Friday, December 23, 2016

Holiday Break for California Stem Cell Report

This web site will go dark for the holidays. If we are lucky, it will resume on Jan. 3. Best wishes to all and Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

California Stem Cell Agency Says Companies Seeking "Better Deal" in Unique, $150 Million Plan

Five responses to plan
Application process is not a negotiation
Protection of state taxpayers paramount
More talks with companies planned

The president of the California stem cell agency, Randy Mills, yesterday said that the firms that responded to an ambitious proposal to create a $150 million public/private partnership were seeking to make a "better deal" than the agency had offered.

Mills said that the agency was "not going to give away something that is not in the best interests of the people of California."

Randy Mills, FDA photo
Mills was responding to questions raised earlier this week as a result of a report on this web site that
the proposal has hit a significant snag. The plan is aimed at creating a unique enterprise to speed development of stem cell therapies and to help establish California as a global stem cell powerhouse. The new company would be backed by a $75 million state loan (discounted to 50 percent payback)  with a matching $75 million coming from a successful applicant. The company would have the pick of agency research that did not already have a commercial partner.

The deadline for applications was Oct. 31. Up until yesterday, the agency had not even disclosed the number of responses to the request for applications(RFA). Nor had it gone beyond vague expressions of the issues troubling the proposal.

In a telephone interview with the California Stem Cell Report, Mills said that five responses were received on Oct. 31. But he said none were eligible for consideration because they did not meet the requirements of the RFA. He said the responses indicated that the companies viewed the application process as a "negotiation." Mills said "all kinds of terms" were proposed that were "different than in the RFA." He said,
"We put forward what we thought was a very good deal. The heads of the companies wanted to make a better deal."
Mills added,
"The deal is as good as the deal is going to get."
He said the $3 billion agency, known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), has to be willing to walk away if the deal is not appropriate.  He said the agency had a fiscal responsibility to taxpayers. "My investors are the people of California," Mills said.

Mills said, however, he was going to discuss the proposal further with those who responded to determine whether it was a matter of "terms or time." He said the proposal was innovative and unusual, posing challenges for both the companies and the agency.

Mills comments came as he was responding to questions raised by a reader of the California Stem Cell Report, Ed Snively, of El Centro, Ca. Snively is a longtime participant in local affairs in his area in Imperial County and has long followed stem cell agency matters.

He wrote in an email to California Stem Cell Report,
"Thank you, David, for this interesting observation on selective transparency by the agency. The comments by Mills regarding state regulatory compliance and taxpayer procedure acceptance were curious to me. I think Mills owes an explanation of his remarks to taxpayers. If this 'bold' plan violates the terms of the agency contract with the state and stakeholder/taxpayers then Mills needs to explain why that is. What he has done is make me think that something right on the legal edge is going on behind closed doors. I hate that in public agencies."
The California Stem Cell Report emailed the comments to the agency, asking if it would like to respond.

In the subsequent telephone interview, Mills said that he did not want the agency to be perceived as selectively transparent and that he had "no problem" in answering any questions.  He said that if his earlier comments were not clear that it was his fault, and he elaborated on the issues involved.

But under the agency's longstanding rules, it does not disclose the names of applicants nor does it disclose their applications -- only a review summary when they come before the agency's governing board for final action.  However, the terms of contracts with successful applicants are a public record.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

'A Good Deal?' -- California Stem Cell Research, Rosy Expectations and Billions of Dollars

$6 billion from the Golden State
$1.1 billion in royalties?
40 new clinical trials projected

"Are taxpayers getting a good deal?" That's the question that was raised nationally this week by the New York Times in connection with federally funded research dealing with life-saving treatments.

The same question can be raised concerning the roughly $6 billion, including interest, that California is spending -- unsuccessfully so far -- to generate a stem cell therapy that can be widely used.

In the case of the Times, the article by Matt Richtel and Andrew Pollack dealt with cancer immunotherapies and the soaring business and medical enthusiasm for the treatments. The two writers started their lengthy piece with the example of Kite Pharma, which they said "has struck gold." The company's stock has soared from $17 a share two years ago to about $50.

The Times wrote that excitement over the treatment speaks "volumes about the value of Kite's main scientific partner: the United States government."

California too is partnering with researchers and companies to develop blockbuster treatments, including immunotherapies. It has awarded more than $2 billion for research into possible treatments ranging from arthritis to extremely rare diseases that affect only a few thousand people.

The state is financing its research via the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), which is more informally known as the state stem cell agency. The agency has only $692 million left before its money for new awards runs out in 2020.

CIRM is funded by $3 billion that state borrows (bonds). The interest on the bonds roughly doubles the cost of the research compared to pay-as-you-go financing, which the federal government basically relies on. Like the federal government, CIRM depends on the private sector to actually bring potential therapies into widespread use.

The stem cell agency was created by voters in 2004 when they approved a ballot initiative. The campaign raised rosy expectations that cures were right around corner for afflictions that reached into nearly 50 percent of California families. And supporters also said that the state could expect as much as $1.1 billion in royalties. But royalties and commercial therapies have yet to appear.

The Times piece laid out arguments concerning federal research that apply equally to California's research effort, which is unprecedented in state history and which operates outside of the control of the governor and the legislature.  The Times piece said,
"Defenders say that the (public/private) partnership will likely bring a lifesaving treatment to patients, something the government cannot really do by itself, and that that is what matters most.
"Critics say that taxpayers will end up paying twice for the same drug — once to support its development and a second time to buy it — while the company reaps the financial benefit."
The Times article continued,
“If this was not a government-funded cancer treatment — if it was for a new solar technology, for example — it would be scandalous to think that some private investors are reaping massive profits off a taxpayer-funded invention,” said James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International, an advocacy group concerned with access to medicines."
California's stem cell agency has yet to find a financial source to continue its work beyond 2020. Some talk has surfaced about another bond measure in 2018, but political observers give such an effort slight chance of success unless the agency can produce a therapy that will resonate with voters. If the Trump Administration, however, imposes restrictions on stem cell research, similar to those of the Bush Administration in 2004, that could create an impetus for passage of another measure.

Bob Klein, the first chairman of the stem cell agency, used to like to trot out the hundreds of scientific journal articles that were published by CIRM-funded researchers as a sign of success. "So what?" was the private comment to the California Stem Cell Report by one former CIRM staffer, alluding to the lack of impact of the journal articles. 

The agency's record, however, is picking up. Last week it cited 70 new projects, 10 new clinical trials plus a $30 million stem cell "pitching machine."  At at an emotional meeting, the agency's governing board also heard a mother thank the agency for saving the life of one of her children. Randy Mills, the president of the agency, is pushing hard and is looking for 40 additional clinical trials in the next several years. 

But the fundamental question remains: Will California taxpayers get their money's worth -- "a good deal" -- for the billions they are spending on stem cell research.   

Monday, December 19, 2016

Ambitious, $150 Million, California Plan for Stem Cell 'Powerhouse' Stalls

$75 million state loan
Pick of stem cell research
Agency vague on problems

The California stem cell agency's bold plan to create a unique, $150 million, public-private company to speed development of stem cell therapies has hit a significant snag, stalling its progress indefinitely.

The agency, however, says it hasn't given up and will try to find solutions to the undisclosed problems.

Under the proposal -- first advanced a year ago -- California would provide a $75 million loan to a partner that would also provide $75 million. The goal would be to create a "powerhouse" that would likely be one of the landmark legacies of the $3 billion agency. The partner would be expected to pay back only 50 percent of the loan plus interest. The new company would also have the pick of the 94 percent of the agency research that doesn't already have a business partner. 

The public-private biotech partnership  -- dubbed ATP3 -- would be the first in state history and the first of such magnitude nationally.

The agency has been working for much of 2016 to recruit applicants and to address potential concerns. The difficulties began to surface last fall at the Oct. 31 deadline for applications. The agency declined to disclose to the California Stem Cell Report even the number of applications it had received. A spokesman said only that the agency was checking to see if they were "eligible."

The chairman of the agency, Jonathan Thomas, went public with slightly more information at last week's meeting of the agency's governing board.

He referred to a "number of applicants" that were involved. He said that issues still exist and that the application(s) that were submitted to the agency will not be given to the agency's reviewers as scheduled. Thomas said the request for applications may extended and some criteria adjusted.

Randy Mills, president of the agency, said later in the meeting that an effort would be made to make the plan "compliant with state requirements and palatable to taxpayers." He described it as an "ongoing challenge."

Mills said,
"We haven’t given up but we haven’t nailed it yet."
No public questions were raised at the meeting by 29-directors of the agency, which is officially known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

It was created 12 years ago by a ballot initiative approved by voters and relies on money borrowed by the state(bonds). The ballot campaign indicated that stem cell therapies were close on the horizon. However, the agency has not developed a therapy for widespread use.

It estimates that it has about $692 million left for awards. The agency's funds are projected to run out in 2020. No additional funding is in sight.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Nearly $15 Million: California Targets Eye Disease and Kidney Transplants for Stem Cell Therapy

Directors of the California stem cell agency this week formally awarded a total of $14.9 million to Stanford scientist Samuel Strober and Henry Klassen of UC Irvine for clinical trials involving kidney transplants and eye disease, respectively.

Henry Klassen, jCyte photo
The largest award, $8.3 million, went to Klassen and continues support for development of a treatment for retinitis pigmentosa. Klassen has received $19 million already from the $3 billion stem cell agency.

Jing Yang, jCyte photo
Klassen's award for a phase two clinical trial will be partially matched with $5.5 million in matching funds involving jCyte, Inc., of Newport Beach, Ca., which Klassen co-founded along with Jing Yang, also of UC Irvine.

Rosie Barrero, CIRM photo
Kevin McCormack, senior director of communications, wrote today on the agency's blog about a conversation he had with Rosie Barrero, who took part in the first phase of the trial. She said,
“There’s more definition, more colors. I am seeing colors I haven’t seen in years. We have different cups in our house but I couldn’t really make out the different colors. One morning I woke up and realized ‘Oh my gosh, one of them is purple and one blue’. I was by myself, in tears, and it felt amazing, unbelievable.”
If you are interested in participating in the trial, email Jacqueline Tidball at

Strober's award is his first from the stem cell agency. McCormack said the Strober team is "using a deceptively simple approach to help people who get a kidney transplant."

Samuel Strober, Stanford photo
McCormack continued, 
"Currently people who get a transplant have to take anti-rejection medications for the rest of their life to prevent their body rejecting the new organ. These powerful immunosuppressive medications are essential but also come with a cost; they increase the risk of cancer, infection and heart disease."
He said, 
"The Stanford team will see if it can help transplant patients bypass the need for those drugs by injecting blood stem cells and T cells (which play an important role in the immune system) from the kidney donor into the kidney recipient. The hope is by using cells from the donor, you can help the recipient’s body more readily adjust to the new organ and reduce the likelihood the body’s immune system will attack it."
Both UC Irvine and Stanford have representatives on the 29-member stem cell agency board. They are not allowed to vote on specific grants to their institutions. Roughly 90 percent of the agency's funding has gone to institutions with links to board members.

Here is a link to the review summary of Strober's application(CLIN2-09439). Here is a link to the review summary on Klassen's application (CLIN2-09698).

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Mom to California: Thanks for 'Keeping My Family Complete' with Life-Saving Stem Cell Therapy

CIRM graphic
In an emotion-choked session this morning, the mother of a four-year-old girl thanked California's stem cell agency for saving the life of her daughter.

"Thank you for keeping my family complete," said Alysia Padilla-Vaccaro, her voice cracking as she spoke to the governing board of the $3 billion California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known.

Her daughter, Evangelina, also whispered a soft "thank you"to the board and CIRM staff at the Oakland meeting. She had suffered from what is known as the "bubble baby syndrome."

Evangelina was one of two persons cured by treatments developed with the help of financing from the stem cell agency, created by voters in 2004 and supported by state bonds.

Brenden Whittaker, 22, was the second person. He was near death twice and lost parts of his lungs and liver as the result of another, rare, immune deficiency disease. He said,
"My experience has truly been life-changing...I hope you continue to push the boundaries and help as many people as you can."
Randy Mills, president of the agency, presented Whittaker and Evangelina to the board during a review of the progress of the agency. He said they were "the first two patients to be cured by CIRM programs."  Mills also introduced two other patients who have been helped by the agency's research: Jake Javier, who suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury, and Karl Trede, a cancer patient. The agency has not developed a therapy for widespread use.

Mills hailed their courage and the courage of their families for taking part in the risky clinical trials. Mills told the 29-member CIRM board that in pursuit of stem cell cures that the agency had to be "Jake-strong," a term originating with Javier's mother after his injury.

The stem cell agency estimates it has $692 million left for new awards between now and 2020, when it expects to run out of cash. The research budget for next year was approved at $328 million with most of it going for clinical programs. Clinical trials represent the last stage for a proposed therapy before it reaches the market.

The CIRM board has approved a goal of 40 more clinical trials between now and 2020. Currently it has 22 underway. Only one out of 10 conventional treatments that begin trials wind up as commercial products. Often the trial process can take many years even with conventional therapies. No stem cell treatments have yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration in this country.

Here is more on the patients featured at today's meeting:

Evangelina, of Corona, Ca., was diagnosed shortly after birth with "bubble baby" disease and no functioning immune system. Her blood cells were genetically altered to create a new blood and immune system. The therapy was developed by Donald Kohn of UCLA. CIRM has backed his work, which goes beyond the bubble baby affliction, with nearly $52 million. (See here, here and here.)
CIRM graphic

Whittaker, of Columbus, Ohio, almost died twice as a result of a rare immune system disease. Parts of his lung and liver were removed due to repeated infection. His blood stem cells were genetically modified to create a new blood system and a healthy immune system. The treatment was also developed by Kohn at UCLA.

Javier, 19, of San Ramon, Ca., was paralyzed as the result of a swimming pool accident. He received 10 million stem cells,the first person to have such an injection, and has since regained the use of his arms. His treatment grew out of the trial that Geron Corp. abandoned in 2011. Asterias Therapeutics of Menlo Park, Ca., has continued the work. Between the two companies, CIRM has invested nearly $21 million in the project. Jane Lebkowski has led the research at both companies.

Karl Trede, CIRM graphic
Trede, 70, of San Jose, Ca., lost his vocal cords, removed because of cancer of the throat.  The cancer nonetheless spread but was treated with the "eat me" protein therapy fromStanford University. As a result, his cancer has stopped growing. CIRM invested $40 million in the project, initiated by Irv Weissman of Stanford, who developed the CD47 treatment. It has led to the formation of a new company in Palo Alto called Forty Seven, Inc. (See here for a CIRM item on Trede.)
(For the text of CIRM summaries on the four, see here.)

(Editor's note: The earlier graphics in this item were replaced later with the ones that actually were displayed the day of the meeting. An earlier version also misstated Evangelina's age.)

The California Stem Cell Four: Text of Short Bios

Here is the text of the information provided by the California stem cell agency on the individual patients featured at today's meeting of its governing board. 

Brenden Whittaker 
Diagnosed with X-linked chronic granulomatous disease (X-CGD), a rare disease that causes the immune system to malfunction leaving it unable to fight off certain bacterial and fungal infections which, over time, can be life-threatening. Hospitalized hundreds of times over the years Brenden almost died on a couple of occasions and had part of his lung and liver removed due to repeated infection.
Brenden was cured thanks to an experimental procedure, developed by Dr. Don Kohn, that removed some of his own blood stem cells; they were then genetically modified to remove the gene that causes the problem, and then re-infused to him. The modified blood stem cells created a new blood system and a healthy immune system capable of fighting off infections. 

Evangelina Padilla-Vaccaro 
Evangelina was diagnosed shortly after birth with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID); it’s also known as “bubble baby” disease because in the past children were kept in a sterile plastic bubble to protect them. It’s a rare – and often deadly -- genetic disorder that meant she had no functioning immune system, leaving her vulnerable to infections. Many children with this condition die within the first year of life.
Evangelina was cured as part of a clinical trial at UCLA run by Dr. Don Kohn. She underwent a stem cell transplant that took her own blood stem cells, genetically re-engineered them, and returned them to her body.  These re-engineered stem cells created a new blood and immune system.
(Evangelina’s parents are Alysia and Christian, her twin sister is Annabella) 

Jake Javier
An accident at a friend’s pool party on the eve of Jake’s high school graduation left him paralyzed from the chest down with no ability to use either his arms or hands.
On Thursday, July 7th, Jake Javier became a member of a very select group. Jake underwent a stem cell transplant, getting 10 million stem cells transplanted into his neck at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose. Since then Jake has regained use of his arms and is working hard to regain even more use.

Karl Trede 
In 2006 Karl was diagnosed with cancer of the throat, he had the tumor and his vocal cords removed. Several years later they found the cancer had spread to his lungs so Karl became patient #1 in a clinical trial at Stanford.
The trial used a monoclonal antibody to target a specific protein on a cancer cell called CD47. This protein tricks the immune system into not attacking the cancer, earning CD47 the nickname from the Stanford researchers as the “don’t eat me” protein. The monoclonal antibody disables CD47, leaving the cancer vulnerable to being attacked by the patient’s own immune system. The therapy stopped Karl’s cancer from growing. 

California's Stem Cell Research Pot Shrinking to Only $692 Million

$328 million for 2017 awards
Clinical research to jump to $215 million
New award cash runs out in 2020

The California stem cell agency is now down to its last $692 million after starting out 12 years ago with $3 billion and the promise of generating therapies that could help as many as nearly half of the state's families.

As of today, the agency -- formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) -- has yet to produce a widely available therapy.  But it has helped to fund treatments that have saved individual lives during the research process, and it is backing 22 clinical trials.

The state of the stem cell agency's finances was reported as part of the agenda for today's governing board meeting in Oakland. On tap is a recommendation from Randy Mills, president of CIRM, that the board approve spending $328 million for research awards in 2017.

Also expected to be discussed are some of the success stories of CIRM, which was created through a ballot initiative in 2004. Voters were promised during the $34 million campaign that "cures will be coming soon."  Backers of the initiative said that nearly half of all California families include a person who suffers from a condition that could be treated with stem cell therapies.

CIRM documents prepared for today's meeting showed that this year the agency awarded nearly $262 million for research. The largest amount -- $87.1 million -- went for clinical level programs.   Basic research, called "discovery" by CIRM, received nearly $47 million, slightly above the $43 million for education. Translational research received nearly $55 million while an infrastructure program chalked up $30 million.

For 2017, clinical programs would jump to as much as $215 million under Mills' proposal. Discovery would come in at $52 million, translation at $45 million, infrastructure at $16 million (two new Alpha stem cell clinics) with no awards for education. None of the awards are for buildings or labs.
The total would be $328 million.

That would leave $364 million in awards for 2018 through 2020, assuming the agency's budget projections come in as expected.

The agency has about $528 million in uncommitted funds. However, "returns" from awards are expected to raise the available amount for awards to $692 million. Returns of cash are generated when researchers do not meet funding benchmarks or when an award is terminated early for whatever reason.

The agency is funded through state bonds. Those will run out for new awards in 2020, according to CIRM estimates.

As of the end of the year, the agency projects it will have 255 awards under active management with a value of $406 million.

Monday, December 12, 2016

California's Stem Cell Year: 70 New Projects, 10 New Clinical Trials Plus a 'Stem Cell Pitching Machine'

The California stem cell agency weighed in today with an upbeat prelude to a review of its performance in 2016, declaring it a "very productive year" that is counting 10 new clinical trials.

And Gov. Jerry Brown, in a short note to the agency, said that he looked "forward to its continuing success."

Brown, who is famously careful with words, made his very brief comment in a letter renominating Jonathan Thomas as chairman of the $3 billion agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine or CIRM.

Karen Ring, website and social media manager for CIRM, had a little more to say in a piece today on the agency's blog, The Stem Cellar. Her comments came on the eve of the CIRM board meeting in Oakland tomorrow, which includes a self-assessment of the state of the 12-year-old research effort. 

Ring noted that the agency is on target to meet its ambitious goal of helping to fund 50 new clinical trials through 2020. The board has backed eight trials so far this year and is virtually certain to add two more tomorrow at a cost of $14.9 million. In all, the agency is currently supporting 22 clinical trials, which are the last stage of research prior to bringing a therapy to market. Trials, however, can take years.

Declaring 2016 a "very productive year," Ring wrote that this year CIRM funded "70 promising stem cell projects ranging from education to discovery, translational and clinical projects."  She said that the eight board-approved trials include potential therapies for muscular dystrophy, kidney disease, primary immune diseases, and multiple types of cancer and blood disorders.

She also singled out a $30 million effort this year that Randy Mills, president of the agency, believes could be its most significant achievement. Mills sometimes calls it a stem cell "pitching machine."

Ring said,
"Collectively called The Stem Cell Center, the goal of this new infrastructure is to increase efficiency and shorten the time it takes to get human stem cell trials up and running."
No other state has mounted such an effort. The agency predicts that it could make California the world leader in the stem cell field, which is predicted to generate hundreds of billions of dollars globally by 2020 by some, perhaps optimistic accounts.

Regarding the two new clinical trials, already approved by the agency's reviewers, Ring said,
"The first trial is testing a stem cell treatment that could improve the outcome of kidney transplants. For normal kidney transplants, the recipient is required to take immunosuppressive drugs to prevent their body from rejecting the donated organ. This clinical trial aims to bypass the need for these drugs, which carry an increased risk of cancer, infection and heart disease, by injecting blood stem cells and other immune cells from the kidney donor into the patient receiving the kidney. You can read more about this proposed trial here.
"The second clinical trial is a stem cell derived therapy to improve vision in patients with a degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa. This disease destroys the light sensing cells at the back of the eye and has no cure. The trial hopes that by transplanting stem cell derived retinal progenitor cells into the back of the eye, these injected cells will secrete factors that will keep the cells in the eye healthy and possibly improve a patient’s vision. You can read more about this proposed trial here."
Names of the recipient researchers have been withheld by the agency until the board tomorrow ratifies the decisions by its reviewers.

Upcoming: Full Coverage of California Stem Cell Agency Meeting Tomorrow

Check in here tomorrow with the California Stem Cell Report for gavel-to-gavel coverage of the meeting of the governing board of the $3 billion California stem cell agency -- a day-long session that will include a review of its performance this year and its path for 2017.

The meeting will be based in Oakland and will be covered live  by the California Stem Cell Report from Mexico via the agency's audiocast and online accessibility.

The session is expected to lay out upcoming rounds of awards of interest to both researchers and patients. Stories will be filed as warranted throughout the day.

For those interested in attending and participating in the session either in Oakland or at three teleconference locations in Los Angeles and the San Diego area, addresses can be found on the agenda. It also contains instructions for logging into the audiocast and Internet to see the slides being used.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

FDA Stem Cell Regulation: A Pitch for 'Not Too Hot and Not Too Cold'

Members of the California stem cell agency team last week were at the World Stem Cell Summit in Florida, telling the story of the Golden State's research effort.

Something like 1,000-plus people were in attendance at the conference, and Kevin McCormack, senior director of communications for the stem agency, was one.

McCormack filed a report about FDA regulation of stem cell research for the agency's blog, The Stem Cellar. 

He quoted Martin McGlynn, former CEO of StemCells, Inc., of San Leandro, Ca., as saying the rest of the world is moving more rapidly to bring stem cell therapies to the marke, citing Japan, China and Australia.

They are not exactly the three bears of the childhood story. But Goldilocks did come up at the meeting a little later. McCormack wrote,
"Marc Scheineson was the final speaker. He heads the food and drug law practice at Washington, DC law firm Alston & Bird and is a former associate commissioner for legislative affairs at the FDA.... 
"Scheineson says part of the problem is that the FDA was created long before cell therapy was possible and so it is struggling to fit its more traditional drug approval framework around stem cell therapies. As a result, this has led to completely separate regulatory processes for the transplantation of human organs and blood vessels, or for the use of whole blood or blood components. 
"He says it’s like the fable of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Some of the regulation is too hard- resulting in a lengthy regulatory process that takes years to complete and costs billions of dollars – and some of the regulation is too soft allowing clinics t open up around the US offering unproven therapies. He says we need a Goldilocks approach that blends the two into regulations that are just right."

Friday, December 09, 2016

California's Stem Cell Research Spending Up for Review Next Week

If you are interested in how the state of California is going to spend its final $800 million or so on stem cell research, you should catch a key meeting next Tuesday in Oakland, which also can be heard online.

The session involves the 29-member, governing board of the $3 billion California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the state stem cell agency is formally known.

The agency was created by California voters in 2004 with voters' expectation that stem cell therapies were all but just around the corner. So far, no therapies have been developed by the agency that are available for widespread use.

Nonetheless, the agency, which runs out of money in 2020, is pushing hard. It has more than 20 clinical trials underway, which is the last step in bringing a therapy to market. However, those trials can take years with no guarantee that a proposed product will emerge successfully.

On tap on Tuesday will be a look at the agency's research plans for the next three years with a review of how it has performed so far in 2016. The agency's proposal for research spending in 2017 is likely to have a significant impact on the hundreds of stem cell researchers in California. The proposal is not yet available online, however, with only two business days left before the meeting.

CIRM is also hinting that there will be some surprises at the meeting, but it is unlikely that a product announcement will be forthcoming.

Additionally on tap are applications for a total of $14.9 million for two early-stage clinical trials. One is for $6.7 million (CLIN2-09439) to test using stem cells and T cells to eliminate the life-long need for immunosuppresive drugs by kidney transplant recipients. The other (CLIN2-09698) is for $8.3 million for a mid-stage trial (2b) for a therapy for retinitis pigmentosa.

The applications were approved for funding by the agency's grant reviewers, who meet behind closed doors and do not publicly disclose their economic or professional interests. Ratification of the reviewer decisions is a formality for the agency. although the names of the recipients are not generally disclosed prior to board action.

The board is expected to re-elect Jonathan Thomas as chairman of the panel. Thomas was elected to the position in 2011. He has sent a  two-page letter to the board detailing his work during the last five years. Also scheduled to be re-elected is Art Torres as vice chairman.

Thomas receives $400,000 annually for his "80 percent effort" in the part-time position. Torres, a former state lawmaker, receives $225,000, also for an "80 percent effort."

Instructions for listening to the meeting online can be found on the agenda. In addition to main meeting site in Oakland, public telephonic locations exist in San Diego and La Jolla. Specific addresses can be found on the agenda.

Voting Underway for Stem Cell Person of 2016

The latest tally of voting for the stem cell person of the year shows that patient advocate Ted Harada, who died in October, is leading with 47 percent of the vote with the nearest contender at 11 percent.

However, only one vote counts since this is not a democratic election. The sole individual choosing the stem cell person of the year is Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell scientist at UC Davis.

Knoepfler originated the award a few years back and personally puts up $2,000 in prize money. He has compiled a list of 20 possible honorees, ranging from patient advocates to researchers. Voting is advisory only. Deadline for the ballot is 11:59 p.m. Dec. 15.

Knoepfler wrote on his blog last month about Harada, who was an ALS patient advocate. Knoepfler said,
"Ted approached all that life threw at him, whether it was ALS or a brain tumor, with a characteristic passion, sense of humor and classiness. I don’t recall anyone dealing with adversity as well as Ted did and I never heard him say anything like, 'why me.' Instead there was always kindness and grace."
Distant second to Harada this morning was Randy Mills, president of the $3 billion California stem cell agency.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Multi-Billion Dollar Ballot Measure for California Stem Cell Agency in 2018?

California's $3 billion stem cell research effort is scheduled to run out of cash in three short years, but the likelihood seems to be increasing that voters will be asked again to come up with additional billions for the state's stem cell agency.

In fact, the chairman of the stem cell agency, Jonathan Thomas, is saying flatly this week that his predecessor, real investment investment banker Bob Klein, intends to place a funding measure on the November 2018 ballot.

Klein led the ballot initiative campaign in 2004 that created the unusual -- for a state -- stem cell research program, officially called the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). The agency is financed with cash that the state is borrowing. increasing total costs to roughly $6 billion because of the interest expense.
Jonathan Thomas, left, with Don Reed,
vice president of public policy, Americans
for Cures, Klein's advocacy group --
CIRM photo

Thomas' statement was contained in a letter to the governing board that recapped his work since he was elected by the board in 2011 to replace Klein. One section of the letter dealt with funding of the agency.

Thomas wrote,
"Bob has already announced that he intends to put a measure on the November 2018 ballot. We keep him updated on CIRM's progress so that he is fully informed."
Thomas added that he and two key CIRM staffers have "initiated discussions with a number of philanthropists and foundations interested in medical research who could be potential sources of funds to keep CIRM going in the event Bob's measure is not successful."

The California Stem Cell Report has queried Klein about his plans. The full text of his response will be carried when it is received.

Robert Klein, Americans for Cures
Klein has publicly mentioned a possible bond measure in the past, most recently in 2014, including a figure as high as $5 billion. It is unclear whether he has spoken more specifically on the matter since then.

Klein maintains a stem cell advocacy group, Americans for Cures, which has an active web site and an impressive list of scientific advisors, including Irv Weissman of Stanford, Rusty Gage of the Salk Institute and Owen Witte of UCLA.

Klein's 2004 stem cell campaign cost $34 million to convince California voters that the state needed to begin its own human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research effort in the wake of then President Bush's restrictions on federal funding in that area. The campaign created the impression that cures were close at hand, according to opponents and media observers. The agency is yet to back a therapy that is available for widespread use.

The election of Donald Trump as president is widely expected to trigger new, Bush-like restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research that could create the same sort of climate that helped lead to the success of the 2004 ballot initiative in California. 

Monday, December 05, 2016

California Approves $15 Million for Stem Cell Research Ranging from Arthritis to Alzheimer's, But Not Without a "Hair-Cut"

Snafu in November
Ankasa whacked
Across-the-board cuts rejected

After a hiccup last month, the California stem cell agency today coughed up $15 million for a quartet of researchers looking into Alzheimer's disease, cartilage repair, arthritis and sickle cell disease, but not before lopping off a big chunk of one proposal.

Action by the governing board of the $3 billion agency came after a snafu at its Nov. 17 meeting. The proposals, all previously approved by the agency's reviewers, hit a roadblock when the budgeted cash was not enough to fund all four. The session last month also stalled as a result of quorum problems and research priorities.

Normally applications approved by reviewers during their closed-door sessions slip through the later public meetings of the agency board with no discussion. But this time around, reviewers approved the four applications, but gave one of the researchers a sizable, financial "hair cut."

Despite concerns about fairness and imposing new conditions on applicants, the board stripped $1.6 million from a $3.7 million application to develop a stem cell therapy for osteoarthritis by Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics of La Jolla.

The action came after the lead researcher, Jill Helms of Stanford, said her company would make up the shortfall.  She made the comment after being told she could re-submit the application, which was the last to come up for a vote. She indicated that she would prefer to pursue that route rather attempting a problematic and "onerous" re-application with a new set of reviewers early next year.

The other three applications were approved with full funding after a motion to cut all four by about 10 percent failed on a 1-9 vote with one board member abstaining. Board members used the term "hair cut" to describe the reductions, which the applicants would have to make up.

Helms' application was the only one in this round from a business. The others came from non-profit institutions.

Randy Mills, president of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine or CIRM as the stem cell agency is formally known, opposed the 10 percent cuts on all four awards. He said he and his staff did not want to see programs cut "on the fly." He said applicants were not told that they would have to come up with matching funds when they originally applied.

The other three researchers winning awards are Yadong Huang of the Gladstone Institutes, $6 million for Alzheimer's;  Mark Walters of Children's Hospital, Oakland, $4.5 million for sickle cell, and Denis Evseenko of USC, $2.5 million for cartilage repair.

All the awards went to researchers or institutions that have links to persons who sit on the 29-member board. Overall, about 90 percent of the money awarded by CIRM since 2004 has gone to institutions with ties to past or present board members. While board members set rules for funding and the scope of awards, they are not allowed, however, to vote on specific applications from institutions with which they are connected.  

Summaries of reviewers comments, scores and more can be found on this document from CIRM, which is based in Oakland.  Here is a link to the CIRM press release.

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