Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Scientific Advisors to Stem Cell Agency: Time to Move 'At Speed'

John Bell, chair of CIRM SAB
Academy of Medical Sciences photo
The $3 billion California stem cell agency is preparing to take a close look at recommendations from key advisors that it should focus more sharply on a handful projects in order to transform research rapidly into commercial therapies.

The governing board's Science Subcommittee on Nov. 22 will examine the proposals by its new Scientific Advisory Board(SAB), created last summer as the result of a $700,000 Institute of Medicine study. Among other things, the advisory board said CIRM directors should zero in on six to eight projects that would lead to early stage clinical trials.

The recommendations come as the agency, known as CIRM, is wrestling with its own mortality. Cash for new awards will run out in 2017. The directors next month will hear a consultant's report on a plan for financing the agency's future. It is expected to involve some sort of public-private funding, which will only be forthcoming if the agency demonstrates research results that resonate with possible funding sources.

At last month's governing board meeting, CIRM director Sherry Lansing, a former Hollywood film studio chief, former chair of the UC regents and a prodigious fundraiser, sounded an urgent note.

She said that the agency is “trying desperately to get a win.” She raised the possibility of putting out a “do-you-need-help” RFA which would target applicants that have well-developed projects that could be moved ahead rapidly with some cash.

The Oct. 9 board meeting was the first time that Lansing and the other 28 CIRM directors had seen the recommendations, which were prepared outside of public view. They were only received by the agency staff two days before the board meeting.

The agency has yet to post on the Internet the full SAB document. However, the California Stem Cell Report asked for a copy, and the complete text can be found at end of this item.

 The report said,
“(F)or stem cell research to continue to advance at its current pace in California, future potential investors and supporters of stem cell research must perceive a tangible benefit to human health, and this can only happen through a clear success at the stage of clinical proof of concept. It is important that this occurs during the currently projected lifespan of CIRM, so that deserving projects and resources are positioned in the strongest way possible to attract future investments after expiration of the current CIRM funds.”
The agency's scientific advisors, only one of whom is from California, said the agency has a “strong chance of success” in securing additional funding if it moves “at speed.”

The panel, chaired by Sir John Bell of Oxford University in the United Kingdom, said it was “optimistic” that “a clinical proof of concept can be achieved in one or more settings with CIRM projects within the next three years.”

The report contained some comments that indicate that the advisors are not fully aware of all the circumstances surrounding CIRM. The panel prepared its report after being briefed by CIRM staff and four academic recipients who had received CIRM awards. No representatives from industry were heard. The advisors' report said,
“The SAB had a very positive view of the interactions between CIRM and the commercial sector.”
Many in the biotech community, however, have been less than pleased with CIRM, to point of holding a private dinner to air their grievances with then CIRM Chairman Robert Klein, filing multiple appeals of grant reviewer decisions and testifying before the Institute of Medicine. Only a tiny percentage of the $1.9 billion in CIRM awards has gone to business.

The agency, however, is working diligently to improve its industry relations, which are critical to turning research into something that can actually be used in the marketplace.

The advisors, handpicked by departing CIRM President Alan Trounson, praised CIRM's achievements so far as “considerable” and “transformative.” But it noted that the agency lagged behind other funding bodies in terms of “attention and attribution.”

The panel said,
“CIRM has been catalytic in generating many of the scientific advances in this field, but its brand recognition internationally and even nationally is limited and this should be corrected.”
The agency has suffered in the past from PR missteps but has been moving with some success in the past year to gain more favorable attention. However, it remains a relatively young organization. It receives almost no coverage in the mainstream media and very little more in the scientific media. Breaking through the media clutter is difficult, especially given that CIRM has not been part of major stem cell developments that naturally generate front page attention.

The SAB recommendations have been largely endorsed by the agency's staff. Following the Nov. 22 meeting on the proposals, they will go to the full governing board at its December meeting for action. The public can attend the meeting Nov. 22 in San Francisco and a teleconference location in Duarte at the City of Hope. Advance comments can be filed with CIRM via email at

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