CIRM-Funded Clinical Trial for Sickle Cell Gives Hope to People Battling the Disease

Marissa Cors (right) with her mother Adrienne Shapiro

Marissa Cors has lived with Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) for more than 40 years. The co-founder of The Sickle Cell Experience Live, an online platform designed to bring more awareness to Sickle Cell Disease around the world, says it’s hard, knowing that at any moment you may have to put your life on hold to cope with another attack of excruciating pain.

“It is incredibly frustrating to have a disease that is constantly disrupting and interfering with your life. The daily pain and fatigue make it difficult to have a normal life. You may be experiencing manageable pain one minute and then a crisis will hit – knocking you to the ground with horrible pain and requiring pain management and hospitalization. It makes going to school or having a job or even a normal adult relationship near impossible.”

SCD is an inherited disease caused by a single gene mutation resulting in abnormal hemoglobin, which causes red blood cells to ‘sickle’ in shape.  Sickling of red blood cells clogs blood vessels and leads to progressive organ damage, pain crises, reduced quality of life, and early death. 

The disease affects around 100,000 Americans, mostly Black Americans but also members of the Latinx community. Marissa says coping with it is more than just a medical struggle. “Born into the cycle of fatigue, pain and fear. Depending on a healthcare system filled with institutionalized bias and racism. It is a life that is difficult on all facets.” 

CIRM is committed to trying find new treatments, and even a cure for SCD. That’s why the CIRM Board recently awarded $8,333,581 to Dr. David Williams at Boston Children’s Hospital to conduct a gene therapy clinical trial for sickle cell disease.  This is the second project that is part of an agreement between CIRM and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the National Institutes of Health, to co-fund cell and gene therapy programs under the NHLBI’s  “Cure Sickle Cell” Initiative.  The goal of this agreement is to markedly accelerate clinical development of cell and gene therapies to cure SCD.

In recent years we have made impressive strides in developing new approaches to treating sickle cell disease,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, President & CEO of CIRM. “But we still have work to do. That’s why this partnership, this research is so important. It reflects our commitment to pushing ahead as fast as we can to find a treatment, a cure, that will help all the people battling the disease here in the U.S. and the estimated 20 million worldwide.”

The team will take a patient’s own blood stem cells and insert a novel engineered gene to silence abnormal hemoglobin and induce normal fetal hemoglobin expression.  The modified blood stem cells will then be reintroduced back into the patient.  The goal of this therapy is to aid in the production of normal shaped red blood cells, thereby reducing the severity of the disease. 

For Marissa, anything that helps make life easier will be welcome not just for people with SCD but their families and the whole community. “A stem cell cure will end generations of guilt, suffering, pain and early death. It will give SCD families relief from the financial, emotional and spiritual burden of caring someone living with SCD. It will give all of us an opportunity to have a normal life. Go to school, go to work, live with confidence.” 

Saying farewell to an old friend

There are some people who, when you think of them, always bring a smile to your face. Dr. Bert Lubin was one of those people. Sadly, we lost Bert to brain cancer two days ago. But the impact he had, not just as an advocate for stem cell research but as a pioneer in sickle cell disease research and a champion for children’s health, will live on.

Bert had a number of official titles but probably the one he was most proud of was President & CEO of Children’s Hospital Oakland (now UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland). But it wasn’t the title that he cared about, it was the opportunity it gave him to make a difference in the life of children in Oakland, to create a program to find new treatments and cures for a life-threatening disease. And he has made a difference.

As I started to write this tribute to Bert, I thought about who I should ask for a quote. And then I realized I had the perfect person. Bert himself. I was fortunate enough to interview him in December 2018, when he decided to step down after eight years on the CIRM Board.  As always, he had his own positive spin on that, saying: “I don’t see myself leaving. I’m just repurposing what is my role in CIRM. I’m recycling and reinventing.”

And Bert was always full of invention.

He grew up in Bellevue, a small town outside Pittsburgh, PA. His parents ran a fruit and vegetable market there and, growing up, Bert often worked in the store. It wasn’t something he enjoyed but he said he learned some valuable lessons.

“I think what happened in my childhood is that I learned how to sell. I am a salesman. I hated working in that store, I hated it, but I liked the communication with people, they trusted me, I could sell things and they were good things. Like Christmas. I’m Jewish, we were the only Jews in that community, and at Christmas we sold Christmas trees, but the trees were sometimes crooked and they were $2.99 a tree so I convinced families that I could go to their house and set the tree so it looked straight and I helped them decorate it and they loved it.”

He said, thinking back on his life it’s almost as if there were a plan, even if he wasn’t aware of it.

“I started thinking about that more recently, I started wondering how did this even happen? I’m not a religious person but it’s almost like there’s some fate. How did I get there? It’s not that I planned it that way and it’s certainly not that my parents planned it because I was the first in my family to go to high school let alone college. My parents, when I went to medical school and then decided I wanted to spend more time in an academic direction, they were upset. They wanted me to go into practice in a community that I grew up in and be economically secure and not be on the fringe in what an academic life is like.”

And then, fate stepped in and brought him to the San Francisco Bay Area.

“What happened was, I was at the University of Pennsylvania having trained at Boston Children’s and Philadelphia Children’s, where I had started a sickle cell disease program, and was asked to look at a job in southern California to start a sickle cell program there. So, I flew to San Francisco because a lot of people I’d studied with were now working at UCSF and I thought it would be fun to see them before going down to southern California. They took me out to dinner and showed me around and I said this place is beautiful, I can play tennis out here all year round, there’s lots of music – I love jazz – and they said ‘you know Bert, have you looked at Oakland Children’s hospital? We want to start a sickle cell program center, but the patients are all in Oakland and the patient population that would be served is in Oakland. But if you came out to the Bay Area we could partner with you to start that program. 

“So, when I walked in the door here (at Oakland) and said ‘I want to create this northern California sickle cell center with UC’ the staff that was here said ‘you know we’re not a research hospital, we are a community based hospital’. I said, ‘I’m not saying you shouldn’t be that but I’m trying to create an opportunity here’ and they said to me ‘as long as you don’t ask for any money you can go and do whatever you want’.

‘They recognized that I had this fire in me to really create something that was novel. And the warmth and community commitment from this place is something that attracted me and then allowed me to build on that.

“For example, when I became the director of the research program we had $500,000 in NIH grants and when I left we had $60 million. We just grew. Why did we grow? Because we cared about the faculty and the community. We had a lovely facility, which was actually the home of the Black Panther party. It was the Black Panthers who started screening for sickle cell on street corners here in Oakland, and they were the start of the national sickle cell act so there’s a history here and I like that history.

“Then I got a sense of the opportunities that stem cell therapies would have for a variety of things, certainly including sickle cell disease, and I thought if there’s a chance to be on the CIRM Board, as an advocate for that sickle cell community, I think I’d be a good spokesperson. So, I applied. I just thought this was an exciting opportunity.

“I thought it was a natural fit for me to add some value, I only want to be on something where I think I add value.”

Bert added value to everything he did. And everyone he met felt valued by him. He was a mentor to so many people, young physicians and nurses, students starting out on their careers. And he was a friend to those in need.

He was an extraordinary man and we are grateful that we were able to call him a colleague, and a friend, for as long as we did.

When Burt stepped down from Children’s his colleagues put together this video about his life and times. It seems appropriate to share it again and remind ourselves of the gift that he was to everyone fortunate enough to know him.

CIRM Board Approves Clinical Trials Targeting COVID-19 and Sickle Cell Disease

Coronavirus particles, illustration.

Today the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) approved new clinical trials for COVID-19 and sickle cell disease (SCD) and two earlier stage projects to develop therapies for COVID-19.

Dr. Michael Mathay, of the University of California at San Francisco, was awarded $750,000 for a clinical trial testing the use of Mesenchymal Stromal Cells for respiratory failure from Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). In ARDS, patients’ lungs fill up with fluid and are unable to supply their body with adequate amounts of oxygen. It is a life-threatening condition and a major cause of acute respiratory failure. This will be a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial with an emphasis on treating patients from under-served communities.

This award will allow Dr. Matthay to expand his current Phase 2 trial to additional underserved communities through the UC Davis site.

“Dr. Matthay indicated in his public comments that 12 patients with COVID-related ARDS have already been enrolled in San Francisco and this funding will allow him to enroll more patients suffering from COVID- associated severe lung injury,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO. “CIRM, in addition to the NIH and the Department of Defense, has supported Dr. Matthay’s work in ARDS and this additional funding will allow him to enroll more COVID-19 patients into this Phase 2 blinded randomized controlled trial and expand the trial to 120 patients.”

The Board also approved two early stage research projects targeting COVID-19.

  • Dr. Stuart Lipton at Scripps Research Institute was awarded $150,000 to develop a drug that is both anti-viral and protects the brain against coronavirus-related damage.
  • Justin Ichida at the University of Southern California was also awarded $150,00 to determine if a drug called a kinase inhibitor can protect stem cells in the lungs, which are selectively infected and killed by the novel coronavirus.

“COVID-19 attacks so many parts of the body, including the lungs and the brain, that it is important for us to develop approaches that help protect and repair these vital organs,” says Dr. Millan. “These teams are extremely experienced and highly renowned, and we are hopeful the work they do will provide answers that will help patients battling the virus.”

The Board also awarded Dr. Pierre Caudrelier from ExcellThera $2 million to conduct a clinical trial to treat sickle cell disease patients

SCD is an inherited blood disorder caused by a single gene mutation that results in the production of “sickle” shaped red blood cells. It affects an estimated 100,000 people, mostly African American, in the US and can lead to multiple organ damage as well as reduced quality of life and life expectancy.  Although blood stem cell transplantation can cure SCD fewer than 20% of patients have access to this option due to issues with donor matching and availability.

Dr. Caudrelier is using umbilical cord stem cells from healthy donors, which could help solve the issue of matching and availability. In order to generate enough blood stem cells for transplantation, Dr. Caudrelier will be using a small molecule to expand these blood stem cells. These cells would then be transplanted into twelve children and young adults with SCD and the treatment would be monitored for safety and to see if it is helping the patients.

“CIRM is committed to finding a cure for sickle cell disease, the most common inherited blood disorder in the U.S. that results in unpredictable pain crisis, end organ damage, shortened life expectancy and financial hardship for our often-underserved black community” says Dr. Millan. “That’s why we have committed tens of millions of dollars to fund scientifically sound, innovative approaches to treat sickle cell disease. We are pleased to be able to support this cell therapy program in addition to the gene therapy approaches we are supporting in partnership with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the NIH.”

An advocate’s support for CIRM’s COVID-19 funding

Patient Advocates play an important role in everything we do at the stem cell agency, helping inform all the decisions we make. So it was gratifying to hear from one of our Advocates par excellence, Adrienne Shapiro, about her support for our Board’s decision to borrow $4.2 million from our Sickle Cell Cure fund to invest in rapid research for COVID-19. The money will be repaid but it’s clear from Adrienne’s email that she thinks the Board’s action is one that stands to benefit all of us.

Adrienne Shapiro and her daughter Marissa, who has sickle cell disease

Last Friday the CIRM Board voted to borrow $4.2 million dollars from the Sickle Cell Stem Cell Cure’s budget to fund Covid-19 research. The loan will be paid back at the end of the year from funds that are returned to the CIRM budget from projects that did not use them.  At first I thought “that makes sense, if the money is not being used …” then I thought how wonderful it was that the SCD budget was there and could be used for Covid-19 research.

Wonderful because Covid-19 is a great threat to the SCD community. Sickle cell patients are at risk of dying from the virus as many have no spleens, are immune-compromised and suffer from weakened lung function due to damage from sickling red blood cells and low oxygen levels. 

Wonderful because CIRM sponsored the first large clinical stem cell trials for a cure to SCD. Their funding and commitment to finding a universal cure for SCD opened what feels like a flood gate of research for a cure and new treatments.

Wonderful because it gives CIRM an opportunity to show the world what a government organization — that is committed to tackling complex medical problems — can accomplish using efficient, inclusive, responsible and agile methodologies.

I am eager to see what happens. We all hope that new treatments and even a cure will be found soon. If it does not come from CIRM funding we know that whatever is proven using these funds will help future researchers and patients. 

After all: the SCD community is living proof that science done well leads to a world with less suffering

The Top CIRM Blogs of 2019

This year the most widely read blog was actually one we wrote back in 2018. It’s the transcript of a Facebook Live: “Ask the Stem Cell Team” event about strokes and stroke recovery. Because stroke is the third leading cause of death and disability in the US it’s probably no surprise this blog has lasting power. So many people are hoping that stem cells will help them recover from a stroke.

But of the blogs that we wrote and posted this year there’s a really interesting mix of topics.

The most read 2019 blog was about a potential breakthrough in the search for a treatment for type 1 diabetes (T1D).  Two researchers at UC San Francisco, Dr. Matthias Hebrok and Dr. Gopika Nair developed a new method of replacing the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas that are destroyed by type 1 diabetes. 

Dr. Matthias Hebrok
Dr. Gopika Nair

Dr. Hebrok described it as a big advance saying: “We can now generate insulin-producing cells that look and act a lot like the pancreatic beta cells you and I have in our bodies. This is a critical step towards our goal of creating cells that could be transplanted into patients with diabetes.”

It’s not too surprising a blog about type 1 diabetes was at the top. This condition affects around 1.25 million Americans, a huge audience for any potential breakthrough. However, the blog that was the second most read is the exact opposite. It is about a rare disease called cystinosis. How rare? Well, there are only around 500 children and young adults in the US, and just 2,000 worldwide diagnosed with this condition.  

It might be rare but its impact is devastating. A genetic mutation means children with this condition lack the ability to clear an amino acid – cysteine – from their body. The buildup of cysteine leads to damage to the kidneys, eyes, liver, muscles, pancreas and brain.

Dr. Stephanie Cherqui

UC San Diego researcher Dr. Stephanie Cherqui and her team are taking the patient’s own blood stem cells and, in the lab, genetically re-engineering them to correct the mutation, then returning the cells to the patient. It’s hoped this will create a new, healthy blood system free of the disease.

Dr. Cherqui says if it works, this could help not just people with cystinosis but a wide array of other disorders: “We were thrilled that the stem cells and gene therapy worked so well to prevent tissue degeneration in the mouse model of cystinosis. This discovery opened new perspectives in regenerative medicine and in the application to other genetic disorders. Our findings may deliver a completely new paradigm for the treatment of a wide assortment of diseases including kidney and other genetic disorders.”

Sickled cells

The third most read blog was about another rare disease, but one that has been getting a lot of media attention this past year. Sickle cell disease affects around 100,000 Americans, mostly African Americans. In November the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Oxbryta, a new therapy that reduces the likelihood of blood cells becoming sickle shaped and clumping together – causing blockages in blood vessels.

But our blog focused on a stem cell approach that aims to cure the disease altogether. In many ways the researchers in this story are using a very similar approach to the one Dr. Cherqui is using for cystinosis. Genetically correcting the mutation that causes the problem, creating a new, healthy blood system free of the sickle shaped blood cells.

Two other blogs deserve honorable mentions here as well. The first is the story of James O’Brien who lost the sight in his right eye when he was 18 years old and now, 25 years later, has had it restored thanks to stem cells.

The fifth most popular blog of the year was another one about type 1 diabetes. This piece focused on the news that the CIRM Board had awarded more than $11 million to Dr. Peter Stock at UC San Francisco for a clinical trial for T1D. His approach is transplanting donor pancreatic islets and parathyroid glands into patients, hoping this will restore the person’s ability to create their own insulin and control the disease.

2019 was certainly a busy year for CIRM. We are hoping that 2020 will prove equally busy and give us many new advances to write about. You will find them all here, on The Stem Cellar.

CIRM’s Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Given High Profile Role in Clinical Trials Network

Sue and Bill Gross Hall Photo by Hoang Xuan Pham/ UC Irvine

There are a growing number of predatory clinics in California and around the US, offering unproven stem cell therapies. For patients seeking a legitimate therapy it can often be hard finding a reliable clinic, one offering treatments based on the rigorous science required in a clinical trial sanctioned by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That’s one of the reasons why the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) created the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network and we are delighted the clinics have now been chosen as a Core program of the American Society of Hematology (ASH) Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) Collaborative Trials Network. 

The Alpha Clinics are a network of top California medical centers that specialize in delivering stem cell clinical trials to patients. It consists of five leading medical centers throughout California: City of Hope, University of California (UC) San Diego, UC Irvine & UC Los Angeles, UC Davis and UC San Francisco.

The mission of the ASH Research Collaborative SCD Clinical Trials Network is to improve outcomes for individuals with Sickle Cell Disease by promoting innovation in therapy development and clinical trial research.

Like CIRM, the ASH Clinical Trials Network is a member of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s Cure Sickle Cell Initiative. This is a collaborative partnership to accelerate the development of genetic therapies to cure SCD within five to ten years.

“The key to finding a cure for this crippling disease, and finding it quickly, is to work together”, says Maria T. Millan, MD, President & CEO of CIRM. “That’s why we are delighted to be chosen as a core program for the ASH Sickle Cell Disease Clinical Trials Network. This partnership means we can share data and information about best practices to help us improve the quality of the research being done and the clinical care we can offer patients. We already have 23 clinical stage therapies in cell and gene therapy, including two clinical trials targeting SCD, so we feel we have a lot to bring to the partnership in terms of experience and expertise.”

Sickle Cell disease is a life-threatening blood disorder that affects 100,000 people, mostly African Americans, in the US. It is caused by a single genetic mutation that results in the production of “sickle” shaped red blood cells that can block blood vessels causing intense pain, recurrent hospitalization, multi-organ damage and strokes.    

According to Mark Walters, MD, Director of UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland’s Blood and Marrow Transplantation program, ”the currently available drugs treat the symptoms of  sickle cell disease but are not a cure.

“We hear a lot about the moonshot for curing cancer, but a moonshot for curing sickle cell disease should also be possible. Sickle cell disease was the first genetic disease that was discovered, and wouldn’t it be great if it is also one of the first ones we can cure in everyone?”

It is hoped that creating this network of clinical trial sites across the US will better serve an historically under-served population.

  • Establishing links and educational materials across these sites can increase patient engagement and recruitment
  • Standardizing resources across the network can ensure efficiency and coordination
  • Improving the training of clinical research staff can promote patient safety and trust and increase research quality

The CIRM Alpha Clinics Network has a proven track record of creating a faster, more streamlined approach in running clinical trials. It has developed the tools and systems to simultaneously launch clinical trials at multiple sites; created model non-disclosure agreements to make it easier for clinical trial sponsors to sign up; created a system to enable one Institutional Review Board (IRB) to approve a trial to be carried out at multiple sites rather than requiring each site to have its own IRB approval; developed best practices to quickly share experience and expertise across the network; and set up a database of over 20 million Californians to improve patient recruitment.

An Executive Summary prepared for the Western States Sickle Cell Disease Clinical Trials Network said: “the ASCC provides a formidable clinical trial unit uniquely qualified to deliver the next generation of cell and gene therapy products for SCD.”

What would you like to know about stem cell research? This is your chance to ask the experts.

There’s a lot of fiction, a lot of misinformation surrounding stem cells and stem cell research. There are claims that are not based on solid science and clinics that are offering so-called “treatments” that are unproven, even dangerous for patients. Now you have a chance to talk to the experts in the field and get solid answers from them about what’s working, what’s not, and how you can find a therapy that might be appropriate for you.

Do you have questions about the latest in research using stem cells to help people recovering from a stroke? We’ll have someone who can answer them.

Want to know if stem cells can help people battling cancer? Or what’s happening in finding a stem cell treatment for diabetes or sickle cell disease, even autism, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease? We’ll have experts to answers those.

This is all happening in a special Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team” event on Thursday, December 12th from 10.30am to 11.30am PDT. To take part all you have to do is tune in on the day and post a question or you can send us one ahead of time at info@cirm.ca.gov

We will do our best to answer as many of them as we can during the Facebook Live event, and those we don’t have time to get to we’ll answer in a blog at a later date.

So join us.

Rare disease meeting at California Capitol stresses importance of advocacy, funding, and new research

Dr. Martin Cadeiras (far left), who specializes in cardiovascular medicine at UC Davis, discusses the rare disease amyloidosis. Next to Dr. Cadeiras is Len Strickland, a patient advocates who shares his perspective on living with the disease.

“By changing policy, we can change lives”

A powerful opening statement by Angela Ramirez Holmes, Founder & President of the California Action Link for Rare Diseases (CAL RARE).

Tuesday of last week, patient advocates, patient advocacy organizations, and members of the public filled a room at the California Capitol for an informational hearing on research related to rare diseases. One of the organizations present was CAL RARE, a non-profit organization that is dedicated to improving the lives of California patients with rare diseases. Angela’s opening statement reflects CAL RARE’s core mission of bringing awareness of rare diseases to the general public and decision makers in order to improve access to physicians, treatments, and social services.

Dr. Martin Cadeiras

One of the first presenters was Dr. Martin Cadeiras from the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at UC Davis. His presentation focused on a rare disease named amyloidosis, which occurs when a protein called amyloid builds up in the body’s organs and tissues. This can lead to problems in the heart, skin, kidneys, liver, and digestive tract. There are several different types of amyloidosis, one of which is hereditary and another form that can occur after chronic infection. Dr. Cadeiras spoke in detail about the scientific complexities behind amyloidosis and shared images of patients affected with the disease as well as the complications associated with their condition.

Len Strickland

To elaborate more on the patient perspective of this disease, patient advocate Len Strickland shared his journey living with amyloidosis. In addition to living with the disease, Len also has the sickle cell trait, meaning he has one copy of the sickle cell disease gene but one normal copy.

In his early life, Len was a typical young adult with no health problems. Unfortunately for him that changed in 2006, when he started having problems with shortness of breath and heart palpitations almost overnight. He visited many doctors, all of which were perplexed by his condition and were unable to diagnose him.

“My normal life was gone, and I was very concerned.” said Strickland.

One year later, after multiple tests and specialists, he was finally diagnosed with the hereditary version of amyloidosis. As a result of his condition, he was in dire need of a heart transplant. On March 4, 2008 he was placed on the transplant list. Because he was relatively lower on the priority list, he was told to keep hope to a minimum. Fortunately, on June 10, 2008 a matching donor heart was found and by the next day, Len had successfully received the heart transplant.

Len wrote a thank you letter to the mother of the deceased donor and regularly keeps in touch with her. She hopes to one day meet Len in person so that she can hug Len and hear her son’s heartbeat.

Although the amyloid deposits have spread to Len’s hand and feet, he is still able to live his life.

Len ended his speech by telling the crowd,

“Make the best of the time you have, if I can do it, so can you.”

Dr. Lauge Farnaes

The challenges Len faced with getting a proper diagnosis brought up the need for technology that can better screen rare diseases. The next presenter, Dr. Lauge Farnaes of Rady Children’s Institute for Genomic Medicine, discussed a project that focused on just that. Under a two million dollar Medi-Cal program titled Project Baby Bear, Dr. Farnaes and his team have used genome sequencing as a diagnostic test for critically ill newborns. The ultimate goal is to get this screening as a Medi-Cal covered benefit.

Comprehensive early testing enables physicians to make early decisions about and minimize the damage accumulated before diagnosis. “We have a chance to go in early on and make a difference in the life of patients.” said Farnaes.

Dr. Farnaes told stories of some of the children enrolled in the screening program. One was a young girl that had problems related to the heart. She was enrolled February 6th and diagnosed two days later with Timothy Syndrome, making her one of the youngest patients ever diagnosed. She was implanted with a defibrillator to help with her heart problems. Dr. Farnaes had stated that without the screening, she would have likely just been prescribed beta blockers, which would only have worsened her condition.

Another child enrolled in the program had difficulty breathing as a result of bone fractures. Because of the bone fractures, it was thought that the child had undergone abuse at the hands of the parents. However, thanks to the screening technology, it was found to be the result of a genetic condition. Dr. Farnaes talked about how this technology vindicated the parents, who were already going through the difficult process of having a sick child without throwing other problems into the mix.

To date, 116 children have been diagnosed with genetic conditions early on using this technology and the number is expected to eventually approach 150.

Last, but not least, Assemblymember Mike Gipson shared an update on the work that the rare disease caucus has made with relation to sickle cell disease. He mentioned how the legislative black caucus had successfully advocated for allocating $15 million for sickle cell disease. This money will be used to open seven new sickle cell centers across California.

The meeting in the California Capitol highlighted the impact that patient stories have on policy, as well as the ongoing need of funding and new technologies to address the disparities in rare disease.

From bench to bedside: a Q&A with stem cell expert Jan Nolta

At CIRM we are privileged to work with many remarkable people who combine brilliance, compassion and commitment to their search for new therapies to help people in need. One of those who certainly fits that description is UC Davis’ Jan Nolta.

This week the UC Davis Newsroom posted a great interview with Jan. Rather than try and summarize what she says I thought it would be better to let her talk for herself.

Jan Nolta
Jan Nolta

Talking research, unscrupulous clinics, and sustaining the momentum

(SACRAMENTO) —

In 2007, Jan Nolta returned to Northern California from St. Louis to lead what was at the time UC Davis’ brand-new stem cell program. As director of the UC Davis Stem Cell Program and the Institute for Regenerative Cures, she has overseen the opening of the institute, more than $140 million in research grants, and dozens upon dozens of research studies. She recently sat down to answer some questions about regenerative medicine and all the work taking place at UC Davis Health.

Q: Turning stem cells into cures has been your mission and mantra since you founded the program. Can you give us some examples of the most promising research?

I am so excited about our research. We have about 20 different disease-focused teams. That includes physicians, nurses, health care staff, researchers and faculty members, all working to go from the laboratory bench to patient’s bedside with therapies.

Perhaps the most promising and exciting research right now comes from combining blood-forming

stem cells with gene therapy. We’re working in about eight areas right now, and the first cure, something that we definitely can call a stem cell “cure,” is coming from this combined approach.

Soon, doctors will be able to prescribe this type of stem cell therapy. Patients will use their own bone marrow or umbilical cord stem cells. Teams such as ours, working in good manufacturing practice facilities, will make vectors, essentially “biological delivery vehicles,” carrying a good copy of the broken gene. They will be reinserted into a patient’s cells and then infused back into the patient, much like a bone marrow transplant.

“Perhaps the most promising and exciting research right now comes from combining blood-forming stem cells with gene therapy.”

Along with treating the famous bubble baby disease, where I had started my career, this approach looks very promising for sickle cell anemia. We’re hoping to use it to treat several different inherited metabolic diseases. These are conditions characterized by an abnormal build-up of toxic materials in the body’s cells. They interfere with organ and brain function. It’s caused by just a single enzyme. Using the combined stem cell gene therapy, we can effectively put a good copy of the gene for that enzyme back into a patient’s bone marrow stem cells. Then we do a bone marrow transplantation and bring back a person’s normal functioning cells.

The beauty of this therapy is that it can work for the lifetime of a patient. All of the blood cells circulating in a person’s system would be repaired. It’s the number one stem cell cure happening right now. Plus, it’s a therapy that won’t be rejected. These are a patient’s own stem cells. It is just one type of stem cell, and the first that’s being commercialized to change cells throughout the body.

Q: Let’s step back for a moment. In 2004, voters approved Proposition 71. It has funded a majority of the stem cell research here at UC Davis and throughout California. What’s been the impact of that ballot measure and how is it benefiting patients?

We have learned so much about different types of stem cells, and which stem cell will be most appropriate to treat each type of disease. That’s huge. We had to first do that before being able to start actual stem cell therapies. CIRM [California Institute for Regenerative Medicine] has funded Alpha Stem Cell Clinics. We have one of them here at UC Davis and there are only five in the entire state. These are clinics where the patients can go for high-quality clinical stem cell trials approved by the FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration]. They don’t need to go to “unapproved clinics” and spend a lot of money. And they actually shouldn’t.

“By the end of this year, we’ll have 50 clinical trials.”

By the end of this year, we’ll have 50 clinical trials [here at UC Davis Health]. There are that many in the works.

Our Alpha Clinic is right next to the hospital. It’s where we’ll be delivering a lot of the immunotherapies, gene therapies and other treatments. In fact, I might even get to personally deliver stem cells to the operating room for a patient. It will be for a clinical trial involving people who have broken their hip. It’s exciting because it feels full circle, from working in the laboratory to bringing stem cells right to the patient’s bedside.

We have ongoing clinical trials for critical limb ischemia, leukemia and, as I mentioned, sickle cell disease. Our disease teams are conducting stem cell clinical trials targeting sarcoma, cellular carcinoma, and treatments for dysphasia [a swallowing disorder], retinopathy [eye condition], Duchenne muscular dystrophy and HIV. It’s all in the works here at UC Davis Health.

There’s also great potential for therapies to help with renal disease and kidney transplants. The latter is really exciting because it’s like a mini bone marrow transplant. A kidney recipient would also get some blood-forming stem cells from the kidney donor so that they can better accept the organ and not reject it. It’s a type of stem cell therapy that could help address the burden of being on a lifelong regime of immunosuppressant drugs after transplantation.

Q: You and your colleagues get calls from family members and patients all the time. They frequently ask about stem cell “miracle” cures. What should people know about unproven treatments and unregulated stem cell clinics?

That’s a great question.The number one rule is that if you’re asked to pay money for a stem cell treatment, don’t do it. It’s a big red flag.

When it comes to advertised therapies: “The number one rule is that if you’re asked to pay money for a stem cell treatment, don’t do it. It’s a big red flag.”

Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous people out there in “unapproved clinics” who prey on desperate people. What they are delivering are probably not even stem cells. They might inject you with your own fat cells, which contain very few stem cells. Or they might use treatments that are not matched to the patient and will be immediately rejected. That’s dangerous. The FDA is shutting these unregulated clinics down one at a time. But it’s like “whack-a-mole”: shut one down and another one pops right up.

On the other hand, the Alpha Clinic is part of our mission is to help the public get to the right therapy, treatment or clinical trial. The big difference between those who make patients pay huge sums of money for unregulated and unproven treatments and UC Davis is that we’re actually using stem cells. We produce them in rigorously regulated cleanroom facilities. They are certified to contain at least 99% stem cells.

Patients and family members can always call us here. We can refer them to a genuine and approved clinical trial. If you don’t get stem cells at the beginning [of the clinical trial] because you’re part of the placebo group, you can get them later. So it’s not risky. The placebo is just saline. I know people are very, very desperate. But there are no miracle cures…yet. Clinical trials, approved by the FDA, are the only way we’re going to develop effective treatments and cures.

Q: Scientific breakthroughs take a lot of patience and time. How do you and your colleagues measure progress and stay motivated?   

Motivation?  “It’s all for the patients.”

It’s all for the patients. There are not good therapies yet for many disorders. But we’re developing them. Every day brings a triumph. Measuring progress means treating a patient in a clinical trial, or developing something in the laboratory, or getting FDA approval. The big one will be getting biological license approval from the FDA, which means a doctor can prescribe a stem cell or gene therapy treatment. Then it can be covered by a patient’s health insurance.

I’m a cancer survivor myself, and I’m also a heart patient. Our amazing team here at UC Davis has kept me alive and in great health. So I understand it from both sides. I understand the desperation of “Where do I go?” and “What do I do right now?” questions. I also understand the science side of things. Progress can feel very, very slow. But everything we do here at the Institute for Regenerative Cures is done with patients in mind, and safety.

We know that each day is so important when you’re watching a loved one suffer. We attend patient events and are part of things like Facebook groups, where people really pour their hearts out. We say to ourselves, “Okay, we must work harder and faster.” That’s our motivation: It’s all the patients and families that we’re going to help who keep us working hard.

Breaking bad news to stem cell researchers

It’s never easy to tell someone that they are too late, that they missed the deadline. It’s particularly hard when you know that the person you are telling that to has spent years working on a project and now needs money to take it to the next level. But in science, as in life, it’s always better to tell people what they need to know rather than what they would like to hear.

And so, we have posted a notice on our website for researchers thinking about applying for funding that, except in a very few cases, they are too late, that there is no money available for new projects, whether it’s Discovery, Translational or Clinical.

Here’s that notice:

CIRM anticipates that the budget allocation of funds for new awards under the CIRM clinical program (CLIN1, CLIN2 and CLIN3) may be depleted within the next two to three months. CIRM will accept applications for the monthly deadline on June 28, 2019 but will suspend application submissions after that date until further notice. All applicants should note that the review of submitted applications may be halted at any point in the process if funds are depleted prior to completion of the 3-month review cycle. CIRM will notify applicants of such an occurrence. Therefore, submission and acceptance of an application to CIRM does not guarantee the availability of funds or completion of a review cycle.

The submission of applications for the CIRM/NHLBI Cure Sickle Cell Initiative (CLIN1 SCD, CLIN2 SCD) are unaffected and application submissions for this program will remain open.

We do, of course, have enough money set aside to continue funding all the projects our Board has already approved, but we don’t have money for new projects (except for some sickle cell disease projects).

In truth our funding has lasted a lot longer than anyone anticipated. When Proposition 71 was approved the plan was to give CIRM $300 million a year for ten years. That was back in 2004. So what happened?

Well, in the early years stem cell science was still very much in its infancy with most of the work being done at a basic or Discovery level. Those typically don’t require very large sums so we were able to fund many projects without hitting our $300m target. As the field progressed, however, more and more projects were at the clinical trial stage and those need multiple millions of dollars to be completed. So, the money went out faster.

To date we have funded 55 clinical trials and our early support has helped more than a dozen other projects get into clinical trials. This includes everything from cancer and stroke, to vision loss and diabetes. It’s a good start, but we feel there is so much more to do.

Followers of news about CIRM know there is talk about a possible ballot initiative next year that would provide another $5.5 billion in funding for us to help complete the mission we have started.

Over the years we have built a pipeline of promising projects and without continued support many of those projects face a difficult future. Funding at the federal level is under threat and without CIRM there will be a limited number of funding alternatives for them to turn to.

Telling researchers we don’t have any money to support their work is hard. Telling patients we don’t have any money to support work that could lead to new treatments for them, that’s hardest of all.