Wednesday, November 26, 2008

CIRM Turning to 'Dramatic' Increases in Therapeutic Research

What direction is the $3 billion California stem cell agency going to take in the coming year and beyond?

As CIRM Chairman Robert Klein put it, how is the four-year-old enterprise going to respond to a "changing scientific landscape of stem cell science as well as the evolving thinking of the board and of CIRM’s staff and many stakeholders?".

Is the emphasis going to be on basic research or more focused on developing clinical applications? What are the best opportunities for successful grant funding?

Klein provided some answers to those questions in his testimony Nov. 20 before the Little Hoover Commission, California's good-government agency, which is conducting an examination of CIRM affairs.

Klein laid out the essence of the new 2008 strategic plan (an updated version of the 2006 document). He noted that it reflects the "vision, priorities and scientific guidance" of CIRM President Alan Trounson. The plan is subject to CIRM board approval and revision.

What may be of greatest interest to researchers seeking funding is Klein's comment that the plan will call for "dramatic increases" in funding of research "targeted to elicit therapeutic applications."

Here is more of what Klein had to say:
"The 2008 strategic plan update reflects the high value that CIRM places on interdisciplinary approaches. Biological scientists, working with physicians, chemists, mathematicians, and others to solve complex problems, can progress faster and further than can scientists working alone. For this reason CIRM awarded 'Disease Team Planning Grants' to support up to six months of planning and proposal development for novel, team-based research efforts aimed at reaching FDA approval for human trials within 48 to 60 months. The goal is to safely fast-track research from the laboratory to the bedside, with the ultimate aim of submitting an Investigational New Drug (IND) application to the FDA based on stem cell technology. CIRM’s current leadership considers this approach so critical to the agency’s goals that it is recommending a five-to-tenfold increase over the 2006 Plan in funds allotted to the Disease Team research grant program."
Klein continued,
"Building upon the values and foundation expressed in the 2006 strategic plan, the specific goals of the 2008 update of the strategic plan include:

"Measure CIRM’s successes and shortcomings in achieving the goals set in the 2006 Strategic Plan and learn from both.

"Outline a system for updating CIRM’s future research programs in light of the rapid evolution and new developments in stem cell science and regenerative medicine over the past two years.

"Map a plan for accelerating progress through the “pipeline to cures” by focusing research and organizing CIRM’s portfolio to facilitate the connections between CIRM-funded basic stem cell research and translational, pre-clinical, and clinical research.

"Lay out an option for developing robust systems for capturing and evaluating the results of CIRM-funded programs and for sharing these data in ways that accelerate the field.

"Reassess and enhance CIRM’s relationships with the biotechnology and pharmaceutical business communities, relationships essential to our goal of lifesaving therapies based on stem cell research.

"Propose new ways for CIRM to lead stem cell science and regenerative medicine by sharing expertise and collaborating with partners in the scientific community, both nationally and around the world."
Does all this mean a reduction in CIRM funding for basic research? After all, the agency's funds are limited albeit rather large. Klein's remarks did not directly answer that question but recognized that it will be raised. He said,
"CIRM appreciates the tradeoffs involved in awarding funding for therapy development versus basic research and the impact of each on achieving CIRM’s mission. Fortunately, CIRM has not been presented with a binary choice. CIRM has the capacity to fund both basic research and therapy development. As CIRM’s 2006 and 2008 scientific strategic plans make clear, CIRM recognizes that it must fund both basic research and preclinical and clinical research in order to meet the goals established by Proposition 71. Indeed, CIRM’s funding priority is to create a “scientific pipeline to cures” stretching from early discoveries to clinical applications. The draft 2008 update to the strategic plan thus calls for dramatic increases beyond the 2006 plan in the types of research targeted to elicit therapeutic applications, and it envisions significantly more investment in focused “disease team” awards, translational research awards, and linkages to industry—the final conduit for getting research advances to the patient."
Given Klein's disclosures and acknowledgment of the existence of the 2008 plan document, which is a public record, on Tuesday we asked Don Gibbons, CIRM's chief communications officer, for a copy. He refused, declaring,
"He (Klein) said we were working on it. The drafting is not done yet. Once it is, it will be posted for everyone to comment."
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