Spinal Cord Injury and Paralysis Community
The first speaker on the second day of the conference was Jonathan Thomas, chair of the Governing Board for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. This is the body that oversees $3 billion in stem cell funding created eight years ago by California voters. He said CIRM has the state at the “epicenter of stem cell research in the nation.” One could make the case that the state leads the world. He noted that 135 senior scientists moved their labs to California.
Thomas said $1.8 billion of the money has been spend; there are a dozen new science buildings (UC Santa Barbara just christened its Neuroscience Research Institute), and a cadre of trained people to do all the work. The money, from now on, is being directed toward clinical development and not so much for basic science. “We believe we are going to produce dramatic results,” Thomas said, referring to 38 diseases and conditions that are being targeted, including spinal cord injury.
CIRM recently awarded $20 million to StemCells, Inc. to fund preclinical studies on the company’s neural stem cell therapy, currently in a Phase I trial in Switzerland (I described this work last summer. More on this below.)
Previously, CIRM had loaned $25 million to Geron for its first-ever embryonic stem cell trial, abruptly halted a year ago due to financial constraints. Only five people had gotten the Geron cells. (CIRM got the money back.) Thomas also acknowledged recent news reports that two former CEOs of Geron, Tom Okarma and Mike West, had made an offer to shareholders to acquire the abandoned stem cell portfolio and, presumably, bring the clinical trial back to life.
With impeccable timing, just as Thomas described how “extremely disappointing” it was for CIRM to see Geron quit its trial midstream, in rolled Katy Sharify – the fifth and final patient to get the Geron stem cell transplant (at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose). Katy, 24, was that very morning marking the one-year anniversary of the car accident that paralyzed her. Later, I introduced her to Hans Keirstead, the Reeve-Irvine Center researcher whose basic stem cell science underpinned the Geron trial. He was thrilled to meet Katy and wondered, as anyone would, whether she had gotten any sort of benefit. The answer, said Katy, is no. Not yet, anyway.