Thursday, January 17, 2008

Childrens Hospital Loses Bid for Lab Grant; 12 Survive

In their most heated public session in their short history, directors of the California stem cell agency Wednesday night rejected a bid by Childrens Hospital Oakland Research Institute to overturn a negative recommendation on a grant to build a lab to fight sickle cell anemia.

Childrens' request failed on a 5-10 vote despite an impassioned plea by CIRM director Jeff Sheehy.

"This is a no-brainer," said Sheehy. "This is a very promising area of research."

Other board members argued that Childrens' public appeal, the first ever directed to the Oversight Committee, violated the agency's processes, was unfair to other rejected applicants and needed consideration in some future round of grants.

Sheehy didn't buy the arguments. "Let us study it," he said caustically. "Let another person die."

The board's action came during a session that resulted in the relatively routine approval of 12 institutions to advance to the next round of the $262 million stem cell lab grant program, which will judge the actual building plans. Today's review focused on the research proposed for the facilities. All 12 approved Wednesday night were identified earlier as being recommended for funding following a closed-door session involving scientific reviewers who are not required to disclose publicly their financial interests.

Childrens Hospital received a "do-not-fund" decision by the reviewers. Bertram Lubin, president of the hospital, appeared before the Oversight Committee Wednesday night after sending three letters to the members of the panel. (Two of have appeared on this web site.)

He told directors that the grant reviewers did not appreciate the type of research proposed by Childrens. Sheehy, who participates in the closed-door review sessions, concurred.

Lubin also told directors, "When you report on what CIRM has done, this (funding his program)would be a major accomplishment." He said it could result in actual treatments in a year or two, which is a far cry from almost all of the research financed by CIRM.

Some directors, including Chairman Robert Klein, have pushed aggressively for faster work on therapies. Ironically, earlier in the day, a CIRM Task Force explored details of how it could launch a massive loan program, totaling as much as $750 million, to speed development of therapies.

Gerald Levey
, dean of the UCLA School of Medicine, did not agree with Childrens' appeal. "I don't think we can run a board this way. If we do, it would be chaos." He was responding to a request by Lubin for a 10 minute presentation Thursday of Childrens' case. Levey warned that allowing the presentation would lead to 50 other rejected applicants coming to the board.

Director Joan Samuelson said that even 100 persons would be okay with her. She provoked laughter when she declared that would show more interest than at any other board meeting.

CIRM's new president, Alan Trounson, who was attending his first board meeting, expressed concern about whether allowing Lubin to make a 10 minute presentation on Thursday would be fair to the five other rejected applicants. He suggested that they might need to be notified and allowed to make a similar pitch, perhaps by phone.

Ted Love
, another director, said, "We can't fund everything. He said that if Childrens' research is "really good," they will find funding elsewhere. Both Klein and Trounson indicated that Childrens research might find favor in another round of grants.

However, the board rejected, on a 3-10 vote with one abstention, Samuelson's motion to permit a 10 minute presentation. Lubin was allowed to make his appeal during the comment period alloted to the general public. Speakers are supposed to be limited to three minute presentations, but enforcement of is sometimes lax.

While Childrens was frustrated in its bid on Wednesday, other applicants are going to be disappointed this spring in the second round of the competition. CIRM staff said that if all 12 were funded at the midrange of the amounts alloted in each category of competition, $320 million would be required. The board has already said it will only spend $262 million.

Following the meeting, CIRM released the following statements:

Klein said,
"Investment in facilities to extend California’s state-of-the art research capacity is a critical part of CIRM’s Scientific Strategic Plan to sustain and build California’s global leadership in stem cell research. Through the Major Facilities Grants we are leveraging the impact of Proposition 71 funds with contributions from donors and non-profit research institutions. Our goal is to exceed $550,000,000 in research facility investments that will advance critical stem cell research. Achieving this goal would mean that every one dollar of State funding from Proposition 71 would deliver two dollars in research facility investment."
Trounson said,
"The facility investments CIRM will make through these grants will continue to propel California as a leader in stem cell research. Providing the necessary infrastructure for research is a critical step in laying the foundation for eventual therapies and cures."
The Oversight Committee meeting will continue today with an appeal by the Human BioMolecular Research Institute San Diego of reviewer rejection of its grant application.

The 12 institutions that survived Wednesday night's judgments are Buck Institute, the San Diego Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, Stanford, UC campuses in Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, San Francisco, Merced, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Santa Cruz and the University of Southern California.

The agency's press release is not likely to be available on its web site until sometime Thursday morning.

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