Thursday, March 16, 2006

Is CIRM the Big Uneasy?

How do some California stem cell entrepreneurs regard the state's $3 billion stem cell agency?

With unease, at least based on comments at a stem cell conference in San Francisco earlier this week.

Generally, speakers spoke approvingly of the efforts by California and other states to fund stem cell research. But they exhibited a decided preference for national funding via the National Institutes of Health, which, of course, has been cut off by President Bush and is threatened by various legislators. At least in terms of embryonic stem cell research.

William Caldwell, CEO of Advanced Cell Technology, of Alameda, Ca., said state funding of embryonic stem research is "not the way to go." He said the California stem cell research funding effort is "the worst of all evils but it is the evil we've got."

Caldwell did not elaborate on his rather dramatic phrasing, but others echoed it in one form or another. Fred Middleton, managing director of Sanderling Ventures, a biomedical venture capital firm in San Mateo, Ca., did not speak directly to Caldwell's comment. But he said there is "not a clear road map" to CIRM funds.

Perhaps we are a bit dense on this, but Caldwell's position is a little difficult for us to understand. Federal funding for embryonic stem cell research is one-tenth of what is proposed in California. The federal spending is subject to the whims of the president and Congress. Federal stem cell research funding also has to battle a host of other worthy and powerful causes for its share of the federal research pie, which is not likely to expand in the near future.

Contrast that to CIRM, which operates almost totally independently from the legislature and the governor. Its funding comes from $3 billion already approved by voters and is not likely to go away. The money is devoted to stem cell research and is not likely to be tapped by other research efforts. And the agency is emulating many of the processes of the NIH, which are already familiar to biotech industry.

Of course, California's program is new and somewhat unpredictable. It is going beyond NIH standards in some regards. Its intellectual property policies may be tougher for private businesses.

In a perfect world, it would be best to have national standards for stem cell research and unfettered federal funding. But the fetters are not likely to come off during the next two or three years. So what is so problematic about California's approach?

Perhaps Mr. Caldwell, Mr. Middleton or others can enlighten us and the readers of this report. They or you may comment, even anonymously, by clicking on the word "comment" at the end of this item. Or you can send an email directly to me,, with your preferences on how your response should be handled.

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