Hitting our Goals: Accelerating to the finish line

Way, way back in 2015 – seems like a lifetime ago doesn’t it – the team at CIRM sat down and planned out our Big 6 goals for the next five years. The end result was a Strategic Plan that was bold, ambitious and set us on course to do great things or kill ourselves trying. Well, looking back we can take some pride in saying we did a really fine job, hitting almost every goal and exceeding them in some cases. So, as we plan our next five-year Strategic Plan we thought it worthwhile to look back at where we started and what we achieved. Goal #6 was Accelerate.

Ever wonder how long it takes for a drug or therapy to go from basic research to approval by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)? Around 12 years on average is the answer. That’s a long time. And it can take even longer for stem cell therapies to go that same distance.

There are a lot of reasons why it takes so long (safety being a hugely important element) but when we were sitting down in 2015 to put together our Strategic Plan we wanted to find a way to speed up that process, to go faster, without in any way reducing the focus on safety.

So, we set a goal of reducing the time it takes from identifying a stem cell therapy candidate to getting an Investigational New Drug (IND) approval from the FDA, which means it can be tested in a clinical trial. At the time it was taking us around eight years, so we decided to go big and try to reduce that time in half, to four years.

Then the question was how were we going to do that? Well, before we set the goal we did a tour of the major biomedical research institutions in California – you know, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) UC San Francisco, Stanford etc. – and asked the researchers what would help them most. Almost without exception said “a clearing house”, a way to pair early stage investigators with later stage partners who possess the appropriate expertise and interest to advance the project to the next stage of development, e.g., helping a successful basic science investigator find a qualified partner for the project’s translational research phase.

So we set out to do that. But we didn’t stop there. We also created what we called Clinical Advisory Panels or CAPs. These consisted of a CIRM Science Officer with expertise on a particular area of research, an expert on the kind of research being done, and a Patient Representative. The idea was that CAPs would help guide and advise the research team, helping them overcome specific obstacles and get ready for a clinical trial. The Patient Representative could help the researchers understand what the needs of the patient community was, so that a trial could take those into account and be more likely to succeed. For us it wasn’t enough just to fund promising research, we were determined to do all we could to support the team behind the project to advance their work.

How did we do. Pretty good I would have to say. For our Translational stage projects, the average amount of time it took for them to move to the CLIN1 stage, the last stage before a clinical trial, was 4.18 years. For our CLIN1 programs, 73 percent of those achieved their IND within 2 years, meaning they were then ready to actually start an FDA-sanctioned clinical trial.

Of course moving fast doesn’t guarantee that the therapy will ultimately prove effective. But for an agency whose mission is “to accelerate stem cell therapies to patients with unmet medical needs”, going slow is not an option.

Hitting our goals: Making good progress

Way, way back in 2015 – seems like a lifetime ago doesn’t it – the team at CIRM sat down and planned out our Big 6 goals for the next five years. The end result was a Strategic Plan that was bold, ambitious and set us on course to do great things or kill ourselves trying. Well, looking back we can take some pride in saying we did a really fine job, hitting almost every goal and exceeding them in some cases. So, as we plan our next five-year Strategic Plan we thought it worthwhile to look back at where we started and what we achieved. Goal #5 was Advance.

A dictionary definition of progression is “The act of moving forward or proceeding in a course.” That’s precisely what we set out to do when we set one of the goals in our 2015 Strategic Plan. We wanted to do all that we could to make sure the work we were funding could advance to the next stage. The goal we set was:

Advance: Increase projects advancing to the next stage of development by 50%.

The first question we faced was what did we mean by progression and how were we going to measure it? The answer basically boiled down to this: when a CIRM award completes one stage of research and gets CIRM funding to move on to the next stage or to develop a second generation of the same device or therapy.

In the pre-2016 days we’d had some success, on average getting around nine progression events every year. But if we were going to increase that by 50 percent we knew we had to step up our game and offer some incentives so that the team behind a successful project had a reason, other than just scientific curiosity, to try and move their research to the next level.

So, we created a series of linkages between the different stages of research, so the product of each successful investment was the prerequisite for the next stage of development for the research or technology.

We changed the way we funded projects, going from offering awards on an irregular basis to having them happen according to a pre-defined schedule with each program type offered multiple times a year. This meant potential applicants knew when the next opportunity to apply would come, enabling them to prepare and file at the time that was best for them and not just because we said so. We also timed these schedules so that programs could progress from one stage to the next without interruption.

But that’s not all. We recognized that some people may be great scientists at one level but didn’t have the experience or expertise to carry their project forward. So, we created both an Accelerating Center and Translating Center to help them do that. The Translating Center helped projects do the work necessary to get ready to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permission to start a clinical trial. The Accelerating Center helped the team prepare that application for the trial and then plan how that trial would be carried out.

Creating these two centers had an additional benefit; it meant the work that did progress did so faster and was of a higher quality than it might otherwise have been.

Putting all those new building blocks in place meant a lot of work for the CIRM team, on top of their normal duties. But, as always, the team rose to the challenge. By the end of December 2020, a total of 74 projects had advanced or progressed to the next level, an increase of 100 percent on our pre-2016 days.

When we were laying out the goals we said that “The full implementation of these programs will create the chassis of a machine that provides a continuous, predictable, and timely pathway for the discovery and development of promising stem cell treatments.” Thanks to the voter approved Proposition 14 we now have the fund to help those treatments realize that promise.

Hitting our Goals: Playing Matchmaker

Way, way back in 2015 – seems like a lifetime ago doesn’t it – the team at CIRM sat down and planned out our Big 6 goals for the next five years. The end result was a Strategic Plan that was bold, ambitious and set us on course to do great things or kill ourselves trying. Well, looking back we can take some pride in saying we did a really fine job, hitting almost every goal and exceeding them in some cases. So, as we plan our next five-year Strategic Plan we thought it worthwhile to look back at where we started and what we achieved. Goal #3 was Partner.

In the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” two of the daughters sing about their hopes of finding a husband, through the services of a matchmaker:

Matchmaker, Matchmaker,
Make me a match,
Find me a find,
Catch me a catch

While CIRM isn’t in the business of finding husbands for young ladies, we have set up ourselves as matchmakers of a very different kind. Over the course of the last five years or more we have actively tried to find deep pocketed partners for some of the researchers we are funding. You could say we are changing the last line in that verse to “Catch me some cash.” And we do.

Our goal is to help these researchers have access to the kind of money they’re going to need to move their work into clinical trials and through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process, so they are available to people who need them. To do that we created what we call our Industry Alliance Program (IAP).

The goal of the IAP is simple, to be proactive in creating partnerships between industry and our grantees, helping develop direct opportunities for industry to partner with CIRM in accelerating the most promising stem cell, gene and regenerative medicine therapy programs to commercialization.

It takes a lot of money to move a promising idea out of the lab and into the arms, or other body parts, of patients; one recent estimate put that at around $1 billion. CIRM can help with providing the funding to get projects off the ground and into clinical trials, but as you get to larger clinical trials it gets a lot more expensive. The IAP brings in well-heeled investors to help cover those expense.

Back in 2015, when we were developing our Strategic Plan, we made these partnerships one of our Big 6 goals. And, as with everything we did in that plan, we set an ambitious target of “partnering 50% of unpartnered clinical projects with commercial partners.”

So, how did we go about trying to reach that goal? Our Business Development Team (Drs Shyam Patel and Sohel Talib) worked with large companies to help identify their strategic focus and then provided them with non-confidential information about projects we fund that might interest them. If they saw something they felt had promise we introduced them to the researchers behind that project. In essence, we played matchmaker.

But it wasn’t just about making introductions. We stayed involved as the two groups got to know each other, offering both scientific and legal advice, to help them overcome any reservations or obstacles they might encounter.

So how did we do? Pretty good I would have to say. By the end of 2020 we had partnered 63% of unpartnered clinical projects, 72 events altogether, generating almost $13 billion in additional investments in these projects. That money can help move these projects through the approvals process and ultimately, we hope, into the clinic.

But we’re not done. Not by a long shot. Now that we have achieved that goal we have our eyes set on even bigger things. We are now working on creating a new Strategic Plan that is considering bringing industry in to partner with projects at earlier stages or creating public-private partnerships to ensure there is enough manufacturing capacity for all the new therapies in the pipeline.

We have a lot of work to do. But thanks to the passage of Proposition 14 we now have the time and money we need to do that work. We’ve got a lot more matchmaking to do.

Hitting our Goals: Let’s start at the beginning shall we

Way, way back in 2015 – seems like a lifetime ago doesn’t it – the team at CIRM sat down and planned out our Big 6 goals for the next five years. The end result was a Strategic Plan that was bold, ambitious and set us on course to do great things or kill ourselves trying. Well, looking back we can take some pride in saying we did a really fine job, hitting almost every goal and exceeding them in some cases. So, as we plan our next five-year Strategic Plan we thought it worthwhile to look back at where we started and what we achieved. Goal #3 was Discover.

When journalists write about science a lot of the attention is often focused on clinical trials. It’s not too surprising, that’s the stage where you see if treatments really work in people and not just in the lab. But long before you get to the clinical trial stage there’s a huge amount of work that has to be done. The starting point for that work is in the Discovery stage, if it works there it moves to the Translational stage, and only after that, assuming it’s still looking promising, does it start thinking about moving into the clinic.

The Discovery, or basic, stage of research is where ideas are tested to see if they have any promise and have the potential to lead to the development of a therapy or device that could ultimately help patients. In many ways the goal of Discovery research is to gain a better understanding of how, in our case, stem cells work, and how to harness that power to treat particular diseases or disorders.

Without a rigorous Discovery research program you can’t begin to create a pipeline of promising projects that you can advance towards patients. And of course having a strong Discovery program is not much use if you don’t have somewhere for those projects to advance to, namely Translational and ultimately clinical.

So, when we were laying out our Strategic Plan goals back in 2015 we wanted to create a pipeline for all three programs, moving the most promising ones forward. So we set an ambitious goal.

Introduce 50 new therapeutic or device candidates into development.

Now this doesn’t mean just fund 50 projects hoping to develop a new therapy or device. A lot of studies that are funded, particularly at the earliest stages, have a good idea that just doesn’t pan out. In fact one quite common definition of early research – in this case from Translational Medicine Communications – is “the earliest stage of research, conducted for the advancement of knowledge, often without any concern for its practical applications.

That’s not what we wanted. We aren’t in this to do research just for its own sake. We fund research because we want it to lead somewhere, we want it to have a practical application. We want to fund projects that actually ended up with something much more promising, a candidate that might actually work and was ready to move into the next level of research to test it further.

And we almost, almost made it to the 50-candidate goal. We got to 46 and almost certainly would have made it to 50 if we hadn’t run out of money. Even so, that’s pretty impressive. There are now 46 projects ready to move on, or are already moving on, to the next level of research.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that these will ultimately end up as an FDA-approved therapy or device. But if you don’t set goals, you’ll never score. And now, thanks to the passage of Proposition 14, we have a chance to support those projects as they move forward.

Hitting our Goals: Scoring a half century

Way, way back in 2015 – seems like a lifetime ago doesn’t it – the team at CIRM sat down and planned out our Big 6 goals for the next five years. The end result was a Strategic Plan that was bold, ambitious and set us on course to do great things or kill ourselves trying. Well, looking back we can take some pride in saying we did a really fine job, hitting almost every goal and exceeding them in some cases. So, as we plan our next five-year Strategic Plan we thought it worthwhile to look back at where we started and what we achieved. Goal #2 was Expand.

Scientist preparing a sample vial for automated analysis in the lab.

When CIRM first started there was an internal report that said if we managed to help get one project into a clinical trial before we ran out of money we would be doing well. At the time that seemed quite reasonable. The field was still very much in its infancy and most of the projects we were funding, particularly in the early days, were Discovery or basic research projects.

But as the field advanced we got a little bolder. By 2010 we were funding not just our first clinical trial, but the first clinical trial in the world using embryonic stem cells. This was the Geron trial targeting spinal cord injury. Sadly the excitement didn’t last very long. After treating just five patients Geron pulled the plug on the trial, deciding that targeting cancer was a better bet.

Happily, Geron returned all the money we had loaned them, plus interest, so we were able to use that to fund more research. Soon enough we had a number of other promising candidates heading towards a meeting with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to try and get permission to start a clinical trial.

By 2014, ten years after we began, we actually had ten projects either running or getting ready to start a clinical trial. We thought that was really good. But at CIRM, really good is never good enough.

For our Strategic Plan in 2015 we decided to shoot for the moon and aim to get another 50 clinical trials over the next five years. At the time it seemed, to be honest, a bit bonkers. How on earth were we going to do that. But then our Therapeutics team went a hunting!

In the past we had the luxury of mostly just waiting for people with promising projects to approach us for funding. With an ambitious goal of getting 50 more clinical trials, we couldn’t afford to wait. The Therapeutics team scouted around for promising projects, inside and outside California, inside and outside the US, and pitched them on the benefits of applying for funding. Slowly the numbers started to rise.

By the end of 2016 we had 12 new trials. In 2017 we were really cruising along, adding 16 more trials. 2018 there was another 14 and that was also the year we passed the 50 clinical trials total since CIRM was created. We celebrated at a Board meeting with a balloon and a cake (we’re a state agency, our budget doesn’t extend to confetti). Initially the inscription on the cake read ‘Congratulations: 50 Clinical Trails’. Happily, we were able to fix it before anyone noticed. But even with the spelling error, it would still have tasted just fine.

Patient advocate Rich Lajara with the Big Balloon celebration for funding 50 clinical trials

By the time we got to mid-2020 we were stuck on 47 and with time, and money, running out it looked like we might miss the goal. But then our team put in one last effort and with weeks to spare we funded four more clinical trials for a total of 51 (68 since we started in 2004).

So, the moral is dream big but work hard. Now let’s see what we can dream up for our next Strategic Plan.

Hitting our goals: regulatory reform

Way, way back in 2015 – seems like a lifetime ago doesn’t it – the team at CIRM sat down and planned out our Big 6 goals for the next five years. The end result was a Strategic Plan that was bold, ambitious and set us on course to do great things or kill ourselves trying. Well, looking back we can take some pride in saying we did a really fine job, hitting almost every goal and exceeding them in some cases. So, as we plan our next five-year Strategic Plan we thought it worthwhile to look back at where we started and what we achieved. We are going to start with Regulatory Reform.

The political landscape in 2015 was dramatically different than it is today. Compared to more conventional drugs and therapies stem cells were considered a new, and very different, approach to treating diseases and disorders. At the time the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was taking a very cautious approach to approving any stem cell therapies for a clinical trial.

A survey of CIRM stakeholders found that 70% said the FDA was “the biggest impediment for the development of stem cell treatments.” One therapy, touted by the FDA as a success story, had such a high clinical development hurdle placed on it that by the time it was finally approved, five years later, its market potential had significantly eroded and the product failed commercially. As one stakeholder said: “Is perfect becoming the enemy of better?”

So, we set ourselves a goal of establishing a new regulatory paradigm, working with Congress, academia, industry, and patients, to bring about real change at the FDA and to find ways to win faster approval for promising stem cell therapies, without in any way endangering patients.

It seemed rather ambitious at the time, but achieving that goal happened much faster than any of us anticipated. With a sustained campaign by CIRM and other industry leaders, working with the patient advocacy groups, the FDA, Congress, and President Obama, the 21st Century Cures Act was signed into law on December 13, 2016.

President Obama signs the 21st Century Cures Act.
Photo courtesy of NBC News

The law did something quite radical; it made the perspectives of patients an integral part of the FDA’s decision-making and approval process in the development of drugs, biological products and devices. And it sped up the review process by:

In a way the FDA took its foot off the brake but didn’t hit the accelerator, so the process moved faster, but in a safe, manageable way.

Fast forward to today and eight projects that CIRM funds have been granted RMAT designation. We have become allies with the FDA in helping advance the field. We have created a unique partnership with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) to support the Cure Sickle Cell initiative and accelerate the development of cell and gene therapies for sickle cell disease.

The landscape has changed since we set a goal of regulatory reform. We still have work to do. But now we are all working together to achieve the change we all believe is both needed and possible.

A word from our Chair, several in fact

In 2005, the New Oxford American Dictionary named “podcast” its word of the year. At the time a podcast was something many had heard of but not that many actually tuned in to. My how times have changed. Now there are some two million podcasts to chose from, at least according to the New York Times, and who am I to question them.

Yesterday, in the same New York Times, TV writer Margaret Lyons, wrote about how the pandemic helped turn her from TV to podcasts: “Much in the way I grew to prefer an old-fashioned phone call to a video chat, podcasts, not television, became my go-to medium in quarantine. With their shorter lead times and intimate production values, they felt more immediate and more relevant than ever before.”

I mention this because an old colleague of ours at CIRM, Neil Littman, has just launched his own podcast and the first guest on it was Jonathan Thomas, Chair of the CIRM Board. Their conversation ranged from CIRM’s past to the future of the regenerative field as a whole, with a few interesting diversions along the way. It’s fun listening. And as Margaret Lyons said it might be more immediate and more relevant than ever before.

Month of CIRM: Making sure stem cell therapies don’t get lost in Translation

All this month we are using our blog and social media to highlight a new chapter in CIRM’s life, thanks to the voters approving Proposition 14. We are looking back at what we have done since we were created in 2004, and also looking forward to the future. Today we feature a blog written by two of our fabulous Discovery and Translation team Science Officers, Dr. Kent Fitzgerald and Dr. Ross Okamura.

Dr. Ross Okamura

If you believe that you can know a person by their deeds, the partnership opportunities offered by CIRM illustrate what we, as an agency, believe is the most effective way to deliver on our mission statement, accelerating regenerative medicine treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.

Dr. Kent Fitzgerald

 In our past, we have offered awards covering basic biology projects which in turn provided the foundation to produce promising therapies  to ease human suffering.  But those are only the first steps in an elaborate process.

In order to bring these potential therapies to the clinic, selected drug candidates must next go through a set of activities designed to prepare them for review by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For cell therapies, the first formal review is often the Pre- Investigational New Drug Application Consultation or pre-IND.  This stage of drug development is commonly referred to as Translational, bridging the gap between our Discovery or early stage research and Clinical Trial programs.

One of our goals at CIRM is to prepare Translational projects we fund for that  pre-IND meeting with the FDA, to help them gather data that support the hope this approach will be both safe and effective in patients.  Holding this meeting with the FDA is the first step in the often lengthy process of conducting FDA regulated clinical trials and hopefully bringing an approved therapy to patients.

What type of work is required for a promising candidate to move from the Discovery stage into FDA regulated development?  To address the needs of Translational science, CIRM offers the Translational Research Project funding opportunity.  Activities that CIRM supports at the Translational stage include:

  • Process Development to allow manufacturing of the candidate therapy under Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP). This is to show that they can manufacture  at a large enough scale to treat patients.
  • Assay development and qualification of measurements to determine whether the drug is being manufactured safely while retaining its curative properties.
  • Studies to determine the optimal dose and the best way to deliver that dose.
  • Pilot safety studies looking how the patient might respond after treatment with the drug.
  • The development of a clinical plan indicating under what rules and conditions the drug might be prescribed to a patient. 

These, and other activities supported under our Translational funding program, all help to inform the FDA when they consider what pivotal studies they will require prior to approving an Investigational New Drug (IND) application, the next step in the regulatory approval process.

Since CIRM first offered programs specifically aimed at addressing the Translational stage of therapeutic candidates we have made 41 awards totaling approximately $150 million in funding.  To date, 13 have successfully completed and achieved their program goals, while 19 others are still actively working towards meeting their objective.  Additionally, three (treating Spina Bifida, Osteonecrosis, and Sickle Cell Disease) of the 13 programs have gone on to receive further CIRM support through our Clinical Stage programs.

During our time administering these awards, CIRM has actively partnered with our grantees to navigate what is required to bring a therapy from the bench to the bedside.  CIRM operationalizes this by setting milestones that provide clear definitions of success, specific goals the researchers have to meet to advance the project and also by providing resources for a dedicated project manager to help ensure the project can keep the big picture in mind while executing on their scientific progress. 

Throughout all this we partner with the researchers to support them in every possible way. For example, CIRM provides the project teams with Translational Advisory Panels (TAPs, modeled after the CIRM’s Clinical Advisory Panels) which bring in outside subject matter experts as well as patient advocates to help provide additional scientific, regulatory and clinical expertise to guide the development of the program at no additional cost to the grantees.  One of the enduring benefits that we hope to provide to researchers and organizations is a practical mastery of translational drug development so that they may continue to advance new and exciting therapies to all patients.

Through CIRM’s strong and continued support of this difficult stage of development, CIRM has developed an internal practical expertise in advancing projects through Translation.  We employ our experience to guide our awardees so they can avoid common pitfalls in the development of cell and gene therapies. The end goal is simple, helping to accelerate their path to the clinic and fulfilling the mission of CIRM that has been twice given to us by the voters of California, bringing treatments to patients suffering from unmet medical needs.

A model for success

Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO

Funding models are rarely talked about in excited tones.  It’s normally relegated to the dry tomes of academia. But in CIRM’s case, the funding model we have created is not just fundamental to our success in advancing regenerative medicine in California, it’s also proving to be a model that many other agencies are looking at to see if they can replicate it.

A recent article in the journal Cell & Gene Therapy Insights looks at what the CIRM model does and how it has achieved something rather extraordinary.

Full disclosure. I might be a tad biased here as the article was written by my boss, Dr. Maria Millan, and two of my colleagues, Dr. Sohel Talib and Dr. Shyam Patel.

I won’t go into huge detail here (you can get that by reading the article itself) But the article “highlights 3 elements of CIRM’s funding model that have enabled California academic researchers and companies to de-risk development of novel regenerative medicine therapies and attract biopharma industry support.”

Those three elements are:

1. Ensuring that funding mechanisms bridge the entire translational “Valley of Death”

2. Constantly optimizing funding models to meet the needs of a rapidly evolving industry

3. Championing the portfolio and proactively engaging potential industry partners

As an example of the first, they point to our Disease Team awards. These were four-year investments that gave researchers with promising projects the time, support and funds they needed to not only develop a therapy, but also move it out of academia into a company and into patients.  Many of these projects had struggled to get outside investment until CIRM stepped forward. One example they offer is this one.

“CIRM Disease Team award funding also enabled Dr. Irving Weissman and the Stanford University team to discover, develop and obtain first-in-human clinical data for the innovative anti-CD47 antibody immunotherapy approach to cancer. The spin-out, Forty Seven, Inc., then leveraged CIRM funding as well as venture and public market financing to progress clinical development of the lead candidate until its acquisition by Gilead Sciences in April 2020 for $4.9B.”

But as the field evolved it became clear CIRM’s funding model had to evolve too, to better meet the needs of a rapidly advancing industry. So, in 2015 we changed the way we worked. For example, with clinical trial stage projects we reduced the average time from application to funding from 22 months to 120 days. In addition to that applications for new clinical stage projects were able to be submitted year-round instead of only once or twice a year as in the past.

We also created hard and fast milestones for all programs to reach. If they met their milestone funding continued. If they didn’t, funding stopped. And we required clinical trial stage projects, and those for earlier stage for-profit companies, to put up money of their own. We wanted to ensure they had “skin in the game” and were as committed to the success of their project as we were.

Finally, to champion the portfolio we created our Industry Alliance Program. It’s a kind of dating program for the researchers CIRM funds and companies looking to invest in promising projects. Industry partners get a chance to look at our portfolio and pick out projects they think are interesting. We then make the introductions and see if we can make a match.

And we have.

“To date, the IAP has also formally enrolled 8 partners with demonstrated commitment to cell and gene therapy development. The enrolled IAP partners represent companies both small and large, multi-national venture firms and innovative accelerators.

Over the past 18 months, the IAP program has enabled over 50 one-on-one partnership interactions across CIRM’s portfolio from discovery stage pluripotent stem cell therapies to clinical stage engineered HSC therapies.”

As the field continues to mature there are new problems emerging, such as the need to create greater manufacturing capacity to meet the growth in demand for high quality stem cell products. CIRM, like all other agencies, will also have to evolve and adapt to these new demands. But we feel with the model we have created, and the flexibility we have to pivot when needed, we are perfectly situated to do just that.