Frustration, failure and finally hope in the search for treatments for spina bifida

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Dr. Diana Farmer and her team at UC. Davis

By any standards Dr. Diana Farmer is a determined woman who doesn’t let setbacks and failure deter her. As a fetal and neonatal surgeon, and the chair of the Department of Surgery at UC Davis Health, Dr. Farmer has spent years trying to develop a cure for spina bifida. She’s getting closer.

Dr. Farmer and her partner in this research, Dr. Aijun Wang, have already shown they can repair the damage spina bifida causes to the spinal cord, in the womb, in sheep and bulldogs. Last year the CIRM Board voted to fund her research to get the data needed to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration for permission to start a clinical trial in people.

That work is so promising that we decided to profile Dr. Farmer in our 2018 Annual Report.

Here’s excerpts from an interview we conducted with her as part of the Annual Report.

I have been working on this since 2008. We have been thinking about how to help kids with spina bifida walk. It’s not fatal disease but it is a miserable disease.

It’s horrible for parents who think they are about to have a healthy child suddenly be faced with a baby who faces a life long struggle with their health, everything from difficulty or inability to walk to bowel and bladder problems and life-threatening infections.

As a fetal surgeon we used to only focus on fatal diseases because otherwise kids would die. But as we made progress in the field, we had the opportunity to help others who didn’t have a fatal condition, in ways we couldn’t have done in the past.

I’ve always been fascinated by the placenta, it has lots of protective properties. So, we asked the question if we were able to sample fetal cells from the placenta, could we augment those cells, and use them to tissue engineer spinal injuries, in the womb, to improve the outcome for kids with spina bifida?

Dr. Aijun Wang and I have been working on this project for the last decade.  Ten years of work has taken us to this point where we are now ready to move this to the next level.

It’s amazing to me how long this process takes and that’s why we are so grateful to CIRM because this is a rare disease and finding funding for those is hard. A lot of people are scared about funding fetal surgery and CIRM has been a perfect partner in helping bring this approach, blending stem cell therapy and tissue engineering, together.

If this therapy is successful it will have a huge economic impact on California, and on the rest of the world. Because spina bifida is a lifelong condition involving many operations, many stays in the hospital, in some cases lifelong use of a wheelchair. This has a huge financial burden on the family. And because this doesn’t just affect the child but the whole family, it has a huge psychological burden on families. It affects them in so many ways; parents having to miss work or take time off work to care for their child, other children in the family feeling neglected because their brother or sister needs so much attention.

In the MOMS Trial (a study that looked at prenatal – before birth – and postnatal – after birth – surgery to repair a defect in the spinal cord and showed that prenatal surgery had strong, long-term benefits and some risks) we showed that we could operate on the fetus before birth and help them. The fact that there was any improvement – doubling the number of kids who could walk from 20 to 40% showed this spinal cord injury is not a permanent situation and also showed there was some plasticity in the spinal cord, some potential for improvement. And so, the next question was can we do more. And that’s why we are trying this.

It’s pretty amazing. We are pretty excited.

The thing that makes surgeon-scientists feel so passionate is that we don’t just ask the fundamental questions, we ask questions in order to cure a problem in patients. I grew up in an environment where people were always asking “how can we do it better, how can we improve?”

There were many times of frustration, many times when cell types we explored and worked with didn’t work. But it’s the patients, seeing them, that keeps me motivated to do the science, to keep persevering. That’s the beauty of being a clinician-scientist. We can ask questions in a different way and look at data in a different way because we are driven by patient outcomes. So, whenever we get stuck in the rabbit hole of theoretical problems, we look to the patients for inspiration to keep going.

I am very cognizant of stirring up false hope, knowing that what occurs in animal models doesn’t always translate into humans. But we are optimistic, and I am anxious to get going.

 

Performance, Passion and Progress: and that’s just page one of our 2018 Annual Report

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It’s hard to sum up the activities and achievements of a year in a single document, let alone one that’s just 24 pages. But that’s what we have done in putting together our 2018 Annual Report.

It’s a look back at the year just gone, the highlights, the low lights (spoiler alert – there weren’t any) and the impact we had on the field of stem cell research. But it’s far more than that. It’s also a look ahead. A look at the challenges we face, and profiles of the people who are going to help us overcome those challenges and maintain our progress.

And people are truly at the heart of this report, from UC San Francisco’s Dr. Tippi MacKenzie who is on the front cover for her work in developing an in-utero treatment for the almost always fatal disorder alpha thalassemia major (and the photo of the baby and mom whose lives were changed by that therapy) to Rich Lajara on the back cover, the first person ever treated in a CIRM-funded clinical trial.

Inside are an array of simple images designed to reflect how we as a state agency have performed this year. The numbers themselves tell a powerful story:

  • 50 clinical trials funded to date, 7 this year alone
  • $2.6 billion in CIRM grants has been leveraged to bring in an additional $3.2 billion in matching funds and investments from other sources.
  • 1,180 patients have been involved in CIRM clinical trials

We know people don’t have a lot of time to read Annual Reports so we have made this as visually engaging and informative as possible. We want you to get a real sense of who we are, what we have done and who has helped us do that without you having to wade through a document the size of War and Peace (great book by the way – the Russians beat Napoleon).

We think we have a great story to tell. This Annual Report is one chapter in that story. We hope you like it.

 

Taking a new approach to fighting a deadly brain cancer

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Christine Brown, Ph.D., City of Hope researcher

CIRM’s 2017 Annual Report will be going live online very soon. In anticipation of that we are highlighting some of the key elements from the report here on the Stem Cellar.

One of the most exciting new approaches in targeting deadly cancers is chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy, using the patient’s own immune system cells that have been re-engineered to help them fight back against the tumor.

Today we are profiling City of Hope’s Christine Brown, Ph.D., who is using CAR-T cells in a CIRM-funded Phase 1 clinical trial for an aggressive brain cancer called malignant glioma.

“Brain tumors are the hardest to treat solid tumors. This is a project that CIRM has supported from an early, pre-clinical stage. What was exciting was we finished our first milestone in record time and were able to translate that research out of the lab and into the clinic. That really allowed us to accelerate treatment to glioblastoma patients.

I think there are glimmers of hope that immune based therapies and CAR-T based therapies will revolutionize therapy for patients with brain tumors. We’ve seen evidence that these cells can travel to the central nervous system and eliminate tumors in the brain.

We now have evidence that this approach produces a powerful, therapeutic response in one group of patients. We are looking at why other patients don’t respond as well and the CIRM funding enables us to ask the questions that will, we hope, provide the answers.

Because our clinical trial is a being carried out at the CIRM-supported City of Hope Alpha Stem Cell Clinic this is a great example of how CIRM supports all the different ways of advancing therapy from early stage research through translation and into clinical trials in the CIRM Alpha Clinic network.

There are lots of ways the tumor tries to evade the immune system and we are looking at different approaches to combine this therapy with different approaches to see which combination will be best.

It’s a challenging problem and it’s not going to be solved with one approach. If it were easy we’d have solved it by now. That’s why I love science, it’s one big puzzle about how do we understand this and how do we make this work.

I don’t think we would be where we are at without CIRM’s support, it really gave the funding to bring this to the next level.”

Dr. Brown’s work is also creating interest among investors. She recently partnered with Mustang Bio in a $94.5 million agreement to help advance this therapy.

A look back at the last year – but with our eyes firmly on the future

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CIRM President & CEO Randy Mills doesn’t want “good”, he wants “better”

Better.

With that single word Randy Mills, our President and CEO, starts and ends his letter in our 2015 Annual Report and lays out the simple principle that guides the way we work at CIRM.

Better.

But better what?

“Better infrastructure to translate early stage ideas into groundbreaking clinical trials. Better regulatory practices to advance promising stem cell treatments more efficiently. Better treatments for patients in need.”

“Better” is also the standard everyone at CIRM holds themselves to. Getting better at what we do so we can fulfill our mission of accelerating stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.

The 2015 Annual Report highlights the achievements of the last year, detailing how we invested $135 million in 47 different projects at all levels of research. How our Board unanimously passed our new Strategic Plan, laying out an ambitious series of goals for the next five years from funding 50 new clinical trials, to creating a new regulatory process for stem cell therapies.

Snapshot of CIRM's 2015 Funding

The report offers a snapshot of where our money has gone this year, and how much we have left. It breaks down what percentage of our funding has gone to different diseases and how much we have spent on administration.

Jonathan Thomas, the Chair of our Board, takes a look back at where we started, 10 years ago, comparing what we did then (16 awards for a total of $12.5 million) to what we are doing today. His conclusion; we’re doing better.

But we still have a long way to go. And we are determined to get even better.

P.S. By the way we are changing the way we do our Annual Report. Our next one will come out on January 1, 2017. We figured it just made sense to take a look back at the last year as soon as the new year begins. It gives you a better (that word again) sense of what we did and where we  are heading. So look out for that, coming sooner than you think.