Stem cell heroes: patients who had life-saving, life-changing treatments inspire CIRM Board

 

It’s not an easy thing to bring an entire Board of Directors to tears, but four extraordinary people and their families managed to do just that at the last CIRM Board meeting of 2016.

The four are patients who have undergone life-saving or life-changing stem cell therapies that were funded by our agency. The patients and their families shared their stories with the Board as part of CIRM President & CEO Randy Mill’s preview of our Annual Report, a look back at our achievements over the last year.

The four included:

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Jake Javier, whose life changed in a heartbeat the day before he graduated high school, when he dove into a swimming pool and suffered a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the chest down. A stem cell transplant is giving him hope he may regain the use of his arms and hands.

 

 

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Karl Trede who had just recovered from one life-threatening disease when he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and became the first person ever treated with a new anti-tumor therapy that helped hold the disease at bay.

 

brenden_stories_of_hopeBrenden Whittaker, born with a rare immune disorder that left his body unable to fight off bacterial or fungal infections. Repeated infections cost Brenden part of his lung and liver and almost killed him. A stem cell treatment that gave him a healthy immune system cured him.

 

 

evangelinaEvangelina Padilla Vaccaro was born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), also known as “bubbly baby” disease, which left her unable to fight off infections. Her future looked grim until she got a stem cell transplant that gave her a new blood system and a healthy immune system. Today, she is cured.

 

 

Normally CIRM Board meetings are filled with important, albeit often dry, matters such as approving new intellectual property regulations or a new research concept plan. But it’s one thing to vote to approve a clinical trial, and a very different thing to see the people whose lives you have helped change by funding that trial.

You cannot help but be deeply moved when you hear a mother share her biggest fear that her daughter would never live long enough to go to kindergarten and is now delighted to see her lead a normal life; or hear a young man who wondered if he would make it to his 24th birthday now planning to go to college to be a doctor

When you know you played a role in making these dreams happen, it’s impossible not to be inspired, and doubly determined to do everything possible to ensure many others like them have a similar chance at life.

You can read more about these four patients in our new Stories of Hope: The CIRM Stem Cell Four feature on the CIRM website. Additionally, here is a video of those four extraordinary people and their families telling their stories:

We will have more extraordinary stories to share with you when we publish our Annual Report on January 1st. 2016 was a big year for CIRM. We are determined to make 2017 even bigger.

California’s stem cell agency rounds up the year with two more big hits

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CIRM Board meeting with  Jake Javier, CIRM Chair Jonathan Thomas, Vice Chair Sen. Art Torres (Ret.) and President/CEO Randy Mills

It’s traditional to end the year with a look back at what you hoped to accomplish and an assessment of what you did. By that standard 2016 has been a pretty good year for us at CIRM.

Yesterday our governing Board approved funding for two new clinical trials, one to help kidney transplant patients, the second to help people battling a disease that destroys vision. By itself that is a no small achievement. Anytime you can support potentially transformative research you are helping advance the field. But getting these two clinical trials over the start line means that CIRM has also met one of its big goals for the year; funding ten new clinical trials.

If you had asked us back in the summer, when we had funded only two clinical trials in 2016, we would have said that the chances of us reaching ten trials by the end of the year were about as good as a real estate developer winning the White House. And yet……..

Helping kidney transplant recipients

The Board awarded $6.65 million to researchers at Stanford University who are using a deceptively simple approach to help people who get a kidney transplant. Currently people who get a transplant have to take anti-rejection medications for the rest of their life to prevent their body rejecting the new organ. These powerful immunosuppressive medications are essential but also come with a cost; they increase the risk of cancer, infection and heart disease.

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CIRM President/CEO Randy Mills addresses the CIRM Board

The Stanford team will see if it can help transplant patients bypass the need for those drugs by injecting blood stem cells and T cells (which play an important role in the immune system) from the kidney donor into the kidney recipient. The hope is by using cells from the donor, you can help the recipient’s body more readily adjust to the new organ and reduce the likelihood the body’s immune system will attack it.

This would be no small feat. Every year around 17,000 kidney transplants take place in the US, and many people who get a donor kidney experience fevers, infections and other side effects as a result of taking the anti-rejection medications. This clinical trial is a potentially transformative approach that could help protect the integrity of the transplanted organ, and improve the quality of life for the kidney recipient.

Fighting blindness

The second trial approved for funding is one we are already very familiar with; Dr. Henry Klassen and jCyte’s work in treating retinitis pigmentosa (RP). This is a devastating disease that typically strikes before age 30 and slowly destroys a person’s vision. We’ve blogged about it here and here.

Dr. Klassen, a researcher at UC Irvine, has developed a method of injecting what are called retinal progenitor cells into the back of the eye. The hope is that these cells will repair and replace the cells damaged by RP. In a CIRM-funded Phase 1 clinical trial the method proved safe with no serious side effects, and some of the patients also reported improvements in their vision. This raised hopes that a Phase 2 clinical trial using a larger number of cells in a larger number of patients could really see if this therapy is as promising as we hope. The Board approved almost $8.3 million to support that work.

Seeing is believing

How promising? Well, I recently talked to Rosie Barrero, who took part in the first phase clinical trial. She told me that she was surprised how quickly she started to notice improvements in her vision:

“There’s more definition, more colors. I am seeing colors I haven’t seen in years. We have different cups in our house but I couldn’t really make out the different colors. One morning I woke up and realized ‘Oh my gosh, one of them is purple and one blue’. I was by myself, in tears, and it felt amazing, unbelievable.”

Amazing was a phrase that came up a lot yesterday when we introduced four people to our Board. Each of the four had taken part in a stem cell clinical trial that changed their lives, even saved their lives. It was a very emotional scene as they got a chance to thank the group that made those trials, those treatments possible.

We’ll have more on that in a future blog.

 

 

 

 

Stem cell agency funds clinical trials in three life-threatening conditions

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A year ago the CIRM Board unanimously approved a new Strategic Plan for the stem cell agency. In the plan are some rather ambitious goals, including funding ten new clinical trials in 2016. For much of the last year that has looked very ambitious indeed. But today the Board took a big step towards reaching that goal, approving three clinical trials focused on some deadly or life-threatening conditions.

The first is Forty Seven Inc.’s work targeting colorectal cancer, using a monoclonal antibody that can strip away the cancer cells ability to evade  the immune system. The immune system can then attack the cancer. But just in case that’s not enough they’re going to hit the tumor from another side with an anti-cancer drug called cetuximab. It’s hoped this one-two punch combination will get rid of the cancer.

Finding something to help the estimated 49,000 people who die of colorectal cancer in the U.S. every year would be no small achievement. The CIRM Board thought this looked so promising they awarded Forty Seven Inc. $10.2 million to carry out a clinical trial to test if this approach is safe. We funded a similar approach by researchers at Stanford targeting solid tumors in the lung and that is showing encouraging results.

Our Board also awarded $7.35 million to a team at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles that is using stem cells to treat pulmonary hypertension, a form of high blood pressure in the lungs. This can have a devastating, life-changing impact on a person leaving them constantly short of breath, dizzy and feeling exhausted. Ultimately it can lead to heart failure.

The team at Cedars-Sinai will use cells called cardiospheres, derived from heart stem cells, to reduce inflammation in the arteries and reduce blood pressure. CIRM is funding another project by this team using a similar  approach to treat people who have suffered a heart attack. This work showed such promise in its Phase 1 trial it’s now in a larger Phase 2 clinical trial.

The largest award, worth $20 million, went to target one of the rarest diseases. A team from UCLA, led by Don Kohn, is focusing on Adenosine Deaminase Severe Combined Immune Deficiency (ADA-SCID), which is a rare form of a rare disease. Children born with this have no functioning immune system. It is often fatal in the first few years of life.

The UCLA team will take the patient’s own blood stem cells, genetically modify them to fix the mutation that is causing the problem, then return them to the patient to create a new healthy blood and immune system. The team have successfully used this approach in curing 23 SCID children in the last few years – we blogged about it here – and now they have FDA approval to move this modified approach into a Phase 2 clinical trial.

So why is CIRM putting money into projects that it has either already funded in earlier clinical trials or that have already shown to be effective? There are a number of reasons. First, our mission is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. Each of the diseases funded today represent an unmet medical need. Secondly, if something appears to be working for one problem why not try it on another similar one – provided the scientific rationale and evidence shows it is appropriate of course.

As Randy Mills, our President and CEO, said in a news release:

“Our Board’s support for these programs highlights how every member of the CIRM team shares that commitment to moving the most promising research out of the lab and into patients as quickly as we can. These are very different projects, but they all share the same goal, accelerating treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.”

We are trying to create a pipeline of projects that are all moving towards the same goal, clinical trials in people. Pipelines can be horizontal as well as vertical. So we don’t really care if the pipeline moves projects up or sideways as long as they succeed in moving treatments to patients. And I’m guessing that patients who get treatments that change their lives don’t particularly

Ingenious CIRM-funded stem cell approach to treating ALS gets go-ahead to start clinical trial

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Clive Svendsen

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, was first identified way back in 1869 but today, more than 150 years later, there are still no effective treatments for it. Now a project, funded by CIRM, has been given approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to start a clinical trial that could help change that.

Clive Svendsen and his team at Cedars-Sinai are about to start a clinical trial they hope will help slow down the progression of the disease. And they are doing it in a particularly ingenious way. More on that in a minute.

First, let’s start with ALS itself. It’s a particularly nasty, rapidly progressing disease that destroys motor neurons, those are the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control movement. People with ALS lose the ability to speak, eat, move and finally, breathe. The average life expectancy after diagnosis is just 3 – 4 years. It’s considered an orphan disease because it affects only around 30,000 people in the US; but even with those relatively low numbers that means that every 90 minutes someone in the US is diagnosed with ALS, and every 90 minutes someone in the US dies of ALS.

Ingenious approach

In this clinical trial the patients will serve as their own control group. Previous studies have shown that the rate of deterioration of muscle movement in the legs of a person with ALS is the same for both legs. So Svendsen and his team will inject specially engineered stem cells into a portion of the spine that controls movement on just one side of the body. Neither the patient nor the physician will know which side has received the cells. This enables the researchers to determine if the treated leg is deteriorating at a slower rate than the untreated leg.

The stem cells being injected have been engineered to produce a protein called glial cell line derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) that helps protect motor neurons. Svendsen and the team hope that by providing extra GDNF they’ll be able to protect the motor neurons and keep them alive.

Reaching a milestone

In a news release announcing the start of the trial, Svendsen admitted ALS is a tough disease to tackle:

“Any time you’re trying to treat an incurable disease, it is a long shot, but we believe the rationale behind our new approach is strong.”

Diane Winokur, the CIRM Board patient advocate for ALS, says this is truly a milestone:

“In the last few years, thanks to new technologies, increased interest, and CIRM support, we finally seem to be seeing some encouraging signs in the research into ALS. Dr. Svendsen has been at the forefront of this effort for the 20 years I have followed his work.  I commend him, Cedars-Sinai, and CIRM.  On behalf of those who have suffered through this cruel disease and their families and caregivers, I am filled with hope.”

You can read more about Clive Svendsen’s long journey to this moment here.

 

Creating a “Pitching Machine” to speed up our delivery of stem cell treatments to patients

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When baseball players are trying to improve their hitting they’ll use a pitching machine to help them fine tune their stroke. Having a device that delivers a ball at a consistent speed can help a batter be more consistent and effective in their swing, and hopefully get more hits.

That’s what we are hoping our new Translating and Accelerating Centers will do. We call these our “Pitching Machine”, because we hope they’ll help researchers be better prepared when they apply to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for approval to start a clinical trial, and be more efficient and effective in the way they set up and run that clinical trial once they get approval.

The CIRM Board approved the Accelerating Center earlier this summer. The $15 million award went to QuintilesIMS, a leading integrated information and technology-enabled healthcare service provider.

The Accelerating Center will provide key core services for researchers who have been given approval to run a clinical trial, including:

  • Regulatory support and management services
  • Clinical trial operations and management services
  • Data management, biostatistical and analytical services

The reason why these kinds of service are needed is simple, as Randy Mills, our President and CEO explained at the time:

“Many scientists are brilliant researchers but have little experience or expertise in navigating the regulatory process; this Accelerating Center means they don’t have to develop those skills; we provide them for them.”

The Translating Center is the second part of the “Pitching Machine”. That is due to go to our Board for a vote tomorrow. This is an innovative new center that will support the stem cell research, manufacturing, preclinical safety testing, and other activities needed to successfully apply to the FDA for approval to start a clinical trial.

The Translating Center will:

  • Provide consultation and guidance to researchers about the translational process for their stem cell product.
  • Initiate, plan, track, and coordinate activities necessary for preclinical Investigational New Drug (IND)-enabling development projects.
  • Conduct preclinical research activities, including pivotal pharmacology and toxicology studies.
  • Manufacture stem cell and gene modified stem cell products under the highest quality standards for use in preclinical and clinical studies.

The two centers will work together, helping researchers create a comprehensive development plan for every aspect of their project.

For the researchers this is important in giving them the support they need. For the FDA it could also be useful in ensuring that the applications they get from CIRM-funded projects are consistent, high quality and meet all their requirements.

We want to do everything we can to ensure that when a CIRM-funded therapy is ready to start a clinical trial that its application is more likely to be a hit with the FDA, and not to strike out.

Just as batting practice is crucial to improving performance in baseball, we are hoping our “Pitching Machine” will raise our game to the next level, and enable us to deliver some game-changing treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.

 

Board gives stem cell institute marching orders, and a road map

The poet T. S. Eliot once wrote: “If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” Well, everyone at CIRM, California’s stem cell institute, is about to find out how tall we are.

Strategic Plan coverYesterday our governing Board approved a new Strategic Plan. To call it ambitious might be considered an understatement. Among the goals it commits us to achieving are:

  • Funding 50 new clinical trials in 5 years including 10 for rare or orphan disorders and 5 in conditions affecting children
  • Fostering enactment of a new, more efficient federal regulatory approval process for stem cell treatments
  • Introducing 50 new therapeutic candidates or devices into the development pipeline
  • Reducing the time it takes to move a stem cell treatment from the earliest Discovery stage into a clinical trial by 50%
  • Increasing the number of projects moving to the next stage of development by 50%

No easy task

Each goal by itself might be considered challenging. Taken together they are likely to stretch us all. And yet that’s why we joined CIRM, why we feel fortunate to be part of this mission. We have a chance to be part of a movement that could change the face of medicine as we know it. We knew it wouldn’t be easy. But now we know what we have to do to help achieve that.

As Randy Mills, our President and CEO, said in a news release, the goal in developing this Strategic Plan was to create a clear vision for the next five years of the Institute:

”We have around $900 million left to work with and we wanted a plan that used that money to the best possible effect, maximizing our chances of pushing as many new treatments to patients as possible. We didn’t want something ‘good enough’, we wanted something ‘great’. This plan is extremely ambitious, but also realistic in the goals it sets out and the way those goals can be met.”

The Strategic Plan – you can read it in full here – doesn’t just lay out goals, it also creates a road map on how to meet those goals. They include engaging industry more, being more creative in how we move the most promising projects from one stage of research to the next, and finding ways to change the regulatory approval process to help remove obstacles and speed up the progress of these therapies into clinical trials.

Aiming high

We know we may not achieve all our goals. As Randy Mills said at our Board meeting: “This is a difficult plan. These goals are not easy to achieve.” There are always risks in pursuing something so big and ambitious but no one ever achieved anything truly worthwhile by playing it safe. We are not interested in playing it safe.

We may start out by being, as T. S. Eliot put it “in over our heads”. But we’re confident we’ll be able to grow tall enough to make this plan work.

As Randy Mills told the Board: “If we are all in this together then the probability of success is high, and if we are successful then all this would have been worthwhile.”

Faster, better, more efficient. Challenging? That too. An update on CIRM 2.0.

Changing direction is never easy. The greater the change the greater the likelihood you’ll have to make adjustments and do some fine-tuning along the way to make sure you get it right.

On January 1st of this year we made a big change, launching CIRM 2.0. Our President and CEO Dr. C. Randal Mills called it “a radical overhaul of the way the Agency does business.” This new approach puts the emphasis on patients, partnerships and speed and cuts down the time from application to funding of clinical-stage projects from around two years to just 120 days.

You can read more about 2.0 here.

So, several months into the program how are we doing?

Clinical stage of CIRM 2.0 has three programs

Clinical stage of CIRM 2.0 has three programs

Well, since January 1st we have had three application tracks under 2.0 that reflect our goal of accelerating therapies to patients with unmet medical needs. These focus on late stage work to either get a promising therapy into a clinical trial, to carry out a clinical trial, or to help a promising project move even faster.

Under those three programs we have had 12 applications for funding, for a total request of $111 million. With application deadlines the last business day of each month two of those were in January, two in February, three more in March and five in April.

As Dr. Mills told our governing Board when they met last week, that number is more than we were expecting:

 “When we started the program we calculated there’d be around one or two applications a month, not five. I don’t think having five applications a month is sustainable, but that’s probably just the backlog, the pent up demand for funding, working its way through the system. For now we can cope with that volume.”

Interestingly eight of those applications were for funding for clinical trials:

  • Two for Phase 1
  • One for Phase 2
  • Five for Phase 3

Last week our Board approved one of those Phase 3 trials (the last big hurdle to clear before the Food and Drug Administration will consider approving it for wider use), investing almost $18 million in NeoStem’s therapy for one of the deadliest forms of skin cancer, metastatic melanoma.

This is the first time we have ever funded a Phase 3 trial. So, quite a milestone for us. But it may well not be the last one. The Board also approved a project to conduct the late preclinical work needed to apply to conduct a trial in retinitis pigmentosa.

Dr. Mills said there are two clear patterns so far:

“We are getting a more mature portfolio of clinical stage programs for adjudication. We are also starting to see requests for accelerating activities, where we have made previous awards to researchers who now have identified new ways to accelerate that work and they are turning to us for help in doing that.”

Of the 12 applications received we have screened all of them within the 7-day target window to make sure they meet funding criteria. Some have been ruled out for not being within the scope of the award program. The accepted applications have all had budget reviews and been sent on for expert analysis within the slated time frames.

We had a couple of hiccups with our first review but that resulted from on-line technology and getting everyone comfortable with the new rules we were bringing in. The second review resulted in the first two awards by our Board last week, and the third review occurred yesterday.

“The bottom line is things are moving through and things are being weeded out. In March we had two clinical stage applications and one add-on funding application but that one add-on failed in screening. So, in general CIRM 2.0 is being well utilized. There’s no question we are significantly reducing application time from application to funding, attracting later stage applications. Clearly this has not been without its challenges but the team is doing a great job of managing everything.”

And remember this is only the first part of CIRM 2.0. We have two other programs, for Discovery or basic research and Translational research, that are being developed and we plan on rolling those out later this summer.

Stay tuned for more details on those programs.

Spiderman Sets the Tone for Stem Cell Agency Board Meeting

I don’t often think about Spiderman at meetings of our governing Board – no, really I don’t – but yesterday was an exception. Not that I was daydreaming, rather I was listening to our new President & CEO C. Randal Mills, Ph.D., talk about his determination to set a very specific tone in leading the agency.

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Randy had just explained to the Board that he had asked the agency’s General Counsel to draw up an agreement stating he – Randy, not the lawyer – will not accept a job with any company funded by CIRM for at least one year following his departure from the agency. In addition he will also refuse to accept gifts or travel payments from any company, institution or individual who receives agency funding.

In a news release we issued following the Board meeting he explained his reasons for making this commitment:

“I want the people of California to know that my sole interest in being at CIRM is to help advance stem cell treatments to patients who are in need. I will do so with a full commitment to transparency and by never compromising the integrity of our mission nor our trust to the taxpayers of California.”

And that’s where Spiderman comes in. As any fan of the movie or comic books can tell you one of the things Spiderman says a lot is “With great power comes great responsibility.”

In making his commitment Randy wanted to send a very clear and very strong message that he understands what his role as the President involves, and that it’s important for him to demonstrate that through his actions.

Board member and patient advocate, Sherry Lansing, echoed that saying:

“We take even the possibility of a perception of a conflict of interest very seriously and are determined to do whatever is necessary to ensure that we protect the reputation of the agency and the work that we do. We fully support Dr. Mills in the way he is handling this issue.”

Randy decided to make that commitment after his predecessor, Dr. Alan Trounson joined the Board of Stem Cells Inc., a company that we awarded more than $19 million to develop a therapy for Alzheimer’s disease. While there is nothing illegal about Dr. Trounson’s actions the news did cause a bit of a stir with a few commentators saying this was a dark mark against the agency – even though there is nothing we could have done to stop it because we did not know it was happening.

Randy is not asking anyone else to make the same commitment he has made, but he says it was important for him to do so. His role as President & CEO carries great responsibility and he says he wants to show that he takes it very seriously and will lead by example.

I rather think Spiderman would approve.

Kevin McCormack