Monday, September 10, 2012

Another First

This blog has on several occasions noted how the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine  (CIRM) – established primarily to fund human embryonic stem cell research (hESCR)—has instead in recent years been directing more and more of its grants towards adult and other non-embryonic research projects. 

Among the many categories of grants awarded by CIRM is the Disease Team Research Awards.  This category was specifically established to fund projects that have the most promise of actually leading to clinical trails.  The first grants from this category were awarded in October, 2009.  As reported in a previous blog, of the 14 grants awarded, only four went to projects using embryonic stem cells.  In dollar terms, of the $250 million awarded in total, only $71.5 million went to the 4 hESCR projects; the rest went to adult and other non-embryonic stem cell research projects.  Clearly, in 2009 CIRM believed such avenues of research offered far more promise of resulting in clinical trials than hESCR.

And it turns out, that belief was not mistaken.

The first CIRM-funded research project to reach clinical trial was recently announced: to use adult stem cells to treat heart disease.  The researchers had received their funding under the above mentioned October, 2009 round of Disease Team Research Awards.

The FDA approval was a “critical step in testing promising therapies in patients,” Ellen Feigal, MD, Senior Vice President for Research and Development at CIRM, said. “It’s a reflection of the initial progress being made in advancing scientific discoveries towards potential therapies for patients.”

The numbers also tell an interesting story.  The four hESCR projects that received funding during that same October 2009 round of grants received between $15 million and $20 million each.  In marked contrast, the adult stem cell project that first reached clinical trial received far less.  In fact, it received the smallest amount of all the projects funded under this round -- $5.5 million, or three to four times less than the hESCR projects.  Yet it has proved the most promising.

Halfway into CIRM’s 10-year lifespan, some have questioned whether it has a future given the way it has fallen far short of the hype and misplaced promises about therapies from hESCR.  The FDA approval of the CIRM-backed adult stem cell research project is in this regard a much needed first for the Institute.

It just wasn’t a first that hESCR proponents predicted or expected.  

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