Call for a worldwide approach to regulating predatory stem cell clinics

You can’t fix a global problem at the local level. That’s the gist of a new perspective piece in the journal Stem Cell Reports that calls for a global approach to rogue stem cell clinics that offer bogus therapies.

The authors of the article are calling on the World Health Organization (WHO) to set up an advisory committee to draw up rules and regulations to help guide countries trying to shut these clinics down.

In a news release, senior author Mohamed Abou-el-Enein, the executive director of the joint University of Southern California/Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles Cell Therapy Program, says these clinics are trying to cash in on the promise of regenerative medicine.

“Starting in the early 2000s… unregulated stem cell clinics offering untested and poorly characterized treatments with insufficient information on their safety and efficacy began emerging all over the world, taking advantage of the media hype around stem cells and patients’ hope and desperation.”

Dr. Larry Goldstein

The authors include Lawrence Goldstein, PhD, a CIRM Board member and a Science Policy Fellows for the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR).

Zubin Master, an associate professor of biomedical ethics at the Mayo Clinic, says the clinics prey on vulnerable people who have serious medical conditions and who have often tried conventional medical approaches without success.

“We should aim to develop pathways to provide patients with evidenced-based experimental regenerative intervention as possible options where there is oversight, especially in circumstances where there is no suitable alternative left.”

The report says: “The unproven SCI (stem cell intervention) industry threatens the advancement of regenerative medicine. Reports of adverse events from unproven SCIs has the potential to affect funding and clinical trial recruitment, as well as increasing burdens among regulatory agencies to oversee the industry.

Permitting unregulated SCIs to flourish demonstrates a lack of concern over patient welfare and undermines the need for scientific evidence for medicinal product R&D. While some regulatory agencies have limited oversight or enforcement powers, or choose not to use them, unproven SCI clinics still serve to undermine authority given to regulatory agencies and may reduce public trust impacting the development of safe and effective therapies. Addressing the continued proliferation of clinics offering unproven SCIs is a problem worth addressing now.”

The authors say the WHO is uniquely positioned to help create a framework for the field that can help address these issues. They recommend setting up an advisory committee to develop global standards for regulations governing these clinics that could be applied in all countries. They also say we need more educational materials to let physicians as well as patients understand the health risks posed by bogus clinics.

This article comes out in the same week that reports by the Pew Charitable Trust and the FDA also called for greater regulation of these predatory clinics (we blogged about that here). Clearly there is growing recognition both in the US and worldwide that these clinics pose a threat not just to the health and safety of patients, but also to the reputation of the field of regenerative medicine as a whole.

“I believe that the global spread of unproven stem cell therapies reflects critical gaps in the international system for responding to health crises, which could put the life of thousands of patients in danger,” Abou-el-Enein says. “Urgent measures are needed to enhance the global regulatory capacity to detect and respond to this eminent crisis rapidly.”

Month of CIRM: Battling COVID-19

All this month we are using our blog and social media to highlight a new chapter in CIRM’s life, thanks to the people of California approving Proposition 14. We are looking back at what we have done since we were created in 2004, and also looking forward to the future.

Dr. John Zaia, City of Hope stem cell researcher

The news that effective vaccines have been developed to help fight COVID-19 was a truly bright spot at the end of a very dark year. But it will be months, in some countries years, before we have enough vaccines to protect everyone. That’s why it’s so important to keep pushing for more effective ways to help people who get infected with the virus.

One of those ways is in a clinical study that CIRM is funding with City of Hope’s Dr. John Zaia. Dr. Zaia and his team, in partnership with the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) in Flagstaff, Arizona, are using something called convalescent plasma to try and help people who have contracted the virus. Here’s the website they have created for the study.

Plasma is a part of our blood that carries proteins, called antibodies, that help defend our bodies against viral infections. When a patient recovers from COVID-19, their blood plasma contains antibodies against the virus. The hope is that those antibodies can now be used as a potential treatment for COVID-19 to help people who are newly infected. 

To carry out the study they are using clinical trial sites around California, including some of the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Network clinics.

For the study to succeed they’ll first need people who have recovered from the virus to donate blood. That’s particularly appropriate in January because this is National Volunteer Blood Donor Month.

The team has three elements to their approach:

  • A rapid-response screening program to screen potential COVID-19 convalescent plasma donors, particularly in underserved communities.
  • A laboratory center that can analyze the anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies properties in COVID-19 convalescent plasma.
  • An analysis of the clinical course of the disease in COVID-19 patients to identify whether antibody properties correlate with clinical benefit of COVID-19 convalescent plasma.

There’s reason to believe this approach might work. A study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that blood plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 can help older adults and prevent them from getting seriously ill with the virus if they get the plasma within a few days of becoming infected.

We are used to thinking of blood donations as being used to help people after surgery or who have been in an accident. In this study the donations serve another purpose, but one that is no less important. The World Health Organization describes blood as “the most precious gift that anyone can give to another person — the gift of life. A decision to donate your blood can save a life, or even several if your blood is separated into its components — red cells, platelets and plasma.”

That plasma could help in developing more effective treatments against the virus. Because until we have enough vaccines for everyone, we are still going to need as much help as we can get in fighting COVID-19. The recent surge in cases throughout the US and Europe are a reminder that this virus is far from under control. We have already lost far too many people. So, if you have recently recovered from the virus, or know someone who has, consider donating blood to this study. It could prove to be a lifesaver.

For more information about the study and how you can be part of it, click here.

Overcoming one of the biggest challenges in stem cell research

Imagine you have just designed and built a new car. Everyone loves it. It’s sleek, fast, elegant, has plenty of cup holders. People want to buy it. The only problem is you haven’t built an assembly line to make enough of them to meet demand. Frustrating eh.

Overcoming problems in manufacturing is not an issue that just affects the auto industry (which won’t make Elon Musk and Tesla feel any better) it’s something that affects many other areas too – including the field of regenerative medicine. After all, what good is it developing a treatment for a deadly disease if you can’t make enough of the therapy to help the people who need it the most, the patients.

As the number of stem cell therapies entering clinical trials increases, so too does the demand for large numbers of high quality, rigorously tested stem cells. And because each of those therapies is unique, that places a lot of pressure on existing manufacturing facilities to meet the demand.

IABS panel

Representatives from the US FDA, Health Canada, EMA, FDA China, World Health Organization discuss creating a manufacturing roadmap for stem cell therapies: Photo Geoff Lomax

So, with that in mind CIRM teamed up with the International Alliance for Biological Standardization (IABS) to hold the 4th Cell Therapy Conference: Manufacturing and Testing of Pluripotent Stem Cells to try and identify the key problems and chart out solutions.

The conference brought together everyone who had a stake in this issue, including leading experts in cell manufacturing, commercial sponsors developing stem cell treatments, academic researchers, the World Health Organization, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), international regulatory bodies as well as patient and patient advocates too (after all, who has a greater stake in this).

Commercial sponsors and academic researchers presented case studies of how they worked through the development of manufacturing process for their stem cell treatments.

Some key points quickly emerged:

  • Scale up and quality control of stem cell manufacturing is vital to the development of stem cell treatments.
  • California is a world leader in stem cell manufacturing.
  • There have been numerous innovations in cell manufacturing that serve to support quality, quantity, performance and cost control.
  • The collective experience of the field is leading to standardization of definitions (so we all use the same language), standardization of processes to release quality cells, manufacturing and standardization of testing (so we all meet the same safety requirements).
  • Building consensus among stakeholders is important for accelerating stem cell treatments to patients.

Regulatory experts emphasized the importance of thinking about manufacturing early on in the research and product development phase, so that you can avoid problems in later stages.

There were no easy answers to many of the questions posed, but there was agreement on the importance of developing a stem cell glossary, a common set of terms and definitions that we can all use. There was also agreement on the key topics that need to continue to be highlighted such as safety testing, compatibility, early locking-in of quality processes when feasible, and scaling up.

In the past our big concern was developing the therapies. Now we have to worry about being able to manufacture enough of the cells to meet demand. That’s progress.

A technical summary is being developed and we will announce when it is available.

 

 

If you’re into stem cell manufacturing, this is the conference for you!

GMP cells

Manufacturing stem cells: Photo courtesy of Pluristem

Fulfilling CIRM’s mission doesn’t just mean accelerating promising stem cell treatments to patients. It also involves accelerating the whole field of regenerative medicine, which involves not just research, but developing candidate treatments, manufacturing cell therapies, and testing these therapies in clinical trials.

Manufacturing and the pre-clinical safety evaluation of cell therapies are topics that don’t always receive a lot of attention, but they are essential and crucial steps in bringing cell therapies to market. Manufacturing cells that meet the strict standards for use in human trials is often a bottleneck where different methods of making pluripotent stem cells (PSCs) are used and standardization is not readily possible.

Abla-8Abla Creasey, Vice President of Therapeutics and Strategic Infrastructure at CIRM, notes:

“The field of stem cell research and regenerative medicine has matured to the point where there are over 900 clinical trials worldwide. It is critical to develop a system of effective regulation of how these stem cell treatments are developed and manufactured so patients can benefit from future treatments.”

To address this challenge, CIRM has teamed up the International Alliance for Biological Standardization to host the 4th Cell Therapy Conference on Manufacturing and Testing of Pluripotent Stem Cells on June 5-6th in Los Angeles, California.

WHAT

The aim of this conference is twofold. Speakers will discuss how product development programs can be moved forward in a way that will meet regulatory requirements, so treatments can be approved.

The conference will also focus on key unresolved issues that need to be addressed for the manufacturing and safety testing of pluripotent stem cell-based therapies and then make recommendations to inform the future national and international policies. The overall aim is to provide participants with a road map so new treatments can achieve the highest regulatory standards and be made available to patients around the world.

The agenda of the conference will cover four main topics:

  1. Learning from the current pluripotent space and the development of international standards
  2. Bioanalytics and comparability of therapeutic stem cells
  3. Tumorigenicity testing for therapeutic safety
  4. Pluripotent stem cell manufacturing, storage, and shipment Issues

Using this “big tent” approach, speakers will exchange knowledge, experience and expertise to develop consensus recommendations around stem cell manufacturing and testing.  New data in this area will be introduced at the conference for the first time, such as a multi-center study to identify and optimize manufacturing-compatible methods for cell therapy safety.

WHO

The conference will bring together leading experts from industry, academia, health services and therapeutic regulatory bodies around the world, including the US Food and Drug Administration, European Medicines Agency, Japan Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices Agency, and World Health Organization.

CIRM and IABS encourage individuals and organizations actively pursuing the development of stem cell therapies to attend.

WHY

robert deansIf you’re interested, but not quite sold on this conference, take the word of these experts:
Robert Deans, Chief Technology Officer at BlueRock Therapeutics:

“I believe standardization will be an increasingly crucial element in securing commercial success for regenerative cell therapies.  This applies to all facets of development, from cell characterization and patent protection through safety testing of final product.  Most important is the adherence of players in this sector to harmonized standards and creation of a scientifically credible market to the capital community.”

martin-pera-profileProfessor Martin Pera of the Jackson Laboratory, who directs the International  Stem Cell Initiative Genetics and Epigenetics Study Group:

“Participants at this meeting will survey and discuss the state of the art in the development of definitive assays for assessing the safety of pluripotent stem cell based therapies, a critical issue for the future of the field.  Anyone active in cell therapy should attend this meeting to contribute to a dialogue that will impact on research directions and ultimately help to define best practice in this sector.”

When and Where

The conference will be held in Los Angeles Airport Marriott on June 5-6th, 2018. Registration is now open on the IABS website and you can take advantage of discounted early bird registration before April 24th.