Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Trounson on Cancellation of Vatican Appearance: 'I Am Disappointed'

The California stem cell agency has issued a statement from its president, Alan Trounson, concerning the cancellation of a Vatican stem cell conference at which Trounson was scheduled to speak.

According to the Catholic News Agency, the meeting was terminated because of the scheduled appearances of researchers such as Trounson, who support hESC research. The Catholic church opposes such research.

The news agency last week quoted one Vatican insider as saying the conference had generated a scandal within the higher echelons of the church. However, the Vatican later claimed it was cancelling the meeting because of "organizational, logistical and economic factors."

Trounson's statement said,
"I am disappointed that the decision was made to cancel the conference because it offered the opportunity for a constructive dialogue on all types of stem cell research.

"Open dialogue can enhance the field as a whole and accelerate our efforts to provide new therapies for patients in need."

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Stem Cell Agency Budget Up for Review on Monday: 7 Percent Increase Proposed

The proposed $17.8 million operational budget for the California stem cell agency will receive more public scrutiny at a meeting next week in San Francisco, with additional public participation sites ranging from Boston to La Jolla.

The spending plan for 2012-13 is 7.2 percent higher than the estimated expenditures for the current year. By law, CIRM's budget is not subject to cuts by the legislature or the governor, who are trying to find solutions to the state's ongoing financial crisis.

Next week's hearing will be the last before approval of the budget in late May by the directors of the $3 billion research program. No significant changes are expected from the document to be presented on Monday.

Public sites where the public can participate in the CIRM directors' Finance Subcommittee meeting include South San Francisco, Stanford, Berkeley and Boston. You can find more information about the specific locations on the meeting agenda, but if you are interested in attending you need even more details from CIRM prior to the actual meeting. Email a request to

Saturday, March 24, 2012


The budget item on March 20, 2012, incorrectly stated that the stem cell agency's rent costs would rise to $1 million beginning in 2016. In fact, the increase will begin in November 2015. CIRM has revised the start date.

'Scandal' in Vatican Over Stem Cell Conference: Appearances by Trounson and Others Cancelled

The Vatican has cancelled a controversial scientific conference that would have featured scientists, including the president of the California stem cell agency, who support human embryonic stem cell research.

The conference reportedly created a "scandal" in the Vatican, according to a report by David Kerr of the Catholic News Agency. Kerr wrote,
"'I am infinitely relieved that the Church has avoided a major blunder which would have confused the faithful for decades to come,'” said one member of the Pontifical Academy who asked for anonymity in commenting to (the Catholic News Agency)."
The Catholic church opposes hESC research because of its belief that it destroys human life.

The conference would have taken place at the Vatican April 25-28 and included an audience with the pope. In addition to an appearance by CIRM's Alan Trounson, the key lecture was scheduled to have been given by George Daley of Harvard.

Kerr quoted the member of the Vactican's Pontifical Academy for Life as saying,
"The Holy Spirit has certainly shown to be present through those faithful members who drew attention to the ambiguity of the choice of speakers. I hope and pray that a review will be affected of the basis on which these congresses are planned."
Kerr also quoted another anonymous member of the academy as saying that the presence of speakers such as Trounson and Daley was "a betrayal of the mission of the academy and a public scandal."

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

CIRM Directors Mulling Changes in Funding Direction

The California Stem Cell Report is concluding its coverage today of the meeting of the governing board of the directors meeting of the California stem cell agency.

No decisions were made on the general direction of future funding -- basic research and training vs development of therapies. Some of the directors differed sharply on the issues, however. We will have more on this subject later.

Here are slides from the presentation on the progress report on the agency's $230 million disease team round. One $19 million grant was cancelled.
Progress Report: Disease Team Grants by California Stem Cell Agency

Stem Cell Scientist Impressed by CIRM Oversight Over Huge Grants

A California stem cell researcher, who must remain anonymous, made the following emailed comment today on the progress report on the $230 million in disease team grants from the California stem cell agency and termination of a $19 million grant.
"I'm impressed that CIRM is following through on monitoring the huge disease team grants and has actually curtailed the funding of one that didn't meet a key milestone. I hope that makes the other grant holders nervous! Too many scientists (in my humble opinion) forget that they need to do what they said they'd do- or - if the first plan fails, have the expertise and desire to adapt and find another way to reach the goals."

More Discussion Upcoming of CIRM Spending Plans

TThe board of the California stem cell agency is now at lunch and will resume its meeting at about 1 p.m. PDT with more discussion of its spending plans and priorities for the next five years.

Future Spending Plans of California Stem Cell Agency Coming Up

The governing board of the $3 billion California stem cell agency is expected momentarily to discuss its plans for spending its remaining $800 million.

Key issues involve shifting funds away from basic research to research more oriented towards more directly producing therapies.

The meeting can be heard on the Internet by following the directions on the agenda.

CIRM Hires New PR Chief

The $3 billion California stem cell agency announced today that it has hired Kevin McCormack, currently media relations manager at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, as its new director of communications.

CIRM Chairman Jonathan Thomas told the agency's directors at their meeting this morning in Sacramento that the appointment comes "not a moment too soon." Thomas told directors last June that the agency was engaged in a "communications war." Directors have been concerned about the lack of media coverage of the agency, which is largely below the radar of the mainstream media.

Thomas said that McCormack has "lots of experience" in media crisis management and "pressure cooker situations."

McCormack also served as media relations manager, Division of Research at Kaiser Permanente, and was a health/medical producer at KRON-TV in San Francisco.

The agency did not immediately release McCormack's salary. He will begin work April 2.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

California Stem Cell Agency Pulls $19 Million Grant

The California stem cell agency has terminated a $19 million grant to a UC San Francisco researcher involved in the agency's ambitious attempts to push stem cell therapies into clinics.

The agency said the research effort led by Mitchel Berger, chairman of the department of neurological surgery at UCSF, "did not meet a go/no-go milestone" stipulated in the grant. His research was funded in 2010 to treat brain tumors with genetically modified neural brain cells. No further explanation for the termination was provided by CIRM in a report prepared for tomorrow's meeting of the CIRM governing board. The agency estimated the cancellation would save $13 million.

The California Stem Cell Report has asked Berger and his co-PIs for comment on the CIRM action. The other researchers are Evan Snyder of Sanford-Burnham and Webster Cavanee of the Ludwig Cancer Institute. Their remarks will be carried verbatim when they are received.

The CIRM action was disclosed in the progress report on the $230 million disease team effort launched by the agency in 2009. The amount climbed to more than $250 million with contributions from partnering countries. Three of the 14 funded applicants – Irv Weissman and Gary Steinberg, both of Stanford, and Karen Aboody of the City of Hope – were approved only after they appealed to the CIRM board to overturn rejections by grant reviewers. (See  here , here and here for their written appeals. See here and here for coverage of the 2009 board action.)

One other disease team grant was modified to limit its scope and revise its funding. No savings were announced by CIRM. The PI on the $20 million project is Dennis Carson of UC San Diego. Co-PIs are Catriona Jamieson, also of UC San Diego, and John Dick of the University Health Network of Canada. The research is aimed at leukemia.

The actions on the disease team grants were not entirely unexpected. From their inception, CIRM directors have been told not to expect all the grants to finish successfully.

Ellen Feigal, senior vice president for research and development at CIRM, prepared the 19-page update on the disease team efforts. The grants are aimed at generating an investigational new drug application with the FDA within the four-year term of the grant.

She said that the funding decisions were made following evaluation of the projects by panels of clinical development advisors. Their recommendations were then considered by CIRM staff.

Feigal's report laid out accomplishments of the research so far and discussed changes in direction.

She said two companies have been formed since the grants were awarded to commercialize the hoped-for products. She said that in June 2011 Aboody founded TheraBiologics Inc., Newport Beach, Ca., of which she is chief scientific officer and director. Another company, Regenerative Patch Technologies, Glendale, Ca., was created by the team working on an hESC treatment for age-related macular degeneration. That $16 million grant involves Mark Humayan and David Hinton of USC, Dennis Clegg of UC Santa Barbara and Peter Coffey, formerly with University College, London, but now at UC Santa Barbara. The effort has generated seven patent filings.

The Feigal update also discussed the efforts of companies involved in other disease team grants. The lack of CIRM funding for biotech firms has been a bone of contention with industry and troublesome for some CIRM directors.

CIRM indicated the projects involving the firms were moving on schedule with no major difficulties reported. The companies involved are ViaCyte of San Diego, Calimmune of Tucson, Az., and Sangamo Inc. of Richmond, Ca.

Stem Cell Agency Proposes 7 Percent Budget Hike, Seeks $50 Million in Private Funds

The California stem cell agency is proposing an operational budget of $17.8 million for the coming fiscal year, an increase of 7.2 percent over estimated spending for the current year ending June 30.

Financial documents (proposed budget and finance report) prepared for tomorrow's CIRM governing board meeting also showed that CIRM hopes to snag "$50 million in new, outside financial commitment for CIRM programs." This would represent the first major effort in recent years by CIRM to solicit private funds. The "draft goal" is in keeping with the agency's move to build a base of non-governmental funding.

Currently it is financed with cash that the state, which is mired in a financial crisis, must borrow. While CIRM's budget is increasing, the general fund budget for the entire state has plummeted from $103 billion in 2007-2008 to $87 billion this year.

The proposed CIRM budget also disclosed the agency will be facing substantial new costs – $1 million annually – for rent beginning in November 2015. CIRM has been operating rent-free since 2005 because of an $18 million recruitment package put together by the city of San Francisco.

The largest item in the proposed budget is salaries and benefits at $11 million, up from a projected $9.3 million for this year. The agency, which is administering $1.3 billion in grants involving hundreds of researchers, projects an increase in staff to 59. The agency currently has 51 employees, according to the finance report.

Outside contracts are the second largest expense at $3.4 million ($3 million this year) with grant reviews, meetings and workshops at $2.2 million(no comparable figure for this year).

By law, the stem cell agency operates under a budget cap of 6 percent of bond proceeds under the terms of Proposition 71, the ballot initiative that created CIRM.

In addition to tomorrow's review, the budget will be examined by the directors Finance Subcommittee April 2 before coming back for final approval in late May.

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this item incorrectly stated that the rent costs would rise to $1 million beginning in 2016. In fact, the increase will begin in November 2015. CIRM has revised the start date.)


The "coverage" item yesterday incorrectly said the CIRM governing board meeting would be today. In fact, the session is tomorrow in Sacramento.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The AP on the California Stem Cell Agency: No Cures, Hazy Future

The Associated Press news service, whose reports circulate worldwide, has taken the measure of the $3 billion California stem cell agency, declaring that it has produced no cures and that it "faces an uncertain future."

The piece by science writer Alicia Chang asked whether the agency is "still relevant" nearly eight years after it was created by California voters and whether it will exist after the money for new grants runs out in about five years.

She wrote,
"Midway through its mission, with several high-tech labs constructed, but little to show on the medicine front beyond basic research, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine faces an uncertain future."
Chang's piece carries more weight than those in most publications. The AP is the backbone of news coverage in the United States. Its news feeds appear automatically on hundreds, perhaps thousands of web sites in this country. Her article will also serve as a baseline in the future as other reporters examine the stem cell agency.

Here are excerpts from the piece:
"So what have Californians received for their money so far?

"The most visible investment is the opening of sleek buildings and gleaming labs at a dozen private and public universities built with matching funds. Two years ago, Stanford University unveiled the nation's largest space dedicated to stem cell research - 200,000 square feet that can hold 550 researchers.

"There are no cures yet in the pipeline and CIRM has shifted focus, channeling money to projects with the most promise of yielding near-term results."
Chang wrote,
"Several camps that support stem cell research think taxpayers should not pay another cent given the state's budget woes.

"'It would be so wrong to ask Californians to pony up more money,' said Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society, a pro-stem cell research group that opposed Proposition 71, the state ballot initiative that formed CIRM."
The article quoted UC Davis stem cell researcher Paul Knoepfler as favoring another bond measure to keep CIRM afloat, although he said he recognizes the average Californian may disagree.

Roger Noll, professor emeritus of economics at Stanford, was quoted as saying that "CIRM's legacy has yet to be written."
"'CIRM spent a lot of money and there's a lot of stuff going on, but it's too early to know whether it was worth it,' Noll said."
Chang concluded with these four paragraphs:
"David Jensen, who runs the blog California Stem Cell Report, said Californians have benefited, but whether it will be worth the $6 billion the state has to pay back remains unclear.

"'The agency's responsibility is now to get the biggest bang for the buck, which is no easy task given the tentative nature of much of the science involved,'" he said in an email.

"Some think CIRM has left a mark whether or not it will exist in the future.

Its 'legacy will be felt in part by the stimulus that it has had on stem cell' research in California, said Fred Gage of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies."

Coverage of Wednesday's Stem Cell Board Meeting

The California Stem Cell Report has found its cyberspace connection again on Isla Taboga about 10 miles offshore of Panama City. We expect to bring you live coverage via an Internet audiocast of Wednesday's meeting of the board of the California stem cell agency. The directors are scheduled to discuss a progress report on the agency's ambitious, $250 million disease team program and the termination of one grant. Directors are also expected to consider the agency's proposed budget for the coming year, its plans for its next few years of life and its plans to give away $3 million for stem cell programs for high school students. The meeting begins at 9 a.m. PDT.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Researcher Alert: California Stem Cell Agency To Alter How It Administers Grants

Stem cell researchers and institutions throughout the state are likely to be affected by proposed changes – to be discussed online publicly Tuesday – dealing with how the California stem cell agency will handle its $3 billion in grants.

An important online session – open to all interested parties – comes up then, but advance registration is required.

The proposals are wide-ranging and detailed. The nearly 500 recipients of CIRM grants should examine them closely in addition to any persons seriously interested in California stem cell affairs. The changes deal with such subjects as milestones for research grants, indirect costs, travel costs, withholding payments for failure to file a progress report and much, much more.

Here is a link to the main page for all this, which has instructions on how to register for the online session along with links to the changes and their rationale.

(Editor's note: This item was filed from the Rio Sabana in the Darien in Panama when we found a weak Internet cellular link. We are still underway so postings are unlikely between now and later this month.)

Thursday, March 01, 2012

CSCR On Hold Until March 20 or Thereabouts

The California Stem Cell Report will go dark until late this month. This blogger will be off sailing the Perlas Islands south of Panama and the Congo River in the Darien.

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