CIRM Board invests $5 million in emergency funding for coronavirus

Coronavirus

In response to the crisis caused by the COVID-19 virus in California and around the world the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) today held an emergency meeting to approve $5 million in rapid research funds targeting the virus.

“These are clearly extraordinary times and they require an extraordinary response from all of us,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “Our mission is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. California researchers have made us aware that they are pursuing potential stem cell based approaches to the COVID-19 crisis and we felt it was our responsibility to respond by doing all we can to support this research and doing so as quickly as we possibly can.”

The Board’s decision enables CIRM to allocate $5 million in funding for peer-reviewed regenerative medicine and stem cell research that could quickly advance treatments for COVID-19. The funding will be awarded as part of an expedited approval process.

To qualify applicants would go through a full review by CIRM’s independent Grants Working Group.

  • Approved projects will be immediately forwarded to the CIRM Board for a vote
  • Projects approved by the Board would go through an accelerated contract process to ensure funds are distributed as quickly as possible

“Our hope is that we can go from application to funding within 30 to 40 days,” says Jonathan Thomas, PhD, JD, Chair of the CIRM Board. “This is a really tight timeframe, but we can’t afford to waste a moment. There is too much at stake. The coronavirus is creating an unprecedented threat to all of us and, as one of the leading players in regenerative medicine, we are committed to doing all we can to develop the tools and promote the research that will help us respond to that threat.”

Only projects that target the development or testing of a treatment for COVID-19 are eligible. They must also meet other requirements including being ready to start work within 30 days of approval and propose achieving a clear deliverable within six months. The proposed therapy must also involve a stem cell or a drug or antibody targeting stem cells.

The award amounts and duration of the award are as follows:

Award Amount and Duration Limits

Project StageSpecific ProgramAward Amount*Award Duration
Clinical trialCLIN2$750,00024 months
Late stage preclinicalCLIN1$400,00012 months
TranslationalTRAN1$350,00012 months
DiscoveryDISC2$150,00012 months

CIRM Board members were unanimous in their support for the program. Al Rowlett, the patient advocate for mental health, said: “Given the complexity of this situation and the fact that many of the individuals I represent aren’t able to advocate for themselves, I wholeheartedly support this.”

Dr. Os Steward, from UC Irvine agreed: “I think that this is a very important thing for CIRM to do for a huge number of reasons. The concept is great and CIRM is perfectly positioned to do this.”

“All hands are on deck world-wide in this fight against COVID-19.” says Dr. Millan. “CIRM will deploy its accelerated funding model to arm our stem cell researchers in this multi-pronged and global attack on the virus.”

You can learn more about the program, including how to apply, on our website.

Ask the Stem Cell Team About Autism

On March 19th we held a special Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team About Autism” event. We were fortunate enough to have two great experts – Dr. Alysson Muotri from UC San Diego, and CIRM’s own Dr. Kelly Shepard. As always there is a lot of ground to cover in under one hour and there are inevitably questions we didn’t get a chance to respond to. So, Dr. Shepard has kindly agreed to provide answers to all the key questions we got on the day.

If you didn’t get a chance to see the event you can watch the video here. And feel free to share the link, and this blog, with anyone you think might be interested in the material.

Dr. Kelly Shepard

Can umbilical cord blood stem cells help reduce some of the symptoms?

This question was addressed by Dr. Muotri in the live presentation. To recap, a couple of clinical studies have been reported from scientists at Duke University and Sutter Health, but the results are not universally viewed as conclusive.  The Duke study, which focused on very young children, reported some improvements in behavior for some of the children after treatment, but it is important to note that this trial had no placebo control, so it is not clear that those patients would not have improved on their own. The Duke team has moved forward with larger trial and placebo control.

Does it have to be the child’s own cord blood or could donated blood work too?

In theory, a donated cord product could be used for similar purposes as a child’s own cord, but there is a caveat- the donated cord tissues must have some level of immune matching with the host in order to not be rejected or lead to other complications, which under certain circumstances, could be serious.

Some clinics claim that the use of fetal stem cells can help stimulate improved blood and oxygen flow to the brain. Could that help children with autism?

Fetal stem cells have been tested in FDA approved/sanctioned clinical trials for certain brain conditions such as stroke and Parkinson Disease, where there is clearer understanding of how and which parts of the brains are affected, which nerve cells have been lost or damaged, and where there is a compelling biological rationale for how certain properties the transplanted cells, such as their anti-inflammatory properties, could provide benefit.

Alysson Muotri in his lab and office at Sanford Consortium in La Jolla, California; Photograph by David Ahntholz http://www.twopointpictures.com http://www.davidahntholz.com

In his presentation, Dr. Muotri noted that neurons are not lost in autistic brains, so there is nothing that would be “replaced” by such a treatment. And although some forms of autism might include inflammation that could potentially be mitigated, it is unlikely that  the degree of benefit that might come from reducing inflammation would be worth the risks of the treatment, which includes intracranial injection of donated material.  Unfortunately, we still do not know enough about the specific causes and features of autism to determine if and to what extent stem cell treatments could prove helpful. But we are learning more every day, especially with some of the new technologies and discoveries that have been enabled by stem cell technology. 

Some therapies even use tissue from sheep claiming that a pill containing sheep pancreas can migrate to and cure a human pancreas, pills containing sheep brains can help heal human brains. What are your thoughts on those?

For some conditions, there may be a scientific rationale for how a specific drug or treatment could be delivered orally, but this really depends on the underlying biology of the condition, the means by which the drug exerts its effect, and how quickly that drug or substance will be digested, metabolized, or cleared from the body’s circulation. Many drugs that are delivered orally do not reach the brain because of the blood-brain barrier, which serves to isolate and protect the brain from potentially harmful substances in the blood circulation. For such a drug to be effective, it would have to be stable within the body for a period of time, and be something that could exert its effects on the brain either directly or indirectly.

Sheep brain or pancreas (or any other animal tissue consumed) in a pill form would be broken down into basic components immediately by digestion, i.e. amino acids, sugars, much like any other meat or food. Often complex treatments designed to be specifically targeted to the brain are delivered by intra-cranial/intrathecal injection, or by developing special strategies to evade the blood brain barrier, a challenge that is easier said than done. For autism, there is still a lot to be learned regarding how a therapeutic intervention might work to help people, so for now, I would caution against the use of dietary supplements or pills that are not prescribed or recommended by your doctor. 

What are the questions parents should ask before signing up for any stem cell therapy

There is some very good advice about this on the both the CIRM and ISSCR websites, including a handbook for patients that includes questions to ask anyone offering you a stem cell treatment, and also some fundamental facts that everyone should know about stem cells. https://www.closerlookatstemcells.org/patient-resources/

What kinds of techniques do we have now that we didn’t have in the past that can help us better understand what is happening in the brain of a child with autism.

We covered this in the online presentation. Some of the technologies discussed include:

– “disease in a dish” models from patient derived stem cells for studying causes of autism

–  new ways to make human neurons and other cell types for study

– organoid technology, to create more realistic brain tissues for studying autism

– advances in genomics and sequencing technologies to identify “signatures” of autism to help identify the underlying differences that could lead to a diagnosis

Alysson, you work with things called “brain organoids” explain what those are and could they help us in uncovering clues to the cause of autism and even possible therapies?

We blogged about this work when it was first published and you can read about it on our blog here.

Can stem cells help people who have had a stroke? Ask the experts.

Stroke is the third leading cause of death and disability in the US. Every 45 seconds someone in the US has a stroke. Every year around 275,000 people die from a stroke many more survive but are often impaired by the brain attack. The impact is not just physical, but psychological and emotional. It takes an enormous toll on individuals and their families. So, it’s not surprising that there is a lot of research underway to try and find treatments to help people, including using stem cells.

That’s why CIRM is hosting a special Facebook Live ‘Ask the Stem Cell Team About Stroke event on Wednesday, March 25th at noon PDT. Just head over to our Facebook Page on the 25th at noon to hear from two great guests.

We will be joined by Dr. Tom Carmichael, a Professor of Neurology and the Co-Director of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Center. He has a number of CIRM grants focused on helping repair the damage caused by strokes.

CIRM Senior Science Officer, Dr. Lila Collins, will also join us to talk about other stem cell research targeting stroke, its promise and some of the problems that still need to be overcome.

You will have a chance to ask questions of both our experts, either live on the day or by sending us questions in advance at info@cirm.ca.gov.

Why “Ask the Stem Cell Team” Remains Important

These are definitely strange, unusual and challenging times. Every day seems to bring new restrictions on what we can and should do. All, of course, in the name of protecting us and helping us avoid a potentially deadly virus. We all hope this will soon pass but we also know the bigger impact of the coronavirus is likely to linger for many months, perhaps even years.

With that in mind a few people have asked us why we are still going ahead with our Facebook Live ‘Ask the Stem Cell Team About Autism’ event this Thursday, March 19th at 12pm PDT. It’s a good question. And the answer is simple. Because there is still a need for good, thoughtful information about the potential for stem cells to help families who have a loved one with autism. And because we still need to do all we can to dispel the bad information out there and warn people about the bogus clinics offering unproven therapies.

In many ways Facebook Live is the perfect way to deliver this information. It allows us to reach out to large numbers of people without having them in the same room. We can educate not contaminate.

And we have some great experts to discuss the use of stem cells in helping people with autism.

The event features Dr. Alysson Muotri from UC San Diego. We have written about his work with stem cells for autism in the past. And CIRM’s own Associate Director for Discovery and Translation, Dr. Kelly Shepard.

But we also want you to be a part of this as well. So, join us online for the event. You can post comments and questions during the event, and we’ll do our best to answer them. Or you can send us in questions ahead of time to info@cirm.ca.gov.

If you were unable to tune in while we were live, not to worry, you you can watch it here on our Facebook page

You can bank on CIRM

Way back in 2013, the CIRM Board invested $32 million in a project to create an iPSC Bank. The goal was simple;  to collect tissue samples from people who have different diseases, turn those samples into high quality stem cell lines – the kind known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) – and create a facility where those lines can be stored and distributed to researchers who need them.

Fast forward almost seven years and that idea has now become the largest public iPSC bank in the world. The story of how that happened is the subject of a great article (by CIRM’s Dr. Stephen Lin) in the journal Science Direct.

Dr. Stephen Lin

In 2013 there was a real need for the bank. Scientists around the world were doing important research but many were creating the cells they used for that research in different ways. That made it hard to compare one study to another and come up with any kind of consistent finding. The iPSC Bank was designed to change that by creating one source for high quality cells, collected, processed and stored under a single, consistent method.

Tissue samples – either blood or skin – were collected from thousands of individuals around California. Each donor underwent a thorough consent process – including being shown a detailed brochure – to explain what iPS cells are and how the research would be done.

The diseases to be studied through this bank include:

  • Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD)
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Cardiomyopathies (heart conditions)
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Diabetic Retinopathy
  • Epilepsy
  • Fatty Liver diseases
  • Hepatitis C (HCV)
  • Intellectual Disabilities
  • Primary Open Angle Glaucoma
  • Pulmonary Fibrosis

The samples were screened to make sure they were safe – for example the blood was tested for HBV and HIV – and then underwent rigorous quality control testing to make sure they met the highest standards.

Once approved the samples were then turned into iPSCs at a special facility at the Buck Institute in Novato and those lines were then made available to researchers around the world, both for-profit and non-profit entities.

Scientists are now able to use these cells for a wide variety of uses including disease modeling, drug discovery, drug development, and transplant studies in animal research models. It gives them a greater ability to study how a disease develops and progresses and to help discover and test new drugs or other therapies

The Bank, which is now run by FUJIFILM Cellular Dynamics, has become a powerful resource for studying genetic variation between individuals, helping scientists understand how disease and treatment vary in a diverse population. Both CIRM and Fuji Film are committed to making even more improvements and additions to the collection in the future to ensure this is a vital resource for researchers for years to come.

CIRM-funded trial for blood cancer releases promising new data


A CIRM-funded trial conducted by Oncternal Therapeutics in collaboration with UC San Diego released an interim clinical data update for patients with mantle cell lymphoma (MCL), a type of blood cancer.

The treatment being developed involves an antibody called cirmtuzumab (named after yours truly) being used with a cancer fighting drug called ibrutinib. The antibody recognizes and attaches to a protein on the surface of cancer stem cells. This attachment disables the protein, which slows the growth of the blood cancer and makes it more vulnerable to anti-cancer drugs.

Here are the highlights from the new interim clinical data:

  • Patients had received a median of two prior therapies before participating in this study including chemotherapy; autologous stem cell transplant (SCT); autologous SCT and CAR-T therapy; autologous SCT and allogeneic SCT; and ibrutinib with rituximab, a different type of antibody therapy.
  • 6 of the 12 patients in the trial experienced a Complete Response (CR), which is defined as the disappearance of all signs of cancer in response to treatment.
  • All six CRs are ongoing, including one patient who has remained in CR for more than 21 months past treatment.
  • Four of the six patients achieved CRs within four months on the combination of cirmtuzumab and ibrutinib.
  • Of the remaining 6 patients, 4 experienced a Partial Response (PR), which is defined as a decrease in the extent of the cancer in the body.
  • The remaining two patients experienced Stable Disease (SD), which is defined as neither an increase or decrease in the extent of the cancer.

The full interim clinical data update can be viewed in the press release here.

CIRM-funded treatment for Cystinosis receives orphan drug designation

Dr. Stephanie Cherqui, UC San Diego

Orphan drug designation is a special status given by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for potential treatments of rare diseases that affect fewer than 200,000 in the U.S. This type of status can significantly help advance treatments for rare diseases by providing financial incentives in the form of tax credits towards the cost of clinical trials and prescription drug user fee waivers.

Fortunately for us, a stem cell-gene therapy approach used in a CIRM-funded clinical trial for Cystinosis has just received orphan drug designation. The trial is being conducted by Dr. Stephanie Cherqui at UC San Diego, which is an academic collaborator for AVROBIO, Inc.

Cystinosis is a rare disease that primarily affects children and young adults, and leads to premature death, usually in early adulthood.  Patients inherit defective copies of a gene called CTNS, which results in abnormal accumulation of an amino acid called cystine in all cells of the body.  This buildup of cystine can lead to multi-organ failure, with some of earliest and most pronounced effects on the kidneys, eyes, thyroid, muscle, and pancreas.  Many patients suffer end-stage kidney failure and severe vision defects in childhood, and as they get older, they are at increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, bone defects, and neuromuscular defects. 

Dr. Cherqui’s clinical trial uses a gene therapy approach to modify a patient’s own blood stem cells with a functional version of the defective CTNS gene. The goal of this treatment is to reintroduce the corrected stem cells into the patient to give rise to blood cells that will reduce cystine buildup in affected tissues.  

In an earlier blog, we shared a story by UCSD news that featured Jordan Janz, the first patient to participate in this trial, as well as the challenges promising approaches like this one face in terms of getting financial support. Our hope is that in addition to the funding we have provided, this special designation gives additional support to what appears to be a very promising treatment for a very rare disease.

You can read the official press release from AVROBIO, Inc. related to the orphan drug designation status here.

New CAR-T cell therapy using scorpion venom developed to treat brain tumors

Contributed by Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Glioblastoma (GBM) is an aggressive form of cancer that begins in the brain and results in tumors that can be very difficult to treat. This condition has claimed the lives of Beau Biden, former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, and John McCain, former Senator of Arizona. However, a new approach to combat this condition is being developed at City of Hope and has just received approval from the FDA to conduct clinical trials. The innovative approach involves using a combination of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-T cell therapy and specific components of scorpion venom!

Before we dive into how the scorpion venom is being used, what exactly is CAR-T cell therapy?

Diagram of CAR-T Cell Therapy
Image Source: National Cancer Institute

This approach consists of using T cells, which are an immune system cell that can destroy foreign or abnormal cells, and modifying them with a protein called a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR). These newly designed CAR-T cells are able to identify and destroy cancer cells by detecting a specific protein on these cells. What makes CAR-T cell even more promising is that the specific protein detected can be set to virtually anything.

This is where the scorpion venom comes into play. One of the components of this venom is called chlorotoxin (CLTX), which has the ability to specifically bind to brain tumor cells.

Michael Barish, Ph.D. (Left), Christine Brown, Ph.D. (Center), Dongrui Wang (Right)
Photo Credit: Business Wire

For this study, Dr. Christine Brown, Dr. Michael Barish, and a team of researchers at City of Hope designed CAR-T cells using chlorotoxin in order to specifically detect and destory brain tumor cells. Now referred to as CLTX-CAR-T cells, they found that these newly engineered cells were highly effective at selectively killing brain tumor cells in animal models. What’s more remarkable is that the CLTX-CAR-T cells ignored non-tumor cells in the brain and other organs.

In a press release, Dr. Barish describes the CLTX-CAR-T cell approach in more detail.

“Much like a scorpion uses toxin components of its venom to target and kill its prey, we’re using chlorotoxin to direct the T cells to target the tumor cells with the added advantage that the CLTX-CAR T cells are mobile and actively surveilling the brain looking for appropriate target. We are not actually injecting a toxin, but exploiting CLTX’s binding properties in the design of the CAR. The idea was to develop a CAR that would target T cells to a wider variety of GBM tumor cells than the other antibody-based CARs.”

In the same press release, Dr. Brown talks about the promise of this newly developed therapy.

“Our chlorotoxin-incorporating CAR expands the populations of solid tumors potentially targeted by CAR T cell therapy, which is particularly needed for patients with cancers that are difficult to treat such as glioblastoma. This is a completely new targeting strategy for CAR T therapy with CARs incorporating a recognition structure different from other CARs.”

The first-in-human clinical trial using the CLTX-CAR T cells is now screening potential patients.

CIRM has funded a separate clinical trial conducted by Dr. Brown that also involves CAR-T cell therapy for brain tumors.

The full results of this study was published in Science Translational Medicine.

A video talking about this approach can also be found here.

Ask the Stem Cell Team About Autism

Do an online search for “autism stem cells” and you quickly come up with numerous websites offering stem cell therapies for autism. They offer encouraging phrases like “new and effective approach” and “a real, lasting treatment.” They even include dense scientific videos featuring people like Dr. Arnold Caplan, a professor at Case Western Reserve University who is known as the “father of the mesenchymal stem” (it would be interesting to know if Dr. Caplan knows he is being used as a marketing tool?)

The problem with these sites is that they are offering “therapies” that have never been proven to be safe, let alone effective. They are also very expensive and are not covered by insurance. Essentially they are preying on hope, the hope that any parent of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will do anything and everything they can to help their child.

But there is encouraging news about stem cells and autism, about their genuine potential to help children with ASD. That’s why we are holding a special Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team” about Autism on Thursday, March 19th at noon (PDT).    

The event features Dr. Alysson Muotri from UC San Diego. We have written about his work with stem cells for autism in the past. And CIRM’s own Associate Director for Discovery and Translation, Dr. Kelly Shephard.

We’ll take a look at Dr. Muotri’s work and also discuss the work of other researchers in the field, such as Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg’s work at Duke University.

But we also want you to be a part of this as well. So, join us online for the event. You can post comments and questions during the event, and we’ll do our best to answer them. Or you can send us in questions ahead of time to info@cirm.ca.gov.

If you missed the “broadcast” not to worry, you can watch it here:

Big time validation for early support

It’s not every day that a company and a concept that you helped support from the very beginning gets snapped up for $4.9 billion. But that’s what is happening with Forty Seven Inc. and their anti-cancer therapies. Gilead, another California company by the way, has announced it is buying Forty Seven Inc. for almost $5 billion.

The deal gives Gilead access to Forty Seven’s lead antibody therapy, magrolimab, which switches off CD47, a kind of “do not eat me” signal that cancer cells use to evade the immune system.

CIRM has supported this program from its very earliest stages, back in 2013, when it was a promising idea in need of funding. Last year we blogged about the progress it has made from a hopeful concept to an exciting therapy.

When Forty Seven Inc. went public in 2018, Dr. Irv Weissman, one of the founders of the company, attributed a lot of their success to CIRM’s support.

Dr. Irv Weissman

“The story of the funding of this work all of the way to its commercialization and the clinical trials reported in the New England Journal of Medicine is simply this: CIRM funding of a competitive grant took a mouse discovery of the CD47 ‘don’t eat me’ signal through all preclinical work to and through a phase 1 IND with the FDA. Our National Institutes of Health (NIH) did not fund any part of the clinical trial or preclinical run up to the trial, so it is fortunate for those patients and those that will follow, if the treatment continues its success in larger trials, that California voters took the state’s right action to fund research not funded by the federal government.”

Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO, says the deal is a perfect example of CIRM’s value to the field of regenerative medicine and our ability to work with our grantees to make them as successful as possible.

“To say this is incredible would be an understatement! Words cannot describe how excited we are that this novel approach to battling currently untreatable malignancies has the prospect of making it to patients in need and this is a major step. Speaking on behalf of CIRM, we are very honored to have been a partner with Forty Seven Inc. from the very beginning.

CIRM Senior Science Officer, Dr. Ingrid Caras, was part of the team that helped a group of academic scientists take their work out of the lab and into the real world.

“I had the pleasure of working with and helping the Stanford team since CIRM provided the initial funding to translate the idea of developing CD47 blockade as a therapeutic approach. This was a team of superb scientists who we were fortunate to work closely with them to navigate the Regulatory environment and develop a therapeutic product. We were able to provide guidance as well as funding and assist in the ultimate success of this project.”

Forty Seven Inc. is far from the only example of this kind of support and collaboration. We have always seen ourselves as far more than just a funding agency. Money is important, absolutely. But so too is bringing the experience and expertise of our team to help academic scientists take a promising idea and turn it into a successful therapy.

After all that’s what our mission is, doing all we can to accelerate stem cell therapies to patients with unmet medical needs. And after a deal like this, Forty Seven Inc. is definitely accelerating its work.