Monday, July 31, 2017

Zipped Up in Oakland: California Stem Cell Agency Mute on Search for New CEO

More than mum -- a good description for the $3 billion California stem cell agency this morning as it wrestles with what is likely its most important decision of 2017.

And that is finding a new president to oversee what some call the "last stage" of its life and its search for a stem cell therapy that will fulfill the expectations of the voters who created the research program in 2004.

The governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the Oakland-based agency is formally known, has held one meeting of its presidential search committee since Randy Mills announced his resignation May 2.

No public utterances emerged, however, from the July 17 session. Did the panel set a timetable for selecting a new president? No response. Will the board hire a search firm to help recruit? No response. Is the search committee going to meet again? No response. Simple questions that have been dealt with openly in past presidential searches at CIRM.

The search for a replacement for Mills has special significance. The agency expects it will run out of cash for new awards in three years or less. In the world of stem cell research, that may not be a nanosecond but it is a very short period of time.

Maria Millan, CIRM photo
It raises the likelihood of an exodus of staff from the program, which has also lost another linchpin in the organization, general counsel James Harrison. Without some certainty and confidence about the next three years, some CIRM employees, of which there are only about 50, may look to other enterprises for their professional futures. The likelihood of more departures could increase unless the board moves to shore up stability and to help retain the energy that Mills brought to the program.

Maria Millan, formerly the vice president for therapeutics, is interim president. Mills publicly endorsed her to fill his slot, which carries an annual salary of up to $575,000. She has been in place for one month. She too may be wondering about the stability of her position and whether she should be looking elsewhere for a position.

The next meeting of the governing board of the agency is set for Aug. 24. CIRM Chairman J.T. Thomas usually gives a report to the board at many meetings. He skipped that at the board meeting in July. Will he will brief the board at the August meeting on the presidential search? That has not yet been publicly disclosed.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

An FDA Signal: Good News for California's Stem Cell Agency's Search for Therapies

The California stem cell agency this week highlighted a couple of milestones that it suggests may be creating a trend towards wider application of its research.

The springboard was an announcement that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had granted a "rare pediatric disease designation" to a therapy that the agency has backed with  nearly $52 million.

The FDA action comes as the agency is in what some call its "last stage." The agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), expects to run out of cash for new awards in about three years. No additional funding appears readily available for the agency, which was created by voters in 2004. It has yet to fulfill voter expectations that it would produce a stem cell therapy that is widely available.

The agency this week, however, touted the FDA designation, which involves a treatment for what is commonly known as "bubble baby syndrome." The treatment is called OTL-101 and is being developed by Orchard Therapeutics Ltd, which is based in the United Kingdom The firm is working with Donald Kohn of UCLA, who has been researching in the area for decades.

Writing on the $3 billion agency's blog, The Stem Cellar, Kevin McCormack, senior director for communications, said,
"The treatment) involves taking the patient’s own blood stem cells, genetically modifying them to correct the SCID mutation, and then returning the cells to the patient. Those modified cells create a new blood supply, and repair the child’s immune system."
He wrote,
"The importance of the rare pediatric disease designation is that it gives the company certain incentives for the therapy’s development, including priority review by the FDA. That means if it continues to show it is safe and effective it may have a faster route to being made more widely available to children in need."
McCormack continued,
"This is the second time in less than two weeks that a CIRM-funded therapy has been awarded rare pediatric disease designation. Earlier this month Capricor Therapeutics was given that status for its treatment for Duchenne muscular dystrophy. 
"Two other CIRM-funded clinical trials – Humacyte and jCyte – have been given regenerative medicine advanced therapy designation (RMAT) by the FDA. This makes them eligible for earlier and faster interactions with the FDA, and also means they may be able to apply for priority review and faster approval. 
"All these are encouraging signs for a couple of reasons. It suggests that the therapies are showing real promise in clinical trials. And it shows that the FDA is taking steps to encourage those therapies to advance as quickly – and safely of course – as possible."

McCormack added, however,
"Getting these designations is, of course, no guarantee the therapies will ultimately prove to be successful. But if they are, creating faster pathways means they can get to patients, the people who really need them, at a much faster pace."

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

USA Today Reports on Financial Complaints Involving Stemedica

The San Diego stem cell company that received national attention for treatments of sports heroes such as Gordie Howe and Bart Starr is now facing legal complaints involving its financial affairs, USA Today reported this morning. 

The story by sports writer Brent Schrotenboer said, 
"The company, Stemedica Cell Technologies, had drawn praise from the families of Bart Starr, the legendary former NFL quarterback, and Gordie Howe, the hockey legend. Both families credited the firm’s stem cells for helping the two bounce back after suffering debilitating strokes. John Brodie, another stroke victim and former NFL MVP quarterback, also praised the company’s stem cell products after being injected with them in foreign countries.
"But even after that boost from big names, a spate of recent legal and financial issues has challenged the company, whose business relies on selling hope in the form of new but unproven regenerative medicine."
The lengthy article went on to discuss lawsuits involving misuse of funds and unpaid bills, including the alleged failure to pay a $500,000 loan despite numerous extensions. 

The company told USA Today that the misuse of funds allegations are "completely false" and has contested the other allegations in court. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Former USC Med School Dean Loses Board Seat at $3 Billion California Stem Cell Agency

Former USC medical school dean Carmen Puliafito, who reportedly led a secret life involving drugs and prostitution, is no longer a member of the governing board of the $3 billion California stem cell agency.

In response to a query last week from the California Stem Cell Report, Evan Westrup, press secretary to Gov. Jerry Brown, said,
"This individual is no longer on the board."
Carmen Puliafito
Photo by Tibrina Hobson, FilmMagic

However, as of this writing, the web site for the agency listed Puliafito as a member of the governing board, carrying a short biography and a photo.

In response to a question this morning, Kevin McCormack, senior director for communication for the agency, said,
"If the governor says he is not in the board then he is not on the board. We will change the web page."
The governor's office did not respond to requests last week for more details concerning Puliafito's departure. But his term expired last December. Agency board members may continue to serve until a replacement is named.

The position that Puliafito held on the board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine(CIRM), as the agency is formally known, is required to be filled by an executive from a California university. Since the inception of the agency in 2004, the seat has been filled by the dean of the USC School of Medicine.

Puliafito (far left) at ceremonies opening stem cell center at
USC. CIRM provided $27 million for the $80 million project.
 Then CIRM board chairman Bob Klein is second from right.
Then Gov. Schwarzenegger stands next to Puliafito, who he
appointed to the CIRM board. 
It is not clear whether the governor will replace Puliafito with another representative from USC. Brown may look askance at the school in the wake of reports about how USC handled the Puliafito affair over a period of more than a year. 

A headline on a column last week by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez said,
"USC bosses flunk the leadership test amid shocking allegations about former medical school dean"
USC ranks 6th among California institution in the amount of awards it has received from CIRM, collecting a total of $110 million.

Monday, July 24, 2017

NY Times: The Race to Create 'Transformative' Cellular Treatments for Cancer

Cellular treatments of cancer received a big media boost this morning with a front page story in the New York Times that said the door is opening on a radical new class of therapy.

The headline on the piece in the print version of the Times in California said,
"Racing to Alter Patients' Cells to Kill Cancer"
The article by Denise Grady was also high on the Internet home page this morning of the Times.

The peg for the lengthy story was the expected approval of gene therapy for leukemia in the next few months. Grady wrote,
"Companies and universities are racing to develop these new therapies, which re-engineer and turbocharge millions of a patient’s own immune cells, turning them into cancer killers that researchers call a 'living drug.' One of the big goals now is to get them to work for many other cancers, including those of the breast, prostate, ovary, lung and pancreas. 
"'This has been utterly transformative in blood cancers,' said Dr. Stephan Grupp, director of the cancer immunotherapy program at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania and a leader of major studies. 'If it can start to work in solid tumors, it will be utterly transformative for the whole field.;'"
High in the story (the fifth paragraph), Grady mentioned that cellular treatments are also being studied in connection with glioblastoma, the type of brain cancer afflicting Sen. John McCain

The Times carried a host of caveats about the likely new therapy, its dangers and even deaths that have occurred during the research. But "studies are forging ahead," Grady reported, despite the fact that they are expected to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

The article did not mention the research that has been financed by California stem cell agency, which has pumped $90 million into developing cellular-connected treatments for cancer. The California Stem Cell Report wrote about that effort last week and filed a freelance story on the subject for The Sacramento Bee. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

McCain's Cancer and the California Stem Cell Agency: The Promising Approaches of Genetic Engineering

City of Hope video on T-cell treatment of glioblastoma

The type of aggressive brain cancer that is now afflicting U.S. Sen. John McCain is a disease that has been long targeted by California's $3 billion stem cell agency.

The agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), has spent more than $90 million for research dealing with brain cancer, which claims the lives of 13,000 people each year.

Particularly deadly is glioblastoma, the form of cancer involving McCain.

In January, Karen Ring, a stem cell scientist and overseer of CIRM's social media, wrote on the agency's blog about an early stage clinical trial involving glioblastoma, describing it as "a new cell-based therapy that melted away brain tumors in a patient with an advanced stage" of the disease.

The research was conducted at the City of Hope's Alpha Clinic, an effort created by the stem cell agency.

In March, Behnam Badie, who is leading the research, discussed the therapy at a symposium dealing with results from year two of the Alpha Clinic program. Badie, whose father died of brain cancer, described how the use of T-cells beneficially affected the patient, Richard Brady, who was also a surgeon. 
Richard Brady, City of Hope photo
In a video presented at the symposium, Badie's colleague, Christine Brown, described T-cells as the "soldiers of the immune system." Brady also appeared in the video, saying, 
"I find myself in disbelief that I am here." 
On its web site, the agency says,
"Stem cell approaches look promising for treating gliomas. Certain types of stem cell tend to migrate toward the tumor cells wherever they are in the brain. CIRM-funded researchers are trying to genetically engineer those stem cells to produce cancer-killing molecules. Transplanted into the brain, these cells would seek out the cancer cells and deliver their therapy directly where it is needed. This approach could significantly decrease toxic side-effects to normal tissues, preserving or improving the patient's quality of life."
Brady, however, was not cured by his treatment and ultimately succumbed to the spread of the cancer. Ring wrote in January,
"The effects of the immunotherapy lasted for seven-and-a-half months. Unfortunately, his glioblastoma did come back....Patients with advanced cases of glioblastoma like Richard often have only weeks left to live, and the prospect of another seven months of life with family and friends is a gift."

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


Two items today and yesterday on the California Stem Cell Report incorrectly said that Carmen Puliafito was reappointed as a member of the stem cell agency's governing board in 2010 by Gov. Jerry Brown. The re-appointment was made by then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Brown was elected in 2010 but did not take office until 2011.

'Secret Life' Flap: Former USC Med School Dean-Stem Cell Agency Board Member on Leave from School

The former dean of the USC medical school, who is also a member of the governing board of the $3 billion California stem cell agency, is on leave and no longer seeing patients, the Los Angeles Times is saying today.

The news came after the Times reported yesterday that Carmen Puliafito had a "secret life" involving illegal drug activity, some of which was captured on video.

Puliafito was appointed in 2008 to the 29-member board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is officially known,  by then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and reappointed by him in 2010. Puliafito's term expired last fall but he is permitted to serve until a replacement is named.

The governor's office has not responded to requests yesterday by the California Stem Cell Report for a comment about the matter.

Puliafito has made no comment about the Times' reports.

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this item incorrectly said that Puliafito was reappointed by Gov. Jerry Brown. Brown was elected in 2010 but did not take office until 2011.)

Monday, July 17, 2017

LATimes: 'Secret Life' of Former USC Med School Dean and California Stem Cell Agency Director

Carmen Puliafito (right), a member of the governing board of the California
stem agency, and Robert Klein, then chairman of the agency. USC photo 2009
The headline in the Los Angeles Times this morning said:
"An overdose, a young companion, drug-fueled parties: The secret life of USC med school dean"
Put together by a team of five reporters, the article called Carmen Puliafito a "towering figure," a "renowned eye surgeon" and a prodigious fund raiser, bringing in more than $1 billion for USC by his own estimate. And then it said, 
"During his tenure as dean, Puliafito kept company with a circle of criminals and drug users who said he used methamphetamine and other drugs with them, a Los Angeles Times investigation found.
"Puliafito, 66, and these much younger acquaintances captured their exploits in photos and videos. The Times reviewed dozens of the images."
Puliafito resigned his $1.1 million position as dean in March 2016, declaring he wanted to pursue outside opportunities. He still serves, as a gubernatorial appointee, on the board of the California Institute for Regenerate Medicine (CIRM), as the stem cell agency is formally known. The board position pays $100 a day for meeting attendance. The board meets 10 to 12 times a year. 
USC has received $110 million from CIRM since 2004, ranking No. 6 among all California institutions that have won stem cell awards from the state agency. USC has had a representative on the board since its inception in 2004.
Paul Aisen, San Diego UT photo, Howard Lipin
Puliafito remains on the USC faculty and continues to accept patients. He is a "central witness" in a $185 million, legal wrangle involving UC San Diego researcher Paul Aisen. Puliafito has described himself as the "quarterback" in the effort to hire Aisen away from UC San Diego. The Times wrote,
"Curing Alzheimer’s is a top priority for government agencies and pharmaceutical companies, and Aisen’s lab was overseeing groundbreaking research, including drug trials at 70 locations around the world. More than $340 million in funding was expected to flow to his lab, according to court records.
"UC contended in its suit that its private school rival went beyond the bounds of academic recruiting by targeting professors and labs based on grant funding. The suit accused USC of civil conspiracy, aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty and other misconduct."
Puliafito's current term on the stem cell agency board term expired Nov. 3, 2016, according to a governor's office document. However, members of the board may serve until a replacement is named. He was appointed in 2008 by then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and reappointed in 2010, also by Schwarzenegger, according to the governor's office document.

In response to a query, Kevin McCormack, senior director of communications for the agency, said via email,
"We were surprised to read the allegations about Dean Puliafito in the Los Angeles Times. Since being appointed to the CIRM Board by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, in late 2008, Dean Puliafito has served with distinction, bringing knowledge, expertise and deep commitment to our mission."
The California Stem Cell Report also asked Brown's office for comment. When it responds, the full text of the comments will be carried.

The reporters who put together the story are Paul Pringle, Harriet Ryan, Adam Elmahrek, Matt Hamilton and Sarah Parvini.

(Editor's notes: An earlier version of this item said that Puliafito was reappointed by Brown in 2010. The re-appointment was by Schwarzenegger. Brown was elected in 2010 but did not take office until 2011.
(This article was picked up Capitol Weekly, a news and information service devoted to California public policy issues. The Capitol Weekly version can be found here.)

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Two Rounds of Transplants, 70 Drugs: An Advocate's Journey into Stem Cell Safety

Lukas Wartman
Science magazine, Whitney Curtis photo
The California stem cell agency today related a compelling story concerning a physician named Lukas Wartman who received "a life-saving stem cell treatment that is now threatening his health."

The headline on the item on the agency's blog, The Stem Cellar, said,
"One man’s journey with leukemia has turned into a quest to make bone marrow stem cell transplants safer"
Karen Ring, a scientist herself and overseer of social media at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), wrote about the case after she read an article by Jon Cohen in Science Magazine concerning Wartman. He is a physician at the Washington University School of Medicine. Ring wrote,
"He was first diagnosed with a type of blood cancer called acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in 2003. Since then he has taken over 70 drugs and undergone two rounds of bone marrow stem cell transplants to fight off his cancer."
The first transplant came from his brother but the second round was from an unrelated donor and was different. Ring said, 
"While the second transplant and cancer-fighting drugs have succeeded in keeping his cancer at bay, Wartman is now suffering from something equally life threatening – a condition called graft vs host disease (GVHD). In a nut shell, the stem cell transplant that cured him of cancer and saved his life is now attacking his body."
Ring discussed the currently available treatments and continued, 
"Another promising therapy is called Prochymal. It’s a stem cell therapy developed by former CIRM President and CEO, Dr. Randy Mills, at Osiris Therapeutics. Prochymal is already approved to treat the acute form of GVHD in Canada, and is currently being tested in phase 3 trials in the US in young children and adults.
"While CIRM isn’t currently funding clinical trials for GVHD, we are funding a ($20 million) trial out of Stanford University led by Dr. Judy Shizuru that aims to improve the outcome of bone marrow stem cell transplants in patients. Shizuru says that these transplants are “the most powerful form of cell therapy out there, for cancers or deficiencies in blood formation” but they come with their own set of potentially deadly side effects such as GVHD."
Ring said that Wartman's battle with the disease has made him "one of the strongest patient voices advocating for new treatments" for his affliction. Ring said Wartman is an inspiration to funding agencies and other scientists. She said,
"We don’t want these patients to suffer quietly. Wartman’s story is an important reminder that there’s a lot more work to do to make bone marrow transplants safer – so that they save lives without later putting those lives at risk."

Monday, July 10, 2017

California's Stem Cell CEO Search: $3 Billion Agency Needs New President

California's $3 billion stem cell research program is looking for a new president to carry the state agency through what may be the last three years of its life.

The search committee of the agency's 29-member governing board meets July 17 to discuss the matter behind closed doors. But members of the public will have a chance to comment during an open portion of the meeting. Or they can email comments directly to the board at ahead of the meeting.

So far, no comments have been received from the public concerning the selection of a new president, according to an agency spokesman.

Currently Maria Millan is the interim president and CEO of the 12-year-old program, replacing Randy Mills, who is taking a job in Minneapolis. Mills has said that Millan is his choice as a successor. Millan joined the agency in December 2012 and was vice president for therapeutics before her interim appointment.

Last month, directors of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known, ratified her as interim president, voicing no reservations in public about the action.

The current salary for the position ranges from $311,000 to $575,000 annually.

The main location for next week's session is the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley. Teleconference locations where the public make direct audio comments to the board are available in Sacramento and at UCLA in Los Angeles. Details are available on the agenda.

The agency has projected that it will run out of funds for new awards in June 2020. However, the end of funding could come sooner or later depending on the agency's rate of spending for awards. The agency relies on money borrowed by the state (bonds), which roughly doubles the cost of the research to about $6 billion because of  interest costs.

Earlier, there was talk about a possible $5 billion bond election in 2018 to continue funding the agency. However, that possibility appears to have been delayed until November 2020, which would be beyond the date when the agency is currently expected to run out of cash.

Bob Klein, the Palo Alto real estatement investment banker who led the 2004 ballot campaign that created the stem cell agency, is the chief voice behind the idea of another bond issue. He has not responded to inquiries from the California Stem Cell Report about his latest bond plans. This blog will carry the full text of his comments if he does respond.

Here is a list of the members of the CIRM search group: Deborah Deas, Judy Gasson, David Higgins, Steve Juelsgaard, Al Rowlett, Jeff Sheehy, Jonathan Thomas, Art Torres and Kristiina Vuori. Biographical sketches can be found here.

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