After a hiccup last month, the California stem cell agency this week coughed up $15 million for a quartet of researchers looking into Alzheimer’s disease, cartilage repair, arthritis and sickle cell disease, but not before lopping off a big chunk of one proposal.
Action by the governing board of the $3 billion agency came after a snafu at its Nov. 17 meeting. The proposals, all previously approved by the agency’s reviewers, hit a roadblock when the budgeted cash was not enough to fund all four. The session last month also stalled as a result of quorum problems and research priorities.
Normally applications approved by reviewers during their closed-door sessions slip through the later public meetings of the agency board with no discussion. But this time around, reviewers approved the four applications, but gave one of the researchers a sizable, financial “hair cut.”Despite concerns about fairness and imposing new conditions on applicants, the board stripped $1.6 million from a $3.7 million application to develop a stem cell therapy for osteoarthritis by Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics of La Jolla.
The action came after the lead researcher, Jill Helms of Stanford, said her company would make up the shortfall. She made the comment after being told she could re-submit the application, which was the last to come up for a vote. She indicated that she would prefer to pursue that route rather attempting a problematic and “onerous” re-application with a new set of reviewers early next year.
The other three applications were approved with full funding after a motion to cut all four by about 10 percent failed on a 1-9 vote with one board member abstaining. Board members used the term “hair cut” to describe the reductions, which the applicants would have to make up.
Helms’ application was the only one in this round from a business. The others came from non-profit institutions.
Randy Mills, president of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine or CIRM as the stem cell agency is formally known, opposed the 10 percent cuts on all four awards. He said he and his staff did not want to see programs cut “on the fly.” He said applicants were not told that they would have to come up with matching funds when they originally applied.
The other three researchers winning awards are Yadong Huang of the Gladstone Institutes,$6 million for Alzheimer’s; Mark Walters of Children’s Hospital, Oakland, $4.5 million for sickle cell, and Denis Evseenko of USC, $2.5 million for cartilage repair.
All the awards went to researchers or institutions that have links to persons who sit on the 29-member board. Overall, about 90 percent of the money awarded by CIRM since 2004 has gone to institutions with ties to past or present board members. While board members set rules for funding and the scope of awards, they are not allowed, however, to vote on specific applications from institutions with which they are connected.
Summaries of reviewers comments, scores and more can be found on this document from CIRM, which is based in Oakland. Here is a link to the CIRM press release.
Ed’s Note: David Jensen is a retired newsman who has followed the affairs of the $3 billion California stem cell agency since 2005 via his blog, the California Stem Cell Report, where this story first appeared. He has published more than 4,000 items on California stem cell matters in the past 11 years.