The targeted disease is retinitis pigmentosa (RP), is a severe form of blindness that runs in families. This disease is not overly common, yet represents an attainable near term target for stem cell therapy for a number of reasons: 1) RP destroys the light detecting cells of the retina but generally leaves the rest of the visual system and body unharmed, so the clinical goal is circumscribed; 2) RP is prototypical of degenerations of the nervous system, so a cure for this less common disease would accelerate progress towards new therapies for a range of more familiar conditions; 3) scientific research has shown that degenerating rods and cones can be spared in animals by transplanting particular types of stem cells, so the scientific feasibility of treating RP in this way has already been established in principle.
The therapeutic approach is to save the light sensing cells of the eye (rod and cone photoreceptors) in people going blind using a type of stem cell obtained from the immature retina, but not from early embryos. These particular stem cells from the retina, known as progenitor cells, are capable of rescuing photoreceptors from degeneration following transplantation to the eye. These same cells are also highly efficient at becoming rod photoreceptors and this provides another more sustained pathway by which they preserve the crucial cone photoreceptors. In addition, there is evidence that the stem cells themselves might become functional photoreceptors and thereby stabilize the retina by directly replacing the dying cells in the patient’s eye. Thus, transplanted stem cells could treat the targeted disease of RP in multiple ways simultaneously. Importantly, there are a host of reasons why clinical trials in the eye are easier and safer than most locations in the body. The eye is an important proving ground for stem cell-based therapies and provides a stepping stone to many otherwise incurable diseases of the brain and spinal cord.
Benefits to the state of California and its citizens are both direct and indirect. The direct benefit is medical in that there is currently no cure or established treatment for the individuals and families that suffer from the dreadful hereditary blindness known as retinitis pigmentosa. In addition, there are many people in California and throughout the world that suffer from degenerative diseases of the retina and central nervous system that could benefit from further development and alternate applications of the type of stem cell therapy proposed in the current application. The rapid progress that could be achieved via this proposal would help legitimize the use of stem cells and should thereby accelerate the development of stem cell-based therapeutics for a wide range of other diseases. In so doing there would be an indirect benefit to California by making our state a focal point for stem cell breakthroughs. This would increase medical capabilities, strengthen the [REDACTED], and energize local biotechnology companies with outside investment and a payoff in jobs and tax revenues.
At the end of Year 1 of the grant period, our team has made substantial progress and achieved quite a few of the milestones initially established for the entire 3 year period. A retinal cell bank has been established for research purposes and, in addition, initial clinical-grade cell production is now under way with the target of generating 3 clinical cell banks. We have shown that our human cells are able to help blind rats to see following transplantation to the eye. We have developed a range of methods to help prove the safety of our cells, both before and after transplantation, with definitive long term tests results to be obtained over the next few months. We have begun to unravel the molecular genetics of the cell and are specifically investigating what give them the ability to preserve vision in the face of progressive blindness. In summary, work is advancing rapidly and ahead of schedule, consistent with a realistic, achievable biological strategy. On behalf of the patients who we know are depending upon us, our team is committed to seeing this technology into the clinic in the shortest possible timeline.