Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Stanford Consortium Wins $40 Million to Create Stem Cell Genomics Center

Directors of the California stem cell agency today approved a $40 million proposal ultimately targeted at creating medical treatments tailored to a patient's genetic makeup and making the state a world leader in stem cell genomics.

The proposal by a seven-member consortium led by Stanford University was approved on a 6-1 vote of the 29-member board. Most of those not voting were disqualified because of conflicts of interest.

The action came despite charges by Stanford's competitors that the grant review process was tainted by unfairness, apparent preferential treatment and manipulation of scientific scores.

The award is the largest research grant that the agency has made in its nine-year history although the cash is being divided among the seven participants over five years.

The board added $7 million to the Stanford award to help possibly fund proposals from institutions that lost out in the round. They would have to apply to the consortium, which might have their own proposals in the same areas already underway.

The stem cell agency has high hopes for the genomics project, which is supposed to provide resources for all researchers in California. CIRM President Alan Trounson has predicted that the effort will build “an effective stem-cell genomics infrastructure that will be unique in the world, thus positioning California as a leader in this critical area of basic and translational research while genomic technologies build steam in the next five years.”

In addition to Stanford, the other enterprises involved its proposal include UC Santa Cruz, the Venter and the Salk institutes and Illumina, Inc., all in San Diego,  A complete list was not immediately available this afternoon because the stem cell agency withholds their names until after the board votes. They are expected to be disclosed shortly in an official press release.

(Here is a link to the CIRM press release.)

The top competitors against Stanford were groups led by UCLA, UC San Francisco and the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla. UC San Francisco and Scripps both sent letters to the agency's board protesting the grant review process.

In a letter last week to the board, Pui-Yan Kwok of UC San Francisco, criticized the manipulation of the Stanford's grant application in such a way that its scientific score was improved. Kwok, leader of the bid that also involved UC Berkeley, called the situation “appalling.” The stem cell agency said, however, the changes were permitted under the terms that the agency had laid out in advance.

Jeanne Loring of Scripps, leader of an effort also involving the genomics firm, Illumina, Inc., of San Diego, said in a letter that the agency had failed to disclose in its request for applications that one of the key criteria for the “scientific merit” of the grants would be matching funds. Stanford was praised by reviewers for its “substantial” matching funds. Scripps' application was cited for a “serious” deficiency in that area.

Loring said that Illumina, a world leader in genomics, added major value to their proposal. The firm was also involved in the Stanford proposal in a lesser manner.

Michael Snyder, leader of the winning consortium, told the board that his group promised $7 million in matching funds. 

During the meeting, Trounson said he had told all applicants, with the exception of Stanford, that financial matching would be considered during the review. However, that was not included in the RFA.

Several board members earlier raised questions about the problem with the RFA and said it could create confusion and lead to perceptions of unfairness.

The RFA called for creation of one or two centers. Trounson recommended funding only the Stanford effort.

Michael Yaffe, associate director of CIRM's research activities, said the Stanford proposal would fulfill all goals of the RFA. He said the staff did not see a "compelling need" for a second center nor would it fit within the budgeted $40 million.

The California Stem Cell Report first reported on Friday that Stanford was set to win the award. 

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the vote was 6-2. The correct vote is 6-1 with board member Steve Juelsgaard voting no.) 
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