Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The California Stem Cell Agency, 'Lost' Opportunities and its Financial Lifeblood

A UC San Diego scientist has zeroed in on the declining finances of the $3 billion California stem cell agency, stressing that tomorrow may be the "last opportunity" for the agency to back a new approach to severe spinal injuries.

Mark Tuszynski, UCSD photo
Mark Tuszynski, director of the Translational Neuroscience Institute at UC San Diego, is
seeking $2.1 million to support his research to use neural stem cells to grow new connections through injured spinal cord. In a letter to the board, he said,
"As the present round of...funding winds down, this may be our last opportunity to develop this work to benefit the citizens of the state of California."
Tuszynski's comment could apply to almost any of the grant applications that will be submitted to the agency between now and late 2019. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known, expects to run out of cash for new awards in 2019.

Tuszynski's comment was also unusual. The public silence from the California scientific stem cell community has been, as they say, "deafening" concerning the looming demise of CIRM. Researchers have not been heard from in any real way at the four public CIRM meetings in 2017 that have dealt with the issue.

The San Diego scientist's letter is part of the agenda at tomorrow's meeting of the CIRM governing board. At the forefront of the session is once again the question of whether the agency can find a way to continue its existence at the level at which it has operated since 2004.

CIRM's financial lifeblood is money that the state borrows -- state bonds. That source was provided by voters when they created the agency with a ballot initiative 13 years ago. However, the authority to issue those bonds is expiring, and the agency needs a major infusion.

Enter Bob Klein, a Palo Alto real estate investment banker and who headed the 2004 ballot campaign. He appeared before the board last month and talked about a $5 billion bond measure on the November 2020 ballot. He is expected to appear again tomorrow. 

Also on the table will be a strategy unveiled last month by CIRM Chairman Jonathan Thomas to raise privately $222 million between now and the beginning of 2020 to keep the agency sufficiently funded prior to a bond election. The board is also scheduled to act on a proposal to cut the size of awards so that more overall can be financed.

Then there are $21 million in applications for research into matters ranging from diabetes to dementia. That is were Tuszynski comes in. CIRM's all-important grant reviewers nixed his application (DISC2-10665), giving it a score of 80. The cutoff line for funding was 85.

He is asking the CIRM board to overturn the reviewers' decision, which would be a rare event. Another two researchers are also appealing negative decisions by reviewers, who meet behind closed doors and do not have to publicly disclose their professional or financial conflicts of interest.

The other scientists are Alice Tarantal of UC Davis and Gregorio Chazenbalk of UCLA.

Tarantal's $1.1 million application (DISC2-10599) involves, she said, "total-body positron emission tomography (PET) imaging technology, which currently is only available in California."
 Her application received a score of 84. In a letter to the board, she said her research, which also involves Simon Cherry of UC Davis, would "set the stage for stem cell applications and the transformative (imaging) tools developed, tested, and successfully applied in California."

In 2018, Tarantal said Cherry will place in operation "the world's first total-body PET scanner for humans that allows all tissues and organs to be imaged simultaneously."

Chazenbalk's $2.2 million application (DISC2-10473) involves a "new population of pluripotent stem cells" known as Muse cells, which he said can be used to treat acute myocardial infarction with a "high potential rate of success."  His score was not disclosed but appears to be below 65.

Scores on the applications can be found here. Summaries of reviewers' remarks on applications can be found  by scrolling more deeply into that document. CIRM withholds the names of applicants until after its board meeting. The three "appealing" scientists' names became public record when their letters were received by CIRM.

Eleven applications were approved by reviewers and 32 rejected.

The full agenda of the meeting with additional information can be found here. The meeting is based at the Oakland CIRM headquarters with teleconference locations where the public can participate in New York City, Sacramento, Santa Cruz, San Diego, Stanford and two in La Jolla.

The meeting is being audiocast as well. Full details on all locations and the audiocast can be found on the agenda. 

The California Stem Cell Report will be covering the meeting live from Oakland and filing stories as warranted.

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