UCSD, other stem cell clinics get millions

Posted: October 24, 2014 at 12:43 am

UCSD oncologist/researcher Catriona Jamieson is principal investigator for the university's $8 million stem cell grant.

To speed up the quest to bring stem cell therapies to patients, a state agency on Thursday granted $8 million each to three academic medical centers pursuing "translational" work -- UC San Diego, UC Los Angeles and City of Hope in Duarte.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine voted 10-1 to fund the "alpha" stem cell clinics, which are intended to bring stem cell treatments to the public.

UC San Diego's proposal supports two stem cell-based clinical trials, both already underway. Catriona Jamieson, an oncologist at the university, is the principal investigator for the grant.

One, a treatment for Type 1 diabetes, was developed by San Diego's ViaCyte. The other, for spinal cord injuries, was developed by Geron of Menlo Park. Geron dropped the trial, but it was picked up by Neuralstem of Germantown, Md. In October, UCSD treated the first patient in the revived trial at the university's Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center.

The stem cell agency, commonly called CIRM, has focused heavily on basic research since its founding by California voters in 2004. But in recent years, the public has become more anxious to see the fruits of $3 billion in bond money given to the agency reach patients. The "alpha" clinics funded Thursday are part of that effort.

Early optimism that treatments would be quickly available was disappointed, mainly because issues of safety had to be resolved first. Therapies that actually place cells in the body posed new risks, because as living things, cells grow and can migrate. Embryonic stem cells can form tumors. Viacyte and Neuralstem grow replacement tissues from embryonic stem cells, so they needed to show that no unconverted cells would accidentally be introduced into the patient.

Skepticism has also grown over the ethics of CIRM officials, mainly regarding conflicts of interests. Many CIRM board members are chosen from institutions that get funded -- a feature written into the agency by Prop. 71. CIRM has adopted reforms to limit board members from voting in matters where they have conflicts. But CIRM's previous president, Alan Trounson, caused more controversy when he joined the board of CIRM-funded Stemcells Inc, just one week after departing the agency.

CIRM President Randy Mills, who replaced Trounson earlier this year, has tried to quell the controversy with new standards to prevent officials like Trounson from appearing to cash in on their agency role. And he has worked with the governing board to rethink how the agency's remaining funds can be best spent.

CIRM has invested heavily in San Diego stem cell programs, most notably contributing $43 million to a $127 million "collaboratory" building across from the Salk Institute in La Jolla. The Sanford Consortium, as it's called, brings together researchers from five institutions: UCSD, the Salk Institute, The Scripps Research Institute, the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute and the La Jolla Institute for Allergy & Immunology.

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UCSD, other stem cell clinics get millions

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