Going for the gold: $12.5 million in stem cell grants

A research scientist on the job in a laboratory. (Photo: Anyaivanova, via Shutterstock

An Olympic gold medalist, one of “America’s Top Doctors” and the head of the Scripps Institute’s stem cell program are lobbying the California stem cell agency this week to fund requests for $12.5 million in research grants.

The two different grants have been rejected by the agency’s blue-ribbon reviewers, who meet behind closed doors and make decisions without disclosing publicly their financial and professional interests. However, the proposals will come before a public meeting tomorrow (March 16) of the governing board of the $3 billion agency for official ratification of reviewer actions.

Directors of the agency, officially known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), have been loath to override reviewers’ decisions, especially in the past couple of years. Plus this week’s applications were considered under a new scoring system, which cuts off funding at a scientific score of 85. In the past, the agency has approved awards that were scored as low as 61.

Jeanne Loring, director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at Scripps, wrote the board to seek funding for her $8 million application (TRAN1-08468) for a treatment involving Parkinson’s disease. The proposal was scored at 70.

But first, here are details on the other application (TRAN1-08527). It seeks $4.5 million for research on a treatment for tendon and ligament injuries, something that the agency has not yet funded, according to the three letters supporting the application. The proposal was scored at 83, two points below the cut off. In the past, board members have noted that such small scoring definitions are statistically insignificant.

The identity of the applicant has not been released by the agency. Its practice is to withhold that information until the board acts, although there are notable exceptions to that policy.

One of the letters of support came from Cato Laurencin, an eminent orthopedic surgeon at the University of Connecticut and who is listed as one of “America’s Top Doctors.” Laurencin also served on the Institute of Medicine’s team that conducted a $700,000 study of the California stem cell agency.

In the letter dated  yesterday, he said hundreds of thousands of persons suffer from tendon and ligament injuries. (All letters are clumped under the same URL.)  Laurencin wrote, “This seems to me like a marvelous opportunity to support an excellent study with tremendous potential clinical impact on patients in California and throughout the United States.”

Jason Lezak, an Olympic swimmer with four gold medals, said in his letter that there is a “clear need” for legitimate research and treatment for such injuries, given the appeal of untested stem cell treatments attracting patients here and abroad.

CIRM document shows that while the application had an overall score of 83, its median score was 85 with scoring ranging from 75 to 92.

In her March 11 letter, Loring focused on “signicant new information” concerning her application that was submitted Nov. 20 of last year. The proposal was not reviewed until Feb. 11.

Loring said, “Between November and February, we generated new information that was not available to the GWG(grant review group). Importantly, we also received guidance from the FDAthat alleviates the major concerns of the reviewers.”

Her nine-page letter itemized reviewer concerns and provided her responses. She wrote, “In summary, based on our new data, our DNA sequencing publication, the recent approvals of two of our quality control-focused CIRM grants, and feedback from our meeting with the FDA, we believe that we are ready to proceed on our pilot studies to inform our IND-enabling studies. Some of the GWG concerns conflict with the guidance given by the FDA, and had the GWG been aware of the feedback we had received from the FDA, many of their concerns would have been addressed.”

Loring’s scientific and median scores were identical: 70. Scoring ranged from 60 to 80.

The San Diego-based Summit4StemCell group has strongly supported Loring’s research and raised funds for it. Representatives from the group have attended a number of CIRM board meetings, laying out the urgency of their needs. One meeting last year became emotional and left some CIRM representatives uneasy and irritated. (See here and here.)

The 29-member CIRM board includes one patient advocate from the Parkinson’s community, David Higgins of San Diego.

Of the $1.9 billion that the agency has handed out, $44 million has gone for Parkinson’s. The relatively meager rate of funding was a long a sore point for the first Parkinson’s patient advocate on the CIRM board, Joan Samuelson, who has since left the board as her affliction advanced.

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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