Monday, January 26, 2015

$131 Million and 887 Papers: Demise of California's First Stem Cell Grant Program

The $3 billion California stem cell agency on Thursday is expected to put to rest its oldest grant program – an effort that was begun with bravado in 2005 but minus the cash to back it.

It was a matter -- at the time -- of showing the Golden State’s stem cell flag despite legal challenges that had stalled the progress of the agency.  The grants were the agency’s first and came on a late summer day in Sacramento during a governing board meeting marked by confusion and frustration.

David Baltimore
PasadenaNow photo
Board members complained they did not have enough information to make good judgments on the awards. 

Nobel Prize winner David Baltimore, a board member and president of Caltech, objected to what he considered loose standards in evaluating the applications for millions of dollars.

At one point, a crusty reporter from The Associated Press, Paul Elias, jumped up and demanded to know exactly what was going on.

The headline on the story the next day in the California Stem Cell Report said, 
“CIRM Hands Out $39 Million (sort of)….”
The awards created a training program for stem cell scientists. It was aimed at attracting more researchers into a field that was atrophying because of the Bush administration’s restrictions on stem cell research funding. 

Without adequate financial resources, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known, appealed to the recipient institutions to advance the funds with the expectation they would be reimbursed later.

Zach Hall, who was appointed president of the agency the same day, called the awards “historic.” Robert Klein, the chairman of the CIRM board, said he was thrilled by the program.

One of the major goals of the board action was to show that the agency and that its tiny staff (something less than 20) was still kicking despite the legal dispute that blocked issuance of the bonds that provide funding for the agency. 

In that regard, CIRM was more than successful.  The meeting was well-covered by major newspapers in the state, a far cry from the situation today. The message in the stories was largely favorable. The California Stem Cell Report wrote on Sept.11, 2005,
“Subordinated was the reality that the agency does not yet have the money. Even more deeply subordinated were complaints about the grant process from critics.”
The initial awards ultimately grew into a nine-year, $131 million effort. In a Jan. 20 memo to the CIRM board, the agency’s current president, Randy Mills, said,
“The programs have trained 859 CIRM Scholars. These trainees have worked in 436 different laboratories on a broad range of research projects, with the majority focused on basic research. CIRM Scholars have been authors on 887 scientific publications.”
The average cost for each “scholar” was about $152,000, Mills reported. The California Stem Cell Report calculated an average expense of about $148,000 for each scientific article, although such articles usually have more than one author. Mills said 34 percent of the recipients were graduate students, 48 percent post-doctoral and 18 percent clinical fellows.

Not noted by Mills was the fact that nearly all the awards went to institutions linked to members of the agency’s governing board. Virtually no other institutions existed, however, in California that could provide the training.

In December 2013, the board asked the agency staff to prepare a new version of the training program, a task that was not completed before the board hired Mills last spring.

In his memo last week, Mills said that “the CIRM team determined that a new training grant program is no longer an optimal method of supporting the education and training of stem cell scientists.” He continued,
“CIRM believes that supporting the training of new stem cell scientists is best accomplished by bolstering funding for our research grants programs, particularly the earlier discovery and translational phases where each program can be individually evaluated for its merit and contribution to CIRM’s mission.”
Mills said he will present concept plans for new discovery and translation rounds, including training within them, during the next six months. And he asked the board to approve his recommendation to drop the plans continue the old, once-hailed training program.


  1. Anonymous11:47 AM

    This decision is short-sighted. The idea behind the training grants was to, well, train young researchers. These are the scientists who actually do the lab work, while their PIs spend increasing time writing grants. Is CIRM trying to turn academic labs into companies? Training grants are designed to turn people into scientists, not technicians that follow orders.

  2. The decision could well be short-sighted, but the agency is all about developing cures. That means commercialization with purely academic research taking second place at this point. Only $1 billion remains, which sounds like a lot, and it is. But clinical stage research is vastly more expensive than basic research. The agency is juggling its priorities, which can be difficult given that 29 persons, including a host of academics, sit on its governing board. Without developing something close to a therapy or a cure, the agency could well wither away in a few years. The stem cell cash would dry up. That would leave nothing for basic research, nothing for clinical work and nothing for training.

  3. Anonymous9:01 AM

    None of CIRM training grants have really trained any stem cell scientists, just an easy way for those directors to get some free labor and take junior scientist’s work without doing any research.

    1. This is untrue. All of the researchers in my lab funded on our CIRM training grant- graduate students and postdocs- are stem cell researchers. Louise Laurent (CIRM Clinical Fellow) is an assistant professor at UCSD, Dept, Reproductive Med. Inbar Friedrich Ben-Nun (CIRM Postdoctoral Fellow) is at Lonza Stem Cell Technologies developing their GMP production of iPSCs. Ibon Garitaonandia (CIRM Postdoctoral Fellow) Is at International Stem Cell Corp., leading their project on stem cell replacement therapy for Parkinson's disease. Ileana Slavin CIRM Postdoctoral Fellow) launched the stem cell program at Isis, Inc. Heather Schultheisz (CIRM Predoctoral Fellow) works for Life Technologies/Thermofisher. Evelyn Lee (CIRM Predoctoral Fellow) is currently working in my lab on a stem cell-based therapy for multiple sclerosis.

  4. Anonymous1:03 PM

    I'm assuming that since Randy Mills has spent most of his career in industry, he thinks that industry is the only way to get things done. He's overlooked the fact that the staffs of the leading stem cell companies in California learned stem cell science in academic labs, and many are former CIRM scholars. Should we be cutting off the source of talent for the stem cell industry now? I think it's the worst possible time.