Feds hit predatory stem cell clinics with a one-two punch

Federal Trade Commission

Stem cells have a number of amazing properties and tremendous potential to heal previously untreatable conditions. But they also have the potential to create a financial windfall for clinics that are more focused on lining their wallets than helping patients. Now the federal government is cracking down on some of these clinics in a couple of different ways.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent a warning letter to the Utah Cord Bank LLC and associated companies warning them that the products it sold – specifically “human umbilical cord blood, umbilical cord, and amniotic membrane derived cellular products” – were violating the law.

At the same time the Federal Trade Commission and the Georgia Office of the Attorney General began legal proceedings against Regenerative Medicine Institute of America. The lawsuit says the company claims its products can rebuild cartilage and help treat joint and arthritis pain, and is charging patients thousands of dollars for “treatments” that haven’t been shown to be either safe or effective.

Bloomberg Law reporter Jeannie Baumann recently wrote a fine, in-depth article on these latest steps against predatory stem cell clinics.

CIRM has been a fierce opponents of bogus stem cell clinics for years and has worked with California lawmakers to try and crack down on them. We’re delighted to see that the federal government is stepping up its efforts to stop them marketing their snake oil to unsuspecting patients and will support them every step along the way.

CIRM has produced a short video and other easy to digest information on questions people should ask before signing up for any clinical trial. You can find those resources here.

CIRM has also published findings in Stem Cells Translational Medicine that discuss the three R’s–regulated, reliable, and reputable–and how these can help protect patients with uniform standards for stem cell treatments .

Paving the way for a treatment for dementia

What happens in a stroke

When someone has a stroke, the blood flow to the brain is blocked. This kills some nerve cells and injures others. The damaged nerve cells are unable to communicate with other cells, which often results in people having impaired speech or movement.

While ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes affect large blood vessels and usually produce recognizable symptoms there’s another kind of stroke that is virtually silent. A ‘white’ stroke occurs in blood vessels so tiny that the impact may not be noticed. But over time that damage can accumulate and lead to a form of dementia and even speed up the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Now Dr. Tom Carmichael and his team at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA have developed a potential treatment for this, using stem cells that may help repair the damage caused by a white stroke. This was part of a CIRM-funded study (DISC2-12169 – $250,000).

Instead of trying to directly repair the damaged neurons, the brain nerve cells affected by a stroke, they are creating support cells called astrocytes, to help stimulate the body’s own repair mechanisms.

In a news release, Dr. Irene Llorente, the study’s first author, says these astrocytes play an important role in the brain.

“These cells accomplish many tasks in repairing the brain. We wanted to replace the cells that we knew were lost, but along the way, we learned that these astrocytes also help in other ways.”

The researchers took skin tissue and, using the iPSC method (which enables researchers to turn cells into any other kind of cell in the body) turned it into astrocytes. They then boosted the ability of these astrocytes to produce chemical signals that can stimulate healing among the cells damaged by the stroke.

These astrocytes were then not only able to help repair some of the damaged neurons, enabling them to once again communicate with other neurons, but they also helped another kind of brain cell called oligodendrocyte progenitor cells or OPCs. These cells help make a protective sheath around axons, which transmit electrical signals between brain cells. The new astrocytes stimulated the OPCs into repairing the protective sheath around the axons.

Mice who had these astrocytes implanted in them showed improved memory and motor skills within four months of the treatment.  

And now the team have taken this approach one step further. They have developed a method of growing these astrocytes in large amounts, at very high quality, in a relatively short time. The importance of that is it means they can produce the number of cells needed to treat a person.

“We can produce the astrocytes in 35 days,” Llorente says. “This process allows rapid, efficient, reliable and clinically viable production of our therapeutic product.”

The next step is to chat with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to see what else they’ll need to do to show they are ready for a clinical trial.

The study is published in the journal Stem Cell Research.

Retooling a COVID drug to boost its effectiveness

Coronavirus particles, illustration.

When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out scientists scrambled to find existing medications that might help counter the life-threatening elements of the virus. One of the first medications that showed real promise was remdesivir. It’s an anti-viral drug that was originally developed to target novel, emerging viruses, viruses like COVID19. It was approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in October 2020.

Remdesivir showed real benefits for some patients, reducing recovery time for those in the hospital, but it also had problems. It had to be delivered intravenously, meaning it could only be used in a hospital setting. And it was toxic if given in too high a dose.

In a new study – partially funded by CIRM (DISC2 COVID19-12022 $228,229) – researchers at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) found that by modifying some aspects of remdesivir they were able to make it easier to take and less toxic.

In a news release about the work Dr. Robert Schooley, a first author on the study, says we still need medications like this.

“Although vaccine development has had a major impact on the epidemic, COVID-19 has continued to spread and cause disease — especially among the unvaccinated. With the evolution of more transmissible viral variants, breakthrough cases of COVID are being seen, some of which can be severe in those with underlying conditions. The need for effective, well-tolerated antiviral drugs that can be given to patents at high risk for severe disease at early stages of the illness remains high.”

To be effective remdesivir must be activated by several enzymes in the body. It’s a complex process and explains why the drug is beneficial for some areas, such as the lung, but can be toxic to other areas, such as the liver. So, the researchers set out to overcome those problems.

The team created what are called lipid prodrugs, these are compounds that do not dissolve in water and are used to improve how a drug interacts with cells or other elements; they are often used to reduce the bad side effects of a medication. By inserting a modified form of remdesivir into this lipid prodrug, and then attaching it to an enzyme called a lipid-phosphate (which acts as a delivery system, bringing along the remdesivir prodrug combo), they were able to create an oral form of remdesivir.

Dr. Aaron Carlin, a co-first author of the study, says they were trying to create a hybrid version of the medication that would work equally well regardless of the tissue it interacted with.

“The metabolism of remdesivir is complex, which may lead to variable antiviral activity in different cell types. In contrast, these lipid-modified compounds are designed to be activated in a simple uniform manner leading to consistent antiviral activity across many cell types.”

When they tested the lipid prodrugs in animal models and human cells they found they were effective against COVID-19 in different cell types, including the liver. They are now working on further developing and testing the lipid prodrug to make sure it’s safe for people and that it can live up to their hopes of reducing the severity of COVID-19 infections and speed up recovery.

The study is published in the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.

Sometimes a cold stare is a good thing

A retina of a patient with macular degeneration. (Photo credit: Paul Parker/SPL)

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of vision loss and blindness in the elderly in the U.S. It’s estimated that some 11 million Americans could have some form of the disease, a number that is growing every year. So if you are going to develop a treatment for this condition, you need to make sure it can reach a lot of people easily. And that’s exactly what some CIRM-supported researchers are doing.

Let’s back up a little first. AMD is a degenerative condition where the macular, the small central portion of your retina, is slowly worn away. That’s crucial because the retina is the light-sensing nerve tissue at the back of your eye. At first you notice that your vision is getting blurry and it’s hard to read fine print or drive a car. As it progresses you develop dark, blurry areas in the center of your vision.

There are two kinds of AMD, a wet form and a dry form. The dry form is the most common, affecting 90% of patients. There is no cure and no effective treatment. But researchers at the University of Southern California (USC), the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) and a company called Regenerative Patch Technologies are developing a method that is looking promising.

They are using stem cells to grow retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) cells, the kind attacked by the disease, and putting them on a tiny synthetic scaffold which is then placed at the back of the eye. The hope is these RPE cells will help slow down the progression of the disease or even restore vision.

Early results from a CIRM-funded clinical trial are encouraging. Of the five patients enrolled in the Phase 1/2a trial, four maintained their vision in the treated eye, two showed improvement in the stability of their vision, and one patient had a 17-letter improvement in their vision on a reading chart. In addition, there were no serious side effects or unanticipated problems.

So now the team are taking this approach one step further. In a study published in Scientific Reports, they say they have developed a way to cryopreserve or freeze this cell and scaffold structure.

In a news release, Dr. Dennis Clegg of UCSB, says the frozen implants are comparable to the non-frozen ones and this technique will extend shelf life and enable on-demand distribution to distant clinical sites, increasing the number of patients able to benefit from such treatments.

“It’s a major advance in the development of cell therapies using a sheet of cells, or a monolayer of cells, because you can freeze them as the final product and ship them all over the world.”

Cool.

Call for a worldwide approach to regulating predatory stem cell clinics

You can’t fix a global problem at the local level. That’s the gist of a new perspective piece in the journal Stem Cell Reports that calls for a global approach to rogue stem cell clinics that offer bogus therapies.

The authors of the article are calling on the World Health Organization (WHO) to set up an advisory committee to draw up rules and regulations to help guide countries trying to shut these clinics down.

In a news release, senior author Mohamed Abou-el-Enein, the executive director of the joint University of Southern California/Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles Cell Therapy Program, says these clinics are trying to cash in on the promise of regenerative medicine.

“Starting in the early 2000s… unregulated stem cell clinics offering untested and poorly characterized treatments with insufficient information on their safety and efficacy began emerging all over the world, taking advantage of the media hype around stem cells and patients’ hope and desperation.”

Dr. Larry Goldstein

The authors include Lawrence Goldstein, PhD, a CIRM Board member and a Science Policy Fellows for the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR).

Zubin Master, an associate professor of biomedical ethics at the Mayo Clinic, says the clinics prey on vulnerable people who have serious medical conditions and who have often tried conventional medical approaches without success.

“We should aim to develop pathways to provide patients with evidenced-based experimental regenerative intervention as possible options where there is oversight, especially in circumstances where there is no suitable alternative left.”

The report says: “The unproven SCI (stem cell intervention) industry threatens the advancement of regenerative medicine. Reports of adverse events from unproven SCIs has the potential to affect funding and clinical trial recruitment, as well as increasing burdens among regulatory agencies to oversee the industry.

Permitting unregulated SCIs to flourish demonstrates a lack of concern over patient welfare and undermines the need for scientific evidence for medicinal product R&D. While some regulatory agencies have limited oversight or enforcement powers, or choose not to use them, unproven SCI clinics still serve to undermine authority given to regulatory agencies and may reduce public trust impacting the development of safe and effective therapies. Addressing the continued proliferation of clinics offering unproven SCIs is a problem worth addressing now.”

The authors say the WHO is uniquely positioned to help create a framework for the field that can help address these issues. They recommend setting up an advisory committee to develop global standards for regulations governing these clinics that could be applied in all countries. They also say we need more educational materials to let physicians as well as patients understand the health risks posed by bogus clinics.

This article comes out in the same week that reports by the Pew Charitable Trust and the FDA also called for greater regulation of these predatory clinics (we blogged about that here). Clearly there is growing recognition both in the US and worldwide that these clinics pose a threat not just to the health and safety of patients, but also to the reputation of the field of regenerative medicine as a whole.

“I believe that the global spread of unproven stem cell therapies reflects critical gaps in the international system for responding to health crises, which could put the life of thousands of patients in danger,” Abou-el-Enein says. “Urgent measures are needed to enhance the global regulatory capacity to detect and respond to this eminent crisis rapidly.”

CIRM-catalyzed spinout files for IPO to develop therapies for genetic diseases

Graphite Bio, a CIRM-catalyzed spinout from Stanford University that launched just 14 months ago has now filed the official SEC paperwork for an initial public offering (IPO). The company was formed by CIRM-funded researchers Matt Porteus, M.D., Ph.D. and Maria Grazia Roncarolo, M.D.

Six years ago, Dr. Porteus and Dr. Roncarolo, in conjunction with Stanford University, received a CIRM grant of approximately $875K to develop a method to use CRISPR gene editing technology to correct the blood stem cells of infants with X-linked severe combined immunodeficiency (X-SCID), a genetic condition that results in a weakened immune system unable to fight the slightest infection.

Recently, Dr. Porteus, in conjunction with Graphite, received a CIRM grant of approximately $4.85M to apply the CRISPR gene editing approach to correct the blood stem cells of patients with sickle cell disease, a condition that causes “sickle” shaped red blood cells. As a result of this shape, the cells clump together and clog up blood vessels, causing intense pain, damaging organs, and increasing the risk of strokes and premature death. The condition disproportionately affects members of the Black and Latin communities.

CIRM funding helped Stanford complete the preclinical development of the sickle cell disease gene therapy and it enabled Graphite to file an Investigational New Drug (IND) application with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), one of the last steps necessary before conducting a human clinical trial of a potential therapy. Towards the end of 2020, Graphite got the green light from the FDA to conduct a trial using the gene therapy in patients with sickle cell disease.

In a San Francisco Business Times report, Graphite CEO Josh Lehrer stated that the company’s goal is to create a platform that can apply a one-time gene therapy for a broad range of genetic diseases.

Two voices, one message, watch out for predatory stem cell clinics

Last week two new papers came out echoing each other about the dangers of bogus “therapies” being offered by predatory stem cell clinics and the risks they pose to patients.

The first was from the Pew Charitable Trusts entitled: ‘Harms Linked to Unapproved Stem Cell Interventions Highlight Need for Greater FDA Enforcement’ with a subtitle: Unproven regenerative medical products have led to infections, disabilities, and deaths.’

That pretty much says everything you need to know about the report, and in pretty stark terms; need for greater FDA enforcement and infections, disabilities and deaths.

Just two days later, as if in response to the call for greater enforcement, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) came out with its own paper titled: ‘Important Patient and Consumer Information About Regenerative Medicine Therapies.’ Like the Pew report the FDA’s paper highlighted the dangers of unproven and unapproved “therapies” saying it “has received reports of blindness, tumor formation, infections, and more… due to the use of these unapproved products.”

The FDA runs down a list of diseases and conditions that predatory clinics claim they can cure without any evidence that what they offer is even safe, let alone effective. It says Regenerative Medicine therapies have not been approved for the treatment of:

  • Arthritis, osteoarthritis, rheumatism, hip pain, knee pain or shoulder pain.
  • Blindness or vision loss, autism, chronic pain or fatigue.
  • Neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
  • Heart disease, lung disease or stroke.

The FDA says it has warned clinics offering these “therapies” to stop or face the risk of legal action, and it warns consumers: “Please know that if you are being charged for these products or offered these products outside of a clinical trial, you are likely being deceived and offered a product illegally.”

It tells consumers if you are offered one of these therapies – often at great personal cost running into the thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars – you should contact the FDA at ocod@fda.hhs.gov.

The Pew report highlights just how dangerous these “therapies” are for patients. They did a deep dive into health records and found that between 2004 and September 2020 there were more than 360 reported cases of patients experiencing serious side effects from a clinic that offered unproven and unapproved stem cell procedures.

Those side effects include 20 deaths as well as serious and even lifelong disabilities such as:

  • Partial or complete blindness (9).
  • Paraplegia (1).
  • Pulmonary embolism (6).
  • Heart attack (5).
  • Tumors, lesions, or other growths (16).
  • Organ damage or failure in several cases that resulted in death.

More than one hundred of the patients identified had to be hospitalized.

The most common type of procedures these patients were given were stem cells taken from their own body and then injected into their eye, spine, hip, shoulder, or knee. The second most common was stem cells from a donor that were then injected.

The Pew report cites the case of one California-based stem cell company that sold products manufactured without proper safety measures, “including a failure to properly screen for communicable diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B and C.” Those products led to at least 13 people being hospitalized due to serious bacterial infection in Texas, Arizona, Kansas, and Florida.

Shocking as these statistics are, the report says this is probably a gross under count of actual harm caused by the bogus clinics. It says the clinics themselves rarely report adverse events and many patients don’t report them either, unless they are so serious that they require medical intervention.

The Pew report concludes by saying the FDA needs more resources so it can more effectively act against these clinics and shut them down when necessary. It says the agency needs to encourage doctors and patients to report any unexpected side effects, saying: “devising effective strategies to collect more real-world evidence of harm can help the agency in its efforts to curb the growth of this unregulated market and ensure that the regenerative medicine field develops into one that clinicians and patients can trust and safely access.”

We completely support both reports and will continue to work with the FDA and anyone else opposed to these predatory clinics. You can read more here about what we have been doing to oppose these clinics, and here is information that will help inform your decision if you are thinking about taking part in a stem cell clinical trial but are not sure if it’s a legitimate one.

Hitting our Goals: Accelerating to the finish line

Way, way back in 2015 – seems like a lifetime ago doesn’t it – the team at CIRM sat down and planned out our Big 6 goals for the next five years. The end result was a Strategic Plan that was bold, ambitious and set us on course to do great things or kill ourselves trying. Well, looking back we can take some pride in saying we did a really fine job, hitting almost every goal and exceeding them in some cases. So, as we plan our next five-year Strategic Plan we thought it worthwhile to look back at where we started and what we achieved. Goal #6 was Accelerate.

Ever wonder how long it takes for a drug or therapy to go from basic research to approval by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)? Around 12 years on average is the answer. That’s a long time. And it can take even longer for stem cell therapies to go that same distance.

There are a lot of reasons why it takes so long (safety being a hugely important element) but when we were sitting down in 2015 to put together our Strategic Plan we wanted to find a way to speed up that process, to go faster, without in any way reducing the focus on safety.

So, we set a goal of reducing the time it takes from identifying a stem cell therapy candidate to getting an Investigational New Drug (IND) approval from the FDA, which means it can be tested in a clinical trial. At the time it was taking us around eight years, so we decided to go big and try to reduce that time in half, to four years.

Then the question was how were we going to do that? Well, before we set the goal we did a tour of the major biomedical research institutions in California – you know, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) UC San Francisco, Stanford etc. – and asked the researchers what would help them most. Almost without exception said “a clearing house”, a way to pair early stage investigators with later stage partners who possess the appropriate expertise and interest to advance the project to the next stage of development, e.g., helping a successful basic science investigator find a qualified partner for the project’s translational research phase.

So we set out to do that. But we didn’t stop there. We also created what we called Clinical Advisory Panels or CAPs. These consisted of a CIRM Science Officer with expertise on a particular area of research, an expert on the kind of research being done, and a Patient Representative. The idea was that CAPs would help guide and advise the research team, helping them overcome specific obstacles and get ready for a clinical trial. The Patient Representative could help the researchers understand what the needs of the patient community was, so that a trial could take those into account and be more likely to succeed. For us it wasn’t enough just to fund promising research, we were determined to do all we could to support the team behind the project to advance their work.

How did we do. Pretty good I would have to say. For our Translational stage projects, the average amount of time it took for them to move to the CLIN1 stage, the last stage before a clinical trial, was 4.18 years. For our CLIN1 programs, 73 percent of those achieved their IND within 2 years, meaning they were then ready to actually start an FDA-sanctioned clinical trial.

Of course moving fast doesn’t guarantee that the therapy will ultimately prove effective. But for an agency whose mission is “to accelerate stem cell therapies to patients with unmet medical needs”, going slow is not an option.

Regulated, Reputable and Reliable: FDA’s Taking Additional Steps to Advance Safe and Effective Regenerative Medicine Products

Peter Marks, M.D., Ph.D., Director, Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research

In February 2020, CIRM presented a series of benchmarks for the responsible delivery of stem cell and regenerative medicine products. These benchmarks are outlined in the publication Regulated, reliable and reputable: Protect patients with uniform standards for stem cell treatments. In a nutshell, CIRM advocates for the delivery of regenerative medicine products in a context where:

  • The product is authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is overseen by an IRB or ethics board,
  • The treatment is delivered by qualified doctors, nurses, and technicians,
  • Treatment occurs at a clinical treatment center with expertise in regenerative medicine, and
  • There is ongoing monitoring and follow-up of patients.

On April 21 of 2021, Dr. Peter Marks, Director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, indicated the FDA’s intent to ensure new regenerative medicine products are FDA-authorized. Specifically, the FDA will require product developers to obtain an Investigational New Drug or IND authorization. In his news release Dr. Marks says the agency is willing to exercise more enforcement of these rules should clinics or therapy producers fail to follow these guidelines.

“These regenerative medicine products are not without risk and are often marketed by clinics as being safe and effective for the treatment of a wide range of diseases or conditions, even though they haven’t been adequately studied in clinical trials. We’ve said previously and want to reiterate here – there is no room for manufacturers, clinics, or health care practitioners to place patients at risk through products that violate the law, including by not having an IND in effect or an approved biologics license. We will continue to take action regarding unlawfully marketed products.”

IND authorization is particularly important as the agency pays close attention to how the product is produced and whether there is a scientific rationale and potential clinical evidence that it may be effective against the specific disease condition. All CIRM-funded clinical trials and all trials conducted in the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network must have IND authorization.

Regenerative medicine products are generally created from human cells or tissues. These products are frequently referred to as “living medicines.” The “living” nature of these products is what contributes to their remarkable potential to relieve, stop or reverse disease in a durable or sustainable manner.

The risk with unregulated products is that there is no assurance that they have been  produced in a quality controlled process or manner  where all components of the  injected material have been well characterized and studied for safety and efficacy for a given disease as well as a specific site in the body. In addition, there is no way to ensure that unregulated products meet standards or quality specifications such as ensuring that they have the active and beneficial component while making sure that they do not include harmful contaminants..  There have been documented examples of patients being severely injured by unregulated and inadequately characterized products. For example, in 2017 three Florida women were blinded by an unauthorized product.  Dr. George Daley, a stem cell expert and the Dean of Harvard Medical School, described the clinic operators as “charlatans peddling the modern equivalent of snake oil.”

To receive FDA authorization, detailed scientific data and well controlled clinical data are required to ensure safety and a demonstration that  the product is safe has the potential to improve or resolve the patient’s disease condition.

While it seems both important and self-evident that stem cell products be safe and effective and supported by evidence they can impact the patient’s disease condition, that doesn’t always happen. Unfortunately, too many patients have experienced unnecessary medical risks and financial harm from unauthorized treatments. CIRM applauds the FDA for taking additional steps to advance regenerative medicine products where the clinical benefits of such therapies outweigh any potential harms.

Prime Time for Rocket

Rocket Pharmaceuticals, a company that specializes in developing genetic therapies for rare childhood disorders, just got a big boost from the European Medicines Agency (EMA). They were given a Priority Medicines (PRIME) designation for their therapy for Leukocyte Adhesion Deficiency-1 (LAD-1).

CIRM is funding ($6.56 million) Rocket’s clinical trial for LAD-I, an immune disorder that leaves patients vulnerable to repeated infections that often results in death within the first two years of life. The therapy involves taking some of the child’s own blood stem cells and, in the lab, correcting the mutation that causes LAD-I, then returning those cells to the patient. Hopefully those blood stem cells then create a new, healthy blood supply and repair the immune system.

The therapy, called RP-L201, is already showing promise in the clinical trial, hence the PRIME designation. The program was set up to help speed up development and evaluation of therapies that could help patients who have limited treatment options. Getting a PRIME designation means it is considered a priority by EMA and could reach patients sooner.

In the US, Rocket has won similar recognition from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and has been granted Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy (RMAT), Rare Pediatric Disease, and Fast Track designations.

In a news release Kinnari Patel, President and Chief Operating Officer of Rocket, said the designation showed that regulators understand the urgent need to develop a therapy for patients with LAD-1. “More than half of LAD-I patients suffer with a severe variant in which mortality occurs in up to 75% of young children who don’t receive a successful bone marrow transplant by the age of two. Securing all possible accelerated designations will enable us to collaborate with both the FDA and EMA to speed the development and delivery of a potential treatment for these patients.  We look forward to sharing initial Phase 2 data from our potentially registration-enabling LAD-I trial in the second quarter of 2021.”

That trial has now completed enrolling patients (nine altogether) but their treatments are not yet complete. LAD-1 patients with severe disease have low levels of a key protein called CD18, usually less than 2%. Of the first three patients treated in this trial CD18 levels are all higher than the 4-10% threshold considered necessary for these children to survive into adulthood. Another encouraging sign is that there were no serious side effects from the therapy.

Obviously there is still a long way to go before we know if this therapy really works, but the PRIME designation – along with the similar ones in the US – are recognition that this is a very promising start.