Sunday, September 21, 2008

CIRM Grant Review: Questions About Fairness, Conflicts and Accuracy

Here is the text of article by yours truly concerning questions about fairness in the CIRM grant review process that ran Sept. 18, 2008, in BioWorld Perspectives.
Following this item, you can find related posts, including the text of responses we received from businesses that we queried and links to related CIRM and other documents.

CIRM Grant Controversy Continues with Publication of Biotech Company Names

By David Jensen

BioWorld Perspectives Contributing Writer

Editor's note: David Jensen publishes the California Stem Cell Report and has written nearly 2,000 items on the California stem cell agency since 2005. Jensen's Perspective last month, "Red Flags Remain in Plan to Help Biotechs," dealt with the controversy surrounding CIRM.

Questions are being raised about the fairness, conflicts of interest and even the accuracy involved in the grant review process of California's $3 billion state stem cell research program, the San Francisco-based California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).
While nearly all of the rejected applicants remain silent, a handful of stem cell companies have publicly discussed their concerns.
Complaints About CIRM Add up in 2008
One California stem cell company, Advanced Cell Technology Inc., of Los Angeles, has complained about a financial conflict of interest on the part of one unnamed reviewer. Others have complained about inaccuracies in reviews, the failure to provide an opportunity to rebut reviewers and the lack of a grant resubmission process like the National Institutes of Health. Privately, more complaints are aired about reviewer conflicts and a tilt at CIRM toward funding "big guns," well-established senior scientists.
Last month, Alan Trounson, president of CIRM, told the agency's directors that "large numbers" of rejected applicants have contacted the agency concerning reconsideration of their rejected applications or related issues. But when asked more recently for specifics, a spokesman for the agency minimized the number, saying it amounts to no more than 10 on any round of grants.
CIRM acknowledges its review process is not perfect. It is working on a formal procedure for requests for reconsideration, which will come before directors on Sept. 24 or 25. But basically, CIRM sees no fatal flaws in the making of its grants, which now total $614 million over three years. When CIRM's review process came under fire last month, Trounson told directors, "Scientists, like other people, kind of believe [if] they live in California [they] should get a grant, [that] CIRM was set up to give them grants."
The agency first had to deal with public complaints from a rejected applicant last January. Questions of fairness surfaced more visibly later in the year, the first time that businesses have been permitted to apply for CIRM cash.
Out of the 18 applications from the private sector only one business, Novocell Inc., of San Diego, has received a grant. In the case of Novocell, it amounted to $50,000 to help plan for a much larger disease team grant.
Watchdog Publishes Names of Biotechs That Likely Applied for Grants
Until recently, the names of the rejected business applicants were unknown. CIRM's policy is to withhold the identities of all rejected applicants. But last month, Consumer Watchdog, of Santa Monica, Calif., a nonprofit group that has followed CIRM for nearly three years, disclosed on its website the names of the 18 businesses that filed letters of intent (LOI) to apply for grants.
The list reads like a Who's Who of California biotech companies. According to John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog's stem cell project director, firms that filed an LOI to apply for the Disease Team Planning Grant were: Advanced Cell Technology; BioCardia Inc., of South San Francisco; DNAmicroarray Inc., of San Diego; Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation, of San Diego; International Stem Cell Corp., of Oceanside; Novocell; Panorama Research Inc., of Mountain View; RegeneMed Inc., of San Diego; StemCyte Inc., of Covina; and Stemedica Cell Technologies Inc., of San Diego.
The companies that filed an LOI to apply for New Cell Lines Grant were: Advanced Cell Technology; BioTime Inc., of Alameda; California Institute of Molecular Medicine, of Ventura; Cascade Life Sciences Inc., of San Diego; DNAmicroarray; Gene Security Network Inc., of Redwood City; International Stem Cell.; Raven Biotechnologies Inc., of South San Francisco; RegeneMed; the Supercentenarian Research Foundation, of Inglewood; VistaGen Therapeutics Inc., of South San Francisco; and WaferGen Biosystems Inc., of Fremont.
Simpson noted that some companies earlier had "groused" about their treatment. And he asked, "Did the companies get a fair shake or not?"
We queried all 18 concerning the grant reviews. Fifteen did not respond to the questions. One said it was satisfied, one said anonymously it was quite dissatisfied, and one was withholding judgment until the next round of grants. At least three additional companies, however, have publicly told CIRM directors that they have issues with the agency's review process.
Alan Lewis, CEO of Novocell, responded to our query, saying he was pleased with the process. Lewis said his company has "developed a relationship with CIRM" and tried to help it in formulating the grant process. He noted that "very few" industry representatives often attend CIRM meetings.
At the August meeting of CIRM directors, Steven Kessler, a scientific director at Advanced Cell Technology, said that his company had filed information that one of the reviewers had a financial conflict of interest as the result of ties to another company. Kessler did not identify the individual or spell out the exact nature of the conflict. He told directors that he was told by the agency "the way CIRM interprets its own conflict of interest policy, the example I gave you was not a conflict of interest."
Kessler also cited the low success rate of business applications as "clear evidence of bias."
At the same meeting, William Adams, chief financial officer of International Stem Cell, indicated that CIRM directors were excessively worried about "ticking off" scientific grant reviewers with public criticism of the quality of their reviews.
At the June directors meeting, Kenneth J. Woolcott, chief business officer of Cascade LifeSciences, commented on the process but did not seek an appeal, having been told none was available. Shortly after Woolcott left the meeting, a reconsideration letter from an applicant from a nonprofit was read by a director, resulting in the approval of that grant.
Woolcott was not pleased when he learned about the situation. He then sought reconsideration of the Cascade application, alleging that its review included factual errors involving a "fundamental oversight." He also said reviewers did not adhere to the published review criteria. CIRM rejected Cascade's request. (See links below for more information.)
In response to our query, another California company researcher, who asked for anonymity, said reviewers' comments on his application were "ridiculously incomplete" and "misinformed." "You can tell when people really didn't read it," this scientist said.
Leading to Positives for Future Stem Cell Grants?
Consumer Watchdog's Simpson said that the publication of the names of rejected businesses has had a healthy impact. (In fact, BioWorld Today reported last month that the biotech industry is poised to receive more CIRM funding in the future.)
"I'm not advocating that anybody be required to divulge proprietary information, but the application process needs to be more transparent," he said.
"My publishing the names of the applicants has enabled them to communicate with one another, compare notes and figure out how to voice what appear to be very legitimate concerns about the grant-making process.
"I'm by no means a big fan of the biotech industry, but I think this is a case where awards have been tilted toward academia. There ought to be a level playing field."
Interested in reading more? Here are some links to documents relating to the California stem cell agency and complaints about fairness in its grant review process:
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1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:56 AM

    Thought you'd want to know that none of these links appear to be working.