Saying thanks and farewell to a friend

Tom Howing

In this job you get to meet a lot of remarkable people, none more so than the patients who volunteer to take part in what are giant experiments. They are courageous pioneers, willing to be among the first people to ever try a new therapy, knowing that it may not help them and, potentially, might even harm them.

Tom Howing was one such person. I got to know Tom when we were putting together our 2017 Annual Report. Back in 2015 Tom was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer that had spread throughout his body. He underwent surgery and chemotherapy. That worked for a while, but then the cancer returned. So, Tom had more surgery and chemotherapy. Again, it worked for a while but when the cancer returned again Tom was running out of options.

That’s when he learned about a clinical trial with a company called Forty Seven Inc. that was testing a new anti-cancer therapy that CIRM was supporting. Tom says he didn’t hesitate.

“When I was diagnosed with cancer I knew I had battle ahead of me. After the cancer came back again they recommended I try this CD47 clinical trial. I said absolutely, let’s give it a spin. I guess one is always a bit concerned whenever you put the adjective “experimental” in front of anything. But I’ve always been a very optimistic and positive person and have great trust and faith in my caregivers.”

Optimistic and positive are great ways to describe Tom. Happily, his optimism was rewarded. The therapy worked.

“Scans and blood tests came back showing that the cancer appears to be held in check. My energy level is fantastic. The treatment that I had is so much less aggressive than chemo, my quality of life is just outstanding.”

But after a year or so Tom had to drop out of the trial. He tried other therapies and they kept the cancer at bay. For a while. But it kept coming back. And eventually Tom ran out of options. And last week, he ran out of time.

Tom was a truly fine man. He was kind, caring, funny, gracious and always grateful for what he had. He talked often about his family and how the stem cell therapy helped him spend not just more time with them, but quality time.

He knew when he signed up for the therapy that there were no guarantees, but he wanted to try, saying that even if it didn’t help him that the researchers might learn something to help others down the line.

“The most important thing I would say is, I want people to know there is always hope and to stay positive.”

Tom ultimately lost his battle with cancer. But he never lost his spirit, his delight in his family and his desire to keep going as long as he could. In typical Tom fashion he preferred to put his concerns aside and cheer others along.

“To all those people who are putting in all the hours at the bench and microscope, it’s important for them to know that they are making a huge impact on the lives of real people and they should celebrate it and revel in it and take great pride in it.”

We consider ourselves fortunate to have known Tom and to have been with him on part of his journey. He touched our lives, as he touched the lives of so many others. Our thoughts and wishes go out to his family and friends. He will be remembered, because we never forget our friends.

A few years ago Tom came and talked to the CIRM Board. Here is the video of that event.

Hitting our Goals: Playing Matchmaker

Way, way back in 2015 – seems like a lifetime ago doesn’t it – the team at CIRM sat down and planned out our Big 6 goals for the next five years. The end result was a Strategic Plan that was bold, ambitious and set us on course to do great things or kill ourselves trying. Well, looking back we can take some pride in saying we did a really fine job, hitting almost every goal and exceeding them in some cases. So, as we plan our next five-year Strategic Plan we thought it worthwhile to look back at where we started and what we achieved. Goal #3 was Partner.

In the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” two of the daughters sing about their hopes of finding a husband, through the services of a matchmaker:

Matchmaker, Matchmaker,
Make me a match,
Find me a find,
Catch me a catch

While CIRM isn’t in the business of finding husbands for young ladies, we have set up ourselves as matchmakers of a very different kind. Over the course of the last five years or more we have actively tried to find deep pocketed partners for some of the researchers we are funding. You could say we are changing the last line in that verse to “Catch me some cash.” And we do.

Our goal is to help these researchers have access to the kind of money they’re going to need to move their work into clinical trials and through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process, so they are available to people who need them. To do that we created what we call our Industry Alliance Program (IAP).

The goal of the IAP is simple, to be proactive in creating partnerships between industry and our grantees, helping develop direct opportunities for industry to partner with CIRM in accelerating the most promising stem cell, gene and regenerative medicine therapy programs to commercialization.

It takes a lot of money to move a promising idea out of the lab and into the arms, or other body parts, of patients; one recent estimate put that at around $1 billion. CIRM can help with providing the funding to get projects off the ground and into clinical trials, but as you get to larger clinical trials it gets a lot more expensive. The IAP brings in well-heeled investors to help cover those expense.

Back in 2015, when we were developing our Strategic Plan, we made these partnerships one of our Big 6 goals. And, as with everything we did in that plan, we set an ambitious target of “partnering 50% of unpartnered clinical projects with commercial partners.”

So, how did we go about trying to reach that goal? Our Business Development Team (Drs Shyam Patel and Sohel Talib) worked with large companies to help identify their strategic focus and then provided them with non-confidential information about projects we fund that might interest them. If they saw something they felt had promise we introduced them to the researchers behind that project. In essence, we played matchmaker.

But it wasn’t just about making introductions. We stayed involved as the two groups got to know each other, offering both scientific and legal advice, to help them overcome any reservations or obstacles they might encounter.

So how did we do? Pretty good I would have to say. By the end of 2020 we had partnered 63% of unpartnered clinical projects, 72 events altogether, generating almost $13 billion in additional investments in these projects. That money can help move these projects through the approvals process and ultimately, we hope, into the clinic.

But we’re not done. Not by a long shot. Now that we have achieved that goal we have our eyes set on even bigger things. We are now working on creating a new Strategic Plan that is considering bringing industry in to partner with projects at earlier stages or creating public-private partnerships to ensure there is enough manufacturing capacity for all the new therapies in the pipeline.

We have a lot of work to do. But thanks to the passage of Proposition 14 we now have the time and money we need to do that work. We’ve got a lot more matchmaking to do.

Stem cell therapy for diabetic foot ulcers shows promise in new study

For individuals with diabetes, the body’s inability to properly control blood sugar levels can lead to a wide range of other problems as time passes. One major issue is a diabetic foot ulcer (DFU), an open sore or wound that is commonly located on the bottom of the foot and caused by poor blood circulation and nerve damage. It occurs in approximately 15% of individuals with diabetes and in severe cases can lead to foot or leg amputation. Unfortunately, there is usually no effective form of treatment for this condition.

However, results from several studies authorized by the Ministry of Health of Nicaragua showed that using a stem cell therapy to treat patients with DFUs was safe and could be beneficial to patients.

The first results in a pilot study after an 18-month period demonstrated safety of the therapy and complete wound healing by nine months. After the six-year mark, five of the initial 10 subjects still demonstrated persistence of clinical benefits. It should be noted that five had passed away due to cardiac and other non-study-related causes.

In another study, the team wanted to determine the safety and efficacy of the stem cell therapy to treat non-healing DFUs greater than 3 centimeters in diameter.

For this clinical trial, 63 people from 35 to 70 years old with Type 2 diabetes and chronic DFU, all of whom were amputation candidates, were treated with a mixture of various types of stem cells obtained from the patient’s own fat tissue. The stem cell therapy was injected directly into the DFU with the hopes of restoring damaged blood vessels and promoting blood circulation and healing.

Patients were seen six months post treatment to evaluate ulcer closure, with 51 patients achieving 100 percent DFU closure and eight having greater than 75 percent. Only three required early amputations and one patient died. At 12 months post treatment, 50 patients had 100 percent DFU healing, while four had greater than 85 percent healing.

In a news release, Dr. Anthony Atala, Director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, expressed interest in evaluating this stem cell therapy and results further.

“This work should be reviewed as it demonstrates the possibility of a novel cell injection therapy that can alleviate pain and infection, accelerate wound healing, and possibly avoid amputation.”

The full results of the recent study were published in Stem Cells Translational Medicine.

CIRM funding helps improve immune cell therapy to combat HIV

Image description: T cell infected with HIV.
Image Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

In June of last year we wrote about how Dr. Scott Kitchen and his team at UCLA are engineering blood forming stem cells in order to fight HIV, a potentially deadly virus that attacks the immune system and can worsen into AIDS if left untreated. HIV causes havoc in the body by attacking T cells, a vital part of the body’s immune system that helps fight off infections and diseases.

Dr. Kitchen’s approach uses what is called Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T gene therapy. This is a type of immune therapy that involves genetically modifying the body’s own blood forming stem cells to create T cells that have the ability to fight HIV. These newly formed immune cells have the potential to not only destroy HIV-infected cells but to create “memory cells” that could provide lifelong protection from HIV infection.

Flash forward to April of this year and the results of the CIRM funded study ($1.7M) have been published in PLOS Pathogens.

Unfortunately, although the previously designed CAR T gene therapy was still able to create HIV fighting immune cells, the way the CAR T gene therapy was designed still had the potential to allow for HIV infection.

For this new study, the team modified the CAR T gene therapy such that the cells would be resistant to infection and allow for a more efficient and longer-lasting cell response against HIV than before.

While the previous approach allowed for the continuous production of new HIV-fighting T cells that persisted for more than two years, these cells are inactivated until they come across the HIV virus. The improved CAR T gene therapy engineers the body’s immune response to HIV rather than waiting for the virus to induce a response. This is similar in concept to how a vaccine prepares the immune system to respond against a virus. The new approach also creates a significant number of “memory” T cells that are capable of quickly responding to reactivated HIV. 

The hope is that these findings can influence the development of T cells that are able carry “immune system” memory with the ability to recognize and kill virus-infected or cancerous cells. 

To date, CIRM has also funded four separate clinical trials related to the treatment of HIV/AIDS totaling over $31 million.

Hitting our Goals: Let’s start at the beginning shall we

Way, way back in 2015 – seems like a lifetime ago doesn’t it – the team at CIRM sat down and planned out our Big 6 goals for the next five years. The end result was a Strategic Plan that was bold, ambitious and set us on course to do great things or kill ourselves trying. Well, looking back we can take some pride in saying we did a really fine job, hitting almost every goal and exceeding them in some cases. So, as we plan our next five-year Strategic Plan we thought it worthwhile to look back at where we started and what we achieved. Goal #3 was Discover.

When journalists write about science a lot of the attention is often focused on clinical trials. It’s not too surprising, that’s the stage where you see if treatments really work in people and not just in the lab. But long before you get to the clinical trial stage there’s a huge amount of work that has to be done. The starting point for that work is in the Discovery stage, if it works there it moves to the Translational stage, and only after that, assuming it’s still looking promising, does it start thinking about moving into the clinic.

The Discovery, or basic, stage of research is where ideas are tested to see if they have any promise and have the potential to lead to the development of a therapy or device that could ultimately help patients. In many ways the goal of Discovery research is to gain a better understanding of how, in our case, stem cells work, and how to harness that power to treat particular diseases or disorders.

Without a rigorous Discovery research program you can’t begin to create a pipeline of promising projects that you can advance towards patients. And of course having a strong Discovery program is not much use if you don’t have somewhere for those projects to advance to, namely Translational and ultimately clinical.

So, when we were laying out our Strategic Plan goals back in 2015 we wanted to create a pipeline for all three programs, moving the most promising ones forward. So we set an ambitious goal.

Introduce 50 new therapeutic or device candidates into development.

Now this doesn’t mean just fund 50 projects hoping to develop a new therapy or device. A lot of studies that are funded, particularly at the earliest stages, have a good idea that just doesn’t pan out. In fact one quite common definition of early research – in this case from Translational Medicine Communications – is “the earliest stage of research, conducted for the advancement of knowledge, often without any concern for its practical applications.

That’s not what we wanted. We aren’t in this to do research just for its own sake. We fund research because we want it to lead somewhere, we want it to have a practical application. We want to fund projects that actually ended up with something much more promising, a candidate that might actually work and was ready to move into the next level of research to test it further.

And we almost, almost made it to the 50-candidate goal. We got to 46 and almost certainly would have made it to 50 if we hadn’t run out of money. Even so, that’s pretty impressive. There are now 46 projects ready to move on, or are already moving on, to the next level of research.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that these will ultimately end up as an FDA-approved therapy or device. But if you don’t set goals, you’ll never score. And now, thanks to the passage of Proposition 14, we have a chance to support those projects as they move forward.

Meet xenobots 2.0 – the next generation of living robots

Xenobots scurry about and can work together in swarms.
Source: Doug Blackiston

Last year we wrote about how researchers at the University of Vermont and Tufts University were able to create what they call xenobots – the world’s first living, self healing robots created from frog stem cells.

Now, the same team has created an upgraded version of these robots that they have dubbed Xenobots 2.0. These upgraded robots have the ability to self-assemble a body from single cells, do not require muscle cells to move, and demonstrate the capability to record memory. In comparison to the previous version developed, Xenobots 2.0 can move faster, navigate different environments, have longer lifespans, and still have the ability to work together in groups and heal themselves if damaged. 

To create Xenobots 2.0, researchers at Tufts University took stem cells from embryos from the African frog Xenopus laevis (which is where the name Xenobots is derived from). The team then allowed the stem cells to self assemble and grow into sphere-like shapes. In a few days, these newly formed stem cell spheroids produced tiny hair-like projections, allowing them to move back and forth or rotate in a specific way.

Meanwhile, scientists at the University of Vermont were running computer simulations that modeled different shapes of the Xenobots to see if they might exhibit different behaviors, both individually and in groups. The team ran hundreds of thousands of random environmental conditions using an evolutionary algorithm and used these simulations to identify the Xenobots most able to work together in swarms to gather large piles of debris in a field of particles. What they found was that Xenobots 2.0 are much faster and better at tasks such as garbage collection. They can also cover large flat surfaces or travel through narrow capillaries.

Using a fluorescent protein, Xenobots 2.0 record exposure to blue light by turning green. Source: Doug Blackiston

Going one step further for Xenobots 2.0, the researchers at Tufts University engineered the Xenobots in a way to enable them to record one bit of information. By introducing a fluorescent protein, they were able to get the Xenobots to glow green normally. However, if the Xenobots were exposed to blue light, they would start to glow red instead.

To test this memory function, the team allowed ten Xenobots to swim around a surface on which one spot is illuminated with a beam of blue light. After two hours, they found that three bots glowed red and the rest remained green, effectively recording their travel experience.

In a press release, robotics expert Josh Bongard from the University of Vermont who played an integral role in this study elaborated on what these findings could implicate.

“When we bring in more capabilities to the bots, we can use the computer simulations to design them with more complex behaviors and the ability to carry out more elaborate tasks. We could potentially design them not only to report conditions in their environment but also to modify and repair conditions in their environment.”

Xenobots 2.0 were also able to heal quite rapidly, closing the majority of a deep cut half their thickness within 5 minutes of the injury. All injured bots were able to ultimately heal the wound, restore their shape, and continue their work as before.

In the same press release, Dr. Michael Levin, professor at Tufts University and corresponding author of the study, had this to say.

“The biological materials we are using have many features we would like to someday implement in the bots – cells can act like sensors, motors for movement, communication and computation networks, and recording devices to store information. One thing the Xenobots and future versions of biological bots can do that their metal and plastic counterparts have difficulty doing is constructing their own body plan as the cells grow and mature, and then repairing and restoring themselves if they become damaged. Healing is a natural feature of living organisms, and it is preserved in Xenobot biology.”

The full results of this study were published in Science Robotics.

You can learn more about this research from Dr. Michael Levin by watching his TED Talk linked below:

Three UC’s Join Forces to Launch CRISPR Clinical Trial Targeting Sickle Cell Disease

Sickle shaped red blood cells

The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), in collaboration with UC Berkeley (UCB) and UC Los Angeles (UCLA), have been given permission by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to launch a first-in-human clinical trial using CRISPR technology as a gene-editing technique to cure Sickle Cell Disease.

This research has been funded by CIRM from the early stages and, in a co-funding partnership with theNational Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute under the Cure Sickle Cell initiatve, CIRM supported the work that allowed this program to gain FDA permission to proceed into clinical trials.    

Sickle Cell Disease is a blood disorder that affects around 100,000 people, mostly Black and Latinx people in the US. It is caused by a single genetic mutation that results in the production of “sickle” shaped red blood cells. Normal red blood cells are round and smooth and flow easily through blood vessels. But the sickle-shaped ones are rigid and brittle and clump together, clogging vessels and causing painful crisis episodes, recurrent hospitalization, multi-organ damage and mini-strokes.    

The three UC’s have combined their respective expertise to bring this program forward.

The CRISPR-Cas9 technology was developed by UC Berkeley’s Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna, PhD. UCLA is a collaborating site, with expertise in genetic analysis and cell manufacturing and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland is the lead clinical center, leveraging its renowned expertise in cord blood and marrow transplantation and in gene therapy for sickle cell disease.

The approach involves retrieving blood stem cells from the patient and, using a technique involving electrical pulses, these cells are treated to correct the mutation using CRISPR technology. The corrected cells will then be transplanted back into the patient.

Dr. Mark Walters

In a news release, UCSF’s Dr. Mark Walters, the principal investigator of the project, says using this new gene-editing approach could be a game-changer. “This therapy has the potential to transform sickle cell disease care by producing an accessible, curative treatment that is safer than the current therapy of stem cell transplant from a healthy bone marrow donor. If this is successfully applied in young patients, it has the potential to prevent irreversible complications of the disease. Based on our experience with bone marrow transplants, we predict that correcting 20% of the genes should be sufficient to out-compete the native sickle cells and have a strong clinical benefit.”

Dr. Maria T. Millan, President & CEO of CIRM, said this collaborative approach can be a model for tackling other diseases. “When we entered into our partnership with the NHLBI we hoped that combining our resources and expertise could accelerate the development of cell and gene therapies for SCD. And now to see these three UC institutions collaborating on bringing this therapy to patients is truly exciting and highlights how working together we can achieve far more than just operating individually.”

The 4-year study will include six adults and three adolescents with severe sickle cell disease. It is planned to begin this summer in Oakland and Los Angeles.

The three UCs combined to produce a video to accompany news about the trial. Here it is:

Prime Time for Rocket

Rocket Pharmaceuticals, a company that specializes in developing genetic therapies for rare childhood disorders, just got a big boost from the European Medicines Agency (EMA). They were given a Priority Medicines (PRIME) designation for their therapy for Leukocyte Adhesion Deficiency-1 (LAD-1).

CIRM is funding ($6.56 million) Rocket’s clinical trial for LAD-I, an immune disorder that leaves patients vulnerable to repeated infections that often results in death within the first two years of life. The therapy involves taking some of the child’s own blood stem cells and, in the lab, correcting the mutation that causes LAD-I, then returning those cells to the patient. Hopefully those blood stem cells then create a new, healthy blood supply and repair the immune system.

The therapy, called RP-L201, is already showing promise in the clinical trial, hence the PRIME designation. The program was set up to help speed up development and evaluation of therapies that could help patients who have limited treatment options. Getting a PRIME designation means it is considered a priority by EMA and could reach patients sooner.

In the US, Rocket has won similar recognition from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and has been granted Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy (RMAT), Rare Pediatric Disease, and Fast Track designations.

In a news release Kinnari Patel, President and Chief Operating Officer of Rocket, said the designation showed that regulators understand the urgent need to develop a therapy for patients with LAD-1. “More than half of LAD-I patients suffer with a severe variant in which mortality occurs in up to 75% of young children who don’t receive a successful bone marrow transplant by the age of two. Securing all possible accelerated designations will enable us to collaborate with both the FDA and EMA to speed the development and delivery of a potential treatment for these patients.  We look forward to sharing initial Phase 2 data from our potentially registration-enabling LAD-I trial in the second quarter of 2021.”

That trial has now completed enrolling patients (nine altogether) but their treatments are not yet complete. LAD-1 patients with severe disease have low levels of a key protein called CD18, usually less than 2%. Of the first three patients treated in this trial CD18 levels are all higher than the 4-10% threshold considered necessary for these children to survive into adulthood. Another encouraging sign is that there were no serious side effects from the therapy.

Obviously there is still a long way to go before we know if this therapy really works, but the PRIME designation – along with the similar ones in the US – are recognition that this is a very promising start.

CIRM funding helps identify potential COVID-19 treatment

The steps of the virus growth cycle that can be targeted with therapies: The virus enters a host cell (1), the virus’s genetic instructions are released, taking over cellular machinery (2), the virus is replicated within the cell (3) and copies of the virus exit the cell in search of new host cells to infect (4). Drugs like berzosertib might disrupt steps 2 and 3.  Image credit: Marc Roseboro/California NanoSytems Institute at UCLA

During the global pandemic, many researchers have responded to the needs of patients severely afflicted with COVID-19 by repurposing existing therapies being developed to treat patients.  CIRM responded immediately to the pandemic and to researchers wanting to help by providing $5 million in emergency funding for COVID-19 related projects. 

One of these grants ($349,999), awarded to Dr. Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami at UCLA, has aided a study that has singled out a compound that shows promise for treating SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

In the spirit of banding together to help patients severely affected by COVID-19, the project was a collaboration among scientists from UCLA and other universities in California, Delaware and Germany, as well as a German pharmaceutical company.

The compound is named berzosertib and is licensed by the company Merck KGaA in Darmstadt, Germany.  Prior to the pandemic, it was developed for potential use, in combination with chemotherapy, as a possible treatment for small-cell lung cancer, ovarian cancer, and other types of solid tumors.

The team screened 430 drugs from among the approximately 200,000 compounds in CNSI’s Molecular Screening Shared Resource libraries before zeroing in on berzosertib as the most promising candidate.  They limited their search to compounds that either had been approved, or are already in the process of being evaluated, for safety in humans.

In a press release from UCLA, Dr. Arumugawami explains the rationale behind screening a potential drug candidate.

“That way, the compounds have cleared the first regulatory hurdle and could be deployed for further clinical trials on COVID-19 faster than drugs that have not been tested in humans.”

The researchers, led by Dr. Arumugaswami and Dr. Robert Damoiseaux from UCLA, conducted a series of experiments using different cell types in lab dishes to look at how effective the compound was at blocking SARS-CoV-2 from replicating.  Unlike other approaches which attack the virus directly, targeting replication could help better address the ability of the virus to mutate. 

For this study, the team used cells from the kidney, heart and lungs, all of which are organs that the virus is known to attack. The researchers pretreated cells with berzosertib, exposed the cells to SARS-CoV-2, allowed 48 hours for infection to set in, and then evaluated the results.

The team found that the compound consistently stalled SARS-CoV-2 replication without damaging the cells. The scientists also tested the drug against SARS and MERS, both of which are other types of coronaviruses that triggered deadly outbreaks earlier in the 2000s. They found that it was effective in stopping the replication of those viruses as well.

In the same press release from UCLA, Dr. Damoiseaux expressed optimism for what these findings could mean as a potential treatment.

“This is a chance to actually find a drug that might be broader in spectrum, which could also help fight coronaviruses that are yet to come.”

The next steps for this research would be to explore the mechanism through which the compound blocks coronavirus replication.  Understanding this and conducting preclinical studies are both necessary before the compound could be tested in clinical trials for COVID-19.

The full results of this study were published in Cell Reports.

The study’s co-corresponding author is Ulrich Betz of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany; the company also provided partial funding and clinical-grade berzosertib for the research. Other co-authors are from UCLA, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, UC Irvine, University of Delaware, the Leibniz Institute for Experimental Virology in Germany, Heidelberg University in Germany and Scripps Research Institute.

In addition to CIRM, the study was also funded by CNSI, the Broad Stem Cell Research Center, the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, the National Eye Institute, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Hitting our Goals: Scoring a half century

Way, way back in 2015 – seems like a lifetime ago doesn’t it – the team at CIRM sat down and planned out our Big 6 goals for the next five years. The end result was a Strategic Plan that was bold, ambitious and set us on course to do great things or kill ourselves trying. Well, looking back we can take some pride in saying we did a really fine job, hitting almost every goal and exceeding them in some cases. So, as we plan our next five-year Strategic Plan we thought it worthwhile to look back at where we started and what we achieved. Goal #2 was Expand.

Scientist preparing a sample vial for automated analysis in the lab.

When CIRM first started there was an internal report that said if we managed to help get one project into a clinical trial before we ran out of money we would be doing well. At the time that seemed quite reasonable. The field was still very much in its infancy and most of the projects we were funding, particularly in the early days, were Discovery or basic research projects.

But as the field advanced we got a little bolder. By 2010 we were funding not just our first clinical trial, but the first clinical trial in the world using embryonic stem cells. This was the Geron trial targeting spinal cord injury. Sadly the excitement didn’t last very long. After treating just five patients Geron pulled the plug on the trial, deciding that targeting cancer was a better bet.

Happily, Geron returned all the money we had loaned them, plus interest, so we were able to use that to fund more research. Soon enough we had a number of other promising candidates heading towards a meeting with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to try and get permission to start a clinical trial.

By 2014, ten years after we began, we actually had ten projects either running or getting ready to start a clinical trial. We thought that was really good. But at CIRM, really good is never good enough.

For our Strategic Plan in 2015 we decided to shoot for the moon and aim to get another 50 clinical trials over the next five years. At the time it seemed, to be honest, a bit bonkers. How on earth were we going to do that. But then our Therapeutics team went a hunting!

In the past we had the luxury of mostly just waiting for people with promising projects to approach us for funding. With an ambitious goal of getting 50 more clinical trials, we couldn’t afford to wait. The Therapeutics team scouted around for promising projects, inside and outside California, inside and outside the US, and pitched them on the benefits of applying for funding. Slowly the numbers started to rise.

By the end of 2016 we had 12 new trials. In 2017 we were really cruising along, adding 16 more trials. 2018 there was another 14 and that was also the year we passed the 50 clinical trials total since CIRM was created. We celebrated at a Board meeting with a balloon and a cake (we’re a state agency, our budget doesn’t extend to confetti). Initially the inscription on the cake read ‘Congratulations: 50 Clinical Trails’. Happily, we were able to fix it before anyone noticed. But even with the spelling error, it would still have tasted just fine.

Patient advocate Rich Lajara with the Big Balloon celebration for funding 50 clinical trials

By the time we got to mid-2020 we were stuck on 47 and with time, and money, running out it looked like we might miss the goal. But then our team put in one last effort and with weeks to spare we funded four more clinical trials for a total of 51 (68 since we started in 2004).

So, the moral is dream big but work hard. Now let’s see what we can dream up for our next Strategic Plan.