Sunday, January 06, 2008

Two San Diego Area Firms Seeking Cash From CIRM

Novocell and International Stem Cell Corp. are among the first 10 companies seeking grants from California's $3 billion stem cell agency.

Reporter Terri Somers of the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote Sunday about their plans as part of a story on CIRM's efforts to pump money into the stem cell business.

Somers' story was the first to disclose the names of any applicants for disease team planning grants. CIRM has refused to disclose the names of organizations seeking millions of dollars in public funds on grounds that they would be embarrassed if they were not awarded a grant. However, last month CIRM reversed itself on the names of 12 applicants for $263 million in lab construction grants, identifying them in order to give them a leg up on raising matching funds to help their applications.

Somers wrote,
"Novocell (a privately held company in San Diego) is developing a diabetes treatment that would create insulin-producing islet cells from human embryonic stem cells. It then would coat those islet cells in a polymer to make the cells invisible to the body's immune system, so they would not be rejected or require the patient to take immune-suppression drugs.

"The company plans to be part of two disease teams, Alan Lewis, chief executive, said.

"One team, which Novocell would lead, would include scientists from academia as well as a company from outside San Diego, Lewis said. That company, which he declined to name, has more expertise in development than Novocell, which is focused on research. He wouldn't name the academic part of the team."
As for International Stem Cell, a publicly traded firm in Oceanside, Ca., Somers reported that it "has created corneas using embryonic-like human stem cells derived from an unfertilized egg."

She continued:
"The company would have liked to create teams for several diseases, but for this planning grant the stem cell institute limited companies to being the lead investigator on only one team, said Jeff Krstich, chief executive.

"Nonprofit institutes, including universities, which generally have researchers with expertise in more areas than a company, can apply to lead four disease teams.

"International Stem Cell's team is all internal, and plans to focus first on corneal implants, Krstich said. Last year the company published a scientific journal article showing that it can create corneas from embryonic-like stem cells it created from a process known as parthenogenesis, which involves using an unfertilized egg rather than an embryo."
Somers also had an interesting comment from Lewis concerning the ongoing and contentious debate about sharing revenues that might result from CIRM-funded inventions. Some who claim to represent industry seem to balk at such requirements. But Somers wrote,
"'We weren't expecting free money from CIRM,' said Lewis of Novocell. 'Obviously there needs to be a benefit to the California taxpayers down the road, when a product is approved.'"
Somers' article and the willingness of the two companies to discuss their plans add useful information to the dialog about stem cell research in California. She also indirectly exposed some of the silliness in CIRM's refusal to disclose information about how it is going about the public's business. In this case, she said that CIRM would not provide a breakdown of the diseases targeted by those intending to seek planning grants. No reason was given in Somers' story, and it is hard to imagine how CIRM could concoct one that could be construed to be in the public's interest.

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