State pulls Burnham’s stem cell seed grant

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The San Diego Union-Tribune

The check is not in the mail for La Jolla’s Burnham Institute or the CHA Regenerative Medicine Institute of Los Angeles.

Burnham will not be receiving a $638,000 seed grant to fund research that could have led to the creation of new human embryonic stem cell lines, the state stem cell institute revealed yesterday.

And CHA will not be receiving a $2.6 million stem cell cloning grant, the institute said.

Of the 120 grant applications previously approved for funding by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, one of several awarded to the Burnham has become the first to be denied after further review. The reason: a technicality.

The Burnham and CHA grant applications had undergone a peer review by a volunteer panel of scientists from around the world, and had been chosen for funding over other applications.

During the seed grant application process, the Burnham’s proposal received the second-highest score from the scientific review team.

However, staff of the stem cell institute conducted due diligence to confirm that each grant recipient met the requirements of the grant and possessed the manpower, facilities and knowledge necessary to complete the proposed project.

The staff determined that the Burnham proposal did not pass muster because the principle investigator on the project, in-vitro fertilization specialist David Smotrich, was not a full-time employee of the Burnham Institute, where the work would be done.

Smotrich, who runs an in-vitro fertilization practice in La Jolla, is a member of Burnham’s clinical faculty. He has also started a stem cell bank that is collecting donated frozen human embryos left over after the in-vitro fertilization process but no longer wanted by women trying to have children.

From those embryos, Smotrich and scientists from the Burnham have been working to derive stem cells. He and a team that includes Burnham researchers Evan Snyder and Jeanne Loring sought the grant to fund work that Smotrich and other benefactors have underwritten to date.

The standards of this particular grant put an independent research facility, such as the Burnham, at a disadvantage compared with an academic/medical facility such as UCSD, where clinical faculty can see patients in an office on campus, said Snyder and Smotrich.

“It’s frustrating,” Smotrich said last night. “But hopefully it’s just a hiccup, and there will be other ways to get funding. Perhaps future (grant applications) will be written differently. This is a learning process for everyone.”

The CHA Regenerative Medicine Institute of Los Angeles has withdrawn its application for grant money, said Arlene Chiu, chief scientific officer of the state stem cell institute.

The CHA researchers in Los Angeles wanted funding to make customized nerve cells from patients with Lou Gehrig’s disease using human embryonic stem cell lines and a cloning method known as somatic cell nuclear transfer.

The initial approval of CHA’s grant request was immediately questioned by taxpayer advocacy groups because of the facility’s close ties with a for-profit Korean parent company, CHA Health Systems.

Proposition 71, the state law that created California’s stem cell institute and the $3 billion taxpayer-funded research fund it will distribute, requires all grant recipients to be in California.

Meanwhile, CHA’s CEO, Kwang Yul Cha, has come under fire as a co-author on a scientific paper that some critics say was identical to one published in a Korean journal. Cha denies any wrongdoing.

Of the 118 other grant applications previously approved for funding, 87 have received final approval. After getting that clearance, recipients must sign a contract with the state before a check is mailed.

Another 33 grant recipients are undergoing the due diligence process.

A member of a taxpayer advocacy group said that the denial of the Burnham application and the withdrawal of the CHA application was a good sign.

“It shows CIRM has standards and procedures and that they are being followed, and these applications are being fully vetted,” said John Simpson of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica.
Contact the author Terri Somers at: (619) 293-2028 or [email protected]

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