Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Stem-Cell Breakthrough

It's a chilling thought. In the coming year, 130,000 people worldwide will suffer spinal-cord injuries?in a car crash, perhaps, or a fall. More than 90 percent of them will endure at least partial paralysis. There is no cure. But after a decade of hype and controversy over research on embryonic stem cells?cells that could, among other things, potentially repair injured spinal cords?the world's first clinical trial is about to begin. As early as this month, the first of 10 newly injured Americans, paralyzed from the waist down, will become participants in a study to assess the safety of a conservative, low-dose treatment. If all goes well, researchers will have taken a promising step toward a goal that once would have been considered a miracle?to help the lame walk.

The trial signals a new energy permeating the field of stem-cell research. More than 3,000 scientists recently met in Barcelona for the annual conference of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, compared with just 600 researchers five years ago. Money from major pharmaceutical companies is following the advances. Former U.S. vice president Al Gore, now a partner in the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, has thrown his weight behind the research. In April, the firm joined with Highland Capital Partners to invest $20 million in iZumi Bio (now iPierian), a startup firm working on stem-cell therapies.
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Despite the considerable hype surrounding stem cells in recent years, the possibilities now appear to be broader than most people realize. In addition to helping replace damaged cells in patients with diseases like diabetes or Parkinson's, stem cells have the potential to change how we develop drugs and unravel the biology of disease. They may even be used one day to create replacement organs. "There's been a massive injection of optimism into the field," says stem-cell biologist Alan Trounson, president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. "It's remarkable how fast it's progressing."

Much of the excitement comes from the development of a new type of stem cells, called "induced pluripotent" stem cells, or iPS. Shinya Yamanaka first concocted the cells in his Kyoto University lab by inserting four genes into fully formed adult skin cells. They began to behave like embryonic stem cells, capable of forming unlimited copies of any of the body's 220 cell types. Because iPS cells can be derived from a patient's own adult cells, they do not carry the risk of rejection by the immune system. Equally important, because iPS cells are not derived from embryos, they skirt a major ethical and religious problem.

The first iPS cells, however, will not be used as replacement tissue for spinal cords and other organs. Because iPS cells have subtle (and potentially dangerous) differences from true embryonic stem cells, many doctors are leery of putting them directly into patients until more research is done. But the cells could be immensely important in helping scientists understand and treat genetically based diseases.

By the time a full-blown disease has emerged, says Harvard stem-cell biologist Konrad Hochedlinger, it's like an airplane that has crashed. You can examine the wreckage for clues, but what you really want is the plane's black boxes?the flight-data and cockpit voice recorders that tell you exactly how electrical systems failed, hardware malfunctioned, and pilots made crucial errors. That's what doctors think iPS cells could provide. By coaxing some iPS cells into becoming the cell types affected in Huntington's disease, type 1 diabetes, or ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), scientists will be able to watch in the lab as the disease unfolds. They'll be able to understand how the disease starts, which could lead to new ways of blocking it.

Embryonic stem cells are still regarded as the gold standard. That's why there is intense interest in the U.S. spinal-cord-injury trial. Sponsored by Geron Corp. in California, the trial will recruit patients within one to two weeks of their injuries, before scar tissue has formed. Doctors will inject a derivative of stem cells, called progenitor cells, that manufacture myelin, the substance that coats the long, spindly projections on nerve cells, much the same way that insulation coats electrical wires. Damage to cells that make and maintain the myelin sheath, as happens in spinal-cord injuries, prevents nerves from conveying messages from the brain. Although it's not clear yet whether the treatment is effective or safe, the restoration of even partial function would be a huge advance.

Geron's CEO, Dr. Thomas Okarma, thinks that spinal injury is a logical place to begin. Because patients will be completely paralyzed from the waist down, any improvement will be the result of the therapy, not chance. And the spinal cord is an "immune-privileged site," meaning that the attack cells of the immune system cannot get in and destroy the embryo-derived cells. "If the therapy is safe and effective, the potential impact will extend way beyond spinal-cord injury," says Okarma. "It will mark the start of a new era in medical therapeutics."

Other companies aren't waiting for the results. The U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer is pursuing two other embryonic-stem-cell-based therapies, which it hopes to have in clinical trials by 2011. In April the company partnered with University College London to pursue a therapy for macular degeneration, the principal cause of blindness in the elderly. The disease leads to the gradual destruction of the macula, the sensitive central portion of the retina. But Peter Coffey, professor of cellular therapy and visual sciences at UCL, is using embryonic cells to make the same type of support cells that lie just behind the retina, providing it with nutrients. The goal is to implant a disc-shaped layer of the cells behind the retina. Immune rejection should not be a problem, since the eye is also immune-privileged.

Pfizer's other collaboration, with Novocell in California, aims to devise a treatment for some of the 100 million patients worldwide with insulin-dependent diabetes. Novocell is using embryonic stem cells to help regenerate all five of the pancreas's cell types. But there's a hitch. Unlike the eye or the spinal cord, the pancreas has no immune protection. For this, Novocell has devised a clever solution. It encases the stem-cell-derived progenitor cells in a capsule that can be implanted in the body. The pore size of the fabric is large enough to allow oxygen, glucose, and insulin to pass through but small enough to keep out big immune cells. "If problems should develop, the surgeon can easily remove the capsule," says Liz Bui, director of intellectual property for Novocell.

Some researchers aren't interested in just replacing impaired cells. They're using adult stem cells?which exist within organs to help with minor repairs?to grow entire replacement organs and tissues. Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, has made human bladders in this way. He starts by taking a small bladder biopsy from the patient and extracting his or her stem cells. After allowing the cells to multiply in the lab for about a month, he spreads them onto a collagen scaffold fashioned in the shape of a bladder. He then incubates the would-be organ in a bioreactor that provides the same temperature, oxygen level, growth factors, and nutrients that would be found in the body. In two weeks, he has a small but functional organ, ready for a patient.

In the early 2000s, Atala completed the procedure on seven children with spina bifida, who never developed fully functional bladders. He has now followed these patients for eight years to make sure there are no drastic failures or side effects. And he has moved on to other possible replacement parts. "We're working on 22 tissues and organs, including kidneys, heart valves, and cartilage," he says.

Because any new therapy is inherently risky, researchers are careful about creating false hopes that cures are just around the corner. Therapies that succeed in the idealized world of the lab can fail in real life or take decades to put into practice. As doctors and regulators begin to consider treating patients, they still have basic questions. Will the cells survive for long in the body? Will they integrate to form functioning tissue? Will the benefits outweigh risks that may become apparent only decades from now? Scientists are daring to hope, though, that after a decade of hype, real progress is imminent. Millions of patients worldwide could one day be the beneficiaries.

By Anne Underwood | NEWSWEEK

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

New Clinical Trials Could Open "Golden Era" In Spinal Cord Injury

New experimental therapies are being -- or soon may be -- tested in clinical trials that could open the doors to a "golden era" for research to improve the treatments of people with spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, stroke, and other severe movement disorders, scientists say.

"The studies highlighted here reflect decades of basic science research that have led to some measure of understanding the events taking place in traumatic neural injury and disease, and how these events can be modulated to improve function," says Aileen Anderson, PhD, of the University of California, Irvine.

"As a result of this work, we have the exciting opportunity to begin testing these pathways in the clinical setting in an attempt to minimize the progression of damage and, in some cases, perhaps repair it," says Anderson.

The new therapies include an experimental, custom-made antibody to NOGO-A, one of several inhibitory proteins for nerve fiber growth that are produced naturally in the human spinal cord and brain. It soon will be evaluated as a therapy for patients who are newly paralyzed from spinal cord injury.

This Phase I clinical trial, conducted by the European Network of Spinal Cord Injury Centers, follows extensive laboratory research on NOGO-A, as well as animal tests of the experimental monoclonal antibody's effectiveness in neutralizing the inhibitory protein.

NOGO-A is one of several proteins whose existence in the adult body helps to explain our limited ability to grow new brain and spinal cord tissue in response to injury or disease, says Martin Schwab, PhD, of the Brain Research Institute at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. These inhibitory proteins, which are silent during embryonic and fetal development and even during the first few months of an infant's life, vigorously limit the inherent ability of adult brain and spinal cord neurons to regrow fibers that have been cut by injury.

"As a result, neurons as well as their axons retain a low growth potential following brain trauma or spinal cord injury," Schwab says. Axons transmit from neurons the electrical impulses that underlie our ability to move our arms and legs.

To restore fiber-growing ability to the brain and spinal cord, Schwab first prevented NOGO-A from fulfilling its function as an inhibitor of fiber growth and regeneration in laboratory animals. He showed that the anti-NOGO-A antibody allowed fiber tracts of the rats' damaged spinal cords to regenerate partially, thereby restoring some motor function.

"Animals treated with such reagents showed molecular changes which strongly suggest that the growth machinery of the nerve cells is turned on, similar to the situation during development," Schwab says. Anatomical studies showed that the antibody treatment induced long-distance regeneration and the formation of new circuits.

"Nerve fiber tracts that were not directly affected by the injury also sprouted after treatment," Schwab says. These physical changes restored some of the animals' leg movement, a "remarkable behavioral recovery," he adds. "Many animals showed almost full recovery in sensory as well as motor tests." The untreated, or control, animals in the study remained severely impaired.

"The coming few years will show whether the step from bench to bedside can be successfully achieved in spinal cord injury and central nervous system trauma without the danger of serious side effects or complications," Schwab says.

In another presentation, Michael Fehlings, MD, PhD, of the Toronto Western Hospital and University of Toronto described several current or planned clinical trials for treating spinal cord injury. Immediate treatment may not only reverse the initial damage to the spinal cord but also may minimize secondary injury, potentially sparing the patient additional neurological problems, Fehlings says.

The prospective clinical study, titled STASCIS, which is evaluating the role and timing of early decompressive surgery in patients with cervical spinal cord injury, has to date enrolled more than 240 patients. The study, he says, is based on the premise that within hours of a spinal cord injury, a patient should be undergoing surgery that will reduce pressure on the cord in order to limit damage to it and surrounding tissues. Initial evaluations of the clinical trial data have indicated that immediate surgery is safe and feasible and, by reducing the pressure on a compressed spinal cord, may encourage the recovery of function.

In another clinical trial, scientists soon will determine whether the Food and Drug Administration-approved medication riluzole protects nerve cells and promotes functional recovery when it is administered after spinal cord injury. Riluzole, now used to treat people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), prevents neurons from releasing too much sodium. In lab animal studies, the drug was neuroprotective.

In other animal model studies, the drug CethrinŽ has been found to lessen post-traumatic neural cell death. To evaluate the safety of this recombinant protein drug and obtain preliminary efficacy data in human patients, Fehlings and colleagues at nine centers in the United States and Canada administered the agent topically to 37 patients with complete cervical and thoracic spinal cord injury. "The drug shows a high degree of safety and promising clinical neurological improvements after one year of follow-up," he says.

"While the results of a single arm, uncontrolled study need to be interpreted cautiously, this level of improvement exceeds rates of spontaneous neurological recovery," Fehlings says. A prospective, randomized placebo-controlled efficacy trial is planned for early 2008.

The Fehlings team has completed studies in lab rodents in which neural stem cells were transplanted following spinal cord injury. The stem cells, programmed to restore the myelin layer around spinal cord nerve fibers, promoted significant neurological recovery. This strategy shows considerable promise for translation into the clinic, Fehlings says.

If it continues beyond a critical time point, the medical practice of treating spinal cord-injured patients with immune suppressive drugs as soon after the injury as possible may hinder rather than promote recovery, according to studies by Michal Schwartz, PhD, of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

"For many decades, the detection of immune cells in the injured brain or spinal cord was interpreted to represent part of the pathological process that occurs following injury and prevents healing," Schwartz says. "This dogma was so well ingrained that the common practice in Western countries has been to treat patients who experienced spinal cord injury with immune suppressive drugs as early as possible following the injury."

However, Schwartz's laboratory showed that the immune system is required for protection, repair, and renewal of the brain and spinal cord following acute or chronic damage. But, she says, "to achieve beneficial results, immune-cell involvement in repair must be critically controlled in terms of the timing, nature, intensity, and duration of activation."

A beneficial immune response involves not only the activity of immune cells residing in the damaged tissue, but also the timely recruitment of immune cells from the blood. These blood-borne immune cells home to a precise location around the injured site, where they sense the tissue damage and secrete factors needed to induce repair.

"This timely recruitment of immune cells to the site of injury, and their well-controlled activation, is an essential stage in the multistep process of brain and spinal cord repair," Schwartz says. "Curtailing this process by suppressing, rather than modulating, the immune response deprives the tissue of its most powerful physiological repair mechanism."

Schwartz designed and tested several immune-based therapeutic approaches for promoting spinal cord repair. One was a vaccine containing a peptide derived from a protein that resides in the injured tissue and that can boost immune response by activating a particular population of immune cells, the T lymphocytes. T lymphocytes specifically recognize proteins that are associated with the injury.

Pairing the vaccine with an injection of neural stem cells resulted in a synergistic effect on recovery. "Surprisingly, however, the injected stem cells did not themselves give rise to new neurons but rather promoted the formation of new neurons from the tissue's resident stem cells," Schwartz says.

Scientists also have found in work with laboratory animals that when human stem cells are transplanted into the body, they form active synapses with the animal's own neurons for limb movement. After they were implanted, the human stem cells developed into neurons and made local connections with spinal cord motor neurons but they did not project to the animals' peripheral nerve and hind limb muscles, says Vassilis Koliatsos, MD, of Johns Hopkins University.

Koliatsos conducted this study with rodents affected by a genetic form of ALS, which is characterized by the progressive degeneration and death of motor neurons. "These findings demonstrate that grafted human neural stem cells become synaptically incorporated into the motor circuitry of ALS rats," Koliatsos says.

The exact role of these new synapses, which are specialized junctions through which neurons signal each other, is not yet defined. Koliatsos says that they may serve to communicate physiological signals pertaining to limb movement or, more likely, to transfer nourishing chemicals from neural stem cells to the degenerating or vulnerable motor neurons of the host ALS animal.

The transplanted human stem cells produced an abundance of two key nourishing chemicals for motor neurons: glial cell-derived neurotrophic factor and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which, Koliatsos says, "may be the main factor behind the therapeutic effect of neural stem cell grafts."

In the latest study, the implanted human neural stem cells, obtained from a 2-month-old human fetal spinal cord, were transplanted into the spinal cord of ALS rats when they were 9 weeks old.

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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Scientists plan China, HK, Taiwan Stem Cell Trial

Scientists are preparing for a large clinical trial in 2008 which aims to use stem cells to help 400 patients with spinal cord injuries in Hong Kong, mainland China and Taiwan grow new cells and nerve fibers.

Stem cells from umbilical cord blood will be injected into the spinal cords of the participants, who will also be given lithium to help stimulate cell regeneration, said Wise Young, a leading neuroscientist and spinal cord injury researcher.

"What we'd like to do is study a broad range of patients, not just (those with) complete (spinal cord injuries)," said Young, professor at Rutgers' department of cellbiology and neuroscience. Rutgers is the state university in New Jersey in the U.S.

Researchers are now giving lithium to 20 patients in Hong Kong in the phase 1 safety and feasibility trial. Lithium is a chemical element that is believed to boost cell regeneration.
In preparation for the large 2008 trial, which will involve 400 patients in 14 mainland Chinese cities, Hong Kong and Taipei, doctors in all three places recently agreed on the method to deliver stem cells into spinal cords, said Young, who is also a visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong.

Stem cells extracted from matching umbilical cord blood taken from public blood banks will be injected into the spinal cords of the subjects, who will also be given lithium.

The procedure should hopefully help subjects grow new nerve fibers and "bridges" -- structures that allow the new fibers to reconnect with other parts of the spinal cord.

"Our main outcome measure will be neurological motor and sensory scores," Young said in an interview with selected media. "We want to see whether the patients recover sensation. It has three measures: touch, pain which is assessed by pin-prick, and the third is strength of 10 standardized muscles."

The trial, the biggest in the field in Asia, comes as China is devoting significant resources into stem cell research.

Its attitude and achievements have drawn U.S.-based scientists like Young to conduct research there due to opposition to embryonic stem cell research in the United States.

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research, including President George W. Bush, say it is unethical to experiment on human embryos, even those never destined to become a baby.
Stem cells are the body's master cells, found throughout the tissue and blood. Whether from the adult or from embryos, they may be used to find treatments and cures for serious diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

Embryonic stem cells are considered potentially the most powerful but are also the most controversial, and federal law greatly restricts the use of taxpayer money to pay for experiments using them.

"Scientists in the U.S. are so upset at the stopping of (embryonic) stem cell research, but this would be a great opportunity for Asia, great opportunity for China ... because there are so many researchers working in this field," Young said, adding that Hong Kong had a special position in all of this.

"Hong Kong is in a special position for science because it has credibility. Many people don't trust what is going on inside China," he said, noting also that Hong Kong badly needed government support and funding.

Private donors are funding the US$26 million spinal cord clinical trial.

By Tan Ee Lyn HONG KONG, Reuters

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