Charting a new course for stem cell research

What are the latest advances in stem cell research targeting cancer? Can stem cells help people battling COVID-19 or even help develop a vaccine to stop the virus? What are researchers and the scientific community doing to help address the unmet medical needs of underserved communities? Those are just a few of the topics being discussed at the Annual CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network Symposium on Thursday, October 8th from 9am to 1.30pm PDT.

Like pretty nearly everything these days the symposium is going to be a virtual event, so you can watch it from the comfort of your own home on a phone or laptop. And it’s free.

The CIRM Alpha Clinics are a network of leading medical centers here in California. They specialize in delivering stem cell and gene therapies to patients. So, while many conferences look at the promise of stem cell therapies, here we deal with the reality; what’s in the clinic, what’s working, what do we need to do to help get these therapies to patients in need?

It’s a relatively short meeting, with short presentations, but that doesn’t mean it will be short on content. Some of the best stem cell researchers in the U.S. are taking part so you’ll learn an awful lot in a short time.

We’ll hear what’s being done to find therapies for

  • Rare diseases that affect children
  • Type 1 diabetes
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Glioblastoma
  • Multiple myeloma

We’ll discuss how to create a patient navigation system that can address social and economic determinants that impact patient participation? And we’ll look at ways that the Alpha Clinic Network can partner with community care givers around California to increase patient access to the latest therapies.

It’s going to be a fascinating day. And did I mention it’s free!

All you have to do is go to this Eventbrite page to register.

And feel free to share this with your family, friends or anyone you think might be interested.

We look forward to seeing you there.

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.

Lab-grown human sperm cells could unlock treatments for infertility

Dr. Miles Wilkinson: Photo courtesy UCSD

Out of 100 couples in the US, around 12 or 13 will have trouble starting a family. In one third of those cases the problem is male infertility (one third is female infertility and the other third is a combination of factors). In the past treatment options for men were often limited. Now a new study out of the University of California San Diego (UCSD) could help lead to treatments to help these previously infertile men have children of their own.

The study, led by Dr. Miles Wilkinson of UCSD School of Medicine, targeted spermatogonial stem cells (SSCs), which are the cells that develop into sperm. In the past it was hard to isolate these SSCs from other cells in the testes. However, using a process called single cell RNA sequencing – which is like taking a photo of all the gene expression happening in one cell at a precise moment – the team were able to identify the SSCs.

In a news release Dr. Wilkinson, the senior author of the study, says this is a big advance on previous methods: “We think our approach — which is backed up by several techniques, including single-cell RNA-sequencing analysis — is a significant step toward bringing SSC therapy into the clinic.”

Identifying the SSCs was just the first step. Next the team wanted to find a way to be able to take those cells and grow and multiply them in the lab, an important step in having enough cells to be able to treat infertility.

So, they tested the cells in the lab and identified something called the AKT pathway, which controls cell division and survival. By blocking the AKT pathway they were able to keep the SSCs alive and growing for a month. Next they hope to build on the knowledge and expand the cells for even longer so they could be used in a clinical setting.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is wilkinson-ssc-graphic_450px.jpg
Illustrations by Vishaala Wilkinson

The hope is that this could ultimately lead to treatments for men whose bodies don’t produce sperm cells, or enough sperms cells to make them fertile. It could also help children going through cancer therapy which can destroy their ability to have children of their own later in life. By taking sperm cells and freezing them, they could later be grown and expanded in the lab and injected back into the testes to restore sperm production.

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

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.

Why “Ask the Stem Cell Team” Remains Important

These are definitely strange, unusual and challenging times. Every day seems to bring new restrictions on what we can and should do. All, of course, in the name of protecting us and helping us avoid a potentially deadly virus. We all hope this will soon pass but we also know the bigger impact of the coronavirus is likely to linger for many months, perhaps even years.

With that in mind a few people have asked us why we are still going ahead with our Facebook Live ‘Ask the Stem Cell Team About Autism’ event this Thursday, March 19th at 12pm PDT. It’s a good question. And the answer is simple. Because there is still a need for good, thoughtful information about the potential for stem cells to help families who have a loved one with autism. And because we still need to do all we can to dispel the bad information out there and warn people about the bogus clinics offering unproven therapies.

In many ways Facebook Live is the perfect way to deliver this information. It allows us to reach out to large numbers of people without having them in the same room. We can educate not contaminate.

And we have some great experts to discuss the use of stem cells in helping people with autism.

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 Shepard.

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 were unable to tune in while we were live, not to worry, you you can watch it here on our Facebook page

CIRM-funded trial for blood cancer releases promising new data


A CIRM-funded trial conducted by Oncternal Therapeutics in collaboration with UC San Diego released an interim clinical data update for patients with mantle cell lymphoma (MCL), a type of blood cancer.

The treatment being developed involves an antibody called cirmtuzumab (named after yours truly) being used with a cancer fighting drug called ibrutinib. The antibody recognizes and attaches to a protein on the surface of cancer stem cells. This attachment disables the protein, which slows the growth of the blood cancer and makes it more vulnerable to anti-cancer drugs.

Here are the highlights from the new interim clinical data:

  • Patients had received a median of two prior therapies before participating in this study including chemotherapy; autologous stem cell transplant (SCT); autologous SCT and CAR-T therapy; autologous SCT and allogeneic SCT; and ibrutinib with rituximab, a different type of antibody therapy.
  • 6 of the 12 patients in the trial experienced a Complete Response (CR), which is defined as the disappearance of all signs of cancer in response to treatment.
  • All six CRs are ongoing, including one patient who has remained in CR for more than 21 months past treatment.
  • Four of the six patients achieved CRs within four months on the combination of cirmtuzumab and ibrutinib.
  • Of the remaining 6 patients, 4 experienced a Partial Response (PR), which is defined as a decrease in the extent of the cancer in the body.
  • The remaining two patients experienced Stable Disease (SD), which is defined as neither an increase or decrease in the extent of the cancer.

The full interim clinical data update can be viewed in the press release 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.

CIRM funded study may help explain why some people with cystic fibrosis are less prone to infection

Dr. Kelly A. Frazer, UC San Diego School of Medicine

Cystic fibrosis is a disorder that mostly affects the lungs. It is caused by a mutation in a gene called cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR). As a result of this mutation, cells that produce mucus (a slimy substance like the one in your nose) secrete a thicker-than-normal mucus that can create blockages in the lungs and digestive system. In the lungs, this thicker mucus is a perfect breeding ground for bacteria, leading to more chronic lung infections in those with cystic fibrosis.

However, some people with cystic fibrosis don’t develop lung infections as early or as often as others with the disorder. Thanks to a CIRM funded study, Dr. Kelly Frazer and her team at the UC San Diego School of Medicine have discovered why this might happen.

In healthy people, the CFTR protein is embedded in the membrane of most cells, where it forms a channel for chlorine ions. In people with cystic fibrosis, an inherited mutation in the CFTR gene means their channels don’t work as well and cells produce more mucus. The RNF5 protein inhibits CFTR, so people with cystic fibrosis who have genetic variations that decrease RNF5 expression have CFTR channels that function a little better, and thus aren’t as prone to infections as people with high RNF5 expression.

Before we get into that, we need to dive a bit deeper into cystic fibrosis and what causes this thicker-than normal mucus. In healthy people, CFTR is embedded in the membrane of most cells, where it forms a channel that allows chloride – a component of salt – to travel through. This flow ensures that cells have the right balance of salt and water. In people with cystic fibrosis, the CFTR mutation means that the channel doesn’t work as well, the flow of water is blocked resulting in more thick and sticky mucus. There are medications that can help boost CFTR, but they are very expensive and don’t work for everyone.

Dr. Frazer and her team discovered that a gene, called RNF5, also prevents CFTR from functioning well. People with cystic fibrosis who have lower levels of RNF5 have channels that function better, with less mucus build up, compared to people with higher levels of RNF5. This could potentially explain why some with cystic fibrosis get more chronic lung infections compared to others with the condition.

In a press release by UC San Diego School of Medicine, Dr. Frazer talks about how RNF5 could play a role in treating patients.

“The cystic fibrosis field is trying to figure out what are the modifiers across the genome that increase or decrease the probability that an individual patient will respond to these expensive drugs. RNF5 may be one of these modifier genes.”

In the same press release, Dr. Matteo D’Antonio, a project scientist in Dr. Frazer’s lab, talks about how these findings could result in more personalized treatments for people with cystic fibrosis.

“This study uncovered a new aspect of cystic fibrosis — one that could lead to new drug design and development, and allow clinicians to better tailor treatments.”

The full study was published in eLife.