Monday, July 07, 2014

Former CEO of California Stem Cell Agency Named to Board of Firm that Received $19 Million From the Agency

Alan Trounson, the former president of the $3 billion California stem cell agency, today was named to the board of a company that has received $19.4 million from the agency, raising fresh and serious questions about conflicts of interest at the state-funded research program.

Announcement of the appointment came only seven days after Trounson left state employment. Trounson has been dogged for some time with questions about his relationship to the company, StemCells, Inc., of Newark, Ca., and its co-founder, eminent Stanford researcher Irv Weissman, who sits on the company’s six-man board and is chairman of its scientific advisory board.

StemCells, Inc., announced Trounson’s appointment in a press release this morning. The publicly traded firm said it was “thrilled” to have Trounson on its board. The first sentence of its press release noted that he had served as head of “the largest scientific funding body for stem cell research in the world.”

Weissman is director of the Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at Stanford. He has received $34.7 million from the agency. Stanford overall has received $281 million from the stem cell agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). It is the No. 1 recipient of cash from the agency.

One California stem cell researcher, who asked to remain anonymous, said in an email,
“This looks like payback to Alan Trounson for all of the money that CIRM paid out to Irv Weissman (founder of StemCells, Inc.) and his friends at Stanford while Alan was president of CIRM.  Many people have pointed out that Alan seemed to be biased toward Stanford in his public and private comments. The facts bear that out: Stanford and StemCells, Inc., have had more than $300,000,000 of CIRM's $3 billion in funds awarded to them in grants.  Are they really more than twice as good as UCSF ($132,650,363), and three times better than USC ($104,858,348) and UC Irvine ($98,591,836)?”
As a member of the board of directors of StemCells, Inc., Trounson is expected to receive compensation including stock in the company. In 2013, members of the board received total compensation, including stock awards, ranging from $60,800 to $99,800, according to a Security and Exchange Commission filing.

StemCells, Inc., Weissman and the stem cell agency did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Trounson, who announced last fall he was leaving the agency to return to Australia, could not be reached. The California Stem Cell Report will carry the full text of their remarks when they are received.

Last year and earlier this year, conflict of interest questions concerning Trounson and Weissman came in a $40 million stem cell genomics award round that was won by a Stanford-led team last January. The round was marked by a conflict of interest connected to Trounson, CIRM grant reviewer Lee Hood of Seattle and Weissman. Hood and Weissman own a Montana ranch where Trounson has been a guest. Trounson recruited Hood to help review the stem cell genomics applications in 2013 in closed door meetings. Hood, however, failed to disclose his relationship with Weissman.  It only came to light after another reviewer pointed out the connections between the two men. The agency had failed to detect the conflict.

As the California Stem Cell Report has previously noted,,
“Prior to the genomics round Trounson had acknowledged he had a conflict-of-interest in connection with another Weissman-related proposal. In 2012 in a round not connected to genomics, Trounson, who has visited the Hood-Weissman ranch as Weissman's guest, recused himself from the board's public discussions of applications from StemCells, Inc., a company founded by Weissman.

“Under CIRM's procedures, Trounson does not vote on applications during the review process. But beginning last year the board gave him and his staff new authority to make recommendations on applications after they were acted on by reviewers.”
Trounson ultimately recommended board approval last January of the genomics application from Stanford after Weissman was removed from the proposal.

During last January’s meeting, Trounson touted the Stanford application and specifically mentioned Michael Clarke, who is the No. 2 person in Weissman’s stem cell institute at Stanford, and who was part of the Stanford application instead of Weissman.

“I think he's (Clarke) an extraordinary good researcher, and I think the Stanford people are terrific at that.”
The agency said earlier this year it had begun an examination of the processes in the stem cell genomics round, which was criticized for irregularities,unfairness, score manipulation and Trounson’s role.   No results of that inquiry have been announced.

Since the agency's inception in 2004 questions have been raised about conflicts of interest at the agency, mainly due to the composition of its board. Roughly 90 percent of its grants have gone to institutions that have been linked to members of its board.  The Institute of Medicine, in a $700,000 study commissioned by the agency, said that the board members essentially make proposals to themselves about what should be funded. And in 2008 the journal Nature editorialized about "cronyism" at the agency.


  1. Anonymous4:25 PM

    Was that his MO while he was CIRM President too?
    Heckuva job, Trounsey.

  2. Anonymous12:58 PM

    CIRM funding is a shame and a sham. After nearly EIGHT YEARS and over TWO BILLION DOLLARS invested, how many stem cell-specific clinical trials are currently FDA approved and actually treating patiens? Of all the bad decisions made by CIRM since its inception, hiring Alan was the very worst. He's been giving out California money to his friends and cronies around the world in exchange for current and future awards and compensation packages. When will real and meaningful change come to CIRM...perhaps Alan is only a symbolic example a close-knit group of friends giving each other cudos and cash!!!

  3. Anonymous9:54 AM

    There sure is a lot of silence from the industry on this latest scandal at CIRM. Voters - It's time to cut off the cash. Where are all the cures that were promised? This has been nothing but a huge cash cow for a privileged few from the get go. By now, there should have been hundreds of clinical trials underway. Instead, there are just some cats that got fatter and some new buildings. What a scam.

    1. Jeanne Loring5:37 PM

      In spite of the errors in judgement that you point out, CIRM is at the heart a remarkably effective driver of cutting edge research. By focusing on a narrow area of research and encouraging international collaboration, CIRM has singlehandedly pushed the whole world's stem cell research forward. If CIRM were a drug company, it would be considered miraculous that so many promising treatments are in the pipeline just 8 years after it started.
      Full disclosure- I am a stem cell scientist and some of my work is funded by CIRM.


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