Monday, June 08, 2009

CIRM Directors Consider Millions in Grants, Industry-backed Federal Legislation and Agency's Budget,

California stem cell researchers are likely to see millions of more dollars come their way next week at the San Diego meeting of the board of the state's $3 billion stem cell agency.

The grant approvals are likely to receive little notice in the media even though the rest of the state is struggling with a $24 billion budget deficit. Funding for CIRM cannot be touched by state lawmakers who are considering major cuts in programs to assist the poor and elderly.

Up for consideration are grants for training programs and early translational research efforts. Funding decisions on those programs were deferred earlier this year when CIRM faced its own financial crisis because of a lack of bond funding, the agency's source of cash. The tension eased this spring when CIRM received a $500 million infusion in the most recent bond sale.

Good arguments exist for a steady stream of cash for research, which cannot sustain itself on feast-and-famine funding. Good arguments also exist for rational state budgeting that is not crippled by ballot measures that have helped to create the state's current fiscal disaster. Prop. 71, which created CIRM, is only one of many measures that have tied the hands of those who are ultimately responsible for making state budget decisions.

Also on tap for the meeting June 17-18 is consideration of the 2009-2010 CIRM budget, which additionally comes before the Finance Subcommittee this Thursday. No information on its budget has been released to the public by CIRM with the Finance meeting only two business days away.

Perhaps the topic of funding CIRM with money from the biotech industry may surface. Certainly the topic of future funding is on the subcommittee agenda.

Directors are also going to take another whack at federal legislation, backed by the biotech industry, to create patent rights to prevent early development of generic biotech therapies. At one point this spring, the board voted to develop support for key principles behind such legislation. Most recently, it decided, however, to endorse an industry-backed bill. After questions were raised about the legality of the board vote, Chairman Robert Klein decided to ask the board to vote again on the matter this month.

Another agenda item: The touchy subject of leadership of the directors committee that will evaluate the performance of Klein, the two vice chairs and CIRM President Alan Trounson.

In April, Klein resisted a motion by board member Jeff Sheehy that the chairs of the Evaluation Committee be the two directors who developed the evaluation procedure, Sherry Lansing, former head of a Hollywood film studio, and Claire Pomeroy, dean of the UC Davis School of Medicine. Other directors were concerned about the composition of the Evaluation Committee, suggesting it provided an appearance of conflicts of interest and “self-dealing.”

Also on the agenda is consideration of new contract with Remcho, Johansen & Purcell of San Leandro, Ca., which has been the outside counsel for CIRM since day one. The contract has never been put out to bid, based on an oral opinion from the State Department of Justice.

Another matter before the board involves guidelines for when the roll call should be held open on votes, a technique much used in the state Legislature but which also ensures that the chairman can find the votes needed when he needs them. More on that in the item below.

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