Funding a Clinical Trial for a Functional Cure for HIV

The use of antiretroviral drugs has turned HIV/AIDS from a fatal disease to one that can, in many cases in the US, be controlled. But these drugs are not a cure. That’s why the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) voted to approve investing $6.85 million in a therapy that aims to cure the disease.

This is the 82nd clinical trial funded by CIRM.

There are approximately 38 million people worldwide living with HIV/AIDS. And each year there are an estimated 1.5 million new cases. The vast majority of those living with HIV do not have access to the life-saving antiretroviral medications that can keep the virus under control. People who do have access to the medications face long-term complications from them including heart disease, bone, liver and kidney problems, and changes in metabolism.

The antiretroviral medications are effective at reducing the viral load in people with HIV, but they don’t eliminate it. That’s because the virus that causes AIDS can integrate its DNA into long-living cells in the body and remain dormant. When people stop taking their medications the virus is able to rekindle and spread throughout the body.

Dr. William Kennedy and the team at Excision Bio Therapeutics have developed a therapeutic candidate called EBT-101. 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 is to eliminate or sufficiently reduce the hidden reservoirs of virus in the body to the point where the individual is effectively cured.

“To date only a handful of people have been cured of HIV/AIDS, so this proposal of using gene editing to eliminate the virus could be transformative,” says Dr. Maria Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “In California alone there are almost 140,000 people living with HIV. HIV infection continues to disproportionately impact marginalized populations, many of whom are unable to access the medications that keep the virus under control. A functional cure for HIV would have an enormous impact on these communities, and others around the world.”

In a news release announcing they had dosed the first patient, Daniel Dornbusch, CEO of Excision, called it a landmark moment. “It is the first time a CRISPR-based therapy targeting an infectious disease has been administered to a patient and is expected to enable the first ever clinical assessment of a multiplexed, in vivo gene editing approach. We were able to reach this watershed moment thanks to years of innovative work by leading scientists and physicians, to whom we are immensely grateful. With this achievement, Excision has taken a major step forward in developing a one-time treatment that could transform the HIV pandemic by freeing affected people from life-long disease management and the stigma of disease.”

The Excision Bio Therapeutics team also scored high on their plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Reviewers praised them for adding on a partnering organization to provide commitments to serve underserved populations, and to engaging a community advisory board to help guide their patient recruitment.

CIRM has already invested almost $81 million in 20 projects targeting HIV/AIDS, including four clinical trials.

Fast Track Designation for a therapy making transplants safer for children with a fatal immune disorder

Bone marrow transplant

For children born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) life can be very challenging. SCID means they 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.

There are stem cell/gene therapies funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), such as ones at UCLA and UCSF/St. Judes, but an alternative method of treating, and even curing the condition, is a bone marrow or hematopoietic stem cell transplant (HCT). This replaces the child’s blood supply with one that is free of the SCID mutation, which helps restore their immune system.

However, current HCT methods involve the use of chemotherapy or radiation to destroy the patient’s own unhealthy blood stem cells and make room for the new, healthy ones. This approach is 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 change that, Dr. Judy Shizuru at Stanford University, with CIRM funding, developed an antibody that can direct the patient’s own immune cells to kill diseased blood stem cells, creating the room needed to transplant new, healthy cells. The goal was to make stem cell transplants safer and more effective for the treatment of many life-threatening blood disorders.

That approach, JSP191, is now being championed by Jasper Therapeutics and they just got some very good news from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA has granted JSP191 Fast Track Designation, which can speed up the review of therapies designed to treat serious conditions and fill unmet medical needs.

In a news release, Ronald Martell, President and CEO of Jasper Therapeutics, said this is good news for the company and patients: “This new Fast Track designation recognizes the potential role of JSP191 in improving clinical outcomes for these patients and will allow us to more closely work with the FDA in the upcoming months to determine a path toward a Biologics License Application (BLA) submission.”

Getting a BLA means Jasper will be able to market the antibody in the US and make it available to all those who need it.

This is the third boost from the FDA for Jasper. Previously the agency granted JSP191 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.

A pioneering couple uproot their lives to help their baby

Our 2021-22 Annual Report is now online. It’s filled with information about the work we have done over the last year (we are on a fiscal calendar year from July 1 – June 30), the people who have helped us do that work, and some of the people who have benefited from that work. We start our look at some of the stories in the Annual Report with Michelle, Jeff and Toby.

Michelle, Jeff and baby Toby

When Michelle Johnson and Jeff Maginnis learned they were expecting a baby they were elated. Then an ultrasound exam at 20 weeks into the pregnancy showed the fetus had spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly. Spina bifida can result in life-long walking and mobility problems for the child, even paralysis.

The couple were referred to UC Davis where Dr. Diana Farmer and Dr. Aijun Wang were running a clinical trial, funded by CIRM, using stem cells, taken from a donor placenta. The cells were seeded onto a synthetic scaffold which was then placed over the injury site in the womb. Tests in animals show this approach was able to repair the defect and prevent paralysis. Michelle was going to be just the second woman to see if this approach also worked in people.

For the couple, it wasn’t an easy decision. They had just bought a house and hadn’t even moved in. Michelle said they had to work quickly.

“It was a tough 3 – 5 days, a lot of research, a lot of soul searching trying to figure out what to do. I had always heard that stem cells were the medicine of the future and so I said ‘wow, this is amazing, we have to do this.’ That meant moving down here (to Sacramento from Portland, Oregon), having to relocate till Toby was born. When they approved us for the trial, it was like our prayers had been answered. The second person in the world. Our chances of winning the lottery were better!”

They got the keys to their new home the same day they flew down to Sacramento. The only thing they brought with them, was their dog.

Michelle said the surgery was challenging: “It’s really hard to heal from surgery when you have a child still growing at the incision site. That was hard.” But she says when the baby was born it was all worthwhile: “Holding him for the first time and it was like, I can’t believe we did this, we made it, we survived this crazy experience of surgery and just not knowing if this will even work. But then he’s born and he’s just so normal.”

They named their son Toby. Dad Jeff says three months in everything is looking promising, Toby is hitting all his milestones and wriggling his legs. They know that problems may not be evident until Toby tries to crawl and walk. But for now, they are happy.

And Michelle says Toby is too. “He is the happiest baby and I said I think everyone needs some stem cells, because he’s so happy all the time.”

A newfound passion for stem cell research

All her life, Madison Waterlander knew that she wanted to be a part of the medical field. But soon after graduating from the University of Hawaii with her undergraduate degree, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It was during this time that she noticed how crucial biomedical research was in the medical field and lives of patients, and when she realized she had a passion for research.  

She soon after found a master’s program in biotechnology and bioinformatics at California State University Channel Islands (CI), just a few minutes from Camarillo, the town she grew up in.  

Looking further into the program, she learned that to pursue a Stem Cell Technology and Laboratory Management emphasis for the degree, she would have to complete a one-year lab internship funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). The internship was part of CIRM’s Bridges to Stem Cell Research and Therapy Program, which prepares California undergraduate and master’s graduate students for highly productive careers in stem cell research and therapy development.  

The opportunity to have hands-on experience in a lab through the internship solidified her decision to join the graduate program. 

Once she settled into the program at CSU Channel Islands, she began her internship, which took place at UC Santa Barbara in the Weimbs Lab. While there, she researched the underlying mechanisms and possible new therapies for Autosomal Dominant Polycystic Kidney Disease (ADPKD), a genetic disorder characterized by the growth of numerous cysts in the kidneys.  

“This CIRM-funded internship was so enriching for me, and I was able to expand my knowledge and skill set immensely in the laboratory,” Madison says. “I always knew that I loved science and the medical field, but this experience truly helped me realize that my strongest passion resides in the scientific research that goes into improving the quality of patient care and treatments.” 

While Madison says the internship supported her knowledge in the lab and was an overall positive experience, she also faced some personal challenges during that time, including losing her grandma. She struggled with the loss, but Madison says her time in the lab allowed her to focus on something she loved doing and that her grandma always encouraged her to do. 

“My grandma never would have wanted me to give up, so that truly helped to push me to continue on, and to try my hardest in every day to make an impact,” Madison says. 

After a year of hard work in the lab, Madison officially graduated from CSU Channel Islands this summer with a Master of Science Degree in Biotechnology and Bioinformatics with a Stem Cell Technology and Laboratory Management emphasis. Now, Madison is pursuing a role in the biotechnology industry within translational biomedical research.

“I truly enjoyed every moment of my CIRM internship, and I feel that it truly revealed to me just how much I enjoy participating in biomedical research,” Madison says. “I’ve always felt that research feels like a treasure hunt looking for cures and treatments, so the more of us that are partaking in the treasure hunt, the quicker we can find new treatments and provide solutions for patients.” 

Stories like Madison’s are why CIRM remains committed to training the next generation of scientists to conduct research and deliver regenerative medicine and stem cell therapies to patients. To date, there are 1,663 Bridges alumni, and another 109 Bridges trainees—including Madison—who are completing their internships in 2022.   

The race to cure sickle cell disease

September is National Sickle Cell Awareness Month, a time to refocus our efforts to find new treatments, even a cure, for people with sickle cell disease. Until we get those, CIRM remains committed to doing everything we can to reduce the stigma and bias that surrounds it.

Sickle cell disease (SCD) is a rare, inherited blood disorder in which normally smooth and round red blood cells may become sickle-shaped and harden. These blood cells can clump together and clog up arteries, causing severe and unpredictable bouts of pain, organ damage, vision loss and blindness, strokes and premature death.

There is a cure, a bone marrow transplant from someone who is both a perfect match and doesn’t carry the SCD trait. However, few patients are able to find that perfect match and even if they do the procedure carries risks.

That’s why the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has invested almost $60 million in 14 projects, including five clinical trials targeting the disease. It’s also why we are partnering with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) in their Cure Sickle Cell Initiative (CureSCi).

As part of the events around National Sickle Cell Awareness Month the NHLBI is launching the Gene Therapy to Reduce All Sickle Pain (GRASP) Trial and hosting a special Journeys in Mental Health Webinar on September 27th

The GRASP Trial is a Phase 2 trial that will take place at various locations throughout the country.  It’s a collaboration between the NHLBI and CIRM. Researchers are testing whether a gene therapy approach can improve or eliminate sickle cell pain episodes.  

Shortly after being born, babies stop producing blood containing oxygen-rich fetal hemoglobin and instead produce blood with the adult hemoglobin protein. For children with sickle cell disease, the transition from the fetal to the adult form of hemoglobin marks the onset of anemia and the painful symptoms of the disorder.

Scientists previously discovered that the BCL11A gene helps to control fetal hemoglobin and that decreasing the expression of this gene can increase the amount of fetal hemoglobin while at the same time reducing the amount of sickle hemoglobin in blood.  This could result in boosting the production of normal shaped red blood cells with a goal of curing or reducing the severity of sickle cell disease.   

The approach used in this trial is similar to a bone marrow transplant, but instead of using donor stem cells, this uses the patient’s own blood stem cells with new genetic information that instructs red blood cells to silence the expression of the BCL11A gene. This approach is still being studied to make sure that it is safe and effective, but it potentially has the advantage of eliminating some of the risks of other therapies. 

In this trial, patients will have to spend some time in an inpatient unit as they undergo chemotherapy to kill some bone marrow blood stem cells and create room for the new, gene-modified cells to take root.

The trial is based on a successful pilot/phase 1 study which showed it to be both safe and effective in the initial 10 patients enrolled in the trial.

For more information about the trial, including inclusion/exclusion criteria and trial locations, please visit the CureSCi GRASP trial page.

Nancy Rene, a sickle cell disease patient advocate, says while clinical trials like this are obviously important, there’s another aspect of the treatment of people with the disease that is still too often overlooked.

“As much as I applaud CIRM for the work they are doing to find a therapy or cure for Sickle Cell, I am often dismayed by the huge gulf between research protocols and general medical practice. For every story I hear about promising research, there is often another sad tale about a sickle cell patient receiving inadequate care. This shouldn’t be an either/or proposition. Let’s continue to support ground-breaking research while we expand education and training for medical professionals in evidenced based treatment. I look forward to the day when sickle cell patients receive the kind of treatment they need to lead healthy, pain-free lives.”

Mourning the death of Susan Solomon

Susan L. Solomon, Photo courtesy of NYSCF

We were saddened to learn today of the death of Susan Solomon, the CEO and co-founder of the New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF), a non-profit organization that supports stem cell research around the world. As CEO, Ms. Solomon raised over $400M for stem cell research, helping to catalyze the field and transform the future of medical research.

The foundation announced the news on its website, saying she died after a long battle with ovarian cancer.

CIRM’s Chair Jonathan Thomas said she will be greatly missed. “We were so terribly sorry to hear about Susan’s passing.  She was a titan in our field who did immeasurable good for patients everywhere.  We have so valued our relationship with her and NYSCF through the years.”

Like many patient advocates Ms. Solomon became active when a family member was hit by disease. In her case, it was in 1992 when her ten year old son Ben was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. A lawyer by training and a longtime business executive she put her skills to work to identify the best way to help her son, and others with type 1 diabetes. In an interview in the Wall Street Journal she says that background really helped: “As a lawyer, you learn how to learn about a new field instantly,” and, she added, “I’m really comfortable asking dumb questions.”

After much research and many conversations with scientists she concluded that stem cells were the most promising way to help patients. In 2005 she co-founded NYSCF.

Dr. Jeanne Loring, the Director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at the Scripps Research Institute, says Ms. Solomon’s death is a huge blow to the field: “I have worked with NYSCF for the last 5 years, on the project to study neuroinflammation in space using iPSC-derived neurons.   Susan was one in a billion, she threw all of her considerable energy into starting and sustaining the only stand-alone research institute that I know of in the US dedicated to stem cell research.”

How stem cells helped Veronica fight retinitis pigmentosa and regain her vision

Veronica and Elliott

Growing up Veronica McDougall thought everyone saw the world the way she did; blurry, slightly out-of-focus and with tunnel vision.  As she got older her sight got worse and even the strongest prescription glasses didn’t help. When she was 15 her brother tried teaching her to drive. One night she got into the driver’s seat to practice and told him she couldn’t see anything. Everything was just black. After that she stopped driving.   

Veronica says high school was really hard for her, but she managed to graduate and go to community college. As her vision deteriorated, she found it was increasingly hard to read the course work and impossible to see the assignments on the blackboard. Veronica says she was lucky to have some really supportive teachers — including the now First Lady Jill Biden — but eventually she had to drop out.  

Getting a diagnosis

When she was 24, she went to see a specialist who told her she had retinitis pigmentosa, a rare degenerative condition that would eventually leave her legally blind. She says it felt like a death sentence. “All of my dreams of becoming a nurse, of getting married, of having children, of traveling – it all just shattered in that moment.” 

Veronica says she went from being a happy, positive person to an angry depressed one. She woke up each morning terrified, wondering, “Is this the day I go blind?” 

Then her mother learned about a CIRM-funded clinical trial with a company called jCyte. Veronica applied to be part of it, was accepted and was given an injection of stem cells in her left eye. She says over the course of a few weeks, her vision steadily improved. 

“About a month after treatment, I was riding in the car with my mom and suddenly, I realized I could see her out of the corner of my eye while looking straight ahead. That had never, ever happened to me before. Because, I had been losing my peripheral vision at a young age without realizing that until up to that point, I had never had that experience.” 

A second chance at life

She went back to college, threw herself into her studies, started hiking and being more active. She says it was as if she was reborn. But in her senior year, just as she was getting close to finishing her degree, her vision began to deteriorate again. Fortunately, she was able to take part in a second clinical trial, and this time her vision came back stronger than ever. 

“I’m so grateful to the researchers who gave me my sight back with the treatment they have worked their entire lives to develop. I am forever grateful for the two opportunities to even receive these two injections and to be a part of an amazing experience to see again. I feel so blessed! Thank you for giving me my life back.” 

And in getting her life back, Veronica had a chance to give life. When she was at college she met and starting dating Robert, the man who was to become her partner. They now have a little boy, Elliott.  

As for the future, Veronica hopes to get a second stem cell therapy to improve her vision even further. Veronica’s two treatments were in her left eye. She is hoping that the Food and Drug Administration will one day soon approve jCyte’s therapy, so that she can get the treatment in her right eye. Then, she says, she’ll be able to see the world as the rest of us can.  

CIRM has invested more than $150 million in programs targeting vision loss, including four clinical trials for retinitis pigmentosa

Stem Cell Agency Invests $46 Million in New Education Program

CIRM Bridges students 2022. The CIRM Board approved funding for a program to help even more students advance a career in science.

The governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has approved $46,076,430 to invest in its newest education pillar- the COMPASS (Creating Opportunities through Mentorship and Partnership Across Stem cell Science) training program.

Education is at the core of CIRM’s mission of accelerating world class science to deliver transformative regenerative medicine treatments in an equitable manner to a diverse California and world. And funding these additional programs is an important step in ensuring that California has a well-trained stem cell workforce.

The objective of COMPASS is to prepare a diverse cadre of undergraduate students for careers in regenerative medicine through combining hands-on research opportunities with strategic and structured mentorship experiences.

“Education and infrastructure are two funding pillars critical for creating the next generation of researchers and conducting stem cell based clinical trials,” says Jonathan Thomas, Ph.D., J.D., Chair of the CIRM Board. “The importance of these programs was acknowledged in Proposition 14 and we expect that they will continue to be important components of CIRM’s programs and strategic direction in the years to come.”

Most undergraduate research training programs, including those targeting students from underserved communities, target individuals with predefined academic credentials as well as a stated commitment towards graduate school, medical school, or faculty positions in academia. COMPASS will support the development and implementation of novel strategies to recognize and foster untapped talent that can lead to new and valuable perspectives that are specific to the challenges of regenerative medicine, and that will create new paths to a spectrum of careers that are not always apparent to students in the academic, undergraduate environment.

COMPASS will complement but not compete with CIRM’s Bridges program, a subset of which serve a different, but equally important population of undergraduate trainees; similarly, the program is unlikely to compete for the same pools of students that would be most likely to receive support through the major NIH Training Programs such as MARC and RISE.

Here are the 16 successful applicants.

Application numberTitlePrincipal InvestigatorAmount
EDUC5-13840  The COMPASS Scholars Program – Developing Today’s Untapped Talent into Tomorrow’s STEM Cell Researchers    John Matsui, University of California, Berkeley    $2,908,950
EDUC5-13634  COMPASS Undergraduate Program  Alice F Tarantal, University of California, Davis    $2,909,950  
EDUC5-13637  Research Mentorship Program in Regenerative Medicine Careers for a Diverse Undergraduate Student Body    Brian J. Cummings, University of California, Irvine    $2,729,900
EDUC5-13665  CIRM COMPASS Training Program (N-COMPASS)  Cindy S Malone, The University Corporation at California State University, Northridge    $2,909,700  
EDUC5-13817  COMPASS: Accelerating Stem Cell Research by Educating and Empowering New Stem Cell Researchers  Tracy L Johnson, University of California, Los Angeles    $2,910,000  
EDUC5-13744  Training and mentorship program in stem cell biology and engineering: A COMPASS for the future  Dennis Clegg, University of California, Santa Barbara    $2,746,000  
EDUC5-13636  Research Training and Mentorship Program to Inspire Diverse Undergraduates toward Regenerative Medicine
Careers (RAMP)
  Huinan Hannah Liu, The Regents of the University of California on behalf of its Riverside Campus    $2,910,000  
EDUC5-13679  Inclusive Pathways for a Stem Cell Scholar (iPSCs) Undergraduate Training Program    Lily Chen, San Francisco State University    $2,894,500
EDUC5-13733  A COMPASS to guide the growth of a diverse regenerative medicine workforce that represents California and benefits
the world
  Kristen OHalloran Cardinal, Cal Poly Corporation, an Auxiliary of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo    $2,887,939  
EDUC5-13619  Increase Diversity, Equity, and Advancement in Cell Based Manufacturing Sciences (IDEA-CBMS)  Michael Fino, MiraCosta College    $2,894,500  
EDUC5-13667  COMPASS Program for Southern California Hispanic Serving Institution  Bianca Romina Mothé, California State University San Marcos Corporation    $2,877,200  
EDUC5-13653  Student Pluripotency: Realizing Untapped Undergraduate Potential in Regenerative Medicine  Daniel Nickerson, California State University, San Bernardino    $2,909,853  
EDUC5-13647  COMPASS: an inclusive Pipeline for Research and Other Stem cell-based Professions in Regenerative medicine
(iPROSPR)  
  Alison Miyamoto, CSU Fullerton Auxiliary Services Corporation    $2,883,440
EDUC5-13686  Training Undergraduates in Stem Cell Engineering and Biology (TUSCEB)    Kara E McCloskey, University of California, Merced    $2,909,999
EDUC5-13853  COMPASS: Guiding Undergraduates to Careers in Regenerative Medicine    Senta Georgia, University of Southern California    $2,899,999
EDUC5-13910  IDEA-CBMS – Increase Diversity, Equity, and Advancement in Cell Based Manufacturing Sciences    James Dekloe, Solano Community College    $2,894,500

A better, faster, more effective way to edit genes

Clinical fellow Brian Shy talks with postdoctoral scholar Tori Yamamoto in the Marson Lab at Gladstone Institutes on June 8th, 2022. Photo courtesy Gladstone Institutes.

For years scientists have been touting the potential of CRISPR, a gene editing tool that allows you to target a specific mutation and either cut it out or replace it with the corrected form of the gene. But like all new tools it had its limitations. One important one was the difficult in delivering the corrected gene to mature cells in large numbers.

Scientists at the Gladstone Institutes and U.C. San Francisco say they think they have found a way around that. And the implications for using this technique to develop new therapies for deadly diseases are profound.

In the past scientists used inactivated viruses as a way to deliver corrected copies of the gene to patients. We have blogged about UCLA’s Dr. Don Kohn using this approach to treat children born with SCID, a deadly immune disorder. But that was both time consuming and expensive.

CRISPR, on the other hand, showed that it could be easier to use and less expensive. But getting it to produce enough cells for an effective therapy proved challenging.

The team at Gladstone and UCSF found a way around that by switching from using CRISPR to deliver a double-stranded DNA to correct the gene (which is toxic to cells in large quantities), and instead using CRISPR to deliver a single stranded DNA (you can read the full, very technical description of their approach in the study they published in the journal Nature Biotechnology).

Alex Marson, MD, PhD, director of the Gladstone-UCSF Institute of Genomic Immunology and the senior author of the study, said this more than doubled the efficiency of the process. “One of our goals for many years has been to put lengthy DNA instructions into a targeted site in the genome in a way that doesn’t depend on viral vectors. This is a huge step toward the next generation of safe and effective cell therapies.”

It has another advantage too, according to Gladstone’s Dr. Jonathan Esensten, an author of the study. “This technology has the potential to make new cell and gene therapies faster, better, and less expensive.”

The team has already used this method to generate more than one billion CAR-T cells – specialized immune system cells that can target cancers such as multiple myeloma – and says it could also prove effective in targeting some rare genetic immune diseases.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) helped support this research. Authors Brian Shy and David Nguyen were supported by the CIRM:UCSF Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Fellowship program.

From our house to the White House. Kinda

Jackie Ward, PhD. Photo courtesy National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke

It’s always fun to meet someone early in their career and see how they grow and evolve and take on new challenges.

I first met Jackie Ward when she received a training grant from CIRM while she studied for her PhD at the University of California, San Diego. Jackie offered to write blogs for us about her experience and they were always fun, informative, elegantly written and very engaging. Fast forward a few years and Jackie became a part of Americans For Cures, then she became Chief of Staff at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), and finally – at least so far – she took on the role of Assistant Director at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

Not too shabby eh.

So, I reached out to Jackie and asked her some questions about her work and career. She generously put aside keeping the nation healthy to answer them. Enjoy.

  1. What made you decide to move from research into government.

I think if you asked my high school government teacher (shout out to Mr. Bell!), he would be the least surprised person that I have ended up where I am currently. I was always interested in topics and activities beyond science, but at a certain point you have to choose a path. When it came time to deciding my undergraduate major, I figured that if I pursued my interest in biology it would still keep my options open to do something different in my career, but if I chose to be a French major, or Political Science major, or English major – I might close the door in my ability to pursue scientific research. When I got to graduate school, I saw the impact of government (both state and federal) decisions on work in the lab. This takes the form of where funding goes, but also in the rules you have to follow while doing research. Though I liked the pursuit of new knowledge and being the one designing and performing experiments, I was interested in understanding more about how those government decisions are made upstream of the lab bench.

  1. What’s the most surprising thing you have learned in your time at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

Maybe not “surprising” but the thing that may not be obvious to outsiders: OSTP’s budget is tiny compared to other Executive Branch agencies (like where I came from previously at NIH). The work we accomplish in this office is solely by forming partnerships and collaborations with others across the government. We are not typically the rowers of the boat, but we can be the steerer or navigator. (Is the term coxswain? I have never been on a crew team obviously.)

  1. Was it hard making the transition from research to advocacy and now policy?

Honestly I feel like my training in research set me up well for the jobs I’ve had in policy. There is often not someone telling you exactly how to do something – you have to do the work yourself to search the literature, talk to other people, find collaborators, and keep at it. And the skills that you hone in research – from keeping an organized lab notebook the whole way through to writing scientific papers – are some of the same skills you need in government. 

  1. At a time when so many people seem so skeptical of science how do you get your message out.

We have to meet people where they are. As a government official, I have great respect for messages that come from experts within the government – but that is not the only way the message should be getting out. Scientists and other experts within communities should also be spokespeople for science. I would urge scientists at every level – whether you are a citizen scientist, a medical doctor, a PhD student, or some other kind of expert – to engage with their communities and put the work in to understand how to effectively communicate at levels beyond just speaking to your colleagues.

  1. One of the issues that so many of us, including here at CIRM, are working on is improving our performance in diversity, equity and inclusion. How big an issue is that for you and your colleagues at OSTP and what are you doing to try and address it.

The mission of our office is to “maximize the benefits of science and technology to advance health, prosperity, security, environmental quality, and justice for all Americans.” Those final two words are key: “all Americans.” It is the policy of this Office and our Administration that it is not okay for the benefits of science & technology to only reach a select few – who can afford it or who live in a certain zip code or who know the right people. 

This takes different forms depending on what kind of S&T work we are talking about, but I will give you an example from my own work. I have been leading an effort that aims to explore and act upon how digital health care delivery technologies can be used to increase access to healthcare in community-based health settings. We know that these cutting edge technologies are most likely to get to people who, for example, get their care at academic medical centers, or who have primo health insurance plans, or who are already tech savvy. We feel that as these technologies continue to grow within the healthcare system, that it is an imperative to ensure that they are accessible to practitioners and patients at community health centers, or to people who may not be tech geeks, or that they can be interoperable with the systems used by community health workers.

  1. During a time of Covid and now Monkeypox, what’s it like to have a front row seat and watch how government responds to public health emergencies.

My colleagues who work on outbreaks and pandemic responses are some of the most dedicated public servants I know. They will be the first to admit that we are continually learning and integrating new tools and technologies into our toolbox, and that is a constant effort. Emergent issues like outbreaks force decisions when there may not be a lot of information – that is a hard job.  

  1. I’ve always felt that DC would be a fun place to live and work (except during the height of summer!) what do you most like about it.

DC is a city full of people who care deeply (almost to a pathological extent) about the work they do and how to make the world a better place. There’s also incredible diversity here – which means a variety of viewpoints, languages, and food! I love that.

Jackie is not just a good writer. She’s also a great speaker. Here’s a clip of her responding to our Elevator Challenge many years ago, when she was still a fledgling researcher. Her explanation of what she does, is a master class in turning a complex subject into something easy to understand.