It’s all about the patients

Ronnie, born with a fatal immune disorder now leading a normal life thanks to a CIRM-funded stem cell/gene therapy: Photo courtesy of his mum Upasana

Whenever you are designing something new you always have to keep in mind who the end user is. You can make something that works perfectly fine for you, but if it doesn’t work for the end user, the people who are going to work with it day in and day out, you have been wasting your time. And their time too.

At CIRM our end users are the patients. Everything we do is about them. Starting with our mission statement: to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. Everything we do, every decision we make, has to keep the needs of the patient in mind.

So, when we were planning our recent 2020 Grantee Meeting (with our great friends and co-hosts UC Irvine and UC San Diego) one of the things we wanted to make sure didn’t get lost in the mix was the face and the voice of the patients. Often big conferences like this are heavy on science with presentations from some of the leading researchers in the field. And we obviously wanted to make sure we had that element at the Grantee meeting. But we also wanted to make sure that the patient experience was front and center.

And we did just that. But more on that in a minute. First, let’s talk about why the voice of the patient is important.

Some years ago, Dr. David Higgins, a CIRM Board member and patient advocate for Parkinson’s Disease (PD), said that when researchers are talking about finding treatments for PD they often focus on the dyskinesia, the trembling and shaking and muscle problems. However, he said if you actually asked people with PD you’d find they were more concerned with other aspects of the disease, the insomnia, anxiety and depression among other things. The key is you have to ask.

Frances Saldana, a patient advocate for research into Huntington’s disease

So, we asked some of our patient advocates if they would be willing to be part of the Grantee Meeting. All of them, without hesitation, said yes. They included Frances Saldana, a mother who lost three of her children to Huntington’s disease; Kristin MacDonald, who lost her sight to a rare disorder but regained some vision thanks to a stem cell therapy and is hoping the same therapy will help restore some more; Pawash Priyank, whose son Ronnie was born with a fatal immune disorder but who, thanks to a stem cell/gene therapy treatment, is now healthy and leading a normal life.

Because of the pandemic everything was virtual, but it was no less compelling for that. We interviewed each of the patients or patient advocates beforehand and those videos kicked off each session. Hearing, and seeing, the patients and patient advocates tell their stories set the scene for what followed. It meant that the research the scientists talked about took on added significance. We now had faces and names to highlight the importance of the work the scientists were doing. We had human stories. And that gave a sense of urgency to the work the researchers were doing.

But that wasn’t all. After all the video presentations each session ended with a “live” panel discussion. And again, the patients and patient advocates were a key part of that. Because when scientists talk about taking their work into a clinical trial they need to know if the way they are setting up the trial is going to work for the patients they’re hoping to recruit. You can have the best scientists, the most promising therapy, but if you don’t design a clinical trial in a way that makes it easy for patients to be part of it you won’t be able to recruit or retain the people you need to test the therapy.

Patient voices count. Patient stories count.

But more than anything, hearing and seeing the people we are trying to help reminds us why we do this work. It’s so easy to get caught up in the day to day business of our jobs, struggling to get an experiment to work, racing to get a grant application in before the deadline. Sometimes we get so caught up in the minutiae of work we lose sight of why we are doing it. Or who we are doing it for.

At CIRM we have a saying; come to work every day as if lives depend on you, because lives depend on you. Listening to the voices of patients, seeing their faces, hearing their stories, reminds us not to waste a moment. Because lives depend on all of us.

Here’s one of the interviews that was featured at the event. I do apologize in advance for the interviewer, he’s rubbish at his job.

Living proof science can find a cure

Like many kids, let’s face it, many adults too, Ronav “Ronnie” Kashyap is getting a little bored stuck inside all day during the coronavirus pandemic. This video, shot by his dad Pawash, shows Ronnie trying to amuse himself by pretending to be hard at work.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B_BSQaonFXb/

It’s a lovely moment. It’s also a moment that just a few years ago seemed almost impossible. That’s because Ronnie was born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). SCID kids have no functioning immune system so even a simple infection, such as a cold, can be life-threatening.

Many of those hardest hit by COVID-19 have compromised immune systems. But try fighting the virus if you have no immune system at all. The odds would not be good.

Happily, we don’t have to imagine it because Ronnie is one of around 60 children who have undergone CIRM-supported stem cell/gene therapies that have helped repair their immune system.

In Ronnie’s case he was rushed to UC San Francisco shortly after his birth when a newborn screening test showed he had SCID. He spent the next several months there, in isolation with his parents, preparing for the test. Doctors took his own blood stem cells and, in the lab, corrected the genetic mutation that causes SCID. The cells were then re-infused into Ronnie where they created a new blood supply and repaired his immune system.

How good is his immune system today? Last year his parents, Upasana and Pawash, were concerned about taking Ronnie to a crowded shopping mall for fear he might catch a cold. Their doctor reassured them that he would be fine. So, they went. The doctor was right, Ronnie was fine. However, Upasana and Pawash both caught colds!

Just a few weeks ago Ronnie started pre-school. He loves it. He loves having other kids to play with and his parents love it because it helps him burn off some energy. But they also love it because it showed Ronnie is now leading a normal life, one where they don’t have to worry about everything he does, every person he comes into contact with.

Sounds a bit like how the rest of us are living right now doesn’t it. And the fears that Ronnie’s parents had, that even a casual contact with a friend, a family member or stranger, might prove life-threatening, are ones many of us are experiencing now.

When Ronnie was born he faced long odds. At the time there were only a handful of scientists working to find treatments for SCID. But they succeeded. Now, Ronnie, and all the other children who have been helped by this therapy are living proof that good science can overcome daunting odds to find treatments, and even cures, for the most life-threatening of conditions.

Today there are thousands, probably tens of thousands of scientists around the world searching for treatments and cures for COVID-19. And they will succeed.

Till then the rest of us will have to be like Ronnie. Stay at home, stay safe, and enjoy the luxury of being bored.

A brief history of the Stem Cell Agency

On Wednesday, August 15 the California State Assembly Select Committee on Biotechnology held an informational hearing on CIRM as part of its mission of ensuring the legislature is up to date and informed about the biotech industry in California. The committee heard from CIRM’s President and CEO Dr. Maria T. Millan and the Vice Chair of our Board, Senator Art Torres (Ret.); two of CIRM’s Patient Advocates (Pawash Priyank and Don Reed) and Dr. Jan Nolta, the Director of the Institute for Regenerative Cures at UC Davis.

The final speaker was David Jensen, whose California Stem Cell Report blog has charted the history of CIRM since its inception. At CIRM we know that not everyone agrees with us all the time, or supports all the decisions we have made in the years since we were approved by voters in 2004, but we do pride ourselves on being open to a thoughtful, vigorous debate on all aspects of stem cell research. David’s presentation to the committee was nothing if not thoughtful, and we thought you might enjoy reading it and so we are presenting it here in its entirety.

For those who prefer to watch than read, here is a video of the entire hearing:

https://www.assembly.ca.gov/media/assembly-select-committee-biotechnology-20180815/video

California’s Stem Cell “Gold Rush:” A Brief Overview of the State’s $3 Billion Stem Cell Agency
Prepared testimony by David Jensen, publisher/editor of the California Stem Cell Report, before the Assembly Select Committee on Biotechnology, Aug. 15, 2018
I was in Mazatlan in Mexico in the fall of 2004 when I first heard about the creation of
California’s stem cell agency. I was reading the Wall Street Journal online and saw a headline that said a new Gold Rush was about to begin in California — this one involving stem cells instead of nuggets.

“Holy Argonauts,” I said to myself, using the term, of course, that refers to the tens of thousands of people who rushed to the California gold fields in 1849. I wanted to know more about what was likely to happen with this new stem cell gold rush.

Today, nearly 14 years later, I still want to know more about the California Institute for
Regenerative Medicine or CIRM, as the agency is formally known. But I can tell you that certain facts are clear.

Borrowing and Autonomy
The agency is unique in California history and among the states throughout the nation. It is the first state agency to fund scientific research with billions of dollars – all of it borrowed. At one point in its history, it is safe to say that the agency was the largest single source of funding in the world for human embryonic stem cell research.

The agency operates with financial and oversight autonomy that is rare in California government, courtesy of the ballot initiative that created it. But that measure also proved to be both a blessing and a curse. The agency’s financial autonomy has allowed it to provide a reasonably steady stream of cash over a number of years, something that is necessary to sustain the long-term research that is critical for development of widely available treatments.

At the same time, the ballot measure carried the agency’s death warrant — no more money after the $3 billion was gone. Cash for new awards is now expected to run out at the end of next year. Over its life, the agency has had a national and somewhat more modestly global impact, both as a source of funding and international cooperation, but also in staying the course on human embryonic stem cell research when the federal government was backing away from it.

Beyond that, the stem cell agency is the only state department whose primary objective is to produce a marketable commercial product. In this case, a cure or treatment for afflictions now nearly untreatable.

Finally, I am all but certain that CIRM is the only state agency that takes back money when a project winds up on the rocks. By the end of last month, that figure totalled in recent years more than $34 million in two big categories of awards. This sort of cash recovery is not a practice that occurs with federal research dollars. With CIRM the money goes back into the pot for more research aimed at treating horrible afflictions.

Evaluations of the Research Effort
Nonetheless the agency has hit some shoals from time to time. In 2010, the agency’s governing board commissioned a $700,000 study of its efforts by the prestigious Institute of Medicine. Two years later, the IOM reported to CIRM that it had some significant flaws.

The IOM study said that the agency had “achieved many notable results.” But it also
recommended sweeping changes to remove conflict of interest problems, clean up a troubling dual-executive arrangement and fundamentally change the nature of the governing board.

The report said,“Far too many board members represent organizations that receive CIRM funding or benefit from that funding. These competing personal and professional interests compromise the perceived independence of the ICOC (the CIRM governing board), introduce potential bias into the board’s decision making, and threaten to undermine confidence in the board.”

The conflict issues are built in by the ballot measure, which gave potential recipient institutions seats on the 29-member governing board. Indeed, in 2017, the last time I calculated the correlation between the board and awards, roughly 90 percent of the money given out by CIRM had gone to institutions with ties to members of the governing board.

About two months after the IOM presented its report, the CIRM board approved a new policy that bars 13 of its 29 members from voting on any grants whatsoever to help deal with questions concerning conflicts of interest on the board.

Other studies about the agency’s performance resulted from a 2010 law in which the legislature modified the initiative to require triennial performance audits that would be paid for by the agency itself. The requirement specifically excluded “scientific performance” from the audit.

The first audit results came in 2012 and contained 27 recommendations for improvement. The most recent performance audit came last spring. The audit firm, Moss Adams, recommended improvements in the areas of private fund-raising, retention of staff and better utilization of board members. The board was told that the agency had made “incredible progress” and that the auditors “usually see a lot of good things.”

The Story of CIRM 2.0
In recent years the agency has been on a self-improvement regime. The effort began in 2014 and was dubbed CIRM 2.0 — a term that was originally coined by a stem cell researcher at UC Davis.

The new direction and emphasis was described by the agency as “radical.” It was aimed at improving speed, efficiency and innovation. And it seems to have largely succeeded.
In 2014, it took almost two years for a good idea to go from application to the final funding stage. The goal was to shorten that to 120 days. Delays in funding are of particular concern to businesses, often for cash flow reasons, but they also mean delays in actually developing a treatment.

This week, the agency said the cash delivery figure now stands at less than 90 days for clinical awards and about 120 days for translational awards.

In 2014, the agency was participating in nine clinical trials, the last stage before a treatment is certified by the federal government for widespread use. Today the agency is involved in 49. In 2014, about 50 patients were involved in those trials. Today the figure is more than 800.

One of the more interesting aspects of CIRM 2.0 marked a departure from what might be called an academic pass-fail approach to the “final exam” for applications from scientists. Instead, CIRM is engaged in a more partner-oriented approach that can be found in some businesses.

Instead of flatly failing an application that is not quite ready for prime time, the idea is to coach applicants along to help bring them up to approval level. Today the agency can count 30 applications that won approval through that process. All of which is work could have slipped away in the more distant past.

CIRM and the Biotech Biz
CIRM is now much more engaged with industry than during its earlier years, when it drew bitter criticism from some business executives. Engagement with biotech firms is critical to bringing a treatment to the public. CIRM is not in the business of actually manufacturing, marketing and selling products. That is a matter left to the private sector.

One reason for closer business connections involves maturation of the work in the field, which has brought research closer to reality. But it is also due to a different focus within the agency as top management has changed.

One of the more difficult areas involving stem cell research and likely treatments is their cost. It is rare to hear researchers or companies talk forthrightly in public about specific dollar amounts. But the cost of drugs and treatment are high visibility matters for patients and elected officials. And estimates of stem cell treatments have run up to at least $900,000.

In 2010, the California legislature moved to help assure affordability by requiring grantees to submit affordable access plans with the caveat that the agency could waive that requirement. How that will ultimately play out as actual products come into the marketplace is yet to be determined.

The Public Policy Questions
A number of significant public policy questions surround the California’s stem cell program involving its creation and execution. They include:
● Is a ballot initiative the best way to approach research and create new state programs?
The initiative is very difficult to alter when changes are needed or priorities change. .
● Does the state have higher health priorities, such as prenatal health care, than supplying
researchers with cash that they could well secure from other sources?
● Is borrowing money to finance the research the best way to go about it? The interest
expense raise the total cost of a $20 million research award to $40 million.
● Should executives of potential recipient institutions serve on the board that awards their employers hundreds of millions of dollars?

This is just a short list of some of the policy matters. Other questions can and should be asked in the wake of the agency’s nearly 14 years of work.

Lives Saved but No Widespread Therapies
Returning to our earlier list of the clear facts about CIRM, another fact is that lives have been saved as the result of clinical trials that the agency it has helped to finance. The youngster from Folsom mentioned earlier in this hearing is one of a number of cases.

That said, these patients received treatment in clinical trials, which may or may not succeed in producing a commercial product that is available to the general public.

Little doubt exists that the agency has advanced the stem cell field and is building towards a critical mass in California. The burgeoning research program at UC Davis, with $138 million in CIRM funding, is one example. Another is the $50 million Alpha Clinic network aimed at creating powerful collaboration within institutions and throughout the state. In addition to Davis, UC San Francisco, UCLA, UC Irvine, UC San Diego and the City of Hope in the Los Angeles area are all part of the Alpha network.

Nonetheless, CIRM has not yet backed a stem cell treatment that is ready for widespread use and fulfilled the voter expectations from 2004 that stem cell cures were right around the corner.

The agency itself also has something of a deadline that is right around the corner in political and scientific terms. Backers of the agency are hoping for another ballot initiative in November 2020 that would pump $5 billion into the program and stave off its slow demise as research winds down. Development of a stem cell treatment that would resonate with voters would be an invaluable development to encourage voters to continue this unique experiment — even if California’s stem cell gold rush does not quite measure up to the dramatic events of 169 years ago.
#######################