As of this moment, there are over two million podcasts and over 48 million episodes to listen to on your favorite listening device. If you’re a true crime enthusiast like me, you’ve surely heard of Casefile or one of the other 94 podcasts on the topic. But what if you’re looking for something a little less ghastly and a little more uplifting?
The Stem Cell Podcast is an informative and entertaining resource for scientists and science enthusiasts (or really, anyone) interested in learning about the latest developments in stem cell research.
On their latest episode, dynamic co-hosts and research scientists Dr. Daylon James and Dr. Arun Sharma sit down with our President & CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, to discuss the impact of California’s culture of innovation on CIRM, the challenge of balancing hope vs. hype in the context of stem cell research/therapies, and the evolution of the agency over the past 15 years.
Listen on as Dr. Millan highlights some of CIRM’s greatest victories and shares our mission for the future.
In this job you get to meet a lot of remarkable people, none more so than the patients who volunteer to take part in what are giant experiments. They are courageous pioneers, willing to be among the first people to ever try a new therapy, knowing that it may not help them and, potentially, might even harm them.
Tom Howing was one such person. I got to know Tom when we were putting together our 2017 Annual Report. Back in 2015 Tom was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer that had spread throughout his body. He underwent surgery and chemotherapy. That worked for a while, but then the cancer returned. So, Tom had more surgery and chemotherapy. Again, it worked for a while but when the cancer returned again Tom was running out of options.
That’s when he learned about a clinical trial with a company called Forty Seven Inc. that was testing a new anti-cancer therapy that CIRM was supporting. Tom says he didn’t hesitate.
“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.”
Optimistic and positive are great ways to describe Tom. Happily, his optimism was rewarded. The therapy worked.
“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.”
But after a year or so Tom had to drop out of the trial. He tried other therapies and they kept the cancer at bay. For a while. But it kept coming back. And eventually Tom ran out of options. And last week, he ran out of time.
Tom was a truly fine man. He was kind, caring, funny, gracious and always grateful for what he had. He talked often about his family and how the stem cell therapy helped him spend not just more time with them, but quality time.
He knew when he signed up for the therapy that there were no guarantees, but he wanted to try, saying that even if it didn’t help him that the researchers might learn something to help others down the line.
“The most important thing I would say is, I want people to know there is always hope and to stay positive.”
Tom ultimately lost his battle with cancer. But he never lost his spirit, his delight in his family and his desire to keep going as long as he could. In typical Tom fashion he preferred to put his concerns aside and cheer others along.
“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.”
We consider ourselves fortunate to have known Tom and to have been with him on part of his journey. He touched our lives, as he touched the lives of so many others. Our thoughts and wishes go out to his family and friends. He will be remembered, because we never forget our friends.
A few years ago Tom came and talked to the CIRM Board. Here is the video of that event.
Alpha thalassemia major is, by any stretch of the imagination, a dreadful, heart breaker of a disease. It’s caused by four missing or mutated genes and it almost always leads to a fetus dying before delivery or shortly after birth. Treatments are limited and in the past many parents were told that all they can do is prepare for the worst.
Now, however, there is new hope with new approaches, including one supported by CIRM, helping keep these children alive and giving them a chance at a normal life.
Thalassemias are a group of blood disorders that affect the way the body makes hemoglobin, which helps in carrying oxygen throughout the body. In alpha thalassemia major it’s the lack of alpha globin, a key part of hemoglobin, that causes the problem. Current treatment requires in blood transfusions to the fetus while it is still in the womb, and monthly blood transfusions for life after delivery, or a bone marrow transplant if a suitable donor is identified.
A clinical trial run by University of California San Francisco’s Dr. Tippi MacKenzie – funded by CIRM – is using a slightly different approach. The team takes stem cells from the mother’s bone marrow and then infuses them into the fetus. If accepted by the baby’s bone marrow, these stem cells can then mature into healthy blood cells. The hope is that one day this method will enable children to be born with a healthy blood supply and not need regular transfusions.
Treating these babies, saving their lives, is the focus of a short film from UCSF called “Surviving with Joy”. It’s a testament to the power of medicine, and the courage and resilience of parents who never stopped looking for a way to help their child.
It’s been a long time coming. Eighteen months to be precise. Which is a peculiarly long time for an Annual Report. The world is certainly a very different place today than when we started, and yet our core mission hasn’t changed at all, except to spring into action to make our own contribution to fighting the coronavirus.
This latest CIRM Annual Reportcovers 2019 through June 30, 2020. Why? Well, as you probably know we are running out of money and could be funding our last new awards by the end of this year. So, we wanted to produce as complete a picture of our achievements as we could – keeping in mind that we might not be around to produce a report next year.
It’s a pretty jam-packed report. It covers everything from the 14 new clinical trials we have funded this year, including three specifically focused on COVID-19. It looks at the extraordinary researchers that we fund and the progress they have made, and the billions of additional dollars our funding has helped leverage for California. But at the heart of it, and at the heart of everything we do, are the patients. They’re the reason we are here. They are the reason we do what we do.
There are stories of people like Byron Jenkins who almost died from multiple myeloma but is now back leading a full, active life with his family thanks to a CIRM-funded therapy with Poseida. There is Jordan Janz, a young man who once depended on taking 56 pills a day to keep his rare disease, cystinosis, under control but is now hoping a stem cell therapy developed by Dr. Stephanie Cherqui and her team at UC San Diego will make that something of the past.
These individuals are remarkable on so many levels, not the least because they were willing to be among the first people ever to try these therapies. They are pioneers in every sense of the word.
There is a lot of information in the report, charting the work we have done over the last 18 months. But it’s also a celebration of everyone who made it possible, and our way of saying thank you to the people of California who gave us this incredible honor and opportunity to do this work.
You can’t look at this photo and not smile. This is Evie Vaccaro, and it’s clear she is just bursting with energy and vitality. Sometimes it feels like I have known Evie all her life. In a way I have. And I feel so fortunate to have done so, and that’s why this photo is so powerful, because it’s a life that almost ended before it had a chance to start.
Evie was born with a rare condition called Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID). Children with this condition lack a functioning immune system so even a simple cold or diaper rash can prove fatal. Imagine how perilous their lives are in a time of COVID-19. These children used to be called “bubble babies” because they were often kept inside sterile plastic bubbles to keep them alive. Many died before their second birthday.
Today there is no need for plastic bubbles. Today, we have a cure. That’s a word we use very cautiously, but in Evie’s case, and the case of more than 40 other children, we use it with pride.
Dr. Don Kohn at UCLA has developed a method of taking the child’s own blood stem cells and, in the lab, inserting a corrected copy of the gene that caused SCID, and then returning those cells to the child. Because they are stem cells they multiply and renew and replicate themselves, creating a new blood supply, one free of the SCID mutation. The immune system is restored. The children are cured.
This is a story we have told several times before, but we mention it again because, well, it never gets old, and because Evie is on the front and back cover of our upcoming Annual Report. The report is actually a look back on the last 18 months in CIRM’s life, reporting on the progress we have made in advancing stem cell research, in saving and changing lives, and in producing economic benefits for California (billions of dollars in sales revenue and taxes and thousands of jobs).
Evie’s story, Evie’s photo, is a reminder of what is possible thanks to the voters of California who created CIRM back in 2004. Hers is just one of the stories in the report. I think, you’ll enjoy reading all of them.
A few years ago, Brenden Whittaker was running out of time. Brenden was born with a rare condition called x-linked chronic granulomatous disease or XCGD. It meant he lacked a critical part of his immune system that protects against bacterial or fungal infections.
Over 22 years Brenden was in and out of the hospital hundreds of times. Twice he almost died. When antibiotics failed to clear up persistent infections surgeons had to remove parts of his lungs and liver.
Brenden felt he was running out of options. Then he signed up for a clinical trial (funded by CIRM) that would use his own stem cells to correct the problem. More than four years later Brenden is doing just fine.
And he’s not the only one. A new study, published in the journal Nature Medicine, shows that six other patients in the clinical trial are now in remission and have stopped taking any other medications.
Don Kohn, the lead researcher on the team from UCLA’s Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research, says that in the past the only “cure” for people with CGD was a bone marrow transplant, but that was rarely an option for most patients. In a news release he said finding a perfect match for a transplant was difficult, and even then, patients had to take powerful anti-rejection medications to stop their body rejecting the transplant. So, they developed another approach, using genetically re-engineered stem cells from the patient themselves.
“With this gene therapy, you can use a patient’s own stem cells instead of donor cells for a transplant. This means the cells are perfectly matched to the patient and it should be a much safer transplant, without the risks of rejection.”
The team removed blood stem cells from the patients and, in the lab, corrected the genetic mutation that caused CGD. They then returned those cells to the patients which, because they are stem cells, multiplied and created a new blood supply – one free of CGD – and repaired the immune system.
Brenden was the first of five patients treated in the US. Another four were treated in Europe. All were between the ages of 2 and 27 (CGD patients often die in their 20’s because of the impact of repeated infections).
Two patients died because of previously incurred infections
Six of the seven surviving patients have discontinued previous treatments
Four new patients have since been treated and are currently free of infections
Dr. Kohn said the results are really encouraging: “None of the patients had complications that you might normally see from donor cells and the results were as good as you’d get from a donor transplant — or better.”
The next step is for the researchers to work with the US Food and Drug Administration to get permission to carry out a larger trial, with the eventual goal of getting approval to make it available to all patients who need it.
Regular readers of our blog will remember that Don Kohn also pioneered a similar approach in treating, and curing, children battling another rare immune disorder, severe combined immunodeficiency or SCID. You can read about that here.
As for Brenden, he is now in college and has his sights set on medical school. In 2016 we profiled him in our Annual Report and ran a long interview with him on the blog where he talked about the joys of mowing the lawn and learning to live without a deadly disease stalking him.
Pursuing an education can be quite the challenge in itself without the added pressure of external factors. For Brenden Whittaker, a 25 year old from Ohio, the constant trips to the hospital and debilitating nature of an inherited genetic disease made this goal particularly challenging and, for most of his life, out of sight.
Brenden was born with chronic granulomatous disease (CGD), a rare genetic disorder that affects the proper function of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell that is an essential part of the body’s immune system. This leads to recurring bacterial and fungal infections and the formation of granulomas, which are clumps of infected tissue that arise as the body attempts to isolate infections it cannot combat. People with CGD are often hospitalized routinely and the granulomas themselves can obstruct digestive pathways and other pathways in the body. Antibiotics are used in an attempt to prevent infections from occurring, but eventually patients stop responding to them. One in two people with CGD do not live past the age of 40.
In Brenden’s case, when the antibiotics he relied on started failing, the doctors had to resort to surgery to cut out an infected lobe of his liver and half his right lung. Although the surgery was successful, it would only be a matter of time before a vital organ was infected and surgery would no longer be an option.
It’s been a little over three years since Brenden received this treatment in late 2015, and the results have been remarkable. Dr. David Williams, Brenden’s treating physician, expected Brenden’s body to produce at least 10 percent of the functional neutrophils, enough so that Brenden’s immune system would provide protection similar to somebody without CGD. The results were over 50 percent, greatly exceeding expectations.
In an article published by The Harvard Gazette, Becky Whittaker, Brendan’s mother, is quoted as saying, ““Each day that he’s free of infection, he’s able to go to class, he’s able to work at his part-time job, he’s able to mess around playing with the dog or hanging out with friends…[this] is a day I truly don’t believe he would have had beyond 2015 had something not been done.”
In addition to the changes to his immune system, the gene therapy has reinvigorated Brenden’s drive for the future. Living with CGD had caused Brenden to miss out on much of his schooling throughout the years, having to take constant pauses from his academics at a community college. Now, Brenden aims to graduate with an associate’s degree in health sciences in the spring and transfer to Ohio State in the fall for a bachelor’s degree program. In addition to this, Brenden now has dreams of attending medical school.
In The Harvard Gazette article, Brenden elaborates on why he wants to go to medical school saying, ” Just being the patient for so long, I want to give back. There are so many people who’ve been there for me — doctors, nurses who’ve been there for me [and] helped me for so long.”
In a press release dated February 25, 2019, Orchard Therapeutics, a biopharmaceutical company that is continuing the aforementioned approach for CGD, announced that six patients treated have shown adequate neutrophil function 12 months post treatment. Furthermore, these six patients no longer receive antibiotics related to CGD. Orchard Therapeutics also announced that they are in the process of designing a registrational trial for CGD.
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.
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.
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.
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.