Wednesday, February 14, 2018

'Less Than a Drop in the Bucket' -- Dueling Perspectives on California's First Stem Cell Royalty Check

California is counting its first royalties from a 13-year-old effort to develop stem cell cures and has declared that it hopes that the check will be the first in a flood of payments.

Others, however, warn of the dangers of over-excitement about the $190,345.87 payment from the City of Hope, saying that it is "less than a drop in the bucket" compared to the cost of the $3 billion California Institute for Regenerative Medicine or CIRM, as the state stem cell agency is formally known.

Here is a longer look at the two perspectives in the wake of Monday's royalty report.

John McCain, Washington Times photo
 The royalties were generated from a $5.2 million award in 2012 to the City of Hope for research involving a potential therapy for glioblastoma, one of the deadliest forms of brain cancer and the type afflicting U.S. Sen. John McCain. 

"A little piece of history" is how Kevin McCormack, senior director for communications for the  stem cell agency, described the royalty in an email. He also wrote on the agency's blog,
"It’s the first of what we hope will be many such checks, helping repay, not just the investment the state made in the field, but also the trust the voters of California showed when they created CIRM."
McCormack continued,
"Maria Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO, says the amount of the payment is not the most significant part of this milestone – after all CIRM has invested more than $2.5 billion in stem cell research since 2004. She says the fact that we are starting to see a return on the investment is important and reflects some of the many benefits CIRM brings to the state."
Asked for comment on the payment, John M. Simpson of Consumer Watchdog in Santa Monica, Ca., who was deeply involved in the development of the agency's initial intellectual property rules, said,
“Once again it’s clear that Proposition 71 (the ballot initiative that created the agency) was oversold by its sponsors. Despite campaign hype, it’s only now that we are seeing the first royalty payment and a rather modest one at that."
Bernard Munos
Bernard Munos, a senior fellow at FasterCures. a think tank aimed at speeding medical research, elaborated at more length in his response to a query by the California Stem Cell Report. He said,
"The $200,000 check from City of Hope should be acknowledged, but it only represents 0.02% of the $1.1 billion in royalties that were promised to California taxpayers -- and does not even cover the annual salary of CIRM’s part-time vice chairman.

"It is also unclear how the licensing (by the City of Hope) of a discovery to a New York-based company, Mustang Bio, Inc., will generate jobs and investment in California, as proponents of CIRM originally promised voters. 
"The world has changed since 2003 when George W. Bush severely restricted government-funded research on embryonic stem cells. The Obama administration lifted those restrictions, and regenerative medicine has diversified into many lines of research that have taken the field well beyond the embryonic vs. adult stem cell debate of the early days, which gave CIRM its initial impetus. Looking ahead, it is unclear whether CIRM still has a role to play. 
"Regenerative medicine offers enormous promises, and Californians may indeed want to leverage that opportunity by supplementing federal funding with their own. We have proposed a way to do this, as an alternative to developing plans to extend CIRM with another $5 billion in California bonds, to be paid out of the state’s general fund. 
"Whenever a multi-billion dollar fund is created, it tends to attract all kinds of people who want a piece of it. Unless strong governance is in place with clear rules on how the money must be disbursed, some of it is likely to fund projects that don't get the scrutiny they should, or even lie outside the organization's remit. Inadequate governance has been a problem at CIRM, as documented by reports from the Institute of Medicine -- now the National Academy of Medicine -- and others. Before consenting to an extension of CIRM's mandate, Californians should look at the returns they have gotten, and are likely to get (or not) from CIRM's past investments, and should demand an independent assessment of whether these investments are consistent with what they were promised and with CIRM's mission."
Marcy Darnovsky, FIXED photo
Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, in Berkeley, Ca., said in her email,
"Many Californians voted to establish CIRM because they believed the promises that its backers were making: that we'd soon see revolutionary medical breakthroughs, that our state would get back a billion dollars or more in royalties, that the agency would be run by an 'independent' board. Almost a decade and a half later, none of that has come to pass. 
"The rules and regulations about royalty returns to California are confusing and unclear, and need to be made far more transparent. But it's hard not to ask whether this first royalty payment is anything other than theater, meant to assuage and allure voters now that CIRM is talking about another ballot measure for $5 billion more from the public purse.

"The royalty check from City of Hope is less than a drop in the bucket. It's almost as if you loaned someone $3000 (at your own expense) because they promised to do some good work and pay you back $1000. Years later, they haven’t finished the work but they are offering you twenty cents instead of $1000, and asking for thousands more."
The debate over what Millan has called the "value proposition" of the agency's work is likely to intensify over the next two years. CIRM expects to run out of cash within that period and is pinning its hopes for survival on a proposed $5 billion ballot initiative on the November 2020 ballot -- a campaign that should excite some considerable interest if it is not heavily overshadowed by the presidential election that year. Sphere: Related Content

Monday, February 12, 2018

Counting the Stem Cell Beans: Inside California's First Stem Cell Royalty Check

Readers who really want to dig into the numbers involving the first royalty check generated by  research funded by the $3 billion California stem cell agency have a special treat.

Below is a look at how the royalty payment by the City of Hope was calculated. The royalties grew out of an arrangement with Mustang Bio, Inc. of New York City.

 First Royalty Payment Generated by California  State Stem Cell Agency by DavidJensen on Scribd Sphere: Related Content

After 13 years, California Receives Its First Stem Cell Royalty Check

California's $3 billion stem cell agency this morning reported the first royalty check resulting from its 13-year-old research program -- a payment of nearly $200,000 from the City of Hope.

The money, however, did not go to the agency, which is scheduled to run out of cash by 2020. It went to the state's general fund and can be used for anything from smog prevention to patching up the state's freeways. 

The royalties resulted from a $5.2 million grant in 2012 to Stephen Forman at the City of Hope in the Los Angeles area. The research, now overseen by Christine Brown, involved the use of genetically modified CAR-T cells to improve cure rates of patients with "high-grade" malignant glioma, an aggressive type of brain cancer.

In an email today, Kevin McCormack, senior director of communications for the agency, described the $190,345.87 royalty check as a "little bit of history."

It was a "bit of history" that goes back to the ballot initiative campaign of 2004 that created the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine or CIRM as the agency is formally known.  Backers of the measure created what some say were unrealistic expectations that the agency would generate $1.1 billion in royalties. 

The royalty payment resulted from an agreement by the City of Hope to license the technology to Mustang, Bio, Inc., of New York City. It is a subsidiary of Fortress Biotech, Inc. Both are publicly traded firms.

The San Francisco Chronicle first reported the size of the payment, although the fact that a royalty check was coming was disclosed last summer. Joaquin Palomino wrote in the Chronicle this morning, 
"'This is an initial payment for the recognition of the potential of this therapy,' Brown said. 'If it’s ultimately approved by the FDA as a commercial product, this could be a continued revenue source' for California."
The Chronicle article also said, 
"'In order to prove that it was a good investment for California taxpayers, we are going to need to see returns in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, not in the hundreds of thousands,' said Bernard Munos, a senior fellow at the medical think tank FasterCures and a close observer of CIRM. 'It’s too early to claim victory, or to claim this was a great deal for the taxpayers of California."
Here is a link to CIRM's blog item on the payment. Below is a letter from the City of Hope to CIRM about how the royalty payment was calculated.
Sphere: Related Content

California Stem Cell CEO Millan on What's Missing in CIRM News Coverage

California's $3 billion stem cell research program suffers from the same sort of problem that arises at other state departments, ranging from Fish and Wildlife to Pesticide Regulation.

They are all struggling to gain the public's attention, tell their story and create support for their activities. The big difference is that Fish and Game and Pesticide Regulation are not likely to go out of business in two years. The stem cell agency, however, could well be on its way to closing its doors by then because it is running out of cash.

The California Stem Cell Report recently talked with Maria Millan, CEO and president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known. One of the topics was news coverage and how the agency is perceived, especially considering that voters may be asked to give the agency another $5 billion.

Millan was asked: What is the most "uncovered" story about CIRM, what is the "least written about?" Here is how she responded,
"I don't think people really have an understanding for what the value proposition of CIRM is as an agency. They know we're a funding agency, and I think it's best recognized for money."
Millan said that a lot of news coverage involves such things as "are you spending that money well, do you have enough oversight, do you have enough things in place to make sure that that's being done responsibly? There's a lot of focus on that."
"I think we've solved a lot of those issues and have things in place to catch issues and deal with them as they come up.... Part of it is that some of these assets didn't exist before and now we have them, and part of it is that the field has matured, and we've been positioned well to drive it."
Millan said that CIRM is "the model" for stem cell research and its funding. She said, 
"It's well-recognized that we do this very, very well. The NIH (National Institutes of Health) recognizes that we've been able in the space of stem cell regenerative medicine to do this extremely well. We have a portfolio in terms of development and our way of doing things that's unparalleled. 
"They recognize that. We're working with them to generalize this and it'll just be a two-way street in terms of benefiting for both sides of relationships."
Millan also talked about the value that her agency brings to the state, enhancing its position globally in biomedical research. She said,
"My goal is to make sure that we're responsibly sharing the knowledge, bringing things forward, because it's going to benefit California. I know that we want to make sure that we're responsible for optimizing our funds that they really support California directly, but there are a lot of things that can happen outside that will feed into us if we enable them."
Significant coverage in the mainstream media of the activities of the agency, created by voters in 2004, is rare nowadays. However, CIRM recently received some widespread attention within the state and nationally as the result of a lengthy assessment of its efforts on NPR and KQED's web sites.

The November 2020 ballot, which will include a presidential election, is the target date for the proposed $5 billion bond measure to keep CIRM alive.  Look for more intense coverage of the agency as that date nears.

(Look for more on the California Stem Cell Report on our conversation with Millan in the coming weeks.) Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, February 08, 2018

California: Stem Cell Capital of the World? The Perspective from Oakland

The California Stem Cell Report recently spent an hour chatting with Maria Millan, the president and chief executive officer of the $3 billion California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the 13-year-old, state stem cell agency is formally known. 
Maria Millan, CIRM photo

The session at CIRM headquarters in Oakland, Ca., covered a wide range of topics as the agency was releasing its annual report. One question raised by this publication was whether the Golden State has reached the sort of critical mass that would make it "the stem cell capital of the world."

Here are some lightly edited excerpts of Millan's response to that question.

"I don't know if we've reached the critical mass, but I think we are probably the furthest to (it). I remember joining (the agency)....and actually some of our programs were geared toward how can we bring in more business into California. What I'm seeing right now is a lot of players who don't actually need to come to California.  They're fine. They've got funding. They've got trials. They already have a plan to bring their products to market in the U.S., but they're coming to California, so that's telling."

"California is expensive, so we have to think about that piece of it. These cell therapies are manufacturing intensive. One of the things we are setting up is the translating center (a $15 million project at Quintiles -- now IQVIA -- in San Diego) to address that need because the process and the manufacturing have to occur close to the site of delivery, and the scientists are here, the developers are here.

"It would be great if there was a way that we could continue to help the field to address this need because that is what's going to be required in terms of getting these therapies really to patients and (meeting) the manufacturing challenges. 

"We're doing what we can with the expertise and what we currently have in place. We need to do that in partnership with other entities, so there's a lot of interest in that. The NIH and the FDA at a regenerative medicine forum identified this as a clear need -- standardization in manufacturing...."

"Another thing that is important in terms of recognition, the space of stem cell regenerative medicine does not follow the classical pharma model of drug development at all. Even the CAR-T therapies and the SPARC, those were all developed in academia, they were spun out to smaller, nimble organizations. These projects are highly risky. The de-risking role that CIRM has is critical, (reflecting) a recognition that there's now probably a new dance that occurs to getting these types of treatments developed and out there and commercialized....

"We have played a critical role in being kind of not just a funder, not just a match-maker, but an active participant in connecting the dots and bringing this conversation forward."

(Look for more on the California Stem Cell Report from Millan's additional comments throughout the month.)
Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Advancing Science, Avoiding Harm: New Fed Rules to Raise Curtain on Clinical Trial Results

The Wall Street Journal today carried a piece about sweeping, new federal research disclosure rules aimed at beefing up the public accessibility of findings of clinical trials backed by billions in public dollars.

The regulations are targeting what Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has called a "disappointing" record of publishing clinical trial results.  He said that "both real and potential harm can result from failure to fully disclose the results of clinical trials."

The regulations are scheduled to roll out somewhat slowly but have been more than 20 years in the works. The Journal reporters, Daniela Hernandez and Amy Dockser Marcus, wrote online today,
"The new rules are part of a push for greater transparency and accountability for the NIH's huge investment in biomedical research. In the past, many organizations have failed to properly register studies and report their findings, actions that NIH officials say result in misspent funds, potential human harm and a lack of public trust in science. The NIH spends roughly $3 billion annually on clinical trials."
Violation of the rules carries the possibility of fines running up to thousands of dollars a day plus endangerment of future funding from the NIH.

Already at one California university, the requirements have increased the workload. The WSJ reported,
"Stanford University School of Medicine is 'adding five or six full-time employees to our overall infrastructure for human research,' said Mark Cullen, senior associate dean for research.
"Dr. Cullen said many of his researchers are still worried and confused about how the new policies will affect their work; the new hires are meant to add to an existing support system made up of roughly 100 staffers."
The NIH is particularly interested in reporting research that has negative results. The WSJ wrote,
"Under the old rules that required publication in journals, negative results often remained undisclosed because journals prefer to publish positive findings.
"'The release of negative results not only prevents duplication and potential unnecessary risk to human volunteers, it also advances our understanding of the science,' said NIH’s Dr. (Carrie) Wolinetz (NIH's associate director for science policy).
In 2015, Collins and Kathy Hudson, then NIH's deputy director for science, outreach and policy and now executive director of the People-Centered Research Foundation, wrote in JAMA,
"If the clinical research community fails to share what is learned, allowing data to remain unpublished or unreported, researchers are reneging on the promise to clinical trial participants, are wasting time and resources, and are jeopardizing public trust.

"The scientific community has a disappointing track record for dissemination of clinical trial results.
Sphere: Related Content

Friday, February 02, 2018

Millions, Billions and Babies: The 2017 Stem Cell Story from California

Cover of CIRM annual report
California's 13-year-old stem cell research program has lured in nearly $390 million in private investment this past year, an accomplishment touted in its just released annual report for 2017.

The 23-page document is chock-a-block with facts and figures about the agency along with upbeat stories about its impact on a handful of patients, young and old.

All told, one could consider the report a key marketing tool for the agency's efforts to stave off its own financial demise, now slated for just two years down the road unless a rescue effort is successful.

The $3 billion stem cell agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative(CIRM), expects to run out of cash for new awards in 2019. Its survival depends on a $200 million-plus, private fund-raising effort now underway and voter approval of a yet-to-be-written, $5 billion bond measure in 2020. The agency has been funded nearly entirely by state bonds, an unusual approach for state agencies, which generally survive on year-to-year appropriations.

The 2017 annual report, which cost $34,000, lays out the case for the agency's work, from clinical trials to patient advocacy. Included is less well-known information about the private investment that

has been drawn in to match awards and to support spin-off companies.

Private investment is critical to translating basic research into therapies and cures. So far, the agency has not delivered on expectations of voters in 2004 that it would produce a treatment that can be used by the general public. But it now has invested in 44 clinical trials and hopes that a therapy will emerge that will resonate with voters.

The agency cited its impact in the private sector with a comment from Deepak Srivastava, president of the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco.
"CIRM has funded the full pipeline of our work on cardiac regeneration—from basic discoveries, all the way to preclinical studies. As a result of their support, we established Tenaya Therapeutics, a local start-up company that launched with $50 million in Series A investment and aims to tackle heart failure."
Maria Millan, CEO of CIRM since July, said,
"If not for CIRM, many programs currently in clinical trials to address debilitating and fatal medical conditions might have stalled or have been discontinued due to lack of funding. As a result, we are seeing more partnerships and follow-on industry investment—almost $390 million this year—to  advance CIRM-funded programs.
"By investing when others are not yet ready to do so, CIRM’s partnership enables researchers to develop a value proposition that attracts follow-on investors and industry partnerships."
The annual report will undoubtedly be a key document for CIRM Chairman Jonathan Thomas this year as he seeks to raise more than $200 million in private donations to tide the agency over until a bond election in November of 2020.

But the agency has a significant, additional challenge in reaching the general public, a point noted by Robert Klein,  the real estate investment banker who led the 2004 campaign that created the agency.  He cited the "lack of communication" in the mainstream media about CIRM.

Klein told CIRM directors last fall that 90 percent of the science reporters in the media have vanished in the last 20 years. He said that science writers were once the key to telling the story of scientific research as well as illuminating the progress of the quest for stem cell cures. Today is different, he said, and a more intense effort will be needed to win support for more billions.

"We've lost our communication link," Klein said.

(CIRM's summary of its impact graphically displayed below.)

Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Unregulated Stem Cell Wildfire: Fresh Look at Practices Not Approved by the FDA

They have crept across the country like a malignant rash, popping up from coast to coast. They take tens of thousands of dollars from desperate people from seeking a cure for afflictions ranging from cancer to blindness. Instead some become more ill.

You can see it yourself on your computer screen in the comfort of your own home. Just click on the map above. It was brought to you by Paul Knoepfler of UC Davis and Leigh Turner of the University of Minnesota. Back in 2016, they published the first ever look that documented the size of the unregulated stem cell clinic market. And California led the way with the most clinics.

Recently, they probed more deeply. Knoepfler wrote last week on his blog,
"In our new paper, Leigh and I also found that clinics marketing certain conditions and types of stem cells exhibited specific trends over the years. For instance amniotic stem cell clinics, while lagging behind bone marrow and fat stem cell clinics in numbers, show a sharp upward trend. This spike fits with increasing mainstream media advertising efforts by amniotic clinics.
The Regenerative Medicine article is ensconced behind a pay wall, but here is a snippet from its summary.
"Between 2009 and 2014, the number of new US stem cell businesses with websites grew rapidly, at least doubling on average every year. From 2014 to 2016, approximately 90–100 new stem cell business websites appeared per year. In contrast, from 2012 to the present, regulatory activity in the form of FDA warning letters has been limited. These data point to a problematic disconnect between a rapidly expanding US direct-to-consumer stem cell industry and limited FDA oversight of this marketplace. More consistent, timely and effective FDA actions are urgently needed."
Knoepfler said on his blog,
"While Leigh and I documented the nearly 600 clinics as of 2016, my sense is that there are likely to be upwards of 700 clinics today. What will the map of stem cell clinics look like in 2019 or 2020? What do you think? Fewer? More? Or about the same number of clinics? What would similar temporal maps of clinics in other countries look like?"
Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, January 25, 2018

California's Stem Cell Story Gains National Attention on NPR

California's $3 billion stem cell research effort broke into national news this morning when National Public Radio (NPR) picked up a lengthy overview of the Golden State's 13-year-old program to develop therapies that could treat everything from cancer to incontinence.

While the story chronicled the pluses and minuses of the work of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM),  as the agency is formally known, overall the piece bolstered the agency's efforts to tell its story to millions of more persons. It could be said to fit into the category of "I don't care what you say about me, just as long as you spell my name right."

NPR says it reaches 99 million people monthly across its platforms.  Roughly 12 million of those persons are likely to be found in California, given that the state has about 12 percent of the nation's population.

The stem cell agency piece first appeared last week in California on the web site of a popular media outlet, KQED, which produces TV and radio news. KQED's syndicated California Report is expected to air a broadcast version of the story and has linked online to the longer version as well.

All of this meets the need of the agency to reach the millions of California voters who are likely to vote on a possible, $5 billion bond measure in November 2020. The agency is slated to run out of money by then and will whither away without additional cash.

While some in the media would be loath to admit it, they tend to run in packs, chasing the same stories for a variety of reasons. The widespread appearances of the article by David Gorn could well stimulate additional media coverage in the shorter term and also help to shape coverage over the next couple of years or so. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A Man Named Lucas and the Future of the California Stem Cell Agency

Lucas Lindner, photo by Cait Covers the Bases
The news last fall from a California stem cell firm was leaden and dense. Terms such as "Phase 1/2a SCiStar study" and "Full enrollment of Cohort 3 (AIS-A; 20 million AST-OPC1 cells)" littered the company's statement. 

Today the state's $3 billion stem cell agency turned the jargon into a heart-warming, human story -- the type that is critical to sustaining the life of the 13-year-old research effort, which is running out of cash.

The story involves Asteria Biotherapeutics, Inc., of Fremont, the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine(CIRM), as the stem cell agency is formally known, a clinical trial for a treatment for spinal injury and a young man named Lucas Lindner.

He is one of the patients in Asterias' clinical trial for a human embryonic stem cell therapy for spinal cord injury.  CIRM has funneled $21 million into the research. 

Writing on the agency's blog, Kevin McCormack, senior director for CIRM communications, said,
"On a Sunday morning in early 2016, Lucas Lindner was driving to get some donuts for his grandmother. A deer jumped in front of his truck. Lucas swerved to avoid it and crashed, suffering a severe spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down."
But after the treatment, McCormack wrote,
"Lucas can now type 40 words a minute, use a soldering iron and touch his pinkie to his thumb, something he couldn’t do after the accident.
"In August of last year Lucas did something else he never imagined he would be able to do, he threw out the first pitch at a Milwaukee Brewers baseball game. At the time, he said 'I’m blown away by the fact that I can pitch a ball again.'"
Of course, there are scientific caveats and qualifications in the story. But what the tale really can do is resonate with nearly all California voters if the story ever reaches them.

Those voters are key to continuing the work of the agency, which expects to run out of state funds in 2019 and is hoping that voters will pump an additional $5 billion into the agency through a bond measure on the November 2020 ballot. (A private fund-raising effort is underway to bridge the cash gap.)

The agency has largely functioned in obscurity during the last 10 years or so. Its story is not well known by the public. And it has yet to help finance a therapy that is available to the general public. But CIRM's 44 clinical trials, including the one by Asterias, provide hope for patients and the agency.

The key lies, however, in how the story is told and how well CIRM supporters can turn mind-numbing scientific jargon and public policy issues into compelling yarns that will open both the hearts and purses of California voters. Sphere: Related Content

Friday, January 19, 2018

California Makes a $25 Million Kidney Transplant Wager: Its 44th Stem Cell Clinical Trial

The California stem cell agency this week more than doubled down on its bet on a potentially breakthrough treatment for kidney transplants, raising to $25.4 million its support for a project that is entering its final stages.

The hope is that the treatment will not only improve the success rate of kidney transplants but also lead to use in liver, heart and other solid organ transplants. If successful, the therapy would eliminate the need for immunosuppressive drugs in genetically matched kidney transplant patients.

Maria Millan, CIRM photo 
Maria Millan, president of the agency, said in a news release:
“These immunosuppressive drugs not only can cause harmful side effects, but they are also expensive and some patients lose their transplant either because they can’t afford to pay for the drugs, or because their effectiveness is not adequate."
The award also could help save the life of the stem cell agency, which is facing its financial demise as its funding runs out.

The award brings to 44 the number of clinical trials being assisted by the $3 billion agency, formally known as the  California Institute for Regenerative Medicine(CIRM). Clinical trials are the last stages of research prior to certification by the federal government of a treatment for widespread use.

The stem cell agency is hoping that one of its trials will soon produce a therapy that will resonate with California voters who may be asked in 2020 to provide $5 billion more. The agency expects to run out of state funding next year and is attempting to raise more than $200 million privately to tide it over until a bond election in  November 2020.

Action on the award was swift on Thursday. It took less than eight minutes for the agency governing board to unanimously approve an $18.8 million award to Medeor Therapeutics, Inc., of San Mateo, Ca. The award comes on top of a $6.7 million investment in the firm's research in 2016.

Steven Deitcher, Medeor photo
The vote simply ratified a decision on the Phase 3 trial that was already made by the agency's reviewers, who gave the research strong support during a meeting behind closed doors weeks earlier.

Steven Deitcher, co-founder and president of Medeor, said in the agency's news release,
"CIRM funding accelerates our timelines, and these timelines are what stand between needy patients and potential transformative therapies. This CIRM award combined with investor support represent a public-private collaboration that we hope will make a difference in the lives of organ transplant recipients in California, the entire U.S., and beyond."
Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Look at Whether California's Stem Cell Agency Can Carry the Day Two Years From Now

One of California's more respected news operations today posted an overview of the state's $3 billion stem cell research agency, asking the question:
"Should California Voters OK $5 Billion More for Stem Cell Research?"
The piece by David Gorn on KQED's web site recapped the history of the program, its current condition and included comments from Robert Klein, the man behind the $5 billion proposal and who is often regarded as the father of the agency.

Barbara Koenig, UCSF photo
Also included were comments from folks not always heard from publicly in the discussions about the agency. Quoted was Barbara Koenig, head of the bioethics program at UC San Francisco, who said she supports stem cell research but voted against the ballot measure that created the agency in 2004. She said,
“I didn’t like the overhyping of the immediate idea that there were cures around the corner.  I think we need to be honest about how we’re investing in research.”
Gorn continued,
"Ask Koenig how she might use that proposed $5 billion differently, and she responds with a moment of stunned silence.
"'Oh my, so many things,' she said. 'I would try to figure out how to make sure every child in California has access to basic health services, nutrition, clean water . . . not just make high-priced products, but to improve public health.'
"She said stem cell research privileges these quick-fix biotech approaches, which may make a lot of money but may not benefit the general public.'". 
Gorn's piece had some reach into the general public in the Golden State. In addition to its online news site, the San Francisco-based KQED operates a public TV station including news and  a public radio station with syndicated programming throughout the state. A version of today's story is expected to run next week on KQED's California Report, which the station says reaches 775,500 persons each week.

Gorn's report was pretty much down the middle, exploring the expectations for cures that emerged from the 2004 campaign directed by Klein, who also oversaw the writing of the initiative. His view is that that agency has "out-achieved" the promises of the campaign. Gorn wrote that Klein said that the campaign "never promised cures during the lifetime of the stem cell agency, only progress toward attaining them."

The governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, as the agency is formally known, has all but endorsed Klein's current plan to place another initiative on the 2020 ballot, a presidential election year that will generate the large turnout that tends to favor bond measures.

Bonds -- money that the state borrows -- are the only significant source of cash for the agency. Ironically, the measure that created the agency -- also provided the seeds of its death by terminating its bonding authority after a specified period. Today the agency is down to its last few hundred million.

Zev Yaroslavsky, UCLA photo
Bonds additionally are usually used for long-lived assets such as roads and buildings and roughly double the cost of the research to taxpayers because of the interest expense. 

Gorn concluded with a comment from Zev Yaroslavsky, an authority on state politics and government at UCLA, as saying  that even if voter attitudes are highly favorable toward stem cell research that may not be enough to carry the day.

Yaroslavsky said,
"People do see stem cell research as something they have a stake in, but you’re going to have to explain what we got with the first $3 billion. I suspect their case with the voters will be that we need to keep momentum going. But the question is, ‘Will they buy it?’"
Sphere: Related Content

Friday, January 12, 2018

California Stem Cell Spending: Priming a $1.5 Billion Research Influx

California's $3 billion stem cell agency this week reported on "what you may not know" about the unusual, 13-year-old research organization. 

Its "disclosure" did not deal with such matters as the fact that it is the first such enterprise in state history or that it operates outside of the purview of the governor and the legislature. Rather it dealt with, among other things, leverage -- a term used often in the real estate business to describe, for example, using  $10 to create $1,000.

In the case of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the Oakland-based agency is formally known, it said it has created $1.5 billion in leveraged funds. It also noted that it has served as a "validator" for a significant amount of research, meaning that its awards re-assure the nervous nellies of finance about making an investment in a particular project. 

CIRM's seal of approval has led to $528 million in additional "partnership" funding for specific research, the agency said, along with more than $395 million in awards from other agencies that were built on CIRM-backed research. . 

News about the agency often focuses on stories about people and their afflictions. Those emotional tales are powerful ways to tell the CIRM story, but its less well known ventures into leverage and validation also speak to its impact, both short term and long term. 

Kevin McCormack, CIRM's senior director of communications, wrote about all this earlier this week with specific numbers and details in the agency's blog, The Stem Cellar, in a preview of the agency's annual report.
"Our goal is to do all we can to support the best science and move it out of the lab and into clinical trials in people. Obviously, providing funding is a key step, but it’s far from the only step. For us, it’s really just the first step."
CIRM does report its impact in the best possible light. However, there is little doubt that it has played an important role in "de-risking" much stem cell research and creating a friendly environment that is more likely to attract additional financing for a still young field.  Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

California Pumping $19 Million More into Stem Cell Effort to Improve Kidney Transplant Success

The California stem cell agency is set to make a nearly $19 million bet next week on a treatment that is aimed at significantly improving the success of  kidney transplants and helping to reduce healthcare costs.

The agency's board is expected to ratify a decision to award $18.8 million to Medeor Therapeutics, Inc.,  of San Mateo, Ca., for a phase 3 clinical trial, the last stage before its proposed product can be widely used.

Next week's award will bring to $25.4 million that the state has invested in the work. The agency awarded $6.7 million for the research in 2016.

The company's chief medical officer, D. Scott Batty, Jr.,  said last spring that its product, dubbed MDR-101, "has the potential to address the two most critical transplant patient needs: preventing organ rejection and mitigating anti-rejection treatment-associated toxicities. " He added that the technology could potentially be used in all solid organ transplant patients.

Fierce Biotech reporter Phil Taylor wrote last April,
"Patients who undergo organ transplants may no longer have to rely on lifelong immune-suppressing drugs, if Medeor Therapeutics has its way."
Taylor continued,
"More than 30,000 Americans get an organ transplant every year, and while success rates for these procedures are improving, it is estimated that up to a third of the most common transplants—such as heart, kidney, and liver—fail within 5 years."
The Medeor treatment uses adult stem cells to create a condition in which the transplanted kidney "is no longer viewed as foreign by the recipient," according a summary of the closed-door review of the company's application (CLIN2-10411). 

The agency's reviewers, who do not have to publicly disclose if they have  potential conflicts of interest, voted 11-1 to fund the research. The agency's board almost never overturns the decisions of its reviewers, who come from out-of-state. The names of persons reviewing specific applications are not disclosed by the agency, which also does not disclose the name of applicants until after board action. The California Stem Cell Report identified the firm from public records.

Samuel Strober, Stanford photo
Last November, Medeor announced it had raised $57 million in Series B financing, "led by RA Capital Management. Additional new investors included Sofinnova Ventures and 6 Dimensions Capital, who were joined by existing investors Vivo Capital and WuXi Healthcare Ventures."

The scientific founder of the firm is Samuel Strober, a professor of medicine at Stanford and who is a member of its scientific advisory board. 

The estimated date of completion of the trial is January 2022, according to The governing board of the $3 billion stem cell agency is scheduled to meet Jan. 18 to approve the award. No other action is scheduled. Sphere: Related Content

Monday, January 08, 2018

California Stem Cells, 'Rapture' and a $5 Billion Bond Measure

This past weekend brought news about a "rapturous agreement among Republicans and Democrats" to support development of new therapies by financing biomedical research with billions of dollars.

The New York Times article indicated that the rapture could have something to do with the fact that many key political leaders on Capitol Hill are "aging in place."

The piece by Robert Pear also carried implications for the $3 billion California stem cell agency, which has virtually endorsed a yet-to-be-written, $5 billion bond measure to stave off its own death.

Pear wrote on Sunday:
"For the third straight year, lawmakers (in Congress) are planning to increase the budget of the National Institutes of Health by $2 billion. In the process, they have summarily rejected cuts proposed by President Trump.
"The push for additional funding reflects a fascination among legislators with advances in fields like molecular biology, genetics and regenerative medicine, even as they wage bitter battles over just how large a role the government should play in financing health care and providing coverage."
Pear continued, 
"Why is medical research so much less contentious than fundamental issues like health insurance coverage?
"Anthony J. Mazzaschi, a lobbyist at the national organization representing schools of public health, said that 'the charisma of the cure, the hope and promise of curing disease, seems to excite members of Congress,' including some in their 70s and 80s who are 'facing the prospect of disease and disability head-on.'"
The Times piece said, 
"The challenges facing patients and policymakers were illustrated this past week when a Philadelphia company said it would charge $850,000 for a new gene therapy to treat a rare inherited form of blindness. (The company, Spark Therapeutics, said it would pay rebates to certain insurers if the medicine, given in a one-time injection, did not work as promised.)"
California's stem cell agency is running out of money. It is looking at a November 2020 ballot measure to fill its shrinking coffers with $5 billion more. But such public policy decisions involve trade-offs concerning the health of Californians.

Several questions (among others) arise theoretically and otherwise:
  • Would it be better to spend $5 billion to provide much needed, immediate health care to poor Californians, including mothers and children, which could provide a quicker payoff in improved health. 
  • Is it better for the state to spend $20 million to help reduce infant mortality rates in Fresno and Mendocino that are nearly twice the statewide average or give the cash instead to a stem cell researcher (and his employing institution) who can also win the cash from the NIH. 
  • The impetus for creation of the California stem cell agency was based on a restriction in federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research. That restriction no longer exists, but could be restored by the Trump administration. But should California spend its billions when researchers can seek funding at the federal level? 
These are sort of bottom-line policy questions that ignore the fact that bond issues generally are used for long-lived assets, such as prisons, educational buildings, highways, etc., -- not services such as health care. The bond measure that provided the stem cell agency with its only significant cash was an historic exception.

Nonetheless, in the public's eyes the stem cell agency is all about health. As the campaign that created the agency in 2004 noted, medical problems that affect nearly half of California families "could benefit from stem cell research."

The likely cost of the therapies that are being developed in the agency's clinical trials are almost never discussed in public. Yet many are likely to be as expensive as the Spark Therapeutics blindness treatment. One can only imagine the kind of opposition advertising that is likely to surface in a campaign for a $5 billion bond measure: "Vote No on Million Dollar Cures for Billionaires!" On the other hand, that pitch might seem too harsh and blow back on agency opponents.

Nonetheless, Americans believe drug costs are too high, something that will come into play during a 2020 campaign. According a recent Gallup poll, 78 percent of the people also say total health care costs are too expensive. Drug costs have become an easy litmus test for the expense of staying healthy.

The New York Times story noted the importance of age as helping to create support for spending on medical research. California is headed for a sharp increase in the numbers of seniors in the next decade. One study is even projecting a "silver tsunami" of cancer in older patients nationally. Generally, however, older voters are considered more likely to be conservative. and may not buy into more government spending. How that plays out in California is not clear when it comes to stem cell research or the hope for stem cell cures.

Hope is one of the more powerful products of the California stem agency. Ultimately that could be the deciding selling point. But the November 2020 election is 34 months away, and much is likely to change.
Sphere: Related Content

Friday, January 05, 2018

Tracking the $3 Billion California Stem Cell Agency Month by Month

Directors of the California stem cell agency plan to meet 12 times during the coming year, including four valuable face-to-face sessions that are likely to be based at its Oakland headquarters.

Valuable because those sessions offer an opportunity to chat directly with directors and the agency's staff. The face-to-face sessions are scheduled for March 13, June 28, Sept. 20 and Dec. 13. Topics for the meetings will come later when agendas are posted 10 days before the sessions. But the June and December meetings have often dealt with important financial and strategic issues.

Researchers who have attended the board sessions in the past have benefited from gaining a greater understanding of the application review process and procedures of the board as it ratifies reviewer decisions and hears appeals.

The other eight meetings are telephonic and are scheduled to occur on Jan. 18, Feb. 22, April 26, May 24, July 26, Aug. 23, Oct. 18 and Nov. 29.

To be announced during the year on an ad hoc basis are meetings of the committees of the governing board, which regularly consider important issues and approve policies and actions that are often summarily ratified by the board.

All of the meetings can be tracked by subscribing to notifications from the agency and by reading the California Stem Cell Report, which tries to provide a deeper look at some of the matters facing the stem cell agency.

The public can attend all the meetings at either remote locations and the CIRM headquarters and can address the board directly. If you just want to listen, an audiocast is available. After the meetings, which are also accessible as a recording, transcripts become available a couple of weeks later.  Sphere: Related Content

Places to Go, Stem Cell Science to See in 2018

The $3 billion California stem cell agency did all you stem "cellists" out there a big favor this week with a rundown of the hottest and most interesting conferences coming up in 2018. A UC Davis researcher also has put his own list on his own blog.

First, the agency's list of what it describes as "awesome" conferences. They range from industry-oriented events to ones devoted to science. Coming up next week is a "state of the industry" briefing by the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine in San Francisco. The World Stem Cell Summit runs at the end of this month in Miami.

A discussion of the agency's Alpha Clinics program is scheduled for April 19 at UCLA. Last year's Alpha program at the City of Hope was excellent. December will bring a Cedars-Sinai conference on Translation of Stem Cells to the Clinic, Challenges and Opportunities, which could be illuminating as the stem cell agency pushes to fulfill the promises of the ballot initiative campaign that created the research effort.

Of course, there are many more -- much too many to list here.The Oakland-based agency has also provided links to the conferences it highlights

Over at UC Davis, scientist Paul Knoepfler's list included some of the same sessions. He also is soliciting information on conferences that he has not listed. You can send him your information by clicking here. 

Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Stem Cell Person of the Year: Michele DeLuca of Italy

An Italian scientist has been named Stem Cell Person of the Year for 2017 by The Niche, a stem cell blog produced by a California researcher.

Michele DeLuca, CMR photo
Paul Knoepfler of UC Davis announced the selection of Michele DeLuca on his blog last week.
Knoepfler wrote,
"I chose him because of his exceptional track record in stem cell and regenerative medicine science combined with a long record of advocating for responsible translational science."
The award carries of a cash prize of $2,000, which Knoepfler funds himself. The California stem cell scientist commented,
"Dr. De Luca also led an international team that recently published a groundbreaking paper on epidermal regeneration in a pediatric patient with epidermolysis bullosa. The new paper reported an innovative combination stem cell-gene therapy approach to this terrible disease. I reviewed the paper here in journal club style. The manuscript is an important starting point in new therapy development. It’s the kind of work that is very risky and needs to be done in a meticulous way. Dr. De Luca is one of the few people in the world who could have led this work."
Knoepfler is the sole arbiter on the award but does ask his readers to indicate their preference. In the case of DeLuca, he received 2.98 percent of votes cast. 

Knoepfler started the awards in 2012 with an initial prize of $1,000. Sphere: Related Content