One family’s fight to save their son’s life, and how stem cells made it possible

CIRM’s mission is very simple: to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. Anne Klein’s son, Everett, was a poster boy for that statement. Born with a fatal immune disorder Everett faced a bleak future. But Anne and husband Brian were not about to give up. The following story is one Anne wrote for Parents magazine. It’s testament to the power of stem cells to save lives, but even more importantly to the power of love and the determination of a family to save their son.

My Son Was Born With ‘Bubble Boy’ Disease—But A Gene Therapy Trial Saved His Life

Everett Schmitt. Photo: Meg Kumin

I wish more than anything that my son Everett had not been born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). But I know he is actually one of the lucky unlucky ones. By Anne Klein

As a child in the ’80s, I watched a news story about David Vetter. David was known as “the boy in the bubble” because he was born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a rare genetic disease that leaves babies with very little or no immune system. To protect him, David lived his entire life in a plastic bubble that kept him separated from a world filled with germs and illnesses that would have taken his life—likely before his first birthday.

I was struck by David’s story. It was heartbreaking and seemed so otherworldly. What would it be like to spend your childhood in an isolation chamber with family, doctors, reporters, and the world looking in on you? I found it devastating that an experimental bone marrow transplant didn’t end up saving his life; instead it led to fatal complications. His mother, Carol Ann Demaret, touched his bare hand for the first and last time when he was 12 years old.

I couldn’t have known that almost 30 years later, my own son, Everett, would be born with SCID too.

Everett’s SCID diagnosis

At birth, Everett was big, beautiful, and looked perfectly healthy. My husband Brian and I already had a 2-and-a-half-year-old son, Alden, so we were less anxious as parents when we brought Everett home. I didn’t run errands with Alden until he was at least a month old, but Everett was out and about with us within a few days of being born. After all, we thought we knew what to expect.

But two weeks after Everett’s birth, a doctor called to discuss Everett’s newborn screening test results. I listened in disbelief as he explained that Everett’s blood sample indicated he may have an immune deficiency.

“He may need a bone marrow transplant,” the doctor told me.

I was shocked. Everett’s checkup with his pediatrician just two days earlier went swimmingly. I hung up and held on to the doctor’s assurance that there was a 40 percent chance Everett’s test result was a false positive.

After five grueling days of waiting for additional test results and answers, I received the call: Everett had virtually no immune system. He needed to be quickly admitted to UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in California so they could keep him isolated and prepare to give him a stem cell transplant. UCSF diagnosed him specifically with SCID-X1, the same form David battled.

Beginning SCID treatment

The hospital was 90 miles and more than two hours away from home. Our family of four had to be split into two, with me staying in the hospital primarily with Everett and Brian and Alden remaining at home, except for short visits. The sudden upheaval left Alden confused, shaken, and sad. Brian and I quickly transformed into helicopter parents, neurotically focused on every imaginable contact with germs, even the mildest of which could be life-threatening to Everett.

When he was 7 weeks old, Everett received a stem cell transplant with me as his donor, but the transplant failed because my immune cells began attacking his body. Over his short life, Everett has also spent more than six months collectively in the hospital and more than three years in semi-isolation at home. He’s endured countless biopsies, ultrasounds, CT scans, infusions, blood draws, trips to the emergency department, and medical transports via ambulance or helicopter.

Gene therapy to treat SCID

At age 2, his liver almost failed and a case of pneumonia required breathing support with sedation. That’s when a doctor came into the pediatric intensive care unit and said, “When Everett gets through this, we need to do something else for him.” He recommended a gene therapy clinical trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that was finally showing success in patients over age 2 whose transplants had failed. This was the first group of SCID-X1 patients to receive gene therapy using a lentiviral vector combined with a light dose of chemotherapy.

After the complications from our son’s initial stem cell transplant, Brian and I didn’t want to do another stem cell transplant using donor cells. My donor cells were at war with his body and cells from another donor could do the same. Also, the odds of Everett having a suitable donor on the bone marrow registry were extremely small since he didn’t have one as a newborn. At the NIH, he would receive a transplant with his own, perfectly matched, gene-corrected cells. They would be right at home.

Other treatment options would likely only partially restore his immunity and require him to receive infusions of donor antibodies for life, as was the case with his first transplant. Prior gene therapy trials produced similarly incomplete results and several participants developed leukemia. The NIH trial was the first one showing promise in fully restoring immunity, without a risk of cancer. Brian and I felt it was Everett’s best option. Without hesitation, we flew across the country for his treatment. Everett received the gene therapy in September 2016 when he was 3, becoming the youngest patient NIH’s clinical trial has treated.

Everett’s recovery

It’s been more than two years since Everett received gene therapy and now more than ever, he has the best hope of developing a fully functioning immune system. He just received his first vaccine to test his ability to mount a response. Now 6 years old, he’s completed kindergarten and has been to Disney World. He plays in the dirt and loves shows and movies from the ’80s (maybe some of the same ones David enjoyed).

Everett knows he has been through a lot and that his doctors “fixed his DNA,” but he’s focused largely on other things. He’s vocal when confronted with medical pain or trauma, but seems to block out the experiences shortly afterwards. It’s sad for Brian and me that Everett developed these coping skills at such a young age, but we’re so grateful he is otherwise expressive and enjoys engaging with others. Once in the middle of the night, he woke us up as he stood in the hallway, exclaiming, “I’m going back to bed, but I just want you to know that I love you with all my heart!”

I wish more than anything that Everett had not been born with such a terrible disease and I could erase all the trauma, isolation, and pain. But I know that he is actually one of the lucky unlucky ones. Everett is fortunate his disease was caught early by SCID newborn screening, which became available in California not long before his birth. Without this test, we would not have known he had SCID until he became dangerously ill. His prognosis would have been much worse, even under the care of his truly brilliant and remarkable doctors, some of whom cared for David decades earlier.

Carol-Ann-mother-of-David-Vetter-meeting-Everett-Schmitt
Everett Schmitt meeting David Vetter’s mom Carol Ann Demaret. Photo – Brian Schmitt

When Everett was 4, soon after the gene therapy gave him the immunity he desperately needed, our family was fortunate enough to cross paths with David’s mom, Carol Ann, at an Immune Deficiency Foundation event. Throughout my life, I had seen her in pictures and on television with David. In person, she was warm, gracious, and humble. When I introduced her to Everett and explained that he had SCID just like David, she looked at Everett with loving eyes and asked if she could touch him. As she touched Everett’s shoulder and they locked eyes, Brian and I looked on with profound gratitude.

Anne Klein is a parent, scientist, and a patient advocate for two gene therapy trials funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. She is passionate about helping parents of children with SCID navigate treatment options for their child.

You can read about the clinical trials we are funding for SCID here, here, here and here.

CIRM & NHLBI Create Landmark Agreement on Curing Sickle Cell Disease

CIRM Board approves first program eligible for co-funding under the agreement

Adrienne Shapiro, co-founder of Axis Advocacy, with her daughter Marissa Cors, who has Sickle Cell Disease.

Sickle Cell disease (SCD) is a painful, life-threatening blood disorder that affects around 100,000 people, mostly African Americans, in the US. Even with optimal medical care, SCD shortens expected lifespan by decades.  It is caused by a single genetic mutation that results in the production of “sickle” shaped red blood cells.  Under a variety of environmental conditions, stress or viral illness, these abnormal red blood cells cause severe anemia and blockage of blood vessels leading to painful crisis episodes, recurrent hospitalization, multi-organ damage and mini-strokes.    

On April 29th the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved $4.49 million to Dr. Mark Walters at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland to pursue a gene therapy cure for this devastating disease. The gene therapy approach uses CRISPR-Cas9 technology to correct the genetic mutation that leads to sickle cell disease. This program will be eligible for co-funding under the landmark agreement between CIRM and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) of the NIH.

This CIRM-NHLBI agreement was finalized this month to co-fund cell and gene therapy programs under the NIH “Cure Sickle Cell” initiative.  The goal is to markedly accelerate the development of cell and gene therapies for SCD. It will deploy CIRM’s resources and expertise that has led to a portfolio of over 50 clinical trials in stem cell and regenerative medicine.     

“CIRM currently has 23 clinical stage programs in cell and gene therapy.  Given the advancements in these approaches for a variety of unmet medical needs, we are excited about the prospect of leveraging this to NIH-NHLBI’s Cure Sickle Cell Initiative,” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., the President and CEO of CIRM. “We are pleased the NHLBI sees value in CIRM’s acceleration and funding program and look forward to the partnership to accelerate cures for sickle cell disease.”

“There is a real need for a new approach to treating SCD and making life easier for people with SCD and their families,” says Adrienne Shapiro, the mother of a daughter with SCD and the co-founder of Axis Advocacy, a sickle cell advocacy and education organization. “Finding a cure for Sickle Cell would mean that people like my daughter would no longer have to live their life in short spurts, constantly having their hopes and dreams derailed by ER visits and hospital stays.  It would mean they get a chance to live a long life, a healthy life, a normal life.”

CIRM is currently funding two other clinical trials for SCD using different approaches.  One of these trials is being conducted at City of Hope and the other trial is being conducted at UCLA.

It’s not goodbye to Dr. Bert Lubin, it’s au revoir

DrB Lubin-098

Dr. Bert Lubin has been a fixture at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland long before it was even called that. When he started there 43 years ago it was just a small community hospital and through his commitment to helping those in need he has helped build it into a remarkable institution.

Over the years he started one of the first newborn screening programs for sickle cell disease, created the world’s first non-profit sibling cord blood donor program and along the way boosted the research budget from $500,000 to $60 million without ever losing sight of the hospital’s primary goal, serving the community.

But with someone like Bert, nothing is ever enough. He became a national leader in the fight to develop better treatments and even a cure for sickle cell disease and then joined the CIRM Board to help us find better treatments and even cures for a wide variety of diseases and disorders.

“I got a sense of the opportunities that stem cell therapies would have for a variety of things, certainly including Sickle Cell Disease and I thought if there’s a chance to be on the Board as an advocate for that population I think I’d be a good spokesperson.  I just thought this was an exciting opportunity.”

He says the Stem Cell Agency has done a great job in advancing the field, and establishing California as a global leader.

“I think we are seeing advances in stem cell therapies. I’m proud of the progress we are making and I’m proud of the cures we are providing and I think it’s wonderful that the state had the vision to do something as big as this and to be a leader in the world in that regard.”

Now, after almost eight years Bert is stepping down from the CIRM Board. But he’s not stepping away from CIRM.

I feel committed to CIRM, I don’t need to be on the Board to be committed to CIRM. I don’t see myself leaving, I’m just re-purposing what is my role in my CIRM. I’m recycling and reinventing.

To mark this transition to the next phase of his career, the staff at Children’s put together this video tribute for Bert. It’s a sweet, glowing and heart warming thank you to someone who has done so much for so many people. And plans on doing even more in the years to come.

Stem Cell Agency Board Approves 50th Clinical Trial

2018-12-13 01.18.50Rich Lajara

Rich Lajara, the first patient treated in a CIRM-funded clinical trial

May 4th, 2011 marked a landmark moment for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). On that day the Stem Cell Agency’s Board voted to invest in its first ever clinical trial, which was also the first clinical trial to use cells derived from embryonic stem cells. Today the Stem Cell Agency reached another landmark, with the Board voting to approve its 50th clinical trial.

“We have come a long way in the past seven and a half years, helping advance the field from its early days to a much more mature space today, one capable of producing new treatments and even cures,” says Jonathan Thomas, JD, PhD, Chair of the CIRM Board. “But we feel that in many ways we are just getting started, and we intend funding as many additional clinical trials as we can for as long as we can.”

angiocrinelogo

The project approved today awards almost $6.2 million to Angiocrine Bioscience Inc. to see if genetically engineered cells, derived from cord blood, can help alleviate or accelerate recovery from the toxic side effects of chemotherapy for people undergoing treatment for lymphoma and other aggressive cancers of the blood or lymph system.

“This is a project that CIRM has supported from an earlier stage of research, highlighting our commitment to moving the most promising research out of the lab and into people,” says Maria T. Millan, MD, President & CEO of CIRM. “Lymphoma is the most common blood cancer and the 6th most commonly diagnosed cancer in California. Despite advances in therapy many patients still suffer severe complications from the chemotherapy, so any treatment that can reduce those complications can not only improve quality of life but also, we hope, improve long term health outcomes for patients.”

The first clinical trial CIRM funded was with Geron, targeting spinal cord injury. While Geron halted the trial for business reasons (and returned the money, with interest) the mantle was later picked up by Asterias Biotherapeutics, which has now treated 25 patients with no serious side effects and some encouraging results.

Rich Lajara was part of the Geron trial, the first patient ever treated in a CIRM-funded clinical trial. He came to the CIRM Board meeting to tell his story saying when he was injured “I knew immediately I was paralyzed. I thought this was the end, little did I know this was just the beginning. I call it being in the wrong place at the right time.”

When he learned about the Geron clinical trial he asked how many people had been treated with stem cells. “Close to none” he was told. Nonetheless he went ahead with it. He says he has never regretted that decision, knowing it helped inform the research that has since helped others.

Since that first trial the Stem Cell Agency has funded a wide range of projects targeting heart disease and stroke, cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and several rare diseases. You can see the full list on the Clinical Trials Dashboard page on our website.

Rich ended by saying: “CIRM has proven how much can be achieved if we invest in cutting-edge medical research. As most of you here probably know, CIRM’s funding from Proposition 71 is about to run out. If I had just one message I wanted people to leave with today it would be this, I will do everything I can to make sure the agency gets refunded and I hope that all of you will join me in that fight. I’m excited for the world of stem cells, particularly in California and can’t wait to see what’s on the horizon.”

lubinbert-mug

The CIRM Board also took time today to honor Dr. Bert Lubin, who is stepping down after serving almost eight years on the Board.

When he joined the Board in February, 2011 Dr. Lubin said: “I hope to use my position on this committee to advocate for stem cell research that translates into benefits for children and adults, not only in California but throughout the world.”

Over the years he certainly lived up to that goal. As a CIRM Board member he has supported research for a broad range of unmet medical needs, and specifically for curative treatments for children born with a rare life-threatening conditions such as Sickle Cell Disease and Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) as well as  treatments to help people battling vision destroying diseases.

As the President & CEO of Children’s Hospital Oakland (now UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland) Dr. Lubin was a leader in helping advance research into new treatments for sickle cell disease and addressing health disparities in diseases such as asthma, diabetes and obesity.

Senator Art Torres said he has known Dr. Lubin since the 1970’s and in all that time has been impressed by his devotion to patients, and his humility, and that all Californians should be grateful to him for his service, and his leadership.

Dr. Lubin said he was “Really grateful to be on the Board and I consider it an honor to be part of a group that benefits patients.”

He said he may be stepping down from the CIRM Board but that was all: “I am going to retire the word retirement. I think it’s a mistake to stop doing work that you find stimulating. I’m going to repurpose the rest of my life, and work to make sure the treatments we’ve helped develop are available to everyone. I am so proud to be part of this. I am stepping down, but I am devoted to doing all I can to ensure that you get the resources you need to sustain this work for the future.”