Friday, September 04, 2015

Openness and Transparency: Backsliding at California Stem Cell Agency

Highlights
$34 million Alpha Clinics involved
Information failure on proposal
Discourages public/researcher participation
California’s stem cell agency this past couple of weeks skidded significantly backwards in its efforts to improve clarity and transparency in its $3 billion operation.

The latest example came this week and involved its ambitious, $34 million Alpha stem cell clinic program at four major California institutions: the City of Hope, UCLA and UC Irvine and UC San Diego. 

A proposed, multimillion dollar project involving the effort was scheduled for action next Tuesday by the Science Subcommittee of the agency’s governing board.  As of early this morning -- only one full business day from the meeting -- the agency had released only nine words about it to the public. Here is the full text:
Consideration of concept plan for Alpha Clinics Accelerating Center.” 
Opaque is the only way to describe the process. And it was bound to create issues with affected parties, which it has in this case.

Such cryptic notices make it impossible for the public to comment intelligently or otherwise, given the lack of information. The failure to provide the information in a timely fashion also feeds suspicion and distrust.

Clarity is one of the watch words that Randy Mills has invoked in his 15-month tenure at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine(CIRM), as the agency is formally known. He has done much to sharpen CIRM’s focus and provide additional clarity through his analysis of the agency’s work.  

But failing to provide material in a timely fashion removes more than the shine on his efforts. The meetings of the agency’s directors are CIRM’s most important public events.  They are where patients, advocates, researchers, biotech executives and even the unwashed public can come together to hear and see the board in action and discuss issues informally with directors and the CIRM staff. Attendance should be encouraged – not discouraged. Which is what happens when important information is withheld from the public.

Last Friday the California Stem Cell Report carried an item on another mysterious agenda item, one that involved forgiveness of agency loans and potential royalty revenue, something that was promised in the election campaign that created the agency in 2004. 

That too was a case of missing information until it was much too late for the public or affected parties to make thoughtful comments. (See here and here.)

CIRM can and should do better than this. 

(The California Stem Cell Report this morning asked CIRM for comment on the failure to provide information on the Alpha proposal scheduled for Tuesday.  About ninety minutes later, CIRM spokesman Don Gibbons responded, saying that the item was now being postponed "to allow more time for refinement and consideration.")

(By this afternoon, the agency had also posted the first explanation of another cryptic item on the Tuesday agenda for the Science Subcommittee. This one would eliminate the specific schedule for RFAs in the upcoming basic research (discovery) and translational RFAs. The reason for the change is to provide more flexibility.)

(Editor's note: The last paragraph of this item was added several hours after the original posting.)
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Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Moderate Media Coverage of California's New, $32 Million Stem Cell Bank

The California stem cell agency this week scored moderately well in media coverage of the announcement of its $32 million stem cell bank, the world’s largest such public effort.

Most of the coverage was based in California but, of course, all of the stories can be read globally. The San Francisco Chronicle, The Sacramento Bee and a chain of newspapers in the Bay Area carried articles, among others.

Missing was coverage from major national outlets, such as the New York Times. Also absent was coverage by television news outlets, according to a search this morning on Google. A spokesman for the agency said the Buck Institute, which houses the bank, has restrictions on video coverage.

Ron Leuty of the San Francisco Business Times called the bank opening a “big win” for the $3 billion agency.  

A story by Stephanie ONeill of  KPCC  carried a factoid missing from all other stories – the cost of the cells from the bank in Marin County, north of San Francisco. O'Neill reported,
"The cost of each vial will range from $750 for researchers affiliated with nonprofit research organizations to $1,500 for those who work  for-profit companies, says (California) Institute for Regenerative Medicine spokesman Kevin McCormack."
The Bee story reported much larger figures, which the stem cell agency today said are incorrect.

Jeff Buchanan, who is based in Wisconsin for xconomy, wrote a story with a headline that reflected his focus on the Wisconsin firm involved,
“Cellular Dynamics Launches ‘World’s Largest’ Public Stem Cell Bank”
Buchanan also wrote that the company’s executive vice president, Chris Parker, said that the bank offers more than other banks. Buchanan reported,
“’The diseases, the demographic information that’s associated with them, the clinical data, the genetic and genomic data available—that’s what’s really making these lines valuable,’ (Parker) says. Donors gave consent for their tissue samples to ‘be used for a variety of research purposes,’ giving investigators considerable latitude, says Parker.”
Here are links to the other stories that turned up in the Google search this morning: San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News and other papers in its chain, KGO, California Healthline, Philadelpha Business Journal and Latino Health.
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Tuesday, September 01, 2015

$32 Million Project: California Opens Largest Public Stem Cell Bank in World

Stem cell storage tanks at new stem cell bank -- Coriell photo
Highlights
300 different stem cell lines
3,000 donors
Coriell, CDI operating, supplying
Stanford, UCLA, UCSF and UCSD involved

Thanks to the taxpayers of California, the Golden State is now home to the largest publicly available stem cell bank in the world.

The state’s $3 billion stem cell agency this morning announced that the bank, located in Marin County north of San Francisco, is open for business.

The project is backed by $32.3 million from the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known.

In a news release this morning, CIRM said the bank is “offering the first 300 different stem cell lines for researchers interested in gaining a deeper understanding of, and developing treatments for 11 common diseases and disorders.”

The agency said the bank, housed at the Buck Institute in Novato, is collecting samples from as many as 3,000 donors. CIRM said,
“Those samples will then be turned into high quality stem cell lines – known as induced pluripotent stem cells or iPSCs – which are available to researchers throughout California and the rest of the world.” 
CIRM Chairman Jonathan Thomas said,
“We believe the bank will be an extraordinarily important resource in helping advance the use of stem cell tools for the study of diseases and finding new ways to treat them.” 
As of this writing, the announcement had received coverage on the San Francisco SFgate Web site and on other sites in the San Francisco Bay Area that are owned a news media chain and another site in Pennsylvania.  The coverage is likely to grow throughout the day, which is important to the agency. It is hard-pressed to generate news coverage for its achievements. 

The bank was funded by awards from California in 2013 and is operated by the non-profit Coriell Institute of Camden, N.J.  Generation of the cells is performed by Cellular Dynamics International, Inc., of Madison, Wisc.

CDI was formed by stem cell pioneer research Jamie Thomson of the University of Wisconsin. It was sold to Fujifilm of Japan earlier this year for $307 million at double its stock price.

Also involved in securing the initial adult cells are researchers at UC San Diego, Stanford, UC San Francisco and UCLA.

Here are links to the press releases at Coriell and CDI. Here is a link to a summary of the CIRM banking initiative and a link to a progress report on the effort. Below is a list of participants and amounts of awards. Click on it to see it in a larger format.

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Monday, August 31, 2015

Sunlight on California's Stem Cell Loan Effort; Info Missing on Changes in $127 Million Research Programs

Highlights
Some details on loan changes
New Alpha clinic center proposed; no details
Unspecified changes upcoming in $93 million award programs

A little sunshine popped up over the weekend on a bit of fiscal alchemy at the $3 billion California stem cell agency, and a little clarity emerged.

The matter involves the agency’s loan program, which affects multi-million awards to businesses. The awards are called loans but are forgiven if no viable product emerges.

The matter surfaced as a result of a cryptic agenda item for Thursday’s meeting of the agency’s directors’ Intellectual Property Subcommittee. Here is what happened:

About a week ago, the agency posted the agenda for the meeting. The agenda contained a 24-word line that said that it was going to change its policies “to permit existing loan recipient whose loan has been forgiven to convert its award to a grant.”

The need for change and its financial impact on the agency was not discussed. The specific language being changed was not spelled out. The timetable for the changes was not specified. Nor was it discussed whether the move was desired by any recipients of the agency’s largess.

Given the opaque nature of the agenda item, the California Stem Cell Report carried an item Friday morning that said,
“In just four business days, the $3 billion California stem cell agency is going to perform a bit of financial alchemy. But like most alchemists, its methods are less than transparent.” 
Much later that day or possibly early Saturday, the agency posted a brief memo and regulatory language that provided a better look at the loan rule changes, which could have an impact on royalties the state might receive on a successful stem cell therapy.

Based on what is now on the agency’s Web site, the proposal would clarify what happens if a loan-financed therapy is dropped and then revived, leading to actual revenue. Under existing rules, such a situation could trigger an ambiguous financial burden that would have to show on the company books. And business executives and investors do not like ambiguous financial burdens. 

The memo from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known, said,
“To provide clarity regarding future obligations, CIRM proposes giving existing loan recipients whose loan has been forgiven by CIRM the option to convert their loan to a grant and forego reinstatement of a forgiven loan. In this way, loan recipients will be automatically governed by the revenue sharing (and other) principles of the agency’s intellectual property regulations in the event future revenue streams are realized. This will be particularly important in the event future revenues are realized after CIRM has exhausted its funding.” 
The directors’ subcommittee is likely to approve the change on Thursday. It would then go to the full board at its Sept. 24 in San Diego for action before it enters the state’s regulatory process, which will open it to further public comment.

The Thursday meeting will also take up changes in the “loan election policy” for this year’s $100 million clinical award program. Details on that are still not available as of this morning, but one assumption would be that they are an extension of the proposed loan changes to that particular program.

The weekend’s memo on the loan changes was dated  Aug. 20.  One can only assume that it was lingering on some CIRM executive’s desk for eight days until it was made available to the public, researchers and likely affected businesses.  

Problems with timely posting of agenda material are not new to the agency. In the more distant past, they were significant but have diminished. That is, until this case and others earlier this year.

The agency also has another directors’ subcommittee coming up in just five business days. The session involves two significant, multimillion dollar programs. One proposal calls for creation of an “Alpha Clinics Accelerating Center” in connection with the $34 million Alpha clinics effort.
The other proposal before the Science Subcommittee deals with unspecified changes in the agency’s upcoming, $93 million “discovery and translational” award rounds.

This morning, no additional details were available on those two matters.

The Science Subcommittee teleconference session on Sept. 8 will be based in San Francisco. Interested parties can weigh in at public locations in Irvine, La Jolla, Los Angeles and Duarte. Addresses are on the agenda.

The meeting Thursday of the Intellectual Property Subcommittee is also a teleconference session based in San Francisco. Public locations are available in San Diego, Hawaii, Woodside and Redwood City with two in San Francisco.

The only public access to these meetings is at their physical locations. No participation is available via the Internet.  However, comments may be submitted in advance or later by emailing them to mbonneville@cirm.ca.gov.
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Friday, August 28, 2015

The California Stem Cell Agency and its Mysteries of Fiscal Alchemy

In just four business days, the $3 billion California stem cell agency is going to perform a bit of financial alchemy. But like most alchemists, its methods are less than transparent.

The case in point involves a session of the intellectual property subcommittee of the agency’s board of directors. The committee is scheduled to meet next Thursday to deal with an unknown amount of cash that the agency has given to an unidentified recipient.

According to the very limited information on the meeting agenda, the cash was once a loan. But that loan has been forgiven by the agency. Now the plan is to turn that forgiven loan into a grant.

Why? How much money is involved? What is the rationale? What is the benefit to the people of California, if any? It is all something of a mystery.

Also on the agenda are unspecified changes in the “loan election policy” for clinical awards, a program that is budgeted for $100 million this year. Again, no rationale or explanation is publicly available as of this morning.

One of the favorite words of agency’s president, Randy Mills, is clarity. He reminds folks regularly that the agency should have clarity in what it does.

Mills has indeed improved the clarity of the organization in his one-year tenure at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, as the agency is formally known. He has brought analytic and presentation skills that have opened new insights into how the organization spends the taxpayers’ billions.  The result has been an improvement in the way the agency operates.

But in this case, the agency is falling short. Its rules call for notifying the public about meetings 10 calendar days in advance of the sessions. However, cryptic agendas that raise more questions than answers do not add up to clarity. Instead, they are opaque and can generate suspicions about the conduct of the agency on the part of the public and interested parties.

Trust in government – and the stem cell agency is part of our government – is at all-time lows. It behooves the California stem cell agency to do what it can avoid feeding that distrust and to make its operations as transparent and open as possible.
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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

California Stem Cell Agency Up to State Snuff on Cyberspace Security

Highlights
Most state departments deficient
Agency says it's okay
Foreign stem cell collaborations

The California state auditor this week warned that a host of state agencies are poorly secured and vulnerable to intrusion, but the California stem cell agency is apparently not now one of the miscreants.

In a report released yesterday, State Auditor Elaine Howe said that 73 of the 77 state departments answering a recent security standards survey said that they were not in compliance with security standards.

A story by Jon Ortiz and Jim Miller in The Sacramento Bee said that most departments “have not planned for interruptions or disasters” and five departments audited more closely all had “security deficiencies.”

The Bee story said state departments’ databanks are “stuffed with Social Security numbers, medical records, tax return data and other sensitive information.”

The $3 billion California stem cell agency is one of those departments filled with sensitive data, including proprietary information that is submitted as part of applications for the billions that the agency is handing out.

Responding to a query today from the California Stem Cell Report, Kevin McCormack, senior director of communications for the agency, said that the agency was surveyed by the auditor and now meets state standards. He said,
“We were one of those 77 departments.  We did not have security deficiencies as such – in that we put confidential information at risk – but some aspects of our site were not in full compliance with the state standards, for example not having a link to all previous privacy policies and the dates they were in effect. So we put together a plan of action on how to correct the problems, that plan was approved by the state and those changes have been implemented.”
McCormack continued,
“The question of proprietary information was one of the things we had to address, namely showing all the protections we have in place in our Grants Management System which is the only place that any kind of proprietary information is kept. Because that system already requires separate log in and password protections those met the state standards without any changes being necessary.” 
The agency has awarded tens of millions of dollars to a variety of businesses. It also has relationships with researchers in a number of countries, including China

Periodically news surfaces about Internet theft of business information by Chinese interests, including in the world of biotech and pharmaceuticals (See here, here and here.)

China is also widely believed to have ambitious stem cell research aspirations, although current specifics are scarce.  In May, however, Reuters skimmed off a quick look at Chinese biotech. Earlier this month, China announced regulations aimed at both clearing the way for human research and regulating rogue stem cell clinics. (See here also.)

The California research involving a Chinese collaborator does not allow the collaborator password access to the stem cell agency’s grant management system, McCormack said.
“None of the collaborative funding partners, foreign or domestic, can access our (grant management system). We explicitly make clear in the rules for these collaborations that we take care of the California portion of the funding and their respective agency/government/institution, etc., takes care of their portion. The California researchers would have access to our (system)  through a protected log in and password but not their collaborative funding partner.” 
The collaboration involving the China research is connected to a $1.5 million grant to Holger Willenbring, associate director of the UCSF Liver Center, who has received a total of $4.7 million from the stem cell agency. 

The latest progress report on his research on the agency’s Web site said,
“The objective of this project is to establish the feasibility of liver cell therapy with human induced hepatocyte-like cells (iHeps). As proposed we established the feasibility of generating iHeps from several expandable, potentially autologous human cell types. We identified transcription factors effective in inducing hepatocyte differentiation as well as further maturation of these cells. We also identified small molecules and culture conditions (extracellular matrix composition and stiffness) that promote proliferation and hepatocyte-specific differentiation. The next steps are to investigate the genomic integrity and therapeutic efficacy of these cells.”
Here is a link to 2014 information about Willenberg’s research.
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Monday, August 24, 2015

A Tale of Two Stem Cell Stories, Plus Reading the Entrails of the Media

Last week, two interesting stories popped up involving California’s $3 billion stem cell research effort.

One of the stories dealt with a matter that could affect as many as 27 million people. The other involved less than 100.

One story involved creation of important linkages that could help speed up the transformation of stem cells into cures. The other concerned little more than a change of address. 

The story about the change of address was displayed on the front page of the largest circulation newspaper in Northern California, the San Francisco Chronicle, and appeared in many other outlets. (See here and here.) Not a word was reported in the mainstream media about the development that could affect the 27 million people afflicted with arthritis in this country.(See here and here.)

For many persons, such disparities in news are puzzling and frustrating, not to mention disturbing. Sort of like trying to find meaning by reading the entrails of animals. 

Stem cell research is exceedingly important, the reasoning goes, and how can those dolts in the press ignore it? More specifically, the situation poses a continuing challenge for California’s stem cell agency, which has a hard time breaking into ink except when it moves its headquarters a few miles from San Francisco to Oakland.

So how do editors and reporters make the decisions that lead to such disparities? The first thing to remember is that -- like of all us -- the news media are most comfortable doing the things they have always done. The treatment of these two stories follows a pattern that has been established over many decades.  Newsies like “horse race” stories – ones with clear winners and losers. In this case, San Francisco "lost" the headquarters of the stem cell agency and Oakland "won" it.

The move also fit with an ongoing news theme – skyrocketing office space costs in San Francisco – coupled with high housing costs and the current conflict between the impact of high tech on the city vs. the desire to return to a past that is perceived by many as more benign.

Additionally, the stem cell agency headquarters story is fundamentally local as opposed to the arthritis research, which is not solely about the San Francisco Bay Area.

The tale was easy to report. It did not require weeks of digging or lengthy interviews to understand the science. The story was basically handed to the news media as a result of the Aug. 17 item on the California Stem Cell Report, although the move has been around publicly at least since July 23.

At our request, one longtime observer of the California stem scene, who must remain anonymous, elaborated on the situation. 
“Well, you write a blog that catches the eye of a reporter/editor. It concerns a state agency that was lured to the city to help kick start biotech, to be a lynch pin, if you like, for a new regional research base. Ten years after arriving the agency is a victim of its own success, or the city’s success, or just the economy (choose your story line here), so you have a story about a state agency moving, a city that is experiencing soaring rents losing businesses like this, and another neighboring city that stands to benefit. You can then focus on the biotech angle - 'is the city doing enough to keep businesses here' - or the people angle or any angle except the only one that really matters, the science.
 “That results in a front page article on the local newspaper – they love to put local stories on the front because it is more attractive to potential readers, and put all the national/international wire stories inside – which then leads other local news outlets to follow along. Why the delay? Because most media outlets don’t have specialist reporters anymore so they rely on some other news outlet, usually newspapers, to dig up something interesting, and they can then follow along. Radio first usually, they are rapid responders and can get stories on the air very quickly, followed by other online media and then TV.”  
We should add that the treatment of the two stories has lessons that apply to dealing with the media generally.  If researchers want to get their stories out – as they should – the first thing to consider is the needs of the media. Work into the existing framework. Don’t try to create a new one. That may take longer than getting a stem cell treatment approved by the FDA.

Find a compelling angle, one that can be summarized in a couple of sentences. Speak English. Avoid jargon and technical-speak. Talking about a “chondrogenic drug candidate targeting resident mesenchymal stem cells” will never make the front page. Talking about a relatively simple therapy, the first of its kind for arthritis, has a much better chance.

Don’t expect to find relatively well-informed science reporters at news outlets. The few that once existed are mostly gone. Be a guide for editors and reporters and help them along by providing material that answers all their basic questions.

Finally, lower your expectations. The financial crunch on the news media means less space for science stories and fewer reporters to write them. But don’t be discouraged. A good story, properly presented can find a home at some point in the media. But it may not be tomorrow.

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