Friday, February 26, 2016

California's $30 Million Bet On a Cancer Treatment: New Company Formed to Bring the Therapy to Market

Stanford, Weissman involved
Good news for CIRM
Google hooked in

A new stem cell company that targets cancer by unleashing an “eat me” trigger has emerged from a $30 million investment by the state of California.

Creation of the Palo Alto firm, which is called Forty Seven, Inc., was announced this week by its backers and its key researcher, Irv Weissman, director of Stanford University’s stem cell program.

Venture capitalists, including Google, are supporting the enterprise with $75 million. The effort
has two phase one clinical trials underway, the first step in a years-long process of testing potential therapies before the federal government approves their widespread use.

Forty Seven, named after the molecular target of the “eat-me” trigger, is not the first firm to emerge from research funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the state stem cell agency is formally known. At least eight others have surfaced over the years.

But this week’s announcement attracted some national attention in a story by Alex Lash on Xconomy, an online technology information service. Lash wrote,

“This is the kind of news CIRM has yearned for in recent years: significant private cash that gives CIRM-funded projects a push to become actual products and to return value to the state…. After a decade of funding buildings, salaries, and early stem-cell related research—not to mention conflict of interest problems that included a past CIRM president and a different company (StemCells, Inc.) with Weissman’s imprimatur—CIRM and its new president acknowledged it needed to show results for the $6 billion taxpayers committed to the agency in 2004.

“This type of follow-on funding is what we’re looking for,” says CIRM spokesman Don Gibbons, who adds that the big financial awards for Stanford were in line with the agency’s mission “to get things moving early when others won’t invest.”

(See here, here and here for more on the conflicts of interest.)

Voters approved the creation of the $3 billion agency in 2004. But no therapies have emerged for widespread use despite the optimism of its early backers and campaign promises. The agency expects to run out of funds for new awards in 2020. One of the possibilities for new funding is another multi-billion dollar state bond issue. State bonds are the only significant source of cash for the Oakland-based agency.

Xconomy reported that CIRM has yet to provide its final $5.1 million to Weissman. And Lash wrote that “Forty Seven is in the process of taking charge of the grant-funded programs.” Asked this morning by the California Stem Cell Report whether the funds would be going directly to the firm, Kevin McCormack, senior director of communications, replied,

“Our grant goes to the principal investigator on the project, in this case it’s both Irv Weissman and his co-PI Ravi Majeti. Both are at Stanford.”

Weissman’s technique uses a monoclonal antibody that attaches to the CD47 protein on cancer cells them from hiding from the patient’s immune system. Lash wrote,
“But cancer cells also produce what Weissman and colleagues call an ‘eat me’ signal from a protein called calreticulin. Normal, healthy cells don’t. By cutting off the CD47 ‘don’t eat me’ signal, Hu5F9-G4 should in theory allow the calreticulin signal to prevail.”
Stanford, which has a member on the CIRM board of directors, is the No. 1 recipient of funds from CIRM. It has chalked up 98 awards totalling $308 million. Weissman has received five awards totalling $36 million. StemCells, Inc., which was co-founded by Weissman, has been awarded $9 million in for three projects.

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