Thursday, July 21, 2016

California Stem Cell Appeals: Zika, Parkinson's and 'Heart-on-a-Chip'

Three California researchers are asking the directors of the state's stem cell agency today to reject the decisions of its blue-ribbon scientific reviewers and grant them awards ranging up to $2 million.

The scientists are Alysson Muotri, director of the UC San Diego stem cell program; Birgitt Schuele, director of gene discovery and stem cell modeling at the Parkinson's Institute in Sunnyvale, and Kevin Healy, professor in the department of bioengineering at UC Berkeley.

Muotri is seeking $1 million from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the stem cell agency is known. Schuele has applied for $2 million and Healy $1 million.
Alysson Muotri, UCSD photo
In a letter to CIRM's board, Muotri said he is attempting to "set up a human stem cell platform to measure the impact of the Zika virus in the nervous system and to screen potential drugs to alleviate the neurological problems associated with the infection." His application (DISC2-09095) is aimed at filling "fundamental gaps" in Zika knowledge. Muotri, who is from Brazil, wrote,
"I never debated over a grant fund decision before . However, in this case I feel I have the responsibility to alert the ICOC (the CIRM board) about neglecting studies on what we call now the ' Zika virus syndrome.' I can tell by personal experience dealing with this virus in my own lab that this is one of the most dangerous infectious agent I (have) ever seen – one can witness the virus killing brain cells in less than a day."

Birgitt Schuele, TSN photo
Schuele's letter pointed out a new study that she said demonstrated the feasibility of her research (DISC2-08953) involving a therapy for Parkinson's disease. She also included additional information that she hoped would be persuasive to the CIRM board.

Kevin Healy
photo by Laura Peterson, AAAS
In his letter, Healy said his research is aimed at developing "patient specific ‘heart-on-a-chip’ diagnostics that will have a significant impact on the early screening of drugs used to manage hypertrophic cardiomyopathy . Currently, there are no drugs that target specific disease alleles of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy."

He said the main criticism of CIRM reviewers involved the "level of maturity of cardiomyocytes" in his proposed study (DISC2-08990). But he said he proposed using the same protocol as already used by a number of currently funded CIRM researchers.

All three applications were ranked below the cutoff line for funding, which was 85. The score for Healy was 83, Muotri 77 and Schuele 72.

CIRM has funded some applications in the past with lower scores than 85. But in the last two years, it has revised its review and scoring protocols. Since then it has not overridden reviewers' negative recommendations.

The board is scheduled to act on about $30 million in awards today in a telephonic meeting with public locations throughout the state. (See here and here. ) The public can participate in the meeting at those locations, whose addresses can be found on the meeting agenda. The session will be audiocast on the Internet and through an 800-number. Complete information about the Internet access and phone number can be found on the agenda. Sphere: Related Content

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