Headline: Stem Cell Roundup: Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week.

In search of a miracle

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Luane Beck holds Jordan in the emergency room while he suffers a prolonged seizure. Jordan’s seizures sometimes occur one after another with no break, and they can be deadly without emergency care. Photo courtesy San Francisco Chronicle’s Kim Clark

One of the toughest parts of my job is getting daily calls and emails from people desperate for a stem cell treatment or cure for themselves or a loved one and having to tell them that I don’t know of any. You can hear in their voice, read it in their emails, how hard it is for them to see someone they love in pain or distress and not be able to help them.

I know that many of those people may think about turning to one of the many stem cell clinics, here in the US and in Mexico and other countries, that are offering unproven and unapproved therapies. These clinics are offering desperate people a sense of hope, even if there is no evidence that the therapies they provide are either safe or effective.

And these “therapies” come with a big cost, both emotional and financial.

The San Francisco Chronicle this week launched the first in a series of stories they are doing about stem cells and stem cell research, the progress being made and the problems the field still faces.

One of the biggest problems, are clinics that offer hope, at a steep price, but no evidence to show that hope is justified. The first piece in the Chronicle series is a powerful, heart breaking story of one mother’s love for her son and her determination to do all she can to help him, and the difficult, almost impossible choices she has to make along the way.

It’s called: In search of a miracle.

A little turbulence, and a French press-like device, can help boost blood platelet production

Every year more than 21 million units of blood are transfused into people in the US. It’s a simple, life-saving procedure. One of the most important elements in transfusions are  platelets, the cells that stop bleeding and have other healing properties. Platelets, however, have a very short shelf life and so there is a constant need to get more from donors. Now a new study from Japan may help fix that problem.

Platelets are small cells that break off much larger cells called megakaryocytes. Scientists at the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application (CiRA) created billions of megakaryocytes using iPS technology (which turns ordinary cells into any other kind of cell in the body) and then placed them in a bioreactor. The bioreactor then pushed the cells up and down – much like you push down on a French press coffee maker – which helped promote the generation of platelets.

In their study, published in the journal Cell, they report they were able to generate 100 billion platelets, enough to be able to treat patients.

In a news release, CiRA Professor Koji Eto said they have shown this works in mice and now they want to see if it also works in people:

“Our goal is to produce platelets in the lab to replace human donors.”

Stem Cell Photo of the Week 

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Students at the CIRM Bridges program practice their “elevator pitch”. Photo Kyle Chesser

This week we held our annual CIRM Bridges to Stem Cell Research conference in Newport Beach. The Bridges program provides paid internships for undergraduate and masters-level students, a chance to work in a world-class stem cell research facility and get the experience needed to pursue a career in science. The program is training the next generation of stem cell scientists to fill jobs in California’s growing stem cell research sector.

This year we got the students to practice an “elevator Pitch”, a 30 second explanation, in plain English, of what they do, why they do it and why people should care. It’s a fun exercise but also an important one. We want scientists to be able to explain to the public what they are doing and why it’s important. After all, the people of California are supporting this work so they have a right to know, in language they can understand, how their money is changing the face of medicine.

Stem cell roundup: summer scientists, fat-blocking cells & recent human evolution

Stem cell photo of the week: high schooler becoming a stem cell pro this summer

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High school student Anna Guzman learning important lab skills at UC Davis

This summer’s CIRM SPARK Programs, stem cell research internships for high school students, are in full swing. Along with research assignments in top-notch stem cell labs, we’ve asked the students to chronicle their internship experiences through Instagram. And today’s stem cell photo of the week is one of those student-submitted posts. The smiling intern in this photo set is Anna Guzman, a rising junior from Sheldon High School who is in the UC Davis SPARK Program. In her post, she describes the lab procedure she is doing:

“The last step in our process to harvest stem cells from a sample of umbilical cord blood! We used a magnet to isolate the CD34 marked stem cells [blood stem cells] from the rest of the solution.”

Only a few days in and Anna already looks like a pro! It’s important lab skills like this one that could land Anna a future job in the stem cell field. Check out #cirmsparklab on Instagram to view the ever-growing number of posts.

Swiss team identifies a cell type that block formation of fat cells

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(Left) Mature human fat cells grown in a Petri dish (green, lipid droplets). (Right) A section of mouse fat tissue showing, in the middle, a blood vessel (red circle) surrounded by fat cell blocking cells called Aregs (arrows). [Bart Deplancke/EPFL]

Liposuction surgery helps slim and reshape areas of a person’s body through the removal of excess fat tissue. While the patient is certainly happy to get rid of those extra pounds, that waste product is sought after by researchers because it’s a rich source of regenerative cells including fat stem cells.

The exact populations of cells in this liposuction tissue has been unclear, so a collaboration of Swiss researchers – at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETHZ) – used a cutting-edge technique allowing them to examine the gene activity within single cells.

The analysis was successful in identifying several newly defined subpopulations of cells in the fat tissue. To their surprise, one of those cell types did not specialize into fat cells but instead did the opposite: they inhibited other fat stem cells from giving rise to fat cells. The initial experiments were carried out in mice, but the team went on to show similar fat-blocking cells in human tissue. Further experiments will explore the tantalizing prospect of applying these cells to control obesity and the many diseases, like diabetes, that result from it.

The study was published June 20st in Nature.

Connection identified between recent human evolution & risk for premature birth
Evidence of recent evolution in a human gene that’s critical for maintaining pregnancy may help explain why some populations have a higher risk for giving birth prematurely than others. That’s according to a recent report by researchers at the University of Stanford School of Medicine.

The study, funded in part by CIRM’s Genomics Initiative, compared DNA from people with East Asian, European and African ancestry. They specifically examined the gene encoding the progesterone hormone receptor which helps keep a pregnant woman from going into labor too soon. The gene is also associated with preterm births, the leading cause of infant death in the U.S.

The team was very surprise to find that people with East Asian ancestry had an evolutionarily new version of the gene while the European and African populations had mixtures of new and ancient versions. These differences may explain why the risk for premature birth among East Asian populations is lower than among pregnant women of European and African descent, though environment clearly plays a role as well.

Pediatrics professor Gary Shaw, PhD, one of the team leaders, put the results in perspective:

“Preterm birth has probably been with us since the origin of the human species,” said Shaw in a press release, “and being able to track its evolutionary history in a way that sheds new light on current discoveries about prematurity is really exciting.”

The study was published June 21st in The American Journal of Human Genetics.

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.

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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.

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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!

CCSF’s CIRM Bridges scholars: the future of stem cell research is in good hands

In need of an extra dose of inspiration? You might read a great book or listen to that podcast your friend recommended. You might even take a stroll along the beach. But I can do you one better: go to a conference poster session where young stem cell scientists describe their research.

That’s what I did last week at the City College of San Francisco’s (CCSF) Bioscience Symposium held at UC San Francisco’s Genentech Hall. It’s a day-long conference that showcases the work of CCSF Bioscience interns and gives them a chance to present the results of their research projects, network with their peers and researchers, hear panelists talk about careers in biotechnology and participate in practice job interviews.

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CCSF’s CIRM Bridges Scholars (clockwise from top left): Vanessa Lynn Herrara, Viktoriia Volobuieva, Christopher Nosworthy and Sofiana E. Hamama.

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CCSF’s CIRM Bridges Scholars (clockwise from top left): Seema Niddapu, Mark Koontz, Karolina Kaminska and Iris Avellano

Eight of the dozens of students in attendance at the Symposium are part of the CIRM-funded Bridges Stem Cell Internship program at CCSF. It’s one of 14 CIRM Bridges programs throughout the state that provides paid stem cell research internships to students at universities and colleges that don’t have major stem cell research programs. Each Bridges internship includes thorough hands-on training and education in stem cell research, and direct patient engagement and outreach activities that engage California’s diverse communities.

In the CCSF Bridges Program, directed by Dr. Carin Zimmerman, the students do a 9-month paid internship in top notch labs at UCSF, the Gladstone Institutes and Blood System Research Institute. As I walked from poster to poster and chatted with each Bridges scholar, their excitement and enthusiasm for carrying out stem cell research was plain to see. It left me with the feeling that the future of stem cell research is in good hands and, as I walked into the CIRM office the next day, I felt re-energized to tackle the Agency’s mission to accelerate stem cell treatment for patients with unmet medical needs. But don’t take my word for it, listen to the enthusiastic perspectives of Bridges scholars Mark Koontz and Iris Avellano in this short video.

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.

Meet the high school student who moonlights as a neuroscientist

As part of our CIRM scholar blog series, we’re featuring the research and career accomplishments of CIRM funded students. Today, you’ll read about one of our former SPARK high school students.


Emma Friedenberg and former CIRM SPARK Director Karen Ring at the 2017 SPARK Conference.

Emma Friedenberg is a high school senior at Campbell Hall in North Hollywood, California. She’s also an up-and-coming neuroscientist who has her sights set on unraveling the complexities of the brain and discovering cures for degenerative brain diseases. Emma spent the summer of 2017 studying Huntington’s disease in the lab of Dr. Virginia Mattis at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Her internship was possible because of the CIRM SPARK high school educational program which gives California students the opportunity to do stem cell research for a summer.

Below is an interview with Emma about her SPARK experience and how the program is helping her pursue her passions for research and medicine.

Q: How did you learn about the CIRM SPARK program and why did you want to apply?

I’ve been a clinical volunteer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for two years in the Intensive Care Unit and the Neurology and Spine Unit. I was submitting my application to return as a volunteer when I explored Cedars-Sinai’s Outreach website page and found the CIRM SPARK program. I knew immediately it was a perfect fit. I plan on studying neuroscience in college with an intention of obtaining my medical degree and becoming a surgeon. The CIRM SPARK program at Cedars within the Board of Governor’s Regenerative Medicine Institute had an option to be involved specifically in the Brain Program. In Dr. Virginia Mattis’ lab, I studied translational stem cell therapies for neurodegenerative diseases, in particular Huntington’s Disease. As Cedars-Sinai calls it, a “bench to bedside” approach is an unparalleled and invaluable experience and huge advantage in science.

Q: What was your SPARK research project?

At Cedars-Sinai, I was mentored by Dr. Virginia Mattis in her stem cell lab. The Mattis Lab researches stem cell therapies for Huntington’s disease (HD), a neurodegenerative brain disease. HD is caused by a loss of neurons, specifically medium spiny neurons in the striatum of Huntington’s patients. We used induced pluripotent stem cells to model HD in a petri dish to study the development of the disease and to create medium spiny neurons that could one day be transplanted into Huntington’s patients to replace lost and damaged cells.

Medium spiny neurons made from Huntington’s disease patient induced pluripotent stem cells. (Image credit: Mattis Lab, Cedars Sinai)

My primary research in the Mattis Lab was experimenting on our cell line to find the most time and cost-effective procedure to produce large populations of medium spiny neurons, because current methods are expensive and largely inefficient. However, my internship was not limited to the laboratory. I spent a significant amount of time shadowing doctors in the ALS Clinic.

Q: What was your experience in the CIRM SPARK program like?

In one word, the CIRM SPARK program was incredible –a one of a kind opportunity. The sciences are my personal passion and the cornerstone of my academic pursuits. The CIRM SPARK program has bolstered my scientific knowledge and provided practical experience in a real-world laboratory environment. A career in medicine is a significant commitment, and I’m confident the CIRM SPARK program was a beneficial start to obtaining my goals.

Cedars-Sinai SPARK students celebrating the completion of their 2017 internships.

Q: What do you value most about your SPARK experience?

It was wonderful to be part of a program which understood collaboration and offered a plethora of learning opportunities outside of the wet lab. What I will keep with me is not only techniques of immunocytochemistry and microscopy, but also the advice and encouragement from accomplished scientists like Clive Svendsen and my mentor Virginia Mattis.

Q: What are your future goals?

I plan on studying neuroscience in college with an intention of obtaining my medical degree and becoming a surgeon.

Q: Who is your scientific idol and why?

I recently read Dr. Eric Kandel’s book, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present. Dr. Kandel is a neuroscientist and a Professor at Columbia University. He received the Nobel Prize for his work in memory storage using Aplysia, a type of sea slug. His book examines how the human brain responds to art. What I find so inspiring about his book is his interdisciplinary approach to science, a combination of neuroscience, psychoanalysis, biology, and art. The human brain is so complicated that it can be studied from numerous perspectives, from biology to chemistry to electrophysiology. It is not until we can begin to merge these understandings that we will begin to unlock the secrets of the brain. Dr. Kandel is not only a scientist, but an intellectual.

Q: What is your favorite thing about being a scientist?

For centuries, the human brain was an anomaly, unexplainable by science. With 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections, the brain is the most complex network in the universe. How the brain functions as an information-processing organ and regulates emotion, behavior, and cognition as well as basic body functions like breathing remains a mystery. In recent years, there has been significant progress in brain research. Scientists are on the brink of major breakthroughs, but there is significant work to do particularly on neurological brain disorders. Being a scientist means living on the cutting-edge of human innovation. I enjoy being able to both ask and answer questions that will benefit humankind.


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Stem Cell Agency invests in stem cell therapies targeting sickle cell disease and solid cancers

Today CIRM’s governing Board invested almost $10 million in stem cell research for sickle cell disease and patients with solid cancer tumors.

Clinical trial for sickle cell disease

City of Hope was awarded $5.74 million to launch a Phase 1 clinical trial testing a stem cell-based therapy for adult patients with severe sickle cell disease (SCD). SCD refers to a group of inherited blood disorders that cause red blood cells to take on an abnormal, sickle shape. Sickle cells clog blood vessels and block the normal flow of oxygen-carrying blood to the body’s tissues. Patients with SCD have a reduced life expectancy and experience various complications including anemia, stroke, organ damage, and bouts of excruciating pain.

A mutation in the globlin gene leads to sickled red blood cells that clog up blood vessels

CIRM’s President and CEO, Maria T. Millan, explained in the Agency’s news release:

Maria T. Millan

“The current standard of treatment for SCD is a bone marrow stem cell transplant from a genetically matched donor, usually a close family member. This treatment is typically reserved for children and requires high doses of toxic chemotherapy drugs to remove the patient’s diseased bone marrow. Unfortunately, most patients do not have a genetically matched donor and are unable to benefit from this treatment. The City of Hope trial aims to address this unmet medical need for adults with severe SCD.”

The proposed treatment involves transplanting blood-forming stem cells from a donor into a patient who has received a milder, less toxic chemotherapy treatment that removes some but not all of the patient’s diseased bone marrow stem cells. The donor stem cells are depleted of immune cells called T cells prior to transplantation. This approach allows the donor stem cells to engraft and create a healthy supply of non-diseased blood cells without causing an immune reaction in the patient.

Joseph Rosenthal, the Director of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology at the City of Hope and lead investigator on the trial, mentioned that CIRM funding made it possible for them to test this potential treatment in a clinical trial.

“The City of Hope transplant program in SCD is one of the largest in the nation. CIRM funding will allow us to conduct a Phase 1 trial in six adult patients with severe SCD. We believe this treatment will improve the quality of life of patients while also reducing the risk of graft-versus-host disease and transplant-related complications. Our hope is that this treatment can be eventually offered to SCD patients as a curative therapy.”

This is the second clinical trial for SCD that CIRM has funded – the first being a Phase 1 trial at UCLA treating SCD patients with their own genetically modified blood stem cells. CIRM is also currently funding research at Children’s Hospital of Oakland Research Institute and Stanford University involving the use of CRISPR gene editing technologies to develop novel stem cell therapies for SCD patients.

Advancing a cancer immunotherapy for solid tumors

The CIRM Board also awarded San Diego-based company Fate Therapeutics $4 million to further develop a stem cell-based therapy for patients with advanced solid tumors.

Fate is developing FT516, a Natural Killer (NK) cell cancer immunotherapy derived from an engineered human induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) line. NK cells are part of the immune system’s first-line response to infection and diseases like cancer. Fate is engineering human iPSCs to express a novel form of a protein receptor, called CD16, and is using these cells as a renewable source for generating NK cells. The company will use the engineered NK cells in combination with an anti-breast cancer drug called trastuzumab to augment the drug’s ability to kill breast cancer cells.

“CIRM sees the potential in Fate’s unique approach to developing cancer immunotherapies. Different cancers require different approaches that often involve a combination of treatments. Fate’s NK cell product is distinct from the T cell immunotherapies that CIRM also funds and will allow us to broaden the arsenal of immunotherapies for incurable and devastating cancers,” said Maria Millan.

Fate’s NK cell product will be manufactured in large batches made from a master human iPSC line. This strategy will allow them to treat a large patient population with a well characterized, uniform cell product.

The award Fate received is part of CIRM’s late stage preclinical funding program, which aims to fund the final stages of research required to file an Investigational New Drug (IND) application with the US Food and Drug Administration. If the company is granted an IND, it will be able to launch a clinical trial.

Scott Wolchko, President and CEO of Fate Therapeutics, shared his company’s goals for launching a clinical trial next year with the help of CIRM funding:

“Fate has more than a decade of experience in developing human iPSC-derived cell products. CIRM funding will enable us to complete our IND-enabling studies and the manufacturing of our clinical product. Our goal is to launch a clinical trial in 2019 using the City of Hope CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic.”

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.

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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.

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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:

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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.”

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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.

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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

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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.

Budgeting for the future of the stem cell agency

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The CIRM Board discusses the future of the Stem Cell Agency

Budgets are very rarely exciting things; but they are important. For example, it’s useful for a family to know when they go shopping exactly how much money they have so they know how much they can afford to spend. Stem cell agencies face the same constraints; you can’t spend more than you have. Last week the CIRM Board looked at what we have in the bank, and set us on a course to be able to do as many of the things we want to, with the money we have left.

First some context. Last year CIRM spent a shade over $306 million on a wide range of research from Discovery, the earliest stage, through Translational and into Clinical trials. We estimate that is going to leave us with approximately $335 million to spend in the coming years.

A couple of years ago our Board approved a 5 year Strategic Plan that laid out some pretty ambitious goals for us to achieve – such as funding 50 new clinical trials. At the time, that many clinical trials definitely felt like a stretch and we questioned if it would be possible. We’re proving that it is. In just two years we have funded 26 new clinical trials, so we are halfway to our goal, which is terrific. But it also means we are in danger of using up all our money faster than anticipated, and not having the time to meet all our goals.

Doing the math

So, for the last couple of months our Leadership Team has been crunching the numbers and looking for ways to use the money in the most effective and efficient way. Last week they presented their plan to the Board.

It boiled down to a few options.

  • Keep funding at the current rate and run out of money by 2019
  • Limit funding just to clinical trials, which would mean we could hit our 50 clinical trial goal by 2020 but would not have enough to fund Discovery and Translational level research
  • Place caps on how much we fund each clinical trial, enabling us to fund more clinical trials while having enough left over for Discovery and Translational awards

The Board went for the third option for some good reasons. The plan is consistent with the goals laid out in our Strategic Plan and it supports Discovery and Translational research, which are important elements in our drive to develop new therapies for patients.

Finding the right size cap

Here’s a look at the size of the caps on clinical trial funding. You’ll see that in the case of late stage pre-clinical work and Phase 1 clinical trials, the caps are still larger than the average amount we funded those stages last year. For Phase 2 the cap is almost the same as the average. For Phase 3 the cap is half the amount from last year, but we think at this stage Phase 3 trials should be better able to attract funding from other sources, such as industry or private investors.

cap awards

Another important reason why the Board chose option three – and here you’ll have to forgive me for being rather selfish – is that it means the Administration Budget (which pays the salaries of the CIRM team, including yours truly) will be enough to cover the cost of running this research plan until 2020.

The bottom line is that for 2018 we’ll be able to spend $130 million on clinical stage research, $30 million for Translational stage, and $10 million for Discovery. The impact the new funding caps will have on clinical stage projects is likely to be small (you can see the whole presentation and details of our plan here) but the freedom it gives us to support the broad range of our work is huge.

And here is where to go if you are interested in seeing the different funding opportunities at CIRM.

Hey, what’s the big idea? CIRM Board is putting up more than $16.4 million to find out

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David Higgins, CIRM Board member and Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s disease; Photo courtesy San Diego Union Tribune

When you have a life-changing, life-threatening disease, medical research never moves as quickly as you want to find a new treatment. Sometimes, as in the case of Parkinson’s disease, it doesn’t seem to move at all.

At our Board meeting last week David Higgins, our Board member and Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s disease, made that point as he championed one project that is taking a new approach to finding treatments for the condition. As he said in a news release:

“I’m a fourth generation Parkinson’s patient and I’m taking the same medicines that my grandmother took. They work but not for everyone and not for long. People with Parkinson’s need new treatment options and we need them now. That’s why this project is worth supporting. It has the potential to identify some promising candidates that might one day lead to new treatments.”

The project is from Zenobia Therapeutics. They were awarded $150,000 as part of our Discovery Inception program, which targets great new ideas that could have a big impact on the field of stem cell research but need some funding to help test those ideas and see if they work.

Zenobia’s idea is to generate induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) that have been turned into dopaminergic neurons – the kind of brain cell that is dysfunctional in Parkinson’s disease. These iPSCs will then be used to screen hundreds of different compounds to see if any hold potential as a therapy for Parkinson’s disease. Being able to test compounds against real human brain cells, as opposed to animal models, could increase the odds of finding something effective.

Discovering a new way

The Zenobia project was one of 14 programs approved for the Discovery Inception award. You can see the others on our news release. They cover a broad array of ideas targeting a wide range of diseases from generating human airway stem cells for new approaches to respiratory disease treatments, to developing a novel drug that targets cancer stem cells.

Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President and CEO, said the Stem Cell Agency supports this kind of work because we never know where the next great idea is going to come from:

“This research is critically important in advancing our knowledge of stem cells and are the foundation for future therapeutic candidates and treatments. Exploring and testing new ideas increases the chances of finding treatments for patients with unmet medical needs. Without CIRM’s support many of these projects might never get off the ground. That’s why our ability to fund research, particularly at the earliest stage, is so important to the field as a whole.”

The CIRM Board also agreed to invest $13.4 million in three projects at the Translation stage. These are programs that have shown promise in early stage research and need funding to do the work to advance to the next level of development.

  • $5.56 million to Anthony Oro at Stanford to test a stem cell therapy to help people with a form of Epidermolysis bullosa, a painful, blistering skin disease that leaves patients with wounds that won’t heal.
  • $5.15 million to Dan Kaufman at UC San Diego to produce natural killer (NK) cells from embryonic stem cells and see if they can help people with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) who are not responding to treatment.
  • $2.7 million to Catriona Jamieson at UC San Diego to test a novel therapeutic approach targeting cancer stem cells in AML. These cells are believed to be the cause of the high relapse rate in AML and other cancers.

At CIRM we are trying to create a pipeline of projects, ones that hold out the promise of one day being able to help patients in need. That’s why we fund research from the earliest Discovery level, through Translation and ultimately, we hope into clinical trials.

The writer Victor Hugo once said:

“There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.”

We are in the business of finding those ideas whose time has come, and then doing all we can to help them get there.