It took us longer than it should have to pay a visit to California’s Inland Empire, but it was definitely worth the wait. Yesterday CIRM’s Roadshow went to the University of California at Riverside (UCR) to talk to the community there – both scientific and public – about the work we are funding and the progress being made, and to hear from them about their hopes and plans for the future.
As always when we go on the road, we learn so much and are so impressed by everyone’s passion and commitment to stem cell research and their belief that it’s changing the face of medicine as we know it.
Dr. Deborah Deas, the Dean of the UC Riverside School of Medicine and a CIRM Board member, kicked off the proceedings by saying:
“Since CIRM was created in 2004 the agency has been committed to providing the technology and research to meet the unmet needs of the people of California.
On the Board I have been impressed by the sheer range and number of diseases targeted by the research CIRM is funding. We in the Inland Empire are playing our part. With CIRM’s help we have developed a strong program that is doing some exciting work in discovery, education and translational research.”
CIRM’s President and CEO, Dr. Maria T. Millan, and our Board Chair, Jonathan Thomas then gave a quick potted history of CIRM and the projects we are funding. They highlighted how we are creating a pipeline of products from the Discovery, or basic level of research, through to the 45 clinical trials we are funding.
They also talked about the Alpha Clinic Network, based at six highly specialized medical centers around California, that are delivering stem cell therapies and sharing the experiences and knowledge learned from these trials to improve their ability to help patients and advance the field.
Researchers from both UCR then gave a series of brief snapshots of the innovative work they are doing:
- Looking at new, more efficient and effective ways of expanding the number of human embryonic stem cells in the laboratory to create the high volume of cells needed for therapies.
- Using biodegradable materials to help repair and regenerate tissue for things as varied as bone and cartilage repair or nerve restoration.
- Exploring the use of epigenetic factors, things that switch genes on and off, to try and find ways to make repairs inside the body, rather than taking the cells outside the body, re-engineering them and returning them to the body. In essence, using the body as its own lab to manufacture replacement.
Another CIRM Board member, Linda Malkas, talked about the research being done at City of Hope (COH), where she is the associate chair of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, calling it an “engine for discovery that has created the infrastructure and attracted people with an amazing set of skills to bring forward new therapeutics for patients.”
She talked about how COH is home to one of the first Alpha Clinics that CIRM funded, and that it now has 27 active clinical trials, with seven more pending and 11 more in the pipeline.
“In my opinion this is one of the crown jewels of the CIRM program. CIRM is leading the nation in showing how to put together a network of specialized clinics to deliver these therapies. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) came to CIRM to learn from them and to talk about how to better move the most promising ideas and trials through the system faster and more efficiently.”
Dr. Malkas also celebrated the partnership between COH and UCR, where they are collaborating on 19 different projects, pooling their experience and expertise to advance this research.
Finally, Christine Brown, PhD, talked about her work using chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells to fight cancer stem cells. In this CIRM-funded clinical trial, Dr. Brown hopes to re-engineer a patient’s T cells – a key cell of the immune system – to recognize a target protein on the surface of brain cancer stem cells and kill the tumors.
It was a packed event, with an overflow group watching on monitors outside the auditorium. The questions asked afterwards didn’t just focus on the research being done, but on research that still needs to be done.
One patient advocate couple asked about clinics offering stem cell therapies for Parkinson’s disease, wondering if the therapies were worth spending more than $10,000 on.
Dr. Millan cautioned against getting any therapy that wasn’t either approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or wasn’t part of a clinical trial sanctioned by the FDA. She said that in the past, these clinics were mostly outside the US (hence the term “stem cell tourism”) but increasingly they are opening up centers here in the US offering unproven and unapproved therapies.
She said there are lots of questions people need to ask before signing up for a clinical trial. You can find those questions here.
The visit was a strong reminder that there is exciting stem cell research taking place all over California and that the Inland Empire is a key player in that research, working on projects that could one day have a huge impact in changing people’s lives, even saving people’s lives.