A New Stem Cell Therapy Provides Hope to Patients with Blood Cancer
Stacey Khoury felt more fatigued and out of breath than she was used to from just walking up the steps to her job in retail jewelry sales in Nashville, Tennessee. By the time she got home, she was more exhausted than usual, too.
"I just thought I was working too hard and needed more exercise," recalls the native Nashvillian about those days in December 2010. "All of the usual excuses you make when you're not feeling 100%."
As a professional gemologist, being hospitalized during peak holiday sales season wasn't particularly convenient. There was no way around it though when her primary care physician advised Khoury to see a blood disorder oncologist because of her disturbing blood count numbers. As part of a routine medical exam, a complete blood count screens for a variety of diseases and conditions that affect blood cells, such as anemia, infection, inflammation, bleeding disorders and cancer.
"If approved, it will allow more patients to potentially receive a transplant than would have gotten one before."
While she was in the hospital, a bone marrow biopsy revealed that Khoury had acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, a high-risk blood cancer. After Khoury completed an intense first round of chemotherapy, her oncologist recommended a bone marrow transplant. The potentially curative treatment for blood-cancer patients requires them to first receive a high dose of chemotherapy. Next, an infusion of stem cells from a healthy donor's bone marrow helps form new blood cells to fight off the cancer long-term.
Each year, approximately 8,000 patients in the U.S. with AML and other blood cancers receive a bone marrow transplant from a donor, according to the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research. But Khoury wasn't so lucky. She ended up being among the estimated 40% of patients eligible for bone marrow transplants who don't receive one, usually because there's no matched donor available.
Khoury's oncologist told her about another option. She could enter a clinical trial for an investigational cell therapy called omidubicel, which is being developed by Israeli biotech company Gamida Cell. The company's cell therapy, which is still experimental, could up a new avenue of treatment for cancer patients who can't get a bone marrow transplant.
Omidubicel consists of stem cells from cord blood that have been expanded using Gamida's technology to ensure there are enough cells for a therapeutic dose. The company's technology allows the immature cord blood cells to multiply quickly in the lab. Like a bone marrow transplant, the goal of the therapy is to make sure the donor cells make their way to the bone marrow and begin producing healthy new cells — a process called engraftment.
"If approved, it will allow more patients to potentially receive a transplant than would have gotten one before, so there's something very novel and exciting about that," says Ronit Simantov, Gamida Cell's chief medical officer.
Khoury and her husband Rick packed up their car and headed to the closest trial site, the Duke University School of Medicine, roughly 500 miles away. There they met with Mitchell Horowitz, a stem cell transplant specialist at Duke and principal investigator for Gamida's omidubicel study in the U.S.
He told Khoury she was a perfect candidate for the trial, and she enrolled immediately. "When you have one of two decisions, and it's either do this or you're probably not going to be around, it was a pretty easy decision to make, and I am truly thankful for that," she says.
Khoury's treatment started at the end of March 2011, and she was home by July 4 that year. She say the therapy "worked the way the doctors wanted it to work." Khoury's blood counts were rising quicker than the people who had bone marrow matches, and she was discharged from Duke earlier than other patients were.
By expanding the number of cord blood cells — which are typically too few to treat an adult — omidubicel allows doctors to use cord blood for patients who require a transplant but don't have a donor match for bone marrow.
Patients receiving omidubicel first get a blood test to determine their human leukocyte antigen, or HLA, type. This protein is found on most cells in the body and is an important regulator of the immune system. HLA typing is used to match patients to bone marrow and cord blood donors, but cord blood doesn't require as close of a match.
Like bone marrow transplants, one potential complication of omidubicel is graft-versus-host disease, when the donated bone marrow or stem cells register the recipient's body as foreign and attack the body. Depending on the severity of the response, according to the Mayo Clinic, treatment includes medication to suppress the immune system, such as steroids. In clinical trials, the occurrence of graft-versus-host disease with omidubicel was comparable with traditional bone marrow transplants.
"Transplant doctors are working on improving that," Simantov says. "A number of new therapies that specifically address graft-versus-host disease will be making some headway in the coming months and years."
Gamida released the results of the Phase 3 study in February and continues to follow Khoury and the other study patients for their long-term outcomes. The large randomized trial evaluated the safety and efficacy of omidubicel compared to standard umbilical cord blood transplants in patients with blood cancer who didn't have a suitable bone marrow donor. Around 120 patients aged 12 to 65 across the U.S., Europe and Asia were included in the trial. The study found that omidubicel resulted in faster recovery, fewer bacterial and viral infections and fewer days in the hospital.
The company plans to seek FDA approval this year. Simantov anticipates the therapy will receive FDA approval by 2022.
"Opening up cord blood transplants is very important, especially for people of diverse ethnic backgrounds," says oncologist Gary Schiller, principal investigator at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA for Gamida Cell's mid- and late-stage trials. "This expansion technology makes a big difference because it makes cord blood an available option for those who do not have another donor source."
As for Khoury, who proudly celebrated the anniversary of her first transplant in April—she remains cancer free and continues to work full-time as a gemologist. When she has a little free time, she enjoys gardening, sewing, or maybe traveling to national parks like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon with her husband Rick.
When Drew Weissman received a call from Katalin Karikó in the early morning hours this past Monday, he assumed his longtime research partner was calling to share a nascent, nagging idea. Weissman, a professor of medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and Karikó, a professor at Szeged University and an adjunct professor at UPenn, both struggle with sleep disturbances. Thus, middle-of-the-night discourses between the two, often over email, has been a staple of their friendship. But this time, Karikó had something more pressing and exciting to share: They had won the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
The work for which they garnered the illustrious award and its accompanying $1,000,000 cash windfall was completed about two decades ago, wrought through long hours in the lab over many arduous years. But humanity collectively benefited from its life-saving outcome three years ago, when both Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech’s mRNA vaccines against COVID were found to be safe and highly effective at preventing severe disease. Billions of doses have since been given out to protect humans from the upstart viral scourge.
“I thought of going somewhere else, or doing something else,” said Katalin Karikó. “I also thought maybe I’m not good enough, not smart enough. I tried to imagine: Everything is here, and I just have to do better experiments.”
Unlocking the power of mRNA
Weissman and Karikó unlocked mRNA vaccines for the world back in the early 2000s when they made a key breakthrough. Messenger RNA molecules are essentially instructions for cells’ ribosomes to make specific proteins, so in the 1980s and 1990s, researchers started wondering if sneaking mRNA into the body could trigger cells to manufacture antibodies, enzymes, or growth agents for protecting against infection, treating disease, or repairing tissues. But there was a big problem: injecting this synthetic mRNA triggered a dangerous, inflammatory immune response resulting in the mRNA’s destruction.
While most other researchers chose not to tackle this perplexing problem to instead pursue more lucrative and publishable exploits, Karikó stuck with it. The choice sent her academic career into depressing doldrums. Nobody would fund her work, publications dried up, and after six years as an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Karikó got demoted. She was going backward.
“I thought of going somewhere else, or doing something else,” Karikó told Stat in 2020. “I also thought maybe I’m not good enough, not smart enough. I tried to imagine: Everything is here, and I just have to do better experiments.”
A tale of tenacity
Collaborating with Drew Weissman, a new professor at the University of Pennsylvania, in the late 1990s helped provide Karikó with the tenacity to continue. Weissman nurtured a goal of developing a vaccine against HIV-1, and saw mRNA as a potential way to do it.
“For the 20 years that we’ve worked together before anybody knew what RNA is, or cared, it was the two of us literally side by side at a bench working together,” Weissman said in an interview with Adam Smith of the Nobel Foundation.
In 2005, the duo made their 2023 Nobel Prize-winning breakthrough, detailing it in a relatively small journal, Immunity. (Their paper was rejected by larger journals, including Science and Nature.) They figured out that chemically modifying the nucleoside bases that make up mRNA allowed the molecule to slip past the body’s immune defenses. Karikó and Weissman followed up that finding by creating mRNA that’s more efficiently translated within cells, greatly boosting protein production. In 2020, scientists at Moderna and BioNTech (where Karikó worked from 2013 to 2022) rushed to craft vaccines against COVID, putting their methods to life-saving use.
The future of vaccines
Buoyed by the resounding success of mRNA vaccines, scientists are now hurriedly researching ways to use mRNA medicine against other infectious diseases, cancer, and genetic disorders. The now ubiquitous efforts stand in stark contrast to Karikó and Weissman’s previously unheralded struggles years ago as they doggedly worked to realize a shared dream that so many others shied away from. Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman were brave enough to walk a scientific path that very well could have ended in a dead end, and for that, they absolutely deserve their 2023 Nobel Prize.
At the edge of a dirt road flanked by trees and green mountains outside the town of Kisoro, Uganda, sits the concrete building that houses Sesame Girls School, where girls aged 11 to 19 can live, learn and, at least for a while, safely use a toilet. In many developing regions, toileting at night is especially dangerous for children. Without electrical power for lighting, kids may fall into the deep pits of the latrines through broken or unsteady floorboards. Girls are sometimes assaulted by men who hide in the dark.
For the Sesame School girls, though, bright LED lights, connected to tiny gadgets, chased the fears away. They got to use new, clean toilets lit by the power of their own pee. Some girls even used the light provided by the latrines to study.
Urine, whether animal or human, is more than waste. It’s a cheap and abundant resource. Each day across the globe, 8.1 billion humans make 4 billion gallons of pee. Cows, pigs, deer, elephants and other animals add more. By spending money to get rid of it, we waste a renewable resource that can serve more than one purpose. Microorganisms that feed on nutrients in urine can be used in a microbial fuel cell that generates electricity – or "pee power," as the Sesame girls called it.
Plus, urine contains water, phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen, the key ingredients plants need to grow and survive. Human urine could replace about 25 percent of current nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers worldwide and could save water for gardens and crops. The average U.S. resident flushes a toilet bowl containing only pee and paper about six to seven times a day, which adds up to about 3,500 gallons of water down per year. Plus cows in the U.S. produce 231 gallons of the stuff each year.
A conventional fuel cell uses chemical reactions to produce energy, as electrons move from one electrode to another to power a lightbulb or phone. Ioannis Ieropoulos, a professor and chair of Environmental Engineering at the University of Southampton in England, realized the same type of reaction could be used to make a fuel from microbes in pee.
Bacterial species like Shewanella oneidensis and Pseudomonas aeruginosa can consume carbon and other nutrients in urine and pop out electrons as a result of their digestion. In a microbial fuel cell, one electrode is covered in microbes, immersed in urine and kept away from oxygen. Another electrode is in contact with oxygen. When the microbes feed on nutrients, they produce the electrons that flow through the circuit from one electrod to another to combine with oxygen on the other side. As long as the microbes have fresh pee to chomp on, electrons keep flowing. And after the microbes are done with the pee, it can be used as fertilizer.
These microbes are easily found in wastewater treatment plants, ponds, lakes, rivers or soil. Keeping them alive is the easy part, says Ieropoulos. Once the cells start producing stable power, his group sequences the microbes and keeps using them.
Like many promising technologies, scaling these devices for mass consumption won’t be easy, says Kevin Orner, a civil engineering professor at West Virginia University. But it’s moving in the right direction. Ieropoulos’s device has shrunk from the size of about three packs of cards to a large glue stick. It looks and works much like a AAA battery and produce about the same power. By itself, the device can barely power a light bulb, but when stacked together, they can do much more—just like photovoltaic cells in solar panels. His lab has produced 1760 fuel cells stacked together, and with manufacturing support, there’s no theoretical ceiling, he says.
Although pure urine produces the most power, Ieropoulos’s devices also work with the mixed liquids of the wastewater treatment plants, so they can be retrofit into urban wastewater utilities.
This image shows how the pee-powered system works. Pee feeds bacteria in the stack of fuel cells (1), which give off electrons (2) stored in parallel cylindrical cells (3). These cells are connected to a voltage regulator (4), which smooths out the electrical signal to ensure consistent power to the LED strips lighting the toilet.
Courtesy Ioannis Ieropoulos
Key to the long-term success of any urine reclamation effort, says Orner, is avoiding what he calls “parachute engineering”—when well-meaning scientists solve a problem with novel tech and then abandon it. “The way around that is to have either the need come from the community or to have an organization in a community that is committed to seeing a project operate and maintained,” he says.
Success with urine reclamation also depends on the economy. “If energy prices are low, it may not make sense to recover energy,” says Orner. “But right now, fertilizer prices worldwide are generally pretty high, so it may make sense to recover fertilizer and nutrients.” There are obstacles, too, such as few incentives for builders to incorporate urine recycling into new construction. And any hiccups like leaks or waste seepage will cost builders money and reputation. Right now, Orner says, the risks are just too high.
Despite the challenges, Ieropoulos envisions a future in which urine is passed through microbial fuel cells at wastewater treatment plants, retrofitted septic tanks, and building basements, and is then delivered to businesses to use as agricultural fertilizers. Although pure urine produces the most power, Ieropoulos’s devices also work with the mixed liquids of the wastewater treatment plants, so they can be retrofitted into urban wastewater utilities where they can make electricity from the effluent. And unlike solar cells, which are a common target of theft in some areas, nobody wants to steal a bunch of pee.
When Ieropoulos’s team returned to wrap up their pilot project 18 months later, the school’s director begged them to leave the fuel cells in place—because they made a major difference in students’ lives. “We replaced it with a substantial photovoltaic panel,” says Ieropoulos, They couldn’t leave the units forever, he explained, because of intellectual property reasons—their funders worried about theft of both the technology and the idea. But the photovoltaic replacement could be stolen, too, leaving the girls in the dark.
The story repeated itself at another school, in Nairobi, Kenya, as well as in an informal settlement in Durban, South Africa. Each time, Ieropoulos vowed to return. Though the pandemic has delayed his promise, he is resolute about continuing his work—it is a moral and legal obligation. “We've made a commitment to ourselves and to the pupils,” he says. “That's why we need to go back.”
Urine as fertilizer
Modern day industrial systems perpetuate the broken cycle of nutrients. When plants grow, they use up nutrients the soil. We eat the plans and excrete some of the nutrients we pass them into rivers and oceans. As a result, farmers must keep fertilizing the fields while our waste keeps fertilizing the waterways, where the algae, overfertilized with nitrogen, phosphorous and other nutrients grows out of control, sucking up oxygen that other marine species need to live. Few global communities remain untouched by the related challenges this broken chain create: insufficient clean water, food, and energy, and too much human and animal waste.
The Rich Earth Institute in Vermont runs a community-wide urine nutrient recovery program, which collects urine from homes and businesses, transports it for processing, and then supplies it as fertilizer to local farms.
One solution to this broken cycle is reclaiming urine and returning it back to the land. The Rich Earth Institute in Vermont is one of several organizations around the world working to divert and save urine for agricultural use. “The urine produced by an adult in one day contains enough fertilizer to grow all the wheat in one loaf of bread,” states their website.
Notably, while urine is not entirely sterile, it tends to harbor fewer pathogens than feces. That’s largely because urine has less organic matter and therefore less food for pathogens to feed on, but also because the urinary tract and the bladder have built-in antimicrobial defenses that kill many germs. In fact, the Rich Earth Institute says it’s safe to put your own urine onto crops grown for home consumption. Nonetheless, you’ll want to dilute it first because pee usually has too much nitrogen and can cause “fertilizer burn” if applied straight without dilution. Other projects to turn urine into fertilizer are in progress in Niger, South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sweden, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Australia, and France.
Eleven years ago, the Institute started a program that collects urine from homes and businesses, transports it for processing, and then supplies it as fertilizer to local farms. By 2021, the program included 180 donors producing over 12,000 gallons of urine each year. This urine is helping to fertilize hay fields at four partnering farms. Orner, the West Virginia professor, sees it as a success story. “They've shown how you can do this right--implementing it at a community level scale."