From bench to bedside: a Q&A with stem cell expert Jan Nolta

At CIRM we are privileged to work with many remarkable people who combine brilliance, compassion and commitment to their search for new therapies to help people in need. One of those who certainly fits that description is UC Davis’ Jan Nolta.

This week the UC Davis Newsroom posted a great interview with Jan. Rather than try and summarize what she says I thought it would be better to let her talk for herself.

Jan Nolta
Jan Nolta

Talking research, unscrupulous clinics, and sustaining the momentum

(SACRAMENTO) —

In 2007, Jan Nolta returned to Northern California from St. Louis to lead what was at the time UC Davis’ brand-new stem cell program. As director of the UC Davis Stem Cell Program and the Institute for Regenerative Cures, she has overseen the opening of the institute, more than $140 million in research grants, and dozens upon dozens of research studies. She recently sat down to answer some questions about regenerative medicine and all the work taking place at UC Davis Health.

Q: Turning stem cells into cures has been your mission and mantra since you founded the program. Can you give us some examples of the most promising research?

I am so excited about our research. We have about 20 different disease-focused teams. That includes physicians, nurses, health care staff, researchers and faculty members, all working to go from the laboratory bench to patient’s bedside with therapies.

Perhaps the most promising and exciting research right now comes from combining blood-forming

stem cells with gene therapy. We’re working in about eight areas right now, and the first cure, something that we definitely can call a stem cell “cure,” is coming from this combined approach.

Soon, doctors will be able to prescribe this type of stem cell therapy. Patients will use their own bone marrow or umbilical cord stem cells. Teams such as ours, working in good manufacturing practice facilities, will make vectors, essentially “biological delivery vehicles,” carrying a good copy of the broken gene. They will be reinserted into a patient’s cells and then infused back into the patient, much like a bone marrow transplant.

“Perhaps the most promising and exciting research right now comes from combining blood-forming stem cells with gene therapy.”

Along with treating the famous bubble baby disease, where I had started my career, this approach looks very promising for sickle cell anemia. We’re hoping to use it to treat several different inherited metabolic diseases. These are conditions characterized by an abnormal build-up of toxic materials in the body’s cells. They interfere with organ and brain function. It’s caused by just a single enzyme. Using the combined stem cell gene therapy, we can effectively put a good copy of the gene for that enzyme back into a patient’s bone marrow stem cells. Then we do a bone marrow transplantation and bring back a person’s normal functioning cells.

The beauty of this therapy is that it can work for the lifetime of a patient. All of the blood cells circulating in a person’s system would be repaired. It’s the number one stem cell cure happening right now. Plus, it’s a therapy that won’t be rejected. These are a patient’s own stem cells. It is just one type of stem cell, and the first that’s being commercialized to change cells throughout the body.

Q: Let’s step back for a moment. In 2004, voters approved Proposition 71. It has funded a majority of the stem cell research here at UC Davis and throughout California. What’s been the impact of that ballot measure and how is it benefiting patients?

We have learned so much about different types of stem cells, and which stem cell will be most appropriate to treat each type of disease. That’s huge. We had to first do that before being able to start actual stem cell therapies. CIRM [California Institute for Regenerative Medicine] has funded Alpha Stem Cell Clinics. We have one of them here at UC Davis and there are only five in the entire state. These are clinics where the patients can go for high-quality clinical stem cell trials approved by the FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration]. They don’t need to go to “unapproved clinics” and spend a lot of money. And they actually shouldn’t.

“By the end of this year, we’ll have 50 clinical trials.”

By the end of this year, we’ll have 50 clinical trials [here at UC Davis Health]. There are that many in the works.

Our Alpha Clinic is right next to the hospital. It’s where we’ll be delivering a lot of the immunotherapies, gene therapies and other treatments. In fact, I might even get to personally deliver stem cells to the operating room for a patient. It will be for a clinical trial involving people who have broken their hip. It’s exciting because it feels full circle, from working in the laboratory to bringing stem cells right to the patient’s bedside.

We have ongoing clinical trials for critical limb ischemia, leukemia and, as I mentioned, sickle cell disease. Our disease teams are conducting stem cell clinical trials targeting sarcoma, cellular carcinoma, and treatments for dysphasia [a swallowing disorder], retinopathy [eye condition], Duchenne muscular dystrophy and HIV. It’s all in the works here at UC Davis Health.

There’s also great potential for therapies to help with renal disease and kidney transplants. The latter is really exciting because it’s like a mini bone marrow transplant. A kidney recipient would also get some blood-forming stem cells from the kidney donor so that they can better accept the organ and not reject it. It’s a type of stem cell therapy that could help address the burden of being on a lifelong regime of immunosuppressant drugs after transplantation.

Q: You and your colleagues get calls from family members and patients all the time. They frequently ask about stem cell “miracle” cures. What should people know about unproven treatments and unregulated stem cell clinics?

That’s a great question.The number one rule is that if you’re asked to pay money for a stem cell treatment, don’t do it. It’s a big red flag.

When it comes to advertised therapies: “The number one rule is that if you’re asked to pay money for a stem cell treatment, don’t do it. It’s a big red flag.”

Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous people out there in “unapproved clinics” who prey on desperate people. What they are delivering are probably not even stem cells. They might inject you with your own fat cells, which contain very few stem cells. Or they might use treatments that are not matched to the patient and will be immediately rejected. That’s dangerous. The FDA is shutting these unregulated clinics down one at a time. But it’s like “whack-a-mole”: shut one down and another one pops right up.

On the other hand, the Alpha Clinic is part of our mission is to help the public get to the right therapy, treatment or clinical trial. The big difference between those who make patients pay huge sums of money for unregulated and unproven treatments and UC Davis is that we’re actually using stem cells. We produce them in rigorously regulated cleanroom facilities. They are certified to contain at least 99% stem cells.

Patients and family members can always call us here. We can refer them to a genuine and approved clinical trial. If you don’t get stem cells at the beginning [of the clinical trial] because you’re part of the placebo group, you can get them later. So it’s not risky. The placebo is just saline. I know people are very, very desperate. But there are no miracle cures…yet. Clinical trials, approved by the FDA, are the only way we’re going to develop effective treatments and cures.

Q: Scientific breakthroughs take a lot of patience and time. How do you and your colleagues measure progress and stay motivated?   

Motivation?  “It’s all for the patients.”

It’s all for the patients. There are not good therapies yet for many disorders. But we’re developing them. Every day brings a triumph. Measuring progress means treating a patient in a clinical trial, or developing something in the laboratory, or getting FDA approval. The big one will be getting biological license approval from the FDA, which means a doctor can prescribe a stem cell or gene therapy treatment. Then it can be covered by a patient’s health insurance.

I’m a cancer survivor myself, and I’m also a heart patient. Our amazing team here at UC Davis has kept me alive and in great health. So I understand it from both sides. I understand the desperation of “Where do I go?” and “What do I do right now?” questions. I also understand the science side of things. Progress can feel very, very slow. But everything we do here at the Institute for Regenerative Cures is done with patients in mind, and safety.

We know that each day is so important when you’re watching a loved one suffer. We attend patient events and are part of things like Facebook groups, where people really pour their hearts out. We say to ourselves, “Okay, we must work harder and faster.” That’s our motivation: It’s all the patients and families that we’re going to help who keep us working hard.

Clinical trials: separating the wheat from the chaff

What do you do when the supposed solution to a problem actually turns out to be a part of the problem? That’s the situation facing people who want to direct patients to scientifically sound clinical trials. Turns out the site many were going to may be directing patients to therapies that are not only not scientifically sound, they may not even be safe.

The site in question is the www.clinicaltrials.gov website. That’s a list of all the clinical trials registered with the National Institutes of Health. In theory that should be a rock-solid list of trials that have been given the go-ahead by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be tested in people. Unfortunately, the reality is very different. Many of the trials listed there have gone through the rigorous testing and approval process to earn the right to be tested in people. But some haven’t. And figuring out which is which is not easy.

The issue was highlighted by a terrific article on STAT News this week. The article’s title succinctly sums up the piece: “Stem cell clinics co-opt clinical-trials registry to market unproven therapies, critics say.”

The story highlights how clinics that are offering unproven and unapproved stem cell therapies can register their “clinical trial” on the site, even if they haven’t received FDA approval to carry out a clinical trial.

Leigh Turner, a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota and a long-time foe of these clinics, said:

“You can concoct this bogus appearance of science, call it a clinical study, recruit people to pay to participate in your study, and not only that: You can actually register on clinicaltrials.gov and have the federal government help you promote what you’re doing. That struck me as both dangerous and brilliant.”

At CIRM this is a problem we face almost every day. People call or email us asking for help finding a stem cell therapy for everything from cancer and autism to diabetes. If we are funding something or if there is one underway at one of our Alpha Stem Cell Clinics we can direct them to that particular trial. If not, the easiest thing would be to direct them to the clinicaltrials.gov site. But when you are not sure that all the programs listed are legitimate clinical trials, that’s not something we always feel comfortable doing.

As the STAT piece points out, some of the “trials” listed on the site are even being run by companies that the FDA is trying to shut down because of serious concerns about the “therapies” they are offering. One was for a Florida clinic that had blinded four people. Despite that, the clinic’s projects remain on the site where other patients can find them.

Being listed on clinicaltrials.gov gives clinics offering unproven therapies an air or legitimacy. So how can you spot a good trial from a bad one? It’s not always easy.

One red flag is if the trial is asking you to pay for the treatment. That’s considered unethical because it’s asking you to pay to be part of an experiment. Only a very few legitimate clinical trials ask patients to pay, and even then, only with permission from the FDA.

Another warning sign is anything that has a laundry list of things it can treat, everything from arthritis to Alzheimer’s. Well-designed clinical trials tend to be targeted at one condition not multiple ones.

We have put together some useful tools for patients considering taking part in a clinical trial. Here is a link to a video and infographic that tell people the questions they need to ask, and things they need to consider, before signing up for any clinical trial.

So why does the NIH continue to allow these clinics to “advertise” their programs on its website? One reason is that the NIH simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to check every listing to make sure they are legit. They have tried to make things better by including a warning, stating:

“Listing a study does not mean it has been evaluated by the U.S. Federal Government. Read our disclaimer for details. Before participating in a study, talk to your health care provider and learn about the risks and potential benefits.”

The bottom line is that if you are in the market for a stem cell therapy you should approach it the way you would any potentially life-changing decision: caveat emptor, buyer beware.

The Past, the Present, and the Uncertain Future of Stem Cell Research

Ronnie, a boy who was born without a functioning immune system but who is thriving today because of CIRM funded research

When CIRM was created in 2004 the field of stem cell research was still very much in its infancy. Fast forward 15 years and it’s moving ahead at a rapid pace, probably faster than most scientists would have predicted. How fast? Find out for yourself at a free public event at UC San Diego on May 28th from 12.30 to 1.30p.

In the last 15 years CIRM has funded 53 clinical trials in everything from heart disease and stroke, to spinal cord injury, vision loss, sickle cell disease and HIV/AIDS.

UCSD was one of the first medical centers chosen to host a CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic – a specialist center with the experience and expertise to deliver stem cell therapies to patients – and to date is running more than a dozen clinical trials for breast cancer, heart failure, leukemia and chronic lower back pain.

Clearly progress is being made. But the field is also facing some challenges. Funding at the federal level for stem cell research is under threat, and CIRM is entering what could be its final phase. We have enough money left to fund new projects through this year (and these are multi-year projects so they will run into 2021 or 2022) but unless there is a new round of funding we will slowly disappear. And with us, may also disappear the hopes of some of the most promising projects underway.

If CIRM goes, then projects that we have supported and nurtured through different phases of research may struggle to make it into a clinical trial because they can’t get the necessary funding.

Clearly this is a pivotal time in the field.

We will discuss all this, the past, the present and the uncertain future of stem cell research at the meeting at UC San Diego on May 28th. The doors will open at noon for registration (snacks and light refreshments will also be available) and the program runs from 12.30p to 1.30p.

The speakers are:

  • Dr. Catriona Jamieson, Director of the UC San Diego Health CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic and Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center.
  • Dr. Maria Millan, President and CEO of CIRM
  • Dr. David Higgins, CIRM Board member and Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s Disease.

And of course, we want to hear from you, so we’ll leave plenty of time for questions.

Free parking is available.

Go here for more information about the event and how you can register

Free free to share this with anyone you think might be interested in joining us and we look forward to seeing you there.

Advancing stem cell research in many ways

Speakers at the Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium: Photo by Marco Sanchez

From Day One CIRM’s goal has been to advance stem cell research in California. We don’t do that just by funding the most promising research -though the 51 clinical trials we have funded to date clearly shows we do that rather well – but also by trying to bring the best minds in the field together to overcome problems.

Over the years we have held conferences, workshops and symposiums on everything from Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy and tissue engineering. Each one attracted the key players and stakeholders in the field, brainstorming ideas to get past obstacles and to explore new ways of developing therapies. It’s an attempt to get scientists, who would normally be rivals or competitors, to collaborate and partner together in finding the best way forward.

It’s not easy to do, and the results are not always obvious right away, but it is essential if we hope to live up to our mission of accelerating stem cell therapies to patients with unmet medical needs.

For example. This past week we helped organize two big events and were participants in another.

The first event we pulled together, in partnership with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, was a workshop called “Brainstorm Neurodegeneration”. It brought together leaders in stem cell research, genomics, big data, patient advocacy and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to tackle some of the issues that have hampered progress in finding treatments for things like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS and Huntington’s disease.

We rather ambitiously subtitled the workshop “a cutting-edge meeting to disrupt the field” and while the two days of discussions didn’t resolve all the problems facing us it did produce some fascinating ideas and some tantalizing glimpses at ways to advance the field.

Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium: Photo by Marco Sanchez

Two days later we partnered with UC San Francisco to host the Fourth Annual CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium. This brought together the scientists who develop therapies, the doctors and nurses who deliver them, and the patients who are in need of them. The theme was “The Past, Present & Future of Regenerative Medicine” and included both a look at the initial discoveries in gene therapy that led us to where we are now as well as a look to the future when cellular therapies, we believe, will become a routine option for patients. 

Bringing these different groups together is important for us. We feel each has a key role to play in moving these projects and out of the lab and into clinical trials and that it is only by working together that they can succeed in producing the treatments and cures patients so desperately need.

Cierra Jackson: Photo by Marco Sanchez

As always it was the patients who surprised us. One, Cierra Danielle Jackson, talked about what it was like to be cured of her sickle cell disease. I think it’s fair to say that most in the audience expected Cierra to talk about her delight at no longer having the crippling and life-threatening condition. And she did. But she also talked about how hard it was adjusting to this new reality.

Cierra said sickle cell disease had been a part of her life for all her life, it shaped her daily life and her relationships with her family and many others. So, to suddenly have that no longer be a part of her caused a kind of identity crisis. Who was she now that she was no longer someone with sickle cell disease?

She talked about how people with most diseases were normal before they got sick, and will be normal after they are cured. But for people with sickle cell, being sick is all they have known. That was their normal. And now they have to adjust to a new normal.

It was a powerful reminder to everyone that in developing new treatments we have to consider the whole person, their psychological and emotional sides as well as the physical.

CIRM’s Dr. Maria Millan (right) at a panel presentation at the Stanford Drug Discovery Symposium. Panel from left to right are: James Doroshow, NCI; Sandy Weill, former CEO Citigroup; Allan Jones, CEO Allen Institute

And so on to the third event we were part of, the Stanford Drug Discovery Symposium. This was a high level, invitation-only scientific meeting that included some heavy hitters – such as Nobel Prize winners Paul Berg and  Randy Schekman, former FDA Commissioner Robert Califf. Over the course of two days they examined the role that philanthropy plays in advancing research, the increasingly important role of immunotherapy in battling diseases like cancer and how tools such as artificial intelligence and big data are shaping the future.

CIRM’s President and CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, was one of those invited to speak and she talked about how California’s investment in stem cell research is delivering Something Better than Hope – which by a happy coincidence is the title of our 2018 Annual Report. She highlighted some of the 51 clinical trials we have funded, and the lives that have been changed and saved by this research.

The presentations at these conferences and workshops are important, but so too are the conversations that happen outside the auditorium, over lunch or at coffee. Many great collaborations have happened when scientists get a chance to share ideas, or when researchers talk to patients about their ideas for a successful clinical trial.

It’s amazing what happens when you bring people together who might otherwise never have met. The ideas they come up with can change the world.

Facebook Live: Ask the Stem Cell Team About Clinical Trials

Every day at CIRM we get emails and calls from people looking for a stem cell clinical trial to help them. Some have arthritis in the knee or hip and want to avoid surgery. Some have a child with autism and want something that will ease the symptoms. Some have cancer and conventional therapies no longer work for them. Many have run out of options. Some are running out of time.

It’s hard to tell someone who is desperate that you don’t have anything that can help them, that there are no stem cell clinical trials that would be appropriate for them. Many often push back, saying they’ve seen ads online and visited websites for companies that claim to have stem cell therapies that can help them. When I say those therapies have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, or even been shown to be safe let alone effective, I can hear the disappointment in their voice.

I know some will go on to try those therapies anyway, because they have nothing else. I don’t blame them. I might do the same myself.

But before making an informed decision about any therapy it is important for people to have all the facts in front of them.

That’s why we are holding a special Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team About Clinical Trials” event on Thursday, April 25th from noon till 1pm PDT.

We are bringing together three experts who will help us all understand what’s a good clinical trial, and what’s a bogus one. They will talk about:

  • Red flags that a stem cell “clinic” might be more interested in making money than making you better
  • Key things to look for to choose a bona fide stem cell clinical trial
  • What are the questions you need to ask before signing up for any clinical
  • What are good sources of information to turn to for guidance

The Stem Cell Team will talk about CIRM’s Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network, contrasting the time and resources they devote to offering patients stem cell clinical trials that are endorsed by the FDA, with clinics that promise people their own fat or blood cells can fix everything from bad knees to multiple sclerosis.

Our experts include a doctor and a nurse from the Alpha Clinics Network with years of experience in running and managing clinical trials, plus our own Geoff Lomax who helps support the entire network.

It will be an eye opening, informative and engaging hour and we want you to be part of it.  You can either join us on the day and post questions for the panel to answer, or you can email them directly to us beforehand at info@cirm.ca.gov.

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

In the days leading up to the broadcast we’ll give you the broadcast link that will take you to the event itself.

We look forward to having you join us for this really important Facebook Live event.

If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area this week you can join us at our fourth Annual CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium where the topic of how to choose a clinical trial that’s right for you will be front and center.

The symposium is on Thursday, April 18th from 8.30am to 4.30pm. It’s open to the public and it’s free.

You can find details about the event, including how you can register, HERE.

71 for Proposition 71

Proposition 71 is the state ballot initiative that created California’s Stem Cell Agency. This month, the Agency reached another milestone when the 71st clinical trial was initiated in the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics (ASCC) Network. The ASCC Network deploys specialized teams of doctors, nurses and laboratory technicians to conduct stem cell clinical trials at leading California Medical Centers.

StateClinics_Image_CMYK

These teams work with academic and industry partners to support patient-centered for over 40 distinct diseases including:

  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)
  • Brain Injury & Stroke
  • Cancer at Multiple Sites
  • Diabetes Type 1
  • Eye Disease / Blindness Heart Failure
  • HIV / AIDS
  • Kidney Failure
  • Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID)
  • Sickle Cell Anemia
  • Spinal Cord Injury

These clinical trials have treated over 400 patients and counting. The Alpha Stem Cell Clinics are part of CIRM’s Strategic Infrastructure. The Strategic Infrastructure program which was developed to support the growth of stem cell / regenerative medicine in California. A comprehensive update of CIRM’s Infrastructure Program was provided to our Board, the ICOC.

CIRM’s infrastructure catalyzes stem cell / regenerative medicine by providing resources to all qualified researchers and organizations requiring specialized expertise. For example, the Alpha Clinics Network is supporting clinical trials from around the world.

Many of these trials are sponsored by commercial companies that have no CIRM funding. To date, the ASCC Network has over $27 million in contracts with outside sponsors. These contracts serve to leverage CIRMs investment and provide the Network’s medical centers with a diverse portfolio of clinical trials to address patients’’ unmet medical needs.

Alpha Clinics – Key Performance Metrics

  • 70+ Clinical Trials
  • 400+ Patients Treated
  • 40+ Disease Indications
  • Over $27 million in contracts with commercial sponsors

The CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics and broader Infrastructure Programs are supporting stem cell research and regenerative medicine at every level, from laboratory research to product manufacturing to delivery to patients. This infrastructure has emerged to make California the world leader in regenerative medicine. It all started because California’s residents supported a ballot measure and today we have 71 clinical trials for 71.

 

 

New CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic offers HOPE for boys with deadly disease

UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures

For people battling Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD), a rare and fatal genetic disorder that slowly destroys muscles, hope has often been in short supply. There is no cure and treatments are limited. But now a new clinical trial at the site of one of the newest CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network members could change that.

The HOPE-2 clinical trial has treated its first patient at UC Davis Medical Center, inaugurating the institution’s Alpha Stem Cell Clinic. The clinic is part of a CIRM-created network of top California medical centers that specialize in delivering stem cell clinical trials to patients. The key to the Network’s success is the ability to accelerate the delivery of treatments to patients through partnerships with patients, medical providers and clinical trial sponsors.

UC Davis is one of five medical centers that now make up the network (the others are UC San Francisco, UCLA/UC Irvine, UC San Diego and City of Hope).

Jan NoltaIn a news release, Jan Nolta, the director of the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures, says the UC Davis Alpha Clinic is well equipped to move promising therapies out of the lab and into clinical trials and people.

“We have the full range of resource experts in regenerative medicine, from the cellular to the clinical trials level. We’re also excited about the prospect of being able to link with other Alpha Stem Cell Clinics around the state to help speed the process of testing and refining treatments so we can get therapies to patients in need.”

The news of this first patient is a cause for double celebration at CIRM. The trial is run by Capricor and CIRM funded the first phase of this work. You can read the story of Caleb Sizemore, who took part in that trial or watch this video of him talking about his fight.

When the CIRM Board approved funding for the UC Davis Alpha Clinic in October of 2017, Abla Creasey, CIRM’s Vice President for Therapeutics and Strategic Infrastructure, said:

“The Alpha Clinics are a one-of-a-kind network that gives patients access to the highest quality stem cell trials for a breadth of diseases including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and spinal cord injury. Expanding our network will allow more patients to participate in stem cell trials and will advance the development of stem cell treatments that could help or possibly cure patients.”

The UC Davis Alpha Clinic provides a one-stop shop for delivering stem cell therapies, gene therapies and immunotherapies, as well as conducting follow-up visits. It’s this type of CIRM-funded infrastructure that helps steer potential clinical trial participants away from illegitimate, unproven and potentially harmful fee-for-service stem cell treatments.

The DMD trial is the first of what we are confident will be many high-quality trials at the Clinic, bringing promising stem cell therapies to patients with unmet medical needs.

 

Inspiring Video: UC Irvine Stem Cell Trial Gives Orange County Woman Hope in Her Fight Against ALS

Stephen Hawking

Last week, we lost one of our greatest, most influential scientific minds. Stephen Hawking, a famous British theoretical physicist and author of “A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes”, passed away at the age of 76.

Hawking lived most of his adult life in a wheelchair because he suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS causes the degeneration of the nerve cells that control muscle movement.

When Hawking was diagnosed with ALS at the age of 21, he was told he only had three years to live. But Hawking defied the odds and went on to live a life that not only revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos, but also gave hope to other patients suffering from this devastating degenerative disease.

A Story of Hope

Speaking of hope, I’d like to share another story of an Orange County woman name Lisa Wittenberg who was recently diagnosed with ALS. Her story was featured this week on KTLA5 news and is also available on the UC Irvine Health website.

VIDEO: UCI Health stem cell trial helps Orange County woman fight neurodegenerative disease ALS. Click on image to view video in new window.

In this video, Lisa describes how quickly ALS changed her life. She was with her family sledding in the snow last winter, and only a year later, she is in a wheelchair unable to walk. Lisa got emotional when she talked about how painful it is for her to see her 13-year-old son watch her battle with this disease.

But there is hope for Lisa in the form of a stem cell clinical trial at the UC Irvine CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic. Lisa enrolled in the Brainstorm study, a CIRM-funded phase 3 trial that’s testing a mesenchymal stem cell therapy called NurOwn. BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics, the company sponsoring this trial, is isolating mesenchymal stem cells from the patient’s own bone marrow. The stem cells are then cultured in the lab under conditions that convert them into biological factories secreting a variety of neurotrophic factors that help protect the nerve cells damaged by ALS. The modified stem cells are then transplanted back into the patient where they will hopefully slow the progression of the disease.

Dr. Namita Goyal, a neurologist at UC Irvine Health involved in the trial, explained in the KTLA5 video that they are hopeful this treatment will give patients more time, and optimistic that in some cases, it could improve some of their symptoms.

Don’t Give Up the Fight

The most powerful part of Lisa’s story to me was the end when she says,

“I think it’s amazing that I get to fight, but I want everybody to get to fight. Everybody with ALS should get to fight and should have hope.”

Not only is Lisa fighting by being in this ground-breaking trial, she is also participated in the Los Angeles marathon this past weekend, raising money for ALS research.

More patients like Lisa will get the chance to fight as more potential stem cell treatments and drugs enter clinical trials. Videos like the one in this blog are important for raising awareness about available clinical trials like the Brainstorm study, which, by the way, is still looking for more patients to enroll (contact information for this trial can be found on the clinicaltrials.gov website here). CIRM is also funding another stem cell trial for ALS at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. You can read more about this trial on our website.

Lisa’s powerful message of fighting ALS and having hope reminds me of one of Stephen Hawking’s most famous quotes, which I’ll leave you with:

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the Universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”


Related Links:

Lessons Learned & Knowledge Shared: 3rd Annual Alpha Clinics Symposium Celebrates the Delivery of Stem Cell Treatments to Patients

The CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics (ASCC) Network was launched in 2015 to address a compelling unmet medical need for rigorous, FDA regulated, stem cell-related clinical trials for patients with challenging, incurable diseases. Since its inception, the Network has treated more than 200 patients in over 40 clinical trials at six leading California medical centers: UC San Diego, City of Hope, UCLA and UC Irvine, UCSF and UC Davis. That has enabled the Network to accumulate a wealth of experience and insight into how best to deliver treatments to patients, and each year it celebrates and showcases this knowledge at the CIRM Alpha Clinics Annual Symposium.

The Network is celebrating the 3rd anniversary of the ASCC Symposium on April 19th on the campus of the University of California at Los Angeles. This year’s theme is the Delivery of Stem Cell Therapeutics to Patients. Clinical investigators, scientists, patients, patient advocates, and the public will engage in thoughtful discussions on how novel stem cell treatments are now a reality. The symposium will address advancements and accomplishments of the ASCC Network in addition to developments and applications in the field of stem cell-based therapeutics. Treatments for cancer, HIV/AIDS, spinal cord injury and stroke will be featured. In addition, this year’s featured keynote speaker is David Mitchell President and Founder of Patients for Affordable Drugs.

The symposium is open to the public and is free. You can find the full agenda for the symposium here and registration can be found on the UCLA ASCC Eventbrite page. The event is highly interactive allowing participants opportunities to ask questions, network and learn about the latest developments in stem cell treatments.

Researcher and patient advocate panel at a past CIRM Alpha Clinic symposium: L to R: David Higgins, CIRM Board; David Parry, GSK; Catriona Jamieson, UCSD: John Zaia, City of Hope; John Adams, UCLA

Patient advocates speak up at the City of Hope 2nd Annual ASCC Network Symposium. (Image courtesy of the City of Hope)


Related Links:

Using the courts to protect patients from unapproved stem cell therapies

A recent article in Nature looked at using lawsuits to help rein in the activities of clinics offering “unapproved” therapies. CIRM’s Geoff Lomax explains.

Stem-Cell-Clinics-to-Trust

When public health officials wanted to raise awareness about the dangers of smoking they filed lawsuits against the tobacco companies. They accused Big Tobacco of deceptive marketing and hiding the negative health effects of smoking. Ultimately, they won. Now a new study says a similar tactic could prove effective in combating clinics that offer unproven stem cell therapies.

CIRM works tirelessly to accelerate the delivery of stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. But, that doesn’t mean we support any treatment that claims to help people. CIRM only partners with projects that have been given the go-ahead by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be tested in people in a clinical trial.  That’s because FDA approval means the clinical trial will be monitored and evaluated under high scientific and ethical standards.

In contrast, there are numerous examples where “stem-cell treatments” not sanctioned by the FDA are being marketed directly to patients. For years the FDA, CIRM and others have been warning consumers about the risks involved with these untested treatments. For example, just last  November the FDA issued a warning and advice for people considering stem cell treatments.

Legal steps

Last year CIRM also helped author a new California law designed to protect consumers. The law requires health care providers to disclose to patients when using a treatment that is not FDA approved or part of an FDA-sanctioned clinical trial.

At CIRM, we frequently direct patients seeking treatments to our Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network. The Alpha Clinics only perform clinical trials that have been given the green light by the FDA, and they provide expert consultation and informed consent to patients to help ensure they make the best choice for themselves. Further, the Alpha Clinics follow up with patients after their treatments to evaluate safety and the effectiveness of the treatments.

These are steps that clinics offering unproven and unapproved therapies typically don’t follow. So, the question is how do you let people know about the risks involved in going to one of these clinics and how do you stop clinics offering “therapies” that might endanger the health of patients?

Using the law to hit clinics where it hurts

In a recently published perspective in the journal Nature an international team of policy experts considered whether civil lawsuits may play a role in stemming the tide of unproven treatments. In the article the authors say:

“The threat of financial liability for wrongdoing is the primary means by which civil law governs behavior in the private sector. Despite calls for stepping up enforcement efforts, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently restricted in its ability to identify and target clinics operating in apparent violation of regulations. The fear of tort liability {lawsuits} may provide sufficient incentive for compliance and minimize the occurrence of unethical practices.”

The authors identified nine individual and class action lawsuits involving clinics offering what they called “unproven stem cell interventions.” A few of those were dismissed or decided in favor of the clinics, with judges saying the claims lacked merit. Most, however, were settled by the clinics with no ruling on the merits of the issue raised. Even without definitive judgements against the clinics the authors of the article conclude:

“Stem cell lawsuits could intensify publicity and raise awareness of the harms of unproven treatments, set legal precedent, reshape the media narrative from one focused on the right to try or practice to one highlighting the need for adequate safety and efficacy standards, and encourage authorities to turn their attention to policy reform and enforcement.”

The authors suggest the courts may provide a forum where medical experts can inform patients, the legal community and the public about good versus harmful clinical practices. In short, the authors believe the legal process can be an effective forum for to provide education and outreach to those with disease and the public at large.

The better option of course would be for the clinics themselves to reform their practices and engage with the FDA to test their therapies in a clinical trial. Until that happens the courts may offer an alternative approach to curbing the marketing of these unproven and unapproved therapies.