Friday, August 30, 2013

Tracking the Fruits of California Stem Cell Agency Research

The California stem cell agency yesterday shed some interesting light on the awards in its $41 million round this week and their pathway to actually producing a product that can be used to treat persons who are suffering from diseases.

It is a difficult and long journey to generate usable therapies, a process poorly understood by the public, which was promised in 2004 that the stem cell agency would produce cures for ailments afflicting half the population of the state.

Writing on the agency’s blog, Amy Adams, CIRM communications manager, dealt with the issue indirectly. She said,
“Many scientists who receive our early translation awards first got their idea for a therapy while carrying out research with one of our other awards. In fact, eight of the scientists in this round of funding had previous CIRM funding for an earlier stage of research. If a scientist's early translation award provides good results, the scientists are then able to apply for one of our disease team awards, which fund the effort of compiling data to convince the Food and Drug Administration to allow them to test it in people.  Other organizations fund only early discovery research or only preclinical research. Under those conditions, researchers continually pause their projects to look for new sources of funding as the project moves through the phases toward clinical trial.
One of the virtues of the California stem cell agency is its promise of a continued stream of funding. Former Chairman Robert Klein used to tout that particular aspect of the agency, particularly in light of limited federal resources.

Adams’ comments implicitly raise important questions concerning CIRM’s entire portfolio. How many CIRM grants have led to additional funding from CIRM? How many are basically one-off shots that have not led to research that has advanced the development of stem cell therapies, either via CIRM or other funding. What is the therapeutic and scientific significance of the research that is linked by more than one CIRM award?  What previously funded CIRM research could be fruitfully funded again to advance the science and not necessarily through the traditional grant rounds, which sometimes have awkward timing?

Unmentioned in Adams’ item is an application from a UC Irvine researcher that came up at Wednesday’s meeting of the governing board of the stem cell agency. The woman, whose name was not clearly audible on the Internet audiocast, publicly appealed rejection of her application by reviewers. She noted that it was an extension of work that was previously funded by the agency. She also noted that the score on her review was all but identical to work that was funded. The board, however, turned her appeal aside, which had already been rejected behind closed doors by CIRM staff.

Hers is not the only such case in CIRM history. But they are virtually impossible to track systematically because of the structure of the CIRM grant-making progress. It is also not clear whether the agency itself is tracking its research awards to determine if they result in continuing, fruitful research in a specific area. Nonetheless, the matter deserves some public attention. 
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