Why the future of regenerative medicine depends on students getting a living wage

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.

From our house to the White House. Kinda

Jackie Ward, PhD. Photo courtesy National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke

It’s always fun to meet someone early in their career and see how they grow and evolve and take on new challenges.

I first met Jackie Ward when she received a training grant from CIRM while she studied for her PhD at the University of California, San Diego. Jackie offered to write blogs for us about her experience and they were always fun, informative, elegantly written and very engaging. Fast forward a few years and Jackie became a part of Americans For Cures, then she became Chief of Staff at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), and finally – at least so far – she took on the role of Assistant Director at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

Not too shabby eh.

So, I reached out to Jackie and asked her some questions about her work and career. She generously put aside keeping the nation healthy to answer them. Enjoy.

  1. What made you decide to move from research into government.

I think if you asked my high school government teacher (shout out to Mr. Bell!), he would be the least surprised person that I have ended up where I am currently. I was always interested in topics and activities beyond science, but at a certain point you have to choose a path. When it came time to deciding my undergraduate major, I figured that if I pursued my interest in biology it would still keep my options open to do something different in my career, but if I chose to be a French major, or Political Science major, or English major – I might close the door in my ability to pursue scientific research. When I got to graduate school, I saw the impact of government (both state and federal) decisions on work in the lab. This takes the form of where funding goes, but also in the rules you have to follow while doing research. Though I liked the pursuit of new knowledge and being the one designing and performing experiments, I was interested in understanding more about how those government decisions are made upstream of the lab bench.

  1. What’s the most surprising thing you have learned in your time at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

Maybe not “surprising” but the thing that may not be obvious to outsiders: OSTP’s budget is tiny compared to other Executive Branch agencies (like where I came from previously at NIH). The work we accomplish in this office is solely by forming partnerships and collaborations with others across the government. We are not typically the rowers of the boat, but we can be the steerer or navigator. (Is the term coxswain? I have never been on a crew team obviously.)

  1. Was it hard making the transition from research to advocacy and now policy?

Honestly I feel like my training in research set me up well for the jobs I’ve had in policy. There is often not someone telling you exactly how to do something – you have to do the work yourself to search the literature, talk to other people, find collaborators, and keep at it. And the skills that you hone in research – from keeping an organized lab notebook the whole way through to writing scientific papers – are some of the same skills you need in government. 

  1. At a time when so many people seem so skeptical of science how do you get your message out.

We have to meet people where they are. As a government official, I have great respect for messages that come from experts within the government – but that is not the only way the message should be getting out. Scientists and other experts within communities should also be spokespeople for science. I would urge scientists at every level – whether you are a citizen scientist, a medical doctor, a PhD student, or some other kind of expert – to engage with their communities and put the work in to understand how to effectively communicate at levels beyond just speaking to your colleagues.

  1. One of the issues that so many of us, including here at CIRM, are working on is improving our performance in diversity, equity and inclusion. How big an issue is that for you and your colleagues at OSTP and what are you doing to try and address it.

The mission of our office is to “maximize the benefits of science and technology to advance health, prosperity, security, environmental quality, and justice for all Americans.” Those final two words are key: “all Americans.” It is the policy of this Office and our Administration that it is not okay for the benefits of science & technology to only reach a select few – who can afford it or who live in a certain zip code or who know the right people. 

This takes different forms depending on what kind of S&T work we are talking about, but I will give you an example from my own work. I have been leading an effort that aims to explore and act upon how digital health care delivery technologies can be used to increase access to healthcare in community-based health settings. We know that these cutting edge technologies are most likely to get to people who, for example, get their care at academic medical centers, or who have primo health insurance plans, or who are already tech savvy. We feel that as these technologies continue to grow within the healthcare system, that it is an imperative to ensure that they are accessible to practitioners and patients at community health centers, or to people who may not be tech geeks, or that they can be interoperable with the systems used by community health workers.

  1. During a time of Covid and now Monkeypox, what’s it like to have a front row seat and watch how government responds to public health emergencies.

My colleagues who work on outbreaks and pandemic responses are some of the most dedicated public servants I know. They will be the first to admit that we are continually learning and integrating new tools and technologies into our toolbox, and that is a constant effort. Emergent issues like outbreaks force decisions when there may not be a lot of information – that is a hard job.  

  1. I’ve always felt that DC would be a fun place to live and work (except during the height of summer!) what do you most like about it.

DC is a city full of people who care deeply (almost to a pathological extent) about the work they do and how to make the world a better place. There’s also incredible diversity here – which means a variety of viewpoints, languages, and food! I love that.

Jackie is not just a good writer. She’s also a great speaker. Here’s a clip of her responding to our Elevator Challenge many years ago, when she was still a fledgling researcher. Her explanation of what she does, is a master class in turning a complex subject into something easy to understand.

[PHOTOS] California high school students celebrate regenerative medicine science at CIRM’s annual SPARK conference

We had a wonderful time meeting so many energetic and enthusiastic high school students at the 2022 SPARK Program annual conference hosted by UCSF at the MLK Research Building. 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. 

Held in-person for the first time since 2019, the event hosted students and program directors from all over California, allowing them the opportunity to share their research through oral and poster presentations. This year, students also attended talks about new approaches to sickle cell disease curative therapies, anti-racism in STEM, and patient advocacy.    

The SPARK Program—also known as the Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge—provides California high school students with summer research internships at leading stem cell institutes in California. To date, there have been 530 SPARK alumni, and another 110 high school interns are completing their training this summer.  

The SPARK program specifically selects students who represent the diversity of California’s population, particularly those who might not otherwise have opportunities to take part in research internships due to socioeconomic constraints.  

“I really enjoyed being a part of this program, and I feel like I understand so much better what it’s like to be a researcher,” said Brighton C., a student in the SPARK program at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science (pictured below). “I also feel more confident in the subject of stem cells and I might want to dedicate my future to it.” 

We’ll be sharing more stories from CIRM’s SPARK Program throughout the year, including blog submissions from students that summarize their summer experiences. Stay tuned for more and be sure to follow CIRM on Instagram, where we will share more photos and fun content created by the students. 

There are currently 11 active SPARK programs throughout California, each with its own eligibility criteria and application process. If you are interested in learning more, please visit this web page for more details about each program. If you have questions about CIRM’s education programs, please email Dr. Kelly Shepard at education@cirm.ca.gov. 

Thank you to UCSF for hosting the event, and to all the SPARK program directors for supporting this year’s bright interns!

Check out some of the photos from this year’s SPARK conference below. 

The present and future of regenerative medicine

One of the great pleasures of my job is getting to meet the high school students who take part in our SPARK or Summer Internship to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge program. It’s a summer internship for high school students where they get to spend a couple of months working in a world class stem cell and gene therapy research facility. The students, many of whom go into the program knowing very little about stem cells, blossom and produce work that is quite extraordinary.

One such student is Tan Ieng Huang, who came to the US from China for high school. During her internship at U.C. San Francisco she got to work in the lab of Dr. Arnold Kriegstein. He is the Founding Director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of California, San Francisco. Not only did she work in his lab, she took the time to do an interview with him about his work and his thoughts on the field.

It’s a fascinating interview and shows the creativity of our SPARK students. You will be seeing many other examples of that creativity in the coming weeks. But for now, enjoy the interview with someone who is a huge presence in the field today, by someone who may well be a huge presence in the not too distant future.

‘a tête-à-tête with Prof. Arnold Kriegstein’

The Kriegstein lab team: Photo courtesy UCSF

Prof. Arnold Kriegstein is the Founding Director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of California, San Francisco. Prof. Kriegstein is also the Co-Founder and Scientific Advisor of Neurona Therapeutics which seeks to provide effective and safe cell therapies for chronic brain disorder. A Clinician by training, Prof. Kriegstein has been fascinated by the intricate workings of the human brain. His laboratory focuses on understanding the transcriptional and signaling networks active during brain development, the diversity of neuronal cell types, and their fate potential. For a long time, he has been interested in harnessing this potential for translational and therapeutic intervention.

During my SEP internship I had the opportunity to work in the Kriegstein lab. I was in complete awe. I am fascinated by the brain. During the course of two months, I interacted with Prof. Kriegstein regularly, in lab meetings and found his ideas deeply insightful. Here’s presenting some excerpts from some of our discussions, so that it reaches many more people seeking inspiration!

Tan Ieng Huang (TH): Can you share a little bit about your career journey as a scientist?

Prof. Arnold Kriegstein (AK): I wanted to be a doctor when I was very young, but in high school I started having some hands-on research experience. I just loved working in the lab. From then on, I was thinking of combining those interests and an MD/PhD turned out to be an ideal course for me. That was how I started, and then I became interested in the nervous system. Also, when I was in high school, I spent some time one summer at Rockefeller University working on a project that involved operant conditioning in rodents and I was fascinated by behavior and the role of the brain in learning and memory. That happened early on, and turned into an interest in cortical development and with time, that became my career.

TH: What was your inspiration growing up, what made you take up medicine as a career?

AK: That is a little hard to say, I have an identical twin brother. He and I used to always share activities, do things together. And early on we actually became eagle scouts, sort of a boy scout activity in a way. In order to become an eagle scout without having to go through prior steps, we applied to a special program that the scouts had, which allowed us to shadow physicians in a local hospital. I remember doing that at a very young age. It was a bit ironic, because one of the evenings, they showed us films of eye surgery, and my brother actually fainted when they made an incision in the eye. The reason it makes me laugh now is because my brother became an eye surgeon many years later. But I remember our early experience, we both became very fascinated by medicine and medical research.

Tan Ieng and Dr. Arnold Kriegstein at UCSF

TH: What inspired you to start the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research Institute?

AK: My interest in brain development over the years became focused on earlier stages of development and eventually Neurogenesis, you know, how neurons are actually generated during early stages of in utero brain development. In the course of doing that we discovered that the radial glial cells, which have been thought for decades to simply guide neurons as they migrate, turned out to actually be the neural stem cells, they were making the neurons and also guiding them toward the cortex. So, they were really these master cells that had huge importance and are now referred to as neural stem cells. But at that time, it was really before the stem cell field took off. But because we studied neurogenesis, because I made some contributions to understanding how the brain develops from those precursors or progenitor cells, when the field of stem cells developed, it was very simple for me to identify as someone who studied neural stem cells. I became a neural stem cell scientist. I started a neural stem cell program at Columbia University when I was a Professor there and raised 15 million dollars to seed the program and hired new scientists. It was shortly after that I was approached to join UCSF as the founder of a new stem cell program. And it was much broader than the nervous system; it was a program that covered all the different tissues and organ systems.

TH: Can you tell us a little bit about how stem cell research is contributing to the treatment of diseases? How far along are we in terms of treatments?

AK: It’s taken decades, but things are really starting to reach the clinic now. The original work was basic discovery done in research laboratories, now things are moving towards the clinic. It’s a really very exciting time. Initially the promise of stem cell science was called Regenerative medicine, the idea of replacing injured or worn-out tissues or structures with new cells and new tissues, new organs, the form of regeneration was made possible by understanding that there are stem cells that can be tweaked to actually help make new cells and tissues. Very exciting process, but in fact the main progress so far hasn’t been replacing worn out tissues and injured cells, but rather understanding diseases using human based model of disease. That’s largely because of the advent of induced pluripotent stem cells, a way of using stem cells to make neurons or heart cells or liver cells in the laboratory, and study them both in normal conditions during development and in disease states. Those platforms which are relatively easy to make now and are pretty common all over the world allow us to study human cells rather than animal cells, and the hope is that by doing that we will be able to produce conventional drugs and treatments that work much better than ones we had in the past, because they will be tested in actual human cells rather than animal cells.

TH: That is a great progress and we have started using human models because even though there are similarities with animal models, there are still many species-specific differences, right?

AK: Absolutely, in fact, one of the big problems now in Big Pharma, you know the drug companies, is that they invest millions and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars in research programs that are based on successes in treating mice, but patients don’t respond the same way. So the hope is that by starting with a treatment that works on human cells it might be more likely that the treatment will work on human patients.

TH: What are your thoughts on the current challenges and future of stem cell research?

AK: I think this is an absolute revolution in modern medicine, the advent of two things that are happening right now, first the use of induced pluripotent stem cells, the ability to make pluripotent cells from adult tissue or cells from an individual allows us to use models of diseases that I mentioned earlier from actual patients. That’s one major advance. And the other is gene editing, and the combination of gene editing and cell-based discovery science allows us to think of engineering cells in ways that can make them much more effective as a form of cell therapy and those cell therapies have enormous promise. Right now, they are being used to treat cancer, but in the future, they might be able to treat heart attack, dementia, neurodegenerative diseases, ALS, Parkinson’s disease, a huge list of disorders that are untreatable right now or incurable. They might be approached by the combination of cell-based models, cell therapies, and gene editing.

TH: I know there are still some challenges right now, like gene editing has some ethical issues because people don’t know if there can be side effects after the gene editing, what are your thoughts?

AK: You know, like many other technologies there are uncertainties, and there are some issues. Some of the problems are off-target effects, that is you try to make a change in one particular gene, and while doing that you might change other genes in unexpected ways and cause complications. But we are understanding that more and more now and can make much more precise gene editing changes in just individual genes without affecting unanticipated areas of the genome. And then there are also the problems of how to gene-edit cells in a safe way. There are certain viral factors that can be used to introduce the gene editing apparatus into a cell, and sometimes if you are doing that in a patient, you can also have unwanted side effects from the vectors that you are using, often they are modified viral vectors. So, things get complicated very quickly when you start trying to treat patients, but I think these are all tractable problems and I think in time they will all be solved. It will be a terrific, very promising future when it comes to treating patients who are currently untreatable.

TH: Do you have any advice for students who want to get into this field?

AK: Yes, I think it’s actually never been a better time and I am amazed by the technologies that are available now. Gene editing that I mentioned before but also single cell approaches, the use of single cell multiomics revealing gene expression in individual cells, the molecular understanding of how individual cells are formed, how they are shaped, how they change from one stage to another, how they can be forced into different fates. It allows you to envision true Regenerative medicine, improving health by healing or replacing injured or diseased tissues. I think this is becoming possible now, so it’s a very exciting time. Anyone who has an interest in stem cell biology or new ways of treating diseases, should think about getting into a laboratory or a clinical setting. I think this time is more exciting than it’s ever been.

TH: So excited to hear that, because in school we have limited access to the current knowledge, the state-of-art. I want to know what motivates you every day to do Research and contribute to this field?

AK: Well, you know that I have been an MD/PhD, as I mentioned before, in a way, there are two different reward systems at play. In terms of the PhD and the science, it’s the discovery part that is so exciting. Going in every day and thinking that you might learn something that no one has ever known before and have a new insight into a mechanism of how something happens, why it happens. Those kinds of new insights are terrifically satisfying, very exciting. On the MD side, the ability to help patients and improve peoples’ lives is a terrific motivator. I always wanted to do that, was very driven to become a Neurologist and treat both adult and pediatric patients with neurological problems. In the last decade or so, I’ve not been treating patients so much, and have focused on the lab, but we have been moving some of our discoveries from the laboratory into the clinic. We have just started a clinical trial, of a new cell-based therapy for epilepsy in Neurona Therapeutics, which is really exciting. I am hoping it will help the patients but it’s also a chance to actually see something that started out as a project in the laboratory become translated into a therapy for patients, so that’s an achievement that has really combined my two interests, basic science, and clinical medicine. It’s a little late in life but not too late, so I’m very excited about that.

Tan Ieng Huang, Kriegstein Lab, SEP Intern, CIRM Spark Program 2022

It’s nice to be appreciated

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Photo: courtesy City of Hope

No one likes to be taken for granted, to feel that people only like you because you have scads of cash and they want some of it. That’s why it’s so lovely when you feel you are appreciated because of all the things money makes possible.

That’s how it felt when we saw City of Hope’s news release about our funding to train the next generation of scientists and leaders in the field of regenerative medicine. CIRM has awarded COH $4.86 million as part of its Research Training Program in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine.

The program provides stem cell and gene therapy research training for up to 6 graduate students and 12 postdocs at the Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope. In addition to 3 years of research, the training includes coursework, patient engagement and community outreach activities.

In a news release, Dr. Nadia Carlesso, chair of the Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, said this funding is important in training a new generation of scientists.

“This program originates from City of Hope’s longstanding expertise in conducting clinical trials and applying fundamental stem cell biology and gene therapy to the treatment of diseases. The program reflects City of Hope’s commitment to ensuring that future scientific leaders understand the varied needs of diverse patient populations, and the inequities that presently affect both biomedical research and the development of and access to innovative therapies.”

Students in the program will have access to world class research facilities and will also benefit from the fact that their classrooms and laboratories are within walking distance from where patients are treated. We believe the best scientists need to have experience in working both at the laboratory bench and at the bedside, not only developing new therapies, but being able to deliver those therapies in a caring, compassionate way.

CIRM Board gives thumbs up to training and treatment programs

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CIRM Bridges student discusses her poster presentation

At CIRM, the bread and butter of what we do is funding research and hopefully advancing therapies to patients. But the jam, that’s our education programs. Helping train the next generation of stem cell and gene therapy scientists is really inspiring. Watching these young students – and some are just high school juniors – come in and grasp the science and quickly become fluent in talking about it and creating their own experiments shows the future is in good hands.

Right now we fund several programs, such as our SPARK and Bridges internships, but they can’t cover everything, so last week the CIRM Board approved a new training program called COMPASS (Creating Opportunities through Mentorship and Partnership Across Stem Cell Science). The program will fill a critical need for skilled research practitioners who understand and contribute at all levels in the translation of science to medicine, from bench to bedside.

The objective of the COMPASS Training Program is to prepare a diverse group of undergraduate students for careers in regenerative medicine through the creation of novel recruitment and support mechanisms that identify and foster untapped talent within populations that are historically under-represented in the biomedical sciences. It will combine hands-on research with mentorship experiences to enhance transition of students to successful careers. A parallel objective is to foster greater awareness and appreciation of diversity, equity and inclusion in trainees, mentors, and other program participants

The CIRM Board approved investing $58.22 million for up to 20 applications for a five-year duration.

“This new program highlights our growing commitment to creating a diverse workforce, one that taps into communities that have been historically under-represented in the biomedical sciences,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “The COVID19 pandemic made it clear that the benefits of scientific discovery are not always accessible to communities that most need them. CIRM is committed to tackling these challenges by creating a diverse and dedicated workforce that can meet the technical demands of taking novel treatment ideas and making them a reality.”

The Board also approved a new $80 million concept plan to expand the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network. The Network clinics are all in top California medical centers that have the experience and the expertise to deliver high-quality FDA-authorized stem cell clinical trials to patients.

There are currently five Alpha Clinics – UC San Diego; UCLA/UC Irvine; City of Hope; UCSF; UC Davis – and since 2015 they have hosted more than 105 clinical trials, enrolled more than 750 patients in these trials, and generated more than $95 million in industry contracts. 

Each award will provide up to $8 million in funding over a five-year period. The clinics will have to include:

  • A demonstrated ability to offer stem cell and gene therapies to patients as part of a clinical trial.
  • Programs to help support the career development of doctors, nurses, researchers or other medical professionals essential for regenerative medicine clinical trials.
  • A commitment to data sharing and meeting CIRM’s requirements addressing issues of diversity, equity and inclusion and meeting the needs of California’s diverse patient population.

Educating and training the next generation of regenerative science workforce

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Bridges scholars presenting their research posters to CIRM team members and other scientists

Regenerative medicine is a diverse and rapidly evolving field, employing core expertise from biologists, engineers, and clinicians. As the field continues to advance, a well-trained regenerative science workforce is needed to apply the newest discoveries to clinical care. That’s why one of the goals outlined in our new 5-year Strategic Plan is to build a diverse and highly skilled workforce to support the growing regenerative medicine economy in California.  

Since its inception, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has been committed to educating the next generation of researchers, leaders, and innovators. Through its existing educational pillar programs such as SPARK and Bridges, the agency has been able to provide unique training and career development opportunities to a wide range of students from high school to college and beyond.

Through our new Strategic Plan, CIRM hopes to enhance training and education of the future California workforce by making it easier for students to start their career, accelerate career advancement, and provide greater access for diverse and underrepresented groups. Training and educating individuals who come from varied backgrounds brings new perspectives and different skillsets which enhance the development of the entire field, from basic and clinical research to manufacturing and commercialization.

The workforce training programs will be combined with CIRM’s other pillar programs to facilitate career entry at multiple levels. Through connecting the existing EDUC pillar programs with the planned California Manufacturing Network infrastructure program, CIRM hopes to address the critical need for a highly trained manufacturing workforce. By leveraging the Alpha Clinics and Community Care Centers, the agency will work to develop education curricula that address the currently unmet need for Clinical Research Coordinators. CIRM’s competency hubs and knowledge networks will also incorporate education and training programs to provide career pathways in emerging technologies, computational biology and data sciences.

You can read more about these goals in our 2022-27 Strategic Plan.

Stem Cell Agency Board Invests in Therapy Targeting Deadly Blood Cancers

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Dr. Ezra Cohen, photo courtesy UCSD

Hematologic malignancies are cancers that affect the blood, bone marrow and lymph nodes and include different forms of leukemia and lymphoma. Current treatments can be effective, but in those patients that do not respond, there are few treatment options. Today, the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved investing $4.1 million in a therapy aimed at helping patients who have failed standard therapy.

Dr. Ezra Cohen, at the University of California San Diego, and Oncternal Therapeutics are targeting a protein called ROR1 that is found in B cell malignancies, such as leukemias and lymphomas, and solid tumors such as breast, lung and colon. They are using a molecule called a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) that can enable a patient’s own T cells, an important part of the immune system, to target and kill their cancer cells. These cells are derived from a related approach with an antibody therapy that targets ROR1-binding medication called Cirmtuzumab, also created with CIRM support. This CAR-T product is designed to recognize and kill cancer stem cells that express ROR1.

This is a late-stage preclinical project so the goal is to show they can produce enough high-quality cells to treat patients, as well as complete other regulatory measures needed for them to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permission to test the therapy in a clinical trial in people.

If given the go-ahead by the FDA the therapy will target patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), mantle cell lymphoma (MCL) and acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).  

“CAR-T cell therapies represent a transformational advance in the treatment of hematologic malignancies,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, CIRM’s President and CEO. “This approach addresses the need to develop new therapies for patients whose cancers are resistant to standard chemotherapies, who have few therapeutic options and a very poor chance or recovery.”

Creating a diverse group of future scientists

Students in CIRM’s Bridges program showing posters of their work

If you have read the headlines lately, you’ll know that the COVID-19 pandemic is having a huge impact on the shipping industry. Container vessels are forced to sit out at anchor for a week or more because there just aren’t enough dock workers to unload the boats. It’s a simple rule of economics, you can have all the demand you want but if you don’t have the people to help deliver on the supply side, you are in trouble.

The same is true in regenerative medicine. The field is expanding rapidly and that’s creating a rising demand for skilled workers to help keep up. That doesn’t just mean scientists, but also technicians and other skilled individuals who can ensure that our ability to manufacture and deliver these new therapies is not slowed down.

That’s one of the reasons why CIRM has been a big supporter of training programs ever since we were created by the voters of California when they approved Proposition 71. And now we are kick-starting those programs again to ensure the field has all the talented workers it needs.

Last week the CIRM Board approved 18 programs, investing more than $86 million, as part of the Agency’s Research Training Grants program. The goal of the program is to create a diverse group of scientists with the knowledge and skill to lead effective stem cell research programs.

The awards provide up to $5 million per institution, for a maximum of 20 institutions, over five years, to support the training of predoctoral graduate students, postdoctoral trainees, and/or clinical trainees.

This is a revival of an earlier Research Training program that ran from 2006-2016 and trained 940 “CIRM Scholars” including:

• 321 PhD students
• 453 Postdocs
• 166 MDs

These grants went to academic institutions from UC Davis in Sacramento to UC San Diego down south and everywhere in-between. A 2013 survey of the students found that most went on to careers in the industry.

  • 56% continued to further training
  • 14% advanced to an academic research faculty position
  • 10.5% advanced to a biotech/industry position
  • 12% advanced to a non-research position such as teaching, medical practice, or foundation/government work

The Research Training Grants go to:

AWARDINSTITUTIONTITLEAMOUNT
EDUC4-12751Cedars-SinaiCIRM Training Program in Translational Regenerative Medicine    $4,999,333
EDUC4-12752UC RiversideTRANSCEND – Training Program to Advance Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Research, Education, and Workforce Diversity    $4,993,115
EDUC4-12753UC Los AngelesUCLA Training Program in Stem Cell Biology    $5 million
EDUC4-12756University of Southern CaliforniaTraining Program Bridging Stem Cell Research with Clinical Applications in Regenerative Medicine    $5 million
EDUC4-12759UC Santa CruzCIRM Training Program in Systems Biology of Stem Cells    $4,913,271
EDUC4-12766Gladstone Inst.CIRM Regenerative Medicine Research Training Program    $5 million
EDUC4-12772City of HopeResearch Training Program in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine    $4,860,989
EDUC4-12782StanfordCIRM Scholar Training Program    $4,974,073
EDUC4-12790UC BerkeleyTraining the Next Generation of Biologists and Engineers for Regenerative Medicine    $4,954,238
EDUC4-12792UC DavisCIRM Cell and Gene Therapy Training Program 2.0    $4,966,300
EDUC4-12802Children’s Hospital of Los AngelesCIRM Training Program for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Research    $4,999,500
EDUC4-12804UC San DiegoInterdisciplinary Stem Cell Training Grant at UCSD III    $4,992,446
EDUC4-12811ScrippsTraining Scholars in Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research    $4,931,353
EDUC4-12812UC San FranciscoScholars Research Training Program in Regenerative Medicine, Gene Therapy, and Stem Cell Research    $5 million
EDUC4-12813Sanford BurnhamA Multidisciplinary Stem Cell Training Program at Sanford Burnham Prebys Institute, A Critical Component of the La Jolla Mesa Educational Network    $4,915,671  
EDUC4-12821UC Santa BarbaraCIRM Training Program in Stem Cell Biology and Engineering    $1,924,497
EDUC4-12822UC IrvineCIRM Scholars Comprehensive Research Training Program  $5 million
EDUC4-12837Lundquist Institute for Biomedical InnovationStem Cell Training Program at the Lundquist Institute    $4,999,999

These are not the only awards we make to support training the next generation of scientists. We also have our SPARK and Bridges to Stem Cell Research programs. The SPARK awards are for high school students, and the Bridges program for graduate or Master’s level students.

A new approach to a deadly childhood cancer

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Cancers of the blood, bone marrow and lymph nodes (also called hematologic malignancies) are the most common form of cancer in children and young adults. Current treatments can be effective but can also pose life-threatening health risks to the child. Now researchers at Stanford have developed a new approach and the Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) voted to support that approach in a clinical trial.

The Board approved investing $11,996,634 in the study, which is the Stem Cell Agency’s 76th clinical trial.

The current standard of care for cancers such as acute leukemias and lymphomas is chemotherapy and a bone marrow (also called HSCT) transplant. However, without a perfectly matched donor the risk of the patient’s body rejecting the transplant is higher. Patients may also be at greater risk of graft vs host disease (GVHD), where the donor cells attack the patient’s body. In severe cases GVHD can be life-threatening.

Dr. Maria Grazia Roncarlo: Photo courtesy Stanford

Dr. Maria Grazia Roncarolo and her team at Stanford will test an immunotherapy cell approach using a therapy that is enriched with specialized immune cells called type 1 regulatory T (Tr1) cells. These cells will be infused into the patient following the bone marrow transplant. Both the Tr1 cells and the bone marrow will come from the same donor. The hope is this will help provide the patient’s immune system with these regulatory cells to combat life-threatening graft versus host disease and increase the success of treatment and bone marrow (HSCT) transplant.

“Every year around 500 children receive stem cell transplants in California, and while many children do well, too many experiences a rejection of the transplant or a relapse of the cancer,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “Finding an improved therapy for these children means a shorter stay in the hospital, less risk of the need for a second transplant, and a greater quality of life for the child and the whole family.”

The CIRM Board has previously approved funding for 12 other clinical trials targeting cancers of the blood. You can read about them here.