A life long battle with Parkinson’s disease earns Dr. David Higgins a place on our Board

David Higgins, Ph.D., the new member of the stem cell agency Board as the Patient Advocate for Parkinson's disease

David Higgins, Ph.D., the new member of the stem cell agency Board as the Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s disease

As a child David Higgins imagined that the reason his grandmother wouldn’t talk to him was because of something he did, some fault of his. In time he came to realize that the reason was because his grandmother had Parkinson’s disease and she had trouble communicating with, not just him, but with everyone. It was the start of his life-long relationship with the disease, one that led to his own diagnosis with Parkinson’s a few years ago, and that has now led to him becoming the newest member of our governing Board, the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee.

David, now Dr. Higgins, was appointed by State Controller John Chiang. In his official letter announcing the news – which you can also find in our news release – he said:

“Diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2011, his experience with the disease and its impact on a personal level brings a distinct perspective to the ICOC. Dr. Higgins also brings a broad range of experience from the biotechnology field. As a trained molecular biologist, his involvement in drug development and business operations places him in a unique position, understanding both science and process.”

David says he learned many important lessons from his grandmother, including the power of medical research:

“She was in one of the first L-dopa trials (this is a drug that converts into dopamine in the brain, to help counter the disease). I saw how that therapy helped change her life and it gave me my first lesson in how science and scientific research could change someone’s life.”

David’s mother was also diagnosed with, and later died from, a Parkinson’s-like form of dementia. His own diagnosis only served to further reinforce his commitment to doing something to fight the disease.

“I probably had symptoms that I was suspicious of for about two years before I was diagnosed. It was a mixed bag because as a scientist I finally had a label for what was going on and I thought at least now I can start fighting it. But the other side of me said “Oh my God I know exactly where this is going.”

As a research scientist he has held positions at several biotech companies, most recently as Head of US Operations for BioMedica, Inc., a UK-based gene therapy company. He also became a highly active Patient Advocate, and is now the California Assistant State Director with the Parkinson’s Action Network, as well as the new President of the Board of Directors of the Parkinson’s Association in San Diego.

David says he was completely stunned when he was asked if he would like to be on the CIRM Board. But the Chair of our Board, Jonathan Thomas, Ph.D., J.D., says it’s clear that he will be a terrific addition to the team:

“He is a powerful and passionate advocate not just for people with Parkinson’s disease but for science in general. He understands on a personal level how important it is for the public to support research trying to find new treatments and cures for currently incurable diseases.”

David says his personal experience with the disease has clearly influenced his life but does not mean he will focus on that alone:

“One thing I feel strongly about is that, yes I’m the Parkinson’s Patient Advocate on the Board, but first and foremost I’m an Advocate for everyone and I want to make sure that we spend our money wisely, and that we use our resources to identify and nurture the most promising stem cell projects across all target diseases.”

He says he takes up his new role with mixed emotions:

“I am thrilled to be a part of the CIRM governing Board, but I am also humbled to follow in the footsteps of Joan Samuelson, who has been CIRM’s Parkinson’s Patient Advocate from the beginning. She is a hard act to follow.”

Dr. Thomas echoed those sentiments saying:

“Joan set the gold standard for patient advocacy. She was a part of the agency from the very first and her passion, dedication and commitment to helping others was an inspiration to all of us. Joan was always willing to ask tough questions and push us all to do more to speed up the development of new therapies. We are all better for her service, and she will be missed.”

We are delighted to have David join us and we’re looking forward to working with him in the years to come.

kevin mccormack

Breast Cancer Commandeers Mammary Stem Cells for Own, Nefarious Purposes

Most instances of breast cancer happen later in life—often after menopause. In many cases, the cancer progresses slowly, over a period of months or even years, often giving physicians precious time to implement a treatment plan, successfully battling that cancer into remission.

A section from a mammary 'outgrowth' harvested at lactation. [Credit: UC San Diego School of Medicine]

A section from a mammary ‘outgrowth’ harvested at lactation. [Credit: UC San Diego School of Medicine]

But there is another far more aggressive form of breast cancer that tends to develop earlier, often immediately following pregnancy. And now, researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) have discovered how this form of cancer hijacks a woman’s own stem cells to grow quickly and spread throughout the body.

Reporting in the latest issue of the journal Developmental Cell, UCSD stem cell researchers Drs. David Cheresh and Jay Desgrosellier and their teams have found a link between the molecular signaling switches that spur this aggressive, post-pregnancy breast cancer—and mammary stem cells that are normally activated during pregnancy.

These findings, say Cheresh, offer key insight into how scientists may develop better treatments for this form of breast cancer. As he stated in a news release:

“By understanding a fundamental mechanism of mammary gland development during pregnancy, we have gained a rare insight into how aggressive breast cancer might be treated.”

Normally, pregnancy activates a special group of stem cells in the mammary gland. Their job is to ready the expectant mother for feeding the newborn baby. By the time the baby is born, however, these stem cells go back into hibernation.

However, in some women, these mammary stem cells get hijacked by cancer cells. Rather than the mammary stem cells shutting down by the time milk production begins, cancer cells keep them switched on—which then contributes to the progression of cancer.

These findings shed much-needed light on the complex relationship between breast cancer and pregnancy. However, the authors caution that these findings don’t imply that becoming pregnant causes breast cancer. Rather, as Cheresh explained:

“Our work doesn’t speak to the actual cause of cancer. Rather, it explains what can happen once cancer has been initiated.”

Cheresh, who has received CIRM support for related work, has pinpointed a protein called CD61 that may promote the progression of breast cancer. CD61 has already been implicated in cancer metastasis and resistance to cancer drugs, so it makes sense that it would play a role in breast cancer as well.

Importantly, the discovery of a potential connection between CD61 and this form of breast cancer may ultimately open up new avenues for treating this type of cancer more successfully.

“Detecting CD61 might help doctors determine what kind of therapeutic approach to use, knowing that they might be dealing with a more aggressive yet treatable form of breast cancer. For example, there are existing drugs that block CD61 signaling, which might be another potential aspect of treatment.”

Want to learn more about breast cancer and stem cells? Check out our Solid Tumor Fact Sheet.