Calif. stem cell agency back on track?

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Agency won’t award two grants, and sells more bonds than expected in first public sale

The Scientist Magazine

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) today (October 4), entered the second day of its first public bond sale following a strong showing yesterday. Individual investors purchased $68.6 million, or 27.4%, of the $250 million in bonds that will be issued in the sale and will be used towards stem cell grants for California companies and institutions.

Because these numbers were stronger than expected, the sale has been extended for individual investors until 10:30am PST today. After that, the bonds will be available for purchase to large institutional buyers.

The strong showing suggests CIRM may finally be getting back on track after delays in grant awards due to litigations over the past three years, according to a CIRM spokesperson and people in the stem cell community.

“I think we’re a little behind schedule, but not by much,” Dale Carlson, spokesperson for CIRM told The Scientist. While about $200 million has gone out to facilities and training for stem cell research so far, another $300 million scheduled to be approved between now and April 2008.

“Despite the litigation,” Carlson added, “CIRM has become the largest source of funding for human embryonic stem cell research in the world.”

At a meeting of its 29-member oversight committee yesterday, CIRM revoked one research grant, and another was withdrawn by the applicant, according to Carlson.

The grant RS1 305-1 to the Burnham Institute for $638,000 was rejected because the principle investigator did not meet the requirement of being a full-time employee of the institute, according to Carlson. The controversial Grant RC1-00123-1 to the CHA Institute of Regenerative Medicine for $2.6 million was withdrawn by the applicant for reasons not disclosed to CIRM, said Carlson.

California State Treasurer Bill Lockyer delayed the sale of bonds from last week to get the best interest rate. CIRM is depending on the sales to help it pay back the $150 million borrowed from the state government. Indeed, much of its original $3 billion charter from 2004 has been tied up in numerous litigations since its inception. “I think it’s disappointing that opponents of stem cell research, after they lost the ballot box, were able to delay movement [in CIRM] as long as they were,” Sean Tipton, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research told The Scientist.

“What people don’t realize is that the litigation turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” John Simpson, director of the stem cell group at the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, told The Scientist. “The silver lining was that it gave them 2.5 years to get all the necessary procedures in places to responsibility put out money.”

Some have criticized the CIRM oversight committee, saying that its members represent the very institutions that benefit from receiving grants, creating a system rife with conflict of interest.

Two executive officers on the CIRM oversight committee did not respond in time to questions regarding how the granting process proceeds in light of accusations of conflict of interest.

And with a new president expected to arrive by the end of the year, the state waits to see if CIRM can begin functioning like a healthy state agency. “The big question is whether they’ve got a good plan in place,” Simpson said. “They’ve got to get off the ground.”
Contact the author Andrea Gawrylewski at: [email protected]

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