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Stem cell agency faces leadership challenge

Human embryonic stem cells. (Photo: California Institute for Regenerative Medicine)

California’s 12-year-old stem cell research effort is expected to give away tens of millions of dollars in public this week, but its most important matters — issues that deal with its survival and future — likely will be discussed behind closed doors at a meeting Thursday of its governing board.

On the table is the leadership of the $3 billion organization, which is scheduled to run out of cash in just three years, which amounts to a mere tick of the clock in the world of biomedical research. Beginning next week the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known, will be minus its chief executive officer and its longtime counselor, who even predates the organization’s actual creation in 2004.

CIRM has a checkered record  in recruiting new presidents for a variety of reasons (see herehere and here).

CIRM directors are scheduled to meet Thursday at the San Francisco Marriott hotel in Burlingame, Ca., to confirm the appointment of Maria Millan, CIRM’s vice president of therapeutics, as interim president of the agency. She will assume the duties of Randy Mills, who is leaving CIRM next week to head the National Marrow Donor Progam.

Mills, who was paid $573,00 last year, also made it clear to the California Stem Cell Report in May that Millan is the appropriate person to take over the agency on a permanent basis after he leaves.

However, the decision is up to the 29-member board, which has scheduled an executive session Thursday to discuss the interim replacement for Mills. He joined the agency only three years ago but has left an impressive mark.

CIRM directors have also scheduled a July 17 meeting of their presidential search subcommittee to deal with the agency’s leadership during what could be the last years of its life.

CIRM has a checkered record  in recruiting new presidents for a variety of reasons (see herehere and here). Some candidates have rejected offers. Other search efforts have been excessively prolonged.

The agency hopes to add 38 more trials over the next three years. But there are no guarantees that any will be successful.

Finding a new president from outside CIRM poses difficulties that would not have been in place, for example, five years ago. They include the tenuous future of CIRM along with the time needed for a normal executive search, plus the learning curve for a new CEO.

While CIRM is a small enterprise in some ways (less than 50 employees), it is an unusual mix of government, biotech business and academia, unlike any other state agency.  The combination has raised hurdles in the past.

The clock is running out fast at the agency. Any alterations in the plan put in place by Mills, Millan and company could slow its efforts to fulfill voter expectations that the agency would actually generate a widely available therapy. CIRM is helping to finance 27 current clinical trials, which are the last stages in research prior to a product reaching the market. The agency hopes to add 38 more trials over the next three years. But there are no guarantees that any will be successful.

Millan can step in and pick up the job relatively seamlessly.  Bringing in a CEO from outside could well take six months or more, including relocation. But serving as the head of  an organization that could be out of business in three years may not be appealing to many and could prolong recruitment.

Looming in the background is a gossamer plan for another ballot initiative to fund CIRM  beyond 2020.

If Millan is bypassed by the board, she may well leave the agency, triggering a cascade of departures as other CIRM employees also look to their own professional futures. An employee drain would hamper the agency’s drive to come up with a commercial therapy.

James Harrison, the longtime counsel to the agency, is also leaving at the end of this week, returning to other pursuits at his private practice. Harrison has been a cornerstone of CIRM and has influence well beyond the not-so-simple legal matters involving the agency. He was also one of the authors of the 10,000-word ballot initiative that created the agency in 2004.

Scott Tocher, a longtime veteran of the agency, will replace Harrison. An announcement of the appointment is expected at the Thursday meeting.

Looming in the background is a gossamer plan for another ballot initiative to fund CIRM  beyond 2020. Bob Klein, a Palo Alto real estate investment banker who led the campaign that created CIRM, is talking about a $5 billion bond measure on the ballot as early as November of next year. Some political observers have predicted a less-than-warm-reception for such a proposal, given that the agency has yet to measure up to its 2004 campaign promises.

Another, rival proposal is being mentioned that would, in fact, move stem cell funding away from the agency.

One stem cell scientist, Paul Knoepfler of UC Davis, wrote last week about the agency’s presidential search.

Commenting on his blog, Knoepfler said that CIRM directors should pick a “fantastic” person to replace Mills.  Knoepfler said the new president should have “strong leadership skills,” a “big picture clinical vision” and “impeccable stem cell credentials,” criteria that one could argue have not been met by most CIRM CEOs.

In the past, debate about presidential candidates centered on whether they should be stem cell stars or a leader who can execute an aggressive program that is already approved and in place. Given the current CIRM challenges, other criteria, such as speed and continuity, are also high.

The journal Nature this year said that the agency is in its “last stage.” CIRM directors may well have that admonition on their minds as they consider fresh leadership for the program. Sphere: Related Content

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. 


  • David Steenblock

    CIRM is a disgrace to the taxpayers of California – $3 billion 12 years and not one of their stem cell treatments have been.made available to the public!

    Since many California licensed physicians now offer stem cell.treatments to their patients, CIRM should change their direction to helping these doctors legitimize their efforts rather than denigrating them as they have done in the past.

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