Now-Defunct For-Profit Stem Cell Clinic Ordered to Pay $5.1 Million for Scamming Patients Through False Advertising

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Photo of New York Attorney General Letitia James courtesy Wikimedia commons

A now-defunct New York City for-profit stem cell clinic — Park Avenue Stem Cell — was order by court to pay $5.1 million in potential consumer restitution, penalties, and costs for fraudulently and illegally advertising their stem cell procedures. The judgment resolves a 2019 lawsuit by New York State Attorney General Letitia James which claimed the defendants’ scammed patients out of thousands of dollars each for unproven and potentially harmful medical treatments involving stem cells. 

According to the lawsuit, the clinic falsely advertised on their website, social media, television, and foreign language newspapers that they could treat a variety of serious medical conditions — including erectile dysfunction and Parkinson’s disease — using patients’ own stem cells. Consumers paid the clinic nearly $4,000 per procedure, with some consumers paying more than $20,000 for multiple procedures. Most of the procedures involved adipose stem cells, which are derived from a patient’s own fat tissues.   

The court says the defendants misrepresented that their procedures were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), that their patients were participating in an established research study, and that their procedures had been endorsed by several scientific and medical organizations.   

As a state agency, CIRM’s duty is to educate the public about the concerns over “stem cell tourism” and the growing number of predatory clinics that advertise unproven stem cell therapies at great cost to the patient.  

In addition to hosting public forums on stem cell tourism concerns and resources for patients seeking stem cell treatments, CIRM partnered with California State Senator Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) to create a new law that attempts to address the issue. The bill, SB 512, was passed in 2017 and now requires medical clinics whose stem cell treatments are not FDA approved to post notices and provide handouts to patients warning them about the potential risk.  

Read more about this lawsuit at the New York Attorney general’s website. 

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.”

Promising new approach for people with epilepsy

Image courtesy Epilepsy.com

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A new therapeutic approach, supported by CIRM, that blocks the signals in the brain that can cause epilepsy has been given permission by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be tested in a clinical trial.

Nearly 3.5 million Americans suffer from some form of epilepsy. It can affect people in different ways from stiff muscles or staring spells, to violent shaking and loss of consciousness. The impact it has on people’s lives extends far beyond the condition itself. People who suffer from epilepsy experience a higher frequency of depression and other mood disorders, social isolation, challenges in school and with living independently, higher unemployment, limitations on driving, and higher risk of early death.

Medications can help control the seizures in some people, but around one-third of patients don’t respond to those drugs. The alternative is surgery, which is invasive and can cause damage to delicate brain tissue.

Now Neurona Therapeutics has developed an approach, called NRTX-1001, that turns stem cells into interneurons, a kind of nerve cell in the brain. These cells secrete chemical messengers, called GABA inhibitory neurotransmitters, that help rebalance the misfiring electrical signals in the brain and hopefully eliminate or reduce the seizures.

Cory Nicholas, PhD, Neuron’s Therapeutics co-founder and CEO, said getting the go-ahead from the FDA for a clinical trial is a key milestone for the company. “Neurona’s accomplishments are a testament to longstanding support from CIRM. CIRM has supported the NRTX-1001 program from bench to bedside, dating back to early research in the Neurona founders’ laboratories at the University of California, San Francisco to the recent IND-enabling studies conducted at Neurona. It’s an exciting time for the field of regenerative medicine and is gratifying to see the NRTX-1001 neuronal cell therapy now cleared by the FDA to enter clinical testing in people who have drug resistant temporal lobe epilepsy. We are thankful to CIRM for their support of this important work that has the potential to provide seizure-freedom for patients who currently have limited treatment options.”

In a news release Dr. Nicholas said the timing was perfect. “This milestone is especially rewarding and timely given that November is Epilepsy Awareness Month. NRTX-1001 is a new type of inhibitory cell therapy that is targeted to the focal seizure onset region in the brain and, in a single treatment, has the potential to significantly improve the lives of people living with focal epilepsy.”

In animal models NRTX-1001 produced freedom from seizures in more than two-thirds of the treated group, compared to just 5 percent of the untreated group. It also resulted in reduced tissue damage in the seizure-affected area of the brain.

The clinical trial will initially target people affected by mesial temporal lobe epilepsy (MTLE) where seizures often begin in a structure called the hippocampus. MTLE is the most common type of focal epilepsy.

CIRM has invested almost $6.67 million in funding three stages of this project, from the early Discovery work to this latest late-stage preclinical work, highlighting our commitment to doing all we can to advance the most promising science from the bench to the bedside.

Beware of misleading headlines and claims

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Coronavirus particles, illustration.

When the COVID pandemic broke out researchers all over the world scrambled to find new approaches to tackling the virus. Some of these, such as the vaccines, proved remarkably effective. Others, such as the anti-parasite medication ivermectin or the anti-malaria drug chloroquine, were not only not helpful, they were sometimes harmful.

Part of the problem was the understandable desire to find something, anything that would protect people from the virus. But another part of the problem was that even with research that was based on solid science, the reporting of that research in the media sometimes tilted towards hype rather than hard evidence.

A new study in the journal Stem Cell Reports takes a look at the explosion of research targeting COVID. They highlighted the lack of rigor that sometimes accompanied that research, and the lack of regulation that allowed some predatory clinics to offer stem cell “therapies” that had never been tested in people let alone shown to be either safe or effective.

Dr. Leigh Turner, from the University of California Irvine and a co-author of the study, warned against studies that were cutting ethical and scientific corners. “Scientists, regulators, and policymakers must guard against the proliferation of poorly designed, underpowered, and duplicative studies that are launched with undue haste because of the pandemic, but are unlikely to provide convincing, clinically meaningful safety and efficacy data.”

The researchers cited an earlier study (by UC Davis’ Dr. Paul Knoepfler and Dr. Mina Kim) that looked at 70 clinical trials involving cell-based treatments for COVID-19. Drs. Knoepfler and Kim found that most were small, involving around 50 patients, and only 22.8% were randomized, double-blinded, and controlled experiments. They say even if these produced promising results they would have to be tested in much larger numbers to be of real benefit.

Another issue that Turner and his team highlighted was the hype that sometimes accompanied this work, citing news releases that over-hyped findings and failed to mention study limitations to gain more media coverage.

In a news release Dr. Laertis Ikonomou, of the University at Buffalo and a co-author of the study, said over-hyping treatments is nothing new but that it seemed to become even more common during COVID.

“Therefore, it is even more important to communicate promising developments in COVID-19-related science and clinical management [responsibly]. Key features of good communication are an accurate understanding of new findings, including study limitations and avoidance of sensationalist language.”

“Realistic time frames for clinical translation are equally important as is the realization that promising interventions at preliminary stages may not always translate to proven treatments following rigorous testing.”

They also warned about clinics advertising “stem cell therapies” that were unproven and unlicensed and often involved injecting the patients’ own cells back into them. The researchers say it’s time that the FDA and other authorities cracked down on companies taking advantage of patients in this way.

“If companies and affiliated clinicians are not fined, forced to return to patients whatever profits they have made, confronted with criminal charges, subject to revocation of medical licensure, or otherwise subject to serious legal and financial consequences, it is possible that more businesses will be drawn to this space because of the profits that can be generated from selling unlicensed and unproven cell-based products in the midst of a pandemic.”

At a time when so many were dying or suffering long-term health problems as a result of COVID, it’s unconscionable that others were happy to cash in on the fear and pain to make a quick buck.

When the pandemic broke out the CIRM Board voted to approved $5 million in emergency funding to help develop new therapies to combat the virus. Altogether we funded 17 different projects including three clinical trials.

Wit, wisdom and a glimpse into the future

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As of this moment, there are over two million podcasts and over 48 million episodes to listen to on your favorite listening device. If you’re a true crime enthusiast like me, you’ve surely heard of Casefile or one of the other 94 podcasts on the topic. But what if you’re looking for something a little less ghastly and a little more uplifting?

Dr. Daylon James, co-host of The Stem Cell Podcast

The Stem Cell Podcast is an informative and entertaining resource for scientists and science enthusiasts (or really, anyone) interested in learning about the latest developments in stem cell research.

Dr. Arun Sharma, co-host of The Stem Cell Podcast

On their latest episode, dynamic co-hosts and research scientists Dr. Daylon James and Dr. Arun Sharma sit down with our President & CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, to discuss the impact of California’s culture of innovation on CIRM, the challenge of balancing hope vs. hype in the context of stem cell research/therapies, and the evolution of the agency over the past 15 years.

Listen on as Dr. Millan highlights some of CIRM’s greatest victories and shares our mission for the future.

Some good news for people with dodgy knees

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Graphic contrasting a healthy knee with one that has osteoarthritis

About 10% of Americans suffer from knee osteoarthritis, a painful condition that can really impair mobility and quality of life. It’s often caused by an injury to cartilage, say when you were playing sports in high school or college, and over time it continues to degenerate and ultimately results in the  loss of both cartilage and bone in the joint.

Current treatments involve either medication to control the pain or surgery. Medication works up to a point, but as the condition worsens it loses effectiveness.  Knee replacement surgery can be effective, but is a serious, complicated procedure with a long recovery time.  That’s why the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) voted to invest almost $6 million in an innovative stem cell therapy approach to helping restore articular cartilage in the knee.

Dr. Frank Petrigliano, Chief of the Epstein Family Center for Sports Medicine at Keck Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC), is using pluripotent stem cells to create chondrocytes (the cells responsible for cartilage formation) and then seeding those onto a scaffold. The scaffold is then surgically implanted at the site of damage in the knee. Based on scientific data, the seeded scaffold has the potential to regenerate the damaged cartilage, thus decreasing the likelihood of progression to knee osteoarthritis.  In contrast to current methods, this new treatment could be an off-the-shelf approach that would be less costly, easier to administer, and might also reduce the likelihood of progression to osteoarthritis.

This is a late-stage pre-clinical program. The goals are to manufacture clinical grade product, carry out extensive studies to demonstrate safety of the approach, and then file an IND application with the FDA, requesting permission to test the product in a clinical trial in people.

“Damage to the cartilage in our knees can have a big impact on quality of life,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, MD, President and CEO of CIRM. “It doesn’t just cause pain, it also creates problems carrying out simple, everyday activities such as walking, climbing stairs, bending, squatting and kneeling. Developing a way to repair or replace the damaged cartilage to prevent progression to knee osteoarthritis could make a major difference in the lives of millions of Americans. This program is a continuation of earlier stage work funded by CIRM at the Basic Biology and Translational stages, illustrating how CIRM supports scientific programs from early stages toward the clinic.”

Getting under the skin of people with type 1 diabetes – but in a good way

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As someone with a family history of type 1 diabetes (T1D) I know how devastating the condition can be. I also know how challenging it can be to keep it under control and the consequences of failing to do that. Not maintaining healthy blood sugar levels can have a serious impact on the heart, kidney, eyes, nerves, and blood vessels. It can even be fatal.

Right now, controlling T1D means being careful about what you eat, when you eat and how much you eat. It also means regularly checking your blood throughout the day to see if the glucose level is too high or too low. If it’s too high you need to inject insulin; if it’s too low you need to take a fast-acting carbohydrate such as fruit juice or glucose to try and restore it to a healthy level.

That’s why two new approaches to T1D that CIRM has supported are so exciting. They both use small devices implanted under the skin that contain stem cells. The cells can both monitor blood sugar and, if it’s too high, secrete insulin to bring it down.

We sat down with two key members of the Encellin and ViaCyte teams, Dr. Crystal Nyitray and Dr. Manasi Jaiman, to talk about their research, how it works, and what it could mean for people with T1D. That’s in the latest episode of our podcast ‘Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation’.

I think you are going to enjoy it.

This is the size of the implant that ViaCyte is using.
This is the size of the implant Encellin is using

Dr. Crystal Nyitray, CEO & Co-founder Encellin

Dr. Manasi Jaiman, Vice President, Clinical Development ViaCyte

Looking back and looking forward: good news for two CIRM-supported studies

Dr. Rosa Bacchetta on the right with Brian Lookofsky (left) and Taylor Lookofsky after CIRM funded Dr. Bacchetta’s work in October 2019. Taylor has IPEX syndrome

It’s always lovely to end the week on a bright note and that’s certainly the case this week, thanks to some encouraging news about CIRM-funded research targeting blood disorders that affect the immune system.

Stanford’s Dr. Rosa Bacchetta and her team learned that their proposed therapy for IPEX Syndrome had been given the go-ahead by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to test it in people in a Phase 1 clinical trial.

IPEX Syndrome (it’s more formal and tongue twisting name is Immune dysregulation Polyendocrinopathy Enteropathy X-linked syndrome) is a life-threatening disorder that affects children. It’s caused by a mutation in the FOXP3 gene. Immune cells called regulatory T Cells normally function to protect tissues from damage but in patients with IPEX syndrome, lack of functional Tregs render the body’s own tissues and organs to autoimmune attack that could be fatal in early childhood. 

Current treatment options include a bone marrow transplant which is limited by available donors and graft versus host disease and immune suppressive drugs that are only partially effective. Dr. Rosa Bacchetta and her team at Stanford will use gene therapy to insert a normal version of the FOXP3 gene into the patient’s own T Cells to restore the normal function of regulatory T Cells.

This approach has already been accorded an orphan drug and rare pediatric disease designation by the FDA (we blogged about it last year)

Orphan drug designation is a special status given by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for potential treatments of rare diseases that affect fewer than 200,000 in the U.S. This type of status can significantly help advance treatments for rare diseases by providing financial incentives in the form of tax credits towards the cost of clinical trials and prescription drug user fee waivers.

Under the FDA’s rare pediatric disease designation program, the FDA may grant priority review to Dr. Bacchetta if this treatment eventually receives FDA approval. The FDA defines a rare pediatric disease as a serious or life-threatening disease in which the serious or life-threatening manifestations primarily affect individuals aged from birth to 18 years and affects fewer than 200,000 people in the U.S.

Congratulations to the team and we wish them luck as they begin the trial.

Dr. Donald Kohn, Photo courtesy UCLA

Someone who needs no introduction to regular readers of this blog is UCLA’s Dr. Don Kohn. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine highlighted how his work in developing a treatment for severe combined immune deficiency (SCID) has helped save the lives of dozens of children.

Now a new study in the journal Blood shows that those benefits are long-lasting, with 90% of patients who received the treatment eight to 11 years ago still disease-free.

In a news release Dr. Kohn said: “What we saw in the first few years was that this therapy worked, and now we’re able to say that it not only works, but it works for more than 10 years. We hope someday we’ll be able to say that these results last for 80 years.”

Ten children received the treatment between 2009 and 2012. Nine were babies or very young children, one was 15 years old at the time. That teenager was the only one who didn’t see their immune system restored. Dr. Kohn says this suggests that the therapy is most effective in younger children.

Dr. Kohn has since modified the approach his team uses and has seen even more impressive and, we hope, equally long-lasting results.

Celebrating Stem Cell Awareness Day

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The second Wednesday in October is celebrated as Stem Cell Awareness Day. It’s an event that CIRM has been part of since then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger launched it back in 2008 saying: ”The discoveries being made today in our Golden State will have a great impact on many around the world for generations to come.”

In the past we would have helped coordinate presentations by scientists in schools and participated in public events. COVID of course has changed all that. So, this year, to help mark the occasion we asked some people who have been in the forefront of making Governor Schwarzenegger’s statement come true, to share their thoughts and feelings about the day. Here’s what they had to say.

What do you think is the biggest achievement so far in stem cell research?

Dr. Jan Nolta

Jan Nolta, PhD., Director of the Stem Cell Program at UC Davis School of Medicine, and directs the new Institute for Regenerative Cures. “The work of Don Kohn and his UCLA colleagues and team members throughout the years- developing stem cell gene therapy cures for over 50 children with Bubble baby disease. I was very fortunate to work with Don for the first 15 years of my career and know that development of these cures was guided by his passion to help his patients.

Dr. Clive Svendsen

Clive Svendsen, PhD. Director, Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute at Cedars-Sinai: “Without a doubt the discovery of how to make human iPSCs by Shinya Yamanaka and Jamie Thomson.”

When people ask you what kind of impact CIRM and stem cell research has had on your life what do you say?

Ronnie and his parents celebrating his 1st birthday. (Photo courtesy of Pawash Priyank)

Pawash Priyank and Upasana Thakur, parents of Ronnie, who was born with a life-threatening immune disorder but is thriving today thanks to a CIRM-funded clinical trial at UC San Francisco. “This is beyond just a few words and sentences but we will give it a shot. We are living happily today seeing Ronnie explore the world day by day, and this is only because of what CIRM does every day and what Stem cell research has done to humanity. Researchers and scientists come up with innovative ideas almost every day around the globe but unless those ideas are funded or brought to implementation in any manner, they are just in the minds of those researchers and would never be useful for humanity in any manner. CIRM has been that source to bring those ideas to the table, provide facilities and mechanisms to get those actually implemented which eventually makes babies like Ronnie survive and see the world. That’s the impact CIRM has. We have witnessed and heard several good arguments back in India in several forums which could make difference in the world in different sectors of lives but those ideas never come to light because of the lack of organizations like CIRM, lack of interest from people running the government. An organization like CIRM and the interest of the government to fund them with an interest in science and technology actually changes the lives of people when some of those ideas come to see the light of real implementation. 

What are your biggest hopes for the future at UC Davis?

Jan Nolta, PhD: “The future of stem cell and gene therapy research is very bright at UC Davis, thanks to CIRM and our outstanding leadership. We currently have 48 clinical trials ongoing in this field, with over 20 in the pipeline, and are developing a new education and technology complex, Aggie Square, next to the Institute for Regenerative Cures, where our program is housed. We are committed to our very diverse patient population throughout the Sacramento region and Northern California, and to expanding and increasing the number of novel therapies that can be brought to all patients who need them.”

What are your biggest hopes for the future at Cedars-Sinai?

Clive Svendsen, PhD: “That young investigators will get CIRM or NIH funding and be leaders in the regenerative medicine field.”

What do you hope is the future for stem cell research?

Pawash Priyank and Upasana Thakur: “We always have felt good about stem cell therapy. For us, a stem cell has transformed our lives completely. The correction of sequencing in the DNA taken out of Ronnie and injecting back in him has given him life. It has given him the immune system to fight infections. Seeing him grow without fear of doing anything, or going anywhere gives us so much happiness every hour. That’s the impact of stem cell research. With right minds continuing to research further in stem cell therapy bounded by certain good processes & laws around (so that misuse of the therapy couldn’t be done) will certainly change the way treatments are done for certain incurable diseases. I certainly see a bright future for stem cell research.”

On a personal note what is the moment that touched you the most in this journey.

Jan Nolta, PhD: “Each day a new patient or their story touches my heart. They are our inspiration for working hard to bring new options to their care through cell and gene therapy.”

Clive Svendsen, PhD: “When I realized we would get the funding to try and treat ALS with stem cells”

How important is it to raise awareness about stem cell research and to educate the next generation about it?

Pawash Priyank and Upasana Thakur: “Implementing stem cell therapy as a curriculum in the educational systems right from the beginning of middle school and higher could prevent false propaganda of it through social media. Awareness among people with accurate articles right from the beginning of their education is really important. This will also encourage the new generation to choose this as a subject in their higher studies and contribute towards more research to bring more solutions for a variety of diseases popping up every day.”

A new approach to a deadly childhood cancer

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.