Experts Discuss Advancements in Stem Cell Therapies at Second Annual Meeting

March 29, 2017 | by Michael Easterling

Zaia CIRM John Zaia, M.D.
The moving stories of patients who have benefited from stem cell therapies funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) were the focus of the second symposium of the institute’s Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network. City of Hope hosted more than 400 physicians and research scientists for the daylong symposium, which showcased some of the most successful clinical trials happening within the three Alpha Clinics at City of Hope, UC San Diego and UCLA in collaboration with UC Irvine.
The Alpha Clinics Network is only about two years old but is already running 35 different clinical trials involving hundreds of patients, 17 of which are being conducted at City of Hope. The goal of the conference was to discuss lessons learned and share best practices so that the number of trials and patients can continue to increase.
“CIRM’s Alpha Clinics are working day in and day out to find cures for such debilitating diseases as glioblastoma, leukemia and other cancers, as well as blinding eye diseases, spinal cord injuries, HIV, hemophilia, diabetes and other catastrophic conditions for which there are no current cures,” said John A. Zaia, M.D., the Aaron D. Miller and Edith Miller Chair in Gene Therapy, who is also director of the Center for Gene Therapy and principal investigator of the City of Hope Alpha Stem Cell Clinic. “This symposium brought us together to share the advancements we’ve made in delivering stem cell treatments to patients, and to discuss how we can accelerate their development.”
Christine Brown, Ph.D., Heritage Provider Network Professor in Immunotherapy and associate director of the City of Hope T Cell Therapeutics Research Lab, and her research partner, Chief of Neurosurgery and Brain Tumor Program Director Behnam Badie, M.D., reported on their successful treatment of glioblastoma patient Richard Grady, who was treated using chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy.
Kristin MacDonald also told her story to the gathered crowd. MacDonald was the first patient treated in a CIRM-funded stem cell trial for retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a rare disease that destroys vision. Considered legally blind, MacDonald received a stem cell transplant in her left eye and gained back some of her vision, an experience she described as “coming out of the darkness and into the light.”
The CIRM Board is also doing its part to pick up the pace, approving funding for up to two more Alpha Clinic sites.
“CIRM is a unique nexus for what the next 100 years looks like in biomedical research,” said Joseph Alvarnas, M.D., director of value-based analytics and associate clinical professor in the Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation at City of Hope.
“What happens next is trans-scientific," Alvarnas continued. "CIRM has taught us that we have a framework to answer questions that we can translate into concrete solutions for patients. HIV could be a curable disease. ALD  and other degenerative diseases could be conquered. Together, we are changing stem cells from a compelling abstract idea into something that is relatable and is changing people’s lives.”

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