the cell types and architecture of the lungs, they can offer unprecedented insights into how the virus infects and damages the organ.  

Gomperts is collaborating with UCLA colleagues Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami, a virologist, and Robert Damoiseaux, an expert in molecular screening. Their goal is to find an existing therapy that could be used to reduce the spread of infection and associated damage in the lungs.

“We’re starting with drugs that have already been tested in humans because our goal is to find a therapy that can treat patients with COVID-19 as soon as possible,” Gomperts said. Read more.

Repurposing a cancer therapy

Dr. Vaithi Arumugaswami: Photo courtesy UCLA

Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami, associate professor of molecular and medical pharmacology at the Geffen School of Medicine

In addition to collaborating with Gomperts, Arumugaswami and Damoiseaux identified the cancer drug Berzosertib as a possible treatment for COVID-19 after screening 430 drug candidates. The drug, which is currently being tested in clinical trials for cancer, works by blocking a DNA repair process that is exploited by solid cancers and the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and the UCLA scientists found that it is very effective at limiting viral replication and cell death. 

“Clinical trials have shown that Berzosertib blocks the DNA repair pathway in cancer cells, but has no effects on normal, healthy cells,” Arumugaswami said.

Now, Arumugaswami and Gustavo Garcia Jr., a staff research associate, are testing Berzosertib and additional drug combinations on lung organoids developed in Gomperts’ lab and stem cell–derived heart cells infected with SARS-CoV-2. They suspect that if the drug is administered soon after diagnosis, it could limit the spread of infection and prevent complications. Read more.

Studying the immune response to the virus

Dr. Gay Crooks

Dr. Gay Crooks, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and of pediatrics at the Geffen School of Medicine, and co-director of the Broad Stem Cell Research Center; and Dr. Christopher Seet,  

assistant professor of hematology-oncology at the Geffen School of Medicine

Crooks and Seet are using stem cells to model how immune cells recognize and fight the virus in a lab dish. To do that, they’re infecting blood-forming stem cells — which can give rise to all blood and immune cells — from healthy donors with parts of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and then coaxing the stem cells to produce immune cells called dendritic cells. Dendritic cells devour viral proteins, chop them up into pieces and then present those pieces to other immune cells called T cells to provoke a response.

By studying that process, Crooks and Seet hope to identify which parts of the virus provoke the strongest T-cell responses. Developing an effective vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 will require a deep understanding of how the immune system responds to the virus, and this work could be an important step in that direction, giving researchers and clinicians a way to gauge the effectiveness of possible vaccines.

“When we started developing this project some years ago, we had no idea it would be so useful for studying a viral infection — any viral infection,” Crooks said. “It was only because we already had these tools in place that we could spring into action so fast.” Read more.

Developing a booster that could help a vaccine last longer

Song Li, chair and professor of bioengineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering

A COVID-19 vaccine will need to provide long-term protection from infection. But how long a vaccine protects from infection isn’t solely dependent on the vaccine.

The human body relies on long-living immune cells called T memory stem cells that guard against pathogens such as viruses and bacteria that the body has encountered before. Unfortunately, the body’s capacity to form T memory stem cells decreases with age. So no matter how well designed a vaccine is, older adults who don’t have enough of a response from T memory stem cells will not be protected long-term.

To address that issue, Li is developing an injectable biomaterial vaccine booster that will stimulate the formation of T memory stem cells. The booster is made up of engineered materials that release chemical messengers to stimulate the production of T memory stem cells. When combined with an eventual SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, they would prompt the body to produce immune cells primed to recognize and eliminate the virus over the long term.

“I consider it my responsibility as a scientist and an engineer to translate scientific findings into applications to help people and the community,” Li said. Read more.

Creating an off-the-shelf cell therapy

Lili Yang, associate professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics in the UCLA College

Invariant natural killer T cells, or iNKT cells, are the special forces of the immune system. They’re extremely powerful and can immediately recognize and respond to many different intruders, from infections to cancer.

Yang is testing whether iNKT cells would make a particularly effective treatment for COVID-19 because they have the capacity to kill virally infected cells, offer protection from reinfection and rein in the excessive inflammation caused by a hyperactive immune response to the virus, which is thought to be a major cause of tissue damage and death in people with the disease.

One catch, though, is that iNKT cells are incredibly scarce: One drop of human blood contains around 10 million blood cells but only around 10 iNKT cells. That’s where Yang’s research comes in. Over the past several years, she has developed a method for generating large numbers of iNKT cells from blood-forming stem cells. While that work was aimed at creating a treatment for cancer, Yang’s lab has adapted its work over the past few months to test how effective stem cell–derived iNKT cells could be in fighting COVID-19. With her colleagues, she has been studying how the cells work in fighting the disease in models of SARS-CoV-2 infection that are grown from human kidney and lung cells.

“My lab has been developing an iNKT cell therapy for cancer for years,” Yang said. “This means a big part of the work is already done. We are repurposing a potential therapy that is very far along in development to treat COVID-19.” Read more.

“Our center is proud to join CIRM in supporting these researchers as they adapt projects that have spent years in development to meet the urgent need for therapies and vaccines for COVID-19,” said Dr. Owen Witte, founding director of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center. “This moment highlights the importance of funding scientific research so that we may have the foundational knowledge to meet new challenges as they arise.” Crooks, Gomperts, Seet and Yang are all members of the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. Damoiseaux is a professor of molecular and medical pharmacology and director of the Molecular Shared Resource Center at the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA

CIRM progression award to support research towards immunodeficiency

Dr. Caroline Kuo, a member of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA

In 2017, CIRM funded a discovery or early stage research project for Dr. Caroline Kuo at UCLA for a hereditary immune disorder known as X-Linked Hyper IgM Syndrome. The work has gone so well that Dr. Kuo and her team are now preparing the pre-clinical work needed to launch a clinical trial.

Thanks to the success of her discovery stage project (these are intended to promote promising new technologies that could be translated to enable broad use and improve patient care), Dr. Kuo received a CIRM progression award to launch a new project for DOCK8 deficiency, a different type of Hyper IgE Syndrome. This new project will compare two gene therapy techniques as potential treatments for DOCK8 deficiency.

Hyper IgM Syndrome is a genetic disorder that occurs when there are abnormal levels of different types of antibodies (Ig) in the body.  Antibodies combat infections by attaching to germs and other foreign substances, marking them for destruction.  In infants with Hyper IgM Syndrome , there are normal or high levels of antibody IgM but low levels of antibodies IgG, IgA, and IgE.  The low level of these antibodies make it difficult to fight off infection, resulting in frequent pneumonia, sinus infections, ear infections, and parasitic infections.  Additionally, these infants have an increased risk of cancerous growths.

While X-Linked Hyper IgM Syndrome is caused by a mutation in the X gene, DOCK8 deficiency is caused by a mutation in the DOCK8 gene. More than 95% of patients with DOCK8 deficiency die by age 40.

To determine the best approach to treat DOCK8 deficiency, Dr. Kuo will compare a traditional gene therapy method with another gene therapy approach that uses CRISPR-Cas9, which work like scissors and can be directed to cut DNA at specific sites to disable, repair, or make other alterations to genes.

In a press release from UCLA, Dr. Kuo describes what inspired her to pursue this research.

“I wanted to research new treatment options for DOCK8 deficiency because I see how debilitating it can be for my patients. It’s already bad enough that my patients feel sick but then add to that visible skin infections on their hands and face that are difficult to treat, I think that’s the hardest part for a lot of the children I see. The prospect of developing a curative therapy for patients definitely brings a lot more meaning to the work.”

CIRM Board Approves Two New Discovery Research Projects for COVID-19

Dr. Karen Christman (left) and Dr. Lili Yang (right)

This past Friday the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved two new discovery research project as part of the $5 million in emergency funding for COVID-19 related projects.  This brings the number of COVID-19 projects CIRM is supporting to 17, including three clinical trials.

$249,974 was awarded to Dr. Karen Christman at UC San Diego to develop a treatment for Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), a life-threatening lung injury that occurs when fluid leaks into the lungs and is prevalent in COVID-19 patients.  Dr. Christman and her team will develop extracellular matrix (ECM) hydrogels, a kind of structure that provides support to surrounding cells.  The goal is to develop a treatment that can be delivered directly to site of injury, where the ECM would recruit stem cells, treat lung inflammation, and promote lung healing.

$250,000 was awarded to Dr. Lili Yang at UCLA to develop a treatment for COVID-19.  Dr. Yang and her team will use blood stem cells to create invariant natural killer T (iNKT) cells, a powerful kind of immune cell with the potential to clear virus infection and mitigate harmful inflammation.  The goal is to develop these iNKT cells as an off the shelf therapy to treat patients with COVID-19.

These awards are part of CIRM’s Quest Awards Program (DISC2), which promotes promising new technologies that could be translated to enable broad use and improve patient care.

“The harmful lung inflammation caused by COVID-19 can be dangerous and life threatening,” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., the President and CEO of CIRM. “Early stage discovery projects like the ones approved today are vital in developing treatments for patients severely affected by the novel coronavirus.”

Earlier in the week the Board also approved changes to both DISC2 and clinical trial stage projects (CLIN2). These were in recognition of the Agency’s remaining budget and operational timeline and the need to launch the awards as quickly as possible.

For DISC2 awards the changes include:

  • Award limit of $250,000
  • Maximum award duration of 12 months
  • Initiate projects within 30 days of approval
  • All proposals must provide a statement describing how their overall study plan and design has considered the influence of race, ethnicity, sex and gender diversity.
  • All proposals should discuss the limitations, advantages, and/or challenges in developing a product or tools that addresses the unmet medical needs of California’s diverse population, including underserved communities.

Under the CLIN2 awards, to help projects carry out a clinical trial, the changes include:

  • Adjust award limit to the following:
Applicant typePhase 1, Phase 1/2, Feasability Award CapPhase 2 Award CapPhase 3 Award Cap
Non-profit$9M$11.25M$7.5M
For-profit$6M$11.25M$7.5M
  • Adjust the award duration to not exceed 3 years with award completion no later than November 2023
  • Initiate projects within 30 days of approval
  • All proposals must include a written plan in the application for outreach and study participation by underserved and disproportionately affected populations. Priority will be given to projects with the highest quality plans in this regard.

The changes outlined above for CLIN2 awards do not apply to sickle cell disease projects expected to be funded under the CIRM/NHLBI Cure Sickle Cell Disease joint Initiative.

Scientists Engineer Stem Cells to Fight HIV

Image of the virus that causes AIDS – courtesy NIH

If that headline seems familiar it should. It came from an article in MIT Technology Review back in 2009. There have been many other headlines since then, all on the same subject, and yet here we are, in 2020, and still no cure for HIV/AIDS. So what’s the problem, what’s holding us back?

First, the virus is incredibly tough and wily. It is constantly mutating so trying to target it is like playing a game of ‘whack a mole’. Secondly not only can the virus evade our immune system, it actually hijacks it and uses it to help spread itself throughout the body. Even new generations of anti-HIV medications, which are effective at controlling the virus, can’t eradicate it. But now researchers are using new tools to try and overcome those obstacles and tame the virus once and for all.

Dr. Scott Kitchen: Photo David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA

UCLA researchers Scott Kitchen and Irvin Chen have been awarded $13.65 million by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to see if they can use the patient’s own immune system to fight back against HIV.

Dr. Irvin Chen: Photo UCLA

Dr. Kitchen and Dr. Chen take the patient’s own blood-forming stem cells and then, in the lab, they genetically engineer them to carry proteins called chimeric antigen receptors or CARs. Once these blood cells are transplanted back into the body, they combine with the patient’s own immune system T cells (CAR T). These T cells now have a newly enhanced ability to target and destroy HIV.

That’s the theory anyway. Lots of research in the lab shows it can work. For example, the UCLA team recently showed that these engineered CAR T cells not only destroyed HIV-infected cells but also lived for more than two years. Now the team at UCLA want to take the lessons learned in the lab and apply them to people.

In a news release Dr. Kitchen says the NIH grant will give them a terrific opportunity to do that: “The overarching goal of our proposed studies is to identify a new gene therapy strategy to safely and effectively modify a patient’s own stem cells to resist HIV infection and simultaneously enhance their ability to recognize and destroy infected cells in the body in hopes of curing HIV infection. It is a huge boost to our efforts at UCLA and elsewhere to find a creative strategy to defeat HIV.”

By the way, CIRM helped get this work off the ground with an early-stage grant. That enabled Dr. Kitchen and his team to get the data they needed to be able to apply to the NIH for this funding. It’s a great example of how we can kick-start projects that no one else is funding. You can read a blog about that early stage research here.

CIRM has already funded three clinical trials targeting HIV/AIDS. Two of these are still active; Dr. Mehrdad Abedi at UC Davis and Dr. John Zaia at City of Hope.

CIRM Board Approves Two Additional COVID-19 Projects

Dr. Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami (left) and Dr. Song Li (right), UCLA

Today the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved two additional projects as part of the $5 million in emergency funding for COVID-19 related projects. This brings the number of projects CIRM is supporting to 11, including two clinical trials.

The Board awarded $349,999 to Dr. Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami at UCLA.  The focus of this project will be to study Berzosertib, a therapy targeting viral replication and damage in lung stem cells.  The ultimate goal would be to use this agent as a therapy to prevent COVID-19 viral replication in the lungs, thereby reducing lung injury, inflammation, and subsequent lung disease caused by the virus.  

This award is part of CIRM’s Translational Stage Research Program (TRAN1), which promotes the activities necessary for advancement to clinical study of a potential therapy.

The Board also awarded $149,916 to Dr. Song Li at UCLA.  This project will focus on developing an injectable biomaterial that can induce the formation of T memory stem cells (TMSCs), an important type of stem cell that plays a critical role in generating an immune response to combat viruses. In vaccine development, there is a major challenge that the elderly may not be able to mount a strong enough immunity.  This innovative approach seeks to address this challenge by increasing TMSCs in order to boost the immune response to vaccines against COVID-19.

This award is under CIRM’s Discovery Stage Research Program (DISC2), which promotes promising new technologies that could be translated to enable broad use and improve patient care.

“CIRM continues to support novel COVID-19 projects that build on previous knowledge acquired,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, the President & CEO of CIRM. “These two projects represent the much-needed multi-pronged approach to the COVID-19 crisis, one addressing the need for effective vaccines to prevent disease and the other to treat the severe illness resulting from infection.”

Two UCLA scientists receive CIRM funding for discovery research for COVID-19

Dr. Brigitte Gomperts (left) and Dr. Gay Crooks (right), UCLA
Image Credit: UCLA Broad Stem Cell Center

This past Friday, the CIRM Board approved funding for its first clinical study for COVID-19. In addition to this, the Board also approved two discovery stage research projects, which support promising new technologies that could be translated to enable broad use and improve patient care. Before we go into more detail, the two awards are summarized in the table below:

The discovery grant for $150,000 was given to Dr. Gay Crooks at UCLA to study how specific immune cells called T cells respond to COVID-19. The goal of this is to inform the development of vaccines and therapies that harness T cells to fight the virus. Typically, vaccine research involves studying the immune response using cells taken from infected people. However, Dr. Crooks and her team are taking T cells from healthy people and using them to mount strong immune responses to parts of the virus in the lab. They will then study the T cells’ responses in order to better understand how T cells recognize and eliminate the virus.

This method uses blood forming stem cells and then converts them into specialized immune cells called dendritic cells, which are able to devour proteins from viruses and chop them into fragments, triggering an immune response to the virus.

In a press release from UCLA, Dr. Crooks says that, “The dendritic cells we are able to make using this process are really good at chopping up the virus, and therefore eliciting a strong immune response”

The discovery grant for $149,998 was given to Dr. Brigitte Gomberts at UCLA to study a lung organoid model made from human stem cells in order to identify drugs that can reduce the number of infected cells and prevent damage in the lungs of patients with COVID-19. Dr. Gomberts will be testing drugs that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for other purposes or have been found to be safe in humans in early clinical trials. This increases the likelihood that if a successful drug is found, it can be approved more rapidly for widespread use.

In the same press release from UCLA, Dr. Gomberts discusses the potential drugs they are evaluating.

“We’re starting with drugs that have already been tested in humans because our goal is to find a therapy that can treat patients with COVID-19 as soon as possible.”