Today the governing Board of the California Institute for
Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved a grant of almost $12 million to Dr.
Stephanie Cherqui at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) to conduct
a clinical trial for treatment of cystinosis.
award brings the total number of CIRM funded clinical trials to 55.
a rare disease that primarily affects children and young adults, and leads to
premature death, usually in early adulthood. Patients inherit
defective copies of a gene called CTNS, which results in abnormal accumulation
of an amino acid called cystine in all cells of the body. This buildup of cystine can lead to
multi-organ failure, with some of earliest and most pronounced effects on the
kidneys, eyes, thyroid, muscle, and pancreas.
Many patients suffer end-stage kidney failure and severe vision defects
in childhood, and as they get older, they are at increased risk for heart
disease, diabetes, bone defects, and neuromuscular defects. There is currently a drug treatment for
cystinosis, but it only delays the progression of the disease, has severe side
effects and is expensive.
Dr. Cherqui’s clinical trial will use a gene therapy
approach to modify a patient’s own blood stem cells with a functional version
of the defective CTNS gene. Based on pre-clinical
data, the approach is to reintroduce the corrected stem cells into the patient
to give rise to blood cells that will reduce cystine buildup in affected
Because this is the first time this approach has been tested in patients, the primary goal of the clinical trial is to see if the treatment is safe. In addition, patients will be monitored for improvements in the symptoms of their disease. This award is in collaboration with the University of California, Los Angeles which will handle the manufacturing of the therapy.
CIRM has also funded the preclinical work
for this study, which involved completing the testing needed to apply to the
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permission to start a clinical trial in
“CIRM has funded 24 clinical stage programs utilizing
cell and gene medicine approaches to date,” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., the
President and CEO of CIRM. “This project
continues to broaden the scope of unmet medical need we can impact with these
types of approaches.”
From even before we were created by the passage of Proposition 71 back in 2004, the voices of patients and patient advocates have been at the heart of CIRM’s existence. Today they are every bit as vital to the work we do, and even more essential if we are to be able to continue doing that work.
In 2004, the patient advocate community recognized that the research we fund could help them or a loved one battling a deadly disease or disorder. And over the last 15 years that’s exactly what we have done, trying to live up to our mission of accelerating stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. And with 54 clinical trials already under our belt we have made a good start.
But it’s just a start. We still have a lot to do. The problem is we are quickly running out of money. We expect to have enough money to fund new projects up to the end of this year. After that many great new ideas and promising projects won’t be able to apply to us for support. Some may get funding from other sources, but many won’t. We don’t want to let that happen.
That’s why we are holding a Patient Advocate event next Tuesday, June 25th from 6-7pm in Petree Hall C., at the Los Angeles Convention Center at 1201 South Figueroa Street, LA 90015.
The event is open to everyone and it’s FREE. We have created an Eventbrite page where you can get all the details and RSVP if you are coming. And if you want to get there a little early that’s fine too, we’ll be there from 5pm onwards so you’ll have a chance to ask us any questions you might have beforehand.
It’s going to be an opportunity to learn about the real progress being made in stem cell research, thanks in no small part to CIRM’s funding. We’ll hear from the researchers who are saving lives and changing lives, and from the family of one baby alive today because of that work.
We will hear about the challenges facing CIRM and the field, but also about a possible new ballot initiative for next year that could help re-fund CIRM, giving us the opportunity to continue our work.
That’s where you, the patients and patient advocates and members of the public come in. Without you we wouldn’t be here. Without you we will disappear. Without us the field of stem cell research loses a vital source of support and funding, and potentially-life saving therapies fall by the wayside.
We all have a huge stake in this. So we hope to see you next Tuesday, at the start of what may be the next chapter in the life of CIRM.
A transplant can be a lifesaving procedure for many people across the United States. In fact, according to the Health Resources & Services Administration, 36,528 transplants were performed in 2018. However, as of January 2019, the number of men, women, and children on the national transplant waiting list is over 113,000, with 20 people dying each day waiting for a transplant and a new person being added to the list every 10 minutes.
Before considering a transplant, there needs to be an immunological match between the donated tissue and/or blood stem cells and the recipient. To put it simply, a “match” indicates that the donor’s cells will not be marked by the recipient’s immune cells as foreign and begin to attack it, a process known as graft-versus-host disease. Unfortunately, these matches can be challenging to find, particularly for some ethnic minorities. Often times, immunosuppression drugs are also needed in order to prevent the foreign cells from being attacked by the body’s immune system. Additionally, chemotherapy and radiation are often needed as well.
Fortunately, a CIRM-funded study at Stanford has shown some promising results towards addressing the issue of matching donor cells and recipient. Dr. Irv Weissman and his colleagues at Stanford have found a way to prepare mice for a transplant of blood stem cells, even when donor and recipient are an immunological mismatch. Their method involved using a combination of six specific antibodies and does not require ongoing immunosuppression.
The combination of antibodies did this by eliminating several types of immune cells in the animals’ bone marrow, which allowed blood stem cells to engraft and begin producing blood and immune cells without the need for continued immunosuppression. The blood stem cells used were haploidentical, which, to put it simply, is what naturally occurs between parent and child, or between about half of all siblings.
Additional experiments also showed that the mice treated with the six antibodies could also accept completely mismatched purified blood stem cells, such as those that might be obtained from an embryonic stem cell line.
The results established in this mouse model could one day lay the foundation necessary to utilize this approach in humans after conducting clinical trials. The idea would be that a patient that needs a transplanted organ could first undergo a safe, gentle transplant with blood stem cells derived in the laboratory from embryonic stem cells. The same embryonic stem cells could also then be used to generate an organ that would be fully accepted by the recipient without requiring the need for long-term treatment with drugs to suppress the immune system.
“With support by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, we’ve been able to make important advances in human embryonic stem cell research. In the past, these stem cell transplants have required a complete match to avoid rejection and reduce the chance of graft-versus-host disease. But in a family with four siblings the odds of having a sibling who matches the patient this closely are only one in four. Now we’ve shown in mice that a ‘half match,’ which occurs between parents and children or in two of every four siblings, works without the need for radiation, chemotherapy or ongoing immunosuppression. This may open up the possibility of transplant for nearly everyone who needs it. Additionally, the immune tolerance we’re able to induce should in the future allow the co-transplantation of [blood] stem cells and tissues, such as insulin-producing cells or even organs generated from the same embryonic stem cell line.”
The full results to this study were published in Cell Stem Cell.
What do you do when the supposed solution to a problem actually turns out to be a part of the problem? That’s the situation facing people who want to direct patients to scientifically sound clinical trials. Turns out the site many were going to may be directing patients to therapies that are not only not scientifically sound, they may not even be safe.
The site in question
is the www.clinicaltrials.gov
website. That’s a list of all the clinical trials registered with the National
Institutes of Health. In theory that should be a rock-solid list of trials that
have been given the go-ahead by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be tested
in people. Unfortunately, the reality is very different. Many of the trials
listed there have gone through the rigorous testing and approval process to
earn the right to be tested in people. But some haven’t. And figuring out which
is which is not easy.
The issue was highlighted by a terrific article on STAT News this week. The article’s title succinctly sums up the piece: “Stem cell clinics co-opt clinical-trials registry to market unproven therapies, critics say.”
The story highlights how clinics that are offering unproven and
unapproved stem cell therapies can register their “clinical trial” on the site,
even if they haven’t received FDA approval to carry out a clinical trial.
Leigh Turner, a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota and a long-time foe of these clinics, said:
“You can concoct this bogus appearance
of science, call it a clinical study, recruit people to pay to participate in
your study, and not only that: You can actually register on clinicaltrials.gov
and have the federal government help you promote what you’re doing. That struck
me as both dangerous and brilliant.”
At CIRM this is a problem we face almost every day. People call or email us asking for help finding a stem cell therapy for everything from cancer and autism to diabetes. If we are funding something or if there is one underway at one of our Alpha Stem Cell Clinics we can direct them to that particular trial. If not, the easiest thing would be to direct them to the clinicaltrials.gov site. But when you are not sure that all the programs listed are legitimate clinical trials, that’s not something we always feel comfortable doing.
As the STAT piece points out, some of the “trials” listed on the site
are even being run by companies that the FDA is trying to shut down because of
serious concerns about the “therapies” they are offering. One was for a Florida
clinic that had blinded four people. Despite that, the clinic’s projects remain
on the site where other patients can find them.
Being listed on clinicaltrials.gov gives clinics offering unproven therapies
an air or legitimacy. So how can you spot a good trial from a bad one? It’s not
One red flag is if the trial is asking you to pay for the treatment.
That’s considered unethical because it’s asking you to pay to be part of an
experiment. Only a very few legitimate clinical trials ask patients to pay, and
even then, only with permission from the FDA.
Another warning sign is anything that has a laundry list of things it
can treat, everything from arthritis to Alzheimer’s. Well-designed clinical
trials tend to be targeted at one condition not multiple ones.
We have put together some useful tools for patients considering taking
part in a clinical trial. Here is a link
to a video and infographic that tell people the questions they need to ask,
and things they need to consider, before signing up for any clinical trial.
So why does the NIH continue to allow these clinics to “advertise”
their programs on its website? One reason is that the NIH simply doesn’t have
the bandwidth to check every listing to make sure they are legit. They have
tried to make things better by including a warning, stating:
“Listing a study
does not mean it has been evaluated by the U.S. Federal Government. Read our disclaimer for
details. Before participating in a study, talk to your health care provider and
learn about the risks
and potential benefits.”
The bottom line is
that if you are in the market for a stem cell therapy you should approach it
the way you would any potentially life-changing decision: caveat emptor, buyer
There’s a large body of research that shows that many people learn better through visuals. Studies show that much of the sensory cortex in our brain is devoted to vision so our brains use images rather than text to make sense of things.
That’s why we think it just makes sense to use visuals, as much as we can, when trying to help people understand advances in stem cell research. That’s precisely what our colleagues at U.C. San Diego are doing with a new show called “Stem Cell Science with Alysson Muotri”.
Alysson is a CIRM grantee
who is doing some exciting work in developing a deeper understanding of autism.
He’s also a really good communicator who can distill complex ideas down into
easy to understand language.
The show features Alysson,
plus other scientists at UCSD who are working hard to move the most promising
research out of the lab and into clinical trials in people. Appropriately the
first show in the series follows that path, exploring
how discoveries made using tiny Zebrafish could hopefully lead to stem cell
therapies targeting blood diseases like leukemia. This first show also highlights
the important role that CIRM’s Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network will play in
bringing those therapies to patients.
You can find a sneak preview of the show on YouTube. The series proper will be broadcast on California local cable via the UCTV channel at 8:00 pm on Thursdays starting July 8, 2019.
And if you really
have a lot of time on your hands you can check out the more
than 300 videos CIRM has produced on every aspect of stem cell research
from cures for fatal diseases to questions to ask before taking part in a
The brain is a complex part of the human body that allows for the formation of thoughts and consciousness. In many ways it is the essence of who we are as individuals. Because of its importance, our bodies have developed various layers of protection around this vital organ, one of which is called the blood-brain barrier (BBB).
The BBB is a thin border of various cell types around the brain that regulate what can enter the brain tissue through the bloodstream. Its primary purpose is to prevent toxins and other unwanted substances from entering the brain and damaging it. Unfortunately this barrier can also prevent helpful medications, designed to fix problems, from reaching the brain.
Several brain disorders, such as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS – also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s Disease (PD), and Huntington’s Disease (HD) have been linked to defective BBBs that keep out critical biomolecules needed for healthy brain activity.
In a CIRM-funded study, a team at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center created a BBB through the use of stem cells and an Organ-Chip made from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These are a specific type of stem cells that can turn into any type of cell in the body and can be generated from a person’s own cells. In this study, iPSCs were created from adult blood samples and used to make the neurons and other supporting cells that make up the BBB. These cells were then placed inside an Organ-Chip which recreates the environment that cells normally experience within the human body.
Inside the 3-D Organ-Chip, the cells were able to form a BBB that functions as it does in the body, with the ability to block entry of certain drugs. Most notably, when the BBB was generated from cell samples of patients with HD, the BBB malfunctioned in the same way that it does in patients with the disease.
These findings expand the potential for personalized medicine for various brain disorders linked to problems in the BBB. In a press release, Dr. Clive Svendsen, director of the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute and senior author of the study, was quoted as saying,
“The study’s findings open a promising pathway for precision medicine. The possibility of using a patient-specific, multicellular model of a blood barrier on a chip represents a new standard for developing predictive, personalized medicine.”
The full results of the study were published in the scientific journal Cell Stem Cell.
But then came news that another big name celebrity, in this case Star Trek star William Shatner, was going to one of these clinics for an infusion of what he called “restorative cells”.
It’s a reminder that
for every step forward we take in trying to educate the public about the
dangers of clinics offering unproven therapies, we often take another step back
when a celebrity essentially endorses the idea.
So that’s why we are
taking our message directly to the people, as often as we can and wherever we
In June we are going
to be holding a free, public event in Los Angeles to coincide with the opening
of the International Society for Stem Cell Research’s Annual Conference, the
biggest event on the global stem cell calendar. There’s still time to register for that by the way. The event is from 6-7pm on
Tuesday, June 25th in Petree Hall C., at the Los Angeles Convention
Center at 1201 South Figueroa Street, LA 90015.
It’s going to be an
opportunity to learn about the real progress being made in stem cell research,
thanks in no small part to CIRM’s funding. We’re honored to be joined by UCLA’s
Dr. Don Kohn, who has helped cure dozens of children born with a fatal immune
system disorder called severe combined immunodeficiency, also known as “bubble
baby disease”. And we’ll hear from the family of one of those children whose
life he helped save.
And because CIRM is
due to run out of money to fund new projects by the end of this year you’ll
also learn about the very real concerns we have about the future of stem cell
research in California and what can be done to address those concerns. It promises
to be a fascinating evening.
But that’s not all. Our
partners at USC will be holding another public event on stem cell research, on
Wednesday June 26th from 6.30p to 8pm. This one is focused on
treatments for age-related blindness. This features some of the top stem cell
scientists in the field who are making encouraging progress in not just slowing
down vision loss, but in some cases even reversing it.
We know that we face
some serious challenges in trying to educate people about the risks of going to
a clinic offering unproven therapies. But we also know we have a great story to
tell, one that shows how we are already changing lives and saving lives, and
that with the support of the people of California we’ll do even more in the
years to come.
I often joke that my
job here at CIRM is to be the official translator for the stem cell agency. I
have to translate complex science into everyday English that people without a
science background – that includes me – can understand.
Think I’m joking? Try making sense of this.
See what I mean. If
you are a scientist this is not only perfectly clear, it’s also quite exciting.
But for the rest of us……..
Actually, it is really quite exciting news. It’s about a CIRM-funded
clinical trial being run by Oncternal
Therapeutics to treat people with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), a
kind of cancer where our body makes too many white blood cells. The study is
using a combination therapy of Cirmtuzumab (a
monoclonal antibody named after us because we helped fund its development) and
ibrutinib, a conventional therapy used to treat cancers like CLL.
and then attaches itself to a protein on the surface of cancer stem cells that
the cancer needs to survive and spread. This attachment disables the protein
(called ROR1) which slows the growth of the leukemia and makes it more
vulnerable to anti-cancer drugs like ibrutinib.
In this Phase 1/2 clinical trial 12 patients were given the
combination therapy for 24 weeks or more, making them eligible to determine how
effective, or ineffective, the therapy is:
of the 12 patients had either a partial response – meaning a reduction in the amount
of detectable cancer – or a complete response to the treatment – meaning no
of the patients saw their cancer spread or grow
of the patients completed a year of treatment and they all showed signs of a
complete response including no enlarged lymph nodes and white blood cell counts
in the normal range.
combination therapy is also being used to treat people with Mantle Cell
Lymphoma (MCL), a rare but fast-growing form of blood cancer. The results from
this group, while preliminary, are also encouraging. One patient, who had
experienced a relapse following a bone marrow transplant, experienced a
complete response after three months of cirmtuzumab and ibrutinib.
data on the clinical trial was presented at a poster session (that’s the poster
at the top of this blog) at the annual meeting of the American Society of
In a news release Dr. James Breitmeyer, the President & CEO of Oncternal, said the results are very encouraging:
“These data presented today,
taken together with an earlier Phase 1 study of cirmtuzumab as a monotherapy in
relapsed/refractory CLL, give us increased confidence in the potential for
cirmtuzumab as a treatment for patients with ROR1-expressing lymphoid
malignancies, particularly in combination with ibrutinib as a potential
treatment for patients with CLL and MCL. We believe that the data also help to
validate the importance of ROR1 as a therapeutic target,”
Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML) are both types of blood cancers that can be difficult to treat. CIRM is fundingForty Seven, Inc. to conduct a clinical trial to treat patients with these blood cancers with an antibody called 5F9. CIRM has also given multiple awards prior to the clinical trial to help in developing the antibody.
Cancer cells express a signal known as CD47, which sends a “don’t eat me” message to macrophages, which are white blood cells that are part of the immune system designed to “eat” and destroy unhealthy cells. The antibody works by blocking the signal, enabling the body’s own immune system to detect and destroy the cancer cells.
In a press release, Forty Seven, Inc. announced early clinical results from their CIRM funded trial using the antibody to treat patients with AML and MDS. Some patients received just the antibody while others received the antibody in combination with azacitidine, a chemotherapy drug used to treat these cancers.
Here is a synopsis of the trial:
35 patients treated in a Phase 1 clinical trial have been evaluated for a response assessment to-date.
10 of these have MDS or AML and only received the 5F9 antibody.
11 of these have higher-risk MDS and received the 5F9 antibody along with the chemotherapy drug azacitidine.
14 of these have untreated AML and received the 5F9 antibody along with the chemotherapy drug azacitidine.
For the 11 patients with higher-risk MDS treated with the antibody and chemotherapy, they found that:
All 11 patients achieved an objective response rate (ORR),meaning that there was a reduction in tumor burden of a predefined amount.
Six of these patients achieved a complete response (CR), indicatinga disappearance of all signs of cancer in response to treatment.
For the 14 patients with untreated AML treated with the antibody and chemotherapy, they found that:
Nine of these patients achieved an ORR.
Five of theseninepatients achieved a CR.
Two of these nine patientsachieved a morphologic leukemia-free state (MLFS), indicating the disappearance of all cells with formal and structural characteristics of leukemia, accompanied by bone marrow recovery, in response to treatment.
The remaining five patients achieved stable disease (SD), meaning that the tumor is neither growing nor shrinking.
The results also showed that:
There was no evidence of increased toxicities when the antibody was used alongside the chemotherapy drugs, demonstrating tolerance and safety of the treatment.
No responding MDS or AML patient has relapsed or progressed on the antibody in combination with chemotherapy, with a median follow-up of 3.8 months.
The median time to response was rapid at 1.9 months.
Several patients have experienced deepening responses over time resulting in complete remissions.
Based on the favorable results observed in this clinical trial to-date, expansion cohorts have been initiated, meaning that additional patients will be enrolled in a phase I trial. This will include patients with both higher-risk MDS and untreated AML as well as using the antibody in combination with chemotherapy.
In the press release, Dr. David Sallman, an investigator in the clinical trial, is quoted as saying,
“These new data for 5F9 show encouraging clinical activity in a broad population of patients with MDS and AML, who may be unfit for existing therapeutic options or at higher-risk for developing rapidly-advancing disease. Despite an evolving treatment landscape, physicians continue to seek new therapies for MDS and AML that can be used safely in combination with standard-of-care to help patients more rapidly achieve durable responses. To that end, I am excited to see meaningful clinical activity in a majority of patients treated with 5F9 in combination with azacitidine, with a median time to response of under two months and no relapses or progressions among responding patients.”
When you have a great story to tell the best and most effective way to get it out to the widest audience is still the media, both traditional mainstream and new social media. Recently we have seen three great examples of how that can be done and, hopefully, the benefits that can come from it.
First, let’s go old
school. Earlier this month Caroline Chen wrote a wonderful
in-depth article about clinics that are cashing in on a gray area in stem
cell research. The piece, a collaboration between the New Yorker magazine and
ProPublica, focused on the use of amniotic stem cell treatments and the gap
between what the clinics who offer it are claiming it can do, and the reality.
Here’s one paragraph
profiling a Dr. David Greene, who runs a company providing amniotic fluid to
clinics. It’s a fine piece of writing showing how the people behind these
therapies blur the lines between fact and reality, not just about the cells but
also about themselves:
“Greene said that amniotic stem cells derive their healing power from an ability to develop into any kind of tissue, but he failed to mention that mainstream science does not support his claims. He also did not disclose that he lost his license to practice medicine in 2009, after surgeries he botched resulted in several deaths. Instead, he offered glowing statistics: amniotic stem cells could help the heart beat better, “on average by twenty per cent,” he said. “Over eighty-five per cent of patients benefit exceptionally from the treatment.”
backpedals on that claim, saying:
“I don’t claim that this is a treatment. I don’t claim that it cures anything. I don’t claim that it’s a permanent fix. All I discuss is maybe, potentially, people can get some improvements from stem-cell care.”
This week CBS2
TV in Chicago did their own investigative story about how the number of local
clinics offering unproven and unapproved therapies is on the rise. Reporter Pam
Zekman showed how misleading newspaper ads brought in people desperate for
something, anything, to ease their arthritis pain.
She interviewed two
patients who went to one of those clinics, and ended up out of pocket, and out
“They said they would regenerate the cartilage,” Patricia Korona recalled. She paid $4500 for injections in her knee, but the pain continued. Later X-rays were ordered by her orthopedic surgeon.
“He found bone on bone,” Korona said. “No cartilage grew, which tells me it failed; didn’t work.”
John Zapfel paid $14,000 for stem cell injections on each side of his neck and his shoulder. But an MRI taken by his current doctor showed no improvement.
“They ripped me off, and I was mad.” Zapfel said.
TV and print reports
like this are a great way to highlight the bogus claims made by many of these
clinics, and to shine a light on how they use hype to sell hope to people who
are in pain and looking for help.
At a time when
journalism seems to be increasingly under attack with accusations of “fake news”
it’s encouraging to see reporters like these taking the time and news outlets
devoting the resources to uncover shady practices and protect vulnerable
But the news isn’t
all bad, and the use of social media can help highlight the good news.
That’s what happened
yesterday in our latest CIRM
Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team” event. The event focused on the
future of stem cell research but also included a really thoughtful look at the
progress that’s been made over the last 10-15 years.
We had two great
guests, UC Davis stem cell researcher and one of the leading bloggers on the
field, Paul Knoepfler PhD; and David
Higgins, PhD, a scientist, member of the CIRM Board and a Patient Advocate
for Huntington’s Disease. They were able to highlight the challenges of the
early years of stem cell research, both globally and here at CIRM, and show how
the field has evolved at a remarkable rate in recent years.
subject of the “bogus clinics” came up – Paul has become a national expert on
these clinics and is quoted in the New Yorker article – as did the subject of
the frustration some people feel at what they consider to be the too-slow pace
of progress. As David Higgins noted, we all think it’s too slow, but we are not
going to race recklessly ahead in search of something that might heal if we
might also end up doing something that might kill.
A portion of the
discussion focused on funding and, in particular, what happens if CIRM is no
longer around to fund the most promising research in California. We are due to
run out of funding for new projects by the end of this year, and without a
re-infusion of funds we will be pretty much closing our doors by the end of
2020. Both Paul and David felt that could be disastrous for the field here in
California, depriving the most promising projects of support at a time when
they needed it most.
It’s probably not
too surprising that three people so closely connected to CIRM (Paul has
received funding from us in the past) would conclude that CIRM is needed for
stem cell research to not just survive but thrive in California.
A word of caution
before you watch: fashion conscious people may be appalled at how my pocket handkerchief
took on a life of its own.