Ideas and Energy Reveal Surprises at Stem Cell Showcase

Janssen, the company within the pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson responsible for much of its research and development, has a branch in the Bay Area called J Labs. It seeks to foster innovation in all sectors of biomedical research. One piece of that effort brings together innovators for monthly gatherings to exchange ideas and network. The events have an upbeat sense of energy so it was exciting when they invited CIRM to put together an all-day session dubbed: CIRM Showcase: Accelerating Stem Cell Treatments to Patients.

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The resulting showcase yesterday had that energy. But for someone who knows the CIRM portfolio of projects backward and forward, I thought, there were a few pleasant surprises. Perhaps the most exciting news came from Linda Marban, CEO of Capricor, the company CIRM is funding to complete a clinical trial in patients with weakened hearts after a heart attack. She disclosed that the company’s next target is the heart remodeling that is the cause of death in most boys with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. She said some early data would be released at the American Heart Association meeting in Chicago in two weeks.

Another bit of news—most exciting for science wonks—came from the biotech company Sangamo that CIRM funds to develop genetically modified blood stem cells as therapy for two diseases, HIV and beta thalassemia. The firm has developed a molecular scissors called a zinc finger nuclease that can splice the DNA that makes our genes. I knew the technique was pretty precise, but Curt Herberts from the company said they had perfected it to where it could get down to a single base pair—a single link in the chain that makes up our DNA. This greatly reduces the chances for any unintended effects of the genetic manipulation.

Two advances I learned about were in using iPS type stem cells as models for disease and for discovery of traditional drugs to treat those diseases. Ashkan Javaherian, from Steve Finkbeiner’s lab at the Gladstone Institutes, described some results with the robotic microscope they have developed that lets them screen hundreds of molecules on neurons grown from iPS cells reprogrammed from patients with specific diseases. Looking just at compounds already approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), ones that could be put in the clinic quickly, they found four that reduced the degradation normally seen in neurons grown from patients with Huntington’s disease.

Similarly, Joseph Wu of Stanford described his work with cells from families with various genetic heart disorders. In addition to getting individualized information from the patient-specific cells, he said they could now take it one step further and sequence the entire DNA of the cells for just $500, yielding the chance to find out exactly what mutations were causing the disease. He said it was a big step towards truly personalized medicine and to developing therapies for various racial groups that respond differently to drugs.

The day began with our President and CEO C. Randall Mills detailing his plans for a nimbler, more responsive CIRM he has dubbed CIRM 2.0. This crowd seemed thrilled with his plan for an open call for applications so that they could come in with a request when they are ready instead of forcing them into a premature application for funding because the window might not open for another year or two.

One bit of trivia drove home how difficult the entire process of moving innovative therapies into the clinic can be. Paul Laikind, CEO of ViaCyte, the company CIRM has provided more than $50 million to develop a diabetes therapy, noted the size of the application they sent to the FDA: 8,500 pages. Kind of says it all.

Don Gibbons

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