A Noble pursuit; finding the best science to help the most people

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Mark Noble. Photo by Todd Dubnicoff

Mark Noble, Ph.D., is a pioneer in stem cell research and the Director of the University of Rochester Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Institute in New York. He is also a member of CIRM’s Grants Working Group (GWG), the panel of independent scientific experts we use to review research applications for funding and decide which are the most promising.

Mark has been a part of the GWG since 2011. When asked how he came to join the GWG he joked: “I saw an ad on Craigslist and thought it sounded fun.”  But he is not joking when he says it is a labor of love.

“My view is that CIRM is one of the greatest experiments in how to develop a new branch of science and medicine. If you look at ventures, like the establishment of the National Institutes of Health, what you see is that when there is a concentrated effort to achieve an enormous goal, amazing things can happen. And if your goal is to create a new field of medicine you have to take a truly expansive view.”

Mark has been on many other review panels but says they don’t compare to CIRM’s.

“These are the most exciting review panels in which I take part. I don’t know of any comparable panels that bring together experts working across such a wide range of disciplines and diseases.   It’s particularly interesting to be involved in reviews at this stage because we get to look at the fruits of CIRM’s long investment, and at projects that are now in, or well on the way towards, clinical trials.

It’s a wonderful scientific education because you come to these meetings and someone is submitting an application on diabetes and someone else has submitted an application on repairing the damage to the heart or spinal cord injury or they have a device that will allow you to transplant cells better. There are people in the room that are able to talk knowledgeably about each of these areas and understand how the proposed project might work in terms of actual financial development, and how it might work in the corporate sphere and how it fits in to unmet medical needs.  I don’t know of any comparable review panels like this that have such a broad remit and bring together such a breadth of expertise. Every review panel you come to you are getting a scientific education on all these different areas, which is great.”

Another aspect of CIRM’s work that Mark admires is its ability to look past the financial aspects of research, to focus on the bigger goal:

“I like that CIRM recognizes the larger problem, that a therapy that is curative but costs a million dollars a patient is not going to be implemented worldwide. Well, CIRM is not here to make money. CIRM is here to find cures for unmet medical needs, which means that if someone comes in with a great application on a drug that is going to cure some awful disease and it’s not going to be worth a fortune, that is not the main concern. The main concern is that you might be able to cure this disease and yeah, we’ll put up money to help you so that you might be able to get into clinical trials, to get enough information to find out if it works. And to have the vision to go all the way from, ‘ok, you guys, we want you to enter this field, we want you to be interested in therapeutic development, we are going to help you structure the clinical trials, we are going to provide all the Alpha Stem Cell Clinics that can talk to each other to make the clinical trials happen.

The goal of CIRM is to change medicine and these are the approaches that have worked really well in doing this. The CIRM view clearly is:

‘There are 100 horses in this race and every single one that crosses the finish line is a success story.’ That’s what is necessary, because there are so many diseases and injuries for which new approaches are needed.”

Mark says working with CIRM has helped him spread the word back home in New York state:

“I have been very involved in working with the New York state legislature over the years to promote funding for stem cell biology and spinal cord injury research so having the CIRM experience has really helped me to understand what it is that another place can try and accomplish. A lot of the ideas that have been worked out at CIRM have been extremely helpful for statewide scientific enterprises in New York, where we have had people involved in different areas of the state effort talk to people at CIRM to find out what best practice is.”

Mark says he feels as if he has a front row seat to history.

“Seeing the stem cell field grow to its present stage and enhancing the opportunity to address multiple unmet medical needs, is a thrilling adventure. Working with CIRM to help create a better future is a privilege.”

 

How a stem cell transplant may help transform Lucas Lindner’s life

Lucas Lidner was left paralyzed below the chin after a truck accident last May.  Photo: Fox6Now, Milwaukee

On a Sunday morning in early 2016, Lucas Lindner was driving to get some donuts for his grandmother. A deer jumped in front of his truck. Lucas swerved to avoid it and crashed, suffering a severe spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down.

Lucas took part in a CIRM-funded clinical trial, becoming just the second person to get 10 million stem cells transplanted into his neck. Since then he has regained some use of his arms and hands. While some patients with spinal cord injuries do experience what is called “spontaneous” recovery, Lucas was not the only person in the trial who experienced an improvement. Asterias Biotherapeutics, the company behind the clinical trial, reported that four of the six patients in the trial “have recovered 2 or more motor levels on at least one side through 12 months, which is more than double the rates of recovery seen in both matched historical controls and published data in a similar population.”

Lucas says his improvement has changed his life.

“I was pretty skeptical after the accident, on being able to do anything, on what was going to happen. But regaining hand function alone gave me everything I pretty much needed or wanted back.”

Lucas can now type 40 words a minute, use a soldering iron and touch his pinkie to his thumb, something he couldn’t do after the accident.

In August of last year Lucas did something else he never imagined he would be able to do, he threw out the first pitch at a Milwaukee Brewers baseball game. At the time, he said “I’m blown away by the fact that I can pitch a ball again.”

Lucas Lindner at the Milwaukee Brewers baseball game.

Now Lucas has his sights set on something even more ambitious. He is going back to school to study IT.

“When I was in 3rd grade a teacher asked what I want to be and I said a neuro-computational engineer. Everyone laughed at me because no one knew what that meant. Now, after what happened to me, I want to be part of advancing the science, helping make injuries like mine a thing of the past.”

Even though he was one of the first people to take part in this clinical trial, Lucas doesn’t think of himself as a pioneer.

“The real pioneers are the scientists who came up with this therapy, who do it because they love it.”


You can read more about Lucas and other patients who’ve participated in CIRM-funded clinical trials in CIRM’s 2017 Annual Report on our website

For more about Lucas and his story, watch this video below from Asterias.

Patient’s Stage IV Cancer Held in Check by CIRM-Funded Clinical Trial [Video]

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Tom Howing

“In the last three scans, which I have every six weeks, they’re showing that there is no mestastasis (invasive cancer) anywhere in my body. [The doctors] I guess were quite blown away because they didn’t expect [the treatment] to be so quick or to be that complete.”

 

Today we’re sharing the story of Tom Howing, who took part in Forty Seven, Inc.’s CIRM-funded clinical trial that’s testing an innovative treatment for cancer.

The two-minute video below sums up Tom’s address to CIRM’s governing Board back in December. During his talk, he gave a personal perspective on his cancer diagnosis, the promising but ultimately disappointing results of standard anti-cancer treatments and the remarkable results he’s experienced from Forty Seven’s clinical trial.

Tom’s story is featured in our 2017 Annual Report (page 18), now available on our website.

A year in review – CIRM’s 2017 Annual Report focuses on a year of accelerating stem cell treatments to patients

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At CIRM we have our focus very clearly on the future, on accelerating stem cell therapies to patients with unmet medical needs. But every once in a while, it’s a good idea to look back at what you have already done. Knowing where you came from can help you get to where you are heading.

So, it’s with a sense of accomplishment that we are unveiling our 2017 Annual Report. It’s a look back at another banner year for the stem cell agency, the research we funded, the partnerships we created and, most importantly, the lives we touched.

It features profiles of several people who received stem cell therapies in CIRM-funded clinical trials and the impact those therapies are having on them. But it also looks at some of the other individuals who are such a vital part of the work we do: patient advocates, researchers and a member of our Grants Working Group which reviews applications for funding. Each one, in their own way, contributes to advancing the field.

The report also highlights some of the less obvious ways that our funding is benefitting California. For example, the additional $1.9 billion dollars our funding has helped generate through co-funding and partnerships, or the number of projects we are funding that have been awarded Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy Designation from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), making them eligible for accelerated review if their results continue to be promising.

It’s a look back at a successful year.

But we are not resting on our laurels. We are already hard at work, determined to make 2018 even better.

 

 

Taking a new approach to fighting a deadly brain cancer

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Christine Brown, Ph.D., City of Hope researcher

CIRM’s 2017 Annual Report will be going live online very soon. In anticipation of that we are highlighting some of the key elements from the report here on the Stem Cellar.

One of the most exciting new approaches in targeting deadly cancers is chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy, using the patient’s own immune system cells that have been re-engineered to help them fight back against the tumor.

Today we are profiling City of Hope’s Christine Brown, Ph.D., who is using CAR-T cells in a CIRM-funded Phase 1 clinical trial for an aggressive brain cancer called malignant glioma.

“Brain tumors are the hardest to treat solid tumors. This is a project that CIRM has supported from an early, pre-clinical stage. What was exciting was we finished our first milestone in record time and were able to translate that research out of the lab and into the clinic. That really allowed us to accelerate treatment to glioblastoma patients.

I think there are glimmers of hope that immune based therapies and CAR-T based therapies will revolutionize therapy for patients with brain tumors. We’ve seen evidence that these cells can travel to the central nervous system and eliminate tumors in the brain.

We now have evidence that this approach produces a powerful, therapeutic response in one group of patients. We are looking at why other patients don’t respond as well and the CIRM funding enables us to ask the questions that will, we hope, provide the answers.

Because our clinical trial is a being carried out at the CIRM-supported City of Hope Alpha Stem Cell Clinic this is a great example of how CIRM supports all the different ways of advancing therapy from early stage research through translation and into clinical trials in the CIRM Alpha Clinic network.

There are lots of ways the tumor tries to evade the immune system and we are looking at different approaches to combine this therapy with different approaches to see which combination will be best.

It’s a challenging problem and it’s not going to be solved with one approach. If it were easy we’d have solved it by now. That’s why I love science, it’s one big puzzle about how do we understand this and how do we make this work.

I don’t think we would be where we are at without CIRM’s support, it really gave the funding to bring this to the next level.”

Dr. Brown’s work is also creating interest among investors. She recently partnered with Mustang Bio in a $94.5 million agreement to help advance this therapy.

How CIRM funding creates additional financial support for stem cell research in California

CIRM’s 2017 Annual Report will be going live online very soon. In anticipation of that we are highlighting some of the key elements from the report here on the Stem Cellar.

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Partnerships that help advance stem cell research

CIRM funds stem cell research.  We all know that.  What you may not know is that CIRM funds also help bring in additional funding and investments to these projects, and as a result, to the state of California.  CIRM’s investment can also be seen as helping validate the credibility of a particular project, taking some of the risk out of investing in it.

We call this second wave of support “Leveraged Funding”. Since we were created in 2004 we have brought in $1.5 billion in Leveraged Funds.

We break that down into three main categories:

  1. Co-Funding– This is funding that was specifically committed to help co-fund a CIRM project. For example, if we fund a for-profit company to do a Phase 1 clinical trial we expect them to co-fund 30% of the cost of the trial. If it’s a Phase 3 clinical trial the co-funding amount rises to 50%.  To date we have received $911 million in co-funding.
  2. Partnership Funding– Partnership Funding – This is non-CIRM funding committed by partners, not already captured by Co-Funding. For example, our Board’s decision to invest in a project can sometimes be seen as a kind of “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” because it shows this project has been reviewed by experts and recommended for funding.  Our funding allows investigators to do the early work and get data that helps attract funding from outside investors. These funds can be committed or spent at the same time as CIRM funds or to further the project after the CIRM award expires. Since 2004, we have helped generate $528 million in partnership funding.
  3. Additional Leverage– This is everything not covered by the first two categories but is mainly non-CIRM funding reported in the “Outcomes Survey”, which the lead investigator on the project completes at the end of the award. This lets us know about any non-CIRM funding they received as a result of their CIRM project (such as money from the National Institutes of Health or other agency grants). More than $395 million in additional leverage funding has been raised because of CIRM.

In 2017, we saw eight projects that we support attract additional support, almost $390 million, from outside investors.

  Disease Area  Industry Partner 2017 Funding
1. Adenosine deaminase-deficient Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Orchard Therapeutics $110,000,000
2. X-Linked Chronic Granulomatous Disease Orchard Therapeutics Not disclosed
3. Acute Myeloid Leukemia Forty Seven, Inc. $75,000,000
4. Pediatrics Genetic Disorder AVROBIO, Inc. Not disclosed
5. HIV/AIDS CSL Behring $91,000,000
6. Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia Oncternal, Inc. $18,400,000
7. Brain Cancer Mustang Bio, Inc. $94,500,000
8. Age-related Macular Degeneration Santen Pharmaceutical Not disclosed
  Total   $388,900,000

Our goal is to do all we can to support the best science and move it out of the lab and into clinical trials in people. Obviously, providing funding is a key step, but it’s far from the only step. For us, it’s really just the first step.

On Wednesday, we’ll profile one of the CIRM-funded researchers whose work is attracting support from outside investors, work that is taking a whole new approach to fighting a deadly brain cancer.

How Tom Howing turned to stem cells to battle back against a deadly cancer

As we enter the new year, CIRM’s 2017 Annual Report will be posted in less than two weeks!  Here’s one of the people we are profiling in the report, a patient who took part in a CIRM-funded clinical trial.

Tom Howing

In March of 2015, Tom Howing was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Over the next 18 months, he underwent two rounds of surgery and chemotherapy. Each time the treatments held the cancer at bay for a while. But each time the cancer returned. Tom was running out of options and hope when he heard about a CIRM-funded clinical trial using a new approach.

The clinical trial uses a therapy that blocks a protein called CD47 that is found on the surface of cancer cells, including cancer stem cells which can evade traditional therapies. CD47 acts as a ‘don’t eat me’ signal that tells immune cells not to kill off the cancer cells. When this ‘don’t eat me’ signal is blocked by the antibody, the patient’s immune system is able to identify, target and kill the cancer stem cells.

“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.

“Whenever you are dealing with a Phase 1 clinical trial (the earliest stage where the goal is first to make sure it is safe), there are lots of unknowns.  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.”

Tom says he feels fortunate to be part of the clinical trial because it is helping advance research, and could ultimately help many others like him.

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

He says he feels grateful to the people of California who created CIRM and the funding behind this project: “I say a very heartfelt thank you, that this was a good investment and a good use of public funds.”

He also wants the researchers, who spent many years developing this approach, to know that they are making a difference.

“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.”

Accelerating stem cell treatments to patients in 2017

As we enter the new year, CIRM’s 2017 Annual Report will be posted in a few short weeks!  Here’s a sneak peek at CIRM’s progress in clinical trials.

2017 CIRM Annual Report

At the start of 2017, we set a goal of finding and funding 12 new, high quality clinical trials. We easily beat that goal, funding 16, in a wide variety of conditions from ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) to cancer and diabetes. That means we have now funded a total of 43 different projects in clinical trials and enrolled more than 700 people in those trials.

Here’s a look at the different kinds of stem cells and diseases are involved in those clinical trials:

Funding those 16 new clinical trials means we have now funded 26 new trials in the last two years, putting us ahead of schedule to meeting our goal of 50 new clinical trials by 2020.

When we fund clinical programs, we truly partner with these programs and give them support – financially, operationally and strategically.

CIRM assists investigators in the application process so they can best articulate their research proposal in a way that can be optimally evaluated by our independent peer review group for funding. By putting applications through a rigorous review process, we select programs with the highest probability of success.  You will hear from one of our GWG members, the external panel that reviews our grants for funding, in the Annual Report.

CIRM provides funding at a critical stage when programs are not yet able to get sufficient funding because they are felt to be “too early” or “too risky” for traditional investors. By funding these investigators to conduct important early work, CIRM “de-risks” the projects, and we have already seen how this has allowed “high risk but high reward” programs to attract investors and commercialization partners. We will feature examples of these follow-on investments in the Annual Report.

In addition to funding clinical trials, CIRM brings in critical expertise and resources for these programs. Clinical Advisory Panels (CAPs), composed of CIRM science officers, external experts and patient representatives, meet on a quarterly basis for each program to help them overcome obstacles and meet project milestones. CIRM has created the Stem Cell Center – a stem cell-specific research organization that helps investigators navigate the best regulatory pathways, provides access manufacturing resources, operational clinical trial support and strategic resources for delivering successful products to patients.

In short, we do everything we can to try and ensure those clinical trials have the best possible chance to be successful.

With a growing number of clinical trials to track, and more on the way, we needed a new tool to make it easier to see, at a glance, the trials we are funding, and all the key details of each program.

So, we created the Clinical Trials Dashboard to let you sort each trial by disease type, researcher, company or institution, and phase, as well as how many patients are to be enrolled. It also includes links to the www.clinicaltrials.gov website – a list of clinical trials registered with the National Institutes of Health – with details about patient eligibility and how to apply to be part of the trial.

The Dashboard is our way of making it as easy as possible for you to find the information you need, when you need it.

On Thursday, we’ll introduce you to one of the patients involved in a CIRM-funded clinical trial for cancer.