Friday, September 30, 2016


The Semma-Melton diabetes item on Sept. 29, 2016, contained an inaccurate and incomplete description of the roles of institutions involved in the work being funded by the California stem cell agency. The item has been corrected. Here is the now accurate paragraph in question.

"Peter Butler, chief of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Hypertension at UCLA, will be dealing with patient selection. Dhruv Sareen of the Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Core Facility at Cedars-Sinai will direct derivation and analysis of pluripotent stem cells from each patient’s blood. The cells will be transferred to the City of Hope for manufacture of products for clinical trials." Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The $50 Million, Semma-Melton Quest: Looking for a Cure for Diabetes

An eminent Harvard stem cell researcher who is searching for a cure for an affliction that plagues 29 million Americans stood on a San Francisco stage this week and spoke of "things we don't understand."
Doug Melton, photo Harvard Gazette/B.D. Colen
The scientist is Doug Melton, who is on a deeply personal quest for a cure for diabetes. Both of his children have the disease. And the state of California is helping out on his search with $5 million.

The occasion for Melton's remarks was the presentation of the Ogawa-Yamanaka Stem Cell Prize, a $150,000 award for his work in cellular reprogramming.

Here is how Hannah Robbins of the Harvard Gazette described the results of Melton's research:
"As a pioneer in programming insulin-producing beta cells from stem cells, Melton’s lab can now generate therapeutic quantities of functional, stem cell-derived beta cells, which Melton hopes will someday soon replace the life-saving yet painful daily insulin injections for diabetics."
The $5 million from California is a grant made last March by the state's $3 billion stem cell agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

The cash is going to a firm in Cambridge, Ma., called Semma Therapeutics, Inc., which Melton co-founded and which is named after his two children, Sam and Emma. Melton now serves on the firm's board of directors. The business is only two years old, but has raised roughly $50 million to translate Melton's work into actual treatments.

His grant application to CIRM in March was titled simply "Personalized Cell Therapy for Diabetes." The proposal (application number TRAN1-08561) received a score of 90 out of 100 from the agency's scientific reviewers who are from out-of-state. A summary of the closed-door review said the proposal was "strong, well-­designed, feasible. and high impact." The research "has excellent product development plans and great regulatory support," reviewers said.

The stem cell agency is limited to funding only work that is done in California. Semma announced earlier this month that it has set up arrangements with UCLA, Cedars-Sinai and the City of Hope in the Los Angeles area to generate "suitable clinical grade" cells from patients and "to establish a path leading to the transplantation of these cells back into patients in a clinical trial."

Peter Butler, chief of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Hypertension at UCLA, will be dealing with patient selection. Dhruv Sareen of the Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Core Facility at Cedars-Sinai will direct derivation and analysis of pluripotent stem cells from each patient’s blood. The cells will be transferred to the City of Hope for manufacture of products for clinical trials.

Overseeing the entire project is Felicia Pagliuca, principal investigator on the CIRM grant and chief scientific officer of Semma. She also was also a lead on the original research in Melton's lab.
Felicia Pagliuca and Robert Millman
 photo Boston Globe/Dina Rudick

The financial backers are led by MPM, a venture capital firm with offices in South San Francisco and Cambridge, Mass. Robert Millman, formerly of MPM, is CEO of Semma. Other investors include Medtronic, Novartis, Fidelity Biosciences, Arch Venture Partners and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.

Semma is still hiring and has openings listed for five positions on its web site, ranging from scientists to a director of device development and manufacturing.

Here is a video recording of the award ceremony in which Melton discusses his research and "the things we don't understand" in the science.

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this story contained an inaccurate description of the roles of Cedars-Sinai and the City of Hope involving the CIRM-funded work.) 
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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Nearly Three-Decade-Long Stem Cell Tale in California

Kris Boesen, patient in Asterias trial -- photo from CIRM
One could say that the latest news involving human embryonic stem cell research and the California stem cell agency stretches back nearly 27 years. 

It was then -- in 1990 -- that Geron, Inc., was incorporated by Michael West who began what eventually turned into a quest for a stem cell therapy for treatment of spinal cord injury.

Yesterday, the Golden State's stem cell research effort carried an item on its blog, The Stem Cellar, dealing with the latest chapter in that quest. The headline said,
"Full Steam Ahead: First Patient is Dosed in Expanded CIRM Spinal Cord Injury Trial"
In the piece, Karen Ring, website manager for the stem cell agency, celebrated the latest patient news concerning the trial which is backed by a Menlo Park, Ca., company called Asterias Biotherapeutics.  Ring said,  
"Inspiring stories like that of Kris Boesen, who was the first AIS-A patient to get 10 million cells in the Asterias trial and now has regained the use of his arms and legs, are the reason why CIRM exists and why we are working so hard to fund promising clinical trials. If we can develop even one stem cell therapy that gives patients back their life, then our efforts here at CIRM will be worthwhile."
Michael West, Biotime photo
The tale of  Michael West, his research and his companies is long and convoluted. The short version is that he is now co-CEO of Biotime, Inc., of Alameda, Ca., which spawned in 2012 Asterias Biotherapeutics, Inc., of  Menlo Park, Ca. 

Geron is out of the business of human embryonic stem cell research. In 2011, it abandoned the nation's first-ever hESC trial for financial reasons. The effort was sold to Asterias in 2013. In 2014, the $3 billion California stem cell agency jumped in with $14.3 million for Asterias. 

 Asterias' stock closed at $4.56 yesterday. Its 52-week high stood at $5.75. Its 52-week low was $2.30. 
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Friday, September 23, 2016

A Look at Stem Cell Treatments in Mexico with Ties to California

First part of KBPS' stem cell treatment series

A San Diego television station this week aired a solid series exploring the world of unproven stem cell treatments, including therapies in Mexico and involving a California company.

The work was produced on KBPS by David Wagner and ran as a two-part series(see image above). UC Davis researcher Paul Knoepfler, who earlier this year documented the existent of 570 unregulated stem cell clinics nationally, described Wagner's work as "an important new piece...on for-profit investigational stem cell treatments."

Companies mentioned by Wagner included Stemedica Cell Technologies, Inc., Global Stem Cell Health, Inc., both in the San Diego area, and Hospital Angeles in Tijuana, just south of San Diego in Mexico.

Stemedica is the firm connected to nationally reported treatments of the late hockey great Gordie Howe and former professional quarterbacks John Brodie and Bart Starr. (See here and here.) Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

California Stem Cell Research: $639 Million Left in the Golden State's "Big Bucket"

Randy Mills, head of the California stem cell agency, calls the cash
available for research awards "the big bucket." CIRM graphic
California's ambitious stem cell research agency has $639 million remaining in uncommitted cash as it continues to seek therapies and perhaps cures for afflictions ranging from spinal injury to diabetes.

Randy Mills, president of the 12-year-old program, announced the figure today at a San Diego meeting of the agency's governing board. He also said the program, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), is expected to run out of funds in June 2020.

CIRM is financed by money that the state borrows -- $3 billion in bonds approved by California voters in 2004. Using borrowed money also leads to interest costs, increasing the ultimate taxpayer expense to roughly $6 billion. However, that estimate dates back to 2004 and no fresher figure has been produced by the state.

Mills reminded his directors that the agency is allowed only $180 million for operational expenses over the life of the program. About $61 million remains for those expenses.The current annual operational budget of $16 million pays for the roughly 55-person staff  to oversee $900 million in active awards and to make new awards.

The agency has handed out $2.1 billion over its life but many of those research efforts are finished. No therapies have been developed for widespread use.

The agency also has a "return rate" of 3 percent to 5 percent on awards.  The "return" is cash that is left over from an award or that is returned to the agency when a researcher does not meet research milestones, and the award is cancelled.  The returned cash is running at about $40 million annually.

Just what will happen to the agency come 2020 is unclear. Mills today said he and his team are monitoring the funds carefully so that awards and the operational funds run out at the same time.

The agency also may begin lose key staff as time passes and no plan for 2020 emerges, a possibility that Mills has publicly discussed, albeit briefly.

As for future funding, thoughts about another bond issue, public-private partnerships and more legislative funding have been bandied about. But nothing concrete has yet emerged.
Operational funds are described as "the little bucket" by Mills. CIRM graphic

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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Time to Crank Up the Stem Cell Comment Machine and Weigh in on Proposed Federal Regulation

Folks interested in seeing more or less or different federal regulation of stem cell treatments and research have until Sept. 27 to file their arguments with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) following two days of public hearings earlier this week. 

Patients, researchers and representatives of regulated and unregulated companies turned out personally Monday and Tuesday for FDA hearings on its new proposals. Witnesses included Randy Mills, president of the California stem cell agency. Questions were asked by an FDA panel but no conclusions reached. 

For those who missed the marathon sessions, they are recorded and are available online. One big advantage of watching them in a recorded format is the ability to skip through the content rapidly instead of having to sit and wait for the whole process to unwind. The first day can be found here and the second here

The live, online Internet broadcast chalked up about 770 views on the first day. On the second day, only about 550 were reported.  The numbers seem low to this writer based on the intense, emotional interest on the part of many patients. Industry also does not seem overly interested despite forecasts of the billions of dollars to be made from regenerative medicine, which may say something about the likelihood of handsome profits.

Only 15 written comments have been filed so far, mostly from patients. That number is likely to increase as industry and academia weigh in with more details. 

The FDA has not released a timetable for action which could affect many of the 570 unregulated stem cell clinics operating across the country. 

The hearings generated almost no media coverage. However, the Washington Post and Stat published good pieces (see here and here) that provided an overview of the issues ahead of this week's hearing. You can find coverage by the California Stem Cell Report here, here, here and here.

California Healthline carried a piece Monday with comments from Mills that basically summarized his presentation to the FDA. Today, the agency's blog carried an item with the text of the Healthline comments. The item by Kevin McCormack, senior director of communications, also said that Mills believes that "the rules the FDA is proposing will not fix the problem, and may even make it worse."

UC Davis stem cell researcher Paul Knoepfler summed up the second day of the hearings in a blog item yesterday. He quoted Leigh Turner, a University of Minnesota bioethicist, as saying, 
“The out-of-control marketplace for stem cell interventions needs effective regulatory oversight. I therefore hope the draft guidances are more than stage props and this hearing is more than public theater. When patient safety and public health are at stake, the FDA must do more than function as a paper tiger. It is time for action.”
Here is a link to the key Federal Register document laying out the process. Here is a link to the site for filing a comment electronically.
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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Wright Brothers, the Blind and Stem Cells: A Different Look at the FDA Hearing on More Regulation

A California stem cell researcher has filed a report that chronicles some of the details that help to provide a sharper picture of the events yesterday and today at 9000 Rockville Pike in Bethesda, Maryland.

Writing on The Niche blog, Jeanne Loring, head of the stem cell program at the Scripps Insitute, covered matters -- ranging from aircraft flight to the blind -- that came up at the Food and Drug Administration hearing into new regulation of stem cell therapies. .

Loring is at the hearing, which is underway again this morning, and will testify later today. Her item noted that the marathon yesterday included 42 presentations of five minutes each.

She wrote,
"The question asked by the FDA is 'what should we regulate?' and the answer from the majority of speakers was 'don’t regulate the things that we’re doing!'"
Loring continued,
"The clinics, in general, wanted the FDA to define the fat as having non-structural as well as structural functions. This would allow them to isolate cells from fat and inject them into the bloodstream, a popular treatment at many clinics, without FDA oversight.
"There were amusing incidents, such as when Randy Mills (president of the California stem cell agency)  used a metaphor to describe the FDA regulating rapidly developing stem cell therapies; it was, he said, as if the Wright brothers had just gotten their plane off the ground, and returned to find an FAA official who explained that he was going to regulate their planes. I also liked Arnold Caplan’s 'apology' for naming the stromal cells he extracted from bone marrow 40 years ago 'mesenchymal stem cells.' They aren’t stem cells, he said, but rather cells that secrete factors that may be useful for healing in some cases.
"At the periphery there were the victims of reckless stem cell clinics. A man wore a sign that said he was blinded by a stem cell procedure. A woman I met while standing in line for the bathroom told me that her husband and 6 others had been blinded at a Florida clinic. In his case, she said, he did not sign the paperwork that would prevent him from suing the clinic, so they’ve found a lawyer."
Loring predicted that today's session will include much from unregulated clinics. She said,
"From the applause (yesterday) whenever a speaker said they should not be regulated, I expect that most will be glowing. But I hope, for balance, that a few will report negative experiences. I haven’t decided what to say when my time comes (this) afternoon."
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