Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Arthritis, Alzheimer's, Healing: California Stem Cell Agency Urged to Help Elderly

Three California scientists are asking the state’s stem cell agency to come to the aid of tens of millions of elderly persons and provide $16 million to develop therapies to treat Alzheimer’s and arthritis and to speed skeletal healing in the elderly.

The researchers have asked the governing board of the $3 billion agency to overturn at its meeting tomorrow the rejection of the proposals by both scientific reviewers and the agency staff.  All of the potential therapies are close to moving into clinical trials.

Jill Helms, Stanford photo
One of the scientists, Jill Helms of Stanford, said in a letter to the board that her team is addressing healing issues -- “an unmet medical need in an under-served and often overlooked patient population, namely, the aged….Elderly patients are entitled to the same level of healthcare afforded to younger patients.”

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known, has already pumped $7 million into Helms’ research. She is seeking another $7 million to advance the potential therapy closer to clinical trials.

The two other researchers are Daryll D’Lima of Scripps Health and David Schubert of Salk.

D’Lima is seeking $7.7 million to develop the first therapy that would alter the progression of osteoarthritis, which is the No. 1 cause of disability in the nation. Annually, arthritis has a more than $120 billion economic impact, which exceeds 2 percent of the gross domestic product.  D’Lima’s research has already received $3.1 million from CIRM.

Schubert has applied for $1.7 million for work on an Alzheimer’s therapy that he said was “highly effective at reversing the memory deficits” in mice. His proposal, he said, could move very quickly into clinical trials under new federal regulations.

The researchers’ rejected applications were scored at either at an average of 71 or 72 by the agency’s blue-ribbon scientific grant reviewers, who do their work behind closed doors. The reviewers approved five grants with scores ranging from 89 to 76. Two of the approved grants had the same median score of 75 as the three rejected grants.

During public sessions in the past, a number of board members have said that a few points difference on scores is not statistically significant.

In a memo to the board, Randy Mills, president of the agency, recommended rejection of the applications. He said the applicants could re-apply next summer under the agency’s new CIRM 2.0 program or possibly under the preclinical round that is now open.

Mills’ memo also includes the range of scores and summaries of reviewers' comments. The agency does not identify applicants by name until after the board acts and then only the winners. However, Helms' application is 08105; D’Lima’s is 08128, and Schubert’s is 08086. 

The CIRM board originally budgeted $40 million for the research to be approved tomorrow. Only five applications were okayed by reviewers for a total of $15.8 million.

Helms noted in her March 20 letter to the board that CIRM has been a big supporter of her research since 2009.  The agency has also considered her something of a bright light, using her on panels and presentations.

About the review of her application, she wrote,
“Reviewers had nothing negative to say about the proposed product, the preclinical data, the approach, the veracity of the indications, the MOA, the proposed plan of action, or the milestones.”
Helms said that Avalon Ventures is backing her research to the tune of $16 million, including creation of a new firm, Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics of La Jolla, to push it forward.
Daryll D'Lima, Scripps photo

In his March 19 letter, D’Lima said his research has demonstrated “very convincing proof" that his possible therapy was “very successful in repairing osteochondral defects (a major factor leading to osteoarthritis)." 

Schubert said in his letter that “there are currently no drugs that halt (Alzheimer’s) progression so the potential benefits of moving CAD- 
031(the name of the treatment) into human trials are enormous."

David Schubert, Salk photo
Schubert’s letter was dated March 16 but was only posted on CIRM Web site within the last two days as were the other letters(dated March 19 and
March 20). The delay in posting makes it difficult for patient advocates to attend the board meeting tomorrow to express directly to the board their opinions about the proposals.

The D’Lima and Schubert applications also involve organizations that do not have seats on the agency’s governing board. D’Lima’s is the only award to Scripps Health. Schubert works at Salk which has not had a representative on the CIRM board since 2011. Salk has received $50 million from the agency.

About 88 percent of the funds that the CIRM board has awarded have gone to institutions with ties to persons who have been members of the board.

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this item said that Helms had received $11 million from the agency, based on information on the CIRM Web site. She said, however, the correct figure is $7 million.)

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