Alpha clinics and a new framework for accelerating stem cell treatments

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Last week, at the World Stem Cell Summit in Miami, CIRM took part in a panel discussion about the role and importance of Alpha Clinics in not just delivering stem cell therapies, but in helping create a new, more collaborative approach to medicine. The Alpha Clinic concept is to create  a network of top medical centers that specialize in delivering stem cell clinical trials to patients.

The panel was moderated by Dr. Tony Atala, Director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. He said the term Alpha Clinic came from CIRM and the Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network that we helped create. That network now has five specialist health care centers that deliver stem cell therapies to patients: UC San Diego, UCLA/UC Irvine, City of Hope, UC Davis, and  UCSF/Children’s Hospital Oakland.

This is a snapshot of that conversation.

Alpha Clinics Advancing Stem Cell Trials

Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO:

“The idea behind the Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network is that CIRM is in the business of accelerating treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. We fund research from the earliest discovery stage to clinical trials. What was anticipated is that, if the goal is to get these discoveries into the clinics then we’ll need a specific set of expertise and talents to deliver those treatments safely and effectively, to gather data from those trials and move the field forward. So, we set out to create a learning network, a sharing network and a network that is more than the sum of its parts.”

Dr. Joshua Hare,  Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute, University of Miami, said that idea of collaboration is critical to advancing the field:

 

“What we learned is that having the Alpha Stem Cell Clinic concept helps investigators in other areas learn from what earlier researchers have done, helping accelerate their work.

For example, we have had a lot of experience in working with rare diseases and we can use the experience we have in treating one disease area in working in others. This shared experience can help us develop deeper understanding in terms of delivering therapies and dosing.”

Susan Solomon, CEO New York Stem Cell Foundation Research Institute. NYSCF has several clinical trials underway. She says in the beginning it was hard finding reputable clinics that could deliver these potentially ground breaking but still experimental therapies:

 

“My motivation was born out of my own frustration at the poor choices we had in dealing with some devastating diseases, so in order to move things ahead we had to have an alpha clinic that is not just doing clinical trials but is working to overcome obstacles in the field.”

Greg Simon represented the, Biden Cancer Initiative, whose  mission is to develop and drive implementation of solutions to accelerate progress in cancer prevention, detection, diagnosis, research, and care, and to reduce disparities in cancer outcomes. He says part of the problem is that people think there are systems already in place that promote collaboration and cooperation, but that’s not really the case.  

 

“In the Cancer Moonshot and the Biden Cancer Initiative we are trying to create the cancer research initiative that people think we already have. People think doctors share knowledge. They don’t. People think they can just sign up for clinical trials. They can’t. People think there are standards for describing a cancer. There aren’t. So, all the things you think you know about the science behind cancer are wrong. We don’t have the system people think is in place. But we want to create that.

If we are going to have a unified system we need common standards through cancer research, shared knowledge, and clinical trial reforms. All my professional career it was considered unethical to refer to a clinical trial as a treatment, it was research. That’s no longer the case. Many people are now told this is your last best hope for treatment and it’s changed the way people think about clinical trials.”

The Process

Maria Millan says we are seeing these kinds of change – more collaboration, more transparency –  taking place across the board:

“We see the research in academic institutions that then moved into small companies that are now being approved by the FDA. Academic centers, in conjunction with industry partners, are helping create networks and connections that advance therapies.

This gives us the opportunity to have clinical programs and dialogues about how we can get better, how we can create a more uniform, standard approach that helps us learn from each trial and develop common standards that investigators know have to be in place.

Within the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network the teams coming in can access what we have pulled together already – a database of 20 million patients, a single IRB approval, so that if a cliinical trial is approved for one Alpha Clinic it can also be offered at another.”

Greg Simon says to see the changes really take hold we need to ensure this idea of collaboration starts at the very beginning of the chain:

“If we don’t have a system of basic research where people share data, where people are rewarded for sharing data, journals that don’t lock up the data behind a paywall. If we don’t have that system, we don’t have the ability to move therapies along as quickly as we could.

“Nobody wants to be the last person to die from a cancer that someone figured out a treatment for a year earlier. It’s not that the science is so hard, or the diseases are so hard, it the way we approach them that’s so hard. How do we create the right system?”

More may not necessarily be better

Susan Solomon:

“There are tremendous number of advances moving to the clinic, but I am concerned about the need for more sharing and the sheer number of clinical trials. We have to be smart about how we do our work. There is some low hanging fruit for some clinical trials in the cancer area, but you have to be really careful.”

Greg Simon

“We have too many bad trials, we don’t need more, we need better quality trials.

We have made a lot of progress in cancer. I’m a CLL survivor and had zero problems with the treatment and everything went well.

We have pediatric cancer therapies that turned survival from 10 % to 80%. But the question is why doesn’t more progress happen. We tend to get stuck in a way of thinking and don’t question why it has to be that way. We think of funding because that’s the way funding cycles work, the NIH issues grants every year, so we think about research on a yearly basis. We need to change the cycle.”

Maria Millan says CIRM takes a two pronged approach to improving things, renovating and creating:

“We renovate when we know there are things already in place that can be improved and made better; and we create if there’s nothing there and it needs to be created. We want to be as efficient as we can and not waste time and resources.”

She ended by saying one of the most exciting things today is that the discussion now has moved to how we are going to cover this for patients. Greg Simon couldn’t agree more.

“The biggest predictor of survivability of cancer is health insurance. We need to do more than just develop treatments. We need to have a system that enables people to get access to these therapies.”

Finally a possible use for your excess fat; using it to fix your arthritic knee

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One of the most common questions we get asked at CIRM, almost every other day to be honest, is “are there any stem cell treatments for people with arthritis in their knees?” It’s not surprising. This is a problem that plagues millions of Americans and is one of the leading causes of disability in the US.

Sadly, we have to tell people that there are no stem cell treatments for osteoarthritis (OA) in the knee that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). There’s also a lack of solid evidence from clinical trials that the various approaches are effective.

But that could be changing. There’s a growing number of clinical trials underway looking at different approaches to treating OA in the knee using various forms of stem cells. Sixteen of those are listed at clinicaltrials.gov. And one new study suggests that just one injection of stem cells may be able to help reduce pain and inflammation in arthritic knees, at least for six months. The operative word here being may.

The study, published in the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine,  used adipose-derived stromal cells, a kind of stem cell taken from the patient’s own fat. Previous studies have shown that these cells can have immune boosting and anti-scarring properties.

The cells were removed by liposuction, so not only did the patient’s get a boost for their knees they also got a little fat reduction. A nice bonus if desired.

The study was quite small. It involved 18 patients, between the ages of 50 and 75, all of whom had suffered from osteoarthritis (OA) in the knee for at least a year before the treatment. This condition is caused by the cartilage in the knee breaking down, allowing bones to rub against each other, leading to pain, stiffness and swelling.

One group of patients were given a low dose of the cells (23,000) injected directly into the knee, one a medium dose (103,000) and one a high dose (503,000).

Over the next six months, the patients were closely followed to see if there were any side effects and, of course, any improvement in their condition. In a news release, Christian Jorgensen, of University Hospital of Montpellier, the director of the study, said the results were encouraging:

“Although this phase I study included a limited number of patients without a placebo arm we were able to show that this innovative treatment was well tolerated in patients with knee OA and it provided encouraging preliminary evidence of efficacy. Interestingly, patients treated with low-dose ASCs significantly improved in pain and function compared with the baseline.”

The researchers caution that the treatment doesn’t halt the progression of OA and does not restore the damaged cartilage, instead it seems to help patients by reducing inflammation.

In a news article about the study Tony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, in Winston-Salem, N.C. and the editor of Stem Cells Translational Medicine said the study offered the patients involved another benefit:

“In fact, most of the patients (in the study group) who had previously scheduled total knee replacement surgery decided to cancel the surgery. It will be interesting to see if these improvements are seen in larger groups of study participants.”

Interesting is an understatement.

But while this is encouraging it’s important to remember it was done in a small group of patients and needs to be replicated in a much larger group before we can draw any solid conclusions. It will also be important to see if the benefits last longer than six months.

We might not have to wait too long for some answers. The researchers are already running a 2-year trial involving 150 people in Europe.

We’ll let you know what they find.