Monday, August 15, 2011

Stem Cell Directors Moving on $243 Million Program and Industry-Friendly Efforts

Directors of the California stem cell agency will meet next week to begin the first stage of giving away $243 million in their pursuit to push a stem cell therapy into the clinic.

The immediate effort involves $3.3 million in planning grants for the second round of the CIRM disease team program. Applications are targeting cancer, HIV, Alzheimer's, ALS, Huntington's Disease, Parkinson's and muscular dystrophy, among others. The next step in the disease team effort will be much larger – $240 million, to be awarded next summer with roughly $20 million for each grant.

For the smaller planning grants to be awarded next week, 36 researchers applied for cash of up to $100,000. Nineteen were approved for funding by the grants review group, which is tantamount to full CIRM board approval. Their scores ranged from 87 to 62. One application was approved for funding but no score was listed. However, that application was ranked below the application with a score of 62. CIRM provided no explanation for failing to publish the score. Names of applicants were not disclosed in keeping with the agency's longstanding practice.

The disease team round was open to both business and academic researchers. We have queried CIRM about whether any businesses applied. The stem cell industry has been less than happy with its meager share of CIRM grants. The $3 billion agency's new chair, Jonathan Thomas, has indicated he wants to make CIRM more industry friendly.

The board meeting next week will be Thomas' first full session as chairman. The meeting was originally scheduled for two days, which was not uncommon under the tenure of former Chairman Robert Klein. But next week's session has been reduced to one day under Thomas. The agenda also seems not as fully packed as under Klein, although it has two executive sessions that could consume a fair amount of time. One deals with the evaluation of CIRM President Alan Trounson. The other deals with proprietary matters on grant applications.

Heavy agendas during the Klein era often generated quorum problems because of the supermajority requirements for voting by the board. It took so long to work through the material that competing priorities among board members meant that some – sometimes quite a few – had to leave.

Today – with eight business days before the Aug. 25 meeting – the agenda has a fair amount of background material posted, giving interested parties a chance to examine the information in a timely fashion.

Included on the agenda is a document about CIRM's ongoing issues, including security, with its self-developed, computerized grants management program, a listing of its translational grant portfolio and a plan to extend its $44 million researcher recruitment effort.

The CIRM board also has plans to take up a report from its new Intellectual Property Subcommittee.  The full board agenda contained no indication of what the report would deal with, but presumably it will involve a new, $30 million program aimed at the stem cell industry. That program will be acted on by the IP subcommittee next Monday, preceding the full board meeting. The panel's recommendation would normally go to the full board meeting on Aug. 25.

Also missing from the agenda is any explanation of the purpose of the discussion of the translational grant portfolio or analysis of the portfolio. Additionally, still to come is the latest version of changes in the grant review process for CIRM's big-ticket grant efforts as well as a job description for CIRM's first-ever chief financial officer.

The job description effort has been underway for some months and is linked closely to issues involving CIRM's controversial dual executive arrangement between the chairman and president. The new CFO will be reporting to both the president and the chairman.

The disease team planning grant item also reflected a change in the way CIRM presents the public summary of reviewer comments on the applications. The new format is more concise. Gone is the narrative format that often contained a more fulsome discussion of the applications. Here is a link to one summary on a planning grant application and another link to an application in January. Sphere: Related Content

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