Tuesday, February 19, 2019

A Peek Inside the California Stem Cell Research Machine: $25 Million, Babies, Bonds and Dwindling Cash

California's stem cell agency this week dished up rare public details of an advanced effort to create "transformative" therapies that would help cure afflictions ranging from diabetes to always fatal immune disorders.

The disclosure involves Stanford University researcher Judith Shizuru, severely ill babies, toxic chemical treatments, delays in clinical trials and stem cell agency board members who are acutely aware of the $3 billion agency's rapidly dwindling resources.

Judith Shizuru
Photo by Fynn Larsen, Ludwig Institute
All this plus more is on the table Thursday at a meeting of the directors of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known. 

The agenda nominally contains one item, an application by Shizuru for $6 million from CIRM. But the issues reach back to 2013 and provide insight into difficult research pathways and how the agency manages its programs. 

At the top of the matter is the fact that the state agency expects to run out of cash for new awards by the end of this year. It is pinning its hopes on a proposed $5 billion bond measure on the November 2020 ballot.  Meanwhile, directors are trying to raise privately $200 million to tide it over until then. 

Avoiding Toxic Chemotherapy

That was the backdrop Wednesday Jan. 30 when directors convened to consider application number CLIN2-11431 by Shizuru for $6 million. She is seeking a way to avoid chemotherapy treatments and their toxic side effects in the case of a rare genetic affliction often referred to as the bubble baby syndrome. 

In December, CIRM's grant reviewers, meeting behind closed doors, approved Shizuru's application, an action that nearly invariably is rubber-stamped by directors. But last month was different, and a bit of CIRM history was brought up.

Shizuru received  a $19 million CIRM award in 2013 which has led to a phase one clinical trial with positive results for her therapy. Cost per each of the six patients so far averages $917,000, according to a CIRM document. 

However, additional patients are needed, along with more funding, before the potential product can reach the marketplace. The average cost of per patient will run about $333,333 during the final portion of the phase one trial.  Her latest application is aimed providing assistance with those costs. 

Questions about Delays and Co-Funding

Last month, questions arose among directors about months of delays in the clinical trial and a current shortfall in co-funding, among other things.

Steve Juelsgaard
Steve Juelsgaard, a former Genentech executive and chair of the directors' Finance Committee, said, 
"It's not clear to me that they're being frugal with the money that they have been given."
Juelsgaard also said,
"Delay doesn't necessarily add up to more money. They obviously spent the money on something that they didn't anticipate or under-budgeted or something. There's something more to it."
Another director, Jeff Sheehy, chair of the board's Science Committee, said,
"Financially, it seems very muddy to me."
Other directors weighed in as well, ultimately leading to a motion to delay action on the application to provide more time to find answers to questions.

At that point, Shizuru, who was in the audience, rose to respond.

"I understand CIRM's concerns, and I can see you're very thoughtful about how this money is being spent," she said, according to the transcript.

 The Sheehy-Shizuru Exchange

The Stanford researcher said that without additional funding the trial would have to suspend enrollment of additional patients, prompting this exchange between her and Sheehy.

"Shiruzu: Budgetarily we're better off using it (the remaining funding) to continue to follow the patients that we've already transplanted. From that budgetary standpoint, we should delay the trial. We should delay treating any more patients on the trial.

"Sheehy: So Stanford won't front you 1.6 million to (treat) patients if we don't give you the money today?

"Shiziru: I hesitate to say what they would do.

"Sheehy: To Stanford...they would actually put patients at risk?

"Shiziru: I'm not at liberty to say what Stanford would do."

Stanford is the No. 1 recipient of CIRM awards, chalking up $379 million over the past 14 years. It also has always had a member on the CIRM board of directors, who is not allowed to speak or vote on awards to Stanford.

Following Shizuru's comments, CIRM directors approved the motion to delay action until this week's meeting. Since the January session, Shizuru has provided the agency with more than five, single-spaced pages of explanation about her research, plus other material that has been kept under wraps for what CIRM has indicated are proprietary and legal reasons.

The information from Shizuru, as well as additional documents from CIRM, provided an unusual, public look into the agency's grant-making process as well as the hurdles encountered in advanced clinical research. In the past, reviews of applications approved by reviewers have received little or no discussion.

Shizuru's Perspective

In her material, which is available on the agenda for this week's meeting, Shiruzu said one, eight-month delay was caused by CIRM itself because of internal concerns. Another nine-month delay was caused by age-restrictions on patients.

"Significant delay" was also caused because of what might be called a supply and demand issue. The bubble baby syndrome is rare. Only one in out of 50,000 to 100,000 births results in a baby with the affliction: severe combined immunodeficiency.
Three other clinical trials are also competing for those rare patients. 

Nine letters of support were received by CIRM supporting the research, with some describing the potential result as "transformative." The letters also said Shizuru's approach could find use in a wide range of other afflictions, an expectation also agreed upon by CIRM. 

Shizuru said she is working on securing the needed co-funding for her first award, which is not yet concluded. As for commercialization, she said she and her colleagues have formed a company, whose name was not disclosed. She said she has a letter of support from one investor regarding "an intention to co-fund pending completion of due diligence."

In a final comment during the vote last month to delay consideration, one CIRM board member, a San Diego patient advocate for Parkinson's disease, praised the board's close examination of the application. David Higgins said, 

"I want to acknowledge fellow board members (for) their continued concern about spending taxpayer's money wisely because I think this is a great example of that."

(The public can listen to and participate in the Thursday meeting via the Internet. Instructions are on the meeting agenda.) 
Sphere: Related Content

Friday, February 15, 2019

California Stem Cell Opposition: Conservative Writer Declares Golden State Efforts a 'Bust'

In a preview of what is likely to be a heated ballot campaign next year,  a conservative writer declared this week that California's efforts to develop stem cell therapies are "a scientific and financial bust." 
"Back in 2004, the $3 billion California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative, Proposition 71, promised life-saving cures and therapies for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other diseases. The cures and therapies, in turn, would send money flowing into state coffers, so the project, in effect, would pay for itself. It didn’t exactly work out that way," said Lloyd Billingsley on two different web sites.  
"CIRM proved itself a scientific and financial bust, and almost completely off limits to state oversight."
Billingsley has written in the past about the agency, known as CIRM and formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. His latest columns appeared on the California Globe, which was founded by Ken Kurson, who has ties to the Trump family and Rudy Guiliani, and The Beacon.  

Billingsley likened the agency to the troubled bullet train project in California and efforts to solve some of California's water problems by building a tunnel under the California delta east of San Francisco. 

CIRM expects to run out of cash this year for new awards and hopes to survive with voter approval of a proposed, $5 billion bond measure on the November 2020 ballot.

It could be a hard-fought campaign, but conservatives and other likely opponents could well be diverted if President Trump is on the ballot. 

See here and here for more on Kurson, founder of the  California Globe, and here for the advisors to the Beacon web site and its parent organization.
Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Position of the California Stem Cell Agency on Gene-Edited Babies? No Go.

California's $3 billion stem cell agency may be on the leading edge of regenerative medical research, but it is clearly opposed to the type of work that has led to the international flap over the gene-edited babies in China

Its regulations have long barred that sort of experimentation. In 2016, the agency, known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), convened an international conference to discuss the issues involved.

The session in Los Angeles went on for hours, generating a 223-page transcript touching on the difficulty of regulating gene editing, among a host of other difficult issues. 

One patient advocate in the audience, Adrienne Bell Cors Shapiro, noted that it is nearly impossible to control all that might happen. She said,  
"People are messy. And if you develop this technology, somebody is going to find a way to use it."
Last week the MIT Technology Review published an article about a Stanford University investigation into what two of its researchers knew about the Chinese research. The scientists also have received CIRM funds for research unrelated to the Chinese work. 

Asked for a comment, a spokeswoman for the state stem cell agency said in an email:
"CIRM’s regulations prohibit nuclear genome editing for reproductive purposes. In February 2016, CIRM convened the Scientific and Medical Accountability Standards Working Group (SWG) for a workshop on Human Gene Editing. The SWG subsequently recommended that no changes be made to CIRM’s existing prohibition on nuclear genome editing for reproductive purposes."
In 2016, Hank Greely, a law professor at Stanford who deals with bioethical issues, told the gene editing conference:
"CIRM is in the human embryo experimentation world. It funds research as long as the embryos are not implanted. It funds it with special protections and special review considerations and special informed consent considerations. I don't think CRISPR-cas9 changes that."
The controversial research in China triggered a global uproar in the scientific community. The leading stem cell research organization, the International Society for Stem Cell Research, issued a statement opposing such experimentation

He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who performed the experiment, has lost his job in that country, according to news reports, and may be facing criminal charges. His work has not been confirmed by an independent review. 
Sphere: Related Content

Monday, February 11, 2019

California Legislation to Curb Unregulated Stem Cell Clinics Due by March

Legislation to help stem the tide of unregulated stem cell clinics in California is still being drafted, but is inspected to be introduced by the end of this month. 

Art Torres, vice chairman of the California stem cell agency, is working on the measure, which is expected to be authored by Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-San Mateo. 

More than 100 dubious stem cell clinics are estimated to be in business in the Golden State, peddling ostensible stem cell treatments that cost thousands of dollars.  The treatments, however, have no scientific proof of efficacy or safety. 

In response to a question, Torres, a former state lawmaker, said that Mullin will introduce legislation that will serve as a placeholder while the legal language is worked out and coordinated with appropriate state agencies.

Torres said in an email, 
"We will have the language ready by March 1 , 2019, to be amended into the spot (placeholder) bill. 
"April 26 is the last day that a policy bill with fiscal implications must be out of the policy committee and referred to the fiscal committee."
The clinics and their treatments are a national issue as well involving the Food ad Drug Administration, which has been slow to move. California legislation is likely to serve as something of a model for other states.

Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Stanford Probe into Researchers Linked to Gene-edited Babies in China

Stanford University is looking into the involvement of several researchers in connection with the Chinese, gene-edited babies, the MIT Technology Review reported today.

The article by Antonio Regalado said,
"Officials at Stanford University have opened an investigation into what several high-profile faculty members knew about a Chinese effort to create gene-edited babies led by a onetime researcher at the California school, He Jiankui
"The investigation, according to people familiar with it, aims to understand what liabilities or risks Stanford may have in connection with the controversial medical experiment, which led last year to the birth of two girls whose genomes had been altered with a molecular tool called CRISPR to render them immune to HIV."
Regalado reported, 
"Stanford launched the investigation following media reports that three of its faculty—more than at any other institution—were aware of He’s plans to create the gene-edited children. They are William Hurlbut, a medical ethicist and theologian who interacted extensively with He over many months; gene-editing specialist Matthew Porteus; and Stephen Quake, a biophysicist who holds a powerful role as co-president of the $600 million Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, as well as being He’s former postdoc advisor."

Quake has declined comment in the past on his connections to He. Porteus told STAT in December that he had "strongly rebuked" the controversial researcher for what Porteus said was "reckless" work.  Hurlbut has said he had a number of conversations with He and advised him on the moral implications of the work.

Regalado wrote,
"University-led investigations are typically private, toothless affairs with few consequences for important faculty, especially those who pull in millions in grants. The question of research involving human subjects is a critical one, however, in part because serious violations can endanger a university’s federal research grants." 
Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Roman Reed Act: $5 Million Proposed for More Research into Spinal Cord Injury

Roman Reed discusses stem cell research in 2017
Legislation to provide $5 million for stem cell and other research involving spinal cord injury has been introduced in the California state legislature and is expected to be heard soon in a key committee.

Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-San Mateo, introduced the measure that would re-fund the Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act. 

Mullin, chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Biotechnology,  said in a news release 
“Sadly, efforts to continue this funding stream that expired in 2011 have failed and critical research in this area has suffered. The absence of state funds has limited the programs ability to attract private investment, limiting the work being done.” 
The news release continued, 
"The Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act was originally established in 2000 and was subsequently renewed in 2004. The program, based at the University of California Irvine has continued its work, but on a smaller scale. According to the Reeve-Irvine Research Center, the earlier allocations of approximately $15 million in state funding allowed the program to leverage over $80 million in new grants benefitting virtually all California spinal cord scientists."
The legislation is named after Roman Reed, who suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury in 1994. He and his father, Don, have been longtime backers of the $3 billion California stem cell agency.  Roman Reed came up with the first slogan of the agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM): "Turning stem cells into cures."

A comment by Don Reed wound up as the title of CIRM's  2018 annual report: "Something better than hope." The senior Reed lobbied the legislature for several years to create the act that ultimately provided the funding for the spinal cord research.

The bill is slated to come before the Assembly Health Committee for its first hearing, perhaps as early as this month.  Sphere: Related Content

Friday, February 01, 2019

A Stem Cell Media Story: The Case of the Missing Mention

Storks and stem cell blessings
California's $3 billion stem cell agency, which is fighting to demonstrate its value proposition, this week received what could be considered some favorable attention in the prestigious journal Nature.

The catch is that the 14-year-old research program was not mentioned by name by Nature.

The question is: How does that work and why it is important?

First things first: It is important because the agency, known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), is hoping that the voters will bless it with another $5 billion come the November 2020 election.

The agency expects to run out of money for new awards this year and is also trying to raise privately more than $200 million to tide it over until the 2020 election. In both cases, it needs clear successes that demonstrate that it has earned its keep and will do even better in the future. 

Unproven Therapies in Japan

The not-so-odd case from Nature involves an editorial that cited a CIRM-funded clinical trial.  Nature praised it as something to be emulated in Japan as an example of good ethics and good science. 

Nature's editorial zeroed in on how Japan has embarked on "a worrisome approach." The headlines said,  "Japan should put the brakes on stem cell sales. Unproven therapies should not be marketed to patients."

Instead, Nature declared that Japan should focus on the approach taken by Asterias Biotherapeutics, Inc., of Menlo Park, Ca., which arguably owes its existence largely to CIRM. (See here, here and here.)  Nature wrote, 
"Last week, a Californian company called Asterias Biotherapeutics released promising results from a 12-month first phase clinical trial, in which embryonic stem cells are converted into oligodendrocytes — cells of the central nervous system that support neurons and can stimulate their growth — and then injected into the backs of people with a spinal-cord injury. The data show that injected cells do stick around at the injury site, and that most patients (21 out of 22) showed improved movement. 
"But these are still early-stage results. It is not clear yet whether the improvements are the result of the cells, or whether something else, such as the body’s own regenerative capacity, was at work. To find out, the company wants permission to move forward with a randomized, controlled phase II clinical trial. That’s the right way to do things: stepping carefully, slowly and rigorously forward."

It's Not the Stork

The problem for the stem cell agency, of course, is that Nature did not identify CIRM as a player in the Asterias effort, although the agency has pumped more than $20 million into the research. The case of the missing mention is not an unfamiliar situation for the agency, which is often not noticed in news and press releases about the scientific accomplishments that it has backed with tens of millions of dollars. 
Of course, CIRM cannot take full credit for the Asterias work. And federal regulators have rules for clinical trials. But CIRM put up the cash for the research after Asterias' predecessor bailed out.  The agency also partners closely with its grantees and has a clear set of pioneering research standards that it worked out more than a decade ago. 
Obviously, CIRM would have been only a brief note, perhaps only a phrase in the Nature editorial if it had decided to include a mention. But these things add up and are needed by CIRM as it tries to tell California voters that it has been worth $3 billion. Their absence can amount ultimately to a substantial negative. 
One does not have to support more cash for CIRM to recognize that California voters need the full array of information about the agency to make an informed decision in 2020. Currently, however, the traditions and practices of scientific journalism regularly omit significant financial information.
When one reads about scientific advances in the mainstream media as well as journals, it seems as if the research magically materializes without a critical insemination of cash -- much like a baby being brought by the stork.
Perhaps it is time for CIRM, other research funding agencies and patient advocates to have a facts-of-life "talk" with the scientific press about the reality of what it takes to give birth to prodigious medical advances.

(Editor's note: Here is a related item by UC Davis stem cell research Paul Knoepfler on the Japanese program.)
Sphere: Related Content