Monday, November 20, 2017

California Stem Cell Agency Faces Rising Cash Burn Rate; Readying for New, Multibillion Dollar Bond Attempt

Cash is flowing out the door fast at California’s $3 billion stem cell agency, which now expects money to run out for new research awards by the end of 2019 instead of the middle of 2020.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known, expects to be down to its last $269 million in uncommitted funds by end of this year. And it is working on a new plan to raise $200 million in private funds to sustain its operations through 2020.

The financial projections -- crafted as the agency faces what its leaders call a "critical stage" -- are online this week on the CIRM web site and include proposed lower caps on the size of awards in 2018 and 2019. The agency said the increase this year in the pace of funding was generated by more, higher quality research applications.

Maria Millan, CIRM photo
In documents prepared for a key CIRM meeting next Monday, Maria Millan, CEO of the agency, said her budget scenario would maintain CIRM’s “value proposition as intact as possible” while work moves forward on a proposed, multibillion dollar bond measure in November 2020. She also said enough funds would be available to “wind down” the agency if the bond measure fails.

(See here for Millan's plan and here for longer term bond funding.)

The agency was created by a ballot initiative in 2004, Proposition 71, which financed it with a $3 billion bond measure. No other significant funding was provided. The ballot campaign raised rosy expectations among voters that stem cell therapies were right around the corner.

So far the agency has not backed a therapy that has been approved for widespread use. But it is helping to support 38 clinical trials, the last stage before a therapy is approved by the federal government for widespread use. Many more trials, which can take years, are expected to be funded prior to 2020,

CIRM Chairman Jonathan Thomas, in a presentation prepared for next week’s meeting, pointed to “early successes” such as those involving work by Donald Kohn at UCLA. Thomas also cited “promising early returns” with Asterias Therapeuticswork on spinal cord injuries.

Thomas’ proposal, in addition to private fundraising, calls for a “citizen-led” bond measure in the fall of 2020 to sustain CIRM on a more long-term basis. During next week's meeting, Robert Klein, the Palo Alto real estate investment banker who led the 2004 ballot initiative campaign, is expected to address the prospects for another initiative measure, possibly as large as $5 billion.

As back-up options, Thomas identified the possibility of asking the legislature and governor to place a bond measure on the 2020 ballot along with seeking donor funds for co-funding of specific projects.

In Millan's presentation, she said it is “essential to preserve CIRM’s value proposition to increase the probability of and the speed by which stem cell treatments can reach patients.”

The session on Monday involves the Transition and Science subcommittees of the CIRM board. The committees are expected to recommend budget and fundraising plans to be ratified by the full board at its meeting Dec. 14.

In September, the Transition group took a crack at a wider range of possibilities. The latest proposals are a refinement of what was discussed then.

Next week's meeting will be based at CIRM’s headquarters in Oakland with telephonic sites where the public can participate in La Jolla, Duarte, South San Francisco and San Francisco. Public comments can be emailed to mbonneville@cirm.ca.gov. The session will also be audiocast on a listen-only basis. Instructions can be found on the agenda along with addresses for the telephonic locations. 
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Sunday, November 19, 2017

Correction

In the Parkinson’s therapy item on Nov. 17, 2017, the California Stem Cell Report incorrectly described the amount of funding involved in the GForce Parkinson’s initiative. The backing includes $52.3 million plus substantial support from BlueRock Therapeutics, which is financed with $225 million from Bayer AG and Versant Ventures. BlueRock, a Cambridge, Mass., firm, says on its web site, “Our most advanced therapeutic candidate, for Parkinson’s disease, will enter the clinic in 2018.” Sphere: Related Content

Friday, November 17, 2017

More California Millions Sought to Support the 'New Era' of Parkinson's Therapy Research

A "new era" in the search for a cure for Parkinson's disease was heralded this month in an article in a prominent scientific journal that explored research involving more than $52 million and an organization called GForce-PD.

The news was accompanied by a cry for more support for Parkinson's research from the $3 billion California stem cell agency, which has pumped $49 million in Parkinson's studies over the last 13 years.

Jeanne Loring
, director of the Scripps Center for Regenerative Medicine in La Jolla, Ca., and also a participant in the GForce initiative, said this week that CIRM has not supported Parkinson's research at the level of the other enterprises involved in GForce.

In an item she wrote for The Niche, a blog published by UC Davis researcher Paul Knoepfler, she listed $52.3 million in support plus substantial backing from BlueRock Therapeutics, which is financed with $225 million from Bayer AG and Versant Ventures. BlueRock, a Cambridge, Mass., firm, says on its web site, “Our most advanced therapeutic candidate, for Parkinson’s disease, will enter the clinic in 2018.

Parkinson's is a devastating disease that afflicts 10 million people in the world and 125,000 in California. One of those persons, David Higgins of San Diego, currently serves on the board of the stem cell agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). Another, Joan Samuelson, was one of the original board members in 2004 and a fervent but often frustrated voice for Parkinson's research at many CIRM board meetings.

Actor Michael J. Fox, who made TV ads for the 2004 ballot initiative that created the stem cell agency, is also among the those living with the disease. Others with the affliction included the late boxing champion Muhammad Ali and famed semiconductor pioneer Andy Grove

Loring wrote on The Niche about a meeting in Japan earlier this year dealing with the research teams in the GForce project. She said,
"The Kyoto meeting was unprecedented in my experience.  Instead of competing, the four groups cooperated and shared plans for their proposed clinical trials.  We agreed to harmonize our trials and stay in communication about our progress.  All of us plan to start clinical trials within two years."
Loring continued,
"Since my team has been recognized by the international GForce initiative devoted to safe effective therapy for PD, we hope that CIRM will follow the example of New York, the EU, and Japan, and invest more in our project to provide neuron replacement therapy for Californians with Parkinson’s disease.
"While we hope to gain more support from CIRM, we are determined to follow through with our clinical trial, with or without CIRM.  It will just be more difficult without their help. The patients and their advocates inspire us, and we won’t let them down."
Loring added more information on Sunday (Nov. 19) concerning CIRM funding. She told the California Stem Cell Report. 
"We started our pre-clinical PD studies in 2011, with funding from Summit for Stem Cell. The first and only funding we received from CIRM for PD research was in 2016. 
"Before 2011, CIRM invested $41,838,336. Since 2011, CIRM has invested $7,357,468. This means that the majority of the funding went to projects that didn’t lead to any translational or clinical applications.  
"There are currently three active grants working on Parkinson’s disease, for a total of $4.9 million. We have the only translational grant, and it will expire in March 2018. All but $650,000 runs out by the spring of 2018. 
"There are no more grants forthcoming for our work. The Scaled Biolabs grant awarded this year is a partnership with us. Birgitt Schuele’s grant is basic research, not a cell therapy. (Below are the three active grants identified by Loring.) 
"Parkinson's InstituteBirgitt SchueleQuest - Discovery Stage Research ProjectsCRISPR/dCas9 mutant targeting SNCA promoter for downregulation of alpha-synuclein expression as a novel therapeutic approach for Parkinson’s disease, $1,931,495 
"Scripps Research InstituteJeanne LoringQuest - Discovery Stage Research ProjectsAutologous cell therapy for Parkinson’s disease using iPSC-derived DA neurons, $2,354,226 and later $4,285,721  
2017
"Scaled Biolabs Inc.Justin Cooper-WhiteQuest - Discovery Stage Research ProjectsA tool for rapid development of clinical-grade protocols for dopaminergic neuronal differentiation of Parkinson’s Disease patient-derived iPSCs, $657,528 "
(Editor's note: An earlier version of this item contained incorrect figures on the GForce initiative.) 
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Wednesday, November 08, 2017

'Critical Stage' for $3 Billion California Stem Cell Effort and its Search for More Cash

California's $3 billion stem cell research program later this month is expected to unveil detailed plans for extending its life beyond the middle of 2020 in hopes of avoiding a lingering death.

The latest proposals, which are not yet public, are scheduled to be discussed Nov. 27. Possibilities range from another multi-billion dollar bond measure to private fundraising to possible merger with some sort of private entity.  

The stem cell agency, known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), projects its cash for new awards will run out in about 2 1/2 years. At that point, unless more money is forthcoming, CIRM will only be overseeing the dwindling number of awards whose terms extend beyond June of 2020.

The agency's fate was dictated by Proposition 71, which created CIRM in 2004. It also provided $3 billion in state bond funding, which flows directly to CIRM without oversight by the governor or the legislature. No additional, significant resources were contained in the ballot initiative.

CIRM's future has been an occasional topic for its board for some time. But the issue has taken on more urgency this year. At a meeting in September of a newly formed Transition Subcommittee of the governing board, CIRM Chairman Jonathan Thomas said in what may have been an understatement,
"CIRM, as we know, is at a critical stage of its mission here." 
The meeting on Nov. 27 will additionally involve the board's Science Subcommittee. What emerges from the session will go to the full, 29-member board in December for ratification.

Options in September included a multi-billion dollar bond ballot measure in 2020 and a possible merger, which was described as something of a last resort. Whatever path is chosen, it likely would lead to changes in the agency, which has been criticized for conflict of interest issues and its dual executive arrangement, among other matters.

The agency has awarded $2.3 billion in 919 grants during its 13-year history. About 90 percent of the awards has gone to institutions with links to members of the governing board, past and present, according to calculations by the California Stem Cell Report.

So far the agency has not fulfilled expectations of voters that it would generate a widely available therapy. Something may emerge in the next couple of years from the 38 clinical trials currently backed by the agency. (Forty-three have been funded but five were terminated.) The trials, which can take years, are the last stage before a therapy is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for widespread use. CIRM plans to add more trials in the next couple of years.

This month's meeting will be based at CIRM's Oakland headquarters with teleconference locations elsewhere in the state where the public can take part. It is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. PST and run until 4 p.m.

The California Stem Cell Report will provide full coverage of the meeting that day with advance information as it is posted on the CIRM web site.

(Here is a link to the transcript of the September meeting. Here is a link to Thomas' slide presentation.)
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Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Financial Examination of California Stem Cell Agency: Fireworks Not Expected

The only state panel that has formal oversight of the $3 billion California stem cell agency meets this Thursday in Los Angeles for what is expected to be a routine meeting.

The body is the Citizens Financial Accountability Oversight Committee, chaired by the state controller, Betty Yee.  The 10 a.m. meeting in Los Angeles City Hall has nothing on the agenda that appears to raise a red flag. However, some past sessions have been lively.

Leaders of the agency are expected to brief the committee, which was created by Proposition 71 in 2004, which also created the research effort itself.

The ballot initiative specifically exempted the agency, known formally as the California Insitute for Regenerative Medicine, from control by the governor and legislature.

Here is a link to names of the members of the committee.

The session will be available on a listen-only basis via the internet or an 800 number. Here are instructions:
Public call-in number (listen only): (877) 260-8900
Confirmation number: 433267
Listen to the meeting online: https://im.csgsystems.com/cgi-bin/confCast
Enter conference ID number 433267, then click “Go.”
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Sunday, November 05, 2017

The California Stem Cell Story: Key to Extending the Life of a $3 Billion Agency


An Asterias video carried by KQED as part of its story on a CIRM-backed stem cell therapy. 

Just before Halloween, the $3 billion California stem cell agency chalked up another PR score with a long, favorable piece on a public television station that covers the San Francisco Bay area.

The story focused on a potential therapy for spinal cord injury developed by Asterias Therapeutics, Inc., of Menlo Park, Ca. The audience for the story was also critically important -- millions of voters who may well be asked to provide more billions for the stem cell agency, which is slated to run out of cash in mid 2020.

The piece by David Gorn carried caveats, but it also used quotations such as "incredibly exciting" and phrases such as "truly remarkable." And it noted -- relatively high in the story -- that the research is backed by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the stem cell agency is formally known.

Gorn wrote,
"The trial is legitimate. It’s partially funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the state’s stem cell agency; well-known spinal experts are participating; and the FDA has certified the treatment as one that preliminary clinical evidence indicates has the 'potential to address unmet medical needs' related to a 'serious or life-threatening disease or condition.'"
The good news about the Asterias therapy has been written about before. But it is far from a topic that is talked about at California breakfast tables. 

The agency's activities -- good, bad or indifferent -- are well out of the coverage of the mainstream media, a sharp change from its early days in 2005 and 2006. Raising its profile -- favorably -- is a daunting task given that science writers have virtually vanished from the mainstream media -- all part of the shrinking world of today's journalism. 

In the last couple of years, however, the agency has stepped up its funding of clinical trials, which are the last stage before a therapy is approved for widespread use. Although clinical trials can take years to complete, their initial results can resonate with the public in a way that basic research does not. Seeing a person overcome an affliction is far more compelling than watching a mouse recuperate. 

CIRM's efforts are additionally hampered by a convention in science journalism that tends to minimize the importance of sources of funding. In most cases, it is mentioned only at the end of articles. Sometimes it is omitted entirely. 

CIRM, however, is a grand, California experiment that took up the cause of stem cell research when it was suffering from a lack of attention from risk averse companies and a lack of support from the federal government. Many of the 921 projects that the agency has funded may have never gotten off the ground without support from the voters of California, who created the agency in 2004 through a ballot initiative. 

CIRM additionally carries policy implications that go beyond bench science. It is the first such effort in state history, marrying big science, big academia, big business  and big politics in a unique way in California.

If the agency is to continue financing research to the tune of $300 million a year, it is almost certain to need another ballot measure. And to win voter approval once again, CIRM will need a vault filled with stories of accomplishment and human emotion that will resonate with the voters of the Golden State.

(Editor's note: The next to last paragraph is slightly rewritten from an earlier version of this item.)
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Thursday, November 02, 2017

CEO Millan on the Prospects for California's $3 Billion Stem Cell Research Effort

Maria Millan, the president of the $3 billion California stem cell agency, this week discussed the future of the nearly 13-year-old effort, which expects to run out of cash for new awards in 2020.

Her remarks are contained in a Q&A interview on RegMedNet, "a networking site that unites all members of the diverse regenerative medicine community," according to a statement on the site.  

The piece contains no big surprises but is worth examining if you want to get a sense of her background and where she is headed. Here are two excerpts.
Question: "What will happen once CIRM has given out all $3 billion allocated to it by Proposition 71?"
Answer: "We are working with our board to pursue sustainability options to ensure that the products of the Proposition 71 investment have the best chance of reaching the patients.  CIRM has played an essential role in growing the stem cell/regenerative medicine field by bringing in the critical mass of resources, top notch researchers, rigorous basic and translational research and building the most robust late development and clinical stage portfolio to accelerate novel treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. With the CIRM 2.0 processes that drove operational excellence and acceleration, there is incredible potential to build upon the recent early successes that led to projects that are nearing FDA marketing approval and to drive more of these successes to the benefit of healthcare and patients."

Question: "What are your plans for CIRM over the next few years?" 
Answer: "We are fully committed and motivated to executing on the 5 year strategic plan that we launched in January 2016. When we proposed these strategic goals, they were 'stretch' goals and now it looks like we will achieve these goals. This strategic plan is driven by our mission 'to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.'"
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Monday, October 30, 2017

'Invisible Work' and the California Stem Cell Agency

At one point in its history, the $3 billion California stem cell agency had only about as many employees as a 24-hour Burger King, probably fewer.

Today it is has 46 workers, most of whom labor behind the scenes, rarely visible to the public. They do what I call "invisible work." That means you only see it when it goes away. Then the job that once was performed very well with little notice draws great and sometimes anxious attention because the work -- all of a sudden -- is not getting done.

Last week the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known, to its credit moved to recognize some of those workers, which the agency calls team members.

Todd Dubnicoff, CIRM's multimedia editor, posted an item on the agency blog, The Stem Cellar, headlined,
"Meet Team CIRM: The People Behind the Mission to Save Lives."
Dubnicoff wrote,
"I don’t have the word space in this blog to introduce you to them all so, for today, say hello to a few of our 2017 CIRM Game Ball winners. At our quarterly Team meetings, we honor and celebrate members whose efforts reflect our 'All In' culture with this award."
They ranged from Lilia Leal, a finance officer, to Paul Webb, a senior science officer. Webb received his game ball for completing 40 of the important clinical advisory panel sessions in less than six months. Leal won her ball for reducing grant payment time by 30 days. 

We recommend the Dubnicoff item if you want to improve, however slightly, your understanding of CIRM and how it tries to make science happen. And congratulations to all the Game Ball winners. 
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Thursday, October 26, 2017

Research for Arthritic Knee Treatment Survives Challenge at California Stem Cell Agency

The California stem cell agency today awarded $33 million for clinical trial research, but not before some governing board members questioned the appropriateness of backing an effort to treat osteoarthritis of the knee.

The awards today bring to 43 the number of clinical trials funded by the stem cell agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). The agency is pushing hard to fulfill the promise of the 2004 ballot campaign that created the $3 billion effort. Clinical trials are the last stage before a treatment can win federal approval.

The agency expects to run out of money in mid 2020, but so far has failed to back research that has resulted in a therapy that is available for widespread use. 

At today's telephonic CIRM board meeting, the arthritis research by La Jolla's California Institute for Biomedical Research encountered opposition from some members of the board who expressed concern that it did not square with the mission of the agency. 

At issue was the use of a small molecule drug, KA34, to stimulate stem cells to create new cartilage in knees. Jeff Sheehy, a board member and San Francisco county supervisor, said small molecule development is widely done already by the pharmaceutical industry. Noting that the research is a treatment and not a cure, he said funding the arthritis award would mean not funding other research that would be more focused on direct stem cell cures.

Art Torres, vice chairman of the board and a former state senator, supported the application, declaring that "if we can show we are finding some treatment we may be moving forward to getting support in other ways."

Both men have suffered from severe knee problems.  About one in five persons over 45 are afflicted with arthritis of the knee.

The vote by the board on the application, which involves a phase one safety trial, was 9-5. Last month, the agency's grant reviewers, meeting behind closed doors last month, approved the award following a more detailed examination of the proposal.

It was the third CIRM award for the San Diego not-for-profit firm, which has already received $4 million for work on arthritis. 

The largest award, $19.8 million, went to another San Diego area firm, Poseida Therapeutics.  A CIRM news release on today's action said the research will test "the safety of a gene modified cell therapy to treat multiple myeloma, the abnormal growth of malignant plasma cells of the immune system."

Maria Millan, president of the stem cell agency, said, 
“Multiple myeloma disproportionately affects people over the age of 65 and African Americans, and it leads to progressive bone destruction, severe anemia, infectious complications and kidney and heart damage from abnormal proteins produced by the malignant plasma cells. Less than half of patients with multiple myeloma live beyond 5 years.”
About 12,590 deaths are expected from multiple myeloma this year in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. The award was the first for Poseida from CIRM. The company is providing $8.6 million in co-funding.

Like all the awards today, the Poseida award was approved earlier in a closed door meeting by reviewers who do not have to publicly disclose their economic or professional conflicts of interest.

There was no board discussion today of the Poseida award nor of the third award, $4.8 million to Childrens' Hospital of Los Angeles. Its phase one trial involves testing the feasibility of using engineered T-cells to fight viruses that can kill patients with weakened immune systems. Those patients include persons undergoing chemotherapy, bone marrow or cord blood transplants.

Childrens' Hospital Los Angeles earlier had received $26.3 million from the agency.

The agency has helped to finance 16 clinical trials in 2017 alone. Whether it will continue at this pace in 2018 is expected to be discussed at its December board meeting.  Some board members have indicated it would be of some benefit to slow the pace of funding to extend the life of the agency.

Here is a link to the overall staff presentation on the applications. Here are links to the summaries of the grant reviewers comments:  California Institute for Biomedical Research application CLIN2
-10388, Poseida application CLIN2-10392, and Childrens' Hospital application CLIN2-10392.

More information on the Poseida clinical trial, which is now recruiting, can be found here.

More information on all the agency's clinical trials can be found on CIRM’s Clinical Dashboard. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Stem Cells, Anonymous Commentary and Silence Dogood

What do Benjamin Franklin and Mrs. Silence Dogood have to do with the affairs of the $3 billion California stem cell agency?

Very little -- directly -- is one answer. The other answer is that Ben and the publicly spirited Mrs. Dogood had a lot to do with the publication of strong views that run afoul of the established order.
Ben Franklin, Getty Images
Silence Dogood, you see, was a pen name for Ben early in his career. He used it successfully to get his thoughts into print. It made Franklin, as a writer, anonymous -- thus overcoming the barrier that use of his own name posed.

All of which raises the topic of the day -- publication of anonymous comments concerning articles on the California Stem Cell Report -- more particularly the comment this morning on the ViaCyte item earlier this week.

In advance of today's publication of the comment, ViaCyte was offered, in the spirit of fairness, an opportunity to respond to the anonymous writer. Declining on behalf of the San Diego company was Jessica Yingling, president of Little Dog Communications Inc., of San Diego. She also asked whether “it is normal to have comments like this.”

My email reply to her earlier this week said, yes, it is relatively common to permit anonymous comments on the California Stem Cell Report. As I replied, I thought others were likely to have similar questions. Thus this piece came about.

But first, it is helpful to understand just how anonymous comments work on Blogger, the Google-owned platform for the California Stem Cell Report.

Google allows readers, at the option of the blog publisher, to make comments anonymously. Google controls the method that protects the anonymity of the writer. When I receive an anonymous comment, I do not and cannot know the names of persons who file them. But I do moderate them.

I permit anonymous comments because of the nature of the scientific community, the stem cell agency and the biotech industry. Of particular importance is that the agency is, in fact, a state government body and is spending public money. However, it is not answerable to the governor or the legislature because of the terms of the ballot measure that created it, Prop. 71. That is not the case for nearly all other state agencies. Currently the agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), also functions almost invisibly with little attention from any media, mainstream or otherwise.

Over the past 13 years of writing about this rather large source of public funding for stem cell research, I have found that many persons in the field are reluctant to comment with complete candor, sometimes because it may appear to others in the field that their comments are unseemly. In other cases, people in the field are simply afraid of possible financial or professional repercussions if they make comments that some may find objectionable, no matter how well founded. If anonymous comments were barred entirely, it would mean a loss of a certain perspective about the agency and sometimes useful information about how the stem cell industry and the agency works. That said, not all anonymous comments satisfy that criteria.

I do not publish all anonymous comments. Some have been libelous. A few have been deranged. Others are nothing more than spam.

Reasonable people can and do differ about the use of anonymous comments on blogs or in the mainstream media, which are very different animals. During my decades of covering and editing news as well as directing coverage, use of anonymous sources has always been a matter of debate and controversy. I acknowledge that some, perhaps many, anonymous writers may be grinding a particular axe. On the other hand, the targets of such comments are not always forthright. It is not necessarily in their interests to disclose bad news. The media can also be easily manipulated by "official" sources, something I have seen occur widely over the past five decades.

Indeed, the backers of Prop. 71 in 2004 were less than forthright during ballot campaign that created the stem cell agency. But such is the nature of such political activities.

Ben Franklin was an adroit politician as well as a clever writer and advocate. He also hid his identity under many pen names during his life in the 18th century. Today I have no doubt that Silence Dogood would have no difficulties with our judicious posting of anonymous comments on the California Stem Cell Report.

For those of you would like to comment on this topic, please feel free. Just click on the word “comments” at the end of this item. Perhaps we will hear from some of Mrs. Dogood’s descendants.
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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Public Welcome: California Stem Cell Agency Holding Show-and-Tell Session Next Monday

California's $3 billion stem cell agency is inviting the public to a road show next Monday in Los Angeles that will feature the chairman and president of the research effort.

The agency says the public will learn about the "exciting progress being made in stem cell research and what it could mean for you, your family and loved ones."

The one-hour session will be at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center from noon to 1 p.m. In addition to Jonathan Thomas, chairman of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), and Maria Millan, CEO of CIRM, three speakers from Cedars are scheduled.

They are Shlomo Melmed,  Cedars-Sinai executive vice president and a member of the CIRM board; Eduardo Marb├ín,  director of the Cedars Heart Institute, and Clive Svendsen,  director, Cedars Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute.

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Sunday, October 22, 2017

ViaCycte Update: Clinical Trials for a Diabetes Device Plus the Rain Gear Connection

ViaCyte, Inc., is a San Diego stem cell firm working on what could be a virtual cure for diabetes -- one that the $3 billion California stem cell agency has supported handsomely for years. 

UC Davis researcher Paul Knoepfler last week carried a piece on his blog on ViaCyte's progress. The article came in the form of a Q&A with the firm's president, Paul Laikind.
Paul Laikind, CEO Viacyte

The interview covered a lot of scientific ground as well as some financial matters dealing with the firm and its clinical trials. Perhaps a good part of the bottom line was contained in this paragraph from Laikind.
"Near term, as the PEC-Direct clinical trial advances into Cohort 2, full enrollment is expected in the second half of 2018 with evaluation of efficacy about 6 months later. The primary efficacy endpoint is clinically relevant insulin production, as measured by C-peptide 6 months after implantation. While the efficacy analysis is expected to occur in 2019, patients will remain in the study for two years, thus the expected completion date for the Phase 1/2 study is December 2020."
Also of interest is the use of a product from the company that produces Gore-Tex, a fabric that took the rain gear industry by storm, so to speak, decades ago. The fabric is now used in a wide variety of medical applications. Here is what Laikind said about the Gore-Tex connection.
"The goal of the research agreement with W.L. Gore & Associates is to cooperatively establish new methods of effectively delivering cell therapies, specifically with improvements in the Encaptra Cell Delivery System used in PEC-Encap. The semipermeable membrane that is a key component of the Encaptra device is made of the same material that makes up Gore-Tex. The Gore team are the world’s leading experts for manipulating and engineering this material.
"Gore has expertise in medical device development and drug delivery technologies, as well as previous research and development experience on cell encapsulation and implant programs for diabetes. Gore’s contribution to the material and design improvements of the Encaptra Cell Delivery System is expected to support the reliable and robust long-term engraftment that is required for the PEC-Encap product to be most effective.
"Gore’s participation in ViaCyte’s financing announced in May 2017 represents another external validation of the company and its technologies. It also reflects Gore’s great interest in, and commitment to, the development of a successful implantable cell therapy for all patients with diabetes who use insulin."
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Friday, October 20, 2017

LA Times: Does California's New Stem Cell Law Do Enough to Regulate Exploitation of Desperate Patients?

The Los Angeles Times this morning carried a piece that praised the state's first-in-the-nation disclosure law concerning unregulated stem cell treatments, but the article also questioned whether the law is tough enough for the task.

Business columnist Michael Hiltzik wrote that the law, which goes into effect in January, is "a major step to address an emerging public health crisis."  But, he continued,
"(T)here’s reason to ask whether California’s law goes far enough to regulate businesses exploiting the desperation of patients with intractable diseases."
The law targets the more than 100 clinics in California that sell what Hiltzik described as  "unlicensed, unproven — and sometimes disproven — stem-cell 'treatments.'" For the first time, such California clinics will be required to disclose to their customers that the treatments are not approved or regulated by the federal government. The notices will advise the customers to consult with their physicians prior to treatment.

Hiltzik,  however, questioned the optimistic wording of the disclosure which says that the treatments have "not yet" been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). He said,
"This suggests that FDA endorsement may only be a matter of time — that the treatments may be premature, but not fictitious. That’s wildly optimistic and may itself foster a false hope for the treatments."
Hiltzik, a Pulitzer Prize winner,  said the state's Medical Board, which is charged with enforcement, has not been provided with funding to take on the clinics. Plus, he said the board, at best, is a "reluctant regulator."

State Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-Azusa, authored the law. He told Hiltzik the measure is a first step. Hiltzik quoted the legislator as saying,
 “Because it’s so new, we’re trying to figure out the best way to start the conversation.”
Hiltzik concluded,
"But lawmakers and regulators may need to move faster. What will make a difference in California may not be how the conversation starts, but where it leads."
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Monday, October 16, 2017

CIRM-funded ALS Trial Enrolls First Patients; Therapy Produced by Israeli Firm

An Israeli firm backed with $16 million from the California stem cell agency today announced that it has enrolled the first patients in its phase three trial for a treatment for ALS, sometimes known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

The trial, the final one before possible approval for widespread use of the therapy, is expected to include about 200 patients. The California component is being conducted at UC Irvine for the firm, BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics. 

The $3 billion California stem cell agency, known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM),  awarded the cash to BrainStorm last July. The agency's reviewers said of the application:

"Overall, the proposed phase 3 study is well-designed. If executed successfully, it will provide a very meaningful outcome, generating data to define the overall value of the program and the path to regulatory approval and marketing. 
"The investigators have now included slow vital capacity as a clinical measure in the revised clinical trial per (earlier reviewer) recommendations . 
"The current protocol will still not answer the question of whether the product is better than untreated autologous bone marrow-derived MSCs. However, reviewers felt this is not critical for the current study as a positive outcome in this trial may allow a demonstration of superiority over MSC alone in a future study."
The firm has matched the California award with another $16 million. Completion date of the trial is 2019.  The trial is one of two phase three trials backed by CIRM that are currently recruiting. The principal investigator at UC Irvine is Namita A. GoyalMore information on the trial can be found here. 

About 5,600 people in the United States are diagnosed annual with ALS, which has severely disabled British physicist Stephen Hawking. Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Correction

An item earlier today said incorrectly that this week's Internet outage at the California stem cell agency was the first such significant occurrence. The agency, in fact, had another outage in September. Sphere: Related Content

Internet Outage for California Stem Cell Agency Earlier This Week: Cause Unknown

California's $3 billion stem cell agency went dark on the Internet earlier this week, the second time it has had a significant Internet outage in recent months.

The outage began on Monday afternoon. The agency was back up by Tuesday at about 7 p.m. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known,. reported that the problem did not affect internal work but did affect public access to agency information. It also blocked any incoming email or outgoing email. However, all of the email went through after the problem was solved. 

In response to a question from the California Stem Cell Report, Kevin McCormack, senior director for communications, said,
"At about 1 p.m. on Monday 10/9/2017 our external Domain Name System (DNS) provider dropped our DNS records, that meant people looking for our website, blog, GMS(grant management system), and email servers were unable to access them as DNS converts names (like www.cirm.ca.gov) into an IP (internet protocol) address (like 192.168.2.3) so that the appropriate server may be accessed by your browser. 
"We are working with our DNS provider to find out the root cause of that event.  In the meantime, we brought up a new external DNS server with another provider to restore name resolution.
"The servers for www.cirm.ca.gov and grants.cirm.ca.gov were themselves unaffected in that they continued to operate as normal awaiting requests - but without external DNS converting names into IP addresses, no requests would come to those servers from outside of CIRM.
 "CIRM staff and the GWG (grant application reviewers) then meeting at CIRM were still able to continue as usual accessing the GMS since they were using internal DNS servers.  Similarly, all purely internal email within CIRM was unaffected - however, because we were without external DNS, any email coming into or out of CIRM was not delivered."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this incorrectly stated that the problem was the first significant outage for the agency. Sphere: Related Content

Monday, October 09, 2017

Probing California's Stem Cell Trials: New Tool Helps Public Navigate the Multi-Million Dollar Maze

Here's how the new clinical trial dashboard looks. You can slice and dice
the information by clicking on the black and blue boxes on the CIRM
website at the top of the page.
California's $3 billion stem cell agency this week is debuting a new, online guide to its burgeoning network of clinical trials aimed at  developing therapies ranging from acute myeloid leukemia to X-linked severe combined immunodeficiency (X-linked SCID).

The new tool is called the clinical trials dashboard. It is a major improvement in making information on the all-important trials more easily available to the public, patients, researchers and policy makers.

Clinical trials, which have three stages and can last years, are the final step before a therapy can be approved for widespread use by the Food and Drug Administration. The agency plans to spend about $400 million on clinical ventures from 2017 to 2020.

The new dashboard cuts through the online maze and allows readers to sort by disease areas, investigator and institution, among other things. It also shows quickly the status of each trial, whether it is recruiting and takes the reader to a contact if he or she is interested in participating in a trial.

As the main dashboard page shows, the agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), has funded 40 trials. The dashboard allows you to see which are still active and which are still recruiting. If you are interested in cancer and solid tumors, filtering them out is simple. Just click on the blue box on the dashboard.

Want to know which institution has the most CIRM-backed trials? The answer is UCLA with five, a figure easily arrived at by using the new CIRM tools. That goes for investigators as well. The dashboard can show you that Donald Kohn of UCLA has the highest number of trial awards with three. A bunch of others have two each.

CIRM has long had a vast array of information on its website. As with any website, that presents a challenge in terms of making the information available to public. First, the public needs to know it is there. Next, they need to be able to actually find the relevant information and find it relatively easily. Removing barriers to online access is critical. The online tools also must fill a wide range of information needs.  A cancer patient or researcher is not likely to be interested in plowing through reams of eye disease information in order to gain access to the relevant cancer data.

The clinical trial dashboard was built by Karen Ring, CIRM's website manager and a former stem cell researcher, along with contributions from numerous others on the agency's team. It is a major step forward in the agency's effort to tell the CIRM story and how it has spent the billions provided by California taxpayers.

Here is a video that turned up this morning as I navigated my way through the clinical trial dashboard. Another note: I did not encounter any bugs this morning, but Ring says she will be tweaking the dashboard and improving it in the next couple of weeks.
Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Preview of Bond Campaign: California Stem Cell Agency Described as 'Dismal,' 'Disappointing' and a 'Waste'

A couple of die-hard opponents of the $3 billion California stem cell agency minced no words this weekend. In an op-ed piece in the Orange County Register, they described the agency as nothing more than an "advanced high school science project."

The article was written by Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association in Sacramento, and state Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa. 

They described the agency's efforts as "dismal" and declared that "this disappointing abuse of taxpayer dollars" should be terminated.

The print version of the article appeared in Sunday's paper, which has a circulation of about 312,000. Both the print and online version carried photographs involving stem cell research. But neither was from UC Irvine, which has received $108 million from the agency and has a member on the board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known.  UC Irvine is located only 17 minutes away from the offices of the newspaper. 

The piece is a relatively tame preview of the rhetoric that will confront CIRM if it goes to the ballot in 2020 for more billions from California taxpayers. The article cited arguments from the 2004 Prop. 71 ballot measure campaign that created the agency. 

Coupal and Moorlach said, 
"According to the ballot pamphlet mailed to voters, proponents promised the bond proceeds would advance the 'cure and treatment' of  'cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, spinal cord injuries, blindness, Lou Gehrig’s disease, HIV/AIDS, mental health disorders, multiple sclerosis, Huntington’s disease, and more than 70 other diseases and injuries.' 
"But actual outcomes for these promised advances are speculative at best and nonexistent at worst. Similar benefits were promised to the California economy to 'generate millions of new tax dollars.' 
"With such a dismal record, this would be a good time to shut the spigot on issuing the remaining $345 million — meaning some $690 million would be saved by state taxpayers. That money could be better spent on pensions, schools, roads, housing or better basic medical care for our residents."
As for the high school project business, the article said CIRM "continues to operate as a kind of advanced high-school science project, instead of moving toward the cures promised to voters in Prop. 71."
Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Forty-three Percent Jump in Interest in California Stem Cell Internet Information


Interest in California stem cell matters spiked in mid-week but still is well below the interest in broader matters, such as stem cell therapies, according to Google search data this morning.

Searches using the term "California stem cells" shot up 43 percent in midweek, Google reported. Just exactly why more people were searching on the term is not clear, but the Google data shows a definite high point.

The scale of 1 to 100 on the charts with this item reflects the level of interest -- not numbers of readers or page views. One-hundred shows the peak interest level only.  Actual numbers were not disclosed by Google.

Readers can see the trends in the two Google-generated charts attached to this item, which have an important caveat. The charts are live and updated automatically by Google as long as they are posted.

My take on the information is that at this point it is more of a curiosity than of any major signficance. However, in the event of major stem cell news, the data might have more value.
Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

California Moves to Protect Patients Seeking Unregulated Stem Cell Treatments

Beginning next year, California will have a new law that imposes the first-ever disclosure requirements on currently unregulated stem cell clinics that offer therapies that have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

UC Davis stem cell scientist Paul Knoepfler, who for years has raised concerns about such clinics, wrote an item yesterday about the new law for his blog. It was headlined:
"Groundbreaking new California stem cell law gives consumer protections on clinics"
Ed Hernandez, Daily News photo
The measure is the first of its kind in California and probably the entire nation.  Authored by state Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, it will require clinics to specifically notify its customers that he or she is about to undergo a treatment not approved by the FDA. The notification also must include advice encouraging customers to consult their primary care physician prior to undergoing a stem cell therapy.

A legislative analysis of the bill, SB512, cited a statement from the Center for Public Interest Law that said, 
"It is critical to patient safety that these individuals are not misled into believing they are partaking in an FDA-approved clinical trial and assuming serious health and financial risks in the process. The disclosure notices required by this bill are an important step in ensuring that patients have the information they need before making such monumental decisions about their treatment."
Paul Knoepfler, UC Davis photo
Knoepfler co-authored a research paper in 2015 that documented  the presence of nearly 600  unregulated clinics nationwide with California leading the way. He wrote on his blog, 
"Taken together, the provisions of this law will help consumers learn more about the stem cell clinic industry, make better decisions about their health and that of their loved ones, and delineate the difference between stem cell clinics versus compliant researchers conducting stem cell clinical trials with FDA approval.
"In the big picture, this new California law plus a more active FDA on the stem cell front together give me more hope that the wild west of stem cell clinics can be reined in sooner rather than later! Perhaps other states will follow suit with new laws and state medical boards will get more involved in overseeing stem cell therapies. With more 570 stem cell clinics in the US and more than 100 here in California alone, more efforts like these are needed on the consumer protection and educational outreach front."
Knoepfler deserves great credit for his efforts regarding unregulated clinics. It is fair to say that without his work, California would not have seen this law at this time. He was the first to document the size of the industry with the 2015 article, co-authored by Leigh Turner of the University of Minnesota.  Their work makes it abundantly clear that scientists can make a real difference on public policy issues if they are persistent and effective. One of Knoepfler's key tools was blogging, a practice that some scientists think is less than dignified. Nonetheless, his blogging helped to elevate the issue and served as a source for the news media as they looked into the matter. 

Like most new state laws, the law takes effect Jan. 1, 2018.
Sphere: Related Content

Monday, October 02, 2017

Asterias Biotherapeutics: Sizzling Superlatives on California Stem Cell Trial for Spinal Cord Injuries

A California stem cell trial backed with $21 million in state cash has generated "super, super-exciting" results involving patients who were paralyzed as the result of  severe spinal cord injuries.

A story today by Erin Allday in the San Francisco Chronicle said,
"Four out of six paralyzed patients who had 10 million stem cells transplanted into their spinal cords have shown striking improvement a year after treatment, including increased ability to move their hands and arms and to perform basic functions like feeding and bathing themselves, according to research results being released Monday. 
"All six patients in the early-stage clinical trial, conducted by Fremont’s Asterias Biotherapeutics, reported at least some recovery after the stem cell transplant. The trial is among the first to use embryonic stem cells in human subjects. 
"It’s too soon to know for sure that the stem cells were solely responsible for the patients’ improvement. The patients could have experienced a spontaneous recovery, which is not unheard of in spinal cord injury victims, or their improvement could be the result of intense rehabilitation. 
"But compared to a large group of people with similar injuries, the results among patients treated with stem cells were remarkable, said doctors and scientists involved with research.

Allday also wrote,
“Scientifically, I have to say we don’t know for sure if it’s the stem cells. But I’ve been treating these kinds of patients for 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Dr. Richard Fessler, lead investigator of the Asterias trial and a professor in the department of neurosurgery at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago."
The Chronicle story continued,
"'The bottom line is super, super exciting. Well beyond anything I thought we could have achieved at this point,' said Dr. Edward Wirth, chief medical officer with Asterias."
The story was good news for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the $3 billion, state stem cell agency is formally known and which has pumped the $21 million into the work. However, the bad news was that the agency's support of the research was not mentioned until the last paragraph of the Chronicle story. Most readers are not likely to get that far.

CIRM has backed Asterias with $14.3 million. The agency also funded the research with $6.4 million to Geron Corp.,which abandoned the trial for financial reasons. Asterias later acquired the research from Geron.

The agency has had a tough time getting its successes into the mainstream media for a number of years. But its story is now more important for the agency and will be for the new next three years. It is scheduled to run out of money for new awards in mid 2020. It is currently examining funding options including the possibility of asking voters for another multi-billion dollar bond issue. The nearly 13-year-old effort has not yet fulfilled voter expectations of development of a widely available therapy. Without something dramatic to show voters, a bond issue is likely to have heavy going.

The agency also put out a news release on the developments as did Asterias. However, a check with Google at 4 p.m. Monday showed that no other newspapers or other major mainstream outlets have picked up the story yet.

The news seemed to benefit the price of Asterias stock. It rose nearly 6 percent today, closing at $3.20. Its 52-week high is $5.80 and its 52-week low is $2.83.super Sphere: Related Content

Friday, September 29, 2017

$75 Million For California Stem Cell Research: Brain Cancer, Sickle Cell, Alpha Clinics and More

OAKLAND, Ca. -- The California stem cell agency yesterday handed out $75 million, doubling down on a couple of efforts to develop a stem cell therapy and a stem cell tool, plus funding an expansion of its Alpha Clinic network with two new, Northern California sites.

The awards bring to $2.34 billion that the nearly 13-year-old agency has committed to stem cell research. The awards also leave the agency with $414 million in uncommitted funds. The state research program, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), expects to run out of cash for new awards in less than three years.

The clinical program awards yesterday targeted such afflictions as diabetes, brain cancer and sickle cell anemia. One award of $20 million set a new mark for one CIRM-funded project.

That award went to Viacyte, Inc., of San Diego, bringing to more than $71 million that the agency has pumped into the firm, the largest amount provided to any single project. The firm is seeking to create an implant that would basically be a virtual cure for diabetes.

Also reinforced with more millions was Humacyte, Inc, of North Carolina. It received $14.1 million for its stem cell tool on top of the $10 million it has already received.  The firm is working on a new type of "lifeline" for kidney disease patients undergoing hemodialysis.

The agency's Alpha Clinic Network received a $16 million infusion, split between two new sites, one in Sacramento and the other in the Bay Area. The latter is a joint effort involving pediatric work and UC San Francisco and Childrens' Hospital Oakland. The other award went to UC Davis, whose stem cell program is located in neighboring Sacramento. The Alpha network already has three sites in Southern California at City of Hope, UC San Diego and UCLA/UC Irvine. 

In a CIRM news release,  Abla Creasey, CIRM’s senior director of Strategic Clinical, Regulatory, and Infrastructure Programs, said,
“The Alpha Clinics are a one-of-a-kind network that gives patients access to the highest quality stem cell trials for a breadth of diseases including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and spinal cord injury.” 
Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles lost out on its bid to be added to the Alpha network. The agency had allotted only $16 million to the expansion under its strategic plan. Directors have been loathe to add more funding to the plan. 

Other clinical stage funding included:
  • City of Hope, $12.8 million, PI Christine Brown, a Phase 1 CAR-T trial targeting an aggressive brain cancer called malignant glioma.
  • Nohla Therapeutics Inc., Seattle, Wa.,$6.9 million, a Phase 2 trial dealing with neutropenia, a condition that leaves people susceptible to deadly infections after receiving chemotherapy for acute myeloid leukemia.
  • Forty Seven Inc., Menlo Park, $5 million, a Phase 1b clinical trial treating acute myeloid leukemia. 
  • Stanford, $5.2 million, PI Matthew Porteus, preparatory work for a clinical trial on a genome editing technology to correct the sickle cell disease mutation.
Here are links to summaries of the reviews of each application: UC Davis, UCSF/Childrens' Hopsital, Cedars-Sinai, Viacyte, Humacyte, City of Hope, Nohla, Forty Seven, Stanford.
Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, September 28, 2017

'Right Person at Right Time:' Maria Millan Named as CEO of California Stem Cell Agency

Maria Millan at CIRM board meeting today, following her appointment as new president.
CIRM photo by Todd Dubnicoff

OAKLAND, Ca. -- Maria Millan, who joined the California stem cell agency five years ago, this morning was named as president of the $3 billion enterprise as it moves into what may well be its last three years.

Millan, who was serving as interim president,  was unanimously approved by the governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known.

CIRM Chairman Jonathan Thomas said he was enthusiastic about Millan when she was named interim president in June, when Randy Mills left. Thomas said he was "doubly enthusiastic" today and  described Millan as the "right person at the right time."

Millan was vice president for therapeutics and her appointment was expected. She will preside over  the agency in what some have called the "final stage" of the organization. It has projected it will run out of funds for new awards in mid 2020.  The agency is looking at various alternatives for future funding ranging from another bond issue, the agency's current financing, to possible some sort of merger or acquisition.

Millan this morning said the agency had $414 million in uncommitted funds after awarding $2.34 billion.

Millan's salary will be $550,000 retroactive to the beginning of July, when she assumed her new duties. Sphere: Related Content

California Stem Cell Board in Executive Session on New President

OAKLAND, Ca. -- Directors of the $3 billion California stem cell agency this morning opened their meeting at  9:07 a.m. as they were set to award roughly $80 million and name a new president. 

David Martin was introduced as the latest member of the 29-person board.  Martin is chairman and  CEO of  AvidBiotics Corp . of South San Francisco. 

The board immediately moved into executive session to consider the appointment of a new president who left the agency at the end of June. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Tap into Stem Cell Agency's Meeting Tomorrow

Several new, teleconference locations have been added to the list of those where the public can take part in tomorrow's meeting of the governing board of the $3 billion California stem cell agency.

On the agenda is appointment of a new president for the agenda and the award of roughly $80 million to California researchers.

Here is the latest list of locations apart from the meeting site at the agency's headquarters in Oakland. The agenda has more information regarding internet and audiocast access on a listen-only basis.
  1. 1156 High Street, 200 Kerr Hall, Santa Cruz CA 95064 - Location available 9:00 to 11:30
  2. 291 Campus Drive, Stanford, CA 94305 - Location available 9:15 to 11:00
  3. 500 Hayes Street, San Francisco, CA - Location available 9:00 to 12:00
  4. 9500 Gilman Drive and Meyers Leichtag Bldg. Room 284 La Jolla, CA 92093
  5. 8700 Beverly Blvd 2015, Los Angeles, CA 90048
  6. 700 Tiverton Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90095
  7. 10996 Torreyana Road, Suite 200 San Diego, CA 92121
Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Alpha Clinic Expansion: California Stem Cell Agency to Award $7.9 Million to UC Davis

UC Davis to land millions of dollars for stem cell clinic http://www.sacbee.com/news/local/health-and-medicine/article175470856.html Sphere: Related Content

$80 Million Stem Cell Infusion Coming Up in California

The state of California is expected to plunk down roughly $80 million this week for stem cell research and clinical trials as it moves to widen their access and develop a therapy that fulfills promises to voters nearly 13 years ago.

The awards are scheduled to be ratified Thursday during a meeting of the governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the $3 billion state stem cell agency is known.

The largest chunk of cash consists of $64 million for six applications for help in clinical trials, the last stage before a therapy is approved for widespread use.

Another $16 million is slated to go to expand the Alpha Clinic stem cell program, especially in Northern and Central California. NoA $7.9 million award is set to go to UC Davis, which won unanimous approval earlier from CIRM reviewers. Cedars-Sinai and UC San Francisco/Children's Hospital Oakland are likely to be competing for remaining $8 million.

Three Alpha Clinics, which are aimed at conducting clinical trials,  already exist in Southern California. This week's action will bring them north for the first time with an emphasis on the 33-county area served by UC Davis. (See here, here and here for more on the Alpha network.)

The stem cell agency was created in 2004 when voters approved a ballot initiative in a campaign that led voters to believe that cures were right around the corner. The agency has yet to help finance a therapy that has widespread application.

CIRM is also down to its last $600 million or so and projects that it will run out of cash for new awards by mid 2020. The agency's governing board is examining its financial options. Action on the issue is scheduled to be taken in December.

Also on the table Thursday is the approval of a new president for CIRM. Maria Millan, the interim CEO, is likely to get the job.

The session will take place in Oakland but teleconference locations will be in the Los Angeles area, Stanford, La Jolla and San Diego where the public can also participate. The meeting can also be heard in an audiocast. Details and addresses can be found on the agenda.

The California Stem Cell Report will provide gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Thursday meeting from CIRM headquarters in Oakland, filing updates as warranted throughout the day.

Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, September 24, 2017

New President Coming Up for California Stem Cell Agency: Maria Millan Likely Choice

By this time next week, California's $3 billion stem cell research agency is expected to have a new president to preside over what may be the last act for the nearly 13-year-old effort.

Item Five on the agenda for this Thursday's meeting of the governing board of the agenda says:
"Consideration of appointment of new president, including compensation package."
Preceding that is an executive session of the board to discuss the matter behind closed doors. 

The California Stem Cell Report is predicting that Maria Millan, currently interim president, is likely to get the job. Millan was named as the interim CEO after Randy Mills left the agency at the end of June. Mills publicly recommended Millan to replace him as head of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known. 

A subcommittee of the governing board has met only once -- also behind closed doors -- to consider a replacement for Mills. The board made no public comment about the outcome that July meeting.

Millan was vice president for therapeutics for the agency.  A news release from CIRM said in May that Millan "was instrumental in developing and implementing the current strategic plan."

The news release continued, 
"She received her general surgery training and transplant immunology postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School and trained in solid organ transplantation at Stanford University School of Medicine, where she went on to serve as associate professor of surgery and ultimately director of the Pediatric Organ Transplant Program. Maria received her bachelor’s degree from Duke University and her M.D. from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey."
She joined the agency in 2012 after leaving a position as vice president at StemCells, Inc., which has received $9 million from the agency. 

CIRM has projected that it will run out of cash in mid 2020. Its governing board is currently studying a wide range of options for life after 2020.

Sphere: Related Content

Friday, September 22, 2017

Ballot Measures to Mergers: California Stem Cell Agency Examines Alternatives to Its Demise

Discussing the future of CIRM on Monday: Left to right, Chair Jonathan 
Thomas,  Vice chair Art Torres, Director Diane Winokur. Photos behind
 them are  of  persons helped by the agency's clinical trials. 
Photo by The California Stem Cell Report.
OAKLAND, Ca. -- Directors of California's $3 billion stem cell research effort are looking at ways to stave off the agency's death ranging from asking voters for billions more to being acquired by some sort of private entity.

The choices came before a new Transition Subcommittee of the agency's governing board last Monday. It is considering options as the money runs out for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known.

Current projections estimate that cash for new awards will end in mid 2020. However, directors could alter the award rate and survive longer. That would shrink the flow of cash to possibly hundreds of researchers from Sacramento to San Diego.

CIRM's funds come from money that the state borrows. The ballot initiative that created it in 2004 provided for $3 billion in state bond funding but no other significant revenue. The agency has roughly $650 million remaining.

No directors at the meeting expressed support for simply letting financial nature take its course and permitting the agency to slowly expire.

One option that seemed to attract significant interest would call for the agency to ask the legislature and the governor to place another multi-billion dollar ballot measure before voters in 2020. That option would involve the governor who succeeds Jerry Brown in 2019.  Brown is wary of adding any height to what he calls California's "wall of debt."

Such an option requires a two-thirds vote of both houses of the legislature and the signature of the governor. (A CIRM memo on legislative options incorrectly said that only a majority vote was needed. It was corrected during the meeting.)

One possibility would involve another ballot initiative, a process that would not need approval of the legislature. However, under new state law provisions, the legislature is required to hold hearings on ballot initiatives. Such a process could result in changes in a proposed initiative.

CIRM directors seemed to acknowledge that either going to the legislature directly or using a ballot initiative would likely mean significant changes involving the agency. Director Steve Juelsgaard said the result could be a "very different CIRM."

The options considered this week also included private fund-raising. Some directors indicated that raising $200 million to $300 million a year was not entirely realistic. However, some combination of fund-raising and public support was also a possibility.

The last-ditch option involved acquisition of the agency by another enterprise including possibly a venture capital driven entity.  CIRM Chairman Jonathan Thomas said a possibility could involve an organization such as the Gates Foundation or the Wellcome Trust. He said California has a "tremendous asset" in CIRM and a "ton of IP(intellectual property)."

Director Jeff Sheehy said he had "never heard of a state agency that was merged or acquired."
"I wouldn't put my head in that noose," Sheehy said.

Thomas said the next step will be to hold a joint meeting of the directors' Science and Transition Committees in November and take the resulting recommendations to the full board in December. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

California Stem Cell Agency: $20 Million Cancer Award from 2012 Bears Clinical Trial Fruit

California's stem cell agency this week took the relatively unusual step of a firing off a double-barreled salute to the beginning of one of its clinical trials -- a $20 million effort based out of UCLA.

Antoni Ribas, UCLA photo
The press release and blog item heralded research by Antoni Ribas, who received the award in 2012 from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known.

The potential treatment deals with the spread of cancer to other
parts of the body, which the agency said is responsible for 90 percent of cancer deaths. Ribas' trial will test a stem cell-based treatment that is better at tracking down and destroying hard-to-treat cancer stem cells. In a news release from UCLA, which is also funding the research, Ribas said,
"(F)ew options exist for the treatment of patients whose cancers have metastasized due to resistance to current therapies. This clinical trial will allow us to try a new approach that engineers the body’s immune system to fight metastasized tumors similar to how it fights germs and viruses.”
Siwen Hu-Lieskovan,
co-investigator, UCLA photo
Maria Millan, interim president of the stem cell agency, said,
“Backed by rigorous science, the stem cell derived T cell immunotherapy being developed by Dr. Ribas and his team has the potential to address advanced cancers that have spread beyond the primary tumor and which are associated with very low survival.
"This trial is the first step in developing a therapy that could alleviate the complications resulting from cancer metastases as well as potentially improving outcomes in cancer patients where there are currently no effective treatment options. We are confident that CIRM’s funding and partnership, in combination with the expertise provided by our Alpha Stem Cell Clinic network, will give provide critical support for the successful conduct of this important clinical trial.”
The $3 billion stem cell agency is actively supporting 33 clinical trials (five involving cancer), which are the last stage prior to approval of a therapy for widespread use. Why the CIRM salute in this case?  The blog item by Todd Dubnicoff said,
"The reality is this: the launch of a clinical trial isn’t a beginning. It represents many years of effort by many researchers and a lot of funding to take an idea and develop it into a tangible product that has been given clearance to be tested in people to potentially save their lives. That’s why this important milestone deserves to be recognized.
More information on the award (DR2A-05309) can be found here. Persons interested in participating in the trial can contact Clinical Research Coordinator Justin Tran by email at justintran@mednet.ucla.edu or by phone at 310-206-2090.
Sphere: Related Content