Money crunch at stem cell agency

A liquid nitrogen bank containing a suspension of stem cells. (Photo: Elena Pavlovich, via Shutterstock)

California’s stem cell agency gave away $14 million this month, which could be described as less than a drop in its $3 billion bucket.

But the talk at the agency’s awards meeting July 19 was not about largess. Instead it was about the lack of cash, lack of time and the need to split “babies” and “buckets.”

“We are going to have to make some hard choices today,” said one member of the agency’s governing  board, Jeff Sheehy, a patient advocate member of the board for HIV.

It was a meeting that illuminated the changing criteria that the agency is beginning to use  — as the cash squeeze tightens — to make decisions on who and what to finance.

“We are coming to the end,” said another, Oswald Steward, director of the Reeve, Irvine Research Center at UC Irvine.

Sheehy and Oswald and others referred to the shrinking finances of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the Oakland-based agency is formally known. It expects to run out of cash for new awards by the end of next year. Its leaders are trying to raise more than $200 million privately to tide it over until November 2020. That’s when they hope another bond measure will be approved by California voters and pump an additional $5 billion into the 13-year-old enterprise.

That was the backdrop at the session earlier this month. It was a meeting that illuminated the changing criteria that the agency is beginning to use  — as the cash squeeze tightens — to make decisions on who and what to finance. No longer will patient advocates or researchers be able to assume that an excellent scientific score assures that an application will be ultimately approved. Instead, “programmatic” considerations will play an important and perhaps definitive role.

Those considerations range from whether a researcher has received past funding from the agency, whether the application fits well within the agency’s mission, whether an application fills a void in the agency’s portfolio and just how innovative the research is, plus much more.

One upshot was that two applicants, James Hagood of UC San Diego and  Vittorio Sebastiano of Stanford, received only partial funding.

The discussion about diminishing resources arose when directors were given the usual list of applications that were approved for funding by its reviewers, who met earlier behind closed doors.  Normally, the reviewer decisions are rubber-stamped. This time, however, the 14 reviewer-approved applications totaled $19 million, but only $10 million was budgeted. That’s when some directors brought up the need for Solomon-like decisions that would “split” the babies and the “buckets” of cash.

One upshot was that two applicants, James Hagood of UC San Diego and  Vittorio Sebastiano of Stanford, received only partial funding with the expectation that the board would approve a revision in the budget in late October. Nonetheless, those researchers were better off than six applicants who were also approved for funding by reviewers, but not by the CIRM directors. Final action on their applications was put off, probably also until late October.

The $10 million round involved basic types of research, but with a two-year time table. Directors also took action in another, separate round involving preclinical work. It dealt with only one application for $3.99 million, which was approved with no discussion. It went to Poseida Therapeutics, Inc., of San Diego for research aimed at supercharging  “a patient’s own immune system cells to attack and kill a treatment-resistant form of prostate cancer,” according to the CIRM news release on all the awards. Poseida matched the award with $998,023.

It was the second CIRM award for Poseida, bringing its total from the agency to $23.8 million.  Here is a link to the summary of comments from reviewers on the Poseida application.

Below is a list of the other approved awards, all of which went to institutions that have links to a CIRM governing board member. Those members were not allowed to vote on those applications. Here is a link to a document which contains summaries of the reviewer comments on each application as well as ones that were not funded on July


Application number Title Institution Amount Principal


DISC2-11131 Genetically Modified Hematopoietic Stem Cells for the Treatment of Danon Disease UC San Diego $1,393,200 Eric Adler
DISC2-11157 Preclinical Development of An HSC-Engineered Off-

The-Shelf iNKT Cell Therapy for Cancer

UCLA $1,404,000 Lili Yang
DISC2-11036 Non-viral reprogramming of the endogenous TCRα

locus to direct stem memory T cells against shared

neoantigens in malignant gliomas

UC San Francisco $900,000 Hideho Okada
DISC2-11175 Therapeutic immune tolerant human islet-like

organoids (HILOs) for Type 1 Diabetes

Salk Institute $1,637,209 Ronald Evans
DISC2-11107 Chimeric Antigen Receptor-Engineered Stem/Memory

T Cells for the Treatment of Recurrent Ovarian Cancer

City of Hope $1,381,104 Saul Priceman
DISC2-11165 Develop iPSC-derived microglia to treat progranulin-

deficient Frontotemporal Dementia

Gladstone Institutes $1,553,923 Li Gan
DISC2-11192 Mesenchymal stem cell extracellular vesicles as

therapy for pulmonary fibrosis

U.C. San Diego $865,282 James Hagood
DISC2-11109 Regenerative Thymic Tissues as Curative Cell

Therapy for Patients with 22q11 Deletion Syndrome

Stanford University $865,282 Vittorio Sebastiano

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. 


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