Thursday, March 13, 2014

California Stem Cell Directors Reject Conflict Charge on $13 Million Heart Research Proposal

Directors of the California stem cell agency today rejected a $13 million application for heart research despite allegations that the agency's review involved a conflict of interest.

The vote was 3-8 on the proposal by Eduardo Marban, director of the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute, who complained that a conflict existed during the review of the application.

The agency said it conducted an "extensive" examination of Marban's charges and determined that no legal violation of the agency's conflict of interest rules had taken place.

Appearing before the board, Marban said that the review was a "white-wash." He also said the CIRM staff's re-examination of the scientific issues was inadequate.

Marban did not disclose specifics of his complaints about the nature of the conflict. Nor did the agency. But he referred to unspecified actions by a "venture capitalist." CIRM said no venture capitalists were involved in the review.

CIRM Director Jeff Sheehy asked CIRM staff whether any California residents were among the reviewers during the grant round involving Marban. Gil Sambrano, CIRM's associate director, review, said there were and indicated they served as "specialists." Sambrano also said one of  the reviewers in the round had a conflict because he was involved in one of the grant applications being reviewed.

CIRM has long contended that to avoid conflicts of interest no persons from California served as grant reviewers. However, Sambrano said that provision applied legally only to members of the grant review group, formally known as the Grant Working Group, and did not apply to the use of specialists. Sambrano said the specialists do not participate in the actual act of scoring during the closed-door reviews of grant applications.

Marban's application received a score of 48 out of 100 with a range of  20 to 74, CIRM disclosed today.

Several members of the board, including Chairman Jonathan Thomas, said it was necessary for the board to respect the opinions of grant reviewers and the conclusions of its staff.

Marban has been highly regarded by the agency, which cited his research during a review earlier today of CIRM's accomplishment. He has received $7 million in grants and a company he founded, Capricor, has received $20 million.

CIRM has long cloaked its grant review process in secrecy, in keeping with the traditions of scientific peer review, even though the awards involve public money. The reviews are conducted in private. The names of the applicants are not disclosed. The names of reviewers are not disclosed. The reviewers' economic, personal and professional interests are not disclosed. Scores on rejected grants are not disclosed, unless the applicant appears publicly before the board. Names of applicants appealing reviewer decisions are not disclosed unless they also communicate publicly with the board. That provision was put in place last year by the board.

The total number of directors voting on the application was only 11 compared to 29 on the board. The number is small because of conflict of interest rules at the agency.

For more on the Marban story, see here and here.

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