A step forward in finding a treatment for a deadly neurological disorder

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MRI section of a brain affected by ALS with the front section of the brain highlighted

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a nasty disease that steadily attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. It’s pretty much always fatal within a few years. As if that wasn’t bad enough, ALS also can overlap with a condition called frontotemporal dementia (ALS/FTD). Together these conditions cause devastating symptoms of muscle weakness along with changes in memory, behavior and personality.

Now researchers at Cambridge University in the UK have managed to grow groups of cells called “mini-brains” that mimic ALS/FTD and could lead to new approaches to treating this deadly combination.

We have written about these mini-brains before. Basically, they are created, using the iPSC method, that takes skin or blood cells from a patient with a particular condition, in this case ALS/FTD, and turns them into the kind of nerve cells in the brain affected by the disease. Because they came from someone who had ALS/FTD they display many of the characteristics of the disease and this gives researchers a great tool to study the condition.

This kind of approach has been done before and given researchers a glimpse into what is happening in the brains of people with ALS/FTD. But in the past those cells were in a kind of clump, and it wasn’t possible to get enough nutrients to the cells in the middle of the clump for the mini-brain to survive for long.

What is different about the Cambridge team is that they were able to create these mini-brains using thin, slices of cells. That meant all the cells could get enough nutrients to survive a long time, giving the team a better model to understand what is happening in ALS/FTD.

In a news release, Dr András Lakatos, the senior author of the study, said: “Neurodegenerative diseases are very complex disorders that can affect many different cell types and how these cells interact at different times as the diseases progress.

“To come close to capturing this complexity, we need models that are more long-lived and replicate the composition of those human brain cell populations in which disturbances typically occur, and this is what our approach offers. Not only can we see what may happen early on in the disease – long before a patient might experience any symptoms – but we can also begin to see how the disturbances change over time in each cell.”

Thanks to these longer-lived cells the team were able to see changes in the mini-brains at a very early stage, including damage to DNA and cell stress, changes that affected other cells which play a role in muscle movements and behavior.

Because the cells developed using the iPSC method are from a patient with ALS/FTD, the researchers were able to use them to screen many different medications to see if any had potential as a therapy. They identified one, GSK2606414, that seemed to help in reducing the build-up of toxic proteins, reduced cell stress and the loss of nerve cells.

The team acknowledge that these results are promising but also preliminary and will require much more research to verify them.

CIRM has funded three clinical trials targeting ALS. You can read about that work here.

Wit, wisdom and a glimpse into the future

As of this moment, there are over two million podcasts and over 48 million episodes to listen to on your favorite listening device. If you’re a true crime enthusiast like me, you’ve surely heard of Casefile or one of the other 94 podcasts on the topic. But what if you’re looking for something a little less ghastly and a little more uplifting?

Dr. Daylon James, co-host of The Stem Cell Podcast

The Stem Cell Podcast is an informative and entertaining resource for scientists and science enthusiasts (or really, anyone) interested in learning about the latest developments in stem cell research.

Dr. Arun Sharma, co-host of The Stem Cell Podcast

On their latest episode, dynamic co-hosts and research scientists Dr. Daylon James and Dr. Arun Sharma sit down with our President & CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, to discuss the impact of California’s culture of innovation on CIRM, the challenge of balancing hope vs. hype in the context of stem cell research/therapies, and the evolution of the agency over the past 15 years.

Listen on as Dr. Millan highlights some of CIRM’s greatest victories and shares our mission for the future.

Some good news for people with dodgy knees

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Graphic contrasting a healthy knee with one that has osteoarthritis

About 10% of Americans suffer from knee osteoarthritis, a painful condition that can really impair mobility and quality of life. It’s often caused by an injury to cartilage, say when you were playing sports in high school or college, and over time it continues to degenerate and ultimately results in the  loss of both cartilage and bone in the joint.

Current treatments involve either medication to control the pain or surgery. Medication works up to a point, but as the condition worsens it loses effectiveness.  Knee replacement surgery can be effective, but is a serious, complicated procedure with a long recovery time.  That’s why the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) voted to invest almost $6 million in an innovative stem cell therapy approach to helping restore articular cartilage in the knee.

Dr. Frank Petrigliano, Chief of the Epstein Family Center for Sports Medicine at Keck Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC), is using pluripotent stem cells to create chondrocytes (the cells responsible for cartilage formation) and then seeding those onto a scaffold. The scaffold is then surgically implanted at the site of damage in the knee. Based on scientific data, the seeded scaffold has the potential to regenerate the damaged cartilage, thus decreasing the likelihood of progression to knee osteoarthritis.  In contrast to current methods, this new treatment could be an off-the-shelf approach that would be less costly, easier to administer, and might also reduce the likelihood of progression to osteoarthritis.

This is a late-stage pre-clinical program. The goals are to manufacture clinical grade product, carry out extensive studies to demonstrate safety of the approach, and then file an IND application with the FDA, requesting permission to test the product in a clinical trial in people.

“Damage to the cartilage in our knees can have a big impact on quality of life,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, MD, President and CEO of CIRM. “It doesn’t just cause pain, it also creates problems carrying out simple, everyday activities such as walking, climbing stairs, bending, squatting and kneeling. Developing a way to repair or replace the damaged cartilage to prevent progression to knee osteoarthritis could make a major difference in the lives of millions of Americans. This program is a continuation of earlier stage work funded by CIRM at the Basic Biology and Translational stages, illustrating how CIRM supports scientific programs from early stages toward the clinic.”

Getting under the skin of people with type 1 diabetes – but in a good way

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As someone with a family history of type 1 diabetes (T1D) I know how devastating the condition can be. I also know how challenging it can be to keep it under control and the consequences of failing to do that. Not maintaining healthy blood sugar levels can have a serious impact on the heart, kidney, eyes, nerves, and blood vessels. It can even be fatal.

Right now, controlling T1D means being careful about what you eat, when you eat and how much you eat. It also means regularly checking your blood throughout the day to see if the glucose level is too high or too low. If it’s too high you need to inject insulin; if it’s too low you need to take a fast-acting carbohydrate such as fruit juice or glucose to try and restore it to a healthy level.

That’s why two new approaches to T1D that CIRM has supported are so exciting. They both use small devices implanted under the skin that contain stem cells. The cells can both monitor blood sugar and, if it’s too high, secrete insulin to bring it down.

We sat down with two key members of the Encellin and ViaCyte teams, Dr. Crystal Nyitray and Dr. Manasi Jaiman, to talk about their research, how it works, and what it could mean for people with T1D. That’s in the latest episode of our podcast ‘Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation’.

I think you are going to enjoy it.

This is the size of the implant that ViaCyte is using.
This is the size of the implant Encellin is using

Dr. Crystal Nyitray, CEO & Co-founder Encellin

Dr. Manasi Jaiman, Vice President, Clinical Development ViaCyte

Looking back and looking forward: good news for two CIRM-supported studies

Dr. Rosa Bacchetta on the right with Brian Lookofsky (left) and Taylor Lookofsky after CIRM funded Dr. Bacchetta’s work in October 2019. Taylor has IPEX syndrome

It’s always lovely to end the week on a bright note and that’s certainly the case this week, thanks to some encouraging news about CIRM-funded research targeting blood disorders that affect the immune system.

Stanford’s Dr. Rosa Bacchetta and her team learned that their proposed therapy for IPEX Syndrome had been given the go-ahead by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to test it in people in a Phase 1 clinical trial.

IPEX Syndrome (it’s more formal and tongue twisting name is Immune dysregulation Polyendocrinopathy Enteropathy X-linked syndrome) is a life-threatening disorder that affects children. It’s caused by a mutation in the FOXP3 gene. Immune cells called regulatory T Cells normally function to protect tissues from damage but in patients with IPEX syndrome, lack of functional Tregs render the body’s own tissues and organs to autoimmune attack that could be fatal in early childhood. 

Current treatment options include a bone marrow transplant which is limited by available donors and graft versus host disease and immune suppressive drugs that are only partially effective. Dr. Rosa Bacchetta and her team at Stanford will use gene therapy to insert a normal version of the FOXP3 gene into the patient’s own T Cells to restore the normal function of regulatory T Cells.

This approach has already been accorded an orphan drug and rare pediatric disease designation by the FDA (we blogged about it last year)

Orphan drug designation is a special status given by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for potential treatments of rare diseases that affect fewer than 200,000 in the U.S. This type of status can significantly help advance treatments for rare diseases by providing financial incentives in the form of tax credits towards the cost of clinical trials and prescription drug user fee waivers.

Under the FDA’s rare pediatric disease designation program, the FDA may grant priority review to Dr. Bacchetta if this treatment eventually receives FDA approval. The FDA defines a rare pediatric disease as a serious or life-threatening disease in which the serious or life-threatening manifestations primarily affect individuals aged from birth to 18 years and affects fewer than 200,000 people in the U.S.

Congratulations to the team and we wish them luck as they begin the trial.

Dr. Donald Kohn, Photo courtesy UCLA

Someone who needs no introduction to regular readers of this blog is UCLA’s Dr. Don Kohn. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine highlighted how his work in developing a treatment for severe combined immune deficiency (SCID) has helped save the lives of dozens of children.

Now a new study in the journal Blood shows that those benefits are long-lasting, with 90% of patients who received the treatment eight to 11 years ago still disease-free.

In a news release Dr. Kohn said: “What we saw in the first few years was that this therapy worked, and now we’re able to say that it not only works, but it works for more than 10 years. We hope someday we’ll be able to say that these results last for 80 years.”

Ten children received the treatment between 2009 and 2012. Nine were babies or very young children, one was 15 years old at the time. That teenager was the only one who didn’t see their immune system restored. Dr. Kohn says this suggests that the therapy is most effective in younger children.

Dr. Kohn has since modified the approach his team uses and has seen even more impressive and, we hope, equally long-lasting results.

Celebrating Stem Cell Awareness Day

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The second Wednesday in October is celebrated as Stem Cell Awareness Day. It’s an event that CIRM has been part of since then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger launched it back in 2008 saying: ”The discoveries being made today in our Golden State will have a great impact on many around the world for generations to come.”

In the past we would have helped coordinate presentations by scientists in schools and participated in public events. COVID of course has changed all that. So, this year, to help mark the occasion we asked some people who have been in the forefront of making Governor Schwarzenegger’s statement come true, to share their thoughts and feelings about the day. Here’s what they had to say.

What do you think is the biggest achievement so far in stem cell research?

Dr. Jan Nolta

Jan Nolta, PhD., Director of the Stem Cell Program at UC Davis School of Medicine, and directs the new Institute for Regenerative Cures. “The work of Don Kohn and his UCLA colleagues and team members throughout the years- developing stem cell gene therapy cures for over 50 children with Bubble baby disease. I was very fortunate to work with Don for the first 15 years of my career and know that development of these cures was guided by his passion to help his patients.

Dr. Clive Svendsen

Clive Svendsen, PhD. Director, Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute at Cedars-Sinai: “Without a doubt the discovery of how to make human iPSCs by Shinya Yamanaka and Jamie Thomson.”

When people ask you what kind of impact CIRM and stem cell research has had on your life what do you say?

Ronnie and his parents celebrating his 1st birthday. (Photo courtesy of Pawash Priyank)

Pawash Priyank and Upasana Thakur, parents of Ronnie, who was born with a life-threatening immune disorder but is thriving today thanks to a CIRM-funded clinical trial at UC San Francisco. “This is beyond just a few words and sentences but we will give it a shot. We are living happily today seeing Ronnie explore the world day by day, and this is only because of what CIRM does every day and what Stem cell research has done to humanity. Researchers and scientists come up with innovative ideas almost every day around the globe but unless those ideas are funded or brought to implementation in any manner, they are just in the minds of those researchers and would never be useful for humanity in any manner. CIRM has been that source to bring those ideas to the table, provide facilities and mechanisms to get those actually implemented which eventually makes babies like Ronnie survive and see the world. That’s the impact CIRM has. We have witnessed and heard several good arguments back in India in several forums which could make difference in the world in different sectors of lives but those ideas never come to light because of the lack of organizations like CIRM, lack of interest from people running the government. An organization like CIRM and the interest of the government to fund them with an interest in science and technology actually changes the lives of people when some of those ideas come to see the light of real implementation. 

What are your biggest hopes for the future at UC Davis?

Jan Nolta, PhD: “The future of stem cell and gene therapy research is very bright at UC Davis, thanks to CIRM and our outstanding leadership. We currently have 48 clinical trials ongoing in this field, with over 20 in the pipeline, and are developing a new education and technology complex, Aggie Square, next to the Institute for Regenerative Cures, where our program is housed. We are committed to our very diverse patient population throughout the Sacramento region and Northern California, and to expanding and increasing the number of novel therapies that can be brought to all patients who need them.”

What are your biggest hopes for the future at Cedars-Sinai?

Clive Svendsen, PhD: “That young investigators will get CIRM or NIH funding and be leaders in the regenerative medicine field.”

What do you hope is the future for stem cell research?

Pawash Priyank and Upasana Thakur: “We always have felt good about stem cell therapy. For us, a stem cell has transformed our lives completely. The correction of sequencing in the DNA taken out of Ronnie and injecting back in him has given him life. It has given him the immune system to fight infections. Seeing him grow without fear of doing anything, or going anywhere gives us so much happiness every hour. That’s the impact of stem cell research. With right minds continuing to research further in stem cell therapy bounded by certain good processes & laws around (so that misuse of the therapy couldn’t be done) will certainly change the way treatments are done for certain incurable diseases. I certainly see a bright future for stem cell research.”

On a personal note what is the moment that touched you the most in this journey.

Jan Nolta, PhD: “Each day a new patient or their story touches my heart. They are our inspiration for working hard to bring new options to their care through cell and gene therapy.”

Clive Svendsen, PhD: “When I realized we would get the funding to try and treat ALS with stem cells”

How important is it to raise awareness about stem cell research and to educate the next generation about it?

Pawash Priyank and Upasana Thakur: “Implementing stem cell therapy as a curriculum in the educational systems right from the beginning of middle school and higher could prevent false propaganda of it through social media. Awareness among people with accurate articles right from the beginning of their education is really important. This will also encourage the new generation to choose this as a subject in their higher studies and contribute towards more research to bring more solutions for a variety of diseases popping up every day.”

Raising awareness about mental health

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World Mental Health Day is observed on 10 October every year. It’s a time to try and raise awareness about mental health issues and the impact they have not just on the individual but their family, their community and all of us. The theme for World Mental Health Day 2021 is ‘mental health in an unequal world.’

Dr. Le Ondra Clark Harvey: Photo courtesy CCCBHA

To highlight the issues raised on World Mental Health Day we talked to one of CIRM’s newest Board member, Dr. Le Ondra Clark Harvey. She’s a psychologist and the CEO of the California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies (CCCBHA) a statewide advocacy organization representing mental health and substance use disorder non-profit agencies that collectively serve over 750 thousand Californians annually.

What made you want to be on the CIRM Board?

I was recommended to apply for the CIRM Board by a member of CCCBHA, the organization I am privileged to lead and serve. I saw the position as an opportunity to shed light on cognitive disorders that many do not readily think of when they think about stem cell research. The appointment also has personal meaning to me as I have a grandfather who is a cancer survivor and  who has an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.  Breast cancer has also affected women in my family, including myself, and I know that the research that CIRM funds can assist with finding a cure and providing accessible treatment options for all Californians. 

A lot of people might not think that stem cells would have a role in addressing mental health issues, what role do you think they can play?

You are correct, most people do not immediately think of stem cell therapies as a remedy to brain health disorders. However, there are many cognitive disorders and symptoms that can be mitigated, and hopefully someday ameliorated, as a result of stem cell therapies. For example, autism and other developmental disabilities, dementia, Alzheimer’s, Tourette’s and tardive dyskinesia.  

What are the biggest challenges we face in addressing mental health issues in this country?

Stigma remains a significant barrier that impacts the ability to provide – particularly among racially and ethnically diverse communities. In my own practice, I’ve seen how stigma can prevent individuals from entering into care even when access issues have been mitigated. Public awareness campaigns, and culturally specific advocacy efforts and practices must be integrated into treatment models in order to provide individuals with the specific care they need. 

Do you think that the widespread media attention paid to Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles has helped raise awareness about mental health and perhaps also reduced some of the stigma surrounding it?

Yes, I do. Also, the pandemic has opened many individuals eyes, and engendered a sense of empathy, about the prevalence and impact that isolation and loneliness can have on a person. 

Building embryo-like cells in the lab

Dr. Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz: Photo courtesy Caltech

Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) have many remarkable properties, not the least of which is their ability to turn into every other kind of cell in our body. But there are limits to what researchers can do with embryonic stem cells. One issue is that there aren’t always hESCs available – they come from eggs donated by couples who have undergone in vitro fertilization. Another is that researchers can only develop these cells in the laboratory for 14 days (though that rule may be changing).

Now researchers at Caltech have developed a kind of hESC-in-a-dish that could help make it easier to answer questions about human development without the need to wait for a new line of hESCs.

The team, led by Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, used a line of expanded pluripotent cells (EPSCs), originally derived from a human embryo, to create a kind of 3D model that mimics some of the activities of an embryo.

The cool thing about these cells is that, because they were originally derived from an embryo, they retain some “memory” of how they are supposed to work. In a news release Zernicka-Goetz says this enables them to display elements of both polarization and cavitation, early crucial phases in the development of a human embryo.

“The ability to assemble the basic structure of the embryo seems to be a built-in property of these earliest embryonic cells that they are simply unable to ‘forget.’ Nevertheless, either their memory is not absolutely precise or we don’t yet have the best method of helping the cells recover their memories. We still have further work to do before we can get human stem cells to achieve the developmental accuracy that is possible with their equivalent mouse stem cell counterparts.”

Being able to create these embryo-like elements means researchers can generate cells in large numbers and won’t be so dependent on donated embryos.

In the study, published in the journal Nature Communications, the researchers say this could help them develop a deeper understanding of embryonic development.

Understanding human development is of fundamental biological and clinical importance. Despite its significance, mechanisms behind human embryogenesis remain largely unknown…. this stem cell platform provides insights into the design of stem cell models of embryogenesis.

Creating a diverse group of future scientists

Students in CIRM’s Bridges program showing posters of their work

If you have read the headlines lately, you’ll know that the COVID-19 pandemic is having a huge impact on the shipping industry. Container vessels are forced to sit out at anchor for a week or more because there just aren’t enough dock workers to unload the boats. It’s a simple rule of economics, you can have all the demand you want but if you don’t have the people to help deliver on the supply side, you are in trouble.

The same is true in regenerative medicine. The field is expanding rapidly and that’s creating a rising demand for skilled workers to help keep up. That doesn’t just mean scientists, but also technicians and other skilled individuals who can ensure that our ability to manufacture and deliver these new therapies is not slowed down.

That’s one of the reasons why CIRM has been a big supporter of training programs ever since we were created by the voters of California when they approved Proposition 71. And now we are kick-starting those programs again to ensure the field has all the talented workers it needs.

Last week the CIRM Board approved 18 programs, investing more than $86 million, as part of the Agency’s Research Training Grants program. The goal of the program is to create a diverse group of scientists with the knowledge and skill to lead effective stem cell research programs.

The awards provide up to $5 million per institution, for a maximum of 20 institutions, over five years, to support the training of predoctoral graduate students, postdoctoral trainees, and/or clinical trainees.

This is a revival of an earlier Research Training program that ran from 2006-2016 and trained 940 “CIRM Scholars” including:

• 321 PhD students
• 453 Postdocs
• 166 MDs

These grants went to academic institutions from UC Davis in Sacramento to UC San Diego down south and everywhere in-between. A 2013 survey of the students found that most went on to careers in the industry.

  • 56% continued to further training
  • 14% advanced to an academic research faculty position
  • 10.5% advanced to a biotech/industry position
  • 12% advanced to a non-research position such as teaching, medical practice, or foundation/government work

The Research Training Grants go to:

AWARDINSTITUTIONTITLEAMOUNT
EDUC4-12751Cedars-SinaiCIRM Training Program in Translational Regenerative Medicine    $4,999,333
EDUC4-12752UC RiversideTRANSCEND – Training Program to Advance Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Research, Education, and Workforce Diversity    $4,993,115
EDUC4-12753UC Los AngelesUCLA Training Program in Stem Cell Biology    $5 million
EDUC4-12756University of Southern CaliforniaTraining Program Bridging Stem Cell Research with Clinical Applications in Regenerative Medicine    $5 million
EDUC4-12759UC Santa CruzCIRM Training Program in Systems Biology of Stem Cells    $4,913,271
EDUC4-12766Gladstone Inst.CIRM Regenerative Medicine Research Training Program    $5 million
EDUC4-12772City of HopeResearch Training Program in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine    $4,860,989
EDUC4-12782StanfordCIRM Scholar Training Program    $4,974,073
EDUC4-12790UC BerkeleyTraining the Next Generation of Biologists and Engineers for Regenerative Medicine    $4,954,238
EDUC4-12792UC DavisCIRM Cell and Gene Therapy Training Program 2.0    $4,966,300
EDUC4-12802Children’s Hospital of Los AngelesCIRM Training Program for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Research    $4,999,500
EDUC4-12804UC San DiegoInterdisciplinary Stem Cell Training Grant at UCSD III    $4,992,446
EDUC4-12811ScrippsTraining Scholars in Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research    $4,931,353
EDUC4-12812UC San FranciscoScholars Research Training Program in Regenerative Medicine, Gene Therapy, and Stem Cell Research    $5 million
EDUC4-12813Sanford BurnhamA Multidisciplinary Stem Cell Training Program at Sanford Burnham Prebys Institute, A Critical Component of the La Jolla Mesa Educational Network    $4,915,671  
EDUC4-12821UC Santa BarbaraCIRM Training Program in Stem Cell Biology and Engineering    $1,924,497
EDUC4-12822UC IrvineCIRM Scholars Comprehensive Research Training Program  $5 million
EDUC4-12837Lundquist Institute for Biomedical InnovationStem Cell Training Program at the Lundquist Institute    $4,999,999

These are not the only awards we make to support training the next generation of scientists. We also have our SPARK and Bridges to Stem Cell Research programs. The SPARK awards are for high school students, and the Bridges program for graduate or Master’s level students.

A new approach to a deadly childhood cancer

Cancers of the blood, bone marrow and lymph nodes (also called hematologic malignancies) are the most common form of cancer in children and young adults. Current treatments can be effective but can also pose life-threatening health risks to the child. Now researchers at Stanford have developed a new approach and the Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) voted to support that approach in a clinical trial.

The Board approved investing $11,996,634 in the study, which is the Stem Cell Agency’s 76th clinical trial.

The current standard of care for cancers such as acute leukemias and lymphomas is chemotherapy and a bone marrow (also called HSCT) transplant. However, without a perfectly matched donor the risk of the patient’s body rejecting the transplant is higher. Patients may also be at greater risk of graft vs host disease (GVHD), where the donor cells attack the patient’s body. In severe cases GVHD can be life-threatening.

Dr. Maria Grazia Roncarlo: Photo courtesy Stanford

Dr. Maria Grazia Roncarolo and her team at Stanford will test an immunotherapy cell approach using a therapy that is enriched with specialized immune cells called type 1 regulatory T (Tr1) cells. These cells will be infused into the patient following the bone marrow transplant. Both the Tr1 cells and the bone marrow will come from the same donor. The hope is this will help provide the patient’s immune system with these regulatory cells to combat life-threatening graft versus host disease and increase the success of treatment and bone marrow (HSCT) transplant.

“Every year around 500 children receive stem cell transplants in California, and while many children do well, too many experiences a rejection of the transplant or a relapse of the cancer,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “Finding an improved therapy for these children means a shorter stay in the hospital, less risk of the need for a second transplant, and a greater quality of life for the child and the whole family.”

The CIRM Board has previously approved funding for 12 other clinical trials targeting cancers of the blood. You can read about them here.