CIRM-funded clinical trial takes a combination approach to treating deadly blood cancers

Stained blood smear shows enlarged chronic lymphocytic leukemia cells among normal red blood cells. (UCSD Health)

A diagnosis of cancer often means a tough road ahead, with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation used to try and kill the tumor. Even then, sometimes cancer cells manage to survive and return later, spreading throughout the body. Now researchers at UC San Diego and Oncternal Therapeutics are teaming up with a combination approach they hope will destroy hard-to-kill blood cancers like leukemia.

The combination uses a monoclonal antibody called cirmtuzumab (so called because CIRM funding helped develop it) and a more traditional anti-cancer therapy called ibrutinib. Here’s how it is hoped this approach will work.

Ibrutinib is already approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat blood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma. But while it can help, it doesn’t always completely eradicate all the cancer cells. Some cancer stem cells are able to lie dormant during treatment and then start proliferating and spreading the cancer later. That’s why the team are pairing ibrutinib with cirmtuzumab.

In a news release announcing the start of the trial, UCSD’s Dr. Thomas Kipps,  said they hope this one-two punch combination will be more effective.

Thomas Kipps, UCSD

“As a result {of the failure to kill all the cancer cells}, patients typically need to take ibrutinib indefinitely, or until they develop intolerance or resistance to this drug. Cirmtuzumab targets leukemia and cancer stem cells, which are like the seeds of cancer. They are hard to find and difficult to destroy. By blocking signaling pathways that promote neoplastic-cell growth and survival, cirmtuzumab may have complementary activity with ibrutinib in killing leukemia cells, allowing patients potentially to achieve complete remissions that permit patients to stop therapy altogether.”

Because this is an early stage clinical trial, the goal is to first make sure the approach is safe, and second to identify the best dose and treatment schedule for patients.

The researchers hope to recruit 117 patients around the US. Some will get the cirmtuzumab and ibrutinib combination, some will get ibrutinib alone to see if one approach is more effective than the other.

CIRM has a triple investment in this research. Not only did our funding help develop cirmtuzumab, but CIRM is also funding this clinical trial and one of the trial sites is at UCSD, one of the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics.

CIRM’s Dr. Ingrid Caras says this highlights our commitment to our mission of accelerating stem cell therapies to patients with unmet medical needs.

“Our partnership with UC San Diego and the Alpha Stem Cell Clinics has enabled this trial to more quickly engage potential patient-participants. Being among the first to try new therapies requires courage and CIRM is grateful to the patients who are volunteering to be part of this clinical trial.”


Related Links:

How CIRM funding creates additional financial support for stem cell research in California

CIRM’s 2017 Annual Report will be going live online very soon. In anticipation of that we are highlighting some of the key elements from the report here on the Stem Cellar.

Two businessman shaking hands

Partnerships that help advance stem cell research

CIRM funds stem cell research.  We all know that.  What you may not know is that CIRM funds also help bring in additional funding and investments to these projects, and as a result, to the state of California.  CIRM’s investment can also be seen as helping validate the credibility of a particular project, taking some of the risk out of investing in it.

We call this second wave of support “Leveraged Funding”. Since we were created in 2004 we have brought in $1.5 billion in Leveraged Funds.

We break that down into three main categories:

  1. Co-Funding– This is funding that was specifically committed to help co-fund a CIRM project. For example, if we fund a for-profit company to do a Phase 1 clinical trial we expect them to co-fund 30% of the cost of the trial. If it’s a Phase 3 clinical trial the co-funding amount rises to 50%.  To date we have received $911 million in co-funding.
  2. Partnership Funding– Partnership Funding – This is non-CIRM funding committed by partners, not already captured by Co-Funding. For example, our Board’s decision to invest in a project can sometimes be seen as a kind of “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” because it shows this project has been reviewed by experts and recommended for funding.  Our funding allows investigators to do the early work and get data that helps attract funding from outside investors. These funds can be committed or spent at the same time as CIRM funds or to further the project after the CIRM award expires. Since 2004, we have helped generate $528 million in partnership funding.
  3. Additional Leverage– This is everything not covered by the first two categories but is mainly non-CIRM funding reported in the “Outcomes Survey”, which the lead investigator on the project completes at the end of the award. This lets us know about any non-CIRM funding they received as a result of their CIRM project (such as money from the National Institutes of Health or other agency grants). More than $395 million in additional leverage funding has been raised because of CIRM.

In 2017, we saw eight projects that we support attract additional support, almost $390 million, from outside investors.

  Disease Area  Industry Partner 2017 Funding
1. Adenosine deaminase-deficient Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Orchard Therapeutics $110,000,000
2. X-Linked Chronic Granulomatous Disease Orchard Therapeutics Not disclosed
3. Acute Myeloid Leukemia Forty Seven, Inc. $75,000,000
4. Pediatrics Genetic Disorder AVROBIO, Inc. Not disclosed
5. HIV/AIDS CSL Behring $91,000,000
6. Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia Oncternal, Inc. $18,400,000
7. Brain Cancer Mustang Bio, Inc. $94,500,000
8. Age-related Macular Degeneration Santen Pharmaceutical Not disclosed
  Total   $388,900,000

Our goal is to do all we can to support the best science and move it out of the lab and into clinical trials in people. Obviously, providing funding is a key step, but it’s far from the only step. For us, it’s really just the first step.

On Wednesday, we’ll profile one of the CIRM-funded researchers whose work is attracting support from outside investors, work that is taking a whole new approach to fighting a deadly brain cancer.