Thursday, April 29, 2010

$22 Million for Biology: CIRM Directors OK Two Reviewer-rejected Grants

California stem cell directors today approved more than $22 million in basic biology grants, overturning negative decisions by reviewers on two applications.

The directors ratified all 14 grants supported by reviewers, plus applications from researchers at UC Davis and the Sanford-Burnham Institute in La Jolla. The total was well under the $30 million that CIRM budgeted for the biology grant round.

The Davis grant was the subject of an “extraordinary petition” by its top researchers, Eric Kurzrock and Jan Nolta. They said in their petition that reviewers “simply overlooked important details” and committed “factual errors.” The petition was initially rejected by CIRM staff but the board decided to approve the grant for “programmatic” reasons.

Nolta appeared before the board along with patient advocates, including a tearful mother with an ailing child. Nolta is one of the few researchers who regularly attend CIRM board meetings. Patient advocates also sometimes attend board meetings and speak on behalf of specific grants.

The Nolta grant was approved on an 11-9 vote, but the board cut the amount of the grant by one-third. CIRM listed the grant at nearly $1 million in its news release.

Another extraordinary petition was rejected by the board. It was filed by Edward De Robertis of UCLA, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator. He appeared personally before the board last night. De Robertis has not been a regular at board meetings. Nor did patient advocates speak on behalf of his research.

CIRM directors also approved a $1.6 million application by Huei-sheng Chen of Sanford-Burnham that reviwers had nixed.

Fourteen of the 16 grants went to institutions that have representatives on the CIRM board. That is in keeping with the pattern over the last five years. More than $900 million out of the $1 billion in grants so far have gone to institutions with links to board members. CIRM directors with conflicts of interest are not allowed to vote on or take part in the discussion about the applications affecting their enterprises.

Of the non-board-connected recipients, one $1.5 million grant went to a business, iPierian, Inc. a South San Francisco biopharmaceutical company, and researcher Barta Strulovici. Another $1.5 million grant went to Tony Wyss-Soray at the Palo Institute for Research and Education, a nonprofit involved with the Veterans Administration system.

CIRM received 154 pre-applications  in this round that were screened by staff and a few outside reviwers. Fifty-seven pre-applicants were invited to make full applications. Fifty-two applications were received and reviewed. Reviewers made positive decisions on 14, which they sent to the board. CIRM did not announce the number of applications received from businesses.


  1. Anonymous1:48 PM

    I never cease to be amazed at the CIRM grant process. The conflict of interest has always been astounding, and now they overrule supposedly impartial reviewers... The personal appeal process, complete with patient advocates is extraordinary. It reminds me of a teacher giving a better grade to a student because they had the pushiest parents at the teacher-parent conference. There was no mention of these grants having border-line scores.

  2. "Anonymous" makes some good points below re appeals in the CIRM grant process. Some CIRM directors are not pleased with it as well. The matter should come before a new directors' subcommittee at a meeting in May. However, any person -- rejected scientists, patient advocates and opponents of hESC research -- has the right under state law to address the board. The patient advocates present powerful and personal cases. Their emotional stories touch even the hardest of hearts. It would be wrong to bar their activities. On the other hand, it would be wrong to give away $6 million primarily on the basis of the personal accounts of individuals suffering from these terrible afflictions. CIRM has a tricky path to tread. But other governmental bodies, including the legislature and Congress, regularly deal with the same sort of conundrum.

  3. Jeff Sheehy3:56 PM

    I think it is unfortunate that the critic did not follow the entire discussion.

    If anonymous had listened to the entire discussion, perhaps the relative merit of the application moved up might have been seen.

    With the pre-application process used by CIRM, the peer review group is only seeing the best of a much larger set of proposals. In this round, 154 proposals were submitted in the pre-app stage.

    54 moved on to full review by the peer review group. The grant moved into the funding category by the ICOC was ranked number 17 out of those 54, so about 70% of the other applications were deemed less worthy by the reviewers. This is about in line with the payline at NIH when it was well funded.

    However, if you consider the proposal in light of the 154 total proposals submitted in this round, it ranks higher than 89% of the proposals submitted. Falling just short of scoring in the top 10%, this was not a shabby bit of science poorly received but a strong research proposal in an understudied area with crucial clinical potential.

    CIRM funds good science that is carefully and rigorously evaluated. I do agree that the appeals process needs some work.
    Jeff Sheehy


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