Monday, August 11, 2014
$40 Million California Stem Cell Genomics Agreement Signed; A Checkered Past
The California stem cell agency and a Stanford-led consortium have reached agreement on a $40 million stem cell genomics project that triggered complaints about irregularities, unfairness, score manipulation and the role of its then president, Alan Trounson.
The agreement was concluded last month with Stanford, UC Santa Cruz and the Salk Institute in La Jolla, five months after the award was approved by the governing board of the $3 billion agency, which is known as CIRM. The final signature came July 2 when Santa Cruz signed. Salk signed on June 26 and Stanford June 18, according to Kevin McCormack, a spokesman for the agency.
The effort is aimed at paving the way for therapies tailored to a patient’s genetic make-up and positioning California as a world leader in stem cell genomics.
Trounson’s role came under fire when he recommended approval of the Stanford application. The agency’s blue-ribbon grant reviewers, whose advice is rarely rejected by the CIRM board, also recommended funding three competitors.
The round had a checkered history as a result of a conflict of interest involving scientist Irv Weissman of Stanford and scientist Lee Hood of Seattle, who own a ranch together in Montana. Trounson, who has visited the ranch as Weissman’s guest, recruited Hood to review the applications, including Stanford’s proposal which then specifically included Weissman.
The Stanford application that was ultimately approved did not include Weissman. Michael Clarke, the No. 2 person in Weissman’s stem cell program at Stanford, was included, however, and was praised by name by Trounson during board consideration of the Stanford application. (See here for discussion of conflicts preceding the board action.)
Seven days after leaving CIRM at the end of June, Trounson was named to the board of directors of StemCells, Inc., of Newark, Ca., which holds $19.4 million in awards from the agency. The firm was co-founded by Weissman, who now sits on its board. The Trounson appointment surprised the agency and triggered a rash of bad publicity for CIRM. (See here and here.)
The agency’s new president, Randy Mills, banned CIRM employees from communicating with Trounson about StemCells, Inc., matters and announced that he would not accept employment from CIRM grantees until one year after he leaves the agency.