Monday, July 09, 2018

Stanford's Weissman Lauds California Stem Cell Agency For Innovation, Critical Financing

The California stem cell agency has chalked up hearty praise from an internationally known Stanford researcher for its 13-year, $3-billion search for stem cell therapies and cures.

Irv Weissman, Stanford photo
The scientist is Irv Weissman, director of the Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.  His laudatory reflections on the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the stem cell agency formally known, recently found their way to the Oakland-based enterprise. And last Monday the agency posted an item on Weissman's remarks on its blog, The Stem Cellar.  The article began,
"When you get praise from someone who has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and has been named California Scientist of the Year you know you must be doing something right."
Weissman said the agency has provided the financial support that allows research to bypass "the valley of death," short hand for the stage in which promising research can often die. Plus, he said, CIRM allows the discoverers to guide early stage development rather than diverting it into commercial arena.

Weissman's comments spoke to what the agency calls its "value proposition," a term that is becoming increasingly important as the agency faces its possible demise. The agency expects to run out of cash for new awards by the end of next year. It is trying to raise more than $200 million privately to continue operations until November 2020, when it hopes voters will approve $5 billion more for stem cell research.

CIRM's blog item was authored by Kevin McCormack, CIRM's senior director of communications,  in the context of a $115 million initial public stock offering by Forty Seven, Inc., of Menlo Park, Ca., a company founded on the basis of Weissman's work. Weissman is currently a member of the company's board.

Forty Seven has received $15.2 million from CIRM. Weissman has received $32.4 million.

Weissman said in the statement that CIRM carried,
"The major support (for Forty Seven) came from the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), funded by Proposition 71, as well as the Ludwig Cancer Research Foundation at the Ludwig Center for Cancer Stem Cell Research at Stanford. CIRM will share in downstream royalties coming to Stanford as part of the agreement for funding this development.
"This part of the state initiative, Proposition 71, is highly innovative and allows the discoverers of a field to guide its early phases rather than licensing it to a biotech or a pharmaceutical company before the value and safety of the discovery are sufficiently mature to be known. Most therapies at early-stage biotechs are lost in what is called the ‘valley of death’, wherein funding is very difficult to raise; many times the failure can be attributed to losing the expertise of the discoverers of the field.”
In response to a question from the California Stem Cell Report, McCormack said Weissman's statement came "unbidden" by the agency.  We asked Weissman about what led him to issue the remarks. Weissman said he said he had not seen the CIRM piece, but responded after reading it.
He said in an email, 
"Now that I’ve seen the quote, it is close to what I sent to colleagues at Stanford. I did it so that my colleagues understood the nature of the CIRM experiment in funding research and its translation. One of these colleagues sent it on to CIRM, and I didn’t object.
"I think its very important to know how the original Prop 71 was designed not only to fund stem cell related research, but also to take selected projects competitively reviewed by expert referees to and through phase 1 trials if warranted. The therapy that was developed at Stanford by the team led to the discovery team forming a disease team of experts usually only found in biotechs and pharma, but here led by the discoverers of the leukemia stem cell overexpressed molecule, CD47, which by its ‘don’t eat me’ actions protects the leukemia from removal by scavenger macrophages. The CIRM oversight team helped guide selection of outside advisors, and met frequently with us to monitor our progress, and most importantly, give us advice that led to Stanford filing two INDs on time in the US [FDA] and the UK[MHRA]. The importance of doing high level preclinical testing and toxicity etc without a profit motive allowed the team to keep going when surprising events came up. Many biotechs fail at that point, as the risk starts to worry investors and shareholders. But this went through, and in addition to getting into important phase 1 trials that broadened the potential cancer targets to cancers beyond myelogenous leukemia, the group could see how the therapy needs to be administered to avoid toxicity in patients. By the time Stanford informed us it was time for them to license the ip, many independent companies had formed around the concept discovered by the team, a validation that this could become the second type of checkpoint inhibitor therapy for human cancers, this time for macrophages instead of inhibited T cells. 
"I felt it was equally important to try to get the agency that funded these stem cell related efforts to share royalties with the academic institution that held and licenses the intellectual property; I first raised this issue in 1994 when I was President of the American Association of Immunologists; my article is attached here.
"Most of us hope the discoveries we make can have the potential to help patients with diseases that are only incompletely treated by current medical practice. Very early results of clinical trials reported in the ASCO meeting in early June are consistent with that possibility. 
"I need to make clear that the statement in the blog was written by me, and was not an official document of Stanford University, of Forty Seven, Inc, or from others from the discovery team. If you decide to publish this answer to your question, please either publish it in full, unedited, or don’t publish it at all. I didn’t write this for you to publish, but for you to understand from your question the reason I wrote the original document to colleagues at Stanford."
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