Monday, February 29, 2016

Scientists to Executive Assistants: California Stem Cell Agency Seeking to Fill Four Positions

Looking for stem cell work in warm and dry California?

The state’s $3 billion stem research effort is seeking four persons to fill slots as an executive assistant to the vice president of therapeutics, project manager for medical affairs and centers and two science officer positions, one on the discovery team and another in therapeutics.

The job descriptions and requirements, along with salary ranges, can be found on this Web page.

The agency is headquartered in new offices in downtown Oakland, overlooking Lake Merritt, close to public transportation. The offices are also only a 30-minute walk from the waterfront saloon where author Jack London misspent a portion of his youth.
Sphere: Related Content

Friday, February 26, 2016

California's $30 Million Bet On a Cancer Treatment: New Company Formed to Bring the Therapy to Market

Highlights
Stanford, Weissman involved
Good news for CIRM
Google hooked in

A new stem cell company that targets cancer by unleashing an “eat me” trigger has emerged from a $30 million investment by the state of California.

Creation of the Palo Alto firm, which is called Forty Seven, Inc., was announced this week by its backers and its key researcher, Irv Weissman, director of Stanford University’s stem cell program.

Venture capitalists, including Google, are supporting the enterprise with $75 million. The effort
has two phase one clinical trials underway, the first step in a years-long process of testing potential therapies before the federal government approves their widespread use.

Forty Seven, named after the molecular target of the “eat-me” trigger, is not the first firm to emerge from research funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the state stem cell agency is formally known. At least eight others have surfaced over the years.

But this week’s announcement attracted some national attention in a story by Alex Lash on Xconomy, an online technology information service. Lash wrote,

“This is the kind of news CIRM has yearned for in recent years: significant private cash that gives CIRM-funded projects a push to become actual products and to return value to the state…. After a decade of funding buildings, salaries, and early stem-cell related research—not to mention conflict of interest problems that included a past CIRM president and a different company (StemCells, Inc.) with Weissman’s imprimatur—CIRM and its new president acknowledged it needed to show results for the $6 billion taxpayers committed to the agency in 2004.

“This type of follow-on funding is what we’re looking for,” says CIRM spokesman Don Gibbons, who adds that the big financial awards for Stanford were in line with the agency’s mission “to get things moving early when others won’t invest.”

(See here, here and here for more on the conflicts of interest.)

Voters approved the creation of the $3 billion agency in 2004. But no therapies have emerged for widespread use despite the optimism of its early backers and campaign promises. The agency expects to run out of funds for new awards in 2020. One of the possibilities for new funding is another multi-billion dollar state bond issue. State bonds are the only significant source of cash for the Oakland-based agency.

Xconomy reported that CIRM has yet to provide its final $5.1 million to Weissman. And Lash wrote that “Forty Seven is in the process of taking charge of the grant-funded programs.” Asked this morning by the California Stem Cell Report whether the funds would be going directly to the firm, Kevin McCormack, senior director of communications, replied,

“Our grant goes to the principal investigator on the project, in this case it’s both Irv Weissman and his co-PI Ravi Majeti. Both are at Stanford.”

Weissman’s technique uses a monoclonal antibody that attaches to the CD47 protein on cancer cells them from hiding from the patient’s immune system. Lash wrote,
“But cancer cells also produce what Weissman and colleagues call an ‘eat me’ signal from a protein called calreticulin. Normal, healthy cells don’t. By cutting off the CD47 ‘don’t eat me’ signal, Hu5F9-G4 should in theory allow the calreticulin signal to prevail.”
Stanford, which has a member on the CIRM board of directors, is the No. 1 recipient of funds from CIRM. It has chalked up 98 awards totalling $308 million. Weissman has received five awards totalling $36 million. StemCells, Inc., which was co-founded by Weissman, has been awarded $9 million in for three projects. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Chinese Cloning Firm Pumps $15 Million into California Stem Cell Business

A Chinese firm that says it has the technology to clone human beings has invested $15 million in a stem cell company in Northern California.

The American firm is Cesca Therapeutics of Rancho Cordova, a suburb of Sacramento. The Chinese enterprise is BoyaLife Group, which has plans to clone one million cattle a year by 2020. In December, Rebecca Davis of Agence France-Press interviewed Xu Xiaochun, CEO of BoyaLife, and wrote:
“The Chinese scientist behind the world's biggest cloning factory has technology advanced enough to replicate humans, he told AFP, and is only holding off for fear of the public reaction.”
BoyaLife has a South Korean partner, Sooam, which was founded by Hwang Woo-Suk, the researcher who generated a global scandal in 2005 by falsly claiming to have cloned a human embryo. Sooam is involved currently in cloning pet dogs at $100,000 a pop, according to AFP.

Last year, Cesca lost a bid for $11 million from the California stem cell agency. The president of the firm, Robin C. Stracey, told this writer at the time that it expected to partner with another enterprise rather than try again for California stem cell agency funding.

The company’s application to the state research agency sought funds for a phase three clinical trial for a process to treat critical limb ischemia, which can lead to the loss of limbs.

Dale Kasler of The Sacramento Bee reported today that financially strapped Cesca could be taken over by BoyaLife. He reported that the company said this week that BoyaLife intended “to become a majority shareholder” in Cesca.

Kasler wrote,
“However, a change in control isn’t imminent, and Cesca officials said they welcome BoyaLife’s investment as a vote of confidence in their company.”
The New York Times reported last November that BoyaLife is planning the world’s largest animal cloning center in China this year. It quoted Xu as saying,
“And I can tell you all that cloned beef is the tastiest beef I have ever had.”
It was not clear, as of this writing, what role, if any, Cesca would have in cloning animals. Sphere: Related Content

Monday, February 22, 2016

Cancer and Stem Cells: A Look at the Safety of iPS cells

The safety of reprogrammed adult stem cells was much in the news during the past few days as a result of work at the Scripps Research Institute that was funded by California’s $3 billion stem cell agency.

The press release from Scripps triggered a spate of stories quoting Jeanne Loring, who led the work. The Scripps release said,
“A new study led by scientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) and the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) shows that the act of creating pluripotent stem cells for clinical use is unlikely to pass on cancer-causing mutations to patients.
“The research, published February 19, 2016, in the journal Nature Communications, is an important step in assessing patient safety in the rapidly developing field of stem cell therapies.”
The stem cell agency took a deep dive into the research today on its blog, The Stem Cellar, by Karen Ring, a former stem cell researcher who is the agency’s web site and social media manager. Ring wrote,
“It’s good news that reprogramming methods are relatively safe, but the fact that maintaining and expanding iPS cells in culture causes cancerous mutations is still a major issue that scientists need to address.
“Jeanne Loring recognizes this important issue and says that the next steps are to use similar genomic analyses to assess the safety of reprogrammed iPS cells before they are used in patients.”
Scripps’ press release reported that funds from five different stem cell agency grants were used in the research. Additional funds were also provided by a variety of sources.
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Inside STAP: New Yorker's Long Look at the Flap and its Implications

Over the weekend, the New Yorker published online a bang-up and thorough account of the STAP stem cell scandal of 2014. which stretched across the Pacific from Japan to Boston.

The subhead on the story said,
“Rivalries, intrigue, and fraud in the world of stem-cell research”
The piece was authored by Dana Goodyear, a writer for the New Yorker who also teaches writing at the University of Southern California.

UC Davis stem cell researcher Paul Knoepfler, who carried on his blog early and lengthy pieces on the STAP flap, today said of the article:
“It’s a long, fascinating look inside of STAP, the tangled and ultimately tragic scientific implosion that created and then brought down two Nature papers and some careers.”
Goodyear’s article brought out much fresh material, including a more detailed look at the history of the STAP research than has been previously published. The piece also contained probably enough scientific detail to satisfy the experts in the field.

But Goodyear also included thoughts on the stem field in general, issues related to scientific journals, hyper-competitiveness among researchers, replication of research and more. Here are a couple of excerpts from the article, which we highly recommend:

“The promises of stem-cell research lie at the core of human desires—to understand our origins and to cheat death—and there is a great deal of money and prestige at stake. It is a ruthlessly competitive field, susceptible to fantasy and correspondingly sensitive to bunglers. Human embryonic stem cells were first cultured in 1998; nearly twenty years later, basic assumptions about cell behavior are still routinely overturned. Andrew McMahon, a top researcher at the Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research, at the University of Southern California, told me, “It’s not unusual to see something and not be able to explain it.” In reporting results, researchers must often craft a narrative to make sense of mysterious phenomena. What to ignore and what to privilege—that discernment can be the difference between brilliance and quackery, and between fame and obscurity.”


On the difficulties in replicating research findings:
“Many people believe this is partly the fault of the scientific journals. Along with the influential role that Nature has in shaping the trajectories of ideas, technologies, and careers, it is essentially a commercial enterprise. The editors like big stories, and for the right ones they take risks. Some observers complain that incentives to publish have a distorting effect, causing scientists to oversell data; a cutthroat culture sometimes leads researchers to publish intentionally incomplete or vague protocols. The perceived conflict between good science and prestige has become so pointed that, two years ago, Randy Schekman, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist, announced in the Guardian that he would no longer publish in Nature, Cell, or Science, which, he wrote, ‘aggressively curate their brands, in ways more conducive to selling subscriptions than to stimulating the most important research.’”
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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Leukemia Treatment: California Stem Cell Agency Awards $3.8 Million to San Diego's Angiocrine Bioscience

CIRM graphic
The California stem cell agency today approved a $3.8 million award to a San Diego firm to help develop a better way to treat such afflictions as leukemia with cord  blood transplants despite concerns that the effort was too complex.

Shahin Rafii, Cornell photo
The funds will go to Angiocrine Bioscience, Inc., whose key technology is licensed from Weill Cornell Medical College and was invented and developed by Shahin Rafii, a professor of medicine at the New York school. He remains on the company's scientific advisory board.

Directors voted 13-0 to approve the award, but not before two directors raised questions. Joe Panetta, president of the San Diego-based industry group, Biocom, wondered about difficulties with the manufacturing process raised by the agency’s blue-ribbon reviewers, who earlier approved the application behind closed doors.

Steve Juelsgaard, former executive vice president of Genentech, also raised questions. If the effort flounders, he said, 

“We need to be able to put the brakes on.”

CIRM officials said that the research would be closely monitored with clear milestones that needed to be achieved before cash continued to flow to the company.


“plans to develop a product called AB-110, which blends an expanded mix of stem cells from cord blood with genetically modified endothelial cells, the kind of cell that forms the lining of blood vessels, to improve the success rate of cord blood transplantation.

“The hope is that AB-110 will reduce the complications that can occur with a cord blood transplant – such as viral infections or pneumonia – and increase the likelihood the transplanted cells will successfully engraft, meaning they start growing and creating new, healthy, blood cells.”

No members of the public spoke at the teleconference meeting which had 12 public locations around the state. The next meeting of the agency’s directors will be March 16 near San Francisco International Airport and will be a face-to-face session with likely a handful of remote public locations.
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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Speak Up! A Chance to Sound Off to California Stem Cell Agency

If you would like to speak directly to the governing board of the $3 billion California stem cell agency, here’s your chance on Thursday.

The  directors are holding a teleconference meeting at 11 a.m. PST with public locations at 12 different sites around the state. The purpose of the meeting is to approve a $3.8 million application for work on process to manufacture a cord blood treatment for such afflictions as leukemia and lymphoma.

Approval is expected to be routine since the agency’s blue-ribbon reviewers, meeting behind closed doors, have already decided the application should be funded. The identity of recipient, as usual, is being withheld until after the board ratifies the decision by reviewers.

Every board meeting has a point at which any person can address the board on any issue. The board sets a three-minute time limit but has been very flexible in the past.

The teleconference locations are in Oakland, Redwood City, Napa, South San Francisco, Beverly Hills, Fresno, San Diego, Elk Grove, Los Gatos, San Francisco (two different locations there) and Irvine. Specific addresses can be found on the meeting agenda,

You may want to double-check in advance with the agency on the addresses. Only one lists a room number. Others may need to include that detail as well.
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Saturday, February 13, 2016

LA Times on California's Stem Cell Agency, Biotech Gold Rush and Genetically Altering Human Embryos

The Los Angeles Times, which largely ignores the $3 billion California stem cell agency in its news columns, is carrying a piece this weekend that says the agency is considering “work so controversial that the federal government won’t pay for it.”

The reference is to the possibility of the state of California financing research that involves the editing of genes in human embryos, which the agency began to explore at some length at a Feb. 4 meeting in Los Angeles.

The Feb. 12 Times story, written by Melody Petersen, is straight news piece that recaps the controversy about the possibility of making heritable changes in human beings through the use of CRISPR technology. She also covered how the agency intends to proceed with its review.

Peterson described how businesses are embracing CRISPR,

“It has set off a biotech gold rush as scientists imagine its commercial uses and found start-up companies that are attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital.”

Peterson also wrote about the likelihood of heritable changes in embryos, interviewing Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley. She quoted Darnovsky as saying,

"This is not safe. It's still way too early to try such an experiment on a human being."

Peterson continued,

“The agency's current regulations say that no money can be used to transfer a genetically modified human embryo to a woman to start a pregnancy. But some experts worry that agency-funded researchers could later turn to other sources to finance the reproductive stage of their work.

"'If you have genetically modified embryos in labs around the state,’ Darnovsky said, ‘what's to stop them from being used to initiate a pregnancy?"

Peterson quoted Kevin McCormack, senior director for communications at the stem cell agency, as saying, "So far we have not funded any research that involves CRISPR, nor have we received any proposals for funding using that technology. But that's probably just a matter of time."

The stem cell agency has longed struggled with a lack of news media attention. It would like to spread the word about what it considers its good works, such as the well over $500 million it has pumped into enterprises in the immediate Los Angeles area. The LA Times is an especially important medium because it is the largest circulation newspaper in the state, has an enormous Internet presence and helps to drive what is covered by other outlets.

But given the state of the media nowadays and the shrinkage in science reporting, about all the agency can really expect for now is coverage when something extraordinary happens or when there is the likelihood of something extraordinary happening such as genetic changes being made in human embryos.
Sphere: Related Content

Friday, February 12, 2016

A Nobel Laureate's 'Unsettling Note' From California's Human Gene Editing Conference

The Center for Genetics and Society, which has been monitoring human gene editing for the past few years, weighed in this week on the possibility that the state of California will beef up its role in financing research involving the sometimes controversial process.

The Berkeley-based center has taken cautionary approach to the field. The article this week on the center’s blog by Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the group, continued in that vein.

Darnovsky attended the session last week during which the $3 billion California stem cell agency decided to embark on a thorough examination of the topic with the possibility of moving forward on gene editing of human embryos, a field that the federal government does not fund.

Darnovsky provided a summary of the session and cited “an unsettling (if unsurprising) note” from David Baltimore. He is a Nobel Laureate, former president of Caltech and a former member of the governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine(CIRM), as the stem cell agency is formally known. Baltimore also has been active in sounding go-slow recommendations on human embryo modification.

The concluding paragraph in Darnovsky piece said, however,
“Finally, an unsettling (if unsurprising) note about David Baltimore, who has played an influential role in the current controversy about germline gene editing and who chaired the organizing committee for last December’s International Summit. In previous comments about human gene editing, Baltimore has talked about responsible science; at the CIRM meeting, he came out explicitly in support of human germline modification. In his invited presentation, he said – as if this were a matter of scientific fact – that the desire for biologically related children is genetically hard-wired. He acknowledged that people at risk of transmitting genetic disease can already almost always have unaffected children in a variety of ways, and that therefore germline gene editing would at best benefit very few. But, he continued, ‘there are circumstances where it is the only opportunity for doing what a patient wants....To me, that’s sufficient reason to bring it to clinical use.’"
Darnovsky’s article also discussed testimony by Charis Thompson of UC Berkeley, who raised a number of policy issues.

Darnovsky wrote that they included “reminders that CIRM is mandated to serve not only patients with unmet medical needs, but also the taxpayers and voters of California; that disability justice experts as well as patient advocates should be consulted about gene editing directions; that CIRM should ensure that the work it funds does not exacerbate health disparities; and that if evidence of health disparities or eugenic trends emerges,’real consequences’ must ensue. She concluded by saying that ‘It is not `anti-science’ to note that historically, slopes are indeed slippery,” and that “California deserves – and can have – both the best science and the best ethics.’”

Darnovsky additionally reported on comments by Jeff Sheehy, a member of the CIRM board. She wrote that Sheehy was concerned that the agency might “have little recourse if grantees used other funds to initiate a pregnancy. ‘Where does our reach start and end?,’ he asked. ‘Does it start at the purpose of the proposed research? Do we just say you can’t implant?’ Sheehy suggested that if CIRM approves any grants for research that would produce modified human embryos, it include as a contractual requirement that those embryos cannot be used to initiate a pregnancy, whatever the funding source for that final (and trivial) step.”
Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

CRISPR Roundup: Weapons of Mass Destruction to Gene Spills

The technique called CRISPR and gene editing are making the news again this week, as they are likely to do for quite some time. So here is a quick roundup of stories and links for further examination.

Probably the most provocative story was the addition of gene editing by the nation’s top intelligence chief to a list of threats posed by weapons of mass destruction. Antonio Regalado wrote about the declaration in the MIT Technology Review but said specifics were not cited. Regadalo noted, however, that “scientists have previously speculated about whether CRISPR could be used to make ‘killer mosquitoes,’ plagues that wipe out staple crops or even a virus that snips at people’s DNA.”

Out here in California, the state's stem cell agency wrote about its gene editing review on its blog, The Stem Cellar. Kevin McCormack, senior director of communications, offered this quote from one agency governing board member, Jeff Sheehy:

“Do we need to think about the rights of the embryo donor? If they have a severe inheritable disease and the embryo they donated for research has been edited, with CRISPR or other tools, to remove that potential do they have a right to know about that or even access to that technology for their own use?”

Charles Piller of STAT caught up with the state stem cell agency’s examination of gene editing with a national overview. An excerpt:

“Among state agencies that support stem cell research — including in Texas, Connecticut, New York, and Maryland — only California’s has publicly contemplated human embryo gene editing. The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas and Bioinnovation Connecticut have not yet considered funding such experiments, their spokespersons said. The Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund has taken no position on this issue, and New York officials could not be reached for comment.”

Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell researcher at UC Davis, wrote on his blog about how CRISPR has
“...set the table for some novel kinds of technological problems for which we aren’t at all prepared including one that I call the ‘gene spill.’ ...We should be very concerned about the possibility that a self-propagating genetic modification could end up out in the real world via a technology called ‘gene drive’ in such a way that it spins out of control. That would be a gene spill.”

Ben Fidler of Exconomy had a piece this morning on the business side of CRISPR based on a conference in Boston. An excerpt:

“The big scare with CRISPR is off-target cuts; that the molecular scissors snip the wrong part of a person’s DNA and cause unintended effects. (Intellia Therapeutics CEO Nessan) Bermingham called this a 'very important question' but said CRISPR technology has come a long way.”
Sphere: Related Content

"All In' -- Good News for California's $56 Million Investment in Search for Diabetes Cure

A $56 million bet by the state of California on a diabetes cure is showing additional promise that it will ultimately pay off.

The latest indication came last week when Big Pharma’s Johnson & Johnson went “all in” on ViaCyte, Inc., which has received $56 million from the California stem cell agency during the last 11 years, surpassing the amount that UC Berkeley has been awarded during the same period.

J&J has already pumped $20 million into the San Diego firm, which is conducting a clinical trial for a virtual cure for type 1 diabetes. The effort is showing promising results, according to the stem cell agency.

Last week, in a sign that ViaCyte has was moving along nicely,  J&J turned over its Janssen BetaLogics group to ViaCyte.

BetaLogics was a competitor to ViaCyte and a hedging ploy by J&J.  Business columnist John Carroll of Fierce Biotech described the merger of the two as a major commitment by Johnson. He wrote: 

“J&J goes all in with ViaCyte.”

Carroll reported,

"'We needed to hedge our bet to make sure that we would be the leaders in this space,' says Diego Miralles, J&J's global head of innovation in San Diego. ‘It's clear that ViaCyte has pulled ahead.’”

Randy Mills, president of the $3 billion stem cell agency, said in a news release that “the latest clinical data from ViaCyte are very encouraging and a clear sign of progress.”

The company has been working for years on its product, which is based on human embryonic stem cells. The treatment involves insertion of a tiny device beneath the skin of a patient to produce  insulin when needed.

Linda Johnson of The Associated Press wrote,

"'This one is potentially the real deal,' said Dr. Tom Donner, director of the diabetes center at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. 'It's like making a new pancreas that makes all the hormones' needed to control blood sugar.

"Donner, who is not involved in the research, said if the device gives patients normal insulin levels, 'it's going to prevent millions of diabetics from getting dangerous complications.'"

Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell researcher at UC Davis, wrote on his blog that the J&J move was “great news” for ViaCyte. He said the folding of BetaLogics and recent results from the phase one clinical trial “solidify ViaCyte’s leadership.” Knoepfler also is not involved with the ViaCyte research.

Before the therapy can be marketed widely, it must clear both a phase two and phase three trial, which could take a few years.
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Saturday, February 06, 2016

Big Money and Big Science: The Battle Over CRISPR

CRISPR: It’s simply a billion dollar matter of learning more or earning more. At least that’s the view of a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at the Los Angeles Times.

“A case of big money shaping science” said the headline on Michael Hiltzik’s piece on the website of California’s largest circulation newspaper. He said the tussle over the patent may be the 21st century’s “era-defining patent fight.”

Hiltzik wrote:
“The contestants are the University of California and the Broad Institute, a Harvard- and MIT-affiliated research foundation endowed by Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad. At stake are the rights to a breakthrough gene-editing technology known as CRISPR — and more precisely, to billions of dollars in royalties and license fees likely to flow to whichever claimant prevails before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (and in the almost inevitable appeals in court).”

CRISPR is a new technique that allows relatively easy editing of human genes. Its potential use, with the possibility of permanent changes in the human race, has triggered an international hooha. Many leading scientists are calling for a moratorium until all the ramifications are fully explored.

The $3 billion California stem cell agency last Thursday held a day-long conference on the issue and announced it would hold a series of hearings into the matter, raising the likelihood of changes in research standards for California stem cell researchers.

The patent dispute, replete with the use of what Hiltzik notes are “outdated legal standards,” involves who was first with CRISPR -- Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley or Feng Zhang from Broad.

Both researchers say the patent fight is a distraction. But Hiltzik also wrote,

“Other scientists see the battle as a distasteful example of the influence of big money — and the race for Nobel credit — on basic research. ‘Having prizes and patents involved has transformed what should be one of the greatest success stories for basic research into this nasty, catty fight in which people are behaving poorly,’ says Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen, a colleague of Doudna's and the head of a lab that stands to gain resources if UC wins the patent fight.

“He added on his blog: ‘Neither Berkeley nor MIT should have patents on CRISPR, since it is a disservice to science and the public for academic scientists to ever claim intellectual property in their work.’ Indeed, neither the Doudna nor Zhang teams were the first to identify CRISPR or to use it; the history dates back as far as 1987 and involves researchers in Japan, Spain, Chicago, Quebec and other places’”

Hiltzik, author of the well-received book, "Big Science," said the real question involving CRISPR is whether "the future of the technology will be guided by the need to learn more or the opportunity to earn more."

Hiltzik’s column illuminated the enormous financial imperatives involved in the use of the CRISPR, which are publicly largely a side issue at sessions involving such agencies as California’s stem cell research effort and some international groups. However, the National Academy of Sciences is holding a session next Wednesday that includes a panel devoted to the CRISPR industry. Alta Charo, chair of the academy meeting, told the stem cell agency last week that she hopes that the scope of the market and its financial implications will be explored in more detail at the session, which will be webcast live.

Charo said she hopes for recommendations from her group by the end of the year concerning genetic modification of human embryos. The stem cell agency appears to be moving at the same sort of speed. All of which is a good thing since the lure of huge revenues will certainly stimulate even faster action by profit-hungry companies.
Sphere: Related Content

Friday, February 05, 2016

California's Stem Cell Agency to Tackle Host of Touchy Issues on Human Genetic Changes

California's stem cell agency yesterday embarked on what is likely to be an exhaustive review of genetic alteration of human embryos with likely recommendations for changes in the $3 billion research effort.

The 11-year-old agency plans to examine a host of issues ranging from inadvertent, inheritable changes in the human race to informed consent on the part of patients.  The move emerged from a day-long review of the far-reaching subject at a meeting yesterday of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known. 

Responding to a request from the California Stem Cell Report, Kevin McCormack, senior director for communications for CIRM, laid out the scope of the agency's future steps and gave his impressions of the session, which suffered from audio quality issues in its audiocast. (See here and here.)

McCormack said the issues were "too many and too complex" to produce recommendations immediately. He said,
"In the end it was decided that the most productive use of the day was not to limit the discussion at the workshop but to get those present to highlight the issues and questions that were most important and leave it to the (research standard group) to then work through those and develop a series of recommendations that would eventually be presented to the (agency's governing) board."
Matters to be addressed include the following, McCormack said, 
  • Possible changes in language used in getting informed consent from donors in light of the ability of Crispr to make relatively easy changes in human changes. Crispr is a new technique that has brought the whole question to international attention. 
  • Use of Crispr on previously donated materials/samples where general consent was given without knowing that these technologies could be available 
  • Genetic modification of mitochrondial DNA as well as genetic DNA. 
  • The possibility that somatic cell gene editing may lead to inadvertent germ line editing 
  • Engaging patient advocates and other community groups such as the social justice and equity movements for their views. McCormack said, "After all, we are a taxpayer-created and funded organization so we clearly have some responsibility to the wider California community and not just to researchers and patients." 
  • Financing the use of Crispr and other technologies that can modify the human embryo provided those embryos are not going to be implanted in a human uterus. 
Here is the full text of McCormack's summary, which we suspect is going to be turned into an item for the agency's own stem cell blog, The Stem Cellar.
"The meeting began with the hope that it would produce a strong, robust discussion of the issues surrounding the use of CRISPR to edit human embryos and to result in a series of recommendations that the Standards Working Group (SWG) could then forward to the CIRM Board on whether any changes needed to be made to our existing rules and regulations about funding such research.
"It turned out to be a thoroughly fascinating day with some thought-provoking presentations and equally thought provoking questions from the audience, from scientists, social researchers and members of the public.

"It quickly became clear that the discussion was going to be even more robust than we imagined and the issues raised were too many and too complex for us to hope reaching any conclusions or producing any recommendations in one day.

"In the end it was decided that the most productive use of the day was not to limit the discussion at the workshop but to get those present to highlight the issues and questions that were most important and leave it to the SWG to then work through those and develop a series of recommendations that would eventually be presented to the Board.
"The questions to be answered included but are not limited to:
"1) Do we need to reconsider the language used in getting informed consent from donors in light of the ability of CRISPR and other technologies to do things that we previously couldn’t easily do.

"2) Can we use CRISPR on previously donated materials/samples where general consent was given without knowing that these technologies could be available or can we only use it on biomaterials to be collected going forward.

"3) Clarify whether the language we use about genetic modification should also include mitochrondial DNA as well as genetic DNA.

"4) The possibility that somatic cell gene editing may lead to inadvertent germ line editing
"5) How do we engage with patient advocates and other community groups such as the social justice and equity movements to get their input on these topics – do we need to do more outreach and education among the public or specific groups and try to get more input from them (after all we are a taxpayer created and funded organization so we clearly have some responsibility to the wider California community and not just to researchers and patients)

"6) As CIRM already funds human embryo research should we consider funding the use of CRISPR and other technologies that can modify the human embryo provided those embryos are not going to be implanted in a human uterus.

"This was a really detailed dive into a subject that is clearly getting a lot of scientific attention around the world and is no longer an abstract idea but is rapidly becoming a scientific reality. The next step is for a subgroup of the SWG to put together the key issues at stake here and place them in a framework for another discussion with the full SWG at some point in the future.

"Once the SWG has reached consensus their recommendations will then go to the CIRM Board for its consideration. 
"I hope this captures the flavor and essence of what happened today. It really was a fascinating discussion and the issues raised, and their complexity, highlighted why so many different groups around the world are wrestling with the potential, and pitfalls, of this new technology."
Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Coverage Concluded on California Human Genetic Modification Conference

The California Stem Cell Report is concluding its live coverage of today's California conference on human genetic modification of human embryos. The quality of the stem cell agency's audiocast is so poor that it is impossible to compile an accurate account of what the speakers have to say.

We hope to bring readers more information on the impact of the proceedings on California stem cell research when written accounts of the meeting become available. Sphere: Related Content

California Stem Cell Agency Not Now Financing Genetic Modification of Human Embryos

The $3 billion California stem cell agency is not currently backing research that involves genetic modification of human embryos, but its standards appear to allow that possibility. 

The agency discussed its research rules at its conference today on the controversial subject. One of the slides presented by the agency said that its research standards group's intent under current regulation was "to allow for in-vitro use of human embryos for research while prohibiting reproductive use."

Earlier this week, the California Stem Cell Report queried the agency about the extent of  human genetic modification in research financed by the agency. Kevin McCormack, senior director of communications for the agency, replied, 
"As for the number of awards involving human genetic modification that’s a large number, five of our clinical trials in HIV/AIDS and our work with Sickle Cell Anemia and Chronic Granulatomous use human genetic modification techniques and many other preclinical/translational research projects do as well. 
"I think what’s more important is that right now none of our awards involve the genetic modification of human embryos, and that’s obviously the goal of the workshop to see if this is something we should fund and under what circumstances and with what controls in place." 
Today's presentation also said that stem cell agency "rules on clinical use of gametes and embryo are consistent with the statement from the International Summit on Human Gene Editing and the Draft ISSCR Guidelines."

Here are the presentation slides from the agency.
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California Crispr Conference -- Presentation Slides

Here are presentation slides from some of the speakers at the California stem cell agency conference today on genetic modification of human embryos. They include Jonathan Kimmelman, Alta Charo and Amander Clark.
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California Crispr Conference Has Begun but Audio Feed is Less Than Adequate

The audiocast from the California Crispr conference remains garbled although the session appears to be well underway. We expect to post some slides from the presentations shortly which CIRM has emailed to the California Stem Cell Report. Sphere: Related Content

Waiting for the California Crispr Conference

The California stem cell agency is testing the ATT audiocast line to its conference this morning on the genetic modification of human embryos. We believe the conference has not yet started with its presentations. Sphere: Related Content

Monday, February 01, 2016

World's First Approval of Genetic Changes in Human Embryo; California Eyes the Issue Thursday

The Guardian newspaper in England did not back away from the big science story today. Its article by Haroon Siddique said flatly in the first paragraph,
“Britain’s first genetically modified human embryos could be created within months….”
Siddique's piece dealt with the approval today by the key regulatory body in the United Kingdom for genetic changes in human embryos, a topic of international controversy and concern but with a special connection to California.

The news came as the state’s $3 billion stem cell agency plans a full-day examination Thursday of the issue and its implication for research in the Golden State. Of particular concern is a gene editing tool called Crispr that makes it much easier to alter genes and raises the possibility of permanent changes in the genetic make-up of the human race.

The journal Nature said the UK action was “the world's first endorsement of such research by a national regulatory authority.”

Kevin McCormack, spokesman for the California stem cell agency, told the California Stem Cell Report that the move demonstrated the timeliness of this week’s conference, which could lead to changes in California stem cell research standards.

Eminent scientists internationally have called for a go-slow approach until the issues are examined more closely. Leading that effort is David Baltimore, a Nobel Prize winner and a former member of the state stem cell agency board. He is scheduled to speak at Thursday’s session.

Baltimore was interviewed today by Nicholas Wade for a piece in the New York Times. Wade wrote that Baltimore “said the proposed experiment appeared to be consistent with the principles laid out by the (scientific) academies.
“Many such experiments are impossible for government-funded researchers in the United States because of the congressional ban (on destruction of embryos in federal research), but ‘luckily, private and state funding sources are available to carry forward such work,’ Dr. Baltimore said.”
The research in the UK is expected to be conducted with embryos donated via an IVF process. The UK rules restrict the length of the experiment to 14 days. None of the embryos will be transplanted to a womb, according to the rules.

In California, the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley issued a news release raising questions about the UK action. Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the center, asked,
“Is today's decision part of a strategy to overturn the widespread agreement that puts genetically modified humans off limits?”
Her statement said, 
“The designer-baby question is a social and political question more than a technical one, and we are at a tipping-point moment on it. Now is the time to ensure that gene editing is not used to create GM babies, and that we stay off the high-tech road to new forms of inequality, and to a consumer-driven form of eugenics.”
Stem cell researcher Paul Knoepfler of UC Davis, author of “GMO Sapiens: The Life-Changing Science of Designer Babies,” wrote on his blog,
“It’s frustrating for us biologists that we still know more about the development of other animals (e.g. mice or fruit flies) than that of our own species. Crispr could change that and I believe it could do it in a big way. So with the appropriate oversight, bioethics training, and transparency, I could support this Crispr work in the UK. I need time to read up on what exactly they have planned….”
Thursday’s conference in Los Angeles will be audiocast live via an 800 number. It is also a public meeting at which anyone can make comments. Directions for the audiocast and the specific location are on the meeting agenda. The California Stem Cell Report will be providing live coverage of the day’s discussions.
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