March 19, 2015 | by Nicole White
In the field of cancer, patients have had surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy as options. Now, as City of Hope officially opens the Alpha Clinic for Cellular Therapy and Innovation, patients battling cancer and other life-threatening diseases have another option: stem-cell-based therapy.
The Alpha Clinic, which officially opened March 19, is funded by an $8 million California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) grant. It will combine the uniquely patient-centered care for which City of Hope is known with the most innovative, stem-cell based therapies available to date. In short, the stem cell therapy clinic is expected to revolutionize not just the treatment of cancer, but also AIDS and other life-threatening diseases. “We are in a new era of cellular therapy,” said John Zaia, M.D., the Aaron D. Miller and Edith Miller Chair in Gene Therapy, chair of the Department of Virology at City of Hope, and principal investigator for the stem cell therapy clinic. “The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine recognizes this, and they have been leading the field. Alpha Clinics like ours aim not only to provide research to benefit patients in the future, but get these innovative treatments running in real-life clinics to benefit patients now.”The launch of City of Hope’s Alpha Stem Cell Clinic comes a decade after Californians voted to found CIRM, making a commitment to investigate stem cell therapies in the laboratory. Now these therapies are ready for clinical trials, and City of Hope is home to one of three Alpha Clinics in the state. The other two are at the University of California San Diego and as a joint endeavor by the University of California Los Angeles and the University of California Irvine. City of Hope’s first trials will study cellular therapy for leukemia, as well as the use of neural stem cells to deliver treatments to brain tumors. The first trial is one of several similar studies in T cell immunotherapy in which patients’ own immune cells are modified to be able to recognize and fight cancer cells. Researchers hope the modified cells will be able to attack existing cancer, and also be able to attack the cancer again should it recur. Patients will also be able to enroll in a study that uses neural stem cells, which naturally home to tumor cells, as a delivery mechanism for cancer drugs. The cells are able to bring targeted therapies across the blood-brain barrier, and can potentially deliver drugs directly to tumor sites, eliminating toxicity. The Food and Drug Administration has already approved a new HIV trial that will be conducted at the clinic. This innovative approach uses “molecular scissors” known as zinc finger nuclease to edit HIV patients’ blood stem cells and remove a specific gene. Without that gene, the cells fail to produce a protein the virus requires to invade cells and replicate. The approach has the potential to eliminate HIV from the body. A new model for nursing In addition to revolutionizing the treatment of disease, the clinic will also change the model of nursing care in clinical trials. Only nurses specially trained in both patient care and research will work in the clinic, bringing together two disciplines in nursing that have traditionally been separate. These nurses will ensure that patients receive all possible appropriate therapies but that the care also meets the rigors of the clinical trials. “As we move forward with our Alpha Clinic, we will also be defining a new discipline in nursing of cellular therapy,” said Shirley Johnson, R.N., senior vice president, chief nursing and patient services officer at City of Hope. “This clinic is a unique opportunity to provide patients with the most leading-edge treatments while still giving them the compassionate comprehensive care City of Hope patients expect." The clinic launches officially with patients enrolling in its first two trials. Future trials will include T cell immunotherapy for other blood cancers, new brain cancer therapies, treatments for breast cancer metastases and ovarian cancer treatments. Zaia said the clinic also plans to work with City of Hope’s diabetes researchers to introduce treatments for diabetes, exploring both the potential of pancreatic stem cells and preventing the immune system from attacking insulin-producing cells. CIRM funded the clinic with an $8 million, five-year grant that will be supplemented by matching funds from City of Hope. ** Learn more about the Alpha Clinic for Cell Therapy and Innovation. ** Learn more about becoming a patient or getting a second opinion by visiting our website or by calling 800-826-HOPE (4673). You may also request a new patient appointment online. City of Hope staff will explain what's required for a consult at City of Hope and help you determine, before you come in, whether or not your insurance will pay for the appointment.