Saturday, June 18, 2011

CIRM Posts Details of Change in Big Ticket Grant Reviews

The California stem cell agency has added substantial amounts of additional information to its agenda for its board meeting next week, including a proposal that will make significant changes in the reviews for its important clinical trials and disease team rounds.

The additional material was posted late yesterday, only two business days before the meeting that begins next week in San Diego. As we noted yesterday, the dilatory postings do not serve the public, the California stem cell community, the agency or its directors well. One CIRM director, Joan Samuelson,  says laggard postings at CIRM are "crazy" and unprofessional.

"It bugs me," she told other directors earlier this month.

The new review procedures would involve grants or loans in the roughly $20 million and up range. They would provide an opportunity for applicants to comment on reviewer questions in advance of the formal peer review meeting. They would also allow reviewers to question applicants by telephone on the day of the review. The procedures grew out dissatisfaction by some board members with the process in which Geron was loaned $25 million in May.

The Geron funding represents CIRM's first entry into clinical trials. The agency is expected to be involved in more clinical trials as it tries to push stem cell therapies into the marketplace. The agency is seeking to produce results that would persuade voters to approve another bond measure – perhaps as large as $5 billion – to continue CIRM's efforts.

Ellen Feigal, CIRM's new vice president for research and development, told a panel of CIRM directors earlier this month that the new procedure is aimed at "making sure we have complete information in real time about the research grant." She said the changes are designed "to make sure that the investigators, the applicant, actually feel that they have an opportunity to address some of the difficult questions that could arise during the review process."

Her comments were made at the directors' Science Subcommittee meeting June 6. The transcript of the session, which is worthy of review by all potential CIRM applicants, was released two days ago with little notice, which is standard procedure for CIRM.

The review changes call for scientific reviewers to complete their initial review of applications 14 days in advance of a review meeting along with a list of key questions. The questions, plus any additional issues that CIRM staff has, would be go to applicants 10 days ahead of the review to give them time to respond. Applicants would be asked to be available by phone on the day of the review for any additional questions.

The discussion at the committee meeting largely involved details in execution of the plan and whether reviewers would pose questions directly to applicants. The answer was no, that some other person would pose the questions to avoid possible identification of scientific reviewers, whose identities are kept secret by CIRM.

Also discussed was the nature of the questions – whether they would involve nuanced matters or matters that could be addressed with a yes or no. From the committee's discussion, it was clear that this initial effort will be a testing ground to work out exactly how the new procedure will be implemented.

Other information freshly available on the agenda for next week's meeting involves:

  • An $80 million grant program, beginning next year, for physician scientists to conduct research that will translate into possible applications.
  • A $30 million "opportunity fund," controlled initially by the CIRM president, to accelerate development of therapies and implement a recommendation of last fall's blue-ribbon external review panel and assist industry.
  • A $27 million, three-year extension of a training program involving California state colleges(but not the University of California) and community colleges.
  • A job description for CIRM's new director of public communications, who apparently would run the agency's PR efforts from the chair's office as opposed to the president's. The post is part of a reorganization of CIRM management.
(Editor's note: An earlier version of this item did not contain the comments from Joan Samuelson.)

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