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.”
In recent years, researchers of Alzheimer’s have made progress in figuring out the complex factors that lead to the disease. Yet, the root cause, or causes, of Alzheimer’s are still pretty much a mystery.
In fact, many people get Alzheimer’s even though they lack the gene mutation we know can play a role in the disease. This is a critical knowledge gap for research to address because the vast majority of Alzheimer’s patients don’t have this mutation.
A new study provides key insights into what’s causing the disease. The research, published in Nature Communications, points to a breakdown over time in the brain’s system for clearing waste, an issue that seems to happen in some people as they get older.
Michael Glickman, a biologist at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, helped lead this research. I asked him to tell me about his approach to studying how this breakdown occurs in the brain, and how he tested a treatment that has potential to fix the problem at its earliest stages.
Dr. Michael Glickman is internationally renowned for his research on the ubiquitin-proteasome system (UPS), the brain's system for clearing the waste that is involved in diseases such as Huntington's, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's.
Dr. Michael Glickman
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.