Institute doubles down on stem cell funding

The state-funded stem cell institute decided to double the rate at which it spends taxpayer dollars as part of a strategy to produce definitive research results that can persuade voters to give it more cash.

When staff members from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine approached the Board of Directors last week with a proposal to spend $120 million on grants for six researchers, the directors poo-pooed the idea.

They said it would be a much better idea to double the funding to $240 million for 12 researchers, one of whom, they hope, will find a miracle cure for a debilitating disease.

The move was part of a tactic by agency leaders to foster voter enthusiasm to hand the agency billions of dollars more.

The CIRM was created by voters in 2004 during a time when the George W. Bush administration had restricted federal funding on new embryonic stem cell research. The agency was furnished with $3 billion in state bond money to dole out to researchers at public and private institutions, with the promise that the research may uncover treatments to some of the deadliest of human diseases, while establishing California as the leader of the biotech economy.

The agency has spent close to half of its $3 billion, including the quarter-billion dollars in grants authorized on Thursday. CIRM leaders have begun looking ahead to the time when that money runs out — which they think they can delay until 2019, if they slow down their spending, according to President Alan Trounson.

But many of the 29 directors argued in favor of spending money quickly on a variety of projects, thereby increasing the chances that one of the grants lands on a miracle treatment for an incurable disease — results that could persuade taxpayers to open their wallets once more. Since the scientific process typically fails more often than it succeeds, it is necessary to invest in a variety of projects to succeed in a few, said CIRM Executive Chairman Bob Klein.

Klein said there may be a request for “another $4 billion” on the 2012 or 2016 ballot — years when presidential elections draw more voters. If so, the agency wants to prove to voters they have garnered a solid return on their investment.

“Only with a larger portfolio do we have a chance of that going forward with a real possibility,” he said.

In the end, despite concerns from its staff about handling the doubled workload, the directors voted unanimously for the $243 million grant round.

In another step to woo future voters, the directors approved a $615,000 audit by the highly regarded Institute of Medicine, an independent nonprofit that specializes in providing third-party analysis of health care issues. The study will be paid for with privately raised funds, to protect against accusations of using public funds for electioneering. The audit must be completed by November 2012.

Two directors voted against it, noting the agency will have no control over the result of the audit, and a negative audit could have a disastrous effect on public opinion.

“The outcome on something like this can cut both ways,” warned director Duane Roth.

Pouring dollars upon researchers

Taxpayer dollars to the tune of $6 million will go toward luring one of the nation’s most prominent stem cell scientists to a private nonprofit in southern California.

The California Institute of Regenerative Medicine has offered researcher Robert Wechsler-Reya from Duke University $5.9 million to transfer his lab to the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in San Diego.

The hire is the first of a leadership award program intended to draw eight prominent researchers from elsewhere in the world to California. The public agency set aside about $45 million for the program, money that schools and institutions apply for in order to hire researchers they otherwise might not be able to afford.

The recipients will be engaging in “high-risk, high-payoff, innovative studies that could not be adequately supported by other sources,” according to an announcement by CIRM.

The money will pay for a salary of roughly $180,000 for Wechsler, moving expenses for him and his wife, and the costs of setting up a lab.

Asked whether it is appropriate to spend so much public money on a single researcher, CIRM president Alan Trounson said the rewards of successful research will “far outweigh” the investment. — Katie Worth

CIRM grants

Directors of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine have now allocated $1.3 billion in grants to researchers and their employers. These are some of the largest:

March 2007 – $72 million: 28 awards to support already existing studies on embryonic stem cells
May 2008 – $270 million: 12 awards to construct state-of-the-art stem cell facilities
August 2008 – $61 million: 23 awards to higher new clinical and scientific research faculty
April 2009 – $71 million: 16 awards to advance the development of new therapies
Oct. 2009 – $224 million: 14 awards to support teams of disease researchers to move toward clinical trials within four years
August 2011 – $243 million: Expected to fund 12 teams of disease researchers

Source: California Institute for Regenerative Medicine

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