Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Closer Ties to Industry Promised in Revised CIRM Strategic Plan

The California stem cell agency has quietly unveiled its latest plan on how it intends to spend nearly $3 billion over the next nine years, including a major shift into backing research intended to drive therapies into the marketplace.

The proposal, a revision of the 2006 strategic plan, calls for much closer ties with the biotech industry, "dramatic increases" in funding of potential therapies, expanded national and international collaboration, development of a "real-time financial reporting system" and more funding for interdisciplinary research.

The plan envisions an agency that is on the leading edge of human embryonic stem cell research and calls for considerable travel globally by its top executives and scientific staff.

The strategic plan update was posted on the CIRM website Tuesday as part of the agenda for next week's meeting of the CIRM board in Irvine, Ca. (We have been critical of the laggard posting of information on board agendas, but CIRM deserves praise for a timely posting of this important document.)

Much of the revised plan reflects the thinking of CIRM President Alan Trounson(see photo), an Australian scientist who has been in his job only since January. The proposal is subject to approval and changes by CIRM directors. Public hearings are also promised.

The plan states:
"CIRM places high value on interdisciplinary approaches. When scientists work in collaboration with engineers, physicians, chemists, mathematicians, and others to solve complex problems, they can achieve more than they could have working alone."
It continues:
"CIRM’s current leadership considers this collaborative approach so critical to the agency’s goals that it is recommending that the $120 million recommended in the 2006 plan to be awarded over three years be increased by 75 percent in the first year’s round of grants alone. It is anticipated that the scope of Disease Team Awards will be expanded to include funding for clinical trials and that they will be awarded annually (and more frequently if needed)."
On the subject of "working with industry," the plan says,
"CIRM’s president proposes to create an industry advisory body that will aid its executive to more effectively communicate and partner with the bioengineering, biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. Consequently, the science initiative outlined later in this document calls for a major increase in CIRM’s industry collaborations."
The proposal presents CIRM's assessment on the current state of the stem cell art, along with an all-in-one-place rundown of its view of its accomplishments.

The document includes plans for stepped-up hiring, particularly in the scientific area. CIRM has long labored with staff shortages. It is capped at 50 employees and now has about 30 after four years of existence. Failure to fill the allotted slots has led some CIRM directors to worry about staff burnout.

The revised goals appear to be ambitious, as did the 2006 plan. Here is a sample from its latest 10-year aspirations:
"CIRM grantees will have clinical proof of principle that transplanted cells derived from pluripotent cells can be used to restore function for at least one disease."
"CIRM-sponsored research will have generated therapies based on stem cell research in Phase I or Phase II clinical trials for 2-4 additional diseases."
"CIRM funded projects will have achieve sufficient success to attract private capital for funding further clinical development of stem cell therapies."
The plan provides more details on CIRM's communications and outreach efforts, which have expanded significantly in 2008. It also outlines the new CIRM website, which is scheduled to debut this month with new features targeting specific audiences from researchers to the public. It additionally lays out a plan for a series of town hall meetings.

The proposal is not a finished document. It has blanks where numbers need to be filled in and contains parenthetical comments that suggest additional material will be added. It is shy on assigning dollars to specific initiatives. The document's structure also does not allow easy, straight-forward comparisons to the 2006 plan.

Nonetheless, it is an important document, one that will clearly drive funding decisions during the next few years. Researchers in academia and the private sector as well as biotech business executives should pay close attention to it and suggest modifications in the next few weeks if they think they are necessary. It wouldn't hurt to express them directly to the board in Irvine next Tuesday and Wednesday but letters or emails can also be sent. Wednesday is probably the best day since approval of grants is likely to consume most of Tuesday. However, it is impossible to predict reliably the order of the agenda at CIRM directors' meetings.

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