Monday, December 02, 2013

Searching for CIRM's Financial Future, Plus a $100 Million California Stem Cell Round

The California stem cell agency next week is expected to give away as much as $100 million as it pushes aggressively to generate therapies that will benefit the Golden State as well as the world.

At the same time, the agency will decide whether it will focus more intensely on a handful of projects as it tries to come up with a plan to finance its future. The $3 billion agency is currently funded by money that the state borrows, but cash for new grants will run out in 2017.

The agency is looking for a way to continue operations through some sort of public-private partnership. A consultant's report was due on that subject on Nov. 30. At its meeting Dec. 11 and Dec. 12 in Los Angeles, the board is scheduled to spend one hour hearing a presentation on the report at the end of a lengthy examination of recommendations from the agency's new Scientific Advisory Board(SAB), the panel that proposed that CIRM sharpen its focus. The California Stem Cell Report has asked for a copy of the document, which is a public record.

The SAB report plays into the agency's need to come up with results that will stimulate both private and public interest in supporting the agency's future operations. So far, CIRM has lacked the research results that resonate widely with the public.
The agency has prepared a tightly organized schedule for examining the SAB proposals, which could mean that the agency's shared labs, bridges and training grants programs would be phased out. However, CIRM staff is only recommending an end to the shared labs program.

The staff has proposed creation of an “accelerated development pathway” for six to eight projects, as recommended by the SAB. The staff document did not describe what that would entail or how much it would cost.

Also on the staff list is a proposal to advance the most promising early translational research programs and a $10 million proposal by CIRM President Alan Trounson to participate in a global effort “to create (a) Haplotype Bank and GMP library.” No further details on that plan were available at the time of this writing.

For the stem cell community, the immediate big news next week will be board action on applications in its signature disease team program. This is the third round, and awards could run as high as $20 million each for a total of $100 million. The round also involves possible collaborators in England, Spain and China, a country that has been pushing hard on stem cell research. No state funds will be used overseas.

According to the RFA, the purpose of the disease team effort is “to advance early clinical development of novel therapies derived from or targeting stem cells, potentially offering unique benefit with well-considered risk to persons with disease or serious injury.”

The summaries of the grant review findings have not yet been posted on the CIRM Web site, but are likely to come later this week. The CIRM governing board almost never overturns a positive recommendation from its reviewers. Sometimes it will approve an application rejected by reviewers. However, directors are feeling squeezed financially and may not be as open to elevating rejected applications as they have been in the past. Look for rejected applicants to personally petition the board for approval along with affected patient advocates.

Also on the agenda is the topic of the search for a new president for the agency to replace Trounson, who is resigning to return to Australia and his family. An item was posted on that yesterday.

Next week's meetings are open to the public in Los Angeles and at teleconference locations in La Jolla and Pleasanton. Addresses can be found on the agenda. The board also usually provides an Internet audiocast and a Webinar link to PowerPoint presentations used at the meeting. Directions for using those tools are likely to be posted on the CIRM Web site later this week.

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