Tuesday, March 31, 2015

California's Stem Cell Bank and Its Fujifilm Moment

A CIRM slide from last week on the Cellular Dynamic stem cell bank project.
Remember the “Kodak Moment?” California’s $3 billion stem cell agency yesterday experienced a “Fujifilm Moment.”

It came when the Japanese firm announced it was buying Cellular Dynamics International (CDI) for $307 million. That doubled the price of the company stock overnight, probably leading to moments of ecstatic celebration in some circles. The stock closed at $16.43 today, well above its 52-week low of $4.72.

The purchase was part of what FierceBiotech today called a “fresh frenzy of biotech-related buyouts.”

Cellular Dynamics is a Wisconsin firm that has a $16 million grant from CIRM, as the stem cell agency is known, to create what could be the world’s largest bank of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). The firm was founded by noted University of Wisconsin researcher Jamie Thomson. The bank is located at the Buck Institute in Novato, north of San Francisco. The 155-employee CDI is also the prime subcontractor on a related $10 million award to the Coriell Institute.

At the CIRM board meeting last week, Uta Grieshammer, a science officer at the agency, gave an update on the $32 million project that directors approved in March 2013. From the tenor of her briefing, the effort seems to be on track. (Here is the CIRM-CDI contract dated Oct. 25, 2013.)

It is not entirely clear what, if anything, the Fujifilm purchase means for the CIRM contract with CDI.  Sometimes new owners have different views of previous business arrangements and seek modifications. The Fujifilm press release said CDI work will continue in California and Wisconsin. But the release also said Fujifilm will “seek synergies and efficiencies,” which can be industry-speak for cutbacks and layoffs.

The California Stem Cell Report yesterday queried the agency about its thoughts but no response has been forthcoming.

In June 2014, Kerry Grens of The Scientist magazine wrote about the stem cell banking business. The article said,
“The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has the ambitious goal of creating the world’s largest iPSC bank. This will include cell lines from people with cardiomyopathy, blinding eye diseases, and Alzheimer’s, among other things. Michael Yaffe, the associate director for research activities at CIRM, said it was important not to duplicate the efforts of other iPSC banking initiatives. In planning the program, Yaffe explained, 'We wanted to make as many [cell lines] as possible. Then it became an economic argument: How many could we afford and how much could we push a deriver to handle?' 
“CIRM settled on a goal of 9,000 lines derived from 3,000 individuals. Yaffe said he anticipates that the first of these will be available for distribution by the end of the year or early 2015. What’s still unsettled, however, is the cost. It’s a tricky calculation, given that the utilization of the lines is unknown. 
“'If a few large pharmaceutical companies buy a complete set of all the lines, that would keep the bank established and running for many years,’ Yaffe said. ‘If academic researchers are going to buy a few lines at a time or a few lines each, it will create some challenges for the sustainability of the bank.’”
In December 2013, CIRM’s staff recommended a $2 million addition to the stem cell banking program. The CIRM governing board rejected the proposal after one board member called the plan dodgy. Jeff Sheehy, who serves on the grant review committee, said it needed to be peer reviewed and competitive.

The Fujifilm purchase attracted considerable news coverage but little mention of the CIRM connection. Here are links to some samples: Madison.com, ipscell.com, xconomy. Here is a link to CDI’s one-year progress report with CIRM.
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