Monday, June 30, 2008

Cascade LifeSciences Critiques CIRM Grant Review Process; Questions Raised about Fairness and Facts

Cascade LifeSciences of San Diego is one of the few companies to appear at a meeting of the board of directors of the $3 billion California stem cell agency in connection with rejection of its grant application.

Kenneth Woolcott
, chief business officer of the firm, expressed dismay last Thursday night concerning CIRM's scientific grant review process. Among other things, he said that reviewers appeared not to have read the application very carefully.

Following the meeting, we emailed him and asked if he would like to comment further with an eye to making constructive suggestions for changes in the review process. We are asking CIRM if it has any comment on Woolcott's remarks, the text of which follows:
"We were disappointed by the CIRM review and discouraged by the process. I trust that the agency and the applicants will evolve favorably with experience. As our distinguished Gov would say..............'We'll be Back.'

"Our real hope is that through expressing our concerns we will be able to make industry (For Profit) a viable partner in the mission of Prop. 71.

"The mission statement of Prop. 71 makes very clear that although science is a laudable goal it is not the end game. Products that treat, cure, or enhance our lives are the end game. Fast forward 10 to 15 years and I would like to be so bold as to suggest that the ultimate arbiter of the success of CIRM or Prop 71 will be PRODUCTS. Not research achievements, not publications, not patents, not even Nobel Prizes. All of these will advance our efforts and are important metrics and may even contribute to the economy of California. But John Q. Public will only benefit directly by the development of innovative stem cell related PRODUCTS that I believe will change medical approaches to disease in fundamental ways.

"I am a lawyer and the CBO of Cascade LifeSciences, but I am also a taxpayer. I also have an industry bias cultivated over 20 years with two of the San Diego biotech pioneers, Hybritech and IDEC. What I know about stem cells I have learned, what I know about product development I have lived.

"I believe industry and CIRM share the goal of product development. Although cutting edge science and academic excellence are part of the goal, we believe that industry must be the conduit through which PRODUCT run the clinical, regulatory and marketplace gauntlet.

(Editor's note: Here is a brief sketch of the firm provided by Woolcott.)

"Cascade LifeSciences

"Founded 2007
"San Diego, CA
"Howard Birndorf, Chairman
"Kenneth Woolcott, Chief Business Officer
"Sophia Khaldoyanidi, Ph.D, MD , Chief Scientific Officer
"Larry Respess, General Counsel
"Exclusive Licensee of Novel SCNT technology developed at Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) and published in Nature, Nov 2007. (First successfully SCNT in Primates)
"Dr. S. Mitalipov , inventor of SCNT patents and consultant on human SCNT effort.


"Our Expectation

(Editor's note: Woolcott's detailed comments follow.)

"CIRM RFA 07-05: New Cell Line Awards

"Page 1, Program Objectives --'Somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), a method for reprogramming that is well-established in several mammalian species, has not yet been achieved with human cells, but recent success has been reported in non-human primates.' [This is Dr. Mitalipov's work published in Nature and exclusively licensed by Cascade]

"Page 2. 'The needs may in the future be met by derivation of hESC following SCNT...'

"Page 2. 'CIRM proposes a new program to address the need for new types and sources of human pluripotent stem cell lines and for the optimization of existing methods for their derivation"

"Cascades Reasoned Expectation:

"Translation of our SCNT primate work into the SCNT generation of hESC is right in the 'strike zone' of the RFA. We were very pleased the CIRM had seen the wisdom of opening up the grant process to industry to help fund this critically important translational research that can neither be funded by the NIH nor is of interest to all but a very few private investors.

"Cascades Competitive Appreciation.

"iPS is a very important scientific avenue of research but SCNT is a very competitive alternative especially for PRODUCTS that are intended for human use.

"Cascades Experience with the Grant Review

"Grant review comments were factually incorrect. Not a matter of subjective scientific debate. Hence, the conclusions were fundamentally flawed. For example, reviewer #1 comment was 'lack of novelty, pure translation of the non-human primate work into humans.' This seems to defy logic and the mission of human therapeutics. Moreover, this does not seem to be consistent with the objectives published by CIRM in its RFA, which specifically calls out the 'hurdle' of human SCNT as a fundable goal.

"A second example of a reviewer's factual error is the comment 'The ability to generate individualized human embryonic stem cell lines using somatic cell nuclear transfer from either healthy individuals or patients with specific disease states is an exciting and yet technically demanding prospect. To date, no one has successfully cloned human embryonic stem cells, although recently, a group at University of Oregon Heath Sciences Center has successfully derived primate embryonic stem cells, with an efficiency of approximately 0.3[s1] %.' This is factually incorrect at two levels and we are unsure of where the reviewer got the 0.3% efficiency rate. Our November 2007 Nature paper calls out 0.66% efficiency at page 497. Our grant application (filed Jan 2008) describes in detail at page 8, Confidential, non-published information, 'These results represent a significant reduction in the number of oocytes required to produce a single ESC line over previously reported efficiency (from 152 to 30) providing the important foundation to conduct the proposed studies in humans.' One ESC out of 30 oocytes is actually 3.3%.

"As we all know development of therapeutics for the monkey population is a very low margin business. [Sorry could not resist]

"Moreover, at the CIRM IROC meeting Dr. Uta Grieshammer, specifically presented the review committees grant criteria and noted specifically that the review team was advise that 'novelty' was NOT a priority for these types of grants. Also at the meeting, Dr. Trounson announced that no SCNT grants had been made due to some sort of vague policy concern about access to human oocytes and the challenges this had created in other countries. First, this was 'moving the goal posts' after we had submitted our grant application. Second, we appreciate the challenge of securing oocytes but we at Cascade had been fortunate enough to secure commitment from LJ IVF clinic to supply all the oocytes we need to proceed with our effort. Moreover, if this was truly the reason for flagging our grant application as non fundable, CIRM should have just told us that in writing and explain how they were going to proceed, if at all, in the area of SCNT.

"We filed a formal request to rebut the conclusions and comments of the reviews but were told there was no such process. We now understand that after our departure on Thursday, Rusty Gage, one of our esteemed colleagues here in San Diego was allowed to rebut reviewer comments and did receive funding. We are unclear on how this rebuttal process works and why we were denied any opportunity to dialogue on the merits.

"We are now told that my discussion at CIRM was flawed because I did not address the mistake regarding efficiency of our SCNT. This is unfortunate, as we were told our request for rebuttal was rejected and that we were not allowed to discuss the merit or lack of merit of the specific review of our application but our 3 minutes was limited to expressing our concerns about the process and our suggestions for improvement from an industry perspective.

"How did this happen? Mistake? Miscommunication? Misunderstanding? Bias?

"Suggestions and Action Items for Consideration

"Industry representation on CIRM grant review teams

"Formal appeal process or ability to respond in writing to reviewer comments. See, SBIR, STTR, NIH funding for models of review cycles.

"Holding the review team to the published review criteria--e.g., in this RFA, novelty is not a priority criteria.

"One of the review criteria should always be the impact of the research on the advancement of human product development.

"If the Rusty Gage review reconsideration is as I understand it, it seems that there is one set of rules for a deservingly prominent scientist and a different set of rules for Cascade LifeSciences. We also filed a letter with CIRM asking for the opportunity to comment on our grant review and were denied. This seems, without more complete information, to be unfair.

"Perhaps separate academic/not-for-profit grant application review from for profit review. Comparing not-for-profit grants (institutions that are grant writing machines) with the grant applications of fledgling biotech companies is fundamentally unfair. Anyone who knows me will tell you I am a basketball fan. Using that sport as an analogy, this is like the USA basketball team of young college players competing against the Soviet National Team of grown men that had played together for four years. We all know how that worked out.

"Although I believe that industry is a key element of product development, and we desire to work with CIRM to advance the cause, if their funding criteria or standards are inconsistent with industry participation or pragmatic product development, we need to know that earlier rather than later.

"I am personally and professionally committed to assist CIRM in making industry an equal partner in achieving the mission of Prop. 71. I would look for guidance from the ICOC (CIRM's board of directors) on how we can work through some of these administrative and structural challenges.

"Hope this helps. It is a complex issue for industry as well as for CIRM."

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