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.”
When Erika Schreder’s 14-year-old daughter, who is Black, had her curly hair braided at a Seattle-area salon two or three times recently, the hairdresser applied a styling gel to seal the tresses in place.
Schreder and her daughter had been trying to avoid harmful chemicals, so they were shocked to later learn that this particular gel had the highest level of formaldehyde of any product tested by the Washington State Departments of Ecology and Health. In January 2023, the agencies released a report that uncovered high levels of formaldehyde in certain hair products, creams and lotions marketed to or used by people of color. When Schreder saw the report, she mentioned it to her daughter, who told her the name of the gel smoothed on her hair.
“It was really upsetting,” said Schreder, science director at Toxic-Free Future, a Seattle-based nonprofit environmental health research and advocacy organization. “Learning that this product used on my daughter’s hair contained cancer-causing formaldehyde made me even more committed to advocating for our state to ban toxic ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products.”
In 2013, Toxic-Free Future launched Mind the Store to challenge the nation’s largest retailers in adopting comprehensive policies that eliminate toxic chemicals in their personal care products and packaging, and develop safer alternatives.
Now, more efforts are underway to expose and mitigate the harm in cosmetics, hair care and other products that children apply on their faces, heads, nails and other body parts. Advocates hope to raise awareness among parents while prompting manufacturers and salon professionals to adopt safer alternatives.
A recent study by researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Earthjustice, a San Francisco-based nonprofit public interest environmental law organization, revealed that most children in the United States use makeup and body products that may contain carcinogens and other toxic chemicals. In January, the results were published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Based on more than 200 surveys, 70 percent of parents in the study reported that their children 12 or younger have used makeup and body products marketed to youth — for instance, glitter, face paint and lip gloss.
Childhood exposure to harmful makeup and body product ingredients can also be considered an environmental justice issue, as communities of color may be more likely to use these products.
“We are concerned about exposure to chemicals that may be found in cosmetics and body products, including those that are marketed toward children,” said the study’s senior author, Julie Herbstman, a professor and director of the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health. The goal of the survey was to try to understand how much kids are using cosmetic and body products and when, how and why they are using them.
“There is widespread use of children’s cosmetic and body products, and kids are using them principally to play,” Herbstman said. “That’s really quite different than how adults use cosmetic and body products.” Even with products that are specifically designed for children, “there’s no regulation that ensures that these products are safe for kids.” Also, she said, some children are using adult products — and they may do so in inadvisable ways, such as ingesting lipstick or applying it to other areas of the face.
Earlier research demonstrated that beauty and personal care products manufactured for children and adults frequently contain toxic chemicals, such as lead, asbestos, PFAS, phthalates and formaldehyde. Heavy metals and other toxic chemicals in children’s makeup and body products are particularly harmful to infants and youth, who are growing rapidly and whose bodies are less efficient at metabolizing these chemicals. Whether these chemicals are added intentionally or are present as contaminants, they have been associated with cancer, neurodevelopmental harm, and other serious and irreversible health effects, the Columbia University and Earthjustice researchers noted.
“Even when concentrations of individual chemicals are low in products, the potential for interactive effects from multiple toxicants is important to take into consideration,” the authors wrote in the journal article. “Allergic reactions, such as contact dermatitis, are some of the most frequently cited negative health outcomes associated with the use of cosmetics.”
Children’s small body side, rapid growth rate and immature immune systems are biologically more prone to the effects of toxicants than adults.
In addition to children’s rapid growth rate, the study also reported that their small body size, developing tissues and organs, and immature immune systems are biologically more prone to the effects of toxicants than adults. Meanwhile, the study noted, “childhood exposure to harmful makeup and body product ingredients can also be considered an environmental justice issue, as communities of color may be more likely to use these products.”
Although adults are the typical users of cosmetics, similar items are heavily marketed to youth with attention-grabbing features such as bright colors, animals and cartoon characters, according to the study. Beyond conventional makeup such as eyeshadow and lipstick, children may apply face paint, body glitter, nail polish, hair gel and fragrances. They also may frequent social media platforms on which these products are increasingly being promoted.
Products for both children and adults are currently regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. Also, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1967 directs the Federal Trade Commission and the FDA “to issue regulations requiring that all ‘consumer commodities’ be labeled to disclose net contents, identity of commodity, and name and place of business of the product's manufacturer, packer, or distributor.” As the Columbia University and Earthjustice authors pointed out, though, “current safety regulations have been widely criticized as inadequate.”
The Personal Care Products Council in Washington, D.C., “fundamentally disagrees with the premise that companies put toxic chemicals in products produced for children,” industry spokeswoman Lisa Powers said in an email. Founded in 1894, the national trade association represents 600 member companies that manufacture, distribute and supply most personal care products marketed in the United States.
“No category of consumer products is subject to less government oversight than cosmetics and other personal care products.” --Environmental Working Group.
“Science and safety are the cornerstones of our industry,” Powers stated. For more than a decade, she wrote, “the [Council] and our member companies worked diligently with a bipartisan group of congressional leaders and a diverse group of stakeholders to enhance the effectiveness of the FDA regulatory authority and to provide the safety reassurances that consumers expect and deserve.”
Powers added that the “industry employs and consults thousands of scientific and medical experts” who study the impacts of cosmetics and personal care products and the ingredients used in them. The Council also maintains a comprehensive database where consumers can look up science and safety information on the thousands of ingredients in sunscreens, toothpaste, shampoo, moisturizer, makeup, fragrances and other products.
However, the Environmental Working Group, which empowers consumers with breakthrough research to make informed choices about healthy living, believes the regulations are still not robust enough. “No category of consumer products is subject to less government oversight than cosmetics and other personal care products,” states the organization’s website. “Although many of the chemicals and contaminants in cosmetics and personal care products likely pose little risk, exposure to some has been linked to serious health problems, including cancer.”
The group, which operates the Skin Deep Database noted that “since 2009, 595 cosmetics manufacturers have reported using 88 chemicals, in more than 73,000 products, that have been linked to cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm.”
But change, for both adults and kids, is on the horizon. The Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act of 2022 significantly expanded the FDA’s authority to regulate cosmetics. In May 2023, Washington state adopted a law regulating cosmetics and personal care products. The Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act (HB 1047) bans chemicals in beauty and personal care products, such as PFAS, lead, mercury, phthalates and formaldehyde-releasing agents. These bans take effect in 2025, except for formaldehyde releasers, which have a phased-in approach starting in 2026.
Industry and advocates view this as a positive development. Powers, the spokesperson, praised “the long-awaited” Modernization Cosmetics Regulation Act of 2022, which she said, “advances product safety and innovation.” Jen Lee, chief impact officer at Beautycoutner, a company that sells personal care products, also welcomes the change. “We were proud to support the Washington Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act (HB 1047) by mobilizing our community of Brand Advocates who reside in Washington State,” Lee said. “Together, they made their voices heard by sending over 1,000 emails to their state legislators urging them to support and pass the bill.”
Laurie Valeriano, executive director of Toxic-Free Future, praised the upcoming Washington state law as “a huge win for public health and the environment that will have impacts that ripple across the nation.” She added that “companies won’t make special products for Washington state.” Instead, “they will reformulate and make products safer for everyone” — adults and children.
You shouldn’t have to be a toxicologist to shop for shampoo.-- Washington State Rep. Sharlett Mena
The new legislation will require Washington state agencies to assess the hazards of chemicals used in products that can impact vulnerable populations, while providing support for small businesses and independent cosmetologists to transition to safer products.
The Toxic Free Future team lauds the Cosmetics Act, signed in May 2023.
Courtesy Toxic Free Future
“When we go to a store, we assume the products on the shelf are safe, but this isn’t always true,” said Washington State Rep. Sharlett Mena, a Democrat serving in the 29th Legislative District (Tacoma), who sponsored the law. “I introduced this bill (HB 1047) because currently, the burden is on the consumer to navigate labels and find safe alternatives. You shouldn’t have to be a toxicologist to shop for shampoo.”
The new law aims to protect people of all ages, but especially youth. “Children are more susceptible to the impacts of toxic chemicals because their bodies are still developing,” Mena said. “Lead, for example, is significantly more hazardous to children than adults. Also, since children, unlike adults, tend to put things in their mouths all the time, they are more exposed to harmful chemicals in personal care and other products.”
Cosmetologists and hair professionals are taking notice. “Safety should be the practitioner’s number one concern” in using products on small children, said Anwar Saleem, a hair stylist, instructor and former salon owner in Washington, D.C., who is chairman of the D.C. Board of Barbering and Cosmetology and president of the National Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology. “There are so many products on the market that it can be confusing.”
Hair products designed and labeled for children's use often have milder formulations, but “every child is unique, and what works for one may not work for another,” Saleem said. He recommends doing a patch test, in which the stylist or cosmetologist dabs the product on a small, inconspicuous area of the scalp or skin and waits anywhere from an hour to a day to check for irritation before continuing to serve the client. “Performing a patch test, observing children's reactions to a product and adequately adjusting are essential.”
Saleem seeks products that are free from harsh chemicals such as sulfates, phthalates and parabens, noting that these ingredients can be irritating and drying to the hair and scalp. If a child has sensitive skin or allergies, Saleem opts for hypoallergenic products.
We also need to ensure that less toxic alternatives are available and accessible to all consumers. It’s often under-resourced, low-income populations who suffer the burden of environmental exposures and do not have access or cannot afford these safer alternatives-- Lesliam Quirós-Alcalá.
Lesliam Quirós-Alcalá, an assistant professor in the department of environmental health and engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said current regulatory loopholes on product labeling still allow manufacturers to advertise their cosmetics and personal care products as “gentle” and “natural.” However, she said, those terms may be misleading as they don’t necessarily mean the contents are less toxic or harmful to consumers.
“We also need to ensure that less toxic alternatives are available and accessible to all consumers,” Quirós-Alcalá said, “as often alternatives considered to be less toxic come with a hefty price tag.” As a result, “it’s often under-resourced, low-income populations who suffer the burden of environmental exposures and do not have access or cannot afford these safer alternatives.”
To advocate for safer alternatives, Quirós-Alcalá suggests that parents turn to consumer groups involved in publicizing the harms of personal care products. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is a program of Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, a national science-based advocacy organization aiming to prevent the disease by eliminating related environmental exposures. Other resources that inform users about unsafe ingredients include the mobile apps Clearya and Think Dirty.
“Children are not little adults, so it’s important to increase parent and consumer awareness to minimize their exposures to toxic chemicals in everyday products,” Quirós-Alcalá said. “Becoming smarter, more knowledgeable consumers is the first step to protecting your family from potentially harmful and toxic ingredients in consumer products.”
Story by Big Think
On June 12, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket deployed 72 small satellites for customers — including the world’s first space factory.
The challenge: In 2019, pharma giant Merck revealed that an experiment on the International Space Station had shown how to make its blockbuster cancer drug Keytruda more stable. That meant it could now be administered via a shot rather than through an IV infusion.
The key to the discovery was the fact that particles behave differently when freed from the force of gravity — seeing how its drug crystalized in microgravity helped Merck figure out how to tweak its manufacturing process on Earth to produce the more stable version.
Microgravity research could potentially lead to many more discoveries like this one, or even the development of brand-new drugs, but ISS astronauts only have so much time for commercial experiments.
“There are many high-performance products that are only possible to make in zero-gravity, which is a manufacturing capability that cannot be replicated in any factory on Earth.”-- Will Bruey.
The only options for accessing microgravity (or free fall) outside of orbit, meanwhile, are parabolic airplane flights and drop towers, and those are only useful for experiments that require less than a minute in microgravity — Merck’s ISS experiment took 18 days.
The idea: In 2021, California startup Varda Space Industries announced its intention to build the world’s first space factory, to manufacture not only pharmaceuticals but other products that could benefit from being made in microgravity, such as semiconductors and fiber optic cables.
This factory would consist of a commercial satellite platform attached to two Varda-made modules. One module would contain equipment capable of autonomously manufacturing a product. The other would be a reentry capsule to bring the finished goods back to Earth.
“There are many high-performance products that are only possible to make in zero-gravity, which is a manufacturing capability that cannot be replicated in any factory on Earth,” said CEO Will Bruey, who’d previously developed and flown spacecraft for SpaceX.
“We have a team stacked with aerospace talent in the prime of their careers, focused on getting working hardware to orbit as quickly as possible,” he continued.
“[Pharmaceuticals] are the most valuable chemicals per unit mass. And they also have a large market on Earth.” -- Will Bruey, CEO of Varda Space.
What’s new? At the time, Varda said it planned to launch its first space factory in 2023, and, in what feels like a first for a space startup, it has actually hit that ambitious launch schedule.
“We have ACQUISITION OF SIGNAL,” the startup tweeted soon after the Falcon 9 launch on June 12. “The world’s first space factory’s solar panels have found the sun and it’s beginning to de-tumble.”
During the satellite’s first week in space, Varda will focus on testing its systems to make sure everything works as hoped. The second week will be dedicated to heating and cooling the old HIV-AIDS drug ritonavir repeatedly to study how its particles crystalize in microgravity.
After about a month in space, Varda will attempt to bring its first space factory back to Earth, sending it through the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds and then using a parachute system to safely land at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range.
Looking ahead: Ultimately, Varda’s space factories could end up serving dual purposes as manufacturing facilities and hypersonic testbeds — the Air Force has already awarded the startup a contract to use its next reentry capsule to test hardware for hypersonic missiles.
But as for manufacturing other types of goods, Varda plans to stick with drugs for now.
“[Pharmaceuticals] are the most valuable chemicals per unit mass,” Bruey told CNN. “And they also have a large market on Earth.”
“You’re not going to see Varda do anything other than pharmaceuticals for the next minimum of six, seven years,” added Delian Asparouhov, Varda’s co-founder and president.