Wednesday, September 21, 2016

California Stem Cell Research: $639 Million Left in the Golden State's "Big Bucket"

Randy Mills, head of the California stem cell agency, calls the cash
available for research awards "the big bucket." CIRM graphic
California's ambitious stem cell research agency has $639 million remaining in uncommitted cash as it continues to seek therapies and perhaps cures for afflictions ranging from spinal injury to diabetes.

Randy Mills, president of the 12-year-old program, announced the figure today at a San Diego meeting of the agency's governing board. He also said the program, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), is expected to run out of funds in June 2020.

CIRM is financed by money that the state borrows -- $3 billion in bonds approved by California voters in 2004. Using borrowed money also leads to interest costs, increasing the ultimate taxpayer expense to roughly $6 billion. However, that estimate dates back to 2004 and no fresher figure has been produced by the state.

Mills reminded his directors that the agency is allowed only $180 million for operational expenses over the life of the program. About $61 million remains for those expenses.The current annual operational budget of $16 million pays for the roughly 55-person staff  to oversee $900 million in active awards and to make new awards.

The agency has handed out $2.1 billion over its life but many of those research efforts are finished. No therapies have been developed for widespread use.

The agency also has a "return rate" of 3 percent to 5 percent on awards.  The "return" is cash that is left over from an award or that is returned to the agency when a researcher does not meet research milestones, and the award is cancelled.  The returned cash is running at about $40 million annually.

Just what will happen to the agency come 2020 is unclear. Mills today said he and his team are monitoring the funds carefully so that awards and the operational funds run out at the same time.

The agency also may begin lose key staff as time passes and no plan for 2020 emerges, a possibility that Mills has publicly discussed, albeit briefly.

As for future funding, thoughts about another bond issue, public-private partnerships and more legislative funding have been bandied about. But nothing concrete has yet emerged.
Operational funds are described as "the little bucket" by Mills. CIRM graphic

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