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Stem cell agency halts new grant applications

A stem cell researcher with microscope and digital tablet. (Photo: moreimages, via Shutterstock)

The $3 billion California stem cell agency, which is running out of cash, has served notice that it would stop accepting applications for more research awards beginning next month.

The low key announcement on Thursday is another step towards the looming demise of the 14-year-old agency, created by voters in November 2004. Its hopes for continued life are pinned on a proposed bond measure for the November 2020 ballot.

The agency has been trying for months to raise $200 million in private funding. No announcement of any progress, however, was made at Thursday’s session.
A memo to the governing board from the leadership of the agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), said that it currently has $88 million worth of requests for cash but only $33 million available for awards.

The memo said, “Given the status of applications in the system and expected applications this month, we intend to close application submissions after this month. In the unlikely event that funds continue to be available after processing of all applications in the queue, we may temporarily re-open the submission window as needed.”

The matter was taken up at a meeting of the board that approved an $11 million clinical award for a rare disease.

During a brief discussion, board member Os Steward of UC Irvine said that “shutting off the spigot could be highly disruptive.”

He indicated that he would prefer to call it a suspension of applications.

Board member Jeff Sheehy said the move is “abrupt but that is kind of where we are.”

Under the ballot initiative that created the agency, the only significant source of funding is bonds issued by the state of California. The authority for issuing the bonds is expiring.

The agency has been trying for months to raise $200 million in private funding. No announcement of any progress, however, was made at Thursday’s session.

The agency has on hand enough funds to handle administration of existing awards for a couple of years.

Here is the full text of Thursday’s memo:

“For 2019, the ICOC allocated $93 million for clinical program applications (CLIN1, CLIN2, CLIN3) and $30 million for the CIRM/NHLBI collaboration on sickle cell disease. As of June 2019, the available budget for non-sickle cell disease applications is $45 million.

“Currently, we have one application recommended for funding by the GWG and pending approval this month for $12 million. There are two applications slated for GWG review later this month and three applications that have received a score of “2” by the GWG that are pending reassessment by the GWG next month. We have also received five applications that are undergoing eligibility review. The total request for all clinical applications currently in our system is about $88 million. We are expecting two to three additional application submissions for this month’s deadline, which falls on June 28, 2019. The budget request for these is still unknown. We expect that not all applications will achieve a funding recommendation, but there may be enough to deplete the annual allocation.

“Given the status of applications in the system and expected applications this month, we intend to close application submissions after this month. In the unlikely event that funds continue to be available after processing of all applications in the queue, we may temporarily re-open the submission window as needed.

“We intend to inform all prospective applicants submitting an application this month that there is no guarantee of an availability of funds and that review of their application may be halted if funds are depleted prior to the completion of their review. We also intend to post notice that application submissions will close after the June deadline until further notice.

“This action does not affect application submissions for sickle cell disease that are accepted under the CIRM/NHLBI collaborative program.”

Editor’s Note: David Jensen is a retired journalist 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 thousands of items detailing California stem cell matters.


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