The Amino Acid Valine Helps Maintain Hematopoietic Stem Cell Niches

Hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) populate our bone marrow and divide throughout our lifetimes to provide the red and white blood cells we need to live. However, during normal, healthy times, only particular HSCs are hard at work dividing and making new blood cells. The remaining HSCs are maintained in a protective dormant state. However, in response to blood loss or physiological stress of some sort, dormant HSCs must wake from their “slumbers” and begin dividing to make the needed blood cells. Such conditions, it turns out, can cause HSCs to experience a good deal of damage to their genomes. A paper that was published in Nature last year by Walter Dagmar and colleagues (Vol 520: pp. 549) showed that repeatedly subjecting mice to conditions that required the activation of dormant HSCs (in this case they injected the mice with polyinosinic:polycytidylic acid or pI:pC to mimic a viral infection and induce a type I interferon response) resulted in the eventual collapse of the bone marrow’s ability to produce new blood cells. The awakened HSCs accumulated such large quantities of DNA damage, that they were no longer able to divide and produce viable progeny. How then can HSCs maintain the integrity of their genomes while still dividing and making new blood cells?

The answer to this question is not completely clear, but a new paper in the December 2 edition of Science magazine provides new insights into HSC physiology and function. This paper by Yuki Taya and others, working in the laboratories of Hiromitsu Nakauchi at the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, and Satoshi Yamazaki from the University of Tokyo, has shown that amino acid metabolism plays a vital role in HSC maintenance. As it turns out, the amino acid concentrations in bone marrow are approximately 100-fold higher than the concentrations of these same amino acids in circulating blood. Taya and others reasoned that such high amino acid concentrations must exist for reasons other than protein synthesis. Therefore, they designed dietary regimens that depleted mice for specific amino acids. Sure enough, when mice were fed valine-depleted diets, the HSCs of those mice lost their ability to repopulate the bone marrow.


After only two weeks of valine depletion, several nooks and crannies of the bone marrow – so-called stem cell “niches” – were devoid of HSCs. The bone marrow of such mice was easily reconstituted with HSCs from donor mice without the need for radiation or chemical ablation treatments.

Taya and others found that vascular endothelial stromal cells in the bone marrow secrete valine and that this secreted valine (which, by the way, is a branched-chain amino acid) is integral for maintaining HSC niches.

The excitement surrounding this finding is plain, since using harsh chemicals or radiation to destroy the bone marrow (a procedure known as “myeloablation”) causes premature ageing, infertility, lousy overall health, and other rather unpleasant side effects. Therefore, finding a “kinder, gentler” way to reconstitute the bone marrow would certainly be welcomed by patients and their physicians. However, valine depletion, even though it does not affect sterility, did cause 50% of the mice to die once valine was restored to the diet. This is due to a phenomenon known as the “refeeding effect” which has also been observed in human patients. Such side effects could probably be prevented by gradually returning valine to the diet. Taya and others also showed that cultured human HSCs required valine and another branched-chain amino acid, leucine. Since both leucine and valine are metabolized to alpha-ketoglutatate, which is used as a substrate for DNA-modifying enzymes, these amino acids might exert their effects through epigenetic modifications to the genome.


More work is needed in this area, but the Taya paper is a welcomed finding to a vitally important field.

The Founder Cell Identity Does Not Affect iPS Cell Differentiation to Hematopoietic Stem Cell Fate

Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) have many of the characteristics of embryonic stem cells, but are made from mature cells by means of a process called cell reprogramming. To reprogram cells, particular genes are delivered into mature cells, which are then cultured until they h:ave the growth properties of pluripotent cells. Further tests are required to demonstrate that the growing cells actually are iPSCs, but once they pass these tests, these cells can be grown in culture indefinitely and, ideally, differentiated into just about any cell type in our bodies (caveat: some iPSC lines can only differentiate into particular cell lineages). Theoretically, any cell type can be reprogrammed into iPSCs, but work from many laboratories has demonstrated that the identity of the founder cell influences the type of cell into which it can be reprogrammed.

Founder cells can be easily acquired from a donor and come in one of four types: fibroblasts (in skin), keratinocytes (also from skin), peripheral and umbilical cord blood, and dental pulp cells (from baby teeth). A variety of laboratories from around the world have made iPSC lines from a gaggle of different founder cells. Because of the significant influence of founder cells for iPSC characteristics, the use of iPSCs for regenerative medicine and other medical applications requires that the desired iPSC line should be selected based on the founder cell type and the characteristics of the iPSC line.

However, the founder cell identity is not the only factor that affects the characteristics of derived iPSC lines. The methods by which the founder cells are reprogrammed can also profoundly contribute to the differentiation efficiency of iPSC lines. According to Yoshinori Yoshida, Associate Professor at the Center for iPSC Research and Application (CiRA) at Kyoto University, the most commonly used methods of cell reprogramming utilize retroviruses, episomal/plasmids, and Sendai viruses to move genes into cells.

The cells found in blood represent a diverse group of cells that includes red blood cells that carry oxygen, platelets that heal wounds, and white blood cells that fight off infection. All the cells in blood are made by bone marrow-specific stem cells called “hematopoietic stem cells.” The production of clinical grade blood has remained a kind of “holy grail” for cellular reprogramming studies. Some scientists have argued that in order to make good-quality hematopoietic cells, the best founder cells are hematopoietic cells. Is this true? Yoshida and his colleagues examined a very large number of iPSC lines that were made from different founder cells and with differing reprogramming methods.  The results of these experiments were published in the journal Cell Stem Cell (doi:10.1016/j.stem.2016.06.019).

Remarkably, Yoshida and his crew discovered that neither of these factors has a significant effect. What did have a significant effect were the expression of certain genes and the position of particular DNA methylations. These two factors were better indicators of the efficiency at which an iPSC line could differentiate into the hematopoietic stem cells.

“We found the IGF2 (Insulin-like Growth Factor-2) gene marks the beginning of reprogramming to hematopoietic cells”, said Dr. Masatoshi Nishizawa, a hematologist who works in Yoshida’s lab and is the first author of this new study. Higher expression of the IGF2 gene is indicative of iPSCs initiating differentiation into hematopoietic cells. Even though IGF2 itself is not directly related to hematopoiesis, its uptake corresponded to an increase in the expression of those genes involved in directing differentiation into hematopoietic stem cells.

Although IGF2 marked the beginnings of differentiation to hematopoietic lineage, the completion of differentiation was marked by the methylation profiles of the iPS cell DNA. “DNA methylation has an effect on a cell staying pluripotent or differentiating,” explained Yoshida. Completion of the final stages of differentiation was highly correlated with less aberrant methylation during the reprogramming process. Blood founder cells showed a much lesser tendency to display aberrant DNA methylation patterns than did other iPSC lines made from other founder cells. This probably explains why past experiments seemed to indicate that the founder cell contributes to the effectiveness of differentiating iPS cells to the hematopoietic stem cell lineage.

These findings reveal molecular factors that can be used to evaluate the differentiation potential of different iPSC lines, which should, hopefully, expedite the progression of iPSCs to clinical use. Nishizawa expects this work to provide the basis for evaluating iPSC lines for the preparation of other cell types. “I think each cell type will have its own special patterns,” he said.

Gamida Cell Announces First Patient with Sickle Cell Disease Transplanted in Phase 1/2 Study of CordIn™ as the Sole Graft Source

An Israeli regenerative therapy company called Gamida Cell specializes in cellular and immune therapies to treat cancer and rare (“orphan”) genetic diseases. Gamida Cell’s main product is called NiCord, which provides patients who need new blood-making stem cells in their bone marrow an alternative to a bone marrow transplant. NiCord is umbilical cord blood that has been expanded in culture. In clinical trials to date, NiCord has rapidly engrafted into patients and the clinical outcomes of NiCord transplantation seem to be comparable to transplantation of peripheral blood.

Gamida Cell’s two products, NiCord and CordIn, as well as some other products under development utilize the company’s proprietary NAM platform technology to expand umbilical cord cells. The NAM platform technology has the remarkable capacity to preserve and enhance the functionality of hematopoietic stem cells from umbilical cord blood. CordIn is an experimental therapy for those rare non-malignant diseases in which bone marrow transplantation is the only currently available cure.

Gamida Cell has recently announced that the first patient with sickle cell disease (SCD) has been transplanted with their CordIn product.  Mark Walters, MD, Director of the Blood and Marrow Transplantation (BMT) Program is the Principal Investigator of this clinical trial. The patient received their transplant at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland.

CordIn, as previously mentioned, is an experimental therapy for rare non-malignant diseases, including hemoglobinopathies such as Sickel Cell Disease and thalassemia, bone marrow failure syndromes such as aplastic anemia, genetic metabolic diseases and refractory autoimmune diseases. CordIn potentially addresses a presently unmet medical need.

“The successful enrollment and transplantation of our first SCD patient with CordIn as a single graft marks an important milestone in our clinical development program. We are eager to demonstrate the potential of CordIn as a transplantation solution to cure SCD and to broaden accessibility to patients with rare genetic diseases in need of bone marrow transplantation,” said Gamida Cell CEO Dr. Yael Margolin. “In the first Phase 1/2 study with SCD, the expanded graft was transplanted along with a non-manipulated umbilical cord blood unit in a double graft configuration. In the second phase 1/2 study we updated the protocol from our first Phase 1/2 study so that patients would be transplanted with CordIn as a standalone graft, which is expanded from one full umbilical cord blood unit and enriched with stem cells using the company’s proprietary NAM technology.”

Somewhere in the vicinity of 100,000 patients in the U.S suffer from SCD; and around 200,000 patients suffer from thalassemia, globally. The financial burden of treating these patients over their lifetime is estimated at $8-9M. Bone marrow transplantation is the only clinically established cure for SCD, but only a few hundred SCD patients have actually received a bone marrow transplant in the last ten years, since most patients were not successful in finding a suitable match. Unrelated cord blood could be available for most of the patients eligible for transplantation, but, unfortunately, the rate of successful engraftment of un-expanded cord blood in these patients is low. Therefore, cord blood is usually not considered for SCD patients. Without a transplant, these patients suffer from very high morbidity and low quality of life.

Eight patients with SCD were transplanted in the first Phase 1/2 study performed in a double graft configuration. This study is still ongoing. Preliminary data from the first study will be summarized and published later this year. A Phase 1/2 of CordIn for the treatment of patients with aplastic anemia will commence later this year.

Genetic Switch to Making More Blood-Making Stem Cells Found

A coalition of stem cell scientists, co-led in Canada by Dr. John Dick, Senior Scientist, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, University Health Network (UHN) and Professor, Department of Molecular Genetics, University of Toronto, and in the Netherlands by Dr. Gerald de Haan, Scientific Co-Director, European Institute for the Biology of Ageing, University Medical Centre Groningen, the Netherlands, have uncovered a genetic switch that can potentially increase the supply of stem cells for cancer patients who need transplantation therapy to fight their disease.

Their findings were published in the journal Cell Stem Cell and constitute proof-of-concept experiments that may provide a viable new approach to making more stem cells from umbilical cord blood.

“Stem cells are rare in cord blood and often there are not enough present in a typical collection to be useful for human transplantation. The goal is to find ways to make more of them and enable more patients to make use of blood stem cell therapy,” says Dr. Dick. “Our discovery shows a method that could be harnessed over the long-term into a clinical therapy and we could take advantage of cord blood being collected in various public banks that are now growing across the country.”

Currently, all patients who require stem cell transplants must be matched to an adult donor. The donor and the recipient must share a common set of cell surface proteins called “human leukocyte antigens” HLAs. HLAs are found on the surfaces of all nucleated cells in our bodies and these proteins are encoded by a cluster of genes called the “Major Histocompatibility Complex,” (MHC) which is found on chromosome six.

Map of MHC

There are two main types of MHC genes: Class I and Class II.

MHC Functions

Class I MHC contains three genes (HLA-A, B, and C). The three proteins encoded by these genes, HLA-A, -B, & -C, are found on the surfaces of almost all cells in our bodies. The exceptions are red blood cells and platelets, which do not have nuclei. Class II MHC genes consist of HLA-DR, DQ, and DP, and the proteins encoded by these genes are exclusive found on the surfaces of immune cells called “antigen-presenting cells” (includes macrophages, dendritic cells and B cells). Antigen-presenting cells recognize foreign substances in our bodies, grab them and, if you will, hold them up for everyone to see. The cells that usually respond to antigen presentation are immune cells called “T-cells.” T-cells are equipped with an antigen receptor that only binds antigens when those antigens are complexed with HLA proteins.

If you are given cells from another person who is genetically distinct from you, the HLA proteins on the surfaces of those cells are recognized by antigen-presenting cells as foreign substances. The antigen-presenting cells will them present pieces of the foreign HLA proteins on their surfaces, and T-cells will be sensitized to those proteins. These T-cells will them attack and destroy any cells in your body that have those foreign HLA proteins. This is the basis of transplant rejection and is the main reason transplant patients must continue to take drugs that prevent their T-cells from recognizing foreign HLA proteins as foreign.

When it comes to bone marrow transplantations, patients can almost never find a donor whose HLA surface proteins match perfectly. However, if the HLA proteins of the donor are too different from those of the recipient, then the cells from the bone marrow transplant attack the recipient’s cells and destroy them. This is called “Graft versus Host Disease” (GVHD). The inability of leukemia and lymphoma and other patients to receive bone marrow transplants is the unavailability of matching bone marrow. Globally, many thousands of patients are unable to get stem cell transplants needed to combat blood cancers such as leukemia because there is no donor match.

“About 40,000 people receive stem cell transplants each year, but that represents only about one-third of the patients who require this therapy,” says Dr. Dick. “That’s why there is a big push in research to explore cord blood as a source because it is readily available and increases the opportunity to find tissue matches. The key is to expand stem cells from cord blood to make many more samples available to meet this need. And we’re making progress.”

Umbilical cord blood, however, is different from adult bone marrow. The cells in umbilical cord blood are more immature and not nearly as likely to generate GVHD. Therefore, less perfect HLA matches can be used to treat patients in need of a bone marrow transplant. Unfortunately, umbilical cord blood has the drawback of have far fewer stem cells than adult bone marrow. If the number of blood-making (hematopoietic) stem cells in umbilical cord blood can be increased, then umbilical cord blood would become even more useful from a clinical perspective.

There has been a good deal of research into expanding the number of stem cells present in cord blood, the Dick/de Haan teams took a different approach. When a stem cell divides it produces a large number of “progenitor cells” that retain key properties of being able to develop into every one of the 10 mature blood cell types. These progenitor cells, however, have lost the critical ability to self-renew.

Dick and his colleagues analyzed mouse and human models of blood development, and they discovered that a microRNA called miR-125a is a genetic switch that is on in stem cells and controls self-renewal, but gets turned off in the progenitor cells.

“Our work shows that if we artificially throw the switch on in those downstream cells, we can endow them with stemness and they basically become stem cells and can be maintained over the long-term,” says Dr. Dick.

In their paper, Dick and de Haan showed that forced expression of miR-125 increases the number of hematopoietic stem cells in a living animal. Also, miR-125 induces stem cell potential in murine and human progenitor cells, and represses, among others, targets of the MAP kinase signaling pathway, which is important in differentiation of cells away from the stem cell fate. Furthermore, since miR-125 function and targets are conserved in human and mouse, what works in mice might very well work in human patients.

graphical abstract CSC_v9

This is proof-of-concept paper – no human trials have been conducted to date, but these data may be the beginnings of making more stem cells from banked cord blood to cure a variety of blood-based conditions.

Here’s to hoping.

Hematopoietic Stem Cells Use a Simple Heirarchy

New papers in Science magazine and the journal Cell have addressed a long-standing question of how the descendants of hematopoietic stem cells in bone marrow make the various types of blood cells that course through our blood vessels and occupy our lymph nodes and lymphatic vessels.

Hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) are partly dormant cells that self-renew and produce so-called “multipotent progenitors” or MPPs that have reduced ability to self-renew, but can differentiate into different blood cell lineages.

The classical model of how they do this goes like this: the MPPs lose their multipotency in a step-wise fashion, producing first, common myeloid progenitors (CMPs) that can form all the red and white blood cells except lymphocytes, or common lymphoid progenitors (CLPs) that can form lymphocytes (see the figure below as a reference). Once these MPPs form CMPs, for example, the CMP then forms either an MEP that can form either platelets or red blood cells, or a GMP. which can form either granulocytes or macrophages. The possibilities of the types of cells the CMP can form in whittled down in a step-by-step manner, until there is only one choice left. With each differentiation step, the cell loses its capacity to divide, until it becomes terminally differentiated and becomes platelet-forming megakarocyte, red blood cell, neutrophil, macrophage, dendritic cells, and so on.


These papers challenge this model by arguing that the CMP does not exist. Let me say that again – the CMP, a cell that has been identified several times in mouse and human bone marrow isolates, does not exist. When CMPs were identified from mouse and human none marrow extracts, they were isolated by means of flow cytometry, which is a very powerful technique, but relies on the assumption that the cell type you want to isolate is represented by the cell surface protein you have chosen to use for its isolation. Once the presumptive CMP was isolated, it could recapitulate the myeloid lineage when implanted into the bone marrow of laboratory animals and it could also produce all the myeloid cells in cell culture. Sounds convincing doesn’t it?

In a paper in Science magazine, Faiyaz Notta and colleagues from the University of Toronto beg to differ. By using a battery of antibodies to particular cell surface molecules, Notta and others identified 11 different cell types from umbilical cord blood, bone marrow, and human fetal liver that isolates that would have traditionally been called the CMP. It turns out that the original CMP isolate was a highly heterogeneous mixture of different cell types that were all descended from the HSC, but had different developmental potencies.

Notta and others used single-cell culture assays to determine what kinds of cells these different cell types would make. Almost 3000 single-cell cultures later, it was clear that the majority of the cultured cells were unipotent (could differentiate into only one cell type) rather than multipotent. In fact, the cell that makes platelets, the megakarocyte, seems to derive directly from the MPP, which jives with the identification of megakarocyte progenitors within the HSC compartment of bone marrow that make platelets “speedy quick” in response to stress (see R. Yamamoto et al., Cell 154, 1112 (2013); S. Haas, Cell Stem Cell 17, 422 (2015)).

Another paper in the journal Cell by Paul and others from the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel examined over 2700 mouse CMPs and subjected these cells to gene expression analyses (so-called single-cell transriptome analysis). If the CMP is truly multipotent, then you would expect it to express genes associated with lots of different lineages, but that is not what Paul and others found. Instead, their examination of 3461 genes revealed 19 different progenitor subpopulations, and each of these was primed toward one of the seven myeloid cell fates. Once again, the presumptive CMPs looked very unipotent at the level of gene expression.

One particular subpopulation of cells had all the trappings of becoming a red blood cell and there was no indication that these cells expressed any of the megakarocyte-specific genes you would expect to find if MEPS truly existed. Once again, it looks as though unipotency is the main rule once the MPP commits to a particular cell lineage.

Thus, it looks as though either the CMP is a very short-lived state or that it does not exist in mouse and human bone marrow. Paul and others did show that cells that could differentiate into more than one cell type can appear when regulation is perturbed, which suggests that under pathological conditions, this system has a degree of plasticity that allows the body to compensate for losses of particular cell lineages.

A model of the changes in human My-Er-Mk differentiation that occur across developmental time points. Graphical depiction of My-Er-Mk cell differentiation that encompasses the predominant lineage potential of progenitor subsets; the standard model is shown for comparison. The redefined model proposes a developmental shift in the progenitor cell architecture from the fetus, where many stem and progenitor cell types are multipotent, to the adult, where the stem cell compartment is multipotent but the progenitors are unipotent. The grayed planes represent theoretical tiers of differentiation.
A model of the changes in human My-Er-Mk differentiation that occur across developmental time points.
Graphical depiction of My-Er-Mk cell differentiation that encompasses the predominant lineage potential of progenitor subsets; the standard model is shown for comparison. The redefined model proposes a developmental shift in the progenitor cell architecture from the fetus, where many stem and progenitor cell types are multipotent, to the adult, where the stem cell compartment is multipotent but the progenitors are unipotent. The grayed planes represent theoretical tiers of differentiation.

Fetal HSCs, however, are a bird of a different feather, since they divide quickly and reside in fetal liver.  Also, these HSCs seem to produce CMPs, which is more in line with the classical model.  Does the environmental difference or fetal liver and bone marrow make the difference?  In adult bone marrow, some HSCs nestle next to blood vessels where they encounter cells that hang around blood vessels known as “pericytes.”  These pericytes sport a host of cell surface molecules that affect the proliferative status of HSCs (e.g., nestin, NG2).  What about fetal liver?  That’s not so clear – until now.

In the same issue of Science magazine, Khan and others from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York, report that fetal liver also has pericytes that express the same cell surface molecules as the ones in bone marrow, and the removal of these cells reduces the numbers of and proliferative status of fetal liver HSCs.

Now we have a conundrum, because the same cells in bone marrow do not drive HSC proliferation, but instead drive HSC quiescence.  What gives? Khan and others showed that the fetal liver pericytes are part of an expanding and constantly remodeling blood system in the liver and this growing, dynamic environment fosters a proliferative behavior in the fetal HSCs.

When umbilical inlet is closed at birth, the liver pericytes stop expressing Nestin and NG2, which drives the HSCs from the fetal liver to the other place were such molecules are found in abundance – the bone marrow.

These models give us a better view of the inner workings of HSC differentiation.  Since HSC transplantation is one of the mainstays of leukemia and lymphoma treatment, understanding HSC biology more perfectly will certainly yield clinical pay dirt in the future.


ASTIC Clinical Trial Fails to Show Clear Advantage to Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation as a Treatment for Crohn’s Disease

Patients with Crohn’s disease (CD) sometimes suffer from daily bouts of stomach pain and diarrhea. These constant gastrointestinal episodes can prevent them from absorbing enough nutrition to meet their needs, and, consequently, they can suffer from weakness, fatigue, and a general failure to flourish.

To treat Crohn’s disease, physicians use several different types of drugs. First there are the anti-inflammatory drugs, which include oral 5-aminosalicylates such as sulfasalazine (Azulfidine), which contains sulfur, and mesalamine (Asacol, Delzicol, Pentasa, Lialda, Apriso). These drugs, have several side effects, but on the whole are rather well tolerated. If these don’t work, then corticosteroids such as prednisone are used. These have a large number of side effects, including a puffy face, excessive facial hair, night sweats, insomnia and hyperactivity. More-serious side effects include high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, bone fractures, cataracts, glaucoma and increased chance of infection.

If these don’t work, then the stronger immune system suppressors are brought out. These drugs have some very serious side effects. Azathioprine (Imuran) and mercaptopurine (Purinethol) are two of the most widely used of this group. If used long-term, these drugs can make the patient more susceptible to certain infections and cancers including lymphoma and skin cancer. They may also cause nausea and vomiting. Infliximab (Remicade), adalimumab (Humira) and certolizumab pegol (Cimzia) are the next line of immune system suppressors. These drugs are TNF inhibitors that neutralize an immune system protein known as tumor necrosis factor (TNF). These drugs are also associated with certain cancers, including lymphoma and skin cancers. The next line of drugs include Methotrexate (Rheumatrex), which is usually used to treat cancer, psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis, but methotrexate also quells the symptoms of Crohn’s disease in patients who don’t respond well to other medications. Short-term side effects include nausea, fatigue and diarrhea, and rarely, it can cause potentially life-threatening pneumonia. Long-term use can lead to bone marrow suppression, scarring of the liver and sometimes to cancer. You will need to be followed closely for side effects.

Then there are specialty medicines for patients who do not respond to other medicines or who suffer from openings in their lower large intestines to the outside world (fistulae). These include cyclosporine (Gengraf, Neoral, Sandimmune) and tacrolimus (Astagraf XL, Hecoria). These have the potential for serious side effects, such as kidney and liver damage, seizures, and fatal infections. These medications are definitely cannot be used for long period of time as their side effects are too dangerous.

If the patient still does not experience any relief, then two humanized mouse monoclonal antibodies natalizumab (Tysabri) and vedolizumab (Entyvio). Both of these drugs bind to and inhibit particular cell adhesion molecules called integrins, and in doing so prevent particular immune cells from binding to the cells in the intestinal lining. Natalizumab is associated with a rare but serious risk of a brain disease that usually leads to death or severe disability called progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy. In fact, so serious are the side effects of this medicine that patients who take this drug must be enrolled in a special restricted distribution program. The other drug, vedolizumab, works in the same way as natalizumab but does not seem to cause this brain disease. Finally, a drug called Ustekinumab (Stelara) is usually used to treat psoriasis. Studies have shown it’s useful in treating Crohn’s disease and might useful when other medical treatments fail. Ustekinumab can increase the risk of contracting tuberculosis and an increased risk of certain types of cancer. Also there is a risk of posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome. More common side effects include upper respiratory infection, headache, and tiredness.

If this litany of side effects sounds undesirable, then maybe a cell-based treatment can help Crohn’s patients. To that end, a clinical trial called the Autologous Stem Cell Transplantation International Crohn’s Disease or ASTIC trial was conducted and its results were published in the December 15th, 2015 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The ASTIC trial enrolled 45 Crohn’s disease patients, all of whom underwent stem cell mobilization with cyclophosphamide and filgrastim, and were then randomly assigned to immediate stem cell transplantation (at 1 month) or delayed transplantation (at 13 months; control group).  Blood samples were drawn and mobilized stem cells were isolated from the blood.  In twenty-three of these patients, their bone marrow was partially wiped out and reconstituted by means of transplantations with their own bone marrow stem cells. The other 22 patients were given standard Crohn disease treatment (corticosteroids and so on) as needed.

The bad news is that hematopoietic stem cell transplantations (HSCT) were not significantly better than conventional therapy at inducing sustained disease remission, if we define remission as the patient not needing any medical therapies (i.e. drugs) for at least 3 months and no clear evidence of active disease on endoscopy and GI imaging at one year after the start of the trial. All patients in this study had moderately to severely active Crohn’s disease that was resistant to treatment, had failed at least 3 immunosuppressive drugs, and whose disease that was not amenable to surgery.  All participants in this study had impaired function and quality of life.  Also, the stem cell transplantation procedure, because it involved partially wiping out the bone marrow, cause considerable toxicities.

Two patients who underwent HSCT (8.7%) experienced sustained disease remission compared to one control patient (4.5%). Fourteen patients undergoing HSCT (61%) compared to five control patients (23%) had discontinued immunosuppressive or biologic agents or corticosteroids for at least 3 months. Eight patients (34.8%) who had HSCTs compared to two (9.1%) patients treated with standard care regimens were free of the signs of active disease on endoscopy and radiology at final assessment.

However, there were 76 serious adverse events in patients undergoing HSCT compared to 38 in controls, and one patient undergoing HSCT died.

So increased toxicities and not really a clear benefit to it; those are the downsides of the ASCTIC study.  An earlier report of the ASTIC trial in 2013, while data was still being collected and analyzed was much more sanguine.  Christopher Hawkey, MD, from the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom said this: “Some of the case reports are so dramatic that it’s reasonable to talk about this being a cure in those patients.”  These words came from a presentation given by Dr. Hawkey at Digestive Disease Week 2013.  Further analysis, however, apparently, failed to show a clear benefit to HSCT for the patients in this study.  It is entirely possible that some patients in this study did experience significant healing, but statistically, there was no clear difference between HSCT and conventional treatment for the patients in this study.

The silver lining in this study, however, is that compared to the control group, significantly more HSCT patients were able to stop taking all their immunosuppressive therapies for the three months prior to the primary endpoint. That is a potential upside to this study, but it is unlikely for most patients that this upside is worth the heightened risk of severe side effects. An additional potential upside to this trial is that patients who underwent HSCT showed greater absolute reduction of clinical and endoscopic disease activity. Again, it is doubtful if these potential benefits are worth the higher risks for most patients although it might be worth it for some patients.

Therefore, when HSCT was compared with conventional therapy, there was no statistically significant improvement in sustained disease remission at 1 year. Furthermore, HSCT was associated with significant toxicity. Overall, despite some potential upside to HSCT observed in this study, the authors, I think rightly, conclude that their data do not support the widespread use of HSCT for patients with refractory Crohn’s disease.

Could HSCT help some Crohn’s patients more than others? That is a very good question that will need far more work with defined patient populations to answer.  Perhaps further work will ferret out the benefits HSCT has for some Crohn’s disease patients relative to others.

The ASTIC trial was a collaborative project between the European Society for Blood and Marrow Transplantation (EBMT) and the European Crohn’s and Colitis Organization (ECCO) and was funded by the Broad Medical Foundation and the Nottingham Digestive Diseases Centers.

Gamida Cell Phase 3 Study Design Outline Approved by FDA and EMA

Gamida Cell, a cell therapy company based in Jerusalem, Israel, has reached agreements with the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) with regards to a Phase III study design outline for testing their NiCord product. NiCord is a blood cancer treatment derived from a single umbilical cord blood until expanded in culture and enriched with stem cells by means of the company’s proprietary NAM technology.

Gamida Cell is moving forward now with plans to commence an international, multi-center, Phase III study of NiCord in 2016. Phase I/II data of 15 patients are expected in the fourth quarter of 2015. NiCord is in development as an experimental treatment for various types of blood cancers including Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), and Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML).

NiCord® is derived from a single cord blood unit which has been expanded in culture and enriched with stem cells using Gamida Cell’s proprietary NAM technology. NAM technology proceeds from the observation that nicotinamide, a form of vitamin B3, inhibits the loss of functionality that usually occurs during the culture process of umbilical cord blood stem cells, when added to the culture medium. Pre-clinical studies have also shown that the expanded cell grafts manufactured using NAM technology demonstrate improved functionality following infusion in a living animal. These stem cells show improved movement, home to the bone marrow, and show higher rates of engraftment, or durable retention in the bone marrow. Based on these results, Gamida Cell is currently testing in clinical trials (in patients) cells expanded in culture with the NAM platform to determine their safety and effectiveness as a treatment for blood cancers, sickle-cell anemia and thalassemia. NiCord is intended to fill the crucial clinical need for a treatment for the vast majority of blood cancer patients indicated for bone marrow transplantation, with insufficient treatment options. This segment has a multi-billion dollar market potential.

“The FDA and EMA feedback is a major regulatory milestone for NiCord. NiCord is a life-saving therapy intended to provide a successful treatment for the large number of blood cancer patients who do not have a family related matched donor. Gamida Cell is dedicated to changing the paradigm in transplantation by bringing this therapy to market as soon as possible,” said Dr. Yael Margolin, president and CEO of Gamida Cell.

“The positive regulatory feedback confirms that Gamida Cell’s NiCord program is on a clear path to approval both in the U.S. and EU. We look forward to continuing the development of this very important product in cooperation with sites of excellence in cord blood transplantation worldwide,” said Dr. David Snyder, V.P. of Clinical Development and Regulatory Affairs at Gamida Cell.

The Phase III study will be a randomized, controlled study of approximately 120 patients. It will compare the outcomes of patients transplanted with NiCord to those of patients transplanted with un-manipulated umbilical cord blood.