Tuesday, August 20, 2019

'Tough Lesson' and Stem Cells: More Time, More Money Urged -- Indirectly -- for California's Research

BioInformant graphic

Time and money, hope and hard work -- not to mention death -- were the topics today on the blog of the $3 billion California stem cell agency. 

The blog item involved more than the demise of patients waiting for a stem cell therapy but also the possible demise of the nearly 15-year-old program, unique in California history. 

The research effort, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), is running out of cash. By the end of this year, it expects to have no funds for new awards. 

That situation led to a piece this morning on CIRM's  blog, The Stem Cellar. It was a bit of indirect pitch for continued funding by California taxpayers.
"Time and money are always going to be challenging when it comes to advancing stem cell research and bringing treatments to patients. With greater knowledge and understanding of stem cells and how best to use them we can speed up the timeline. But without money none of that can happen."
The article by Kevin McCormack, senior director of communications for CIRM, recapped the history of the agency, created by voters in 2004 through a ballot initiative that set the state off on the largest scientific research effort of any state in the nation. Indeed, as McCormack pointed out, the funding surpassed research budgets of some nations. The catch in California was that no source of funding for the agency was provided beyond the initial $3 billion. 

CIRM noted the high hopes for quick therapies back in 2004. 
"In the early days there was a strong feeling that this was going to quite quickly produce new treatments and cures for diseases ranging from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s to heart disease and stroke. Although we have made tremendous strides we are still not where we hoped we’d be. 
"It’s a tough lesson to learn, but an important one: good scientific research moves at its own pace and pays little heed to our hopes or desires. It takes time, often a long time, and money, usually a lot of money, to develop new treatments for deadly diseases and disorders."
McCormack briefly catalogued some of CIRM's progress and the 56 clinical trials in which it has invested, some of which are in the final stage before federal approval of a treatment. 

But CIRM said, 
"The simple truth is that unless we, as a nation, invest much more in scientific research, we are not going to be able to develop cures and new, more effective, treatments for a wide range of diseases." 
The agency is hoping that voters will approve a ballot initiative in November 2020 that will provide $5.5 billion more for stem cell research. In the meantime, it has $71 million to hand out. Sphere: Related Content

Monday, August 19, 2019

Coming Up Next Month: Final Award Decisions by California's $3 Billion Stem Cell Agency?

The California stem cell agency, which is running out of cash for new awards, has cancelled a meeting this week at which it was scheduled to approve funding for more clinical stage research.

The action sets the stage for a full discussion and decisions by the agency board in late September on its last likely research awards unless it receives a substantial infusion of cash. Known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the agency was created by voters in 2004 with $3 billion. That has dwindled to $71 million, although $28 million is committed to sickle cell anemia.

CIRM is pinning its hopes for survival on a possible ballot initiative in November 2020 to provide it with another $5.5 billion. 

In response to a question about the status of the meeting once scheduled for this Thursday, Kevin McCormack, CIRM senior director of communications, noted that the last of the clinical stage applications are being reviewed this month. He said,
"There may be more projects to fund than money."
McCormack said,
"We will be bringing all meritorious projects to the board in September to make funding decisions.  In addition, the full board (not the Application Review Subcommittee) must decide whether or not to redirect money to the Translation bucket in order to fund  those that were not funded last month."
CIRM's funding squeeze generated considerable discussion at the July meeting, including appearances by scientists seeking awards. The full transcript of that session can be found here. 

The application review subcommittee is a subset of the full 29-member board, which includes a number of representatives from institutions that receive awards. The subcommittee was created to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interests on the part of the CIRM board. 

September's meeting will be based at the Oakland headquarters of the agency. It is also scheduled to be audiocast live with Internet access. Additional physical locations are expected to be announced for teleconference access. The public can participate in the meetings via the Internet and at the teleconference locations. 
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Friday, August 16, 2019

California's $76 Million Bet: Something Called CAR-T, Cancer and Promises

CIRM-funded researcher Saul Priceman of the City of Hope discusses the CART-T frontier, April 2019. Video by American Association for Cancer Research

California's state stem cell agency has now invested $76 million in treatments sometimes described as "miraculous," whose costs can run upwards of $1.5 million. 

The push into the much-heralded CART-T therapy field is part of the agency's effort to fulfill its 15-year-old campaign promise to state voters to turn stem cells into cures. 

The California Stem Cell Report this week took a look at the  CAR-T slice of the agency's $3 billion research pie in the wake of news that Medicare would now cover major portions of the cost of the cancer-fighting technology.

The decision applied to only two specific therapies. But Seema Verma, the top Medicare executive, said CAR-T was
"an important scientific advancement" and would provide help for "some patients who had nowhere else to turn."

Maria Millan, president of the stem cell agency, called the announcement a big step forward. In an email to the California Stem Cell Report, she said,
“We are encouraged by the announcement that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid will provide coverage for hospital costs related to CAR-T therapies. This is a major step to providing access to these life-saving treatments for patients in need.”
The CAR-T therapies approved by Medicare can run close to $500,000 plus hundreds of thousands more for related costs. One estimate is that total cost of a CAR-T treatment could hit $1.5 million. 

Their medical promise of CART-T is that it's a cure -- not an ongoing treatment, which also can raise total costs exponentially. The idea behind the therapy is that it powers up a patient's immune system to destroy cancer cells in a targeted fashion.  

"Drugmakers note CAR T-cell therapy is designed to be given just once and to be a potential cure for patients who have run out of other options. But not all patients benefit from it and because it is so new, it’s too soon to know whether it will deliver long-term cures," Laurie McGinley wrote in the Washington Post last week. 

California's stem cell agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine(CIRM), has approved 11 awards involving CAR-T therapies ranging from basic research to clinical trials. The amounts of the awards run from less than $2 million to nearly $20 million, which went to Poseida Therapeutics, Inc., of San Diego, Ca.

The company has received a total of nearly $24 million from CIRM for its CAR-T work. In May, the Food and Drug Administration approved Poseida's CIRM-backed product as an orphan drug treatment for multiple myleoma, a disease that affects 300,000 Americans every year. The company reports that its Phase Two clinical trial for the treatment is now underway.

Poseida's work has attracted the interest of Big Pharma. In March, Novartis pumped $75 million into the company in a fund-raising round that totalled more than $142 million.  (See here for more information on Poseida.)

Last month, in another CART-T venture, the stem cell agency added more millions to an effort at the City of Hope by Saul Priceman, a breast cancer researcher. He told the CIRM board,

"For the past 20 years, City of Hope has focused intensely on developing CAR-T cell approaches for treating the most intractable solid tumors. In the early 2000s, we were the first to demonstrate solid tumor CART-T cell therapy treatment in patients. And recently we were the first to report our remarkable response for patients with glioblastoma."

In announcing the award, CIRM CEO Millan said, 
“When a patient is told that their cancer has metastasized to other areas of the body, it can be devastating news. There are few options for patients with breast cancer brain metastases (the target of Priceman's research).
"Standard of care treatments, which include brain irradiation and chemotherapy, have associated neurotoxicity and do little to improve survival, which is typically no more than a few months.  CAR-T cell therapy is an exciting and promising approach that now offers us a more targeted approach to address this condition.”
CAR-T is a gene therapy, which has raised some questions about whether it fits within the scope of the stem cell agency, which was created by a ballot measure in 2004, Proposition 71.  

Kevin McCormack, senior director of CIRM communications, said in response to a query, 
"The programs we’ve funded fit into Proposition 71 because (1) HSC (hematopoietic stem cell) derived CAR-T, (2) CAR T’s enriched for TSCM (stem cell) or gene-engineered T cells qualify as a 'vital research opportunity' as outlined in the proposition." 
Here are links to the CAR-T awards by their CIRM application number, which is very useful in searching for additional information on each grantee's research.

Tran1-10258, $5.6 million, Ezra Cohen, UC San Diego; Clin2-10395, $19.8 million, Matthew Spear, Poseida; Clin1-10999, Devon Shedlock, Poseida; Clin2-10248, $12.8 million, Christine Brown, City of Hope; Clin2-10846, $11 million, Crystal Mackall, Stanford; Clin1-11223, $3.8 million, Xiuli Wang, City of Hope; Disc2-11107, $1.4 million, Saul Priceman, City of Hope; Clin2-11574, $9.3 million, Priceman, City of Hope; Disc2-10748, $1.7 million, Scott Kitchen, UCLA; Disc2-11157$1.4 million, Lili Yang, UCLA, and Clin2-11380, $4.7 million, Theodore Nowicki, UCLA.

City of Hope video
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Wednesday, August 14, 2019

WebMD and the Rising Framework for a $5.5 Billion Stem Cell Request in California

USC researchers Mark Humayun (right) and Amir Kashani,
CIRM-funded scientists. Click here to go to their research video.
WebMD, a heavily used Internet health and medical site, this week assessed the state of the stem cell field in a two-part series that highlighted much of the clinical work backed by California's $3 billion stem cell agency.

The first installment by Kathleen Doheny offered a national overview, declaring that stem cell research has been underway in significant way for three decades. "Where are we now?" was the headline on the article. Perhaps the key sentence declared,
"While proponents say all this groundwork is finally coming to fruition, others call progress slow and plodding."
WebMD is a go-to site for the public when it looks for medical information. In 2016 it reported that it had nearly 180 million unique visitors per month. Today, it says one out of every four Americans uses its site every month.

The series led with work at USC that is being assisted with millions from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine(CIRM), as the stem cell agency is formally known. It also noted CIRM's 56 clinical trials and its clinical dashboard

CIRM grantees were mentioned, including Andy McMahon, Amir Kashani and Mark Humayun, all of USC and recipients of CIRM awards.

The second part of the series, authored by Karen Weintraub, focused on the unregulated and dubious "stem cell" treatments that are the target of both federal and California state regulators.  The headline said, 

"Stem Cell Clinics: Effective or Pricey False Hope?"

One might ask whether readers of the piece are distinguishing between those sorts of sketchy clinics and California's Alpha stem cell clinics, which are very much the pride of the state research effort. 

The WebMD coverage is part of the framework that is taking shape as the California stem cell agency sees its funds coming to an end. It is hoping for a $5.5 billion infusion from voters via a ballot measure in November 2020. How the public perceives stem cell treatments overall and how voters perceive the success of the state effort are likely to be critical in winning approval of more stem cell cash in California. 

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Monday, August 12, 2019

'Snake Oil' Stem Cell Clinics Target of California State Regulators Sept. 18

The California State Medical Board said today it will hold a public hearing Sept. 18 to respond to the burgeoning growth in dubious "stem cell" clinics, some of which have reportedly left some patients harmed both physically and financially.

"Snake oil" is what the unregulated clinics are selling, according to Jonathan Thomas, chairman of $3 billion California stem cell agency, which will be invited to appear at the Sacramento meeting next month. 

The clinics have been operating for years nationally, with at least an estimated 1,000 currently in business. California has the largest number. In the past couple of years, the clinics have achieved more notoriety. That includes a "buyer beware" piece this month on HealthDay.

Responding to an inquiry last week by the California Stem Cell Report, Kimberly Kirchmeyer, executive director of the Medical Board, said today in an email that topics likely to be covered at the board's hearing include:
  • Best practices guidelines and outreach and education
  • Improved informed consent practices
  • Adverse event reporting when treatments go wrong
  • Other options to be considered by the board
In addition to the stem cell agency, known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the board said it would invite the state Department of Public Health. Members of the public may appear as well.  The Medical Board is the chief regulatory agency for physicians.

Here is the full text of Kirchmeyer's statement, which includes a timeline on the board's actions related to the dubious clinics:
"At the July 2018 Board Meeting, the Board was provided a policy that was adopted by the Federation of State Medical Boards at their annual meeting.  The policy contained several recommendations for state boards regarding Regenerative and Stem Cell Therapy Practices.
At the October 2018 Board Meeting Ms. (Denise) Pines, (president of the board), established a Board Task Force on Stem Cell and Regenerative Therapy.   In April 2019, Board staff met with the California Department of Public Health to discuss issues regarding stem cell and regenerative therapy and discussed how the two entities could work together.  The two organizations also discussed some of the issues regarding investigating complaints regarding these practices. 
"On June 27, 2019, the Task Force members met with Board staff to discuss oversight options the Board may decide to pursue to protect California consumers from unapproved and potentially dangerous stem cell products and therapies and next steps.  
"A few options discussed included the development of educational materials, exploring outreach opportunities, and developing best practice guidelines similar to those adopted by the Federation.  The Task Force also discussed the need for some type of guidance for informed consent.  While current law requires notice to patients regarding stem cell therapies, it only requires notification to the patient that the therapy is not FDA-approved and encouraging the patient to consult with their primary care physician. 
"The Task Force believes a more in-depth informed consent may be needed.  In addition, discussion also included the need for adverse event reporting and what would be required for such reporting. 
"It was determined that the Task Force hold an interested parties meeting to receive feedback from consumers, experts, and stakeholders to assist in the development of materials, guidelines and/or to determine if there are additional options that should be considered.  At this meeting, the Board is also going to ask for presentations from the California Department of Public Health and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
"The meeting will be held September 18 in the afternoon (at board headquarters in Sacramento).  If necessary, a second interested parties meeting will be held by mid-November.  The Task Force hopes to have recommendations presented to the Board at its January 2020 meeting.  "You will be able to watch the update on the webcast when it is posted on the Board’s website within the next two weeks.  Here is the link to the page where the webcast will be posted: http://www.mbc.ca.gov/About_Us/Meetings/ "
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Friday, August 09, 2019

California Stem Cell Agency's Business Partnering Program and BlueRock Therapeutics

A $240-million deal yesterday involved an East Coast biotech firm that has loose ties to California's nearly 15-year-old stem cell research program. 

The firm is Blue Rock Therapeutics, Inc., a privately held cell therapy company based in Cambridge, Mass.  Bayer owned about 60 percent of the company and picked up the remainder for $240 million in what it called a "major milestone." 

Last year, BlueRock was one of two companies that joined a program of the $3 billion stem cell agency to create a "built-in concierge service for the stem cell space." The agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), called its new effort the Industry Alliance Program (IAP).

The agency said at the time, 
"The CIRM IAP is designed to give pharma, biotech and VC firms direct access to CIRM’s growing stem cell portfolio. These partners work in the stem cell and regenerative medicine field and will be connected to CIRM-funded scientists working on projects relevant to their interests."
Regarding the deal yesterday, Ben Fidler of Xconomy wrote,
"The deal gives Bayer rights to a company using cells harvested from healthy donors to develop cell therapies for a variety of different diseases—from neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s to heart failure to graft versus host disease. But the buyout is a gamble on an ambitious technology whose first human study, in Parkinson’s, will start later this year."
So far, CIRM has not announced any fresh results from its industry alliance program. 

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Thursday, August 08, 2019

The California Stem Cell Agency: 'Envy of the World, ' Hopes Too High?

The prestigious journal Nature yesterday published a piece about California's $3 billion stem cell agency that spoke of voids, envy and "double-edged swords."

The opinion piece was written by Jeanne Loring, a San Diego area
Jeanne Loring
researcher who has followed the agency for years and has been one of its beneficiaries($17 million in awards).

Reflecting on the agency's importance, she wrote,

"For the past dozen or so years, stem-cell researchers in California have been the envy of the world."
Creation of the agency, known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), "essentially guaranteed that the state would become the center of innovation in the field," Loring declared. Its demise would leave a major void, she said.

Loring continued,
"Although its intentions were laudable, CIRM raised the hopes of the public too high. It needed catchy advertising to gain voters’ support. One of its campaign slogans was 'Save lives with stem cells.' Effective advertisements often focus on a promise and downplay shortcomings, such as the time and resources required to advance a stem-cell therapy through clinical trials to market approval. No CIRM-supported therapy has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), resulting in dashed expectations.... 
"Still, fulfilment of the campaign promise is under way. CIRM has granted funding for 56 stem-cell-based clinical trials."
At the same time, dubious and unregulated clinics that peddle stem cell "snake oil" have proliferated across the country, leading the FDA to attempt a belated takedown of some of the enterprises.

The growth of those clinics is part of "the double-edged sword that is CIRM’s legacy,"  Loring said.
"The agency has enabled fundamental science and helped to establish know-how for rigorous assessment of stem-cell therapies. Earlier this year, my colleagues and I started a biotechnology company, Aspen Neuroscience in La Jolla, California, and are raising funds for a clinical trial of a neuron-replacement therapy for Parkinson’s disease. Without the work that CIRM has done to educate investors and researchers, this would have been very difficult. 
"But the agency’s work has inadvertently helped to boost unregulated, for-profit ‘clinics’ claiming, without sound evidence, that cells derived from fat, bone marrow, placenta and other tissues can cure any disease."
Loring said,
"CIRM has regularly denounced these clinics, which existed before the institute’s creation and will persist as long as they can make money. Still, it is easy to understand how public enthusiasm would spill over to those offering quackery."
Loring noted that the agency, which expects to run out of cash for new awards this year, is hoping that voters will give provide $5 billion more via a ballot initiative in November 2020. 

Loring urged rhetorical caution in the ballot campaign.
"We must strike a balance between future potential and current reality when we talk to the public. Researchers should emphasize that even when therapies show promise in mice, they often fail to work in humans. The only way to find out — and to check for safety — is rigorous scientific testing in clinical trials."
"We need to temper public hope," Loring wrote, while regulators, including the FDA and the California State Medical Board, bring the bad actors under control. 
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