California’s Stem Cell Agency Accelerates Treatments to Patients

The following article is an Op Ed that appeared in today’s print version of the San Francisco Chronicle

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Biotechnology was born in California in the 1970s based on the discovery out of one of its universities and California is responsible for an industry that has impacted the lives of billions of people worldwide. In 2004, the voters of California approved Proposition 71, creating the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and setting the state on the path to becoming a global leader in stem cell research. Today the therapies resulting from the institute’s work are not just changing lives, they are already saving lives.

Lives like Evie Vaccaro, who is alive today because of a treatment CIRM is funding. Vaccaro was born with SCID, also known as “bubble baby disease,” an immune disorder that often kills babies in their first two years. Vaccaro and dozens of other babies were given stem cell treatments thanks to the institute. All are showing improvement; some are now several years past treatment and considered cured.

An accident left Jake Javier from Danville paralyzed from the chest down on the eve of his high school graduation. Javier was treated in a CIRM-funded clinical trial. Today he has regained the use of his arms and hands, is driving a car and is a sophomore at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Five other patients treated at the same time as Javier have all experienced improvements meaning that instead of needing round-the-clock care, they can lead independent lives.

A study by the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development estimated it takes at least 10 years and $2.6 billion to develop one successful drug. In 14 years, and with just $3 billion, CIRM has funded 1,000 different projects, enrolled 900 patients, and supported 49 different clinical trials targeting diseases such as cancer, kidney failure and leukemia. Four of these programs have received an expedited designation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, meaning they could get faster approval to help more patients

We have created a network of world class medical clinics that have expertise in delivering treatments to patients. The CIRM Alpha Clinics offer treatments based on solid science, unlike the unlicensed clinics sprouting up around California that peddle unproven and potentially harmful therapies that cost patients thousands of dollars.

CIRM has:

  • Supported the creation of 12 stem-cell research facilities in California
  • Attracted hundreds of top-tier researchers to California
  • Trained a new generation of stem-cell scientists
  • Brought clinical trials to California — for example, one targeting ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease
  • Deployed rigorous scientific standards and support so our programs have a “seal of approval” to attract $2.7 billion in additional investments from industry and other sources.

We recently have partnered with the National Institutes of Health to break down barriers and speed up the approval process to bring curative treatments to patients with Sickle Cell Disease.

Have we achieved all we wanted to? Of course not. The first decade of CIRM’s life was laying the groundwork, developing the knowledge and expertise and refining processes so that we can truly accelerate progress. As a leader in this burgeoning field of regenerative medicine, CIRM needs to continue its mission of accelerating stem-cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.

Dr. Maria T. Millan is President and CEO and Jonathan Thomas, JD, PhD, is the Board Chairman of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine. 

 

 

A cancer therapy developed at a CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic tests its legs against breast cancer

Breast cancer cells

Three-dimensional culture of human breast cancer cells, with DNA stained blue and a protein on the cell surface membrane stained green. Image courtesy The National Institutes of Health

A Phase 1 clinical trial co-sponsored by CIRM and Oncternal Therapeutics, has started treating patients at UC San Diego (UCSD). The goal of the trial is to test the safety and anti-tumor activity of the Oncternal-developed drug, cirmtuzumab, in treating breast cancer.

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer to occur in women, regardless of race or ethnicity. More than 260,000 new cases are expected to be diagnosed this year in the United States alone. Typically, breast cancer cases are treated by a combination of surgery to remove the tumor locally, followed by some kind of systemic treatment, like chemotherapy, which can eliminate cancer cells in other parts of the body. In certain cases, however, surgery might not be a feasible option. Cirmtuzumab may be a viable option for these patients.

The drug acts by binding to a protein called ROR1, which is highly abundant on the surface of cancer cells. By blocking the protein Cirmtuzumab is able to promote cell death, stopping the cancer from spreading around the body.

Because ROR1 is also found on the surface of healthy cells there were concerns using cirmtuzumab could lead to damage to healthy tissue. However, a previous study revealed that using this kind of approach, at least in a healthy non-human primate model did not lead to any adverse clinical symptoms. Therefore, this protein is a viable target for cancer treatment and is particularly promising because it is a marker of many different types of cancers including leukemia, lung cancer and breast cancer.

Phase 1 clinical trials generally enroll a small number of patients who have do not have other treatment options. The primary goals are to determine if this approach is safe, if it causes any serious side-effects, what is the best dosage of the drug and how the drug works in the body. This clinical trial will enroll up to 15 patients who will receive cirmtuzumab in combination with paclitaxel (Taxol), a vetted chemotherapy drug, for six months.

Earlier this year, a similar clinical trial at UCSD began to test the effectiveness a of cirmtuzumab-based combination therapy to treat patients with B-cell cancers such as chronic lymphocytic leukemia. This trial was also partially funded by CIRM.

In a press release, Dr. Barbara Parker, the co-lead on this study states:

“Our primary objective, of course, is to determine whether the drug combination is safe and tolerable and to measure its anti-tumor activity. If it proves safe and shows effectiveness against breast cancer, we can progress to subsequent trials to determine how best to use the drug combination.”

Deep dive into muscle repair yields new strategies to combat Duchenne muscular dystrophy

Researchers at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP) reported new findings this week that may lead to novel therapeutic strategies for people suffering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). DMD, a muscle-wasting disease that affects 1 in 7250 males aged 5 to 24 years in the United States, is caused by a genetic mutation leading to the lack of a protein called dystrophin. Without dystrophin, muscle cells become fragile and are easily damaged. Instead of self-repair, the muscles are replaced by scar tissue, a process called fibrosis that leads to muscle degeneration and wasting.

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Dystrophin, a protein that maintains the structural integrity of muscle fibers, is missing in people with DMD. Image credit: Khan Academy

Boys with DMD first show signs of muscle weakness between ages 3-5 and often stop walking by the time they’re teenagers. Eventually the muscles critical for breathing and heart function stop working. Average life expectancy is 26 and there is no cure.

The SBP scientists are aiming to treat DMD by boosting muscle repair in affected individuals. But to do that, they sought to better understand how muscle regeneration works in the first place. In the current study, they focused their efforts on so-called fibro/adipogenic precursor (FAP) cells which, in response to acute injury, appear to play a role in stimulating muscle stem cells to divide and replace damaged muscle in healthy individuals. But FAPs are also implicated in the muscle wasting and scarring that’s seen in DMD.

By examining the gene activity of single FAP cells from mouse models of acute injury and DMD, the researchers identified a sub-population of FAP cells (sub-FAPs). Further study of these sub-FAPs showed that during early stages of muscle regeneration, these cells promote muscle stem cell activation but then at later stages, sub-FAPs – identified by a cell surface protein called Vcam1 – stimulate fibrosis. It turns out that during healthy acute muscle injury, the sub-FAPs with cell-surface Vcam1 protein are readily eaten up and removed by immune cells thereby avoiding muscle fibrosis. But in the DMD mouse model, removal of these sub-FAPs is impaired and instead collagen deposits and muscle fibrosis occur which are hallmarks of the progressive degeneration seen in DMD.

Barbora Malecova, Ph.D., a first author of the study, explained the implications of these results in a press release:

“This study elucidates the cellular and molecular pathogenesis of muscular dystrophy. These results indicate that removing or modulating the activity of Vcam1-positive sub-FAPs, which promote fibrosis, could be an effective treatment for DMD.”

The lab, led by Pier Lorenzo Puri, M.D., next will explore the possibility of finding drugs that target the Vcam1 sub-FAPs which in turn could help prevent fibrosis in DMD.

The study, funded in part by CIRM, appears in Nature Communications. CIRM is also funding a Phase 2 clinical trial testing a stem cell-based therapy that aims to improve the life-threatening heart muscle degeneration that occurs in DMD patients.

Support cells have different roles in blood stem cell maintenance before and after stress

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Expression of pleiotrophin (green) in bone marrow blood vessels (red) and stromal cells (white) in normal mice (left), and in mice 24 hours after irradiation (right). UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center/Cell Stem Cell

A new study published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, reveals how different types of cells in the bone marrow are responsible for supporting blood stem cell maintenance before and after injury.

It was already well known in the field that two different cell types, namely endothelial cells (which line blood vessels) and stromal cells (which make up connective tissue, or tissue that provides structural support for any organ), are responsible for maintaining the population of blood stem cells in the bone marrow. However, how these cells and the molecules they secrete impact blood stem cell development and maintenance is not well understood.

Hematopoietic stem cells are responsible for generating the multiple different types of cells found in blood, from our oxygen carrying red blood cells to the many different types of white blood cells that make up our immune system.

Dr. John Chute’s group at UCLA had previously discovered that a molecule called pleiotrophin, or PTN, is important for promoting self-renewal of the blood stem cell population. They did not, however, understand which cells secrete this molecule and when.

To answer this question, the scientists developed mouse models that did not produce PTN in different types of bone marrow cells, such as endothelial cells and stromal cells. Surprisingly, they saw that the inability of stromal cells to produce PTN decreased the blood stem cell population, but deletion of PTN in endothelial cells did not affect the blood stem cell niche.

Even more interestingly, the researchers found that in animals that were subjected to an environmental stressor, in this case, radiation, the result was reversed: endothelial cell PTN was necessary for blood stem cell renewal, whereas stromal cell PTN was not. While an important part of the knowledge base for blood stem cell biology, the reason for this switch in PTN secretion at times of homeostasis and disease is still unknown.

As Dr. Chute states in a press release, this result could have important implications for cancer treatments such as radiation:

“It may be possible to administer modified, recombinant versions of pleiotrophin to patients to accelerate blood cell regeneration. This strategy also may apply to patients undergoing bone marrow transplants.”

Another important consideration to take away from this work is that animal models developed in the laboratory should take into account the possibility that blood stem cell maintenance and regeneration is distinctly controlled under healthy and disease state. In other words, cellular function in one state is not always indicative of its role in another state.

This work was partially funded by a CIRM Leadership Award.

 

 

Saying goodbye to a good friend and a stem cell pioneer: Karl Trede

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Sometimes even courage and determination are not enough. Karl Trede had courage and determination in droves as he fought a 12 year battle against cancer. He recently lost that battle. But he remains an inspiration for all who knew him.

I got to know Karl for our 2016 Annual Report. Karl had been diagnosed with throat cancer in 2006. He underwent surgery to remove his vocal cords and the cancer seemed to be in remission. But then it returned, this time having spread to his lungs. His doctors said they had pretty much run out of options but would Karl consider trying something new, something no one else had tried before; stem cells.

Karl told me he didn’t hesitate.

“I said “sure”. I don’t believe I knew at the time that I was going to be the first one but I thought I’d give it a whirl. It was an experience for me. It was eye opening. I wasn’t real concerned about being the first, I figured I was going to have to go someday so I guess if I was the first person and something really went wrong then they’d definitely learn something. So, to me, that was kind of worth my time.”

Happily nothing went wrong and the team behind the therapy (Forty Seven Inc.) definitely learned something, they learned a lot about the correct dosage for patients; invaluable information in treating future patients.

Karl’s cancer was held at bay and he was able to do the one thing that brought him more pleasure than anything else; spend time with his family, his wife Vita, their four sons and their families. He doted on his grand kids and got to see them grow, and they got to know him.

Recently the cancer returned and this time there was no holding it at bay. To the end Karl remained cheerful and positive.

KARL poster

In our office is a huge poster of Karl with the words “Every Moment Counts” at the bottom. It’s a reminder to us why we come to work every day, why the people at Forty Seven Inc. and all the other researchers we support work so hard for years and years; to try and give people like Karl a few extra moments with his family.

At the top of the poster the word “Courage” is emblazoned across it. Karl has a huge smile on his face. Karl was certainly courageous, a stem cell pioneer willing to try something no one else ever had. He was also very modest.

Here is Karl speaking to our governing Board in December 2016

When I spoke to him in 2016, despite all he had gone through in his fight against cancer, he said he had no regrets:

“I consider myself very fortunate. I’m a lucky guy.”

Those of us who got to spend just a little time with Karl know that we were the lucky ones.

Our hearts go out to his family and friends for their loss.

 

 

How small talk led to a big break; a summer internship at CIRM

At CIRM, California’s Stem Cell Agency, we are fortunate to work with some amazing people. This summer we added another name that list when Melissa Cairos joined us for an internship. Melissa is now on to the next part of her adventure, as a policy wonk in Washington DC., but before she left we asked her to write about her experiences, and thoughts after her time at the Stem Cell Agency.

Melissa

Melissa Cairos

In January of 2018, I had a casual conversation with a woman, whom I had never met before, at a high school basketball game. Through small talk about my studies in school and my career interests for the future, the woman suggested I may be interested in her work because it seemed to be aligned with what I wanted to do. Her work happened to be at CIRM and she happened to be Maria Millan, the President and CEO.

Interestingly, I had never heard of CIRM (the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine) and had limited knowledge of regenerative medicine. But, I had dedicated a semester in spring of 2015 to analyzing and lobbying for the 21st Century Cures Act. I engaged in that work because I believe in the importance of investing in, and expediting the regulatory process for, lifesaving medical innovations, so that they can be accessed faster by patients and at a lower cost. The 21st Century Cures Act has since become law and has created incredible opportunities for both CIRM and the entire field of regenerative medicine.

Since joining CIRM, I have been able to continue with similar work by analyzing legislation, policies and regulations that affect patients’ abilities to access regenerative medicine therapies and our grantees’ abilities to receive reimbursement for their therapies. Because the stem cell and gene therapies CIRM’s grantees are coming up with are so new and innovative, I quickly realized that the legislative, policy and regulatory solutions for them needed to reflect that innovative spirit.

Working alongside Geoff Lomax, (the Senior Officer for CIRM Strategic Infrastructures)  my manager and mentor, we identified a number of potential barriers to access and reimbursement and tried to come up with policy solutions to address them.

For one project, we looked at the high cost of regenerative medicine therapies. Because high cost affects both patient access and potential reimbursement problems for the companies that develop those therapies we felt it was essential to try and come up with policy solutions to address these issues. To do this, we studied the traditional payment structure for drugs and medical devices and found it inappropriate for regenerative medicine in most cases.

This is because regenerative medicine requires a one-time high cost payment, but the regenerative medicine treatments/cures would eliminate long term costs including: previous treatment cost, complications from that treatment, progression of disease cost, hospitalizations, disability, quality of life, co-morbidities, disease effect on longevity etc. Thus, we proposed that payment models for regenerative medicine should consider their unique value benefits, such as the number of additional years of life the treatment added, and the overall cost-effectiveness of a one-time treatment compared to years of  treatment. With this in mind, we suggested innovative payment models that accounted for these factors and further proposed changes that need to be made so that different manufacturers and payors can engage in innovative financing agreements.

Through my work at CIRM, I found that what makes regenerative medicine unique is that it not only offers new ways of treating previously untreatable diseases, but it has additional benefits or value. Not only the economic value, but also the human value, as regenerative medicine offers patients with life threatening or painful chronic diseases a solution that will change their lives and the lives of their families for the better. Through this understanding, I grew an incredible appreciation for CIRM, for not only being a great place to work with incredibly talented and kind people, but also an incredibly unique government agency that reflected the value and innovative spirit of the research it supports.

I am so grateful that I met Maria at that basketball game and got the opportunity to support CIRM in adding value to California in my role this summer as a Policy Fellow. I plan to return to California in the future and work in the health policy field to further support programs, policies, and/or agencies, like CIRM, that bring so much value to this state.

 

 

Has Regenerative Medicine Come of Age?

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For the past few years the Signals blog site –  which offers an insiders’ perspectives on the world of regenerative medicine and stem cell research – has hosted what it calls a “Blog Carnival”. This is an event where bloggers from across the stem cell field are invited to submit a piece based on a common theme. This year’s theme is “Has Regenerative Medicine Come of Age?” Here’s my take on that question:

Many cultures have different traditions to mark when a child comes of age. A bar mitzvah is a Jewish custom marking a boy reaching his 13th birthday when he is considered accountable for his own actions. Among Latinos in the US a quinceañera is the name given to the coming-of-age celebration on a girl’s 15th birthday.

Regenerative Medicine (RM) doesn’t have anything quite so simple or obvious, and yet the signs are strong that if RM hasn’t quite come of age, it’s not far off.

For example, look at our experience at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). When we were created by the voters of California in 2004 the world of stem cell research was still at a relatively immature phase. In fact, CIRM was created just six years after scientists first discovered a way to derive stem cells from human embryos and develop those cells in the laboratory. No surprise then that in the first few years of our existence we devoted a lot of funding to building world class research facilities and investing in basic research, to gain a deeper understanding of stem cells, what they could do and how we could use them to develop therapies.

Fast forward 14 years and we now have funded 49 projects in clinical trials – everything from stroke and cancer to spinal cord injury and HIV/AIDS – and our early funding also helped another 11 projects get into clinical trials. Clearly the field has advanced dramatically.

In addition the FDA last year approved the first two CAR-T therapies – Kymriah and Yescarta – another indication that progress is being made at many levels.

But there is still a lot of work to do. Many of the trials we are funding at the Stem Cell Agency are either Phase 1 or 2 trials. We have only a few Phase 3 trials on our books, a pattern reflected in the wider RM field. For some projects the results are very encouraging – Dr. Gary Steinberg’s work at Stanford treating people recovering from a stroke is tremendously promising. For others, the results are disappointing. We have cancelled some projects because it was clear they were not going to meet their goals. That is to be expected. These clinical trials are experiments that are testing, often for the first time ever in people, a whole new way of treating disease. Failure comes with the territory.

As the number of projects moving out of the lab and into clinical trials increases so too are the other signs of progress in RM. We recently held a workshop bringing together researchers and regulators from all over the world to explore the biggest problems in manufacturing, including how you go from making a small batch of stem cells for a few patients in an early phase clinical trial to mass producing them for thousands, if not millions of patients. We are also working with the National Institutes of Health and other stakeholders in discussing the idea of reimbursement, figuring out who pays for these therapies so they are available to the patients who need them.

And as the field advances so too do the issues we have to deal with. The discovery of the gene-editing tool CRISPR has opened up all sorts of possible new ways of developing treatments for deadly diseases. But it has also opened up a Pandora’s box of ethical issues that the field as a whole is working hard to respond to.

These are clear signs of a maturing field. Five years ago, we dreamed of having these kinds of conversations. Now they are a regular feature of any RM conference.

The simple fact that we can pose a question asking if RM has come of age is a sign all by itself that we are on the way.

Like little kids sitting in the back of a car, anxious to get to their destination, we are asking “Are we there yet?” And as every parent in the front seat of their car responds, “Not yet. But soon.”

Join us tomorrow at noon for “Ask the Stem Cell Team about Sickle Cell Disease”, a FaceBook Live Event

As an early kick off to National Sickle Cell Awareness Month – which falls in September every year – CIRM is hosting a “Ask the Stem Cell Team” FaceBook Live event tomorrow, August 28th, from noon to 1pm (PDT).

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The live broadcast will feature two scientists and a patient advocate who are working hard to bring an end to sickle cell disease, a devastating, inherited blood disorder that largely targets the African-American community and to a lesser degree the Hispanic community.

You can join us by logging onto Facebook and going to this broadcast link: https://bit.ly/2o4aCAd

Also, make sure to “like” our FaceBook page before the event to receive a notification when we’ve gone live for this and future events. If you miss tomorrow’s broadcast, not to worry. We’ll be posting it on our Facebook video page, our website, and YouTube channel shortly afterwards.

We want to answer your most pressing questions, so please email them directly to us beforehand at info@cirm.ca.gov.

For a sneak preview here’s a short video featuring our patient advocate speaker, Adrienne Shapiro. And see below for more details about Ms. Shapiro and our two other guests.

Adrienne Shapiro [Video: Todd Dubnicoff/CIRM]

  • Dr. Donald B. KohnUCLA MIMG BSCRC Faculty 180118

    Donald Kohn, MD

    Don Kohn, M.D. is a professor in the departments of Pediatrics and Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics in UCLA’s Broad Stem Cell Research Center. Dr. Kohn has a CIRM Clinical Stage Research grant in support of his team’s Phase 1 clinical trial which is genetically modifying a patient’s own blood stem cells to produce a correct version of hemoglobin, the protein that is mutated in these patients, which causes abnormal sickle-like shaped red blood cells. These misshapen cells lead to dangerous blood clots, debilitating pain and even death. The genetically modified stem cells will be given back to the patient to create a new sickle cell-free blood supply.

  • Walters_Mark_200x250

    Mark Walters, MD

    Mark Walters, M.D., is a pediatric hematologist/oncologist and is director of the Blood & Marrow Transplantation Program at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland. Dr. Walters has a CIRM-funded Therapeutic Translation Research grant which aims to improve Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) therapy by preparing for a clinical trial that might cure SCD after giving back sickle gene-corrected blood stem cells – using cutting-edge CRISPR gene editing technology – to a person with SCD. If successful, this would be a universal life-saving and cost-saving therapy.

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    Adrienne Shapiro

    Adrienne Shapiro is a patient advocate for SCD and the co-founder of the Axis Advocacy SCD patient education and support website. Shapiro is the fourth generation of mothers in her family to have children born with sickle cell disease.  She is vocal stem cell activist, speaking to various groups about the importance of CIRM’s investments in both early stage research and clinical trials. In January, she was awarded a Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Action Award at the 2018 World Stem Cell Summit.

A brief history of the Stem Cell Agency

On Wednesday, August 15 the California State Assembly Select Committee on Biotechnology held an informational hearing on CIRM as part of its mission of ensuring the legislature is up to date and informed about the biotech industry in California. The committee heard from CIRM’s President and CEO Dr. Maria T. Millan and the Vice Chair of our Board, Senator Art Torres (Ret.); two of CIRM’s Patient Advocates (Pawash Priyank and Don Reed) and Dr. Jan Nolta, the Director of the Institute for Regenerative Cures at UC Davis.

The final speaker was David Jensen, whose California Stem Cell Report blog has charted the history of CIRM since its inception. At CIRM we know that not everyone agrees with us all the time, or supports all the decisions we have made in the years since we were approved by voters in 2004, but we do pride ourselves on being open to a thoughtful, vigorous debate on all aspects of stem cell research. David’s presentation to the committee was nothing if not thoughtful, and we thought you might enjoy reading it and so we are presenting it here in its entirety.

For those who prefer to watch than read, here is a video of the entire hearing:

https://www.assembly.ca.gov/media/assembly-select-committee-biotechnology-20180815/video

California’s Stem Cell “Gold Rush:” A Brief Overview of the State’s $3 Billion Stem Cell Agency
Prepared testimony by David Jensen, publisher/editor of the California Stem Cell Report, before the Assembly Select Committee on Biotechnology, Aug. 15, 2018
I was in Mazatlan in Mexico in the fall of 2004 when I first heard about the creation of
California’s stem cell agency. I was reading the Wall Street Journal online and saw a headline that said a new Gold Rush was about to begin in California — this one involving stem cells instead of nuggets.

“Holy Argonauts,” I said to myself, using the term, of course, that refers to the tens of thousands of people who rushed to the California gold fields in 1849. I wanted to know more about what was likely to happen with this new stem cell gold rush.

Today, nearly 14 years later, I still want to know more about the California Institute for
Regenerative Medicine or CIRM, as the agency is formally known. But I can tell you that certain facts are clear.

Borrowing and Autonomy
The agency is unique in California history and among the states throughout the nation. It is the first state agency to fund scientific research with billions of dollars – all of it borrowed. At one point in its history, it is safe to say that the agency was the largest single source of funding in the world for human embryonic stem cell research.

The agency operates with financial and oversight autonomy that is rare in California government, courtesy of the ballot initiative that created it. But that measure also proved to be both a blessing and a curse. The agency’s financial autonomy has allowed it to provide a reasonably steady stream of cash over a number of years, something that is necessary to sustain the long-term research that is critical for development of widely available treatments.

At the same time, the ballot measure carried the agency’s death warrant — no more money after the $3 billion was gone. Cash for new awards is now expected to run out at the end of next year. Over its life, the agency has had a national and somewhat more modestly global impact, both as a source of funding and international cooperation, but also in staying the course on human embryonic stem cell research when the federal government was backing away from it.

Beyond that, the stem cell agency is the only state department whose primary objective is to produce a marketable commercial product. In this case, a cure or treatment for afflictions now nearly untreatable.

Finally, I am all but certain that CIRM is the only state agency that takes back money when a project winds up on the rocks. By the end of last month, that figure totalled in recent years more than $34 million in two big categories of awards. This sort of cash recovery is not a practice that occurs with federal research dollars. With CIRM the money goes back into the pot for more research aimed at treating horrible afflictions.

Evaluations of the Research Effort
Nonetheless the agency has hit some shoals from time to time. In 2010, the agency’s governing board commissioned a $700,000 study of its efforts by the prestigious Institute of Medicine. Two years later, the IOM reported to CIRM that it had some significant flaws.

The IOM study said that the agency had “achieved many notable results.” But it also
recommended sweeping changes to remove conflict of interest problems, clean up a troubling dual-executive arrangement and fundamentally change the nature of the governing board.

The report said,“Far too many board members represent organizations that receive CIRM funding or benefit from that funding. These competing personal and professional interests compromise the perceived independence of the ICOC (the CIRM governing board), introduce potential bias into the board’s decision making, and threaten to undermine confidence in the board.”

The conflict issues are built in by the ballot measure, which gave potential recipient institutions seats on the 29-member governing board. Indeed, in 2017, the last time I calculated the correlation between the board and awards, roughly 90 percent of the money given out by CIRM had gone to institutions with ties to members of the governing board.

About two months after the IOM presented its report, the CIRM board approved a new policy that bars 13 of its 29 members from voting on any grants whatsoever to help deal with questions concerning conflicts of interest on the board.

Other studies about the agency’s performance resulted from a 2010 law in which the legislature modified the initiative to require triennial performance audits that would be paid for by the agency itself. The requirement specifically excluded “scientific performance” from the audit.

The first audit results came in 2012 and contained 27 recommendations for improvement. The most recent performance audit came last spring. The audit firm, Moss Adams, recommended improvements in the areas of private fund-raising, retention of staff and better utilization of board members. The board was told that the agency had made “incredible progress” and that the auditors “usually see a lot of good things.”

The Story of CIRM 2.0
In recent years the agency has been on a self-improvement regime. The effort began in 2014 and was dubbed CIRM 2.0 — a term that was originally coined by a stem cell researcher at UC Davis.

The new direction and emphasis was described by the agency as “radical.” It was aimed at improving speed, efficiency and innovation. And it seems to have largely succeeded.
In 2014, it took almost two years for a good idea to go from application to the final funding stage. The goal was to shorten that to 120 days. Delays in funding are of particular concern to businesses, often for cash flow reasons, but they also mean delays in actually developing a treatment.

This week, the agency said the cash delivery figure now stands at less than 90 days for clinical awards and about 120 days for translational awards.

In 2014, the agency was participating in nine clinical trials, the last stage before a treatment is certified by the federal government for widespread use. Today the agency is involved in 49. In 2014, about 50 patients were involved in those trials. Today the figure is more than 800.

One of the more interesting aspects of CIRM 2.0 marked a departure from what might be called an academic pass-fail approach to the “final exam” for applications from scientists. Instead, CIRM is engaged in a more partner-oriented approach that can be found in some businesses.

Instead of flatly failing an application that is not quite ready for prime time, the idea is to coach applicants along to help bring them up to approval level. Today the agency can count 30 applications that won approval through that process. All of which is work could have slipped away in the more distant past.

CIRM and the Biotech Biz
CIRM is now much more engaged with industry than during its earlier years, when it drew bitter criticism from some business executives. Engagement with biotech firms is critical to bringing a treatment to the public. CIRM is not in the business of actually manufacturing, marketing and selling products. That is a matter left to the private sector.

One reason for closer business connections involves maturation of the work in the field, which has brought research closer to reality. But it is also due to a different focus within the agency as top management has changed.

One of the more difficult areas involving stem cell research and likely treatments is their cost. It is rare to hear researchers or companies talk forthrightly in public about specific dollar amounts. But the cost of drugs and treatment are high visibility matters for patients and elected officials. And estimates of stem cell treatments have run up to at least $900,000.

In 2010, the California legislature moved to help assure affordability by requiring grantees to submit affordable access plans with the caveat that the agency could waive that requirement. How that will ultimately play out as actual products come into the marketplace is yet to be determined.

The Public Policy Questions
A number of significant public policy questions surround the California’s stem cell program involving its creation and execution. They include:
● Is a ballot initiative the best way to approach research and create new state programs?
The initiative is very difficult to alter when changes are needed or priorities change. .
● Does the state have higher health priorities, such as prenatal health care, than supplying
researchers with cash that they could well secure from other sources?
● Is borrowing money to finance the research the best way to go about it? The interest
expense raise the total cost of a $20 million research award to $40 million.
● Should executives of potential recipient institutions serve on the board that awards their employers hundreds of millions of dollars?

This is just a short list of some of the policy matters. Other questions can and should be asked in the wake of the agency’s nearly 14 years of work.

Lives Saved but No Widespread Therapies
Returning to our earlier list of the clear facts about CIRM, another fact is that lives have been saved as the result of clinical trials that the agency it has helped to finance. The youngster from Folsom mentioned earlier in this hearing is one of a number of cases.

That said, these patients received treatment in clinical trials, which may or may not succeed in producing a commercial product that is available to the general public.

Little doubt exists that the agency has advanced the stem cell field and is building towards a critical mass in California. The burgeoning research program at UC Davis, with $138 million in CIRM funding, is one example. Another is the $50 million Alpha Clinic network aimed at creating powerful collaboration within institutions and throughout the state. In addition to Davis, UC San Francisco, UCLA, UC Irvine, UC San Diego and the City of Hope in the Los Angeles area are all part of the Alpha network.

Nonetheless, CIRM has not yet backed a stem cell treatment that is ready for widespread use and fulfilled the voter expectations from 2004 that stem cell cures were right around the corner.

The agency itself also has something of a deadline that is right around the corner in political and scientific terms. Backers of the agency are hoping for another ballot initiative in November 2020 that would pump $5 billion into the program and stave off its slow demise as research winds down. Development of a stem cell treatment that would resonate with voters would be an invaluable development to encourage voters to continue this unique experiment — even if California’s stem cell gold rush does not quite measure up to the dramatic events of 169 years ago.
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Regenerative Medicine by the numbers: a snapshot of how the field is progressing

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Statistics don’t usually make for very exciting blog fodder, but they can be useful in charting progress. Case in point, the recent quarterly report from the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine (ARM), a global advocate and industry group for the field.

In the report ARM takes an in-depth look at cell therapy, gene therapy, tissue engineering and other trends in the regenerative medicine field.

Among the more notable findings are:

  • Companies in the regenerative medicine space collectively raised more than $4.1 billion in the second quarter of this year, up 164 percent over the same period in 2017.
  • Companies focused on cell therapy raised $2.2 billion, up 416 percent over the same period last year.
  • More and more companies in the space are turning to the public markets. So far this year they collectively raised $913.4 million in IPOs (initial public offerings – the very first sale of a company’s stock to the public), up from $254 million during all of last year.
  • Nearly 977 clinical trials testing such therapies are in progress across the globe; more than half of them are trying to treat cancer.

In a news release, Janet Lynch Lambert, ARM’s CEO, was understandably upbeat:

“There has been a tremendous amount of forward momentum during the first half of this year, both clinically and commercially. We’re excited for the continued growth of the regenerative medicine sector, and what it means for patients worldwide.”

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