Wednesday, August 26, 2015

California Stem Cell Agency Up to State Snuff on Cyberspace Security

Highlights
Most state departments deficient
Agency says it's okay
Foreign stem cell collaborations

The California state auditor this week warned that a host of state agencies are poorly secured and vulnerable to intrusion, but the California stem cell agency is apparently not now one of the miscreants.

In a report released yesterday, State Auditor Elaine Howe said that 73 of the 77 state departments answering a recent security standards survey said that they were not in compliance with security standards.

A story by Jon Ortiz and Jim Miller in The Sacramento Bee said that most departments “have not planned for interruptions or disasters” and five departments audited more closely all had “security deficiencies.”

The Bee story said state departments’ databanks are “stuffed with Social Security numbers, medical records, tax return data and other sensitive information.”

The $3 billion California stem cell agency is one of those departments filled with sensitive data, including proprietary information that is submitted as part of applications for the billions that the agency is handing out.

Responding to a query today from the California Stem Cell Report, Kevin McCormack, senior director of communications for the agency, said that the agency was surveyed by the auditor and now meets state standards. He said,
“We were one of those 77 departments.  We did not have security deficiencies as such – in that we put confidential information at risk – but some aspects of our site were not in full compliance with the state standards, for example not having a link to all previous privacy policies and the dates they were in effect. So we put together a plan of action on how to correct the problems, that plan was approved by the state and those changes have been implemented.”
McCormack continued,
“The question of proprietary information was one of the things we had to address, namely showing all the protections we have in place in our Grants Management System which is the only place that any kind of proprietary information is kept. Because that system already requires separate log in and password protections those met the state standards without any changes being necessary.” 
The agency has awarded tens of millions of dollars to a variety of businesses. It also has relationships with researchers in a number of countries, including China

Periodically news surfaces about Internet theft of business information by Chinese interests, including in the world of biotech and pharmaceuticals (See here, here and here.)

China is also widely believed to have ambitious stem cell research aspirations, although current specifics are scarce.  In May, however, Reuters skimmed off a quick look at Chinese biotech. Earlier this month, China announced regulations aimed at both clearing the way for human research and regulating rogue stem cell clinics. (See here also.)

The California research involving a Chinese collaborator does not allow the collaborator password access to the stem cell agency’s grant management system, McCormack said.
“None of the collaborative funding partners, foreign or domestic, can access our (grant management system). We explicitly make clear in the rules for these collaborations that we take care of the California portion of the funding and their respective agency/government/institution, etc., takes care of their portion. The California researchers would have access to our (system)  through a protected log in and password but not their collaborative funding partner.” 
The collaboration involving the China research is connected to a $1.5 million grant to Holger Willenbring, associate director of the UCSF Liver Center, who has received a total of $4.7 million from the stem cell agency. 

The latest progress report on his research on the agency’s Web site said,
“The objective of this project is to establish the feasibility of liver cell therapy with human induced hepatocyte-like cells (iHeps). As proposed we established the feasibility of generating iHeps from several expandable, potentially autologous human cell types. We identified transcription factors effective in inducing hepatocyte differentiation as well as further maturation of these cells. We also identified small molecules and culture conditions (extracellular matrix composition and stiffness) that promote proliferation and hepatocyte-specific differentiation. The next steps are to investigate the genomic integrity and therapeutic efficacy of these cells.”
Here is a link to 2014 information about Willenberg’s research.
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