A grandmother’s legacy, a stem cell scientist

Emily Smith, CIRM Bridges student

The California Institute for Regenerative (CIRM) has a number of education programs geared towards training the next generation of stem cell and gene therapy researchers. Each student comes to the program with their own motivation, their own reasons for wanting to be a scientist. This is Emily Smith’s story.


Surrounded by the cold white walls of a hospital room, my family suddenly found themselves on the other side of medicine. Void of any answers or cures, this new reality was full of doubt. As we witnessed assurance dwindle into a look of angst, the doctor’s lips stiffened as he faltered to say the words that would change my grandmother’s life forever. The spinal cancer they had gone in to extract was a misdiagnosed nothing. Instead, the exploration of his scalpel left her paralyzed from the chest down.

Seemingly simple day-to-day moments of my life became the building blocks of my passion for science today. Early realizations of the hurdles laced throughout my grandmother’s life. Vivid memories of my mother’s weary smile as she read articles on the newest advancements in stem cell research. Collectively, what these fragments of time nurtured was hope. I grew to have a dream that something different awaited us in the future. With purpose, I dove into the world of research as an undergraduate.

Today, I am a CIRM Bridges to Stem Cell Research Intern at the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine. I received my acceptance into the program about a month after my grandmother’s passing. She never saw a cure, let alone an effective treatment.

My position allows me to understand why stem cell research takes time. The road from the bench to the clinic is a painstakingly deliberate one. And although we seek reason and order from the world of science, what we often find is how imperfect it all can be. At its root, I found that research is truly a human endeavor. That is why, as scientists, we must grapple with our lack of knowledge and failures with humility.

CIRM’s programs that train tomorrow’s scientists, such as Bridges, are important because they do more than simply transfer over skills from one generation to the next. Over the next year, I get the valuable experience of working with scientists who share a common dream. They understand the urgency of their research, value the quality of their findings, and put patient needs first. This mentorship ensures that a sense of responsibility is carried on throughout this field.

I applied to this program because stem cell research gave my family the gift of hope. Now, on the other side of the wait, I wish to serve patients and families like my own. I am incredibly grateful to be a part of the Bridges program and I will devote the full extent of my knowledge towards the advancement of this field.

Stem Cell Agency Board Invests in 19 Discovery Research Programs Targeting Cancers, Heart Disease and Other Disorders

THIS BLOG IS ALSO AVAILABLE AS AN AUDIO CAST

Dr. Judy Shizuru, Stanford University

While stem cell and gene therapy research has advanced dramatically in recent years, there are still many unknowns and many questions remaining about how best to use these approaches in developing therapies. That’s why the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) today approved investing almost $25 million in 19 projects in early stage or Discovery research.

The awards are from CIRM’s DISC2 Quest program, which supports  the discovery of promising new stem cell-based and gene therapy technologies that could be translated to enable broad use and ultimately, improve patient care.

“Every therapy that helps save lives or change lives begins with a researcher asking a simple question, “What if?”, says Dr. Maria T. Millan, the President and CEO of CIRM. “Our Quest awards reflect the need to keep supporting early stage research, to gain a deeper understanding of stem cells work and how we can best tap into that potential to advance the field.”

Dr. Judy Shizuru at Stanford University was awarded $1.34 million to develop a safer, less-toxic form of bone marrow or hematopoietic stem cell transplant (HCT). HCT is the only proven cure for many forms of blood disorders that affect people of all ages, sexes, and races worldwide. However, current methods involve the use of chemotherapy or radiation to destroy the patient’s own unhealthy blood stem cells and make room for the new, healthy ones. This approach is toxic and complex and can only be performed by specialized teams in major medical centers, making access particularly difficult for poor and underserved communities.

Dr. Shizuru proposes developing an antibody that can direct the patient’s own immune cells to kill diseased blood stem cells. This would make stem cell transplant safer and more effective for the treatment of many life-threatening blood disorders, and more accessible for people in rural or remote parts of the country.

Lili Yang UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center: Photo courtesy Reed Hutchinson PhotoGraphics

Dr. Lili Yang at UCLA was awarded $1.4 million to develop an off-the-shelf cell therapy for ovarian cancer, which causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.

Dr. Yang is using immune system cells, called invariant natural killer T cells (iNKT) to attack cancer cells. However, these iNKT cells are only found in small numbers in the blood so current approaches involve taking those cells from the patient and, in the lab, modifying them to increase their numbers and strength before transplanting them back into the patient. This is both time consuming and expensive, and the patient’s own iNKT cells may have been damaged by the cancer, reducing the likelihood of success.

In this new study Dr. Yang will use healthy donor cord blood cells and, through genetic engineering, turn them into the specific form of iNKT cell therapy targeting ovarian cancer. This DISC2 award will support the development of these cells and do the necessary testing and studies to advance it to the translational stage.

Timothy Hoey and Tenaya Therapeutics Inc. have been awarded $1.2 million to test a gene therapy approach to replace heart cells damaged by a heart attack.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. with the highest incidence among African Americans. It’s caused by damage or death of functional heart muscle cells, usually due to heart attack. Because these heart muscle cells are unable to regenerate the damage is permanent. Dr. Hoey’s team is developing a gene therapy that can be injected into patients and turn their cardiac fibroblasts, cells that can contribute to scar tissue, into functioning heart muscle cells, replacing those damaged by the heart attack.

The full list of DISC2 Quest awards is:

APPLICATION NUMBERTITLE OF PROGRAMPRINCIPAL INVESTIGATORAMOUNT
  DISC2-13400  Targeted Immunotherapy-Based Blood Stem Cell Transplantation    Judy Shizuru, Stanford Universtiy  $1,341,910    
  DISC2-13505  Combating Ovarian Cancer Using Stem Cell-Engineered Off-The-Shelf CAR-iNKT Cells    Lili Yang, UCLA  $1,404,000
  DISC2-13515  A treatment for Rett syndrome using glial-restricted
neural progenitor cells  
  Alysson Muotri, UC San Diego  $1,402,240    
  DISC2-13454  Targeting pancreatic cancer stem cells with DDR1 antibodies.    Michael Karin, UC San Diego  $1,425,600  
  DISC2-13483  Enabling non-genetic activity-driven maturation of iPSC-derived neurons    Alex Savtchenko, Nanotools Bioscience  $675,000
  DISC2-13405  Hematopoietic Stem Cell Gene Therapy for Alpha
Thalassemia  
  Don Kohn, UCLA    $1,323,007  
    DISC2-13507  CAR T cells targeting abnormal N-glycans for the
treatment of refractory/metastatic solid cancers  
  Michael Demetriou, UC Irvine  $1,414,800  
  DISC2-13463  Drug Development of Inhibitors of Inflammation Using
Human iPSC-Derived Microglia (hiMG)  
  Stuart Lipton, Scripps Research Inst.  $1,658,123  
  DISC2-13390  Cardiac Reprogramming Gene Therapy for Post-Myocardial Infarction Heart Failure    Timothy Hoey, Tenaya Therapeutics  $1,215,000  
  DISC2-13417  AAV-dCas9 Epigenetic Editing for CDKL5 Deficiency Disorder    Kyle Fink, UC Davis  $1,429,378  
  DISC2-13415  Defining the Optimal Gene Therapy Approach of
Human Hematopoietic Stem Cells for the Treatment of
Dedicator of Cytokinesis 8 (DOCK8) Deficiency  
  Caroline Kuo, UCLA  $1,386,232  
  DISC2-13498  Bioengineering human stem cell-derived beta cell
organoids to monitor cell health in real time and improve therapeutic outcomes in patients  
  Katy Digovich, Minutia, Inc.  $1,198,550  
  DISC2-13469  Novel antisense therapy to treat genetic forms of
neurodevelopmental disease.  
  Joseph Gleeson, UC San Diego  $1,180,654  
  DISC2-13428  Therapeutics to overcome the differentiation roadblock in Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS)    Michael Bollong, Scripps Research Inst.  $1,244,160  
  DISC2-13456  Novel methods to eliminate cancer stem cells    Dinesh Rao, UCLA  $1,384,347  
  DISC2-13441  A new precision medicine based iPSC-derived model to study personalized intestinal fibrosis treatments in
pediatric patients with Crohn’s diseas  
  Robert Barrett Cedars-Sinai  $776,340
  DISC2-13512  Modified RNA-Based Gene Therapy for Cardiac
Regeneration Through Cardiomyocyte Proliferation
  Deepak Srivastava, Gladstone Institutes  $1,565,784
  DISC2-13510  An hematopoietic stem-cell-based approach to treat HIV employing CAR-T cells and anti-HIV broadly
neutralizing antibodies  
  Brian Lawson, The Scintillon Institute  $1,143,600  
  DISC2-13475  Developing gene therapy for dominant optic atrophy using human pluripotent stem cell-derived retinal organoid disease model    Xian-Jie Yang, UCLA  $1,345,691  

Creating a ‘bespoke’ approach to rare diseases

THIS BLOG IS ALSO AVAILABLE AS AN AUDIO CAST

Up until recently the word “bespoke” meant just one thing to me, a hand-made suit, customized and fitted to you. There’s a street in London, Saville Row, that specializes in these suits. They’re gorgeous. They’re also very expensive and so I thought I’d never have a bespoke anything.

I was wrong. Because CIRM is now part of a bespoke arrangement. It has nothing to do with suits, it’s far more important than that. This bespoke group is aiming to create tailor-made gene therapies for rare diseases.

It’s called the Bespoke Gene Therapy Consortium (BGTC). Before we go any further I should warn you there’s a lot of acronyms heading your way. The BGTC is part of the Accelerating Medicines Partnership® (AMP®) program. This is a public-private partnership between the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and multiple public and private organizations, such as CIRM.

The program is managed by the Foundation for the NIH (FNIH) and it aims to develop platforms and standards that will speed the development and delivery of customized or ‘bespoke’ gene therapies that could treat the millions of people affected by rare diseases.

Why is it necessary? Well, it’s estimated that there are around 7,000 rare diseases and these affect between 25-30 million Americans. Some of these diseases affect only a few hundred, or even a few dozen people. With so few people they almost always struggle to raise the funds needed to do research to find an effective therapy. However, many of these rare diseases are linked to a mutation or defect in a single gene, which means they could potentially be treated by highly customizable, “bespoke” gene therapy approaches.

Right now, individual disease programs tend to try individual approaches to developing a treatment. That’s time consuming and expensive. The newly formed BGTC believes that if we create a standardized approach, we could develop a template that can be widely used to develop bespoke gene therapies quickly, more efficiently and less expensively for a wide array of rare diseases.

“At CIRM we have funded several projects using gene therapy to help treat, and even cure, people with rare diseases such as severe combined immunodeficiency,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, the President and CEO of CIRM. “But even an agency with our resources can only do so much. This agreement with the Bespoke Gene Therapy Consortium will enable us to be part of a bigger partnership, one that can advance the field, overcome obstacles and lead to breakthroughs for many rare diseases.”

With gene therapy the goal is to identify the genetic defect that is causing the disease and then deliver a normal copy of the gene to the right tissues and organs in the body, replacing or correcting the mutation that caused the problem. But what is the best way to deliver that gene? 

The BGTC’s is focusing on using an adeno-associated virus (AAV) as a delivery vehicle. This approach has already proven effective in Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), retinitis pigmentosa (RP), and spinal muscular atrophy. The consortium will test several different approaches using AAV gene therapies starting with basic research and supporting those all the way to clinical trials. The knowledge gained from this collaborative approach, including developing ways to manufacture these AAVs and creating a standard regulatory approach, will help build a template that can then be used for other rare diseases to copy.

As part of the consortium CIRM will identify specific rare disease gene therapy research programs in California that are eligible to be part of the AMP BGTC. CIRM funding can then support the IND-enabling research, manufacturing and clinical trial activities of these programs.

“This knowledge network/consortium model fits in perfectly with our mission of accelerating transformative regenerative medicine treatments to a diverse California and world,” says Dr. Millan. “It is impossible for small, often isolated, groups of patients around the world to fund research that will help them. But pooling our resources, our skills and knowledge with the consortium means the work we support here may ultimately benefit people everywhere.”

Two Early-Stage Research Programs Targeting Cartilage Damage Get Funding from Stem Cell Agency

THIS BLOG IS ALSO AVAILABLE AS AN AUDIO CAST

Darryl D’Lima: Scripps Health

Every year millions of Americans suffer damage to their cartilage, either in their knee or other joints, that can eventually lead to osteoarthritis, pain and immobility. Today the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved two projects targeting repair of damaged cartilage.

The projects were among 17 approved by CIRM as part of the DISC2 Quest Discovery Program. The program promotes the discovery of promising new stem cell-based and gene therapy technologies that could be translated to enable broad use and ultimately, improve patient care.

Dr. Darryl D’Lima and his team at Scripps Health were awarded $1,620,645 to find a way to repair a torn meniscus. Every year around 750,000 Americans experience a tear in their meniscus, the cartilage cushion that prevents the bones in the knee grinding against each other. These injuries accelerate the early development of osteoarthritis, for which there is no effective treatment other than total joint replacement, which is a major operation. There are significant socioeconomic benefits to preventing disabling osteoarthritis. The reductions in healthcare costs are also likely to be significant.

The team will use stem cells to produce meniscal cells in the lab. Those are then seeded onto a scaffold made from collagen fibers to create tissue that resembles the knee meniscus. The goal is to show that, when placed in the knee joint, this can help regenerate and repair the damaged tissue.

This research is based on an earlier project that CIRM funded. It highlights our commitment to helping good science progress, hopefully from the bench to the bedside where it can help patients.

Dr. Kevin Stone: Photo courtesy Stone Research Foundation

Dr. Kevin Stone and his team at The Stone Research Foundation for Sports Medicine and Arthritis were awarded $1,316,215 to develop an approach to treat and repair damaged cartilage using a patient’s own stem cells.

They are using a paste combining the patient’s own articular tissue as well as Mesenchymal Stem Cells (MSC) from their bone marrow. This mixture is combined with an adhesive hydrogel to form a graft that is designed to support cartilage growth and can also stick to surfaces without the need for glue. This paste will be used to augment the use of a microfracture technique, where micro-drilling of the bone underneath the cartilage tear brings MSCs and other cells to the fracture site. The hope is this two-pronged approach will produce an effective and functional stem cell-based cartilage repair procedure.

If effective this could produce a minimally invasive, low cost, one-step solution to help people with cartilage injuries and arthritis.

The full list of DISC2 grantees is:

ApplicationTitlePrincipal Investigator and InstitutionAmount
DISC2-13212Preclinical development of an exhaustion-resistant CAR-T stem cell for cancer immunotherapy  Ansuman Satpathy – Stanford University    $ 1,420,200  
DISC2-13051Generating deeper and more durable BCMA CAR T cell responses in Multiple Myeloma through non-viral knockin/knockout multiplexed genome engineering  Julia Carnevale – UC San Francisco  $ 1,463,368  
DISC2-13020Injectable, autologous iPSC-based therapy for spinal cord injury  Sarah Heilshorn – Stanford University    $789,000
DISC2-13009New noncoding RNA chemical entity for heart failure with preserved ejection fraction.  Eduardo Marban – Cedars-Sinai Medical Center  $1,397,412  
DISC2-13232Modulation of oral epithelium stem cells by RSpo1 for the prevention and treatment of oral mucositis  Jeffrey Linhardt – Intact Therapeutics Inc.  $942,050  
DISC2-13077Transplantation of genetically corrected iPSC-microglia for the treatment of Sanfilippo Syndrome (MPSIIIA)  Mathew Blurton-Jones – UC Irvine    $1,199,922  
DISC2-13201Matrix Assisted Cell Transplantation of Promyogenic Fibroadipogenic Progenitor (FAP) Stem Cells  Brian Feeley – UC San Francisco  $1,179,478  
DISC2-13063Improving the efficacy and tolerability of clinically validated remyelination-inducing molecules using developable combinations of approved drugs  Luke Lairson – Scripps Research Inst.  $1,554,126  
DISC2-13213Extending Immune-Evasive Human Islet-Like Organoids (HILOs) Survival and Function as a Cure for T1D  Ronald Evans – The Salk Institute for Biological Studies    $1,523,285  
DISC2-13136Meniscal Repair and Regeneration  Darryl D’Lima – Scripps Health      $1,620,645  
DISC2-13072Providing a cure for sphingosine phosphate lyase insufficiency syndrome (SPLIS) through adeno-associated viral mediated SGPL1 gene therapy  Julie Saba – UC San Francisco  $1,463,400  
DISC2-13205iPSC-derived smooth muscle cell progenitor conditioned medium for treatment of pelvic organ prolapse  Bertha Chen – Stanford University  $1,420,200  
DISC2-13102RNA-directed therapy for Huntington’s disease  Gene Wei-Ming Yeo  – UC San Diego  $1,408,923  
DISC2-13131A Novel Therapy for Articular Cartilage Autologous Cellular Repair by Paste Grafting  Kevin Stone – The Stone Research Foundation for Sports Medicine and Arthritis    $1,316,215  
DISC2-13013Optimization of a gene therapy for inherited erythromelalgia in iPSC-derived neurons  Ana Moreno – Navega Therapeutics    $1,157,313  
DISC2-13221Development of a novel stem-cell based carrier for intravenous delivery of oncolytic viruses  Edward Filardo – Cytonus Therapeutics, Inc.    $899,342  
DISC2-13163iPSC Extracellular Vesicles for Diabetes Therapy  Song Li – UC Los Angeles  $1,354,928  

Making stem cell and gene therapies available and affordable for all California patients

THIS BLOG IS ALSO AVAILABLE AS AN AUDIO CAST

Developing a new therapy: Photo courtesy UCLA

There is no benefit in helping create a miraculous new therapy that can cure people and save lives if no one except the super-rich can afford it. That’s why the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has made creating a roadmap to help make new treatments both available and affordable for all Californians a central pillar of its new 5-year Strategic Plan.

New treatments based on novel new technologies often seem to come with a gob-smacking price tag. When Kymriah, a CAR-T cell cancer therapy, was approved it cost $475,000 for one treatment course. When the FDA approved Zolgensma to treat spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disorder that causes muscle wasting and weakness, the cost was $2.1 million for one dose.

Part of the pricing is due to high manufacturing cost and the specialized resources needed to deliver the treatments. The treatments themselves are showing that they can be one-and-done options for patients, meaning just one treatment may be all they need to be cured. But even with all that innovation and promise the high price may impact access to patients in need.

At CIRM we believe that if California taxpayer money has helped researchers develop a new therapy, Californians should be able to get that therapy. To try and ensure they can we have created the Accessibility and Affordability Working Group (AAWG). The groups mission is to find a way to overcome the hurdles that stand between a patient and the treatment they need.

The AAWG will work with politicians and policy makers, researchers and regulators, insurance companies and patient advocate organizations to gather the data and information needed to make these therapies available and affordable. Dr. Le Ondra Clark Harvey, a CIRM Board member and mental health advocate, says the barriers we have to confront are not just financial, they are racial and ethnic too. 

We have already created a unique model for delivering stem cell therapies to patients through our Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network. We are now setting out to build on that with our commitment to creating Community Care Centers of Excellence. But having world-class clinics capable of delivering life-saving therapies is not enough. We also need to make sure that Californians who need these treatments can get them regardless of who they are or their ability to pay.

To learn more read out new Strategic Plan.

Breaking down barriers: Expanding patient access and accelerating research

THIS BLOG IS ALSO AVAILABLE AS AN AUDIO CAST

10 years ago I was presented with an incredibly unique opportunity- to become the fifth patient with spinal cord injuries to participate in the world’s first clinical trial testing a treatment made from human embryonic stem cells. It was not only a risky and potentially life-changing decision, but also one that I had to make in less than a week. 

To make matters more complicated, I was to be poked, prodded, and extensively scanned on a daily basis for several months as part of the follow-up process. I lived nearly two hours away from the hospital and I was newly paralyzed. How would this work? I wanted my decision-making process to be solely based on the amazing science and the potential that with my participation, the field might advance. Instead, I found myself spending countless hours contemplating the extra work I was asking my family to take on in addition to nursing me back to life. 

In this instance, I was “lucky”. I had access to family and friends who were able and willing to make any kind of sacrifice to ensure my happiness. I lived quite a distance away from the hospital, but everyone around me had a car. They had the means to skip work, keep the gas tank filled, and make the tedious journey. I also had an ally, which was perhaps my biggest advantage. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) was the funding agency behind the groundbreaking clinical trial and I’ll never forget the kind strangers who sat on my bedside and delighted me with stories of hope and science. 

Accelerating the research

The field of regenerative medicine has gained so much momentum since my first introduction to stem cells in a small hospital room. Throughout the decade and especially in recent years there have been benchmark FDA approvals, increased funding and regulatory support. The passage of Proposition 14 in 2020 has positioned CIRM to continue to accelerate research from discovery to clinical and to drive innovative, real-world solutions resulting in transformative treatments for patients. 

Now, thanks to Prop 14 we have some new goals, including working to try and ensure that the treatments our funding helps develop are affordable and accessible to a diverse community of patients in an equitable manner, including those often overlooked or underrepresented in the past. Unsurprisingly, one of the big goals outlined in our new 5-year Strategic Plan is to deliver real world solutions through the expansion of the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics network and the creation of a network of Community Care Centers of Excellence.

The Alpha Stem Cell Clinics and Community Care Centers of Excellence will work in collaboration to achieve a wide set of goals. These goals include enabling innovative clinical research in regenerative medicine, increasing diverse patient access to transformative therapies, and improving patient navigation of clinical trials. 

Breaking down the barriers 

The dilemma surrounding the four-hour long round-trip journey for an MRI or a vial of blood isn’t just unique to me and my experience participating in a clinical trial. It is well recognized and documented that geographic disparities in clinical trial sites as well as limited focus on community outreach and education about clinical trials impede patient participation and contribute to the well-documented low participation of under-represented patients in clinical studies.

As outlined in our Strategic Plan, the Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network and Community Care Centers will collaboratively extend geographic access to CIRM-supported clinical trials across the state. Community Care Centers will have direct access and knowledge about the needs of their patient populations including, culturally and linguistically effective community-based education and outreach. In parallel, Alpha Stem Cell Clinics will be designed to support the anticipated outreach and education efforts of future Community Care Centers.

To learn more about CIRM’s approach to deliver real world solutions for patients, check out our new 5-year Strategic Plan

CIRM Builds Out World Class Team With 5 New hires

Kevin Marks, CIRM’s new General Counsel. Photo courtesy Modern-Counsel.com

Following the passage of Proposition 14 CIRM has hired five new employees to help increase the team’s ability to respond to new challenges and responsibilities.

Prop 14, which was approved by voters in November 2020, gives CIRM $5.5 billion in new funding. Those funds mean CIRM can once again fund research from Discovery, through Translational and Clinical, as well as create new education and training programs. Prop 14 also adds new areas of focus for the Stem Cell Agency including creating an Accessibility and Affordability Working Group, expanding the Alpha Stem Cell Clinic network and creating new Centers of Excellence in underserved parts of California. To meet those new responsibilities the Agency has hired a highly talented group of individuals. Those include:

Kevin Marks is CIRM’s new General Counsel. Kevin studied Russian at college and originally wanted to be a diplomat, but when that didn’t work out he turned to the law. He became a highly accomplished, skilled advisor with global and domestic expertise and a history of delivering innovative legal and business results. He has served as Vice President and Head of Legal and Compliance at Roche Molecular Solutions, VP and General Counsel at Roche Molecular Diagnostics and VP and General Counsel at Roche Palo Alto, LLC.

“We are so delighted to have Kevin Marks join CIRM as a member of our executive Leadership Team,” says Maria T. Millan, MD, CIRM’s President and CEO. “He brings unique qualifications and critical skills during the formative phase and launch of our new strategic plan for California’s $5.5B investment in stem cell, genomics and regenerative medicine research and therapy development. As general counsel, he will oversee the legal department, human resources, grants management and operations at the Agency. Kevin has an established track record with global and domestic expertise and a history of delivering innovative legal and business solutions.”

“He is revered by his colleagues as an exceptional leader in his profession and in the community. Kevin is known for developing people as well as programs, and for promoting racial, ethnic and gender diversity.”

“I am incredibly honored to be joining CIRM at this stage of its journey,” says Marks. “I see the opportunity to contribute to positive patient outcomes–especially those patients with unmet medical needs–by working towards accelerating stem cell research in California as a member of the CIRM team as rewarding and perfectly aligned with my professional and personal goals.”

Pouneh Simpson as Director of Finance. Pouneh comes to CIRM from the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services in California, where she served as the Recovery Financial Administration Chief. At OES she worked with local, state, and federal government stakeholders on disaster recovery planning, exercises, and grant administration, specifically, overseeing the grant processing of all disaster recovery activity.

Prior to that Pouneh worked as the Chief Financial Officer of the Veterans Homes, where she managed finances at eight Veterans Homes with over 2,800 positions and $365 million in General Fund support. She also led the writing of legislation, regulations, policies and procedures for Cal Vet, overhauling the business and financial portions of eight Veterans Homes.

Mitra Hooshmand, PhD. as Senior Science Officer for Special Projects and Initiatives. Mitra joins CIRM after more than five years of leadership experience at Americans for Cures, a stem cell advocacy group. During this time, she mobilized hundreds of stakeholders, from scientists to national and local patient advocacy organizations, to generate support for CIRM’s mission.

Mitra has a PhD. in Anatomy and Biology from the University of California at Irvine. She also worked as a Project Scientist at the Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center at UC Irvine, where she conducted and published academic and industry-partnered research in studies investigating the therapeutic benefit of human neural stem cell transplantation in preclinical models of spinal cord injury and aging.

Vanessa Singh, as Human Resources Manager. Vanessa has 15 years of experience working for the state of California, working at the Departments of General Services, Insurance and Human Services. In those roles she gained experience in performing, processing, developing, implementing, and advising on many personnel aspects such as compensation, benefits, classifying positions, recruitment and hiring, salary structure (exempt and civil service), organization structure, and retirement.

When COVID struck Vanessa stepped up to help. She worked as a Case Investigator for San Bernardino Local Health Jurisdiction, Department of Public Health, doing contact tracing. She talked to people diagnosed with coronavirus and collected information on people they may have had close contact with who may have been exposed to the virus.

Claudette Mandac as Project Manager Review. Claudette has more than seven years’ experience with UCSF’s Human Research Protection Program. In that role she prepared protocols for scientific, regulatory and ethical review, pre-screening submissions to ensure they were complete and consistent, and then routing them to the appropriate reviewers for administrative, expedited or Committee review. She also managed an Institutional Review Board Committee, preparing and distributing protocols for review by designated scientific and nonscientific reviewers, coordinating meetings, recruiting and training members, and maintaining records of conflicts of interest. At UCSF she annually helped process up to 3,000 IRB modifications, continuing reviews, and post-approval safety reports for domestic and international socio-behavioral or biomedical research.

Claudette has two degrees from U.C. Berkeley; one in Arts and History and another in Science, Conservation and Resource Studies.

Hitting our Goals: Scoring a half century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making a good thing better

Thomas Edison

Legend has it that Thomas Edison “failed” 1,000 times before he managed to create the incandescent lightbulb. Edison says he didn’t get discouraged, instead he looked at each unsuccessful experiment as being one step closer to finding the method that really worked. That’s a lesson in optimism and persistence for all of us.

Lineage Cell Therapeutics has that same spirit. Lineage is trying to develop a stem cell therapy to help people with spinal cord injuries. CIRM invested $14.3 million in the first version of this approach which produced encouraging results. But encouraging is not enough. So, Lineage set about doing a complete overhaul of the therapy known as OPC1.

The idea behind it is to turn embryonic stem cells into oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (OPCs). These OPCs are precursors to cells that play an important role in supporting and protecting nerve cells in the central nervous system, the area damaged in a spinal cord injury. By transplanting these cells at the injury site it’s hoped they will help restore some of the broken connections, allowing patients to regain some movement and feeling.

In the original trial many patients, who had been paralyzed from the chest down, regained some use of their arms, hands and even fingers. This was better than any previous therapy had managed. But for Lineage it wasn’t good enough. So, they set about redesigning their whole manufacturing process, making improvements at every step along the way.

In a news release they outlined those improvements:

  • A new ready-to-inject formulation of OPC1, which enables clinical use at a much larger number of spinal cord treatment centers, accelerating enrollment for a larger and potentially registrational clinical trial.
  • Elimination of dose preparation, reducing overall preparation time from 24 hours to 30 minutes and cutting logistics costs by approximately 90%.
  • A 10 to 20-fold increase in OPC1 production scale, sufficient to support late-stage clinical development and which can be further scaled to meet initial commercial use.
  • A 50-75% reduction in product impurities.
  • Improvements in OPC1 functional activity, as assessed by cellular migration and secretion of key growth factors.

They also came up with new quality control tests to make sure everything was working well and eliminated all animal-based production reagents.

Brian Culley, Lineage CEO was, understandably, enthusiastic about the changes and its prospects for helping people with spinal cord injuries:

“Manufacturing is the foundation of cell therapy and the significant enhancements we have achieved with OPC1 marks the second time we have successfully transformed a research-grade production process into one capable of supporting a successful commercial product. Our objective is to be the premier allogeneic cell therapy company and our dedication to manufacturing excellence allows us not only to reduce or eliminate certain regulatory and commercial hurdles, but also establish strong competitive barriers in our field.”

Lineage are now hoping to go back to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the near future and get permission to run another clinical trial.

Here are stories of the impact the first generation of this approach have already had on people.

You can’t take it if you don’t make it

Biomedical specialist Mamadou Dialio at work in the Cedars-Sinai Biomanufacturing Center. Photo by Cedars-Sinai.

Following the race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 has been a crash course in learning how complicated creating a new therapy is. It’s not just the science involved, but the logistics. Coming up with a vaccine that is both safe and effective is difficult enough, but then how do you make enough doses of it to treat hundreds of millions of people around the world?

That’s a familiar problem for stem cell researchers. As they develop their products they are often able to make enough cells in their own labs. But as they move into clinical trials where they are testing those cells in more and more people, they need to find a new way to make more cells. And, of course, they need to plan ahead, hoping the therapy is approved by the Food and Drug Administration, so they will need to be able to manufacture enough doses to meet the increased demand.

We saw proof of that planning ahead this week with the news that Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles has opened up a new Biomanufacturing Center.

Dr. Clive Svendsen, executive director of the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute, said in a news release, the Center will manufacture the next generation of drugs and regenerative medicine therapies.

“The Cedars-Sinai Biomanufacturing Center leverages our world-class stem-cell expertise, which already serves scores of clients, to provide a much-needed biomanufacturing facility in Southern California. It is revolutionary by virtue of elevating regenerative medicine and its therapeutic possibilities to an entirely new level-repairing the human body.”

This is no ordinary manufacturing plant. The Center features nine “clean rooms” that are kept free from dust and other contaminants. Everyone working there has to wear protective suits and masks to ensure they don’t bring anything into the clean rooms.

The Center will specialize in manufacturing induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs. Dhruv Sareen, PhD, executive director of the Biolmanufacturing Center, says iPSCs are cells that can be turned into any other kind of cell in the body.

“IPSCs are powerful tools for understanding human disease and developing therapies. These cells enable us to truly practice precision medicine by developing drug treatments tailored to the individual patient or groups of patients with similar genetic profiles.”

The Biomanufacturing Center is designed to address a critical bottleneck in bringing cell- and gene-based therapies to the clinic. After all, developing a therapy is great, but it’s only half the job. Making enough of it to help the people who need it is the other half.

CIRM is funding Dr. Svendsen’s work in developing therapies for ALS and other diseases and disorders.