Funding a clinical trial for deadly cancer is a no brainer

The beast of cancers
For a disease that is supposedly quite rare, glioblastoma seems to be awfully common. I have lost two friends to the deadly brain cancer in the last few years. Talking to colleagues and friends here at CIRM, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t know someone who has died of it.


Imagery of glioblastoma, a deadly brain cancer,  from ImmunoCellular’s website

So when we got an application to fund a Phase 3 clinical trial to target the cancer stem cells that help fuel glioblastoma, it was really a no brainer to say yes. Of course it helped that the scientific reviewers – our Grants Working Group or GWG – who looked at the application voted unanimously to approve it. For them, it was great science for an important cause.

Today our Board agreed with the GWG and voted to award $19.9 million to LA-based ImmunoCellular Therapeutics to carry out a clinical trial that targets glioblastoma cancer stem cells. They’re hoping to begin the trial very soon, recruiting around 400 newly diagnosed patients at some 120 clinical sites around the US, Canada and Europe.

There’s a real urgency to this work. More than 50 percent of those diagnosed with glioblastoma die within 15 months, and more than 90 percent within three years. There are no cures and no effective long-term treatments.

As our President and CEO, Dr. Randy Mills, said in a news release:

 “This kind of deadly disease is precisely why we created CIRM 2.0, our new approval process to accelerate the development of therapies for patients with unmet medical needs. People battling glioblastoma cannot afford to wait years for us to agree to fund a treatment when their survival can often be measured in just months. We wanted a process that was more responsive to the needs of patients, and that could help companies like ImmunoCellular get their potentially life-saving therapies into clinical trials as quickly as possible.”

The science
The proposed treatment involves some rather cool science. Glioblastoma stem cells can evade standard treatments like chemotherapy and cause the recurrence and growth of the tumors. The ImmunoCellular therapy addresses this issue and targets six cell surface proteins that are found on glioblastoma cancer stem cells.

The researchers take immune cells from the patient’s own immune system and expose them to fragments of these cancer stem cell surface proteins in the lab. By re-engineering the immune cells in this way they are then able to recognize the cancer stem cells.

My colleague Todd Dubnicoff likened it to letting a bloodhound sniff a piece of clothing from a burglar so it’s able to recognize the scent and hunt the burglar down.  When the newly trained immune system cells are returned to the patient’s body, they can now help “sniff out” and hopefully kill the cancer stem cells responsible for the tumor’s recurrence and growth.

Like a bloodhound picking up the scent of a burglar, ImmunoCellular's therapy helps the immune system track down brain cancer stem cells (source: wikimedia commons)

Like a bloodhound picking up the scent of a burglar, ImmunoCellular’s therapy helps the immune system track down brain cancer stem cells (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Results from both ImmunoCellular’s Phase 1 and 2 trials using this approach were encouraging, showing that patients given the therapy lived longer than those who got standard treatment and experienced only minimal side effects.

Turning the corner against glioblastoma
There’s a moment immediately after the Board votes “yes” to fund a project like this. It’s almost like a buzz, where you feel that you have just witnessed something momentous, a moment where you may have turned the corner against a deadly disease.

We have a saying at the stem cell agency: “Come to work every day as if lives depend on it, because lives depend on it.” On days like this, you feel that we’ve done something that could ultimately help save some of those lives.

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: new CRISPR fix for sickle cell disease, saving saliva stem cells, jumping genes in iPSCs and lung stem cells.

An end run around sickle cell disease with CRISPR
The CRISPR-based gene editing technique has got to be the hottest topic in biomedical research right now. And I sense we’re only at the tip of the iceberg with more applications of the technology popping up almost every week. Just two days ago, researchers at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston reported in Nature that they had identified a novel approach to correcting sickle cell disease (SCD) with CRISPR.

A mutation in the globlin gene leads to sickled red blood cells that clog up blood vessels

A mutation in the globlin gene leads to sickled red blood cells that clog up blood vessels (image: CIRM video)

Sickle cell anemia is a devastating blood disorder caused by a single, inherited DNA mutation in the adult form of the hemoglobin gene (which is responsible for making blood). A CIRM-funded team at UCLA is getting ready to start testing a therapy in clinical trials that uses a similar but different gene editing tool to correct this mutation. Rather than directly fixing the SCD mutation as the UCLA team is doing, the Dana Farber team focused on a protein called BCL11A. Acting like a molecular switch during development, BCL11A shifts hemoglobin production from a fetal to an adult form. The important point here is that the fetal form of hemoglobin can substitute for the adult form and is unaffected by the SCD mutation.

So using CRISPR gene editing, they deleted a section of DNA from a patient’s blood stem cells that reduced BCL11A and increased production of the fetal hemoglobin. This result suggests the technique can, to pardon the football expression, do an end run around the disease.

But if there’s already a recipe for directly fixing the SCD mutation, why bother with this alternate CRISPR DNA deletion method? In a press release Daniel Bauer, one of the project leaders, explains the rationale:

“It turns out that blood stem cells, the ultimate targets for this kind of therapy, are much more resistant to genetic repair than to genetic disruption.”

Whatever the case, we’re big believers in the need to have several shots on goal to help ensure a victory for patients.

Clinical trial asks: does sparing salivary stem cells protect against severe dry mouth?
I bet you rarely think about or appreciate your saliva. But many head and neck cancer patients who undergo radiation therapy develop severe dry mouth caused by damage to their salivary glands. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but in reality, the effects of dry mouth are life-changing. A frequent need to drink water disrupts sleep and leads to chronic fatigue. And because saliva is crucial for preventing tooth decay, these patients often lose their teeth. Eating and speaking are also very difficult without saliva, which cause sufferers to retreat from society.

Help may now be on the way. On Wednesday, researchers from University of Groningen in the Netherlands reported in Science Translational Medicine the identification of stem cells in a specific region within the large salivary glands found near each ear. In animal experiments, the team showed that specifically irradiating the area where the salivary stem cells lie shuts down saliva production. And in humans, the amount of radiation to this area is linked to the severity of dry mouth symptoms.

Doctors have confirmed that focusing the radiation therapy beams can minimize exposure to the stem cell-rich regions in the salivary glands. And the research team has begun a double-blind clinical trial to see if this modified radiation treatment helps reduce the number of dry mouth sufferers. They’re looking to complete the trial in two to three years.

Keeping a Lid on Jumping Genes
Believe it or not, you have jumping genes in your cells. The scientific name for them is retrotransposons. They are segments of DNA that can literally change their location within your chromosomes.

While retrotransposons have some important benefits such as creating genetic diversity, the insertion or deletion of DNA sequences can be bad news for a cell. Such events can cause genetic mutations and chromosome instability, which can lead to an increased risk of cancer growth or cell death.

To make its jump, the DNA sequence of a retrotransposon is copied with the help of an intermediary RNA (the green object in the picture below). A special enzyme converts the RNA back into DNA and this new copy of the retrotransposon then gets inserted at a new spot in the cell’s chromosomes.

Retrotransposons: curious pieces of DNA that can be transcribed into RNA, copied into DNA, and inserted to a new spot in your chromosomes.

The duplication and insertion of transposons into our chromosomes can be bad news for a cell

Most of our cells keep this gene jumping activity in check by adding inhibitory chemical tags to the retrotransposon DNA sequence. Still, researchers have observed that in unspecialized cells, like induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, these inhibitory chemical tags are reduced significantly.

So you’d think that iPS cells would be prone to the negative consequences of retrotransposon reactivation and unleashed jumping genes. But in a CIRM-funded paper published on Monday in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, UC Irvine researchers show that despite the absence of those inhibitory chemical tags, the retrotransposon activity is reduced due to the presence of microRNA (miRNA), in this case miRNA-128. This molecule binds and blocks the retrotransposon’s RNA intermediary so no duplicate jumping gene is made.

The team’s hope is that by using miRNA-128 to curb the frequency of gene jumping, they can reduce the potential for mutations and tumor growth in iPS cells, a key safety step for future iPS-based clinical trials.

Great hope for lung stem cells
Chronic lung disease is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. but sadly doctors don’t have many treatment options except for a full lung transplant, which is a very risky procedure with very limited sources of donated organs. For these reasons, there is great interest in better understanding the location and function of lung stem cells. Harnessing the regenerative abilities of these cells may lead to more alternatives for people with end stage lung disease.

In a BioMedicine Development commentary that’s geared for our scientist readers, UCSF researchers summarize the evidence for stem cell population in the lung. We’re proud to say that one of the lead authors, Matt Donne, is a former CIRM Scholar.

Related links

The Ogawa-Yamanaka Prize Crowns Its First Stem Cell Champion

A world of dark

Imagine if you woke up one day and couldn’t see. Your life would change drastically, and you would have to painfully relearn how to function in a world that heavily relies on sight.

A retina of a patient with macular degeneration. (Photo credit: Paul Parker/SPL)

A retina of a patient with macular degeneration. (Photo credit: Paul Parker/SPL)

While most people don’t lose their sight overnight, many suffer from visual impairments that slowly happen over time. Glaucoma, cataracts, and macular degeneration are examples of debilitating eye diseases that eventually lead to blindness.

With almost 300 million people world wide with some form of visual impairment, there’s urgency in the scientific community to develop safe therapies for clinical applications. One of the most promising strategies is using human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells derived from patients to generate cell types suitable for transplantation into the human eye.

However, this task is more easily said than done. Safety, regulatory, and economical concerns make the process of translating iPS cell therapies from the bench into the clinic an enormous challenge worthy only of a true scientific champion.

A world of light

Dr. Masayo Takahashi

Dr. Masayo Takahashi

Meet Dr. Masayo Takahashi. She is a faculty member at the RIKEN Centre for Developmental Biology, a prominent female scientist in Japan, and a bona fide stem cell champion. Her mission is to cure diseases of blindness using iPS cell technology.

Since the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of iPS cells by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka eight years ago, Dr. Takahashi has made fast work using this technology to generate specific cells from human iPS cells that can be transplanted into patients to treat an eye disease called macular degeneration. This disease results in the degeneration of the retina, an area in the back of the eye that receives light and translates the information to your brain to produce sight.

Dr. Takahashi generates cells called retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells from human iPS cells that can replace lost or dying retinal cells when transplanted into patients with macular degeneration. What makes this therapy so exciting is that Dr. Takahashi’s iPS-derived RPE cells appear to be relatively safe and don’t cause an immune system reaction or cause tumors when transplanted into humans.

Because of the safety of her technology, and the unfulfilled needs of millions of patients with eye diseases, Dr. Takahashi made it her goal to take iPS cells into humans within five years of Dr. Yamanaka’s discovery.

Ogawa-Yamanaka Stem Cell Prize

It’s no surprise that Dr. Takahashi succeeded in her ambitious goal. Her cutting edge work has led to the first clinical trial using iPS cells in humans, specifically treating patients with macular degeneration. In September 2014, the first patient, a 70-year-old Japanese woman, received a transplant of her own iPS-derived RPE cells and no complications were reported.

Currently, the trial is on hold “as part of a safety validation step and in consideration of anticipated regulatory changes to iPS cell research in Japan” according to a Gladstone Institute news release. Nevertheless, this first iPS cell trial in humans has overcome significant regulatory hurdles, has set an important precedent for establishing the safety of stem cell therapies, and has given scientists hope that iPS cell therapies can become a reality.

Dr. Deepak Srivastava presents Dr. Takahashi with the Ogawa-Yamanaka Prize.

Dr. Deepak Srivastava presents Dr. Takahashi with the Ogawa-Yamanaka Prize.

For her accomplishments, Dr. Takahashi was recently awarded the first ever Ogawa-Yamanaka Stem Cell Prize and honored at a special event held at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco yesterday. This prize was established by a generous gift from Mr. Hiro Ogawa in collaboration with Dr. Shinya Yamanaka and Dr. Deepak Srivastava at the Gladstone Institutes. The award recognizes scientists who conduct translational iPS cell research that will eventually be applied to patients in the clinic.

In an interview with CIRM, Dr. Deepak Srivastava, the Director of the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease and the Roddenberry Center for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine at Gladstone, described the prestigious prize and the ceremony held at the Gladstone to honor Dr. Takahashi:

Dr. Deepak Srivastava

The Ogawa-Yamanaka prize prize is meant to incentivize and honor those whose work is advancing the translational use of stem cells for regenerative medicine. Dr. Masayo Takahashi is a pioneer in pushing the technology of iPS cell-derived cell types and actually introducing them into people. She’s the very first person in the world to successfully overcome all the regulatory barriers and the scientific barriers to introduce this new type of stem cell into a patient. And she’s done so for a condition of blindness called macular degeneration, which affects millions of people world wide, and for which there are very few treatments currently. We are honoring her with this prize for her pioneering efforts at making this technology one that can be applied to patients.

The new world that iPS cells will bring

As part of the ceremony, Dr. Takahashi gave a scientific talk on the new world that iPS cells will bring for patients with diseases that lack cures, including those with visual impairments. The Stem Cellar team was lucky enough to interview Dr. Takahashi as well as attend her lecture during the Gladstone ceremony. We will cover both her talk and her interview with CIRM in an upcoming blog.

The Stem Cellar team at CIRM was excited to attend this momentous occasion, and to know that CIRM-funding has supported many researchers in the field of iPS cell therapy and regenerative medicine. We would like to congratulate Dr. Takahashi on her impressive and impactful accomplishments in this area and look forward to seeing progress in iPS cell trial for macular degeneration.


Related Links:

CIRM-funded team traces molecular basis for differences between human and chimp face

So similar yet so different
Whenever I go to the zoo, I could easily spend my entire visit hanging out with our not-so-distant relatives, the chimpanzees. To say we humans are similar to them is quite an understatement. Sharing 96% of our DNA, chimps are more closely related to us than they are to gorillas. And when you just compare our genes – that is, the segments of DNA that contain instructions for making proteins – we’re even more indistinguishable.

Chimps and Humans: So similar yet so different

Chimps and Humans: So similar yet so different

And yet you wouldn’t mistake a human for a chimp. I mean, I do have hairy arms, but they’re not that hairy. So what accounts for our very different appearance if our genes are so similar?

To seek out answers, a CIRM-funded team at Stanford University used both human and chimp induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to derive cranial neural crest cells (CNCCs). This cell type plays a key role in shaping the overall structure of the face during the early stages of embryo development. In a report published late last week in Cell, the team found differences, not in the genes themselves, but in gene activity between the human and chimp CNCCs.

Enhancers: Volume controls for your genes
Pinpointing the differences in gene activity relied on a comparative analysis of so-called enhancer regions of human and chimp DNA. Unlike genes, the enhancer regions of DNA do not provide instructions for making proteins. Instead they dictate how much protein to make by acting like volume control knobs for specific genes. A particular volume level, or gene activity, is determined by specific combinations of chemical tags and DNA-binding proteins on an enhancer region of DNA.

Enhancers: DNA segments that act like a volume control know for gene activity (Image source: xxxx)

Enhancers: DNA segments that act like a volume control knobs for gene activity (Image source: FANTOM Project, University of Copenhagen)

The researchers used several sophisticated lab techniques to capture a snapshot of this enhancer tagging and binding in the CNCCSs. They mostly saw similarities between human and chimp enhancers but, as senior author Joanna Wysocka explains in a Stanford University press release, they did uncover some differences:

“In particular, we found about 1,000 enhancer regions that are what we termed species-biased, meaning they are more active in one species or the other. Interestingly, many of the genes with species-biased enhancers and expression have been previously shown to be important in craniofacial development.”

PAX Humana: A genetic basis for our smaller jawline and snout?
For example, their analysis revealed that the genes PAX3 and PAX7 are associated with chimp-biased enhancer regions, and they had higher levels of activity in chimp CNCCs. These results get really intriguing once you learn a bit more about the PAX genes: other studies in mice have shown that mutations interfering with PAX function lead to mice with smaller, lower jawbones and snouts. So the lower level of PAX3/PAX7 gene activity in humans would appear to correlate with our smaller jaws and snout (mouth and nose) compared to chimps. Did that just blow your mind? How about this:

The researchers also found a variation in the enhancer region for the gene BMP4. But in this case, BMP4 was highly related to human-biased enhancer regions and had higher activity in humans compared to chimps. Previous mouse studies have shown that forcing higher levels of BMP4 specifically in CNCCs leads to shorter lower and upper jawbones, rounder skulls, and eyes positioned more to the front of the face. These changes caused by BMP4 sound an awful lot like the differences in human and chimp facial structures. It appears the Stanford group has established a terrific strategy for tracing the genetic basis for differences in humans and chimps.

So what’s next? According to Wysocka, the team is digging deeper into their data:

“We are now following up on some of these more interesting species-biased enhancers to better understand how they impact morphological differences. It’s becoming clear that these cellular pathways can be used in many ways to affect facial shape.”

And in the bigger picture, the researchers also suggest that this “cellular anthropology” approach could also be applied to a human to human search for DNA enhancer regions that play a role in the variation between healthy and disease states.

CIRM CAP Kickoff to New Clinical Trials

Alisha Bouge is the project manager for CIRM’s Clinical Advisory Panels (CAPs)

On the cusp of the official kickoff to football season, CIRM has had its own kickoff to celebrate.  The first Clinical Advisory Panel (CAP) meeting took place on August 18, 2015 in Irvine, CA with Caladrius Bioscience, Inc.  And just as every NFL team starts the season hopeful of a Super Bowl win, all our CAPs start out with equally lofty goals. That’s because under CIRM 2.0, the role of the CAP is to work with the clinical stage project teams we fund to help accelerate the development of therapies for patients with unmet medical needs and to give these projects the greatest likelihood of success.

In the case of Caladrius, the work is focused on treating metastatic melanoma, an aggressive and deadly form of skin cancer. You can read more about this clinical trial here.

Obstacles and challenges are inevitable in the lifecycle of research. CIRM hopes to help its grantees navigate through these hurdles as quickly and positively as possible by providing recommendations from expert advisors in the field.  The intention is for the CAP meeting process to be that navigating vessel throughout the lifetime of each clinical stage project.

The CAPs will include at least three members: one CIRM science officer, a patient representative, and an external scientific advisor.  The CAP will meet with the project team approximately four times a year, with the first meeting taking place in-person.  Consider the CAP as the grantee’s special team, doing all they can to get that two-point conversion at the end of an already successful outcome, giving the grantee and their team just a few more points in their pocket to reach the ultimate success.


CIRM CAP on a tour of Caladrius’ facility in Irvine, CA.  The CIRM CAP can be seen in the far right of the photo (left to right) Randy Lomax (Patient Representative), Ingrid Caras (CIRM Sr. Science Officer), and Hassan Movahhed (External Scientific Advisor).

As the lead Science Officer on this first CAP, CIRM’s Ingrid Caras stated: “This is our opportunity to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money.”

The mission and the message of the CAP was well received by Caladrius.  After the CAP meeting, Anna Crivici, VP of Operations & Program Management at Caladrius, had this to say about her experience:

anna crivici

Anna Crivici, Caladrius

I thought that the meeting was very productive.  Everyone on the Caladrius team appreciates the collaborative approach CIRM is taking on the program, as amply demonstrated during our successful first meeting.  The discussion on every agenda topic was helpful and insightful.  The opportunity to better understand the patient perspective will be especially beneficial and increasingly important as the Phase 3 program progresses.  We are confident that this and future CAP meetings will help us advance and refine our strategic planning and execution.


CIRM CAP and members of Caladrius discussing operational strategies for success.

CIRM is looking forward to the 2015/2016 CAP season. And while there is no Super Bowl incentive at the end of our season, there is the hope that CIRM’s efforts, both financially and collaboratively, will contribute to successful treatments for so many out there in need. That’s something well worth cheering for.

Cell mate: the man who makes stem cells for clinical trials

When we announced that one of the researchers we fund – Dr. Henry Klassen at the University of California, Irvine – has begun his clinical trial to treat the vision-destroying disease retinitis pigmentosa, we celebrated the excitement felt by the researchers and the hope from people with the disease.

But we missed out one group. The people who make the cells that are being used in the treatment. That’s like praising a champion racecar driver for their skill and expertise, and forgetting to mention the people who built the car they drive.

Prof. Gerhard Bauer

Prof. Gerhard Bauer

In this case the “car” was built by the Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) team, led by Prof. Gerhard Bauer, at the University of California Davis (UC Davis).

Turns out that Gerhard and his team have been involved in more than just one clinical trial and that the work they do is helping shape stem cell research around the U.S. So we decided to get the story behind this work straight from the horse’s mouth (and if you want to know why that’s a particularly appropriate phrase to use here read this previous blog about the origins of GMP)

When did the GMP facility start, what made you decide this was needed at UC Davis?

Gerhard: In 2006 the leadership of the UC Davis School of Medicine decided that it would be important for UC Davis to have a large enough manufacturing facility for cellular and gene therapy products, as this would be the only larger academic GMP facility in Northern CA, creating an important resource for academia and also industry. So, we started planning the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures and large GMP facility with a team of facility planners, architects and scientists, and by 2007 we had our designs ready and applied for the CIRM major facilities grant, one of the first big grants CIRM offered. We were awarded the grant and started construction in 2008. We opened the Institute and GMP facility in April of 2010.

How does it work? Do you have a number of different cell lines you can manufacture or do people come to you with cell lines they want in large numbers?

Gerhard: We perform client driven manufacturing, which means the clients tell us what they need manufactured. We will, in conjunction with the client, obtain the starting product, for instance cells that need to undergo a manufacturing process to become the final product. These cells can be primary cells or also cell lines. Cell lines may perhaps be available commercially, but often it is necessary to derive the primary cell product here in the GMP facility; this can, for instance, be done from whole donor bone marrow, from apheresis peripheral blood cells, from skin cells, etc.

How many cells would a typical – if there is such a thing – order request?

Gerhard: This depends on the application and can range from 1 million cells to several billions of cells. For instance, for an eye clinical trial using autologous (from the patient themselves) hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells, a small number, such as a million cells may be sufficient. For allogeneic (from an unrelated donor) cell banks that are required to treat many patients in a clinical trial, several billion cells would be needed. We therefore need to be able to immediately and adequately adjust to the required manufacturing scale.

Why can’t researchers just make their own cells in their own lab or company?

Gerhard: For clinical trial products, there are different, higher, standards than apply for just research laboratory products. There are federal regulations that guide the manufacturing of products used in clinical trials, in this special case, cellular products. In order to produce such products, Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) rules and regulations, and guidelines laid down by both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Pharmacopeia need to be followed.

The goal is to manufacture a safe, potent and non-contaminated product that can be safely used in people. If researchers would like to use the cells or cell lines they developed in a clinical trial they have to go to a GMP manufacturer so these products can actually be used clinically. If, however, they have their own GMP facility they can make those products in house, provided of course they adhere to the rules and regulations for product manufacturing under GMP conditions.

Besides the UC Irvine retinitis pigmentosa trial now underway what other kinds of clinical trials have you supplied cells for?

Gerhard: A UC Davis sponsored clinical trial in collaboration with our Eye Center for the treatment of blindness (NCT01736059), which showed remarkable vision recovery in two out of the six patients who have been treated to date (Park et al., PMID:25491299, ), and also an industry sponsored clinical gene therapy trial for severe kidney disease. Besides cellular therapy products, we also manufacture clinical grade gene therapy vectors and specialty drug formulations.

For several years we have been supplying clinicians with a UC Davis GMP facility developed formulation of the neuroactive steroid “allopregnanolone” that was shown to act on resident neuronal stem cells. We saved several lives of patients with intractable seizures, and the formulation is also applied in clinical trials for the treatment of traumatic brain injury, Fragile X syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease.

What kinds of differences are you seeing in the industry, in the kinds of requests you get now compared to when you started?

Gerhard: In addition, gene therapy vector manufacturing and formulation work is really needed by several clients. One of the UC Davis specialties is “next generation” gene-modified mesenchymal stem cells, and we are contacted often to develop those products.

Where will we be in five years?

Gerhard: Most likely, some of the Phase I/II clinical trials (these are early stage clinical trials with, usually, relatively small numbers of patients involved) will have produced encouraging results, and product manufacturing will need to be scaled up to provide enough cellular products for Phase III clinical trials (much larger trials with many more people) and later for a product that can be licensed and marketed.

We are already working with companies that anticipate such scale up work and transitioning into manufacturing for marketing; we are planning this upcoming process with them. We also believe that certain cellular products will replace currently available standard medical treatments as they may turn out to produce superior results.

What does the public not know about the work you do that you think they should know?

Gerhard: The public should know that UC Davis has the largest academic Good Manufacturing Practice Facility in Northern California, that its design was well received by the FDA, that we are manufacturing a wide variety of products – currently about 16 – that we are capable of manufacturing several products at one time without interfering with each other, and that we are happy to work with clients from both academia and private industry through both collaborative and Fee-for-Service arrangements.

We are also very proud to have, during the last 5 years, contributed to saving several lives with some of the novel products we manufactured. And, of course, we are extremely grateful to CIRM for building this state-of-the-art facility.

You can see a video about the building of the GMP facility at UC Davis here.

Da Mayor and the clinical trial that could help save his vision

Former San Francisco Mayor and California State Assembly Speaker Willie Brown is many things, but shy is not one of them. A profile of him in the San Francisco Chronicle once described him as “Brash, smart, confident”. But for years Da Mayor – as he is fondly known in The City – said very little about a condition that is slowly destroying his vision. Mayor Brown has retinitis pigmentosa (RP).

RP is a degenerative disease that slowly destroys a person’s sight vision by attacking and destroying photoreceptors in the retina, the light-sensitive area at the back of the eye that is critical for vision. At a recent conference held by the Everylife Foundation for Rare Diseases, Mayor Brown gave the keynote speech and talked about his life with RP.

Willie Brown

He described how people thought he was being rude because he would walk by them on the streets and not say hello. The truth is, he couldn’t see them.

He was famous for driving fancy cars like Bentleys, Maseratis and Ferraris. When he stopped doing that, he said, “people thought I was broke because I no longer had expensive cars.” The truth is his vision was too poor for him to drive.

Despite its impact on his life RP hasn’t slowed Da Mayor down, but now there’s a new clinical trial underway that might help him, and others like him, regain some of that lost vision.

The trial is the work of Dr. Henry Klassen at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). Dr. Klassen just announced the treatment of their first four patients, giving them stem cells that hopefully will slow down or even reverse the progression of RP.

“We are delighted to be moving into the clinic after many years of bench research,” Klassen said in a news release.

The patients were each given a single injection of retinal progenitor cells. It’s hoped these cells will help protect the photoreceptors in the retina that have not yet been damaged by RP, and even revive those that have become impaired but not yet destroyed by the disease.

The trial will enroll 16 patients in this Phase 1 trial. They will all get a single injection of retinal cells into the eye most affected by the disease. After that, they’ll be followed for 12 months to make sure that the therapy is safe and to see if it has any beneficial effects on vision in the treated eye, compared to the untreated one.

In a news release Jonathan Thomas, Ph.D., J.D., Chair of the CIRM Board said it’s always exciting when a therapy moves out of the lab and into people:

“This is an important step for Dr. Klassen and his team, and hopefully an even more important one for people battling this devastating disease. Our mission at CIRM is to accelerate the development of stem cell therapies for patients with unmet medical needs, and this certainly fits that bill. That’s why we have invested almost $19 million in helping this therapy reach this point.”

RP hasn’t defeated Da Mayor. Willie Brown is still known as a sharp dresser and an even sharper political mind. His message to the people at the Everylife Foundation conference was, “never give up, keep striving, keep pushing, keep hoping.”

To learn more about the study or to enroll contact the UCI Alpha Stem Cell Clinic at 949-824-3990 or by email at

And visit our website to watch a presentation about the trial (link) by Dr. Klassen and to hear brief remarks from one of his patients.

Bridging the gap: training scientists to speak everyday English

Getting a start in your chosen career is never easy. Without experience it’s hard to get a job. And without a job you can’t get experience. That’s why the CIRM Bridges program was created, to help give undergraduate and Master’s level students a chance to get the experience they need to start a career in stem cell research.

Last week our governing Board approved a new round of funding for this program, ensuring it will continue for another 5 years.

But we are not looking to train just any student; we are looking to recruit and retain students who reflect the diversity of California, students who might not otherwise have a chance to work in a world-class stem cell research facility.

Want to know what that kind of student looks like? What kind of work they do? Well, the Bridges program at City College of San Francisco recently got its latest group of Bridges students to record an “elevator pitch”; that’s a short video where they explain what they do and why it’s important, in language anyone can understand.

They do a great job of talking about their research in a way that’s engaging and informative; no easy matter when you are discussing things as complex as using stem cells to test whether everyday chemicals can have a toxic impact on the developing brain, or finding ways to turn off the chromosome that causes Down’s syndrome.

Regular readers of the CIRM blog know we are huge supporters of anything that encourages scientists to be better communicators. We feel that anyone who gets public funding for their work has an obligation to be able to explain that work in words the public can understand. This is not just about being responsive, there’s also a certain amount of self-interest here. The better the public understands the work that scientists do, and how that might impact their health, the more they’ll support that work.

That’s why one of the new elements we have added to the Bridges program is a requirement for the students to engage in community outreach and education. We want them to be actively involved in educating diverse communities around California about the importance of stem cell research and the potential benefits for everyone.

We have also added a requirement for the students to be directly engaged with patients. Too often in the past students studied solely in the lab, learning the skills they’ll need for a career in science. But we want them to also understand whom these skills will ultimately benefit; people battling deadly diseases and disorders. The best way to do that is for the students to meet these people face-to-face, at a bone marrow drive or at a health fair for example.

When you have seen the face of someone in need, when you know their story, you are more motivated to find a way to help them. The research, even if it is at a basic level, is no longer about an abstract idea, it’s about someone you know, someone you have met.

Improving process drives progress in stem cell research

shutterstock_212888935Process is not a sexy word. No one gets excited thinking about improving a process. Yet behind every great idea, behind every truly effective program is someone who figured out a way to improve the process, to make that idea not just work, but work better.

It’s not glamorous. Sometimes it’s not even pretty. But it is essential.

Yesterday in Oakland our governing Board approved two new concepts to improve our process, to help us fund research in a way that is faster, smarter and ultimately helps us better meet our mission of accelerating the development of stem cell therapies for patients with unmet medical needs.

The new concepts are for Discovery – the earliest stage of research – and the Translational phase, a critical step in moving promising therapies out of the lab and toward clinical trials where they can be tested in people.

In a news release C. Randal Mills, Ph.D., CIRM’s President and CEO, said that these additions built on the work started when the agency launched CIRM 2.0 in January for the clinical phase of research:

“What makes this approach different is that under CIRM 2.0 we are creating a pathway for research, from Discovery to Translational and Clinical, so that if a scientist is successful with their research at one level they are able to move that ahead into the next phase. We are not interested in research just for its own sake. We are interested in research that is going to help us help patients.”

In the Discovery program, for example, we will now be able to offer financial incentives to encourage researchers who successfully complete their work to move it along into the Translational phase – either themselves or by finding a scientific partner willing to take it up and move it forward.

This does a number of things. First it helps create a pipeline for the most promising projects so ideas that in the past might have stopped once the initial study ended now have a chance to move forward. Obviously our hope is that this forward movement will ultimately lead to a clinical trial. That won’t happen with every research program we fund but this approach will certainly increase the possibility that it might.

There’s another advantage too. By scheduling the Discovery and Translational awards more regularly we are creating a grant system that has more predictability, making it easier for researchers to know when they can apply for funding.

We estimate that each year there will be up to 50 Discovery awards worth a total of $53 million; 12 Translation awards worth a total of $40 million; and 12 clinical awards worth around $100 million. That’s a total of more than $190 million every year for research.

This has an important advantage for the stem cell agency too. We have close to $1 billion left in the bank so we want to make sure we spend it as wisely as we can.

As Jonathan Thomas, Ph.D. J.D, the Chair of our Board, said, having this kind of plan helps us better plan our financial future;

“Knowing how often these programs are going to be offered, and how much money is likely to be awarded means the Board has more information to work with in making decisions on where best to allocate our funding.”

The Board also renewed funding for both the Bridges and SPARK (formerly Creativity) programs. These are educational and training programs aimed at developing the next generation of stem cell scientists. The Bridges students are undergraduate or Master’s level students. The SPARK students are all still in high school. Many in both groups come from poor or low-income communities. This program gives them a chance to work in a world-class stem cell research facility and to think about a career in science, something that for many might have been unthinkable without Bridges or SPARK.

Process isn’t pretty. But for the students who can now think about becoming a scientist, for the researchers who can plan new studies, and for the patients who can now envision a potential therapy getting into clinical trials, that process can make all the difference.

Pushing, pulling and dragging stem cell research forward

Government agencies are known for many things, but generally speaking a willingness to do some voluntary, deep self-examination is not one of them. However, for the last few weeks CIRM has been doing a lot of introspection as we develop a new Strategic Plan, a kind of road map for where we are heading.

Patient Advocate meeting in Los Angeles: Photo courtesy Cristy Lytal USC

Patient Advocate meeting in Los Angeles:
Photo courtesy Cristy Lytal USC

But we haven’t been alone. We’ve gone to San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco to talk to Patient Advocates in each city, to get their thoughts on what we need to focus on for the future. Why Patient Advocates? Because they are the ones with most skin in the game. They are why we do this work so it’s important they have a say in how we do it.

As Chris Stiehl, a Patient Advocate for type 1 diabetes, said in San Diego: “Let the patient be in the room, let them be part of the conversation about these therapies. They are the ones in need, so let them help make decisions about them right from the start, not at the end.”

A Strategic Plan is, on the surface, a pretty straightforward thing to put together. You look at where you are, identify where you want to go, and figure out the best way to get from here to there. But as with many things, what seems simple on the surface often turns out to be a lot more complicated when looked at in more depth.

The second bit, figuring out where you want to go, is easy. We want to live up to our mission of accelerating the development of stem cells therapies to patients with unmet medical needs. We don’t want to be good at this. We want to be great at this.

Dr. C. Randal Mills talking to Patient Advocates in LA: Photo courtesy Cristy Lytal, USC

Dr. C. Randal Mills talking to Patient Advocates in LA: Photo courtesy Cristy Lytal, USC

The first part, seeing where you are, is a little tougher: it involves what our President and CEO, Dr. Randy Mills, “confronting some brutal facts”, being really honest in assessing where you are because without that honesty you can’t achieve anything.

So where are we as an agency? Well, we have close to one billion dollars left in the bank, we have 12 projects in clinical trials and more on the way, we have helped advance stem cells from a fledgling field to a science on the brink of what we hope will be some remarkable treatments, and we have a remarkable team ready to help drive the field still further.

But how do we do that, how do we identify the third part of the puzzle, getting from where we are to where we want to be? CIRM 2.0 is part of the answer – developing a process to fund research that is easier, faster and more responsive to the needs of the scientists and companies developing new therapies. But that’s just part of the answer.

Some of the Patient Advocates asked if we considered focusing on just a few diseases, such as the ten largest killers of Americans, and devoting our remaining resources to fixing them. And the answer is yes, we looked at every single option. But we quickly decided against that because, as Randy Mills said:

“This is not a popularity contest, you can’t judge need by numbers, deciding the worth of something by how many people have it. We are disease agnostic. What we do is find the best science, and fund it.”

Another necessary element is developing better ways to attract greater investment from big pharmaceutical companies and venture capital to really help move the most promising projects through clinical trials and into patients. That is starting to happen, not as fast as we would like, but as our blog yesterday shows things are moving in this direction.

And the third piece of the pie is getting these treatments through the regulatory process, getting the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve therapies for clinical trials. And this last piece clearly hit a nerve.

Many Patient Advocates expressed frustration at the slow pace of approval for any therapy by the FDA, some saying it felt like they just kept piling up obstacles in the way.

Dr. Mills said the FDA is caught between a rock and a hard place; criticized if it approves too slowly and chastised if it approves too fast, green lighting a therapy that later proves to have problems. But he agreed that changes are needed:

“The regulatory framework works well for things like drugs and small molecules that can be taken in pills but it doesn’t work well for cellular therapies like stem cells. It needs to do better at that.”

One Advocate suggested a Boot Camp for researchers, drilling them in the skills they’ll need to get FDA approval. Others suggested applying political pressure from Patient Advocacy groups to push for change.

As always there are no easy answers, but the meeting certainly raised many great questions. Those are all helping us focus our thinking on what needs to be in the Strategic Plan.

Randy ended the Patient Advocate events by saying the stem cell agency “is in the time business. What we do is time sensitive.” For too many people that time is already running out. We have to do everything we can to change that.