Saturday, September 10, 2005

CIRM Hands Out $39 Million (sort of), Picks Almost New President

The California stem cell agency took two large steps forward Friday, naming a permanent president and parceling out the first grants in what it expects will be a $3 billion program.

Both steps were aimed at delivering a message that the infant agency is determined to survive and thrive despite lawsuits aimed at snuffing it in its crib. The Oversight Committee also gave short shrift to critics who complained that its grants were, in fact, illegal.

Zach Hall, who was named interim president only last March, was chosen as the new permanent president of CIRM. The action removes questions about the direction of the leadership of the organization, which had hoped to name a permanent executive three months ago. Hall is highly regarded by many in the scientific community outside of the agency.

While Hall's appointment helps to solidify the management of CIRM, the training grant program remains a question because it is unfunded. During Friday's meeting of the Oversight Committee, Hall told reporters that it was important to make decisions on the grants in order to deliver a message that CIRM is alive and well, despite its much publicized travails.

CIRM chairman Robert Klein said he hopes to deliver the funding for the stem cell training grants by the beginning of November. He indicated that grant recipients should begin their programs with the expectation they will be reimbursed later. Klein hopes to sell bond anticipation notes to provide the $12.5 million that is needed for the first year funding. His target market is philanthropic institutions and individuals. The clinker in his plan is that holders of the notes would not be repaid if CIRM's legal critics are successful.

CIRM's $3 billion plan makes it the single largest source of stem cell research funding in the world. Hall said the nearly $39 million in training grants approved Friday would create the “broadest training (stem cell) training program in the country and, I assume, the world.”
There were few surprises in the training grant program awards, which, by law, are limited to California organizations. Eight University of California campuses received funding. Other winners included the Burnham Institute, the California Institute of Technology, Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles, the Scripps Research Institute, Stanford University, the J. Gladstone Institutes and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

The names of the losers were not announced, although we reported earlier that all of the UC campuses had sought funding. CIRM officials said they would not disclose the names in order to avoid embarassing the losing institutions.

The grants are expected to provide funding for 180 stem cell scholars -- “intellectual capital” as described by Klein. New stem cell researchers are needed because President Bush's anti-stem cell policies have discouraged many from entering the field. “We know the pipeline is pretty dry,” said Philip Pizzo, dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine.

A few members of the Oversight Committee, which is largely composed of high-powered executives and academicians, on Friday demonstrated they are not used to being criticized openly during the public comment portion of their meetings. Oswald Steward,
chair of the Reeve, Irvine Research Center University of California, Irvine, sharply objected to the length of comments by Susan Fogel, coordinator of the Pro-Choice Alliance for Responsible Research, and then muttered under his breath at her retort.

David Serrano Sewell, a patient advocate committee member from the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Association, abruptly cut off attorney Charles Halpern of Berkeley, Ca., when he raised questions about the criteria for the training grants. Sewell heatedly declared that CIRM had been “transparent in every respect.”

Halpern is a longtime member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, he has served as dean of the City University of New York Law School and the president of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. He said said Prop. 71 required adoption by the Oversight Committee (ICOC) of criteria for training grants prior to their consideration by the working group that reviewed them. The working group had a draft version of the criteria, but the Oversight Committee did not approve the criteria until Friday, only minutes before it began to consider the grant recommendations. All but one of the group's 26 funding recommendations were approved.

Halpern said, “The (working group) cannot apply its proposed criteria to pending applications until these criteria have been reviewed, amended, and approved by the ICOC—nor can the (working group) assume that the ICOC will simply rubberstamp its proposed criteria.”

Prior to the meeting, Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland, Ca., said, “It is irresponsible for (CIRM) leaders to promise grants that they may be unable to deliver.”

Jesse Reynolds, director of the program on biotechnology accountability at the Center, attended the Friday meeting. He told the board that approval of the grants continues “a pattern of doing things fast at the expense of doing things right. Good policy would be guided by the availability of resources, rather than a concern with a public relations campaign.”

The full text of Halpern's letter to CIRM, which is not available elsewhere on the Internet, follows this item.

(Note: Normally our coverage of CIRM is prepared at sea in the far reaches of the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. Today's report, however, and those that will appear over the next day or so are based on our attendance at what turned out to be a nonstop session Friday of the Oversight Committee in Sacramento.)

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