Thursday, September 08, 2011

Calimmune, the Berlin Patient and $20 Million from California Stem Cell Agency

UCLA Photo
An obscure Arizona company that is sharing in a $20 million HIV/AIDS research grant from the California stem cell agency has posted more details on the Internet about its origins and plans, which include a tie to the famous Berlin Patient.

The firm, Calimmune, Inc., disclosed that its chairman is David Baltimore, former president of Caltech, Nobel Laureate and former member of the stem cell agency's governing board. One of Calimmune's advisors is the German physician, Gero Hutter, who successfully treated the Berlin Patient, Timothy Ray Brown, the only person in the world who has been cured of HIV and AIDs and who now lives in San Francisco.

 In 2009, CIRM's governing board awarded a $20 million disease team grant to UCLA researcher Irvin Chen and Geoff Symonds, an Australian who is chief scientific officer of Calimmune of Tucson, Ariz. Earlier information on the Internet reported that Chen and Baltimore were co-founders of Calimmune.

Baltimore was not on the CIRM governing board at the time the grant was awarded. He resigned June 6, 2007.

Calimmune said on its website that its "singular purpose" is to bring "a one-time, cost effective therapy to the HIV community." According to the website, the firm was established "to develop innovative cell-based therapies for HIV" based on work from Chen's and Baltimore's labs.

Delaware state records show that Calimmune was incorporated in that state in 2006 although the company's website reports that it was founded in 2007. We have queried the company concerning the discrepancy.

Calimmune said it is seeking "to provide HIV-positive patients with a similar type of genetic resistance to HIV that occurs naturally in 1% of the European population.  By treating a patient's own stem cells and T cells (cells specifically targeted by HIV), we aim to protect patients from the ravages of AIDS and eliminate the need for daily medication." Essentially, that would replicate the case of the Berlin Patient.

The company appears to have strong ties to Johnson&Johnson, or at least its executives have had in the past. Symonds worked in Australia for the firm from 1992 to 2009. Calimmune's chief financial officer, Bhavin Raval, was finance director for J&J Research in Australia from 2002 to 2009. Louis Breton, CEO of Calimmune, told the California Stem Cell Report in 2009 that none of the firm's funding originated with Johnson&Johnson.

Breton has not responded to queries from the California Stem Cell Report since 2009 including queries during the past week. The unanswered questions involve the number of its employees, whether the firm has any business beyond the CIRM grant activities and the address of the location where the CIRM work is actually performed. CIRM cannot fund work that is performed out-of-state.

Melissa King, executive director of the CIRM governing board, told the California Stem Cell Report that the firm "conducts its laboratory research at leased lab space on UCLA's campus." It also has laboratories in Australia, according to documents on the Internet. King said Calimmune's "corporate address" is on Wilshire Boulevard near UCLA. The Wilshire address appears to be only an address for service of process, according to California state records. Calimmune's Tucson address is the location of an investment firm, based on a visit by the California Stem Cell Report to the location last fall. We were told at the time that Calimmune rents space in the office.

In 2009, CIRM's grant reviewers scored the Chen-Symonds application at 79. They had high praise for the research team, but one reviewer expressed reservations. The summary of reviewer comments said,
"….the resources and investigators are outstanding and the team is superb, both scientifically and in therapy development. The Disease Team comprises a collaboration between two complementary groups, one academic and one corporate. Each brings unique expertise to the project, with the academic group providing scientific know-how and proof of concept and the corporate group providing expertise in biologics development and commercialization. The team leaders are accomplished, highly productive investigators with a demonstrated track record in the field of HIV research, gene therapy, and/or clinical drug development. Key members of this team made the initial scientific observations leading to their hypothesis and demonstrated proof of concept in tissue culture and relevant models....The principal investigator has built up a rich and well-considered network of collaborations and resources and there is no doubt that the environment will be sufficient for this task."
CIRM also said,
"Another reviewer expressed the view that although the treatment will likely find a significant niche, the complexity, cost and potential toxicity of the approach will likely limit its use, even if successful."
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