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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