Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Mulling Industry Ties: CIRM, Charities and Cash

The Wall Street Journal this morning carried a piece about the multimillion dollar linkages between some charities and the biomedical industry. The article offers some food for thought concerning the California stem cell agency and its financial crisis along with changes in the strategic direction of the agency.

Reporter Keith Winstein wrote that charities are "increasingly frustrated with the slow emergence of new disease treatments" and are pumping tens of millions of dollars into industry.

He quoted Robert Beall, the head of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, as saying,
"Academics are really not good at taking good understandings of the basic defect and translating it to new therapies. We had to get the drug companies to start to get involved with cystic fibrosis."
Winstein said that "about a dozen disease-based charities recently have started funding early-stage drug research at start-up companies -- usually in exchange for royalties or stock options." They include the cystic fibrosis foundation, the CHDI Foundation and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, of which CIRM Chairman Robert Klein is a director.

The article said that the investments create "potential conflicts for charities, which are called upon for impartial advice to patients but could end up with financial stakes in high-price treatments."

Winstein reported that Aaron Kesselheim, a physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, says the investments can create a "potential minefield." Winstein continued,
"Normally, a patient-advocacy group might be expected to argue for lower prices for pharmaceuticals -- but a group with a royalty stake or equity in a drug maker has the opposite interest as well.

"Disease-focused charities also often give recommendations to doctors, patients and the FDA. The fibrosis foundation runs a pharmacy network to dispense drugs, and accredits treatment centers. The impartiality of such activities might be questioned if a group had a stake in one of several competing drugs, says Dr. Kesselheim.

"'Equity relationships can create substantial unconscious biases in the way that these foundations conduct their business that might lead them away from the ideal public-health strategies,' he says.

"'For example, a generic drug might be really useful for patients with MS, or epilepsy, and because the foundation has these sort of close ties with for-profit companies, then they might have subconscious biases against advocating for those sorts of outcomes that might lower costs.'"
CIRM is currently working on a plan to sell California state bonds to private foundations and perhaps others to help fund the stem cell agency's grants. The proposal could dovetail with the foundations' desires to push therapies into the marketplace along with generating reasonable and safe returns in its investment portfolio.

At the same time, CIRM is emphasizing its connection to industry with a push towards bringing therapies into the marketplace. The agency expects to release a $210 million RFA in the next several days for a disease team project that will be one of its largest grant rounds. The agency expects more than 100 applicants for the grants, which are aimed at pushing stem cell research closer to producing a commercial product. Commercial enterprises are expected to be among those seeking CIRM cash. The disease team round is also likely to see the launch of a $500 million biotech lending program for both industry and nonprofits. Last month, CIRM Chairman Klein told directors that the disease team round is a "very, very important" element in pitching the bonds to foundations.

(Editor's note: The WSJ article may not be accessible without a subscription. If you would like to see the full article, email and I will send you a copy.) Sphere: Related Content

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