Thursday, January 14, 2016

Plug Pulled on Cancer Clinical Trial: Sudden End for $18 Million Push by California Stem Cell Agency

Caladrius stock price plummets -- Google graphic
California’s ambitious, $18 million effort to develop -- in relatively short order -- a stem cell therapy for a deadly form of skin cancer collapsed abruptly last week, apparently the victim of “excessively long development timelines.”

Caladrius Biosciences, Inc., the recipient of the California funding, terminated the late stage clinical trial, declaring that other treatments have outpaced its approach and that it is no longer “optimally leverage(d).”

The award last May marked a big advance for California’s $3 billion stem cell research program. It was the first phase three clinical trial for the agency, known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine(CIRM).  A phase three clinical trial is the last step needed before federal approval for widespread use of a treatment. The award came as the agency is entering what could be the last years of its life and is pushing hard to fulfill the promises of the 2004 ballot initiative campaign that led to its creation.

CIRM, which is based in Oakland, Ca., is scheduled to run out of cash for new awards in 2020. The agency expects to intensify its efforts this year at developing a plan to replace the state bonds that it has used since 2004.

The $18 million award to Caladrius was made last spring with considerable ballyhoo. Jonathan Thomas, chairman of the agency’s governing board, said at the time that the  treatment had “the greatest chance of success for the people of California that we have funded.”

After the Caladrius announcement, Randy Mills, president of the agency, said in a news release,

“Ultimately this program suffered from the excessively long development timelines common in cell therapy, a fact that further underscores the need for CIRM to work hard to create faster development pathways as called for in our new strategic plan.”

CIRM’s statement also said,

“Only $3 million of the $17.7 million awarded by our governing board had been distributed to Caladrius, which matched that money with $3 million of its own. CIRM will now make the unused $14.7 million portion available to other applicants for investment into projects that accelerate stem cell therapies to patients with unmet medical needs.”

In a document filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Caladrius, formerly known as NeoStem, said the end of the trial would lead to layoffs for about 40 employees in Irvine, Ca., the home of what once was California Stem Cell, Inc. That firm was acquired by Caladrius in 2014 for $124 million. It  was founded by Hans Kierstead of UC Irvine, who is senior vice president for research and chief science officer of Caladrius.

The company’s SEC filing said,

“The treatment paradigm in metastatic melanoma was transformed during the course of 2015 by the accelerating adoption of multiple immune checkpoint inhibitors used as monotherapy and in combination treatments. These new drugs have significantly improved outcomes in metastatic melanoma and therefore have altered the opportunity for a monotherapy such as CLBS20 in a landscape that is quickly converting to combination therapies. Therefore, we have concluded that, as designed, our current program in metastatic melanoma will not optimally leverage this asset..."

Cancellation of the phase three trial led to a sharp drop in Caladrius’ stock price. It closed at $1.08 on Jan. 6, the day prior to the announcement. Today, the stock closed at 65 cents. The 52 week high for the stock was $4.26 and the low 40 cents. The chair of Caladrius, Robin Smith, resigned on Dec. 23.

California’s stem cell agency is now participating in only one phase three trial, which is not yet recruiting patients. That effort involves a brain tumor program with ImmunoCellular of Calabasas, Ca. The agency is currently participating in a total of  15 clinical trials at various stages.

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