Stem cell agency gives out $2 million a minute

Close up of laboratory microscope with DNA gel background image. (Photo: 18percentgrey, via Shutterstock)

Directors of the California stem cell agency last week handed out $2 million a minute to nearly 20 organizations during an online meeting that spread the largess from Sacramento in the north to San Diego in the south.

All but one of the awards went to institutions that have or had ties to members of the governing board of what is known officially as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).  Its total cost to taxpayers is estimated to be about $12 billion.

The situation is nothing new for CIRM, which was designed in 2004 to give nearly all the Golden State’s stem cell research organizations a seat at the table where the money is handed out.

In slightly more than 47 minutes, the directors rubber-stamped the earlier de facto decisions on the $98 million in grant applications

Since CIRM’s inception, 80 percent of the awards — $2.7 billion — has gone to organizations with links to board members, according to an analysis by the California Stem Cell Report.  And it is all legal, courtesy of the state’s ballot initiative process.

Last week’s session involved training grants for graduate students. A few years back the program was terminated because of a lack of funds. CIRM shifted its emphasis to clinical trials. But with the infusion of $5.5 billion from Proposition 14 last fall, the training program was resurrected. 

Directors of the agency are solidly behind what is known as the CIRM Scholars training program. CIRM Director David Martin, CEO of the biotech company AvidBiotics, said during last Thursday’s meeting that he considered the agency’s training programs as the “biggest legacy” that CIRM will have because of the enduring influence of the young scientists that it is supporting.

Seventeen of 18 training awards went to institutions with links to current or past directors of the agency. All of the organizations that applied received about $5 million each with the exception of UC Santa Barbara which applied for only $1.9 million.  A $12 million clinical trial award was made to a Stanford researcher.

In slightly more than 47 minutes, the directors last Thursday rubber-stamped the earlier de facto decisions on the $98 million in grant applications made by anonymous reviewers who met in private. The reviewers also do not have to publicly disclose their financial, professional or personal conflicts of interest.

CIRM board members, however, are required to disclose the outlines of their financial interests. They are not allowed to vote on applications for which they have a legal, financial conflict of interest. Nor do board members, at their award ratification meetings, see the full applications. Only reviewers and CIRM staff have access to those.

(For a look at the process used by directors, see this piece: What is a California ARS? And How Can It Give Away Billions of Dollars?)

Summaries of the reviews are prepared by the staff, however, and often contain illuminating details. The application with the highest score — 98 — came from UC Irvine. Peter Donovan at the Orange County campus prepared the application and heads the program. Reviewers were effusive: “An excellent proposal in every way – almost perfect.”

The review summary said,

“They have used their experience with prior CIRM training support and (federal) NIH T32 support to provide meaningful direction to guide the current program. This includes: a focus on mentorship as a key pillar of training; a focus on ‘soft skills’ in the education of trainees (communication, conflict resolution, management, and skills development); and active involvement of clinical colleagues; a focus on translational research; and increased community engagement and outreach.”

(All of the review summaries can be found here. The names of the institutions and personal applicants are not on the summaries. Search them using the application numbers found below.)

One of the recipients has never received major funding from CIRM: the Lundquist Institute of Torrance, Ca., which says 14 companies have “spun off” from research that it has helped to support over the last 12 years.

The clinical trial research award went to Maria Grazia Roncarolo of Stanford. (Her review summary can be found here.)  The award represents CIRM’s 76th clinical tria and involves a potential treatment for a form of pediatric cancer.

Here is the list of CIRM Scholar Training Program awards with the application numbers following the name of the recipient.

Clive Svendsen, EDUC4-12751, Cedars-Sinai, CIRM Training Program in Translational Regenerative Medicine

Prue Talbot, EDUC4-12752, UC Riverside, TRANSCEND – Training Program to Advance Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Research, Education, and Workforce Diversity

William Lowry, EDUC4-12753, UCLAUCLA Training Program in Stem Cell Biology

Gage DeKoeyer Crump, EDUC4-12756, University of Southern California, Training Program Bridging Stem Cell Research with Clinical Applications in Regenerative Medicine

Camilla Forsberg, EDUC4-12759, UC Santa CruzCIRM Training Program in Systems Biology of Stem Cells

Bruce Conklin, EDUC4-12766, Gladstone Institute, CIRM Regenerative Medicine Research Training Program

Michael Barish, EDUC4-12772, City of Hope, Research Training Program in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine

Michael Longaker, EDUC4-12782, Stanford, CIRM Scholar Training Program

Dick Hockemeyer, EDUC4-12790, UC Berkeley, Training the Next Generation of Biologists and Engineers for Regenerative Medicine

Jan Nolta, EDUC4-12792, UC Davis, CIRM Cell and Gene Therapy Training Program 2.0

Ching-Ling Lien, EDUC4-12802, Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, CIRM Training Program for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Research

Alysson Muotri, EDUC4-12804, UC San Diego, Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Training Grant at UCSD III

Peter Schultz, EDUC4-1281, Scripps Research Institute, Training Scholars in Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research

Robert Blelloch, EDUC4-12812, UC San Francisco, Scholars Research Training Program in Regenerative Medicine, Gene Therapy, and Stem Cell Research

Evan Snyder, EDUC4-12813, Sanford Burnham, A Multidisciplinary Stem Cell Training Program at Sanford Burnham Prebys Institute, A Critical Component of the La Jolla Mesa Educational Network

Dennis Clegg, EDUC4-12821, UC Santa Barbara, CIRM Training Program in Stem Cell Biology and Engineering

Peter Donovan, EDUC4-12822, UC Irvine, CIRM Scholars Comprehensive Research Training Program

Virender Rehan, EDUC4-12837, Lundquist Institute for Biomedical Innovation, Stem Cell Training Program at the Lundquist Institute

Here is a link to the CIRM news release about the awards.

Editor’s Note: David Jensen is a retired newsman who has covered the state stem cell agency since it was approved by voters in 2004.

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