A little history in the making by helping the tiniest patients

Dr. Diana Farmer stands with Dr. Aijun Wang and their UC Davis research team.

It’s appropriate that at the start of Women’s History Month, UC Davis’ Dr. Diana Farmer is making a little history of her own. She launched the world’s first clinical trial using stem cells to treat spina bifida before the child is born.

Spina bifida is a birth defect caused when a baby’s spinal cord fails to develop properly in the womb. In myelomeningocele, the most severe form of spina bifida, a portion of the spinal cord or nerves is exposed in a sac through an opening in the spine. Most people with myelomeningocele have changes in their brain structure, leg weakness, and bladder and bowel dysfunction. 

Illustration of spina bifida

While surgery can help, Dr. Farmer says it is far from perfect: “Currently, the standard of care for our patients is fetal surgery, which, while promising, still leaves more than half of children with spina bifida unable to walk independently. There is an extraordinary need for a treatment that prevents or lessens the severity of this devastating condition. Our team has spent more than a decade working up to this point of being able to test such a promising therapy.” 

The team at UC Davis – in a CIRM-funded study – will use a stem cell “patch” that is placed over the exposed spinal cord, then surgically close the opening, hopefully allowing the stem cells to regenerate and protect the spinal cord.

In a news release Dr. Aijun Wang, a stem cell bioengineer, says the team has been preparing for this trial for years, helping show in animals that it is safe and effective. He is hopeful it will prove equally safe and effective in people: “Our cellular therapy approach, in combination with surgery, should encourage tissue regeneration and help patients avoid devastating impairments throughout their lives.” 

Dr. Farmer says the condition, while rare, disproportionately affects Latinx babies and if the procedure works could have an enormous impact on their lives and the lives of their families: “A successful treatment for MMC would relieve the tremendous emotional and economic cost burden on families. We know it initially costs approximately $532,000 per child with spina bifida. But the costs are likely several million dollars more due to ongoing treatments, not to mention all the pain and suffering, specialized childcare, and lost time for unpaid caregivers such as parents.”

Here is video of two English bulldogs who had their spinal injuries repaired at UC Davis using stem cells. This was part of the research that led to the clinical trial led by Dr. Farmer and Dr. Wang.

A word from our Chair, several in fact

In 2005, the New Oxford American Dictionary named “podcast” its word of the year. At the time a podcast was something many had heard of but not that many actually tuned in to. My how times have changed. Now there are some two million podcasts to chose from, at least according to the New York Times, and who am I to question them.

Yesterday, in the same New York Times, TV writer Margaret Lyons, wrote about how the pandemic helped turn her from TV to podcasts: “Much in the way I grew to prefer an old-fashioned phone call to a video chat, podcasts, not television, became my go-to medium in quarantine. With their shorter lead times and intimate production values, they felt more immediate and more relevant than ever before.”

I mention this because an old colleague of ours at CIRM, Neil Littman, has just launched his own podcast and the first guest on it was Jonathan Thomas, Chair of the CIRM Board. Their conversation ranged from CIRM’s past to the future of the regenerative field as a whole, with a few interesting diversions along the way. It’s fun listening. And as Margaret Lyons said it might be more immediate and more relevant than ever before.

Charting a course for the future

A new home for stem cell research?

Have you ever been at a party where someone says “hey, I’ve got a good idea” and then before you know it everyone in the room is adding to it with ideas and suggestions of their own and suddenly you find yourself with 27 pages of notes, all of them really great ideas. No, me neither. At least, not until yesterday when we held the first meeting of our Scientific Strategy Advisory Panel.

This is a group that was set up as part of Proposition 14, the ballot initiative that refunded CIRM last November (thanks again everyone who voted for that). The idea was to create a panel of world class scientists and regulatory experts to help guide and advise our Board on how to advance our mission. It’s a pretty impressive group too. You can see who is on the SSAP here.  

The meeting involved some CIRM grantees talking a little about their work but mostly highlighting problems or obstacles they considered key issues for the future of the field as a whole. And that’s where the ideas and suggestions really started flowing hard and fast.

It started out innocently enough with Dr. Amander Clark of UCLA talking about some of the needs for Discovery or basic research. She advocated for a consortium approach (this quickly became a theme for many other experts) with researchers collaborating and sharing data and findings to help move the field along.

She also called for greater diversity in research, including collecting diverse cell samples at the basic research level, so that if a program advanced to later stages the findings would be relevant to a wide cross section of society rather than just a narrow group.

Dr. Clark also said that as well as supporting research into neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, there needed to be a greater emphasis on neurological conditions such as autism, bipolar disorder and other mental health problems.

(CIRM is already committed to both increasing diversity at all levels of research and expanding mental health research so this was welcome confirmation we are on the right track).

Dr. Mike McCun called for CIRM to take a leadership role in funding fetal tissue research, things the federal government can’t or won’t support, saying this could really help in developing an understanding of prenatal diseases.

Dr. Christine Mummery, President of ISSCR, advocated for support for early embryo research to deepen our understanding of early human development and also help with issues of infertility.

Then the ideas started coming really fast:

  • There’s a need for knowledge networks to share information in real-time not months later after results are published.
  • We need standardization across the field to make it easier to compare study results.
  • We need automation to reduce inconsistency in things like feeding and growing cells, manufacturing cells etc.
  • Equitable access to CRISPR gene-editing treatments, particularly for underserved communities and for rare diseases where big pharmaceutical companies are less likely to invest the money needed to develop a treatment.
  • Do a better job of developing combination therapies – involving stem cells and more traditional medications.

One idea that seemed to generate a lot of enthusiasm – perhaps as much due to the name that Patrik Brundin of the Van Andel Institute gave it – was the creation of a CIRM Hotel California, a place where researchers could go to learn new techniques, to share ideas, to collaborate and maybe take a nice cold drink by the pool (OK, I just made that last bit up to see if you were paying attention).

The meeting was remarkable not just for the flood of ideas, but also for its sense of collegiality.  Peter Marks, the director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (FDA-CBER) captured that sense perfectly when he said the point of everyone working together, collaborating, sharing information and data, is to get these projects over the finish line. The more we work together, the more we will succeed.

U.C. San Diego Scientist Larry Goldstein Joins Stem Cell Agency’s Board

Larry Goldstein, PhD.

Larry Goldstein PhD, has many titles, one of which sums up his career perfectly, “Distinguished Professor”. Dr. Goldstein has distinguished himself on many fronts, making him an ideal addition to the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

Dr. Goldstein – everyone calls him Larry – is a Cell Biologist, Geneticist and Neuroscientist. He worked with many colleagues to launch the UC San Diego Stem Cell program, the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine and the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center. He has received the Public Service Award from the American Society for Cell Biology and has had a Public Policy Fellowship named for him by the International Society for Stem Cell Research. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and last year was named a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.

“I look forward to working with the ICOC and CIRM staff to ensure that the best and most promising stem cell research and medicine is fostered and funded,” Larry said.

For more than 25 years Larry’s work has targeted the brain and, in particular, Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

In 2012 his team was the first to create stem cell models for two different forms of Alzheimer’s, the hereditary and the sporadic forms. This gave researchers a new way of studying the disease, helping them better understand what causes it and looking at new ways of treating it.

He was appointed to the CIRM Board by Pradeep Khosla, the Chancellor of U.C. San Diego saying he is “gratified you are assuming this important role.”

Jonathan Thomas, JD, PhD., Chair of the CIRM Board, welcome the appointment saying “I have known Larry for many years and have nothing but the highest regard for him as a scientist, a leader, and a great champion of stem cell research. He is also an innovative thinker and that will be invaluable to us as we move into a second chapter in the life of CIRM.”

Larry was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Thousand Oaks, California. He graduated from UC San Diego with a degree in Biology in 1976 and from the University of Washington with a Ph. D. in Genetics in 1980. He joined the faculty in Cell and Developmental Biology at Harvard University in 1984 where he was promoted to Full Professor with tenure in 1990. He returned to UC San Diego and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in 1993. After 45 years pursuing cutting edge lab-based research Larry is now transitioning to an administrative and executive role at UC San Diego where he will serve as the Senior Advisor for Stem Cell Research and Policy to the Vice Chancellor of Health Sciences.

He replaces David Brenner who is standing down after completing two terms on the Board.

De-stressing stem cells and the Bonnie & Clyde of stem cells

Dr. John Cashman

The cells in our body are constantly signalling with each other, it’s a critical process by which cells communicate not just with other cells but also with elements within themselves. One of the most important signalling pathways is called Wnt. This plays a key role in early embryonic and later development. But when Wnt signalling goes wrong, it can also help spur the growth of cancer.

Researchers at the Human BioMolecular Research Institute (HBRI) and Stanford University, have reported on a compound that can trigger a cascade of events that create stress and ultimately impact Wnt’s ability to control the ability of cells to repair themselves.

In a news release Dr. Mark Mercola, a co-author of a CIRM-funded study – published in the journal Cell Chemical Biology – says this is important: “because it explains why stressed cells cannot regenerate and heal tissue damage. By blocking the ability to respond to Wnt signaling, cellular stress prevents cells from migrating, replicating and differentiating.”

The researchers discovered a compound PAWI-2 that shows promise in blocking the compound that causes this cascade of problems. Co-author Dr. John Cashman says PAWI-2 could lead to treatments in a wide variety of cancers such as pancreatic, breast, prostate and colon cancer.

“As anti-cancer PAWI-2 drug development progresses, we expect PAWI-2 to be less toxic than current therapeutics for pancreatic cancer, and patients will benefit from improved safety, less side effects and possibly with significant cost-savings.”

Dr. Catriona Jamieson: Photo courtesy Moores Cancer Center, UCSD

Speaking of cancer….

Stem cells have many admirable qualities. However, one of their less admirable ones is their ability to occasionally turn into cancer stem cells. Like regular stem cells these have the ability to renew and replicate themselves over time, but as cancer stem cells they use that ability to help fuel the growth and spread of cancer in the body. Now, researchers at U.C. San Diego are trying to better understand how those regular stem cells become cancer stem cells, so they can stop that process.

In a CIRM-funded study Dr. Catriona Jamieson and her team identified two molecules, APOBEC3C and ADAR1, that play a key role in this process.

In a news release Jamieson said: “APOBEC3C and ADAR1 are like the Bonnie and Clyde of pre-cancer stem cells — they drive the cells into malignancy.”

So they studied blood samples from 54 patients with leukemia and 24 without. They found that in response to inflammation, APOBEC3C promotes the rapid production of pre-leukemia stem cells. That in turn enables ADAR1 to go to work, interfering with gene expression in a way that helps those pre-leukemia stem cells turn into leukemia stem cells.

They also found when they blocked the action of ADAR1 or silenced the gene in patient cells in the laboratory, they were able to stop the formation of leukemia stem cells.

The study is published in the journal Cell Reports.

Surviving with Joy

Dr. Tippi MacKenzie (left) of UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco, visits with newborn Elianna and parents Nichelle Obar and Chris Constantino. Photo by Noah Berger

Alpha thalassemia major is, by any stretch of the imagination, a dreadful, heart breaker of a disease. It’s caused by four missing or mutated genes and it almost always leads to a fetus dying before delivery or shortly after birth. Treatments are limited and in the past many parents were told that all they can do is prepare for the worst.

Now, however, there is new hope with new approaches, including one supported by CIRM, helping keep these children alive and giving them a chance at a normal life.

Thalassemias are a group of blood disorders that affect the way the body makes hemoglobin, which helps in carrying oxygen throughout the body. In alpha thalassemia major it’s the lack of alpha globin, a key part of hemoglobin, that causes the problem. Current treatment requires in blood transfusions to the fetus while it is still in the womb, and monthly blood transfusions for life after delivery, or a bone marrow transplant if a suitable donor is identified.

A clinical trial run by University of California San Francisco’s Dr. Tippi MacKenzie – funded by CIRM – is using a slightly different approach. The team takes stem cells from the mother’s bone marrow and then infuses them into the fetus. If accepted by the baby’s bone marrow, these stem cells can then mature into healthy blood cells. The hope is that one day this method will enable children to be born with a healthy blood supply and not need regular transfusions.

Treating these babies, saving their lives, is the focus of a short film from UCSF called “Surviving with Joy”. It’s a testament to the power of medicine, and the courage and resilience of parents who never stopped looking for a way to help their child.

Tissues are optional but advised.

Month of CIRM: Making sure stem cell therapies don’t get lost in Translation

All this month we are using our blog and social media to highlight a new chapter in CIRM’s life, thanks to the voters approving Proposition 14. We are looking back at what we have done since we were created in 2004, and also looking forward to the future. Today we feature a blog written by two of our fabulous Discovery and Translation team Science Officers, Dr. Kent Fitzgerald and Dr. Ross Okamura.

Dr. Ross Okamura

If you believe that you can know a person by their deeds, the partnership opportunities offered by CIRM illustrate what we, as an agency, believe is the most effective way to deliver on our mission statement, accelerating regenerative medicine treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.

Dr. Kent Fitzgerald

 In our past, we have offered awards covering basic biology projects which in turn provided the foundation to produce promising therapies  to ease human suffering.  But those are only the first steps in an elaborate process.

In order to bring these potential therapies to the clinic, selected drug candidates must next go through a set of activities designed to prepare them for review by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For cell therapies, the first formal review is often the Pre- Investigational New Drug Application Consultation or pre-IND.  This stage of drug development is commonly referred to as Translational, bridging the gap between our Discovery or early stage research and Clinical Trial programs.

One of our goals at CIRM is to prepare Translational projects we fund for that  pre-IND meeting with the FDA, to help them gather data that support the hope this approach will be both safe and effective in patients.  Holding this meeting with the FDA is the first step in the often lengthy process of conducting FDA regulated clinical trials and hopefully bringing an approved therapy to patients.

What type of work is required for a promising candidate to move from the Discovery stage into FDA regulated development?  To address the needs of Translational science, CIRM offers the Translational Research Project funding opportunity.  Activities that CIRM supports at the Translational stage include:

  • Process Development to allow manufacturing of the candidate therapy under Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP). This is to show that they can manufacture  at a large enough scale to treat patients.
  • Assay development and qualification of measurements to determine whether the drug is being manufactured safely while retaining its curative properties.
  • Studies to determine the optimal dose and the best way to deliver that dose.
  • Pilot safety studies looking how the patient might respond after treatment with the drug.
  • The development of a clinical plan indicating under what rules and conditions the drug might be prescribed to a patient. 

These, and other activities supported under our Translational funding program, all help to inform the FDA when they consider what pivotal studies they will require prior to approving an Investigational New Drug (IND) application, the next step in the regulatory approval process.

Since CIRM first offered programs specifically aimed at addressing the Translational stage of therapeutic candidates we have made 41 awards totaling approximately $150 million in funding.  To date, 13 have successfully completed and achieved their program goals, while 19 others are still actively working towards meeting their objective.  Additionally, three (treating Spina Bifida, Osteonecrosis, and Sickle Cell Disease) of the 13 programs have gone on to receive further CIRM support through our Clinical Stage programs.

During our time administering these awards, CIRM has actively partnered with our grantees to navigate what is required to bring a therapy from the bench to the bedside.  CIRM operationalizes this by setting milestones that provide clear definitions of success, specific goals the researchers have to meet to advance the project and also by providing resources for a dedicated project manager to help ensure the project can keep the big picture in mind while executing on their scientific progress. 

Throughout all this we partner with the researchers to support them in every possible way. For example, CIRM provides the project teams with Translational Advisory Panels (TAPs, modeled after the CIRM’s Clinical Advisory Panels) which bring in outside subject matter experts as well as patient advocates to help provide additional scientific, regulatory and clinical expertise to guide the development of the program at no additional cost to the grantees.  One of the enduring benefits that we hope to provide to researchers and organizations is a practical mastery of translational drug development so that they may continue to advance new and exciting therapies to all patients.

Through CIRM’s strong and continued support of this difficult stage of development, CIRM has developed an internal practical expertise in advancing projects through Translation.  We employ our experience to guide our awardees so they can avoid common pitfalls in the development of cell and gene therapies. The end goal is simple, helping to accelerate their path to the clinic and fulfilling the mission of CIRM that has been twice given to us by the voters of California, bringing treatments to patients suffering from unmet medical needs.

How a CIRM scholar helped create a life-saving COVID vaccine

Dr. Derrick Rossi might be the most famous man whose name you don’t recognize. Dr. Rossi is the co-founder of Moderna. Yes, that Moderna. The COVID-19 vaccine Moderna. The vaccine that in clinical trials proved to be around 95 percent effective against the coronavirus.

Dr. Rossi also has another claim to fame. He is a former CIRM scholar. He did some of his early research, with our support, in the lab of Stanford’s Dr. Irv Weissman.

So how do you go from a lowly post doc doing research in what, at the time, was considered a rather obscure scientific field, to creating a company that has become the focus of the hopes of millions of people around the world?  Well, join us on Wednesday, January 27th at 9am (PST) to find out.

CIRM’s President and CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, will hold a live conversation with Dr. Rossi and we want you to be part of it. You can join us to listen in, and even post questions for Dr. Rossi to answer. Think of the name dropping credentials you’ll get when say to your friends; “Well, I asked Dr. Rossi about that and he told me…..”

Being part of the conversation is as simple as clicking on this link:

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

We look forward to seeing you there.

Progress in the fight against Sickle Cell Disease

Marissa Cors, sickle cell disease patient advocate

Last November Marissa Cors, a patient advocate in the fight against Sickle Cell Disease (SCD), told the Stem Cellar “A stem cell cure will end generations of guilt, suffering, pain and early death. It will give SCD families relief from the financial, emotional and spiritual burden of caring someone living with SCD. It will give all of us an opportunity to have a normal life. Go to school, go to work, live with confidence.” With each passing month it seems we are getting closer to that day.

CIRM is funding four clinical trials targeting SCD and another project we are supporting has just been given the green light by the Food and Drug Administration to start a clinical trial. Clearly progress is being made.

Yesterday we got a chance to see that progress. We held a Zoom event featuring Marissa Cors and other key figures in the fight against SCD, CIRM Science Officer Dr. Ingrid Caras and Evie Junior. Evie is a pioneer in this struggle, having lived with sickle cell all his life but now hoping to live his life free of the disease. He is five months past a treatment that holds out the hope of eradicating the distorted blood cells that cause such devastation to people with the disease.

You can listen to his story, and hear about the other progress being made. Here’s a recording of the Zoom event.

You can also join Marissa every week on her live event on Facebook, Sickle Cell Experience Live.

Month of CIRM – Our Therapeutics Team Goes Hunting

All this month we are using our blog and social media to highlight a new chapter in CIRM’s life, thanks to the voters approving Proposition 14. We are looking back at what we have done since we were created in 2004, and also looking forward to the future. Today we have a guest blog by CIRM Senior Science Officer Lisa Kadyk, outlining how she and her colleagues actively search for the best science to fund.

Lisa Kadyk, Ph.D.

Hi everyone,

This is Lisa Kadyk, a Science Officer from the CIRM Therapeutics team, here to tell you about some of the work our team does to support the CIRM mission of accelerating stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.  Our job involves seeking out and recruiting great scientists to apply to CIRM and supporting those we fund.

Therapeutics team members manage both the awards that fund the final preclinical studies required before testing a therapeutic in a clinical trial (CLIN1), and the awards that fund the clinical trials themselves (CLIN2). 

I mentioned above that we actively recruit new applicants for our CLIN1 and CLIN2 awards – which is not an activity that is typical of most funding agencies – so why and how do we do this?  

It all comes down to our mission of accelerating the development of therapies to help patients with unmet medical needs.  It turns out that there are many potential applicants developing cutting edge therapies who don’t know much or anything about CIRM, and the ways we can help them with getting those therapies to the clinic and through clinical trials.    So, to bridge this gap, we Science Officers attend scientific conferences, read the scientific literature and meet regularly with each other to stay abreast of new therapeutic approaches being developed in both academia and industry, with the goal of identifying and reaching out to potential applicants about what CIRM has to offer. 

What are some of the things we tell potential applicants about how partnering with CIRM can help accelerate their programs?   First of all, due to the efforts of a very efficient Review team, CIRM is probably the fastest in the business for the time between application and potential funding.  It can be as short as three months for a CLIN1 or CLIN2 application to be reviewed by the external Grants Working Group and approved by the CIRM Board, whereas the NIH (for example) estimates it takes seven to ten months to fund an application.   Second, we have frequent application deadlines (monthly for CLIN1 and CLIN2), so we are always available when the applicant is ready to apply.  Third, we have other accelerating mechanisms in place to help grantees once they’ve received funding, such as the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics network of six clinical sites throughout California (more efficient clinical trial processes and patient recruitment) and Clinical Advisory Panels (CAPs) – that provide technical, clinical or regulatory expertise as well as patient advocate guidance to the grantee.  Finally, we Science Officers do our best to help every step of the way, from application through grant closeout.

We now feel confident that our recruitment efforts, combined with CIRM’s more efficient funding pipeline and review processes, are accelerating development of new therapies.  Back in 2016, a new CIRM Strategic Plan included the goal of recruiting 50 successful (i.e., funded) clinical trial applicants within five years.  This goal seemed like quite a stretch, since CIRM had funded fewer than 20 clinical trials in the previous ten years.  Fast-forward to the end of 2020, and CIRM had funded 51 new trials in those five years, for a grand total of 68 trials.    

Now, with the passage of Proposition 14 this past November, we are looking forward to bringing more cell and gene therapeutic candidates into clinical trials.   If you are developing one yourself, feel free to let us know… or don’t be surprised if you hear from us!