Stem cell: Arthritic knee research in $33 million award

A stem cell researcher at work. (Photo: 18percentgrey, via Shutterstock)

The California stem cell agency has awarded $33 million for clinical trial research, but not before some governing board members questioned the appropriateness of backing an effort to treat osteoarthritis of the knee.

The awards on Thursday bring to 43 the number of clinical trials funded by the stem cell agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). The agency is pushing hard to fulfill the promise of the 2004 ballot campaign that created the $3 billion effort. Clinical trials are the last stage before a treatment can win federal approval.

The agency expects to run out of money in mid 2020, but so far has failed to back research that has resulted in a therapy that is available for widespread use.

At today’s telephonic CIRM board meeting, the arthritis research by La Jolla’s California Institute for Biomedical Research encountered opposition from some members of the board who expressed concern that it did not square with the mission of the agency.

At issue was the use of a small molecule drug, KA34, to stimulate stem cells to create new cartilage in knees. Jeff Sheehy, a board member and San Francisco county supervisor, said small molecule development is widely done already by the pharmaceutical industry. Noting that the research is a treatment and not a cure, he said funding the arthritis award would mean not funding other research that would be more focused on direct stem cell cures.

Art Torres, vice chairman of the board and a former state senator, supported the application, declaring that “if we can show we are finding some treatment we may be moving forward to getting support in other ways.”

Both men have suffered from severe knee problems.  About one in five persons over 45 are afflicted with arthritis of the knee.

The vote by the board on the application, which involves a phase one safety trial, was 9-5. Last month, the agency’s grant reviewers, meeting behind closed doors last month, approved the award following a more detailed examination of the proposal.

It was the third CIRM award for the San Diego not-for-profit firm, which has already received $4 million for work on arthritis.

The largest award, $19.8 million, went to another San Diego area firm, Poseida Therapeutics.  A CIRM news release on today’s action said the research will test “the safety of a gene modified cell therapy to treat multiple myeloma, the abnormal growth of malignant plasma cells of the immune system.”

Maria Millan, president of the stem cell agency, said,  “Multiple myeloma disproportionately affects people over the age of 65 and African Americans, and it leads to progressive bone destruction, severe anemia, infectious complications and kidney and heart damage from abnormal proteins produced by the malignant plasma cells. Less than half of patients with multiple myeloma live beyond 5 years.”

About 12,590 deaths are expected from multiple myeloma this year in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. The award was the first for Poseida from CIRM. The company is providing $8.6 million in co-funding.

Like all the awards today, the Poseida award was approved earlier in a closed door meeting by reviewers who do not have to publicly disclose their economic or professional conflicts of interest.

There was no board discussion today of the Poseida award nor of the third award, $4.8 million to Childrens’ Hospital of Los Angeles. Its phase one trial involves testing the feasibility of using engineered T-cells to fight viruses that can kill patients with weakened immune systems. Those patients include persons undergoing chemotherapy, bone marrow or cord blood transplants.

Childrens’ Hospital Los Angeles earlier had received $26.3 million from the agency.

The agency has helped to finance 16 clinical trials in 2017 alone. Whether it will continue at this pace in 2018 is expected to be discussed at its December board meeting.  Some board members have indicated it would be of some benefit to slow the pace of funding to extend the life of the agency.

Here is a link to the overall staff presentation on the applications. Here are links to the summaries of the grant reviewers’ comments:

–Childrens’ Hospital application CLIN2-10392

More information on the Poseida clinical trial, which is now recruiting, can be found here. More information on all the agency’s clinical trials can be found on CIRM’s Clinical Dashboard.

Ed’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 appearedHe has published more than 4,000 items on California stem cell matters in the past 11 years.

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