Friday, April 22, 2016

California Stem Cell Research and a Super Doc: Inside a $4.4 Million Windpipe Grant at UC Davis

Paolo Macchiarini, Guardian photo 
Headlines around the world once hailed Paolo Macchiarini as a super-surgeon, a stem cell trailblazer who was responsible for the ground-breaking, first-ever stem cell-based trachea transplant.

It was good enough work, indeed, to be cited in 2013 as a starting point in a pitch by a team from the University of California, Davis, for $13 million from the $3 billion California stem cell agency. 

In their application, scientists Peter Balafsky and Alice Tarantal said they would build on the "first-in-human surgical successes with (the) stem cell-based tissue engineered airway implants" pioneered by Macchiarini

Last month, Macchiarini was fired from the prestigious Swedish Karolinska Institute. Six of eight of his patients have died. The institute said,
 "He has acted in a way that has had very tragic consequences for the people affected and their families."
The controversy has stirred up the international stem cell community with blog postings and sharp accusations. And in January, Vanity Fair carried an article that reported Macchiarini falsely claimed he was part of a “highly classified group of doctors from around the world who cater to the world’s VIPs,”including Pope Francis, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Emperor Akihito of Japan and President Obama.

The Italian doctor has denied the charges that led to his dismissal in Sweden and has been working in Russia.

The Macchiarini saga and its California connections offer a peek into the global nature of stem cell research and how scientists must rely on the integrity of others thousands of miles away --  as well as  the sometimes agonizingly slow search for cures. It also provides a deeper look at how the California stem cell agency goes about handing out money.

The California Stem Cell Report queried both Balafsky and Tarantal about their grant along with the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the stem cell agency is formally known.  

Kevin McCormack, senior director of communications, replied for CIRM. Asked whether the agency looked into the research by Belafsky as a result of the questions raised about Macchiarini, McCormack said,
"As with all the research we fund we have been carefully following the progress of Professor Belafsky’s project ensuring it continues to meet our rules and regulations."
Peter Belafsky, UCD photo
Belafsky, professor and director of the Voice and Swallowing Center at UC Davis, and Tarantal, professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Department of Cell Biology and Human Anatomy, said Macchiarini is not involved in the CIRM project. The point was stressed in boldface letters in their email response:
"Dr. Macchiarini has had no involvement in this project on any level, in any way, at any time."
(For the full text of the response, see here.)

Macchiarini was not always isolated from UC Davis and Belafsky. Macchiarini served on Belafsky's international team in 2010 when the Belafsky group performed the second-ever larynx transplant. The operation restored the voice of a Modesto, Ca., woman who had been unable to speak for a decade. 

UC Davis issued a press release saying Macchiarini served as an advisor and assisted in the surgery. The statement also said that Martin Birchall of the United Kingdom, a co-leader with Macchiarini on his ground-breaking 2008 transplant surgery, served as a scientific advisor and assisted with the California larynx surgery.

Birchall was identified as a collaborator on the CIRM grant that was approved for Belafsky and Tarantal.  A press release from University College London said that the work in Davis would serve as a "fundamental under-pinning" for two clinical trials in the United Kingdom.

Birchall received a $19,800 planning grant in 2011 to prepare an application for research that appears to be aligned with the current work at UC Davis. Birchall was listed by CIRM at the time as a researcher at the California campus.

Belafsky and Tarantal told the California Stem Cell Report that Birchall is no longer involved with their work. They said,
"Dr. Birchall was involved in our project at the onset, but due to the logistical difficulties of intercontinental collaboration, is not currently an active participant."
The Belafsky/Tarantal application originally sought $13.3 million. It was trimmed to $4.4 million on the recommendation of the agency's then president, Alan Trounson, who apparently agreed with reviewers that the initial scope and budget were high, but still recommended funding.

The application was given a score of 70 on a scale of 100 by agency's blue-ribbon scientific reviewers, all of whom came from out-of-state. As is their usual practice, the reviewers met behind closed doors and voted on the application. The action then went to the CIRM governing board, which has almost never rejected a favorable decision by its reviewers, whose economic and professional interests are not disclosed publicly.

The score of 70 placed the proposal just below the cutoff line of 75 for routine approval by the board, but the reviewers did not nix application.

The agency publishes a summary of reviewer comments, which does not identify applicants or their collaborators. The summary on the UC Davis application said the research "presents a unique opportunity to bring a world-leading regenerative medicine technology to California." The summary additionally said, without elaboration, "It was also noted that this project is unlikely to be funded by other agencies."

The summary said,
"Reviewers agreed that having already treated human patients (such as those involved with Macchiarini) using this approach is strong proof of concept(for Belafsky's work)."
Reviewers noted that "manufacturing and testing methods were not well described" but "the UK-based collaborators (Barchall and his group) will clearly play an important role in helping to establish the manufacturing process."

The summary added,

"Reviewers were unclear on the relationship between the California- and UK-based team members and whether the relationship and efforts were collaborative or duplicative."
Belafsky appeared before CIRM directors in Los Angeles in December 2013 to ask them to approve his research, saying good treatments for "complex breathing and swallowing problems" do not exist. With little debate, the board voted 8-0 to approve the award.

CIRM's McCormack said that the agency has paid out $3.3 million of the $4.4 million grant. He said, 
"Dr. Macchiarini has never been a part of the UC Davis project or any work that CIRM has funded.... The primary aim of the CIRM project is to determine the scientific reproducibility of research results from previously published studies regarding tissue-engineering for severe airway stenosis. The results are pending."

Belafsky said in his email,
"The translation of high-risk, complex innovation from the laboratory to suffering patient is not an easy road. The controversy surrounding Macchiarini has resulted in the redoubling of our efforts to explore the science behind what saves lives and what does not. This step is essential in order to lay a firm, evidence-based foundation upon which to build.
"Since your primary focus relates to the work of Macchiarini, I would like to re-emphasize that our project is fundamentally different. Our research is focusing on decellularized trachea only, whereas he has utilized synthetic grafts."
Belafsky continued,
"This is a work in progress, and we do not yet have the data to answer all the questions raised by the scientific community. We may apply to CIRM for funds to continue our research, but will not consider human implantation until we are satisfied that the science is sound and the technology is safe."
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