A Man Named Lucas and the Future of the California Stem Cell Agency


Pioneer Founding member
California Stem Cell Report
JANUARY 24, 2018


The news last fall from a California stem cell firm was leaden and dense. Terms such as "Phase 1/2a SCiStar study" and "Full enrollment of Cohort 3 (AIS-A; 20 million AST-OPC1 cells)" littered the company's statement.

Today the state's $3 billion stem cell agency turned the jargon into a heart-warming, human story -- the type that is critical to sustaining the life of the 13-year-old research effort, which is running out of cash.

The story involves Asteria Biotherapeutics, Inc., of Fremont, the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine(CIRM), as the stem cell agency is formally known, a clinical trial for a treatment for spinal injury and a young man named Lucas Lindner.

He is one of the patients in Asterias' clinical trial for a human embryonic stem cell therapy for spinal cord injury. CIRM has funneled $21 million into the research.

Writing on the agency's blog, Kevin McCormack, senior director for CIRM communications, said,
"On a Sunday morning in early 2016, Lucas Lindner was driving to get some donuts for his grandmother. A deer jumped in front of his truck. Lucas swerved to avoid it and crashed, suffering a severe spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down."
But after the treatment, McCormack wrote,
"Lucas can now type 40 words a minute, use a soldering iron and touch his pinkie to his thumb, something he couldn’t do after the accident.
"In August of last year Lucas did something else he never imagined he would be able to do, he threw out the first pitch at a Milwaukee Brewers baseball game. At the time, he said 'I’m blown away by the fact that I can pitch a ball again.'"
Of course, there are scientific caveats and qualifications in the story. But what the tale really can do is resonate with nearly all California voters if the story ever reaches them.

Those voters are key to continuing the work of the agency, which expects to run out of state funds in 2019 and is hoping that voters will pump an additional $5 billion into the agency through a bond measure on the November 2020 ballot. (A private fund-raising effort is underway to bridge the cash gap.)

The agency has largely functioned in obscurity during the last 10 years or so. Its story is not well known by the public. And it has yet to help finance a therapy that is available to the general public. But CIRM's 44 clinical trials, including the one by Asterias, provide hope for patients and the agency.

The key lies, however, in how the story is told and how well CIRM supporters can turn mind-numbing scientific jargon and public policy issues into compelling yarns that will open both the hearts and purses of California voters.