Sunday, December 18, 2011

ACT and CIRM: Fresh Life in a Troubled California Stem Cell Courtship?

Advanced Cell Technology, which has unsuccessfully sought funding several times from the $3 billion California stem cell agency, drew some attention today in a piece in a Massachusetts newspaper.

The Worcester Telegram took a look at the firm, headquartered in Santa Monica, Ca., with labs in Marlboro, Mass., in the wake of Geron's departure from hESC research. The move left ACT as the only firm in the country with an hESC trial and perhaps with a better shot at CIRM funding.

Reporter Lisa Eckelbecker wrote,
"Advanced Cell, publicly traded since 2005, has spent years developing its technologies. The company brings in little revenue and has an accumulated deficit of $180.9 million. About 1.6 billion shares of Advanced Cell common stock is outstanding, a result of numerous financings over the years. It trades for about 10 cents a share on the Over-the-Counter Bulletin Board, an electronic exchange for small companies. No analysts from major Wall Street banks report on the company.

"The company's treatment for Stargardt's macular dystrophy and dry age-related macular degeneration — the treatment that required (a) mountain of paperwork before the FDA — first went into the eyes of patients in July in Los Angeles. The retinal pigment epithelial cells, generated from embryonic stem cells, were developed to slow the progression of the eye disorders, which can lead to blindness."
ACT moved its headquarters to California following the passage of Prop. 71 in 2004, the ballot initiative that created the California stem cell agency. The company said at the time it expected to "gain significant momentum by being able to take advantage of a favorable environment for funding."

ACT initially landed in Alameda, Ca., but has since moved to Southern California. Its official opening in 2006 in Alameda was attended by the state treasurer and at least one CIRM official, according to the company. The firm has never secured funding from the stem cell agency, which does not release the names of rejected applicants. However, the California Stem Cell Report carried an item in 2008 that pointed out that a researcher for ACT complained publicly about a reviewer's conflict of interest in connection with an ACT application(see here and here). At the time, Robert Klein, then CIRM chairman, brushed off the complaint. The journal Nature has also reported that ACT has applied unsuccessfully several times for CIRM awards.

It is a fair bet that ACT was an initial applicant in the round that provided funding to Geron last spring. However, by the time Geron's application went to the full CIRM board, the other applicants had withdrawn – the first time such an event had occurred at CIRM.

Since Geron pulled out of the hESC business last month, it is likely that ACT and CIRM have opened fresh discussions, given their mutual interest in producing a stem cell therapy. CIRM also has a new chairman who is familiar with ACT. After Geron was awarded its $25 million loan from CIRM last May, the agency's board elected as chairman a Los Angeles bond financier, Jonathan Thomas, who led an early round of financing for ACT in 2000. Thomas last summer sold his remaining 17,046 shares in ACT for $3,239. Thomas said he had a "significant loss" on the sale but did not disclose the amount.

Geron's flight from hESC and ACT's perserverance come as the stem cell agency is pushing aggressively to drive research into the clinic. Plus CIRM needs tangible results that voters can understand if CIRM is win ballot-box approval for continued funding in the next few years. The agency will run out of cash in about 2017 and is considering mounting a campaign for another multibillion bond issue.

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