CIRM Alpha Clinics Network charts a new course for delivering stem cell treatments

Sometimes it feels like finding a cure is the easy part; getting it past all the hurdles it must overcome to be able to reach patients is just as big a challenge. Fortunately, a lot of rather brilliant minds are hard at work to find the most effective ways of doing just that.

Last week, at the grandly titled Second Annual Symposium of the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network, some of those minds gathered to talk about the issues around bringing stem cell therapies to the people who need them, the patients.

The goal of the Alpha Clinics Network is to accelerate the development and delivery of stem cell treatments to patients. In doing that one of the big issues that has to be addressed is cost; how much do you charge for a treatment that can change someone’s life, even save their life? For example, medications that can cure Hepatitis C cost more than $80,000. So how much would a treatment cost that can cure a disease like Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID)? CIRM-funded researchers have come up with a cure for SCID, but this is a rare disease that affects between 40 – 100 newborns every year, so the huge cost of developing this would fall on a small number of patients.

The same approach that is curing SCID could also lead to a cure for sickle cell disease, something that affects around 100,000 people in the US, most of them African Americans. Because we are adding more people to the pool that can be treated by a therapy does that mean the cost of the treatment should go down, or will it stay the same to increase profits?

Jennifer Malin, United Healthcare

Jennifer Malin from United Healthcare did a terrific job of walking us through the questions that have to be answered when trying to decide how much to charge for a drug. She also explored the thorny issue of who should pay; patients, insurance companies, the state? As she pointed out, it’s no use having a cure if it’s priced so high that no one can afford it.

Joseph Alvarnas, the Director of Value-based Analytics at City of Hope – where the conference was held – said that in every decision we make about stem cell therapies we “must be mindful of economic reality and inequality” to ensure that these treatments are available to all, and not just the rich.

“Remember, the decisions we make now will influence not just the lives of those with us today but also the lives of all those to come.”

Of course long before you even have to face the question of who will pay for it, you must have a treatment to pay for. Getting a therapy through the regulatory process is challenging at the best of times. Add to that the fact that many researchers have little experience navigating those tricky waters and you can understand why it takes more than eight years on average for a cell therapy to go from a good idea to a clinical trial (in contrast it takes just 3.2 years for a more traditional medication to get into a clinical trial).

Sunil Kadim, QuintilesIMS

Sunil Kadam from QuintilesIMS talked about the skills and expertise needed to navigate the regulatory pathway. QuintilesIMS partners with CIRM to run the Stem Cell Center, which helps researchers apply for and then run a clinical trial, providing the guidance that is essential to keeping even the most promising research on track.

But, as always, at the heart of every conference, are the patients and patient advocates. They provided the inspiration and a powerful reminder of why we all do what we do; to help find treatments and cures for patients in need.

The Alpha Clinic Network is only a few years old but is already running 35 different clinical trials involving hundreds of patients. The goal of the conference was to discuss lessons learned and share best practices so that number of trials and patients can continue to increase.

The CIRM Board is also doing its part to pick up the pace, approving funding for up to two more Alpha Clinic sites.  The deadline to apply to be one of our new Alpha Clinics sites is May 15th, and you can learn more about how to apply on our funding page.

Since joining CIRM I have been to many conferences but this was, in my opinion, the best one I have ever intended. It brought together people from every part of the field to give the most complete vision for where we are, and where we are headed. The talks were engaging, and inspiring.

Kristin Macdonald was left legally blind by retinitis pigmentosa, a rare vision-destroying disease. A few years ago she became the first person to be treated with a CIRM-funded therapy aimed to restoring some vision. She says it is helping, that for years she lived in a world of darkness and, while she still can’t see clearly, now she can see light. She says coming out of the darkness and into the light has changed her world.

Kristin Macdonald

In the years to come the Alpha Clinics Network hopes to be able to do the same, and much more, for many more people in need.

To read more about the Alpha Clinics Meeting, check out our Twitter Moments.

Newest member of CIRM Board is a fan of horses, Star Trek and Harry Potter – oh, and she just happens to be a brilliant cancer researcher too.

malkas-linda

An addition to the family is always a cause for celebration, whether it be a new baby, a puppy, or, in our case, a new Board member. That’s why we are delighted to welcome City of Hope’s Linda Malkas, Ph.D., as the newest member of the CIRM Board.

Dr. Malkas has a number of titles including Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Beckman Research Institute; Deputy Director of Basic Research, Comprehensive Cancer Center, City of Hope; and joint head of the Molecular Oncology Program at the Cancer Center.

Her research focus is cancer and she has a pretty impressive track record in the areas of human cell DNA replication/repair, cancer cell biomarker and therapeutic target discovery. As evidence of that, she discovered a molecule that can inhibit certain activities in cancerous cells and hopes to move that into clinical trials in the near future.

California Treasure John Chiang made the appointment saying Dr. Malkas is “extraordinarily well qualified” for the role. It’s hard to disagree. She has a pretty impressive resume:

  • She served for five years on a National Cancer Institute (NCI) subcommittee reviewing cancer center designations.
  • She has served as chair on several NCI study panels and recently took on an advisory role on drug approval policy with the Food and Drug Administration.
  • She has published more than 75 peer-reviewed articles
  • She sits on the editorial boards of several high profile medical journals.

In a news release Dr. Malkas says she’s honored to be chosen to be on the Board:

“The research and technologies developed through this agency has benefited the health of not only Californians but the nation and world itself. I am excited to see what the future holds for the work of this agency.”

With all this in her work life it’s hard to imagine she has time for a life outside of the lab, and yet she does. She has four horses that she loves to ride – not all at the same time we hope – a family, friends, dogs and cats she likes spending time with. And as if that wasn’t enough to make you want to get to know her, she’s a huge fan of Star Trek, vintage sci-fi movies and Harry Potter.

Now that’s what I call a well-rounded individual. We are delighted to have her join the CIRM Team and look forward to getting her views on who are the greater villains, Klingons or Death Eaters.

 

A Clinical Trial Network Focused on Stem Cell Treatments is Expanding

Geoff Lomax is a Senior Officer of CIRM’s Strategic Initiatives.

California is one of the world-leaders in advancing stem cell research towards treatments and cures for patients with unmet medical needs. California has scientists at top universities and companies conducting cutting edge research in regenerative medicine. It also has CIRM, California’s Stem Cell Agency, which funds promising stem cell research and is advancing stem cell therapies into clinical trials. But the real clincher is that California has something that no one else has: a network of medical centers dedicated to stem cell-based clinical trials for patients. This first-of-its-kind system is called the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network.

Get to Know Our Alpha Clinics

In 2014, CIRM launched its Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network to accelerate the development and delivery of stem cell treatments to patients. The network consists of three Alpha Clinic sites at UC San Diego, City of Hope in Duarte, and a joint clinic between UC Los Angeles and UC Irvine. Less than three years since its inception, the Alpha Clinics are conducting 34 stem cell clinical trials for a diverse range of diseases such as cancer, heart disease and sickle cell anemia. You can find a complete list of these clinical trials on our Alpha Clinics website. Below is an informational video about our Alpha Clinics Network.

So far, hundreds of patients have been treated at our Alpha Clinics. These top-notch medical centers use CIRM-funding to build teams specialized in overseeing stem cell trials. These teams include patient navigators who provided in-depth information about clinical trials to prospective patients and support them during their treatment. They also include pharmacists who work with patients’ cells or manufactured stem cell-products before the therapies are given to patients. And lastly, let’s not forget the doctors and nurses that are specially trained in the delivery of stem cell therapies to patients.

The Alpha Clinics Network also offers resources and tools for clinical trial sponsors, the people responsible for conducting the trials. These include patient education and recruitment tools and access to over 20 million patients in California to support successful recruitment. And because the different clinical trial sites are in the same network, sponsors can benefit from sharing the same approval measures for a single trial at multiple sites.

Looking at the big picture, our Alpha Clinics Network provides a platform where patients can access the latest stem cell treatments, and sponsors can access expert teams at multiple medical centers to increase the likelihood that their trial succeeds.

The Alpha Clinics Network is expanding

This collective expertise has resulted in a 3-fold (from 12 to 36 – two trials are being conducted at two sites) increase in the number of stem cell clinical trials at the Alpha Clinic sites since the Network’s inception. And the number continues to rise every quarter. Given this impressive track record, CIRM’s Board voted in February to expand our Alpha Clinics Network. The Board approved up to $16 million to be awarded to two additional medical centers ($8 million each) to create new Alpha Clinic sites and work with the current Network to accelerate patient access to stem cell treatments.

CIRM’s Chairman Jonathan Thomas explained,

Jonathan Thomas

“We laid down the foundation for conducting high quality stem cell trials when we started this network in 2014. The success of these clinics in less than three years has prompted the CIRM Board to expand the Network to include two new trial sites. With this expansion, CIRM is building on the current network’s momentum to establish new and better ways of treating patients with stem cell-based therapies.”

The Alpha Clinics Network plays a vital role in CIRM’s five-year strategic plan to fund 50 new clinical trials by 2020. In fact, the Alpha Clinic Network supports clinical trials funded by CIRM, industry sponsors and other sources. Thus, the Network is on track to becoming a sustainable resource to deliver stem cell treatments indefinitely.

In addition to expanding CIRM’s Network, the new sites will develop specialized programs to train doctors in the design and conduct of stem cell clinical trials. This training will help drive the development of new stem cell therapies at California medical centers.

Apply to be one our new Alpha Clinics!

For the medical centers interested in joining the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network, the deadline for applications is May 15th, 2017. Details on this funding opportunity can be found on our funding page.

The CIRM Team looks forward to working with prospective applicants to address any questions. The Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network will also be showcasing it achievement at its Second Annual Symposium, details may be found on the City of Hope Alpha Clinics website.

City of Hope Medical Center and Alpha Stem Cell Clinic


Related Links:

Your Guide to Awesome Stem Cell Conferences in 2017

Welcome to 2017, a year that will likely be full of change and new surprises. I’m hoping that some of these surprises will be in regenerative medicine with new stem cell therapies showing promise or effectiveness in clinical trials.

A great way to stay on top of new advances in stem cell research is to attend scientific conferences and meetings. Some of them are well known and highly attended like the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) conference, which this year will be in Boston in June. There are also a few smaller, more intimate conferences focusing on specific topics from discovery research to clinical therapies.

There are loads of stem cell meetings this year, but a few that I would like to highlight. Here’s my abbreviated stem cell research conference and meeting guide for 2017. Some are heavy duty research-focused events and probably not suitable for someone without a science background; they’re also expensive to sign up for. I’ve marked those with an * asterix.


January 8-12th, Keystone Symposium (Fee to register)*

Keystone will be hosting two concurrent stem cell meetings in Tahoe next week, which are geared for researchers in the field. One will be on neurogenesis during development and in the adult brain and the other will be on transcriptional and epigenetic control in stem cells. CIRM is one of the co-funders of this meeting and will be hosting a panel focused on translating basic research into clinical trials. Keystone symposiums are small, intimate meetings rich with scientific content and great for networking. Be on the look out for blog coverage about this meeting in the coming weeks.


February 3rd, Stanford Center for Definitive and Curative Medicine Symposium (Free to the public)

This free symposium at Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA will present first-in-human cell and gene therapies for a number of disorders including bone marrow, skin, cardiac, neural, uterine, pancreatic and neoplastic disorders. Speakers include scientists, translational biologists and clinicians. Irv Weissman, a Stanford professor and CIRM grantee focused on translational cancer research, will be the keynote speaker. Space is limited so sign up ASAP!


March 23rd, CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Symposium (Free to the public)

This free one-day meeting will bring together scientists, clinicians, patient advocates, and other partners to describe how the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network is making stem cell therapies a reality for patients. The City of Hope Alpha Clinic is part of a statewide effort funded by CIRM to develop a network of “Alpha Clinics” that has one unifying goal: to accelerate the development and delivery of stem cell treatments to patients.

City of Hope Medical Center and Alpha Stem Cell Clinic

City of Hope Medical Center and Alpha Stem Cell Clinic


June 14-17th, International Society for Stem Cell Research (Fee to register)*

The Annual ISSCR stem cell research conference will be hosted in Boston this year. This is an international conference focusing on new developments in stem cell science and technology. CIRM was one of the funders of the conference last year when ISSCR was in San Francisco. It’s one of my favorite research events to attend full of interesting scientific presentations and great for meeting future collaborators.


For a more comprehensive 2017 stem cell conference and meeting guide, check out Paul Knoepfler’s Niche blog.

Genetically engineered immune cells melt away deadly brain tumors

MRI scan of patient with glioblastoma tumor. (wikicommons)

MRI scan of patient with glioblastoma. (wikicommons)

Cancers come in many different forms. Some are treatable if caught early and other aren’t. One of the most deadly types of cancers are glioblastomas – a particularly aggressive form of brain tumor.  Patients diagnosed with glioblastoma have an average life expectancy of 12-15 months and there is no cure or effective treatment that extends life.

While a glioblastoma diagnosis has pretty much been a death sentence, now there could be a silver lining to this deadly, fast-paced disease. Last week, scientists from the City of Hope in southern California reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, a new cell-based therapy that melted away brain tumors in a patient with an advanced stage of glioblastoma.

An Immunotherapy Approach to Glioblastoma

The patient is a 50-year-old man named Richard Grady who was participating in an investigational clinical trial run out of the City of Hope’s CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic. A brain scan revealed a brightly lit tumor on the right side of Richard’s brain. Doctors surgically removed the tumor and treated him with radiation in an attempt to staunch further growth. But after six months, the tumors came back with a vengeance, spreading to other parts of his brain, lighting up his MRI scan like a Christmas tree.

With few treatment options and little time left, Richard was enrolled in the City of Hope trial that was testing a cell-based immunotherapy that recognizes and attacks cancer cells. It’s called CAR T-cell therapy – a term that you probably have heard in the news as a promising and cutting-edge treatment for cancer. Scientists extract immune cells, called T-cells, from a patient’s blood and reengineer them in the laboratory to recognize unique surface markers on cancer cells. These specialized CAR T-cells are then put back into the patient to attack and kill off cancer cells.

In Richard’s case, CAR-T cells were first infused into his brain through a tube in an area where a tumor was recently removed. No new tumors grew in that location of his brain, but tumors in other areas continued to grow and spread to his spinal cord. At this point, the scientists decided to place a second tube into a cavity of the brain called the ventricles, which contain a clear liquid called cerebrospinal fluid. Directly infusing into the spinal fluid allowed the cancer fighting cells to travel to different parts of the brain and spinal cord to attack the tumors.

Behnam Badie, senior author on the study and neurosurgery chief at the City of Hope, explained in a news release,

Benham Badie, City of Hope

Benham Badie, City of Hope

“By injecting the reengineered CAR-T cells directly into the tumor site and the ventricles, where the spinal fluid is made, the treatment could be delivered throughout the patient’s brain and also to the spinal cord, where this particular patient had a large metastatic tumor.”

 

Bye Bye Brain Tumors? Almost…

Three infusions of the CAR T-cell treatment shrunk Richard’s tumors noticeably, and a total of ten infusions was enough to melt away Richard’s tumors completely. Amazingly, Richard was able to reduce his medications and go back to work.

TESt

CAR T-cell therapy reduces brain tumors when infused into the spinal fluid. (NEJM)

The effects of the immunotherapy lasted for seven-and-a-half months. Unfortunately, his glioblastoma did come back, and he is now undergoing radiation treatment. Instead of being discouraged by these results, we should be encouraged. Patients with advanced cases of glioblastoma like Richard often have only weeks left to live, and the prospect of another seven months of life with family and friends is a gift.

Following these promising results in a single patient, the City of Hope team has now treated a total of nine patients in their clinical trial. Their initial results indicate that the immunotherapy is relatively safe. Further studies will be done to determine whether this therapy will be effective at treating other types of cancers.

CIRM Alpha Clinics Advance Stem Cell Treatments

The findings in this study are particularly exciting to CIRM, not only because they offer a new treatment option for a deadly brain cancer, but also because the clinical trial testing this treatment is housed at one of our own Alpha Clinics. In 2014, CIRM funded three stem cell-focused clinics at the City of Hope, UC San Diego, and a joint clinic between UC Los Angeles and UC Irvine. These clinics are specialized to support high quality trials focused on stem cell treatments for various diseases. The CIRM team will be bringing a new Alpha Clinics concept plan to its governing Board for approval in February.

Geoff Lomax, Senior Officer of Strategic Infrastructure at CIRM who oversees the CIRM Alpha Clinics, commented on the importance of City of Hope’s glioblastoma trial,

“Treating this form of brain cancer is one of the most vexing challenges in medicine. With the support and expertise of the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic, City of Hope is harnessing the power of patients’ immune cells to treat this deadly disease.”

Neil Littman, CIRM Director of Business Development and Strategic Infrastructure added,

“This study provides important proof-of-concept that CAR-T cells can be used to target hard-to-treat solid tumors and is precisely the type of trial the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network is designed to support.”

For more details on this study, watch the video below from City of Hope:

Key Steps Along the Way To Finding Treatments for HIV on World AIDS Day

Today, December 1st,  is World AIDS Day. It’s a day to acknowledge the progress that is being made in HIV prevention and treatment around the world but also to renew our commitment to a future free of HIV. This year’s theme is Leadership. Commitment. Impact.  At CIRM we are funding a number of projects focused on HIV/AIDS, so we asked Jeff Sheehy, the patient advocate for HIV/AIDS on the CIRM Board to offer his perspective on the fight against the virus.

jeff-sheehy

At CIRM we talk about and hope for cures, but our actual mission is “accelerating stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.”

For those of us in the HIV/AIDS community, we are tremendously excited about finding a cure for HIV.  We have the example of Timothy Brown, aka the “Berlin Patient”, the only person cured of HIV.

Multiple Shots on Goal

Different approaches to a cure are under investigation with multiple clinical trials.  CIRM is funding three clinical trials using cell/gene therapy in attempts to genetically modify blood forming stem cells to resist infection with HIV.  While we hope this leads to a cure, community activists have come together to urge a look at something short of a “home run.”

A subset of HIV patients go on treatment, control the virus in their blood to the point where it can’t be detected by common diagnostic tests, but never see their crucial immune fighting CD4 T cells return to normal levels after decimation by HIV.

For instance, I have been on antiretroviral therapy since 1997.  My CD4 T cells had dropped precipitously, dangerous close to the level of 200.  At that level, I would have had an AIDS diagnosis and would have been extremely vulnerable to a whole host of opportunistic infections.  Fortunately, my virus was controlled within a few weeks and within a year, my CD T cells had returned to normal levels.

For the immunological non-responders I described above, that doesn’t happen.  So while the virus is under control, their T cell counts remain low and they are very susceptible to opportunistic infections and are at much greater risk of dying.

Immunological non-responders (INRs) are usually patients who had AIDS when they were diagnosed, meaning they presented with very low CD4 T cell counts.  Many are also older.  We had hoped that with frequent testing, treatment upon diagnosis and robust healthcare systems, this population would be less of a factor.  Yet in San Francisco with its very comprehensive and sophisticated testing and treatment protocols, 16% of newly diagnosed patients in 2015 had full blown AIDS.

Until we make greater progress in testing and treating people with HIV, we can expect to see immunological non-responders who will experience sub-optimal health outcomes and who will be more difficult to treat and keep alive.

Boosting the Immune System

A major cell/gene trial for HIV targeted this population.  Their obvious unmet medical need and their greater morbidity/mortality balanced the risks of first in man gene therapy.  Sangamo, a CIRM grantee, used zinc finger nucleases to snip out a receptor, CCR5, on the surface of CD4 T cells taken from INR patients.  That receptor is a door that HIV uses to enter cells.  Some people naturally lack the receptor and usually are unable to be infected with HIV.  The Berlin Patient had his entire immune system replaced with cells from someone lacking CCR5.

Most of the patients in that first trial saw their CD4 T cells rise sharply.  The amount of HIV circulating in their gut decreased.  They experienced a high degree of modification and persistence in T stem cells, which replenish the T cell population.  And most importantly, some who regularly experienced opportunistic infections such as my friend and study participant Matt Sharp who came down with pneumonia every winter, had several healthy seasons.

Missed Opportunities

Unfortunately, the drive for a cure pushed development of the product in a different direction.  This is in large part to regulatory challenges.  A prior trial started in the late 90’s by Chiron tested a cytokine, IL 2, to see if administering it could increase T cells.  It did, but proving that these new T cells did anything was illusive and development ceased.  Another cytokine, IL 7, was moving down the development pathway when the company developing it, Cytheris, ceased business.  The pivotal trial would have required enrolling 4,000 participants, a daunting and expensive prospect.  This was due to the need to demonstrate clinical impact of the new cells in a diverse group of patients.

Given the unmet need, HIV activists have looked at the Sangamo trial, amongst others, and have initiated a dialogue with the FDA.  Activists are exploring seeking orphan drug status since the population of INRs is relatively small.

Charting a New Course

They have also discussed trial designs looking at markers of immune activity and discussed potentially identifying a segment of INRs where clinical efficacy could be shown with far, far fewer participants.

Activists are calling for companies to join them in developing products for INRs.  I’ve included the press release issued yesterday by community advocates below.

With the collaboration of the HIV activist community, this could be a unique opportunity for cell/gene companies to actually get a therapy through the FDA. On this World AIDS Day, let’s consider the value of a solid single that serves patients in need while work continues on the home run.

NEWS RELEASE: HIV Activists Seek to Accelerate Development of Immune Enhancing Therapies for Immunologic Non-Responders.

Dialogues with FDA, scientists and industry encourage consideration of orphan drug designations for therapies to help the immunologic non-responder population and exploration of novel endpoints to reduce the size of efficacy trials.

November 30, 2016 – A coalition of HIV/AIDS activists are calling for renewed attention to HIV-positive people termed immunologic non-responders (INRs), who experience sub-optimal immune system reconstitution despite years of viral load suppression by antiretroviral therapy. Studies have shown that INR patients remain at increased risk of illness and death compared to HIV-positive people who have better restoration of immune function on current drug therapies. Risk factors for becoming an INR include older age and a low CD4 count at the time of treatment initiation. To date, efforts to develop immune enhancing interventions for this population have proven challenging, despite some candidates from small companies showing signs of promise.

“We believe there is an urgent need to find ways to encourage and accelerate development of therapies to reduce the health risks faced by INR patients,” stated Nelson Vergel of the Program for Wellness Restoration (PoWeR), who initiated the activist coalition. “For example, Orphan Drug designations[i] could be granted to encourage faster-track approval of promising therapies.  These interventions may eventually help not only INRs but also people with other immune deficiency conditions”.

Along with funding, a major challenge for approval of any potential therapy is proving its efficacy. While INRs face significantly increased risk of serious morbidities and mortality compared to HIV-positive individuals with more robust immune reconstitution, demonstrating a reduction in the incidence of these outcomes would likely require expensive and lengthy clinical trials involving thousands of individuals. Activists are therefore encouraging the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), industry and researchers to evaluate potential surrogate markers of efficacy such as relative improvements in clinical problems that may be more frequent in INR patients, such as upper respiratory infections, gastrointestinal disease, and other health issues.

“Given the risks faced by INR patients, every effort should be made to assess whether less burdensome pathways toward approval are feasible, without compromising the regulatory requirement for compelling evidence of safety and efficacy”, said Richard Jefferys of the Treatment Action Group.

The coalition is advocating that scientists, biotech and pharmaceutical companies pursue therapeutic candidates for INRs. For example, while gene and anti-inflammatory therapies for HIV are being assessed in the context of cure research, there is also evidence that they may have potential to promote immune reconstitution and reduce markers associated with risk of morbidity and mortality in INR patients. Therapeutic research should also be accompanied by robust study of the etiology and mechanisms of sub-optimal immune responses.

“While there is, appropriately, a major research focus on curing HIV, we must be alert to evidence that candidate therapies could have benefits for INR patients, and be willing to study them in this context”, argued Matt Sharp, a coalition member and INR who experienced enhanced immune reconstitution and improved health and quality of life after receiving an experimental gene therapy.

The coalition has held an initial conference call with FDA to discuss the issue. Minutes are available online.

The coalition is now aiming to convene a broader dialogue with various drug companies on the development of therapies for INR patients. Stakeholders who are interested in becoming involved are encouraged to contact coalition representatives.

[i] The Orphan Drug Act incentivizes the development of treatments for rare conditions. For more information, see:  http://www.fda.gov/ForIndustry/DevelopingProductsforRareDiseasesConditions/ucm2005525.htm

For more information:

Richard Jefferys

Michael Palm Basic Science, Vaccines & Cure Project Director
Treatment Action Group richard.jefferys@treatmentactiongroup.org

Nelson Vergel, Program for Wellness Restoration programforwellness@gmail.com

 

 

Young Minds Shine Bright at the CIRM SPARK Conference

SPARK students take a group photo with CIRM SPARK director Karen Ring.

SPARK students take a group photo with CIRM SPARK director Karen Ring.

Yesterday was one of the most exciting and inspiring days I’ve had at CIRM since I joined the agency one year ago. We hosted the CIRM SPARK conference which brought together fifty-five high school students from across California to present their stem cell research from their summer internships.

The day was a celebration of their accomplishments. But it was also a chance for the students to hear from scientists, patient advocates, and clinicians about the big picture of stem cell research: to develop stem cell treatments and cures for patients with unmet medical needs.

Since taking on the role of the CIRM SPARK director, I’ve been blown away by the passion, dedication, and intelligence that our SPARK interns have shown during their short time in the lab. They’ve mastered techniques and concepts that I only became familiar with during my PhD and postdoctoral research. And even more impressive, they eloquently communicated their research through poster presentations and talks at the level of professional scientists.

During their internships, SPARK students were tasked with documenting their research experiences through blogs and social media. They embraced this challenge with gusto, and we held an awards ceremony to recognize the students who went above and beyond with these challenges.

I’d like to share the winning blogs with our readers. I hope you find them as inspiring and motivating as I do. These students are our future, and I look forward to the day when one of them develops a stem cell treatment that changes the lives of patients. 

Andrew Choi

Andrew Choi

Andrew Choi, Cedars-Sinai SPARK student

Am I crying or is my face uncontrollably sweating right now? I think I am doing both as I write about my unforgettable experiences over the course of the past 6 weeks and finalize my poster.

As I think back, I am very grateful for the takeaways of the research field, acquiring them through scientific journals, lab experiments with my mentor, and both formal and informal discourses. It seems impossible to describe all the episodes and occurrences during the program in this one blog post, but all I can say is that they were all unique and phenomenal in their own respective ways.

Gaining new perspectives and insights and being acquainted with many of the techniques, such as stereology, immunocytochemistry and immunohistochemistry my peers have utilized throughout their careers, proved to me the great impact this program can make on many individuals of the younger generation.

CIRM SPARK not only taught me the goings on behind the bench-to-bedside translational research process, but also morals, work ethics, and effective collaboration with my peers and mentors. My mentor, Gen, reiterated the importance of general ethics. In the process of making my own poster for the program, her words resonate even greater in me. Research, education, and other career paths are driven by proper ethics and will never continue to progress if not made the basic standard.

I am thankful for such amazing institutions: California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for enabling me to venture out into the research career field and network. Working alongside with my fellow seven very brilliant friends, motivated me and made this journey very enjoyable. I am especially thankful my mentor, Gen, for taking the time to provide me with the best possible resources, even with her busy ongoing projects. She encouraged me to be the best that I am.

I believe, actually, I should say, I KNOW Cedars-Sinai’s CIRM SPARK program does a SUPERB and astounding job of cultivating life-long learners and setting exceptional models for the younger generation. I am hoping that many others will partake in this remarkable educational program.

I am overall very blessed to be part of a successful summer program. The end of this program does not mark the end of my passions, but sparks them to even greater heights.

Jamey Guzman

Jamey Guzman

Jamey Guzman, UC Davis SPARK student

When I found out about this opportunity, all I knew was that I had a fiery passion for learning, for that simple rush that comes when the lightbulb sputters on after an unending moment of confusion. I did not know if this passion would translate into the work setting; I sometimes wondered if passion alone would be enough to allow me to understand the advanced concepts at play here. I started at the lab nervous, tentative – was this the place for someone so unsure exactly what she wanted to be ‘when she grew up,’ a date now all too close on the horizon? Was I going to fit in at this lab, with these people who were so smart, so busy, people fighting for their careers and who had no reason to let a 16-year-old anywhere near experiments worth thousands of dollars in cost and time spent?

I could talk for hours about the experiments that I worked to master; about the rush of success upon realizing that the tasks now completed with confidence were ones that I had once thought only to belong to the lofty position of Scientist. I could fill pages and pages with the knowledge I gained, a deep and personal connection to stem cells and cell biology that I will always remember, even if the roads of Fate pull me elsewhere on my journey to a career.

The interns called the experience #CIRMSparkLab in our social media posts, and I find this hashtag so fitting to describe these last few months. While there was, of course, the lab, where we donned our coats and sleeves and gloves and went to work with pipets and flasks…There was also the Lab. #CIRMSparkLab is so much more than an internship; #CIRMSparkLab is an invitation into the worldwide community of learned people, a community that I found to be caring and vibrant, creative and funny – one which for the first time I can fully imagine myself joining “when I grow up.”

#CIRMSparkLab is having mentors who taught me cell culture with unerring patience and kindness. It is our team’s lighthearted banter across the biosafety cabinet; it is the stories shared of career paths, of goals for the present and the future. It is having mentors in the best sense of the word, trusting me, striving to teach and not just explain, giving up hours and hours of time to draw up diagrams that ensured that the concepts made so much sense to me.

#CIRMSparkLab is the sweetest ‘good-morning’ from scientists not even on your team, but who care enough about you to say hi, to ask about your projects, to share a smile. It is the spontaneity and freedom with which knowledge is dispensed: learning random tidbits about the living patterns of beta fish from our lab manager, getting an impromptu lecture about Time and the Planck Constant from our beloved professor as he passes us at lunch. It is getting into a passionate, fully evidence-backed argument about the merits of pouring milk before cereal that pitted our Stem Cell team against our Exosome team: #CIRMSparkLab is finding a community of people with whom my “nerdy” passion for learning does not leave me an oddball, but instead causes me to connect instantly and deeply with people at all ages and walks of life. And it is a community that, following the lead of our magnificent lab director, welcomed ten interns into their lab with open arms at the beginning of this summer, fully cognizant of the fact that we will break beakers, overfill pipet guns, drop gels, bubble up protein concentration assays, and all the while never stop asking, “Why? Why? Why? Is this right? Like this? WHY?”

I cannot make some sweeping statement that I now know at age 16 exactly what I want to do when I grow up. Conversely, to say I learned so much – or I am so grateful – or you have changed my life is simply not enough; words cannot do justice to those sentiments which I hope that all of you know already. But I can say this: I will never forget how I felt when I was at the lab, in the community of scientists. I will take everything I learned here with me as I explore the world of knowledge yet to be obtained, and I will hold in my heart everyone who has helped me this summer. I am truly a better person for having known all of you.

Thank you, #CIRMSparkLab. 

Adriana Millan

Adriana Millan

Adriana Millan, CalTech SPARK student

As children, we all grew up with the companionship of our favorite television shows. We enjoyed sitcoms and other animations throughout our childhood and even as adults, there’s no shame. The goofy and spontaneous skits we enjoyed a laugh over, yet we did not pay much attention to the lessons they attempted to teach us. As a child, these shows play crucial roles in our educational endeavors. We are immediately hooked and tune in for every episode. They spark curiosity, as they allow our imaginations to run wild. For me, that is exactly where my curiosity stemmed and grew for science over the years. A delusional young girl, who had no idea what the reality of science was like.

You expect to enter a lab and run a full day of experimentations. Accidentally mix the wrong chemicals and discover the cure for cancer. Okay, maybe not mix the incorrect chemicals together, I learned that in my safety training class. The reality is that working in a lab was far from what I expected — eye opening. Working alongside my mentor Sarah Frail was one of the best ways I have spent a summer. It was not my ideal summer of sleeping in until noon, but it was worthwhile.

My experience is something that is a part of me now. I talk about it every chance I get, “Mom, can you believe I passaged cells today!” It changed the way I viewed the principles of science. Science is one of the most valuable concepts on this planet, it’s responsible for everything and that’s what I have taken and construed from my mentor. She shared her passion for science with me and that completed my experience. Before when I looked at cells, I did not know exactly what I was supposed to observe. What am I looking at? What is that pink stuff you are adding to the plate?

However, now I feel accomplished. It was a bit of a roller coaster ride, with complications along the way, but I can say that I’m leaving this experience with a new passion. I am not just saying this to please the audience, but to express my gratitude. I would have never even looked into Huntington’s Disease. When I first arrived I was discombobulated. Huntington’s Disease? Now I can proudly say I have a grasp on the complexity of the disease and not embarrass my mentor my calling human cells bacteria – quite embarrassing in fact.  I’m a professional pipette handler, I work well in the hood, I can operate a microscope – not so impressive, I have made possibly hundreds of gels, I have run PCRs, and my cells love me, what else can I ask for.

If you are questioning what career path you are to take and even if it is the slightest chance it may be a course in science, I suggest volunteering in a lab. You will leave with your questioned answered. Is science for me? This is what I am leaving my experience with. Science is for me.

Other SPARK 2016 Awards

Student Speakers: Jingyi (Shelly) Deng (CHORI), Thomas Thach (Stanford)

Poster Presentations: Jerusalem Nerayo (Stanford), Jared Pollard (City of Hope), Alina Shahin (City of Hope), Shuling Zhang (UCSF)

Instagram Photos: Roxanne Ohayon (Stanford), Anna Victoria Serbin (CHORI), Diana Ly (UC Davis)

If you want to see more photos from the CIRM SPARK conference, check out our Instagram page @CIRM_Stemcells or follow the hashtag #CIRMSPARKLab on Instagram and Twitter.

California high schoolers SPARK interest in stem cell research through social media

I have a job for you today and it’s a fun one. Open your Instagram app on your phone. If you’re not an Instagrammer, don’t worry, you can access the website on your computer.

Do you have it open? OK now type in the hashtag #CIRMSparkLab and click on it.

What you’ll find is around 200 posts of the most inspiring and motivating pictures of stem cell research that I’ve seen. These pictures are from high school students currently participating in the CIRM summer SPARK program, one of our educational programs, which has the goal to train the next generation of stem cell scientists.

The SPARK program offers California high school students an invaluable opportunity to gain hands-on training in regenerative medicine at some of the finest stem cell research institutes in the state. And while they gain valuable research skills, we are challenging them to share their experiences with the general public through blogging and social media.

Communicating science to the public is an important mission of CIRM, and the SPARK students are excelling at this task by posting descriptive photos on Instagram that document their internships. Some of them are fun lab photos, while others are impressive images of data with detailed explanations about their research projects.

Below are a few of my favorite posts so far this summer. I’ve been so inspired by the creativity of these posts that we are now featuring some of them on the @CIRM_Stemcells account. (Yes this is a shameless plug for you to follow us on Instagram!).

City of Hope SPARK program.

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I encourage you all to follow our talented SPARK students this summer as they continue to document their exciting journeys on Instagram. These students are our future and supporting their training and education in stem cell research is an honor for CIRM and a vital step towards achieving our mission of accelerating stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.

Stay tuned for more blog coverage about SPARK and our other educational program, the Bridges to Stem Cell Research program for undergraduate and master-level students. The annual Bridges conference that brings all the students together to present their research will be held next week, and the SPARK conference is on August 8th both in Berkeley.

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: fashionable stem cells, eliminating HIV, cellular Trojan horse fights cancer

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Stem cell fashion for a cause. Science and art are not mutually exclusive subjects. I know plenty of scientists who are talented painters or designers. But you don’t often see science being displayed in an artistic way or art being used to help explain complex scientific topics. I think that in the future, this will change as both subjects have a lot to offer one another.

Stem cell ties are in fashion!

Stem cell ties are in fashion!

Take this story from the University of Michigan for instance. Designer Dominic Pangborn has joined forces with the Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Fund at the University of Michigan (UOM) to design fashionable scarves and ties featuring beautiful pictures of stem cells. The goal of the Prechter Fund scarf and tie project is to raise awareness for mental health research.

The scarves and ties feature pictures of brain stem cells taken by UOM scientists who are studying them to understand the mechanisms behind bipolar disorder. These stem cells were generated from induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS cells that were derived from donated skin biopsies of patients with bipolar disease. Studying these diseased brain cells in a dish revealed that the nerve cells from bipolar patients were misbehaving, sending out electrical signals more frequently compared to healthy nerve cells.

Dr. Melvin McInnis, the Prechter Fund research director, explained:

“By understanding the causes of bipolar disorder, we will be able to develop new treatments for the illness and most importantly, we’ll be able to prevent destructive mood episodes. Our ultimate goal is to allow people to live happy, normal lives.”

Pangborn is passionate about using art to reflect an important cause.

“I decided to add butterflies to the design because they signify metamorphosis. Our society is finally at a point where mental illness is openly talked about and research is taking a turn for the better.”

He plans to release his collection in time for National Mental Health Awareness month in May. All proceeds will go to the Prechter bipolar research projects at UOM.

Dr. Melvin McInnis, left, and Dominic Pangborn in the Pangborn Design Store in Ann Arbor. (UOM)

Dr. Melvin McInnis, left, and Dominic Pangborn in the Pangborn Design Store in Ann Arbor. (UOM)

New stem cell therapy could eliminate HIV for good

The stem cells therapies being developed to cure HIV are looking more promising every day. A few are already being tested in clinical trials, and CIRM is funding two of them (you can read more about them here). News came out this week about a new trial conducted at the City of Hope’s CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic. They reported in a news release that they’ve treated their first patient. His name is Aaron Kim, and he’s had HIV since he was born. In 1983, he and his twin sister were born prematurely and due to a complication, Aaron had to get a blood transfusion that unfortunately gave him HIV.

Aaron Kim with nurse. (City of Hope)

Aaron Kim with nurse. (City of Hope)

Aaron thought he would live with this disease the rest of his life, but now he has a chance at being cured. In March, Aaron received a transplant of his own bone marrow stem cells that were genetically engineered to have a modified version of the CCR5 gene that makes his cells resistant to HIV infection. CCR5 is a is a protein receptor on the surface of blood cells that acts as a gateway for HIV entry. The hope is that his reengineered stem cells will populate his immune system with HIV-resistant cells that can eliminate the virus completely.

Dr. John Zaia who is the director the the City of Hope Alpha Clinic explained,

“The stem cell therapy Aaron received is one of more than 20 cure strategies for HIV. It may not cure him, but our goal is to reduce or even halt Aaron’s reliance on HIV drugs, potentially eliminating the virus completely.”

My favorite part of this story was that it acknowledged how importance it is for patients to participate in clinical trials testing promising new stem cell therapies where the outcomes aren’t always known. Brave patients such as Aaron make it possible for scientists to make progress and develop better and safer treatments for patients in the future.

Dr. Zaia commented, “It’s a wonderful and generous humanitarian gesture on Aaron’s part to participate in this trial.”

Stem cell Trojan horse fights cancer

Chemotherapy is great at killing cancer cells, but unfortunately, it’s also great at killing healthy cells too. To combat this issue, scientists are developing new delivery methods that can bring high doses of chemotherapy drugs to the cancer tumors and minimize exposure of healthy tissues.

Mesenchymal stem cells loaded with drug-containing microparticles. Credit: Jeff Karp and Oren Levy, Brigham and Women's Hospital

Mesenchymal stem cells loaded with drug-containing microparticles.
Credit: Jeff Karp and Oren Levy, Brigham and Women’s Hospital

A study published this week in Biomaterials, describes a new drug delivery method that has the potential to be an effective treatment for prostate cancer. Researchers from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Johns Hopkins University developed a drug delivery platform using mesenchymal stem cells. They packaged a non-active, prodrug version of a potent prostate cancer chemotherapy drug into microparticles that they loaded into MSCs. When the MSCs and prostate cancer cells were cultured together in a dish, the MSCs released their prodrug cargo, which was then internalized by the prostate cancer cells. The prodrug was then metabolized into its active, cancer-killing form and was very effective at killing the cancer cells.

In a news release picked up by Science Daily, one of the lead scientists on the study, Dr. Oren Levy, further explained the stem cell Trojan horse concept:

“Mesenchymal stem cells represent a potential vehicle that can be engineered to seek out tumors. Loading those cells with a potent chemotherapeutic drug is a promising cell-based Trojan horse approach to deliver drugs to sites of cancer.”

If all goes well, the teams plan to develop different versions of their stem cell-based drug delivery method that target different cancers and other diseases.

Patients are the Heroes at the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Symposium

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UCSD’s Catriona Jamieson and patient advocate Sandra Dillon at the CIRM Alpha Clinic Network Symposium

Sometimes, when you take a moment to stand back and look at what you have accomplished, you can surprise yourself at how far you have come, and how much you have done in a short space of time.

Take the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network for example. In the 18 months since our Board invested $24 million to kick start the first three Alpha Clinics the Network has signed up 21 clinical trials. That’s no small achievement. But as far as the Alpha Clinics Network team is concerned, that’s just a start.

Alpha clinic table

Last week UC San Diego hosted the Second Annual CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium. The gathering of scientists, medical staff and patient advocates spent a little time talking about the past, about what has been achieved so far, but most of the time was devoted to looking to the future, planning where they want to go and how they are going to get there.

The Network’s goal is to now dramatically increase the number of high quality stem cell clinical trials it is running, to make it even easier for companies and researchers looking for a site to carry out their trial, and to make it even easier for patients looking to sign up for one.

Alpha clinic panel

Panel at symposium: L to R: David Higgins, CIRM Board; David Parry, GSK; Catriona Jamieson, UCSD: John Zaia, City of Hope; John Adams, UCLA

For companies, the lure of having three Alpha Clinics (UC San Diego, City of Hope and the combined team of UCLA/UC Irvine) packed with skilled, experienced staff that specialize in delivering stem cell therapies is a big draw. (By the way, if you know anyone looking for funding for a clinical trial send them here).

The Alpha Clinic teams not only know how to deliver the therapies, they also know how to deliver patients. They spend a lot of time working with patients and patient advocates on the best ways to recruit people for trials, and the best way to design those trials so that they are as easy as possible for patients to take part in.

This attention to making it as good an experience for patients as possible starts from the very first time that a patient calls the clinics to find out if they are eligible for a trial. If there is no trial that is appropriate for that particular patient, the staff try to find an alternative trial at another location that might work.

Making sure it’s a good fit

If the Network does have a trial that meets the needs of the patient, then they begin the conversation to find out if the patient is eligible to apply. The goal of this part of the process is not simply to try and fill up available slots but to make sure that the patient is both a good match for the proposed therapy and that they also completely understand what’s involved in getting that therapy. For example, they need to understand if the trial involves staying overnight or several nights in the hospital, or if there are things they need to do ahead of time to prepare.

For the clinics themselves, one of the biggest challenges is insurance coverage. While the trial itself may be free, the patient may need to have some tests ahead of the treatment, to make sure they don’t have any underlying problems that could put their health at risk. The clinics need to know if the patient’s insurance will cover the cost of those tests and if they don’t what their options are. For a rare disease, where it’s challenging to find enough patients to produce meaningful results, these kinds of problems can jeopardize the whole trial.

The Alpha Clinics Network is working hard to develop answers to all of those problems, to create systems that make it as easy as possible to get a clinical trial up and running, and to recruit and keep patients in that trial.

Challenges to overcome

Part of the challenge is that many of these trials are for first-in-human therapies, meaning no one has ever tried this in a person before. That means the doctors, nurses and all the support staff in these clinics need to be specially trained in dealing with an entirely new way of treating people, with an entirely new class of therapies. And this isn’t just about technical skills. They also need to be good at communication, helping the patients understand everything that is happening or about to happen.

In a state like California, one of the most diverse places on earth, that’s no easy challenge. According to a UCLA study there are more than 220 languages spoken in LA County alone. Coping with that level of linguistic, cultural, and religious diversity is a challenge that the Alpha Clinics are working hard to meet.

Listening to patients

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Patient advocates were also an important voice at the symposium, talking about their experiences in clinical trials and how they have helped change their lives, and how they have, in some cases, saved their lives. But they also had some thoughts on how the researchers can do an even better job. That is the subject for a future blog.

While everyone acknowledged the challenges the CIRM Alpha Clinics face, they also celebrated what they have accomplished so far, and looked forward to the future. And the symposium was a chance to remind all of us that the reason we are in this is to help patients battling deadly diseases and disorders. So it was fitting that Thomas Kipps, the Deputy Director of Research at the UCSD Moore’s Cancer Center, took the opportunity to thank those who are not just the focus of this work, but also the heroes.

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Thomas Kipps: Photo courtesy Patient Power

“Clinical trials involve a very important skill set. You have to first and foremost put the patient first in any clinical trial. I think we cannot ignore the fact that these are human beings that are brave souls that have gone forward. These are the heroes who are going out and forging new territory.”