Frustration, failure and finally hope in the search for treatments for spina bifida

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Dr. Diana Farmer and her team at UC. Davis

By any standards Dr. Diana Farmer is a determined woman who doesn’t let setbacks and failure deter her. As a fetal and neonatal surgeon, and the chair of the Department of Surgery at UC Davis Health, Dr. Farmer has spent years trying to develop a cure for spina bifida. She’s getting closer.

Dr. Farmer and her partner in this research, Dr. Aijun Wang, have already shown they can repair the damage spina bifida causes to the spinal cord, in the womb, in sheep and bulldogs. Last year the CIRM Board voted to fund her research to get the data needed to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration for permission to start a clinical trial in people.

That work is so promising that we decided to profile Dr. Farmer in our 2018 Annual Report.

Here’s excerpts from an interview we conducted with her as part of the Annual Report.

I have been working on this since 2008. We have been thinking about how to help kids with spina bifida walk. It’s not fatal disease but it is a miserable disease.

It’s horrible for parents who think they are about to have a healthy child suddenly be faced with a baby who faces a life long struggle with their health, everything from difficulty or inability to walk to bowel and bladder problems and life-threatening infections.

As a fetal surgeon we used to only focus on fatal diseases because otherwise kids would die. But as we made progress in the field, we had the opportunity to help others who didn’t have a fatal condition, in ways we couldn’t have done in the past.

I’ve always been fascinated by the placenta, it has lots of protective properties. So, we asked the question if we were able to sample fetal cells from the placenta, could we augment those cells, and use them to tissue engineer spinal injuries, in the womb, to improve the outcome for kids with spina bifida?

Dr. Aijun Wang and I have been working on this project for the last decade.  Ten years of work has taken us to this point where we are now ready to move this to the next level.

It’s amazing to me how long this process takes and that’s why we are so grateful to CIRM because this is a rare disease and finding funding for those is hard. A lot of people are scared about funding fetal surgery and CIRM has been a perfect partner in helping bring this approach, blending stem cell therapy and tissue engineering, together.

If this therapy is successful it will have a huge economic impact on California, and on the rest of the world. Because spina bifida is a lifelong condition involving many operations, many stays in the hospital, in some cases lifelong use of a wheelchair. This has a huge financial burden on the family. And because this doesn’t just affect the child but the whole family, it has a huge psychological burden on families. It affects them in so many ways; parents having to miss work or take time off work to care for their child, other children in the family feeling neglected because their brother or sister needs so much attention.

In the MOMS Trial (a study that looked at prenatal – before birth – and postnatal – after birth – surgery to repair a defect in the spinal cord and showed that prenatal surgery had strong, long-term benefits and some risks) we showed that we could operate on the fetus before birth and help them. The fact that there was any improvement – doubling the number of kids who could walk from 20 to 40% showed this spinal cord injury is not a permanent situation and also showed there was some plasticity in the spinal cord, some potential for improvement. And so, the next question was can we do more. And that’s why we are trying this.

It’s pretty amazing. We are pretty excited.

The thing that makes surgeon-scientists feel so passionate is that we don’t just ask the fundamental questions, we ask questions in order to cure a problem in patients. I grew up in an environment where people were always asking “how can we do it better, how can we improve?”

There were many times of frustration, many times when cell types we explored and worked with didn’t work. But it’s the patients, seeing them, that keeps me motivated to do the science, to keep persevering. That’s the beauty of being a clinician-scientist. We can ask questions in a different way and look at data in a different way because we are driven by patient outcomes. So, whenever we get stuck in the rabbit hole of theoretical problems, we look to the patients for inspiration to keep going.

I am very cognizant of stirring up false hope, knowing that what occurs in animal models doesn’t always translate into humans. But we are optimistic, and I am anxious to get going.

 

Performance, Passion and Progress: and that’s just page one of our 2018 Annual Report

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It’s hard to sum up the activities and achievements of a year in a single document, let alone one that’s just 24 pages. But that’s what we have done in putting together our 2018 Annual Report.

It’s a look back at the year just gone, the highlights, the low lights (spoiler alert – there weren’t any) and the impact we had on the field of stem cell research. But it’s far more than that. It’s also a look ahead. A look at the challenges we face, and profiles of the people who are going to help us overcome those challenges and maintain our progress.

And people are truly at the heart of this report, from UC San Francisco’s Dr. Tippi MacKenzie who is on the front cover for her work in developing an in-utero treatment for the almost always fatal disorder alpha thalassemia major (and the photo of the baby and mom whose lives were changed by that therapy) to Rich Lajara on the back cover, the first person ever treated in a CIRM-funded clinical trial.

Inside are an array of simple images designed to reflect how we as a state agency have performed this year. The numbers themselves tell a powerful story:

  • 50 clinical trials funded to date, 7 this year alone
  • $2.6 billion in CIRM grants has been leveraged to bring in an additional $3.2 billion in matching funds and investments from other sources.
  • 1,180 patients have been involved in CIRM clinical trials

We know people don’t have a lot of time to read Annual Reports so we have made this as visually engaging and informative as possible. We want you to get a real sense of who we are, what we have done and who has helped us do that without you having to wade through a document the size of War and Peace (great book by the way – the Russians beat Napoleon).

We think we have a great story to tell. This Annual Report is one chapter in that story. We hope you like it.

 

Saying goodbye to a good friend and a stem cell pioneer: Karl Trede

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Sometimes even courage and determination are not enough. Karl Trede had courage and determination in droves as he fought a 12 year battle against cancer. He recently lost that battle. But he remains an inspiration for all who knew him.

I got to know Karl for our 2016 Annual Report. Karl had been diagnosed with throat cancer in 2006. He underwent surgery to remove his vocal cords and the cancer seemed to be in remission. But then it returned, this time having spread to his lungs. His doctors said they had pretty much run out of options but would Karl consider trying something new, something no one else had tried before; stem cells.

Karl told me he didn’t hesitate.

“I said “sure”. I don’t believe I knew at the time that I was going to be the first one but I thought I’d give it a whirl. It was an experience for me. It was eye opening. I wasn’t real concerned about being the first, I figured I was going to have to go someday so I guess if I was the first person and something really went wrong then they’d definitely learn something. So, to me, that was kind of worth my time.”

Happily nothing went wrong and the team behind the therapy (Forty Seven Inc.) definitely learned something, they learned a lot about the correct dosage for patients; invaluable information in treating future patients.

Karl’s cancer was held at bay and he was able to do the one thing that brought him more pleasure than anything else; spend time with his family, his wife Vita, their four sons and their families. He doted on his grand kids and got to see them grow, and they got to know him.

Recently the cancer returned and this time there was no holding it at bay. To the end Karl remained cheerful and positive.

KARL poster

In our office is a huge poster of Karl with the words “Every Moment Counts” at the bottom. It’s a reminder to us why we come to work every day, why the people at Forty Seven Inc. and all the other researchers we support work so hard for years and years; to try and give people like Karl a few extra moments with his family.

At the top of the poster the word “Courage” is emblazoned across it. Karl has a huge smile on his face. Karl was certainly courageous, a stem cell pioneer willing to try something no one else ever had. He was also very modest.

Here is Karl speaking to our governing Board in December 2016

When I spoke to him in 2016, despite all he had gone through in his fight against cancer, he said he had no regrets:

“I consider myself very fortunate. I’m a lucky guy.”

Those of us who got to spend just a little time with Karl know that we were the lucky ones.

Our hearts go out to his family and friends for their loss.

 

 

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.”

 

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.”

Progress to a Cure for Bubble Baby Disease

Welcome back to our “Throwback Thursday” series on the Stem Cellar. Over the years, we’ve accumulated an arsenal of exciting stem cell stories about advances towards stem cell-based cures for serious diseases. Today we’re featuring stories about the progress of CIRM-funded clinical trials for the treatment of a devastating, usually fatal, primary immune disease that strikes newborn babies.

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Evie, a former “bubble baby” enjoying life by playing inside a giant plastic bubble

‘Bubble baby disease’ will one day be a thing of the past. That’s a bold statement, but I say it with confidence because of the recent advancements in stem cell gene therapies that are curing infants of this life-threatening immune disease.

The scientific name for ‘bubble baby disease’ is severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). It prevents the proper development of important immune cells called B and T cells, leaving newborns without a functioning immune system. Because of this, SCID babies are highly susceptible to deadly infections, and without treatment, most of these babies do not live past their first year. Even a simple cold virus can be fatal.

Scientists are working hard to develop stem cell-based gene therapies that will cure SCID babies in their first months of life before they succumb to infections. The technology involves taking blood stem cells from a patient’s bone marrow and genetically correcting the SCID mutation in the DNA of these cells. The corrected stem cells are then transplanted back into the patient where they can grow and regenerate a healthy immune system. Early-stage clinical trials testing these stem cell gene therapies are showing very encouraging results. We’ll share a few of these stories with you below.

CIRM-funded trials for SCID

CIRM is funding three clinical trials, one from UCLA, one at Stanford and one from UCSF & St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, that are treating different forms of SCID using stem cell gene therapies.

Adenosine Deaminase-Deficient SCID

The first trial is targeting a form of the disease called adenosine deaminase-deficient SCID or ADA-SCID. Patients with ADA-SCID are unable to make an enzyme that is essential for the function of infection-fighting immune cells called lymphocytes. Without working lymphocytes, infants eventually are diagnosed with SCID at 6 months. ADA-SCID occurs in approximately 1 in 200,000 newborns and makes up 15% of SCID cases.

CIRM is funding a Phase 2 trial for ADA-SCID that is testing a stem cell gene therapy called OTL-101 developed by Dr. Don Kohn and his team at UCLA and a company called Orchard Therapeutics. 10 patients were treated in the trial, and amazingly, nine of these patients were cured of their disease. The 10th patient was a teenager who received the treatment knowing that it might not work as it does in infants. You can read more about this trial in our blog from earlier this year.

In a recent news release, Orchard Therapeutics announced that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has awarded Rare Pediatric Disease Designation to OTL-101, meaning that the company will qualify for priority review for drug approval by the FDA. You can read more about what this designation means in this blog.

X-linked SCID

The second SCID trial CIRM is funding is treating patients with X-linked SCID. These patients have a genetic mutation on a gene located on the X-chromosome that causes the disease. Because of this, the disease usually affects boys who have inherited the mutation from their mothers. X-linked SCID is the most common form of SCID and appears in 1 in 60,000 infants.

UCSF and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital are conducting a Phase 1/2 trial for X-linked SCID. The trial, led by Dr. Brian Sorrentino, is transplanting a patient’s own genetically modified blood stem cells back into their body to give them a healthy new immune system. Patients do receive chemotherapy to remove their diseased bone marrow, but doctors at UCSF are optimizing low doses of chemotherapy for each patient to minimize any long-term effects. According to a UCSF news release, the trial is planning to treat 15 children over the next five years. Some of these patients have already been treated and we will likely get updates on their progress next year.

CIRM is also funding a third clinical trial out of Stanford University that is hoping to make bone marrow transplants safer for X-linked SCID patients. The team, led by Dr. Judy Shizuru, is developing a therapy that will remove unhealthy blood stem cells from SCID patients to improve the survival and engraftment of healthy bone marrow transplants. You can read more about this trial on our clinical trials page.

SCID Patients Cured by Stem Cells

These clinical trial results are definitely exciting, but what is more exciting are the patient stories that we have to share. We’ve spoken with a few of the families whose children participated in the UCLA and UCSF/St. Jude trials, and we asked them to share their stories so that other families can know that there is hope. They are truly inspiring stories of heartbreak and joyful celebration.

Evie is a now six-year-old girl who was diagnosed with ADA-SCID when she was just a few months old. She is now cured thanks to Don Kohn and the UCLA trial. Her mom gave a very moving presentation about Evie’s journey at the CIRM Bridges Trainee Annual Meeting this past July.  You can watch the 20-minute talk below:

Ronnie’s story

Ronnie SCID kid

Ronnie: Photo courtesy Pawash Priyank

Ronnie, who is still less than a year old, was diagnosed with X-linked SCID just days after he was born. Luckily doctors told his parents about the UCSF/St. Jude trial and Ronnie was given the life-saving stem cell gene therapy before he was six months old. Now Ronnie is building a healthy immune system and is doing well back at home with his family. Ronnie’s dad Pawash shared his families moving story at our September Board meeting and you can watch it here.

Our mission at CIRM is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. We hope that by funding promising clinical trials like the ones mentioned in this blog, that one day soon there will be approved stem cell therapies for patients with SCID and other life-threatening diseases.

Turning the corner with the FDA and NIH; CIRM creates new collaborations to advance stem cell research

FDAThis blog is part of the Month of CIRM series on the Stem Cellar

A lot can change in a couple of years. Just take our relationship with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

When we were putting together our Strategic Plan in 2015 we did a survey of key players and stakeholders at CIRM – Board members, researchers, patient advocates etc. – and a whopping 70 percent of them listed the FDA as the biggest impediment for the development of stem cell treatments.

As one stakeholder told us at the time:

“Is perfect becoming the enemy of better? One recent treatment touted by the FDA as a regulatory success had such a high clinical development hurdle placed on it that by the time it was finally approved the standard of care had evolved. When it was finally approved, five years later, its market potential had significantly eroded and the product failed commercially.”

Changing the conversation

To overcome these hurdles we set a goal of changing the regulatory landscape, finding a way to make the system faster and more efficient, but without reducing the emphasis on the safety of patients. One of the ways we did this was by launching our “Stem Cell Champions” campaign to engage patients, patient advocates, the public and everyone else who supports stem cell research to press for change at the FDA. We also worked with other organizations to help get the 21st Century Cures Act passed.

21 century cures

Today the regulatory landscape looks quite different than it did just a few years ago. Thanks to the 21st Century Cures Act the FDA has created expedited pathways for stem cell therapies that show promise. One of those is called the Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy (RMAT) designation, which gives projects that show they are both safe and effective in early-stage clinical trials the possibility of an accelerated review by the FDA. Of the first projects given RMAT designation, three were CIRM-funded projects (Humacyte, jCyte and Asterias)

Partnering with the NIH

Our work has also paved the way for a closer relationship with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is looking at CIRM as a model for advancing the field of regenerative medicine.

In recent years we have created a number of innovations including introducing CIRM 2.0, which dramatically improved our ability to fund the most promising research, making it faster, easier and more predictable for researchers to apply. We also created the Stem Cell Center  to make it easier to move the most promising research out of the lab and into clinical trials, and to give researchers the support they need to help make those trials successful. To address the need for high-quality stem cell clinical trials we created the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network. This is a network of leading medical centers around the state that specialize in delivering stem cell therapies, sharing best practices and creating new ways of making it as easy as possible for patients to get the care they need.

The NIH looked at these innovations and liked them. So much so they invited CIRM to come to Washington DC and talk about them. It was a great opportunity so, of course, we said yes. We expected them to carve out a few hours for us to chat. Instead they blocked out a day and a half and brought in the heads of their different divisions to hear what we had to say.

A model for the future

We hope the meeting is, to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart at the end of Casablanca, “the start of a beautiful friendship.” We are already seeing signs that it’s not just a passing whim. In July the NIH held a workshop that focused on what will it take to make genome editing technologies, like CRISPR, a clinical reality. Francis Collins, NIH Director, invited CIRM to be part of the workshop that included thought leaders from academia, industry and patients advocates. The workshop ended with a recommendation that the NIH should consider building a center of excellence in gene editing and transplantation, based on the CIRM model (my emphasis).  This would bring together a multidisciplinary disease team including, process development, cGMP manufacturing, regulatory and clinical development for Investigational New Drug (IND) filing and conducting clinical trials, all under one roof.

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Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the NIH

In preparation, the NIH visited the CIRM-funded Stem Cell Center at the City of Hope to explore ways to develop this collaboration. And the NIH has already begun implementing these suggestions starting with a treatment targeting sickle cell disease.

There are no guarantees in science. But we know that if you spend all your time banging your head against a door all you get is a headache. Today it feels like the FDA has opened the door and that, together with the NIH, they are more open to collaborating with organizations like CIRM. We have removed the headache, and created the possibility that by working together we truly can accelerate stem cell research and deliver the therapies that so many patients desperately need.