Monday, June 08, 2009

CIRM Eyeing Major Reliance on Industry Cash

The president of the California stem cell agency, Alan Trounson, says it is considering funding its future with money from the biotech industry.

The possibility of a state government agency relying on industry dollars raises significant and new conflict of interest questions concerning the $3 billion effort. CIRM's governing board is already filled with representatives from institutions that have received the bulk of its funding.

Trounson made his comment June 4 in an interview with Bloomberg News. He also told the financial news service that it “wants to get 10 to 12 new therapies into human testing within four years.”

Both the comment about industry funding and human clinical trials appear to be the first public remarks along those lines by CIRM officials. However, we presume that Trounson may have misspoken on the human clinical trials, although Bloomberg has not run a correction as of today (June 8). The Bloomberg article is being circulated nationwide via email by a variety of persons interested in stem cell research.

The stem cell agency, now the largest funding source in the world for human embryonic stem cell research, is unusual financially in California. CIRM relies on state bond funds for its operations and grants. That source of cash is not subject to cuts by the governor or the legislature, only the ability of the state to sell bonds.

CIRM was sold to voters in 2004 as a 10-year program. However, no sunset provision is in place for the agency. It does have a 10-year limit on its bond funding. We have been told that clock started running with the first issuance of its state bonds in 2007.

Here is how Rob Waters of Bloomberg wrote about Trounson's comments on biotech funding for CIRM,
“In the long run, the agency may try to use industry funding to continue operating once its $3 billion in state bond revenue is exhausted by the end of the next decade, he said.”
As far as we know, no California state department relies on donations from private industry for its funding. But CIRM has the unusual capability of creating a nonprofit agency, rare among state departments. A nonprofit could serve as a vehicle for channeling industry funds to CIRM.

CIRM has been edging closer to industry over the last year with the staff's proposed revision of its strategic plan calling for much tighter ties.

Trounson's comments about future reliance on industry funds casts a new and different light on all of the agency's current actions. Is a decision on a grant being made because it will enhance or harm future funding from industry? Will CIRM's standards for its research grants be altered because of the need to be friendly to an important biotech company or a top researcher tied to a biotech firm? Will CIRM create, as is proposed, a special “biotech advisory group” to help evaluate CIRM interaction with industry?

The advisory group is recommended in the revisions to the CIRM strategic plan and has already generated controversy, along with CIRM's direction away from basic research and towards efforts favored by industry.

(You can find CIRM's plans on industry linkages in the draft of the strategic plan, beginning on page 28.)

CIRM already has several representatives from industry on its 29-member governing board. One wonders what would be gained by creation of this new panel, except that it presumably could meet privately and discuss matters that might be deemed inappropriate for airing at board meetings, which are required by law to be public.

The question of the long-term outlook for CIRM came up last month a meeting of the Little Hoover Commission, the state good government agency which has drafted major recommendations for changes in CIRM's structure. The draft proposals suggested CIRM explicitly lay out its plans for sustainability or shutdown. Representatives from CIRM at that meeting did not respond to the comment.

The question of future funding is already on the agenda of the CIRM directors' Finance Subcommittee this Thursday. It would certainly seem that Trounson's comments are suitable for some discussion in that context. The public can take part in the meeting at a number of teleconference locations throughout the state. Their specific addresses can be found on the agenda.

As for Trounson's remarks on human clinical trials, we assume that Trounson was referring to the $210 million disease team grant round, the second largest in CIRM's history. The RFA calls for up to 12 grants with the objective that grantees file an investigational new drug application within four years of the start of the award. Those applications are one step along the way to human clinical trials.

We have asked Don Gibbons, CIRM's chief communications officer, if CIRM has any comment on Trounson's remarks to Bloomberg. We will carry any remarks if Gibbons responds. Sphere: Related Content

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