Monday, November 02, 2009

CIRM Scrutinizes Grantee Performance: The Tale of Three Terminations

Playing the rich uncle to California stem cell researchers is unquestionably satisfying, but the folks at the state's $3 billion stem cell agency sometimes bear messages for scientists that may be less than warmly received.

That's when they become regulators and stewards of the public's money. Particularly when they exercise that responsibility in a more rigorous way than is the practice at the NIH.

CIRM is not making much of the fact that it has revoked three grants because of a lack of progress. It took us more than a month to secure the identities of the researchers who fell under CIRM's scrutiny. The agency, however, should take pride in its oversight. It enhances the credibility of the $3 billion agency and serves notice to all grantees that CIRM is more than a sugar daddy and takes its responsibilities seriously.

Only four months ago, CIRM directors heard a report on monitoring of grants that merits attention following approval of the largest research grant round in the agency's five-year history. The $230 million in disease team grants pose special challenges for the tiny agency. Its staff, currently without a chief scientific officer, will be called on to make go, no-go decisions on continued funding as researchers hit or miss bench marks in projects involving as much as $20 million.

One can only imagine the ruckus if CIRM staff recommends that funding be halted on a $20 million, four-year grant involving such high-profile and respected institutions as UC San Francisco, UCLA, Stanford, Salk and City of Hope, among others.

CIRM opened the window a bit on its oversight of grants at the board meeting in San Diego last June. Marie Csete, then chief scientific officer for CIRM, described in a positive fashion her office's monitoring of the $45 million SEED program, the first ever research grants by CIRM. She said CIRM's efforts saved some grants that would have perished. But it took a question from director Ricardo Azziz, chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Cedars-Sinai Medicial Center, to bring out the information that three grants had been terminated.

As for the issues raised during the monitoring, Csete said,
“In general, I have to say it was slow progress. It wasn't bad progress. And it allowed us to identify some issues that are, I think, endemic with a new agency and new ideas. Institutions had trouble getting lines for their investigators. People had trouble hiring post docs who were able to do the work. We had trouble getting some of the (grants) out the door for various reasons.”
CIRM director Floyd Bloom, former editor of Science magazine and executive director, science communication, at Scripps, praised Csete and her staff's work. He said,
“This kind of nurturing, interactive relationship with the PIs's is absolutely unique in the grant world. And so I think it's a wonderful thing that you've instituted. It's going to be a tremendous amount of additional work on your staff to be able to do that, but it's highly commendable, and it's going to make the difference between success or failure, particularly for these intermediate level of successful early experiments where they have to be encouraged to go on and push.”
We spoke by telephone with two scientists whose grants were revoked and exchanged email with the third, who was out of the country. None are particularly pleased about losing their grants, but their comments offer insight into the process. We are not identifying them in this piece. To do so would place an unnecessary onus on them, given the current practices in the scientific grant community and the different monitoring procedures at the NIH. None of the issues with the grants appear to involve malfeasance.

One of the researchers said he was “bitter” about CIRM's action, declaring it caused a “huge uproar” at his institution. (Prior to our conversation, we had heard unconfirmed reports about significant unhappiness on the part of recipient institutions.) This researcher said CIRM's monitoring practices were a departure from those of the NIH, which allows “the liberty to take the research where it leads you.” Nonetheless, he continues to support CIRM.

Another scientist said he parted “amicably” with CIRM but confirmed that its practices are different than the those of the NIH. (The NIH has not responded to our queries concerning how many grants it has revoked for lack of progress.)

This researcher told us,
“I think that it is very important for CIRM to closely monitor its grantees. As a California taxpayer, I want to know that state revenues supporting the CIRM effort are well utilized. Furthermore, CIRM (and its grantees) need to make good on the promise of translating the science of stem cell biology into novel therapies.”
The third told us in an email that his grant had been “prematurely terminated.” He said the work has been completed without the CIRM support and the research accepted for publication in a prestigious journal next year. He also called CIRM a “great organization” and expressed the hope that it will lead to “great cures.”

The round of grants that Csete reported on involved only $45 million, substantially less than the $230 million in the disease team round. The stakes are now much larger. Powerful teams, some international, will be at work. Impending clinical trials will also create a vision of handsome profits, in addition to hoped-for prestige and accolades. CIRM directors have indicated they expect some of the disease team grants to fail. But revoking funds for one of those grants or loans will require a lot of steel on the part of the CIRM staff.

Csete abruptly resigned from CIRM after the June meeting. Her departure and the workload at CIRM likely meant that some of the monitoring efforts were pushed back. Most of the work is done by science officers, but at crucial points, it requires the intervention of CIRM's highest level scientist.

In the wake of Csete's departure, CIRM President Alan Trounson created a new position, vice president for research and development. A search firm has been hired for $100,000 to help recruit a candidate who will make go, no-go decisions on the disease team round along with other grants. Trounson is hoping to find someone with substantial experience in the biotech industry.

Whoever fills the job should not only be something of a scientific diplomat but also be able to face the big dogs of stem cell science and tell them no. CIRM's first responsibility is to generate results for the people of California and to serve as ardent stewards of the public's money.

(Below is a transcript of the entire discussion by the CIRM board in June concerning Csete's monitoring effort. Also below is a piece concerning our decision not to publish the names of the scientists whose grants were revoked as well as another item dealing with CIRM's efforts to ensure compliance with its ethical and research standards.)

Editor's note: The California Stem Cell Report first published an item on the termination of CIRM grants last April. Here is a rundown on all the stories published on this site as of Nov. 9, 2009, concerning grant termination.

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