Friday, October 12, 2018


Based on inaccurate figures on the stem cell agency web site, the NIH/CIRM sickle cell item on Oct. 9,2018, incorrectly reported that the agency had committed more than $200 million to sickle cell research. The correct amount is $38.8 million. CIRM said that the error was created by a computer glitch and that it has corrected the figures on its site. The item has also been corrected.  Sphere: Related Content

Go-ahead Given on $144 Million California Stem Cell Research Budget for Next Year

The California stem cell agency is moving ahead with a proposed $144 million research budget for the coming year, slightly below the $148 million expected to be handed out this year.

However, the award budget for 2019 is well below the $300 million in awards that were made in some past years.

The 2019 plan yesterday cleared the Science Committee of governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known. It is expected to be approved by the full board at a meeting next Thursday.

The committee also juggled some financing and all but assured that six highly rated applications that were stalled will now receive approval, also probably next Thursday.

You can read more about the 2019 research budget here and the stalled awards here.  Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Stalled California Stem Cell Projects Now Set for Financing: Bladder Cancer, Autism, Deafness, Blindess Among the Targets

Key directors of the California stem cell agency this afternoon moved to juggle some cash and fund six research proposals ranging from bladder cancer to autism, which had been stalled since July.

The action by the directors' Science Subcommittee came only hours after the affected researchers and patients appealed to another board group to approve the funding. It was stalled because of budgetary issues.

Those financial issues came up again before the Science Committee which approved a workaround on the $7.9 million needed to approve the research. The action may receive final approval by the full board next Thursday.

You can read more here about the session earlier in the day.   Sphere: Related Content

Stem Cell Scientists' Hopes for Research Cash Survive Another Round in California

(Late News Break: It looks like the six applications in the story below are now headed for approval, perhaps as early as next Thursday. See this story.)

Six stem cell research proposals targeting bladder cancer, autism, liver failure and more escaped rejection today as the $3 billion California stem cell agency struggles with its finances.

The agency expects to run out of cash for new awards by the end of next year. In 2019, it is considering awarding only $144 million compared to $300 million in some years. "We are coming to the end," said CIRM board member Oswald Steward, director of the Reeve, Irvine Research Center at UC Irvine, in July.

The applications had already been held over from July when the agency's directors were presented with a $19 million list of applications approved by its out-of-state reviewers in an earlier closed-door session.

However, the round was budgeted for only $10 million by the governing board of the agency, known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

Ten letters of support were filed on behalf of five rejected awards, whose scores ranged from 90 to 87. The agency in July approved three awards with scores of 85.

Some of the researchers and supporters appeared before the board today. Philip Beachy of Stanford, who is seeking $1.4 million for bladder cancer research, said his team was seeking a long term cure for bladder, which has a tendency to recur and is the most expensive cancer to treat per patient.

Other researchers and patients also made a direct appeal to CIRM directors, and on an 11-0 vote, the board kept the applications alive during a telephonic meeting.

Here is a link to the scores and review summaries in this round. Here is the presentation by staff on its recommendations.

Here is a list of letters supporting applications in this round and their authors:
Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Dollars Dribbling Away: California Stem Cell Scientists Appeal for More Research Cash

When the cash spigot starts to dry up, the appeals stack up.

Such is the case this week at the now $144 million California stem cell agency, which has been mostly referred to as a $3 billion enterprise. But the cash is dribbling away quickly. And the agency is sticking to its budget in a way that did not happen eight years ago.

The latest evidence comes on the agenda for Thursday's meeting of directors of the agency, known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine or CIRM. The agenda contains 10 letters appealing to the directors to approve awards for various research projects.

These are projects that have been recommended for funding by the agency's scientific reviewers. However, the reviewers did not have the constraints of meeting the agency's budget for this round of awards.

Only $865,282 is available under the agency's budget. The five applications in question total close to $7 million.

So letters appealing for the cash have been directed to the agency's board.
Here are a couple of samples from the letters.

Phil Beachy, Stanford photo
This one is from Philip Beachy of Stanford University, whose application (DISC2-11105), Beachy wrote, was scored at 90 out of 100 by reviewers. He is seeking $1.4 million for work related to bladder cancer.
"In July we were surprised to learn that our application was not selected for funding, whereas four proposals ranked below ours were funded. We have subsequently learned that an important component of the funding decision made by the ICOC (the CIRM board) is comments from scientists and patient advocates. We wish to have the opportunity to present our comments at the October 11 ICOC meeting, at which our proposal will be considered. Four scientists involved in this proposal will be attending the meeting, including myself (Philip Beachy, Ph.D.), Kyle Loh, Ph.D., Lay Teng Ang, Ph.D., and Joe Liao M.D., Ph.D.)." 
They also enlisted assistance from a patient advocate, Don Reed of Fremont, who is a regular at CIRM board meetings. He wrote,
"Is there a path to defeating the cancer and restoring the bladder’s natural function? Today I had lunch with two people, Drs. Lay Teng Ang and Kyle Loh, who (along with Drs. Philip Beachy and Joe Liao) may have the answer to this particular cancer. Their goal is to use embryonic stem cells to grow a healthy new lining of the bladder....But they need a grant from the California stem cell agency to do it."
Robert Rainey, USC photo
Here is an excerpt from another letter. This one was written by Robert Rainey, the primary research associate involved in an application (DISC2-11183) that seeks $833,282 to create a screen to protect against hearing loss caused by chemotherapy.  The proposal by Neil Segil, co-director of the USC Hearing and Communications Neuroscience Training Program, received a score of 87 from reviewers.

Rainey, who is profoundly deaf, wrote,
"In the entire history of CIRM, only three hearing loss-related grants have been awarded. This is not an oversight of CIRM, but rather a reflection of the paucity of experimental approaches for studying problems related to hearing loss in humans. Our approach can now overcome these problems, and the work described in this proposal will allow us to simultaneously improve the efficiency of our direct-reprogramming technique from human iPSCs, while allowing us to immediately begin pilot testing small libraries of FDA-approved drugs for hair cell-protective qualities during cancer treatment."
(Rainey's letter is in the same file as Segil's.)
Segil wrote,
"Talk about adding insult to injury! Imagine that you are the parent of a 4 year old child who has just been diagnosed with a deadly pediatric cancer. You are told that, in spite of this horrible diagnosis, a cure is possible, with a good chance of success. However, the cure has an extremely common side-effect, namely that your child will likely go deaf as a result of the chemotherapy. In fact, more than 60% of kids treated for pediatric cancer end up profoundly deaf."
Neither Segil's or Beachy's applications will be funded if the board sticks with its budget and abides by staff recommendations, which it has usually done in recent years.

You can find on the meeting agenda all the appeal letters, summaries of the application reviews and CIRM's rationale for the last award in this roundThe transcript from the July board meeting also carries considerable discussion related to the financial pressures generated in this round along with how the initial decisions were made. Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Major Sickle Cell Surge: Feds and California Collaborate on Cell Therapies for the Disease

In August, the stem cell agency staged a live event on Facebook dealing  with 
the current state of sickle cell research. It has since received  more than 2,200
 page views. Here is a link to the event, which featured  Don Kohn of  UCLA  and 
Mark Walters of UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. 

California's stem cell agency has embarked on what it calls a "remarkable" collaboration with the federal government aimed at developing cell-based and gene-based therapies for sickle cell disease, which affects 100,000 persons nationwide.

The partnership marks the first time that the state agency has partnered directly with the National Institutes of Health(NIH), which spend $100 million a year on sickle cell research. 

The NIH has committed an additional $7 million to jump start its new effort, dubbed "The Cure Sickle Cell Initiative."   The California stem cell agency has already pumped nearly $39 million into sickle cell research. 

The affliction is caused by a genetic defect that deprives the body of oxygen, "wreaks havoc on the body, damaging organs, causing severe pain, and potentially leading to premature death," says the NIH. 

In the agreement (see below) with California's $3 billion stem cell agency, the NIH said that the agency is "a recognized leader in the development and funding of clinical trials focused on cell-based therapies and is now working to accelerate support for clinical stage candidate treatments that demonstrate scientific excellence."

Millan told directors in in June that the arrangement amounted to a "quite remarkable" recognition of CIRM's capabilities. She said the NIH "made a decision that they needed to partner with us in order to have the best shot at accomplishing what they want to do with this 'cure sickle cell initiative.'"

On Thursday, directors of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known, will receive a more complete briefing about the full range of CIRM's involvement.

CIRM will handle the funding processes for the applications for the 
late stage research program, making funding decisions in as little as 85 days. The agency's work will include scientific peer review, contracting and post-award management, according to CIRM documents. (The documents are part of the presentation that can be found here.)

Millan said that the NIH has recognized the agency's value in terms of accelerating development therapies, building late development research and translating basic research into clinical use. 

The agency said it will provide funding on approved awards for work done in California, according to CIRM rules. It will have the ability, in consultation with the NIH,  to suspend or terminate research if milestones are missed, including taking back unused funds. Kevin McCormack, a spokesman for the agency, said that it will be compensated by the NIH for additional work that it has to perform but that details are yet to be worked out.. 

"Currently, the only cure for sickle cell disease is a bone marrow transplant, a procedure in which a sick patient receives bone marrow from a healthy, genetically-compatible sibling donor. However, transplants are too risky for many adults, and only about 18 percent of children with sickle cell disease have a healthy, matched sibling donor.
"The Cure Sickle Cell Initiative seeks to develop cures for a far broader group of individuals with the disease, and it is initially focusing on gene therapies that modify the patient’s own hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), which make red and other blood cells. These modified HSCs can then be given back to the patient via a bone marrow transplant, making a cure available to more patients who lack a matched donor."
Below is a CIRM video on sickle cell disease and a copy of the agreement between the stem cell agency and the NIH. 

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this item incorrectly reported that the agency had committed more than $200 million to sickle cell research, based on inaccurate figures on the CIRM web site. The correct amount is $38,8 million. CIRM said the error was created by a computer glitch and that it has corrected the figures on its site.)
Sphere: Related Content

Monday, October 08, 2018

The Final $144 Million and the California Stem Cell Agency's Future

The Golden State's stem cell research program is down to its last $144 million after nearly 14 years of financing searches for therapies for everything ranging from diabetes to bubble baby syndrome. 

Funded with $3 billion in November 2004, California's stem cell agency has yet to back a therapy that is widely available to the public. Its directors are scheduled to meet on Wednesday to approve plans for what could be the last year for new awards. 

Known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the agency was created by voters through a ballot initiative. The measure provided $3 billion in bond support but no additional cash beyond that. 

The agency is pinning its hopes for survival on a yet-to-be-written $5 billion bond measure for the November 2020. It is attempting privately to raise $200 million to bridge the gap between the end of 2019 and the election. 

On Thursday, CIRM's 2019 research award budget is slated to come before the Science Committee of its board of directors. The public can participate in the meeting via the Internet and at a number of locations throughout the state. More information about access can be found on the agenda. 

The agency's staff has proposed $123 million in awards for clinical trials during 2019 with another $20 million going for translational research, which is an effort to take basic research and translate it into a clinical application. An additional $600,000 is slated for "educational" awards. 

CIRM documents said there were "insufficient" funds to finance additional basic research. The agency also aims to limit its clinical/translational awards to research that has been previously backed by the agency.

By the end of this year, CIRM expects to have made $2.6 billion in awards. The remainder of the $3 billion has gone or will have gone for administrative expenses, which will continue for a few years as multi-year awards wind down. 

The agency may recover an estimated $30 million in 2019 from research that does not pan out, making those possible funds available for awards in 2020. 

Currently, CIRM is backing 49 clinical trials, the last stage before a therapy is certified for widespread use. But there is no guarantee that any of those trials will generate a treatment prior to the November 2020 election. 

Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

State of Stem Cells: Three-day Conference Opens Today, Includes Japanese Research, Affordability and More

A three-day session to kick around business and scientific developments involving genes and stem cells begins today in La Jolla with live Internet video casts of many of the presentations and panels.

The state of Japanese research, therapies for stroke, commercialization pathways, affordability and much, much more are available. Some samples and times for today for the Cell and Gene Meeting on The Mesa:

7:15am – 8:45am -- Learning Theater, Readiness strategies for cell therapy commercial manufacturing workshop

7:20am – 8:00am -- Ballroom 2, Panel, Session 1: U.S.-based Clinical Programs

7:50am – 8:05am -- Magnolia Room, Development of an “off the shelf” cell therapy for ischemic stroke and other indications under the regenerative medicine regulatory framework in Japan
Speaker: Gil Van Bokkelen, Ph.D., Chairman and CEO, Athersys

1:15pm – 2:15pm -- Ballroom 1, Panel, Navigating acceptance, uptake and affordability across the life cycle 

The full agenda can be found here. The webcasts are available here.  Webcasts can be found by room location. 
Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Possible Federal Restrictions on Stem Cell Research and the Multi-Billion Dollar California Angle

The recent federal crackdown on the use of fetal tissue in scientific research could well be a harbinger of an effort to revive restrictions on the use of human embryonic stem cells, placing a roadblock in the way of creation of therapies to treat often deadly afflictions that affect millions of Americans.

And it could have an impact on the fate of California's $3 billion stem cell program, which expects to run out of money for new awards by the end of next year.

A leader of the pro-life movement signalled today that anti-abortion groups' next target is likely to be the National Institutes of Health(NIH), which provide billions of dollars in research funding, including use of embryonic stem cells (hESC).

Writing on The Hill web site, Tom McClusky, president of March for Life Action, denounced current federal research practices. His opinion piece was headlined.
"Trump's move on unethical fetal tissue experimentation isn't enough"
McClusky wrote,
"The head of NIH, Frances Collins, has been a long-time supporter of unethical research and has a reputation of disinterest for the countless lives lost as long as it produces results.
"His track record not only includes support for fetal tissue research but also human-embryonic stem cell experimentation, human-animal chimeras and even human cloning. Of the many great nominations made by President Trump, Frances Collins sticks out as a counter to his stated pro-life agenda."
This is a bit of deja vu for the California stem cell agency, whose $3 billion program was approved by voters in 2004. The impetus for creation of the agency, known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), was generated by then President Bush's restrictions on federal funding for hESC research. State cash, however, was not similarly restricted.

Trump has not yet revived Bush's restrictions, but the issue seems to be increasing in importance for Trump's evangelical political base and at least 102 congressmen. The opposition is based on the belief that using human embryonic stem cells for research is tantamount to murder.

The stem cell agency is hoping that California voters will extend its life in November 2020 by approving $5 billion more for the research. However, the agency has not delivered on 2004 expectations that stem therapies were right around the corner. The agency has yet to finance a therapy that is widely available.

Overcoming voter disenchantment could be difficult. But a Trump crackdown could energize stem cell supporters much as Bush's did in 2004. Scientists, patient advocate groups, venture capitalists and others banded together to win approval of the ballot initiative that created the state stem cell program, using Bush as a handy villain in the argument for more stem cell research.

Ironically, the article by the pro-life group came almost exactly one year after the then president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research,  Hans Clever, wrote on the Stat website that fetal tissue is absolutely necessary to produce cures and therapies. He said,
"The development of vaccines against polio, rubella, measles, chickenpox, adenovirus, rabies, and treatments for debilitating diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, cystic fibrosis, and hemophilia all involved fetal tissue."
"Fetal tissue has been essential in research used to develop therapies that have saved millions of lives, and it continues to be necessary for the future of medicine."
Sphere: Related Content