Saturday, January 19, 2013

StemCells, Inc., Still Looking for $40 Million from California Stem Cell Agency

Remember StemCells, Inc., and the $40 million it was awarded by the California stem cell agency.

The Newark, Ca., firm, founded by eminent Stanford researcher Irv Weissman, received an award of $20 million last July and then again in September. Nearly five months later, however, the stem cell agency has yet to cut a check for the company, a spokesman for the agency told the California Stem Cell Report in response to a query.

The hang-up is the $40 million in matching funds that the company promised the agency. The stem cell agency has yet to be satisfied that StemCells, Inc., can actually produce the match, although the spokesman did not offer details.

The StemCells, Inc., awards were unusual in a number of ways. It was the first time that former CIRM Chairman Robert Klein lobbied the CIRM governing board on behalf of a company(see here and here). It was the first time that the governing board approved an application that had been rejected twice by grant reviewers. It was the first time that the board said explicitly in a public session that it wanted proof of the matching funds as a condition of the award.

It was the first time that a CIRM award to a company received a careful and critical scrutiny from a major California newspaper. Michael Hiltzik, a Pulitzer Prize-winning business columnist and author, wrote in October in the Los Angeles Times that the award was “redolent of cronyism.” He referred particularly to longstanding ties between Klein and Weissman.

The CIRM board vote on the StemCells, Inc., grant in September was 7-5, which amounted to 12 out of 29 members of the board.

In December, a blue-ribbon panel of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommended that the agency tighten its conflict of interest standards to avoid such perceptions as have been generated by the StemCells, Inc., awards. The IOM said,
“(C)om­peting personal and professional interests com­promise the perceived independence of the (governing board), introduce potential bias into the board’s decision making, and threaten to undermine confidence in the board.”
Concerns about conflicts of interest have long been of concern to observers of the stem cell agency for years. Indeed, the prestigious journal Nature in 2008 warned of "cronyism" at the $3 billion research enterprise.

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