Sunday, March 29, 2015

Three-Month Birthday: California Dances Forward With its Fast Track Stem Cell Plan

Randy Mills' chart last week on changes coming as a result of CIRM 2.0
On New Year’s Eve, the California stem cell agency and its relatively new president, Randy Mills, kicked off a radical and fresh way to hand out money to researchers and speed development of therapies.

Today, nearly three months later, the agency is still wrestling with some key issues, including virtual termination of its old, $500 million loan program.

Nonetheless, at a meeting last week in Berkeley, the governing board of the agency did put behind it many aspects of implementation of what it calls CIRM 2.0, a term drawn from its official name, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine(CIRM).

Approved were new rules involving administration of grants and beefed up oversight of the research -- with the agency as an ever more engaged partner with researchers, some of whom may not care for more suggestions from the back seat.

Background checks will be required on recipients. Budgets that are out of whack will not even be submitted to agency’s application reviewers. Much paperwork will be eliminated. The out-of-state researchers who approve the grants will now also scrutinize progress and make recommendations. That’s on top of clinical advisory panels that will be created to monitor research progress on a quarterly basis.  Researchers will be encouraged to save money and will have more freedom to spend surplus cash. (For more details, see here and here.)

The goal says Mills, who has been in place only since last May, is to send checks to researcher 120 days after they submit an application instead of the previous average of 22 months. New clinical stage projects are now being accepted every month instead of only once or twice a year.

Most of the CIRM 2.0 matters are much too granular to impress the public, which really only cares about production of useful therapies. But if Mills is successful, it will likely mean speedier development of the treatments that were promised 10 years ago ago when voters created the stem cell agency. Researchers and stem cell firms, as opposed to the general public, need to pay close attention, however, to the details, which can mean millions of dollars for them.

Another stem cell filip is coming up this spring: the agency's strategic plan, which appears ready to be revised as a CIRM 2.0 document. Mills avows his continued support for basic research, strongly favored by board members from academia and research institutions. But heavy pressure exists to bring a product to market quickly or much closer to market. Without such a demonstration, the agency will find it tough to secure additional funding after 2020, the latest estimate when its cash will run out. 

Still hanging out there are the details of what will be left of the agency’s once ambitious, seven-year-old loan program, which was a favorite of the agency’s first chairman, Robert Klein.

Only five loans were made. Only two are still active. In a memo to the board, Mills said the program was “overly complex, administratively burdensome, and, as reflected in the number of loans issued, it does not appear to be attractive to industry.”  He told the board last week that small companies balk at the loans because they do not want the debt on their balance sheets. Grants, however, carry royalty requirements that companies also dislike.

Mills said,
"If we can't make it better, maybe it shouldn't exist."
The board’s intellectual property committee was scheduled to act on a new loan policy in January but that meeting was cancelled with no public explanation. Again this month, a meeting was scheduled but postponed with no immediate explanation. The link to the proposed policy was removed from the CIRM Web site, although the document can be found here

 CIRM spokesman Kevin McCormack, in response to a question from the California Stem Cell Report, said,
“The meeting was postponed so we could work on the proposal some more before bringing it to the subcommittee. The document was removed from the Web site because it was actually the wrong document. It was an earlier, outdated version of the proposal and didn't reflect many of the changes that were made.”  
Last week's action directly involved only the first stage of CIRM 2.0, but Mills plans to extend the process to the entire portfolio, making adjustments as necessary. The rules are officially interim. The state’s official regulation adoption process is much lengthier and will provide more opportunity for the public to comment.

Mills has told the board that implementation of his changes will not necessarily be smooth. He also said the effort is likely to be modified as CIRM 2.0 progresses.

CIRM chart on status of CIRM 2.0 applications
Mills has now scheduled the first, closed-door review session for a CIRM 2.0 application, one of two received in January. The 90-minute telephonic meeting is set for tomorrow. The second application from January was sent back to the applicant for re-working. The agency received two CIRM 2.0 applications in February. One was sent back to the applicant. The other is expected to be reviewed and scored April 27.

More CIRM 2.0 applications are expected at the end of this month, next Tuesday.

The public can address tomorrow's meeting from CIRM's headquarters in San Francisco during the public portion of the session.  As usual, however, the name of the researcher and the target of the research are being withheld from the public.

See here, here and here for the text of key documents on CIRM 2.0 approved at last week's meeting.
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