NIH collaboration aims to develop affordable gene therapies for sickle cell disease and HIV

Sickle cell disease (SCD) and HIV have a major burden on the health of impoverished communities all over the world.

Of the 38 million people living with HIV all over the world, approximately 95% reside within developing countries, with 67% in sub-Saharan Africa, half of whom are living without any treatment.

Fifteen million babies will be born with SCD globally over the next 30 years. Of those births, 75% will occur in sub-Saharan Africa. In this region, SCD is the underlying cause of 1 in 12 newborn deaths and an estimated 50-90% of infants born with SCD in developing countries will die before their 5th birthday.

It is because of this epidemic around the world that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have formed a collaboration, with the bold goal of advancing safe, effective and durable gene-based therapies to clinical trials in the United States and relevant countries in sub-Saharan Africa within the next seven to 10 years. The ultimate goal is to scale and implement these treatments globally in areas hardest hit by these diseases.

Through this collaboration, the NIH plans to invest at least $100 million over the next four years towards gene therapies related to SCD and HIV and in return The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will match this investment with an additional $100 million towards the same goal.

Currently, due to their intrinsic complexity and cost of treatment requirements, gene based therapies are generally limited to hospitals in wealthy countries. The collaborative effort between the NIH and the Gates Foundation seeks to change that by investing in the development of curative therapies that can be delivered safely, effectively and affordably in low-resource settings.

In a news release, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins discusses the potential this agreement holds:

“This unprecedented collaboration focuses from the get-go on access, scalability and affordability of advanced gene-based strategies for sickle cell disease and HIV to make sure everybody, everywhere has the opportunity to be cured, not just those in high-income countries.”

In the same news release, Dr. Trevor Mundel, President of the Global Health Program at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation echoes the same sentiment:

“In recent years, gene-based treatments have been groundbreaking for rare genetic disorders and infectious diseases. While these treatments are exciting, people in low- and middle-income countries do not have access to these breakthroughs. By working with the NIH and scientists across Africa, we aim to ensure these approaches will improve the lives of those most in need and bring the incredible promise of gene therapy to the world of public health.”

Similarly, CIRM and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), an institute within the NIH, have entered a landmark agreement on curing SCD. CIRM has already funded one program under this agreement and has another $27 million available to fund other potential therapies.

From bench to bedside: a Q&A with stem cell expert Jan Nolta

At CIRM we are privileged to work with many remarkable people who combine brilliance, compassion and commitment to their search for new therapies to help people in need. One of those who certainly fits that description is UC Davis’ Jan Nolta.

This week the UC Davis Newsroom posted a great interview with Jan. Rather than try and summarize what she says I thought it would be better to let her talk for herself.

Jan Nolta
Jan Nolta

Talking research, unscrupulous clinics, and sustaining the momentum

(SACRAMENTO) —

In 2007, Jan Nolta returned to Northern California from St. Louis to lead what was at the time UC Davis’ brand-new stem cell program. As director of the UC Davis Stem Cell Program and the Institute for Regenerative Cures, she has overseen the opening of the institute, more than $140 million in research grants, and dozens upon dozens of research studies. She recently sat down to answer some questions about regenerative medicine and all the work taking place at UC Davis Health.

Q: Turning stem cells into cures has been your mission and mantra since you founded the program. Can you give us some examples of the most promising research?

I am so excited about our research. We have about 20 different disease-focused teams. That includes physicians, nurses, health care staff, researchers and faculty members, all working to go from the laboratory bench to patient’s bedside with therapies.

Perhaps the most promising and exciting research right now comes from combining blood-forming

stem cells with gene therapy. We’re working in about eight areas right now, and the first cure, something that we definitely can call a stem cell “cure,” is coming from this combined approach.

Soon, doctors will be able to prescribe this type of stem cell therapy. Patients will use their own bone marrow or umbilical cord stem cells. Teams such as ours, working in good manufacturing practice facilities, will make vectors, essentially “biological delivery vehicles,” carrying a good copy of the broken gene. They will be reinserted into a patient’s cells and then infused back into the patient, much like a bone marrow transplant.

“Perhaps the most promising and exciting research right now comes from combining blood-forming stem cells with gene therapy.”

Along with treating the famous bubble baby disease, where I had started my career, this approach looks very promising for sickle cell anemia. We’re hoping to use it to treat several different inherited metabolic diseases. These are conditions characterized by an abnormal build-up of toxic materials in the body’s cells. They interfere with organ and brain function. It’s caused by just a single enzyme. Using the combined stem cell gene therapy, we can effectively put a good copy of the gene for that enzyme back into a patient’s bone marrow stem cells. Then we do a bone marrow transplantation and bring back a person’s normal functioning cells.

The beauty of this therapy is that it can work for the lifetime of a patient. All of the blood cells circulating in a person’s system would be repaired. It’s the number one stem cell cure happening right now. Plus, it’s a therapy that won’t be rejected. These are a patient’s own stem cells. It is just one type of stem cell, and the first that’s being commercialized to change cells throughout the body.

Q: Let’s step back for a moment. In 2004, voters approved Proposition 71. It has funded a majority of the stem cell research here at UC Davis and throughout California. What’s been the impact of that ballot measure and how is it benefiting patients?

We have learned so much about different types of stem cells, and which stem cell will be most appropriate to treat each type of disease. That’s huge. We had to first do that before being able to start actual stem cell therapies. CIRM [California Institute for Regenerative Medicine] has funded Alpha Stem Cell Clinics. We have one of them here at UC Davis and there are only five in the entire state. These are clinics where the patients can go for high-quality clinical stem cell trials approved by the FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration]. They don’t need to go to “unapproved clinics” and spend a lot of money. And they actually shouldn’t.

“By the end of this year, we’ll have 50 clinical trials.”

By the end of this year, we’ll have 50 clinical trials [here at UC Davis Health]. There are that many in the works.

Our Alpha Clinic is right next to the hospital. It’s where we’ll be delivering a lot of the immunotherapies, gene therapies and other treatments. In fact, I might even get to personally deliver stem cells to the operating room for a patient. It will be for a clinical trial involving people who have broken their hip. It’s exciting because it feels full circle, from working in the laboratory to bringing stem cells right to the patient’s bedside.

We have ongoing clinical trials for critical limb ischemia, leukemia and, as I mentioned, sickle cell disease. Our disease teams are conducting stem cell clinical trials targeting sarcoma, cellular carcinoma, and treatments for dysphasia [a swallowing disorder], retinopathy [eye condition], Duchenne muscular dystrophy and HIV. It’s all in the works here at UC Davis Health.

There’s also great potential for therapies to help with renal disease and kidney transplants. The latter is really exciting because it’s like a mini bone marrow transplant. A kidney recipient would also get some blood-forming stem cells from the kidney donor so that they can better accept the organ and not reject it. It’s a type of stem cell therapy that could help address the burden of being on a lifelong regime of immunosuppressant drugs after transplantation.

Q: You and your colleagues get calls from family members and patients all the time. They frequently ask about stem cell “miracle” cures. What should people know about unproven treatments and unregulated stem cell clinics?

That’s a great question.The number one rule is that if you’re asked to pay money for a stem cell treatment, don’t do it. It’s a big red flag.

When it comes to advertised therapies: “The number one rule is that if you’re asked to pay money for a stem cell treatment, don’t do it. It’s a big red flag.”

Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous people out there in “unapproved clinics” who prey on desperate people. What they are delivering are probably not even stem cells. They might inject you with your own fat cells, which contain very few stem cells. Or they might use treatments that are not matched to the patient and will be immediately rejected. That’s dangerous. The FDA is shutting these unregulated clinics down one at a time. But it’s like “whack-a-mole”: shut one down and another one pops right up.

On the other hand, the Alpha Clinic is part of our mission is to help the public get to the right therapy, treatment or clinical trial. The big difference between those who make patients pay huge sums of money for unregulated and unproven treatments and UC Davis is that we’re actually using stem cells. We produce them in rigorously regulated cleanroom facilities. They are certified to contain at least 99% stem cells.

Patients and family members can always call us here. We can refer them to a genuine and approved clinical trial. If you don’t get stem cells at the beginning [of the clinical trial] because you’re part of the placebo group, you can get them later. So it’s not risky. The placebo is just saline. I know people are very, very desperate. But there are no miracle cures…yet. Clinical trials, approved by the FDA, are the only way we’re going to develop effective treatments and cures.

Q: Scientific breakthroughs take a lot of patience and time. How do you and your colleagues measure progress and stay motivated?   

Motivation?  “It’s all for the patients.”

It’s all for the patients. There are not good therapies yet for many disorders. But we’re developing them. Every day brings a triumph. Measuring progress means treating a patient in a clinical trial, or developing something in the laboratory, or getting FDA approval. The big one will be getting biological license approval from the FDA, which means a doctor can prescribe a stem cell or gene therapy treatment. Then it can be covered by a patient’s health insurance.

I’m a cancer survivor myself, and I’m also a heart patient. Our amazing team here at UC Davis has kept me alive and in great health. So I understand it from both sides. I understand the desperation of “Where do I go?” and “What do I do right now?” questions. I also understand the science side of things. Progress can feel very, very slow. But everything we do here at the Institute for Regenerative Cures is done with patients in mind, and safety.

We know that each day is so important when you’re watching a loved one suffer. We attend patient events and are part of things like Facebook groups, where people really pour their hearts out. We say to ourselves, “Okay, we must work harder and faster.” That’s our motivation: It’s all the patients and families that we’re going to help who keep us working hard.

Breaking bad news to stem cell researchers

It’s never easy to tell someone that they are too late, that they missed the deadline. It’s particularly hard when you know that the person you are telling that to has spent years working on a project and now needs money to take it to the next level. But in science, as in life, it’s always better to tell people what they need to know rather than what they would like to hear.

And so, we have posted a notice on our website for researchers thinking about applying for funding that, except in a very few cases, they are too late, that there is no money available for new projects, whether it’s Discovery, Translational or Clinical.

Here’s that notice:

CIRM anticipates that the budget allocation of funds for new awards under the CIRM clinical program (CLIN1, CLIN2 and CLIN3) may be depleted within the next two to three months. CIRM will accept applications for the monthly deadline on June 28, 2019 but will suspend application submissions after that date until further notice. All applicants should note that the review of submitted applications may be halted at any point in the process if funds are depleted prior to completion of the 3-month review cycle. CIRM will notify applicants of such an occurrence. Therefore, submission and acceptance of an application to CIRM does not guarantee the availability of funds or completion of a review cycle.

The submission of applications for the CIRM/NHLBI Cure Sickle Cell Initiative (CLIN1 SCD, CLIN2 SCD) are unaffected and application submissions for this program will remain open.

We do, of course, have enough money set aside to continue funding all the projects our Board has already approved, but we don’t have money for new projects (except for some sickle cell disease projects).

In truth our funding has lasted a lot longer than anyone anticipated. When Proposition 71 was approved the plan was to give CIRM $300 million a year for ten years. That was back in 2004. So what happened?

Well, in the early years stem cell science was still very much in its infancy with most of the work being done at a basic or Discovery level. Those typically don’t require very large sums so we were able to fund many projects without hitting our $300m target. As the field progressed, however, more and more projects were at the clinical trial stage and those need multiple millions of dollars to be completed. So, the money went out faster.

To date we have funded 55 clinical trials and our early support has helped more than a dozen other projects get into clinical trials. This includes everything from cancer and stroke, to vision loss and diabetes. It’s a good start, but we feel there is so much more to do.

Followers of news about CIRM know there is talk about a possible ballot initiative next year that would provide another $5.5 billion in funding for us to help complete the mission we have started.

Over the years we have built a pipeline of promising projects and without continued support many of those projects face a difficult future. Funding at the federal level is under threat and without CIRM there will be a limited number of funding alternatives for them to turn to.

Telling researchers we don’t have any money to support their work is hard. Telling patients we don’t have any money to support work that could lead to new treatments for them, that’s hardest of all.

Advancing stem cell research in many ways

Speakers at the Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium: Photo by Marco Sanchez

From Day One CIRM’s goal has been to advance stem cell research in California. We don’t do that just by funding the most promising research -though the 51 clinical trials we have funded to date clearly shows we do that rather well – but also by trying to bring the best minds in the field together to overcome problems.

Over the years we have held conferences, workshops and symposiums on everything from Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy and tissue engineering. Each one attracted the key players and stakeholders in the field, brainstorming ideas to get past obstacles and to explore new ways of developing therapies. It’s an attempt to get scientists, who would normally be rivals or competitors, to collaborate and partner together in finding the best way forward.

It’s not easy to do, and the results are not always obvious right away, but it is essential if we hope to live up to our mission of accelerating stem cell therapies to patients with unmet medical needs.

For example. This past week we helped organize two big events and were participants in another.

The first event we pulled together, in partnership with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, was a workshop called “Brainstorm Neurodegeneration”. It brought together leaders in stem cell research, genomics, big data, patient advocacy and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to tackle some of the issues that have hampered progress in finding treatments for things like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS and Huntington’s disease.

We rather ambitiously subtitled the workshop “a cutting-edge meeting to disrupt the field” and while the two days of discussions didn’t resolve all the problems facing us it did produce some fascinating ideas and some tantalizing glimpses at ways to advance the field.

Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium: Photo by Marco Sanchez

Two days later we partnered with UC San Francisco to host the Fourth Annual CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium. This brought together the scientists who develop therapies, the doctors and nurses who deliver them, and the patients who are in need of them. The theme was “The Past, Present & Future of Regenerative Medicine” and included both a look at the initial discoveries in gene therapy that led us to where we are now as well as a look to the future when cellular therapies, we believe, will become a routine option for patients. 

Bringing these different groups together is important for us. We feel each has a key role to play in moving these projects and out of the lab and into clinical trials and that it is only by working together that they can succeed in producing the treatments and cures patients so desperately need.

Cierra Jackson: Photo by Marco Sanchez

As always it was the patients who surprised us. One, Cierra Danielle Jackson, talked about what it was like to be cured of her sickle cell disease. I think it’s fair to say that most in the audience expected Cierra to talk about her delight at no longer having the crippling and life-threatening condition. And she did. But she also talked about how hard it was adjusting to this new reality.

Cierra said sickle cell disease had been a part of her life for all her life, it shaped her daily life and her relationships with her family and many others. So, to suddenly have that no longer be a part of her caused a kind of identity crisis. Who was she now that she was no longer someone with sickle cell disease?

She talked about how people with most diseases were normal before they got sick, and will be normal after they are cured. But for people with sickle cell, being sick is all they have known. That was their normal. And now they have to adjust to a new normal.

It was a powerful reminder to everyone that in developing new treatments we have to consider the whole person, their psychological and emotional sides as well as the physical.

CIRM’s Dr. Maria Millan (right) at a panel presentation at the Stanford Drug Discovery Symposium. Panel from left to right are: James Doroshow, NCI; Sandy Weill, former CEO Citigroup; Allan Jones, CEO Allen Institute

And so on to the third event we were part of, the Stanford Drug Discovery Symposium. This was a high level, invitation-only scientific meeting that included some heavy hitters – such as Nobel Prize winners Paul Berg and  Randy Schekman, former FDA Commissioner Robert Califf. Over the course of two days they examined the role that philanthropy plays in advancing research, the increasingly important role of immunotherapy in battling diseases like cancer and how tools such as artificial intelligence and big data are shaping the future.

CIRM’s President and CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, was one of those invited to speak and she talked about how California’s investment in stem cell research is delivering Something Better than Hope – which by a happy coincidence is the title of our 2018 Annual Report. She highlighted some of the 51 clinical trials we have funded, and the lives that have been changed and saved by this research.

The presentations at these conferences and workshops are important, but so too are the conversations that happen outside the auditorium, over lunch or at coffee. Many great collaborations have happened when scientists get a chance to share ideas, or when researchers talk to patients about their ideas for a successful clinical trial.

It’s amazing what happens when you bring people together who might otherwise never have met. The ideas they come up with can change the world.

Mending Stem Cells: The Past, Present & Future of Regenerative Medicine

UCSF’s Mission Bay Campus

For years we have talked about the “promise” and the “potential” of stem cells to cure patients. But more and more we are seeing firsthand how stem cells can change a patient’s life, even saving it in some cases. That’s the theme of the 4th Annual CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium.

It’s not your usual symposium because this brings together all the key players in the field – the scientists who do the research, the nurses and doctors who deliver the therapies, and the patients who get or need those therapies. And, of course, we’ll be there; because without CIRM’s funding to support that research and therapies none of this happens.

We are going to look at some of the exciting progress being made, and what is on the horizon. But along the way we’ll also tackle many of the questions that people pose to us every day. Questions such as:

  • How can you distinguish between a good clinical trial offering legitimate treatments vs a stem cell clinic offering sham treatments?
  • What about the Right to Try, can’t I just demand I get access to stem cell therapies?
  • How do I sign up for a clinical trial, and how much will it cost me?
  • What is the experience of patients that have participated in a stem cell clinical trial?

World class researchers will also talk about the real possibility of curing diseases like sickle cell disease on a national scale, which affect around 100,000 Americans, mostly African Americans and Hispanics. They’ll discuss the use of gene editing to battle hereditary diseases like Huntington’s. And they’ll highlight how they can engineer a patient’s own immune system cells to battle deadly cancers.

So, join us for what promises to be a fascinating day. It’s the cutting edge of science. And it’s all FREE.

Here’s where you can go to find out more information and to sign up for the event.

Facebook Live – Ask the Stem Cell Team about Patient Advocacy

How often do you get to ask an expert a question about something that matters deeply to you and get an answer right away? Not very often I’m guessing. That’s why CIRM’s Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team About Patient Advocacy” gives you a chance to do just that this Thursday, March 14th from noon till 1pm PST.

We have three amazing individuals who will share their experiences, their expertise and advice as Patient Advocates, and answer your questions about how to be an effective advocate for your cause.

The three are:

Gigi McMillan became a Patient Advocate when her 5-year-old son was diagnosed with a brain tumor. That led her to helping develop support systems for families going through the same ordeal, to help researchers develop appropriate consent processes and to campaign for the rights of children and their families in research.

Adrienne Shapiro comes from a family with a long history of Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) and has fought to help people with SCD have access to compassionate care. She is the co-founder of Axis Advocacy, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about SCD and support for those with it. In addition she is now on the FDA’s Patient Engagement Collaborative, a new group helping the FDA ensure the voice of the patient is heard at the highest levels.

David Higgins is a CIRM Board member and a Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s Disease. David has a family history of the disease and in 2011 was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. As a scientist and advocate he has championed research into the disease and worked to raise greater awareness about the needs of people with Parkinson’s.

Also, make sure to “like” our FaceBook page before the event to receive a notification when we’ve gone live for this and future events. If you miss the broadcast, not to worry. We’ll be posting it on our Facebook video page, our website, and YouTube channel shortly afterwards.

We want to answer your most pressing questions, so please email them directly to us beforehand at info@cirm.ca.gov.

And, of course, feel free to share this information with anyone you think might be interested.

Rare Disease Day – fighting for awareness and hope

It’s hard thinking of something as rare when one in 20 people are at risk of experiencing it in their lifetime. But that’s the situation with rare diseases. There are more than 7,000 of them and each affects under 200,000 people. In some cases they may only affect a few hundred people. But for each person that disease, though rare, poses a real threat. And that’s why Rare Disease Day was created.

Rare Disease Day is held on the last day of February each year.  The goal is to raise awareness among the general public about the huge impact these diseases have on people’s lives. That impact is not just on the person with the disease but on the whole family who are often struggling just to get a diagnosis.

Every year groups around the world, from patients and patient advocacy organizations to researchers and policymakers, stage events to mark the day. This year there are more than 460 events being held in 96 countries, everywhere from Albania and Andora to Tunisia and Uruguay.

Here in the US many groups organize events at State Capitols to educate elected officials and policy makers about the particular needs of these communities and the promise that scientific research holds to combat these conditions. Others have auctions to raise funds for research or public debates to raise awareness.

Each event is unique in its own way because each represents many different diseases, many different needs, and many different stories. The goal of these events is to put a human face on each condition, to give it visibility, so that it is no longer something most people have never heard of, instead it becomes something that affects someone you may know or who reminds you of someone you know.

Here’s a video from Spain that does just that.

You can find a complete list of events being held around the world to mark Rare Disease Day.

At CIRM we feel a special link to this day. That’s because many of the diseases we fund research into are rare diseases such as severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), and ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Sickle Cell Disease.

Evie Vaccaro, cured of SCID

These diseases affect relatively small numbers of patients so they often struggle to get funding for research. Because we do not have to worry about making a profit on any therapy we help develop we can focus our efforts on supporting those with unmet medical needs. And it’s paying off. Our support has already helped develop a therapy for SCID that has cured 40 children. We have two clinical trials underway for ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. We also have two clinical trials for Sickle Cell Disease and have reached a milestone agreement with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) on a partnership to help develop a cure for this crippling and life-threatening disorder.

The hope is that events like Rare Disease Day let people know that even though they have a condition that affects very few, that they are not alone, but that they are part of a wider, global community, a community committed to working to find treatments and cures for all of them.

Tips on how to be a great Patient Advocate from three of the best Advocates around

No one sets out to be a Patient Advocate. It’s something that you become because of something that happens to you. Usually it’s because you, or  a loved one or a friend, becomes ill and you want to help find a treatment. Whatever the reason, it is the start of a journey that often throws you into a world that you know nothing about: a world of research studies and scientific terminology, of talking to and trying to understand medical professionals, and of watching someone you love struggle.

It’s a tough, demanding, sometimes heart-breaking role. But it’s also one of the most important roles you can ever take on. Patient Advocates not only care for people afflicted with a particular disease or disorder, they help them navigate a new and scary world, they help raise money for research, and push researchers to work harder to find new treatments, maybe even cures. And they remind all of us that in the midst of pain and suffering the human touch, a simple kindness is the most important gift of all.

But what makes a great Patient Advocate, what skills do you need and how can you get them? At CIRM we are blessed to have some of the most amazing Patient Advocates you will ever meet. So we asked three of them to join us for a special Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team” event to share their knowledge, experience and expertise with you.

The Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team About Patient Advocacy” event will be on Thursday, March 14th from noon till 1pm PST.

The three experts are:

Gigi McMillan

Gigi McMillan became a Patient Advocate when her 5-year-old son was diagnosed with a brain tumor. That has led her to helping develop support systems for families going through the same ordeal, to help researchers develop appropriate consent processes and to campaign for the rights of children and their families in research.

Adrienne Shapiro

Adrienne Shapiro comes from a family with a long history of Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) and has fought to help people with SCD have access to compassionate care. She is the co-founder of Axis Advocacy, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about SCD and support for those with it. In addition she is now on the FDA’s Patient Engagement Collaborative, a new group helping the FDA ensure the voice of the patient is heard at the highest levels.

David Higgins

David Higgins is a CIRM Board member and a Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s Disease. David has a family history of the disease and in 2011 was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. As a scientist and advocate he has championed research into the disease and strived to raise greater awareness about the needs of people with Parkinson’s.

Please join us for our Facebook Live event on Patient Advocates on Thursday, March 14 from noon till 1pm and feel free to share information about the event with anyone you think would be interested.

Also, make sure to “like” our FaceBook page before the event to receive a notification when we’ve gone live for this and future events. If you miss the broadcast, not to worry. We’ll be posting it on our Facebook video page, our website, and YouTube channel shortly afterwards.

We want to answer your most pressing questions, so please email them directly to us beforehand at info@cirm.ca.gov.

It’s not goodbye to Dr. Bert Lubin, it’s au revoir

DrB Lubin-098

Dr. Bert Lubin has been a fixture at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland long before it was even called that. When he started there 43 years ago it was just a small community hospital and through his commitment to helping those in need he has helped build it into a remarkable institution.

Over the years he started one of the first newborn screening programs for sickle cell disease, created the world’s first non-profit sibling cord blood donor program and along the way boosted the research budget from $500,000 to $60 million without ever losing sight of the hospital’s primary goal, serving the community.

But with someone like Bert, nothing is ever enough. He became a national leader in the fight to develop better treatments and even a cure for sickle cell disease and then joined the CIRM Board to help us find better treatments and even cures for a wide variety of diseases and disorders.

“I got a sense of the opportunities that stem cell therapies would have for a variety of things, certainly including Sickle Cell Disease and I thought if there’s a chance to be on the Board as an advocate for that population I think I’d be a good spokesperson.  I just thought this was an exciting opportunity.”

He says the Stem Cell Agency has done a great job in advancing the field, and establishing California as a global leader.

“I think we are seeing advances in stem cell therapies. I’m proud of the progress we are making and I’m proud of the cures we are providing and I think it’s wonderful that the state had the vision to do something as big as this and to be a leader in the world in that regard.”

Now, after almost eight years Bert is stepping down from the CIRM Board. But he’s not stepping away from CIRM.

I feel committed to CIRM, I don’t need to be on the Board to be committed to CIRM. I don’t see myself leaving, I’m just re-purposing what is my role in my CIRM. I’m recycling and reinventing.

To mark this transition to the next phase of his career, the staff at Children’s put together this video tribute for Bert. It’s a sweet, glowing and heart warming thank you to someone who has done so much for so many people. And plans on doing even more in the years to come.

Living with sickle cell disease: one person’s story of pain and prejudice and their hopes for a stem cell therapy

Whenever we hold an in-person Board meeting at CIRM we like to bring along a patient or patient advocate to address the Board. Hearing from the people they are trying to help, who are benefiting or may benefit from a therapy CIRM is funding, reminds them of the real-world implications of the decisions they make and the impact they have on people’s lives.

At our most recent meeting Marissa Cors told her story.

Marissa at ICOC side view copy

Marissa Cors addressing the CIRM Board

My name is Marissa Cors, I have sickle cell disease. I was diagnosed with sickle cell disease at six months of age. I am now 40. Sickle cell has been a part of my life every day of my life.

The treatments you are supporting and funding here at CIRM are very important. They offer a potential cure to a disease that desperately needs one. I want to tell you just how urgently people with sickle cell need a cure.

I have been hospitalized so many times that my medical record is now more than 8 gigabytes. I have almost 900 pages in my medical record from my personal doctor alone.

I live with pain every day of my life but because you can’t see pain most people have no idea how bad it can be. The pain comes in two forms:

Chronic pain – this comes from the damage that sickle cell disease does to the body over many years. My right knee, my left clavicle, my lower back are all damaged because of the disease. I get chronic headaches. All these are the result of a lifetime of crisis.

Acute pain – this is the actual crisis that can’t be controlled, where the pain is so intense and the risk of damage to my organs so great that it requires hospitalization. That hospitalization can result in yet more pain, not physical but emotional and psychological pain.

But those are just the simple facts. So, let me tell you what it’s really like to live with sickle cell disease.

Marissa at ICOC front, smiling

It means being in a constant state of limbo and a constant state of unknown because you have no idea when the next crisis is going to come and take over and you have to stop your life. You have absolutely no idea how bad the pain will be or how long it will last.

It is a constant state of frustration and upset and even a constant state of guilt because it is your responsibility to put in place all the safety nets and plans order to keep life moving as normally as possible, not just for you but for everyone else around you. And you know that when a crisis comes, and those plans get ripped up that it’s not just your own life that gets put on hold while you try to deal with the pain, it’s the lives of those you love.

It means having to put your life on hold so often that it’s hard to have a job, hard to have a career or lead a normal life. Hard to do the things everyone else takes for granted. For example, in my 30’s, while all my friends from home and college were building careers and getting married and having families, I was in a cancer ward trying to stay alive, because that’s where they put you when you have sickle cell disease. The cancer ward.

People talk about new medications now that are more effective at keeping the disease under control. But let me tell you. As a black woman walking into a hospital Emergency Room saying I am having a sickle cell crisis and need pain medications, and then naming the ones I need, too often I don’t get treated as a patient, I get treated as a drug addict, a drug seeker.

Even when the doctors do agree to give me the medications I need they often act in a way that clearly shows they don’t believe me. They ask, “How do we know this is a crisis, why is it taking you so long for the medication to take effect?” These are people who spent a few days in medical school reading from a textbook about sickle cell disease. I have spent a lifetime living with it and apparently that’s still not enough for them to trust that I do know what I am talking about.

That’s when I usually say, “Goodbye and don’t forget to send in your replacement doctor because I can’t work with you.”

I have had doctors take away my medication because they wanted to see how I would react without it.

If I dare to question what a doctor or nurse does, they frequently tell me they have to go and take care of other patients who are really sick, not like me.

Even when I talk in my “nice white lady” voice they still treat me and call me “an angry black girl”. Girl. I’m a 40 year old woman but I get treated like a child.

It’s hard to be in the hospital surrounded by doctors and nurses and yet feel abandoned by the medical staff around you.

This month alone 25 people have died from sickle cell in the US. It’s not because we don’t have treatments that can help. It’s due to negligence, not getting the right care at the right time.

I know the work you do here at CIRM won’t change those attitudes. But maybe the research you support could find a cure for sickle cell, so people like me don’t have to endure the pain, the physical, emotional and spiritual pain, that the disease brings every day.

You can read about the work CIRM is funding targeting sickle cell disease, including two clinical trials, on this page on our website.