Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Want a Stem Cell Grant? Here Are Some Clues, Sort Of

If Californians wanted to know about the big international stem cell conference staged last weekend by the state's stem cell agency, the man they needed to rely on was reporter Carl Hall of the San Francisco Chronicle.

He appears to have been the only newspaper reporter filing reports on the two-day conference in San Francisco. His stories Sunday and Monday (a shared byline with Cornelia Stolze)provided some insight into the thinking at the agency and some details on how it intends to proceed, although it is still facing a court battle over its existence that will extend into 2006.

Hall wrote on Sunday that presentations Saturday "broke little new ground." On Monday, he reported that the session "marked a turning point for the state stem cell agency as officials try to shift from the frustrations of starting a controversial new enterprise into solving some of the most exciting challenges of biology." ("Turning point" may have been a bit optimistic.)

Hall said stem cell directors compared the presentations at the $215,000 conference to "reading about political candidates on the eve of an election: Even though they had heard it all before, they were still primed for a fresh summary. 'We're getting a solid scientific and clinical foundation for the institute's future work,' said Michael Goldberg, a venture capitalist who serves on the Prop. 71 governing board, known as the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee.'"

Hall's stories provided some fresh reporting on possible future direction of the agency.

"Several committee members said it's clear the program must bankroll novel collaborations to solve the big problems and avoid duplicating efforts, such as creating central facilities for banking lines of stem cells and carrying out clinical trials.

"That pointed to some obvious conflicts if research centers long used to competing with one another suddenly find themselves trying to collaborate, while also allying with profit-seeking companies on projects backed by tax-exempt bonds.

"Dr. Edward Holmes, medical school dean at UC San Diego and a member of the stem cell board, said the "industrial model" of drug development is a hard sell in academia.

"'Academics are rewarded for not doing the same thing twice,' he said.

Dr. Francisco Prieto, a diabetes specialist on the stem cell board, suggested it will be no simple matter to turn the scientific priorities into a workable program, adding that some key elements were absent from the weekend agenda. 'We've heard a lot about the what and how of stem cell research, but we've talked very little about the ethical and social implications,' he said.

Jeff Sheehy, a board member appointed to represent people with HIV/AIDS, said the talks highlighted 'a fundamental tension here between basic science and clinical science.'

"'How much do you have to know before you can actually start putting these cells into somebody?' he said, a question regulators also are beginning to tackle."

If researchers are looking for clues to what types of grants they might be able get funded in the future, Hall wrote, "Although it's hardly the final list, these appear to be some of the most important recommendations most experts endorsed:

"-- A centralized bank of human embryonic stem cell colonies and other raw materials to do the research, probably one in Northern California and another in Southern California to serve labs in each region.

"-- Fundamental research on the basic tools of stem cell research, in particular how to reliably coax the ultra-flexible stem cells into forming the many specialized cells of the body, a process known as differentiation."

"-- More efficient ways to genetically reprogram stem cells to represent particular genetic diseases, probably using a type of research cloning technology, called somatic cell nuclear transfer.

"-- Foster collaborations among many institutions, drawing in corporate partners early on to ensure that basic research is done in a way that will satisfy regulators and is directed toward projects with the best chance of paying off."

Hall reported that the agency plans to create subcommittee to come up with a strategic plan, a process that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to CIRM documents. Presumably most of that will go to a private consulting firm, given its minimal staffing and high use of outside firms.


  1. Anonymous1:31 PM

    Represented at the conference: SJ Mercury News (3), Science, Nature, Assoc. Press, Chronicle, LA Times, NY Times Magazine, SF Examiner, The Deal, Sacto Bee (3), NPR, Time Magazine, San Diego Union Tribune, USA Today, and NY Times, representing the news...In conversations involving non-scientists I found that most of the press were struggling to understand the science and what it takes to get an approved cell therapy. Indeed, the session that focused on business, all the practical hurdles to be surmounted, and the cell therapy division head from the FDA, was animated and captivated the scientists who often don't get beyond basic science in their thinking. CIRM put together a fantastic program, and I was very excited by the folks who were pulling together to make the California stem initiative successful down the road. If you really want to report on this stuff in your blog you need to occasionally get off the boat and show up.

  2. Thanks for your comments. You seem well informed on CIRM matters. Perhaps you could share links to stories filed by those organizations. My searches, admitedly imperfect, also turned up the Chronicle miss. I was told later about The Bee. Thanks again.

    David Jensen

  3. Whoops, in the above, make that ... only turned up the Chronicle piece etc. Sorry.


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