Regenerative Medicine Comes of Age
“Anti-Aging Medicine” Sounds Vaguely Disreputable, So Serious Scientists Prefer to Speak of “Regenerative Medicine
Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and genome-editing techniques have facilitated manipulation of living organisms in innumerable ways at the cellular and genetic levels, respectively, and will underpin many aspects of regenerative medicine as it continues to evolve.
An attitudinal change is also occurring. Experts in regenerative medicine have increasingly begun to embrace the view that comprehensively repairing the damage of aging is a practical and feasible goal.
A notable proponent of this view is Aubrey de Grey, Ph.D., a biomedical gerontologist who has pioneered an regenerative medicine approach called Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS). He works to “develop, promote, and ensure widespread access to regenerative medicine solutions to the disabilities and diseases of aging” as CSO and co-founder of the SENS Research Foundation. He is also the editor-in-chief of Rejuvenation Research, published by Mary Ann Liebert.
Dr. de Grey points out that stem cell treatments for age-related conditions such as Parkinson’s are already in clinical trials, and immune therapies to remove molecular waste products in the extracellular space, such as amyloid in Alzheimer’s, have succeeded in such trials. Recently, there has been progress in animal models in removing toxic cells that the body is failing to kill. The most encouraging work is in cancer immunotherapy, which is rapidly advancing after decades in the doldrums.
Many damage-repair strategies are at an early stage of research. Although these strategies look promising, they are handicapped by a lack of funding. If that does not change soon, the scientific community is at risk of failing to capitalize on the relevant technological advances.
Regenerative medicine has moved beyond boutique applications. In degenerative disease, cells lose their function or suffer elimination because they harbor genetic defects. iPSC therapies have the potential to be curative, replacing the defective cells and eliminating symptoms in their entirety. One of the biggest hurdles to commercialization of iPSC therapies is manufacturing.
Building Stem Cell Factories
“Now that an infrastructure is being developed to make unlimited cells for the tools business, new opportunities are being created. These cells can be employed in a therapeutic context, and they can be used to understand the efficacy and safety of drugs,” asserts Chris Parker, executive vice president and CBO, Cellular Dynamics International (CDI). “CDI has the capability to make a lot of cells from a single iPSC line that represents one person (a capability termed scale-up) as well as the capability to do it in parallel for multiple individuals (a capability termed scale-out).”
Minimally manipulated adult stem cells have progressed relatively quickly to the clinic. In this scenario, cells are taken out of the body, expanded unchanged, then reintroduced. More preclinical rigor applies to potential iPSC therapy. In this case, hematopoietic blood cells are used to make stem cells, which are manufactured into the cell type of interest before reintroduction. Preclinical tests must demonstrate that iPSC-derived cells perform as intended, are safe, and possess little or no off-target activity.
For example, CDI developed a Parkinsonian model in which iPSC-derived dopaminergic neurons were introduced to primates. The model showed engraftment and enervation, and it appeared to be free of proliferative stem cells.
“You will see iPSCs first used in clinical trials as a surrogate to understand efficacy and safety,” notes Mr. Parker. “In an ongoing drug-repurposing trial with GlaxoSmithKline and Harvard University, iPSC-derived motor neurons will be produced from patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and tested in parallel with the drug.” CDI has three cell-therapy programs in their commercialization pipeline focusing on macular degeneration, Parkinson’s disease, and postmyocardial infarction.
Keeping an Eye on Aging Eyes
The eye has multiple advantages over other organ systems for regenerative medicine. Advanced surgical methods can access the back of the eye, noninvasive imaging methods can follow the transplanted cells, good outcome parameters exist, and relatively few cells are needed.
These advantages have attracted many groups to tackle ocular disease, in particular age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the elderly in the United States. Most cases of age-related macular degeneration are thought to be due to the death or dysfunction of cells in the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE). RPE cells are crucial support cells for the rods, cones, and photoreceptors. When RPE cells stop working or die, the photoreceptors die and a vision deficit results.
A regenerated and restored RPE might prevent the irreversible loss of photoreceptors, possibly via the the transplantation of functionally polarized RPE monolayers derived from human embryonic stem cells. This approach is being explored by the California Project to Cure Blindness, a collaborative effort involving the University of Southern California (USC), the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), the California Institute of Technology, City of Hope, and Regenerative Patch Technologies.
The project, which is funded by the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), started in 2010, and an IND was filed early 2015. Clinical trial recruitment has begun.
One of the project’s leaders is Dennis Clegg, Ph.D., Wilcox Family Chair in BioMedicine, UCSB. His laboratory developed the protocol to turn undifferentiated H9 embryonic stem cells into a homogenous population of RPE cells.
“These are not easy experiments,” remarks Dr. Clegg. “Figuring out the biology and how to make the cell of interest is a challenge that everyone in regenerative medicine faces. About 100,000 RPE cells will be grown as a sheet on a 3 × 5 mm biostable, synthetic scaffold, and then implanted in the patients to replace the cells that are dying or dysfunctional. The idea is to preserve the photoreceptors and to halt disease progression.”
Moving therapies such as this RPE treatment from concept to clinic is a huge team effort and requires various kinds of expertise. Besides benefitting from Dr. Clegg’s contribution, the RPE project incorporates the work of Mark Humayun, M.D., Ph.D., co-director of the USC Eye Institute and director of the USC Institute for Biomedical Therapeutics and recipient of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, and David Hinton, Ph.D., a researcher at USC who has studied how actvated RPE cells can alter the local retinal microenvironment.