Sunday, January 09, 2011

Science Magazine Assesses CIRM: 'The Good, Bad and Ugly'

Science magazine examined California's $3 billion stem cell research effort in a piece published during the holidays, and the third paragraph of the story began with this quote,
“It's the usual CIRM circus.”
Whether one thinks the comment was well-deserved or not, it falls far short of the type of publicity that the agency needs, especially as it considers mounting a bid to secure an additional $5 billion from California voters.

Overall, the two-page article was pretty much a straight-forward overview of where CIRM stands at the beginning of 2011. The story began, however, with a look at the shenanigans of CIRM Chairman Robert Klein as he tried unsuccessfully last year to hand pick his successor. And that was what triggered the “CIRM circus” comment from Marie Csete, former chief scientific officer for CIRM.

The piece by Greg Miller was entitled, “CIRM: The Good, the Bad And the Ugly” – another less-than-felicitous phrase concerning the public agency. The article covered the basics: dollars handed out, labs built, concerns about high salaries and conflicts of interest and the recent external review report. It noted that many scientists view CIRM as a “tremendous success.” But it also reported that patient advocates “are tired of waiting for stem cell cures.” Miller's article continued,
“...(E)ven CIRM supporters say the institute has to improve its relationships with industry if it hopes to fulfill its mandate: generating stem cell therapies that help people suffering from conditions like diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. A recent report by a panel of external scientists convened by the CIRM board said translating basic science into therapies should be a major priority going forward.”
Miller wrote,
“Not surprisingly, CIRM grantees are not complaining. 'I just moved into a spectacular new building,' says Arnold Kriegstein, the director of the new Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). CIRM kicked in $35 million for the new facility, about a third of its cost.”
(Editor's note: UCSF has received $111 million in grants. The dean of its medical school sits on the CIRM board of directors, as do several other medical school deans whose institutions have received hundreds of million dollars.)

The article continued,
“Several California biotech leaders say they have been frustrated by their interactions with CIRM. 'In the past, there’s been a lack of recognition that it takes a company to actually take a treatment forward from the bench top into the clinic,' says Chris Airriess, chief operating officer of California Stem Cell Inc. in Irvine. Airriess says his company has twice applied, unsuccessfully, for CIRM money. He and others place much of the blame on the review process, which he says is structured too much like the NIH review process for academic research grants. CIRM reviewers criticized his company’s applications for the lack of new science, but Airriess says that misses the point. 'Companies are trying to stabilize a technology and commercialize it rather than push the bleeding edge,' he says.

“Even companies that have succeeded say it hasn’t been easy. Earlier this year, San Francisco–based iPierian won a $6 million early translation award and a $1.5 million basic biology award. 'We put a ton of effort into understanding what was being asked for,' says CEO Michael Venuti.”
Science magazine concluded,
“CIRM President Alan Trounson says he is sensitive to these (industry) concerns but doesn’t think the review process is problematic: 'Companies that have put in well-formed proposals have done very well.' But he acknowledges that CIRM has had difficulty attracting proposals, particularly from larger companies. He’d like to set up an industry advisory board to help improve industry relations.

“In the coming months, he and others will be waiting anxiously to see who succeeds Klein as chair. Patient advocates want an advocate at the helm. Scientists would prefer a scientist. Trounson, who may have to work most closely with the new boss, says he’s hoping for someone with expertise in the delivery stage of therapeutic development. 'The basic science, as long as we look after it, will take care of itself,' he says. The real challenge for CIRM, he says, is getting the science into the clinic. 'We need more help on how to make it all happen.'”
In terms of the negative information in the piece, one thing helpful to CIRM is that the article is tucked away behind a subscription barrier, so it is not likely to be available to mainstream journalists (whose employers are notoriously cheap) as they do research on the agency. Nonetheless, the article is likely to be checked by most scientists interested in CIRM affairs and quite possibly by any potential, major contributors to an election campaign for more billions for the agency.

But the real problem is not with the publicity or the slant of the article – it is with the actions of Klein and the agency. There would have been little dubious to write about concerning the choice of a new chair if Klein had not tried to engineer the selection of his successor in a closed-door process that raised charges of conflict of interest. And as far as issues with the biotech industry go, those have been apparent for several years, but little has been done to deal with them.

(If you are interested in receiving the entire article, please email a request to, and I will send it to you.)


  1. Anonymous9:11 AM

    As a taxpaying California citizen, I wonder if this blogspot could query whomever appropriate whether Klein is continuing to receive a salary from CIRM since his re-election following the Sunday-night dinner with Bernstein which I read Klein stated he - Klein - arranged, which was followed by CIRM reporting Bernstein was ineligible to serve as Chair at CIRM because he is a Canadian citizen (even though CIRM President Alan Trounson is reportedly an Australian citizen), which was then followed by Klein himself being re-elected as Chair at CIRM ?

    In the aftermath of the above, does Klein continue to receive a State paycheck and if so what is the amount of money he being paid?

  2. Anonymous3:30 PM

    Re anonymous' query concerning Klein's salary, he was paid $150,000 annually for what the board deemed was half-time work. We are checking to see whether Klein's salary has been cut off.

  3. Anonymous9:05 AM

    Thank you, as I am very interested in knowing whether the statement Mr. Klein made after the Bernstein controversy -- that he would serve without a salary for the next up-to-six-months (i.e. the maximum additional time that I read he said he could serve) -- is consistent with what is actually happening.


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