Stem cell agency okays $32 million in new awards

The California stem cell agency this week boosted the number of its clinical trials to 48 — an investment of $553 million — with the hope of producing its first widely available stem cell therapy and staving off its own demise.

In a 14-minute, telephonic meeting Thursday, directors of the agency ratified three new awards totalling $32 million and adding to the trials. The applications had been approved earlier behind closed doors by the agency’s out-of-state reviewers.

The brief meeting generated no fresh discussion about the financial future of the agency, which is unique in California history and operates with no oversight by the governor or the Legislature.

The action left the agency, known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), with $224 million in uncommitted funds, CIRM said in response to a query. The agency was provided with $3 billion when it was created in 2004 by California voters. The $224 million figure could rise $278 million with “recovery” from cancelled grants.

Nonetheless, CIRM expects to run out of cash for new awards by the end of 2019. It is attempting to raise $220 million privately to tide it over until November 2020, the date when voters may be asked to approved an additional $5 billion in bond funding.

Thursday’s brief meeting generated no fresh discussion about the financial future of the agency, which is unique in California history and operates with no oversight by the governor or the legislature. Nor was there any discussion of the applications for research funds.

CIRM said in a news release this morning that while the agency has backed 48 trials, only 42 are active. It has also funded early stage research in 11 additional projects that moved later into the “clinical trial stage” without additional CIRM support.

The directors made their award decisions Thursday based on a brief CIRM staff presentation and summaries of the reviews of the applications.

Links to the summaries, the winners and their awards are below. Go to the summaries by clicking on the application number. Updates on the status of CIRM research can also be found as it progresses by searching on the application number.Sangamo Therapeutics, Inc., of Richmond, Ca., was awarded $8 million to “test a new therapy (phase one/two) for beta-thalassemia, a severe form of anemia (lack of healthy red blood cells) caused by mutations in the beta hemoglobin gene.”

The agency said, “Patients with this genetic disorder require frequent blood transfusions for survival and have a life expectancy of only 30-50 years.”

The company, which announced a secondary stock offering of more than $200 million this week, is providing $15 million in co-financing. Its stock closed at $16.75 on Friday. Its 52-week high is $27.50 and its low $4.25.

The principal investigator is Edward Conner, chief medical officer of the firm, and the application number is CLIN2-11031

The company said in a news release that the work also involved Bioverativ.

Stanford University researchers received $12.3 million and provided $2.3 million in matching funds for a a phase one trial for a CAR-T therapy for “patients with B cell leukemias who have relapsed or are not responding after standard treatments, such as chemotherapy.”

Maria Millan, president of CIRM, said in the news release, “When a patient is told that their cancer has returned it can be devastating news. CAR-T cell therapy is an exciting and promising new approach that offers us a way to help patients fight back against a relapse, using their own cells to target and destroy the cancer.”

The principal investigator is Crystal Mackall and the application number is CLIN2-10846.

UC San Francisco researchers received $12 million (with no co-funding) for a phase one trial to test a treatment “to restore the defective immune system of children born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a genetic blood disorder in which even a mild infection can be fatal” and which is often known as “the bubble baby disease.”CIRM said it has”funded two other clinical trials targeting different approaches to different forms of SCID. In one, carried out by UCLA and Orchard Therapeutics, 50 children have been treated and all 50 are considered functionally cured.”
The principal researcher is Morton Cowan and the application number is CLIN2-10830.

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 appeared.  He has published more than 4,000 items on California stem cell matters in the past 11 years. 

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