California gets first royalty check from Stem Cell Agency investments

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CIRM recently shared in a little piece of history. The first royalty check, based on CIRM’s investment in stem cell research, was sent to the California State Treasurer’s office from City of Hope. It’s the first of what we hope will be many such checks, helping repay, not just the investment the state made in the field, but also the trust the voters of California showed when they created CIRM.

The check, for $190,345.87, was for a grant we gave City of Hope back in 2012 to develop a therapy for glioblastoma, one of the deadliest forms of brain cancer. That has led to two clinical trials and a number of offshoot inventions that were subsequently licensed to a company called Mustang Bio.

Christine Brown, who is now the principal investigator on the project, is quoted in a front page article in the San Francisco Chronicle, on the significance of the check for California:

“This is an initial payment for the recognition of the potential of this therapy. If it’s ultimately approved by the FDA as a commercial product, this could be a continued revenue source.”

In the same article, John Zaia, Director of the City of Hope Alpha Stem Cell Clinic, says this also reflects the unique nature of CIRM:

“I think this illustrates that a state agency can actually fund research in the private community and get a return on its investment. It’s something that’s not done in general by other funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, and this is a proof of concept that it can work.”

Maria Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO, says the amount of the payment is not the most significant part of this milestone – after all CIRM has invested more than $2.5 billion in stem cell research since 2004. She says the fact that we are starting to see a return on the investment is important and reflects some of the many benefits CIRM brings to the state.

“It’s a part of the entire picture of the return to California. In terms of what it means to the health of Californians, and access to these transformative treatments, as well as the fact that we are growing an industry.”

 

Inspiring the next generation of stem cell scientists

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SPARK students at the 2017 Annual Meeting at the City of Hope.

“The technological breakthroughs that will be happening over the next few years – it’s your generation of scientists that will make this happen.”

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John Zaia

Dr. John Zaia, the Director of City of Hope’s Center for Gene Therapy, directed these words to a group of 55 talented high school students attending the 2017 CIRM SPARK meeting.

SPARK stands for Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge. Students in the program spend their summer tackling difficult stem cell research projects in the lab, attending scientific workshops and lectures, and participated in patient engagement activities.

At the end of the summer, SPARK students from seven different programs at institutions and universities across California attend the annual SPARK meeting. At this gathering, students present their research to researchers and their families. They also hear about the progress in developing stem cell therapies from scientists and doctors and about exciting career paths in science and STEM fields from SPARK alumni.

The program is an excellent way for high school students to get their “research feet” wet. They are trained in basic lab and stem cell techniques and are assigned to a mentor who guides them through their research project.

Many of the students who participate in our SPARK programs go on to prestigious colleges to pursue degrees in science, medicine, and engineering. You can read some of these stories on our blog here and here.

At CIRM, we are invested in educating the next generation of stem cell scientists. Our Vice-Chair of the CIRM Board, Sen. Art Torres, said it perfectly at this year’s SPARK meeting:

“I just want to thank you for being part of this program. We are very proud of each and every one of you and we expect great things in the future.”

Check out this short video, produced by City of Hope, which features highlights from our 2017 SPARK meeting at the City of Hope. As you will see, this program is not only fun, but is a one-in-a-lifetime experience.

If you’re interested in learning more about our SPARK program or applying to be a SPARK intern, visit our website for more information. SPARK programs typically accept applications in December or early in the year. Each program has its own eligibility requirements and application process and you can find out that information on the individual SPARK program websites listed on our CIRM SPARK webpage.

Patients are the Heroes at the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Symposium

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UCSD’s Catriona Jamieson and patient advocate Sandra Dillon at the CIRM Alpha Clinic Network Symposium

Sometimes, when you take a moment to stand back and look at what you have accomplished, you can surprise yourself at how far you have come, and how much you have done in a short space of time.

Take the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network for example. In the 18 months since our Board invested $24 million to kick start the first three Alpha Clinics the Network has signed up 21 clinical trials. That’s no small achievement. But as far as the Alpha Clinics Network team is concerned, that’s just a start.

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Last week UC San Diego hosted the Second Annual CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium. The gathering of scientists, medical staff and patient advocates spent a little time talking about the past, about what has been achieved so far, but most of the time was devoted to looking to the future, planning where they want to go and how they are going to get there.

The Network’s goal is to now dramatically increase the number of high quality stem cell clinical trials it is running, to make it even easier for companies and researchers looking for a site to carry out their trial, and to make it even easier for patients looking to sign up for one.

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Panel at symposium: L to R: David Higgins, CIRM Board; David Parry, GSK; Catriona Jamieson, UCSD: John Zaia, City of Hope; John Adams, UCLA

For companies, the lure of having three Alpha Clinics (UC San Diego, City of Hope and the combined team of UCLA/UC Irvine) packed with skilled, experienced staff that specialize in delivering stem cell therapies is a big draw. (By the way, if you know anyone looking for funding for a clinical trial send them here).

The Alpha Clinic teams not only know how to deliver the therapies, they also know how to deliver patients. They spend a lot of time working with patients and patient advocates on the best ways to recruit people for trials, and the best way to design those trials so that they are as easy as possible for patients to take part in.

This attention to making it as good an experience for patients as possible starts from the very first time that a patient calls the clinics to find out if they are eligible for a trial. If there is no trial that is appropriate for that particular patient, the staff try to find an alternative trial at another location that might work.

Making sure it’s a good fit

If the Network does have a trial that meets the needs of the patient, then they begin the conversation to find out if the patient is eligible to apply. The goal of this part of the process is not simply to try and fill up available slots but to make sure that the patient is both a good match for the proposed therapy and that they also completely understand what’s involved in getting that therapy. For example, they need to understand if the trial involves staying overnight or several nights in the hospital, or if there are things they need to do ahead of time to prepare.

For the clinics themselves, one of the biggest challenges is insurance coverage. While the trial itself may be free, the patient may need to have some tests ahead of the treatment, to make sure they don’t have any underlying problems that could put their health at risk. The clinics need to know if the patient’s insurance will cover the cost of those tests and if they don’t what their options are. For a rare disease, where it’s challenging to find enough patients to produce meaningful results, these kinds of problems can jeopardize the whole trial.

The Alpha Clinics Network is working hard to develop answers to all of those problems, to create systems that make it as easy as possible to get a clinical trial up and running, and to recruit and keep patients in that trial.

Challenges to overcome

Part of the challenge is that many of these trials are for first-in-human therapies, meaning no one has ever tried this in a person before. That means the doctors, nurses and all the support staff in these clinics need to be specially trained in dealing with an entirely new way of treating people, with an entirely new class of therapies. And this isn’t just about technical skills. They also need to be good at communication, helping the patients understand everything that is happening or about to happen.

In a state like California, one of the most diverse places on earth, that’s no easy challenge. According to a UCLA study there are more than 220 languages spoken in LA County alone. Coping with that level of linguistic, cultural, and religious diversity is a challenge that the Alpha Clinics are working hard to meet.

Listening to patients

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Patient advocates were also an important voice at the symposium, talking about their experiences in clinical trials and how they have helped change their lives, and how they have, in some cases, saved their lives. But they also had some thoughts on how the researchers can do an even better job. That is the subject for a future blog.

While everyone acknowledged the challenges the CIRM Alpha Clinics face, they also celebrated what they have accomplished so far, and looked forward to the future. And the symposium was a chance to remind all of us that the reason we are in this is to help patients battling deadly diseases and disorders. So it was fitting that Thomas Kipps, the Deputy Director of Research at the UCSD Moore’s Cancer Center, took the opportunity to thank those who are not just the focus of this work, but also the heroes.

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Thomas Kipps: Photo courtesy Patient Power

“Clinical trials involve a very important skill set. You have to first and foremost put the patient first in any clinical trial. I think we cannot ignore the fact that these are human beings that are brave souls that have gone forward. These are the heroes who are going out and forging new territory.”

The search for a cure: how stem cells could eradicate the AIDS virus

It’s hard to overstate just how devastating the AIDS crisis was at its peak in the U.S. – and still is today in many parts of the world. In 1995 almost 51,000 Americans died from the disease, the numbers of new cases were at almost record highs, and there were few effective therapies against the virus.

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HIV/AIDS medications

Today that picture is very different. New medications and combination therapies have helped reduce the death rate, in some cases turning HIV into a chronic rather than fatal condition. But even now there is no cure.

That’s why the news that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a clinical trial, that we are funding, aimed at eradicating HIV in the body, was so welcome. This could be an important step towards the Holy Grail of AIDS therapies, curing the disease.

The project is headed by Dr. John Zaia at City of Hope near Los Angeles. The team, with researchers from Keck Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC) and Sangamo BioSciences, plans on using an individual’s own stem cells to beat the virus.  They will remove some blood stem cells from HIV-infected individuals, then treat them with zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs), a kind of molecular scissors, snipping off a protein the AIDS virus needs to infect those cells.

It’s hoped the re-engineered stem cells, when returned to the body, will help create a new blood and immune system that is resistant to the virus. And if the virus can’t infect any new immune cells it could, theoretically, die off. Check out the video we produced a few years back about the project:

Studies in the lab show this approach holds a lot of promise. In a news release announcing the start of the clinical trial, Dr. Zaia said now it’s time to see if it will work in people:

“While we have a number of drugs that are effective in holding HIV at bay, we have nothing that cures it. In addition, for many patients, these medications come with significant long-term problems so there is a real need for a therapy that can help eradicate the virus from a patient completely. That is where our work is focused.”

Like all Phase 1 trials this one is focused on making sure this approach is safe for people, and identifying what, if any, side-effects there are from the treatment. The first group of patients to be treated consists of people with HIV/AIDS who have not responded well to the existing medications.

This is the second trial that CIRM is funding focused on curing HIV/AIDS. Our first, involving the company Calimmune, began its human clinical trial in July 2013. You can read more about that work here.

We know that the road to a cure will not be simple or straightforward. There have been too many false claims of cures or miracle therapies over the years for any of us to want to fall victim to hope and hype. It may even be that the most realistic goal for these approaches is what is called a “functional cure”, one that doesn’t eliminate the virus completely but does eliminate the need to take antiretroviral pills every day.

But when compared to the dark days of 1995, a functional cure is a world away from certain death.