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Stem cell agency, now flush with $5.5 billion, turns new page

Stem cell research using what's known as a PCR strip. (Image: Science Photo via Shutterstock)

California’s ambitious stem cell agency has launched itself on a new, $5.5 billion journey, approving a plan to hand out $182 million to researchers by the middle of next year and beefing up its efforts to bring equality to therapies and scientific labs.

The moves Monday came courtesy of Proposition 14, the ballot initiative that saved the financial life of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is officially known.  Just 12 months ago, CIRM was dealing with its possible demise as it was running out of the $3 billion that voters gave it in 2004.

The agency’s governing board approved, as expected, a $182 million plan to make 36 awards during the next six months.

Proposition 14 sets the agency, which currently has only 33 employees, on a sweeping course that extends its work into areas such as mental health and “aging as a pathology.” The agency’s new, 17,000-word charter also provides up to $155 million for work dealing with affordability and access to possible stem cell therapies.

CIRM was created years ago by another ballot initiative following a campaign that raised voter expectations that stem cell therapies were right around the corner. The agency has yet to help finance a stem cell therapy that is approved for widespread use by the federal government, although CIRM is backing 68 clinical trials, a number that was considered unimaginable in 2004. 

During its online meeting Monday, the agency’s governing board approved, as expected, a $182 million plan to make 36 awards during the next six months. It calls for $100 million for clinical work, $22 million for basic research and $60 million for translational research, which involves attempts to move discoveries into the clinical stage, the last stop before they are approved for general distribution.

A call for applications is expected to be posted soon.

The board took its first step to address the affordability and access issues identified by Proposition 14. Eight persons were named to CIRM’s new Affordability and Access committee. It will be led by CIRM’s vice chair, Art Torres, a former state legislator and who also serves on the board of Covered California, a state body designed to deal with affordability issues in connection with the federal Affordable Care Act. More persons are expected to be named to the affordability committee next month.

The CIRM board approved changes in how it evaluates applications for awards to require scientists to specifically address diversity and equity issues. Under its new rules, applications will be scored on how well the research deals with underserved communities. Applicants will also be scored on the diversity of their research teams.

The agency’s new operational budget calls for the hiring of 10 more employees between now and the end of June, ranging from a vice president for science to an administrative assistant. Job listings are expected to be posted soon.

CIRM Chairman Jonathan Thomas laid out some details for crafting a new strategic plan for the next five years. It includes action on the plan by the end of June, which will mean that requests for applications will be issued soon thereafter.  The June date has been moved up from later in the summer.

The public and researchers will be able to weigh in with comments and suggestions during the development of the plan.

Today’s session stood in sharp contrast to the agency’s first meeting 16 years ago this month, just after the voter approval of the ballot measure that created CIRM.  The fledgling agency did not have a single employee. It had no bank account, no offices and no phones. Spectators, interested parties and news reporters, nonetheless, crowded into the CIRM board’s first meeting. Major stories appeared in the media throughout the state.

Today, CIRM’s online session was watched by only about 30 to 40 persons, most of whom were likely associated with the agency itself. And the meeting drew virtually no media attention.

Editor’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. 


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