Breaking down barriers to advance stem cell therapies – the view from the Vatican conference

Perry and the Pope

Pope Francis meets Katy Perry at the Unite to Cure conference at the Vatican

All hands were on deck at the “Unite to Cure” conference, organized by the Cura Foundation and the Vatican Pontifical Council,  and held at the Vatican on April 26-28. Religious leaders, scientists, physicians, philanthropists, industry leaders, government, academic leaders and members of the entertainment industry gathered to discuss how to improve human health and to increase access to relief of suffering for the under-served around the world.

Pope Francis spoke of “the great strides made by scientific research in discovering and making available new cures” but stressed that science also needs to have “an increased awareness of our ethical responsibility towards humanity and the environment in which we live.”

He talked of the importance of addressing the needs of children and young people, of helping the marginalized and those with rare, autoimmune and neurodegenerative diseases. He said:

“The problem of human suffering challenges us to create new means of interaction between individuals and institutions, breaking down barriers and working together to enhance patient care.”

So, it was appropriate that breaking down barriers and improving collaboration was the theme of a panel discussion featuring CIRM’s President and CEO, Maria Millan. She had been invited to attend the conference and participate on a panel focusing on “Public Private Partnerships to Accelerate Discoveries”.

As Dr. Millan put it, “Collaboration, communication, and alignment” is the winning formula for public/private partnerships.

She highlighted how CIRM exemplifies this new approach, how everything we do is focused on accelerating the field and that means partnering with the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration to create new regulatory models. It also means working with scientists every step of the way; helping them prepare the best possible application for CIRM funding and, if they are approved, giving them the support they need to help them succeed.

It was a wide ranging, thoughtful, engaging conversation with David J. Mazzo, PhD, President & CEO of Caladrius Biosciences and David  Pearce, PhD, Executive VP for Research at Sanford Health. You can watch the discussion here.

People may find it surprising that government agencies, academic researchers and private companies can all collaborate effectively.  It is absolutely critical to do so in order to rapidly and safely advance transformative stem cell, gene and regenerative medicine to patients with unmet medical needs.  Pope Francis and the Pontifical Council at the Vatican certainly believe that collaboration is essential and the “Unite to Cure” Conference was a powerful demonstration of how important it is to work together for the future of humanity.

CIRM-Funded Clinical Trials Targeting the Heart, Pancreas, and Kidneys

This blog is part of our Month of CIRM series, which features our Agency’s progress towards achieving our mission to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.

This week, we’re highlighting CIRM-funded clinical trials to address the growing interest in our rapidly expanding clinical portfolio. Today we are featuring trials in our organ systems portfolio, specifically focusing on diseases of the heart/vasculature system, the pancreas and the kidneys.

CIRM has funded a total of nine trials targeting these disease areas, and eight of these trials are currently active. Check out the infographic below for a list of our currently active trials.

For more details about all CIRM-funded clinical trials, visit our clinical trials page and read our clinical trials brochure which provides brief overviews of each trial.

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: cancer fighting virus, lab-grown guts work in dogs, stem cell trial to cure HIV

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Cancer fighting virus approved for melanoma

(Disclaimer: While this isn’t a story about stem cells, it’s pretty cool so I had to include it.)

The term “virus” generally carries a negative connotation, but in some cases, viruses can be the good guys. This was the case on Tuesday when our drug approval agency, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), approved the use of a cancer fighting virus for the treatment of advanced stage melanoma (skin cancer).

The virus, called T-VEC, is a modified version of the herpesvirus, which causes a number of diseases and symptoms including painful blisters and sores in the mouth. Scientists engineered this virus to specifically infect cancer cells and not healthy cells. Once inside cancer cells, T-VEC does what a virus normally does and wreaks havoc by attacking and killing the tumor.

The beauty of this T-VEC is that in the process of killing cancer cells, it causes the release of a factor called GM-CSF from the cancer cells. This factor signals the human immune system that other cancer cells are nearby and they should be attacked and killed by the soldiers of the immune system known as T-cells. The reason why cancers are so deadly is because they can trick the immune system into not recognizing them as bad guys. T-VEC rips off their usual disguise and makes them vulnerable again to attack.

T-VEC recruits immune cells (orange) to attack cancer cells (pink) credit Dr. Andrejs Liepins/SPL

T-VEC recruits immune cells (orange) to attack cancer cells (pink). Photo credit Dr. Andrejs Liepins/SPL.

This is exciting news for cancer patients and was covered in many news outlets. Nature News wrote a great article, which included the history of how we came to use viruses as tools to attack cancer. The piece also discussed options for improving current T-VEC therapy. Currently, the virus is injected directly into the cancer tumor, but scientists hope that one day, it could be delivered intravenously, or through the bloodstream, so that it can kill hard to reach tumors or ones that have spread to other parts of the body. The article suggested combining T-VEC with other cancer immunotherapies (therapies that help the immune system recognize cancer cells) or delivering a personalized “menu” of cancer-killing viruses to treat patients with different types of cancers.

As a side note, CIRM is also interested in fighting advanced stage melanoma and recently awarded $17.7 million to Caladrius Biosciences to conduct a Phase 3 clinical trial with their melanoma killing vaccine. For more, check out our recent blog.

Lab-grown guts work in mice and dogs

If you ask what’s trending right now in stem cell research, one of the topics that surely would pop up is 3D organoids. Also known as “mini-organs”, organoids are tiny models of human organs generated from human stem cells in a dish. To make them, scientists have developed detailed protocols that sometimes involve the use of biological scaffolds (structures on which cells can attach and grow).

A study published in Regenerative Medicine and picked up by Science described the generation of “lab-grown gut” organoids using intestine-shaped scaffolds. Scientists from Johns Hopkins figured out how to grow intestinal lining that had the correct anatomy and functioned properly when transplanted into mice and dogs. Previous studies in this area used flat scaffolds or dishes to grow gut organoids, which weren’t able to form proper functional gut lining.

Lab-grown guts could help humans with gut disorders. (Shaffiey et al., 2015)

Lab-grown guts could help humans with gut disorders. (Shaffiey et al., 2015)

What was their secret recipe? The scientists took stem cells from the intestines of human infants or mice and poured a sticky solution of them onto a scaffold made of suture-like material. The stem cells then grew into healthy gut tissue over the next few weeks and formed tube structures that were similar to real intestines.

They tested whether their mini-guts worked by transplanting them into mice and dogs. To their excitement, the human and mouse lab-grown guts were well tolerated and worked properly in mice, and in dogs that had a portion of their intestine removed. Even more exciting was an observation made by senior author David Hackham:

“The scaffold was well tolerated and promoted healing by recruiting stem cells. [The dogs] had a perfectly normal lining after 8 weeks.”

The obvious question about this study is whether these lab-grown guts will one day help humans with debilitating intestinal diseases like Crohn’s and IBS (inflammatory bowel disorder). Hackam said that while they are still a long way from taking their technology to the clinic, “in the future, scaffolds could be custom-designed for individual human patients to replace a portion of an intestine or the entire organ.”

Clinical trial using umbilical cord stem cells to treat HIV

This week, the first clinical trial using human umbilical cord stem cells to treat HIV patients was announced in Spain. The motivation of this trial is the previous success of the Berlin Patient, Timothy Brown.

The Berlin patient can be described as the holy grail of HIV research. He is an American man who suffered from leukemia, a type of blood cancer, but was also HIV-positive. When his doctor in Berlin treated his leukemia with a stem cell transplant from a bone-marrow donor, he chose a special donor whose stem cells had an inherited mutation in their DNA that made them resistant to infection by the HIV virus. Surprisingly, after the procedure, Timothy was cured of both his cancer AND his HIV infection.

Berlin patient Timothy Brown. Photo credit: Griffin Boyce/Flickr.

Berlin patient Timothy Brown. Photo credit: Griffin Boyce/Flickr.

The National Organization of Transplants (ONT) in Spain references this discovery as its impetus to conduct a stem cell clinical trial to treat patients with HIV and hopefully cure them of this deadly virus. The trial will use umbilical cord blood stem cells instead of bone-marrow stem cells from 157 blood donors that have the special HIV-resistance genetic mutation.

In coverage from Tech Times, the president of the Spanish Society of Hematology and Hemotherapy, Jose Moraleda, was quoted saying:

“This project can put us at the cutting edge of this field within the world of science. It will allow us to gain more knowledge about HIV and parallel offer us a potential option for curing a poorly diagnosed malignant hematological disease.”

The announcement for the clinical trial was made at the Haematology conference in Valencia, and ONT hopes to treat its first patient in December or January.

CIRM CAP Kickoff to New Clinical Trials

Alisha Bouge is the project manager for CIRM’s Clinical Advisory Panels (CAPs)

On the cusp of the official kickoff to football season, CIRM has had its own kickoff to celebrate.  The first Clinical Advisory Panel (CAP) meeting took place on August 18, 2015 in Irvine, CA with Caladrius Bioscience, Inc.  And just as every NFL team starts the season hopeful of a Super Bowl win, all our CAPs start out with equally lofty goals. That’s because under CIRM 2.0, the role of the CAP is to work with the clinical stage project teams we fund to help accelerate the development of therapies for patients with unmet medical needs and to give these projects the greatest likelihood of success.

In the case of Caladrius, the work is focused on treating metastatic melanoma, an aggressive and deadly form of skin cancer. You can read more about this clinical trial here.

Obstacles and challenges are inevitable in the lifecycle of research. CIRM hopes to help its grantees navigate through these hurdles as quickly and positively as possible by providing recommendations from expert advisors in the field.  The intention is for the CAP meeting process to be that navigating vessel throughout the lifetime of each clinical stage project.

The CAPs will include at least three members: one CIRM science officer, a patient representative, and an external scientific advisor.  The CAP will meet with the project team approximately four times a year, with the first meeting taking place in-person.  Consider the CAP as the grantee’s special team, doing all they can to get that two-point conversion at the end of an already successful outcome, giving the grantee and their team just a few more points in their pocket to reach the ultimate success.

CAP1

CIRM CAP on a tour of Caladrius’ facility in Irvine, CA.  The CIRM CAP can be seen in the far right of the photo (left to right) Randy Lomax (Patient Representative), Ingrid Caras (CIRM Sr. Science Officer), and Hassan Movahhed (External Scientific Advisor).

As the lead Science Officer on this first CAP, CIRM’s Ingrid Caras stated: “This is our opportunity to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money.”

The mission and the message of the CAP was well received by Caladrius.  After the CAP meeting, Anna Crivici, VP of Operations & Program Management at Caladrius, had this to say about her experience:

anna crivici

Anna Crivici, Caladrius

I thought that the meeting was very productive.  Everyone on the Caladrius team appreciates the collaborative approach CIRM is taking on the program, as amply demonstrated during our successful first meeting.  The discussion on every agenda topic was helpful and insightful.  The opportunity to better understand the patient perspective will be especially beneficial and increasingly important as the Phase 3 program progresses.  We are confident that this and future CAP meetings will help us advance and refine our strategic planning and execution.

CAP2

CIRM CAP and members of Caladrius discussing operational strategies for success.

CIRM is looking forward to the 2015/2016 CAP season. And while there is no Super Bowl incentive at the end of our season, there is the hope that CIRM’s efforts, both financially and collaboratively, will contribute to successful treatments for so many out there in need. That’s something well worth cheering for.

One man’s story points to hope against a deadly skin cancer

One of the great privileges and pleasures of working at the stem cell agency is the chance to meet and work with some remarkable people, such as my colleagues here at CIRM and the researchers we support. But for me the most humbling, and by far the most rewarding experience, is having a chance to get to know the people we work for, the patients and patient advocates.

Norm Beegun, got stem cell therapy for metastatic melanoma

Norm Beegun, got stem cell therapy for metastatic melanoma

At our May Board meeting I got to meet a gentleman who exemplifies everything that I truly admire about the patients and patient advocates. His name is Norm Beegun. And this is his story.

Norm lives in Los Angeles. In 2002 he went to see his regular doctor, an old high school friend, who suggested that since it had been almost ten years since he’d had a chest x-ray it might be a good idea to get one. At first Norm was reluctant. He felt fine, was having no health problems and didn’t see the need. But his friend persisted and so Norm agreed. It was a decision that changed, and ultimately saved, his life.

The x-ray showed a spot on his lung. More tests were done. They confirmed it was cancer; stage IV melanoma. They did a range of other examinations to see if they could spot any signs of the cancer on his skin, any potential warnings signs that they had missed. They found nothing.

Norm underwent surgery to remove the tumor. He also tried several other approaches to destroy the cancer. None of them worked; each time the cancer returned; each time to a different location.

Then a nurse who was working with him on these treatments suggested he see someone named Dr. Robert Dillman, who was working on a new approach to treating metastatic melanoma, one involving cancer stem cells.

Norm got in touch with Dr. Dillman and learned what the treatment involved; he was intrigued and signed up. They took some cells from Norm’s tumor and processed them, turning them into a vaccine, a kind of personalized therapy that would hopefully work with Norm’s own immune system to destroy the cancer.

That was in 2004. Once a month for the next six months he was given injections of the vaccine. Unlike the other therapies he had tried this one had no side effects, no discomfort, no pain or problems. All it did was get rid of the cancer. Regular scans since then have shown no sign that the melanoma has returned. Theoretically that could be because the new therapy destroyed the standard tumor cells as well as the cancer stem cells that lead to recurrence.

Norm says when you are diagnosed with an incurable life-threatening disease, one with a 5-year survival rate of only around 15%, you will try anything; so he said it wasn’t a hard decision to take part in the clinical trial, he felt he had nothing to lose.

“I didn’t know if it would help me. I didn’t think I’d be cured. But I wanted to be a guinea pig and perhaps help others.”

When he was diagnosed his son had just won a scholarship to play football at the University of California, Berkeley. Norm says he feared he would never be able to see his son play. But thanks to cleverly scheduling surgery during the off-season and having a stem cell therapy that worked he not only saw his son play, he never missed a game.

Norm returned to Berkeley on May 21st, 2015. He came to address the CIRM Board in support of an application by a company called NeoStem (which has just changed its name to Caladrius Biosciences). This was the company that had developed the cell therapy for metastatic melanoma that Norm took.

“Talking about this is still very emotional. When I got up to talk to the CIRM Board about this therapy, and ask them to support it, I wanted to let them know my story, the story of someone who had their life saved by this treatment. Because of this I am here today. Because of this I was able to see my son play. But just talking about it left me close to tears.”

It left many others in the room close to tears as well. The CIRM Board voted to fund the NeoStem application, investing $17.7 million to help the company carry out a Phase 3 clinical trial, the last hurdle it needs to clear to prove to the Food and Drug Administration that this should be approved for use in metastatic melanoma.

Norm says he is so grateful for the extra years he has had, and he is always willing to try and support others going through what he did:

“I counsel other people diagnosed with metastatic melanoma. I feel that I want to help others, to give them a sense of hope. It is such a wonderful feeling, being able to show other people that you can survive this disease.”

When you get to meet people like Norm, how could you not love this job.