Earlier this year, CIRM welcomed many energetic and enthusiastic high school students at the 2022 SPARK Program annual conference in Oakland. The SPARK program is one of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s (CIRM) many programs dedicated to building a diverse and highly-skilled workforce to support the growing regenerative medicine economy right here in California.
At the SPARK conference, a handful of students presented the stem cell research they did over the summer. It was a great opportunity to share their experiences as well as findings to their high school peers.
Just recently, Simran Ovalekar—a 2022 SPARK program intern—had the unique opportunity to share her research and findings with a wider audience, including undergraduate and PhD students at STEM Shadow Day in San Diego. The event aims to provide college prep students from San Diego and Imperial Valley counties with a unique experience to witness the “real world” of work in an engineering or scientific environment.
“At first I was nervous because I understood that I would be presenting not only in front of high school students, but also undergraduates and PhD candidates,” Simran says. “After reviewing my research, I felt solid and excited to present. I absolutely loved working in the lab so I knew all I had to do was be myself and show my enthusiasm.”
During the SPARK summer internship, Simran joined the Sacco Lab to study Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) and how stem cells can be used to provide treatment. DMD is a progressive muscle wasting disorder with life expectancy of approximately age 20. There are around 17,000 people, the vast majority of them boys, diagnosed with DMD in the US.
Dr. Sacco’s lab—which has also received CIRM funding—is researching ways to generate healthy adult muscle stem cells using the patient’s own cells to generate healthy skeletal muscle.
For Simran, conducting research for DMD was personal, as her sister was born with a defect affecting the heart.
“When I began this program, I had a superficial understanding of what a stem cell was. Now, however, I am amazed at the possibilities stem cells provide, and with certainty, can say stem cells are the future of medicine.”
After her presentation at STEM Shadow Day, Simran says she received a positive response from attendees and was reminded why she loves science and of her passion for pursuing a career in stem cell research.
“I am looking forward to continue skeletal stem cell research and am even open to experimenting with other avenues of molecular medicine,” Simran says. “I am eager to have the opportunity to pursue the hands-on research I enjoyed this past summer.”
CIRM has also funded a clinical trial for people with DMD. We blogged about that work and how the impact it is having on some people’s lives.
The headline in the journal Nature was intended to grab attention and it definitely did that. It read: ‘The scandal of researchers paid less than a living wage’ The rest of the article built on that saying “The cost-of-living crisis is a fundamental threat for PhD scholars and early-career researchers. They need to be paid properly.”
So, just how poorly are these researchers – PhD candidates and postdoctoral students – paid? Well, according to one survey salaries for PhD students in the biological sciences are below the cost of living at almost every institution in the United States. And imagine trying to live on a sub-standard income in a state as expensive as California?
The outrage is fueled by a survey of more than 3,200 students, three quarters of whom are PhD candidates. Around 85% of the students said inflation is making things even worse and almost half said it was making it hard to complete their courses.
The situation isn’t any better in other countries. In the UK, PhD students often get the equivalent of just $20,400, and that’s after getting a recent big boost of more than $2,000 per year. It’s no wonder English students organized protests calling for better funding. Students in Ireland also staged protests, saying the money they get simply isn’t enough.
The Nature Editorial said this isn’t just a matter of inconvenience for the students, it’s a threat to the future of science: “If students don’t have the resources to support themselves, they can’t put their full efforts into their training and development. And if their stipends aren’t keeping pace with rising rents and the cost of groceries and fuel, any gaps will only grow with time — with devastating results for the ability of research to attract the best talent.”
That’s one of the reasons the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) tries to make sure all the students in its internship programs have enough money to live on. We know it’s hard to focus on work if you are hungry or worried that you don’t have enough money to pay your bills.
When our Board approved a new internship program, called COMPASS (Creating Opportunities through Mentorship and Partnership Across Stem Cell Science) they made sure that enough money was included to cover students living expenses, course fees and even travel to scientific conferences. The Board allocated more than $58,000 a year to support each students, many of whom will come from poor or low-income communities and might not otherwise be able to afford to stay in school.
For our Bridges students, many of whom are also from low-income communities or are the first in their family to attend college, the Board allocated each one around $72,000 worth of support per year.
We know that the future of regenerative medicine in California depends on having a skilled, well-trained, diverse workforce. That doesn’t just mean PhDs doing the research, it also means the technicians and support staff that can help with manufacturing etc. Without a living wage that makes this possible many students will drop out and the field as a whole will struggle. Those most affected will be students from poor backgrounds or from disadvantaged and historically marginalized communities.
We need to support these students in every way we can. If we don’t provide enough financial support for these students to succeed, the field as a whole will be a lot poorer.
This brings the total number of CIRM funded clinical trials to 83.
$11,999,984 was awarded to Dr. Jana Portnow at the Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope. They are using Neural stem cells (NSCs) as a form of delivery vehicle to carry a cancer-killing virus that specifically targets brain tumor cells.
Glioblastoma is the most common malignant primary brain tumor in adults and each year about 12,000 Americans are diagnosed. The 5-year survival rate is only about 10%.
The current standard of care involves surgically removing the tumor followed by radiation, chemotherapy, and alternating electric field therapy. Despite these treatments, survival remains low.
The award to Dr. Portnow will fund a clinical trial to assess the safety and effectiveness of this stem cell-based treatment for Glioblastoma.
The Board also awarded $3,111,467 to Dr. Boris Minev of Calidi Biotherapeutics. This award is in the form of a CLIN1 grant, with the goal of completing the testing needed to apply to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permission to start a clinical trial in people.
This project uses donor fat-derived mesenchymal stem cells that have been loaded with oncolytic virus to target metastatic melanoma, triple negative breast cancer, and advanced head & neck squamous cell carcinoma.
“There are few options for patients with advanced solid tumor cancers such as glioblastoma, melanoma, breast cancer, and head & neck cancer,” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., President and CEO of CIRM. “Surgical resection, chemotherapy and radiation are largely ineffective in advanced cases and survival typically is measured in months. These new awards will support novel approaches to address the unmet medical needs of patients with these devastating cancers.”
The CIRM Board also voted to approve awarding $71,949,539 to expand the CIRM Alpha Clinics Network. The current network consists of six sites and the Board approved continued funding for those and added an additional three sites. The funding is to last five years.
The goal of the Alpha Clinics award is to expand existing capacities for delivering stem cell, gene therapies and other advanced treatment to patients. They also serve as a competency hub for regenerative medicine training, clinical research, and the delivery of approved treatments.
Each applicant was required to submit a plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to support and facilitate outreach and study participation by underserved and disproportionately affected populations in the clinical trials they serve.
The successful applicants are:
The Stanford Alpha Stem Cell Clinic
Stanford University – Matthew Porteus
UCSF Alpha Stem Cell Clinic
U.C. San Francisco – Mark Walters
A comprehensive stem cell and gene therapy clinic to advance new therapies for a diverse patient population in California
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center – Michael Lewis
The City of Hope Alpha Clinic: A roadmap for equitable and inclusive access to regenerative medicine therapies for all Californians
City of Hope – Leo Wang
Alpha Stem Cell Clinic for Northern and Central California
U.C. Davis – Mehrdad Abedi
Expansion of the Alpha Stem Cell and Gene Therapy Clinic at UCLA
U.C. Los Angeles – Noah Federman
Alpha Clinic Network Expansion for Cell and Gene Therapies
University of Southern California – Thomas Buchanan
A hub and spoke community model to equitably deliver regenerative medicine therapies to diverse populations across four California counties
U.C. Irvine – Daniela Bota
UC San Diego Health CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic
U.C. San Diego – Catriona Jamieson
The Board also unanimously, and enthusiastically, approved the election of Maria Gonzalez Bonneville to be the next Vice Chair of the Board. Ms. Bonneville, the current Vice President of Public Outreach and Board Governance at CIRM, was nominated by all four constitutional officers: the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the Treasurer and the Controller.
In supporting the nomination, Board member Ysabel Duron said: “I don’t think we could do better than taking on Maria Gonzalez Bonneville as the Vice Chair. She is well educated as far as CIRM goes. She has a great track record; she is empathetic and caring and will be a good steward for the taxpayers to ensure the work we do serves them well.”
In her letter to the Board applying for the position, Ms. Bonneville said: “CIRM is a unique agency with a large board and a long history. With my institutional knowledge and my understanding of CIRM’s internal workings and processes, I can serve as a resource for the new Chair. I have worked hand-in-hand with both the Chair and Vice Chair in setting agendas, prioritizing work, driving policy, and advising accordingly. I have worked hard to build trusted relationships with all of you so that I could learn and understand what areas were of the most interest and where I could help shed light on those particular programs or initiatives. I have also worked closely with Maria Millan for the last decade, and greatly enjoy our working relationship. In short, I believe I provide a level of continuity and expertise that benefits the board and helps in times of transition.”
In accepting the position Ms. Bonneville said: “I am truly honored to be elected as the Vice Chair for the CIRM Board. I have been a part of CIRM for 11 years and am deeply committed to the mission and this new role gives me an opportunity to help support and advance that work at an exciting time in the Agency’s life. There are many challenges ahead of us but knowing the Board and the CIRM team I feel confident we will be able to meet them, and I look forward to helping us reach our goals.”
Ms. Bonneville will officially take office in January 2023.
The vote for the new Chair of CIRM will take place at the Board meeting on December 15th.
Aaliyah Staples-West didn’t originally envision becoming a stem cell researcher. As a student at San Diego State University, she admits that she sometimes struggled with reading protocols or finishing experiments on time. She also was originally studying chemistry, a very distinct scientific field from regenerative medicine.
“Everything I was looking for aligned with what I wanted to do,” she says. “I applied and I was greeted with open arms to an acceptance about a week later.” She even stayed in college for an extra semester so she could enroll in the CIRM internship program.
In the lab, Aaliyah worked with stem cells to derive brain organoids, which are three-dimensional, organ-like clusters of cells. She also researched vascular endothelial cells, which form a single cell layer that lines all blood vessels. She tested and observed these to further understand the causes of CSB.
Aaliyah also had opportunities to do work outside of the lab, traveling to various scientific conferences across the state to explain her work to other scientists.
She enjoyed sharing her findings, but Aaliyah says it was a challenge at first to learn all the complex science and terminology relating to stem cells. She overcame that obstacle by asking lots of questions and putting in extra effort to understanding the biology and reasoning behind her work.
“I would write down all the terms my mentor would say that I didn’t understand and look them up,” she says. “I would even practice using them in a sentence. I made it very intentional that if I wanted to continue researching in this field I needed to be on the same page.”
Now that her internship is over, Aaliyah is much more confident and has learned various techniques to successfully complete research projects. She now works for biotechnology company Resilience as a research associate working with induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and hematopoietic stem cells. Though she originally intended to go to medical school, she is now looking into MD/PhD programs where she can apply all that she’s learned in her training and education.
“I never thought I would have a love for stem cell research until participating in this program,” she says. “Stem cell research and regenerative medicine provide infinite opportunities for developing, understanding and potentially curing diseases. It’s important to continue this type of research to ensure science is quickly evolving and to make an impact on overall health.”
To date, there are 1,663 Bridges alumni, and another 109 Bridges trainees are completing their internships in 2022. Learn more about CIRM’s internship programs here.
All photos courtesy of Sarah White/SDSU and Aaliyah Staples-West.
Dr. Chou is the President, CEO and a member of the Board of Directors of AltruBio, Inc. a clinical stage biotech company that is focused on developing novel antibody therapeutics for the treatment of immune inflammatory diseases.
“I am excited to join the ICOC leveraging my experience both as a scientist in the the biopharmaceutical industry and as a corporate executive to support the research and funding of life changing medicines for patients in need,” said Dr. Chou.
Dr. Chou has more than 20 years experience in drug development and biomanufacturing. Before joining AltruBio she headed the global Biotech organization at Bayer Pharmaceuticals. At Bayer she oversaw the development, manufacturing and distribution of the company’s more than $3 billion product portfolio. She also oversaw more than 2,000 employees and led the drug development and launch activities for the biologics pipeline. In addition, she also served as the site head for Bayer’s facility in Berkeley, California, the company’s largest manufacturing site in the U.S.
“We are honored and delighted to have Dr. Chou take a seat on the Board,” says Jonathan Thomas, Ph.D., J.D., Chair of the CIRM Board. “She has a remarkable career in academia, industry and in promoting diversity, equity and inclusion and will be an invaluable addition to the ICOC. We are very much looking forward to working with her.”
Dr. Chou also has had leadership roles at Pfizer, Medivation Inc., Genentech and Wyeth Biopharma. She has won several awards and in 2018 was the recipient of the Most Influential Women in Business award by the San Francisco Business Times. She is currently an advisor at the UC Berkeley Engineering School and is working to promote diversity and inclusion through her advisory board position at Silicon Valley Women in Engineering.
Dr. Chou obtained her Ph.D., at Yale, her post-doctoral training at the Max-Planck Institute in Germany and was a research faculty member at Harvard University Medical School focusing on cell biology and neuroscience.
Dr. Chou was appointed to the CIRM Board by State Treasurer Fiona Ma, as the Executive Officer of a Commercial Life Science entity. She replaces Dave Martin.
For many patients battling deadly diseases, getting access to a clinical trial can be life-saving, but it can also be very challenging. Today the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved a concept plan to make it financially and logistically easier for patients to take part in CIRM-funded clinical trials.
The plan will create a Patient Support Program (PSP) to provide support to California patients being evaluated or enrolled in CIRM-supported clinical trials, with a particular emphasis on helping underserved populations.
“Helping scientists develop stem cell and gene therapies is just part of what we do at CIRM. If those clinical trials and resulting therapies are not accessible to the people of California, who are making all this possible, then we have not fulfilled our mission.” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., President and CEO of CIRM.
The Patient Support Plan will offer a range of services including:
Clinical trial navigation, directing patients to appropriate CIRM-supported clinical trials.
Logistical support for patients being evaluated or enrolled in clinical trials.
Financial support for under resourced and underserved populations in CIRM-supported clinical trials, including the CIRM Patient Assistance Fund (PAF). This support includes transportation/travel expenses, such as gasoline, tolls, parking, airfare, taxi, train, lodging, and meals during travel.
Providing nurse navigator support for the psychosocial, emotional, and practical needs of patients and their families.
The funds for the PSP are set aside under Proposition 14, the voter-approved initiative that re-funded CIRM in 2020. Under Prop 14 CIRM money that CIRM grantees earn from licensing, inventions or technologies is to be spent “offsetting the costs of providing treatments and cures arising from institute-funded research to California patients who have insufficient means to purchase such treatment or cure, including the reimbursement of patient-qualified costs for research participants.”
Currently, the CIRM Licensing Revenues and Royalties Fund has a balance of $15.6 million derived from royalty payments.
“The patient support program and financial resources will not only help patients in need, it will also help increase the likelihood that these clinical trials will succeed,” says Sean Turbeville, Ph.D., Vice President of Medical Affairs and Policy at CIRM. “We know cell and gene therapies can be particularly challenging for patients and their families. The financial challenges, the long-distance traveling, extended evaluation, and family commitments can make it difficult to enroll and retain patients. The aim of the PSP is to change that.”
The overall objective of this funding opportunity is to establish a statewide program that, over five years, is expected to support hundreds of patients in need as they participate in the growing number of CIRM-supported clinical trials. The program is expected to cost between $300,000 to $500,000 a year. That money will come from the Medical Affairs budget and not out of the patient assistance fund.
The first phase of the program will identify an organization, through a competitive process, that has the expertise to provide patient support services including:
Maintaining a call and support center.
Assessing patient eligibility for financial assistance.
Reporting to CIRM on patients needs and center performance
You can find more information about the Patient Support Program on our website here and here.
All her life, Madison Waterlander knew that she wanted to be a part of the medical field. But soon after graduating from the University of Hawaii with her undergraduate degree, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It was during this time that she noticed how crucial biomedical research was in the medical field and lives of patients, and when she realized she had a passion for research.
She soon after found a master’s program in biotechnology and bioinformatics at California State University Channel Islands (CI), just a few minutes from Camarillo, the town she grew up in.
Looking further into the program, she learned that to pursue a Stem Cell Technology and Laboratory Management emphasis for the degree, she would have to complete a one-year lab internship funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). The internship was part of CIRM’s Bridges to Stem Cell Research and Therapy Program, which prepares California undergraduate and master’s graduate students for highly productive careers in stem cell research and therapy development.
The opportunity to have hands-on experience in a lab through the internship solidified her decision to join the graduate program.
Once she settled into the program at CSU Channel Islands, she began her internship, which took place at UC Santa Barbara in the Weimbs Lab. While there, she researched the underlying mechanisms and possible new therapies for Autosomal Dominant Polycystic Kidney Disease (ADPKD), a genetic disorder characterized by the growth of numerous cysts in the kidneys.
“This CIRM-funded internship was so enriching for me, and I was able to expand my knowledge and skill set immensely in the laboratory,” Madison says. “I always knew that I loved science and the medical field, but this experience truly helped me realize that my strongest passion resides in the scientific research that goes into improving the quality of patient care and treatments.”
While Madison says the internship supported her knowledge in the lab and was an overall positive experience, she also faced some personal challenges during that time, including losing her grandma. She struggled with the loss, but Madison says her time in the lab allowed her to focus on something she loved doing and that her grandma always encouraged her to do.
“My grandma never would have wanted me to give up, so that truly helped to push me to continue on, and to try my hardest in every day to make an impact,” Madison says.
After a year of hard work in the lab, Madison officially graduated from CSU Channel Islands this summer with a Master of Science Degree in Biotechnology and Bioinformatics with a Stem Cell Technology and Laboratory Management emphasis. Now, Madison is pursuing a role in the biotechnology industry within translational biomedical research.
“I truly enjoyed every moment of my CIRM internship, and I feel that it truly revealed to me just how much I enjoy participating in biomedical research,” Madison says. “I’ve always felt that research feels like a treasure hunt looking for cures and treatments, so the more of us that are partaking in the treasure hunt, the quicker we can find new treatments and provide solutions for patients.”
Stories like Madison’s are why CIRM remains committed to training the next generation of scientists to conduct research and deliver regenerative medicine and stem cell therapies to patients. To date, there are 1,663 Bridges alumni, and another 109 Bridges trainees—including Madison—who are completing their internships in 2022.
Education is at the core of CIRM’s mission of accelerating world class science to deliver transformative regenerative medicine treatments in an equitable manner to a diverse California and world. And funding these additional programs is an important step in ensuring that California has a well-trained stem cell workforce.
The objective of COMPASS is to prepare a diverse cadre of undergraduate students for careers in regenerative medicine through combining hands-on research opportunities with strategic and structured mentorship experiences.
“Education and infrastructure are two funding pillars critical for creating the next generation of researchers and conducting stem cell based clinical trials,” says Jonathan Thomas, Ph.D., J.D., Chair of the CIRM Board. “The importance of these programs was acknowledged in Proposition 14 and we expect that they will continue to be important components of CIRM’s programs and strategic direction in the years to come.”
Most undergraduate research training programs, including those targeting students from underserved communities, target individuals with predefined academic credentials as well as a stated commitment towards graduate school, medical school, or faculty positions in academia. COMPASS will support the development and implementation of novel strategies to recognize and foster untapped talent that can lead to new and valuable perspectives that are specific to the challenges of regenerative medicine, and that will create new paths to a spectrum of careers that are not always apparent to students in the academic, undergraduate environment.
COMPASS will complement but not compete with CIRM’s Bridges program, a subset of which serve a different, but equally important population of undergraduate trainees; similarly, the program is unlikely to compete for the same pools of students that would be most likely to receive support through the major NIH Training Programs such as MARC and RISE.
Here are the 16 successful applicants.
The COMPASS Scholars Program – Developing Today’s Untapped Talent into Tomorrow’s STEM Cell Researchers
John Matsui, University of California, Berkeley
COMPASS Undergraduate Program
Alice F Tarantal, University of California, Davis
Research Mentorship Program in Regenerative Medicine Careers for a Diverse Undergraduate Student Body
Brian J. Cummings, University of California, Irvine
CIRM COMPASS Training Program (N-COMPASS)
Cindy S Malone, The University Corporation at California State University, Northridge
COMPASS: Accelerating Stem Cell Research by Educating and Empowering New Stem Cell Researchers
Tracy L Johnson, University of California, Los Angeles
Training and mentorship program in stem cell biology and engineering: A COMPASS for the future
Dennis Clegg, University of California, Santa Barbara
Research Training and Mentorship Program to Inspire Diverse Undergraduates toward Regenerative Medicine Careers (RAMP)
Huinan Hannah Liu, The Regents of the University of California on behalf of its Riverside Campus
Inclusive Pathways for a Stem Cell Scholar (iPSCs) Undergraduate Training Program
Lily Chen, San Francisco State University
A COMPASS to guide the growth of a diverse regenerative medicine workforce that represents California and benefits the world
Kristen OHalloran Cardinal, Cal Poly Corporation, an Auxiliary of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo
Increase Diversity, Equity, and Advancement in Cell Based Manufacturing Sciences (IDEA-CBMS)
Michael Fino, MiraCosta College
COMPASS Program for Southern California Hispanic Serving Institution
Bianca Romina Mothé, California State University San Marcos Corporation
Student Pluripotency: Realizing Untapped Undergraduate Potential in Regenerative Medicine
Daniel Nickerson, California State University, San Bernardino
COMPASS: an inclusive Pipeline for Research and Other Stem cell-based Professions in Regenerative medicine (iPROSPR)
When he was younger, David Anjakos experienced kidney failure due to an autoimmune disease, leaving him without kidneys in his body. As a trainee in the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s Bridges to Stem Cell Research Internship Program, Anjakos is researching methods of growing organs for transplantation to help people on a transplant list, himself included.
By now, Anjakos thought he’d have his own kidney and that he would be off the transplant list and dialysis. That’s not the case, so he realized he wanted to try and do something about it.
“Fifteen years later, we haven’t really gotten there. It just shows how complex the problem is and how even with thousands of hours and scientists working on this, we still haven’t quite got there,” he says. “What that showed me is that I needed to step in. We need more people on these problems.”
That’s what inspired him to join the CIRM Bridges Program at San Diego State University. Specifically, he wanted to get into stem cells to try to control them to do what he wanted them to do. He’s completing his internship at the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, where he is working toward developing a protein that will be able to activate stem cells to turn into different organs.
If successful, this will be important for drug discovery, growing organs and vascularization, the process of growing blood vessels into a tissue to improve oxygen and nutrient supply.
“CIRM’s Bridges to Stem Cell Research program has really been a huge opportunity for me to get into science, to practice science, to practice the skills that I’ll need,” said Anjakos. “It has really helped me in my confidence in my ability to do science.”
After finishing his Bridges internship at the Sanford Consortium, Anjakos plans to start a PhD program so he can apply all he has learned from creating approximations of the Wnt protein that is essential for turning stem cells into organs with functioning vessels.
To date, there are 1,663 Bridges alumni, and another 109 Bridges trainees are completing their internships in 2022.
Started in 2009, the Bridges program 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 regenerative medicine and stem cell research, and direct patient engagement and outreach activities that engage California’s diverse communities. Click here to learn more about CIRM’s educational programs.
This story was first covered by Sarah White and Susanne Clara Bard. Read the original release on the San Diego State University website.