Thursday, July 30, 2009

CIRM Seeking More Industry Experience in Top Science Officer; New Post Proposed

The California stem cell agency wants to put more sizzle into its search for a replacement for Marie Csete, who resigned as its chief scientific officer recently and subsequently said her advice was not respected.

Alan Trounson
, president of CIRM, is asking its directors to create a new post called vice president, research and development that will be attractive to scientists with commercial experience. The search comes just as the agency is about to award its critical disease team grants, which, at $210 million, are the largest research grant round in CIRM history.

Csete's resignation and her complaints about the organization have received international attention and raised questions about CIRM's management, which the agency has not responded to publicly.

John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica, Ca., said Csete's position was the second most important at CIRM. He said,
“Before this new position is created, I think there needs to be a full, public explanation of why the former chief scientific officer, Dr. Marie Csete, resigned after a little more than a year on the job.”
In a memo to CIRM directors, Trounson said the new position would provide an opportunity to “find someone with the skill base to have more of a focus in their role with biotech/pharma – translation – clinical applications, which is where we are moving with our translational, disease teams and clinical grants and where we are thin in capacity.”

The new vice president would report to Trounson and apparently rank at the same level as the vice president for operations, John Robson. The new person would be the third in four years to fill the post or its equivalent.

Trounson's proposal, which will come before CIRM directors Aug. 6 in a special teleconference meeting, did not specify a salary range. Don Gibbons, chief communications officer for CIRM, did not respond to questions about pay. Currently the salary range for Robson and the chief scientific officer tops out at $332,000. Csete was paid $310,000.

Trounson's memo said that the new position is designed to attract applicants with “academic-commercial R&D experience.” Trounson said,
“Pharma is now wishing to engage with us and we need some experience at this interface which we haven’t had to date. The biotech firms had been a bit put off due to a lack of success in granting but are now very keen to re-engage if we can solve some of the issues that have arisen.“
Trounson said the new VP would have primary responsibility for relations with the FDA and the NIH. He said the person would “oversee the basic science and translational to clinical program and partner with the executive director of scientific activities to support and empower the science team.”

The designation of an “executive” director of scientific activities also appears to be new. The current CIRM organizational chart refers only to a “director of scientific activities.”

The CIRM president's memo said a “number of very good people” have indicated an interest in the new VP post.

The Aug. 6 meeting is open to the public and is available at teleconference locations throughout the state, including San Francisco(3), Los Angeles(3), Sacramento, La Jolla(3), Pleasanton, Healdsburg, Duarte, Stanford, Berkeley, Irvine and Palo Alto. The specific addresses can be found on the agenda.


  1. Of science issues, which californiastemcellreport doesn't cover much, note the recent paper on "sperm from stem cells" by the group of Karim Nayernia at Newcastle, has been retracted, for plagiarism. Separately, it seems the organisms in the paper were merely "sperm like." More hype, with not so much substance. A microcosm of CIRM.

  2. A harsh view of CIRM, Larry. The agency can point to a substantial body of research that it has financed and the scores of scientists for whom it has funded training in this relatively new field.

  3. A question a California taxpayer might ask is "how" has CIRM improved the life of average folks in California? You seem to say financing (ie spending money) and training are justifications. What is CIRM giving back? In defeating the stem cell bond proposal, people in New Jersey seemed to have figured out there weren't good answers. When Prop. 71/CIRM was passed, the available knowledge was that Hwang Woo Suk's discoveries were real. Years have passed, and no one has shown Hwang's claims are real. Of the "sperm" incident, NPR noted: "Critics at the time sniffed to reporters that the would-be sperm-makers were over-claiming. That the wiggling cells in a dish indeed had tails, but there was no proof that they were truly potent (or had other important sperm-like characteristics)."

  4. Of the text -- substantial body of research that it has financed --, one might believe that californiastemcellreport has both misreported and underreported that matter of Yamanaka and iPS cells.

    For example, see

    The patent world of iPS (stem cells): Yamanaka, Bayer, and iZumi

    Contrary to your blog, Yamanaka didn't accept funding from CIRM, and CIRM is likely to be left out in the cold on iPSC.

  5. Ebert raises an important question that CIRM directors should consider in one form or another as they examine revisions in the agency's strategic plan later this month. How are the people of California benefiting from CIRM's efforts? Obviously science moves slowly. But $1 billion is nearly out the door and some folks might want an accounting. And it should go beyond a recitation of the number of papers published and meetings held, as is CIRM's wont. Some serious, qualitative judgments need to be made.

    As for funding of Yamanaka, we have dealt Ebert's remarks previously. More recently, we understand that Yamanaka's support in Japan has been enhanced in a major way, which may limit his activities in California.

  6. The iZumi funding of Yamanaka's iPS research area illustrates that there will continue to be a strong California connection to Yamanaka. More importantly, the iZumi story illustrates why the CIRM approach to intellectual property (and on return on investment to California taxpayers) is fundamentally flawed. The most promising stem cell research areas will be privately funded, and disconnected from CIRM. California taxpayers won't get a return on these efforts, but will get an accounting of papers published on secondary or derivative work. Voters in New Jersey figured out that the NJ stem cell bond was more about academic empire building than about cures, and just said no, producing the first rejected NJ bond proposal in years. Maybe they figured something out that Californians are missing.

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