Tuesday, May 29, 2018

California Stem Cell Agency and First-of-Kind Fetal Transplant for Fatal Affliction

Nichelle Obar and her daughter, Elianna, at three weeks. NYT photo by Bryan Meltz
A uniquely California medical treatment -- the first of its kind in the world -- won national attention today with reports that it could open the door to similar operations before birth for such diseases as sickle cell and hemophilia.

The therapy was developed by a UC San Francisco researcher who treated "the first patient enrolled in the world’s first clinical trial using stem cells transplanted prior to birth," according to a UCSF news release.

Fetal surgery was also invented in California. And the transplant was backed by $11 million from the state's stem cell agency, a $3 billion enterprise that is unique among states in its size and scope.

Missing from the news, however, was any mention of the agency's multimillion-dollar contribution -- a not insignificant matter since the agency is facing its own financial demise in less than two years. The agency hopes voters will keep it alive and approve $5 billion more for stem cell research in 2020. The agency, however, is laboring under a lack of public awareness for its "value proposition." (See here and here.)

The research is being conducted by Tippi MacKenzie, a pediatric and fetal surgeon who has received a total of nearly $15 million from the agency. Her employer, UC San Francisco, has received $169 million in 81 awards.  Various deans of its medical school have also served on the agency's governing board since the inception of the agency, known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).  

A spokeswoman for UCSF said omission of the CIRM funding in its news release was not intentional. 

The agency was not mentioned also in a lengthy article on MacKenzie's research in the New York Times this morning. The piece was displayed on the front page of the weekly Science section of the Times, a prestigious position available only 52 times a year.

MacKenzie's work involved a family from Hawaii and their child, who was treated in utero for a nearly always fatal affliction. 

In the article by Denise Grady, the Times reported, 
"Elianna, born Feb. 1 with a robust cry and a cap of gleaming black hair, has a genetic disease that usually kills a fetus before birth. The condition, alpha thalassemia major, leaves red blood cells unable to carry oxygen around the body, causing severe anemia, heart failure and brain damage.
"The transfusions in the womb kept her alive, but only treated her illness. The bone-marrow transplant has the potential to cure it. Whether it will succeed is still too soon to tell.
"Elianna and her mother, Nichelle Obar, were the first patients in an experiment that pushes the limits of fetal therapy, a field already known for its daring."
The Times continued, 
"If the treatment works, it could open the door to using bone-marrow transplants before birth to cure not just Elianna’s blood disease but also sickle cell anemia, hemophilia and other hereditary disorders, some so severe that the prenatal diagnosis may lead parents to end the pregnancy.
"Bone marrow is considered a potential cure because it teems with stem cells, which can create replacements for cells that are missing or defective as a result of genetic flaws."
Asked for comment by the California Stem Cell Report, Maria Millan, president of CIRM and a pediatric surgeon, said in an email, 
“The New York Times picture of Nichelle Obar with her 3 week old daughter Elianna shows us something that’s hard to capture in a billion words.(See photo above.)  Elianna is afflicted with alpha thalassemia major, a fatal condition that usually ends up in death before birth.
"It is extremely gratifying to know that CIRM has been instrumental in supporting Dr. McKenzie’s research to develop a treatment for this severe unmet medical need. Dr. McKenzie’s approach combines surgical advances that allow her to treat the baby while still in the mother’s womb; transplantation with the mother’s blood stem cells provides healthy blood cells that the baby needs to survive. 
"We have supported Dr. McKenzie’s research from the early years when she was a new faculty working out the basic science and immunology in the laboratory and we helped her to develop her clinical plan. Most recently, we have partnered with Dr. McKenzie to bring this research to clinical trials. To see Ms. Obar take their child home from the hospital is encouraging. We know that this is just the beginning. This is what the people of California voted for when they approved Proposition 71. They depend on us to boldly partner with Dr. McKenzie to translate the promise of stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs."
The phase one clinical trial, which is aimed primarily at safety, is scheduled to release its preliminary results by February 2022 and hopes to treat another nine patients. The treatment would then face another two phases of clinical trials for efficacy. 

As for the baby, her mother told the Times, 
“Elianna’s doing great. I’m not disappointed at all. If it works, great. If it didn’t, we’re O.K. with it. We’ll celebrate all the little accomplishments. I’m glad we did it."
Here is a UCSF video on the trial.
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1 comment:

  1. "Imagine being able to cure a genetic disorder before a baby is even born. Thanks to a CIRM funded study, what would have been a mere dream a couple of years ago has become a reality." That is how the stem cell agency this morning began its own blog item on the transplant. See here. https://blog.cirm.ca.gov/2018/06/04/cirm-funded-study-results-in-the-first-ever-in-utero-stem-cell-transplant-to-treat-alpha-thalassemia/

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