Researchers Are Testing a New Stem Cell Therapy in the Hopes of Saving Millions from Blindness
Of all the infirmities of old age, failing sight is among the cruelest. It can mean the end not only of independence, but of a whole spectrum of joys—from gazing at a sunset or a grandchild's face to reading a novel or watching TV.
The Phase 1 trial will likely run through 2022, followed by a larger Phase 2 trial that could last another two or three years.
The leading cause of vision loss in people over 55 is age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, which afflicts an estimated 11 million Americans. As photoreceptors in the macula (the central part of the retina) die off, patients experience increasingly severe blurring, dimming, distortions, and blank spots in one or both eyes.
The disorder comes in two varieties, "wet" and "dry," both driven by a complex interaction of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. It begins when deposits of cellular debris accumulate beneath the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE)—a layer of cells that nourish and remove waste products from the photoreceptors above them. In wet AMD, this process triggers the growth of abnormal, leaky blood vessels that damage the photoreceptors. In dry AMD, which accounts for 80 to 90 percent of cases, RPE cells atrophy, causing photoreceptors to wither away. Wet AMD can be controlled in about a quarter of patients, usually by injections of medication into the eye. For dry AMD, no effective remedy exists.
Stem Cells: Promise and Perils
Over the past decade, stem cell therapy has been widely touted as a potential treatment for AMD. The idea is to augment a patient's ailing RPE cells with healthy ones grown in the lab. A few small clinical trials have shown promising results. In a study published in 2018, for example, a University of Southern California team cultivated RPE tissue from embryonic stem cells on a plastic matrix and transplanted it into the retinas of four patients with advanced dry AMD. Because the trial was designed to test safety rather than efficacy, lead researcher Amir Kashani told a reporter, "we didn't expect that replacing RPE cells would return a significant amount of vision." Yet acuity improved substantially in one recipient, and the others regained their lost ability to focus on an object.
Therapies based on embryonic stem cells, however, have two serious drawbacks: Using fetal cell lines raises ethical issues, and such treatments require the patient to take immunosuppressant drugs (which can cause health problems of their own) to prevent rejection. That's why some experts favor a different approach—one based on induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Such cells, first produced in 2006, are made by returning adult cells to an undifferentiated state, and then using chemicals to reprogram them as desired. Treatments grown from a patient's own tissues could sidestep both hurdles associated with embryonic cells.
At least hypothetically. Today, the only stem cell therapies approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are umbilical cord-derived products for various blood and immune disorders. Although scientists are probing the use of embryonic stem cells or iPSCs for conditions ranging from diabetes to Parkinson's disease, such applications remain experimental—or fraudulent, as a growing number of patients treated at unlicensed "stem cell clinics" have painfully learned. (Some have gone blind after receiving bogus AMD therapies at those facilities.)
Last December, researchers at the National Eye Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, began enrolling patients with dry AMD in the country's first clinical trial using tissue grown from the patients' own stem cells. Led by biologist Kapil Bharti, the team intends to implant custom-made RPE cells in 12 recipients. If the effort pans out, it could someday save the sight of countless oldsters.
That, however, is what's technically referred to as a very big "if."
The First Steps
Bharti's trial is not the first in the world to use patient-derived iPSCs to treat age-related macular degeneration. In 2013, Japanese researchers implanted such cells into the eyes of a 77-year-old woman with wet AMD; after a year, her vision had stabilized, and she no longer needed injections to keep abnormal blood vessels from forming. A second patient was scheduled for surgery—but the procedure was canceled after the lab-grown RPE cells showed signs of worrisome mutations. That incident illustrates one potential problem with using stem cells: Under some circumstances, the cells or the tissue they form could turn cancerous.
"The knowledge and expertise we're gaining can be applied to many other iPSC-based therapies."
Bharti and his colleagues have gone to great lengths to avoid such outcomes. "Our process is significantly different," he told me in a phone interview. His team begins with patients' blood stem cells, which appear to be more genomically stable than the skin cells that the Japanese group used. After converting the blood cells to RPE stem cells, his team cultures them in a single layer on a biodegradable scaffold, which helps them grow in an orderly manner. "We think this material gives us a big advantage," Bharti says. The team uses a machine-learning algorithm to identify optimal cell structure and ensure quality control.
It takes about six months for a patch of iPSCs to become viable RPE cells. When they're ready, a surgeon uses a specially-designed tool to insert the tiny structure into the retina. Within days, the scaffold melts away, enabling the transplanted RPE cells to integrate fully into their new environment. Bharti's team initially tested their method on rats and pigs with eye damage mimicking AMD. The study, published in January 2019 in Science Translational Medicine, found that at ten weeks, the implanted RPE cells continued to function normally and protected neighboring photoreceptors from further deterioration. No trace of mutagenesis appeared.
Encouraged by these results, Bharti began recruiting human subjects. The Phase 1 trial will likely run through 2022, followed by a larger Phase 2 trial that could last another two or three years. FDA approval would require an even larger Phase 3 trial, with a decision expected sometime between 2025 and 2028—that is, if nothing untoward happens before then. One unknown (among many) is whether implanted cells can thrive indefinitely under the biochemically hostile conditions of an eye with AMD.
"Most people don't have a sense of just how long it takes to get something like this to work, and how many failures—even disasters—there are along the way," says Marco Zarbin, professor and chair of Ophthalmology and visual science at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and co-editor of the book Cell-Based Therapy for Degenerative Retinal Diseases. "The first kidney transplant was done in 1933. But the first successful kidney transplant was in 1954. That gives you a sense of the time frame. We're really taking the very first steps in this direction."
Even if Bharti's method proves safe and effective, there's the question of its practicality. "My sense is that using induced pluripotent stem cells to treat the patient from whom they're derived is a very expensive undertaking," Zarbin observes. "So you'd have to have a very dramatic clinical benefit to justify that cost."
Bharti concedes that the price of iPSC therapy is likely to be high, given that each "dose" is formulated for a single individual, requires months to manufacture, and must be administered via microsurgery. Still, he expects economies of scale and production to emerge with time. "We're working on automating several steps of the process," he explains. "When that kicks in, a technician will be able to make products for 10 or 20 people at once, so the cost will drop proportionately."
Meanwhile, other researchers are pressing ahead with therapies for AMD using embryonic stem cells, which could be mass-produced to treat any patient who needs them. But should that approach eventually win FDA approval, Bharti believes there will still be room for a technique that requires neither fetal cell lines nor immunosuppression.
And not only for eye ailments. "The knowledge and expertise we're gaining can be applied to many other iPSC-based therapies," says the scientist, who is currently consulting with several companies that are developing such treatments. "I'm hopeful that we can leverage these approaches for a wide range of applications, whether it's for vision or across the body."
NEI launches iPS cell therapy trial for dry AMD
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.
Martin Taylor was only 32 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, a disease that causes tremors, stiff muscles and slow physical movement - symptoms that steadily get worse as time goes on.
“It's horrible having Parkinson's,” says Taylor, a data analyst, now 41. “It limits my ability to be the dad and husband that I want to be in many cruel and debilitating ways.”
Today, more than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson's. Most are diagnosed when they're considerably older than Taylor, after age 60. Although recent research has called into question certain aspects of the disease’s origins, Parkinson’s eventually kills the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, a signaling chemical that carries messages around the body to control movement. Many patients have lost 60 to 80 percent of these cells by the time they are diagnosed.
For years, there's been little improvement in the standard treatment. Patients are typically given the drug levodopa, a chemical that's absorbed by the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons, and converted into dopamine. This drug addresses the symptoms but has no impact on the course of the disease as patients continue to lose dopamine producing neurons. Eventually, the treatment stops working effectively.
BlueRock Therapeutics, a cell therapy company based in Massachusetts, is taking a different approach by focusing on the use of stem cells, which can divide into and generate new specialized cells. The company makes the dopamine-producing cells that patients have lost and inserts these cells into patients' brains. “We have a disease with a high unmet need,” says Ahmed Enayetallah, the senior vice president and head of development at BlueRock. “We know [which] cells…are lost to the disease, and we can make them. So it really came together to use stem cells in Parkinson's.”
In a phase 1 research trial announced late last month, patients reported that their symptoms had improved after a year of treatment. Brain scans also showed an increased number of neurons generating dopamine in patients’ brains.
Increases in dopamine signals
The recent phase 1 trial focused on deploying BlueRock’s cell therapy, called bemdaneprocel, to treat 12 patients suffering from Parkinson’s. The team developed the new nerve cells and implanted them into specific locations on each side of the patient's brain through two small holes in the skull made by a neurosurgeon. “We implant cells into the places in the brain where we think they have the potential to reform the neural networks that are lost to Parkinson's disease,” Enayetallah says. The goal is to restore motor function to patients over the long-term.
Five patients were given a relatively low dose of cells while seven got higher doses. Specialized brain scans showed evidence that the transplanted cells had survived, increasing the overall number of dopamine producing cells. The team compared the baseline number of these cells before surgery to the levels one year later. “The scans tell us there is evidence of increased dopamine signals in the part of the brain affected by Parkinson's,” Enayetallah says. “Normally you’d expect the signal to go down in untreated Parkinson’s patients.”
"I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part," says Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The team also asked patients to use a specific type of home diary to log the times when symptoms were well controlled and when they prevented normal activity. After a year of treatment, patients taking the higher dose reported symptoms were under control for an average of 2.16 hours per day above their baselines. At the smaller dose, these improvements were significantly lower, 0.72 hours per day. The higher-dose patients reported a corresponding decrease in the amount of time when symptoms were uncontrolled, by an average of 1.91 hours, compared to 0.75 hours for the lower dose. The trial was safe, and patients tolerated the year of immunosuppression needed to make sure their bodies could handle the foreign cells.
Claire Bale, the associate director of research at Parkinson's U.K., sees the promise of BlueRock's approach, while noting the need for more research on a possible placebo effect. The trial participants knew they were getting the active treatment, and placebo effects are known to be a potential factor in Parkinson’s research. Even so, “The results indicate that this therapy produces improvements in symptoms for Parkinson's, which is very encouraging,” Bale says.
Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh, also finds the results intriguing. “I think it's excellent,” he says. “I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part.” However, it could take time for this therapy to become widely available, Kunath says, and patients in the late stages of the disease may not benefit as much. “Data from cell transplantation with fetal tissue in the 1980s and 90s show that cells did not survive well and release dopamine in these [late-stage] patients.”
Searching for the right approach
There's a long history of using cell therapy as a treatment for Parkinson's. About four decades ago, scientists at the University of Lund in Sweden developed a method in which they transferred parts of fetal brain tissue to patients with Parkinson's so that their nerve cells would produce dopamine. Many benefited, and some were able to stop their medication. However, the use of fetal tissue was highly controversial at that time, and the tissues were difficult to obtain. Later trials in the U.S. showed that people benefited only if a significant amount of the tissue was used, and several patients experienced side effects. Eventually, the work lost momentum.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” says Taylor, the patient living with Parkinson's. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.”
In 2000, Lorenz Studer led a team at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Centre, in New York, to find the chemical signals needed to get stem cells to differentiate into cells that release dopamine. Back then, the team managed to make cells that produced some dopamine, but they led to only limited improvements in animals. About a decade later, in 2011, Studer and his team found the specific signals needed to guide embryonic cells to become the right kind of dopamine producing cells. Their experiments in mice, rats and monkeys showed that their implanted cells had a significant impact, restoring lost movement.
Studer then co-founded BlueRock Therapeutics in 2016. Forming the most effective stem cells has been one of the biggest challenges, says Enayetallah, the BlueRock VP. “It's taken a lot of effort and investment to manufacture and make the cells at the right scale under the right conditions.” The team is now using cells that were first isolated in 1998 at the University of Wisconsin, a major advantage because they’re available in a virtually unlimited supply.
Other efforts underway
In the past several years, University of Lund researchers have begun to collaborate with the University of Cambridge on a project to use embryonic stem cells, similar to BlueRock’s approach. They began clinical trials this year.
A company in Japan called Sumitomo is using a different strategy; instead of stem cells from embryos, they’re reprogramming adults' blood or skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells - meaning they can turn into any cell type - and then directing them into dopamine producing neurons. Although Sumitomo started clinical trials earlier than BlueRock, they haven’t yet revealed any results.
“It's a rapidly evolving field,” says Emma Lane, a pharmacologist at the University of Cardiff who researches clinical interventions for Parkinson’s. “But BlueRock’s trial is the first full phase 1 trial to report such positive findings with stem cell based therapies.” The company’s upcoming phase 2 research will be critical to show how effectively the therapy can improve disease symptoms, she added.
The cure over the horizon
BlueRock will continue to look at data from patients in the phase 1 trial to monitor the treatment’s effects over a two-year period. Meanwhile, the team is planning the phase 2 trial with more participants, including a placebo group.
For patients with Parkinson’s like Martin Taylor, the therapy offers some hope, though Taylor recognizes that more research is needed.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” he says. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.” His expectations are somewhat guarded, he says, but, “it's certainly positive to see…movement in the field again.”
"If we can demonstrate what we’re seeing today in a more robust study, that would be great,” Enayetallah says. “At the end of the day, we want to address that unmet need in a field that's been waiting for a long time.”