Monday, May 07, 2018

Golden State's Stem Cell 'Value:' Bubble Boy Disease and Bringing a Therapy to Market

California's $3 billion stem cell agency today performed a double, PR whammy in an effort to create a greater public understanding of the "key role" it can play in the most expensive and critical steps in creating a therapy that is widely available to the public.

The agency's pitch comes as it faces its potential demise in two years unless it is successful in raising more funds for its operations.

Donald Kohn, UCLA photo
The agency's starting point today involved research for cures for an affliction that has received highly visible, albeit intermittent, coverage over the past several decades. The fatal affliction is often referred to as the "bubble boy" syndrome or, more accurately, SCID,  Severe Combined Immune Deficiency.

In this case, it involves UCLA scientist Donald Kohn, a British firm, Orchard Therapeutics, Inc., opening new facilities in California (Menlo Park and Foster City) and a $20 million award. The cash, however, is only a relatively small piece of the state's immune deficiency investment. 

$141 million for immuno deficiencies

Over the years, Kohn's research has been backed by at least $52 million from the taxpayer-financed California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known. Overall, it has pumped more than $141 million into immune deficiency disorders, not all of which is directly related to SCID. 

Responding to a query, Kevin McCormack, senior director for CIRM communications, said,
"We’re a lot more than just a pretty face you know. We feel we’re helping change the face of medicine."
Or as Maria Millan, president of CIRM, said both in a news release and in an article on the agency's blog, The Stem Cellar: 
"We invest when others are not ready to take a chance on a promising but early stage project. That early support not only helps the scientists get the data they need to show their work has potential, but it also takes some of the risk out of investments by venture capitalists or larger pharmaceutical companies."
She continued, 
"Our funding and partnership has enabled the smooth transfer of Dr. Kohn’s technology from the academic to the industry setting while conducting this important pivotal clinical trial. With our help, Orchard was able to attract more outside investment and now it is able to grow its pipeline utilizing this platform gene therapy approach.”

De-risking stem cell therapies

In biotech, all this is referred often as "de-risking" and helping research advance beyond the "valley of death," the stage at which conventional financing for research becomes exceedingly difficult to secure. Both have been goals of the agency for some time and are part of what Millan refers to as the agency's "value proposition." 

Boosting public recognition of the value created by CIRM is likely to be a key element in winning approval of a proposed $5 billion bond initiative in 2020, seeking more cash for the agency. The agency estimates that it will run out of money for new awards at the end of next year. 

The agency noted the significance of the deal that GlaxoSmithKline(GSK) made last month with Orchard.  Although the agency tends to focus strongly on medical and scientific achievements, today's PR hit had a stronger emphasis on business matters. Without a successful business model, it is unlikely that any CIRM research will reach the general population.

California's key role

CIRM said,
"Under the deal, GSK not only transfers its rare disease gene therapy portfolio to Orchard, it also becomes a shareholder in the company with a 19.9 percent equity stake. GSK is also eligible to receive royalties and commercial milestone payments. This agreement is both a recognition of Orchard’s expertise in this area, and the financial potential of developing treatments for rare conditions."
Mark Rothera, Orchard photo 
The agency quoted the CEO of Orchard, Mark Rothera, as saying,
"The funding and advice from CIRM allowed Orchard to accelerate the development of OTL-101 and to build a manufacturing platform to support our development pipeline which includes 5 clinical and additional preclinical programs for potentially transformative gene therapies."
The GSK-Orchard deal, CIRM said, was "good news for both companies and for the patients who are hoping this research could lead to new treatments, even cures, for some rare diseases. It was also good news for CIRM, which played a key role in helping Orchard grow to the point where this deal was possible."
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