Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The California Stem Cell Agency and the ACT Opportunity

A promising, positive story on stem cell research in California popped up in the news this week, involving improvements in vision as the result of the only hESC clinical trial in the nation.

The story came after Jonathan Thomas, chairman of the $3 billion California stem cell agency, said in the San Francisco Business Times that what he likes least about his job is that "the coverage in the press chooses to focus on items besides the extraordinary work that our scientists are doing."

The good news about the eye research appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and across the nation. However, it did not involve work at the stem cell agency, probably for reasons that likely have to do in good part with CIRM. The research involves a firm headquartered in Santa Monica, Ca., Advanced Cell Technology, that moved its base to the Golden State in hopes of securing CIRM funding. ACT has applied more than once for CIRM cash but has never received a grant. And it is one of the rare companies that has complained publicly to the CIRM governing board about a conflict of interest on the part of a CIRM reviewer. In ACT's case, its complaints received a public brushoff at a CIRM board meeting in 2008.

ACT's results in its clinical trial are quite tentative. They involve only two persons. One of the UCLA scientists involved said part of the results could have been the result of a placebo effect. Nonetheless, the reports carried the kind of story line that CIRM yearns for. Indeed, Thomas stressed the need for positive news when he told CIRM directors last June that the agency is in a "communications war" that is tied to its ultimate fate. (The agency runs out of cash in 2017.)

The New York Times' Andy Pollock wrote,
"Both patients, who were legally blind, said in interviews that they had gains in eyesight that were meaningful for them. One said she could see colors better and was able to thread a needle and sew on a button for the first time in years. The other said she was able to navigate a shopping mall by herself."
On its research blog, CIRM described the ACT results as a "milestone." CIRM's Amy Adams wrote,
"It’s the first published paper showing that—at least in this small number of patients for the first few months—the cells are safe."
She quoted Hank Greely of Stanford as saying that the news from ACT is "at least, a little exciting – and in a field that saw its first approved clinical trial stopped two months ago, even a little exciting news is very welcome."

Greely's reference, of course, was to Geron's sudden abandonment in November of its hESC trial, only three months after CIRM gave the firm a $25 million loan. It was widely believed that ACT was one of the initial applicants in the round that provided funding for Geron, although CIRM does not release the names of non-funded applicants.

Last week, CIRM directors spent a fair amount of time discussing the agency's future. The talk was of priorities, hard choices and generating results that would resonate with the people of California.

This week's news from a company that was not funded by CIRM will give them more to ponder.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:55 AM

    The contrast between CIRM funding Geron and not funding ACT captures the agency's central problem dealing with companies. To wit, the grant making process could charitably be called arbitrary, a cynic would say corrupt.

    Geron clearly spent an enormous amount of time stroking the egos of the powers that be at CIRM, Klein and Trounson, and were rewarded with $24 million.

    ACT has realized that it is a waste to submit an application to CIRM since it made the catastrophic mistake of criticizing the agency publicly.

    And the result is that CIRM misses out on an important opportunity in one of the most promising areas for embryonic stem cell therapy, the eye (immune privileged, enclosed site where wayward cells can be tracked and removed), while tossing time and money (yes, there was the return of the cash) down the Geron rathole.

    Sad really for the California taxpayers, but expected given the dearth of experienced and knowledgeable MDs/clinicians on CIRM's staff (and yes, there are folks with MDs on their resumes, but how many patients have they ever treated?).


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