And we’re back!

You may have noticed last week that the official CIRM website and our beloved Stem Cellar blog were offline for a few days.  

While we received some fun theories about the outage from our readers (we were not “hacked”, and it was not a ransomware attack), the explanation is much more technical: CIRM’s websites experienced an outage due to an issue with our Domain Name System (DNS).  

We’re happy to report that our wonderful IT team has since taken care of the issue and our websites are back online. The CIRM team recognizes that website outages are never fun and apologizes for any inconvenience this may have caused.  

As a result, CIRM has extended the upcoming submission deadline for the EDUC5 COMPASS Training program by one week to May 24, 2022, 2:00pm (Pacific Time), and the deadline for the DISC0 Foundation Awards to May 26, 2022, 2:00pm (Pacific Time). These changes are reflected on our website

We thank you for your patience as we figured all of this out. Now, we’ll resume sharing the wonderful content you’ve grown accustomed to over the years! 

Google eases ban on ads for stem cell therapies

What started out as an effort by Google to crack down on predatory stem cell clinics advertising bogus therapies seems to be getting diluted. Now the concern is whether that will make it easier for these clinics to lure unsuspecting patients to pay good money for bad treatments?

A little background might help here. For years Google placed no restrictions on ads by clinics that claimed their stem cell “therapies” could cure or treat all manner of ailments. Then in September of 2019 Google changed its policy and announced it was going to restrict advertisements for stem cell clinics offering unproven, cellular and gene therapies.

This new policy was welcomed by people like Dr. Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell scientist at UC Davis and longtime critic of these clinics. In his blog, The Niche, he said it was great news:

“Google Ads for stem cell clinics have definitely driven hundreds if not thousands of customers to unproven stem cell clinics. It’s very likely that many of the patients who have ended up in the hospital due to bad outcomes from clinic injections first went to those firms because of Google ads. These ads and certain particularly risky clinics also are a real threat to the legitimate stem cell and gene therapy fields.”

Now the search-engine giant seems to be adjusting that policy. Google says that starting July 11 it will permit ads for stem cell therapies approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That’s fine. Anything that has gone through the FDA’s rigorous approval process deserves to be allowed to advertise.

The real concern lies with another adjustment to the policy where Google says it will allow companies to post ads as long as they are “exclusively educational or informational in nature, regardless of regulatory approval status.” The problem is, Google doesn’t define what constitutes “educational or informational”. That leaves the door open for these clinics to say pretty much anything they want and claim it meets the new guidelines.

To highlight that point Gizmodo did a quick search on Google using the phrase “stem cells for neuropathy” and quickly came up with a series of ads that are offering “therapies” clearly not approved by the FDA. One ad claimed it was “FDA registered”, a meaningless phrase but one clearly designed to add an air of authenticity to whatever remedy they were peddling.

The intent behind Google’s change of policy is clearly good, to allow companies offering FDA-approved therapies to advertise. However, the outcome may not be quite so worthy, and might once again put patients at risk of being tricked into trying “therapies” that will almost certainly not do them any good, and might even put them in harm’s way.

Smoking marijuana could be bad for your heart, but there is an unusual remedy

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Smoking medical marijuana: Photo courtesy Elsa Olofsson

Millions of Americans use marijuana for medical reasons, such as reducing anxiety or helping ease the side effects of cancer therapy. Millions more turn to it for recreational reasons, saying it helps them relax. Now a new study says those who smoke marijuana regularly might be putting themselves at increased risk of heart disease and heart attack.

There has long been debate about the benefits versus the risks for using cannabis, with evidence on both sides to support each position. For example some studies have shown taking oral cannabinoids can help people cope with the nausea brought on by chemotherapy. Other studies have shown that regular use of marijuana can cause problems such as marijuana use disorder, a condition where the user is showing physical or psychological problems but has difficulty controlling or reducing their use of cannabis.

Now this latest study, from researchers at Stanford Medicine,  shows that THC, the psychoactive part of the drug, can cause inflammation in endothelial cells. These are the cells that line the interior of blood vessels. When these cells become inflamed it can cause a constriction of the vessels and reduce blood flow. Over time this can create conditions that increase the risk of heart disease and heart attack.

The researchers, led by Dr. Joe Wu, began by analyzing data from the UK Biobank. This included information about some 35,000 people who reported smoking marijuana. Of these around 11,000 smoked more than once a month. The researchers found that regular marijuana smokers:

  • Were significantly more likely than others to have a heart attack.
  • Were also more likely to have their first heart attack before the age of 50, increasing their risk of subsequent attacks.

The team then used the iPSC method to create human endothelial cells and, in the lab, found that THC appeared to promote inflammation in the cells. They also found signs it created early indications of atherosclerosis, where there is a buildup of fat and plaque in the arteries.

They then tested mice which had been bred to have high levels of cholesterol and who were given a high fat diet. Some of the mice were then injected with THC, at a level comparable to smoking one marijuana cigarette a day. Those mice had far larger amounts of atherosclerosis plaque in their arteries compared to the mice who didn’t get the THC.

In a news release, Dr.Wu, the lead author of the study, said: “There’s a growing public perception that marijuana is harmless or even beneficial. Marijuana clearly has important medicinal uses, but recreational users should think carefully about excessive use.”

On the bright side, the team also reported that the damage caused by THC can be stopped by genistein, a naturally occurring compound found in soy and fava beans. The study, in the journal Cell, also found that genistein blocked the bad impact of THC without impeding the good impacts.

“As more states legalize the recreational use of marijuana, users need to be aware that it could have cardiovascular side effects,” said Dr. Wu. “But genistein works quite well to mitigate marijuana-induced damage of the endothelial vessels without blocking the effects marijuana has on the central nervous system, and it could be a way for medical marijuana users to protect themselves from a cardiovascular standpoint.”

IBSC directors bring in nearly $12 million to fund the future of bimolecular research at UC Santa Cruz

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Left to right: Lindsay Hinck and Camilla Forsberg

UC Santa Cruz professors Camilla Forsberg and Lindsay Hinck are not only pushing boundaries in their field as the female-led program directors of the Institute for the Biology of Stem Cells (IBSC), they’ve also been looking for ways to enhance the environment within the academic research infrastructure.

“We really wanted to make an effort to elevate everyone’s capacity for doing more research,” explains Forsberg. It was this drive that led the researchers to focus on bringing in grants to support students at different stages of their education to participate in research training programs.

So far, Fosberg and Hinck’s efforts have provided nearly $12 million in extramural funding for predoctoral and undergraduate training programs. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), which provides graduate and postdoctoral funding, is one of the five funding institutions that have supported IBSC. This funding will shape the future of the IBSC, which brings together more than 30 laboratories across the Engineering and Physical and Biological Sciences divisions, as well as the Science & Justice Research Center.

“We didn’t set out to have five training programs, but then there were more opportunities, so we kept pitching our basic mentoring philosophies to different funders,” Forsberg said. “Now we have five different programs. I guess we found a secret sauce that made our funders excited.”

Forsberg and Hinck’s secret sauce is perhaps in part due to their devotion to forming strong peer connections amongst a group of talented graduate and postdoctoral researchers. The programs aim to connect cohorts of trainees who can interact and network through the IBSC in order to form a peer support ecosystem.

Additionally, IBSC strives to build cohorts that welcome and foster diverse perspectives as they will host an upcoming pilot program that aims to demystify the lengthy path from academia to a research career.

With their lastest $1 million training grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), Forsberg and Hinck hope to provide support for postdoctoral scholars interested in the biotech industry. So far, biotech companies Jasper Therapeutics and Roche have joined the collaborative effort with IBSC to create shadowing opportunities for trainees to learn outside of the academic environment.

Furthermore, pre and postdoctoral trainees supported by these training grants can be hosted by several labs in the IBSC and beyond.

“The key thing about all these training programs is that they implement new ideas about structured graduate and postdoctoral training,” Hinck said. “While getting a training grant position is competitive, we try to make the structured training provided by the grants widely available so that all graduate students and postdoctoral scholars at UCSC can increase their skill sets. The environment that’s built around these training programs elevates opportunities for everyone.”

Read the full release here.

It’s hard to be modest when people keep telling you how good you are

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I have a confession. Deep down I’m shallow. So when something I am part of is acknowledged as one of the best, I delight in it (my fellow bloggers Katie and Esteban also delight in it, I am just more shameless about letting everyone know.)

And that is just what happened with this blog, The Stem Cellar. We have been named as one of the “22 best biology and stem cell blogs of 2022”. And not just by anyone. We were honored by Dr. Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell scientist, avid blogger and all-round renaissance man (full disclosure, Paul is a recipient of CIRM funding but that has nothing to do with this award. Obviously.)

We are particularly honored to be on the list because Paul includes some heavy hitters including The Signals Blog, a site that he describes this way:

“This one from our friends in Canada is fantastic. They literally have dozens of authors, which is probably the most of any stem cell-related website, and their articles include many interesting angles. They post really often too. I might rank Signal and The Stem Cellar as tied for best stem cell blog in 2021.”

Now I’m really blushing.

Other highly regarded blogs are EuroStemCell, the Mayo Clinic Regenerative Medicine Blog and Stem Cell Battles (by Don Reed, a good friend of CIRM’s)

Another one of the 22 is David Jensen’s California Stem Cell report which is dedicated to covering the work of, you guessed it, CIRM. So, not only are we great bloggers, we are apparently great to blog about. 

As a further demonstration of my modesty I wanted to point out that Paul regularly produces ‘best of’ lists, including his recent “50 influencers on stem cells on Twitter to follow” which we were also on.

The bootcamp helping in the fight against rare diseases

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Dr. Emil Kakkis at the Rare Entrepreneur Bootcamp

Imagine you or someone you love is diagnosed with a rare disease and then told, “There is no cure, there are no treatments and because it’s so rare no one is even doing any research into developing a treatment.” Sadly for millions of people that’s an all-too-common occurrence.

There are around 7,000 rare diseases affecting some 25-30 million Americans. Some of these are ultra-rare conditions where worldwide there may be only a few hundred people, or even a few dozen, diagnosed with it. And of all these rare diseases, only 5% have an approved therapy.

For the people struggling with a rare disease, finding a sense of hope in the face of all this can be challenging. Some say it feels as if they have been abandoned by the health care system. Others fight back, working to raise both awareness about the disease and funds to help support research to develop a treatment. But doing that without experience in the world of fund raising and drug development can pose a whole new series of challenges.

That’s where Ultragenyx comes into the picture. The company has a simple commitment to patients. “We aim to develop safe and effective treatments for many serious rare diseases as fast as we can, and we are committed to helping the whole rare disease community move forward by sharing our science and expertise to advance future development, whether by us or others.”

They live up to that commitment by hosting a Rare Entrepreneur Bootcamp. Every year they bring together a dozen or so patient or family organizations that are actively raising funds for a potential treatment approach and give them a 3-day crash course in what they’ll need to know to have a chance to succeed in rare disease drug development.

A panel discussion at the Rare Entrepreneur Bootcamp

Dr. Emil Kakkis, the founder of Ultragenyx, calls these advocates “warriors” because of all the battles they are going to face. He told them, “Get used to hearing no, because you are going to hear that a lot. But keep fighting because that’s the only way you get to ‘yes’.”

The bootcamp brings in experts to coach and advise the advocates on everything from presentation skills when pitching a potential investor, to how to collaborate with academic researchers, how to design a clinical trial, what they need to understand about manufacturing or intellectual property rights.

In a blog about the event, Arjun Natesan, vice president of Translational Research at Ultragenyx, wrote, “We are in a position to share what we’ve learned from bringing multiple drugs to market – and making the process easier for these organizations aligns with our goal of treating as many rare disease patients as possible. Our aim is to empower these organizations with guidance and tools and help facilitate their development of life-changing rare disease treatments.”

For the advocates it’s not just a chance to gain an understanding of the obstacles ahead and how to overcome them, it’s also a chance to create a sense of community. Meeting others who are fighting the same fight helps them realize they are not alone, that they are part of a bigger, albeit often invisible, community, working tirelessly to save the lives of their children or loved ones.  

CIRM also has a commitment to supporting the search for treatments for rare diseases. We are funding more than two dozen clinical trials, in addition to many earlier stage research projects, targeting rare conditions.

Celebrating National DNA Day Together

DNA provides the code of life for nearly all living organisms. So, it’s no wonder that scientists have been studying DNA and the human genome (complete set of DNA) for decades.

In April 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick, in collaboration with Rosalind Franklin, first described the structure of DNA as a double helix. In April 2003, exactly 50 years later, scientists completed the Human Genome Project- a massive research effort to sequence and map all the genes that comprise the human genome.

That same year, Congress approved the first National DNA Day to commemorate both the discovery of the double helix and the completion of the Human Genome Project. The goal of National DNA Day is to offer students, educators, and the public an opportunity to learn about the DNA molecule and genomic research.

You can celebrate National DNA Day this year by following scientists Lilly Lee and Tom Quinn at Takara Bio as they demonstrate how to extract DNA from strawberries. Their lesson plan guides mentors to teach about DNA and genomic research, starting with having students extract DNA on their own.

Laurel Barchas, one of the people behind the video has also played an important role at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). She has collaborated with us on many projects over the years, including helping us build CIRM’s own education portal with lessons for high school students that meet Next Generation Science Standards.

Watch the video below and Click Here for the full lesson plan!

Stem cell agency invests in therapy using killer cells to target colorectal, breast and ovarian cancers

While there have been some encouraging advances in treating cancer in recent decades, there are still many cancers that either resist treatment or recur after treatment. Today the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved investing in a therapy targeting some of these hard-to-treat tumors.

BioEclipse Therapeutics Inc. was awarded nearly $8M to test a therapy using immune cells loaded with a cancer-killing virus that targets cancer tissue but spares healthy tissue.

This is the 78th clinical trial funded directly by the Stem Cell Agency.

BioEclipse combines two approaches—an immune cell called a cytokine-induced killer (CIK) cell and a virus engineered to kill cancer cells called an oncolytic virus (OV)—to create what they call “a multi-mechanistic, targeted treatment.”

They will use the patient’s own immune cells and, in the lab, combine them with the OV. The cell/virus combination will then be administered back to the patient. The job of the CIK cells is to carry the virus to the tumors. The virus is designed to specifically attack and kill tumors and stimulate the patient’s immune system to attack the tumor cells. The goal is to eradicate the primary tumor and prevent relapse and recurrence.

“With the intent to develop this treatment for chemotherapy-resistant or refractory solid tumors—including colorectal cancer, triple negative breast cancer, ovarian cancer, gastric cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma, and osteosarcoma—it addresses a significant unmet medical need in fatal conditions for which there are limited treatment options,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, President and CEO of CIRM.  

The CIRM Board also approved more than $18 million in funding four projects under the Translation Projects program. The goal of this program is to support promising regenerative medicine (stem cell-based or gene therapy) projects that accelerate completion of translational stage activities necessary for advancement to clinical study or broad end use.

The awards went to:

ApplicationTitleInstitutionAward Amount
TRAN1-133442Optogenetic therapy for treating retinitis pigmentosa and
other inherited retinal diseases  
  Paul Bresge Ray Therapeutics Inc.  $3,999,553  
TRAN3-13332Living Synthetic Vascular Grafts with Renewable Endothelium    Aijun Wang UC Davis  $3,112,567    
TRAN1-13370Next generation affinity-tuned CAR for prostate cancer    Preet Chaudhary University of Southern California  $5,805,144  
TRAN1-3345Autologous MPO Knock-Out Hematopoietic Stem and
Progenitor Cells for Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension  
  Don Kohn UC Los Angeles  $5,207,434  

How two women are fighting back against Lou Gehrig’s disease

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Mary Ann Wittenberg (left) and Nadia Sethi

Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS, is a nasty degenerative condition that destroys the brain cells controlling movement. People with ALS suffer a progressive loss of ability to walk, talk, eat and breathe.

The average life expectancy for someone diagnosed with ALS is just two to five years. It has a devastating impact on the people diagnosed and their families.

On the latest episode of our podcast, Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation, we talk to two women who have suffered a loss in this fight, but who are using their experience with ALS to help others battling the disease.

Nadia Sethi became the Director of Community Engagement and Outreach at the ALS Therapy Development Institute after losing her husband to ALS. 

Mary Ann Wittenberg’s husband Harry fought the disease in a public way, starting a blog called “Welcome to My World, How Life Has Changed and Making it Work.” Mary Ann is now carrying on that mission of demystifying the disease.

Their courage and determination to turn a tragedy into something positive, to help others, and to hopefully play a role in finding treatments to help people with ALS, is deeply moving and inspiring.

We hope you enjoy this special episode of ‘Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation’.

CIRM has invested more than $92 million in 33 different projects targeting ALS. You can read about them on our ALS Fact Sheet.

Expanding CIRM’s Alpha Clinics Network to deliver transformative regenerative medicine treatments 

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Almost every day, we hear new reports from the thousands of regenerative medicine clinical trials globally sponsored by hundreds of companies and academic researchers. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is a leader in this space supporting some of the most advanced cell and gene therapy clinic trials for a variety of unmet medical needs. With all this current activity, it’s easy to forget that there were only a handful of clinical trials going on just seven years ago. 

A New System for Delivering Treatments 

In 2015, CIRM’s leadership recognized that we were on the cusp of introducing an array of new regenerative medicine clinical trials. However, there was one big concern—the existing clinical delivery systems had limited experience and capacity for managing these new and comparatively complex clinical trials. Cell and gene therapy regenerative medicine treatments require new systems for manufacturing, processing, and delivering treatments to patients.  

In anticipation of the need for clinical bandwidth to support clinical trials, CIRM funded a network of California medical centers to develop teams dedicated to supporting regenerative medicine clinical trials. This network was called the Alpha Clinics Network

Since 2015, the Alpha Clinics Network has grown to include six academic medical centers in California. The Network has treated over a thousand patients in more than 100 clinical trials. CIRM frequently encounters companies and academic researchers that are specifically interested in bringing their research to California to be performed in the Alpha Clinics Network. These research sponsors cite expertise in manufacturing, process, delivery and regulatory compliance as the Networks value proposition. One sponsor summed it up by indicating there are “fewer protocol deviations (errors)” in the Alpha Clinics. 

Expanding the Alpha Clinics Network 

As we enter 2022 with CIRM’s new five year strategic plan, a major aim is to create a broad network of medical centers capable of supporting diverse patient participation in clinical trials.  

As a first step in this effort, CIRM recently announced $80 million in funding to expand the Alpha Clinics Network. This funding is intended to expand both the scale and scope of the Network. This funding will allow the scale to grow from six medical center to up to ten. Scale is important because as the number of clinical trials grow, there needs to be increased coordination and sharing of the workload. Alpha Clinic sites already collaborate to conduct individual clinical trials, and an expanded network will enable a greater number of trials to occur simultaneously. 

In addition, the Expansion Awards will enable the Network to expand the scope of its activities to address current needs of the field. These needs include new research platforms for conducting clinical trials. For example, sites are looking at integrating new types of genomic (DNA sequencing) tools to support improved diagnosis and treatment of patients.  

Also, CIRM is committed to funding research to treat neurological diseases. We anticipate network sites will develop advanced systems for delivering treatments to patients and evaluating the effectiveness of these treatments. In addition, sites will be developing training programs to address the growing workforce needs of the field of regenerative medicine. 

In 2015, CIRM invested in the Alpha Clinics Network which positioned California as a leader in supporting regenerative medicine clinical trials. In 2022, we will be expanding the Network with the aim of delivering transformative treatments to a diverse California and the world. The Network will fulfill this aim by expanding its reach in the state, developing advanced research planforms and technologies, and by training the next generations of researchers with the skills to deliver patient treatments. 

Watch a recording of our recent Alpha Clinics concept plan webinar: