Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Multi-Billion Dollar Ballot Measure for California Stem Cell Agency in 2018?

California's $3 billion stem cell research effort is scheduled to run out of cash in three short years, but the likelihood seems to be increasing that voters will be asked again to come up with additional billions for the state's stem cell agency.

In fact, the chairman of the stem cell agency, Jonathan Thomas, is saying flatly this week that his predecessor, real investment investment banker Bob Klein, intends to place a funding measure on the November 2018 ballot.

Klein led the ballot initiative campaign in 2004 that created the unusual -- for a state -- stem cell research program, officially called the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). The agency is financed with cash that the state is borrowing. increasing total costs to roughly $6 billion because of the interest expense.
Jonathan Thomas, left, with Don Reed,
vice president of public policy, Americans
for Cures, Klein's advocacy group --
CIRM photo

Thomas' statement was contained in a letter to the governing board that recapped his work since he was elected by the board in 2011 to replace Klein. One section of the letter dealt with funding of the agency.

Thomas wrote,
"Bob has already announced that he intends to put a measure on the November 2018 ballot. We keep him updated on CIRM's progress so that he is fully informed."
Thomas added that he and two key CIRM staffers have "initiated discussions with a number of philanthropists and foundations interested in medical research who could be potential sources of funds to keep CIRM going in the event Bob's measure is not successful."

The California Stem Cell Report has queried Klein about his plans. The full text of his response will be carried when it is received.

Robert Klein, Americans for Cures
photo
Klein has publicly mentioned a possible bond measure in the past, most recently in 2014, including a figure as high as $5 billion. It is unclear whether he has spoken more specifically on the matter since then.

Klein maintains a stem cell advocacy group, Americans for Cures, which has an active web site and an impressive list of scientific advisors, including Irv Weissman of Stanford, Rusty Gage of the Salk Institute and Owen Witte of UCLA.

Klein's 2004 stem cell campaign cost $34 million to convince California voters that the state needed to begin its own human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research effort in the wake of then President Bush's restrictions on federal funding in that area. The campaign created the impression that cures were close at hand, according to opponents and media observers. The agency is yet to back a therapy that is available for widespread use.

The election of Donald Trump as president is widely expected to trigger new, Bush-like restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research that could create the same sort of climate that helped lead to the success of the 2004 ballot initiative in California.  Sphere: Related Content

Monday, December 05, 2016

California Approves $15 Million for Stem Cell Research Ranging from Arthritis to Alzheimer's, But Not Without a "Hair-Cut"

Highlights
Snafu in November
Ankasa whacked
Across-the-board cuts rejected

After a hiccup last month, the California stem cell agency today coughed up $15 million for a quartet of researchers looking into Alzheimer's disease, cartilage repair, arthritis and sickle cell disease, but not before lopping off a big chunk of one proposal.

Action by the governing board of the $3 billion agency came after a snafu at its Nov. 17 meeting. The proposals, all previously approved by the agency's reviewers, hit a roadblock when the budgeted cash was not enough to fund all four. The session last month also stalled as a result of quorum problems and research priorities.

Normally applications approved by reviewers during their closed-door sessions slip through the later public meetings of the agency board with no discussion. But this time around, reviewers approved the four applications, but gave one of the researchers a sizable, financial "hair cut."

Despite concerns about fairness and imposing new conditions on applicants, the board stripped $1.6 million from a $3.7 million application to develop a stem cell therapy for osteoarthritis by Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics of La Jolla.

The action came after the lead researcher, Jill Helms of Stanford, said her company would make up the shortfall.  She made the comment after being told she could re-submit the application, which was the last to come up for a vote. She indicated that she would prefer to pursue that route rather attempting a problematic and "onerous" re-application with a new set of reviewers early next year.

The other three applications were approved with full funding after a motion to cut all four by about 10 percent failed on a 1-9 vote with one board member abstaining. Board members used the term "hair cut" to describe the reductions, which the applicants would have to make up.

Helms' application was the only one in this round from a business. The others came from non-profit institutions.

Randy Mills, president of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine or CIRM as the stem cell agency is formally known, opposed the 10 percent cuts on all four awards. He said he and his staff did not want to see programs cut "on the fly." He said applicants were not told that they would have to come up with matching funds when they originally applied.

The other three researchers winning awards are Yadong Huang of the Gladstone Institutes, $6 million for Alzheimer's;  Mark Walters of Children's Hospital, Oakland, $4.5 million for sickle cell, and Denis Evseenko of USC, $2.5 million for cartilage repair.

All the awards went to researchers or institutions that have links to persons who sit on the 29-member board. Overall, about 90 percent of the money awarded by CIRM since 2004 has gone to institutions with ties to past or present board members. While board members set rules for funding and the scope of awards, they are not allowed, however, to vote on specific applications from institutions with which they are connected.  

Summaries of reviewers comments, scores and more can be found on this document from CIRM, which is based in Oakland.  Here is a link to the CIRM press release. Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Dubious Stem Cell Therapies Attract Coverage in California's Capital

The leading newspaper in California's state capital this weekend published a lengthy piece exploring the world of unproven stem cell therapies, including one being offered in its own backyard. 

Reporter Claudia Buck of The Sacramento Bee wrote,
"For long-suffering patients...stem cells offer tantalizing hope. In the last few years, more than 570 stem cell clinics have popped up nationwide, advertising treatment for a range of maladies, from autism and Alzheimer’s to neuropathy and Parkinson’s disease, according to a recent UC Davis study. About 113 of those are operating in California. 
"But do they really work? According to most stem cell experts and the federal government, there’s no way to know yet."
Buck quoted Kevin McCormack, spokesman for the California stem cell agency, as saying,
“It’s quite clear that these people are offering treatments that haven’t been tested in clinical trials. It’s a little concerning,”
Buck wrote,
"'My view is that it’s a giant human experiment that doesn’t have FDA approval,' said Paul Knoepfler, a UC Davis stem cell expert, who co-authored the study identifying the 570 clinics. 'I don’t know how much patients are aware of how uncertain the benefits and risks are. As a scientist, it’s worrisome.'"
Knoepfler, who publishes a blog on stem cell matters, has written in the past about advertising in The Bee by a stem cell business called Nervana. The firm was mentioned in Buck's article, which, however, did not note that Nervana has taken out full page advertisements in the past in The Bee.

Knoepfler's most recent piece on Oct. 21 also noted that the firm had taken out a full page ad in the San Diego Union Tribune as well.  The UC Davis researcher said at the time,
"I don’t believe there is a solid, medical or scientific basis for what they are selling."
Sphere: Related Content

Stem Cell Suspense to End Dec. 5 for Four California Researchers

Four California stem cell researchers could well receive a total of $16.6 million in awards next week from the Golden State's 12-year-old stem cell program.

The researchers were caught in a bit of a snafu earlier in November when the $3 billion agency appeared to come up $1.6 million short. The story about the snag also involved quorums, priorities and fiscal discipline, more than is necessary to discuss right here in this item. But you can read all about it here. 

The two researchers identified so far are Yadong Huang of the Gladstone Institutes, Jill Helms of Stanford and Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics of La Jolla.  The identities of the others are being withheld by the stem cell agency.

Whether all four will receive funding will be determined on Monday Dec. 5 when the stem cell agency's board will hold a telephonic meeting out of its base in Oakland. The agenda gave no indication of how the agency plans to overcome the difficulties that stymied it on Nov. 17.

The public can attend the meeting at the agency's headquarters in Oakland or from telephonic locations in Napa, Beverly Hills, Elk Grove, Los Gatos, Irvine, Sacramento and two each in South San Francisco and San Diego.

The session is also expected to be audiocast on the Internet. More information and addresses can be found on the agenda. Sphere: Related Content

Monday, November 21, 2016

Quartet of Researchers Snagged in Budgeting, Parliamentary Web at $3 Billion California Stem Cell Agency

Highlights
Fiscal discipline at CIRM
The 10 percent solution
A quorum shortage pops up

Four California scientists who are ready to kick off highly rated projects to treat everything from Alzheimer's to rotting jaw bones became tangled last week in a financial and procedural briar patch involving the directors of the $3 billion California stem cell agency.

The basic problem, however, was simple. Money.

The agency had budgeted only $15 million for this latest round of awards last Thursday. But the four applications -- already approved by the agency's reviewers -- totalled $16.6 million. Typically, the agency's full board rubber stamps in public the decisions of its reviewers, who act behind closed doors without disclosing their economic or professional interests. The board has reversed approvals by reviewers on only four occasions out of hundreds of awards over the past 12 years, according to the agency.

Last week, the chairman of the agency, Jonathan Thomas, began the public discussion by declaring that the board should go through the applications one by one and vote on them. When the money ran out, that would finish action on funding for November.

Fiscal discipline was cited as the main reason for such a course.

Steve Juelsgaard 
Wait a minute, said Steve Juelsgaard, a member of the board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known. He asked for the amount of
funding already being provided for the afflictions targeted by the proposals. If research in a particular area was already heavily supported, perhaps approving another award in that area was not necessary, Juelsgaard reasoned. However, the agency staff could not provide those figures at the time of the meeting.

A lengthy discussion followed involving several scenarios. One would have cut each award by 10 percent but approve all four.  But that could mean that the proposals would be altered from the versions that were approved by the reviewers. (However, the board is not legally required to accept what the reviewers decide.  Under the terms of the ballot initiative that created the agency, the board has the final say, which is part of the justification for not publicly disclosing the economic interests of reviewers.)

Another proposal would have simply increased the funding for the round. That could not be acted on because it required 10 days advance public notice.

The board ultimately approved a Juelsgaard motion to slice roughly 10 percent from each award with the condition that applicants come up with matching funds to bring the total to the level approved by reviewers.

Yadong Huang, Gladstone photo
One applicant, Yadong Huang from the Gladstone Institutes, said, however, that non-profit research organizations were already hard-pressed and could not necessarily come up additional cash. His $5.9 million application (TRAN1-09394) was top-ranked by reviewers and targeted Alzheimer's.

Jill Helms, Linked In photo
Another applicant, Jill Helms, chief scientific officer of Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics, Inc., of La Jolla, spoke on behalf of the company's application (TRAN1-09270) to target osteonecrosis, an affliction that "causes jaw bones to rot and thigh bones to snap." She urged the board to give priority to applications that already had co-funding. Her $3.7 million application contained a 20 percent co-funding component.

Helms, who is also a Stanford University medical school professor, unsuccessfully asked the CIRM board in 2015 to overturn a negative recommendation by reviewers.

During the two-hour telephonic meeting, the board did approve conditionally two awards under the matching-fund requirement. They were for the Alzheimers proposal and one dealing with sickle cell disease (TRAN1-09292).  The identity of the chief scientist on the sickle cell proposal was not disclosed by the agency under its longstanding policy and tradition within the research field.

Jeff Sheehy, Science photo
The board failed to complete action on the two others because it  lost the quorum that is required to do business legally. That came after a motion by board member Jeff Sheehy to reject one of the four applications failed on a 3-8 vote. Sheehy said another related proposal was already being funded by the agency and that the time to translate the research into a therapy  "would be enormous." The $2.5 million application  (TRAN1-09288) up for consideration last week involved cartilage repair.

Thursday's meeting was being conducted telephonically. After Sheehy lost his motion, he did not respond to telephonic queries from the board. The meeting was nearing its scheduled end at noon. Other board members also failed to respond, and the meeting was adjourned minutes later.

Juelsgaard and some other members said it was important for board members to stick around for the full meetings. Juelsgaard said,
"For gosh sakes, this is something that you signed up to do."
Termination of CIRM board business because of quorum problems regularly occurred some years ago. (See herehere and here.) But since Thomas has been chairman the issue has rarely popped up.

Thomas indicated the board would try to schedule a special telephonic meeting to deal with the four applications. It also has a face-to-face meeting scheduled for Dec. 13 in Oakland. Both meetings legally require 10 days advance notice.

The review summaries on the applications are consolidated in this CIRM document along with their scores and more information.
Sphere: Related Content

Friday, November 18, 2016

$3 Billion California Stem Cell Agency Now Involved in 23 Clinical Trials

The California stem cell agency yesterday pumped $38 million into three clinical trials with the hope that it will lead to therapies for colorectal cancer, "bubble boy" syndrome and a form of high blood pressure.

The action brought to 23 the number of current clinical trials in which the $3 billion agency is participating via funding in whole or in part, according to information on its Web site. It is hoping that one of those trials will produce its first widely available stem cell therapy.

The trials deal with afflictions ranging from HIV and Huntington's Disease to blindness and skin cancer.

The agency's cash for new awards will run out in about three years. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known, has been in business since 2004 when voters created the agency through a ballot initiative.

Yesterday's funding was expected and largely reported earlier this week by the California Stem Cell Report (see here and here). Yesterday, the agency's board simply ratified -- in a matter of minutes -- decisions in October by its grant review group, which makes the de facto decisions on awards behind closed doors and without publicly disclosing the economic and professional interests of reviewers.

Here is a link to the press release from the agency and a link to its blog item. Here are links to the review summaries of each proposal: colorectal, bubble boy and blood pressure.

The summaries were the only information that the board had in approving the three grants.

During its telephonic meeting yesterday, the board also became entangled in a budgeting and priorities debate involving four translational research proposals, all of which the agency now says are hanging fire. An effort is being made to schedule a special board meeting soon to deal with the issue, but it requires 10-days advance public notice. The California Stem Cell Report will have a full report later on the situation. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Correction

The $20 million "bubble boy" item on Nov. 16, 2016, incorrectly reported that co-funding on the award totalled $8.9 million. The correct figure is $18.2 million. Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

California Pumping $20 Million into Stem Cell/Gene Therapy for 'Bubble Boy' Syndrome

June 2016 video from UCLA

Highlights
30 out of 30 cured
$18.2 million in matching funds
Cells to be frozen
UK's Orchard Therapeutics partnering

California's stem cell agency is ready to award $20 million on Thursday to a UCLA researcher to assist in his 30-year search for a widely available cure for what has come to be known as the "bubble boy" syndrome-- severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID).

The California scientist is Donald Kohn, of the Broad Stem Cell Research Center at UCLA, who said today that 30 out of 30 babies have already been cured using his type of therapy. Kohn said that the research involving the extremely rare disease could lead to progress in treating other afflictions ranging from sickle cell disease to cancer.

The progress in treating the "bubble boy" disease is much changed from decades ago when the case of David Vetter captured the nation's attention as the boy who was "born into a world he could not touch."  He ultimately died at the age of 12. (This item continues below video.)

Kohn's proposal for an early stage clinical trial would be co-funded with $18.2 million and would test a stem cell and gene product known as OTL-101. It could replace what the stem cell agency said were the "suboptimal," current treatments for  Adenosine Deaminase Severe Combined Immunodeficiency.

The affliction is extremely rare and occurs in less than one in 100,000 births worldwide, according to Wikipedia. Without treatment, children can die before the age of two.

The agency's application review summary said that reviewers were "highly enthusiastic" about Kohn's proposal during their closed-door session last month. The summary said that reviewers, who are from out-of-state and do not publicly disclose their economic interests, "applauded the move to a cryopreserved product that will allow improved patient access to the therapy." They also noted that the costs of the trial are "exceedingly high."

In response to a query by the California Stem Cell Report, Kohn said today via email, 
"Building upon the previous success of our single-site trials for ADA SCID, which have resulted in 30 out of 30 babies cured, our next trial will focus on developing a cryopreserved formulation of the cell product. 
"This has several potential advantages. It will allow the cell product to undergo full testing before the transplant is performed, whereas currently we only have stat viability, sterility and endotoxin assay results, with gene transfer efficiency measurements coming later.
"Additionally, it provides more time to split up the dosing of the conditioning chemotherapy and individually adjust the total dose based on measurement of the individual patient's unique drug clearance activity.
"Finally, this will allow centralization of cell processing, allowing patients to remain at their local hospital for the treatment, with the stem cells traveling to a commercial cell processing site, gene-corrected, frozen and shipped back to their hospital for infusion."
The agency's board is virtually certain to ratify the decision of reviewers at its telephonic meeting on Thursday. It has almost never overturned a positive recommendation by reviewers. 

The agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), did not release Kohn's name in advance of the Thursday meeting. Its policy, with some notable exceptions, is to withhold that information until the pro forma vote by its governing board. The California Stem Cell Report identified Kohn as the recipient through a number of public documents. The UCLA researcher has already received $32 million from CIRM for his work. 

Kohn has teamed with Orchard Therapeutics Ltd. of Britain, a firm that began operations last May with a $33 million war chest. Kohn is one of the scientific advisors to the company. He said today: 
"This study is being done at the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center in partnership with Orchard Therapeutics Ltd., who have licensed this stem cell gene therapeutic from UCLA and University College London, UK. The general approach of stem cell gene therapy was first done for ADA SCID, which is a highly favorable disease for this treatment. Findings and advances made for this disorder are being applied to many other inherited diseases, such as Sickle Cell Disease, other Primary Immune Deficiencies, Storage and Metabolic Diseases, as well as HIV/AIDS, cancer and leukemia."
The process uses a patient’s own stem cells. Earlier this year, the company said that the cells are "modified with a functioning copy of the missing or faulty gene before being transplanted back into the patient’s body. The use of the patient’s own cells (autologous) removes the need to search for a matching stem cell donor, which can take months or even years," the company said.

Should the treatment emerge successfully from the clinical trials, it will face competition from a rival developed by GlaxoSmithKline that has been approved for use in Europe at a reported cost of $665,000 per patient. Glaxo is expected to seek approval next year for use of the treatment in the United States, which has only about 12 new cases a year, according to the STAT health science news service. However, a document from the U.S. Center for Disease Control places incidence at 40 to 100 new cases each year. 

The public can participate in Thursday's meeting at locations in Oakland, San Francisco, San Diego, Napa, South San Francisco, San Francisco, Beverly Hills, Fresno, Elk Grove, Los Gatos, Sacramento, and Irvine.  It is also being audiocast on the internet. Instructions and addresses can be found on the agenda.

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this item incorrectly reported that co-funding on this award totalled $8.9 million. The correct figure is $18.9 million.)
Sphere: Related Content