Tuesday, October 16, 2018

California Stem Cell Agency's Latest Awards: Total of $17 Million for Cancer, Blindness, HIV

The California stem cell agency is set this Thursday to award $3.8 million for research aimed at development of a major improvement in treatment for HIV and another $13.5 million to deal with leukemia and problems that can lead to blindness. 

The proposals have already been approved by the $3 billion agency's reviewers in a closed door session. The governing board of the agency is expected to ratify those decisions at a public meeting on Thursday. 

Xiuli Wang, COH photo
The HIV award is scheduled to go to Xiuli Wang of the City of Hope in the Los Angeles area for work leading to a clinical trial. Wang told the board in a letter, 
"(O)ur approach has the potential to be a single delivery therapy that releases patients from the ART (antiviral drug therapy) regime for the rest of their lives. This strategy could also alleviate the cumulative financial burden that represents life-long medication."
In response to a query from the California Stem Cell Report, Jeff Sheehy, an HIV patient advocate on the CIRM board, said that the proposal (CLIN1-11223) would use a vaccine to "to stimulate one's immune system to proliferate and maintain the engineered anti HIV CAR T cells that are the therapy.
"What makes this especially exciting is that 'the approach of using the CMV vaccine to expand CMV specific T-cells may eliminate the current use of preconditioning chemotherapy that is widely adopted for T cell therapies.'  In short, if successful, this approach would not only give people with HIV the ability to control the virus long term with needing antiretroviral therapy but could also make CAR T therapies in general more efficient and effective as well as safer, plus lead to other uses of CAR T technology."
Theodore Leng, Stanford photo
Karin Gaensler, UCSF photo
Karin Gaensler of UC San Francisco is slated to receive $4.2 million to develop a vaccine that will attack residual leukemia cells.   (Application number TRAN1-11259)

Theodore Leng of Stanford is scheduled to be awarded $4.2 million to develop a "purified allogeneic cell therapy product (called NeuBrightfor treatment of dry age-related macular degeneration."  (Application number TRAN1-11300)

The board is also expected to approve $5.1 million for an "autologous regenerative cell  therapy for blindness." The identity of that investigator has not yet been released by the stem cell agency. (Application number TRAN1-11265)

Sphere: Related Content

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

Monday, October 01, 2018

The Reality of Stem Cell Research vs. Results: A Scientist/Blogger Speaks Out on California's Efforts

A researcher writing on the web site of Science Translational Medicine weighed in last week on California's $3 billion stem cell agency, raising questions about its progress, hype and the fate of the nearly 14-year-old effort. 

In an item Sept. 28 on the blog "In The Pipeline," Derek Lowe said, 
"It’s not like the CIRM money has all been wasted, of course. There’s been a lot of basic research done, and there certainly has been a lot that needed to be done. The amount of brush to be cleared in human developmental cell biology is just monumental. A quick thought the way that all of your body, all the bodies of every human being, comes each from their own single cell will make that clear. If you want stem cell therapies to regenerate organs – as who doesn’t – then you’re asking for a thorough understanding of that process. You may well be asking to do even more than it can tell us how to do."
CIRM is the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, as the agency is formally known. Lowe's brief bio on the the site says he has worked for "several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects."

The occasion for his remarks was the recent lengthy look at the agency by the San Francisco Chronicle at CIRM and its performance. Lowe wrote, 
"What’s happened? What you’d have expected, if you knew the field at all (or were familiar with basic research in general). None of the bigger promises made during the campaign to fund the CIRM have come true. No approved therapies have come out of the work yet – and that’s one of the class of promises that were most egregious, in California and elsewhere. Just imagine the time it takes from discovery to approval for something like this, and then factor in that the needed discovery hadn’t even been made yet. But if you don’t know anything much about stem cells, or regulatory approvals, or medicine in general, the idea of get-out-of-that-wheelchair cures being just around the corner becomes more plausible."
Lowe also noted that voters may be asked in 2020 to provide more billions for the agency. He said, 
"If you measure it (the agency's work) against what was known and what had been accomplished then versus what’s been done since, you can make a case, for sure. If you measure it against the promises made at the time, though, things look bad. And that informs how you’re going to campaign for renewal: do you point at what’s been done and make the argument that it’s been a success, or do you promise them miracle cures again, because now they just have to be around the corner after all this work, eh?"
Lowe's article received comments from nine readers, who appear also to be researchers. One, who was identified as Miguel Sanchez, wrote, 
"Just at my small CA research institute, the amount of poor science that has been funded by CIRM is staggering. I would say that roughly half the CIRM money we have received has gone to research programs that are prima facie bad science but the PIs are well connected so hey shut up. I don’t think any outright fraud has been published, but the taxpayers of CA are for damn sure not getting their moneys worth on these investments here."
Sanchez did not further identify his employer. The agency's list of grantees did not contain Sanchez's name. 
Sphere: Related Content

Friday, September 28, 2018

$10 Million More for Viacyte for a Virtual Stem Cell Cure for Type 1 Diabetes

The San Diego stem cell company that has snagged $72 million from the state of California  announced this week another $10 million infusion from the firm that created the rain gear fabric known as Gore-Tex.

The San Diego firm is Viacyte, Inc., a privately held company that has received more than any other company from the $3 billion California stem cell agency. In 2017, Viacyte became involved with W.L. Gore & Associates, Inc., a materials science company that deals with drug delivery technologies.

Gore is also the enterprise whose Gore-Tex product has shaped the current outerwear industry.

On Tuesday, Viacyte announced the $10 million investment by Gore. The funds are coming in the form of a convertible promissory note.

Paul Laikind, president of Viacyte, said this week that the collaboration with Gore "has been exceptionally productive." He said the use of Gore membranes "has proven invaluable for improving the performance of the PEC-Encap product candidate in non-clinical studies that have been shown to be reflective of the human experience."

He said the additional support "should allow us to resume clinical testing of PEC-Encap as early as the first half of 2019." Sphere: Related Content

Friday, September 21, 2018

California's $72 Million Diabetes/Stem Cell Bet: A New Partner from Massachusetts

CRISPR Therapeutics is the latest firm to become involved in a California-
backed stem cell research effort. It uses gene-editing techniques to devise cures.
The California stem cell agency has invested $72 million in a San Diego firm that is pursuing a a functional cure for diabetes and which announced this week it was moving to dodge a major obstacle facing its potential therapy. 

The firm is Viacyte, Inc., a privately held enterprise that has received more funding by far than any other state-backed stem cell firm. It announced on Monday that it had hooked up with publicly traded CRISPR Therapeutics, Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., to collaborate on a gene-editing treatment that would evade the body's immune response to earlier Viacyte therapies.

In a Q&A with UC Davis researcher Paul Knoepfler, Paul Laikind, CEO of Viacyte, said,
"The advantage of an islet cell replacement therapy that has been gene-edited for immune evasion is simply that patients would not need to take immunosuppressive drugs, which can have side effects. Our main mission is to improve the lives of patients with insulin-requiring diabetes by delivering transformative new therapeutic options. The work we are doing on PEC-Direct, PEC-Encap, and now an immune-evasive approach, known as PEC-QT, are all a part of that mission."
The treatment is principally aimed at type 1 diabetes, which afflicts 1.25 million persons in this country, the stem cell agency said in a piece on its blog about the new collaboration.

Viacyte was one of the earliest firms to receive cash from the agency, officially known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). The awards began with only $48,950 in 2008 when Viacyte was known as Novocell.

The arrangement with CRISPR will provide more funding for Viacyte, $15 million from its new partner and possibly another $10 million in the form of a convertible promissory note.

CRISPR's stock closed at $48.99 yesterday, down from $55.36 last Friday. Its 52-week high was $73.90 and its 52-week low $16.16.  The firm announced on Wednesday that it was planning to sell $200 million in common stock.  (Here is a detailed presentation on the firm's strategy and research. Here is a link to one analysis of the firm as an investment.)

In the piece on Knoepfler's blog, Laikind also provided an update on Viacyte's other related research. He said,
"(T)he PEC-Encap (also known as VC-01) product candidate has a bright future! We remain enthusiastic regarding the prospects of PEC-Encap, and are actively working on it. In June, two-year data from ViaCyte’s STEP ONE clinical trial were presented at ADA 2018. Although consistent and robust engraftment has been limited in this study to date, results showed that when engraftment does occur, viable mature insulin-expressing endocrine islet cells can be formed. In some cases, insulin-expressing cells have persisted for up to two years after implantation, the longest time point investigated in the study.
"Building on insights gained during the STEP ONE study, ViaCyte is working with W.L. Gore & Associates, one of the world’s top materials science companies with expertise in medical device development and drug delivery technologies, to modify the Encaptra Cell Delivery System and improve the potential for long-term engraftment. This work has yielded positive results in non-clinical models that, based on clinical experience, have been selected to reflect the response in patients. If the progress continues as expected, we plan to resume STEP ONE trial enrollment in 2019.
"As for PEC-Direct (also known as VC-02), the Phase 1/2 clinical evaluation of that product candidate is also continuing. We are now evaluating patients in the second cohort of the trial. As you know, PEC-Direct has the potential to help the patients with type 1 diabetes with the greatest need."
Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

California's Stem Cell Agency Says It Has Saved Lives and Is Building a Foundation to Save More

Evie Vaccaro, whose life was saved with research backed by the stem cell agency
California's $3 billion stem cell agency took its message this week to the op-ed pages of the
San Francisco Chronicle, declaring that the agency's efforts have saved lives and created a world class network of clinics to develop therapies for all.

Maria Millan, CEO of the agency, and Jonathan Thomas, chairman of its board, said in an op-ed article,
"Have we achieved all we wanted to? Of course not. The first decade of CIRM’s life was laying the groundwork, developing the knowledge and expertise, and refining processes so that we can truly accelerate progress. As a leader in this burgeoning field of regenerative medicine, CIRM needs to continue its mission of accelerating stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs."
The Millan-Thomas article came in the wake of a Chronicle editorial that said the agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), did not merit additional funding based on its results to date. The Chronicle also carried a lengthy news piece that concluded the agency has not met the expectations of voters who created it through a ballot initiative in 2004. 

The agency expects to run out of cash for new awards at the end of next year. Its hope for survival lie with a yet-to-written bond measure that would appear on the November 2020 ballot. 

Millan and Thomas said the agency is now backing 49 clinical trials and has a host of accomplishments. They said, 
"Today the therapies resulting from the institute’s work are not just changing lives — they are already saving lives.
"Lives like Evie Vaccaro, who is alive today because of a treatment CIRM is funding. Vaccaro was born with SCID, also known as “bubble baby disease,” an immune disorder that often kills babies in their first two years. Vaccaro, now 6, and dozens of other babies were given stem cell treatments thanks to the institute. All are showing improvement; some are now several years past treatment and considered cured. 
"An accident left Jake Javier from Danville paralyzed from the chest down on the eve of his high school graduation. Javier was treated in a CIRM-funded clinical trial. Today, he has regained the use of his arms and hands, is driving a car and is a sophomore at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Five other patients treated at the same time as Javier all have experienced improvements meaning that instead of needing round-the-clock care, they can lead independent lives."
Sphere: Related Content

Friday, September 14, 2018

California's $50 Million Alpha Network: Managing the Complexity of Stem Cell Clinical Trials

Clinical Leader, an online publication dealing with clinical trials, yesterday carried a piece exploring the $50 million Alpha Clinic program initiated by the California stem cell agency.

Written by Geoff Lomax, a senior officer at the agency for its strategic initiatives, the article discussed the complexity of stem cell clinical trials and the use of a network of high-powered medical centers to support the novel research and treatment, particularly involving the FDA's programs to speed use of some therapies. 

Lomax's concluding statement in the article said,
"(R)egenerative medicine therapies are treating and curing debilitating and deadly diseases. The FDA’s RMAT (regenerative medicine advanced therapy) and breakthrough designations have created a streamlined environment for product sponsors. To effectively leverage this regulatory policy environment, sponsors must conduct high-quality clinical trials that are often operationally complex.
"Clinical trial networks, capable of managing the array of regenerative medicine technologies, are well suited to manage this complexity. The CIRM Alpha Clinic network is a current highly functioning proof of the concept. Patients with unmet medical need and product sponsors will benefit from the replication of this model nationally and internationally."
The agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine or CIRM, initiated the Alpha network in 2015. It has since enlarged the effort with a total of $50 million and locations at UC San Francisco, UC Davis, UCLA, UC Irvine, City of Hope and UC San Diego

The Clinical Leader piece said, 
"Recognizing this operational complexity and limitations in clinical experience, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) pioneered the development of infrastructure to support regenerative medicine clinical trials. Launched in 2015, the CIRM Alpha Clinics are a network of six California medical centers. The clinics conduct FDA-authorized and IRB approved clinical trials. The aim of the network is to achieve greater and more efficient results than the member organizations could if they acted independently. Each of the Alpha Clinics has formed teams with specialized knowledge and experience with regenerative medicine clinical research involving human cell and tissue products. These teams work across their respective centers. As of September 1, 2018, the network is supporting 49 clinical trials — and has supported 60 clinical trials since 2015 — across a range of indications."
Lomax continued,
"This network model of conducting therapeutically diverse clinical trials lies in contrast to the traditional disease-based clinical trial networks that tend to be located in specific clinical units – oncology, cardiology, neurology, etc. The Alpha Clinic teams are horizontally integrated across the centers, so they can support the diverse range of indications where regenerative medicine therapies are currently being evaluated. This technology-based approach facilitates the conduct of clinical trials, particularly in clinical units that may have limited experience with cell and gene therapy products."
Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, September 13, 2018

A Global Stem Cell Perspective: CIRM's Accomplishments in a Field Tougher than Rocket Science

The comments below were emailed to the California Stem Cell Report yesterday in the wake of recent news coverage of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the state's stem cell agency is known. 

The author, who asked not to be identified, has followed the field of stem cell research worldwide since its inception. Here is the text of the remarks.
"As you know, I am usually reticent about putting in my two cents worth regarding CIRM and all the politics swirling around the subject. But the recent published items, as well as radio interviews on the subject, have made me quite uncomfortable. I was not in California when Proposition 71 came on the ballot, so I cannot speak to the hype and campaign promises made that swayed the public. But I have to take issue with some of the nonsense that has been reported as news.   
"Here are some relevant facts: 
"1. People forget that in 2004, the NIH, the major agency in the US funding biomedical research, prohibited funding most of the research needed for this field to move forward. Forget about clinical trials, even basic research was severely curtailed based on unscientific premises. This meant that while other countries could move ahead, US scientists could not step into the arena. Prop. 71 was proposed to unshackle Californian scientists so that they could compete in the research arena on a par with UK, Canada, Australia, and many other countries eager to take advantage of this new discovery.

"2. Lest people forget, the NIH rules at that time were so onerous that anything -- buildings, maintenance, and equipment -- partially or wholly funded by the federal government could not be used to conduct human embryonic stem cell research. Hence the need for CIRM to fund the building of labs, infrastructure and facilities early on. This is not an idea to mindlessly benefit academic institutions, but to allow their investigators to conduct stem cells research without using anything (buildings, equipment, personnel) paid for by federal funds. 
"3. Biomedical research is not like rocket science - it is much harder and much less predictable. Twenty years after the big push by Congress to cure Parkinsons’ Disease by building Udall Centers and mandating funding for this effort - PD is still not cured. Alzheimers Disease has been a target of the NIH for decades; just this year, they are increasing funding for this effort. Yet - no cure in sight. Add to the growing list the “War on Cancer” declared by Nixon in 1971. How much progress was made by 1981? Yet look at all the success today? The fact is that biomedical research is much harder than engineering, and we should be patient instead of whining about the slow rate of progress. It behooves the critics of CIRM to remember that success in research requires time and money. Things are just beginning to ramp up exponentially by the end of the first 10 years. 
"4. Finally, taking a world-wide view of the state of human stem cell research, CIRM has to be considered a great success. CIRM supported the first few clinical trials using human embryonic stem cell products. At the end of 2017, there were 17 clinical trials using human embryonic stem cells. Of these 11 are conducted in the US, and all 11 are initiated in California or conducted in California - this is completely due to CIRM. Of the 11 trials, 6 are directly funded by CIRM, and NONE by the NIH. So without CIRM, there will be few or no clinical trials using this new technology in this country!"
(For some of the news coverage, see here and here.)
Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

SF Chronicle Backs Away From More Cash for California's Stem Cell Agency

The San Francisco Chronicle, which has the largest circulation of any newspaper in Northern California, today said the results generated so far by state's $3 billion stem cell agency "don’t argue for expanded public spending."

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known, expects to run out of cash for new awards at the end of next year. It is seeking to raise privately $220 million to tide it over until November 2020, when it hopes that voters will approve a $5 billion bond measure for continued stem cell research.

However, in a formal unsigned editorial published on its website, the Chronicle said,
"The results to date don’t argue for expanded public spending. The science of stem cell work will need to evolve before more money is provided."
The editorial followed a four-part series  in the Chronicle looking into the state of stem cell research. The final installment last week said the agency had fallen short of the high voter expectations when they approved creation of the agency in 2004. The agency has not yet backed development of a therapy that is available for widespread use, although it currently has investments in 49 clinical trials.

The Chronicle, which says it has a readership of more than 500,000, said,
"California’s pioneering decision to spend $3 billion on stem cell research isn’t producing cures after 14 years of work. Instead, it’s generating a widening scientific field that shows potential but not results.
"It’s a frustrating shortcoming, especially as supporters of the state-sponsored research weigh another bond measure to continue the work. Promised breakthroughs used to sell Proposition 71 in 2004 aren’t panning out, a Chronicle investigation found."
Sphere: Related Content

California's Stem Cell Agency Touts Its "Incredible Ecosystem" of Research

The California stem cell agency today added more of its comments to last week's evaluation of its work by the San Franciso Chronicle in a lengthy piece that said the agency had not measured up to voter expectations.

The forum was The Stem Cellar, the blog of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the nearly 14-year-old agency is formally known. 

Maria Millan, CIRM photo

CIRM CEO Maria Millan, in a Q&A, elaborated on the value proposition offered by the agency and some of the points that were raised in the Chronicle article. Here are two excerpts from the blog. 
"Q: There have been many critics who say it’s taking too long for CIRM to deliver cures, and they expected more. What is your response to these people?
"A: Many of us can relate that relief cannot come quickly enough for our relatives and friends who suffer from debilitating and devastating medical conditions— I believe that is why many of us are at CIRM, an organization whose mission is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. Through the years, we have enabled the creation of an incredible ecosystem of top scientists and researchers and partnered with patients and patient advocates to pursue this mission. We continually strive to improve and to become more efficient and we share the sense of urgency to harness the potential of stem cell biology to deliver relief to those in need.

"Q: Given all of the differences between CIRM and the NIH (National Institutes of Health), why do you think the reporter compared CIRM to the NIH?
"A: The NIH is the largest health research funder world-wide, has been around a lot 
longer, has a much larger budget >$30B this past year alone and the NHLBI
(National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute) alone has a $3B annual budget—NHLBI is just one of the 27 NIH Institutes. The reason that CIRM was formed is that the advocates of Proposition 71 wanted to make sure that scientists and developers can pursue vital research opportunities that may not have access to funding by traditional funders, including the NIH. CIRM has a total budget of $3B available to fund research and support operations and we have been managing that budget since the passage of Proposition 71 in 2004. If we consider the number of stem cell trials for given available budget, CIRM has funded a disproportionately higher number of translational and clinical programs in stem cell and regenerative medicine. In fact, the NHLBI has entered into a collaboration with CIRM on their Cure Sickle Cell initiative because of CIRM’s specialization in funding and enabling cell-gene regenerative medicine research. I take this as a validation of CIRM’s value proposition in this new area– acceleration, translation, and clinical trials."
See here for more on the sickle cell initiative.
Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, September 06, 2018

San Francisco Chronicle: California's $3 Billion Stem Cell Program Does Not Measure Up to Voter Expectations

The San Francisco Chronicle, in a long and penetrating look at California's $3 billion stem cell agency, today said the research program has fallen "far short" of the promises made by its backers during the ballot campaign that created the effort.

Written by Erin Allday and Joaquin Palomino, the article said the agency, created by Proposition 71 in 2004, "can take credit for some notable progress," including saving the lives of children with rare immune deficiency diseases. Such efforts have been well supported by the agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

"But as thrilling as such advances are, they fall far short of what Prop. 71’s promoters promised." Allday and Palomino wrote.

"Not a single federally approved therapy has resulted from CIRM-funded science. The predicted financial windfall has not materialized. The bulk of CIRM grants have gone to basic research, training programs and building new laboratories, not to clinical trials testing the kinds of potential cures and therapies the billions of dollars were supposed to deliver."

Allday and Palomino worked on the CIRM overview for months, along with three other major pieces on stem cell therapies, both unregulated and those backed by the stem cell agency.  They reviewed the nearly 1,000 grants awarded by the agency and tracked the results, interviewing researchers and patient advocates and quantified the results.

The Chronicle series appeared as the agency nears its financial demise. It expects to run out of cash for new awards next year. The agency hopes that voters will approve a yet-to-be-written, $5 billion ballot measure in November 2020.

The Chronicle noted, however, that much of the research financed by the agency is not likely to resonate with voters.

Nonetheless, the article today contained ample information from the agency about its efforts, including its 49 clinical trials and some high profile results from those trials.  The piece posed the question of whether the nearly 14-year-old program has paid off. And it said,
"It’s not a question that can be answered simply. Science often can’t be measured in quantifiable outcomes. Failures aren’t just common, they’re necessary — it’s impossible to expect every dollar invested in research to lead down a traceable path toward success.... 
"It has helped make California a global leader in the field that’s come to be known as regenerative medicine. Anywhere significant stem cell research is taking place in the state, it almost surely has received support from CIRM."
The Chronicle quoted a member of the CIRM board who has been with it since its first days.
"'What was promised was not deliverable,' said longtime CIRM board member Jeff Sheehy, a former San Francisco supervisor. 'However, I would distinguish the promises from the impact and value. We have developed a regenerative medicine juggernaut.'"
The Chronicle also spoke with Bob Klein, a Palo Alto real estate investment banker who led the 2014 campaign.
"Klein...is unapologetic about the campaign he led. Indeed, as he lines up advocates and testimonials for the coming campaign, his message is familiar: Fund this research and we will save lives. Slow it down and the consequences will be grave.
"'Do you want your son to die? Are you going to wait?' Klein asked recently. 'Is that the price you are prepared to pay?'"
Today's Chronicle piece, roughly 5,000 words long, raises a host of important issues and deals with them in a nuanced and thoughtful manner. It is must reading for all those interested in California's stem cell research effort. 

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this item inadvertently omitted Palomino's name. Allday noted in an email to the California Stem Cell Report: "He played a HUGE role in putting together the CIRM story – he was basically solely responsible for collecting and analyzing the data from CIRM.") Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

'Better Than Hope' to 'No More Cash Without Changes' -- Overviews of California's $3 Billion Stem Cell Program

Looking for a relatively quick, current overview of the activities of the $3 billion California stem cell agency?

You can find it here on the California Stem Cell Report with the links below to recent items growing out of a state legislative hearing.

CEO Millan Makes the Case for California's $3 Billion Stem Cell Research Program

The top executive at California $3 billion stem cell agency, which expects to run out of cash for new awards next year, outlined for state lawmakers last week the benefits of the nearly 14-year-old program.

California Stem Cell Agency Touts its Economic Impact on the Golden State

The California stem cell agency last week told its story to a state Assembly committee on biotechnology, including economic figures from a study financed by the agency itself. 

'Better Than Hope' -- An Advocate's View of California's $3 Billion Stem Cell Research Program

Longtime patient advocate Don Reed appealed to California lawmakers last week to support the state's stem cell research effort, which expects to run out of money for new awards at the end of next year.

A Before and After Story of $138 Million in California Stem Cell Cash

The head of the stem cell program at UC Davis says California is leading the way into a "new era of living medicine," thanks to the efforts of the $3 billion state stem cell agency.

State Lawmakers Hear Story of a Life-Saving Treatment and the California Stem Cell Agency

A father from Folsom, Ca., earlier this month told a state legislative committee about how his baby boy was saved through a clinical trial that was being financed by the Golden State's $3 billion stem cell agency.

California's Stem Cell 'Gold Rush:' Nearly 14 Years of Prospecting

A committee of the California Legislature today examined the state's $3 billion stem cell agency. Officials of the agency and others presented their perspective. Here is the text of prepared remarks by David Jensen, publisher of this blog, who appeared at the invitation of the Legislature. This is a third-party overview that deals with pluses, minuses and policy questions.

A Harsher Look at California's Stem Cell Program: No More Cash Without Changes

California's $3 billion stem cell experiment received a host of accolades last week at a state legislative hearing, but one strong, critical voice was not heard in the proceedings.
Sphere: Related Content

Monday, September 03, 2018

Exploring California's $210 Million Search for a Sickle Cell Cure, Plus an Online Look at Stem Cell Over Excitement

CIRM mounted another Facebook Live event last week, which has
chalked up nearly 2,000 views.
Hype, hope and sickle cell anemia -- all were part of Internet videos last week involving the $3 billion California stem cell agency.

The San Francisco Chronicle mounted one and the stem cell agency the other. The Chronicle's production was hosted by Erin Allday, the reporter at the newspaper who wrote its ongoing series, The Miracle Cell, dealing with stem cell treatments. (The next installment is scheduled for publication on Thursday and is expected to evaluate the agency itself.)

Allday asked Maria Millan, CEO of the agency, and Paul Knoepfler, a researcher at UC Davis, about the juggling act needed when the benefits and progress of stem cell research are discussed. Both Millan and Knoepfler said it is easy to get overexcited by the progress of stem cell research.

The agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), produced the second video, a Facebook Live event that so far has drawn more than 1,900 views. Similar figures were not available for the Chronicle video.

Featured on the CIRM video are Donald Kohn of UCLA and Mark Walters of the research institute at Children's Hospital Oakland, along with patient advocate Adrienne Shapiro. The agency has invested $210 million into efforts to find a cure for the disease that afflicts 80,000 people nationally. Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Yes or No on More Money for California's Stem Cell Program? Your Chance to Vote Today

It's time to vote -- sort of -- on whether to kick in $5 billion more for California's $3 billion stem cell research program.

Recent results from poll on CIRM
I say "sort of" because the voting consists of a poll being conducted by UC Davis researcher Paul
Knoepfler on his blog, The Niche. Initial results are already in. Sixty-three percent of those responding say they would definitely vote for a ballot measure to "refund" the agency.  (That figure jumped to more than 67 percent by Sept. 1,  three days after this item appeared. You can vote by clicking on this link.)

The poll, of course, is non-scientific, and the readers of Knoepfler's blog are hardly representative of the state's voter profile. Presumably those who seek out his blog are more informed about and more interested in the California stem cell agency than the average California voter . Nonetheless, it is an interesting exercise.

The question posed by Knoepfler's poll is not trivial. The agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine(CIRM), expects to run out of cash for new awards at the end of next year. It hopes voters will approve a proposed ballot measure in November 2020, giving it another $5 billion.

If you would like to know more about the case to be made for the agency, search this blog (the California Stem Cell Report) using the term "assembly biotech hearing."  That will take you to seven brief brief articles related to a legislative informational hearing on the work of the agency over the last 13 years. Sphere: Related Content