Monday, August 26, 2013

New Procedures at CIRM: California Stem Cell Agency Staff Nixes Grant Application

For the first time in its nine-year history, the staff of the $3 billion California stem cell agency this week  formally and publicly weighed in on grant approval actions by its prestigious reviewers, recommending that one application be rejected and another approved with conditions.

The staff, led by CIRM President Alan Trounson and Patricia Olson, the agency’s executive director of scientific activities, made recommendations to the agency governing board on three applications that can be described as “wobblers.” In other words, the board could go either way on the proposals when it considers them at its meeting in La Jolla on Wednesday.

Trounson recommended that the governing board reject one of the wobblers  (No. 6666),  a $2.0 million proposal, even though it received a higher scientific score – 70 – than the other two applications. Trounson recommended approval of two $1.8 million projects (Nos. 6831 with a scientific score of 66 and 6832 with a scientific score of 69), with staff-imposed conditions on one.

 Trounson said the agency is or 
 "will be funding 2 similar approaches to address photoreceptor degenerative disorders so addi-tional investment in an earlier stage project is harder to justify.”
All three fall into a newly defined category, called tier 2, for ranking of applications. The CIRM web site said tier 2 proposals are now ones that possess “moderate scientific quality, or consensus on scientific merit cannot be reached and may be suitable for programmatic consideration by the ICOC(the governing board).”

A fourth application  (No. 6648) for $4.3 million that scored below all three at 64 was approved, however, by reviewers after they imposed a condition on the proposal.  CIRM staff did not publicly address that application. The application review summary said that the researcher – who was not identified – must “demonstrate, within 12 months, the ability to make the hESC–derived 3-D sheets. This is a go no/go milestone for the project.”

The agency’s standard practice is withhold the identities of applicants prior to board action because they might be embarrassed.

In the other instance where conditions are to be imposed, they appeared to deal with an in-kind contribution of “essential services, technology and expertise.”

The new process for evaluating marginal or wobbler applications was established last March in response to an Institute of Medicine study last year that made a host of recommendations for improvements at the stem cell agency.

The staff recommendations on applications came in a $70 million early translational round that is aimed at “proof of concept for development of a therapy candidate and/or studies to select a development candidate.

In all, including staff and reviewer actions, 13 applications were recommended for funding, although the board has almost never rejected reviewer decisions. The 11 grants initially approved by reviewers total $37 million. With the two more recommended by staff, the figure would be about $41 million. A total of 39 applications were considered for funding.

Five applicants filed appeals of reviewer rejections, a CIRM spokesman said today. The  California Stem Cell Report has asked for copies of those appeals and CIRM staff action on them. Appeals are also being conducted under a new staff-dominated procedure, although all applicants have the right under state law to appear before the board to address any subject.

Budgeted grant funds that are unused are available to the board for future grant rounds in any area they so desire.

(An earlier version of this item incorrectly said six applicants had filed appeals, based on information from the agency. The correct figure is five.)

(Editor's note: Kevin McCormick, CIRM's spokesman, later commented on the agency's practice of withholding the identities of applicants to avoid embarrassment to applicants who are not approved. He said,  "Actually they are withheld so that the board doesn't know the identities of the researchers or the institutions whose applications they are voting on." 
(We should note that official CIRM policy is to withhold all applicant names until board action, but it does not release any of the names of denied applicants even after board action. However, it has in the past released in advance of board action the names of applicants when it suits its purposes . Also, the names of many applicants can be discerned based on information provided in the review summaries of the applications. The identities of applicant institutions can also be determined based on which board members are allowed to participate in discussion of specific applications as well as being allowed to vote. For more on the practice of withholding names, see here, here, here and here. )

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