Advancing stem cell research in many ways

Speakers at the Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium: Photo by Marco Sanchez

From Day One CIRM’s goal has been to advance stem cell research in California. We don’t do that just by funding the most promising research -though the 51 clinical trials we have funded to date clearly shows we do that rather well – but also by trying to bring the best minds in the field together to overcome problems.

Over the years we have held conferences, workshops and symposiums on everything from Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy and tissue engineering. Each one attracted the key players and stakeholders in the field, brainstorming ideas to get past obstacles and to explore new ways of developing therapies. It’s an attempt to get scientists, who would normally be rivals or competitors, to collaborate and partner together in finding the best way forward.

It’s not easy to do, and the results are not always obvious right away, but it is essential if we hope to live up to our mission of accelerating stem cell therapies to patients with unmet medical needs.

For example. This past week we helped organize two big events and were participants in another.

The first event we pulled together, in partnership with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, was a workshop called “Brainstorm Neurodegeneration”. It brought together leaders in stem cell research, genomics, big data, patient advocacy and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to tackle some of the issues that have hampered progress in finding treatments for things like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS and Huntington’s disease.

We rather ambitiously subtitled the workshop “a cutting-edge meeting to disrupt the field” and while the two days of discussions didn’t resolve all the problems facing us it did produce some fascinating ideas and some tantalizing glimpses at ways to advance the field.

Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium: Photo by Marco Sanchez

Two days later we partnered with UC San Francisco to host the Fourth Annual CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium. This brought together the scientists who develop therapies, the doctors and nurses who deliver them, and the patients who are in need of them. The theme was “The Past, Present & Future of Regenerative Medicine” and included both a look at the initial discoveries in gene therapy that led us to where we are now as well as a look to the future when cellular therapies, we believe, will become a routine option for patients. 

Bringing these different groups together is important for us. We feel each has a key role to play in moving these projects and out of the lab and into clinical trials and that it is only by working together that they can succeed in producing the treatments and cures patients so desperately need.

Cierra Jackson: Photo by Marco Sanchez

As always it was the patients who surprised us. One, Cierra Danielle Jackson, talked about what it was like to be cured of her sickle cell disease. I think it’s fair to say that most in the audience expected Cierra to talk about her delight at no longer having the crippling and life-threatening condition. And she did. But she also talked about how hard it was adjusting to this new reality.

Cierra said sickle cell disease had been a part of her life for all her life, it shaped her daily life and her relationships with her family and many others. So, to suddenly have that no longer be a part of her caused a kind of identity crisis. Who was she now that she was no longer someone with sickle cell disease?

She talked about how people with most diseases were normal before they got sick, and will be normal after they are cured. But for people with sickle cell, being sick is all they have known. That was their normal. And now they have to adjust to a new normal.

It was a powerful reminder to everyone that in developing new treatments we have to consider the whole person, their psychological and emotional sides as well as the physical.

CIRM’s Dr. Maria Millan (right) at a panel presentation at the Stanford Drug Discovery Symposium. Panel from left to right are: James Doroshow, NCI; Sandy Weill, former CEO Citigroup; Allan Jones, CEO Allen Institute

And so on to the third event we were part of, the Stanford Drug Discovery Symposium. This was a high level, invitation-only scientific meeting that included some heavy hitters – such as Nobel Prize winners Paul Berg and  Randy Schekman, former FDA Commissioner Robert Califf. Over the course of two days they examined the role that philanthropy plays in advancing research, the increasingly important role of immunotherapy in battling diseases like cancer and how tools such as artificial intelligence and big data are shaping the future.

CIRM’s President and CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, was one of those invited to speak and she talked about how California’s investment in stem cell research is delivering Something Better than Hope – which by a happy coincidence is the title of our 2018 Annual Report. She highlighted some of the 51 clinical trials we have funded, and the lives that have been changed and saved by this research.

The presentations at these conferences and workshops are important, but so too are the conversations that happen outside the auditorium, over lunch or at coffee. Many great collaborations have happened when scientists get a chance to share ideas, or when researchers talk to patients about their ideas for a successful clinical trial.

It’s amazing what happens when you bring people together who might otherwise never have met. The ideas they come up with can change the world.

Gene therapy and blood stem cells cure sickle cell disease patients

Sickle-shaped blood cells. The cells become lodged in blood vessels, causing strokes or excruciating pain as blood stops flowing. Photo courtesy of Omikron/Science Source

Blood is the lifeline of the body. The continuous, unimpeded circulation of blood maintains oxygen flow throughout the body and enables us to carry out our everyday activities. Unfortunately, there are individuals whose own bodies are in a constant battle that prevents this from occurring seamlessly. They have something known as sickle cell disease (SCD), an inherited condition caused by a mutation in a single gene. Rather than producing normal, circular red blood cells, their bodies produce sickle shaped cells (hence the name) that can become lodged in blood vessels, preventing blood flow. The lack of blood flow can cause agonizing pain, known as crises, as well as strokes. Chronic crises can cause organ damage, which can eventually lead to organ failure. Additionally, since the misshapen cells don’t survive long in the body, people with SCD have a greater risk of being severely anemic and are more prone to infections. Monthly blood transfusions are often needed to help temporarily alleviate symptoms. Due to the debilitating nature of SCD, important aspects of everyday life such as employment and health insurance can be extremely challenging to find and maintain.

An estimated 100,000 people in the United States are living with SCD. Around the world, about 300,000 infants are born with the condition each year, a statistic that will increase to 400,000 by 2050 according to one study. Many people with SCD do not live past the age of 50. It is most prevalent in individuals with sub-Saharan African descent followed by people of Hispanic descent. Experts have stated that advances in treatment have been limited in part because SCD is concentrated in poorer minority communities.

Despite these grim statistics and prognosis, there is hope.

The New York Times and Boston Herald recently released featured articles that tell the personal stories of patients enrolled in a clinical trial conducted by bluebird bio. The trial uses gene therapy in combination with hematopoietic (blood) stem cells (HSCs) to give rise to normal red blood cells in SCD patients.

Here are the stories of these patients. To read the full New York Times article, click here. For the Boston Herald article, click here.

Brothers, Emmanuel “Manny” 21 and Aiden Johnson 7 at their home in Brockton, Massachusetts. Both brothers were born with sickle cell disease. Photo courtesy of Matt Stone for MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

Emmanuel “Manny” Johnson was the very first patient in the SCD trial. He was motivated to participate in the trial not just for himself but for his younger brother Aiden Johnson, who was also born with SCD. Manny has a tattoo with Aiden’s name written inside a red sickle cell awareness ribbon.

In the article Manny is quoted as saying “It’s not only that we share the same blood disease, it’s like I have to do better for him.”

Since receiving the treatment, Manny’s SCD symptoms have disappeared.

Brandon Williams received the stem cell gene therapy to replace sickle cells with healthy red blood cells. The tattoo on his right forearm is in honor of his sister, Britney, who died of sickle cell disease. Photo courtesy of Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

For Brandon Williams of Chicago, the story of SCD is a very personal one. At just 21 years old, Brandon had suffered four strokes by the time he turned 18. His older sister, Britney Williams, died of sickle cell disease at the age of 22. Brandon was devastated and felt that his own life could end at any moment. He was then told about the SCD trial and decided to enroll. Following the treatment, his symptoms have vanished along with the pain and fear inflicted by the disease.

Carmen Duncan participated in the stem cell gene therapy trial and no longer has sickle-cell symptoms. She wants to join the military, something that wasn’t an option until now. Photo courtesy of Sean Rayford for The New York Times

The NY Times piece also profiles Carmen Duncan, a 20 year old from Charleston, South Carolina. She had her spleen removed when she was just two years old as a result of complications form SCD. Duncan spent a large portion of her childhood in hospitals, coping with the pain in her arms and legs from blocked blood vessels. She enrolled in the SCD trial as well and she no longer has any signs of SCD. Duncan had aspirations to join the military but was unable to because of her condition. Now that she is symptom free, she plans to enlist.

This SCD clinical trial has multiple trial sites across the US, one which is the UCSF Alpha Stem Cell Clinic , a CIRM funded clinic specializing in the delivery of stem cell clinical trials to patients. CIRM awarded a $7,999,999 grant to help establish this site.