TELL ME WHAT I NEED TO KNOW: A Patient Advocate’s guide to being a Patient Advocate

A few weeks ago I was at the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network Symposium at UCLA and was fortunate enough to hear Gianna McMillan speak about patient advocacy. It was a powerful, moving, funny, and truly engaging talk. I quickly realized I wanted to blog about her talk and so for the first few minutes I was busy taking notes as fast as I could.  And then I realized that a simple blog could never do justice to what Gianna was saying, that what we needed was to run the whole presentation. So here it is.

Gianna McMillan

Gianna McMillan at the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Symposium: Photo courtesy UCLA

TELL ME WHAT I NEED TO KNOW

Gianna McMillan, MA – Patient/Subject Advocate, Bioethics Institute at Loyola Marymount University

Stem cell research and regenerative medicine are appealing topics because patients, families and society are weary of inelegant medical interventions that inflict, in some cases, as much harm as benefit. We are tired of putting poison in our loved ones to kill their cancer or feeling helpless as other diseases attack our own bodily functions. California, full of dreamers and go-getters, has enthusiastically embraced this new technology—but it is important to remember that all biomedical research— even in a new field as exciting and inspiring as stem cell therapeutics – must adhere to basic premises. It must be valid science and it must be based on an ethical partnership with patients and research subjects.

In the world of research ethics, I wear a lot of hats. I have been a subject, a care-giver, an Institutional Review Board (IRB) member (someone who actually reviews and approves research studies before they are allowed to proceed), and I have worked with the government on regulatory committees. These days I am finishing my doctoral studies in Bioethics, and while I love the interplay of philosophy and ethical principles, I most truly identify as an in-the-trenches Patient/Subject Advocate. I am compelled to champion patients who struggle with new and devastating diagnoses, hoping desperately for a cure, and who might be faced with decisions about participating in research for their own benefit and for the greater good of science.

In the old days, doctors made decisions on behalf of their patients— who, meekly grateful for the guidance, did whatever they were told. It is a little different now. Patients are better informed, often do their own homework, and demand to be an integral part of their treatment plan. The world of research has undergone similar changes. Instead of investigators “doing things to research subjects”, best practices involve patients in the design of clinical trials. Patients and experienced subjects help decide what specific questions should be the focus of the research; they identify endpoints in the research that are meaningful to the patient population being studied; and they assist in devising tools for patient-reported outcomes and delivery of study results.

The investigator and the research subject have come to be seen as partners.

While the evolution of this important relationship is healthy and wonderful, it should not be assumed that this is an equal partnership. Why? Because subjects are always at a disadvantage.  I realize that this might be an uncomfortable concept. Physician-investigators in charge of the study might want to qualify this statement it by insisting “but we do our best to accommodate their needs”. Subjects would also rather not admit this—because it is hard to make a decision with confidence while simultaneously acknowledging, “I am really at a disadvantage here.”

However, I have learned the hard way that an honest partnership requires addressing some uncomfortable realities.

A short personal story illustrates what I am talking about. When my oldest son was five years old, he was diagnosed with malignant brain cancer. Before meeting with our son’s treatment team for the first time, my husband and I decided that my husband, articulate and concise, would take the lead. He had a legal pad, with a list of questions… each question and answer would take us down the page until, at last, we would use all the information to make a decision—a life or death decision – on behalf of our young child.

In the meeting, the neurosurgeon pointed at brain scans and explained a few things. And then radiologist drew pictures of machines and treatment angles. The oncologist described risks and benefits and side effects. Then we all looked expectantly at my husband—because it was his turn. This lovely man opened his mouth. And closed his mouth. And then burst into tears, holding that legal pad over his chest like a shield. He could not speak. After a few seconds of horrified silence, I stammered out what few questions I could remember. The doctors answered, of course. Their mouths moved, and I leaned in and nodded while making eye contact – but I have no idea what they said.  All I heard was a loud white noise that filled my skull and my husband’s raspy breathing, and my own voice crying out in my head – “Oh my God! My child! My child!”

The point of this story is to illustrate that good people, educated and prepared, ready to bring their best selves to make the most important decision they would ever make, one that would affect the life of a beloved child— these people could not function. Despite this, in just a few days’ time, we were introduced to a research study, one that might cure our child while limiting the damage to his growing brain.  No matter how well-intentioned the research team was—no matter how desirous they were of a “partnership” with us, we were at such a distinct disadvantage, that the relationship we had with these investigators could not be categorized as one “among equals”.

Even now, more than twenty years later, it is painful for me to reflect on this. But I have learned, working with hundreds of families whose children went into clinical trials, that if we can be honest about the dysfunctional nature of this situation, we might take some action to improve it. Let me be specific about the ways research subjects are at a disadvantage.

  1. They often don’t speak the language of the disease.
  2. They are unfamiliar with the process of research.
  3. They are wrestling with emotions: despair, denial, anger and hope.
  4. Their life has been disrupted – and there are consequences.

Compare this with the research team, who knows the lingo, designed the research plan, is not personally affected by the scenario and well, this is business as usual: enroll a subject, let’s get going! How is the notion of “partnership” affected by such unequal circumstances?

Is a meaningful “partnership” even possible?

I say, yes! And this notion of “partnership” is especially important as new technologies come to invade intimate qualities of “self” and the building blocks of what makes each of us human. However, we need to be realistic about what this partnership looks like. It is not equal.  I am going to take a stand here and say that the partner who has the advantage (in this case, the researcher/scientist) is morally obligated to meaningfully address the disadvantage of the other party. This bears repeating. The partner who has the advantage is morally obligated to meaningfully address the disadvantage of the other party.

Over the years, families and subjects have told me what they want and need from the doctors and researchers they work with. They say:

  1. Tell me what I need to know.
  2. Tell me in a way I can hear it.
  3. Tell me again and again.

Let me expand on these a bit. First, if I am a patient new to a diagnosis, a treatment or research—I probably do not know what I do not know. Help me learn vocabulary, procedures, and systems. Tell me about the elements of informed consent so that I recognize them when I see them in the documents you want me to sign. Explain the difference between “standard of care” and “experimental treatment”. Help me understand the research question in the context of the disease (in general) and my own ailment (in particular). Give me the words to ask the questions that I should be asking.

Secondly, there are many different ways of sharing this information: print, video, websites, peer mentors, nurse-educators, and research team members. Hit the topic from all sides and in multiple formats. Thirdly, please realize that there is a learning curve for me— and it is closely tied to my emotional journey with my predicament. I may not be able to absorb certain facts at the very beginning, but a few weeks later I might be mentally and cognitively in a different place. And obviously, I might be an inexperienced research subject when I sign the consent form— but a few months later I will be vastly more sophisticated and at that time, I need the opportunity to ask my more considered and context-savvy questions.

I want to point out that researchers have access to a deep well of wisdom – a resource that can advise and support ethical actions that will help their disadvantaged partners: researchers can ask their experienced subjects for advice.

Remember those hundreds of families I worked with, whose children ultimately enrolled in clinical trials? These experienced parents say:

  • Let me tell you what I needed to know.
  • Let me tell you how I needed to hear it.

Getting input from these experienced subjects and caregivers does two things.

First, the research team is leveraging the investment they have already made in the participants of their studies; and secondly — very importantly — they are empowering the previously disadvantaged partner. Experienced subjects can to share what they have learned or give suggestions to the research team. Physicians and researchers might even build a stable of peer mentors who might be willing to help newbies learn about the process.

Everything I have said applies to all avenues of clinical research, but these are especially important considerations in the face of new and exciting science. It took a long time for more traditional research practices to evolve into an investigator/subject partnership model. Stem cell research and regenerative medicine has the opportunity to do this from the very start—and benefit from previous lessons learned.

When I was preparing my remarks for today, someone casually mentioned that I might talk about the “importance of balancing truth-telling in the informed consent process with respect for the hope of the family.” I would like to unequivocally state that the very nature of an “informed consent process” requires 100% truth, as does respect for the family—and that this does not undermine our capacity for hope. We place our hope in this exciting new science and the doctors and researchers who are pioneers. We understand that there are many unknowns in this new field. Please be honest with us so that we might sort out our thoughts and our hopes for ourselves, in our own contexts.

What message would I wish the scientists here, today, to take away with them?      Well, I am putting on my Patient/Subject Advocate hat, and in my Patient/Subject Advocate voice, I am saying: “Tell me what I need to know!”

 

 

Patients at the heart of Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Symposium

I have been to a lot of stem cell conferences over the years and there’s one recent trend I really like: the growing importance and frequency of the role played by patient advocates.

There was a time, not so long ago, when having a patient advocate speak at a scientific conference was almost considered a novelty. But more and more it’s being seen for what it is, an essential item on the agenda. After all, they are the reason everyone at that conference is working. It’s all about the patients.

That message was front and center at the 3rd Annual CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium at UCLA last week. The theme of the symposium was the Delivery of Stem Cell Therapeutics to Patients. There were several fascinating scientific presentations, highlighting the progress being made in stem cell research, but it was the voices of the patient advocates that were loudest and most powerful.

First a little background. The CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network consists of six major medical centers – UCLA/UC Irvine (joint hosts of this conference), UC San Diego, City of Hope, UC San Francisco and UC Davis. The Network was established with the goal of accelerating the development and delivery of high-quality stem cell clinical trials to patients. This meeting brought together clinical investigators, scientists, patients, patient advocates, and the public in a thoughtful discussion on how novel stem cell therapies are now a reality.

It was definitely thoughtful. Gianna McMillan, the Co-Founder and Executive Director of “We Can, Pediatric Brain Tumor Network” set the tone with her talk titled, “Tell Me What I Need to Know”. At age 5 her son was diagnosed with a brain tumor, sending her life into a tailspin. The lessons she learned from that experience – happily her son is now a healthy young man – drive her determination to help others cope with similar situations.

Calling herself an “in the trenches patient advocate champion” she says:

“In the old days doctors made decisions on behalf of the patients who meekly and gratefully did what they were told. It’s very different today. Patients are better informed and want to be partners in the treatment they get. But yet this is not an equal partnership, because subjects (patients) are always at a disadvantage.”

She said patients often don’t speak the language of the disease or understand the scientific jargon doctors use when they talk about it. At the same time patients are wrestling with overwhelming emotions such as fear and anxiety because their lives have been completely overturned.

Yet she says a meaningful partnership is possible as long as doctors keep three basic questions in mind when dealing with people who are getting a new diagnosis of a life-threatening or life-changing condition:

  • Tell me what I need to know
  • Tell me in language I can understand
  • Tell me again and again

It’s a simple formula, but one that is so important that it needs to be stated over and over again. “Tell me again. And again. And again.”

David Mitchell, the President and Founder of Patients for Affordable Drugs, tackled another aspect of the patient experience: the price of therapies. He posed the question “What good is a therapy if no one can afford it?”

David’s organization focuses on changing policy at the state and federal level to lower the price of prescription drugs. He pointed out that many other countries charge lower prices for drugs than the US, in part because those countries’ governments negotiate directly with drug companies on pricing.

He says if we want to make changes in this country that benefit patients then patient have to become actively involved in lobbying their government, at both the state and local level, for more balanced prices, and in supporting candidates for public office who support real change in drug-pricing policy.

It’s encouraging to see that just as the field of stem cell research is advancing so too is the prominence of the patient’s voice. The CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network is pushing the field forward in exciting ways, and the patients are becoming an increasingly important, and vital part of that. And that is as it should be.

A road trip to the Inland Empire highlights a hot bed of stem cell research

UCR#1

Gillian Wilson, Interim Vice Chancellor, Research, UC Riverside welcomes people to the combined Research Roadshow and Patient Advocate event

It took us longer than it should have to pay a visit to California’s Inland Empire, but it was definitely worth the wait. Yesterday CIRM’s Roadshow went to the University of California at Riverside (UCR) to talk to the community there – both scientific and public – about the work we are funding and the progress being made, and to hear from them about their hopes and plans for the future.

As always when we go on the road, we learn so much and are so impressed by everyone’s passion and commitment to stem cell research and their belief that it’s changing the face of medicine as we know it.

Dr. Deborah Deas, the Dean of the UC Riverside School of Medicine and a CIRM Board member, kicked off the proceedings by saying:

“Since CIRM was created in 2004 the agency has been committed to providing the technology and research to meet the unmet needs of the people of California.

On the Board I have been impressed by the sheer range and number of diseases targeted by the research CIRM is funding. We in the Inland Empire are playing our part. With CIRM’s help we have developed a strong program that is doing some exciting work in discovery, education and translational research.”

IMG_1245

CIRM’s Dr. Maria Millan at the Roadshow Patient Advocate event

CIRM’s President and CEO, Dr. Maria T. Millan, and our Board Chair, Jonathan Thomas then gave a quick potted history of CIRM and the projects we are funding. They highlighted how we are creating a pipeline of products from the Discovery, or basic level of research, through to the 45 clinical trials we are funding.

They also talked about the Alpha Clinic Network, based at six highly specialized medical centers around California, that are delivering stem cell therapies and sharing the experiences and knowledge learned from these trials to improve their ability to help patients and advance the field.

Researchers from both UCR then gave a series of brief snapshots of the innovative work they are doing:

  • Looking at new, more efficient and effective ways of expanding the number of human embryonic stem cells in the laboratory to create the high volume of cells needed for therapies.
  • Using biodegradable materials to help repair and regenerate tissue for things as varied as bone and cartilage repair or nerve restoration.
  • Exploring the use of epigenetic factors, things that switch genes on and off, to try and find ways to make repairs inside the body, rather than taking the cells outside the body, re-engineering them and returning them to the body. In essence, using the body as its own lab to manufacture replacement.

Another CIRM Board member, Linda Malkas, talked about the research being done at City of Hope (COH), where she is the associate chair of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, calling it an “engine for discovery that has created the infrastructure and attracted people with an  amazing set of skills to bring forward new therapeutics for patients.”

She talked about how COH is home to one of the first Alpha Clinics that CIRM funded, and that it now has 27 active clinical trials, with seven more pending and 11 more in the pipeline.

“In my opinion this is one of the crown jewels of the CIRM program. CIRM is leading the nation in showing how to put together a network of specialized clinics to deliver these therapies. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) came to CIRM to learn from them and to talk about how to better move the most promising ideas and trials through the system faster and more efficiently.”

Dr. Malkas also celebrated the partnership between COH and UCR, where they are collaborating on 19 different projects, pooling their experience and expertise to advance this research.

Finally, Christine Brown, PhD, talked about her work using chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells to fight cancer stem cells. In this CIRM-funded clinical trial, Dr. Brown hopes to re-engineer a patient’s T cells – a key cell of the immune system – to recognize a target protein on the surface of brain cancer stem cells and kill the tumors.

It was a packed event, with an overflow group watching on monitors outside the auditorium. The questions asked afterwards didn’t just focus on the research being done, but on research that still needs to be done.

One patient advocate couple asked about clinics offering stem cell therapies for Parkinson’s disease, wondering if the therapies were worth spending more than $10,000 on.

Dr. Millan cautioned against getting any therapy that wasn’t either approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or wasn’t part of a clinical trial sanctioned by the FDA. She said that in the past, these clinics were mostly outside the US (hence the term “stem cell tourism”) but increasingly they are opening up centers here in the US offering unproven and unapproved therapies.

She said there are lots of questions people need to ask before signing up for a clinical trial. You can find those questions here.

The visit was a strong reminder that there is exciting stem cell research taking place all over California and that the Inland Empire is a key player in that research, working on projects that could one day have a huge impact in changing people’s lives, even saving people’s lives.

 

Stem Cell Agency Heads to Inland Empire for Free Patient Advocate Event

UCRiversidePatientAdvocateMtg_EventBrite copy

I am embarrassed to admit that I have never been to the Inland Empire in California, the area that extends from San Bernardino to Riverside counties.  That’s about to change. On Monday, April 16th CIRM is taking a road trip to UC Riverside, and we’re inviting you to join us.

We are holding a special, free, public event at UC Riverside to talk about the work that CIRM does and to highlight the progress being made in stem cell research. We have funded 45 clinical trials in a wide range of conditions from stroke and cancer, leukemia, lymphoma, vision loss, diabetes and sickle cell disease to name just a few. And will talk about how we plan on funding many more clinical trials in the years to come.

We’ll be joined by colleagues from both UC Riverside, and City of Hope, talking about the research they are doing from developing new imaging techniques to see what is happening inside the brain with diseases like Alzheimer’s, to using a patient’s own cells and immune system to attack deadly brain cancers.

It promises to be a fascinating event and of course we want to hear from you, our supporters, friends and patient advocates. We are leaving plenty of time for questions, so we can hear what’s on your mind.

So, join us at UC Riverside on Monday, April 16th from 12.30pm to 2pm. The doors open at 11am so you can enjoy a poster session (highlighting some of the research at UCR) and a light lunch before the event. Parking will be available on site.

Visit the Eventbrite page we have created for all the information you’ll need about the event, including a chance to RSVP and book your place.

The event is free so feel free to share this with anyone and everyone you think might be interested in joining us.

 

 

Alpha clinics and a new framework for accelerating stem cell treatments

IMG_1215

Last week, at the World Stem Cell Summit in Miami, CIRM took part in a panel discussion about the role and importance of Alpha Clinics in not just delivering stem cell therapies, but in helping create a new, more collaborative approach to medicine. The Alpha Clinic concept is to create  a network of top medical centers that specialize in delivering stem cell clinical trials to patients.

The panel was moderated by Dr. Tony Atala, Director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. He said the term Alpha Clinic came from CIRM and the Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network that we helped create. That network now has five specialist health care centers that deliver stem cell therapies to patients: UC San Diego, UCLA/UC Irvine, City of Hope, UC Davis, and  UCSF/Children’s Hospital Oakland.

This is a snapshot of that conversation.

Alpha Clinics Advancing Stem Cell Trials

Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO:

“The idea behind the Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network is that CIRM is in the business of accelerating treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. We fund research from the earliest discovery stage to clinical trials. What was anticipated is that, if the goal is to get these discoveries into the clinics then we’ll need a specific set of expertise and talents to deliver those treatments safely and effectively, to gather data from those trials and move the field forward. So, we set out to create a learning network, a sharing network and a network that is more than the sum of its parts.”

Dr. Joshua Hare,  Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute, University of Miami, said that idea of collaboration is critical to advancing the field:

 

“What we learned is that having the Alpha Stem Cell Clinic concept helps investigators in other areas learn from what earlier researchers have done, helping accelerate their work.

For example, we have had a lot of experience in working with rare diseases and we can use the experience we have in treating one disease area in working in others. This shared experience can help us develop deeper understanding in terms of delivering therapies and dosing.”

Susan Solomon, CEO New York Stem Cell Foundation Research Institute. NYSCF has several clinical trials underway. She says in the beginning it was hard finding reputable clinics that could deliver these potentially ground breaking but still experimental therapies:

 

“My motivation was born out of my own frustration at the poor choices we had in dealing with some devastating diseases, so in order to move things ahead we had to have an alpha clinic that is not just doing clinical trials but is working to overcome obstacles in the field.”

Greg Simon represented the, Biden Cancer Initiative, whose  mission is to develop and drive implementation of solutions to accelerate progress in cancer prevention, detection, diagnosis, research, and care, and to reduce disparities in cancer outcomes. He says part of the problem is that people think there are systems already in place that promote collaboration and cooperation, but that’s not really the case.  

 

“In the Cancer Moonshot and the Biden Cancer Initiative we are trying to create the cancer research initiative that people think we already have. People think doctors share knowledge. They don’t. People think they can just sign up for clinical trials. They can’t. People think there are standards for describing a cancer. There aren’t. So, all the things you think you know about the science behind cancer are wrong. We don’t have the system people think is in place. But we want to create that.

If we are going to have a unified system we need common standards through cancer research, shared knowledge, and clinical trial reforms. All my professional career it was considered unethical to refer to a clinical trial as a treatment, it was research. That’s no longer the case. Many people are now told this is your last best hope for treatment and it’s changed the way people think about clinical trials.”

The Process

Maria Millan says we are seeing these kinds of change – more collaboration, more transparency –  taking place across the board:

“We see the research in academic institutions that then moved into small companies that are now being approved by the FDA. Academic centers, in conjunction with industry partners, are helping create networks and connections that advance therapies.

This gives us the opportunity to have clinical programs and dialogues about how we can get better, how we can create a more uniform, standard approach that helps us learn from each trial and develop common standards that investigators know have to be in place.

Within the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network the teams coming in can access what we have pulled together already – a database of 20 million patients, a single IRB approval, so that if a cliinical trial is approved for one Alpha Clinic it can also be offered at another.”

Greg Simon says to see the changes really take hold we need to ensure this idea of collaboration starts at the very beginning of the chain:

“If we don’t have a system of basic research where people share data, where people are rewarded for sharing data, journals that don’t lock up the data behind a paywall. If we don’t have that system, we don’t have the ability to move therapies along as quickly as we could.

“Nobody wants to be the last person to die from a cancer that someone figured out a treatment for a year earlier. It’s not that the science is so hard, or the diseases are so hard, it the way we approach them that’s so hard. How do we create the right system?”

More may not necessarily be better

Susan Solomon:

“There are tremendous number of advances moving to the clinic, but I am concerned about the need for more sharing and the sheer number of clinical trials. We have to be smart about how we do our work. There is some low hanging fruit for some clinical trials in the cancer area, but you have to be really careful.”

Greg Simon

“We have too many bad trials, we don’t need more, we need better quality trials.

We have made a lot of progress in cancer. I’m a CLL survivor and had zero problems with the treatment and everything went well.

We have pediatric cancer therapies that turned survival from 10 % to 80%. But the question is why doesn’t more progress happen. We tend to get stuck in a way of thinking and don’t question why it has to be that way. We think of funding because that’s the way funding cycles work, the NIH issues grants every year, so we think about research on a yearly basis. We need to change the cycle.”

Maria Millan says CIRM takes a two pronged approach to improving things, renovating and creating:

“We renovate when we know there are things already in place that can be improved and made better; and we create if there’s nothing there and it needs to be created. We want to be as efficient as we can and not waste time and resources.”

She ended by saying one of the most exciting things today is that the discussion now has moved to how we are going to cover this for patients. Greg Simon couldn’t agree more.

“The biggest predictor of survivability of cancer is health insurance. We need to do more than just develop treatments. We need to have a system that enables people to get access to these therapies.”

Hearts and brains are center stage at CIRM Patient Advocate event

Describing the work of a government agency is not the most exciting of topics. Books on the subject would probably be found in the “Self-help for Insomniacs” section of a good bookstore (there are still some around). But at CIRM we are fortunate. When we talk about what we do, we don’t talk about the mechanics of our work, we talk about our mission: accelerating stem cell therapies to people with unmet medical needs.

Yesterday at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco we did just that, talking about the progress being made in stem cell research to an audience of friends, supporters and patient advocates. We had a lot to talk about, including the 35 clinical trials we have funded so far, and our goals and hopes for the future.

We were lucky to have Dr. Deepak Srivastava and Dr. Steve Finkbeiner from Gladstone join us to talk about their work. Some people are good scientists, some are good communicators. Deepak and Steve are great scientists and equally great communicators.

Deepak Srivastava highlighted ongoing stem cell research at the Gladstone
(Photo: Todd Dubnicoff/CIRM)

Deepak is the Director of the Roddenberry Stem Cell Center at Gladstone (and yes, it’s named after Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek fame) and an expert on heart disease. He talked about how advances in research have enabled us to turn heart scar tissue cells into new heart muscle cells, creating the potential to use a person’s own cells to help them recover from a heart attack.

“If you have a heart attack, your heart turns that muscle into scar tissue which affects the heart’s ability to pump blood around the body. We identified a combination of factors that support cells that are already in your heart and we have found a way of converting those scar cells into muscle. This could help repair the heart enough so you may not need a transplant, but you can lead a much more normal life.”

He said this research is now advancing to the point where they hope it could be ready for testing in people in the not too distant future and joked that his father, who has had a heart attack, volunteered to be the second person to try it. “Not the first but definitely the second.”

Steve, who is the Director of the Taube/Koret Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research, specializes in problems in the brain; everything from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to schizophrenia and ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

He talked about his uncle, who has end stage Parkinson’s disease, and how he sees first-hand how devastating this neurodegenerative disease is, and how that personal connection helps motivate him to work ever harder.

He talked about how so many therapies that look promising in mice fail when they are tested in people:

“A huge motivation for me has been to try and figure out a more reliable way to test these potential therapies and to move discoveries from the lab and into clinical trials in patients.”

Steve is using ordinary skin cells or tissue samples, taken from people with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and other neurological conditions, and using the iPSC technique developed by Shinya Yamanaka (who is a researcher at Gladstone and also Director of CIRA in Japan) turns them into the kinds of cells found in the brain. These cells then enable him to study how these different diseases affect the brain, and come up with ways that might stop their progress.

Steve Finkbeiner is using human stem cells to model brain diseases
(Photo: Todd Dubnicoff/CIRM)

He uses a robotic microscope – developed at Gladstone – that allows his team to study these cells and test different potential therapies 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This round-the-clock approach will hopefully help speed up his ability to find something that help patients.

The CIRM speakers – Dr. Maria Millan, our interim President and CEO – and Sen. Art Torres (ret.) the Vice Chair of our Board and a patient advocate for colorectal cancer – talked about the progress we are making in helping push stem cell research forward.

Dr. Millan focused on our clinical trial work and how our goal is to create a pipeline of promising projects from the work being done by researchers like Deepak and Steve, and move those out of the lab and into clinical trials in people as quickly as possible.

Sen. Art Torres (Ret.)
(Photo: Todd Dubnicoff/CIRM)

Sen. Torres focused on the role of the patient advocate at CIRM and how they help shape and influence everything we do, from the Board’s deciding what projects to support and fund, to our creating Clinical Advisory Panels which involve a patient advocate helping guide clinical trial teams.

The event is one of a series that we hold around the state every year, reporting back to our friends and supporters on the progress being made. We feel, as a state agency, that we owe it to the people of California to let them know how their money is being spent.

We are holding two more of these events in the near future, one at UC Davis in Sacramento on October 10th, and one at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on October 30th.

Treatments, cures and clinical trials: an in-person update on CIRM’s progress

Patients and Patient Advocates are at the heart of everything we do at CIRM. That’s why we are holding three free public events in the next few months focused on updating you on the stem cell research we are funding, and our plans for the future.

Right now we have 33 projects that we have funded in clinical trials. Those range from heart disease and stroke, to cancer, diabetes, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), two different forms of vision loss, spinal cord injury and HIV/AIDS. We have also helped cure dozens of children battling deadly immune disorders. But as far as we are concerned we are only just getting started.

Over the course of the next few years, we have a goal of adding dozens more clinical trials to that list, and creating a pipeline of promising therapies for a wide range of diseases and disorders.

That’s why we are holding these free public events – something we try and do every year. We want to let you know what we are doing, what we are funding, how that research is progressing, and to get your thoughts on how we can improve, what else we can do to help meet the needs of the Patient Advocate community. Your voice is important in helping shape everything we do.

The first event is at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco on Wednesday, September 6th from noon till 1pm. The doors open at 11am for registration and a light lunch.

Gladstone Institutes

Here’s a link to an Eventbrite page that has all the information about the event, including how you can RSVP to let us know you are coming.

We are fortunate to be joined by two great scientists, and speakers – as well as being CIRM grantees-  from the Gladstone Institutes, Dr. Deepak Srivastava and Dr. Steve Finkbeiner.

Dr. Srivastava is working on regenerating heart muscle after it has been damaged. This research could not only help people recover from a heart attack, but the same principles might also enable us to regenerate other organs damaged by disease. Dr. Finkbeiner is a pioneer in diseases of the brain and has done ground breaking work in both Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease.

We have two other free public events coming up in October. The first is at UC Davis in Sacramento on October 10th (noon till 1pm) and the second at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles on October 30th (noon till 1pm). We will have more details on these events in the coming weeks.

We look forward to seeing you at one of these events and please feel free to share this information with anyone you think might be interested in attending.

Stem Cell Patient Advocates, Scientists and Doctors Unite Around a Common Cause

Some phrases just bring a smile to your face: “It’s a girl/boy”, “Congratulations, you got the job”, and “Another beer sir?” (or maybe that last one is just me). One other phrase that makes me smile is “packed house”. That’s why I was smiling so much at our Patient Advocate Event at UC San Diego last week. The room was jammed with around 150 patients and patient advocates who had come to hear about the progress being made in stem cell research.

Jonathan Thomas, Chair of the CIRM governing Board, kicked off the event with a quick run-through of our research, focusing on our clinical trials. As we have now funded 29 clinical trials, it really was a quick run-through, but JT did focus on a couple of remarkable stories of cures for patients suffering from Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) and Chronic Granulomatous Disease.

His message was simple. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go to fulfill our mission of accelerating stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. We have a target of 40 new clinical trials by 2020 and JT stressed our determination to do everything we can to reach that goal.

David Higgins, Parkinson’s Disease Advocate and CIRM Board Member (Credit Cory Kozlovich, UCSD)

Next up was David Higgins, who has a unique perspective. David is a renowned scientist, he’s also the Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s disease on the CIRM Board, and he has Parkinson’s disease. David gave a heartfelt presentation on the changing role of the patient and their growing impact on health and science.

In the old days, David said, the patient was merely the recipient of whatever treatment a doctor determined was appropriate. Today, that relationship is much more like a partnership, with physician and patient working together to determine the best approach.

He said CIRM tries to live up to that model by engaging the voice of the patient and patient advocate at every stage of the approval process, from shaping concepts to assessing the scientific merits of a project and deciding whether to fund it, and then doing everything we can to help it succeed.

He said California can serve as the model, but that patients need to make their voices heard at the national level too, particularly in light of the proposed huge budget cuts for the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Jennifer Braswell. (Credit Cory Kozlovich, UCSD)

U.C. San Diego’s Dr. Jennifer Braswell gave some great advice on clinical trials, focusing on learning how to tell a good trial from a questionable one, and the questions patients need to ask before agreeing to be part of one.

She said it has to:

  • Be at a highly regarded medical center
  • Be based on strong pre-clinical evidence
  • Involved well-informed and compassionate physicians and nurses
  • Acknowledge that it carries some risk.

“You all know that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If someone says a clinical trial carries no risk that’s a red flag, you know that’s not true. There is risk. Good researchers work hard to reduce the risk as much as possible, but you cannot eliminate it completely.”

She said even sites such as www.clinicaltrials.gov – a list of all the clinical trials registered with the National Institutes of Health – have to be approached cautiously and that you should talk to your own physican before signing up for anything.

Finally, UC San Diego’s Dr. Catriona Jamieson talked about her research into blood cancers, and how her work would not have been possible without the support of CIRM. She also highlighted the growing number of trials being carried out at through the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network, which helps scientists and researchers share knowledge and resources, enabling them to improve the quality of the care they provide patients.

The audience asked the panelists some great questions about the need for;

  • A national patient database to make it easier to recruit people for clinical trials
  • For researchers to create a way of letting people know if they didn’t get into a clinical trial so the patients wouldn’t get their hopes up
  • For greater public education about physicians or clinics offering unproven therapies

Adrienne Shapiro, an advocate for sickle cell disease patients, asks a question at Thursday’s stem cell meeting in La Jolla. (Bradley J. Fikes)

The meeting showed the tremendous public interest in stem cell research, and the desire to move it ahead even faster.

This was the first of a series of free public events we are holding around California this year. Next up, Los Angeles. More details of that shortly.

Listening is fine. Action is better. Why patients want more than just a chance to have their say.

FDA

Type in the phrase “the power of the patient voice” in any online search engine and you’ll generate thousands of articles and posts about the importance of listening to what patients have to say. The articles are on websites run by a diverse group from patients and researchers, to advocacy organizations and pharmaceutical companies. Everyone it seems recognizes the importance of listening to what the patient says. Even the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has gotten in on the act. But what isn’t as clear is does all that talking and listening lead to any action?

In the last few years the FDA launched its ‘Patient-Focused Drug Development Initiative’, a series of public meetings where FDA officials invited patients and patient advocates to a public meeting to offer their perspectives on their condition and the available therapies. Each meeting focused on a different disease or condition, 20 in all, ranging from Parkinson’s and breast cancer to Huntington’s and sickle cell disease.

The meetings followed a standard format. Patients and patient advocates were invited to talk about the disease in question and its impact on their life, and then to comment on the available treatments and what they would like to see happen that could make their life better.

The FDA then gathered all those observations and comments, including some submitted online, and put them together in a report. Here’s where you can find all 20 FDA Voice of the Patient reports.  The reports all end with a similar concluding paragraph. Here’s what the conclusion for the Parkinson’s patient report said:

“The insight provided during this meeting will aid in FDA’s understanding of what patients truly value in a treatment and inform the agency’s evaluation of the benefits and risk of future treatments for Parkinson’s disease patients.”

And now what? That’s the question many patients and patient advocates are asking. I spoke with several people who were involved in these meetings and all came away feeling that the FDA commissioners who held the hearings were sincere and caring. But none believe it has made any difference, that it has led to any changes in policy.

For obvious reasons none of those I spoke to wanted to be identified. They don’t want to do anything that could in any way jeopardize a potential treatment for their condition. But many felt the hearings were just window dressing, that the FDA held them because it was required by Congress to do so. The Ageny, however, is not required to act on the conclusions or make any changes based on the hearings. And that certainly seems to be what’s happened.

Producing a report is fine. But if that report then gets put on a shelf and ignored what is the value of it? Patients and patient advocates want their voices to be heard. But more importantly they want what they say to lead to some action, to have some positive outcome. Right now they are wondering if they were invited to speak, but no one was really listening.

Stem Cell Stories That Caught Our Eye: Free Patient Advocate Event in San Diego, and new clues on how to fix muscular dystrophy and Huntington’s disease

UCSD Patient Advocate mtg instagram

Stem cell research is advancing so fast that it’s sometimes hard to keep up. That’s one of the reasons we have our Friday roundup, to let you know about some fascinating research that came across our desk during the week that you might otherwise have missed.

Of course, another way to keep up with the latest in stem cell research is to join us for our free Patient Advocate Event at UC San Diego next Thursday, April 20th from 12-1pm.  We are going to talk about the progress being made in stem cell research, the problems we still face and need help in overcoming, and the prospects for the future.

We have four great speakers:

  • Catriona Jamieson, Director of the CIRM UC San Diego Alpha Stem Cell Clinic and an expert on cancers of the blood
  • Jonathan Thomas, PhD, JD, Chair of CIRM’s Board
  • Jennifer Briggs Braswell, Executive Director of the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center
  • David Higgins, Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s on the CIRM Board

We will give updates on the exciting work taking place at UCSD and the work that CIRM is funding. We have also set aside some time to get your thoughts on how we can improve the way we work and, of course, answer your questions.

What: Stem Cell Therapies and You: A Special Patient Advocate Event

When: Thursday, April 20th 12-1pm

Where: The Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, 2880 Torrey Pines Scenic Drive, La Jolla, CA 92037

Why: Because the people of California have a right to know how their money is helping change the face of regenerative medicine

Who: This event is FREE and open to everyone.

We have set up an EventBrite page for you to RSVP and let us know if you are coming. And, of course, feel free to share this with anyone you think might be interested.

This is the first of a series of similar Patient Advocate Update meetings we plan on holding around California this year. We’ll have news on other locations and dates shortly.

 

Fixing a mutation that causes muscular dystrophy (Karen Ring)

It’s easy to take things for granted. Take your muscles for instance. How often do you think about them? (Don’t answer this if you’re a body builder). Daily? Monthly? I honestly don’t think much about my muscles unless I’ve injured them or if they’re sore from working out.

duchennes-cardiomyocytes-body

Heart muscle cells (green) that don’t have dystrophin protein (Photo; UT Southwestern)

But there are people in this world who think about their muscles or their lack of them every day. They are patients with a muscle wasting disease called Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). It’s the most common type of muscular dystrophy, and it affects mainly young boys – causing their muscles to progressively weaken to the point where they cannot walk or breathe on their own.

DMD is caused by mutations in the dystrophin gene. These mutations prevent muscle cells from making dystrophin protein, which is essential for maintaining muscle structure. Scientists are using gene editing technologies to find and fix these mutations in hopes of curing patients of DMD.

Last year, we blogged about a few of these studies where different teams of scientists corrected dystrophin mutations using CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology in human cells and in mice with DMD. One of these teams has recently followed up with a new study that builds upon these earlier findings.

Scientists from UT Southwestern are using an alternative form of the CRISPR gene editing complex to fix dystrophin mutations in both human cells and mice. This alternative CRISPR complex makes use of a different cutting enzyme, Cpf1, in place of the more traditionally used Cas9 protein. It’s a smaller protein that the scientists say can get into muscle cells more easily. Cpf1 also differs from Cas9 in what DNA nucleotide sequences it recognizes and latches onto, making it a new tool in the gene editing toolbox for scientists targeting DMD mutations.

gene-edited-cardiomyocytes-body.jpg

Gene-edited heart muscle cells (green) that now express dystrophin protein (Photo: UT Southwestern)

Using CRISPR/Cpf1, the scientists corrected the most commonly found dystrophin mutation in human induced pluripotent stem cells derived from DMD patients. They matured these corrected stem cells into heart muscle cells in the lab and found that they expressed the dystrophin protein and functioned like normal heart cells in a dish. CRISPR/Cpf1 also corrected mutations in DMD mice, which rescued dystrophin expression in their muscle tissues and some of the muscle wasting symptoms caused by the disease.

Because the dystrophin gene is one of the longest genes in our genome, it has more locations where DMD-causing mutations could occur. The scientists behind this study believe that CRISPR/Cpf1 offers a more flexible tool for targeting different dystrophin mutations and could potentially be used to develop an effective gene therapy for DMD.

Senior author on the study, Dr. Eric Olson, provided this conclusion about their research in a news release by EurekAlert:

“CRISPR-Cpf1 gene-editing can be applied to a vast number of mutations in the dystrophin gene. Our goal is to permanently correct the underlying genetic causes of this terrible disease, and this research brings us closer to realizing that end.”

 

A cellular traffic jam is the culprit behind Huntington’s disease (Todd Dubnicoff)

Back in the 1983, the scientific community cheered the first ever mapping of a genetic disease to a specific area on a human chromosome which led to the isolation of the disease gene in 1993. That disease was Huntington’s, an inherited neurodegenerative disorder that typically strikes in a person’s thirties and leads to death about 10 to 15 years later. Because no effective therapy existed for the disease, this discovery of Huntingtin, as the gene was named, was seen as a critical step toward a better understand of Huntington’s and an eventual cure.

But flash forward to 2017 and researchers are still foggy on how mutations in the Huntingtin gene cause Huntington’s. New research, funded in part by CIRM, promises to clear some things up. The report, published this week in Neuron, establishes a connection between mutant Huntingtin and its impact on the transport of cell components between the nucleus and cytoplasm.

Roundup Picture1

The pores in the nuclear envelope allows proteins and molecules to pass between a cell’s nucleus and it’s cytoplasm. Image: Blausen.com staff (2014).

To function smoothly, a cell must be able to transport proteins and molecules in and out of the nucleus through holes called nuclear pores. The research team – a collaboration of scientists from Johns Hopkins University, the University of Florida and UC Irvine – found that in nerve cells, the mutant Huntingtin protein clumps up and plays havoc on the nuclear pore structure which leads to cell death. The study was performed in fly and mouse models of HD, in human HD brain samples as well as HD patient nerve cells derived with the induced pluripotent stem cell technique – all with this same finding.

Roundup Picture2

Huntington’s disease is caused by the loss of a nerve cells called medium spiny neurons. Image: Wikimedia commons

By artificially producing more of the proteins that make up the nuclear pores, the damaging effects caused by the mutant Huntingtin protein were reduced. Similar results were seen using drugs that help stabilize the nuclear pore structure. The implications of these results did not escape George Yohrling, a senior director at the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, who was not involved in the study. Yohrling told Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn:

“This is very exciting research because we didn’t know what mutant genes or proteins were doing in the body, and this points to new areas to target research. Scientists, biotech companies and pharmaceutical companies could capitalize on this and maybe develop therapies for this biological process”,

It’s important to temper that excitement with a reality check on how much work is still needed before the thought of clinical trials can begin. Researchers still don’t understand why the mutant protein only affects a specific type of nerve cells and it’s far from clear if these drugs would work or be safe to use in the context of the human brain.

Still, each new insight is one step in the march toward a cure.