In a world driven by Snapchat, Twitter, and Facebook, it is not surprising to see photos of family members post a Go-Fund-Me for a disabled child, see an advertisement pop up to donate money to a hospital, or share a video on a new experimental procedure in Phase I clinical trials. It is clear that we are in a new era: an era determined and driven to find cures to debilitating illnesses more so than ever before.
Stem cells and regenerative medicine provide a window of hope to cure these complex diseases and disabilities. Take Roman Reed, for example, a patient advocate for stem cell based research in finding a remedy for paralysis. In 1994, Roman suffered a spinal bruise that left him paralyzed instantaneously. Roman’s strength to fight for a cure led to a research program funded by the state of California from 2001-2011, entitled “The Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Program.” Furthermore, Roman’s story paved the way for a Roman Reed Core Laboratory that continues to test novel therapies for spinal cord injury to this day (1).
In this era of technological advancements and clinical innovation, scientists are continuously testing new therapies for these complex diseases and disabilities. Will this be the generation that cures “the incurable,” such as paralysis or diabetes? Currently, the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) sponsors over 40 clinical trials involving stem cell based treatments that may lead the way to do just that: find a cure (2).
CIRM currently funds a Phase II clinical trial entitled “Dose Escalation Safety Study of AST-OPC1 cells in patients with Cervical Sensorimotor Complete Spinal Cord Injury” to help people like Roman who are currently suffering from similar spinal cord injuries (1). The clinical trial focuses on dose-effects of injecting oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (OPCs) into the site of injury. OPCs are able to differentiate into mature neurons, astrocytes, and most importantly form the myelin sheath, an insulating layer surrounding the spinal nerves that is responsible for communicating signals from the brain to the extremities. This treatment plan has already proved successful for spinal cord injury patients, like Kris Boesen, who underwent this trial treatment at USC just a month after a car crash left him paralyzed. A few months post-treatment, he gained mobility in his arms and was even able to lift weights (3). Fortunately, with current stem cell innovations and clinical trials, people like Roman and Kris may eventually retain most function in their extremities, or possibly even walk again. This hope may have seemed like a fantasy just a decade ago. Now, however, it is becoming a reality.
Another current target for regenerative therapy is Type I diabetes. Imagine having to monitor every food you ate, at every meal, of every day. This is what it is like for a diabetic patient, who depends on insulin ad nauseum for the remainder of his or her life. One slip-up can lead to irregular blood sugar levels- and even death. CIRM recognizes the clinical need to find new therapies for diabetes, and currently sponsors another Phase II clinical trial with Caladrius Biosciences entitled “Safety and Efficacy of CLBS03 in Adolescents With Recent Onset Type 1 Diabetes (The Sanford Project T-Rex Study).” This clinical trial uses patient’s own T-cells that are malfunctioning and reprograms them to a more native-like state (4). In essence, with the addition of “T-regulatory cells,” the destruction of the native insulin-producing cells can be prevented. As of July 2017, half of the patients within this clinical trial have been treated, and Caladrius Biosciences is hopeful to be analyzing preliminary data by the end of the year. If successful, this clinical trial offers more than just a remedy; it will grant diabetic patients back their independence (4, 5).
Overall, stem cells offer a wide range of treatment options for diseases previously thought to be incurable, including paralysis and diabetes. With the stem cell potential to self-renew and differentiate into any other cell type, the possibilities are endless. The plethora of stem-cell based clinical trials has the potential to revolutionize medicine. I expect to see more regenerative-therapy based clinical trials in the coming years, and a portion of those trials to advance to current therapies. In a world driven by social media, a brand new trial may show up on your Newsfeed this very minute. In our lifetime, it may be that one of these trials finds “the cure.”
- Roman Reed Research Program. http://www.reeve.uci.edu/roman-reed.html
- CIRM: Funding Clinical Trials. https://www.cirm.ca.gov/our-impact/funding-clinical-trials
- Four days after undergoing major surgery, 21-year-old Kris Boesen picked up a smartphone and sent a text. It was the first message that he had sent in months. https://keck.usc.edu/stem-cell-therapy-gives-paralyzed-man-second-chance-at-independence/
- Caladrius Biosciences: T-Regulatory Cell Technology. https://www.caladrius.com/our-technologies/t-regulatory-cell-technology/
- Caladrius Biosciences “Caladrius Biosciences Announces that 50% of Subjects Have Been Treated in the Phase 2 Clinical Trial of CLBS03 for Type 1 Diabetes.” July 2017. https://www.caladrius.com/press-release/caladrius-biosciences-announces-that-50-of-subjects-have-been-treated-in-the-phase-2-clinical-trial-of-clbs03-for-type-1-diabetes/
Angela was first exposed to both stem cell research and SSSCR as an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley. She quickly became intrigued by the native properties of stem cells and their therapeutic potentials, and served as Outreach Chair, Fundraising Advisor, and Senior Advisor for Berkeley SSSCR. As an undergraduate, Angela also actively researched in a stem cell laboratory on campus. She has since received a bachelor’s degree in Integrative Biology from UC Berkeley, and currently works as a clinical researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In her free time, Angela loves to cook ethnic Greek foods from her heritage and share these meals with her family and friends.