Tuesday, March 03, 2015

$28 Million California Search for HIV/AIDS Stem Cell Cure Advancing to Clinical Trial

The California stem cell agency today announced that one of its multimillion dollar efforts to come up with a cure for HIV/AIDS is moving into the first stage of clinical trials involving human beings.

The effort includes the City of Hope in Duarte, Ca., the University of Southern California and Sangamo BioSciences, Inc., of Richmond, Ca.

John Zaia
City of Hope photo 
The $3 billion agency is pumping $5.6 million into the clinical trial. Overall, the agency has awarded the lead scientist in the project, John Zaia of the City of Hope, $28.2 million for work involving HIV/AIDS. 

The agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), said the FDA had approved the initial trial to determine the safety of the treatment.

CIRM’s press release said that the plan is to “take blood stem cells from HIV infected individuals, then treat them with zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs), a kind of molecular scissors, to disrupt the CCR5 gene in those cells. The hope is that this will make those stem cells, and their progeny, resistant to HIV. The modified cells will then be reintroduced into the patient with the hope that they will create a new, AIDS-resistant immune system.”

The effort is intended to replicate what occurred with the “Berlin Patient,” a man who has apparently been cured of AIDS as the result of a mutation.

Jeff Sheehy, a longtime CIRM board member and HIV/AIDS advocate, said in the press release,
“This trial is enrolling HIV patients whose immune cells have not returned to normal levels even after success in suppressing the virus with antiretroviral therapy, and even if it doesn’t lead to a cure it could still result in a therapy that offers clinical benefit to patients at risk for opportunistic infections.”

Zaia said,
‘While we have a number of drugs that are effective in holding HIV at bay, we have nothing that cures it. In addition, for many patients, these medications come with significant long-term problems so there is a real need for a therapy that can help eradicate the virus from a patient completely. That is where our work is focused.”  
The agency is also funding a clinical trial involving an alternative approach to HIV/AIDS. That effort includes UCLA and an Arizona company, Calimmune, Inc., co-founded by a former member of the CIRM governing board, David Baltimore. Calimmune also has an address near UCLA in Los Angeles.

CIRM said,
“Calimmune, an HIV gene medicines company focused on developing cell-based therapies for HIV, began its human clinical trial in July 2013 and has already shown that the first group of patients treated did well enough for the company to start treating a second group more intensively.” 
Jonathan Thomas, chairman of the CIRM board, said,
“This kind of work is too important to just try one method at a time and sit back and wait to see if it is effective.”
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