Thursday, May 24, 2012

California Stem Cell Agency Launches Five-Year Push for Cures

The $3 billion California stem cell today officially embarked on a course that will mean closer ties to the biotech industry in hopes of fulfilling the campaign promises to voters to turn stem cells into cures.
On a unanimous voice vote, directors approved changes in the seven-year-old agency's strategic plan. The action will likely mean less money for some activities that enjoyed more cash in the past,  but directors put off action until at least late July.  The plan also sets the course for what may be the last years of life for the unprecedented state research program. Authorization to borrow more money (state bonds) for its grants will run out in about 2017.

During a brief discussion of the plan, which has been debated for some months, CIRM Director Jeff Sheehy noted that the agency has now entered "the realm of trade-offs."  Ellen Feigal, CIRM's senior vice president for research and development, told the board that the plan will require hard decisions and sharp focus on priorities. 

Among other things, for first time CIRM overtly set a goal of creating 20 programs that include outside investment that focus on products. Another five-year goal explicitly calls for financing at least 10 therapies in early-phase clinical trials, affecting at least five diseases. Overall, the plan seeks to achieve clinical proof-of-concept for stem cell therapies.

In contrast to the Proposition 71 campaign rhetoric, CIRM's strategic plan acknowledges that developing therapies takes a very long time, often decades.

Two scenarios were presented to the board for spending the agency's remaining $836 million for grants and loans. One would allocate $506 million for development research, $195 for translational research and $135 million for basic research, but nothing for training and "facilities/core resources."

The other scenario calls for $486 million for development research, $160 million for translational research, $105 for basic research, $60 million for training and $25 million for "facilities/core resources."

The first scenario would mean a $85 million cut in training and shared lab programs – cash that helps to finance researchers and that benefits the many institutions that have representation on the CIRM board. The board put off action on either scenario after CIRM President Alan Trounson said he wanted more time to prepare a complete analysis of the scenarios. 

The plan also calls for creation of a platform to enable grantees, disease foundations, venture capitalists and others to purse CIRM's mission when its state bond funding runs out. The possibility exists that another bond measure would be submitted to voters. But in either case, CIRM will need a solid record to attract support. 

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