When Google turns on you, you know you are in trouble

For years CIRM and others in the stem cell community (hello Paul Knoepfler) have been warning people about the dangers of going to clinics offering unproven and unapproved stem cell therapies. Recently the drum beat of people and organizations coming out in support of that stand has grown louder and louder. Mainstream media – TV and print – have run articles about these predatory clinics. And now, Google has joined those ranks, announcing it will restrict ads promoting these clinics.

“We regularly review and revise our advertising policies. Today, we’re announcing a new Healthcare and medicines policy to prohibit advertising for unproven or experimental medical techniques such as most stem cell therapy, cellular (non-stem) therapy, and gene therapy.”

Deepak Srivastava: Photo courtesy Gladstone Institutes

The president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) Dr. Deepak Srivastava quickly issued a statement of support, saying:

“Google’s new policy banning advertising for speculative medicines is a much-needed and welcome step to curb the marketing of unscrupulous medical products such as unproven stem cell therapies. While stem cells have great potential to help us understand and treat a wide range of diseases, most stem cell interventions remain experimental and should only be offered to patients through well-regulated clinical trials. The premature marketing and commercialization of unproven stem cell products threatens public health, their confidence in biomedical research, and undermines the development of legitimate new therapies.”

Speaking of Deepak – we can use first names here because we are not only great admirers of him as a physician but also as a researcher, which is why we have funded some of his research – he has just published a wonderfully well written article criticizing these predatory clinics.

The article – in Scientific American – is titled “Don’t Believe Everything You Hear About Stem Cells” and rather than paraphrase his prose, I think it best if you read it yourself. So, here it is.

Enjoy.

Don’t Believe Everything You Hear about Stem Cells

The science is progressing rapidly,but bad actors have co-opted stem cells’ hope and promise by preying on unsuspecting patients and their families

Stem cell science is moving forward rapidly, with potential therapies to treat intractable human diseases on the horizon.Clinical trials are now underway to test the safety and effectiveness of stem cell–based treatments for blindness,spinal cord injury,heart disease,Parkinson’s disease, and more,some with early positive results.A sense of urgency drives the scientific community, and there is tremendous hope to finally cure diseases that, to date, have had no treatment.


But don’t believe everything you hear about stem cells. Advertisements and pseudo news articles promote stem cell treatments for everything from Alzheimer’s disease,autism and ALS, to cerebral palsy and other diseases.The claims simply aren’t true–they’re propagated by people wanting to make money off of a desperate and unsuspecting or unknowing public.Patients and their families can be misled by deceptive marketing from unqualified physicians who often don’t have appropriate medical credentials and offer no scientific evidence of their claims.In many cases, the cells being utilized are not even true stem cells.

Advertisements for stem cell treatments are showing up everywhere, with too-good-to-be-true claims and often a testimonial or two meant to suggest legitimacy or efficacy.Beware of the following:

    •       Claims that stem cell treatments can treat a wide range of diseases using a singular stem cell type. This is unlikely to be true.

    •       Claims that stem cells taken from one area of the body can be used to treat another, unrelated area of the body. This is also unlikely to be true.     •       Patient testimonials used to validate a particular treatment, with no scientific evidence. This is a red flag.

    •       Claims that evidence doesn’t yet exist because the clinic is running a patient-funded trial. This is a red flag; clinical trials rarely require payment for experimental treatment.

    •       Claims that the trial is listed on ClinicalTrials.gov and is therefore NIH-approved. This may not be true. The Web site is simply a listing; not all are legitimate trials.

    •       The bottom line: Does the treatment sound too good to be true? If so, it probably is. Look for concrete evidence that the treatment works and is safe.

Hundreds of clinics offer costly, unapproved and unproven stem cell interventions, and patients may suffer physical and financial harm as a result.A Multi-Pronged Approach to Deal with Bad Actors 

The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR)has long been concerned that bad actors have co-opted the hope and promise of stem cell science to prey on unsuspecting patients and their families.

We read with sadness and disappointment the many stories of people trying unproven therapies and being harmed, including going blind from injections into the eyes or suffering from a spinal tumor after an injection of stem cells.Patients left financially strapped, with no physical improvement in their condition and no way to reclaim their losses, are an underreported and underappreciated aspect of these treatments.

Since late 2017, the Food and Drug Administration has stepped up its regulatory enforcement of stem cell therapies and provided a framework for regenerative medicine products that provides guidelines for work in this space.The agency has alerted many clinics and centers that they are not in compliance and has pledged to bring additional enforcement action if needed.

A Multi-Pronged Approach to Deal with Bad Actors  The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) has long been concerned that bad actors have co-opted the hope and promise of stem cell science to prey on unsuspecting patients and their families.

We read with sadness and disappointment the many stories of people trying unproven therapies and being harmed, including going blind from injections into the eyesor suffering from a spinal tumor after an injection of stem cells.Patients left financially strapped, with no physical improvement in their condition and no way to reclaim their losses, are an underreported and underappreciated aspect of these treatments.

Since late 2017, the Food and Drug Administration has stepped up its regulatory enforcement of stem cell therapies and provided a framework for regenerative medicine products that provides guidelines for work in this space.The agency has alerted many clinics and centers that they are not in compliance and has pledged to bring additional enforcement action if needed.

In recent weeks, a federal judge granted the FDA a permanent injunction against U.S. Stem Cell, Inc. and U.S. Stem Cell Clinic, LLC for adulterating and misbranding its cellular products and operating outside of regulatory authority.We hope this will send a strong message to other clinics misleading patients with unapproved and potentially harmful cell-based products.

The Federal Trade Commission has also helped by identifying and curtailing unsubstantiated medical claims in advertising by several clinics. Late in 2018 the FTC won a $3.3-million judgment against two California-based clinics for deceptive health claims. The Federal Trade Commission has also helped by identifying and curtailing unsubstantiated medical claims in advertising by several clinics. Late in 2018 the FTC won a $3.3-million judgment against two California-based clinics for deceptive health claims.

These and other actions are needed to stem the tide of clinics offering unproved therapies and the people who manage and operate them.

Improving Public Awareness

We’re hopeful that the FDA will help improve public awareness of these issues and curb the abuses on ClinicalTrials.gov,a government-run Web site being misused by rogue clinics looking to legitimize their treatments. They list pay-to-participate clinical trials on the site, often without developing, registering or administering a real clinical trial.

The ISSCR Web site A Closer Look at Stem Cellsincludes patient-focused information about stem cells,with information written and vetted by stem cell scientists.The site includes how and where to report adverse events and false marketing claims by stem cell clinics.I encourage you to visit and learn about what is known and unknown about stem cells and their potential for biomedicine.The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Time and money and advancing stem cell research

The human genome

Way back in the 1990’s scientists were hard at work decoding the human genome, trying to map and understand all the genes that make up people. At the time there was a sense of hope, a feeling that once we had decoded the genome, we’d have cures for all sorts of things by next Thursday. It didn’t quite turn out that way.

The same was true for stem cell research. In the early days there was a strong feeling that this was going to quite quickly produce new treatments and cures for diseases ranging from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s to heart disease and stroke. Although we have made tremendous strides we are still not where we hoped we’d be.

It’s a tough lesson to learn, but an important one: good scientific research moves at its own pace and pays little heed to our hopes or desires. It takes time, often a long time, and money, usually a lot of money, to develop new treatments for deadly diseases and disorders.

Many people, particularly those battling deadly diseases who are running out of time, are frustrated at the slow pace of stem cell research, at the years and years of work that it takes to get even the most promising therapy into a clinical trial where it can be tested in people. That’s understandable. If your life is on the line, it’s difficult to be told that you have to be patient. Time is a luxury many patients don’t have.

But that caution is necessary. The last thing we want to do is rush to test something in people that isn’t ready. And stem cells are a whole new way of treating disease, using cells that may stay in the body for years, so we really need to be sure we have done everything we can to ensure they are safe before delivering them to people.

The field of gene therapy was set back years after one young patient, Jesse Gelsinger, died as a result of an early experimental treatment. We don’t want the same to happen to stem cell research.

And yet progress is being made, albeit not as quickly as any of us would like. At the end of the first ten years of CIRM’s existence we had ten projects that we supported that were either in, or applying to be in, a clinical trial sanctioned by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Five years later that number is 56.

Most of those are in Phase 1 or 2 clinical trials which means they are still trying to show they are both safe and effective enough to be made available to a wider group of people. However, some of our projects are in Phase 3, the last step before, hopefully, being given FDA approval to be made more widely available and – just as important – to be covered by insurance.

Other CIRM-funded projects have been given Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy (RMAT) designation by the FDA, a new program that allows projects that show they are safe and benefit patients in early stage clinical trials, to apply for priority review, meaning they could get approved faster than normal. Out of 40 RMAT designations awarded so far, six are for CIRM projects.

We are working hard to live up to our mission statement of accelerating stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. We have been fortunate in having $3 billion to spend on advancing this research in California; an amount no other US state, indeed few other countries, have been able to match. Yet even that amount is tiny compared to the impact that many of these diseases have. For example, the economic cost of treating diabetes in the US is a staggering $327 billion a year.

The simple truth is that unless we, as a nation, invest much more in scientific research, we are not going to be able to develop cures and new, more effective, treatments for a wide range of diseases.

Time and money are always going to be challenging when it comes to advancing stem cell research and bringing treatments to patients. With greater knowledge and understanding of stem cells and how best to use them we can speed up the timeline. But without money none of that can happen.

Our blog is just one of many covering the topic of “What are the hurdles impacting patient access to cell and gene therapies as part of Signal’s fourth annual blog carnival.

One family’s fight to save their son’s life, and how stem cells made it possible

CIRM’s mission is very simple: to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. Anne Klein’s son, Everett, was a poster boy for that statement. Born with a fatal immune disorder Everett faced a bleak future. But Anne and husband Brian were not about to give up. The following story is one Anne wrote for Parents magazine. It’s testament to the power of stem cells to save lives, but even more importantly to the power of love and the determination of a family to save their son.

My Son Was Born With ‘Bubble Boy’ Disease—But A Gene Therapy Trial Saved His Life

Everett Schmitt. Photo: Meg Kumin

I wish more than anything that my son Everett had not been born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). But I know he is actually one of the lucky unlucky ones. By Anne Klein

As a child in the ’80s, I watched a news story about David Vetter. David was known as “the boy in the bubble” because he was born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a rare genetic disease that leaves babies with very little or no immune system. To protect him, David lived his entire life in a plastic bubble that kept him separated from a world filled with germs and illnesses that would have taken his life—likely before his first birthday.

I was struck by David’s story. It was heartbreaking and seemed so otherworldly. What would it be like to spend your childhood in an isolation chamber with family, doctors, reporters, and the world looking in on you? I found it devastating that an experimental bone marrow transplant didn’t end up saving his life; instead it led to fatal complications. His mother, Carol Ann Demaret, touched his bare hand for the first and last time when he was 12 years old.

I couldn’t have known that almost 30 years later, my own son, Everett, would be born with SCID too.

Everett’s SCID diagnosis

At birth, Everett was big, beautiful, and looked perfectly healthy. My husband Brian and I already had a 2-and-a-half-year-old son, Alden, so we were less anxious as parents when we brought Everett home. I didn’t run errands with Alden until he was at least a month old, but Everett was out and about with us within a few days of being born. After all, we thought we knew what to expect.

But two weeks after Everett’s birth, a doctor called to discuss Everett’s newborn screening test results. I listened in disbelief as he explained that Everett’s blood sample indicated he may have an immune deficiency.

“He may need a bone marrow transplant,” the doctor told me.

I was shocked. Everett’s checkup with his pediatrician just two days earlier went swimmingly. I hung up and held on to the doctor’s assurance that there was a 40 percent chance Everett’s test result was a false positive.

After five grueling days of waiting for additional test results and answers, I received the call: Everett had virtually no immune system. He needed to be quickly admitted to UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in California so they could keep him isolated and prepare to give him a stem cell transplant. UCSF diagnosed him specifically with SCID-X1, the same form David battled.

Beginning SCID treatment

The hospital was 90 miles and more than two hours away from home. Our family of four had to be split into two, with me staying in the hospital primarily with Everett and Brian and Alden remaining at home, except for short visits. The sudden upheaval left Alden confused, shaken, and sad. Brian and I quickly transformed into helicopter parents, neurotically focused on every imaginable contact with germs, even the mildest of which could be life-threatening to Everett.

When he was 7 weeks old, Everett received a stem cell transplant with me as his donor, but the transplant failed because my immune cells began attacking his body. Over his short life, Everett has also spent more than six months collectively in the hospital and more than three years in semi-isolation at home. He’s endured countless biopsies, ultrasounds, CT scans, infusions, blood draws, trips to the emergency department, and medical transports via ambulance or helicopter.

Gene therapy to treat SCID

At age 2, his liver almost failed and a case of pneumonia required breathing support with sedation. That’s when a doctor came into the pediatric intensive care unit and said, “When Everett gets through this, we need to do something else for him.” He recommended a gene therapy clinical trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that was finally showing success in patients over age 2 whose transplants had failed. This was the first group of SCID-X1 patients to receive gene therapy using a lentiviral vector combined with a light dose of chemotherapy.

After the complications from our son’s initial stem cell transplant, Brian and I didn’t want to do another stem cell transplant using donor cells. My donor cells were at war with his body and cells from another donor could do the same. Also, the odds of Everett having a suitable donor on the bone marrow registry were extremely small since he didn’t have one as a newborn. At the NIH, he would receive a transplant with his own, perfectly matched, gene-corrected cells. They would be right at home.

Other treatment options would likely only partially restore his immunity and require him to receive infusions of donor antibodies for life, as was the case with his first transplant. Prior gene therapy trials produced similarly incomplete results and several participants developed leukemia. The NIH trial was the first one showing promise in fully restoring immunity, without a risk of cancer. Brian and I felt it was Everett’s best option. Without hesitation, we flew across the country for his treatment. Everett received the gene therapy in September 2016 when he was 3, becoming the youngest patient NIH’s clinical trial has treated.

Everett’s recovery

It’s been more than two years since Everett received gene therapy and now more than ever, he has the best hope of developing a fully functioning immune system. He just received his first vaccine to test his ability to mount a response. Now 6 years old, he’s completed kindergarten and has been to Disney World. He plays in the dirt and loves shows and movies from the ’80s (maybe some of the same ones David enjoyed).

Everett knows he has been through a lot and that his doctors “fixed his DNA,” but he’s focused largely on other things. He’s vocal when confronted with medical pain or trauma, but seems to block out the experiences shortly afterwards. It’s sad for Brian and me that Everett developed these coping skills at such a young age, but we’re so grateful he is otherwise expressive and enjoys engaging with others. Once in the middle of the night, he woke us up as he stood in the hallway, exclaiming, “I’m going back to bed, but I just want you to know that I love you with all my heart!”

I wish more than anything that Everett had not been born with such a terrible disease and I could erase all the trauma, isolation, and pain. But I know that he is actually one of the lucky unlucky ones. Everett is fortunate his disease was caught early by SCID newborn screening, which became available in California not long before his birth. Without this test, we would not have known he had SCID until he became dangerously ill. His prognosis would have been much worse, even under the care of his truly brilliant and remarkable doctors, some of whom cared for David decades earlier.

Carol-Ann-mother-of-David-Vetter-meeting-Everett-Schmitt
Everett Schmitt meeting David Vetter’s mom Carol Ann Demaret. Photo – Brian Schmitt

When Everett was 4, soon after the gene therapy gave him the immunity he desperately needed, our family was fortunate enough to cross paths with David’s mom, Carol Ann, at an Immune Deficiency Foundation event. Throughout my life, I had seen her in pictures and on television with David. In person, she was warm, gracious, and humble. When I introduced her to Everett and explained that he had SCID just like David, she looked at Everett with loving eyes and asked if she could touch him. As she touched Everett’s shoulder and they locked eyes, Brian and I looked on with profound gratitude.

Anne Klein is a parent, scientist, and a patient advocate for two gene therapy trials funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. She is passionate about helping parents of children with SCID navigate treatment options for their child.

You can read about the clinical trials we are funding for SCID here, here, here and here.

CIRM funded study identifies potential drug target for deadly heart condition

Joseph Wu is co-senior author of a study that demonstrates how patient-derived heart cells can help scientists better study the heart and screen potential therapies. Photo courtesy of Steve Fisch

Heart disease continues to be the number one cause of death in the United States. An estimated 375,000 people have a genetic form of heart disease known as familial dilated cardiomyopathy. This occurs when the heart muscle becomes weakened in one chamber in the heart, causing the open area of the chamber to become enlarged or dilated. As a result of this, the heart can no longer beat regularly, causing shortness of breath, chest pain and, in severe cases, sudden and deadly cardiac arrest.

A diagram of a normal heart compared to one with the dilated cardiomyopathy

A CIRM funded study by a team of researchers at Stanford University looked further into this form of genetic heart disease by taking a patient’s skin cells and converting them into stem cells known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which can become any type of cell in the body. These iPSCs were then converted into heart muscle cells that pulse just as they do in the body. These newly made heart muscle cells beat irregularly, similar to what is observed in the genetic heart condition.

Upon further analysis, the researchers linked a receptor called PGDF to cause various genes to be more highly activated in the mutated heart cells compared to normal ones. Two drugs, crenolanib and sunitinib, interfere with the PGDF receptor. After treating the abnormal heart cells, they began beating more regularly, and their gene-activation patterns more closely matched those of cells from healthy donors.

These two drugs are already FDA-approved for treating various cancers, but previous work shows that the drugs may damage the heart at high doses. The next step would be determining the right dose of the drug. The current study is part of a broader effort by the researchers to use these patient-derived cells-in-a-dish to screen for and discover new drugs.

Dr. Joseph Wu, co-senior author of this study, and his team have generated heart muscle cells from over 1,000 patients, including those of Dr. Wu, his son, and his daughter. In addition to using skin cells, the same technique to create heart cells from patients can also be done with 10 milliliters of blood — roughly two teaspoons.

In a news release, Dr. Wu is quoted as saying,

“With 10 milliliters of blood, we can make clinically usable amounts of your beating heart cells in a dish…Our postdocs have taken my blood and differentiated my pluripotent stem cells into my brain cells, heart cells and liver cells. I’m asking them to test some of the medications that I might need to take in the future.”

The full results of this study were published in Nature.

From bench to bedside: a Q&A with stem cell expert Jan Nolta

At CIRM we are privileged to work with many remarkable people who combine brilliance, compassion and commitment to their search for new therapies to help people in need. One of those who certainly fits that description is UC Davis’ Jan Nolta.

This week the UC Davis Newsroom posted a great interview with Jan. Rather than try and summarize what she says I thought it would be better to let her talk for herself.

Jan Nolta
Jan Nolta

Talking research, unscrupulous clinics, and sustaining the momentum

(SACRAMENTO) —

In 2007, Jan Nolta returned to Northern California from St. Louis to lead what was at the time UC Davis’ brand-new stem cell program. As director of the UC Davis Stem Cell Program and the Institute for Regenerative Cures, she has overseen the opening of the institute, more than $140 million in research grants, and dozens upon dozens of research studies. She recently sat down to answer some questions about regenerative medicine and all the work taking place at UC Davis Health.

Q: Turning stem cells into cures has been your mission and mantra since you founded the program. Can you give us some examples of the most promising research?

I am so excited about our research. We have about 20 different disease-focused teams. That includes physicians, nurses, health care staff, researchers and faculty members, all working to go from the laboratory bench to patient’s bedside with therapies.

Perhaps the most promising and exciting research right now comes from combining blood-forming

stem cells with gene therapy. We’re working in about eight areas right now, and the first cure, something that we definitely can call a stem cell “cure,” is coming from this combined approach.

Soon, doctors will be able to prescribe this type of stem cell therapy. Patients will use their own bone marrow or umbilical cord stem cells. Teams such as ours, working in good manufacturing practice facilities, will make vectors, essentially “biological delivery vehicles,” carrying a good copy of the broken gene. They will be reinserted into a patient’s cells and then infused back into the patient, much like a bone marrow transplant.

“Perhaps the most promising and exciting research right now comes from combining blood-forming stem cells with gene therapy.”

Along with treating the famous bubble baby disease, where I had started my career, this approach looks very promising for sickle cell anemia. We’re hoping to use it to treat several different inherited metabolic diseases. These are conditions characterized by an abnormal build-up of toxic materials in the body’s cells. They interfere with organ and brain function. It’s caused by just a single enzyme. Using the combined stem cell gene therapy, we can effectively put a good copy of the gene for that enzyme back into a patient’s bone marrow stem cells. Then we do a bone marrow transplantation and bring back a person’s normal functioning cells.

The beauty of this therapy is that it can work for the lifetime of a patient. All of the blood cells circulating in a person’s system would be repaired. It’s the number one stem cell cure happening right now. Plus, it’s a therapy that won’t be rejected. These are a patient’s own stem cells. It is just one type of stem cell, and the first that’s being commercialized to change cells throughout the body.

Q: Let’s step back for a moment. In 2004, voters approved Proposition 71. It has funded a majority of the stem cell research here at UC Davis and throughout California. What’s been the impact of that ballot measure and how is it benefiting patients?

We have learned so much about different types of stem cells, and which stem cell will be most appropriate to treat each type of disease. That’s huge. We had to first do that before being able to start actual stem cell therapies. CIRM [California Institute for Regenerative Medicine] has funded Alpha Stem Cell Clinics. We have one of them here at UC Davis and there are only five in the entire state. These are clinics where the patients can go for high-quality clinical stem cell trials approved by the FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration]. They don’t need to go to “unapproved clinics” and spend a lot of money. And they actually shouldn’t.

“By the end of this year, we’ll have 50 clinical trials.”

By the end of this year, we’ll have 50 clinical trials [here at UC Davis Health]. There are that many in the works.

Our Alpha Clinic is right next to the hospital. It’s where we’ll be delivering a lot of the immunotherapies, gene therapies and other treatments. In fact, I might even get to personally deliver stem cells to the operating room for a patient. It will be for a clinical trial involving people who have broken their hip. It’s exciting because it feels full circle, from working in the laboratory to bringing stem cells right to the patient’s bedside.

We have ongoing clinical trials for critical limb ischemia, leukemia and, as I mentioned, sickle cell disease. Our disease teams are conducting stem cell clinical trials targeting sarcoma, cellular carcinoma, and treatments for dysphasia [a swallowing disorder], retinopathy [eye condition], Duchenne muscular dystrophy and HIV. It’s all in the works here at UC Davis Health.

There’s also great potential for therapies to help with renal disease and kidney transplants. The latter is really exciting because it’s like a mini bone marrow transplant. A kidney recipient would also get some blood-forming stem cells from the kidney donor so that they can better accept the organ and not reject it. It’s a type of stem cell therapy that could help address the burden of being on a lifelong regime of immunosuppressant drugs after transplantation.

Q: You and your colleagues get calls from family members and patients all the time. They frequently ask about stem cell “miracle” cures. What should people know about unproven treatments and unregulated stem cell clinics?

That’s a great question.The number one rule is that if you’re asked to pay money for a stem cell treatment, don’t do it. It’s a big red flag.

When it comes to advertised therapies: “The number one rule is that if you’re asked to pay money for a stem cell treatment, don’t do it. It’s a big red flag.”

Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous people out there in “unapproved clinics” who prey on desperate people. What they are delivering are probably not even stem cells. They might inject you with your own fat cells, which contain very few stem cells. Or they might use treatments that are not matched to the patient and will be immediately rejected. That’s dangerous. The FDA is shutting these unregulated clinics down one at a time. But it’s like “whack-a-mole”: shut one down and another one pops right up.

On the other hand, the Alpha Clinic is part of our mission is to help the public get to the right therapy, treatment or clinical trial. The big difference between those who make patients pay huge sums of money for unregulated and unproven treatments and UC Davis is that we’re actually using stem cells. We produce them in rigorously regulated cleanroom facilities. They are certified to contain at least 99% stem cells.

Patients and family members can always call us here. We can refer them to a genuine and approved clinical trial. If you don’t get stem cells at the beginning [of the clinical trial] because you’re part of the placebo group, you can get them later. So it’s not risky. The placebo is just saline. I know people are very, very desperate. But there are no miracle cures…yet. Clinical trials, approved by the FDA, are the only way we’re going to develop effective treatments and cures.

Q: Scientific breakthroughs take a lot of patience and time. How do you and your colleagues measure progress and stay motivated?   

Motivation?  “It’s all for the patients.”

It’s all for the patients. There are not good therapies yet for many disorders. But we’re developing them. Every day brings a triumph. Measuring progress means treating a patient in a clinical trial, or developing something in the laboratory, or getting FDA approval. The big one will be getting biological license approval from the FDA, which means a doctor can prescribe a stem cell or gene therapy treatment. Then it can be covered by a patient’s health insurance.

I’m a cancer survivor myself, and I’m also a heart patient. Our amazing team here at UC Davis has kept me alive and in great health. So I understand it from both sides. I understand the desperation of “Where do I go?” and “What do I do right now?” questions. I also understand the science side of things. Progress can feel very, very slow. But everything we do here at the Institute for Regenerative Cures is done with patients in mind, and safety.

We know that each day is so important when you’re watching a loved one suffer. We attend patient events and are part of things like Facebook groups, where people really pour their hearts out. We say to ourselves, “Okay, we must work harder and faster.” That’s our motivation: It’s all the patients and families that we’re going to help who keep us working hard.

Developing a non-toxic approach to bone-crushing cancers

When cancer spreads to the bone the results can be devastating

Battling cancer is always a balancing act. The methods we use – surgery, chemotherapy and radiation – can help remove the tumors but they often come at a price to the patient. In cases where the cancer has spread to the bone the treatments have a limited impact on the disease, but their toxicity can cause devastating problems for the patient. Now, in a CIRM-supported study, researchers at UC Irvine (UCI) have developed a method they say may be able to change that.

Bone metastasis – where cancer starts in one part of the body, say the breast, but spreads to the bones – is one of the most common complications of cancer. It can often result in severe pain, increased risk of fractures and compression of the spine. Tackling them is difficult because some cancer cells can alter the environment around bone, accelerating the destruction of healthy bone cells, and that in turn creates growth factors that stimulate the growth of the cancer. It is a vicious cycle where one problem fuels the other.

Now researchers at UCI have developed a method where they combine engineered mesenchymal stem cells (taken from the bone marrow) with targeting agents. These act like a drug delivery device, offloading different agents that simultaneously attack the cancer but protect the bone.

Weian Zhao; photo courtesy UC Irvine

In a news release Weian Zhao, lead author of the study, said:

“What’s powerful about this strategy is that we deliver a combination of both anti-tumor and anti-bone resorption agents so we can effectively block the vicious circle between cancers and their bone niche. This is a safe and almost nontoxic treatment compared to chemotherapy, which often leaves patients with lifelong issues.”

The research, published in the journal EBioMedicine, has already been shown to be effective in mice. Next, they hope to be able to do the safety tests to enable them to apply to the Food and Drug Administration for permission to test it in people.

The team say if this approach proves effective it might also be used to help treat other bone-related diseases such as osteoporosis and multiple myeloma.

Clinical trials: separating the wheat from the chaff

What do you do when the supposed solution to a problem actually turns out to be a part of the problem? That’s the situation facing people who want to direct patients to scientifically sound clinical trials. Turns out the site many were going to may be directing patients to therapies that are not only not scientifically sound, they may not even be safe.

The site in question is the www.clinicaltrials.gov website. That’s a list of all the clinical trials registered with the National Institutes of Health. In theory that should be a rock-solid list of trials that have been given the go-ahead by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be tested in people. Unfortunately, the reality is very different. Many of the trials listed there have gone through the rigorous testing and approval process to earn the right to be tested in people. But some haven’t. And figuring out which is which is not easy.

The issue was highlighted by a terrific article on STAT News this week. The article’s title succinctly sums up the piece: “Stem cell clinics co-opt clinical-trials registry to market unproven therapies, critics say.”

The story highlights how clinics that are offering unproven and unapproved stem cell therapies can register their “clinical trial” on the site, even if they haven’t received FDA approval to carry out a clinical trial.

Leigh Turner, a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota and a long-time foe of these clinics, said:

“You can concoct this bogus appearance of science, call it a clinical study, recruit people to pay to participate in your study, and not only that: You can actually register on clinicaltrials.gov and have the federal government help you promote what you’re doing. That struck me as both dangerous and brilliant.”

At CIRM this is a problem we face almost every day. People call or email us asking for help finding a stem cell therapy for everything from cancer and autism to diabetes. If we are funding something or if there is one underway at one of our Alpha Stem Cell Clinics we can direct them to that particular trial. If not, the easiest thing would be to direct them to the clinicaltrials.gov site. But when you are not sure that all the programs listed are legitimate clinical trials, that’s not something we always feel comfortable doing.

As the STAT piece points out, some of the “trials” listed on the site are even being run by companies that the FDA is trying to shut down because of serious concerns about the “therapies” they are offering. One was for a Florida clinic that had blinded four people. Despite that, the clinic’s projects remain on the site where other patients can find them.

Being listed on clinicaltrials.gov gives clinics offering unproven therapies an air or legitimacy. So how can you spot a good trial from a bad one? It’s not always easy.

One red flag is if the trial is asking you to pay for the treatment. That’s considered unethical because it’s asking you to pay to be part of an experiment. Only a very few legitimate clinical trials ask patients to pay, and even then, only with permission from the FDA.

Another warning sign is anything that has a laundry list of things it can treat, everything from arthritis to Alzheimer’s. Well-designed clinical trials tend to be targeted at one condition not multiple ones.

We have put together some useful tools for patients considering taking part in a clinical trial. Here is a link to a video and infographic that tell people the questions they need to ask, and things they need to consider, before signing up for any clinical trial.

So why does the NIH continue to allow these clinics to “advertise” their programs on its website? One reason is that the NIH simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to check every listing to make sure they are legit. They have tried to make things better by including a warning, stating:

“Listing a study does not mean it has been evaluated by the U.S. Federal Government. Read our disclaimer for details. Before participating in a study, talk to your health care provider and learn about the risks and potential benefits.”

The bottom line is that if you are in the market for a stem cell therapy you should approach it the way you would any potentially life-changing decision: caveat emptor, buyer beware.

Taking the message to the people: fighting for the future of stem cell research in California

Stem cells have been in the news a lot this week, and not necessarily for the right reason.

First, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) won a big legal decision in its fight to crack down on clinics offering bogus, unproven and unapproved stem cell therapies.

But then came news that another big name celebrity, in this case Star Trek star William Shatner, was going to one of these clinics for an infusion of what he called “restorative cells”.

It’s a reminder that for every step forward we take in trying to educate the public about the dangers of clinics offering unproven therapies, we often take another step back when a celebrity essentially endorses the idea.

So that’s why we are taking our message directly to the people, as often as we can and wherever we can.

In June we are going to be holding a free, public event in Los Angeles to coincide with the opening of the International Society for Stem Cell Research’s Annual Conference, the biggest event on the global stem cell calendar. There’s still time to register for that by the way. The event is from 6-7pm on Tuesday, June 25th in Petree Hall C., at the Los Angeles Convention Center at 1201 South Figueroa Street, LA 90015.

The event is open to everyone and it’s FREE. We have created an Eventbrite page where you can get all the details and RSVP if you are coming.

It’s going to be an opportunity to learn about the real progress being made in stem cell research, thanks in no small part to CIRM’s funding. We’re honored to be joined by UCLA’s Dr. Don Kohn, who has helped cure dozens of children born with a fatal immune system disorder called severe combined immunodeficiency, also known as “bubble baby disease”. And we’ll hear from the family of one of those children whose life he helped save.

And because CIRM is due to run out of money to fund new projects by the end of this year you’ll also learn about the very real concerns we have about the future of stem cell research in California and what can be done to address those concerns. It promises to be a fascinating evening.

But that’s not all. Our partners at USC will be holding another public event on stem cell research, on Wednesday June 26th from 6.30p to 8pm. This one is focused on treatments for age-related blindness. This features some of the top stem cell scientists in the field who are making encouraging progress in not just slowing down vision loss, but in some cases even reversing it.

You can find out more about that event here.

We know that we face some serious challenges in trying to educate people about the risks of going to a clinic offering unproven therapies. But we also know we have a great story to tell, one that shows how we are already changing lives and saving lives, and that with the support of the people of California we’ll do even more in the years to come.

Media matters in spreading the word

Cover of New Yorker article on “The Birth Tissue Profiteers”. Illustration by Ben Jones

When you have a great story to tell the best and most effective way to get it out to the widest audience is still the media, both traditional mainstream and new social media. Recently we have seen three great examples of how that can be done and, hopefully, the benefits that can come from it.

First, let’s go old school. Earlier this month Caroline Chen wrote a wonderful in-depth article about clinics that are cashing in on a gray area in stem cell research. The piece, a collaboration between the New Yorker magazine and ProPublica, focused on the use of amniotic stem cell treatments and the gap between what the clinics who offer it are claiming it can do, and the reality.

Here’s one paragraph profiling a Dr. David Greene, who runs a company providing amniotic fluid to clinics. It’s a fine piece of writing showing how the people behind these therapies blur the lines between fact and reality, not just about the cells but also about themselves:

“Greene said that amniotic stem cells derive their healing power from an ability to develop into any kind of tissue, but he failed to mention that mainstream science does not support his claims. He also did not disclose that he lost his license to practice medicine in 2009, after surgeries he botched resulted in several deaths. Instead, he offered glowing statistics: amniotic stem cells could help the heart beat better, “on average by twenty per cent,” he said. “Over eighty-five per cent of patients benefit exceptionally from the treatment.”

Greene later backpedals on that claim, saying:

“I don’t claim that this is a treatment. I don’t claim that it cures anything. I don’t claim that it’s a permanent fix. All I discuss is maybe, potentially, people can get some improvements from stem-cell care.”

CBS2 TV Chicago

This week CBS2 TV in Chicago did their own investigative story about how the number of local clinics offering unproven and unapproved therapies is on the rise. Reporter Pam Zekman showed how misleading newspaper ads brought in people desperate for something, anything, to ease their arthritis pain.

She interviewed two patients who went to one of those clinics, and ended up out of pocket, and out of luck.

“They said they would regenerate the cartilage,” Patricia Korona recalled. She paid $4500 for injections in her knee, but the pain continued. Later X-rays were ordered by her orthopedic surgeon.

He found bone on bone,” Korona said. “No cartilage grew, which tells me it failed; didn’t work.”

John Zapfel paid $14,000 for stem cell injections on each side of his neck and his shoulder. But an MRI taken by his current doctor showed no improvement.

“They ripped me off, and I was mad.” Zapfel said.      

TV and print reports like this are a great way to highlight the bogus claims made by many of these clinics, and to shine a light on how they use hype to sell hope to people who are in pain and looking for help.

At a time when journalism seems to be increasingly under attack with accusations of “fake news” it’s encouraging to see reporters like these taking the time and news outlets devoting the resources to uncover shady practices and protect vulnerable patients.

But the news isn’t all bad, and the use of social media can help highlight the good news.

That’s what happened yesterday in our latest CIRM Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team” event. The event focused on the future of stem cell research but also included a really thoughtful look at the progress that’s been made over the last 10-15 years.

We had two great guests, UC Davis stem cell researcher and one of the leading bloggers on the field, Paul Knoepfler PhD; and David Higgins, PhD, a scientist, member of the CIRM Board and a Patient Advocate for Huntington’s Disease. They were able to highlight the challenges of the early years of stem cell research, both globally and here at CIRM, and show how the field has evolved at a remarkable rate in recent years.

Paul Knoepfler

Naturally the subject of the “bogus clinics” came up – Paul has become a national expert on these clinics and is quoted in the New Yorker article – as did the subject of the frustration some people feel at what they consider to be the too-slow pace of progress. As David Higgins noted, we all think it’s too slow, but we are not going to race recklessly ahead in search of something that might heal if we might also end up doing something that might kill.

David Higgins

A portion of the discussion focused on funding and, in particular, what happens if CIRM is no longer around to fund the most promising research in California. We are due to run out of funding for new projects by the end of this year, and without a re-infusion of funds we will be pretty much closing our doors by the end of 2020. Both Paul and David felt that could be disastrous for the field here in California, depriving the most promising projects of support at a time when they needed it most.

It’s probably not too surprising that three people so closely connected to CIRM (Paul has received funding from us in the past) would conclude that CIRM is needed for stem cell research to not just survive but thrive in California.

A word of caution before you watch: fashion conscious people may be appalled at how my pocket handkerchief took on a life of its own.

Stories that caught our eye: FDA grants orphan drug status to CIRM-funded therapy; stunning discovery upends ideas of cell formation; and how tadpoles grow new tails

Gut busting discovery

Intestinal stem cells: Photo courtesy Klaus Kaestner, Penn Institute for Regenerative Medicine

It’s not often you read the word “sensational” in a news release about stem cells. But this week researchers at the University of Copenhagen released findings that are overturning long-held ideas about the development of cells in our stomachs. So perhaps calling it “sensational” is not too big a stretch.

In the past it was believed that the development of immature cells in our stomachs, before a baby is born, was predetermined, that the cells had some kind of innate sense of what they were going to become and when. Turns out that’s not the case. The researchers say it’s the cells’ environment that determines what they will become and that all cells in the fetus’ gut have the potential to turn into stem cells.

In the “sensational” news release lead author, Kim Jensen, says this finding could help in the development of new therapies.

“We used to believe that a cell’s potential for becoming a stem cell was predetermined, but our new results show that all immature cells have the same probability for becoming stem cells in the fully developed organ. In principle, it is simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Here signals from the cells’ surroundings determine their fate. If we are able to identify the signals that are necessary for the immature cell to develop into a stem cell, it will be easier for us to manipulate cells in the wanted direction’.

The study is published in the journal Nature.                             

A tale of a tail

African clawed frog tadpole: Photo courtesy Gary Nafis

It’s long been known that some lizards and other mammals can regrow severed limbs, but it hasn’t been clear how. Now scientists at the University of Cambridge in the UK have figured out what’s going on.

Using single-cell genomics the scientists were able to track which genes are turned on and off at particular times, allowing them to watch what happens inside the tail of the African clawed frog tadpole as it regenerates the damaged limb.

They found that the response was orchestrated by a group of skin cells they called Regeneration-Organizing Cells, or ROCs. Can Aztekin, one of the lead authors of the study in the journal Science, says seeing how ROCs work could lead to new ideas on how to stimulate similar regeneration in other mammals.

“It’s an astonishing process to watch unfold. After tail amputation, ROCs migrate from the body to the wound and secrete a cocktail of growth factors that coordinate the response of tissue precursor cells. These cells then work together to regenerate a tail of the right size, pattern and cell composition.”

Orphan Drug Designation for CIRM-funded therapy

Poseida Therapeutics got some good news recently about their CIRM-funded therapy for multiple myeloma. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted them orphan drug designation.

Orphan drug designation is given to therapies targeting rare diseases or disorders that affect fewer than 200,000 people in the U.S. It means the company may be eligible for grant funding toward clinical trial costs, tax advantages, FDA user-fee benefits and seven years of market exclusivity in the United States following marketing approval by the FDA.

CIRM’s President and CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, says the company is using a gene-modified cell therapy approach to help people who are not responding to traditional approaches.

“Poseida’s technology is seeking to destroy these cancerous myeloma cells with an immunotherapy approach that uses the patient’s own engineered immune system T cells to seek and destroy the myeloma cells.”

Poseida’s CEO, Eric Ostertag, said the designation is an important milestone for the company therapy which “has demonstrated outstanding potency, with strikingly low rates of toxicity in our phase 1 clinical trial. In fact, the FDA has approved fully outpatient dosing in our Phase 2 trial starting in the second quarter of 2019.”