CIRM public events highlight uncertain future of stem cell research

When governments cut funding for scientific research the consequences can be swift, and painful. In Canada last week for example, the government of Ontario cut $5 million in annual funding for stem cell research, effectively ending a project developing a therapy to heal the damaged lungs of premature babies.

Here in the US the federal government is already placing restrictions on support for fetal tissue research and there is speculation embryonic stem cell research could be next. That’s why agencies like CIRM are so important. We don’t rely on a government giving us money every year. Instead, thanks to the voters of California, we have had a steady supply of funds to enable us to plan long-term and support multi-year projects.

But those funds are due to run out soon. We anticipate funding our last new awards this year and while we have enough money to continue supporting all the projects our Board has already approved, we won’t be able to take on any new projects. That’s bad news for the scientists and, ultimately, really bad for the patients who are in need of new treatments for currently incurable diseases.

We are going to talk about that in two upcoming events.

UC San Diego Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center

The first is a patient advocate event at UC San Diego on Tuesday, May 28th from 12.30pm to 1.30pm. It’s free, there is parking and snacks and refreshments will be available.

This will feature UC San Diego’s Dr. Catriona Jamieson, CIRM’s President and CEO Dr. Maria Millan and CIRM Board member and Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s Disease, David Higgins PhD. The three will talk about the exciting progress being made at UC San Diego and other programs around California, but also the uncertain future and the impact that could have for the field as a whole.

Here’s a link to an Eventbrite page that has more information about the event and also a link to allow you to RSVP ahead of time.

For all of you who don’t live in the San Diego Area – or who do but can’t make it to the event – we are holding a similar discussion online on a special Facebook Live: Ask the Stem Cell Team About the Future of Stem Cell Research event on Thursday, May 30th from noon till 1pm PDT.

This also features Dr. Millan and Dr. Higgins, but it also features UC Davis stem cell scientist, CIRM-grantee and renowned blogger Paul Knoepfler PhD.

Each brings their own experience, expertise and perspective on the field and will discuss the impact that a reduction in funding for stem cell research would have, not just in the short term but in the long run.

Because we all have a stake in what happens, both events – whether it’s in person or online – include time for questions from you, the audience.

You can find our Facebook Live: Ask the Stem Cell Team About the Future of Stem Cell Research on our Facebook page at noon on May 30th PDT

Hits and Myths as people celebrate Stem Cell Awareness Day

UC Davis #1

Stem Cell Awareness Day at UC Davis

Every year, the second Wednesday in October is set aside as Stem Cell Awareness Day, a time to celebrate the progress being made in the field and to remind us of the challenges that lie ahead.

While the event began here in California in 2008, with then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger highlighting the work of CIRM, saying: ”The discoveries being made today in our Golden State will have a great impact on many around the world for generations to come.” It has since grown to become a global event.

Here in California, for example, UC Davis and the University of Southern California (USC) both held events to mark the day.

At UC Davis Jan Nolta, PhD., the Director of the Stem Cell Program, introduced a series of speakers who highlighted the terrific work being done at the university. Peter Belafsky talked about using stem cells to repair damaged trachea and to help people who are experiencing voice or swallowing disorders. Mark Lee highlighted the progress being made in using stem cells to repair hard-to-heal broken bones. Aijun Wang focused on some really exciting work that could one day lead to a therapy for spina bifida (including some ridiculously cute video of English bulldogs who are able to walk again because of this therapy.)

USC hosted 100 local high school students for a panel presentation and discussion about careers in stem cell research. The panel featured four scientists talking about their experience, why the students should think about a career in science and how to go about planning one. USC put together a terrific video of the researchers talking about their experiences, something that can help any student around the US consider becoming part of the future of stem cell research.

Similar events were held in other institutions around California. But the celebration wasn’t limited to the Golden State. At the Texas Heart Institute in Houston, Texas, they held an event to talk to the public about the clinical trials they are supporting using stem cells to help people suffering from heart failure or other heart-related issues.

RegMedNet

Finally, the UK-based RegMedNet, a community site that unites the diverse regenerative medicine community, marked the day by exploring some of the myths and misconceptions still surrounding stem cells and stem cell research.

You can read those here.

Every group takes a different approach to celebrating Stem Cell Awareness Day, but each is united by a common desire, to help people understand the progress being made in finding new treatments and even cures for people with unmet medical needs.

The Five Types of Stem Cells

When I give an “Intro to Stem Cells” presentation to, say, high school students or to a local Rotary Club, I begin by explaining that there are three main types of stem cells: (1) embryonic stem cells (ESCs) (2) adult stem cells and (3) induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Well, like most things in science, it’s actually not that simple.

To delve a little deeper into the details of characterizing stem cells, I recommend checking out a video animation produced by BioInformant, a stem cell market research company. The video is introduced in a blog, “Do you know the 5 types of stem cells?” by Cade Hildreth, BioInformant’s founder and president.

Stem-Cell-Types

Image credit: BioInformant

Hildreth’s list categorizes stem cells by the extent of each type’s shape-shifting abilities. So while we sometimes place ESCs and iPSCs in different buckets because the methods for obtaining them are very different, in this list, they both belong to the pluripotent stem cell type. Pluri (“many”) – potent (“potential”) refers to the ability of both stem cell types to specialize into all of the cell types in the body. They can’t, though, make the cells of the placenta and other extra-embryonic cells too. Those ultimate blank-slate stem cells are called toti (“total”) – potent (“potential”).

When it comes to describing adult stem cells in my talks, I often lump blood stem cells together with muscle stem cells because they are stem cells that are present within us throughout life. But based on their ability to mature into specialized cells, these two stem cell types fall into two different categories in Hildreth’s list:  blood stem cells which can specialize into closely related cell types – the various cell types found in the blood – are considered “oligopotent” while muscle stem cells are “unipotent” because the can only mature into one type of cell, a muscle cell.

For more details on the five types of stem cells based on their potential to specialize, head over to the BioInformant blog. And scroll to the very bottom for the video animation which can also viewed on FaceBook.

School’s Out! Stem cells are in! High school students start CIRM-funded summer research internships.

Robotic engineering, coding, video game design, filmmaking, soccer and swimming: these are just a few of the many activities that are vying for the attention of high school students once school lets out for the summer.

But a group of about 50 high schoolers in California have chosen a different path: they will be diving into the world of stem cell biology. Each student earned a spot in one of seven CIRM-funded SPARK Programs across California. That’s short for Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge (yes, technically it should be SPARMK but we like SPARK better).

The SPARK students will gain hands-on training in stem cell research at some of the leading research institutes in California by conducting a six-week research internship in a stem cell lab. Maybe I’m bias, as the Program Director at CIRM who oversees the SPARK programs, but I think they’ve made a great decision. Stem cell research is one of, if not the most exciting and cutting-edge fields of research science out there today.

The pace of progress is so rapid in the field that a large workforce over the next century is critical to sustain CIRM’s mission to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. That’s why the Agency has invested over $4 million to support over 400 SPARK interns since 2012.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure to be in Sacramento to welcome the UC Davis SPARK interns on their first day of their program which is led by Gerhard Bauer, director of the Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) laboratory at the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures. The other programs, like the one at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles (see photo below), are also starting this week or next.

CedarSinaiSPARK2018

Because everything we do at CIRM is focused on the patient, the SPARK programs are required to include patient engagement as part of the students’ internships. Here are some Instagram posts from last year that highlight those patient-centered activities.

CedarSinaiSPARK2017Patients

And speaking of Instagram, we have also included a social media component to the program. We believe it’s critical for scientists to connect with the public about the important work they do. During the UC Davis orientation, Jan Nolta, PhD, the director of the Stem Cell Program at UC Davis School of Medicine, pointed out to the students that making the science accessible and understandable to the public, makes stem cell research less scary and, as a result, it’s more likely to gain public support.

So, as part of their curriculum, the interns will share a few Instagrams per week that capture their summer in the lab. You can follow their posts at #CIRMSPARKLab. In addition to communicating through photos, the students will describe their internship experiences by writing a blog. We’ll post the most outstanding blogs later this summer. In the meantime, you can read last summer’s winning blogs.

At the end of their program, the students get to show off their hard work by presenting their research at the SPARK annual conference which will be held this year at UC Davis. It’s going to be an exciting summer!

TELL ME WHAT I NEED TO KNOW: A Patient Advocate’s guide to being a Patient Advocate

A few weeks ago I was at the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network Symposium at UCLA and was fortunate enough to hear Gianna McMillan speak about patient advocacy. It was a powerful, moving, funny, and truly engaging talk. I quickly realized I wanted to blog about her talk and so for the first few minutes I was busy taking notes as fast as I could.  And then I realized that a simple blog could never do justice to what Gianna was saying, that what we needed was to run the whole presentation. So here it is.

Gianna McMillan

Gianna McMillan at the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Symposium: Photo courtesy UCLA

TELL ME WHAT I NEED TO KNOW

Gianna McMillan, MA – Patient/Subject Advocate, Bioethics Institute at Loyola Marymount University

Stem cell research and regenerative medicine are appealing topics because patients, families and society are weary of inelegant medical interventions that inflict, in some cases, as much harm as benefit. We are tired of putting poison in our loved ones to kill their cancer or feeling helpless as other diseases attack our own bodily functions. California, full of dreamers and go-getters, has enthusiastically embraced this new technology—but it is important to remember that all biomedical research— even in a new field as exciting and inspiring as stem cell therapeutics – must adhere to basic premises. It must be valid science and it must be based on an ethical partnership with patients and research subjects.

In the world of research ethics, I wear a lot of hats. I have been a subject, a care-giver, an Institutional Review Board (IRB) member (someone who actually reviews and approves research studies before they are allowed to proceed), and I have worked with the government on regulatory committees. These days I am finishing my doctoral studies in Bioethics, and while I love the interplay of philosophy and ethical principles, I most truly identify as an in-the-trenches Patient/Subject Advocate. I am compelled to champion patients who struggle with new and devastating diagnoses, hoping desperately for a cure, and who might be faced with decisions about participating in research for their own benefit and for the greater good of science.

In the old days, doctors made decisions on behalf of their patients— who, meekly grateful for the guidance, did whatever they were told. It is a little different now. Patients are better informed, often do their own homework, and demand to be an integral part of their treatment plan. The world of research has undergone similar changes. Instead of investigators “doing things to research subjects”, best practices involve patients in the design of clinical trials. Patients and experienced subjects help decide what specific questions should be the focus of the research; they identify endpoints in the research that are meaningful to the patient population being studied; and they assist in devising tools for patient-reported outcomes and delivery of study results.

The investigator and the research subject have come to be seen as partners.

While the evolution of this important relationship is healthy and wonderful, it should not be assumed that this is an equal partnership. Why? Because subjects are always at a disadvantage.  I realize that this might be an uncomfortable concept. Physician-investigators in charge of the study might want to qualify this statement it by insisting “but we do our best to accommodate their needs”. Subjects would also rather not admit this—because it is hard to make a decision with confidence while simultaneously acknowledging, “I am really at a disadvantage here.”

However, I have learned the hard way that an honest partnership requires addressing some uncomfortable realities.

A short personal story illustrates what I am talking about. When my oldest son was five years old, he was diagnosed with malignant brain cancer. Before meeting with our son’s treatment team for the first time, my husband and I decided that my husband, articulate and concise, would take the lead. He had a legal pad, with a list of questions… each question and answer would take us down the page until, at last, we would use all the information to make a decision—a life or death decision – on behalf of our young child.

In the meeting, the neurosurgeon pointed at brain scans and explained a few things. And then radiologist drew pictures of machines and treatment angles. The oncologist described risks and benefits and side effects. Then we all looked expectantly at my husband—because it was his turn. This lovely man opened his mouth. And closed his mouth. And then burst into tears, holding that legal pad over his chest like a shield. He could not speak. After a few seconds of horrified silence, I stammered out what few questions I could remember. The doctors answered, of course. Their mouths moved, and I leaned in and nodded while making eye contact – but I have no idea what they said.  All I heard was a loud white noise that filled my skull and my husband’s raspy breathing, and my own voice crying out in my head – “Oh my God! My child! My child!”

The point of this story is to illustrate that good people, educated and prepared, ready to bring their best selves to make the most important decision they would ever make, one that would affect the life of a beloved child— these people could not function. Despite this, in just a few days’ time, we were introduced to a research study, one that might cure our child while limiting the damage to his growing brain.  No matter how well-intentioned the research team was—no matter how desirous they were of a “partnership” with us, we were at such a distinct disadvantage, that the relationship we had with these investigators could not be categorized as one “among equals”.

Even now, more than twenty years later, it is painful for me to reflect on this. But I have learned, working with hundreds of families whose children went into clinical trials, that if we can be honest about the dysfunctional nature of this situation, we might take some action to improve it. Let me be specific about the ways research subjects are at a disadvantage.

  1. They often don’t speak the language of the disease.
  2. They are unfamiliar with the process of research.
  3. They are wrestling with emotions: despair, denial, anger and hope.
  4. Their life has been disrupted – and there are consequences.

Compare this with the research team, who knows the lingo, designed the research plan, is not personally affected by the scenario and well, this is business as usual: enroll a subject, let’s get going! How is the notion of “partnership” affected by such unequal circumstances?

Is a meaningful “partnership” even possible?

I say, yes! And this notion of “partnership” is especially important as new technologies come to invade intimate qualities of “self” and the building blocks of what makes each of us human. However, we need to be realistic about what this partnership looks like. It is not equal.  I am going to take a stand here and say that the partner who has the advantage (in this case, the researcher/scientist) is morally obligated to meaningfully address the disadvantage of the other party. This bears repeating. The partner who has the advantage is morally obligated to meaningfully address the disadvantage of the other party.

Over the years, families and subjects have told me what they want and need from the doctors and researchers they work with. They say:

  1. Tell me what I need to know.
  2. Tell me in a way I can hear it.
  3. Tell me again and again.

Let me expand on these a bit. First, if I am a patient new to a diagnosis, a treatment or research—I probably do not know what I do not know. Help me learn vocabulary, procedures, and systems. Tell me about the elements of informed consent so that I recognize them when I see them in the documents you want me to sign. Explain the difference between “standard of care” and “experimental treatment”. Help me understand the research question in the context of the disease (in general) and my own ailment (in particular). Give me the words to ask the questions that I should be asking.

Secondly, there are many different ways of sharing this information: print, video, websites, peer mentors, nurse-educators, and research team members. Hit the topic from all sides and in multiple formats. Thirdly, please realize that there is a learning curve for me— and it is closely tied to my emotional journey with my predicament. I may not be able to absorb certain facts at the very beginning, but a few weeks later I might be mentally and cognitively in a different place. And obviously, I might be an inexperienced research subject when I sign the consent form— but a few months later I will be vastly more sophisticated and at that time, I need the opportunity to ask my more considered and context-savvy questions.

I want to point out that researchers have access to a deep well of wisdom – a resource that can advise and support ethical actions that will help their disadvantaged partners: researchers can ask their experienced subjects for advice.

Remember those hundreds of families I worked with, whose children ultimately enrolled in clinical trials? These experienced parents say:

  • Let me tell you what I needed to know.
  • Let me tell you how I needed to hear it.

Getting input from these experienced subjects and caregivers does two things.

First, the research team is leveraging the investment they have already made in the participants of their studies; and secondly — very importantly — they are empowering the previously disadvantaged partner. Experienced subjects can to share what they have learned or give suggestions to the research team. Physicians and researchers might even build a stable of peer mentors who might be willing to help newbies learn about the process.

Everything I have said applies to all avenues of clinical research, but these are especially important considerations in the face of new and exciting science. It took a long time for more traditional research practices to evolve into an investigator/subject partnership model. Stem cell research and regenerative medicine has the opportunity to do this from the very start—and benefit from previous lessons learned.

When I was preparing my remarks for today, someone casually mentioned that I might talk about the “importance of balancing truth-telling in the informed consent process with respect for the hope of the family.” I would like to unequivocally state that the very nature of an “informed consent process” requires 100% truth, as does respect for the family—and that this does not undermine our capacity for hope. We place our hope in this exciting new science and the doctors and researchers who are pioneers. We understand that there are many unknowns in this new field. Please be honest with us so that we might sort out our thoughts and our hopes for ourselves, in our own contexts.

What message would I wish the scientists here, today, to take away with them?      Well, I am putting on my Patient/Subject Advocate hat, and in my Patient/Subject Advocate voice, I am saying: “Tell me what I need to know!”

 

 

UC Davis Stem Cell Director Jan Nolta Shares Her Thoughts on the Importance of Mentoring Young Scientists

Dr. Jan Nolta (UC Davis Health)

Jan Nolta is a scientific rockstar. She is a Professor at UC Davis and the Director of the Stem Cell Program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. Her lab’s research is dedicated to developing stem cell-based treatments for Huntington’s disease (HD). Jan is a tireless advocate for both stem cell and HD research and you’ll often see her tweeting away about the latest discoveries in the field to her followers.

What I admire most about Dr. Nolta is her dedication to educating and mentoring young students. Dr. Nolta helped write the grant that funded the CIRM Bridges master’s program at Sacramento State in 2009. Over the years, she has mentored many Bridges students (we blogged about one student earlier this year) and also high school students participating in CIRM’s SPARK high school internship program. Many of her young trainees have been accepted to prestigious colleges and universities and gone on to pursue exciting careers in STEM.

I reached out to Dr. Nolta and asked her to share her thoughts on the importance of mentoring young scientists and supporting their career ambitions. Below is a summary of our conversation. I hope her passion and devotion will inspire you to think about how you can get involved with student mentorship in your own career.


Describe your career path from student to professor.

I was an undergraduate student at Sacramento State University. I was a nerdy student and did research on sharks. I was planning to pursue a medical degree, but my mentor, Dr. Laurel Heffernan, encouraged me to consider science. I was flabbergasted at the suggestion and asked, “people pay you to do this stuff??” I didn’t know that you could be paid to do lab research. My life changed that day.

I got my PhD at the University of Southern California. I studied stem cell gene therapy under Don Kohn, who was a fabulous mentor. After that, I worked in LA for 15 years and then went back home to UC Davis in 2007 to direct their Stem Cell Program.

It was shortly after I got to Davis that I reconnected with my first mentor, Dr. Heffernan, and we wrote the CIRM Bridges grant. Davis has a large shared translational lab with seven principle investigators including myself and many of the Bridges students work there. Being a scientist can be stressful with grant deadlines and securing funding. Mentoring students is the best part of the job for me.

Why is it important to fund educational programs like Bridges and SPARK?

There is a serious shortage of well-trained specialists in regenerative medicine in all areas of the workforce. The field of regenerative medicine is still relatively new and there aren’t enough people with the required skills to develop and manufacture stem cell treatments. The CIRM Bridges program is critical because it trains students who will fill those key manufacturing and lab manager jobs. Our Bridges program at Sacramento State is a two-year master’s program in stem cell research and lab management. They are trained at the UC Davis Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) training facility and learn how to make induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and other stem cell products. There aren’t that many programs like ours in the country and all of our students get competitive job offers after they complete our program.

We are equally passionate about our high school SPARK program. It’s important to capture students’ interests early whether they want to be a scientist or not. It’s important they get exposed to science as early as possible and even if they aren’t going to be a scientist or healthcare professional, it’s important that they know what it’s about. It’s inspiring how many of these students stay in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) because of this unique SPARK experience.

Jan Nolta with the 2016 UC Davis SPARK students.

Can you share a student success story?

I’m so proud of Ranya Odeh. She was a student in our 2016 SPARK program who worked in my lab. Ranya received a prestigious scholarship to Stanford largely due to her participation in the CIRM SPARK program. I got to watch her open the letter on Instagram, and it was a really incredible experience to share that part of her life.

I’m also very proud of our former Bridges student Jasmine Carter. She was a mentor to one of our SPARK students Yasmine this past summer. She was an excellent role model and her passion for teaching and research was an inspiration to all of us. Jasmine was hoping to get into graduate school at UC Davis this fall. She not only was accepted into the Neuroscience Graduate Program, but she also received a prestigious first year program fellowship!

UC Davis Professors Jan Nolta and Kyle Fink with CIRM Bridges student Jasmine Carter

[Side note: We’ve featured Ranya and Jasmine previously on the Stem Cellar and you can read about their experiences here and here.]

Why is mentoring important for young students?

I can definitely relate to the importance of having a mentor. I was raised by a single mom, and without scholarships and great mentors, there’s no way I would be where I am today. I’m always happy to help other students who think maybe they can’t do science because of money, or because they think that other people know more than they do or are better trained. Everybody who wants to work hard and has a passion for science deserves a chance to shine. I think these CIRM educational programs really help the students see that they can be what they dream they can be.

What are your favorite things about being a mentor?

Everyday our lab is full of students, science, laughter and fun. I love coming in to the lab. Our young people bring new ideas, energy and great spirit to our team. I think every team should have young trainees and high school kids working with them because they see things in a different way.

Do you have advice for mentoring young scientists?

You can sum it up in one word: Listen. Ask them right away what their dreams are, where do they imagine themselves in the future, and how can you help them get there. Encourage them to always ask questions and let them know that they aren’t bothering you when they do. I also let my students know that I’m happy to be helping them and that the experience is rewarding for me as well.

So many students are shy when they first start in the lab and don’t get all that they can out of the experience. I always tell my students of any age: what you really want to do is try in life. Follow your tennis ball. Like when a golden retriever sees a tennis ball going by, everything else becomes secondary and they follow that ball. You need to find what that tennis ball is for you and then just try to follow it.

What advice can you give to students who want to be scientific professors or researchers?

Find somebody who is a good mentor and cares about you. Don’t go into a lab where the Principle Investigator (PI) is not there most of the time. You will get a lot more out of the experience if you can get input from the PI.

A good mentor is more present in the lab and will take you to meetings and introduce you to people. I find that often students read papers from well-established scientists, and they think that their positions are unattainable. But if they can meet them in person at a conference or a lecture, they will realize that all of the established scientists are people too. I want young students to know that they can do it too and these careers are attainable for anybody.

CIRM is looking for talented interns to join our stem cell team!

Are you a person who is excited about the promise of stem cell research and regenerative medicine? Are you also looking to gain valuable work experience in science communications or learn what it’s like to work in human resources (HR)?

Well look no further! CIRM just launched an internship program and is looking for talented students or individuals to join us in our mission of accelerating stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.

We currently have two volunteer (unpaid) internship positions open on our communications and HR teams. Interns will work part-time in the CIRM office located in Oakland, California. You can read more about these exciting opportunities below.

Communicate the Awesomeness of Stem Cells

The CIRM communications team is the voice of our Agency. Every day we report our progress towards achieving our mission to patients, scientists, and the public through the CIRM website, social media and our Stem Cellar Blog.

We’re looking for an undergraduate or graduate level student or individual with strong writing skills and an interest in stem cell science and communications. The internship will be part-time (10-15 hours/week in office) for one year with the option for extension. Our awesome intern will provide general support to the CIRM communications team by writing blogs and social media posts about the latest research and clinical trials funded by our Agency. The intern will also help update the CIRM website and create new content for patients and researchers.

If you’re looking to gain valuable experience in science writing and communications this is the internship for you!

Learn About the “Human” in Human Resources

Denise D’Angel

If you ask Denise D’Angel, our rock star Associate Director of Human Resources at CIRM, what she loves most about her job, she will tell you, “I love the human part of HR.” Denise works tirelessly every day to make sure that the CIRM engine of over 40 employees is well-oiled and running efficiently. Overseeing HR at a state agency is no easy task, which is why there is no coincidence that her last name has the word “angel” in it!

As an intern in our HR department, you will gain direct experience in creating job descriptions and questionnaires, learn the standard labor and State of California requirements for jobs, and help design and implement staff training programs.

We’re looking for students or individuals who enjoy working with people in multidisciplinary groups, pay good attention to detail, and have the ability to maintain confidentiality.

Find Out More!

For more detailed descriptions of our internships and application instructions, please visit the CIRM employment website.

The Journey of a Homegrown Stem Cell Research All-Star

Nothing makes a professional sports team prouder than its homegrown talent. Training and mentoring a promising, hard-working athlete who eventually helps carry the team to a championship can lift the spirits of an entire city.

Gerhard and Brian 1

Brian Fury

Here at CIRM, we hold a similar sense of pride in Brian Fury, one of our own homegrown all-stars. Nearly a decade ago, Brian was accepted into the inaugural class of CIRM’s Bridges program which provides paid stem cell research internships to students at California universities and colleges that don’t have major stem cell research programs. The aim of the program, which has trained over 1200 students to date, is to build the stem cell work force here in California to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.

A CIRM full circle
Today, Brian is doing just that as manager of manufacturing at the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures (IRC) where he leads the preparation of stem cell therapy products for clinical trials in patients. It was at UC Davis that he did his CIRM Bridges internship as a Sacramento State masters student back in 2009. So, he’s really come full circle, especially considering he currently works in a CIRM-funded facility and manufactures stem cell therapy products for CIRM-funded clinical trials.

gerhardbauer

Gerhard Bauer

“Many of the technicians we have in the [cell manufacturing] facility are actually from the Bridges program CIRM has funded, and were educated by us,” Gerhard Bauer, Brian’s boss and director of the facility, explained to me. “Brian, in particular, has made me incredibly proud. To witness that the skills and knowledge I imparted onto my student would make him such an integral part of our program and would lead to so many novel products to be administered to people, helping with so many devastating diseases is a very special experience. I treasure it every day.”

“It sustains me”
Brian’s career path wasn’t always headed toward stem cell science. In a previous life, he was an undergrad in computer management information systems. It was a required biology class at the time that first sparked his interest in the subject. He was fascinated by the course and was inspired by his professor, Cathy Bradshaw. He still recalls a conversation he had with her to better understand her enthusiasm for biology:

“I asked her, ‘what is it about biology that really made you decide this is what you wanted to do?’ And she just said, ‘It sustains me. It is air in my lungs.’ It was what she lived and breathed. That really stuck with me early on.“

Still, Brian went on to earn his computer degree and worked as a computer professional for several years after college. But when the dot com boom went bust in the early 2000’s, Brian saw it as a sign to re-invent himself. Remembering that course with Professor Bradshaw, he went back to school to pursue a biology degree at Sacramento State University.

On a path before there was a path
Not content with just his textbooks and lectures at Sac State, Brian offered to volunteer in any lab he could find, looking for opportunities to get hands-on experience:

Sac State 1

Brian at work during his Sacramento State days.

“I was really hungry to get involved and I really wanted to not just be in class and learning about all these amazing things in biology but I also wanted to start putting them to work. And so, I looked for any opportunity that I could to become actively involved in actually seeing how biology really works and not just the theory.”

This drive to learn led to several volunteer stints in labs on campus as well as a lab manager job. But it was an opportunity he pursued as he was finishing up his degree that really set in motion his current career path. Gerhard Bauer happened to be giving a guest lecture at Sac State about UC Davis’ efforts to develop a stem cell-based treatment for HIV. Hearing that talk was an epiphany for Brian. “That’s really what hooked me in and helped determine that this is definitely the field that I want to enter into. It was my stepping off point.”

GerhardBrianJan

Brian Fury (center) flanked by mentors Gerhard Bauer (left) and Jan Nolta (right)

Inspired, Brian secured a volunteering gig on that project at UC Davis – along with all his other commitments at Sac State – working under Bauer and Dr. Jan Nolta, the director of the UC Davis Stem Cell Program.

That was 2008 and this little path Brian was creating by himself was just about to get some serious pavement. The next year, Sacramento State was one of sixteen California schools that was awarded the CIRM Bridges to Stem Cell Research grant. Their five-year, $3 million award (the total CIRM investment for all the schools was over $55 million) helped support a full-blown, stem cell research-focused master’s program which included 12-month, CIRM-funded internships. One of the host researchers for the internships was, you guessed it, Jan Nolta at UC Davis.

Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) was a good move
Applying to this new program was a no brainer for Brian and, sure enough, he was one of ten students selected for the first-year class. His volunteer HIV project in the Nolta lab seamlessly dovetailed into his Bridges internship project. He was placed under the mentorship of Dr. Joseph Anderson, a researcher in the Nolta lab at the time, and gained many important skills in stem cell research. Brian’s project focused on a stem cell and gene therapy approach to making HIV-resistant immune cells with the long-term goal of eradicating the virus in patients. In fact, follow on studies by the Anderson lab have helped lead to a CIRM-funded clinical trial, now underway at UC Davis, that’s testing a stem cell-based treatment for HIV/AIDs patients.

After his Bridges internship came to a close, Brian worked on a few short-term research projects at UC Davis but then found himself in a similar spot: needing to strike out on a career path that wasn’t necessarily clearly paved. He reached out to Nolta and Bauer and basically cut to the chase in an email asking, “do you know anybody?”. Bauer reply immediately, “yeah, me!”. It was late 2011 and UC Davis had built a Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) facility with the help of a CIRM Major Facility grant. Bauer only had one technician at the time and work was starting to pick up.

gmp_facility

The Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) facility in UC Davis’ Institute for Regenerative Cures.

A GMP facility is a specialized laboratory where clinical-grade cell products are prepared for use in people. To ensure the cells are not contaminated, the entire lab is sealed off from the outside environment and researchers must don full-body lab suits. We produced the video below about the GMP facility just before it opened.

Bauer knew Brian would be perfect at their GMP facility:

“Brian was a student in the first cohort of CIRM Bridges trainees and took my class Bio225 – stem cell biology and manufacturing practices. He excelled in this class, and I also could observe his lab skills in the GMP training part incorporated in this class. I was very lucky to be able to hire Brian then, since I knew what excellent abilities he had in GMP manufacturing.”

CIRM-supported student now supporting CIRM-funded clinical trials

brianingmp

Brian Fury suited up in GMP facility

Since then, Brian has worked his way up to managing the entire GMP facility and its production of cell therapy products. At last count, he and the five people he supervises are juggling sixteen cell manufacturing projects. One of his current clients is Angiocrine which has a CIRM-funded clinical trial testing a cell therapy aimed to improve the availability and engraftment of blood stem cell transplants. This treatment is geared for cancer patients who have had their cancerous bone marrow removed by chemotherapy.

When a company like Angiocrine approaches Brian at the GMP facility, they already have a well-defined method for generating their cell product. Brian’s challenge is figuring out how to scale up that process to make enough cells for all the patients participating in the clinical trial. And on top of that, he must design the procedures for the clean room environment of the GMP facility, where every element of making the cells must be written down and tracked to demonstrate safety to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The right time, the right place…and a whole bunch of determination and passion
It’s extremely precise and challenging work but that’s what makes it so exciting for Brian. He tells me he’s never bored and always wakes up looking forward to what each day’s challenges will bring and figuring out how he and his team are going get these products into the clinic. It’s a responsibility he takes very seriously because he realizes what it means for his clients:

“I invest as much energy and passion and commitment into these projects as I would my own family. This is extremely important to me and I feel so incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to work on things like this. The reality is, in the GMP, people are bringing their life’s work to us in the hopes we can help people on the other end. They share all their years of development, knowledge and experience and put it in our hands and hope we can scale this up to make it meaningful for patients in need of these treatments.”

Despite all his impressive accomplishments, Brian is a very modest guy using phrases like “I was just in the right place at the right time,” during our conversation. But I was glad to hear him add “and I was the right candidate”. Because it’s clear to me that his determination and passion are the reasons for his success and is the epitome of the type of researcher CIRM had hoped its investment in the Bridges program and our SPARK high school internship program would produce for the stem cell research field.

That’s why we’ll be brimming over with an extra dose of pride on the day that one of Brian’s CIRM-funded stem cell therapy products reaches the goal line with an FDA approval.

Inspiring the next generation of stem cell scientists

SPARK2017-267_brighten

SPARK students at the 2017 Annual Meeting at the City of Hope.

“The technological breakthroughs that will be happening over the next few years – it’s your generation of scientists that will make this happen.”

zaia-john-300x300

John Zaia

Dr. John Zaia, the Director of City of Hope’s Center for Gene Therapy, directed these words to a group of 55 talented high school students attending the 2017 CIRM SPARK meeting.

SPARK stands for Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge. Students in the program spend their summer tackling difficult stem cell research projects in the lab, attending scientific workshops and lectures, and participated in patient engagement activities.

At the end of the summer, SPARK students from seven different programs at institutions and universities across California attend the annual SPARK meeting. At this gathering, students present their research to researchers and their families. They also hear about the progress in developing stem cell therapies from scientists and doctors and about exciting career paths in science and STEM fields from SPARK alumni.

The program is an excellent way for high school students to get their “research feet” wet. They are trained in basic lab and stem cell techniques and are assigned to a mentor who guides them through their research project.

Many of the students who participate in our SPARK programs go on to prestigious colleges to pursue degrees in science, medicine, and engineering. You can read some of these stories on our blog here and here.

At CIRM, we are invested in educating the next generation of stem cell scientists. Our Vice-Chair of the CIRM Board, Sen. Art Torres, said it perfectly at this year’s SPARK meeting:

“I just want to thank you for being part of this program. We are very proud of each and every one of you and we expect great things in the future.”

Check out this short video, produced by City of Hope, which features highlights from our 2017 SPARK meeting at the City of Hope. As you will see, this program is not only fun, but is a one-in-a-lifetime experience.

If you’re interested in learning more about our SPARK program or applying to be a SPARK intern, visit our website for more information. SPARK programs typically accept applications in December or early in the year. Each program has its own eligibility requirements and application process and you can find out that information on the individual SPARK program websites listed on our CIRM SPARK webpage.

CIRM Bridges Student Researcher Discovers Mentoring is a Two-Way Street

Jasmine Carter is a CIRM Bridges Scholar a Sacramento State University. She currently is interning in the lab of Dr. Kyle Fink at UC Davis and her research focuses on developing induced neurons from skin cells to model neurological disorders and develop novel therapeutics. Jasmine was a mentor to one of our UC Davis CIRM SPARK high school students this summer, and we asked her to share her thoughts on the importance of mentorship in science.

I began my scientific journey as an undergraduate student in the biomedical sciences, determined to get into medical school to become a surgeon. But I was perpetually stressed, always pushing towards the next goal and never stopping to smell the roses. Until one day, I did stop because a mentor encouraged me to figure out how I wanted to contribute to the medical field. In the midst of contemplating this important question, I was offered an undergraduate research position studying stem cells. It wasn’t long before I realized I had found my calling. Those little stem cells were incredibly fascinating to me, and I really enjoyed my time in a research lab. Being able to apply my scientific knowledge at the lab bench and challenge myself to solve biological problems was truly enjoyable to me so I applied to and was accepted into Sacramento State’s CIRM Bridges Program.

Jasmine working with stem cells in the cell culture hood.

To say I was excited to learn more about stem cell biology would be an understatement. I started volunteering in the Translational Research Lab at the Institute for Regenerative Cures at UC Davis as soon as I could. And I started to feel way outside my comfort zone as I walked into the lab because the seemingly endless rows of research benches and all the lab equipment can be a lot to take in when you first begin your research journey. When I started to actually run experiments, I worried that I may have messed the experiment up. I worried that I might SAY or DO something that would make me appear less intelligent because everyone was so knowledgeable. I struggled with figuring out whether or not I was cut out for the research environment.

I have now started my formal research internship and am constantly amazed at the mentorship I receive and collaboration I witness every day; everyone is always willing to lend a helping hand or simply be a sounding board for ideas. I have learned an immense amount of knowledge about stem cell research and its potential to improve knowledge for the scientific community and treatment options for patients. But I would not have had the opportunity to grow as an intern and learn from experts in various disciplines if it were not for the CIRM Bridges Program. The Bridges Program has allowed me to apply basic biological principles as I learn about stem cell biology and the applications of stems cells while completing a Master’s research project. Diving into the research environment has been challenging at times, but guidance from knowledgeable and encouraging mentors in the Translational Research Laboratory has helped to shape me into a more confident researcher.

Jasmine and Yasmine.

As fate would have it, just as I was becoming more and more confident in myself as a researcher, I found myself becoming a mentor to our CIRM SPARK high school intern, Yasmine. During Yasmine’s first week, I saw the exact same feelings of doubt on her face that I had experienced when I first volunteered in the laboratory. I saw how she challenged herself to absorb and understand every word and concept we said to her. I saw that familiar worried expression she’d displayed when unsure if she just messed up on an experiment or the hesitation when trying to figure out if the question she was about to ask was the “right” one. Because I had faced the same struggles, I could assure her that the internship was a learning experience and that each success and setback she encountered while working on her project would make her a better scientist.

During Yasmine’s eight-week summer internship, she observed and helped members of our team on various experiments while conducting her own research project. At the end of the first week, Yasmine commented on how diligent all the researchers in the lab were; how she hadn’t known the amount of effort and work that’s required to develop and complete a research project. Yasmine’s project focused on optimizing the protocols, or recipes, for editing genes in different types of cells for use as potential treatments for neurological disorders. Many days, you’d find Yasmine peering into the microscope and imaging cells – for her project or one of ours. Being able to visually assess the success of our experiments was exciting for her. The time we spent trying to track down just one fluorescent cell was a great opportunity for us to review the experiment and brainstorm the next set of experiments we wanted to run. I enjoyed explaining the science behind the experiments we set up, and Yasmine’s thought provoking questions sometimes led to a learning session where we figured out the answer together. Yasmine even used the knowledge she was acquiring in a graduate level Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) course to explain her flow cytometry results to our team during a lab meeting.

Yasmine at the microscope.

It was actually during one of these lab meetings when I was practicing my poster presentation for the 2017 Annual CIRM Bridges Trainee Meeting when Yasmine said, “I finally understand your project”. She and I had frequently discussed my project, but towards the end of the internship she was integrating what she learned in lectures, whiteboard review sessions and scientific papers to the research we were doing at the lab bench. It was incredibly gratifying to see how much she had learned and how her confidence as a young scientist grew while she interned with us. The internship was an invaluable experience for Yasmine because it helped to reinforce her commitment to improving the lives of patients who suffer from brain cancer. She hopes to use the research skills that the SPARK program provided to seek out research opportunities in college.

But the learning wasn’t one-sided this summer because I was also learning from Yasmine. The CIRM SPARK students are encouraged to document their internship on social media. And with Yasmine’s encouragement, I have started to document my experiences in the Bridges program by showing what the day to day life of a graduate student looks like, what experiments are going well and how I am trouble-shooting the failed experiments. Sometimes those failed experiments can be discouraging, but taking the time to discuss it with a mentor, mentee or an individual on social media can help me to figure out how I should change the experiment. So, when self-doubt sprouted back up as I began to document my experiences in the program, I reminded myself that being pushed outside my comfort zone is a great way to learn. But one of the greatest lessons I learned from Yasmine’s summer internship is the importance of sharing in a mentor-mentee relationship. After sharing my knowledge with Yasmine, I got to watch her confidence shine when she took the reins with experiments and then shared the fruits of her labor with me.

There can be a lot of ups and downs in research. However, opportunities for mentorship and learning with such bright, enthusiastic and dedicated students has certainly validated the importance of the CIRM Bridges and SPARK programs. The mentorship and collaboration that occurs between high school interns, undergraduates, graduate students, post-docs and principal investigators to develop therapies for patients with unmet medical needs is truly amazing.

Mentorship leads to productive careers and friendships.

Jasmine Carter is also an avid science communicator. You can follow her science journey on Instagram and Twitter.