Thursday, May 28, 2015

NeoStem Stock Price Falls 22 Percent as It Seeks to Match California Stem Cell Grant

NeoStem, Inc., has had a wild financial ride this past week with its stock price soaring and then plummeting in the wake of a nearly $18 million award last Thursday from the California stem cell agency.

The share price of the New York firm dropped 22 percent today after it announced that it was seeking to raise $25 million by selling 12.5 million shares. The move is aimed at helping to finance its stage three melanoma trial. Terms of the California award require a dollar-for-dollar match of the agency’s funds for the trial.

The market was not happy with the company’s plans to sell more of its stock at a possible price of $2.00 share. The stock today closed at $2.06. Last Thursday it closed at $2.95, up 28 percent for the day. Its 52-week performance has ranged from a low of $2.03 to a high of $7.23.

The Street web site today was critical of the firm, giving its stock a D-minus rating and recommended selling it.  The Street said,
“This is driven by a number of negative factors, which we believe should have a greater impact than any strengths, and could make it more difficult for investors to achieve positive results compared to most of the stocks we cover. The company's weaknesses can be seen in multiple areas, such as its deteriorating net income and generally disappointing historical performance in the stock itself."
Last week, some stem cell agency board members raised questions about the financing of the trial. Steve Juelsgaard, former executive vice president of Genentech, asked about the company’s “plan B.”
David Mazzo, NeoStem photo

David Mazzo, CEO of NeoStem, responded by mentioning a possible stock sale and also said the firm had a $30 million equity line of credit.

The company plans to conclude its stock sale on June 2. The stem cell award is on a fast-track to deliver cash to the company within 45 days of approval of the grant. But that requires evidence of the matching funds.

The prospectus for the offering says the four-year trial will cost $25 million, but one analyst says it could cost as up $51 million.  The prospectus also indicated some of the money raised next week could go for purposes other than the melanoma trial.
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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

$15 Million for Calimmune and California Stem Cell HIV Trial

Calimmune, Inc., which has received $8.3 million from the California stem cell agency, today announced it has rustled up another $15 million to help out with the work that the agency is backing.

Calimmune of Tucson, Ariz., was co-founded by a former agency board member and Nobel Prize winner David Baltimore. It is currently engaged in a clinical trial in Los Angeles and San Francisco involving a treatment for HIV.

John Carroll, writing on Fierce Biotech, said,
“Calimmune hasn't had much of a profile outside of the HIV world, but (CEO Louis) Breton is looking to change that. The company has a staff of 40 now, he says, and is looking to expand and possibly strike a partnership deal with a Big Pharma in the space. And unlike some of the leading gene therapy companies in the industry which are targeting tiny populations, Calimmune is tackling a treatment for a disease with a huge, global population of patients. Discussions about million-dollar therapies, he says, won't work for something like HIV. 
"‘Our mission,’ says Breton, ‘is to provide broad capacity; democratize gene therapy for the masses.’"
Calimmune said the latest investors include a “large pharmaceutical company” and Alexandria Venture Investments of Pasadena, Ca. They are in addition to original investors, RA Capital Healthcare Fund LP and Translational Accelerator LLC.

Carroll is right about Calimmune’s low profile. From its earliest days, it has declined to disclose such things as the number of employees. The figure of 40 that was cited by Carroll was the first time it has been disclosed.

(See herehere and here for more information on Calimmune.)

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Cedars-Sinai Researcher Snags $5 Million for Stem Cell Eye Research

Another winner in last week's California stem cell awards was scientist Shaomei Wang of Cedars-Sinai, who will receive nearly $5 million for her work to find a treatment for retinitis pigmentosa. 

Shaomei Wang, Cedars photo
The board last Thursday ratified the decision of 15 reviewers who unanimously approved the Wang application. It was one of two awards approved in the first round of CIRM 2.0, the new effort by the agency to speed cash to researchers. It was the first agency award to Wang.

(The other award last week was for nearly $18 million to NeoStem, Inc., of  New York.)

CIRM, as the agency is known, said in a press release that the funds will go for "the late-stage research needed to apply to the Food and Drug Administration for approval for a clinical trial in people. The therapy will involve injecting neural progenitor cells under the retina at the back of the eye. The hope is that this will slow or even halt the progress of the disease."

The press release oddly, however, did not identify Wang as the recipient, only mentioning that the award went to Cedars. In the past, the agency has identified researchers by name in award press releases and has provided information that has included links to summary information about the research.  

Cedars has been awarded $43 million by the agency, not including the latest $5 million. It has had a representative on the CIRM governing board since its inception as do nearly all of the recipients of funds from the $3 billion state program.

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Texas Scientist to Lead Melanoma Study Backed by $18 Million from California

NeoStem, Inc., yes­­­terday announced that University of Texas researcher Merrick Ross will lead the skin cancer clinical trial that California has backed with nearly$18 million.

Ross is a professor of surgery and chief of the Melanoma Section, Department of Surgical Oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Ross also has a California tie. He held a research fellowship in 1984 at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, but virtually all of his career has been in Texas.

NeoStem says the stage three clinical trial will have seven sites in California. It is currently recruiting patients for the 4-year effort for a treatment for metastatic melanoma. It is calling the program the “Intus Study.” 

The firm says patients must be 18 or over have “recurrent metastatic melanoma (Stage III) or distant metastases (Stage IV).” Other requirements must be met. Initial outcomes are scheduled to be reported in January 2017.

Interested persons can find more information here and here.
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Monday, May 25, 2015

NeoStem Sees Whopping Jump in Stock Price on $18 Million Backing from California

A graphic depiction of trading on NeoStem stock last week.
Google chart
The stock price of NeoStem, Inc., shot up 28 percent in one day last week after the California stem cell agency approved a nearly $18 million grant to the firm for a potential therapy that “teaches the immune system which cells to attack and kill.”

The governing board of the state research effort awarded the funds on Thursday May 21. The grant is to assist in a third stage clinical trial involving a treatment for metastatic melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. Following the approval, NeoStem’s stock soared from $2.30 to close at $2.95.

The California Stem Cell Report first disclosed the agency’s virtually certain action on Tuesday May 19.

It was an obvious boon for the New York-based company whose CEO, David Mazzo, told the board that the award would help to raise more cash to finance the trial which is expected to cost $45 million to $51 million, according to analyst Yi Chen of H.C. Wainwright.

For the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the stem cell agency is formally known, it will be the first time that it has plunged into a stage three trial and the closest it has come to actually bringing a therapy to market.

Jonathan Thomas, chairman of the $3 billion agency, told the board on Thursday that the NeoStem project has “the greatest chance of success for the people of California that we have funded.”

The agency was created in 2004 when voters approved a ballot initiative whose backers raised expectations of quick development of stem cell therapies. The agency has committed more than $1.9 billion for research. Its money for new awards is expected to run out in 2020.

NeoStem, which has operations in Mountain View and Irvine in California, issued a press release hailing the award. The company called the action a “significant endorsement” of its approach which it said has potential application in other types of cancer.
  
The release quoted Randy Mills, president of the agency and former head of Osiris Therapeutics of Maryland, as saying cash would start flowing to NeoStem in 45 days. He continued,
“But that's just the start. We are not just providing financial support; we are also partnering with these groups to provide expertise, guidance and other kinds of support that these teams need to help them be successful.”

Under a new scoring system introduced by Mills, the agency’s blue-ribbon reviewers voted 6-3-5 to fund the program with the three saying the application needed improvement. That action occurred behind closed doors weeks before last Thursday’s meeting when the board ratified the reviewers’ decision on an 11-0 vote. One CIRM board member, Leon Fine of Cedars Sinai, said that one perspective on the reviewers’ voting could be that eight persons thought the application needed more work or should be rejected.

Board member Steven Juelsgaard, former executive vice president of Genentech, raised questions about what might happen if the board rejected the NeoStem application, given that it has only $19 million on hand at last report. Juelsgaard said that was not sufficient to complete the trial.

Mills declined to speculate on what the company might do.

Juelsgaard returned to the subject a few minutes later when Mazzo addressed the board and asked Mazzo about the company’s “Plan B.” Mazzo said the company could go to the “capital markets.” He also said the company had recently negotiated a $30 million equity line of credit.

Mazzo said that the firm is constantly looking for funds and that the CIRM grant would go “a long ways to advancing the trial.”

The vagaries of the marketplace do, however, play a role in the investment community’s view of the company. After the stock jumped 28 percent on Thursday, it dropped 2 percent on Friday.
The 52-week low for the stock is $2.15 and the high is $7.23.


The trial is currently seeking enrollees worldwide, including at seven sites in California. 
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UC Davis Stem Cell Program Cited in Sacramento Bee

Here is one of the photos run by The Bee today with a story
about the UC Davis stem cell program.
The Sacramento Bee today published an article on the rise of UC Davis as a major stem cell research center, largely with a $130 million assist from California’s stem cell agency.

The news article was written by the editor of this blog, David Jensen, on a freelance basis. At the time of this writing, the article ranked No. 1 out of 81,000 results on a Google news search using the term “California stem cell.” 

While the piece focuses on UC Davis, a similar impact has been felt at UC Santa Barbara, whose stem cell program has also benefited greatly from CIRM largess.
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Thursday, May 21, 2015

CIRM Directors Coverage Delayed

Today's meeting of the directors of the $3 billion California stem cell agency will not be covered live by the California Stem Cell Report. Look for a reprise of the session in the coming weeks. Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

NeoStem Up For $18 Million Melanoma Award from California

California's stem cell agency is expected to make an $18 million bet this week on a treatment by NeoStem, Inc., for a skin cancer that kills 10,000 persons a year in the United States alone.

Up for approval on Thursday is the company's application for an award to assist in a late stage trial that could produce a commercial product before the agency is expected to run out of money in 2020.

NeoStem is based in New York city but has operations in Irvine and Mountain View in California. It acquired California Stem Cell, Inc., in Irvine in April of 2014 for $124 million. California Stem Cell was founded by Hans Kierstead of UC Irvine, who is now president of NeoStem Oncology.

The $3 billion agency did not disclose the name of the company in keeping with its longstanding practice of concealing the identity of applicants.

However, company documents and SEC filings indicated that NeoStem was the applicant. It would be the first award by the agency to Neostem, which is a publicly traded firm.  

The summary of the agency's review posted on its Web site said the funds would go for completion of a stage three trial for a tumor stem cell-targeted immunotherapy for metastatic melanoma, which accounts for 20,000 new cases annually.

The review cited "compelling results" from the phase two stage of the trial. NeoStem has reported separately that its stage two trial had a 72 percent survival rate after two years compared to 31 percent for the control group.

NeoStem said in SEC filings that the treatment is for the most lethal form of skin cancer and has estimated market size of $1 billion.

Helping to develop a marketable product would be a big score for the agency, which has yet to fund a commerical therapy after 10 years and $1.9 billion.

Its money for new awards will run out in 2020 at its current spending rate. No additional funding sources for the agency have surfaced at this point. Being able to cite development of a commercial therapy would be likely to generate considerable enthusiasm for the agency's continued work.

Both reviewers and the CIRM staff recommended approval of the NeoStem application at the CIRM governing board meeting on Thursday.

The action came on a split vote among reviewers, 6-3-5, with six recommending funding and five against funding, according to a CIRM document.. Three reviewers said the application needed improvement.

"Reviewers considered the lack of mechanistic data and inadequate plan to gain understanding of therapeutic mechanism of action to be a major weakness and expressed concern regarding the ability of the applicant to enrol the proposal pivotal Ph3 (phase three) study as projected."
CIRM said, however, the vote and staff recommendation to fund the research "reflects both the high risk and the clear potential to impact unmet medical need."

The CIRM governing board almost never overturns approval of an award by its reviewers and staff.

The award would be one of the two first approved in CIRM's 2.0 program to fast-track cash to researchers, speed development of therapies and improve the quality of grant applications. The second award  -- $5 million -- is for work immediately leading up to a clinical trial for a therapy for retinitis pigmentosa. Shaomei Wang and Clive Svendsen at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles are the likely key figures in that research. Reviewers voted 15-0 to fund the work.   

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California Stem Cell Audit: Praise for Mills but More Work Needed on IP, Conflicts of Interest

The California stem cell agency this week received good marks for changes made by its new president, but it is also being told that it needs to improve how it tracks potential royalties and how it prevents grant reviewer conflicts of interest.

A "performance audit" by Moss-Adams, a Seattle business consulting firm, made 12 recommendations for the $3 billion research enterprise. One of the 12 was to implement the unfulfilled recommendations made by Moss-Adams three years ago.  Seven of the 24 from that audit still need more action, the firm said.

On Thursday, the agency's governing board is scheduled to discuss the latest audit at a meeting in Berkeley.  The study is required by state law every three years. The agency's scientific performance, however,  is specifically excluded from being examined. Moss-Adams is scheduled to receive $230,000 from the agency for the audit, which was for the 2013-14 year.

On Sunday, the California Stem Cell Report covered the deficiencies involving disclosures of the financial interests of grant reviewers.

Other areas of concern included the need for better tracking of intellectual property that could mean royalties for the state, more timely review of progress reports from grantees, more timely, formal evaluation of employees and keeping up-to-date on technology related to grant management and agency efficiency.

Under the subject of "commendations," Moss-Adams said that CIRM had "many strengths."  The consultant said the agency has made "significant strides" in three areas: the grant management system, grants process improvements and "organizational culture."

The grants process comment referred to CIRM 2.0, the fast-track funding program initiated by Randy Mills since he became president a year ago. The organizational culture commendation also involved Mills' efforts, but touched indirectly and delicately on the resignation of Robert Klein as chairman and the election of Jonathan Thomas to replace him in June of 2011. 

Moss-Adams reported "enhanced seamlessness" between the president's and chairman's offices. Proposition 71, which created the agency, dictated a controversial dual executive situation that has troubled the agency since its inception.

The audit found significant deficiencies involving the treatment of CIRM employees, some of which have been addressed in a positive way already by Mills. One example cited by the audit involved performance evaluations that are tied to pay increases. It said that evaluations that were scheduled to occur in 2013-14 did not actually take place until January of this year.  

Moss-Adams said the agency also needs to do better in monitoring and protecting its intellectual property (IP), which could generate royalties. Without tight tracking of the IP and inventions funded by CIRM research, the state could lose out on revenue. Backers of Proposition 71 told voters in 2004 that the state could receive more than $1 billion in royalties from CIRM research. So far, none has resulted. 

Moss-Adams said that royalties are now more possible because the agency is backing late stage research that is more likely to make it into the market place. 

Moss-Adams said more work was needed on implementing the seven recommendations from three years ago, including those involving IP, the transition plan to deal with the possible demise of the agency and a grants outcome database. 
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Five Public Sites Set for Thursday's Board Meeting of the California Stem Cell Agency

For those who want to participate in this Thursday's meeting of the governing board of the California stem cell agency, five public locations are available.

The actual meeting will be in Berkeley beginning at 9 a.m. PDT. Oher public locations will be in San Diego and Danbury, Conn., and at UC Irvine and Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.

Specific addresses can be found on the agenda for the meeting along with instructions on how to listen in on an audiocast. However, the audiocast does not provide the opportunity to comment.

Written comments to the board for the meeting can be emailed to mbonneville@cirm.ca.gov. Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Conflict-of-Interest Failings Reported in Application Reviews at California Stem Cell Agency

Conflict-of-interest issues have dogged the $3 billion California stem cell agency since its inception, and they are surfacing once again this week in a report commissioned by the agency itself.

This time the matter is being brought up by Moss-Adams, LLP, of Seattle, a business consulting firm that is being paid $230,000 by the agency to conduct a "performance audit."

In a report to be discussed at a CIRM governing board meeting on Thursday, the firm said it discovered serious problems dealing with the reporting of the interests of the agency's blue-ribbon reviewers.

The reviewers make the de facto decisions on the applications from researchers for millions of dollars from California taxpayers.  Their reviews are conducted behind closed doors. The identities of the specific reviewers and applicants are not publicly disclosed.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known, requires the reviewers to fill out forms about their financial and professional interests as part of the review process.

However, those disclosures are withheld from the public and from applicants whose proposals are being assessed.  The agency's basic position has been to say "trust us" to monitor the conflicts.

Moss-Adams said, however, it "found that CIRM did not fully meet its compliance requirements regarding financial disclosures" during 2013-14. It also said that it could not verify that CIRM staff had actually checked for unreported conflicts.

Moss-Adams examined 40 applications and pre-applications and did not mention specific instances, such as the 2013 case involving a reknown scientist from Washington state, Lee Hood, and Stanford researcher Irv Weissman.  The matter was first reported by the California Stem Cell Report.

The audit said,
"Specifically, we found that of the 25 pre-applications we tested, three reviewers were missing Financial Interest Disclosure Forms in connection with the review of applications submitted in response to a particular RFA. These three reviewers participated in the review of four of the 25 pre-applications. Similarly, for the 15 applications we tested, which related to five different RFAs, we found that Financial Disclosure Forms were missing for eight different reviewers. For each of the 15 applications, we found that CIRM was missing a Financial Disclosure form for one or more reviewers who participated in the application review process for a particular RFA. In each of these cases, however, the reviewers completed their Conflict of Interest Form for that review."
The audit, which is required by state law, continued,
"Unlike the Conflict of Interest Form, which had already become an integrated element in the GMS (grant management system) in fiscal year 2013-14, no system restrictions were in place to prevent participation in reviews prior to the receipt of Financial Interest Disclosure Forms. Without these system restrictions, compliance with this requirement lapsed and reviewers with missing Financial Interest Disclosure Forms were allowed to review and score pre-applications and applications."
Moss-Adams said the agency took steps to correct the situation in July of last year. However, it told CIRM that  it should continue those procedures to ensure compliance on conflict of interest matters.

The audit also said it could not verify that CIRM had actually followed its process for determining whether unreported conflict of interests existed on the part of reviewers.

The audit said,
"Currently, there are no written policies or procedures outlining this process. While CIRM regulations define what constitutes a financial conflict of interest, the Grants Review Staff does
not have additional written guidance to follow when performing these reviews. Moreover, because the Grants Review Staff does not document the performance of these reviews, we could
not verify that these reviews were performed or assess the manner in which they were performed. Without procedures that formalize this process or internal records that document
the performance of these reviews, CIRM cannot fully demonstrate its performance of due diligence to ensure the financial independence of reviewers."
Moss-Adams told the agency that it should develop detailed procedures for examining the disclosure forms and document the work via the automated grants management system.

The agency's response to the concerns raised in the audit, which covered a wide range of issues beyond conflicts, did not specifically mention the disclosure and conflict matters.

The California Stem Cell Report will have more on the findings of the audit during the next few days. Specifically excluded from the audit is the performance of the agency's scientific portfolio.

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California Stem Cell Agency to Hire Top VP

Randy Mills, who enters his second year this week as president of the California stem cell agency, is looking for a vice president for the $3 billion research enterprise. 

The salary for the new executive ranges up to $375,524. He or she would be the only vice president in the organization.  

The new position oversees three key areas of research with a budget of more than $600 million and 75 active programs at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, as the agency is formally known. 

Mills this month added the VP position to his official organization chart. In a memo to the governing board of the agency, he noted that some members of the board had expressed concern about the number of persons reporting directly to him.  Mills said that "upon further reflection" he determined that adding a VP would mean more efficiency and effectiveness. 

Also unfilled are the high-level slots for senior directors of the areas that the new VP would oversee: organ systems, neuro/ocular therapies and blood and cancer. 

The three senior director openings were first posted in January, reflecting Mills' new structure at the San Francisco agency and his emphasis on speeding development of therapies.

They are among seven job openings at the agency including project manager for clinical advisory panels, web and social media manager and grants management specialist.

The media manager position came open this month when Anne Holden left after about a year on the job and completing an overhaul of the agency web site. 

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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Business-friendly Changes in California's $500 Million Stem Cell Loan Program

The California stem cell agency is set to overhaul its $500 million loan program, acknowledging that it has been far less than successful.

The change would allow companies to accept a multimillion dollar grant and then convert it to a loan. The process would enable a firm to escape paying royalties on a lucrative product that might be developed partially as a result of CIRM funding. Royalties are required under the terms of a grant but not on a loan.

Backers of Proposition 71, the ballot measure that created the Callifornia stem cell program, touted the promise of royalties to help convince voters to approve the measure.

A memo by James Harrison, general counsel to the agency, said the loan program failed to meet its objectives. Only two loans are currently outstanding. They are to Viacyte of San Diego and Capricor of Beverly Hills.

The original intent of the 2008 program was to generate additional cash through interest on the loans to help with research funding.

Harrison said,
"Under this proposal, recipients of CIRM’s clinical stage project awards (PA 15-01, 15-02 and 15-03) would have the option to elect to convert their award from a grant to a loan within the earlier of marketing approval by the Food and Drug Administration or seven years from the effective date of the award. Unless the parties agreed to different terms, the awardee would be required to repay the loan balance within ten days of making the election to convert from a grant to a loan at a rate that would escalate based on the date of repayment. Conversion from a grant to a loan would become final only after the awardee has satisfied the terms of the conversion."

The proposal is scheduled to be heard Monday by the agency's intellectual property subcommittee and finalized May 21 by its full board.

Here is the link to the subcommittee agenda where Harrison's full memo can be found. It also shows locations in San Francisco, San Diego, Irvine, Napa and Redwood City where interested parties can listen in and participate in the proceedings. https://www.cirm.ca.gov/agendas/05082015/ip-subcommittee-meeting

Here is a link to an item about the history of the program, which was originally scheduled for change in March. http://californiastemcellreport.blogspot.com.es/2015/03/500-million-stem-cell-loan-effort-klein.html Sphere: Related Content