Sunday, February 26, 2017

California Popping for $40 Million for its Alpha Clinic Stem Cell Centers

CIRM video
California this year expects to add two new Alpha stem cell clinics to the three already in Southern California, boosting its investment in the effort to as much as $40 million.

The move came last Thursday when directors of the state's $3 billion stem cell agency approved seeking additional Alpha Clinic applications this spring. The purpose of the clinics is to accelerate development of stem cell therapies, a key goal of Proposition 71, the ballot measure that created the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine or CIRM as the Oakland-based program is known.

Expansion of the program could also mean that an Alpha site may be located somewhere in Northern California by the end of this year. One of the objectives of the latest proposal is to broaden the "geographic reach" of the Alpha network.

According to CIRM, the existing Alpha clinics already have 33 clinical trials underway for 12 different afflictions. Randy Mills, president of the agency, said in an interview Friday with the California Stem Cell Report that the clinics doubled the number of stem cell trials that they had prior to launching their CIRM Alpha programs. Many of those trials do not require agency funding, which allows the cash to be used elsewhere.

Maria Millan, CIRM's vice president for therapeutics, told CIRM directors last week,
"Once we built it, they did come."
The latest expansion is aimed at increasing capacity and access to stem cell trials, training physician/scientists in clinical trials and bringing additional assets to California's Alpha clinic network, which is also positioned to help establish the state as the global leader in stem cell treatment.

The request for applications, with a deadline of May 15, will also require that the clinics -- whether non-profit or for-profit -- create a "sustainability plan," which will keep them operating after the CIRM funding terminates in four years. The agency itself expects to run out of cash for any new awards even sooner -- June 2020.

CIRM is offering to provide two winners in the Alpha round $8 million each over a four-year period with milestones required to keep the cash flowing.

During Friday's interview, Mills said that applicants from Northern California will need to make a case for the "added value" that they will bring to their proposals and demonstrate that their populations are underserved. Additional applications are likely to come in from Southern California, which has the bulk of the state's population and patients.

The current Alpha Clinics are located at the City of Hope in Duarte, which is in the Los Angeles area, UC San Diego and UCLA/UC Irvine.

A symposium on Alpha Clinics is scheduled for March 23 at the City of Hope. Advance registration is requested.  

City of Hope video

Friday, February 24, 2017


An item yesterday on the meeting of the governing board of the stem cell agency incorrectly stated that the board approved $37 million in awards. The correct figure is about $33 million.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Diabetes to Arthritis: California Awards $33 Million for Clinical Stage Stem Cell Work

The California stem cell agency today approved nearly $33 million for clinical stage research projects testing treatments for type 1 diabetes, arthritis of the knee, ALS and an immunodeficiency affliction.

The awards were quickly approved with little discussion during a meeting at the Oakland headquarters of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine or CIRM, as the agency is formally known.

The award likely to have an impact on the most people -- if it is successful -- is a relatively small, $2.3 million award to the Cellular Biomedicine Group,  a Chinese firm with operations in Cupertino, Calif. The stem cell agency by law only finances work in California. The research would also be supported by $572,993 in co-funding.

The project is aimed at treating osteoarthritis of the knee. More than 51 million people in the United States suffer from arthritis, which is particularly common in the knee.

The goal of the research is to regenerate knee cartilage through the use of a mesenchymal progenitor cell treatment, according to the agency's application review summary. The funding would go to manufacture the product and complete work to secure Food and Drug Administration approval for a phase one safety trial. A treatment for the public would likely be years in the future.

Here are the other winners today of California stem cell cash with links to the summaries of the reviews.

Caladrius Biosciences of New Jersey won $12.2 million for a clinical trial for young people ages 12-17 for newly diagnosed type 1 diabetes. The firm plans to use regulatory T cells from the patients themselves to treat the disease. Caladrius has a California location in Mountain View. (Caladrius' press release can be found here.)

St. Jude's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., was awarded $11.9 million for a phase one/two trial to treat infants with X-linked severe combined immunodeficiency. The trial would aim at enrolling at least six patients suffering from the catastrophic affliction. The treatment would use the patients own bone marrow stem cells after the cells were specially handled. The agency said in a press release that St. Jude's is working with UC San Francisco. (St. Jude's press release can be found here.)

Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles was awarded $6.2 million for a phase 1/2A trial to test a treatment for ALS, which has no treatment or cure. The CIRM review summary said a "huge unmet need" existed. About 20,000 persons in the United States suffer from the affliction.

CIRM's press release did not identify the researchers involved in any of the awards.

The agency is on a push to support more clinical trials, which are the last and most expensive research prior to the possibility of winning federal approval for widespread use of a therapy.

Currently the agency is participating in 27 trials and is planning on adding 37 more in the next 40 months. The agency is expected to run out of funds for new awards in June 2020 and has no source of future financing.

The awards were previously approved behind closed doors by the agency's out-of-state reviewers, who do not disclose publicly their economic or professional interests. The agency's directors rarely overturn a positive decision by the reviewers.

All of the winners have links to two or more members of the 29-member CIRM governing board. Those members are not allowed to vote on applications where they have conflicts of interest.
About 90 percent of the funds awarded by the board since 2005 have gone to institutions that have ties to members of the board, past or present, according to calculations by the California Stem Cell Report.

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this item incorrectly said the total amount of awards was $37 million.)

California Stem Cell Agency Ends Today's Session

Directors of the California stem cell agency concluded their meeting at about 3:10 p.m. PST today. The California Stem Cell Report will carry an item a little later today on the awards made at the session.

First Time: California Stem Cell Directors Open Session in CIRM HQ in Oakland

CIRM graphic showing state of its administrative budget as of today 
The governing board of the $3 billion California stem cell agency this morning opened its meeting at 9:10 a.m. PST at its Oakland headquarters, the first time such a meeting has been held at the physical offices of the 12-year-old enterprise.

In the past, the 29-member board has held meetings at hotels and university campuses. Those sessions cost thousands of dollars for room rental, audio services and more. Today's meeting is a face-to-face session of the board. About half of the directors' meetings are currently conducted via telephone and are much less expensive than the face-to-face sessions, which were standard earlier.  About 12 meetings are scheduled each year. 

Reducing administrative costs is critical for the agency, which has a lifetime, operational budget that is capped by law at $180 million, 6 percent of the $3 billion in bond funding that voters allotted when they created the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) in 2004. 

Its staff numbers slightly more than 50 persons and was in the 20s during its early days, not much more than it takes to staff a 24-hour Burger King, if that. 

The agency projects it will run out of cash for grants sometime in 2020 but will need to fund operational expenses beyond then as multi-year awards wind down.

(The CIRM graphic was not included in an early version of this item.)

Looking at CIRM's Clinical Trials: Focus on Opthalmology

Directors of California's $3 billion research program will receive a briefing later today on the agency's investment in clinical trials, but here is a brief look at what they are going to hear about some of the 27 trials.

Maria Millan, vice president of therapeutics, will make the presentation on the existing trials and has posted 17 slides for her presentation, which focuses on opthalmology. 

Among other things, the slides show that 22 percent of the clinical trial funding involves oncology. Next comes hematology with 14 percent and opthalmology with 13 percent. 

Three awards have been made for phase three trials, four for phase two and 19 for phase one. The agency plans to participate in another 40 clinical trials between now and the end of 2020.

The California Stem Cell Report will carry more on Millan's presentation after it is concluded. 

Today's meeting begins at 9 a.m. PST and can be heard via an audiocast. See the agenda for details

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Defying Basic Medical Know-how, Stem Cell Treatments and Fake News

A racing car driver, a celebrity TV surgeon and allegations of stem cell "fake news" surfaced this week on California stem cell blogs.

It was a matter of Dr. Oz, A.J. Foyt and a company called Cell Surgical Network Corp. of Rancho Mirage, Ca., which UC Davis stem cell scientist Paul Knoepfler says is the largest affiliated group of stem cell clinics in the United States.

But first Oz and Foyt. They were the subject of an item on the The Stem Cellar, the blog of California's $3 billion stem cell agency,

Kevin McCormack, communications director for the Oakland-based agency, wrote the piece, which was headlined "TV's Dr. Oz takes on clinics offering dubious stem cell treatments."

Foyt has said he has signed up for stem cell treatment in Mexico for issues stemming from his many injuries sustained in his very successful career in auto racing. Oz this week ran an investigative piece dealing with some of the 570 clinics in this country that offer unproven treatments.

The Oz show said that complications and death have resulted in some cases from treatments at these clinics here and abroad.

McCormack's concluding sentence:
 "Perhaps someone should tell A.J. Foyt."
Michael Hiltzik, a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist with the Los Angeles Times, also had an article concerning the Oz show, which reported that the treatments being offered at many of the 570 medical clinics defy "basic medical know-how."

Hiltzik also wrote that the Oz provided a "a withering assessment of doctors who claim to be engaged in clinical trials of stem cell treatments but 'ask you to give money upfront and mortgage your house and borrow from your friends’ credit cards — that’s not how medicine should be practiced.'"

Davis' Knoepfler dealt with the Cell Surgical Network and discussed its possible use of "laboratory-proliferated stem cells" in patients, which Knoepfler indicated would require federal approval.

The matter was addressed in an email Q-and-A with the leaders of the corporation, Mark Berman and Elliott Lander.

Berman and Landers' final point:
"All we care about is our patients. Providing them with the best and safest regenerative medical care in the world is what Americans deserve. We are not interested in anyone who desires to slow or obstruct this patient care by manipulating regulators into criminalizing certain medical practices. Therefore, we continue on our mission and ignore the fake news and rumors that generate blog ratings and spread fear and mistrust."

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

California to Hand Out $32 Million for Stem Cell Research Next Week

The California stem cell agency next week is expected to award as much as $32 million for late stage research and clinical trials involving therapies for arthritis of the knee, type 1 diabetes, an immunodeficiency affliction and ALS. 

Also on tap for the Feb. 23 governing board meeting are concept proposals for expansion of the Alpha Clinic program along with unspecified changes in the $3 billion agency's discovery, translation and clinical plans. 

Four awards are already approved by the agency's reviewers and are scheduled for routine ratification by the board. Their review summaries can be found on the agenda. The reviewers also rejected one proposal for research involving Parkinson's disease. That summary can also be found on the agenda.

More details on the concept plans are expected to be posted soon. The meeting will take place in Oakland with public teleconference locations in in San Diego, Los Angeles and two in La Jolla. Addresses can be found on the agenda. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Cost of a Stem Cell Therapy? An Estimated $900,000

What is the likely cost of a freshly minted stem cell therapy? Close to $900,000. That's at least by one current estimate.

In the United States, such calculations are rare. Researchers and biotech executives shy away from discussing in public such daunting figures.

The figure emerged last week, however, in news from Japan about groundbreaking research to treat macular degeneration with reprogrammed adult stem cells.

While stem cell insiders are not keen on discussing $900,000 therapies -- at least their cost -- the public, however, is deeply interested. Development of expensive therapies is also likely to play a role in the future of California's $3 billion stem cell agency, which expects to run out of cash in 2020. Voters may look askance at publicly financed therapies that appear to be out of reach.

Exorbitant health care costs are on the minds of many. Forty-seven percent of the public said in 2016 that cost and access are the nation's most urgent health care problems, according to a Gallup Poll. Of all the nearly 4,300 items published on the California Stem Cell Report over the last 12 years, the most widely read article deals with the cost of stem cell treatments.

As of this morning, the 2013 article had recorded 21,963 page views, a standard way of measuring readership on web sites. Another related document chalked up 27,699 views on Scribd, where it was also published by the California Stem Cell Report. The figures are roughly four and five times higher than other relatively well-read pieces.

Readers do not give reasons for choosing the articles. But it is likely that their pocketbooks and hopes of affordable therapies are driving their interest.

Affordability was a big issue in the creation of the stem cell agency via a ballot initiative in 2004, Proposition 71. The agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), has not devoted any significant attention to the matter in the last few years.

But if the agency wants to secure additional public or even private funding, it will need to make the case that its work is more than just another entry in the medical arms race.

Just yesterday, OncLive,  an oncology news site, carried a report on the skyrocketing expense of cancer drugs alone, which cost the nation $16 billion annually in 2010 and jumped to $38 billion in 2015. As for individual cancer patients, they are looking at costs of more than $150,000 a year for drugs, figures that have generated a ruckus in the cancer treatment community.

Drug costs are a small part of the total health care bill for country. But they are a litmus test for policy makers and the public. The costs are relatively straight forward compared to some other health care measures. But they are readily understandable by most families, who usually have one member or more involved in prescription purchases.

 As efforts to repeal-and-replace the Affordable Care Act gain increasing attention over the next year, the public is likely to focus even more on the costs of treatments and drugs, whether it is a $19 aspirin or a $900,000 stem cell therapy.

The "good" news, however, last week out of Japan was that the $900,000 cost of the stem cell macular degeneration treatment could be reduced to below $200,000 as the kinks are worked out and the treatment becomes more common -- if it clears its clinical trials.

As for California, CIRM  has pumped $125 million into research dealing with blindness, including macular degeneration which afflicts 1.7 million Americans. Nearly one million Americans are blind from all causes and another 2.4 million suffer significant visual impairment. More information on the state research can be found here. A CIRM video on vision issues is below.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Sampling Stem Cell News: $1 Million Gift, Unsettling Thoughts and Paolo Macchiarini

New-fangled pigs, $1 million donations and a recommendation to wind down the stem cell agency, it was all part of the stew of stem cell news recently.

Here is the first bite from recent bits and pieces from the media:

Eli and Edythe Broad added another $1 million to the many millions they have already contributed to stem cell research, much of it in California. The latest cash went to USC, UCLA and UC San Francisco, which have already received many millions more from the Broads. Charlie Rose also interviewed Eli in a six-minute segment that can be found here. Broad told Rose that he does not think the government is doing enough for science.

The Sacramento Bee carried an opinion piece headlined "To fulfill stem cell agency’s promise, consider winding it down." Joe Radato, who was an aide to former California Gov. Pete Wilson, and Bernard Munos of FasterCures were the authors. Instead of providing more funding for the California stem agency, they said a better approach would be to "provide funds directly to California-based companies developing new drugs to cure diseases and prolong healthy lives."

Paul Knoepfler, a UC Davis stem cell researcher and blogger, authored a piece in the Washington Post dealing with the "unsettling thought" of human-pig hybrids. He wrote that more than 100,000 people in the United States are waiting for organ transplants and that these new-fangled pigs could be a source, down the road. Knoepler said the ethical and other obstacles are like to be overcome.

The latest on former super surgeon Paolo Macchiarini was reported by Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty. He is in Russia after being fired by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden after some of his patients died following surgery involving stem cells. The story reported that his activities have been newly restricted in Russia. Macchiarini's operations, which included a 2010 procedure at UC Davis, drew wide-ranging, favorable international attention for a number of years.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Politics Could Be Key to Future of California's $3 Billion Stem Cell Program

The Los Angeles Times, California's largest circulation newspaper, is carrying an article this weekend that says the future of the state's $3 billion stem cell agency could "depend more on politics than science."

The assertion was carried in a column by Michael Hiltzik, a Pulitzer Prize winner and author, that popped up on the Internet last night. He provided a broad overview of the agency that was less harsh than some of his previous pieces dealing with the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine or CIRM, as the agency is formally known.

Hiltzik wrote,
"CIRM’s leadership knows that the public’s inflated expectations threaten to obscure the program’s real accomplishments. With multiple clinical trials of CIRM-funded research underway, the first government approval of treatments is expected 'in the not-too-distant future,' C. Randal Mills, the program’s president, said in an interview.
"But he acknowledged that expectations 'need to be tempered with humility at the enormity of the task before us. We don’t want to overpromise or overhype. CIRM is doing what it was set up to do, but it might be taking longer than people thought or hoped.' "
Hiltzik continued,
"Still, the program’s future may depend more on politics than science. 'If it looks like Washington is flipping off California, that could have political ramifications' at the ballot box, (Hank) Greely (director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford)  says. Some researchers aren’t optimistic about the prospects for independent, federally funded science under the Trump administration."
The reference to the Washington involves the likelihood that the Trump Administration would impose restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research. The administration is populated by appointees who hold anti-abortion views that are generally coupled with opposition to embryonic stem cell research on the grounds that it is tantamount to murder. 

Hiltzik's column noted changes at the agency that make it significantly different than its earlier days, including a step-up in funding of clinical trials, the success of which could pay an important role in the success of a new funding measure. 

He wrote, 
"A new funding campaign could give the program a much-needed reboot. The ballot measure could restructure CIRM as an 'ordinary agency of the state' subject to legislative oversight, open meetings laws and other good-government statutes, says Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Berkeley-based Center for Genetics and Society."
"If it returns to the ballot, CIRM would have a chance to reconsider its administrative structure, the inflated expectations it gave voters in 2004, its embedded conflicts of interest and even whether it should be limited to funding research into stem cells. All these features of Proposition 71 (which authorized the agency) have created complications during the program’s first decade."
Hiltzik's column is scheduled to appear in print on Sunday, a day on which the Times says it has 2.4 million readers.

Here are links to two other recent overviews of the agency, including one last month on the California Stem Cell Report and Stat News.

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