Directors of the California Stem Cell Agency last week handed out $ 2 million per minute to nearly 20 organizations in an online meeting that extended largesse from Sacramento in the north to San Diego in the south.
All but one of the awards were given to institutions that have or had ties to members of the board of directors of what is officially known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). Its total cost to taxpayers is estimated at around $ 12 billion.
The situation is not new for CIRM, which was designed in 2004 to give nearly every stem cell research organization in the Golden State a place at the table where the money is distributed.
In just over 47 minutes, administrators endorsed previous de facto decisions on the $ 98 million grant applications
Since CIRM’s inception, 80% of the prizes – $ 2.7 billion – have gone to organizations with ties to board members, according to an analysis by the California Stem Cell Report. And all of this is legal, thanks to the state ballot initiative process.
Last week’s session was about training scholarships for graduate students. A few years ago, the program ended due to a lack of funds. The CIRM has focused on clinical trials. But with the $ 5.5 billion injection of Proposition 14 last fall, the training program has been resuscitated.
Agency directors onere solidly behind what is called the CIRM Fellowship Training Program. CIRM director David Martin, CEO of biotech firm AvidBiotics, told last Thursday’s meeting that he sees the agency’s training programs as the “biggest legacy” that CIRM will have due. the lasting influence of the young scientists it supports.
Seventeen of the 18 training grants were awarded to institutions with links to current or past directors of the agency. All of the organizations that applied received around $ 5 million each, with the exception of UC Santa Barbara which only requested $ 1.9 million. A clinical trial prize of $ 12 million has been awarded to a Stanford researcher.
In just over 47 minutes, the trustees last Thursday endorsed previous de facto decisions regarding the $ 98 million grant applications filed by anonymous reviewers who met privately. Reviewers also do not have to publicly disclose their financial, professional or personal conflicts of interest.
However, members of the CIRM’s board of directors are required to disclose the outlines of their financial interests. They are not allowed to vote on candidates for which they have a legal and financial conflict of interest. Board members, at their award ratification meetings, also do not see complete applications. Only reviewers and CIRM staff have access to it.
(For an overview of the process the directors use, see this article: What Is a California ARS? And How Can It Donate Billions of Dollars?)
However, exam summaries are prepared by staff and often contain insightful details. The app with the highest score – 98 – came from UC Irvine. Peter Donovan of the Orange County campus prepared the application and is leading the program. The evaluators were enthusiastic: “An excellent proposition in every way – almost perfect. “
The review summary says,
“They used their experience with previous CIRM training support and NIH T32 (federal) support to provide meaningful direction to guide the current program. This includes: an emphasis on mentoring as a key pillar of training; an emphasis on “soft skills” in the training of trainees (communication, conflict resolution, management and skills development); and the active participation of clinical colleagues; an emphasis on translational research; and increased community engagement and awareness.
(All exam summaries can be found here. Institution and personal candidate names do not appear on the summaries. Search for them using the application numbers found below.)
One of the recipients has never received major funding from CIRM: the Lundquist Institute of Torrance, California, which says 14 companies have emerged from research it has helped support over the past 12 years.
The Clinical Trials Research Prize went to Maria Grazia Roncarolo of Stanford. (The summary of her review can be viewed here.) The award represents CIRM’s 76th clinical trial and relates to a potential treatment for a form of pediatric cancer.
Here is the list of grants from the CIRM Fellowship Training Program with 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, UCLA, UCLA 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 Cruz, CIRM training program in biology of stem cell systems
Bruce Conklin, EDUC4-12766, Gladstone Institute, CIRM Regenerative Medicine Research Training Program
Michael Barish, EDUC4-12772, City of Hope, Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine Research Training Program
Michael Longaker, EDUC4-12782, Stanford, CIRM Fellowship Training Program
Dick Hockemeyer, EDUC4-12790, UC Berkeley, Train the next generation of biologists and engineers for regenerative medicine
Jan Nolta, EDUC4-12792, UC Davis, CIRM training program in cell and gene therapy 2.0
Ching-Ling Lien, EDUC4-12802, Los Angeles Children’s Hospital, CIRM training program for stem cell research and regenerative medicine
Alysson Muotri, EDUC4-12804, UC San Diego, Interdisciplinary stem cell training scholarship at UCSD III
Peter Schultz, EDUC4-1281, Scripps Research Institute, Researchers with training in regenerative medicine and stem cell research
Robert Blelloch, EDUC4-12812, UC San Francisco, Regenerative Medicine, Gene Therapy and Stem Cell Research Fellow Research Training Program
Evan Snyder, EDUC4-12813, Sanford Burnham, A multidisciplinary stem cell training program at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Institute, a vital part 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, Comprehensive research training program for CIRM fellows
Virender Rehan, EDUC4-12837, Lundquist Institute for Biomedical Innovation, Stem Cell Training Program at Lundquist Institute
Here is a link to the CIRM press release regarding the awards.
Editor’s Note: David Jensen is a retired journalist who has covered the National Stem Cell Agency since it was approved by voters in 2004.