Statement regarding former CIRM president’s new position on a stem cell company’s board

We learned this week that our former President, Dr. Alan Trounson, has joined the Board of Stem Cells, Inc., a company we are funding to develop a therapy for Alzheimer’s disease. Because this raises serious concerns on a number of fronts our President and CEO, Dr. C. Randal Mills, issued the following statement:

“CIRM was created by the people of California to help accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. Our responsibility is to them. So it is essential that we conduct these efforts with fairness and integrity.

We take even the appearance of conflicts of interest very seriously. We learned of Dr. Trounson’s appointment to the Board of Stem Cells, Inc. through a press release. We understand that the appointment of CIRM’s former president to the board of directors of a CIRM loan recipient creates a risk of a conflict of interest. To mitigate a potential conflict of interest, we are taking the following steps.

First, we will be sending Dr. Trounson a letter reminding him and the Chairman of the Board of Stem Cells, Inc. of the legal limitations that apply to Dr. Trounson under state law. Although it is permissible for Dr. Trounson to accept employment with a CIRM-funded company, state law prohibits him from:

  1. Communicating with Board members and CIRM employees on behalf of Stem Cells, Inc. for the purposes of influencing any administrative action, including the award or revocation of a grant or loan, involving Stem Cells, Inc. for one year following the termination of his employment with CIRM; and
  2. Assisting Stem Cells, Inc. in responding to a Request for Applications in which Dr. Trounson was involved as a CIRM employee or assisting Stem Cells Inc. with its existing loan.

Second, to avoid any violation of these laws, we have also advised Board members and CIRM employees that they must refrain from communicating with Dr. Trounson regarding any matter involving Stem Cells, Inc.

Finally, in the interests of transparency and good governance we will be conducting a full review of all CIRM activities relating to Stem Cells Inc.”

C. Randal Mills
President and CEO of CIRM

In an auditorium with 200 high school students CIRM grantee connected with one who is now heading to UCLA to study stem cells

When part of your job is to reach out to the community, share information and perhaps get the people you connect with excited about what they hear, it can be difficult to point to tangible examples of success. One arrived in my email inbox last week.

Tommy Nguyen in front of an image of nerve stem cells

Tommy Nguyen in front of an image of nerve stem cells

Each year for Stem Cell Awareness Day in October we arrange for CIRM grantees and staff to go out to high schools and give guest lecture on stem cell science. Last year we reached more than 3,000 students. Probably no one reached more students than Julie Mangada of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato. She has talked to students at 15 schools in the past year. Another 21 classes have visited the Learning Center she manages at the Buck.

In a wonderful turn of events, Julie’s talk at Piner High School in Santa Rosa last October caused one student in the auditorium to completely change the trajectory of his upcoming college pursuits. He went on to become class valedictorian and in his commencement speech last month mentioned Julie’s talk and his plans to now attend the University of California, Los Angeles for biological engineering and stem cell science.

Someone in the graduation crowd called the Buck Institute after the talk and asked if the student could have a private tour of the stem cell facilities there. That student, Tommy Nguyen, joined Julie at the Buck last week to walk through the many stem cell projects there, several funded by CIRM. In particular, he saw how embryonic stem cells were grown into nerve stem cells that were transplanted into the brains of an animal model of Parkinson’s Disease (in photos).

Julie Mangada shows Tommy where cells would be implanted for Parkinson's Disease.

Julie Mangada shows Tommy where cells would be implanted for Parkinson’s Disease.

We believe getting young people into the stem cell career pipeline early is essential. That is why I conceived and managed the development of a five-unit high school curriculum in 2009 that is freely available at our Stem Cell Education Portal.

This story about Tommy shows early outreach to students can work. And it is fun when a colleague in the field can write as Julie did in her email last week, “I love my job.”

She also conducts tours for the public at the Buck every Thursday from 10:30 to Noon. To reserve a spot, call (415)209-2245.

Don Gibbons

The Man Behind the Curtain: Protein Helps Keep Cancer Cells Alive and Kicking

Being diagnosed with brain cancer comes with a sobering sentence: even with the most aggressive treatments, life expectancy for the most common form of brain cancer—called glioblastoma—is less than two years.

One of the key culprits, many scientists now believe, are cancer stem cells. Cancer stem cells are a subset of cancer cells that have three very unique properties: they can self-renew, they can propagate (or multiply) the cancer, and they can transform into the many types of cells that are found in a tumor.

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Cancer stem cells are a relatively new concept, but they have generated a lot of excitement among cancer researchers because they could lead to the design of more effective therapies. And while whether or not they even existed has long been a source of debate among experts, a series of recent research findings have bolstered the notion not only that they exist, but also that they play a significant role in the recurrence of some forms of cancer—including glioblastoma.

Researchers have been identifying, step by step, the many proteins and chemical pathways that form the path from cancer stem cell to tumor. Previous research had found the CDK class of proteins to be present in large quantities in mature cancer cells in patients suffering from glioblastoma. But they suspected something else was at play, helping to keep the CDK proteins switched on in mature cancer cells.

So scientists at McGill University in Canada, led by neurologist Dr. Anita Bellail, dug deeper. In their report, published this week in the journal Nature Communications, the team has pinpointed a new class of proteins at play behind the scenes called SUMO.

Specifically, Bellail and her team observed that the SUMO1 protein in particular modifies a CDK protein called CDK6 in a process the team has dubbed ‘sumylation.’ As Bellail explained in this week’s news release:

“CDK6 sumylation inhibits its degradation and thus stabilizes the CDK6 protein in the cancer.”

In other words, the CDK6 protein does not by itself maintain a presence in the cancer cells. Instead, it requires a little help from SUMO1. As Bellail continued:

“We found that CDK6 sumylation is required for the renewal and growth of the cancer stem cells in glioblastoma.”

It stands to reason, therefore, that shutting off SUMO1 could do the reverse—thus destabilizing CDK6 and, potentially, block the progression of the cancer.

And in further experiments by Bellail and her team, they found exactly that.

These results hold significant promise for finding new ways to treat glioblastoma because now the team has a target: SUMO1. In fact, the research team is now screening for drugs that can target SUMO1 and block it, thus reducing CDK6 levels and, as a result, cancer cells—and one day offering a more optimistic outcome for those diagnosed with glioblastoma.

Want to learn more about cancer stem cells? Check out our 2009 “Spotlight on Cancer Stem Cells” video starring Dr. Michael Clarke, associate director of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine.