Friday, December 11, 2015

San Francisco Business Times: Risky Downside to California's $75 Million Stem Cell Venture Plan

The stem cell agency plan is dubbed ATP3. Here is some of the criteria.
California’s $75 million, stem-cell dip into venture capital waters poses an “embarrassing risk,” according to a story in the San Francisco Business Times.

The article by by Ron Leuty said,
“The strategy offers a potential high return for CIRM and the stem cell field in general, and it's not without the classic scientific risk of biotech investing. But it holds a larger, potentially more damaging and embarrassing risk as well if applicants peruse CIRM's shelves but find nothing to buy after the agency has invested hundreds of millions of taxpayer cash.”
Leuty wrote yesterday about the agency’s proposed plan, first reported last week by the California Stem Cell Report. The agency plans to entice -- with $75 million -- Big Pharma or other investors into a partnership. The private partner would also have to pony up $75 million. The combined enterprise would have first pick of the best of CIRM’s unpartnered research.

Leuty wrote,
"'The plan is not without risk, no doubt about that,' said CIRM President and CEO Randy Mills. 'Nothing about this plan is attempting to do something easy or easily achievable. This is hard and requires a lot of effort, but if we're successful the outcome of it should be transformative to CIRM and regenerative medicine.'”
Leuty continued,
“But there's a potential downside as well if nobody shows up to window shop at CIRM, much less to buy, because stem cell therapies are largely unproven, said Andy Schwab, a managing partner at Menlo Park venture capital firm 5AM Ventures.
"’The mechanism of action still is unknown. It's not like gene editing and gene therapy, where it's very specific,’ said Schwab, mentioning two of the hottest areas of medical science and investment action. ‘It's tough when you don't know the mechanism of action.’
“CIRM also hasn't invested in areas around white-hot CAR-T therapies, where chimeric antigen receptors on the surface of immune system T cells are genetically engineered to amp up their recognition and ability to kill cancer cells.
"’CIRM has really missed it,’ Schwab said. ‘They haven't been leaders in the right space.'
“Still, Schwab said, CIRM does have plenty of ‘really interesting research’ in its portfolio that could interest an investor. The issue, he added, is whether science projects can be commercially viable in a short timeframe.”
Luety continued,
"’It's an innovative solution to what they've been trying to do — to rush basic research concepts into actual treatments that meet people's medical needs,’ said John Simpson, an advocate and former stem cell project director with Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica nonprofit that for years tracked CIRM policies and spending.
"’There are potential pitfalls if (the spinout) goes to somebody's buddies,’ Simpson said. ‘But as long as the board does its job and closely vets the awards, this could have some real payback.’"
Responding to a query today from the California Stem Cell Report, Kevin McCormack, senior director for CIRM communications, said that "under CIRM’s IP (intellectual property) regulations, a company that licenses CIRM projects and commercializes them would owe a royalty to the general fund of the State of California(not CIRM). However, we are contemplating awarding funds to the successful ATP3 applicant as a loan, and under Proposition 71, the proceeds of a loan are paid to CIRM for the purposes of making additional research awards. So it is possible that, in addition to the royalties it would owe the general fund as a result of licensing and commercializing CIRM projects, the successful awardee may also owe money to CIRM. "

The $75 million proposal comes up for ratification by the agency board next Thursday at a meeting in Los Angeles.

(Editor's note: The paragraph in this item dealing with IP was inserted shortly after the original version of this item was posted.)

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