Stem Cell Awareness Day: Past, Present, Future

In 2008, the then California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger  declared Sept. 25 to be Stem Cell Awareness Day. In the proclamation he said, ”The discoveries being made today in our Golden State will have a great impact on many around the world for generations to come.”

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Bob Klein (Left), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Middle), Don Reed (Right) in 2008.

In the years since, we have moved steadily towards turning those words into reality and using Stem Cell Awareness Day, now celebrated on the second Wednesday in October, as a symbol of the progress being made, not just in California but around the world.

Yesterday, for example, at a public event at UC Davis in Sacramento, Dr. Jan Nolta told an audience of patients, patient advocates, researchers and stem cell supporters that “we are part of a new era in medicine, one where it will one day be routine for prescriptions to be written for stem cell treatments for many different diseases.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Jonathan Thomas, Chair of the CIRM Board, who said:

“This is a time of truly extraodinary medical science.  We are lucky because, in our lifetime, we are going to see many of the biggest maladies plaguing people cured, in part because of developments in regenerative medicine. Every week you read about extraordinary developments in medicine and often those are here in California.”

In the early years Stem Cell Awareness Day was very much a creation of CIRM. We worked closely with our partners in academia and industry to host or stage events around the state. In 2009 for example, more than 40 CIRM grantees went to high schools in California, talking about stem cell research to more than 3,000 students. We also coordinated with researchers in Canada and Australia to create a global community of supporters.

We even hosted a poetry competition. No, really, we did. So, clearly not every idea we had back then was a winner.

These days CIRM doesn’t play as prominent a role in organizing these events for a very simple reason. We don’t have to. They have become such a popular part of the scientific calendar that individual institutions and schools organize their own events, without any pushing or prodding from us (though we are always happy to help when asked).

At UC Irvine this afternoon there is an Open House where you can take a self-guided tour of the facility, meet some of the scientists and watch lab demonstrations.

This weekend the UC  Berkeley’s Student Society of Stem Cell Research (SSSCR) is hosting its 5th annual Stem Cell Conference: Culturing a Stem Cell Community. This conference aims to bring together different aspects of stem cell research, from science to advocacy, to demonstrate the growth and success of the field. You can RSVP on Eventbrite (tickets cost a small fee of $7 or $12 including lunch to support the cost of the SSSCR conference)

The Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco just posted two new videos to its YouTube site:

In the early days of CIRM, Stem Cell Awareness Day was a valuable way for us to talk directly to the people of California – the ones who created CIRM. We felt it was important to let them know how their money was being spend and about the progress being made in stem cell research. And in the early years that progress was slower than all of us would have liked. Today, it’s a very different situation with CIRM now having funded 40 projects in clinical trials (and a goal of funding dozens more in the coming years) and with advances being made every day. We still reach out to our supporters and the patient advocate community but now we do it year round through our blog, social media and public events like the one yesterday at UC Davis.

While we are not as “hands on” as we were in the past we are still more than happy to provide tools for groups or organizations who want to hold their own stem cell awareness event – and it doesn’t have to be on October 11th, it can be any day of the year. Visit our Education Portal, Patient Resources page and video archive for various teaching tools.

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Emotions and gratitude at changing of the guard at Stem Cell Agency

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Randy Mills and his family

Randy, as regular readers of this blog know, is, or rather was, the President and CEO of CIRM. James Harrison is less well known to the outside world but his imprint on CIRM, as our General Counsel and one of the key figures behind Proposition 71, is even bigger than that of Randy’s.

Randy came to the stem cell agency a little over three years ago and in pretty quick order completely refashioned us. Under his guidance CIRM 2.0 became a sleek, streamlined funding machine, turning what had been an almost two-year process from application to funding into one that took just 120 days. He revamped the frequency with which we offered specific programs, making it more predictable and so easier for researchers to know when the next round was coming up. He helped usher in a new Strategic Plan that is a blueprint for us until 2020.

But the changes he implemented were not just about the way we worked, it was also about how we worked and particularly how we worked together. He turned the agency into a true team, one where everyone felt they not only had a role to play but that what they did was important in determining the success of the agency.

Not surprisingly there was no shortage of people ready to praise him. CIRM Board Chair Jonathan Thomas (JT) thanked Randy for turning the agency around, transforming it into an organization that even the National Institutes of Health (NIH) now looks to as a model (more on that in a subsequent blog). Vice Chair Art Torres thanked Randy for his leadership and for his compassion toward patients, always putting them first in everything that he and the agency did. Board member Sherry Lansing called Randy “a genius and visionary”.

But perhaps the most moving tributes came from patients advocates.

Don Reed said; “When I first met Randy I didn’t like him. I thought CIRM was one of the best, if not the best, organization out there and who was this person to say they were going to come in and make it better. Well, you did Randy and we are all so very grateful to you for that.”

Adrienne Shapiro from Axis Advocacy, an organization dedicated to finding a cure for sickle cell disease, presented Randy with the “Heart of a Mother” award, thanking him for his tireless support of patients and their families.

Jake Javier, a participant in the Asterias spinal cord injury trial, wrote a note saying: “You positively affect so many through your amazing funding efforts for life changing research, and should be very proud of that. But something I will always remember is how personal and genuine you were while doing it. I hope you got the chance to meet as many of the people you helped as possible because I know they would remember the same.”

Randy – who is leaving to become President/CEO of the National Marrow Donor/Be The Match program – was clearly deeply moved by the tributes, but reminded everyone that he was leaving us in good hands. The Board named Dr. Maria Millan as the interim President and CEO, pending a meeting of a search committee to determine the steps for appointing a permanent replacement.

Randy praised Maria for her intelligence, compassion and vision:

“Maria Millan has been a great partner in all that we have achieved at CIRM. She was a key part of developing the Strategic Plan; she  understands it inside out and has been responsible for administering it. She is a wonderful leader and is going to be absolutely phenomenal.”

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James Harrison (left) with CIRM Board members Jonathan Thomas and Bert Lubin

The tributes for James Harrison were ever bit as moving. James has been a part of CIRM since before there was a CIRM. He helped draft Proposition 71, the ballot initiative that created the stem cell agency, and has played a key role since as General Counsel.

JT: “James has been a part of literally every decision and move that CIRM has made in its entire history. He’s been integral in everything. When I first came to CIRM, I was told by Bob Klein (JT’s predecessor as Chair) ‘Don’t brush your teeth without checking with James first’ suggesting a level of knowledge and expertise that was admirable.”

Jeff Sheehy “We would not be here without James. He organized the defense when we were sued by our opponents in the early days, through the various leadership challenges we had, all of the legal difficulties we had James was there to guide us and it’s been nothing short of extraordinary. Your brilliance and steadiness is amazing. While we are screaming and pulling our hair out there was James. Just saying his name makes me feel more relaxed.”

Sherry Lansing: “One thing I never worried about was our ethics, because you protected us at all times. You have such strong ethical values, you are always calm and rational and no matter what was going on you were always the rock who could explain things to everyone and deal with it with integrity.”

James is leaving to take a more active role in the law firm Remcho, Johansen & Purcell, where he is partner. Succeeding him as General Counsel is Scott Tocher, who has been at CIRM almost as long as James.

Randy; “To have someone like Scott come in and replace someone who wrote Proposition 71 speaks for the bench strength of the agency and how we are in very good hands.”

Art Torres joked “Scott has been waiting as long as Prince Charles has to take over the reins and we’re delighted to be able to work with him.”

We wish Randy and James great good luck in their next adventures.

 

Taking stock: ten years of the stem cell agency, progress and promise for the future

Under some circumstances ten years can seem like a lifetime. But when lives are at stake, ten years can fly by in a flash.

Ten years ago the people of California created the stem cell agency when they overwhelmingly approved Proposition 71, giving us $3 billion to fund and support stem cell research in the state.

In 2004 stem cell science held enormous potential but the field was still quite young. Back then the biology of the cells was not well understood, and our ability to convert stem cells into other cell types for potential therapies was limited. Today, less than 8 years after we actually started funding research, we have ten projects that are expected to be approved for clinical trials by the end of the year, including work in heart disease and cancer, HIV/AIDS and diabetes. So clearly great progress has been made.

Dean Carmen Puliafito and the panel at the Tenth Anniversary event at USC

Dean Carmen Puliafito and the panel at the Tenth Anniversary event at USC

Yesterday we held an event at the University of Southern California (USC) to mark those ten years, to chart where we have come from, and to look to where we are going. It was a gathering of all those who have, as they say, skin in the game: researchers, patients and patient advocates.

The event was held at the Eli and Edythe Broad CIRM Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research. As Dr. Carmen Puliafito, Dean of USC’s Keck School of Medicine noted, without CIRM the building would not even exist.

“With this funding, our researchers, and researchers in 11 other facilities throughout the state, gained a dedicated space to hunt for cures for some of the most pernicious diseases in the world, including heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.”

Dr. Dhruv Sareen from Cedars-Sinai praised CIRM for creating a whole new industry in the state:

“What Silicon Valley has done for technology, CIRM is doing for stem cell research in California.”

One of the beneficiaries of that new industry has been ViaCyte, a San Diego-based company that is now in clinical trials with a small implantable device containing stem cell-derived cells to treat type 1 diabetes. ViaCyte’s Dr. Eugene Brandon said without CIRM none of that would have been possible.

“In 2008 it was extremely hard for a small biotech company to get funding for the kind of work we were doing. Without that support, without that funding from CIRM, I don’t know where this work would be today.”

As with everything we do, at the heart of it are the patients. Fred Lesikar says when he had a massive heart attack and woke up in the hospital his nurse told him about a measure they use to determine the scale of the attack. When he asked how big his attack had been, she replied, “I’ve never seen numbers that large before. Ever.”

Fred told of leaving the hospital a diminished person, unable to do most basic things because his heart had been so badly damaged. But after getting a stem cell-based therapy using his own heart cells he is now as active as ever, something he says doesn’t just affect him.

“It’s not just patients who benefit from these treatments, families do too. It changes the life of the patient, and the lives of all those around them. I feel like I’m back to normal and I’m so grateful for CIRM and Cedars-Sinai for helping me get here.”

The team behind that approach, based at Cedars-Sinai, is now in a much larger clinical trial and we are funding it.

The last word in the event was left to Bob Klein, who led the drive to get Proposition 71 passed and who was the agency’s first Chair. He said looking at what has happened in the last ten years: “it is beyond what I could have imagined.”

Bob noted that the field has not been without its challenges and problems to overcome, and that more challenges and problems almost certainly lie in the future:

“But the genius of the people of this state is reflected in their commitment to this cause, and we should all be eternally grateful for their vision in supporting research that will save and transform people’s lives.”