California’s gene therapy effort is nation’s first

The science of gene therapy and health care, a concept illustration. (Image: Kentoh, via Shutterstock)

California today became the first state in the nation to launch itself into the sizzling field of gene therapy, backed by tens of millions of dollars and with the hope of creating treatments that could permanently cure afflictions ranging from hemophilia to cancer.

The move came today as the board of the $3 billion California stem cell agency opened its doors to funding gene therapy research that has reached the most advanced stage, clinical trials. The agency said that gene therapy — minus stem cells — is “valuable and worthy of pursuit.”

“This is where the science is going,” said Jeff Sheehy, chairman of the CIRM board’s Science Subcommittee, at hearing earlier this month,

The state stem cell program has allocated $143 million for research programs next year that could include gene therapy.

CIRM has budgeted $143 million for next year in two areas where the new gene therapy initiative could come into play

A document prepared by the leadership of the agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), said,  “For CIRM and the patients it aims to serve, it is vital to support technologies which prove to be highly complementary and augmenting to stem cells, such as gene therapy.”

Gene therapy treatments are expected to be quite expensive, with some forecasts running in the $1 million to $2 million range. Supporters of gene therapy argue that the cost is justified because gene therapy can be a total cure that would eliminate the need for also very expensive lifelong treatments of chronic diseases.

In its action today, the stem cell agency did not announce any specific research awards. Rather, it created a procedure for declaring that a gene therapy project with a regenerative element is a “vital research opportunity.”  That would allow CIRM to fund such a project under the terms of the ballot initiative that created the agency in 2004. Today’s action is the first time that the agency has acted to use the “vital opportunity” provision.

CIRM has budgeted $143 million for next year in two areas where the new gene therapy initiative could come into play, clinical trials along with translational research that is intended to advance basic research into clinical stages.

The agency’s new foray comes as its cash is running out. By the end of next year, it expects to have no more funding for new research. The agency is pinning its hopes of survival on a $200 million plus private fundraising effort this year and voter approval of a yet-to-be-written ballot initiative on the November 2020 ballot.

 Scott Gottlieb, head of the federal Food and Drug Administration(FDA), has described the field as “somewhat breathtaking.

The gene therapy field is moving swiftly and could generate a result that would resonate with voters and help to win approval of an additional $5 billion for CIRM.

CIRM board members have acknowledged that its new gene therapy effort will mean more competition for the state’s research dollars, including possibly less for stem cell research, which is the agency’s fundamental reason for being.

The agency, however, has already awarded millions of dollars for gene therapy research that has a stem cell link, including a program at UCLA that has led to a successful treatment for what is known as the “bubble boy syndrome.” However, that research has not yet moved into the marketplace.

The target of the UCLA treatment is an immune deficiency that is fatal and for which there is no successful treatment outside of the experimental trials that are still underway.

Bloomberg News has reported that Scott Gottlieb, head of the federal Food and Drug Administration(FDA), has described the field as “somewhat breathtaking.” More 500 experimental treatments are in the pipeline.

Gottlieb has said that he expects the FDA to approve 40 gene therapies by 2022 and possibly a cure for sickle cell anemia within 10 years. CIRM is deeply involved in a major national push on sickle cell supported by the National Institutes of Health.

Editor’s Note: David Jensen is a retired newsman who has followed the affairs of the $3 billion California stem cell agency since 2005 via his blog, the California Stem Cell Report, where this story first appeared. 

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