Thursday, February 21, 2019

California's Stem Cell Agency Smacks Stanford for Failing to Deliver on Financial Promises

The California stem cell agency today delivered an unusual and sharp rebuke to Stanford University, declaring that it needs to stand by its financial commitments to help back state-funded research. 

The message came during consideration of a request for more research cash from a Stanford researcher, Judith Shizuru. She sought $6 million for continuation of a clinical trial to develop a potentially "transformative" product that would eliminate the toxic impact of chemotherapy for a number of diseases. 

"It boggles my mind," said Jeff Sheehy, a member of the agency's governing board and chairman of its Science Committee, that Stanford, which has an endowment of $27 billion, has not stepped forward to provide the co-funding. 

The amount involved is $1.7 million and is due May 1. It is connected to an earlier $19 million award to Shizuru that kicked off her clinical trial. 

Sheehy noted that Stanford and its researchers have received $379 million from the agency since 2005. It is the top recipient of funds from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known. Stanford also has a member on CIRM's board. 

Steve Juelsgaard, chairman of the board's Finance Committee and a former top executive at Genentech, said that Stanford is "very well taken care of in terms of its economics." 

He said that the agency requires all institutions and businesses to sign agreements to deliver on promises of co-funding. CIRM cannot have two standards for its grantees, Juelsgaard said. 

Today was the first time that the $3 billion research agency has publicly rebuked a grantee on co-funding. Recipients of awards, be they institutions or individual researchers, are generally  treated tenderly in public.  (The full transcript of the meeting is available here.)

CIRM directors did not take issue with the quality of the research, which they described as good. Specifically, today's application sought to advance Shizuru's phase one clinical trial to develop a way to avoid the necessity of chemotherapy in a genetic affliction, popularly known as the bubble baby syndrome.

Nine researchers in the field sent letters to the CIRM board praising the work. Several called it "transformative" and said it could have use in afflictions ranging from blood cancer to diabetes. 

Shizuru applied for $6 million. However, the CIRM board reduced the award to $3.7 million and only on the condition that the previous co-funding be delivered.  

Shizuru told the CIRM board she accepted responsibility for raising the co-funding, which she said has been difficult. Board members noted that agreements on awards are signed by both the recipient researcher and his/her insitution. She said she would discuss today's action with Stanford officials.

Her application came before directors in January with a seal of approval from the agency's reviewers, who make their decisions behind closed doors. Normally, approval by reviewers means a rubber stamp by directors.

Action in January, however, was deferred until this month after directors raised questions about research delays and financial matters. The agency also publicly released a slough of information concerning Shizuru's work, most of which she provided to them.  

Here are links to key documents involving Shizuru application. 
(An early version of this item misspelled Shizuru's last name.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

A Peek Inside the California Stem Cell Research Machine: $25 Million, Babies, Bonds and Dwindling Cash

California's stem cell agency this week dished up rare public details of an advanced effort to create "transformative" therapies that would help cure afflictions ranging from diabetes to always fatal immune disorders.

The disclosure involves Stanford University researcher Judith Shizuru, severely ill babies, toxic chemical treatments, delays in clinical trials and stem cell agency board members who are acutely aware of the $3 billion agency's rapidly dwindling resources.

Judith Shizuru
Photo by Flynn Larsen, Ludwig Institute
All this plus more is on the table Thursday at a meeting of the directors of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known. 

The agenda nominally contains one item, an application by Shizuru for $6 million from CIRM. But the issues reach back to 2013 and provide insight into difficult research pathways and how the agency manages its programs. 

At the top of the matter is the fact that the state agency expects to run out of cash for new awards by the end of this year. It is pinning its hopes on a proposed $5 billion bond measure on the November 2020 ballot.  Meanwhile, directors are trying to raise privately $200 million to tide it over until then. 

Avoiding Toxic Chemotherapy

That was the backdrop Wednesday Jan. 30 when directors convened to consider application number CLIN2-11431 by Shizuru for $6 million. She is seeking a way to avoid chemotherapy treatments and their toxic side effects in the case of a rare genetic affliction often referred to as the bubble baby syndrome. 

In December, CIRM's grant reviewers, meeting behind closed doors, approved Shizuru's application, an action that nearly invariably is rubber-stamped by directors. But last month was different, and a bit of CIRM history was brought up.

Shizuru received  a $19 million CIRM award in 2012 which has led to a phase one clinical trial with positive results for her therapy. Cost per each of the six patients so far averages $917,000, according to a CIRM document. 

However, additional patients are needed, along with more funding, before the potential product can reach the marketplace. The average cost of per patient will run about $333,333 during the final portion of the phase one trial.  Her latest application is aimed providing assistance with those costs. 

Questions about Delays and Co-Funding

Last month, questions arose among directors about months of delays in the clinical trial and a current shortfall in co-funding, among other things.

Steve Juelsgaard
Steve Juelsgaard, a former Genentech executive and chair of the directors' Finance Committee, said, 
"It's not clear to me that they're being frugal with the money that they have been given."
Juelsgaard also said,
"Delay doesn't necessarily add up to more money. They obviously spent the money on something that they didn't anticipate or under-budgeted or something. There's something more to it."
Another director, Jeff Sheehy, chair of the board's Science Committee, said,
"Financially, it seems very muddy to me."
Other directors weighed in as well, ultimately leading to a motion to delay action on the application to provide more time to find answers to questions.

At that point, Shizuru, who was in the audience, rose to respond.

"I understand CIRM's concerns, and I can see you're very thoughtful about how this money is being spent," she said, according to the transcript.

 The Sheehy-Shizuru Exchange

The Stanford researcher said that without additional funding the trial would have to suspend enrollment of additional patients, prompting this exchange between her and Sheehy.

"Shiruzu: Budgetarily we're better off using it (the remaining funding) to continue to follow the patients that we've already transplanted. From that budgetary standpoint, we should delay the trial. We should delay treating any more patients on the trial.

"Sheehy: So Stanford won't front you 1.6 million to (treat) patients if we don't give you the money today?

"Shiziru: I hesitate to say what they would do.

"Sheehy: To Stanford...they would actually put patients at risk?

"Shiziru: I'm not at liberty to say what Stanford would do."

Stanford is the No. 1 recipient of CIRM awards, chalking up $379 million over the past 14 years. It also has always had a member on the CIRM board of directors, who is not allowed to speak or vote on awards to Stanford.

Following Shizuru's comments, CIRM directors approved the motion to delay action until this week's meeting. Since the January session, Shizuru has provided the agency with more than five, single-spaced pages of explanation about her research, plus other material that has been kept under wraps for what CIRM has indicated are proprietary and legal reasons.

The information from Shizuru, as well as additional documents from CIRM, provided an unusual, public look into the agency's grant-making process as well as the hurdles encountered in advanced clinical research. In the past, reviews of applications approved by reviewers have received little or no discussion.

Shizuru's Perspective

In her material, which is available on the agenda for this week's meeting, Shiruzu said one, eight-month delay was caused by CIRM itself because of internal concerns. Another nine-month delay was caused by age-restrictions on patients.

"Significant delay" was also caused because of what might be called a supply and demand issue. The bubble baby syndrome is rare. Only one in out of 50,000 to 100,000 births results in a baby with the affliction: severe combined immunodeficiency.
Three other clinical trials are also competing for those rare patients. 

Nine letters of support were received by CIRM supporting the research, with some describing the potential result as "transformative." The letters also said Shizuru's approach could find use in a wide range of other afflictions, an expectation also agreed upon by CIRM. 

Shizuru said she is working on securing the needed co-funding for her first award, which is not yet concluded. As for commercialization, she said she and her colleagues have formed a company, whose name was not disclosed. She said she has a letter of support from one investor regarding "an intention to co-fund pending completion of due diligence."

In a final comment during the vote last month to delay consideration, one CIRM board member, a San Diego patient advocate for Parkinson's disease, praised the board's close examination of the application. David Higgins said, 

"I want to acknowledge fellow board members (for) their continued concern about spending taxpayer's money wisely because I think this is a great example of that."

(The public can listen to and participate in the Thursday meeting via the Internet. Instructions are on the meeting agenda.) 

Friday, February 15, 2019

California Stem Cell Opposition: Conservative Writer Declares Golden State Efforts a 'Bust'

In a preview of what is likely to be a heated ballot campaign next year,  a conservative writer declared this week that California's efforts to develop stem cell therapies are "a scientific and financial bust." 
"Back in 2004, the $3 billion California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative, Proposition 71, promised life-saving cures and therapies for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other diseases. The cures and therapies, in turn, would send money flowing into state coffers, so the project, in effect, would pay for itself. It didn’t exactly work out that way," said Lloyd Billingsley on two different web sites.  
"CIRM proved itself a scientific and financial bust, and almost completely off limits to state oversight."
Billingsley has written in the past about the agency, known as CIRM and formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. His latest columns appeared on the California Globe, which was founded by Ken Kurson, who has ties to the Trump family and Rudy Guiliani, and The Beacon.  

Billingsley likened the agency to the troubled bullet train project in California and efforts to solve some of California's water problems by building a tunnel under the California delta east of San Francisco. 

CIRM expects to run out of cash this year for new awards and hopes to survive with voter approval of a proposed, $5 billion bond measure on the November 2020 ballot.

It could be a hard-fought campaign, but conservatives and other likely opponents could well be diverted if President Trump is on the ballot. 

See here and here for more on Kurson, founder of the  California Globe, and here for the advisors to the Beacon web site and its parent organization.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Position of the California Stem Cell Agency on Gene-Edited Babies? No Go.

California's $3 billion stem cell agency may be on the leading edge of regenerative medical research, but it is clearly opposed to the type of work that has led to the international flap over the gene-edited babies in China

Its regulations have long barred that sort of experimentation. In 2016, the agency, known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), convened an international conference to discuss the issues involved.

The session in Los Angeles went on for hours, generating a 223-page transcript touching on the difficulty of regulating gene editing, among a host of other difficult issues. 

One patient advocate in the audience, Adrienne Bell Cors Shapiro, noted that it is nearly impossible to control all that might happen. She said,  
"People are messy. And if you develop this technology, somebody is going to find a way to use it."
Last week the MIT Technology Review published an article about a Stanford University investigation into what two of its researchers knew about the Chinese research. The scientists also have received CIRM funds for research unrelated to the Chinese work. 

Asked for a comment, a spokeswoman for the state stem cell agency said in an email:
"CIRM’s regulations prohibit nuclear genome editing for reproductive purposes. In February 2016, CIRM convened the Scientific and Medical Accountability Standards Working Group (SWG) for a workshop on Human Gene Editing. The SWG subsequently recommended that no changes be made to CIRM’s existing prohibition on nuclear genome editing for reproductive purposes."
In 2016, Hank Greely, a law professor at Stanford who deals with bioethical issues, told the gene editing conference:
"CIRM is in the human embryo experimentation world. It funds research as long as the embryos are not implanted. It funds it with special protections and special review considerations and special informed consent considerations. I don't think CRISPR-cas9 changes that."
The controversial research in China triggered a global uproar in the scientific community. The leading stem cell research organization, the International Society for Stem Cell Research, issued a statement opposing such experimentation

He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who performed the experiment, has lost his job in that country, according to news reports, and may be facing criminal charges. His work has not been confirmed by an independent review. 

Monday, February 11, 2019

California Legislation to Curb Unregulated Stem Cell Clinics Due by March

Legislation to help stem the tide of unregulated stem cell clinics in California is still being drafted, but is inspected to be introduced by the end of this month. 

Art Torres, vice chairman of the California stem cell agency, is working on the measure, which is expected to be authored by Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-San Mateo. 

More than 100 dubious stem cell clinics are estimated to be in business in the Golden State, peddling ostensible stem cell treatments that cost thousands of dollars.  The treatments, however, have no scientific proof of efficacy or safety. 

In response to a question, Torres, a former state lawmaker, said that Mullin will introduce legislation that will serve as a placeholder while the legal language is worked out and coordinated with appropriate state agencies.

Torres said in an email, 
"We will have the language ready by March 1 , 2019, to be amended into the spot (placeholder) bill. 
"April 26 is the last day that a policy bill with fiscal implications must be out of the policy committee and referred to the fiscal committee."
The clinics and their treatments are a national issue as well involving the Food ad Drug Administration, which has been slow to move. California legislation is likely to serve as something of a model for other states.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Stanford Probe into Researchers Linked to Gene-edited Babies in China

Stanford University is looking into the involvement of several researchers in connection with the Chinese, gene-edited babies, the MIT Technology Review reported today.

The article by Antonio Regalado said,
"Officials at Stanford University have opened an investigation into what several high-profile faculty members knew about a Chinese effort to create gene-edited babies led by a onetime researcher at the California school, He Jiankui
"The investigation, according to people familiar with it, aims to understand what liabilities or risks Stanford may have in connection with the controversial medical experiment, which led last year to the birth of two girls whose genomes had been altered with a molecular tool called CRISPR to render them immune to HIV."
Regalado reported, 
"Stanford launched the investigation following media reports that three of its faculty—more than at any other institution—were aware of He’s plans to create the gene-edited children. They are William Hurlbut, a medical ethicist and theologian who interacted extensively with He over many months; gene-editing specialist Matthew Porteus; and Stephen Quake, a biophysicist who holds a powerful role as co-president of the $600 million Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, as well as being He’s former postdoc advisor."

Quake has declined comment in the past on his connections to He. Porteus told STAT in December that he had "strongly rebuked" the controversial researcher for what Porteus said was "reckless" work.  Hurlbut has said he had a number of conversations with He and advised him on the moral implications of the work.

Regalado wrote,
"University-led investigations are typically private, toothless affairs with few consequences for important faculty, especially those who pull in millions in grants. The question of research involving human subjects is a critical one, however, in part because serious violations can endanger a university’s federal research grants." 

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Roman Reed Act: $5 Million Proposed for More Research into Spinal Cord Injury

Roman Reed discusses stem cell research in 2017
Legislation to provide $5 million for stem cell and other research involving spinal cord injury has been introduced in the California state legislature and is expected to be heard soon in a key committee.

Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-San Mateo, introduced the measure that would re-fund the Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act. 

Mullin, chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Biotechnology,  said in a news release 
“Sadly, efforts to continue this funding stream that expired in 2011 have failed and critical research in this area has suffered. The absence of state funds has limited the programs ability to attract private investment, limiting the work being done.” 
The news release continued, 
"The Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act was originally established in 2000 and was subsequently renewed in 2004. The program, based at the University of California Irvine has continued its work, but on a smaller scale. According to the Reeve-Irvine Research Center, the earlier allocations of approximately $15 million in state funding allowed the program to leverage over $80 million in new grants benefitting virtually all California spinal cord scientists."
The legislation is named after Roman Reed, who suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury in 1994. He and his father, Don, have been longtime backers of the $3 billion California stem cell agency.  Roman Reed came up with the first slogan of the agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM): "Turning stem cells into cures."

A comment by Don Reed wound up as the title of CIRM's  2018 annual report: "Something better than hope." The senior Reed lobbied the legislature for several years to create the act that ultimately provided the funding for the spinal cord research.

The bill is slated to come before the Assembly Health Committee for its first hearing, perhaps as early as this month. 

Friday, February 01, 2019

A Stem Cell Media Story: The Case of the Missing Mention

Storks and stem cell blessings
California's $3 billion stem cell agency, which is fighting to demonstrate its value proposition, this week received what could be considered some favorable attention in the prestigious journal Nature.

The catch is that the 14-year-old research program was not mentioned by name by Nature.

The question is: How does that work and why it is important?

First things first: It is important because the agency, known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), is hoping that the voters will bless it with another $5 billion come the November 2020 election.

The agency expects to run out of money for new awards this year and is also trying to raise privately more than $200 million to tide it over until the 2020 election. In both cases, it needs clear successes that demonstrate that it has earned its keep and will do even better in the future. 

Unproven Therapies in Japan

The not-so-odd case from Nature involves an editorial that cited a CIRM-funded clinical trial.  Nature praised it as something to be emulated in Japan as an example of good ethics and good science. 

Nature's editorial zeroed in on how Japan has embarked on "a worrisome approach." The headlines said,  "Japan should put the brakes on stem cell sales. Unproven therapies should not be marketed to patients."

Instead, Nature declared that Japan should focus on the approach taken by Asterias Biotherapeutics, Inc., of Menlo Park, Ca., which arguably owes its existence largely to CIRM. (See here, here and here.)  Nature wrote, 
"Last week, a Californian company called Asterias Biotherapeutics released promising results from a 12-month first phase clinical trial, in which embryonic stem cells are converted into oligodendrocytes — cells of the central nervous system that support neurons and can stimulate their growth — and then injected into the backs of people with a spinal-cord injury. The data show that injected cells do stick around at the injury site, and that most patients (21 out of 22) showed improved movement. 
"But these are still early-stage results. It is not clear yet whether the improvements are the result of the cells, or whether something else, such as the body’s own regenerative capacity, was at work. To find out, the company wants permission to move forward with a randomized, controlled phase II clinical trial. That’s the right way to do things: stepping carefully, slowly and rigorously forward."

It's Not the Stork

The problem for the stem cell agency, of course, is that Nature did not identify CIRM as a player in the Asterias effort, although the agency has pumped more than $20 million into the research. The case of the missing mention is not an unfamiliar situation for the agency, which is often not noticed in news and press releases about the scientific accomplishments that it has backed with tens of millions of dollars. 
Of course, CIRM cannot take full credit for the Asterias work. And federal regulators have rules for clinical trials. But CIRM put up the cash for the research after Asterias' predecessor bailed out.  The agency also partners closely with its grantees and has a clear set of pioneering research standards that it worked out more than a decade ago. 
Obviously, CIRM would have been only a brief note, perhaps only a phrase in the Nature editorial if it had decided to include a mention. But these things add up and are needed by CIRM as it tries to tell California voters that it has been worth $3 billion. Their absence can amount ultimately to a substantial negative. 
One does not have to support more cash for CIRM to recognize that California voters need the full array of information about the agency to make an informed decision in 2020. Currently, however, the traditions and practices of scientific journalism regularly omit significant financial information.
When one reads about scientific advances in the mainstream media as well as journals, it seems as if the research magically materializes without a critical insemination of cash -- much like a baby being brought by the stork.
Perhaps it is time for CIRM, other research funding agencies and patient advocates to have a facts-of-life "talk" with the scientific press about the reality of what it takes to give birth to prodigious medical advances.

(Editor's note: Here is a related item by UC Davis stem cell research Paul Knoepfler on the Japanese program.)

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

California Stem Cell Agency Approves Assault on "Terrorizing" Affliction: Huntington's Disease

Frances Saldana, at a stem cell agency meeting last year, spoke emotionally about the loss of her three children to Huntington's disease. 

Directors of the California stem cell agency this morning approved $18 million in clinical stage research awards, including a "high risk" plan to tackle a degenerative brain disease for which there is no treatment.

Action on the proposal to create a therapy for the genetic disorder, Huntington's disease, came after a woman who lost all of her three children to the affliction said it has "terrorized my family for generations."

Frances Saldana of Fountain Valley, Ca., wept as she pleaded for approval of the $6 million effort to treat the disease that  lingers in her family. 

Another patient advocate, Bill Waddington, whose mother died from the affliction, told the agency in a letter
"Huntington’s disease isn’t just death.  It’s complete and utter devastation to families."
Maria Millan, president of the stem cell agency, said later in a news release that children born to parents with Huntington's have a 50/50 chance of getting the disease.

Huntington's affects 30,000 persons with another 200,000 at risk. It  progresses slowly. Symptoms are unrelenting and include inability to control movement and declining cognition leading to dementia, according to experts. Affected persons usually die within 15 to 20 years after diagnosis,. 

The applicant for state stem cell funding, Leslie Thompson of UC Irvine, told the board in a letter,
Leslie Thompson
UC Irvine photo
"Given the relatively slow progression of HD, care-giving stretches over 10 years or more after the patient loses independence. Patients become completely dependent on family and caregivers, who in turn have an emotional and debilitating economic burden managing the physical, cognitive and psychiatric manifestations of the disease.  
"HD can lead to catastrophic events such as homelessness, prolonged hospitalization awaiting placement, or long-term psychiatric placement. The length and severity of the disease has a profound financial and emotional impact on families and health systems. The direct medical costs and costs of disability and care giving for each patient are substantial and pass from one generation to the next."
Members of the governing board of the agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), discussed the application at some length because of a split involving the application reviewers. The summary of comments by reviewers said,
"Reviewers disagreed on whether the treatment offers a significant value to the patients and caregivers. Some reviewers thought the immunosuppression and surgical risk that is required for this cell therapy may outweigh any potential therapeutic benefits given that there are other less invasive treatment options being tested. Others thought that despite the stated risks, any potential treatment for slowing down disease progression is worth pursuing as current alternative therapeutic approaches are still many years away from commercial use."
Last month, the agency's reviewers, meeting behind closed doors, approved the award on an 8-1-5 vote with five against funding, eight for funding and one saying the application needs improvement and could be resubmitted. The latest application was, in fact, a resubmission after changes were made to deal with reviewers' concerns.  The summary of the latest version described the effort as "high risk."

In one of the six letters of support for Thompson's research, Michael West, CEO of AgeX Therapeutics, Inc., of Alameda, Ca., said the work could have application in treatment of other neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimers and Parkinson's.

Six is a relatively high number of letters for the board to receive on an application.  Advocates dealing with Huntington's have been active in the past, appearing before the CIRM board on a number of occasions.

The second award today went to Everett Meyer of Stanford and totalled $12 million. It involves a clinical trial for renal failure. 

Here are links to review summaries for each application considered today, the principal investigator, institution and other information. 

Application number, CLIN1-10953; amount, $6.0 million; title, "An hESC-derived hNSC Therapeutic for Huntington’s Disease;" principal investigator, Leslie Thompson; institution, UC Irvine; review summary; letters of support, letter to the board CLIN1-10953, letter to the board #2 CLIN1-10953,​ letter to the board #3 CLIN1-10953, letter to the board #4 CLIN1-10953, letter to the board #5 CLIN1-10953, letter to the board #6 CLIN1-10953, letter to the board CLIN2-11431, other CIRM funding for the PI, $12 million.

Application number, CLIN2-11400; amount, $12.0 million; title, "Induction of Tolerance by Combinatorial Therapy w/ Donor Stem Cells and Expanded Recipient Treg cells in HLA-mismatched Kidney Transplant Recipients;" principal investigator, Everett Meyer; institution, Stanford; review summary; letters of support, none; other CIRM funding for the PI, none.

Action on the following application was put off until Feb. 21 to provide time to answer financial questions raised by board members today: 
Application number, CLIN2-11431; amount, $6.0 million; title, "A monoclonal antibody that depletes blood stem cells and enables chemotherapy free transplants;" principal investigator, Judith Shizuru; institution, Stanford; review summaryone letter of support; other CIRM funding for the PI, $20.4 million.

Monday, January 28, 2019

California Stem Cell Agency to Award $24 Million for Three Clinical Trials

If all goes according to plan, in just three days the California stem cell agency will be down to its last $69 million for clinical trials.

Directors are set to give away $24 million on Wednesday for three clinical trial programs as the agency runs out of cash this year for new awards. The agency started with $3 billion 14 years ago. It has allotted $144 million for research awards this year.

The agency, known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), is attempting to raise privately more than $200 million this year. It is also hoping that voters will approve $5 billion more in funding in the November 2020 election. 

Applications coming before directors this week involve $6 million for Huntington's disease, $6 million for immunodeficiency studies and $12 million for renal failure research. 

The agency withholds the names of researchers and institutions involved until directors act publicly.  The agency's reviewers earlier approved the applications during a closed door session. The agency board almost never overturns the decision of its reviewers. 

The public can participate in the teleconference meeting via the Internet. Instructions can be found on the meeting agenda along with summaries of the reviewers comments on the applications.

CIRM was created by California voters in 2004 and provided with $3 billion in bond funding. No other significant source of income was provided under the ballot initiative.

Correction: An earlier version of this item that was up briefly incorrectly described the $69 million as all that remained for all awards this year.    

Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Odd Stem Cell Position of the Golden State: Hype, Hope and Dubious Clinics

The California stem cell agency and the Golden State's robust scientific stem cell community received some notice this week in the the Los Angeles Times, the state's largest circulation newspaper. 

It came in the form of an op-ed article that decried the booming business enjoyed by unregulated stem cell clinics, a field where California leads the nation. The Times says it has 1.4 million readers daily and 2.4 million on Sunday.

Usha Lee McFarling, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and currently an artist in residence at the University of Washington, wrote the article discussing the issues surrounding the dubious clinics and their considerable risks, which do not seem to discourage those seeking help. She said,
"So why do patients keep streaming in for treatments that cost thousands of dollars? Part of the reason, I suspect, is that stem cell research — the serious, scientific kind — has gotten so much hype in recent years. We’ve all heard about how some stem cells have the power to become any type of cell in the body and might one day offer cures for all manner of crippling and degenerative diseases. If you can jump the line, and get those treatments now, why not do it? 
"Here’s why: Because the days of miraculous cures, if they come, are far in the future. Today, there is only one federally approved stem cell product: the limited use of blood-forming stem cells to treat certain blood disorders. Scientists are just beginning to learn how to harness the power of stem cells, and the harsh reality is that clinical trials that could turn that knowledge into effective therapies will take years, if not decades."
McFarling continued, 
"California is in an odd position. It is the state with the most stem cell clinics in the country offering these unproven 'cures.' It also happens to be a world center of serious scientific stem cell research, thanks to a $3-billion ballot initiative, Proposition 71, passed by voters in 2004 to fund research."
She noted the fledgling efforts at the state and national level to deal with the dubious clinics. McFarling wrote, 
"Here’s an idea in the meantime. The many scientists who have benefited from taxpayer support of stem cell research in the state should start speaking out. After all, the hype from proponents of Prop. 71 (which created the state stem cell agency) is part of what created such high expectations for quick cures – and eagerness on the part of patients to get them. Scientists should now take every opportunity both to explain to the public the long-term goals of their research and the absurdity of the so-called cures now flooding the market."
Our take: Her advice to California researchers is sound. However, it should be noted that a number of researchers, notably Paul Knoepfler at UC Davis, have been sounding warnings for years. The mainstream media, meanwhile, largely ignored the problem. It took two scientists to do the legwork, which could have been done by journalists as well, that has been the key building block behind the current regulatory efforts, which are still in their infancy.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Is the Governor of California a $5 Billion Stem Cell Friend?

Then San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom
 at 2005 announcement of stem cell HQ 

California's newly installed governor, Democrat Gavin Newsom, is no doubt a friend of the state's 14-year-old stem cell research program. 

But is he a $5 billion friend?

The question arises because the stem cell agency expects that its funds for new awards will dry up by the end of this year. It is pinning its hopes for survival on a proposed, $5 billion bond measure that may be placed on the November 2020 ballot. And the agency will need all the support it can muster to convince California voters to approve such a measure. 

Newsom's ties to the agency go back more than a decade. As then mayor of San Francisco, he was a key backer of the city's successful effort to lure the agency's headquarters, and he conjured up a $17 million package of incentives. 

He said at the time that the decision to locate the headquarters in San Francisco was a "proud moment." He said the incentive package demonstrated the "city’s unwavering commitment to innovation as scientists search for new methods to treat the world’s most challenging diseases and injuries."

(See here and here for more on Newsom and the selection of San Francisco as the agency headquarters.)

The agency is now based in Oakland. The free rent deal in Newsom's package expired, and San Francisco was too expensive for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known. 

Newsom was busy last week with non-stem cell matters, such as a $209 billion budget he laid out for lawmakers. Given the nature of his and state priorities, he is unlikely to weigh in soon on a tentative ballot measure that is two years in the future. 

Newsom has sounded cautionary financial notes as he proposes ambitious spending plans. Some news stories have highlighted his willingness to pay down the state's debt, which figures into how the stem cell agency operates. 

In 2004, voters created the agency and also approved $3 billion for research awards. Those billions came from debt (bonds) taken out by the state. It is the first instance of a state funding scientific research with borrowed money. 

The interest on the bonds roughly doubles the cost of the agency, meaning a $10 million research grant really costs the people of California $20 million. 

Today, California is flush with cash because of a solid economy and a rainy day fund created by former Gov. Jerry Brown, also a Democrat. Some financial experts and economists are warning, however, that the good times will not be so good in 2020. That could color how voters perceive spending more on stem cell research.

Newsom may also have other, competing spending priorities come November 2020. He may want to husband his political capital to assure their approval. It is exceedingly unlikely, however, that he would oppose a new stem cell bond measure. But he could sit out a campaign for more billions for the agency. 

Given that possibility, maintaining a warm relationship with Newsom likely stands as an important priority for the agency and its backers -- one that they undoubtedly hope demonstrates both the value of stem cell research and the value it brings to the Newsom administration.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

The Golden State's Stem Cell Agency Sells its 'Powerful' Story: 2,700 Discoveries, 50 Clinical Trials, Billions Awarded

Ronnie's California stem cell story

"Something Better Than Hope" -- That's the new anthem of California's $3 billion stem cell research program, which is scheduled this year to run out money for new awards.

The 14-year-old stem cell agency trumpeted its new slogan this morning when it released its annual report for 2018. It's a "powerful story," the agency declared on its blog. 

The 28-page document chronicled the state of affairs at the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known. The report is titled "Something Better Than Hope. Right Now." CIRM said, 
"While once there was only hope, now we know that cures are imminent."
Kevin McCormack, senior director of communications, celebrated the agency's annual review on its blogThe Stem Cellar. He wrote,
  • "50 clinical trials funded to date, 7 this year alone
  • "$2.6 billion in CIRM grants has been leveraged to bring in an additional
  • "$3.2 billion in matching funds and investments from other sources.
  • "1,180 patients have been involved in CIRM clinical trials"
The report itself said,
"CIRM has funded 1,000 projects at more than 70 institutions in California and is the largest single funder in the world of clinical research for stem cell and regenerative medicine. More than 2,700 medical discoveries have been peer reviewed and published in scientific journals. But, most importantly, lives have been saved, second chances have become possible and cures have risen beyond hope."
Stories of the lives of patients in clinical trials were not neglected, including Ronnie, the toddler in the video at the top of this item.

Maria Millan, the CIRM CEO who was a pediatric surgeon earlier in her career, wrote,
"CIRM’s mission is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.  
"Think about patients like baby Elianna on page 2. She was treated with stem cells for a life-threatening blood disorder while still in her mother’s womb. Ronnie (page 15), who was born with what was previously considered a fatal immune disorder, is alive and thriving today. These stories inspire and motivate us to continue to build upon the great strides CIRM has already made "
The annual report is expected to serve as an important tool as the agency attempts to raise privately more than $200 million to back its efforts until the fall of 2020. That is when CIRM is hoping that California voters will approve $5 billion more for the agency so it can continue its work. 

Annual reports from businesses and government agencies are predictably tilted towards the most positive view of their performance. CIRM's report is no exception. Nonetheless, the agency has run up a record of accomplishment that is significant and important. However, it has not yet fulfilled the expectations of voters in 2004 who were led to believe that nearly miraculous stem cell cures were right around the corner.

Don Reed is a patient advocate who has not lost faith in the promise of stem cells. The California stem cell agency is also indebted to him for his ability to turn the phrase that adorned the cover of the annual report. He was quoted in the report as saying:

"Today, thanks to the 7.2 million voters who authorized the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM, we have something better than hope; we have results, accomplishments, people made well— and a systematic way to fight chronic disease."

Monday, January 07, 2019

California Stem Cell Board Meetings: A Chance to Meet its Directors and Speak to its Staff

The $3 billion California stem cell agency reports that its governing board will meet 12 times this year, mostly in teleconference sessions that will also have access on the Internet.

The business of the board is largely ratifying awards approved earlier by its grant reviewers. However, its financial survival will be a topic of regular discussion this year. The agency expects to run out of cash for new awards before the end of the year. It is hoping that voters will renew its funding with $5 billion in the fall of 2020.

Four "in-person" meetings are scheduled this year during which most of the board will gather at the agency's headquarters in Oakland. They are scheduled to occur in March, May, September and December. Those will be also accessible on the Internet, both for listening or participating.

The meetings of the board offer opportunities for members of the public, including researchers and business representatives, to speak directly to board members and staff of the agency. The in-person sessions are particularly valuable in that regard because of the informality before and after the meetings, as well as during breaks.  Seating is somewhat limited at the meetings at the headquarters of the agency.

Dates and times of the meetings may change, however, and should be double-checked as the sessions near. The first meeting of the year is scheduled to be conducted via teleconferencing and is set for Jan. 30.

The official name of the board is the Independent Citizens' Oversight Committee. The formal name of the stem cell agency is the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Hype and Fraud and Their Impact on the California Stem Cell Program

Image result for cartoons stem cell fraud
Cartoon by Johan Thyberg from "For Better Science"
The New York Times this week published a piece about how the lust for success could be corrupting science in a greater way. 

The questions it raises have particular relevance in the stem cell field, which is still very much in a formative stage. 

Aaron Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Indiana, produced the opinion piece for the Times. He wrote, 
"How might grant funding and career advancement — even the potential for fame — be biasing researchers? How might the desire to protect reputations affect the willingness to accept new information that reverses prior findings?"
He also said, 
"Moves toward open science, and for a change in the academic environment that currently incentivizes secrecy and the hoarding of data, are perhaps our best chance to improve research reproducibility Recent studies have found that an alarmingly high share of experiments that have been rerun have not produced results in line with the original research."
Questions arise with some regularity about hype and fraud in stem cell research. Back in 2014, bioethicist Art Caplan asked, “Why so Much Fake, Unduplicable Stem Cell Research?”

Just this past fall, a multimillion-dollar stem cell research scandal involving Harvard surfaced once again in the news.

Credibility, of course, is everything in science. For the California stem cell agency, it is a matter of survival. It will be out of cash for new awards in less than 12 months and is hoping voters will then give it an additional $5 billion.  More news about stem cell hanky panky, wherever it occurs, will not serve the agency well when it makes its pitch once again to the people of the Golden State.  

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