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.

Peddling hope for thousands of dollars – a TV expose on one clinic offering unproven stem cell therapies

David Goldstein

You may have seen an ad in your local paper, promoting a seminar on the “wonders” of stem cell therapies. They are becoming increasingly common all around the US.

The ads talk about the ability of stem cells to heal everything from arthritis to autism. But what they don’t talk about is that they are not approved by the FDA for use in patients, and that they are not proven to do anything except remove large amounts of money from your wallet.

One TV reporter decided to see exactly what was on offer at these clinics. So CBSLA Investigative Reporter David Goldstein went to a free stem cell seminar in the City of Orange, put on by the Stem Cell Institute of Orange County, and found that there was a huge gap between what was being promised and what was being delivered.

You can watch that TV report here.

 

CIRM applauds FDA crackdown on stem cell clinics that “peddle unapproved treatments.”

FDA

CIRM is commending the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its action against two stem cell clinics offering unapproved therapies.

On Wednesday, the FDA filed two complaints in federal court seeking a permanent injunction against California Stem Cell Treatment Center Inc. and US Stem Cell Clinic LLC. of Sunrise, Florida. The FDA says the clinics are marketing stem cell products without FDA approval and are not complying with current good manufacturing practice requirements.

“We strongly support the FDA’s strong stance to seek judicial action to stop these  clinics from marketing unproven therapies that pose a threat to the safety of patients” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., CIRM’s President and CEO. “We agree with FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb’s statement that these ‘bad actors leverage the scientific promise of this field to peddle unapproved treatments that put patients’ health at risk.’”

In his statement yesterday, Dr. Gottlieb denounced the clinics saying they are exploiting patients and causing some of them “serious and permanent harm.”

“In the two cases filed today, the clinics and their leadership have continued to disregard the law and more importantly, patient safety. We cannot allow unproven products that exploit the hope of patients and their loved ones. We support sound, scientific research and regulation of cell-based regenerative medicine, and the FDA has advanced a comprehensive policy framework to promote the approval of regenerative medicine products. But at the same time, the FDA will continue to take enforcement actions against clinics that abuse the trust of patients and endanger their health.”

At CIRM, we believe it is critically important for participants in stem cell treatments to be fully informed about the nature of the therapy they are receiving, including whether it is approved by the FDA. Last year we partnered with California State Senator Ed Hernandez to pass Senate Bill No. 512, which required all clinics offering unproven stem cell therapies to post notices warning patients they were getting a therapy that was not approved by the FDA.

The Stem Cell Agency has taken several other actions to protect people seeking legitimate stem cell therapies.

  • All the clinical trials we consider for funding must already have an active Investigational New Drug (IND) status with the FDA and go through a rigorous scientific review by leading experts.
  • All CIRM-funded trials must adhere to strict regulatory standards and safety monitoring.
  • We have created the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics, a network of six top California medical centers that specialize in delivering patient-centered stem cell clinical trials that meet the highest standards of care and research.
  • CIRM provides access to information on all the clinical trials it supports.

“Through its funding mechanism, active partnership and infrastructure programs, CIRM has shepherded 48 FDA regulated, scientifically sound, rigorously reviewed promising stem cell and regenerative medicine projects into clinical trials,” says Dr. Millan. “Some of these treatment protocols have already started to show preliminary signs of benefit for debilitating and life-threatening disorders. We are committed to doing all we can, in partnership with patients, the research community and with the FDA, to develop transformative treatments for patients with unmet medical needs while adhering to the highest standards to protect the health and safety of patients and the public.”

To help people make informed decisions we have created an infographic and video that detail the information people need to know, and the questions they should ask, before they agree to participate in a clinical trial or get a stem cell therapy.