Saturday, June 16, 2018

CIRM Board Member Sheehy Exiting as San Francisco Supervisor; Says SF Voters Favorable on Stem Cell Work

Jeff Sheehy, a member of the governing board of the $3 billion California stem cell agency, will be leaving his fulltime post as a member of the San Francisco board of supervisors later this year, but he says his unsuccessful election campaign disclosed favorable perceptions of stem cell research.

Sheehy disclosed his plans not to seek re-election in the media in the Bay Area. In a statement, he said it was "immensely rewarding" to have served the city. He also had this to say yesterday to the California Stem Cell Report,
"I have been asked about the implications for CIRM (the stem cell agency) and, based on polling around my bio that my campaign conducted, stem cell research remains very popular.
"When we asked voters about what prior work of mine resonated with them, the tagline, 'Fights for stem cell cures for deadly diseases and conditions as a founding board member of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine,' was one of, if not the most popular items listed in my background.
"I had multiple conversations with voters about our work at CIRM and they were very supportive and very impressed with the what we have accomplished."
Sheehy is a patient advocate member of the stem cell board and has served on it since its inception in 2004. He is also chair of the Science Subcommittee of the board, participates in closed door reviews of applications for funds by scientists and oversees board discussion of the reviewers' decisions.

Sheehy's term on the 29-member board expires in 2020. The agency expects to run out of cash for new awards by the end of next year, 2019.
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Friday, June 15, 2018

CRISPR, the Cancer Question and the California Stem Cell Agency: $13.5 Million Investment in Eight Projects

CRISPR was in the news this week, and it wasn't about how you like your French fries cooked.

CRISPR, for those of you who don't know already, is a relatively easy way to edit genes. The technique is used in at least eight research projects backed by the California stem cell agency, totalling about $13.5 million.

What made CRISPR generate the headlines was research -- as Business Insider reported -- that the "blockbuster gene-editing tool has been linked to cancer." The assessment was described as hype by some scientists.

Paul Knoepfler, the peripatetic stem cell blogger and researcher at UC Davis, explored the implications of the findings in an item earlier this week. He wrote,
"To say that CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing might 'cause cancer' seems premature to me so there probably were and are better ways for people to phrase the big-picture meaning of these new papers and others like them that may pop up in the future. However, to be clear safety is crucial, so this is an important development and risks of any potential therapy including gene editing-based approaches should be carefully weighed against potential benefits as trials are designed and then progress."
The California Stem Cell Report asked the agency, which monitors the research it funds, for a list of its projects involving CRISPR. Here is what the agency provided, including the disease focus, principal investigator and grant number.
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Thursday, June 14, 2018

Not a Dr. Ruth Explainer: California Stem Cell Agency's FAQ

Looking for a reasonably straight forward primer on the $3 billion California stem cell agency, a state program that is unique in California history and now in its 13th year of life? 

The agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), has compiled an FAQ (frequently asked questions) list which is available on its web site. Obviously, some of the material is colored by agency's own perspective, but the basic facts are there in one handy document.

The questions deal with such things as "when will there be cures," "shouldn't private industry fund stem cell research" and "what happens when the money runs out."  It's not exactly a Dr. Ruth's guide to all things CIRM, but many may find the document helpful. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Fire, Fury and $5 Billion: A Mini Preview of a Ballot Campaign for the California Stem Cell Agency

California's stem cell research effort, which is pinning its survival hopes on a proposed $5 billion bond measure in a couple of years, was slammed in a national publication last week as a "multi-billion dollar money suck."

The column in the conservative magazine National Review, which has about 90,000 circulation and a significant online presence, was a tiny preview of the fire and fury that is likely to erupt around the likely pitch to California voters in 2020 to give more cash to the agency.

Formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the agency was created by a ballot initiative in 2004 and backed with $3 billion in state funds. It expects to run out of money for new awards by the end of next year.

Wesley J. Smith, a longtime critic of the agency, wrote in the National Review piece,
"The mendacious (2004) campaign promised Cures! Cures! Cures! with embryonic stem cells and therapeutic human cloning — even promising that disabled children would get out of their wheel chairs and walk. Good grief, campaigners also claimed that the money earned from all the coming cures would reduce California’s health-care budget.
"Some $2 billion later, none of it came to pass. Tens of millions were spent on a fancy-dancy building. Conflicts of interested have abounded. But the supposed point of the CIRM was not achieved. There have been extremely few human trials with embryonic stem cells — mostly dealing with eye conditions — and not all were CIRM-funded."
It is fair to say that Smith's characterizations omit much information about what CIRM calls its value proposition. Nonetheless, his points are likely to resonate with a substantial portion of California voters, who have seen little mainstream media coverage of CIRM. 

Even the institutions and recipients of multi-million dollar research awards regularly fail to note CIRM's contributions in their news releases about state-backed scientific discoveries. (See here and here.)

As of today, the agency has invested in 49 clinical trials, the last stage before a therapy is approved for widespread use. A discovery or treatment that would captivate the public could emerge from those trials between now and the election in November 2020. Meanwhile, given the nature of today's financially struggling media and limited science coverage, the agency and its backers are likely to find it tough to break through the news clutter and convince voters to cough up more cash.   
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Sunday, June 10, 2018

'Spontaneity' Live: A Powerful, Cyberspace PR Tool for California's Cash-Strapped Stem Cell Program?

Jeanne Loring, right, on a Scripps Research Institute
Facebook Live event last week.   Click here to go to the video
Stem cell researchers rarely have a chance to talk directly about their work to thousands of people at a time, including those in the farthest reaches of the globe.

But Jeanne Loring at the Scripps Research Institute did it last week. The California stem cell agency did it last month with Stanford researcher Gary Steinberg.  And it could well be that the technique that they used will emerge as a critical tool in the effort to stave off the death of the $3 billion, stem cell program. The end could come as early as 2020 if agency supporters fail that year to win voter approval of $5 billion more for the program.

The medium in use by Loring and the agency is something called "Facebook Live."  It is a live streaming service that allows viewers to ask questions and comment during a webcast conducted by researchers or stem cell research advocates.  It is considerably more compelling than pre-recorded videos, says Forbes magazine, which reports that presentations on Facebook Live are viewed for three times as long as a static video. The thinking is that the interactive connection and the initial live presentation -- with its informality, spontaneity and lack of predictability --  are more interesting than your usual, pre-recorded sessions.

Facebook Live has been around since 2016.  but has rolled out slowly. According to a Google search this past weekend, only a handful of stem cell-connected enterprises have taken advantage of it. (See a few below.)

Viral Boost for the California Stem Cell Message

In its presentation last month, the stem cell agency started off with about 80 viewers. By the time of this writing the number of views of the video had skyrocketed to more than 6,800. Loring's presentation now stands at 1,600. Her number grew by 100 as this article was being written. That viral strength likely surpasses many static offerings in print coverage or conventional electronic news, which are largely onetime shots.

(The agency, on the morning following this posting, filed an item on its blog, hailing the success of the program. The item said, "We had an amazing response from people during the event and in the days since then with some 6,750 people watching the video and almost 1,000 people reacting by posting a comment or sharing it with friends. It was one of the most successful things we have ever done on Facebook so it’s not surprising that we plan on doing many more Facebook Live ‘Ask the Expert’ events in the future.")

One might ask: Why is the impact of this single Facebook event important in terms of a stem cell ballot campaign?

In recent years, the stem cell agency has slipped out of the public eye and is hard-pressed to attract widespread media attention, a situation that is commonplace for most state government departments. The agency's "value proposition" is not well understood, say officials at the agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). 

To win approval of a proposed $5 billion bond measure in November 2020, however, CIRM will need strong support for its efforts, which have so far failed to deliver on the public's expectations that miraculous stem cell therapies are right around the corner. Those hopes were raised more than 13 years ago during the campaign that created the stem cell agency. Today its funds are running out. Cash for new awards is  expected to vanish by the end of next year.

Selling Hope to Half of California Families

Nonetheless, one of CIRM's notable products is hope -- not to mention 49 clinical trials that could lead to therapies for deadly diseases and widespread afflictions ranging from cancer to urinary incontinence.

In 2004, backers of the stem cell ballot measure declared that "medical problems that could benefit from stem cell research affect 128 million Americans including a child or adult in nearly half of all California families."

Reaching those California families is the key to unlocking their votes on behalf of the stem cell program. Facebook -- notably and coincidentally -- reaches nearly half of the Internet users  in California.

Using Facebook Live, or rival services, may well be the most effective way to connect with those important voters, especially with the help of the patient advocates who have been heavily involved with the agency. They bring the personal stories that resonate with voters and create an emotional appeal that is likely to trigger a favorable vote for more billions.

More services like Facebook Live will probably arise in the next 12 months. But Facebook has an advantage: the huge number of its users and an established Internet base that includes the patient advocate community and its organizations.

Writing on Forbes about business applications of Facebook Live, Steve Olenski said:
"Live video comes with a generous helping of transparency. Your influencer's voice will ring truer in a live conversation with fans than it does in a blog post. Viewers can engage with your product or service and the influencer in open conversation handled in real time.
"If you're looking for a compelling way to build trust with your audience, a live video is a great place to start."
Here are links to a few Facebook Live events involving stem cell-related matters: Difference between gene therapy and stem cell therapy, CAR T-Cell Therapy for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, Gene Therapy for Sickle Cell Disease.

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Monday, June 04, 2018

Viral Power: California Stem Cell Agency Hits 6K with Cyberspace Event on Stroke Therapy

Here is the Facebook Live event produced by CIRM. The number in the left hand 
corner is not static. It changes as the video is viewed by more persons. 

The $3 billion California stem cell agency last week mounted its first "Ask the Experts" session on Facebook, a look at a stroke therapy that left one patient crying with joy and  researchers "shocked" at the initial, beneficial results.

The Facebook Live event dealt with a stem cell treatment for the most common form of strokes, which claim 750,000 victims annually. It is the leading cause of disability in this country and third leading cause of death.

The webcast at noon last Thursday drew only about 80 viewers, the agency reported. But by late Monday, Facebook statistics showed that it had been viewed more than 6,400 times (more than 6,500 by this morning). The figures demonstrated the viral power of Internet communications in spreading the stem cell agency's message. Not to mention that it could help to stave off the agency's financial demise.

Featured on the webcast were researcher Gary Steinberg of Stanford University, whose work has been supported by $24 million from the agency, and Sonia Coontz of Long Beach, Ca., who said she wept after treatment in the clinical trial as she experienced immediate improvements. Steinberg said his team was "shocked" by the rapidity with which some patients improved from their ischemic strokes.

More than 172 comments were made during the session. Some simply sought more information. Others waxed euphoric. Lisa Bayha Deck, wrote on Facebook,
"I’m a patient of Dr. Steinberg’s and so thankful for his professionalism. He gave me my life back after four strokes and Moyamoya Disease."
The Facebook event was the latest effort by the agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), to educate the public about the work it is financing. However, the agency expects to run out of cash for new awards by the end of next year. It hopes that voters will provide it with $5 billion more in state bond funding via a ballot measure in November 2020. 

During the event, Lila Collins, a senior scientist at CIRM, provided an overview of key stem cell trials around the country. Kevin McCormack, senior director of communication at CIRM, moderated and produced the session.   

Following the event, McCormack said he thought it went well for an initial effort, although he said he was caught up in the mechanics of handling the session. On Monday, McCormack said, 
"We are going through the stats now and plan on putting together a roundup of views, comments, etc. We are also planning on posting a blog about the event – with answers to questions we didn’t get around to during the hour – so that should be coming in the next few days."
Prior to the webcast, the California Stem Cell Report asked McCormack to elaborate on the agency's Facebook effort. Here is a lightly edited version of that email interview. 

Q: Is this the first such event for CIRM? 
A: It’s the first Facebook Live event we are doing. A few years ago we did a similar series using Google Hangout. We featured a number of our experts in ALS and cancer, heart disease etc. but that wasn’t as easy to do technically. Facebook Live is simpler and because so many more people are on Facebook on a regular basis it will hopefully allow us to reach a wider audience. 

Q: Why is CIRM doing this event? 
A: It’s just part of our outreach efforts to let people know how stem cell research is progressing and the role that CIRM is playing in advancing that. We have been doing similar things for years, reporting back to the people of California on the work we are doing. We do it regularly with in-person patient advocate meetings, and with talks and presentations all around the state so we just wanted to take advantage of this technology to see if we could reach a wider audience.

Q: Will it be saved on the CIRM web site for future viewing?
A: One of the great features of Facebook Live is that it is automatically saved at the end and you can watch them on Facebook again and again. And yes, we’ll be putting links to them on our website but the easiest way to find them is to just go to our Facebook page.

Q: How did this originate?
A: We are always looking for new ways to reach out to a wider audience and let people know about CIRM’s help in advancing stem cell research. We looked at Facebook Live and thought it could be a great tool for us. We are already on Facebook anyway so this was a natural extension.

Q: And, finally, is there anything else you want to say about this event and its significance? 
A: Earlier this year we held a patient advocate event at UC Riverside. It was our first excursion to the Inland Empire and we had a great crowd, more than 100 people showed up on a weekday. But our goal is always to reach as many people as possible, and so we are always exploring new ways, new tools to do that. 
Much as we would like to, we don’t have the staff or budget to travel constantly around the state doing in-person meetings so this is a great way of achieving the same goal in a much more efficient manner. The people of California put a lot of faith in us when they approved $3 billion in funding for stem cell research. As we see that funding really help accelerate the field – we have 49 projects that we funded in clinical trials, we are seeing patients cured of life-threatening diseases – we want to share that news with as many people as possible.
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$115 Million Stock Offering by California State-backed Biotech Firm, Forty Seven, Inc.

A California company backed by the state's stem cell agency has announced that it is planning a $115 million initial public offering.

The firm -- Forty Seven, Inc., of Menlo Park -- filed a notice of its plans with the Security and Exchange Commission last Friday. The company has been awarded $15.2 million from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the stem cell agency is formally known.

The company was founded by renown stem cell researcher Irving Weissman of Stanford University, who serves on the Forty Seven board of directors and who has a 9.5 percent equity interest in the firm.

John Carroll of Endpoint News this morning wrote:
"Forty Seven has an interesting past. The 78-year-old Weissman was able to wrangle substantial support for his early research work on CD47 from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, even launching early human studies — a rare feat in academic circles. Weissman and former CIRM chief Alan Trounson enjoyed a tight relationship, which extended to Trounson’s appointment to the board of another startup that Weissman had helped found — StemCells, Inc. —shortly after his departure from the agency. And Forty Seven is still getting money from CIRM under its latest $19 million grant."
The company said in its SEC filing,
"We are eligible to receive up to $19.2 million in grants from CIRM and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, or LLS, of which $11.6 million has been received through March 31, 2018."
Weissman has received  more than $34 million from the agency, part of the $360 million going to Stanford projects from CIRM, whose 29-member governing board has included a member from Stanford since 2004. Stanford ranks as the No. 1 recipient of funds from the $3 billion California stem cell agency, which is slated to run out of cash for new awards by the end of next year. 

For more on Forty Seven, see here and here.
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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

California Stem Cell Agency and First-of-Kind Fetal Transplant for Fatal Affliction

Nichelle Obar and her daughter, Elianna, at three weeks. NYT photo by Bryan Meltz
A uniquely California medical treatment -- the first of its kind in the world -- won national attention today with reports that it could open the door to similar operations before birth for such diseases as sickle cell and hemophilia.

The therapy was developed by a UC San Francisco researcher who treated "the first patient enrolled in the world’s first clinical trial using stem cells transplanted prior to birth," according to a UCSF news release.

Fetal surgery was also invented in California. And the transplant was backed by $11 million from the state's stem cell agency, a $3 billion enterprise that is unique among states in its size and scope.

Missing from the news, however, was any mention of the agency's multimillion-dollar contribution -- a not insignificant matter since the agency is facing its own financial demise in less than two years. The agency hopes voters will keep it alive and approve $5 billion more for stem cell research in 2020. The agency, however, is laboring under a lack of public awareness for its "value proposition." (See here and here.)

The research is being conducted by Tippi MacKenzie, a pediatric and fetal surgeon who has received a total of nearly $15 million from the agency. Her employer, UC San Francisco, has received $169 million in 81 awards.  Various deans of its medical school have also served on the agency's governing board since the inception of the agency, known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).  

A spokeswoman for UCSF said omission of the CIRM funding in its news release was not intentional. 

The agency was not mentioned also in a lengthy article on MacKenzie's research in the New York Times this morning. The piece was displayed on the front page of the weekly Science section of the Times, a prestigious position available only 52 times a year.

MacKenzie's work involved a family from Hawaii and their child, who was treated in utero for a nearly always fatal affliction. 

In the article by Denise Grady, the Times reported, 
"Elianna, born Feb. 1 with a robust cry and a cap of gleaming black hair, has a genetic disease that usually kills a fetus before birth. The condition, alpha thalassemia major, leaves red blood cells unable to carry oxygen around the body, causing severe anemia, heart failure and brain damage.
"The transfusions in the womb kept her alive, but only treated her illness. The bone-marrow transplant has the potential to cure it. Whether it will succeed is still too soon to tell.
"Elianna and her mother, Nichelle Obar, were the first patients in an experiment that pushes the limits of fetal therapy, a field already known for its daring."
The Times continued, 
"If the treatment works, it could open the door to using bone-marrow transplants before birth to cure not just Elianna’s blood disease but also sickle cell anemia, hemophilia and other hereditary disorders, some so severe that the prenatal diagnosis may lead parents to end the pregnancy.
"Bone marrow is considered a potential cure because it teems with stem cells, which can create replacements for cells that are missing or defective as a result of genetic flaws."
Asked for comment by the California Stem Cell Report, Maria Millan, president of CIRM and a pediatric surgeon, said in an email, 
“The New York Times picture of Nichelle Obar with her 3 week old daughter Elianna shows us something that’s hard to capture in a billion words.(See photo above.)  Elianna is afflicted with alpha thalassemia major, a fatal condition that usually ends up in death before birth.
"It is extremely gratifying to know that CIRM has been instrumental in supporting Dr. McKenzie’s research to develop a treatment for this severe unmet medical need. Dr. McKenzie’s approach combines surgical advances that allow her to treat the baby while still in the mother’s womb; transplantation with the mother’s blood stem cells provides healthy blood cells that the baby needs to survive. 
"We have supported Dr. McKenzie’s research from the early years when she was a new faculty working out the basic science and immunology in the laboratory and we helped her to develop her clinical plan. Most recently, we have partnered with Dr. McKenzie to bring this research to clinical trials. To see Ms. Obar take their child home from the hospital is encouraging. We know that this is just the beginning. This is what the people of California voted for when they approved Proposition 71. They depend on us to boldly partner with Dr. McKenzie to translate the promise of stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs."
The phase one clinical trial, which is aimed primarily at safety, is scheduled to release its preliminary results by February 2022 and hopes to treat another nine patients. The treatment would then face another two phases of clinical trials for efficacy. 

As for the baby, her mother told the Times, 
“Elianna’s doing great. I’m not disappointed at all. If it works, great. If it didn’t, we’re O.K. with it. We’ll celebrate all the little accomplishments. I’m glad we did it."
Here is a UCSF video on the trial.
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