Monday, June 25, 2007

CIRM Plan: $85 Million Split Among 25 Stem Cell Researchers

Polish up your resumes, folks. The California stem cell institute is preparing to give away $3 million a year or so to 25 promising, "young" researchers and physician-scientists. The money could be awarded as early as next winter.

The concept for the five-year program was approved by CIRM's Oversight Committee earlier this month. It is aimed at drawing the best and brightest into stem cell research in California -- and not just embryonic stem cell research.

The $85 million proposal encountered virtually no opposition at the Oversight Committee meeting. However, it did shed some light on issues related to have and have-not institutions, quality of grant recipients and spreading the CIRM wealth geographically around the state.

Arlene Chiu, interim chief scientific officer for CIRM, presented the concept to the ICOC. She told the board:
"Independent scientists at this early stage in their careers are very vulnerable...because they face a number of challenges: Tight federal funding pressures to get data and results out quickly, to publish papers, and demonstrate productivity and the potential of their work. They also must get grants to support their fledgling labs. And last, and certainly not least, physician-scientists often have to have clinical service as well. Faced with these challenges, plus the restrictions and uncertainties imposed by the presidential policy on human embryonic stem cells, it's not surprising that many new faculty are discouraged, feel discouraged from rushing into this new field."
Under the plan, the awards would go to persons who hold fulltime, faculty-level positions at academic or non-profit institutions in California and who are "young," meaning in the early stages of their careers. Academic institutions with a medical school could submit four applications in support of new Ph.D.'s and two new physician-scientist faculty members. Institutions without a medical school would be limited to two applications. The grants would go for research, salaries and possibly educational loans. They are akin to Pioneer grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health.

Chiu said the cap on the applications from each institution was needed to keep the total number from become unmanageable given the problems of processing them with CIRM's small staff. Ed Penhoet, vice chairman of the ICOC, said the total could hit 600 or 700 without a cap. He said he was more concerned about the load on grant reviewers, who come from out-of-state.

Philip Pizzo
, dean of the the School of Medicine at Stanford, and others advocated no institutional cap on applications. Pizzo said,
"This is a very big award that you're putting forth, that it's best to have the very most outstanding individuals."
Later he said,
"I'll say this carefully, and I hope no one will be offended. I think we must have a very high standard. The tendency that we've had recently is we're trying to spread things around, and I think it's good. We should do that, but we should have a high bar on these grants and not simply come in and say,well, we need to have many more of them to sort of prime the seat. I think that would be going in the wrong direction."
David Baltimore, former president of Caltech and a Nobel Laureate, replied,
"There are only 25 grants. If four of those grants were given to one institution, that would be probably scandalous. For six grants to be given to one institution would certainly be scandalous when it's such a limited resource for the state."
Also speaking for limits on each institution were Oversight Committee Chair Robert Klein, Claire Pomeroy, dean of the School of Medicine at UC Davis, and patient advocates Jeff Sheehy and Sherry Lansing, a former Hollywood film executive. .

At one point, Oswald Steward, chair and director of the Reeve, Irvine Research Center at UC Irvine, supported Pizzo as did Duane Roth, chairman and CEO of Alliance Pharmaceutical Corp., who said he favored stringent criteria for the awards.

The discussion of the faculty award program reflected some of the questions recently rippling through CIRM. Do the big, well-established programs continue to receive generous grants? How much should go to institutions without the reputations and facilities that UC San Francisco and Stanford have? Should the location of institutions be a consideration? Does spreading the money around mean that unworthy science is being funded? Does it dilute funding for what is very expensive research, a question raised by Penhoet, who said,
"I just wanted to caution against trying to cut the budgets and spread it around over more people. This is a disease most prevalent at the National Science Foundation. You end up with lots of people with not enough money to do anything important. So I think we're better off to choose the very best people and fund them well rather than try to spread the money further. This research is expensive. Salaries are high, all of these things. It takes a lot of money to do modern cell biology and microbiology."
The questions of sharing the wealth have surfaced particularly during recent sessions of the Facilities group, which is developing criteria for a $200 million research lab construction program. The issues are likely to surface anew on July 12 when that group actually writes the specifics.

As for the faculty awards, Chiu will bring back more specifics to the ICOC in August. Review of applications, which she estimates could come from as many as 35 institutions, is tentatively scheduled for this fall. Approval of grants could come during the holiday season. Consider them a Christmas bonus.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Search This Blog