Wednesday, April 29, 2009

CIRM Approves $68 Million in Grants; Wrestles with Executive Evaluation

LOS ANGELES -- The California stem cell agency today approved $68 million in grants for early translational research and left open the possibility that more might be awarded in June.

CIRM said in a news release,
"The 15 early translational grants approved by the board will go to 13 not-for-profit and two for-profit organizations. These grants are intended to either lead to a drug candidate for an unmet medical need or address a bottleneck in the development of new therapies."
CIRM President Alan Trounson was quoted as saying,
“With these early translational grants CIRM has taken the first step in funding translational research that will be critical for the development of future therapies.”
CIRM has talked about the importance of making grants to business. In this round, Novocell of San Diego, received $5.4 million and BioTime of Alameda, Ca., received $4.7 million. You can see a complete list of the approved applicants here.

Twelve additional grants had been recommended for funding by reviewers – if funds were available. But the board decided to put off a decision on those until June in hopes that CIRM will have an improved financial situation.

The board took no action on four letters from applicants seeking to reverse negative decisions by reviewers, but it rejected all applications ranked in the bottom tier. You can find the text of the petitions via the meeting agenda.

The board additionally approved $200,000 to co-sponsor the annual convention of the International Society for Stem Cell Research in San Francisco during the summer of 2010. John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica, Ca., supported the move although he was critical when the subject was first broached last December with a $400,000 price tag. Simpson praised as thorough the CIRM staff justification for the expenditure.

In other business, CIRM directors approved an evaluation process for the CIRM chair, vice chairs and president – the first such in the four-year history of the organization. The plan stirred debate concerning the composition and chairmanship of a new Evaluation Subcommittee of directors.

Some directors objected to permitting the Evaluation Subcommittee, which includes three of the four persons to be evaluated, decide who chairs the panel. Board member Jeff Sheehy, director for communications at the AIDS Research Institute at UC San Francisco, moved to designate the chair and vice chair of the Governance Subcommittee to fill the same positions on the Evaluation Subcommittee. Sherry Lansing, a UC regent and former movie studio CEO, and Claire Pomeroy, dean of the UC Davis School of Medicine, are chair and vice chair of the governance panel. They were key to working out the evaluation process.

Sheehy said it was not appropriate for the people being evaluated to have a voice in picking the chair of the Evaluation Subcommittee.

Klein, who will sit on the Evaluation Subcommittee, opposed Sheehy's motion although he indicated he was willing to permit the full board to select the heads of the evaluation panel. Sheehy's motion failed on a vote of 5-15 with four self-recusals and two abstentions.

Directors Robert Azziz, chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Cedars of Sinai in Los Angeles, and Carmen Puliafito, dean of the USC School of Medicine, expressed concern about the composition of the committee. Azziz said he wanted to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest. Puliafito said that the membership could give the appearance of "self-dealing."

The process was finally approved on an 18-5 vote with one self-recusal and two abstentions.

The board will make a decision on the chairs at a later date.

Here is the structure of the subcommittee as presented during today's board meeting. It will include:
  • The chair and vice chairs of the Governance(Sherry Lansing), Finance (Michael Goldberg) and Legislative(CIRM Chairman Robert Klein) directors subcommittees.
  • The chairs of the IP Task Force(Ed Penhoet) and the Biotech Loan Task Force (Duane Roth, who is also vice chair of the CIRM board of directors).
  • The vice chairs or acting vice chair or co-chair where applicable of the Grants(Joan Samuelson or Sheehy), Standards (Lansing), Facilities (David Serrano Sewell) working groups.
  • Two members appointed by the board but not yet named.
  • The chair (Klein) and vice chairs (Roth and Art Torres)of the board except when they are the subject of an evaluation.
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