Pushing, pulling and dragging stem cell research forward

Government agencies are known for many things, but generally speaking a willingness to do some voluntary, deep self-examination is not one of them. However, for the last few weeks CIRM has been doing a lot of introspection as we develop a new Strategic Plan, a kind of road map for where we are heading.

Patient Advocate meeting in Los Angeles: Photo courtesy Cristy Lytal USC

Patient Advocate meeting in Los Angeles:
Photo courtesy Cristy Lytal USC

But we haven’t been alone. We’ve gone to San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco to talk to Patient Advocates in each city, to get their thoughts on what we need to focus on for the future. Why Patient Advocates? Because they are the ones with most skin in the game. They are why we do this work so it’s important they have a say in how we do it.

As Chris Stiehl, a Patient Advocate for type 1 diabetes, said in San Diego: “Let the patient be in the room, let them be part of the conversation about these therapies. They are the ones in need, so let them help make decisions about them right from the start, not at the end.”

A Strategic Plan is, on the surface, a pretty straightforward thing to put together. You look at where you are, identify where you want to go, and figure out the best way to get from here to there. But as with many things, what seems simple on the surface often turns out to be a lot more complicated when looked at in more depth.

The second bit, figuring out where you want to go, is easy. We want to live up to our mission of accelerating the development of stem cells therapies to patients with unmet medical needs. We don’t want to be good at this. We want to be great at this.

Dr. C. Randal Mills talking to Patient Advocates in LA: Photo courtesy Cristy Lytal, USC

Dr. C. Randal Mills talking to Patient Advocates in LA: Photo courtesy Cristy Lytal, USC

The first part, seeing where you are, is a little tougher: it involves what our President and CEO, Dr. Randy Mills, “confronting some brutal facts”, being really honest in assessing where you are because without that honesty you can’t achieve anything.

So where are we as an agency? Well, we have close to one billion dollars left in the bank, we have 12 projects in clinical trials and more on the way, we have helped advance stem cells from a fledgling field to a science on the brink of what we hope will be some remarkable treatments, and we have a remarkable team ready to help drive the field still further.

But how do we do that, how do we identify the third part of the puzzle, getting from where we are to where we want to be? CIRM 2.0 is part of the answer – developing a process to fund research that is easier, faster and more responsive to the needs of the scientists and companies developing new therapies. But that’s just part of the answer.

Some of the Patient Advocates asked if we considered focusing on just a few diseases, such as the ten largest killers of Americans, and devoting our remaining resources to fixing them. And the answer is yes, we looked at every single option. But we quickly decided against that because, as Randy Mills said:

“This is not a popularity contest, you can’t judge need by numbers, deciding the worth of something by how many people have it. We are disease agnostic. What we do is find the best science, and fund it.”

Another necessary element is developing better ways to attract greater investment from big pharmaceutical companies and venture capital to really help move the most promising projects through clinical trials and into patients. That is starting to happen, not as fast as we would like, but as our blog yesterday shows things are moving in this direction.

And the third piece of the pie is getting these treatments through the regulatory process, getting the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve therapies for clinical trials. And this last piece clearly hit a nerve.

Many Patient Advocates expressed frustration at the slow pace of approval for any therapy by the FDA, some saying it felt like they just kept piling up obstacles in the way.

Dr. Mills said the FDA is caught between a rock and a hard place; criticized if it approves too slowly and chastised if it approves too fast, green lighting a therapy that later proves to have problems. But he agreed that changes are needed:

“The regulatory framework works well for things like drugs and small molecules that can be taken in pills but it doesn’t work well for cellular therapies like stem cells. It needs to do better at that.”

One Advocate suggested a Boot Camp for researchers, drilling them in the skills they’ll need to get FDA approval. Others suggested applying political pressure from Patient Advocacy groups to push for change.

As always there are no easy answers, but the meeting certainly raised many great questions. Those are all helping us focus our thinking on what needs to be in the Strategic Plan.

Randy ended the Patient Advocate events by saying the stem cell agency “is in the time business. What we do is time sensitive.” For too many people that time is already running out. We have to do everything we can to change that.

Share your voice, shape our future

shutterstock_201440705There is power in a single voice. I am always reminded of that whenever I meet a patient advocate and hear them talk about the need for treatments and cures – and not just for their particular disease but for everyone.

The passion and commitment they display in advocating for more research funding reflects the fact that everyday, they live with the consequences of the lack of effective therapies. So as we at CIRM, think about the stem cell agency’s future and are putting together a new Strategic Plan to help shape the direction we take, it only makes sense for us to turn to the patient advocate community for their thoughts and ideas on what that future should look like.

That’s why we are setting up three meetings in the next ten days in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco to give our patient advocates a chance to let us know what they think, in person.

We have already sent our key stakeholders a survey to get their thoughts on the general direction for the Strategic Plan, but there is a big difference between ticking a box and having a conversation. These upcoming meetings are a chance to talk together, to explore ideas and really flesh out the details of what this Strategic Plan could be and should be.

Our President and CEO, Dr. C. Randal Mills wants each of those meetings to be an opportunity to hear, first hand, what people would like to see as we enter our second decade. We have close to one billion dollars left to invest in research so there’s a lot at stake and this is a great chance for patient advocates to help shape our next five years.

Every voice counts, so join us and make sure that yours is heard.

The events are:

San Diego, Monday, July 13th at noon at Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, 2880 Torrey Pines Scenic Drive, La Jolla, CA 92037

Los Angeles: Tuesday, July 14th at noon at Eli and Edythe Broad CIRM Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC, 1425 San Pablo Street, 1st floor conf. room Los Angeles, CA 90033

San Francisco: Wednesday, July 15th at noon at CIRM, 210 King Street (3rd floor), San Francisco, CA 94107

There will be parking at each event and a light lunch will be served.

We hope to see you at one of them and if you do plan on coming please RSVP to info@cirm.ca.gov

And of course please feel free to share this invitation to anyone you think might be interested in having their voice heard. We all have a stake in this.

The search for a cure: how stem cells could eradicate the AIDS virus

It’s hard to overstate just how devastating the AIDS crisis was at its peak in the U.S. – and still is today in many parts of the world. In 1995 almost 51,000 Americans died from the disease, the numbers of new cases were at almost record highs, and there were few effective therapies against the virus.

HIV/AIDS medications

HIV/AIDS medications

Today that picture is very different. New medications and combination therapies have helped reduce the death rate, in some cases turning HIV into a chronic rather than fatal condition. But even now there is no cure.

That’s why the news that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a clinical trial, that we are funding, aimed at eradicating HIV in the body, was so welcome. This could be an important step towards the Holy Grail of AIDS therapies, curing the disease.

The project is headed by Dr. John Zaia at City of Hope near Los Angeles. The team, with researchers from Keck Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC) and Sangamo BioSciences, plans on using an individual’s own stem cells to beat the virus.  They will remove some blood stem cells from HIV-infected individuals, then treat them with zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs), a kind of molecular scissors, snipping off a protein the AIDS virus needs to infect those cells.

It’s hoped the re-engineered stem cells, when returned to the body, will help create a new blood and immune system that is resistant to the virus. And if the virus can’t infect any new immune cells it could, theoretically, die off. Check out the video we produced a few years back about the project:

Studies in the lab show this approach holds a lot of promise. In a news release announcing the start of the clinical trial, Dr. Zaia said now it’s time to see if it will work in people:

“While we have a number of drugs that are effective in holding HIV at bay, we have nothing that cures it. In addition, for many patients, these medications come with significant long-term problems so there is a real need for a therapy that can help eradicate the virus from a patient completely. That is where our work is focused.”

Like all Phase 1 trials this one is focused on making sure this approach is safe for people, and identifying what, if any, side-effects there are from the treatment. The first group of patients to be treated consists of people with HIV/AIDS who have not responded well to the existing medications.

This is the second trial that CIRM is funding focused on curing HIV/AIDS. Our first, involving the company Calimmune, began its human clinical trial in July 2013. You can read more about that work here.

We know that the road to a cure will not be simple or straightforward. There have been too many false claims of cures or miracle therapies over the years for any of us to want to fall victim to hope and hype. It may even be that the most realistic goal for these approaches is what is called a “functional cure”, one that doesn’t eliminate the virus completely but does eliminate the need to take antiretroviral pills every day.

But when compared to the dark days of 1995, a functional cure is a world away from certain death.

Ten at ten at the stem cell agency: sharing the good news about progress from the bench to the bedside

Ten years ago this month the voters of California overwhelmingly approved Proposition 71, creating the state’s stem cell agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and providing $3 billion to fund stem cell research in California.

That money has helped make California a global leader in stem cell research and led to ten clinical trials that the stem cell agency is funding this year alone. Those include trials in heart disease, cancer, leukemia, diabetes, blindness, HIV/AIDS and sickle cell disease.

To hear how that work has had an impact on the lives of patients we are holding a media briefing to look at the tremendous progress that has been made, and to hear what the future holds.

When: Thursday, November 20th at 11am

Where: Eli and Edythe Broad CIRM Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of Southern California, 1425 San Pablo Street, Los Angeles, CA 90033

Who: Hear from patients who have benefited from stem cell therapies, the researchers who have done the work, and the key figures in the drive to make California the global leader in stem cell research

To listen in to the event by phone:

Call in: 866.528.2256  Participant code: 1594399

For more information contact: Kevin McCormack, Communications Director, CIRM kmccormack@cirm.ca.gov

Cell: 415-361-2903