Thursday, December 11, 2014

California Stem Cell Agency Cancels $19 Million Award to StemCells, Inc.

StemCells, Inc. has lost its controversial, $19 million award from the California stem cell agency, it was disclosed today.

Cancellation of the forgivable loan was revealed in slides posted on the agency's Web site as part of the presentation today by its new president, Randy Mills, to the agency's board of governors.

The slide said the Alzheimer's award was "discontinued due to lack of functional improvement observed in preclinical studies" after the agency had provided the publicly traded firm with $9.6 million. It was not immediately clear whether any of the money will be repaid.

The company has not yet announced the loss of the award but has been asked for comment.

The most recent cash infusion came last spring in a move that coincided with the appointment of former CIRM President Alan Trounson to the StemCells, Inc., governing board. Trounson joined the board only seven days after leaving the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known.  The move surprised and shocked the agency, but it said its limited investigation detected no illegal action in the disbursement to the company. (Also see here.)

The StemCells, Inc., application was approved by the 29-member CIRM board in 2012, on a 7-5 vote,  after being rejected twice by the agency's blue-ribbon reviewers. The approval followed heavy lobbying by the former chairman of the agency, Robert Klein. It was the first time that the board had approved an award that reviewers had turned down twice. It was also the first case of such public lobbying by Klein.

Later in 2012, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the award was "redolent of cronyism."  Hiltzik asked rhetorically what was the company's secret in winning approval of the award. He then wrote,
“StemCells says it's addressing 'a serious unmet medical need' in Alzheimer's research. But it doesn't hurt that the company also had powerful friends going to bat for it, including two guys who were instrumental in getting CIRM off the ground in the first place.”
Hiltzik referred to Klein and eminent Stanford research Irv Weissman, a co-founder of StemCells, Inc., who still sits on its board and holds considerable shares in the Newark, Ca., company.

Weissman was a key backer of the ballot measure that created CIRM in 2004 and helped raise money for the ballot campaign.  Trounson has recused himself on some matters dealing with applications connected to Weissman. Trouson has been a guest at Weissman's ranch.

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