New therapy may improve stem cell transplants for blood cancers
In 2018, Robyn was diagnosed with myelofibrosis, a blood cancer causing chronic inflammation and scarring. As a research scientist by training, she knew she had limited options. A stem cell transplant is a terminally ill patient's best chance for survival against blood cancers, including leukaemia. It works by destroying a patient's cancer cells and replacing them with healthy cells from a donor.
However, there is a huge risk of Graft vs Host disease (GVHD), which affects around 30-40% of recipients. Patients receive billions of cells in a stem cell transplant but only a fraction are beneficial. The rest can attack healthy tissue leading to GVHD. It affects the skin, gut and lungs and can be truly debilitating.
Currently, steroids are used to try and prevent GVHD, but they have many side effects and are effective in only 50% of cases. “I spoke with my doctors and reached out to patients managing GVHD,” says Robyn, who prefers not to use her last name for privacy reasons. “My concerns really escalated for what I might face post-transplant.”
Then she heard about a new highly precise cell therapy developed by a company called Orca Bio, which gives patients more beneficial cells and fewer cells that cause GVHD. She decided to take part in their phase 2 trial.
How It Works
In stem cell transplants, patients receive immune cells and stem cells. The donor immune cells or T cells attack and kill malignant cells. This is the graft vs leukaemia effect (GVL). The stem cells generate new healthy cells.
Unfortunately, T cells can also cause GVHD, but a rare subset of T cells, called T regulatory cells, can actually prevent GVHD.
Orca’s cell sorting technology distinguishes T regulatory cells from stem cells and conventional T cells on a large scale. It’s this cell sorting technology which has enabled them to create their new cell therapy, called Orca T. It contains a precise combination of stem cells and immune cells with more T regulatory cells and fewer conventional T cells than in a typical stem cell transplant.
“Ivan Dimov’s idea was to spread out the cells, keep them stationary and then use laser scanning to sort the cells,” explains Nate Fernhoff, co-founder of Orca Bio. “The beauty here is that lasers don't care how quickly you move them.”
Over the past 40 years, scientists have been trying to create stem cell grafts that contain the beneficial cells whilst removing the cells that cause GVHD. What makes it even harder is that most transplant centers aren’t able to manipulate grafts to create a precise combination of cells.
Innovative Cell Sorting
Ivan Dimov, Jeroen Bekaert and Nate Fernhoff came up with the idea behind Orca as postdocs at Stanford, working with cell pioneer Irving Weissman. They recognised the need for a more effective cell sorting technology. In a small study at Stanford, Professor Robert Negrin had discovered a combination of T cells, T regulatory cells and stem cells which prevented GVHD but retained the beneficial graft vs leukaemia effect (GVL). However, manufacturing was problematic. Conventional cell sorting is extremely slow and specific. Negrin was only able to make seven highly precise products, for seven patients, in a year. Annual worldwide cases of blood cancer number over 1.2 million.
“We started Orca with this idea: how do we use manufacturing solutions to impact cell therapies,” co-founder Fernhoff reveals. In conventional cell sorting, cells move past a stationary laser which analyses each cell. But cells can only be moved so quickly. At a certain point they start to experience stress and break down. This makes it very difficult to sort the 100 billion cells from a donor in a stem cell transplant.
“Ivan Dimov’s idea was to spread out the cells, keep them stationary and then use laser scanning to sort the cells,” Fernhoff explains. “The beauty here is that lasers don't care how quickly you move them.” They developed this technology and called it Orca Sort. It enabled Orca to make up to six products per week in the first year of manufacturing.
Every product Orca makes is for one patient. The donor is uniquely matched to the patient. They have to carry out the cell sorting procedure each time. Everything also has to be done extremely quickly. They infuse fresh living cells from the donor's vein to the patient's within 72 hours.
“We’ve treated almost 200 patients in all the Orca trials, and you can't do that if you don't fix the manufacturing process,” Fernhoff says. “We're working on what we think is an incredibly promising drug, but it's all been enabled by figuring out how to make a high precision cell therapy at scale.”
Orca revealed the results of their phase 1b and phase 2 trials at the end of last year. In their phase 2 trial only 3% of the 29 patients treated with Orca T cell therapy developed chronic GVHD in the first year after treatment. Comparatively, 43% of the 95 patients given a conventional stem cell transplant in a contemporary Stanford trial developed chronic GVHD. Of the 109 patients tested in phase 1b and phase 2 trials, 74% using Orca T didn't relapse or develop any form of GVHD compared to 34% in the control trial.
“Until a randomised study is done, we can make no assumption about the relative efficacy of this approach," says Jeff Szer, professor of haematology at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. "But the holy grail of separating GVHD and GVL is still there and this is a step towards realising that dream.”
Stan Riddell, an immunology professor, at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Centre, believes Orca T is highly promising. “Orca has advanced cell selection processes with innovative methodology and can engineer grafts with greater precision to add cell subsets that may further contribute to beneficial outcomes,” he says. “Their results in phase 1 and phase 2 studies are very exciting and offer the potential of providing a new standard of care for stem cell transplant.”
However, though it is an “intriguing step,” there’s a need for further testing, according to Jeff Szer, a professor of haematology at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.
“The numbers tested were tiny and comparing the outcomes to anything from a phase 1/2 setting is risky,” says Szer. “Until a randomised study is done, we can make no assumption about the relative efficacy of this approach. But the holy grail of separating GVHD and GVL is still there and this is a step towards realising that dream.”
The team is soon starting Phase 3 trials for Orca T. Its previous success has led them to develop Orca Q, a cell therapy for patients who can't find an exact donor match. Transplants for patients who are only a half-match or mismatched are not widely used because there is a greater risk of GVHD. Orca Q has the potential to control GVHD even more and improve access to transplants for many patients.
Fernhoff hopes they’ll be able to help people not just with blood cancers but also with other blood and immune disorders. If a patient has a debilitating disease which isn't life threatening, the risk of GVHD outweighs the potential benefits of a stem cell transplant. The Orca products could take away that risk.
Meanwhile, Robyn has no regrets about participating in the Phase 2 trial. “It was a serious decision to make but I'm forever grateful that I did,” she says. “I have resumed a quality of life aligned with how I felt pre-transplant. I have not had a single issue with GVHD.”
“I want to be able to get one of these products to every patient who could benefit from it,” Fernhoff says. “It's really exciting to think about how Orca's products could be applied to all sorts of autoimmune disorders.”
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
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- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.
From infections with no symptoms to why men are more likely to be hospitalized in the ICU and die of COVID-19, new research shows that your genes play a significant role
Early in the pandemic, genetic research focused on the virus because it was readily available. Plus, the virus contains only 30,000 bases in a dozen functional genes, so it's relatively easy and affordable to sequence. Additionally, the rapid mutation of the virus and its ability to escape antibody control fueled waves of different variants and provided a reason to follow viral genetics.
In comparison, there are many more genes of the human immune system and cellular functions that affect viral replication, with about 3.2 billion base pairs. Human studies require samples from large numbers of people, the analysis of each sample is vastly more complex, and sophisticated computer analysis often is required to make sense of the raw data. All of this takes time and large amounts of money, but important findings are beginning to emerge.
About half the people exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, never develop symptoms of this disease, or their symptoms are so mild they often go unnoticed. One piece of understanding the phenomena came when researchers showed that exposure to OC43, a common coronavirus that results in symptoms of a cold, generates immune system T cells that also help protect against SARS-CoV-2.
Jill Hollenbach, an immunologist at the University of California at San Francisco, sought to identify the gene behind that immune protection. Most COVID-19 genetic studies are done with the most seriously ill patients because they are hospitalized and thus available. “But 99 percent of people who get it will never see the inside of a hospital for COVID-19,” she says. “They are home, they are not interacting with the health care system.”
Early in the pandemic, when most labs were shut down, she tapped into the National Bone Marrow Donor Program database. It contains detailed information on donor human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), key genes in the immune system that must match up between donor and recipient for successful transplants of marrow or organs. Each HLA can contain alleles, slight molecular differences in the DNA of the HLA, which can affect its function. Potential HLA combinations can number in the tens of thousands across the world, says Hollenbach, but each person has a smaller number of those possible variants.
She teamed up with the COVID-19 Citizen Science Study a smartphone-based study to track COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes, to ask persons in the bone marrow donor registry about COVID-19. The study enlisted more than 30,000 volunteers. Those volunteers already had their HLAs annotated by the registry, and 1,428 tested positive for the virus.
Analyzing five key HLAs, she found an allele in the gene HLA-B*15:01 that was significantly overrepresented in people who didn’t have any symptoms. The effect was even stronger if a person had inherited the allele from both parents; these persons were “more than eight times more likely to remain asymptomatic than persons who did not carry the genetic variant,” she says. Altogether this HLA was present in about 10 percent of the general European population but double that percentage in the asymptomatic group. Hollenbach and her colleagues were able confirm this in other different groups of patients.
What made the allele so potent against SARS-CoV-2? Part of the answer came from x-ray crystallography. A key element was the molecular shape of parts of the cold virus OC43 and SARS-CoV-2. They were virtually identical, and the allele could bind very tightly to them, present their molecular antigens to T cells, and generate an extremely potent T cell response to the viruses. And “for whatever reasons that generated a lot of memory T cells that are going to stick around for a long time,” says Hollenbach. “This T cell response is very early in infection and ramps up very quickly, even before the antibody response.”
Understanding the genetics of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 is important because it provides clues into the conditions of T cells and antigens that support a response without any symptoms, she says. “It gives us an opportunity to think about whether this might be a vaccine design strategy.”
A researcher at the Leibniz Institute of Virology in Hamburg Germany, Guelsah Gabriel, was drawn to a question at the other end of the COVID-19 spectrum: why men more likely to be hospitalized and die from the infection. It wasn't that men were any more likely to be exposed to the virus but more likely, how their immune system reacted to it
Several studies had noted that testosterone levels were significantly lower in men hospitalized with COVID-19. And, in general, the lower the testosterone, the worse the prognosis. A year after recovery, about 30 percent of men still had lower than normal levels of testosterone, a condition known as hypogonadism. Most of the men also had elevated levels of estradiol, a female hormone (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34402750/).
Every cell has a sex, expressing receptors for male and female hormones on their surface. Hormones docking with these receptors affect the cells' internal function and the signals they send to other cells. The number and role of these receptors varies from tissue to tissue.
Gabriel began her search by examining whole exome sequences, the protein-coding part of the genome, for key enzymes involved in the metabolism of sex hormones. The research team quickly zeroed in on CYP19A1, an enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. The gene that produces this enzyme has a number of different alleles, the molecular variants that affect the enzyme's rate of metabolizing the sex hormones. One genetic variant, CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), is typically found in 6.2 percent of all people, both men and women, but remarkably, they found it in 68.7 percent of men who were hospitalized with COVID-19.
Lungs are the tissue most affected in COVID-19 disease. Gabriel wondered if the virus might be affecting expression of their target gene in the lung so that it produces more of the enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. Studying cells in a petri dish, they saw no change in gene expression when they infected cells of lung tissue with influenza and the original SARS-CoV viruses that caused the SARS outbreak in 2002. But exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, increased gene expression up to 40-fold, Gabriel says.
Did the same thing happen in humans? Autopsy examination of patients in three different cites found that “CYP19A1 was abundantly expressed in the lungs of COVID-19 males but not those who died of other respiratory infections,” says Gabriel. This increased enzyme production led likely to higher levels of estradiol in the lungs of men, which “is highly inflammatory, damages the tissue, and can result in fibrosis or scarring that inhibits lung function and repair long after the virus itself has disappeared.” Somehow the virus had acquired the capacity to upregulate expression of CYP19A1.
Only two COVID-19 positive females showed increased expression of this gene. The menopause status of these women, or whether they were on hormone replacement therapy was not known. That could be important because female hormones have a protective effect for cardiovascular disease, which women often lose after going through menopause, especially if they don’t start hormone replacement therapy. That sex-specific protection might also extend to COVID-19 and merits further study.
The team was able to confirm their findings in golden hamsters, the animal model of choice for studying COVID-19. Testosterone levels in male animals dropped 5-fold three days after infection and began to recover as viral levels declined. CYP19A1 transcription increased up to 15-fold in the lungs of the male but not the females. The study authors wrote, “Virus replication in the male lungs was negatively associated with testosterone levels.”
The medical community studying COVID-19 has slowly come to recognize the importance of adipose tissue, or fat cells. They are known to express abundant levels of CYP19A1 and play a significant role as metabolic tissue in COVID-19. Gabriel adds, “One of the key findings of our study is that upon SARS-CoV-2 infection, the lung suddenly turns into a metabolic organ by highly expressing” CYP19A1.
She also found evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can infect the gonads of hamsters, thereby likely depressing circulating levels of sex hormones. The researchers did not have autopsy samples to confirm this in humans, but others have shown that the virus can replicate in those tissues.
A possible treatment
Back in the lab, substituting low and high doses of testosterone in SARS-COV-2 infected male hamsters had opposite effects depending on testosterone dosage used. Gabriel says that hormone levels can vary so much, depending on health status and age and even may change throughout the day, that “it probably is much better to inhibit the enzyme” produced by CYP19A1 than try to balance the hormones.
Results were better with letrozole, a drug approved to treat hypogonadism in males, which reduces estradiol levels. The drug also showed benefit in male hamsters in terms of less severe disease and faster recovery. She says more details need to be worked out in using letrozole to treat COVID-19, but they are talking with hospitals about clinical trials of the drug.
Gabriel has proposed a four hit explanation of how COVID-19 can be so deadly for men: the metabolic quartet. First is the genetic risk factor of CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), then comes SARS-CoV-2 infection that induces even greater expression of this gene and the deleterious increase of estradiol in the lung. Age-related hypogonadism and the heightened inflammation of obesity, known to affect CYP19A1 activity, are contributing factors in this deadly perfect storm of events.
Studying host genetics, says Gabriel, can reveal new mechanisms that yield promising avenues for further study. It’s also uniting different fields of science into a new, collaborative approach they’re calling “infection endocrinology,” she says.