Thursday, December 08, 2011

California Stem Cell Agency Approves $27 Million To Hasten Stem Cell Therapies

Efforts to speed development of stem cell therapies received a $27 million boost today from directors of the $3 billion California stem cell agency.

They approved two initiatives that grew out of recommendations from a blue-ribbon panel that CIRM organized last year to review its operations.

One element in the plan is a $12 million "bridging fund" that would apply only to current CIRM-funded projects in three areas: disease team grants, some early translational projects and clinical development projects. The bridging fund would provide up to $3 million for up to one year for each recipient.

As originally proposed by CIRM staff, CIRM President Alan Trounson would have been authorized to approve each project. However, the board altered that process to require board approval with "peer review input."

Director Shlomo Melmed, a senior vice president at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, argued that leaving the decision to Trounson and staff could place Trounson in an "untenable" position and lead to second-guessing. Melmed and others also said that process could open the agency to public criticism.

Trounson and other staff members said that biotech firms often need speedier action than can be provided by a more extended process. Director Jonathan Shestack, a Hollywood producer, agreed, but he was the lone vote to oppose removing the authority from Trounson.

No biotech companies spoke out at the meeting concerning the proposal (see here for an earlier version of the plan).

The second part of the response to the review panel's finding is a $15 million "external innovation initiative" to support collaborative efforts of CIRM grantees to work with teams that CIRM said are "making extraordinary progress outside California."

The $15 million program would provide awards as often as two times a year. The maximum amount on each award was not specified. The program was approved on a unanimous voice vote.

Ellen Feigal, CIRM's vice president of research and development, said in a memo to directors that examples of potential projects included collaborative efforts with the NIH and work with the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and its disease-focused programs. CIRM is planning to spend $300,000 over two years in work with the NIH.

Some of the latest CIRM initiatives are open to biotech businesses. Others are open only to non-profit or academic researchers.

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