Stem Cell Awareness Day: Past, Present, Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Randy Mills and his family

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

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

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

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

But perhaps the most moving tributes came from patients advocates.

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

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

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

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

Randy praised Maria for her intelligence, compassion and vision:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Critical Role of Patient Advocates in Accelerating Stem Cell Cures

At CIRM, our goal is to bring stem cell therapies to patients with unmet medical needs, and we do that by funding the most promising and innovative research in regenerative medicine. A critical component of this goal is to support our patient advocates and make sure that their voices are heard.

At this year’s World Stem Cell Summit, patient advocates from around the world, representing a breadth of diseases and disorders, came together to share their stories, goals, and needs with the larger scientific community.

One session that particularly stood out, was “Accelerating Cures: The Critical Role of Patient Advocates” on Day 3 of the conference. This panel featured key leaders in patient advocacy:

  • Don Reed, the “Grandfather of Stem Cell Research Advocacy”, Vice President of Public Policy at the Americans for Cures Foundation
  • Frances Saldaña, an advocate for Huntington’s disease (HD) and founder of HD-Care at UC Irvine, which is a support group to advance HD research and clinical care
  • Tory Williams, the Executive Director of the Alabama Institute of Medicine (AIM) which raises funds and awareness for stem cell treatments and cures of disease and injury and the author of “Inevitable Collision

The panel was moderated by our fearless leader and head of communications, Kevin McCormack. Each speaker shared their story about how they became a patient advocate and what they are currently doing to push the pace of stem cell research.

Don Reed, Kevin McCormack, Frances Saldana, Tory Williams.

Don Reed, Kevin McCormack, Frances Saldana, Tory Williams.

Don Reed described the heartbreaking story of his son Roman Reed, who suffered a severe spinal cord injury while playing football. Through Don and Roman’s relentless efforts, “Roman’s Law” was passed in 1999, which raised $17 million in California state funding for spinal cord injury research. Don was also a key instigator for the passage of Proposition 71, which gave $3 billion dollars to our agency to fund stem cell research. He continues to be a passionate advocate for stem cell research and spinal cord injury patients, and recently published a book called “Stem Cell Battles: Proposition 71 and Beyond” which you can read more about in our recent blog.

Next, Frances Saldana told a compelling story of raising a family of three beautiful children with a husband who had Huntington’s disease. Unaware of his condition when they were together, Frances’ world took a devastating turn when he died of HD, leaving her to question whether her children would face the same fate. Sadly, all three of Frances’s kids carried the HD mutation. Having to deal with the passing of her two daughters, and a son who is battling the end stages of this disease, Frances decided to share her experience with others and to create a support organization called HD-Care so that others wouldn’t have to face similar experiences alone. HD-Care is conducting an aggressive campaign to bring visibility to HD and supports cutting-edge research in the field including the work done by CIRM-grantee Dr. Leslie Thompson at UC Irvine.

Frances told the audience that her happiest moment since this all began was when her daughter Margie, already suffering from symptoms of HD, spoke at CIRM in 2007. She saw the Board and the scientists and thought, “somebody cares, and somebody will find a cure.” It was a new chapter for her, she explained, and she knew something good was going to happen.

Lastly, Tory Williams, introduced the Alabama Institute of Medicine, which is a non-profit organization that supports the stem cell community with education and public dialogue. She started the institute following both personal and family experiences with cancer and after TJ Atchinson, a close family friend, suffered a severe spinal cord injury. Along the way, she forged a close relationship with Roman Reed who helped her pass TJ’s law in 2013, which is an Alabama state law that promotes spinal cord injury research.

“The goal [of AIM],” said Williams, “is to make a difference in people’s lives affected by disease and injury by helping to advance medicine to eradicate these debilitating issues.”

Laurel Barchas, Student Society for Stem Cell Research

Laurel Barchas, Student Society for Stem Cell Research

When the session was opened up to questions, the atmosphere in the room turned electric. Patients and scientists stood up to tell their stories and asked hard questions. One question came from Laurel Barchas, one of the founders of the Student Society for Stem Cell Research, who asked how we as a society can advocate for mental illness and similar diseases where the symptoms are not visible and where patients are either embarrassed or hesitant to make their disease public. Another question was how emerging countries like Mexico who don’t have the same benefits and infrastructure as the US can promote and support patient advocacy.

The mood of the advocates was positive but measured. They know that new treatments and cures take time but they also pointed out that many people don’t have much time so we have to work as hard as we can to help them.

The panel ended with the consensus that the voices of patient advocates are invaluable, and that they will be the key to accelerating stem cell therapies into cures. Frances Saldaña urged other patient advocates that the key to progress is to be aggressive, and be unafraid to be out there. Don Reed concluded on a similar note with quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

“Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer

The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,

Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them.”


Related links:

Don Reed Reflects on the California Stem Cell Initiative

StemCellBattlesCoverYesterday was stem cell awareness day. In honor of this important event, Don Reed held a book reading at CIRM for his newly released book, STEM CELL BATTLES: Proposition 71 and Beyond: How Ordinary People Can Fight Back Against the Crushing Burden of Chronic Disease.

Don has worn many hats during his life. He’s been a power lifter, a diver at Sea World, and is one of California’s most tenacious stem cell research advocates. His stem cell journey began when his son, Roman Reed, was seriously injured in a football accident, leaving him mostly paralyzed from the neck down.

Both Don and Roman didn’t let this tragic event ruin their lives or steal their hope. In fact, both Don and his son were instrumental for getting proposition 71 to pass, leading to the birth of CIRM and new hope for patients with uncured diseases.

At yesterday’s book reading, Don chronicled the early battles to get human stem cell research off the ground in California, the progress that’s been made so far and the promise for future therapies. It was truly an inspiring event, bringing together patients, friends of Don and his wife Gloria, and CIRM scientists to celebrate the stem cell research accomplishments of the past ten years.

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Enjoy more pictures of the event below and a short video of Jonathan Thomas, Chair of the Governing Board of CIRM, who said a few words in praise of Don Reed’s efforts to fight for stem cell research in California.

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Don Reed and his wife Gloria share a smile with CIRM’s Pat Olson.

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Jonathan Thomas and Don Reed.


Related links:

New Stem Cell Book Chronicles California’s Fight Against Incurable Disease

In 2098, the world will mark 100 years since the first isolation of human embryonic stem cells. The historians of that time undoubtedly will praise the countless stem cell researchers who fought incurable, chronic disease and won – saving lives and transforming medicine in the process.

StemCellBattlesCoverBut they’ll also applaud the efforts of non-scientists like Don Reed, a tenacious advocate for stem cell research and for people living with chronic disease and disability. No doubt those future historians will heavily reference Don’s soon to be released book, STEM CELL BATTLES: Proposition 71 and Beyond: How Ordinary People Can Fight Back Against the Crushing Burden of Chronic Disease. Through first-hand accounts, he chronicles the early battles to get human stem cell research off the ground in California, the progress that’s been made so far and the promise for future therapies.

It’s no coincidence that Stem Cell Battles will hit the bookshelves on October 14th, World Stem Cell Awareness Day. In anticipation of the book’s release, Don will blog every Wednesday from now until then.

Each week, the blog series will focus on one incurable disease or injury and describe the CIRM-funded project teams aiming to develop stem cell-based treatments. Yesterday’s blog is devoted to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

We enjoy his easy to understand writing style peppered with concrete statistics that puts the disease’s impact in perspective. We also appreciate the fact Don speaks highly of CIRM’s accomplishments. But please know that we didn’t put him up to it. We are not paying Don or doing anything other than providing him with whatever information he asked for, the same way we work with any journalist, writer or member of the public.

Follow Don’s disease-a-week series at his blog, Stem Cell Battles.