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.

 

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CIRM Board member Jeff Sheehy appointed to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors

As a former journalist I love breaking news, it gets the adrenaline flowing. Usually when news is breaking it’s bad news. Today, however, I was fortunate to be present for breaking news that was, more than anything, a celebration.

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Jeff Sheehy, CIRM Board member (standing at podium) was appointed today as San Francisco’s District 8 Supervisor by Mayor Ed Lee (right of Sheehy), replacing Scott Weiner (3rd from left) who held the position before his election to the State Senate

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee today appointed CIRM Board member, and Patient Advocate for HIV/AIDS, Jeff Sheehy, as the new Supervisor for District 8. In announcing his decision the Mayor said:

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SF Mayor Ed Lee

“This was a very important decision. I was looking for someone who is passionate, a lover of our City and our people, someone who is solution oriented. I found that person in Jeff Sheehy. He has passion and commitment. He has an intellect that is very deep and a spirit that is steeped in advocacy.”

 

Those of us at CIRM know that passion and advocacy very well. As CIRM Board Chair, Jonathan Thomas, and Vice Chair, Art Torres, said in a joint statement:

“We are delighted that Mayor Lee has chosen Jeff Sheehy to be the new Supervisor. Having worked with Jeff for many years we know that he brings intelligence, dedication and compassion to everything he does. While Jeff is the HIV/AIDS Patient Advocate member on our Board, he has always been a true champion for anyone suffering from an inadequately treated disease, making sure that their voices are heard and reflected in every decision we make. We are confident he will bring those same qualities, and that same passion to the Board of Supervisors. We are also delighted that while he takes on this new role he will still continue to be a member of the CIRM Board and help us fulfill our mission of accelerating stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.”

As the first HIV-positive person to serve on the Board Jeff said he knows there are going to be tough challenges ahead, for the LGBTQ community and the City, but he said he has one very clear goal:

“This is about the kids, they are our future. If we don’t do well for our kids, we won’t do well for our City.”

He said he is both honored and humbled to be appointed to what he calls “a very challenging job.” But anyone who knows Jeff knows that he never backs away from a challenge.

Scott Weiner, who represented District 8 before being elected to the State Senate, called Jeff “an extraordinary leader, an extraordinary thinker. Some who is tenacious and committed to serving our community.”

Congratulations to Jeff, his husband Billy and their daughter Michelle. That’s a pretty cool way to start 2017.

Key Steps Along the Way To Finding Treatments for HIV on World AIDS Day

Today, December 1st,  is World AIDS Day. It’s a day to acknowledge the progress that is being made in HIV prevention and treatment around the world but also to renew our commitment to a future free of HIV. This year’s theme is Leadership. Commitment. Impact.  At CIRM we are funding a number of projects focused on HIV/AIDS, so we asked Jeff Sheehy, the patient advocate for HIV/AIDS on the CIRM Board to offer his perspective on the fight against the virus.

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At CIRM we talk about and hope for cures, but our actual mission is “accelerating stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.”

For those of us in the HIV/AIDS community, we are tremendously excited about finding a cure for HIV.  We have the example of Timothy Brown, aka the “Berlin Patient”, the only person cured of HIV.

Multiple Shots on Goal

Different approaches to a cure are under investigation with multiple clinical trials.  CIRM is funding three clinical trials using cell/gene therapy in attempts to genetically modify blood forming stem cells to resist infection with HIV.  While we hope this leads to a cure, community activists have come together to urge a look at something short of a “home run.”

A subset of HIV patients go on treatment, control the virus in their blood to the point where it can’t be detected by common diagnostic tests, but never see their crucial immune fighting CD4 T cells return to normal levels after decimation by HIV.

For instance, I have been on antiretroviral therapy since 1997.  My CD4 T cells had dropped precipitously, dangerous close to the level of 200.  At that level, I would have had an AIDS diagnosis and would have been extremely vulnerable to a whole host of opportunistic infections.  Fortunately, my virus was controlled within a few weeks and within a year, my CD T cells had returned to normal levels.

For the immunological non-responders I described above, that doesn’t happen.  So while the virus is under control, their T cell counts remain low and they are very susceptible to opportunistic infections and are at much greater risk of dying.

Immunological non-responders (INRs) are usually patients who had AIDS when they were diagnosed, meaning they presented with very low CD4 T cell counts.  Many are also older.  We had hoped that with frequent testing, treatment upon diagnosis and robust healthcare systems, this population would be less of a factor.  Yet in San Francisco with its very comprehensive and sophisticated testing and treatment protocols, 16% of newly diagnosed patients in 2015 had full blown AIDS.

Until we make greater progress in testing and treating people with HIV, we can expect to see immunological non-responders who will experience sub-optimal health outcomes and who will be more difficult to treat and keep alive.

Boosting the Immune System

A major cell/gene trial for HIV targeted this population.  Their obvious unmet medical need and their greater morbidity/mortality balanced the risks of first in man gene therapy.  Sangamo, a CIRM grantee, used zinc finger nucleases to snip out a receptor, CCR5, on the surface of CD4 T cells taken from INR patients.  That receptor is a door that HIV uses to enter cells.  Some people naturally lack the receptor and usually are unable to be infected with HIV.  The Berlin Patient had his entire immune system replaced with cells from someone lacking CCR5.

Most of the patients in that first trial saw their CD4 T cells rise sharply.  The amount of HIV circulating in their gut decreased.  They experienced a high degree of modification and persistence in T stem cells, which replenish the T cell population.  And most importantly, some who regularly experienced opportunistic infections such as my friend and study participant Matt Sharp who came down with pneumonia every winter, had several healthy seasons.

Missed Opportunities

Unfortunately, the drive for a cure pushed development of the product in a different direction.  This is in large part to regulatory challenges.  A prior trial started in the late 90’s by Chiron tested a cytokine, IL 2, to see if administering it could increase T cells.  It did, but proving that these new T cells did anything was illusive and development ceased.  Another cytokine, IL 7, was moving down the development pathway when the company developing it, Cytheris, ceased business.  The pivotal trial would have required enrolling 4,000 participants, a daunting and expensive prospect.  This was due to the need to demonstrate clinical impact of the new cells in a diverse group of patients.

Given the unmet need, HIV activists have looked at the Sangamo trial, amongst others, and have initiated a dialogue with the FDA.  Activists are exploring seeking orphan drug status since the population of INRs is relatively small.

Charting a New Course

They have also discussed trial designs looking at markers of immune activity and discussed potentially identifying a segment of INRs where clinical efficacy could be shown with far, far fewer participants.

Activists are calling for companies to join them in developing products for INRs.  I’ve included the press release issued yesterday by community advocates below.

With the collaboration of the HIV activist community, this could be a unique opportunity for cell/gene companies to actually get a therapy through the FDA. On this World AIDS Day, let’s consider the value of a solid single that serves patients in need while work continues on the home run.

NEWS RELEASE: HIV Activists Seek to Accelerate Development of Immune Enhancing Therapies for Immunologic Non-Responders.

Dialogues with FDA, scientists and industry encourage consideration of orphan drug designations for therapies to help the immunologic non-responder population and exploration of novel endpoints to reduce the size of efficacy trials.

November 30, 2016 – A coalition of HIV/AIDS activists are calling for renewed attention to HIV-positive people termed immunologic non-responders (INRs), who experience sub-optimal immune system reconstitution despite years of viral load suppression by antiretroviral therapy. Studies have shown that INR patients remain at increased risk of illness and death compared to HIV-positive people who have better restoration of immune function on current drug therapies. Risk factors for becoming an INR include older age and a low CD4 count at the time of treatment initiation. To date, efforts to develop immune enhancing interventions for this population have proven challenging, despite some candidates from small companies showing signs of promise.

“We believe there is an urgent need to find ways to encourage and accelerate development of therapies to reduce the health risks faced by INR patients,” stated Nelson Vergel of the Program for Wellness Restoration (PoWeR), who initiated the activist coalition. “For example, Orphan Drug designations[i] could be granted to encourage faster-track approval of promising therapies.  These interventions may eventually help not only INRs but also people with other immune deficiency conditions”.

Along with funding, a major challenge for approval of any potential therapy is proving its efficacy. While INRs face significantly increased risk of serious morbidities and mortality compared to HIV-positive individuals with more robust immune reconstitution, demonstrating a reduction in the incidence of these outcomes would likely require expensive and lengthy clinical trials involving thousands of individuals. Activists are therefore encouraging the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), industry and researchers to evaluate potential surrogate markers of efficacy such as relative improvements in clinical problems that may be more frequent in INR patients, such as upper respiratory infections, gastrointestinal disease, and other health issues.

“Given the risks faced by INR patients, every effort should be made to assess whether less burdensome pathways toward approval are feasible, without compromising the regulatory requirement for compelling evidence of safety and efficacy”, said Richard Jefferys of the Treatment Action Group.

The coalition is advocating that scientists, biotech and pharmaceutical companies pursue therapeutic candidates for INRs. For example, while gene and anti-inflammatory therapies for HIV are being assessed in the context of cure research, there is also evidence that they may have potential to promote immune reconstitution and reduce markers associated with risk of morbidity and mortality in INR patients. Therapeutic research should also be accompanied by robust study of the etiology and mechanisms of sub-optimal immune responses.

“While there is, appropriately, a major research focus on curing HIV, we must be alert to evidence that candidate therapies could have benefits for INR patients, and be willing to study them in this context”, argued Matt Sharp, a coalition member and INR who experienced enhanced immune reconstitution and improved health and quality of life after receiving an experimental gene therapy.

The coalition has held an initial conference call with FDA to discuss the issue. Minutes are available online.

The coalition is now aiming to convene a broader dialogue with various drug companies on the development of therapies for INR patients. Stakeholders who are interested in becoming involved are encouraged to contact coalition representatives.

[i] The Orphan Drug Act incentivizes the development of treatments for rare conditions. For more information, see:  http://www.fda.gov/ForIndustry/DevelopingProductsforRareDiseasesConditions/ucm2005525.htm

For more information:

Richard Jefferys

Michael Palm Basic Science, Vaccines & Cure Project Director
Treatment Action Group richard.jefferys@treatmentactiongroup.org

Nelson Vergel, Program for Wellness Restoration programforwellness@gmail.com

 

 

Timing is everything: could CRISPR gene editing push CIRM to change its rules on funding stem cell research?

CRISPR

Talk about timely. When we decided, several months ago, to hold a Standards Working Group (SWG) meeting to talk about the impact of CRISPR, a tool that is transforming the field of human gene editing, we had no idea that our meeting would fall smack in the midst of a flurry of news stories about the potential, but also the controversy, surrounding this approach.

Within a few days of our meeting lawmakers in the UK had approved the use of CRISPR for gene editing in human embryos for fertility research —a controversial first step toward what some see as a future of designer babies. And a U.S. Food and Drug Advisory report said conducting mitochondrial therapy research on human embryos is “ethically permissible”, under very limited conditions.

So it was clear from the outset that the SWG meeting was going to be touching on some fascinating and fast moving science that was loaded with ethical, social and moral questions.

Reviewing the rules

The goal of the meeting was to see if, in the light of advances with tools like CRISPR, we at CIRM needed to make any changes to our rules and regulations regarding the funding of this kind of work. We already have some strong guidelines in place to help us determine if we should fund work that involves editing human embryos, but are they strong enough?

There were some terrific speakers – including Nobel Prize winner Dr. David Baltimore; Alta Charo, a professor of Law and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison  ; and Charis Thompson, chair of the Center for the Science, Technology, and Medicine in Society at the University of California, Berkeley – who gave some thought-provoking presentations. And there was also a truly engaged audience who offered some equally thought provoking questions.

CIRM Board member Jeff Sheehy highlighted how complex and broad ranging the issues are when he posed this question:

“Do we need to think about the rights of the embryo donor? If they have a severe inheritable disease and the embryo they donated for research has been edited, with CRISPR or other tools, to remove that potential do they have a right to know about that or even access to that technology for their own use?”

Alta Charo said this is not just a question for scientists, but something that could potentially affect everyone and so there is a real need to engage as many groups as possible in discussing it:

“How and to what extent do you involve patient advocates, members of the disability rights community and social justice community – racial or economic or geographic.  This is why we need these broader conversations, so we include all perspectives as we attempt to draw up guidelines and rules and regulations.”

It quickly became clear that the discussion was going to be even more robust than we imagined, and the issues raised were too many and too complex for us to hope to reach any conclusions or produce any recommendations in one day.

As Bernie Lo, President of the Greenwall Foundation in New York, who chaired the meeting said:

“We are not going to resolve these issues today, in fact what we have done is uncover a lot more issues and complexity.”

Time to ask tough questions

In the end it was decided that the most productive use of the day was not to limit the discussion at the workshop but to get those present to highlight the issues and questions that were most important and leave it to the SWG to then work through those and develop a series of recommendations that would eventually be presented to the CIRM Board.

The questions to be answered included but were not limited to:

1) Do we need to reconsider the language used in getting informed consent from donors in light of the ability of CRISPR and other technologies to do things that we previously couldn’t easily do?

2) Can we use CRISPR on previously donated materials/samples where general consent was given without knowing that these technologies could be available or can we only use it on biomaterials to be collected going forward?

3) Clarify whether the language we use about genetic modification should also include mitochondrial DNA as well as nuclear DNA.

4) What is the possibility that somatic or adult cell gene editing may lead to inadvertent germ line editing (altering the genomes of eggs and sperm will pass on these genetic modifications to the next generation).

5) How do we engage with patient advocates and other community groups such as the social justice and equity movements to get their input on these topics? Do we need to do more outreach and education among the public or specific groups and try to get more input from them (after all we are a taxpayer created and funded organization so we clearly have some responsibility to the wider California community and not just to researchers and patients)?

6) As CIRM already funds human embryo research should we now consider funding the use of CRISPR and other technologies that can modify the human embryo provided those embryos are not going to be implanted in a human uterus, as is the case with the recently approved research in the UK.

Stay tuned, more to come!

This was a really detailed dive into a subject that is clearly getting a lot of scientific attention around the world, and is no longer an abstract idea but is rapidly becoming a scientific reality. The next step is for a subgroup of the SWG to put together the key issues at stake here and place them in a framework for another discussion with the full SWG at some future date.

Once the SWG has reached consensus their recommendations will then go to the CIRM Board for its consideration.

We will be sure to update you on this as things progress.