Advancing Stem Cell Research at the CIRM Bridges Conference

Where will stem cell research be in 10 years?

What would you say to patients who wanted stem cell therapies now?

What are the most promising applications for stem cell research?

Why is it important for the government to fund regenerative medicine?

These challenging and thought-provoking questions were posed to a vibrant group of undergraduate and masters-level students at this year’s CIRM Bridges to Stem Cell Research and Therapy conference.

Educating the next generation of stem cell scientists

The Bridges program is one of CIRM’s educational programs that offers students the opportunity to take coursework at California state schools and community colleges and conduct stem cell research at top universities and industry labs. Its goal is to train the next generation of stem cell scientists by giving them access to the training and skills necessary to succeed in this career path.

The Bridges conference is the highlight of the program and the culmination of the students’ achievements. It’s a chance for students to showcase the research projects they’ve been working on for the past year, and also for them to network with other students and scientists.

Bridges students participated in a networking pitch event about stem cell research.

Bridges students participated in a networking pitch event about stem cell research.

CIRM kicked off the conference with a quick and dirty “Stem Cell Pitch” networking event. Students were divided into groups, given one of the four questions above and tasked with developing a thirty second pitch that answered their question. They were only given ten minutes to introduce themselves, discuss the question, and pick a spokesperson, yet when each team’s speaker took the stage, it seemed like they were practiced veterans. Every team had a unique, thoughtful answer that was inspiring to both the students and to the other scientists in the crowd.

Getting to the clinic and into patients

The bulk of the Bridges conference featured student poster presentations and scientific talks by leading academic and industry scientists. The theme of the talks was getting stem cell research into the clinic and into patients with unmet medical needs.

Here are a few highlights and photos from the talks:

On the clinical track for Huntington’s disease

Leslie Thompson, Professor at UC Irvine, spoke about her latest research in Huntington’s disease (HD). She described her work as a “race against time.” HD is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that’s associated with multiple social and physical problems and currently has no cure. Leslie described how her lab is heading towards the clinic with human embryonic stem cell-derived neural (brain) stem cells that they are transplanting into mouse models of HD. So far, they’ve observed positive effects in HD mice that received human neural stem cell transplants including an improvement in the behavioral and motor defects and a reduction in the accumulation of toxic mutant Huntington protein in their nerve cells.

Leslie Thompson

Leslie Thompson

Leslie noted that because the transplanted stem cells are GMP-grade (meaning their quality is suitable for use in humans), they have a clear path forward to testing their potential disease modifying activity in human clinical trials. But before her team gets to humans, they must take the proper regulatory steps with the US Food and Drug Administration and conduct further experiments to test the safety and proper dosage of their stem cells in other mouse models as well as test other potential GMP-grade stem cell lines.

Gene therapy for SCID babies

Morton Cowan, a pediatric immunologist from UC San Francisco, followed Leslie with a talk about his efforts to get gene therapy for SCID (severe combined immunodeficiency disease) off the bench into the clinic. SCID is also known as bubble-baby disease and put simply, is caused by a lack of a functioning immune system. SCID babies don’t have normal T and B immune cell function and as a result, they generally die of infection or other conditions within their first year of life.

Morton Cowan

Morton Cowan, UCSF

Morton described how the gold standard treatment for SCID, which is hematopoietic or blood stem cell transplantation, is only safe and effective when the patient has an HLA matched sibling donor. Unfortunately, many patients don’t have this option and face life-threatening challenges of transplant rejection (graft-versus host disease). To combat this issue, Morton and his team are using gene therapy to genetically correct the blood stem cells of SCID patients and transplant those cells back into these patients so that they can generate healthy immune cells.

They are currently developing a gene therapy for a particularly hard-to-treat form of SCID that involves deficiency in a protein called Artemis, which is essential for the development of the immune system and for repairing DNA damage in cells. Currently his group is conducting the necessary preclinical work to start a gene therapy clinical trial for children with Artemis-SCID.

Treating spinal cord injury in the clinic

Casey Case, Asterias Biotherapeutics

Casey Case, Asterias Biotherapeutics

Casey Case, Senior VP of Research and Nonclinical Development at Asterias Biotherapeutics, gave an update on the CIRM-funded clinical trial for cervical (neck) spinal cord injury (SCI). They are currently testing the safety of transplanting different doses of their oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (AST-OPC1) in a group of SCI patients. The endpoint for this trial is an improvement in movement greater than two motor levels, which would offer a significant improvement in a patient’s ability to do some things on their own and reduce the cost of their healthcare. You can read more about these results and the ongoing study in our recent blogs (here, here).

Opinion: Scientists should be patient advocates

David Higgins gave the most moving speech of the day. He is a Parkinson’s patient and the Patient Advocate on the CIRM board and he spoke about what patient advocates are and how to become one. David explained how, these days, drug development and patient advocacy is more patient oriented and patients are involved at the center of every decision whether it be questions related to how a drug is developed, what side effects should be tolerated, or what risks are worth taking. He also encouraged the Bridges students to become patient advocates and understand what their needs are by asking them.

David Higgins, Parkinson's advocate and CIRM Board member

David Higgins

“As a scientist or clinician, you need to be an ambassador. You have a job of translating science, which is a foreign language to most people, and you can all effectively communicate to a lay audience without being condescending. It’s important to understand what patients’ needs are, and you’ll only know that if you ask them. Patients have amazing insights into what needs to be done to develop new treatments.”

Bridging the gap between research and patients

The Bridges conference is still ongoing with more poster presentations, a career panel, and scientific talks on discovery and translational stem cell research and commercializing stem cell therapies to all patients in need. It truly is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the Bridges students, many of whom are considering careers in science and regenerative medicine and are taking advantage of the opportunity to talk and network with prominent scientists.

If you’re interested in hearing more about the Bridges conference, follow us on twitter (@CIRMnews, @DrKarenRing, #CIRMBridges2016) and on Instagram (@CIRM_Stemcells).

Get your BIO on: Sneak Peak of the June 2016 BIO Convention in SF

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 8.43.36 AM

Summer is almost here and for scientists around the world, that means it’s time to flock to one of the world’s biggest biotech meetings, the BIO International Convention.

This year, BIO is hosted in the lovely city of San Francisco. From June 6-9th, over 15,000 biotechnology and pharma leaders, as well as other professionals, academics, and patients will congregate to learn, educate, and network.

There’s something for everyone at this convention. If you check out the BIO agenda, you’ll find a plethora of talks, events, education sessions, and fire side chats on almost any topic related to science and biotechnology that you can imagine. The hard part will be deciding what to attend in only four short days.

For those going to BIO this year, make sure to check out the myBIO event planning tool that’s free for attendees and allows you to browse events and create a personalized agenda. You can also set up a professional profile that will share your background and networking interests with others at BIO. With this nifty tool, you can search for scientists, companies, and speakers you might want to connect with during the convention. Think of all the potential networking opportunities right at your fingertips!

Will Smith (source)

Will Smith (source)

For those who can’t make it to BIO, don’t worry, we have you covered. CIRM will be at the convention blogging and live tweeting. Because our mission is to bring stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs, the majority of our coverage will be on talks and sessions related to regenerative medicine and patient advocacy. However, there are definitely some sessions outside these areas that we won’t want to miss such as the Tuesday Keynote talk by Dr. Bennet Omalu – who helped reveal the extent of brain damage in the NFL – and actor Will Smith – who plays Dr. Omalu in the movie ‘Concussion’. Their join talk is called “Knowledge Precipitates Evolution.”

Here’s a sneak peak of some of the other talks and events that we think will be especially interesting:


Monday June 6th

Education Sessions on Brain Health and Mitochondrial Disease

Moving Out of Stealth Mode: Biotech Journalists Offer Real-World Advice on Working with Media to Tell Your Story

“In this interactive panel discussion, well-known biotech reporters from print and online outlets will share their insights on how to successfully work with the media. Session attendees will learn critical needs of the media from what makes a story newsworthy to how to “pitch” a reporter to strategies for translating complicated science into a story for a broad audience.”

The Bioethics of Drug Development: You Decide

A discussion of the critical bioethical issues innovative manufacturers face in today’s healthcare ecosystem. Panelists will provide insights from a diverse set of perspectives, including investors, the patient advocacy community, bioethicists and federal regulators.”


Tuesday June 7th

Fireside Chat with Robert Califf, Commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Fireside Chat with Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California

Casting a Wider Net in Alzheimer’s Research: The Diversity of Today’s Approaches and Signs of Progress

Hear clinical researchers, biotech CEOs, and patient advocates explain how the field is pivoting from the failures of past approaches to make use of the latest generation of beta-amyloid research results as well as pursue alternative therapeutic angles to improve brain health.”

From Ebola to Zika: How Can We Go Faster in a Global Emergency?

This interactive panel of public health and industry leaders will discuss what has been learned through our global response to Ebola and what is and is not applicable to Zika or other pathogens of pandemic potential.”


Wednesday June 8th

Curative Therapies: Aligning Policy with Science to Ensure Patient Access

“The promise of curative treatments creates an urgent need to ensure access for patients, promote an environment conducive to developing new treatments, and manage the concentration of healthcare expenses in a sustainable manner.  A diverse set of panelists will tackle the tough questions around curative therapies and discern what changes are necessary for our health care delivery system to meet the challenges they pose.”

An Evolving Paradigm: Advancing the Science of Patient Input in the Drug Development and Regulatory Processes

This panel will explore advances in the field of assessing patient views and perspectives, and highlight how the patient voice is being incorporated into development programs and informing FDA review and approval decisions.”

A Media Perspective

“Any press is good press or so they say. You want your story known at the right time and in the right light, but how do you get industry journalist to notice you? What peaks their interest and how do they go about story discovery? What will they be looking to write about in the next 3 to 12 months? Three top journalists will discuss their approaches to keeping current and what makes a story newsworthy.”
Patient Advocacy Meetup

Over 40 patient advocacy organizations will be discussing their latest partnerships and developments in the areas of advancing disease research and drug development.


Thursday June 9th

Novel Advances in Cancer R&D: Meeting the Needs of the Patient

This panel will feature the views of patients and advocates, regulators, and companies who are working to change the way in which we diagnose and evaluate patients with cancer by better understanding the underlying biology of their disease.”


 To follow our coverage of BIO, visit our Stem Cellar Blog or follow us on Twitter at @CIRMNews.