Friday, October 23, 2009

The Lucky 11 and $167 Million in Stem Cell Research Cash

The California stem cell agency has pinpointed 11 likely winners of grants and loans up to $20 million each in the agency's ambitious disease team round, which was once projected at $210 million.

The awards are scheduled to be formally approved next week by the CIRM board of directors at a two-day meeting in Los Angeles at the Luxe Hotel. CIRM's Grants Working Group decided earlier that 11 proposals merited funding. The CIRM board almost never rejects a recommendation for funding by its reviewers.

The cost of the 11 applications is $167 million, well below the $210 million budgeted for the disease team round. Twenty other proposals were rejected by reviewers who gave them scientific scores of less than 70 on a scale of one to 100. Some patient advocates for the rejected research, which includes projects involving Huntington's Disease and spinal cord injury, are likely to make a pitch at the CIRM board meeting for funding of some of the rejected applications.

The CIRM board has final authority to make the grants, although it is loath to overrule its scientific reviewers.

Names of the recipients are not scheduled to be released until after board action, which could come on Tuesday or Wednesday. However, the public summaries of the reviews generally contain enough information to determine the identity of the winners, if you are well-informed about stem cell research or willing to scratch around on the Internet.

For example, the review summary of the top-ranked application – with a score of 90 for $14.6 million for stem cell therapy for AIDS – said,
“Reviewers noted that the investigators have already successfully navigated many of the regulatory hurdles with the FDA and RAC through previous clinical trials in hematopoietic transplantation in HIV patients.”
Regarding another application that sought $20 million for cell therapy for diabetes, the review summary said,
“The principal investigator (PI) has experience in encapsulation and has led the efforts that resulted in recent publications in top tier journals. The world-renowned immunology collaborator is well published, has experience in translational immunology and clinical trial design, and will lead a group of established immunologists at the collaborating institution.”
The summaries also contain the names of reviewers who were excused from examining the application because of conflicts of interest, both professional and financial, additional information that can help identify winners.

The names of the applicants are not raised during the CIRM board discussion, which is public. The idea is the board members should be blind to the institutions seeking the funds. But some of the board members are well-versed enough in stem cell science to be able to identify applicants without an Internet search.

The earlier de facto decisions, however, are made behind closed doors by scientific reviewers and some CIRM board members. The statements of the economic interests and potential professional conflicts of scientific reviewers are filed with CIRM but are not made public, a practice that has triggered public complaints by a few researchers. Others grumble in private, wary of making their views publicly known because CIRM controls $3 billion in grant money that might not come their way if they are too cranky.

On tap for next week's meeting is discussion of a CIRM survey of its scientific reviewers regarding public disclosure of their financial interests. The results are expected to be negative, and the CIRM board is not likely to go against the wishes of its reviewers. Some CIRM directors fear the loss of reviewers if they are forced to make public their financial interests.

The Little Hoover Commission, the state's good government agency, recommended the survey because of the power of the reviewers over the public purse.

Some of the applications at next week's meeting are expected to involve loans to businesses, the opening foray into what is projected to be a $500 million program. CIRM directors are expected to go along with today's decisions on loan practices by their Finance Subcommittee.

In response to a query, Don Gibbons, CIRM's chief communications officer, said that the subcommittee approved both staff recommendations concerning evaluation of recourse loans and changes in the loan administration policy.

He said the panel also approved the “hybrid recommendation” in its financial review of loan applications. A CIRM document said,
“Under this proposal, CIRM staff would review and evaluate the information provided by CIRM’s delegated underwriter or financial consultant and the Grants Working Group, determine whether an applicant is eligible for a recourse loan or a non-recourse loan, and negotiate any conditions.”
Under certain conditions, however, the staff's determination could be reviewed by the Finance Subcommittee. Sphere: Related Content

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