Thursday, May 29, 2014

California Stem Cell Agency Approves $14 Million for Landmark hESC Clinical Trial

Above is a CIRM video involving one of the participants in the original Geron trial.

LA JOLLA, Ca.  – The state of California today pumped $14.3 million into an historic clinical trial for a stem cell therapy that was once abandoned because it was deemed too risky financially by the firm that devised the treatment.

The action came when the governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved the award to Asterias Therapeutics of Menlo Park, Ca., a subsidiary of BioTime, Inc., of Alameda, Ca. The firms purchased the spinal cord injury treatment along with the human embryonic stem cell assets of Geron Corp., also of Menlo Park, in 2013.

The scientists who reviewed the Asterias application said the therapy could have a “highly significant impact” on the spinal cord injury, which afflicts more than 200,000 people nationwide. According to a CIRM review summary, the reviewers said a successful result from the trial would be a “high visibility achievement for the entire field of stem cell-based/regenerative medicine.”

The Geron clinical trial was the first ever in the United States for a therapy based on human embryonic stem cells, an area of research roiled by controversy. Some persons believe that deriving such cells is tantamount to killing a human being.

Geron submitted nearly 28,000 pages of material to the FDA in its years-long bid to start the trial, which began in 2010. However, in November 2011, the company stunned the stem cell world by giving up on the trial, citing business reasons.

The action also shocked the stem cell agency, which less than four months earlier had signed an agreement loaning the company $25 million. The agency's governing board gave the go-ahead on the loan during a process that involved major departures from its normal procedures. Geron repaid the loan with interest.

Approval of the funds for Asterias was not unexpected. The California Stem Cell Report carried an item on the matter May 22.

Today, Jonathan Thomas, chairman of the CIRM board, said in a statement,
“This new investment means we have a chance to build on the lessons we learned first time around. If this therapy can achieve even very modest improvements for patients, it could have an enormous impact on the quality of their life, and the lives of their families."
CIRM's scientific grant reviewers, all of whom are from out-of-state, gave the Asteria application a score of 76 out of 100 during their closed-door review of the proposal. Asterias, which currently has 17 employees including some from Geron, said in its application,
“Initial clinical safety testing was conducted in five subjects with neurologically complete thoracic injuries. No safety concerns have been observed after following these five subjects for more than two years. The current project proposes to extend testing to subjects with neurologically complete cervical injuries, the intended population for further clinical development, and the population considered most likely to benefit from the therapy.

“Initial safety testing will be performed in three subjects at a low dose level, with subsequent groups of five subjects at higher doses bracketing the range believed most likely to result in functional improvements. Subjects will be monitored both for evidence of safety issues and for signs of neurological improvement using a variety of neurological, imaging and laboratory assessments.”

Asterias' application continued,
“By completion of the (Phase 1/2a) project, we expect to have accumulated sufficient safety and dosing data to support initiation of an expanded efficacy study of a single selected dose in the intended clinical target population.”

The complete application is not available. CIRM released only selected excerpts on its Web site. See here for the text of the CIRM review summary.

While reviewers praised the bulk of the proposal they also raised concerns. They “questioned the strength of the preclinical efficacy data.” They “expressed concern regarding the manufacturing plan and strategy to support future development, which they viewed as risky.” They also said the budget “may be high.”

BioTime, which is headed by the founder of Geron, Michael West, is a publicly traded firm. Its stock price closed at $2.73 yesterday. Its 52-week price range runs from $2.21 to $4.82.

Here is a link to the CIRM press release on the grant. 

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