Thursday, January 16, 2014

Big Sangamo Deal for California Stem Cell Agency with an Asterisk

It was a $20 million deal -- possibly as much as $300 million --for Sangamo BioSciences, and its president told the California stem cell agency,
“We wouldn't be where we are today without you.”
The $3 billion agency has pumped $5.4 million into the publicly traded Richmond, Ca., firm for HIV/AIDS research and another $6.4 million last May for a phase one clinical trial dealing with beta-thalassemia, a genetic blood disease.

Last week Sangamo announced that Biogen Idec of Cambridge, Mass., would buy into its research related to beta-thalassemia as well as sickle cell anemia. The announcement said Biogen Idec will also reimburse Sangamo for “its internal and external research and development program-related costs.” Payments of up to another $300 million could come Sangamo's way if it meets certain goals.

Kevin McCormack, CIRM's senior director of public communications,wrote on the agency's blog that it has been “a very good start” in 2014 for CIRM. He noted that the Sangamo announcement followed similar good news from Capricor, another CIRM grant recipient that has announced funding from Big Pharma.

He quoted Ellen Feigal, senior vice president at the agency, as showing how “important the funding we provide is in helping companies like Sangamo get their research to a point where big pharmaceutical companies stand up and take notice, and invest.” 

McCormack wrote that Edward Lanphier, president of Sangamo, sent an email to CIRM in connection with the announcement that said,
"Thank you for ALL of your support over the past several years. We wouldn't be where we are today without you."
The Sangamo deal, however, has an asterisk. In May 2012, a “special advisor” to the stem cell agency, Saira Ramasastry, was nominated to the seven-member Sangamo board of directors. Following an item in the California StemCell Report, the agency announced that her contract was not being renewed. CIRM said she was not involved in a decision-making role and was not required to file a statement of economic interests with the agency. Ramasastry subsequently was elected to the Sangamo board where she still holds a seat.

Sangamo's stock closed at $19.84 today, up 46 cents. Its 52 week high is $20.33 and its low $6.86.

Our take: The investment in Sangamo is a healthy sign of expanding interest from larger firms in stem cell therapies. However, it is darkened by the "revolving door" situation involving Ramasastry. CIRM does not require public disclosures of the financial interests of its consultants. Nor does it restrict revolving door arrangements with them that permit later employment at CIRM-connected firms. At the same time, the agency is moving aggressively to engage industry ever more closely and to generate results that will resonate with the public. The agency would do well to heed the conflict-of-interest study from the prestigious Institute of Medicine in 2009. Bernie Lo of UCSF was one of the editors of the study. He wrote that medical research and the private sector have sharply divergent priorities and sometimes irreconcilable differences. The stem cell agency should act to ensure that both the appearance and reality of cronyism, insider dealings and conflicts-of-interest do not blemish its scientific track record.

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