A search on Google using the term “stem cell blogs” quickly produces a host of sites offering treatments for everything from ankle, hip and knee problems, to Parkinson’s disease and asthma. Amazingly the therapies for those very different conditions all use the same kind of cells produced in the same way. It’s like magic. Sadly, it’s magic that is less hocus pocus and more bogus bogus.
The good news is there are blogs out there (besides us, of course) that do offer good, accurate, reliable information about stem cells. The people behind them are not in this to make a quick buck selling snake oil. They are in this to educate, inform, engage and enlighten people about what stem cells can, and cannot do.
This blog has just undergone a face lift and is now as colorful and easy to read as it is informative. It bills itself as the longest running stem cell blog around. It’s run by UC Davis stem cell biologist Dr. Paul Knoepfler – full disclosure, we have funded some of Paul’s work – and it’s a constant source of amazement to me how Paul manages to run a busy research lab and post regular updates on his blog.
The power of The Niche is that it’s easy for non-science folk – like me – to read and understand without having to do a deep dive into Google search or Wikipedia. It’s well written, informative and often very witty. If you are looking for a good website to check whether some news about stem cells is real or suspect, this is a great place to start.
This site is run by another old friend of CIRM’s, Don Reed. Don has written extensively about stem cell research in general, and CIRM in particular. His motivation to do this work is clear. Don says he’s not a doctor or scientist, he’s something much simpler:
“No. I am just a father fighting for his paralyzed son, and the only way to fix him is to advance cures for everyone. Also, my mother died of breast cancer, my sister from leukemia, and I myself am a prostate cancer survivor. So, I have some very personal reasons to support the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and to want state funding for stem cell and other regenerative medicine research to continue in California!”
The power of Don’s writing is that he always tells human stories, real tales about real people. He makes everything he does accessible, memorable and often very funny. If I’m looking for ways to explain something complex and translate it into everyday English, I’ll often look at Don’s work, he knows how to talk to people about the science without having their eyes cloud over.
This is published by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), the leading professional organization for stem cell scientists. You might expect a blog from such a science-focused organization to be heavy going for the ordinary person, but you’d be wrong.
A Closer Look at Stem Cells is specifically designed for people who want to learn more about stem cells but don’t have the time to get a PhD. They have sections explaining what stem cells are, what they can and can’t do, even a glossary explaining different terms used in the field (I used to think the Islets of Langerhans were small islands off the coast of Germany till I went to this site).
One of the best, and most important, parts of the site is the section on clinical trials, helping people understand what’s involved in these trials and the kinds of things you need to consider before signing up for one.
Of course, the US doesn’t have a monopoly on stem cell research and that’s reflected in the next two choices. One is the Signals Blog from our friends to the north in Canada. This is an easy-to-read site that describes itself as the “Insiders perspective on the world of stem cells and regenerative medicine.” The ‘Categories ‘dropdown menu allows you to choose what you want to read, and it gives you lots of options from the latest news to a special section for patients, even a section on ethical and legal issues.
As you may have guessed from the title this is by our chums across the pond in Europe. They lay out their mission on page one saying they want to help people make sense of stem cells:
“As a network of scientists and academics, we provide independent, expert-reviewed information and road-tested educational resources on stem cells and their impact on society. We also work with people affected by conditions, educators, regulators, media, healthcare professionals and policymakers to foster engagement and develop material that meets their needs.”
True to their word they have great information on the latest research, broken down by different types of disease, different types of stem cell etc. And like CIRM they also have some great educational resources for teachers to use in the classroom.
On December 12th we hosted our latest ‘Facebook Live: Ask the Stem Cell Team’ event. This time around we really did mean team. We had a host of our Science Officers answering questions from friends and supporters of CIRM. We got a lot of questions and didn’t have enough time to address them all. So here’s answers to all the questions.
What are the obstacles to using partial cellular reprogramming to return people’s entire bodies to a youthful state.Paul Hartman. San Leandro, California
Dr. Kelly Shepard: Certainly, scientists have observed that various manipulations of cells, including reprogramming, partial reprogramming, de-differentiation and trans-differentiation, can restore or change properties of cells, and in some cases, these changes can reflect a more “youthful” state, such as having longer telomeres, better proliferative capacity, etc. However, some of these same rejuvenating properties, outside of their normal context, could be harmful or deadly, for example if a cell began to grow and divide when or where it shouldn’t, similar to cancer. For this reason, I believe the biggest obstacles to making this approach a reality are twofold: 1) our current, limited understanding of the nature of partially reprogrammed cells; and 2) our inability to control the fate of those cells that have been partially reprogrammed, especially if they are inside a living organism. Despite the challenges, I think there will be step wise advances where these types of approaches will be applied, starting with specific tissues. For example, CIRM has recently funded an approach that uses reprogramming to make “rejuvenated” versions of T cells for fighting lung cancer. There is also a lot of interest in using such approaches to restore the reparative capacity of aged muscle. Perhaps some successes in these more limited areas will be the basis for expanding to a broader use.
What’s going on with Stanford’s stem cell trials for stroke? I remember the first trial went really well In 2016 have not heard anything about since? Elvis Arnold
Dr. Lila Collins: Hi Elvis, this is an evolving story. I believe you are referring to SanBio’s phase 1/2a stroke trial, for which Stanford was a site. This trial looked at the safety and feasibility of SanBio’s donor or allogeneic stem cell product in chronic stroke patients who still had motor deficits from their strokes, even after completing physical therapy when natural recovery has stabilized. As you note, some of the treated subjects had promising motor recoveries.
SanBio has since completed a larger, randomized phase 2b trial in stroke, and they have released the high-level results in a press release. While the trial did not meet its primary endpoint of improving motor deficits in chronic stroke, SanBio conducted a very similar randomized trial in patients with stable motor deficits from chronic traumatic brain injury (TBI). In this trial, SanBio saw positive results on motor recovery with their product. In fact, this product is planned to move towards a conditional approval in Japan and has achieved expedited regulatory status in the US, termed RMAT, in TBI which means it could be available more quickly to patients if all goes well. SanBio plans to continue to investigate their product in stroke, so I would stay tuned as the work unfolds.
Also, since you mentioned Stanford, I should note that Dr Gary Steinberg, who was a clinical investigator in the SanBio trial you mentioned, will soon be conducting a trial with a different product that he is developing, neural progenitor cells, in chronic stroke. The therapy looks promising in preclinical models and we are hopeful it will perform well for patients in the clinic.
I am a stroke survivor will stem cell treatment able to restore my motor skills?Ruperto
Dr. Lila Collins:
Hi Ruperto. Restoring motor loss after stroke is a very active area of research. I’ll touch upon a few ongoing stem cell trials. I’d just like to please advise that you watch my colleague’s comments on stem cell clinics (these can be found towards the end of the blog) to be sure that any clinical research in which you participate is as safe as possible and regulated by FDA.
Back to stroke, I mentioned SanBio’s ongoing work to address motor skill loss in chronic stroke earlier. UK based Reneuron is also conducting a phase 2 trial, using a neural progenitor cell as a candidate therapy to help recover persistent motor disability after stroke (chronic). Dr Gary Steinberg at Stanford is also planning to conduct a clinical trial of a human embryonic stem cell-derived neuronal progenitor cell in stroke.
There is also promising work being sponsored by Athersys in acute stroke. Athersys published results from their randomized, double blinded placebo controlled Ph2 trial of their Multistem product in patients who had suffered a stroke within 24-48 hours. After intravenous delivery, the cells improved a composite measure of stroke recovery, including motor recovery. Rather than acting directly on the brain, Multistem seems to work by traveling to the spleen and reducing the inflammatory response to a stroke that can make the injury worse.
Athersys is currently recruiting a phase 3 trial of its Multistem product in acute stroke (within 1.5 days of the stroke). The trial has an accelerated FDA designation, called RMAT and a special protocol assessment. This means that if the trial is conducted as planned and it reaches the results agreed to with the FDA, the therapy could be cleared for marketing. Results from this trial should be available in about two years.
Questions from several hemorrhagic stroke survivors who say most clinical trials are for people with ischemic strokes. Could stem cells help hemorrhagic stroke patients as well?
Dr. Lila Collins:
Regarding hemorrhagic stroke, you are correct the bulk of cell therapies for stroke target ischemic stroke, perhaps because this accounts for the vast bulk of strokes, about 85%.
That said, hemorrhagic strokes are not rare and tend to be more deadly. These strokes are caused by bleeding into or around the brain which damages neurons. They can even increase pressure in the skull causing further damage. Because of this the immediate steps treating these strokes are aimed at addressing the initial bleeding insult and the blood in the brain.
While most therapies in development target ischemic stroke, successful therapies developed to repair neuronal damage or even some day replace lost neurons, could be beneficial after hemorrhagic stroke as well.
I had an Ischemic stroke in 2014, and my vision was also affected. Can stem cells possibly help with my vision issues. James Russell
Dr. Lila Collins:
Hi James. Vision loss from stroke is complex and the type of loss depends upon where the stroke occurred (in the actual eye, the optic nerve or to the other parts of the brain controlling they eye or interpreting vision). The results could be:
Visual loss from damage to the retina
You could have a normal eye with damage to the area of the brain that controls the eye’s movement
You could have damage to the part of the brain that interprets vision.
You can see that to address these various issues, we’d need different cell replacement approaches to repair the retina or the parts of the brain that were damaged.
Replacing lost neurons is an active effort that at the moment is still in the research stages. As you can imagine, this is complex because the neurons have to make just the right connections to be useful.
Is there any stem cell therapy for optical nerve damage? Deanna Rice
Dr. Ingrid Caras: There is currently no proven stem cell therapy to treat optical nerve damage, even though there are shady stem cell clinics offering treatments. However, there are some encouraging early gene therapy studies in mice using a virus called AAV to deliver growth factors that trigger regeneration of the damaged nerve. These studies suggest that it may be possible to restore at least some visual function in people blinded by optic nerve damage from glaucoma
I read an article about ReNeuron’s retinitis pigmentosa clinical trial update. In the article, it states: “The company’s treatment is a subretinal injection of human retinal progenitors — cells which have almost fully developed into photoreceptors, the light-sensing retinal cells that make vision possible.” My question is: If they can inject hRPC, why not fully developed photoreceptors?Leonard
Dr. Kelly Shepard: There is evidence from other studies, including from other tissue types such as blood, pancreas, heart and liver, that fully developed (mature) cell types tend not to engraft as well upon transplantation, that is the cells do not establish themselves and survive long term in their new environment. In contrast, it has been observed that cells in a slightly less “mature” state, such as those in the progenitor stage, are much more likely to establish themselves in a tissue, and then differentiate into more mature cell types over time. This question gets at the crux of a key issue for many new therapies, i.e. what is the best cell type to use, and the best timing to use it.
My question for the “Ask the Stem Cell Team” event is: When will jCyte publish their Phase IIb clinical trial results. Chris Allen
Dr. Ingrid Caras: The results will be available sometime in 2020.
I understand the hRPC cells are primarily neurotropic (rescue/halt cell death); however, the literature also says hRPC can become new photoreceptors. My questions are:Approximately what percentage develop into functioning photoreceptors? And what percentage of the injected hRPC are currently surviving?Leonard Furber, an RP Patient
Dr. Kelly Shepard: While we can address these questions in the lab and in animal models, until there is a clinical trial, it is not possible to truly recreate the environment and stresses that the cells will undergo once they are transplanted into a human, into the site where they are expected to survive and function. Thus, the true answer to this question may not be known until after clinical trials are performed and the results can be evaluated. Even then, it is not always possible to monitor the fate of cells after transplantation without removing tissues to analyze (which may not be feasible), or without being able to transplant labeled cells that can be readily traced.
Dr. Ingrid Caras – Although the cells have been shown to be capable of developing into photoreceptors, we don’t know if this actually happens when the cells are injected into a patient’s eye. The data so far suggest that the cells work predominantly by secreting growth factors that rescue damaged retinal cells or even reverse the damage. So one possible outcome is that the cells slow or prevent further deterioration of vision. But an additional possibility is that damaged retinal cells that are still alive but are not functioning properly may become healthy and functional again which could result in an improvement in vision.
What advances have been made using stem cells for the treatment of Type 2 Diabetes?Mary Rizzo
Dr. Ross Okamura: Type 2 Diabetes (T2D) is a disease where the body is unable to maintain normal glucose levels due to either resistance to insulin-regulated control of blood sugar or insufficient insulin production from pancreatic beta cells. The onset of disease has been associated with lifestyle influenced factors including body mass, stress, sleep apnea and physical activity, but it also appears to have a genetic component based upon its higher prevalence in certain populations.
Type 1 Diabetes (T1D) differs from T2D in that in T1D patients the pancreatic beta cells have been destroyed by the body’s immune system and the requirement for insulin therapy is absolute upon disease onset rather than gradually developing over time as in many T2D cases. Currently the only curative approach to alleviate the heavy burden of disease management in T1D has been donor pancreas or islet transplantation. However, the supply of donor tissue is small relative to the number of diabetic patients. Donor islet and pancreas transplants also require immune suppressive drugs to prevent allogenic immune rejection and the use of these drugs carry additional health concerns. However, for some patients with T1D, especially those who may develop potentially fatal hypoglycemia, immune suppression is worth the risk.
To address the issue of supply, there has been significant activity in stem cell research to produce insulin secreting beta cells from pluripotent stem cells and recent clinical data from Viacyte’s CIRM funded trial indicates that implanted allogeneic human stem cell derived cells in T1D patients can produce circulating c-peptide, a biomarker for insulin. While the trial is not designed specifically to cure insulin-dependent T2D patients, the ability to produce and successfully engraft stem cell-derived beta cells would be able to help all insulin-dependent diabetic patients.
It’s also worth noting that there is a sound scientific reason to clinically test a patient-derived pluripotent stem cell-based insulin-producing cells in insulin-dependent T2D diabetic patients; the cells in this case could be evaluated for their ability to cure diabetes in the absence of needing to prevent both allogeneic and autoimmune responses.
SPINAL CORD INJURY
Is there any news on clinical trials for spinal cord injury? Le Ly
Kevin McCormack: The clinical trial CIRM was funding, with Asterias (now part of a bigger company called Lineage Cell Therapeutics, is now completed and the results were quite encouraging. In a news release from November of 2019 Brian Culley, CEO of Lineage Cell Therapeutics, described the results this way.
“We remain extremely excited about the potential for OPC1 (the name of the therapy used) to provide enhanced motor recovery to patients with spinal cord injuries. We are not aware of any other investigative therapy for SCI (spinal cord injury) which has reported as encouraging clinical outcomes as OPC1, particularly with continued improvement beyond 1 year. Overall gains in motor function for the population assessed to date have continued, with Year 2 assessments measuring the same or higher than at Year 1. For example, 5 out of 6 Cohort 2 patients have recovered two or more motor levels on at least one side as of their Year 2 visit whereas 4 of 6 patients in this group had recovered two motor levels as of their Year 1 visit. To put these improvements into perspective, a one motor level gain means the ability to move one’s arm, which contributes to the ability to feed and clothe oneself or lift and transfer oneself from a wheelchair. These are tremendously meaningful improvements to quality of life and independence. Just as importantly, the overall safety of OPC1 has remained excellent and has been maintained 2 years following administration, as measured by MRI’s in patients who have had their Year 2 follow-up visits to date. We look forward to providing further updates on clinical data from SCiStar as patients continue to come in for their scheduled follow up visits.”
Lineage Cell Therapeutics plans to meet with the FDA in 2020 to discuss possible next steps for this therapy.
In the meantime the only other clinical trial I know that is still recruiting is one run by a company called Neuralstem. Here is a link to information about that trial on the www.clinicaltrials.gov website.
Now that the Brainstorm ALS trial is finished looking for new patients do you have any idea how it’s going and when can we expect to see results? Angela Harrison Johnson
Dr. Ingrid Caras: The treated patients have to be followed for a period of time to assess how the therapy is working and then the data will need to be analyzed. So we will not expect to see the results probably for another year or two.
Are there treatments for autism or fragile x using stem cells? Magda Sedarous
Dr. Kelly Shepard: Autism and disorders on the autism spectrum represent a collection of many different disorders that share some common features, yet have different causes and manifestations, much of which we still do not understand. Knowing the origin of a disorder and how it affects cells and systems is the first step to developing new therapies. CIRM held a workshop on Autism in 2009 to brainstorm potential ways that stem cell research could have an impact. A major recommendation was to exploit stem cells and new technological advances to create cells and tissues, such as neurons, in the lab from autistic individuals that could then be studied in great detail. CIRM followed this recommendation and funded several early-stage awards to investigate the basis of autism, including Rett Syndrome, Fragile X, Timothy Syndrome, and other spectrum disorders. While these newer investigations have not yet led to therapies that can be tested in humans, this remains an active area of investigation. Outside of CIRM funding, we are aware of more mature studies exploring the effects of umbilical cord blood or other specific stem cell types in treating autism, such as an ongoing clinical trial conducted at Duke University.
What is happening with Parkinson’s research? Hanifa Gaphoor
Dr. Kent Fitzgerald: Parkinson’s disease certainly has a significant amount of ongoing work in the regenerative medicine and stem cell research.
The nature of cell loss in the brain, specifically the dopaminergic cells responsible for regulating the movement, has long been considered a good candidate for cell replacement therapy.
This is largely due to the hypothesis that restoring function to these cells would reverse Parkinson’s symptoms. This makes a lot of sense as front line therapy for the disease for many years has been dopamine replacement through L-dopa pills etc. Unfortunately, over time replacing dopamine through a pill loses its benefit, whereas replacing or fixing the cells themselves should be a more permanent fix.
Because a specific population of cells in one part of the brain are lost in the disease, multiple labs and clinicians have sought to replace or augment these cells by transplantation of “new” functional cells able to restore function to the area an theoretically restore voluntary motor control to patients with Parkinson’s disease.
Early clinical research showed some promise, however also yielded mixed results, using fetal tissue transplanted into the brains of Parkinson’s patients. As it turns out, the cell types required to restore movement and avoid side effects are somewhat nuanced. The field has moved away from fetal tissue and is currently pursuing the use of multiple stem cell types that are driven to what is believed to be the correct subtype of cell to repopulate the lost cells in the patient.
One project CIRM sponsored in this area with Jeanne Loring sought to develop a cell replacement therapy using stem cells from the patients themselves that have been reprogrammed into the kinds of cell damaged by Parkinson’s. This type of approach may ultimately avoid issues with the cells avoiding rejection by the immune system as can be seen with other types of transplants (i.e. liver, kidney, heart etc).
Still, others are using cutting edge gene therapy technology, like the clinical phase project CIRM is sponsoring with Krystof Bankiewicz to investigate the delivery of a gene (GDNF) to the brain that may help to restore the activity of neurons in the Parkinson’s brain that are no longer working as they should.
The bulk of the work in the field of PD at the present remains centered on replacing or restoring the dopamine producing population of cells in the brain that are affected in disease.
Any plans for Huntington’s?Nikhat Kuchiki
Dr. Lisa Kadyk: The good news is that there are now several new therapeutic approaches to Huntington’s Disease that are at various stages of preclinical and clinical development, including some that are CIRM funded. One CIRM-funded program led by Dr. Leslie Thompson at UC Irvine is developing a cell-based therapeutic that consists of neural stem cells that have been manufactured from embryonic stem cells. When these cells are injected into the brain of a mouse that has a Huntington’s Disease mutation, the cells engraft and begin to differentiate into new neurons. Improvements are seen in the behavioral and electrophysiological deficits in these mutant mice, suggesting that similar improvements might be seen in people with the disease. Currently, CIRM is funding Dr. Thompson and her team to carry out rigorous safety studies in animals using these cells, in preparation for submitting an application to the FDA to test the therapy in human patients in a clinical trial.
There are other, non-cell-based therapies also being tested in clinical trials now, using anti-sense oligonucleotides (Ionis, Takeda) to lower the expression of the Huntington protein. Another HTT-lowering approach is similar – but uses miRNAs to lower HTT levels (UniQure,Voyager)
TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY (TBI)
My 2.5 year old son recently suffered a hypoxic brain injury resulting in motor and speech disabilities. There are several clinical trials underway for TBI in adults. My questions are:
Will the results be scalable to pediatric use and how long do you think it would take before it is available to children?
I’m wondering why the current trials have chosen to go the route of intracranial injections as opposed to something slightly less invasive like an intrathecal injection?
Is there a time window period in which stem cells should be administered by, after which the administration is deemed not effective?
Dr. Kelly Shepard: TBI and other injuries of the nervous system are characterized by a lot of inflammation at the time of injury, which is thought to interfere with the healing process- and thus some approaches are intended to be delivered after that inflammation subsides. However, we are aware of approaches that intend to deliver a therapy to a chronic injury, or one that has occurred previously. Thus, the answer to this question may depend on how the intended therapy is supposed to work. For example, is the idea to grow new neurons, or is it to promote the survival of neurons of other cells that were spared by the injury? Is the therapy intended to address a specific symptom, such as seizures? Is the therapy intended to “fill a gap” left behind after inflammation subsides, which might not restore all function but might ameliorate certain symptoms.? There is still a lot we don’t understand about the brain and the highly sophisticated network of connections that cannot be reversed by only replacing neurons, or only reducing inflammation, etc. However, if trials are well designed, they should yield useful information even if the therapy is not as effective as hoped, and this information will pave the way to newer approaches and our technology and understanding evolves.
We have had a doctor recommending administering just the growth factors derived from MSC stem cells. Does the science work that way? Is it possible to isolate the growth factors and boost the endogenous growth factors by injecting allogenic growth factors?
Dr. Stephen Lin: Several groups have published studies on the therapeutic effects in non-human animal models of using nutrient media from MSC cultures that contain secreted factors, or extracellular vesicles from cells called exosomes that carry protein or nucleic acid factors. Scientifically it is possible to isolate the factors that are responsible for the therapeutic effect, although to date no specific factor or combination of factors have been identified to mimic the effects of the undefined mixtures in the media and exosomes. At present no regulatory approved clinical therapy has been developed using this approach.
PREDATORY STEM CELL CLINICS
What practical measures are being taken to address unethical practitioners whose bad surgeries are giving stem cell advances a bad reputation and are making forward research difficult?Kathy Jean Schultz
Dr. Geoff Lomax: Terrific question! I have been doing quite a bit research into the history of this issue of unethical practitioners and I found an 1842 reference to “quack medicines.” Clearly this is nothing new. In that day, the author appealed to make society “acquainted with the facts.”
In California, we have taken steps to (1) acquaint patients with the facts about stem cell treatments and (2) advance FDA authorized treatments for unmet medical needs.
First, CIRM work with Senator Hernandez in 2017 to write a law the requires provides to disclose to patient that a stem cell therapy has not been approved by the Food and Drug administration.
We continue to work with the State Legislature and Medical Board of California to build on policies that require accurate disclosure of the facts to patients.
Second, our clinical trial network the — Alpha Stem Cell Clinics – have supported over 100 FDA-authorized clinical trials to advance responsible clinical research for unmet medical needs.
I’m curious if adipose stem cell being used at clinics at various places in the country is helpful or beneficial?Cheri Hicks
Adipose tissue has been widely used particularly in plastic and reconstructive surgery. Many practitioners suggest adipose cells are beneficial in this context. With regard to regenerative medicine and / or the ability to treat disease and injury, I am not aware of any large randomized clinical trials that demonstrate the safety and efficacy of adipose-derived stem cells used in accordance with FDA guidelines.
I went to a “Luncheon about Stem Cell Injections”. It sounded promising. I went thru with it and got the injections because I was desperate from my knee pain. The price of stem cell injections was $3500 per knee injection. All went well. I have had no complications, but haven’t noticed any real major improvement, and here I am a year later. My questions are:
1) I wonder on where the typical injection cells are coming from?
2) I wonder what is the actual cost of the cells?
3) What kind of results are people getting from all these “pop up” clinics or established clinics that are adding this to there list of offerings?
Dr. Geoff Lomax: You raise a number of questions and point here; they are all very good and it’s is hard to give a comprehensive response to each one, but here is my reaction:
There are many practitioners in the field of orthopedics who sincerely believe in the potential of cell-based treatments to treat injury / pain
Most of the evidence presented is case reports that individuals have benefited
The challenge we face is not know the exact type of injury and cell treatments used.
Well controlled clinical trials would really help us understand for what cells (or cell products) and for what injury would be helpful
Prices of $3000 to $5000 are not uncommon, and like other forms of private medicine there is often a considerable mark-up in relation to cost of goods.
You are correct that there have not been reports of serious injury for knee injections
However the effectiveness is not clear while simultaneously millions of people have been aided by knee replacements.
Do stem cells have benefits for patients going through chemotherapy and radiation therapy?Ruperto
Dr. Kelly Shepard: The idea that a stem cell therapy could help address effects of chemotherapy or radiation is being and has been pursued by several investigators over the years, including some with CIRM support. Towards the earlier stages, people are looking at the ability of different stem cell-derived neural cell preparations to replace or restore function of certain brain cells that are damaged by the effects of chemotherapy or radiation. In a completely different type of approach, a group at City of Hope is exploring whether a bone marrow transplant with specially modified stem cells can provide a protective effect against the chemotherapy that is used to treat a form of brain cancer, glioblastoma. This study is in the final stage of development that, if all goes well, culminates with application to the FDA to allow initiation of a clinical trial to test in people.
Dr. Ingrid Caras: That’s an interesting and valid question. There is a Phase 1 trial ongoing that is evaluating a novel type of stem/progenitor cell from the umbilical cord of healthy deliveries. In animal studies, these cells have been shown to reduce the toxic effects of chemotherapy and radiation and to speed up recovery. These cells are now being tested in a First-in-human clinical trial in patients who are undergoing high-dose chemotherapy to treat their disease.
There is a researcher at Stanford, Michelle Monje, who is investigating that the role of damage to stem cells in the cognitive problems that sometimes arise after chemo- and radiation therapy (“chemobrain”). It appears that damage to stem cells in the brain, especially those responsible for producing oligodendrocytes, contributes to chemobrain. In CIRM-funded work, Dr. Monje has identified small molecules that may help prevent or ameliorate the symptoms of chemobrain.
Is it possible to use a technique developed to fight one disease to also fight another? For instance, the bubble baby disease, which has cured (I think) more than 50 children, may also help fight sickle cell anemia? Don Reed.
Dr. Lisa Kadyk: Hi Don. Yes, the same general technique can often be applied to more than one disease, although it needs to be “customized” for each disease. In the example you cite, the technique is an “autologous gene-modified bone marrow transplant” – meaning the cells come from the patient themselves. This technique is relevant for single gene mutations that cause diseases of the blood (hematopoietic) system. For example, in the case of “bubble baby” diseases, a single mutation can cause failure of immune cell development, leaving the child unable to fight infections, hence the need to have them live in a sterile “bubble”. To cure that disease, blood stem cells, which normally reside in the bone marrow, are collected from the patient and then a normal version of the defective gene is introduced into the cells, where it is incorporated into the chromosomes. Then, the corrected stem cells are transplanted back into the patient’s body, where they can repopulate the blood system with cells expressing the normal copy of the gene, thus curing the disease.
A similar approach could be used to treat sickle cell disease, since it is also caused by a single gene mutation in a gene (beta hemoglobin) that is expressed in blood cells. The same technique would be used as I described for bubble baby disease but would differ in the gene that is introduced into the patient’s blood stem cells.
Is there any concern that CIRM’s lack of support in basic research will hamper the amount of new approaches that can reach clinical stages? Jason
Dr. Kelly Shepard: CIRM always has and continues to believe that basic research is vital to the field of regenerative medicine. Over the past 10 years CIRM has invested $904 million in “discovery stage/basic research”, and about $215 million in training grants that supported graduate students, post docs, clinical fellows, undergraduate, masters and high school students performing basic stem cell research. In the past couple of years, with only a limited amount of funds remaining, CIRM made a decision to invest most of the remaining funds into later stage projects, to support them through the difficult transition from bench to bedside. However, even now, CIRM continues to sponsor some basic research through its Bridges and SPARK Training Grant programs, where undergraduate, masters and even high school students are conducting stem cell research in world class stem cell laboratories, many of which are the same laboratories that were supported through CIRM basic research grants over the past 10 years. While basic stem cell research continues to receive a substantial level of support from the NIH ($1.8 billion in 2018, comprehensively on stem cell projects) and other funders, CIRM believes continued support for basic research, especially in key areas of stem cell research and vital opportunities, will always be important for discovering and developing new treatments.
What is the future of the use of crispr cas9 in clinical trials in california/globally. Art Venegas
Dr. Kelly Shepard: CRISPR/Cas9 is a powerful gene editing tool. In only a few years, CRISPR/Cas9 technology has taken the field by storm and there are already a few CRISPR/Cas9 based treatments being tested in clinical trials in the US. There are also several new treatments that are at the IND enabling stage of development, which is the final testing stage required by the FDA before a clinical trial can begin. Most of these clinical trials involving CRISPR go through an “ex vivo” approach, taking cells from the patient with a disease causing gene, correcting the gene in the laboratory using CRISPR, and reintroducing the cells carrying the corrected gene back into the patient for treatment. Sickle cell disease is a prime example of a therapy being developed using this strategy and CIRM funds two projects that are preparing for clinical trials with this approach. CRISPR is also being used to develop the next generation of cancer T-cell therapies (e.g. CAR-T), where T-cells – a vital part of our immune system – are modified to target and destroy cancer cell populations. Using CRISPR to edit cells directly in patients “in vivo” (inside the body) is far less common currently but is also being developed. It is important to note that any FDA sanctioned “in vivo” CRISPR clinical trial in people will only modify organ-specific cells where the benefits cannot be passed on to subsequent generations. There is a ban on funding for what are called germ line cells, where any changes could be passed down to future generations.
CIRM is currently supporting multiple CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing projects in California from the discovery or most basic stage of research, through the later stages before applying to test the technique in people in a clinical trial.
While the field is new – if early safety signals from the pioneering trials are good, we might expect a number of new CRISPR-based approaches to enter clinical testing over the next few years. The first of these will will likely be in the areas of bone marrow transplant to correct certain blood/immune or metabolic diseases, and cancer immunotherapies, as these types of approaches are the best studied and furthest along in the pipeline.
Explain the differences between gene therapy and stem cell therapy?Renee Konkol
Dr. Stephen Lin: Gene therapy is the direct modification of cells in a patient to treat a disease. Most gene therapies use modified, harmless viruses to deliver the gene into the patient. Gene therapy has recently seen many success in the clinic, with the first FDA approved therapy for a gene induced form of blindness in 2017 and other approvals for genetic forms of smooth muscle atrophy and amyloidosis.
Stem cell therapy is the introduction of stem cells into patients to treat a disease, usually with the purpose of replacing damaged or defective cells that contribute to the disease. Stem cell therapies can be derived from pluripotent cells that have the potential to turn into any cell in the body and are directed towards a specific organ lineage for the therapy. Stem cell therapies can also be derived from other cells, called progenitors, that have the ability to turn into a limited number of other cells in the body. for example hematopoietic or blood stem cells (HSCs), which are found in bone marrow, can turn into other cells of the blood system including B-cells and T-cells: while mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), which are usually found in fat tissue, can turn into bone, cartilage, and fat cells. The source of these cells can be from the patient’s own body (autologous) or from another person (allogeneic).
Gene therapy is often used in combination with cell therapies when cells are taken from the patient and, in the lab, modified genetically to correct the mutation or to insert a correct form of the defective gene, before being returned to patients. Often referred to as “ex vivo gene therapy” – because the changes are made outside the patient’s body – these therapies include Chimeric Antigen Receptor T (CAR-T) cells for cancer therapy and gene modified HSCs to treat blood disorders such as severe combined immunodeficiency and sickle cell disease. This is an exciting area that has significantly improved and even cured many people already.
Currently, how can the outcome of CIRM stem cell medicine projects and clinical trials be soundly interpreted when their stem cell-specific doses are not known?James L. Sherley, M.D., Ph.D., Director. Asymmetrex, LLC
Dr. Stephen Lin: Stem cell therapies that receive approval to conduct clinical trials must submit a package of data to the FDA that includes studies that demonstrate their effectiveness, usually in animal models of the disease that the cell therapy is targeting. Those studies have data on the dose of the cell therapy that creates the therapeutic effect, which is used to estimate cell doses for the clinical trial. CIRM funds discovery and translational stage awards to conduct these types of studies to prepare cell therapies for clinical trials. The clinical trial is also often designed to test multiple doses of the cell therapy to determine the one that has the best therapeutic effect. Dosing can be very challenging with cell therapies because of issues including survival, engraftment, and immune rejection, but CIRM supports studies designed to provide data to give the best estimate possible.
Is there any research on using stem cells to increase the length of long bones in people?” For example, injecting stem cells into the growth plates to see if the cells can be used to lengthen limbs.Sajid
Dr. Kelly Shepard: There is quite a lot of ongoing research seeking ways to repair bones with stem cell based approaches, which is not the same but somewhat related. Much of this is geared towards repairing the types of bone injuries that do not heal well naturally on their own (large gaps, dead bone lesions, degenerative bone conditions). Also, a lot of this research involves engineering bone tissues in the lab and introducing the engineered tissue into a bone lesion that need be repaired. What occurs naturally at the growth plate is a complex interaction between many different cell types, much of which we do not fully understand. We do not fully understand how to use the cells that are used to engineer bone tissue in the lab. However, a group at Stanford, with some CIRM support, recently discovered a “skeletal stem cell” that exists naturally at the ends of human bones and at sites of fracture. These are quite different than MSCs and offer a new path to be explored for repairing and generating bone.
Don Reed has been a champion of CIRM even before there was a CIRM. He’s a pioneer in pushing for funding for stem cell research and now he’s working hard to raise awareness about the difference that funding is making.
In a recent article on Daily Kos, Don highlighted one of the less celebrated partners in this research, the humble rat.
A BETTER RAT? Benefit #62 of the California Stem Cell Agency
By Don C. Reed
When I told my wife Gloria I was writing an article about rats, she had several comments, including: “Oo, ugh!” and also “That’s disgusting!”
Obviously, there are problems with rats, such as
when they chew through electrical wires, which may cause a short circuit
and burn down the house. Also, they are blamed for carrying diseased
fleas in their ears and spreading the Black Plague, which in 1340 killed
half of China and one-third of Europe—but this is not certain. The
plague may in fact have been transmitted by human-carried parasites.
But there are positive aspects to rats as well. For
instance: “…a rat paired with another that has a disability…will be
very kind to the other rat. Usually, help is offered with food,
cleaning, and general care.”—GUIDE TO THE RAT, by Ginger Cardinal.
Above all, anyone who has ever been sick owes a
debt to rats, specifically the Norway rat with that spectacular name,
rattus norvegicus domesticus, found in labs around the world.
I first realized its importance on March 1, 2002,
when I held in my hand a rat which had been paralyzed, but then
recovered the use of its limbs.
The rat’s name was Fighter, and she had been given a derivative of embryonic stem cells, which restored function to her limbs. (This was the famous stem cell therapy begun by Hans Keirstead with a Roman Reed grant, developed by Geron, and later by CIRM and Asterias, which later benefited humans.)
As I felt the tiny muscles struggling to be free,
it was like touching tomorrow— while my paralyzed son, Roman Reed, sat
in his wheelchair just a few feet away.
Was it different working with rats instead of mice? I had heard that the far smaller lab mice were more “bitey” than rats.
Wanting to know more about the possibilities of a “better rat”, I went to the CIRM website, (www.cirm.ca.gov) hunted up the “Tools and Technology III” section, and the following complicated sentence::
“Embryonic stem cell- based generation of rat models for assessing human cellular therapies.”
Hmm. With science writing, it always takes me a
couple of readings to know what they were talking about. But I
recognized some of the words, so that was a start.
“Stemcells… rat models… human therapies….”
I called up Dr. Qilong Ying, Principle Investigator (PI) of the study.
As he began to talk, I felt a “click” of recognition, as if, like pieces of a puzzle, facts were fitting together.
It reminded me of Jacques Cousteau, the great
underwater explorer, when he tried to invent a way to breathe
underwater. He had the compressed air tank, and a mouthpiece that would
release air—but it came in a rush, not normal breathing.
So he visited his friend, race car mechanic Emil
Gagnan, and told him, “I need something that will give me air, but only
when I inhale,”– and Gagnan said: “Like that?” and pointed to a metal
contraption on a nearby table.
It was something invented for cars. But by adding
it to what Cousteau already had, the Cousteau-Gagnan SCUBA (Self
Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) gear was born—and the ocean
could now be explored.
Qi-Long Ying’s contribution to science may also be a piece of the puzzle of cure…
A long-term collaboration with Dr. Austin Smith centered on an attempt to do with rats what had done with mice.
In 2007, the Nobel Prize in Medicine had been won by Dr. Martin Evans, Mario Capecchi, and Oliver Smithies. Working independently, they developed “knock-out” and “knock-in” mice, meaning to take out a gene, or put one in.
But could they do the same with rats?
“We and others worked very, very hard, and got nowhere,” said Dr. Evans.
Why was this important?
Many human diseases cannot be mimicked in the
mouse—but might be in the rat. This is for several reasons: the rat is
about ten times larger; its internal workings are closer to those of a
human; and the rat is considered several million years closer (in
evolutionary terms) to humans than the mouse.
In 2008 (“in China, that is the year of the rat,” noted Dr. Ying in our conversation) he received the first of three grants from CIRM.
“We proposed to use the classical embryonic stem
cell-based gene-targeting technology to generate rat models mimicking
human heart failure, diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases…”
How did he do?
In 2010, Science Magazine honored him with
inclusion in their “Top 10 Breakthroughs for using embryonic stem
cell-based gene targeting to produce the world’s first knockout rats,
modified to lack one or more genes…”
And in 2016, he and Dr. Smith received the McEwen Award for Innovation, the highest honor bestowed by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR).
Using knowledge learned from the new (and more
relevant to humans) lab rat, it may be possible to develop methods for
the expansion of stem cells directly inside the patient’s own bone
marrow. Stem cells derived in this fashion would be far less likely to
be rejected by the patient. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, they would
be “of the patient, by the patient and for the patient—and shall not
perish from the patient”—sorry!
Several of the rats generated in Ying’s lab (to mimic human diseases) were so successful that they have been donated to the Rat Research Resource center so that other scientists can use them for their study.
“Maybe in the future we will develop a cure for some diseases because of knowledge from using rat models,” said Ying. “I think it’s very possible. So we want more researchers from USC and beyond to come and use this technology.”
Students present their research finding at the 2016 CIRM Bridges conference
One of the programs people here at CIRM love is our Bridges to Stem Cell Research Awards. These are given to undergraduate and master’s level college students, to train the next generation of stem cell scientists. How good a program is it? It’s terrific. You don’t have to take my word for it. Just read this piece by a great stem cell champion, Don Reed. Don is the author of two books about CIRM, Stem Cell Battles and California Cures! so he clearly knows what he’s talking about.
ADVENTURES ON “BRIDGES”: Humboldt State Stem Cell Research
By Don C. Reed
Imagine yourself as a California college student, hoping to become a stem cell researcher. Like almost all students you are in need of financial help, and so (let’s say) you asked your college counselor if there were any scholarships available.
To your delight, she said, well, there is this wonderful internship program called Bridges, funded by the California Institution for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) which funds training in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine — and so, naturally, you applied…
After doing some basic training at the college, you would receive a grant (roughly $40,000) for a one-year internship at a world-renowned stem cell research facility. What an incredible leap forward in your career, hands-on experience (essentially a first job, great “experience” for the resume) as well an expert education.
Where are the 14 California colleges participating in this program? Click below:
Let’s take a look at one of these college programs in action: find out what happened to a few of the students who received a Bridges award, crossing the gap between studying stem cell research and actually applying it.
HSU information is courtesy of Dr. Amy Sprowles, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences and Co-Director of the Bridges program at Humboldt State University (HSU), 279 miles north of San Francisco.
“The HSU Bridges program”, says Dr. Sprowles, “was largely developed by four people: Rollin Richmond, then HSU President, who worked closely with Susan Baxter, Executive Director of the CSU Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology, to secure the CIRM Bridges initiative; HSU Professor of Biological Sciences Jacob Varkey, who pioneered HSU’s undergraduate biomedical education program”, and Sprowles herself, at the time a lecturer with a PhD in Biochemistry.
The program has two parts: a beginning course in stem cell research, and a twelve-month internship in a premiere stem cell research laboratory. For HSU, these are at Stanford University, UC Davis, UCSF, or the Scripps Research Institute.
Like all CIRM Bridges programs, the HSU stem cell program is individually designed to suit the needs of its community.
Each of the 15 CIRM Bridges Programs fund up to ten paid internships, but the curriculum and specific activities of each are designed by their campus directors. The HSU program prepares Bridges candidates by requiring participation in a semester-long lecture and stem cell biology laboratory course before selection for the program: a course designed and taught by Sprowles since its inception.
She states, “The HSU pre-internship course ensures our students are trained in fundamental scientific concepts, laboratory skills and professional behaviors before entering their host laboratory. We find this necessary since, unlike the other Bridges campuses, we are 300+ miles away from the internship sites and are unable to fully support this kind of training during the experience. It also provides additional insights about the work ethic and mentoring needs of the individuals we select that are helpful in placing and supporting our program participants”.
How is it working?
Ten years after it began, 76 HSU students have completed the CIRM Bridges program at HSU. Of those, the overwhelming majority (over 85%) are committed to careers in regenerative medicine: either working in the field already, or continuing their education toward that goal.
But what happened to their lives? Take a brief look at the ongoing careers of a “Magnificent Seven” HSU Bridges scientists:
CARSTEN CHARLESWORTH: “Spurred by the opportunity to complete a paid internship at a world class research institution in Stem Cell Biology, I applied to the Humboldt CIRM Bridges program, and was lucky enough to be accepted. With a keen interest in the developing field of genome editing and the recent advent of the CRISPR-Cas9 system I chose to intern in the lab of a pioneer in the genome editing field, Dr. Matthew Porteus at Stanford, who focuses in genome editing hematopoietic stem cells to treat diseases such as sickle cell disease. In August of 2018 I began a PhD in Stanford’s Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine program, where I am currently a second-year graduate student in the lab of Dr. Hiro Nakauchi, working on the development of human organs in interspecies human animal chimeras. The success that I’ve had and my acceptance into Stanford’s world class PhD program are a direct result of the opportunity that the CIRM Bridges internship provided me and the excellent training and instruction that I received from the Humboldt State Biology Program.”
ELISEBETH TORRETTI: “While looking for opportunities at HSU, I stumbled upon the CIRM Bridges program. It was perfect- a paid internship at high profile labs where I could expand my research skills for an entire year… the best fit (was) Jeanne Loring’s Lab at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA. Dr. Loring is one of the premiere stem cell researchers in the world… (The lab’s) main focus is to develop a cure for Parkinson’s disease. (They) take skin cells known as fibroblasts and revert them into stem cells. These cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) can then be differentiated into dopaminergic neurons and transplanted into the patient…. My project focused on a different disease: adenylate-cyclase 5 (ADCY5) — related dyskinesia. During my time at Dr. Loring’s lab I learned incredibly valuable research skills. I am now working in a mid-sized biotch company focusing on cancer research. I don’t think that would be possible in a competitive area like San Diego without my experience gained through the CIRM Bridges program.”
BRENDAN KELLY: “After completing my CIRM internship in Dr. Marius Wernig’s lab (in Stanford), I began working at a startup company called I Peace. I helped launch this company with Dr. Koji Tanabe, whom I met while working in my host lab. I am now at Cardiff University in Wales working on my PhD. My research involves using patient iPSC derived neurons to model Huntington’s disease. All this derived from my opportunity to partake in the CIRM-Bridges program, which opened doors for me.”
SAMANTHA SHELTON: “CIRM Bridges provided invaluable hands-on training in cell culture and stem cell techniques that have shaped my future in science. My CIRM internship in John Rubenstein’s Lab of Neural Development taught me amazing laboratory techniques such as stem cell transplantation as well as what goes into creating a harmonious and productive laboratory environment. My internship projects led to my first co-first author publication.
After my Bridges internship, I joined the Graduate Program for Neuroscience at Boston University. My PhD work aims to discover types of stem cells in the brain and how the structure of the brain develops early in life. During this time, I have focused on changes in brain development after Zika virus infection to better understand how microcephaly (small skulls and brains, often a symptom of Zika-DR) is caused. There is no doubt that CIRM not only made me a more competitive candidate for a doctoral degree but also provided me with tools to progress towards my ultimate goal of understanding and treating neurological diseases with stem cell technologies.”
DU CHENG: “Both my academic and business tracks started in the CIRM-funded…fellowship (at Stanford) where I invented the technology (the LabCam Microscope adapter) that I formed my company on (iDU Optics LLC). The instructor of the class, Dr. Amy Sprowles, encouraged me to carry on the idea. Later, I was able to get in the MD-PhD program at Weill Cornell Medical College because of the invaluable research experiences CIRM’s research program provided me. CIRM initiated the momentum to get me where I am today. Looking back, the CIRM Bridges Program is an instrumental jump-starter on my early career… I would not remotely be where I am without it.…”
CODY KIME: “Securing a CIRM grant helped me to take a position in the Nobel Prize winning Shinya Yamanaka Lab at the Gladstone Institutes, one of the most competitive labs in the new field of cell reprogramming. I then explored my own reprogramming interests, moving to the Kyoto University of Medicine, Doctor of Medical Sciences Program in Japan, and building a reprogramming team in the Masayo Takahashi Lab at RIKEN. My studies explore inducing cells to their highest total potential using less intrusive means and hacking the cell program. My systems are designed to inform my hypotheses toward a true お好みの細胞 (okonomi no cybo) technology, meaning ‘cells as you wish’ in Japanese, that could rapidly change any cell into another desired cell type or tissue.”
SARA MILLS: “The CIRM Bridges program was the key early influencer which aided in my hiring of my first industry position at ViaCyte, Inc. Also a strongly CIRM funded institution, I was ultimately responsible for the process development of the VC-01™ fill, finish processes and cGMP documentation development. Most recently, with over two years at the boutique consulting firm of Dark Horse Consulting, Inc., I have been focusing on aseptic and cGMP manufacturing process development, risk analysis, CMC and regulatory filings, facility design and project management to advise growing cell and gene therapy companies, worldwide.”
Like warriors fighting to save lives, these young scientists are engaged in an effort to study and defeat chronic disease. It is to be hoped the California stem cell program will have its funding renewed, so the “Bridges” program can continue.
For more information on the Bridges program, which might help a young scientist (perhaps yourself) cut and paste the following URL:
One closing paragraph perhaps best sums up the Bridges experience:
“During my CIRM Bridges training in Stanford University, I was fortunate to work with Dr. Jill Helms, who so patiently mentored me on research design and execution. I ended up publishing 7 papers with her during the two-year CIRM internship and helped making significant progress of turning a Stem Cell factor into applicable therapeutic form, that is currently in preparation for clinical trial by a biotech company in Silicon Valley. I also learned from her how to write grants and publications, but more importantly, (to) never limit your potential by what you already know.” — Du Cheng
The final speaker was David Jensen, whose California Stem Cell Report blog has charted the history of CIRM since its inception. At CIRM we know that not everyone agrees with us all the time, or supports all the decisions we have made in the years since we were approved by voters in 2004, but we do pride ourselves on being open to a thoughtful, vigorous debate on all aspects of stem cell research. David’s presentation to the committee was nothing if not thoughtful, and we thought you might enjoy reading it and so we are presenting it here in its entirety.
For those who prefer to watch than read, here is a video of the entire hearing:
California’s Stem Cell “Gold Rush:” A Brief Overview of the State’s $3 Billion Stem Cell Agency Prepared testimony by David Jensen, publisher/editor of the California Stem Cell Report, before the Assembly Select Committee on Biotechnology, Aug. 15, 2018
I was in Mazatlan in Mexico in the fall of 2004 when I first heard about the creation of
California’s stem cell agency. I was reading the Wall Street Journal online and saw a headline that said a new Gold Rush was about to begin in California — this one involving stem cells instead of nuggets.
“Holy Argonauts,” I said to myself, using the term, of course, that refers to the tens of thousands of people who rushed to the California gold fields in 1849. I wanted to know more about what was likely to happen with this new stem cell gold rush.
Today, nearly 14 years later, I still want to know more about the California Institute for
Regenerative Medicine or CIRM, as the agency is formally known. But I can tell you that certain facts are clear.
Borrowing and Autonomy
The agency is unique in California history and among the states throughout the nation. It is the first state agency to fund scientific research with billions of dollars – all of it borrowed. At one point in its history, it is safe to say that the agency was the largest single source of funding in the world for human embryonic stem cell research.
The agency operates with financial and oversight autonomy that is rare in California government, courtesy of the ballot initiative that created it. But that measure also proved to be both a blessing and a curse. The agency’s financial autonomy has allowed it to provide a reasonably steady stream of cash over a number of years, something that is necessary to sustain the long-term research that is critical for development of widely available treatments.
At the same time, the ballot measure carried the agency’s death warrant — no more money after the $3 billion was gone. Cash for new awards is now expected to run out at the end of next year. Over its life, the agency has had a national and somewhat more modestly global impact, both as a source of funding and international cooperation, but also in staying the course on human embryonic stem cell research when the federal government was backing away from it.
Beyond that, the stem cell agency is the only state department whose primary objective is to produce a marketable commercial product. In this case, a cure or treatment for afflictions now nearly untreatable.
Finally, I am all but certain that CIRM is the only state agency that takes back money when a project winds up on the rocks. By the end of last month, that figure totalled in recent years more than $34 million in two big categories of awards. This sort of cash recovery is not a practice that occurs with federal research dollars. With CIRM the money goes back into the pot for more research aimed at treating horrible afflictions.
Evaluations of the Research Effort
Nonetheless the agency has hit some shoals from time to time. In 2010, the agency’s governing board commissioned a $700,000 study of its efforts by the prestigious Institute of Medicine. Two years later, the IOM reported to CIRM that it had some significant flaws.
The IOM study said that the agency had “achieved many notable results.” But it also
recommended sweeping changes to remove conflict of interest problems, clean up a troubling dual-executive arrangement and fundamentally change the nature of the governing board.
The report said,“Far too many board members represent organizations that receive CIRM funding or benefit from that funding. These competing personal and professional interests compromise the perceived independence of the ICOC (the CIRM governing board), introduce potential bias into the board’s decision making, and threaten to undermine confidence in the board.”
The conflict issues are built in by the ballot measure, which gave potential recipient institutions seats on the 29-member governing board. Indeed, in 2017, the last time I calculated the correlation between the board and awards, roughly 90 percent of the money given out by CIRM had gone to institutions with ties to members of the governing board.
About two months after the IOM presented its report, the CIRM board approved a new policy that bars 13 of its 29 members from voting on any grants whatsoever to help deal with questions concerning conflicts of interest on the board.
Other studies about the agency’s performance resulted from a 2010 law in which the legislature modified the initiative to require triennial performance audits that would be paid for by the agency itself. The requirement specifically excluded “scientific performance” from the audit.
The first audit results came in 2012 and contained 27 recommendations for improvement. The most recent performance audit came last spring. The audit firm, Moss Adams, recommended improvements in the areas of private fund-raising, retention of staff and better utilization of board members. The board was told that the agency had made “incredible progress” and that the auditors “usually see a lot of good things.”
The Story of CIRM 2.0
In recent years the agency has been on a self-improvement regime. The effort began in 2014 and was dubbed CIRM 2.0 — a term that was originally coined by a stem cell researcher at UC Davis.
The new direction and emphasis was described by the agency as “radical.” It was aimed at improving speed, efficiency and innovation. And it seems to have largely succeeded.
In 2014, it took almost two years for a good idea to go from application to the final funding stage. The goal was to shorten that to 120 days. Delays in funding are of particular concern to businesses, often for cash flow reasons, but they also mean delays in actually developing a treatment.
This week, the agency said the cash delivery figure now stands at less than 90 days for clinical awards and about 120 days for translational awards.
In 2014, the agency was participating in nine clinical trials, the last stage before a treatment is certified by the federal government for widespread use. Today the agency is involved in 49. In 2014, about 50 patients were involved in those trials. Today the figure is more than 800.
One of the more interesting aspects of CIRM 2.0 marked a departure from what might be called an academic pass-fail approach to the “final exam” for applications from scientists. Instead, CIRM is engaged in a more partner-oriented approach that can be found in some businesses.
Instead of flatly failing an application that is not quite ready for prime time, the idea is to coach applicants along to help bring them up to approval level. Today the agency can count 30 applications that won approval through that process. All of which is work could have slipped away in the more distant past.
CIRM and the Biotech Biz
CIRM is now much more engaged with industry than during its earlier years, when it drew bitter criticism from some business executives. Engagement with biotech firms is critical to bringing a treatment to the public. CIRM is not in the business of actually manufacturing, marketing and selling products. That is a matter left to the private sector.
One reason for closer business connections involves maturation of the work in the field, which has brought research closer to reality. But it is also due to a different focus within the agency as top management has changed.
One of the more difficult areas involving stem cell research and likely treatments is their cost. It is rare to hear researchers or companies talk forthrightly in public about specific dollar amounts. But the cost of drugs and treatment are high visibility matters for patients and elected officials. And estimates of stem cell treatments have run up to at least $900,000.
In 2010, the California legislature moved to help assure affordability by requiring grantees to submit affordable access plans with the caveat that the agency could waive that requirement. How that will ultimately play out as actual products come into the marketplace is yet to be determined.
The Public Policy Questions
A number of significant public policy questions surround the California’s stem cell program involving its creation and execution. They include:
● Is a ballot initiative the best way to approach research and create new state programs?
The initiative is very difficult to alter when changes are needed or priorities change. .
● Does the state have higher health priorities, such as prenatal health care, than supplying
researchers with cash that they could well secure from other sources?
● Is borrowing money to finance the research the best way to go about it? The interest
expense raise the total cost of a $20 million research award to $40 million.
● Should executives of potential recipient institutions serve on the board that awards their employers hundreds of millions of dollars?
This is just a short list of some of the policy matters. Other questions can and should be asked in the wake of the agency’s nearly 14 years of work.
Lives Saved but No Widespread Therapies
Returning to our earlier list of the clear facts about CIRM, another fact is that lives have been saved as the result of clinical trials that the agency it has helped to finance. The youngster from Folsom mentioned earlier in this hearing is one of a number of cases.
That said, these patients received treatment in clinical trials, which may or may not succeed in producing a commercial product that is available to the general public.
Little doubt exists that the agency has advanced the stem cell field and is building towards a critical mass in California. The burgeoning research program at UC Davis, with $138 million in CIRM funding, is one example. Another is the $50 million Alpha Clinic network aimed at creating powerful collaboration within institutions and throughout the state. In addition to Davis, UC San Francisco, UCLA, UC Irvine, UC San Diego and the City of Hope in the Los Angeles area are all part of the Alpha network.
Nonetheless, CIRM has not yet backed a stem cell treatment that is ready for widespread use and fulfilled the voter expectations from 2004 that stem cell cures were right around the corner.
The agency itself also has something of a deadline that is right around the corner in political and scientific terms. Backers of the agency are hoping for another ballot initiative in November 2020 that would pump $5 billion into the program and stave off its slow demise as research winds down. Development of a stem cell treatment that would resonate with voters would be an invaluable development to encourage voters to continue this unique experiment — even if California’s stem cell gold rush does not quite measure up to the dramatic events of 169 years ago.
As I stood in front of the audience of scientists, CIRM staff members, patient advocates, I thought to myself, “these are the kind of people who built the California stem cell program.” Wheelchair warriors Karen Miner and Susan Rotchy, sitting in the front row, typified the determination and resolve typical of those who fought to get the program off the ground. Now I was about to ask them to do it one more time.
Imagine being in a boat on the open sea and there was a patch of green on the horizon. You could be reasonably certain those were the tops of coconut trees, and that there was an island attached—but all you could see was a patch of green.
Today we can see the island. We are not on shore yet, but it is real.
“CALIFORNIA CURES” shows what is real and achieved: the progress the scientists have made– and why we absolutely must continue.
For instance, in the third row were three little girls, their parents and grandparents.
One of them was Evangelina “Evie” Vaccaro, age 5. She was alive today because of CIRM, who had funded the research and the doctor who saved her.
Don Reed, Alysia Vaccaro and daughter Evie: Photo by Yimy Villa
Evie was born with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) commonly called the “bubble baby” disease. It meant she could never go outside because her immune system could not protect her. Her mom and dad had to wear hospital masks to get near her, even just to give her a hug.
But Dr. Donald Kohn of UCLA operated on the tiny girl, taking out some of her bone marrow, repairing the genetic defect that caused SCID, then putting the bone marrow back.
Today, “Evie” glowed with health, and was cheerfully oblivious to the fuss she raised.
I was actually a little intimidated by her, this tiny girl who so embodied the hopes and dreams of millions. What a delight to hear her mother Alysia speak, explaining how she helped Evie understand her situation: she had “unicorn blood” which could help other little children feel better too.
This was CIRM in action, fighting to save lives and ease suffering.
If people really knew what is happening at CIRM, they would absolutely have to support it. That’s why I write, to get the message out in bite-size chunks.
You might know the federal statistics—133 million children, women and men with one or more chronic diseases—at a cost of $2.9 trillion dollars last year.
But not enough people know California’s battle to defeat those diseases.
Adrienne Shapiro at the book launch: Photo by Todd Dubnicoff
Champion patient advocate Adrienne Shapiro was with us, sharing a little of the stress a parent feels if her child has sickle cell anemia, and the science which gives us hope: the CIRM-funded doctor who cured Evie is working on sickle cell now.
Because of CIRM, newly paralyzed people now have a realistic chance to recover function: a stem cell therapy begun long ago (pride compels me to mention it was started by the Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act, named after my son), is using stem cells to re-insulate damaged nerves in the spine. Six people were recently given the stem cell treatment pioneered by Hans Keirstead, (currently running for Congress!) and all six experienced some level of recovery, in a few cases regaining some use of their arms hands.
Are you old enough to remember the late Annette Funicello and Richard Pryor? These great entertainers were stricken by multiple sclerosis, a slow paralysis. A cure did not come in time for them. But the international cooperation between California’s Craig Wallace and Australia’s Claude Bernard may help others: by re-insulating MS-damaged nerves like what was done with spinal cord injury.
My brother David shattered his leg in a motorcycle accident. He endured multiple operations, had steel rods and plates inserted into his leg. Tomorrow’s accident recovery may be easier. At Cedars-Sinai, Drs. Dan Gazit and Hyun Bae are working to use stem cells to regrow the needed bone.
My wife suffers arthritis in her knees. Her pain is so great she tries to make only one trip a day down and up the stairs of our home. The cushion of cartilage in her knees is worn out, so it is bone on bone—but what if that living cushion could be restored? Dr. Denis Evseenko of UCLA is attempting just that.
As I spoke, on the wall behind me was a picture of a beautiful woman, Rosie Barrero, who had been left blind by retinitis pigmentosa. Rosie lost her sight when her twin children were born—and regained it when they were teenagers—seeing them for the first time, thanks to Dr. Henry Klassen, another scientist funded by CIRM.
What about cancer? That miserable condition has killed several of my family, and I was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer myself. I had everything available– surgery, radiation, hormone shots which felt like harpoons—hopefully I am fine, but who knows for sure?
Irv Weissman, the friendly bear genius of Stanford, may have the answer to cancer. He recognized there were cancer stem cells involved. Nobody believed him for a while, but it is now increasingly accepted that these cancer stem cells have a coating of protein which makes them invisible to the body’s defenses. The Weissman procedure may peel off that “cloak of invisibility” so the immune system can find and kill them all—and thereby cure their owner.
What will happen when CIRM’s funding runs out next year?
If we do nothing, the greatest source of stem cell research funding will be gone. We need to renew CIRM. Patients all around the world are depending on us.
The California stem cell program was begun and led by Robert N. “Bob” Klein. He not only led the campaign, was its chief writer and number one donor, but he was also the first Chair of the Board, serving without pay for the first six years. It was an incredible burden; he worked beyond exhaustion routinely.
Would he be willing to try it again, this time to renew the funding of a successful program? When I asked him, he said:
“If California polls support the continuing efforts of CIRM—then I am fully committed to a 2020 initiative to renew the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).”
Shakespeare said it best in his famous “to be or not to be” speech, asking if it is “nobler …to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles—and by opposing, end them”.
Should we passively endure chronic disease and disability—or fight for cures?
California’s answer was the stem cell program CIRM—and continuing CIRM is the reason I wrote this book.
Don C. Reed is the author of “CALIFORNIA CURES: How the California Stem Cell Program is Fighting Your Incurable Disease!”, from World Scientific Publishing, Inc., publisher of the late Professor Stephen Hawking.
One of the stories I never tire of telling is about Evie Vaccaro. She’s the little girl who was born with a fatal immune condition called severe combined immunodeficiency or SCID. Children with this condition have no immune system, no protection against infections, and often die in the first two years of life. But thanks to a stem cell therapy Evie was cured.
Our lungs are amazing things. They take in the air we breathe and move it into our blood so that oxygen can be carried to every part of our body. They’re also surprisingly large. If you were to spread out a lung – and I have no idea why you would want to do that – it would be almost as large as a tennis court.
But lungs are also quite vulnerable organs, relying on a thin layer of epithelial cells to protect them from harmful materials in the air. If those materials damage the lungs our body calls in local stem cells to repair the injury.
Now researchers at the University of Iowa have identified a new group of stem cells, called glandular myoepithelial cells (MECs), that also appear to play an important role in repairing injuries in the lungs.
These MECs seem to be a kind of “reserve” stem cell, waiting around until they are needed and then able to spring into action and develop into new replacement cells in the lungs.
In a news release study author Preston Anderson, said these cells could help develop new approaches to lung regeneration:
“We demonstrated that MECs can self-renew and differentiate into seven distinct cell types in the airway. No other cell type in the lung has been identified with this much stem cell plasticity.”
If you are eating as you read this, you should either put your food down or skip this item for now. A new study on bowel cancer says that every tumor is unique and every cell within that tumor is also genetically unique.
Researchers in the UK and Netherlands took samples of normal bowel tissue and cancerous bowel tissue from three people with colorectal cancer. They then grew these in the labs and turned them into mini 3D organoids, so they could study them in greater detail.
In the study, published in the journal Nature, the researchers say they found that tumor cells, not surprisingly, had many more mutations than normal cells, and that not only was each bowel cancer genetically different from each other, but that each cell they studied within that cancer was also different.
In a news release, Prof Sir Mike Stratton, joint corresponding author on the paper from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said:
“This study gives us fundamental knowledge on the way cancers arise. By studying the patterns of mutations from individual healthy and tumour cells, we can learn what mutational processes have occurred, and then look to see what has caused them. Extending our knowledge on the origin of these processes could help us discover new risk factors to reduce the incidence of cancer and could also put us in a better position to create drugs to target cancer-specific mutational processes directly.”
California Cures: a great title for a great book about CIRM
CIRM Board Chair Jonathan Thomas (L) and Don Reed
One of the first people I met when I started working at CIRM was Don Reed. He impressed me then with his indefatigable enthusiasm, energy and positive outlook on life. Six years later he is still impressing me.
Don has just completed his second book on stem cell research charting the work of CIRM. It’s called “California Cures: How the California Stem Cell Research Program is Fighting Your Incurable Disease”. It’s a terrific read combining stories about stem cell research with true tales about Al Jolson, Enrico Caruso and how a dolphin named Ernestine burst Don’s ear drum.
On his website, Stem Cell Battles, Don describes CIRM as a “scrappy little stage agency” – I love that – and says:
“No one can predict the pace of science, nor say when cures will come; but California is bringing the fight. Above all, “California Cures” is a call for action. Washington may argue about the expense of health care (and who will get it), but California works to bring down the mountain of medical debt: stem cell therapies to ease suffering and save lives. We have the momentum. We dare not stop short. Chronic disease threatens everyone — we are fighting for your family, and mine!”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.