In Memory of Kevin McCormack 

CIRM lost its voice this weekend.   

Sunday evening, our beloved Director of Patient Advocacy and frequent face and voice of the Institute, Kevin McCormack, passed away unexpectedly, leaving an unfillable void in our hearts.  

As our chief chronicler of CIRM milestones and celebrator of patients, Kevin brought his unique brand of grace, style and humor to all he did and to all he touched. Whether in person or in prose, Kevin’s twinkle in his eye and wry sense of humor shone through always, infusing all of our work with enthusiasm as well as the reminder that we’re all in this together. 

Our dear friend embodied the spirit and mission of CIRM, working every day to make patients seen and their stories heard, to give the advocate community a platform and a voice to amplify our shared passion for medical breakthroughs. He helped bring hope for a better future for all. 

Kevin made a career of bringing awareness to the public about medical advancement and patient experiences, serving as KRON-TV’s Health/Medical producer for 18 years. He leveraged that experience as a media relations manager for Kaiser and California Pacific Medical Center, where he honed his skills in medical journalism, helping the public understand how research breakthroughs might be translated to patient impact. 

Our good fortune came in 2012 when Kevin joined us as Senior Director of Public Communications and Patient Advocate Outreach. Earlier this year, Kevin assumed the role of Director of Patient Advocacy, where he remained committed to raising awareness about CIRM’s impact and putting patient voices at the forefront. 

And he did so with indefatigable optimism and cheer, for both patients and his friends at CIRM. 

As you’ll see from memories of Kevin shared below, he was not only extraordinarily talented at his work, he was one of those prized colleagues who also made work a joy. His warmth, sincerity and sense of humor were a tonic during long days and constant deadlines.

Kevin made us feel special, individually and collectively. He made his world, our world, a better place to be. 

Remembering Kevin McCormack

One of my many fond memories of Kevin was the “Elevator Pitch” initiative.  In his kind and effective way, he got “buy in” from scientists that it was important to communicate their work in an understandable and engaging fashion…He turned a “critique” into action and fun!

Maria T. Millan, M.D., President and CEO, CIRM

Kevin was truly a gentleman: a gentle man with much integrity. He and his voice will be missed.

Jenifer Raub, President, Summit for Stem Cell Foundation, Patient Advocate

His beer of choice at San Diego airport: Stone Arrogant Bastard Ale.

Geoff Lomax, Senior Officer, Therapeutics Development

Kevin took a chance on me when I applied to CIRM in 2015. I was a postdoc with a passion for science communications but without much experience. Kevin saw something in me and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to work on his communications team and at CIRM for three wonderful years. I learned so much from him and was always inspired by his selflessness and commitment to helping patients and to CIRM’s mission. Our days were filled with laughter and jokes but at the end of the day Kevin was always someone who you could count on to come through. He always went that extra mile whether it was remembering a story you told him years back, developing you a personalized travel itinerary for your honeymoon trip, or reaching out to you during the pandemic just to see how you were doing. I know he has touched so many lives and he will be missed so dearly. But I’m thankful that his legacy lives on through his family, friends and the amazing work he has done in his 10-year career at CIRM. RIP.

Karen Ring, Fmr. CIRM Associate Director Of Communications

Kevin was universally loved for his kindness and wit. Simply put, he is irreplaceable. I will greatly miss him.

Kelly Shepard, Associate Director, Scientific Programs

Kevin’s kindness, witty sense of humor and enthusiasm will be sorely missed at CIRM. Before the pandemic, in the office, I could always count on walking over to Kevin’s space to chat about the latest news, to have a good laugh and to have my day become a thousand times brighter for it.

Externally he was a tireless advocate for CIRM’s mission and within the team he was an equally tireless advocate for the patients and the citizens of California. In many of my professional interactions with him he helped me broaden my perspective and sharpen my messaging to be more universally effective.

Shyam Patel, Senior Director of Business Development and Alliance Management

Kevin always brought levity, compassion, and good cheer to every conversation and interaction we had. His kind jokes and colorful suits will be sorely missed. My whole family is gutted that he is gone, suddenly and entirely unbelievably.

Doug Kearney, Associate Director, Grants Management 

We all knew and loved Kevin’s humor. I especially liked the self-deprecating kind. One evening, in 2013 or so, Kevin and I were scheduled for a science café public lecture on ‘the remarkable powers of stem cells’ in a Fremont public library. For some reason, Shirley was with us. As Kevin was driving us on a dark highway from San Francisco to Fremont that evening, in anticipation of the upcoming event he at some point declared ‘I know how to show my wife a good time’. Very hard to imagine CIRM without Kevin.

Uta Grieshammer, Senior Science Officer, Scientific Programs

Kevin and I used to exchange poems once in a while. Here is one poem from a Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish that I handed to him many years ago when we were in King Street office in San Francisco, that he liked:

Remainder of Life  

 If I were told: 
By evening you will die, 
so what will you do until then? 
I would look at my wristwatch, 
I’d drink a glass of juice, 
bite an apple, 
contemplate at length an ant that has found its food, 
then look at my wristwatch. 
There’d be time left to shave my beard 
and dive in a bath, obsess: 
“There must be an adornment for writing, 
so let it be a blue garment.” 
I’d sit until noon alive at my desk 
but wouldn’t see the trace of color in the words, 
white, white, white . . . 
I’d prepare my last lunch, 
pour wine in two glasses: one for me 
and one for the one who will come without appointment, 
then I’d take a nap between two dreams. 
But my snoring would wake me . . . 
so I’d look at my wristwatch: 
and there’d be time left for reading. 
I’d read a chapter in Dante and half of a mu’allaqah 
and see how my life goes from me 
to the others, but I wouldn’t ask who 
would fill what’s missing in it. 
That’s it, then? 
That’s it, that’s it. 
Then what? 
Then I’d comb my hair and throw away the poem . . . 
this poem, in the trash, 
and put on the latest fashion in Italian shirts, 
parade myself in an entourage of Spanish violins, 
and walk to the grave!

Sohel Talib, Director, Therapeutics Development

Kevin was the embodiment of CIRM. He was the heart and soul of our organization and made an impact on all of us. He was compassionate, sincere, funny and a champion for patients and the community and will be sorely missed.

I have been reading old emails to smile as he always had something cheeky to say. This one was to all employees about a blog post last month and I just keep thinking it was an honor to know him and work with him.

‘Where I come from Thanksgiving was called Thursday, so it’s not a tradition I grew up with. But I have to say it’s now my favorite holiday. It’s simple, fun, not packed with the need to exchange gifts or forced jollity, and definitely not fueled by ridiculous amounts of alcohol (you know who you are St. Patrick’s/Cinco de Mayo). And it’s a chance to give thanks for the many blessings we have, among them is you, my colleagues. It’s a pleasure and an honour to work with so many fine, kind, committed individuals. I wish you all the most lovely of Thanksgivings.”

Jennifer Lewis, Senior Director, Grants Management & IT

Usually, when you say, “How are you doing?” to a friend or colleague, the typical response is “I’m good.” But not Kevin. He always replied with “Grand!” or “Fabulous!” It was almost like a ritual or mantra as we greeted each other every morning at the CIRM office. And it sums up what I so appreciated about Kevin: his unbounding optimism, his friendliness, and his ability to find humor even in challenging situations. Kevin, I can’t believe you’re gone and I will miss your sparkling spirit. May your memory be a blessing and an inspiration to all who were lucky enough to know you.

Todd Dubnicoff, Fmr. CIRM Multimedia Editor/Science Writer

Kevin McCormack was a friend, a patient advocate, and a warrior for stem cell research. Every time we needed him he was there, always with the right words, the right tone, and with his heart in the right place.

To know Kevin was to be his friend and love him as much. He always was there for us when we needed him and it was our honor to say we were always there for him because he is a true friend and he will be missed.

Roman Reed, Founder, The Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act

To me, Kevin was the face of CIRM. In fact, appropriately, his face is on the first video of CIRM’s YouTube channel. He was full of life, positivity and humor.

When I did my interview for CIRM, Kevin was on the zoom call at the center of the Hollywood squares and every time I looked at him, I felt a sense of comfort. He had a smile on his face the entire time. So when I was asked a tough question, my first reaction was always to look at Kevin’s face just to calm down. He was a joy and I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to know him.

I’m certainly going to miss receiving those weekly emails that start with: “Hello, lovely people”. Kevin, may you rest in peace.

— Mitra Hooshmand, Senior Science Officer, Special Projects

I had the privilege of working closely with Kevin on the communications team at CIRM. Whether speaking with patient advocates or writing for The Stem Cellar, he always did so with a bright smile and passion for his work. I’ll never forget his impeccable fashion, quick-witted sense of humor, and, above all, his incredible kindness.

Yimy Villa, Fmr. CIRM Marketing Communications Manager

Kevin was simply a good human with a good soul people liked to be around. He was very good at focusing on what needed to get done even when others around him were dabbling in politics. He got things done because he was so good at so many aspects of our work together in communication and outreach. When I Left CIRM, he was what I missed the most.

Don Gibbons, CIRM 2008-2016

I don’t know what to say other than I miss him. I miss his great smile. His daily greetings full of warmth and happiness.  I miss his lovely hats. His beautiful suits. His empathy and understanding. His unflappable demeanor. We’ve all suffered a great loss in our lives and this outpouring of emotion and love is a testament to what an amazing human he was.

Maria Bonneville, Vice President of Public Outreach & Board Governance

Kevin once wrote, “At CIRM we are funding research to understand how to harness the power of stem cells to repair the damage caused by disease, to restore function to a heart damaged by a heart attack, or a brain injured by a stroke.” His passing leaves us heartbroken in a way that cannot be mended by stem cells or any other medicine, but we can keep his legacy alive by carrying forward his commitment to patient advocacy and the promise of regenerative medicine.

He made a difference in his self-described role as “the official translator of the agency” as he turned complex concepts about equally complex science into everyday language that anyone could understand. As a friend, colleague, empath, translator, advocate, intrepid traveler, dog-lover, tie-wearer, slayer-of-deadlines, and humorist, Kevin left an indelible mark on many. His spirit, his words, and his compassion will never be forgotten.

Christina Divigard, Valvespring

I only worked briefly with Kevin this past summer, but looked forward to many future engagements together with the Valvespring team. His wit and his facility with words made everything he wrote a pleasure to read, and also laugh-out-loud funny. He could find the humor in anything, and embraced as kin those who laughed along with him. Even last summer he was looking forward to visiting New York, and I’m so glad he had the chance to visit the Big Apple, and likely a pub or two, once again. Godspeed to Kevin — a memorable soul who shared his gifts with such generous camaraderie and fellowship.

Susan Millerick, Valvespring

Working with Kevin was like putting the exclamation point at the end of a sentence. Much much more than a subject matter expert in regenerative medicine, he infused it with his wisdom, attention to detail and compassion – for those he worked with, and all those he hoped his efforts would help. A true gentleman, and profound loss to us all.

— Bob Demetrius, Valvespring

I remember Kevin being part of my interview panel when I was being interviewed. He instantly gave me a warm and welcoming feeling which made it easier for me to feel at ease. When I finally met him in person, he walked in with such style and confidence. I loved it. He was always willing to lend me a helping hand. You can tell that he truly cares about the impact of the work we support. It showed in the relationships he’s built with our patient advocates. He truly cares for people of this world. I am thankful for the short time I’ve known him since I have only been here for a little over a year. But no matter how short it has been, it has been well worth it and I have been honored to call him a colleague but most importantly a friend. I have so much love and respect for the fantastic Kevin McCormack.

Marianne Dequina-Villablanca, Associate Director of Board Relations

Some of our Favorite Irish Chum’s fabulous vocabulary of expressions honoring him: Chum, Excellent, Lovely people (recycled from Katie Sharify’s), Cheeky, “Barzelona” (to me in passing), Fabulous, Folks want to talk to you ladies!, ‘Be well, my friend’, Cheers.

Rosa Canet-Aviles, Vice President of Scientific Programs 

I remember interviewing Kevin for the job ten years ago and being drawn immediately to his infectious enthusiasm, sunny attitude and sincere interest in CIRM’s mission and programs. Throughout his time with us, he brought all of those qualities and so much more to the office every single day. He was a true professional who unfailingly did an amazing job bringing CIRM to life for the outside world and who was genuinely esteemed by all whom he came in contact with. Kevin was the rare personality that brought a smile to your face on every occasion and encounter. Very few people can do that.

Jonathan Thomas, Chairman, Independent Citizens Oversight Committee

As a new CIRM employee, I was very recently reading Kevin’s blog posts and watching his YouTube videos as I prepared for interviews. In this way, Kevin was my first glimpse into the culture of CIRM. His love for science and commitment to patients are embodied across the agency, and Kevin’s work was an important part of my hope to join the CIRM team. I dearly wish that I had more time to know and work with him. Thank you, Kevin, for the impact you’ve made on me and the impacts you will continue to make through the stories and memories that you leave behind.

Elizabeth Noblin, Senior Science Officer, Portfolio Development and Review

Kevin McCormack was a colleague who was one-in-a-million. He was an Irishman with a not-so-thick-anymore accent, a great sense-of-humor, and a dedication to his work. He was always a dapper dresser, complete with a tie, coat and a carefully folded handkerchief poking from his breast pocket – but he was the opposite of a stuffed shirt. He was incredibly down-to-earth, with an optimistic and friendly personality, always willing to help anyone with whatever needed to be done.

Kevin came to CIRM from a career in journalism, not in science or medicine, but he was perfect for his roles in communication and patient advocacy. He quickly learned about the science of stem cells and regenerative medicine, and how new medicines are developed, and then figured out how to translate it all back into language that the general public could understand – and in a most engaging way, e.g. his “Stem Cells In Your Face” postings on YouTube. He was also an incredible resource for connecting CIRM to patient communities, and bringing their voices to our advisory panels, conferences and blogs.

In a job where we get many emails, it was always a pleasure to get one from Kevin – at a minimum, it would be friendly and positive, but usually it was funny as well. He always emailed the CIRM staff when he had posted a new blog – this one from a few weeks ago captures much about him:

“Hello Lovely People,

Where I come from Thanksgiving was called Thursday, so it’s not a tradition I grew up with. But I have to say it’s now my favorite holiday. It’s simple, fun, not packed with the need to exchange gifts or forced jollity, and definitely not fueled by ridiculous amounts of alcohol (you know who you are St. Patrick’s/Cinco de Mayo). And it’s a chance to give thanks for the many blessings we have, among them is you, my colleagues. It’s a pleasure and an honour to work with so many fine, kind, committed individuals. I wish you all the most lovely of Thanksgivings.”

Kevin, the pleasure and honour was most certainly ours. We were lucky to know you, and we will miss you tremendously.

Lisa Kadyk, Associate Director, Therapeutics Development

I had the privilege of crossing paths with Kevin on numerous occasions. He always had a spark about him! I was new to the stem cell world and he had a way of making my butterflies relax. I will always remember his true genuine dedication to the field of stem cells and all the progress that was made because of Kevin. His mark in this world will never be forgotten.

Rich Lajara, ICOC Board member

This feels like a death in the stem cell family. I usually came away from talking to Kevin feeling better than before the conversation. He had a positive, uplifting effect on people. I appreciated his bluntness, which was usually coupled with that unique sense of humor of his.

I’ll miss being able to just talk to him about anything. Maybe get his thoughts on dilemmas in the stem cell field or what the best IPA in Portland might be, which was the last thing that he and I discussed recently. I was at a conference there and he told me to get outside and go have a beer. Cheers to Kevin. Many great memories.

Dr. Paul Knoepfler, Professor, UC Davis

Long before CIRM, Kevin was a valued member of the KRON TV news team in San Francisco. He was always the one who kept us calm in the face of pressing news deadlines. We could count on his consummate professionalism, his sense of humor and that lovely Irish brogue! Working with him at CIRM simply reminded me of what journalism has lost but CIRM had gained.

Ysabel Duron, Board Member, Chair, Communications Subcommittee

Kevin was such a gentleman. He was always very helpful to me, and with a smile on his face.

Dr. Joseph Wu, Director, Stanford Cardiovascular Institute

I feel a sense of loss when I think of Kevin but, immediately after, I know he is and will be present in my memories forever. He was and will always be such a wonderful, kind and sensitive human being. We never met personally -I’ve done many translations for CIRM and sent them by email- but we connected in a profound way because both of us cared very much for the evolution of humanity and the importance of science.

He valued my good intentions and dedication to help CIRM. I always thanked him for that and will always cherish that he knew I resonated with his noble cause.

My deepest condolences to his family and loved ones.

May the spirit of Kevin remain in our hearts and may he inspire us to be more sensitive and kinder towards humanity, and believe -perhaps sometimes like a Quixote- that the impossible quest of a better world… if we dream, may become possible.

And Kevin, may your new journey be full of light and peace.

— Marcela Grad, CIRM Translator

Dear Kevin,

You were a wonderful, kind, warm colleague whom I considered a friend. You always responded quickly and said “yes” with a smile. Your memory will always be for a blessing. When it’s 10am on Thursdays I will think of you.

Jacqueline Hantgan, Senior Advisor, Community Outreach and Engagement

Kevin was someone I could always turn to for guidance, support, and reassurance that things would be okay. I will forever remember him as a friend and mentor. I miss him.

Esteban Cortez, Director of Marketing & Communications

I met Kevin for the first time in late 2012 when I was in a dark phase in my life. I had just become paralyzed from a spinal cord injury a year earlier and was having a very hard time adjusting. Kevin was the one who got me interested in patient advocacy. His enthusiasm, optimism, and passion were so contagious that he always somehow managed to fool me into believing that I too was articulate and smart enough to give public presentations and interviews like he did.

I admired Kevin so much. I wanted to emulate him as much as I could. When Kevin complimented my writing, it felt like I had just won an Oscar. I still had so many questions to ask him. I still had so much to learn from him. Our time was cut too short.

I feel like I’ve experienced so many major life moments with Kevin over the last 10 years. Kevin was the first one to volunteer to help me when I was applying to transfer from USC to Stanford. After getting rejected, he wrote me a lengthy email reassuring me that everything happens for a reason. I had to go back and re-read it. He was right. Not getting into Stanford that year was the best thing that happened to me.

At every milestone, Kevin was there cheering me on. Graduating from university, moving to Paris and then London. Getting married. House hunting. Everything I did, Kevin was a part of it. He heard about it first and he was always so ecstatic for me. For years I’d tell him, “Kevin one day I’m moving back to the Bay Area so I can work for you.” I wouldn’t be at CIRM if it wasn’t for Kevin. So many things in my life have happened because of the direction and guidance he gave me early on in my injury.

Kevin, you were a legend. An extraordinary writer, human being, and friend. I will miss your sense of humor. I will miss your kind words. Thank you for believing in me. Thank you for giving me purpose. I’m so lucky to have met you in this lifetime and to have called you, my friend.

Katie Sharify, Communications Team Coordinator

Kevin was a man of great wit and humor and I greatly appreciated his contributions to CIRM. He was brilliant at anticipating what information was insightful to share and I valued his efforts to keep the website current with great information. I also greatly appreciated his ability to distill complicated science down to understandable and fun whiteboard presentations. I learned so much from him and will miss him tremendously. I am sorry to hear about his passing.

James Stewart, Multiple Sclerosis Patient Advocate

I am devastated by the news about Kevin. He was a consummate professional, committed to telling the stem cell stories, with just the right blend of seriousness and humor. His passing is a big loss for biomedical research, the patient communities for which he was an excellent advocate, and humanity. He was a mensch and I will miss him.

Steven Peckman, Deputy Director, Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research

Kevin’s energy, enthusiasm, humor and personal touch lifted CIRM and all of us working towards CIRM’s mission. I am already missing you Kevin.

Andrew McMahon, Director, Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research

What sad news, and what a significant loss. I remember Kevin as incredibly dedicated, endlessly resourceful, upbeat, humorous and kind spirited. He left CIRM and the world a better place.

Michael Yaffe, Fmr. CIRM Associate Director of Research Activities

I met Kevin at a meeting shortly after the creation of CIRM. He had organized a presentation for patient advocates at the Broad Center in downtown Los Angeles. He seemed like a good guy, but you have to understand what it means to be a patient advocate for a chronic disease like Sickle Cell. At that time, around 2008, nothing much had been happening in terms of research. Sickle cell is at the nexus of poverty, racism, and a poorly funded healthcare system, no matter how nice a person might seem, we advocates are very cautious about who we trust, we have been disappointed too many times.

Kevin McCormack earned our trust many times over. He reached out for our input and listened to our concerns. He helped us become patient advocates for promising research studies. Through his influence I was able to speak on a panel at the ISSCR conference, held last June in San Francisco. Researchers at the highest levels heard my presentation about the gaps between findings in the lab and treatment at the bedside. Our panel discussion from the conference, under the leadership of Dr. Jeremy Sugarman, will be published in 2023.

Kevin knew I was a retired educator so our talks and email exchanges often focused on education. These discussions led to me making a presentation at the Bridges Conference in San Diego. It was very rewarding to see the hundreds of bright young people looking forward to a career in scientific research. I have a feeling that Kevin was a large part of this effort.

Kevin’s leadership style should serve as a model for CIRM: he listened, he showed appreciation, he followed through. He ended every email with his signature response, “cheers”. Kevin’s influence will be missed by sickle cell patients and their advocates in the community.

Nancy Rene, Educator/Advocate Sickle Cell Disease and Autism

The Irish have a saying that only the good die young. In the case of Kevin, this is particularly true. So it is only appropriate that we send him off with a bit of poetry, a glass to his lips and a scholarly reference.
“The Parting Glass” is a Scottish/Irish traditional poem, often sung at the end of a gathering of friends. It is only fitting that we send Kevin off with the “Parting Glass”. Historically, this was the final hospitality offered to a departing guest today or yesteryear. The “Parting Glass” can be sung and done so with flourish and ornamentation, becoming a fluttering kind of melody. Like Kevin himself. The flourish should remind us all of what a profoundly inspirational enrichment Kevin had on all of our lives. He also would also have wanted an appropriate reference.

Robert Burns (1786). Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect. Kilmarnock: J. Wilson. p. 228. hdl:2027/uc1.31175019497166.

The Parting Glass

Of all the money that e’er I had
I spent it in good company
And all the harm I’ve ever done
Alas it was to none but me
And all I’ve done for want of wit
To mem’ry now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be to you all

So fill to me the parting glass
And drink a health whate’er befall,
And gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be to you all

Of all the comrades that e’er I had
They’re sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that e’er I had
They’d wish me one more day to stay
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be to you all

If I had money enough to spend
And leisure time to sit awhile
There is a fair maid in this town
That sorely has my heart beguiled.
Her rosy cheeks and ruby lips
I own she has my heart in thrall
Then fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be with you all.

A man may drink and not be drunk
A man may fight and not be slain
A man may court a pretty girl
And perhaps be welcomed back again
But since it has so ought to be
By a time to rise and a time to fall
Come fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be with you all
Good night and joy be with you all

John Cashman, President, Human BioMolecular Research Institute (and a fellow Irishman)

There are few critical pillars in Ronav’s life and Kevin was one of them as he first introduced CIRM to us when Ronav was fighting SCID at UCSF. We immediately came close to each other and met several times after Ronav’s treatment, sometimes as patient advocates, sometimes advising congress for funding at Sacramento Capitol but most importantly we recently met in July at our home for lunch. We agreed to meet soon at Biryani party. He was thrilled to meet all of us. He loved Ronav. We always admired his generosity. Everting he met us with same kind of love and warmth. This is very sad.

This a photo from his recent visit in July at our home in Sacramento. This is so painful to write. May his soul rest in peace. Our thoughts and prayers for his family.

— Pawash Priyank and Upasana Thakur

We will miss Kevin forever. His enthusiasm for medical journalism was contagious.

Several years ago, I asked him if he could talk to our local high school journalism class; as expected, he did a fabulous job. His professional talent was matched by unwavering kindness. He always went beyond the call of duty to meet people where they were in their life, help them and make them feel better.

My sincere condolences to his immediate family and the CIRM team, his second family. Since his abrupt and tragic departure from our world, the days are not as bright as they seem when looking outside in sunny California.

— Anne-Marie Duliege, ICOC Board Member

If you would like to share any words, memories or photos to pass on to Kevin’s family, please send them to Katie Sharify at

Three women with ties to CIRM featured in 2022 Women in Biopharma list 

Endpoints News released its 2022 Women in Biopharma list, which recognizes 20 of the top women leading biopharma research and development (R&D).  

This year, the publication received more than 500 entries and selected 20 women “who have blazed trails and are still promising to reshape biopharma R&D for years to come.” 

There are many amazing finalists featured this year, but three in particular stood out for their ties to the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). Those three are:  

Jennifer Gordon, Ph.D. — Senior Vice President of Research and Development at Excision BioTherapeutics 

Dr. Jennifer Gordon and the team at Excision Bio Therapeutics have developed a therapeutic candidate called EBT-101. CIRM is funding a clinical trial to test EBT-101 in patients with HIV. 

This is the first clinical study using the CRISPR-based platform for genome editing and excision of the latent form of HIV-1, the most common form of the virus that causes AIDS in the US and Europe.  

The goal of the treatment is to eliminate or sufficiently reduce the hidden reservoirs of virus in the body to the point where the individual is effectively cured. 

Barbara Wirostko — Co-founder and CMO at Qlaris Bio 

Barbara Wirostko is the co-founder and CMO at Qlaris Bio, a clinical stage biotech company committed to developing therapies for patients suffering from serious and debilitating ophthalmic diseases.  

In addition to her work there, Barbara is a member of CIRM’s Grants Working Group (GWG), which is responsible for evaluating the scientific merit of all applications submitted to CIRM and provides funding recommendations to the CIRM board.  

In the Endpoints News profile, Wirostko shares that she was inspired by her father, also an ophthalmologist, and his desire to help people. 

“I think that was the other thing that really drew me to ophthalmology — is that you were able to work with patients, make a difference in people’s lives, also have a surgical as well as a medical aspect, practicing medicine, and then also have a family,” she said. 

Dr. Lili Yang – UCLA associate professor, Co-founder of Appia Bio and Immune Design 

We’ve written about Dr. Lili Yang’s work on the Stem Cellar blog.  

Dr. Yang at UCLA was recently awarded $1.4 million by CIRM to develop an off-the-shelf cell therapy for ovarian cancer, which causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system. 

With support from several CIRM grants, Dr. Yang has developed a platform that can use healthy donor blood stem cells to produce clinical scalable “off-the-shelf” iNKT cells. That has led to the creation of start-up company Appia Bio, and talks with the FDA about testing a series of iNKT cell products in clinical trials. 

“I have this dream that cell therapy can become off-the-shelf, and how this would really help all cancer patients in need. The current cancer cell therapy requires treating patients one-by-one, resulting in a steep price that is hard to afford,” Dr. Yang says.  

“Not everyone lives near a hospital capable of handling such a personalized therapy or can afford such a steep price. If we can make this therapy with centralized manufacturing, pre-quality controlled and ready for wide use then we don’t need to worry about the gender or age or location of the patient.” 

CIRM congratulates all the extraordinary women featured in the Endpoints News 2022 Women in Biopharma list. To see all the finalists, read the official announcement here or visit the Endpoints News website.  

Bubble baby treatment cleared to restart clinical trial

Evie Vaccaro: Photo courtesy Nancy Ramos

Three families battling a life-threatening immune disorder got some great news last week. A clinical trial that could save the life of their child has once again been given the go-ahead by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The clinical trial is the work of UCLA’s Dr. Don Kohn, and was strongly supported by CIRM. It is targeting ADA-SCID, a condition where the child is born without a functioning immune system so even a simple infection could prove fatal. In the past they were called “bubble babies” because some had been placed inside sterile plastic bubbles to protect them from germs.

Dr. Kohn’s approach – using the patient’s own blood stem cells, modified in the lab to correct the genetic mutation that causes the problem – had shown itself to be amazingly effective.  In a study in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, the researchers showed that of 50 patients treated all had done well and 97 percent were considered cured.

UCLA licensed the therapy to Orchard Therapeutics, who planned to complete the testing needed to apply for permission to make it more widely available. But Orchard ran into problems and shelved the therapy.

After lengthy negotiations Orchard returned the therapy to UCLA last year and now the FDA has given clearance for UCLA to resume treating patients. That is expected to start early next year using CIRM funds left over when Orchard halted its work.

One of the people who played a big role in helping persuade Orchard to return the therapy to UCLA is Alysia Vaccaro. She is the mother of Evie, a child born with ADA-SCID who was cured by Dr. Kohn and his team and is now a thriving 9 year old.

You can watch an interview we did with Alysia about the impact this research has had on her family, and how important it is for other families with ADA-SCID kids.

Tratando malformaciones congénitas antes del nacimiento 

El bebé, Tobi recibió un tratamiento de células madre, financiado por el CIRM, mientras aún estaba en el útero. To read this blog in English, click here.

Michelle y Jeff se llenaron de felicidad cuando se enteraron de que iban a tener un bebé.  

Luego, un examen de ultrasonido a las 20 semanas del embarazo reveló que el feto tenía espina bífida, una malformación congénita que ocurre cuando la columna vertebral y la médula espinal no se forman de manera adecuada. La espina bífida puede causar parálisis y otras complicaciones serias.   

Se derivó a la pareja a un ensayo clínico en la Universidad de California, Davis, que lleva a cabo la Dra. Diana Farmer, cirujana fetal y neonatal reconocida a nivel internacional, y su colega, el Dr. Aijun Wang.  

En este ensayo clínico, que se basó en una previa investigación financiada por el CIRM, se repara el defecto espinal aplicando células madre de una placenta donada, las cuales se insertan en una estructura sintética y se aplican al defecto de la médula espinal mientras el bebé se encuentra todavía en el útero.   

El hijo de Michelle y Jeff, Tobi, fue el segundo paciente que recibió este tratamiento. Michelle dijo que la cirugía fue difícil, pero el nacimiento de su bebé valió la pena.  

“Cuando lo abrazamos por primera vez dijimos, ‘No puedo creer que hayamos hecho esto. Lo logramos. Lo hicimos sin saber si funcionaría’.”   

A los tres meses, el progreso de Tobi parece promisorio. Jeff y Michelle saben que pueden surgir problemas más adelante, pero por ahora se sienten agradecidos de haber formado parte de este ensayo.

To read this blog in English, click here.

Making transplants easier for kids, and charting a new approach to fighting solid tumors.

Every year California performs around 100 kidney transplants in children but, on average, around 50 of these patients will have their body reject the transplant. These children then have to undergo regular dialysis while waiting for a new organ. Even the successful transplants require a lifetime of immunosuppression medications. These medications can prevent rejection but they also increase the risk of infection, gastrointestinal disease, pancreatitis and cancer.

Dr. Alice Bertaina and her team at Stanford University were awarded $11,998,188 to test an approach that uses combined blood stem cell (HSC) and kidney transplantation with the goal to improve outcomes with kidney transplantation in children. This approach seeks to improve on the blood stem cell preparation through an immune-based purification process.

In this approach, the donor HSC are transplanted into the patient in order to prepare for the acceptance of the donor kidney once transplanted. Donor HSC give rise to cells and conditions that re-train the immune system to accept the kidney. This creates a “tolerance” to the transplanted kidney providing the opportunity to avoid long-term need for medications that suppress the immune system.

Pre-clinical data support the idea that this approach could enable the patient to stop taking any immunosuppression medications within 90 days of the surgery.

Dr. Maria T. Millan, President and CEO of CIRM, a former pediatric transplant surgeon and tolerance researcher states that “developing a way to ensure long-term success of organ transplantation by averting immune rejection while avoiding the side-effects of life-long immunosuppression medications would greatly benefit these children.”

The CIRM Board also awarded $7,141,843 to Dr. Ivan King and Tachyon Therapeutics, Inc to test a drug showing promise in blocking the proliferation of cancer stem cells in solid tumors such as colorectal and gastrointestinal cancer.

Patients with late-stage colorectal cancer are typically given chemotherapy to help stop or slow down the progression of the disease. However, even with this intervention survival rates are low, usually not more than two years.

Tachyon’s medication, called TACH101, is intended to target colorectal cancer (CRC) stem cells as well as the bulk tumor by blocking an enzyme called KDM4, which cancer stem cells need to grow and proliferate.

In the first phase of this trial Dr. King and his team will recruit patients with advanced or metastatic solid tumors to assess the safety of TACH101, and determine what is the safest maximum dose. In the second phase of the trial, patients with gastrointestinal tumors and colorectal cancer will be treated using the dose determined in the first phase, to determine how well the tumors respond to treatment.  

The CIRM Board also awarded $5,999,919 to Dr. Natalia Gomez-Ospina and her team at Stanford University for a late-stage preclinical program targeting Severe Mucopolysaccharidosis type 1, also known as Hurler syndrome. This is an inherited condition caused by a faulty gene. Children with Hurler syndrome lack an enzyme that the body needs to digest sugar. As a result, undigested sugar molecules build up in the body, causing progressive damage to the brain, heart, and other organs. There is no effective treatment and life expectancy for many of these children is only around ten years.

Dr. Gomez-Ospina will use the patient’s own blood stem cells that have been genetically edited to restore the missing enzyme. The goal of this preclinical program is to show the team can manufacture the needed cells, to complete safety studies and to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration for an Investigational New Drug (IND), the authorization needed to begin a clinical trial in people.

Finally the Board awarded $20,401,260 to five programs as part of its Translational program. The goal of the Translational program is to support promising stem cell-based or gene projects that accelerate completion of translational stage activities necessary for advancement to clinical study or broad end use. Those can include therapeutic candidates, diagnostic methods  or devices and novel tools that address critical bottlenecks in research.

The successful applicants are:

TRAN4-14124Cell Villages and Clinical Trial in a Dish with Pooled iPSC-CMs for Drug DiscoveryNikesh Kotecha — Greenstone Biosciences  $1,350,000
TRAN1-14003Specific Targeting Hypoxia Metastatic Breast Tumor with Allogeneic Off-the-Shelf Anti-EGFR CAR NK Cells Expressing an ODD domain of HIF-1αJianhua Yu — Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope  $6,036,002  
TRAN1-13983CRISPR/Cas9-mediated gene editing of Hematopoietic
stem and progenitor cells for Friedreich’s ataxia
Stephanie Cherqui — University of California, San Diego  $4,846,579
TRAN1-13997Development of a Gene Therapy for the Treatment of
Pitt Hopkins Syndrome (PHS) – Translating from Animal Proof of Concept to Support Pre-IND Meeting
Allyson Berent — Mahzi Therapeutics  $4,000,000
TRAN1-13996Overcoming resistance to standard CD19-targeted CAR
T using a novel triple antigen targeted vector
William J Murphy — University of California, Davis  $4,168,679

Reasons to be thankful this Thanksgiving: creative nerds

We at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. We get to work with some extraordinary colleagues, we get to know some remarkable patient advocates who are pioneers in volunteering for stem cell and gene therapies, and we have a front row seat in a movement that is changing the face of medicine.

We also get to work with some brilliant scientists and help support their research. As if we needed any reminders of how important that funding is, we thought we would share this video with you. It’s from the talented post docs and researchers at the University of California San Diego. It’s a delightful parody of the Cyndi Lauper classic “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”. Only in this case it’s “Nerds Just Wanna Have Funds.”

Enjoy, and Happy Thanksgiving.

Sweet 16 and counting for stem cell clinical trial

Dr. Judy Shizuru: Photo courtesy Jasper Therapeutics

Over the years the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has invested a lot in helping children born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a fatal immune disorder. And we have seen great results with some researchers reporting a 95 percent success rate in curing these children.

Now there’s more encouraging news from a CIRM-funded clinical trial with Jasper Therapeutics. They have announced that they have tested their approach in 16 patients, with encouraging results and no serious adverse events.

Let’s back up a little. Children born with SCID have no functioning immune system, so even a simple infection can prove life threatening. Left untreated, children with SCID often die in the first few years of life. Several of the approaches CIRM has funded use the child’s own blood stem cells to help fix the problem. But at Jasper Therapeutics they are using another approach. They use a bone marrow or hematopoietic stem cell transplant (HCT).   This replaces the child’s own blood supply with one that is free of the SCID mutation, which helps restore their immune system.

However, there’s a problem. Most bone marrow transplants use chemotherapy or radiation to destroy the patient’s own unhealthy blood stem cells and make room for the new, healthy ones. It can be effective, but it is also toxic and complex and can only be performed by specialized teams in major medical centers, making access particularly difficult for poor and underserved communities.

To get around that problem Jasper Therapeutics is using an antibody called JSP191 – developed with CIRM funding – that directs the patient’s own immune cells to kill diseased blood stem cells, creating room to transplant new, healthy cells. To date the therapy has already been tested in 16 SCID patients.

In addition to treating 16 patients treated without any apparent problems,  Jasper has also been granted Fast Track Designation by the US Food and Drug Administration. This can help speed up the review of treatments that target serious unmet conditions. They’ve also been granted both Orphan and Rare Pediatric Disease designations. Orphan drug designation qualifies sponsors for incentives such as tax credits for clinical trials. Rare Pediatric Disease designation means that if the FDA does eventually approve JSP191, then Jasper can apply to receive a priority review of an application to use the product for a different disease, such as someone who is getting a bone marrow transplant for sickle cell disease or severe auto immune diseases.

In a news release, Ronald Martell, President and CEO of Jasper Therapeutics said:

“The FDA’s Fast Track designation granted for JSP191 in Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) reinforces the large unmet medical need for patients with this serious disease. Along with its previous designations of Orphan and Rare Pediatric Disease for JSP191, the FDA’s Fast Track recognizes JSP191’s potential role in improving clinical outcomes for SCID patients, many of whom are too fragile to tolerate the toxic chemotherapy doses typically used in a transplant.”

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

The headline in the journal Nature was intended to grab attention and it definitely did that. It read: ‘The scandal of researchers paid less than a living wage’ The rest of the article built on that saying “The cost-of-living crisis is a fundamental threat for PhD scholars and early-career researchers. They need to be paid properly.”

So, just how poorly are these researchers – PhD candidates and postdoctoral students – paid? Well, according to one survey salaries for PhD students in the biological sciences are below the cost of living at almost every institution in the United States. And imagine trying to live on a sub-standard income in a state as expensive as California?

The outrage is fueled by a survey of more than 3,200 students, three quarters of whom are PhD candidates. Around 85% of the students said inflation is making things even worse and almost half said it was making it hard to complete their courses.

The situation isn’t any better in other countries. In the UK, PhD students often get the equivalent of just $20,400, and that’s after getting a recent big boost of more than $2,000 per year. It’s no wonder English students organized protests calling for better funding. Students in Ireland also staged protests, saying the money they get simply isn’t enough.

The Nature Editorial said this isn’t just a matter of inconvenience for the students, it’s a threat to the future of science: “If students don’t have the resources to support themselves, they can’t put their full efforts into their training and development. And if their stipends aren’t keeping pace with rising rents and the cost of groceries and fuel, any gaps will only grow with time — with devastating results for the ability of research to attract the best talent.”

That’s one of the reasons the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) tries to make sure all the students in its internship programs have enough money to live on. We know it’s hard to focus on work if you are hungry or worried that you don’t have enough money to pay your bills.

When our Board approved a new internship program, called COMPASS (Creating Opportunities through Mentorship and Partnership Across Stem Cell Science) they made sure that enough money was included to cover students living expenses, course fees and even travel to scientific conferences. The Board allocated more than $58,000 a year to support each students, many of whom will come from poor or low-income communities and might not otherwise be able to afford to stay in school.

For our Bridges students, many of whom are also from low-income communities or are the first in their family to attend college, the Board allocated each one around $72,000 worth of support per year.

We know that the future of regenerative medicine in California depends on having a skilled, well-trained, diverse workforce. That doesn’t just mean PhDs doing the research, it also means the technicians and support staff that can help with manufacturing etc. Without a living wage that makes this possible many students will drop out and the field as a whole will struggle. Those most affected will be students from poor backgrounds or from disadvantaged and historically marginalized communities.

We need to support these students in every way we can. If we don’t provide enough financial support for these students to succeed, the field as a whole will be a lot poorer.

Patient Advocacy is its own reward

It’s always nice to be told you are doing a good job. It’s even nicer when it’s unexpected. That’s certainly the case when we, the Communications Team at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, found out we’d been named as a finalist for the Patient Advocacy Award (non-profit category) as part of the Phacilitate Advanced Therapies Awards.

To be honest, we didn’t even know we’d been nominated. But who cares. We are now in the final. And we are in good company. Our friends at Americans for Cures, were also nominated. They are advocates for stem cell research in California and were hugely instrumental in getting Proposition 14 passed in 2020, that’s the voter initiative that refunded CIRM with $5.5 billion.

The other finalists are the Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy and the Rare Advocacy Movement.

While we may focus on different areas we all share a common goal, a desire to ensure that the voice of the patient is front and center in all that we do. At CIRM we have patient advocates on our Board and on the panel of experts who review applications for our funding. We have patient advocates helping guide the clinical trials we fund. And now, as we expand our efforts to reach out in every community in California, we have patients and patient advocates guiding that work as well.

We do this work because it’s important and because, without the support of the patient advocacy community, we wouldn’t be here.

It’s an old cliché that when you are in this position you say, “it’s an honor just to be nominated.” But in this case, it’s true.

CIRM Board Approves Funding for New Clinical Trial Targeting Brain Tumors

The governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has awarded almost $12 million to carry out a clinical trial targeting brain tumors.

This brings the total number of CIRM funded clinical trials to 83.  

$11,999,984 was awarded to Dr. Jana Portnow at the Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope. They are using Neural stem cells (NSCs) as a form of delivery vehicle to carry a cancer-killing virus that specifically targets brain tumor cells.

Glioblastoma is the most common malignant primary brain tumor in adults and each year about 12,000 Americans are diagnosed. The 5-year survival rate is only about 10%.

The current standard of care involves surgically removing the tumor followed by radiation, chemotherapy, and alternating electric field therapy. Despite these treatments, survival remains low.

The award to Dr. Portnow will fund a clinical trial to assess the safety and effectiveness of this stem cell-based treatment for Glioblastoma.

The Board also awarded $3,111,467 to Dr. Boris Minev of Calidi Biotherapeutics. This award is in the form of a CLIN1 grant, with the goal of completing the testing needed to apply to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permission to start a clinical trial in people.

This project uses donor fat-derived mesenchymal stem cells that have been loaded with oncolytic virus to target metastatic melanoma, triple negative breast cancer, and advanced head & neck squamous cell carcinoma.

“There are few options for patients with advanced solid tumor cancers such as glioblastoma, melanoma, breast cancer, and head & neck cancer,” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., President and CEO of CIRM. “Surgical resection, chemotherapy and radiation are largely  ineffective in advanced cases and survival typically is measured in months. These new awards will support novel approaches to address the unmet medical needs of patients with these devastating cancers.”

The CIRM Board also voted to approve awarding $71,949,539 to expand the CIRM Alpha Clinics Network. The current network consists of six sites and the Board approved continued funding for those and added an additional three sites. The funding is to last five years.

The goal of the Alpha Clinics award is to expand existing capacities for delivering stem cell, gene therapies and other advanced treatment to patients. They also serve as a competency hub for regenerative medicine training, clinical research, and the delivery of approved treatments.

Each applicant was required to submit a plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to support and facilitate outreach and study participation by underserved and disproportionately affected populations in the clinical trials they serve.

The successful applicants are:

ApplicationProgram TitleInstitution/Principal InvestigatorAmount awarded
INFR4-13579The Stanford Alpha Stem Cell ClinicStanford University – Matthew Porteus  $7,997,246  
INFR4-13581UCSF Alpha Stem Cell ClinicU.C. San Francisco – Mark Walters  $7,994,347  
INFR4-13586A comprehensive stem cell and gene therapy clinic to
advance new therapies for a diverse patient
population in California  
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center – Michael Lewis  $7,957,966    
INFR4-13587The City of Hope Alpha Clinic: A roadmap for equitable and inclusive access to regenerative medicine therapies for all Californians  City of Hope – Leo Wang  $8,000,000
INFR4-13596Alpha Stem Cell Clinic for Northern and Central California  U.C. Davis – Mehrdad Abedi  $7,999,997  
INFR4-13685Expansion of the Alpha Stem Cell and Gene Therapy Clinic at UCLA  U.C. Los Angeles – Noah Federman  $8,000,000
INFR4-13878Alpha Clinic Network Expansion for Cell and Gene Therapies  University of Southern California – Thomas Buchanan  $7,999,983  
INFR4-13952A hub and spoke community model to equitably deliver regenerative medicine therapies to diverse populations across four California counties  U.C. Irvine – Daniela Bota  $8,000,000
INFR4-13597UC San Diego Health CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic  U.C. San Diego – Catriona Jamieson  $8,000,000

The Board also unanimously, and enthusiastically, approved the election of Maria Gonzalez Bonneville to be the next Vice Chair of the Board. Ms. Bonneville, the current Vice President of Public Outreach and Board Governance at CIRM, was nominated by all four constitutional officers: the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the Treasurer and the Controller.

In supporting the nomination, Board member Ysabel Duron said: “I don’t think we could do better than taking on Maria Gonzalez Bonneville as the Vice Chair. She is well educated as far as CIRM goes. She has a great track record; she is empathetic and caring and will be a good steward for the taxpayers to ensure the work we do serves them well.”

In her letter to the Board applying for the position, Ms. Bonneville said: “CIRM is a unique agency with a large board and a long history. With my institutional knowledge and my understanding of CIRM’s internal workings and processes, I can serve as a resource for the new Chair. I have worked hand-in-hand with both the Chair and Vice Chair in setting agendas, prioritizing work, driving policy, and advising accordingly.  I have worked hard to build trusted relationships with all of you so that I could learn and understand what areas were of the most interest and where I could help shed light on those particular programs or initiatives. I have also worked closely with Maria Millan for the last decade, and greatly enjoy our working relationship. In short, I believe I provide a level of continuity and expertise that benefits the board and helps in times of transition.”

In accepting the position Ms. Bonneville said: “I am truly honored to be elected as the Vice Chair for the CIRM Board. I have been a part of CIRM for 11 years and am deeply committed to the mission and this new role gives me an opportunity to help support and advance that work at an exciting time in the Agency’s life. There are many challenges ahead of us but knowing the Board and the CIRM team I feel confident we will be able to meet them, and I look forward to helping us reach our goals.”

Ms. Bonneville will officially take office in January 2023.

The vote for the new Chair of CIRM will take place at the Board meeting on December 15th.