Friday, September 25, 2015

Building a 'Beautiful Machine:' California's Last $900 Million for Stem Cell Research

Intense, passionate, zealous – some of the words that could have applied yesterday to the CEO of a California enterprise devoted to the dispassionate world of scientific research.  

Randy Mills, president of $3 billion California stem cell agency, started with what could have been a mind-numbing overview of a revision of the agency’s strategic plan – a subject that draws yawns from many.
Randy Mills at an earlier strategic plan event in La Jolla.
San Diego UT photo

Plus he was not talking directly to his key audience – the directors of the governing board of the stem cell agency, who were listening to him from 18 different teleconference locations.

Mills eased into his presentation, backed by 30 pages of PowerPoint slides. He was speaking by phone from room 3803 in the Sanford Consortium in La Jolla, a facility partially financed with $43 million in agency funds.

His pace and fire escalated as talked about transforming the agency and fabricating a “great, beautiful machine.”

He told the directors,
“We have created very beautiful pieces – but they have existed as pieces”
Now is the time, he said, for California to create a “giant engine that will accelerate the research in a way that exists nowhere else in the world”  – a “giant coordinated stem cell machine.”

Mills said the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known, is “by far the largest regenerative institute in the world.”  At the same time, it “needs to be better appreciated.” He promised to generate a “dramatic increase” in awareness of the agency.

Mills, who has been with the agency for about 16 months, skimmed over the numbers: $2 billion out the door, $900 million left for research awards, $400 million to go to clinical research, 50 new clinical trials.

Mills has already increased the speed of funding for clinical programs, dropping the time from years to months. But he wants to do more for what is called the translational stage – bringing developments out of  basic research into clinical phases in three years instead of eight.

Mills’ efforts yesterday were limited by time, however. The meeting was scheduled for only 90 minutes and the board had other business as well.

Individual board members had brief comments, including Jeff Sheehy, a communications manager from UC San Francisco. He raised questions about Mills’ plan to clear out obstacles at the FDA. Sheehy wanted to know more about how much it would cost and how it would be pursued.

Another asked whether there was a sufficient research base in California to achieve all that Mills proposed, a risk that Mills had identified in his PowerPoint slides. Yes, Mills said, it could be that CIRM will not be able to do 50 new clinical trials.

Mills’ report was a midpoint update on how the agency plans to spend its final $900 million in what could well be its last strategic plan.

The proposal will be examined once again by the Science Subcommittee of the agency’s governing board in November before it goes to the full board in December for approval.

The plan is likely to have a major impact on stem cell research in California and on the lives of hundreds of researchers. Only one scientist was present to comment yesterday at the meeting, Jeanne Loring of the Scripps Institute. She told Mills that his presentation was “terrific,” which sparked applause from about 20 patient advocates in the room at the Sanford Consortium.

As for the fate of the agency after 2020, when funds for new awards run out, CIRM Chairman Jonathan Thomas said that would be discussed at the December board meeting.

But as Mills noted, 
“We don’t have a lot of time left.” 
The agency is open for more comment from the public. Mills said suggestions, criticism, etc., can be sent to kmccormack@cirm.ca.gov.

More information about the strategic direction of the agency can be found here and here.

Those directly affected by CIRM spending – or who want to be affected by it -- would be well advised to listen to Mills’ presentation on a recording of the teleconference meeting. The recording can be found on the audiocast link on the meeting agenda, beginning at about 38 minutes into the meeting.
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