Stem Cell Awareness Day: Past, Present, Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CIRM Board Appoints Dr. Maria Millan as President and CEO

Dr. Maria Millan, President and CEO of CIRM, at the September Board meeting. (Todd Dubnicoff, CIRM)

Yesterday was a big day for CIRM. Our governing Board convened for its September ICOC meeting and appointed Dr. Maria Millan as our new President and CEO. Dr. Millan has been serving as the Interim President/CEO since July, replacing former President Dr. Randal Mills.

Dr. Millan has been at CIRM since 2012 and was instrumental in the development of CIRM’s infrastructure programs including the Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network and the agency’s Strategic Plan, a five-year plan that lays out our agency’s goals through 2020. Previously, Dr. Millan was the Vice President of Therapeutics at CIRM, helping the agency fund 23 new clinical trials since the beginning of 2016.

The Board vote to appoint Dr. Millan as President and CEO was unanimous and enthusiastic. Chairman of the Board, Jonathan Thomas, shared the Board’s sentiments when he said,

“Dr. Millan is absolutely the right person for this position. Having seen Dr. Millan as the Interim CEO of CIRM for three months and how she has operated in that position, I am even more enthusiastic than I was before. I am grateful that we have someone of Maria’s caliber to lead our Agency.”

Dr. Millan has pursued a career devoted to helping patients. Before working at CIRM, she was an organ transplant surgeon and researcher and served as an Associate Professor of Surgery and Director of the Pediatric Organ Transplant Program at Stanford University. Dr. Millan was also the Vice President and Chief Medical Officer at StemCells, Inc.

In her permanent role as President, Dr. Millan is determined to keep CIRM on track to achieve the goals outlined in our strategic plan and to achieve its mission to accelerate treatments to patients with unmet needs. She commented in a CIRM press release,

“I joined the CIRM team because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of patients. They are the reason why CIRM exists and why we fund stem cell research. I am humbled and very honored to be CIRM’s President and look forward to further implementing our agency’s Strategic Plan in the coming years.”

The Board also voted to fund two new Alpha Stem Cell Clinics at UC Davis and UC San Francisco and five new clinical trials. Three of the clinical awards went to projects targeting cancer.

The City of Hope received $12.8 million to fund a Phase 1 trial targeting malignant gliomas (an aggressive brain cancer) using CAR-T cell therapy. Forty Seven Inc. received $5 million for a Phase 1b clinical trial treating acute myeloid leukemia. And Nohla Therapeutics received $6.9 million for a Phase 2 trial testing a hematopoietic stem cell and progenitor cell therapy to help patients suffering from neutropenia, a condition that leaves people susceptible to deadly infections, after receiving chemotherapy for acute myeloid leukemia.

The other two trials target diabetes and end stage kidney failure. ViaCyte, Inc. was awarded $20 million to fund a Phase 1/2 clinical trial to test its PEC-Direct islet cell replacement therapy for high-risk type 1 diabetes. Humacyte Inc. received $14.1 million to fund a Phase 3 trial that is comparing the performance of its acellular bioengineered vessel with the current standard of dialysis treatment for kidney disease patients.

The Board also awarded $5.2 million to Stanford Medicine for a late stage preclinical project that will use CRISPR gene editing technology to correct the sickle cell disease mutation in blood-forming stem cells to treat patients with sickle cell disease. This award was particularly well timed as September is Sickle Cell Awareness month.

The Stanford team, led by Dr. Matthew Porteus, hopes to complete the final experiments required for them to file an Investigational New Drug (IND) application with the FDA so they can be approved to start a clinical trial hopefully sometime in 2018. You can read more about Dr. Porteus’ work here and you can read our past blogs featuring Sickle Cell Awareness here and here.

With the Board’s vote yesterday, CIRM’s clinical trial count rises to 40 funded trials since its inception. 23 of these trials were funded after the launch of our Strategic Plan bringing us close to the half way point of funding 50 new clinical trials by 2020. With more “shots-on-goal” CIRM hopes to increase the chances that one of these trials will lead to an FDA-approved therapy for patients.


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Confusing cancer to kill it

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Thomas Kipps, MD, PhD: Photo courtesy UC San Diego

Confusion is not a state of mind that we usually seek out. Being bewildered is bad enough when it happens naturally, so why would anyone actively pursue it? But now some researchers are doing just that, using confusion to not just block a deadly blood cancer, but to kill it.

Today the CIRM Board approved an investment of $18.29 million to Dr. Thomas Kipps and his team at UC San Diego to use a one-two combination approach that we hope will kill Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL).

This approach combines two therapies, cirmtuzumab (a monoclonal antibody developed with CIRM funding, hence the name) and Ibrutinib, a drug that has already been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for patients with CLL.

As Dr. Maria Millan, our interim President and CEO, said in a news release, the need for a new treatment is great.

“Every year around 20,000 Americans are diagnosed with CLL. For those who have run out of treatment options, the only alternative is a bone marrow transplant. Since CLL afflicts individuals in their 70’s who often have additional medical problems, bone marrow transplantation carries a higher risk of life threatening complications. The combination approach of  cirmtuzumab and Ibrutinib seeks to offer a less invasive and more effective alternative for these patients.”

Ibrutinib blocks signaling pathways that leukemia cells need to survive. Disrupting these pathways confuses the leukemia cell, leading to its death. But even with this approach there are cancer stem cells that are able to evade Ibrutinib. These lie dormant during the therapy but come to life later, creating more leukemia cells and causing the cancer to spread and the patient to relapse. That’s where cirmtuzumab comes in. It works by blocking a protein on the surface of the cancer stem cells that the cancer needs to spread.

It’s hoped this one-two punch combination will kill all the cancer cells, increasing the number of patients who go into complete remission and improve their long-term cancer control.

In an interview with OncLive, a website focused on cancer professionals, Tom Kipps said Ibrutinib has another advantage for patients:

“The patients are responding well to treatment. It doesn’t seem like you have to worry about stopping therapy, because you’re not accumulating a lot of toxicity as you would with chemotherapy. If you administered chemotherapy on and on for months and months and years and years, chances are the patient wouldn’t tolerate that very well.”

The CIRM Board also approved $5 million for Angiocrine Bioscience Inc. to carry out a Phase 1 clinical trial testing a new way of using cord blood to help people battling deadly blood disorders.

The standard approach for this kind of problem is a bone marrow transplant from a matched donor, usually a family member. But many patients don’t have a potential donor and so they often have to rely on a cord blood transplant as an alternative, to help rebuild and repair their blood and immune systems. However, too often a single cord blood donation does not have enough cells to treat an adult patient.

Angiocrine has developed a product that could help get around that problem. AB-110 is made up of cord blood-derived hematopoietic stem cells (these give rise to all the other types of blood cell) and genetically engineered endothelial cells – the kind of cell that lines the insides of blood vessels.

This combination enables the researchers to take cord blood cells and greatly expand them in number. Expanding the number of cells could also expand the number of patients who could get these potentially life-saving cord blood transplants.

These two new projects now bring the number of clinical trials funded by CIRM to 35. You can read about the other 33 here.

 

 

 

Stem cell agency funds Phase 3 clinical trial for Lou Gehrig’s disease

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At CIRM we don’t have a disease hierarchy list that we use to guide where our funding goes. We don’t rank a disease by how many people suffer from it, if it affects children or adults, or how painful it is. But if we did have that kind of hierarchy you can be sure that Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, would be high on that list.

ALS is a truly nasty disease. It attacks the neurons, the cells in our brain and spinal cord that tell our muscles what to do. As those cells are destroyed we lose our ability to walk, to swallow, to talk, and ultimately to breathe.

As Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s interim President and CEO, said in a news release, it’s a fast-moving disease:

“ALS is a devastating disease with an average life expectancy of less than five years, and individuals afflicted with this condition suffer an extreme loss in quality of life. CIRM’s mission is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs and, in keeping with this mission, our objective is to find a treatment for patients ravaged by this neurological condition for which there is currently no cure.”

Having given several talks to ALS support groups around the state, I have had the privilege of meeting many people with ALS and their families. I have seen how quickly the disease works and the devastation it brings. I’m always left in awe by the courage and dignity with which people bear it.

BrainStorm

I thought of those people, those families, today, when our governing Board voted to invest $15.9 million in a Phase 3 clinical trial for ALS run by BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics. BrainStorm is using mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) that are taken from the patient’s own bone marrow. This reduces the risk of the patient’s immune system fighting the therapy.

After being removed, the MSCs are then modified in the laboratory to  boost their production of neurotrophic factors, proteins which are known to help support and protect the cells destroyed by ALS. The therapy, called NurOwn, is then re-infused back into the patient.

In an earlier Phase 2 clinical trial, NurOwn showed that it was safe and well tolerated by patients. It also showed evidence that it can help stop, or even reverse  the progression of the disease over a six month period, compared to a placebo.

CIRM is already funding one clinical trial program focused on treating ALS – that’s the work of Dr. Clive Svendsen and his team at Cedars Sinai, you can read about that here. Being able to add a second project, one that is in a Phase 3 clinical trial – the last stage before, hopefully, getting approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for wider use – means we are one step closer to being able to offer people with ALS a treatment that can help them.

Diane Winokur, the CIRM Board Patient Advocate member for ALS, says this is something that has been a long time coming:

CIRM Board member and ALS Patient Advocate Diane Winokur

“I lost two sons to ALS.  When my youngest son was diagnosed, he was confident that I would find something to save him.  There was very little research being done for ALS and most of that was very limited in scope.  There was one drug that had been developed.  It was being released for compassionate use and was scheduled to be reviewed by the FDA in the near future.  I was able to get the drug for Douglas.  It didn’t really help him and it was ultimately not approved by the FDA.

When my older son was diagnosed five years later, he too was convinced I would find a therapy.  Again, I talked to everyone in the field, searched every related study, but could find nothing promising.

I am tenacious by nature, and after Hugh’s death, though tempted to give up, I renewed my search.  There were more people, labs, companies looking at neurodegenerative diseases.

These two trials that CIRM is now funding represent breakthrough moments for me and for everyone touched by ALS.  I feel that they are a promising beginning.  I wish it had happened sooner.  In a way, though, they have validated Douglas and Hugh’s faith in me.”

These therapies are not a cure for ALS. At least not yet. But what they will do is hopefully help buy people time, and give them a sense of hope. For a disease that leaves people desperately short of both time and hope, that would be a precious gift. And for people like Diane Winokur, who have fought so hard to find something to help their loved ones, it’s a vindication that those efforts have not been in vain.

CIRM & NIH: a dynamic duo to advance stem cell therapies

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National Institutes of Health

There’s nothing more flattering than to get an invitation, out of the blue, from someone you respect, and be told that they are interested in learning about the way you work, to see if it can help them improve the way they work.

That’s what happened to CIRM recently. I will let Randy Mills, who was our President & CEO at the time, pick up the story:

“Several weeks ago I got a call from the head of the National Heart. Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) asking would we be willing to come out to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and talk about what we have been doing, the changes we have made and the impact they are having.”

Apparently people at the NIH had been reading our Strategic Plan and our Annual Report and had been hearing good things about us from many different individuals and organizations. We also heard that they had been motivated to engage more fully with the regenerative medicine community following the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act.

We were expecting a sit down chat with them but we got a lot more than that. They blocked out one and a half days for us so that we had the time to engage in some in-depth, thoughtful conversations about how to advance the field.

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Dr. Francis Collins, NIH Director

The meeting was kicked off by both Francis Collins, the NIH Director, and Gary Gibbons, the NHLBI Director. Then the CIRM team – Dr. Mills, Dr. Maria Millan, Gabe Thompson and James Harrison – gave a series of presentations providing an overview of how CIRM operates, including our vision and strategic priorities, our current portfolio, the lessons learned so far, our plans for the future and the challenges we face.

The audience included the various heads and representatives from the various NIH Institutes who posed a series of questions for us to answer, such as:

  • What criteria do we use to determine if a project is ready for a clinical trial?
  • How do we measure success?
  • How have our strategies and priorities changed under CIRM 2.0?
  • How well are those strategies working?

The conversation went so well that the one day of planned meetings were expanded to two. Maria Millan, now our interim President & CEO, gave an enthusiastic summary of the talks

“The meetings were extremely productive!  After meeting with Dr. Collins’ group and the broader institute, we had additional sit down meetings.   The NIH representatives reported that they received such enthusiastic responses from Institute heads that they extended the meeting into a second day. We met with with the National Institutes of Dental and Craniofacial Research, Heart, Lung and Blood, Eye Institute, Institute on Aging, Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, Diabetes, and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.  We covered strategic and operational considerations for funding the best science in the stem cell and regenerative medicine space.  We explored potential avenues to join forces and leverage the assets and programs of both organizations, to accelerate the development of regenerative medicine and stem cell treatments.”

This was just a first meeting but it laid the groundwork for what we hope will be a truly productive partnership. In fact, shortly after returning from Washington, D.C., CIRM was immediately invited to follow-up NIH workgroups and meetings.

As this budding partnership progresses we’ll let you know how it’s working out.

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.

 

CIRM’s Randy Mills leaving stem cell agency to take on new challenge

Mills, Randy Union Tribune K.C. Alfred

Some news releases are fun to write. Some less so. The one that CIRM posted today definitely falls into that latter group. It announced that CIRM’s President and CEO, Randy Mills, is leaving us to take up the role of President and CEO at the National Marrow Donor Program – NMPD/Be The Match.

It’s a great opportunity for him but a big loss for us.

Be The Match is a non-profit organization that delivers cures to patients in need of a life-saving marrow or cord blood transplant. The organization operates the national Be The Match Registry®—the world’s largest listing of potential marrow donors and donated umbilical cord blood units—matches patients with their marrow donor, educates healthcare professionals and conducts research so more lives can be saved. The organization also recently created a subsidiary—Be The Match BioTherapiesSM—that supports organizations pursuing new life-saving treatments in cellular therapy.

Randy has been at CIRM since April 2014. In that time he has dramatically re-shaped the agency, and, more importantly, dramatically improved the speed with which we are able to fund research. It’s no exaggeration to say that Randy’s drive to create CIRM 2.0 was a radical overhaul of the way we work. It made it easier for researchers to apply to us for funding, made our funding cycles more consistent and the application process simpler – though no less rigorous.

As our CIRM Board Chair Jonathan Thomas said in the news release:

“CIRM has experienced a remarkable transformation since Randy’s arrival. He has taken the agency to a new level by developing and implementing a bold strategic plan, the results of which include an 82% reduction in approval time for clinical trial projects, a 3-fold increase in the number of clinical trials, and a 65% reduction in the time it takes to enroll those trials. The opportunity for Randy to lead a tremendously important organization such as the NMDP/Be The Match is consistent with the values he demonstrated at CIRM, which put the well-being of patients above all else. We shall miss him but know he will do great things at NMDP/Be The Match.”

From a personal perspective, what most impressed me about Randy was his willingness to involve every person in the agency in changing the way we work. He could easily have come in and simply issued orders and told people what to do. Instead he invited every person at CIRM to sit in on the meetings that were shaping the new direction we took. You didn’t have to go, but if you did you were expected to offer thoughts and ideas. No sitting idly by.

Those meetings not only changed the direction of the agency, they also re-energized the agency. When people feel their voice is being heard, that their opinion has value, they respond by working harder and smarter.

The CIRM of today has the same mission as always – accelerating stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs – but the people working here seem to have a renewed commitment to making that mission a reality.

Randy brought to CIRM energy and a renewed sense of purpose, along with some truly terrible jokes and a strange conviction that he could have been a great rock and roll drummer (suffice to say he made the right career choice when he went into research).

He changed us as an agency, for the better. We shall miss him, but know he will do great things in his new role at NMDP/Be The Match and we wish him success in his new job, and his family great joy in their new home.

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Maria Millan

Randy will be with us till the end of June and starting July 1st Dr. Maria Millan will take on the role of interim President and CEO.