Celling up

Some stem-cell-based regenerative therapies will draw on cells from individual patients. Some won’t. How will those alternatives shake out?

Regenerative treatments based on induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) fall into two camps, with the cells drawn either from each patient (autologous) or built off-the-shelf from donor cells (allogeneic). Writing a story for Nature about manufacturing iPSC-based medicines, I’m struck by the large bets being placed on allogeneic approaches, which haven’t yet been proven clinically.

There’s a lot of progress, at least in the lab, in solving the obvious big problem with these outside cells: reconfiguring them to slide under the radar of your immune system. Experiments aim to copy the molecular mechanisms by which tumors and fetal cells dodge immune bullets, or to remove the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules by which your T cells recognize your own cells, and/or to pull off many other ingenious genetic tricks.

The potential benefits for off-the-shelf treatments are obvious, beginning with better control, availability and cost than painstakingly created individual treatments.

No surprise, cell therapies will not come cheap. Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell treatments for blood cancers (the remarkable predecessors for today’s cell therapy candidates) cost around a million bucks per patient. That’s too much for large numbers of cancer patients and waaay too much for the chronic conditions suffered by millions such as Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and heart disease.

And as tricky as it is to make autologous CAR-T cells, even years after those treatments have been commercialized, stem-cell-based therapies are even more laborious.

CAR-T cells are genetically modified to create a receptor protein that goes after bad B cells. OK, not easy. But stem-cell-based therapies require vastly greater modifications, in two huge steps. First, the cells must be pulled back to a pluripotent state. Second, these pluripotent cells must be differentiated into neurons or pancreatic islet cells or heart cells. This differentiation process recapitulates normal cell development and requires weeks or months. Each cell line behaves a little differently during this process. The safety and effectiveness of the results are not givens.

So, nice to need to perform all this magic only once!

Among studies of early allogeneic candidates, BlueRock Therapeutics has launched a trial of dopamine-producing cells that might help with Parkinson’s disease. (Curiously, the cells are derived from embryonic stem cells, not iPSCs; understandably, the company isn’t emphasizing that point.) The first of 10 patients received a transplant in June in surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering.

Notably, the subjects in the BlueRock study will be given drugs to partly suppress the immune reaction.

This downside is one reason Ole Isacson of McLean Hospital, a pioneer in stem-cell-based treatments for Parkinson’s disease who published a key 2015 paper on research in primates, remains in the autologous camp.

“With allogeneic cells in general, there’s still recognition by the immune system, even in the brain, of these foreign cells,” Isacson noted during an Endpoints seminar last month.

Moreover, autologous cells integrate better within the primate brain and deliver better recoveries, said Isacson. He pointed to a March paper by University of Wisconsin researchers showing that autologous dopamine-producing cells functionally outperformed allogeneic cells in rhesus monkeys that model Parkinson’s.

Isacson also suggested that creating individualized stem cells and then redifferentiated therapeutic cells will be done efficiently and affordably in the foreseeable future with closed-loop automated systems such as those being developed by Cellino Biotech.

Talking with researchers in various forms of cell therapies during the past year, I found that many expect walk-before-you-run progress: When and if autologous treatments work, there will be redoubled work on allogeneic alternatives.

“The immune system is an amazing force of nature that can detect the tiniest little differences,” Jeffrey Bluestone of Sonoma Biotherapeutics told me in an interview for a Nature story on regulatory T cells. “Engineering an invisible cell without the immune system ever seeing it will be a challenge… Having said all that, though, I think the field is moving really well in that space.”

Image of iPSC-derived neurons by Matheus Victor of MIT’s Li-Huei Tsai lab.

Talking about regeneration

What experts are telling me about the march of pluripotent stem cell therapies.

Yes, it takes years to translate brilliant science into therapies, and the routes to translation aren’t predictable. Case in point, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, launched via state referendum 15 years ago among the excitement about pluripotent embryonic stem cells. The Institute has sponsored 56 clinical trials. By a quick count, only five of these trials are looking at pluripotent stem cells, the remainder testing adult stem cells for regeneration or cancer treatments.

The waters are muddied by hundreds of for-profit “stem cell clinics” that offer treatments with little or no clinical evidence. “There is no scientific basis for what these people are doing,” one prominent researcher told me. “It’s very important to draw a distinction between the malpractice and quackery of these unsubstantiated stem cell clinics and the incredibly high-tech serious science that is using all of the new targeted approaches to improve patient outcomes for really terrible diseases.”

Therapies based on induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are entering early studies. The first iPSC clinical trial for Parkinson’s disease launched last year in Japan, for example. jCyte kicked off a successful first trial to treat a degenerative eye condition in 2017 and should post early results of a follow-up study soon. Studies for cardiac condition are likely to launch in 2020, one based on research shown successful in macaques. Also next year, Sigilon Therapeutics expects to kick off a study for hemophilia A, and Semma Therapeutics is planning trials for insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells for type 1 diabetes. “I’m happy to tell you that Semma has solved the production problem for beta cells,” co-founder Douglas Melton told me.

Labs are gearing up for off-the-shelf cell therapies, by engineering “universal donor cells” that dodge immune reaction and/or retraining T cells and other bodyguards of the immune system. This is a very long road with many complexities and safety concerns. But progress is being made, with one example this year from Melton and colleagues.

Other researchers seek to apply what we’re learning about cell plasticity to form  desired cells directly within the body. Kristen Johnson of Scripps Research’s Calibr institute, for instance, leads a trial of a small molecule designed to make healthy new knee cells. At an earlier stage, diabetes researchers aim to develop insulin-producing cells by altering pancreatic alpha cells or a recently found population of pancreatic progenitor cells. Startups OxStem and Sana Biotechnology have wildly ambitious programs in this space.

We’ll see what actually translates but the scientists I talk with believe that stem cell research will change medicine dramatically and it won’t take 15 more  years.

Images courtesy Harvard Stem Cell Institute. On left, mouse induced muscle progenitor cells at various stages of differentiation, from Konrad Hochedlinger’s lab. Top right, human green kidney cells and red blood vessels, from work led by Jennifer Lewis and Ryuji Morizane. Bottom right, from the Melton lab, two clusters of human insulin-producing cells (pink), the cluster on the right demonstrating enrichment of these cells.