Last Thursday night, at the monthly Mayor’s Conference, the speaker was former State Senator Art Torrez. In March 2009, Senator Torres was elected statutory Vice Chair of the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee, the governing Board of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). CIRM, established in 2005 following the passage of Proposition 71: the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative, is charged with allocating $3 billion to California universities and research institutions to support and advance stem cell research.
Proposition 71 allocated a total of $3 billion. Of that $3 billion, Prop 71 around $2.75 billion was set aside to be awarded to directly to research, facilities and training the next generation of stem cell scientists (see graph at left). The remainder was then earmarked for staff and administration to help oversee the funding and awards.
CIRM’s governing Board has awarded $1.9B to different institutions, companies and researchers but only $1.4B of that has gone out. Of the remainder, it is estimated that about $100M will be returned to CIRM, either from cost savings as the projects progress or from programs that are cancelled because they failed to meet their goals.
Increasingly, CIRM’s focus has been on moving projects out of the lab and into the clinic. Senator Torres left us a list of treatments approved for testing in patients. Here are some of the trials:
HIV/AIDS: The company Calimmune is genetically modifying patient’s own blood-forming stem cells so that they can produce immune cells – the ones normally destroyed by the virus – that cannot be infected by the virus. It is hoped this will allow the patients to clear their systems of the virus, effectively curing the disease.
Retinitis Pigmentosa: A team at the University of California, Irvine, is using fetal cells called retinal progenitor cells that can help preserve photo receptors in Retinitis Pigmentosa as well as generate replacement photo receptors for those already destroyed by the disease.
Heart Disease: The company Capricor is using donor cells derived from heart stem cells to treat patients developing heart failure after a heart attack. In early studies the cells appear to reduce scar tissue, promote blood vessel growth and improve heart function.
Solid Tumors: A team at the University of California, Los Angeles, has developed a drug that seeks out and destroys cancer stem cells, which are considered by many to be the reason cancers resist treatment and recur. It is believed that eliminating the cancer stem cells may lead to long-term cures.
Leukemia: A team at the University of California, San Diego, is using a protein called an antibody to target cancer stem cells. The antibody senses and attaches to a protein on the surface of cancer stem cells. That disables the protein, which slows the growth of the leukemia and makes it more vulnerable to other anti-cancer drugs.
Sickle Cell Anemia: A team at the University of California, Los Angles, is genetically modifying a patient’s own blood stem cells so they will produce a correct version of hemoglobin, the oxygen carrying protein that is mutated on these patients, which causes an abnormal sickle-like shape to the red blood cells. These misshapen cells lead to dangerous blood clots and debilitating pain. The genetically modified stem cells will be given back to the patient to create a new sickle cell-free blood supply.
Diabetes: The company ViaCyte is growing cells in a permeable pouch that when implanted under the skin can sense blood sugar and produce the levels of insulin needed to eliminate the symptoms of diabetes. They start with embryonic stem cells, mature them part way to becoming pancreas tissues and insert them into the permeable pouch. When transplanted in the patient, the cells fully develop into the cells needed for proper metabolism of sugar and restore it to a healthy level.