Wednesday, April 08, 2020

$5 Million Allotted: California Stem Cell Agency Receives 19 Applications for Research Targeting Covid-19

Nineteen scientists seeking to crush the coronavirus submitted applications this week for research grants from the California stem cell agency, which has set aside $5 million for the job. 

Details on the nature of the proposed work were not disclosed by the agency, known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). That's in keeping with its usual practice concerning applications that are yet to be reviewed or approved. 

The research must involve a stem cell or a drug or antibody targeting stem cells. The agency said that only research involving "development or testing of a treatment for Covid-19 (is) eligible."

The "emergency" coronavirus round was established by the agency just two weeks ago. CIRM plans to deliver funds quickly to the winning applicants. The researchers are expected to be ready to begin work within 30 days of approval of the awards. 

The agency allocated the $5 million on March 27. Yesterday was the first deadline for applications. The next is expected in about two weeks.  The agency has said it would fund all stages of research from basic to clinical. Maria Millan, president and CEO of the agency, said earlier in a statement
“These are clearly extraordinary times and they require an extraordinary response from all of us.... California researchers have made us aware that they are pursuing potential stem cell based approaches to the COVID-19 crisis, and we felt it was our responsibility to respond by doing all we can to support this research and doing so as quickly as we possibly can."
Some scientists have expressed doubt that a stem cell approach can generate the results needed. In posting Sunday on The Niche stem cell blog, Sean Morrisonchairman of the Public Policy Committee at the International Society for Stem Cell Research and director of Children’s Research Institute at University of Texas Southwestern, responded to a question that asked about "potential roles for cellular therapies for COVID-19? Is there something unique they might be able to achieve that other approaches like anti-viral drugs could not?"

Morrison replied,  
"I’m afraid I’m skeptical about cellular therapies for Covid-19. Some have suggested that transplantation of immune effector cells, such as NK cells, into patients might promote a more effective immune response. I worry it will take too long for the transplanted cells to engraft and mount an effective immune response against a virus that often kills patients within days of hospitalization. 
"Others have suggested that mesenchymal stem cell (MSC) transplants might provide a benefit by attenuating the hyper-inflammation that occurs in late stage patients. While there has been some evidence that MSCs can attenuate pathological immune responses in some contexts, most clinical trials that tested this strategy failed. The other red flag is that all of the cell therapies I have seen proposed for Covid-19 have been repurposed from very different indications.
"To some extent that’s to be expected when dealing with a novel pathogen. However, it gives one pause when a cell therapy under development for cancer is suddenly touted as also having anti-viral activity. Immunologically, these are two very different problems that require very different kinds of pre-clinical testing."
The next step in CIRM's Covid-19 round is for the agency to convene a panel of scientists from out-of-state to review the applications behind closed doors and make the de facto decisions on whether to fund them. Their decisions then go to the CIRM governing board for ratification. 

At that point, summaries of the anonymous reviewers' comments on the applications become public. 

Five of the applications were from private companies and the rest from nonprofits. 

The reviewers do not publicly disclose their financial or professional conflicts of interest. Members of the governing board are barred from voting on applications involving their institutions. The research is required to be performed in California. 

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