Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Stem Cell 'Hotbed:' A CIRM Roadshow in Riverside

California's $3 billion stem cell agency took its message of hope for possible therapies to Riverside this week, part of its continuing outreach program that is increasingly taking on additional importance.

Why? Because the agency is scheduled to run out of cash for new awards by the end of next year. It is hoping to raise $220 million to stave off its demise until November 2020 when the plan is to ask state voters to approve an additional $5 billion in funding.

Writing on the agency's blog, Kevin McCormack, senior director of communications for the agency, was enthusiastic. His headline said, 
"A road trip to the Inland Empire highlights a hot bed of stem cell research"
McCormack wrote,
"It was a packed event, with an overflow group watching on monitors outside the auditorium. The questions asked afterwards didn’t just focus on the research being done, but on research that still needs to be done.
"One patient advocate couple asked about clinics offering stem cell therapies for Parkinson’s disease, wondering if the therapies were worth spending more than $10,000 on....
"The visit was a strong reminder that there is exciting stem cell research taking place all over California and that the Inland Empire is a key player in that research, working on projects that could one day have a huge impact in changing people’s lives, even saving people’s lives."
The stem cell agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), is not exactly a household word among most Californians. Events such as the one in Riverside help to spread the word about its activities to voters who might be considering another funding initiative for the agency. However, these type of CIRM events rarely generate news coverage that can amplify their reach. 

The Riverside event was a case in point. A UC Riverside press release earlier this month led to a four-paragraph item in the Riverside Press Enterprise announcing that the event was upcoming. But no news story has yet emerged from the actual event itself. Indeed, the only news story in the newspaper this month about the benefits of stem cell research involved the Vatican, a Riverside girl and, indirectly, a company, Caladrius Biosciences (formerly Neostem) that was awarded $11.6 million from CIRM. The agency, however, was not mentioned.

Tomorrow, another CIRM event will be held at UCLA to highlight the agency's  $50 million, Alpha Clinic program that brings resources together to focus intensely on stem cell therapies and patient treatment.
Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Fleshing Out the Details: Inside the California Stem Cell Agency's Fledgling Industry Partnership Program

 California's $3 billion stem cell agency has released details on just what is involved in its new collaboration with industry, giving select companies "direct access" to the hundreds of millions of dollars in research that the state has financed. 

The effort involves creation of "robust data rooms," nondisclosure agreements and licensing templates, among other things, and owes a debt to the agency's moribund, $150 million public-private partnership proposal (ATP3).  The new program is aimed at speeding development of stem cell therapies as the agency faces its possible demise in the next couple of years. 

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known, has dubbed the collaboration as the Industry Alliance Program (IAP). It  already has two partners from the private sector, BlueRock Therapeutics of Cambridge, Mass., and Vivo Capital of Palo Alto, and the agency is looking for more. 

Q & A: Data Rooms and More

Neil Littman, CIRM photo
CIRM disclosed more information about the program in response to questions from the California Stem Cell Report (CSCR). Here is the agency's reply from Neil Littman, CIRM's business development officer. It includes a response to a comment filed last week on the original article by an anonymous reader concerning access to research.

CSCR: "What does 'direct access' to CIRM’s growing stem cell portfolio' mean? Will grantees be asked to share their results with these companies....or will CIRM just give out grantees' proprietary information to these companies?"

Littman:  "CIRM will never share proprietary information without the consent of the awardee and the awardee’s institution. In addition, in order to access non-public information, IAP partners (just like everyone else) will need to execute a confidentiality agreement with the awardee’s institution. 'Direct access' implies CIRM’s role in helping IAP partners navigate CIRM’s large and growing portfolio and facilitating introductions when it is mutually agreed upon by the awardee and IAP partner."

CSCR: "It would be useful to discuss with more specificity this language from the IAP agreements: "...diligence process through template legal agreements, such as non-disclosure agreements and licensing templates, and robust data rooms."

Littman: "What does CIRM mean by diligence process? The term due diligence refers to the process of how a company evaluates technology before making an investment. This is often a lengthy review process where the company evaluates items such as preclinical clinical and clinical data, CMC information, and regulatory correspondence. CIRM will help streamline this process by working with the awardee and awardee’s institution to gather all the information in one place for the collaborator to review (this is commonly referred to as a 'data room').

"Why are template agreements useful to collaborators? The template legal agreements provide standardized language which help save time for both the collaborator and the awardee institution. Many features of the agreements will still need to be negotiated, such as the economics of a specific deal, but the templates serve as a starting point."

Son of ATP3

CSCR: These arrangements appear to be descended from CIRM's ATP3 proposal. How did the partnership program emerge? How did those two companies come to be the first to be involved? 

Littman: "Yes, the IAP is descended from ATP3 and is meant to achieve the same goal: increasing the pull from industry in order to increase the number of partnerships. BlueRock and Vivo Capital were selected for a variety of reasons, including: 1) Demonstrated commitment to advancing stem cell treatments to patients (i.e. they have already made investments in the space) 2) Continued commitment to investing in stem cell programs in the future, 3) They are well capitalized with the ability to invest in CIRM-funded programs."

Text of IAP Agreement

Here is the text of the signed agreement with BlueRock, which was requested by the California Stem Cell Report. The agreement with Vivo is identical.
Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, April 08, 2018

California's $3 Billion Stem Cell Program Partners with BlueRock and Vivo Capital, Looks for More Industry Collaborators

California's drive to produce a stem cell therapy is ratcheting up a notch with announcement of  two new, global industry partners along with a plan to engage more companies and give them "direct access" to hundreds of millions of dollars in state-funded research.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the $3 billion state stem cell agency is formally known, said the program represents an opportunity "to bring the most promising stem cell, gene therapy and regenerative medicine programs to market where they can help people with unmet medical needs."

The first two participants are BlueRock Therapeutics of  Cambridge, Ma., with offices in Toronto and New York City, and  Vivo Capital of  Palo Alto, Ca., which has offices in Bejing, Shanghai and Tapei. BlueRock was founded in 2016 with $225 million in backing from Versant Ventures and Bayer AG. Vivo has more than $1.7 billion under management, according to the firm's web site.

In addition to venture capital firms, the agency said its Industry Alliance Program (IAP) is looking for pharmaceutical and biotech partners to give them "direct access to CIRM’s growing stem cell portfolio."

Maria Millan, CEO and president of CIRM, said in a news release,
Maria Millan
"The goal of the IAP is to secure industry partnerships and funding for CIRM’s translational and clinical-stage projects. Our agency provides researchers the initial funding to advance promising projects towards the clinic. Now, we’re going a step further by offering a program that facilitates connections between industry partners and our grantees. These companies can offer the support or additional funding needed to give these promising projects the best chance for success and the best chance of helping patients.”
The stem cell agency is nearing its final days and is looking to fulfill promises to California voters who created it 13 years ago through a ballot initiative. The measure provided $3 billion in state bond funding, but no more. The campaign also generated expectations that stem cell cures were just around the corner. The agency has yet to back a therapy that is widely available.

The agency expects to run out of cash for new awards by the end of next year. A $220 million private fundraising effort is being waged to help the agency along until November 2020. That's when CIRM backers hope that the agency's efforts will excite California voters enough for them to approve $5 billion more in funding via another citizen-based initiative.

Deeper involvement with industry is one way to produce quicker results. Venture capital firms are willing to move fast and bet big on research that they deem likely to produce handsome profits.

BlueRock focuses on cell therapies that target severe brain and heart conditions.  According to Biospace, the company expects its most advanced lead therapeutic, a compound for Parkinson’s disease, to begin clinical trials this year.

Vivo focuses on high quality companies in the United States and China but includes building companies from scratch. 

California also brings something to the game.  Karen Ring, the agency's Internet majordomo, noted last week on the agency's blog,
"CIRM is the world’s largest stem cell research funding institution dedicated to helping patients by accelerating the development of quality stem cell treatments. We’re currently funding 244 active stem cell research programs including 39 ongoing clinical trials."
Neil Litman, the agency's director of business development, said CIRM has a "unique vantage point" because of its broad scope. He said the new program is "essentially a built-in concierge service for the stem cell space." Sphere: Related Content

Friday, April 06, 2018

Media Coverage of Stem Cell Therapy for Blindness Loses Sight of California's $36 Million in Support

Dennis Clegg of UC Santa Barbara, one of the leaders in developing a new stem cell treatment for AMD, speaks broadly about the approach in this 2016 video.

The news this week was good for the $3 billion California stem cell agency, which is facing its possible demise in less than two years.

The stories demonstrated what the CEO of the agency, Maria Millan, calls the "value proposition" of the agency's work for the people of California. But only if the agency is mentioned in the news coverage.

Public perceptions are no small matter for supporters of the research agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).  They wonder as does Millan: How does the agency get real and robust credit for its work, a likely life-or-death question given the agency's hopes to win voter approval of $5 billion more in funding in 2020?

CIRM says it is on track to run out of cash for new awards by the end of 2019 unless its ambitious fundraising plans are successful. And those are only a partial solution until billions more are provided by California citizens.

This week's "good news" stories generated national attention, albeit relatively modest, about CIRM-funded research that has led to to the first-in-human clinical trial for dry, age-related macular degeneration. The treatment uses technology that was described as "very exciting" by one researcher not connected with trial.

The headline on the New Scientist story on Wednesday said,
"Eye implant improves vision in people with age-related blindness"
Reporter Andy Coghlan wrote, 
"A patch implanted at the back of the eye has improved or stabilised sight in four people with severe age-related macular degeneration. The treatment enabled one 69-year-old woman to read 24 letters on a standard eye chart, when she could previously manage only seven.
"The patch is made of eye cells made from human embryonic stem cells, and it has been designed for treating the 'dry' form of macular degeneration, which accounts for 90 per cent of all cases, and affects 1.7 million people in the US."
Nowhere in the New Scientist story was it mentioned, however, that the state of California, through its stem cell agency, has pumped $36 million into the work. 

Likewise for the Los Angeles Times, whose story also did not mention the agency.  And likewise for articles on MIT ReviewMedicalXpress, HealthDay, WebMD, US News and World Report, Futurism and FierceBiotech. The list could go on, but you get the idea.

Even the press release from Regenerative Patch Technologies LLC of Portola Valley, Ca., which holds the exclusive license for the implant, buried the Golden State's contribution in the next-to-last paragraph of a nine-paragraph press release.   Plus the company failed to note that the funding was a not insignificant $36 million.

FierceBiotech did mention some private money that was involved in other AMD research, but ignored California's cash.

Readers not familiar with the traditions surrounding news stories about medical research might wonder why the California support received almost no attention. Generally speaking, the amount of cash and the funding source are all but ignored in such stories with some notable exceptions. How that has come about is not clear, but money talks in most circles. The scientist who has lost his or her appointment by failing to bring in sufficient grants can speak to that.

For the California stem cell agency, it is also likely to be a matter of survival. If it fails to receive the widespread public credit for what it believes is a strong and important body of work, it is likely to wither away in very short order. 
Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

$30 Million Cash Infusion for San Diego Firm, On Top of $20 Million from California Stem Cell Agency

A recent recipient of nearly $20 million from the California stem cell agency is on a financial roll this week as it pursues its efforts to translate what it says are "best-in-class gene therapy technologies into lifesaving cell therapies."

The firm is Poseida Therapeutics, Inc., of San Diego. Last October, it was awarded $19.8 million by the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the stem cell agency is formally known.

Poseida said yesterday it has hauled in $30.5 million more. The firm said in a news release that the cash will go to "advance a pipeline of autologous and allogeneic CAR-T immunotherapies, as well as gene therapies, using Poseida’s suite of gene engineering technologies."

The firm said its CIRM-backed "P-BCMA-101(product) is a CAR-T therapy currently in Phase 1 clinical development for relapsed/refractory multiple myeloma, with initial clinical data accepted for presentation at the upcoming AACR (American Association for Cancer Research) Annual Meeting." The firm is also tackling prostate cancer.

Jack Murtha of Health Care Analytics News wrote,
"It’s a good day for Poseida Therapeutics, one of the trailblazing precision medicine ventures that aims to transform cancer treatment through cutting-edge gene-editing technologies. But just how good of a day is it? Try $30.5 million good."
Murtha said the company has now raised more than $80 million for its endeavors, including the CIRM award, venture capital of $11.2 million last August and $23 million in 2015. The bulk of today's funding came from Longitude Capital of Menlo Park.

At the time of the CIRM award last fall, Maria Millan, president of CIRM, described the nature of the problem that Poseida was addressing, 
“Multiple myeloma disproportionately affects people over the age of 65 and African Americans, and it leads to progressive bone destruction, severe anemia, infectious complications and kidney and heart damage from abnormal proteins produced by the malignant plasma cells. Less than half of patients with multiple myeloma live beyond 5 years.”
Last fall, CIRM reviewers, meeting behind closed doors, unanimously approved, 10-0, Poseida Therapeutics application (CLIN2-10395), which included Poseida's commitment to provide $8.6 million in co-funding. The agency's governing board later ratified the decision with no discussion.

A public, CIRM-prepared summary of the reviewers' comments said, 
"Reviewers thought that the proposed product has the potential to provide a very high rate of durable response in myeloma patients. There is strong scientific and clinical rationale for targeting BCMA on myeloma cells. Reviewers thought that the proposed improvements to the CAR T cell platform technology are highly innovative and could enhance the efficacy and durability of the treatment. Reviewers unanimously recommended the application for funding."
Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Job Openings at California's Stem Cell Agency

The California stem cell agency, which is set to basically expire in less than two years, is looking for a few good folks to continue to help it out.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known, has posted openings for an associate director of marketing communications and interns in the communications and human resources areas.

The associate director's responsibilities include oversight of the agency's Web site plus additional task. The person will replace Karen Ring, who is leaving to join Weber Shandwick, a major public relations firm. Here is the job information for for the marketing position.

The internships are unpaid and part-time. Here are links to the CIRM information on those openings: Communications,which also includes Web work, and human resources.

Currently the Oakland-based agency has a little more than 50 employees. It predicts it will run out of cash for new awards by the end of 2019 unless ambitious private fund-raising plans are successful. Sphere: Related Content

Friday, March 30, 2018

New Tool for Wading Through California's $2.5 Billion in Stem Cell Spending

The $3 billion California stem cell agency this week added a valuable feature that is aimed at giving better access to information concerning its active research portfolio, which currently runs to more than 160 projects.

The feature is called the Active Awards Portfolio Dashboard. Its development was overseen by Karen Ring, the agency's social media honcho. Writing on the agency's blog, she said,
"This interactive tool makes it easy to search through the active research projects that we’re currently funding, and filter these projects by disease focus, technology type or stage of research."
The new dashboard is a companion to the clinical awards dashboard, also engineered by Ring. The agency's website contains vast quantities of information. The dashboards provide tools that help readers wade through it and ferret out what is most relevant to their individual needs.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine(CIRM), as the agency is formally known, has funded 969 projects costing nearly $2.5 billion during its 13-year history . It is slated to run out of cash in 2019 unless ambitious fundraising plans fulfill their promise.  Sphere: Related Content

Monday, March 26, 2018

Parkinson's Patient Advocate Pitches for More California Stem Cell Funding

Sometimes things move quickly at meetings of the governing board of the California stem cell agency, which is formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine(CIRM).  At the meeting this month, it ended before a patient advocate had a chance to make her voice heard.

She is Jenifer Raub, president of the Summit for Stem Cell Foundation of San Diego. She requested that this web site carry the comments she would have made to the board. We are delighted to provide them below.
“On behalf of Summit for Stem Cell Foundation we applaud the efforts of CIRM to move Stem Cell Research forward. We task you specifically with addressing and funding a stem cell-based cell therapy for Parkinson’s Disease  (PD) Research. There is tremendous enthusiasm within the PD community for an autologous iPSC-based therapy. Parkinson’s Advocates are a vocal group as you well know. Funding assistance from CIRM for an autologous iPSC-based therapy for PD would easily result in Parkinson’s Advocates gratefully voicing support for funding for CIRM on the 2020 ballot.”
The California Stem Cell Report welcomes comments and lengthier commentary from persons interested in the $3 billion stem cell agency. Please send them to Sphere: Related Content

Monday, March 19, 2018

Stem Cell Blog Taking Week Off

The California Stem Cell Report is going dark this week. Look for exciting and thrilling fresh postings next week. Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, March 15, 2018

California's Alpha Clinic Stem Cell Program Shares Stories and Results Next Month

Brain cancer is the target of this Alpha Clinic effort 
at the City of Hope, which produced this video.

Come April 19th the topic at UCLA will be "Delivery of Stem Cell Therapeutics to Patients" and will feature much of the work being done at the Alpha Clinics that have been generated by the California stem cell agency.

The day-long program is free and open to the public. Registration is required. The session features researchers from throughout the state, ranging from Mehrdad Abedi of UC Davis to Joseph Ciacci of UC San Diego.

Last year's Alpha symposium was held at the City of Hope and was greeted by a packed house.

The Alpha Clinics are located at UC Davis, UC San Francisco, the City of Hope, UC San Diego and UCLA/Irvine and have been financed by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine(CIRM), as the agency is formally known, at a cost of $50 million.

The clinics have engaged in 48 clinical trials, many of which draw funding from sources other than CIRM. The idea behind the Alpha program is to bring resources together to focus intensely on stem cell therapies and patient treatment.

The agency says the Alpha Clinics feature:
  • "Patient-centered clinical trials with the highest standards of care and research
  • "Strategic collaboration with academic and industry teams developing innovative stem cell therapies 
  • "Leveraging of resources to promote efficiency, acceleration and increased chances of success"
UC Davis and UC San Francisco were added to the list of Alpha Clinics last September
Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Potential Death of California Stem Cell Program Hangs Over Its Performance Evaluation

The looming demise of California's $3 billion stem cell research effort dominated today's meeting of its governing board, which was told both that the agency has made "incredible progress" but needed to do better.

The occasion was the presentation of a $230,000 performance audit required by state law, a task performed by the firm of Moss Adams, one of the largest accounting and consulting firms in the world.

The firm's 38-page report targeted fund-raising, retention of staff and better utilization of board members in its recommendations for improvement and called for a more concrete plan for raising more than $200 million. Excerpts from the report can be found here and an earlier story on the audit findings here.

In its oral presentation, Moss Adams representatives had a number of good things to say about the stem cell agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). They cited the agency's "incredible progress" and said "we usually see a lot of good things here."

It was the third go-around for Moss Adams, which has performed all three of the CIRM performance audits. (See this for links to the previous audits.) Today's presentation, however, focused more on the issues surrounding the agency's end within a few years, unless ambitious fundraising plans are successful.

The agency expects to run out of cash for new awards next year unless it is successful at raising $200 million from private contributors. That would take care of the agency's needs until a possible $5 billion bond measure might be approved by California voters in 2020.

One board member, Jeff Sheehy, also a member of the San Francisco board of supervisors, raised a number of critical questions, seeking more details about the fund-raising effort. He said there seemed to be a "lot of uncertainty" about it.

Jonathan Thomas, chairman of the agency, said a fund-raising plan is in place. He is leading the effort and being assisted by two other employees. He said some board members have been engaged and he plans to consult with all 29 board members.

David Higgins, a board member from San Diego, asked Thomas about a "double-edged sword" that could come into play because of a successful fund-raising effort. Higgins said the public might be more likely to oppose to a new bond measure if the $200 million is raised, reasoning that public funding was not needed in light of private support. Thomas said he did not think that was a major problem. Sphere: Related Content

The Good and the Not-So-Good: Excerpts From an Evaluation of the California Stem Cell Agency

The latest performance audit of California's $3 billion stem cell agency reports both pluses and minuses on the agency's work. Here are some excerpts from the $230,000 study, the third such audit of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).
"CIRM has a collaborative, engaged, and performance-oriented culture. Managers, Board members, and staff report improved morale and a more collaborative culture since CIRM 2.0 implementation. CIRM appointed a new president in 2014 and again in 2016. Turnover is often elevated during times of leadership transitions, as noted in 2014 and 2015. However, CIRM’s turnover rate dropped to 10 percent in 2016, suggesting stability in the organization’s leadership and culture."
"CIRM’s uncertain future funding results in employee concerns related to job security. These concerns can, in turn, translate into poor employee morale and reduced organizational productivity. Employees facing potential layoffs often experience elevated stress and anxiety that can become evident in their day-to-day interactions with colleagues and grantees. Because individual employee performance and team performance impact overall organizational performance, declining employee morale can negatively impact CIRM’s ability to efficiently and effectively achieve its mission."
"CIRM’s strategic plan emphasized that CIRM is patient-centered. As such, CIRM has increased its stakeholder engagement, particularly with patient advocates. The agency hosts patient events and trainings across the State of California and has at least 1,000 patient advocates registered. Additionally, CIRM’s Science Officers now proactively search for viable projects, helping engage researchers and increase the quality of proposed grants." 
"As CIRM’s Proposition 71 funding is exhausted, the role of the Communications Department should be elevated to serve a strategic function in educating the public. It is imperative that members of the public are aware of and understand CIRM’s activities and impact while CIRM remains fact-based and objective about its role as a state agency. To achieve this, CIRM should establish metrics focused on external communication and public awareness. Examples of these metrics include: Number of posts on social media accounts, number of press mentions, follower growth on social media accounts, number of 'likes' or 'shares' on social media accounts, growth in website visitors, citations of CIRM-funded research in publications These metrics provide insight on the organization’s communications output, reach, and engagement with audiences beyond patient advocates."
"With the implementation of CIRM 2.0, the organization improved many of its processes to be more efficient and effective. Examples of key process improvements include: ... Establishing “The Wall” by developing a policy clarifying the roles and responsibilities of CIRM employees within and outside the grant review process to ensure it remains fair and impartial.  Streamlined the review summary process by reducing the time to summarize grant applications from six weeks to approximately three weeks.  Reduced grant processing time by reducing the time required to process grants from 22 months to 120 days.  Incorporated milestone-based payments in contracts by shifting the responsibility for project progress to grantees and ultimately holding them responsible for achieving research objectives."
"The ICOC is a large, statewide governing board, with 29 members located across California. There are inherent challenges to this structure: Geography limits the ability of some members to participate in Agenda Item #8 ICOC Meeting March 13th, 2018 California Institute for Regenerative Medicine FY 2016-2017 Performance Audit  17 person and interface with CIRM staff; individuals on a large board may feel less personally responsible and therefore less inclined to participate; and it is difficult for officers and committee chairs to meaningfully build relationships with and identify the best roles for such a large number of members. This is evident in committee participation; while CIRM leverages ICOC expertise through standing and ad-hoc committees, which is a best practice, some members serve on multiple committees while others serve on none. In addition to these challenges, changes to CIRM’s conflict of interest policy in 2013 eliminated the ability of institutional members to participate in grant funding votes. This has limited their overall participation, and several ICOC members reported a reluctance to participate in discussions. Both ICOC members and CIRM staff reported a decline in the engagement of institutional members in all discussions, not just those related to grants."
"In its transition plan, CIRM leadership identified $200 million in additional required funding to continue operating at existing capacity between 2019 and the potential bond measure in 2020. This additional funding would enable the organization to maintain current annual grant awards and staffing levels. Currently, key board members are leading fundraising efforts, which have remained largely confidential. In order to secure this significant amount of funding, additional resources are likely required to demonstrate CIRM’s funding needs, seek donors of varying size and requirements, and provide overall support for fundraising efforts."
"Because the level of funding required to sustain CIRM’s operations is significant, CIRM should develop a formal fundraising plan to identify required resources, activities, and strategies. CIRM’s fundraising plan should identify additional resources and support within the organization required to help potential funders understand the benefit of their investment. For example, the role of the communications team could be expanded to develop fundraising materials that detail CIRM’s goals, plans, and successes as well as funding requirements."
"Transition plans and associated strategies should continue to be deployed as living documents that are continually updated and available to Board members, staff, and external stakeholders. Future iterations should also include organizational structure options during a potential wind-down process. For example, grant funds are currently expected to be exhausted by 2019; grant monitoring, management, clinical trials, and closeout will continue past that date; and intellectual property reporting will be required for 10 years. Eventually, some CIRM activities could be transferred to another state agency. As the transition proceeds, stakeholders and grantees should be made aware of staffing changes to help preserve continuity."

Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Performance Audit of California Stem Cell Agency: Improvements Needed in $200 Million Fund-Raising Program, Staff Retention and Use of Board Members

A performance audit of California's $3 billion stem cell agency says that more needs to be done to retain the agency's staff as well as exploiting the talents of  board members as the research effort nears what could be its demise.

"There is a significant potential for staff attrition as CIRM plans for a potential wind-down," the $230,000 study by Moss Adams declared. CIRM is the abbreviation for the agency's official name,nthe California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

The 38-page report also said that expertise of  the 29 board members "could be more effectively leveraged, especially since strong board engagement will be particularly important during organizational transition."

CIRM has estimated it will run out of cash for new awards in 2019 unless ambitious fund-raising plans are successful.  Its ultimate hope is that California voters will approve another multi-billion dollar bond measure in November 2020. To bridge the financial gap between 2019 and the end of 2020, the agency is seeking to raise more than $200 million.

Loss of employees has long been a concern of the agency as it confronts the expiration of the bond funding provided by the ballot initiative that created the program in 2004.

The performance audit said the agency should be "building on efforts to date, continue to regularly communicate transition plans to staff and consider strategies to retain employees, including implementing staff development programs, recognition and reward opportunities, work-life balance initiatives, and cross-functional initiatives."

Beyond its recommendations, the audit had praise for the agency. One example involved its "culture." The report said,
"CIRM has a collaborative, engaged, and performance-oriented culture. Managers, board members, and staff report improved morale and a more collaborative culture since CIRM 2.0 implementation. CIRM appointed a new president in 2014 and again in 2016. Turnover is often elevated during times of leadership transitions, as noted in 2014 and 2015. However, CIRM’s turnover rate dropped to 10 percent in 2016, suggesting stability in the organization’s leadership and culture."
Moss Adams, however, also said more can be done. It said the agency should "develop succession plans for the chair and vice chair, document knowledge of individuals serving in leadership roles, and continue to identify potential highly qualified prospective (board) members."

The audit recommended improvements in the agency's fund-raising efforts. It said the agency has not "formalized its ($200 million) fund development plan." The audit recommended creation of "a formal development plan that identifies roles and responsibilities and the timing of fundraising activities to meet CIRM’s programmatic and administrative funding needs."

Moss Adams additionally recommended improvements in measuring the performance of the agency's public relations program. It said,
"CIRM does not have metrics associated with the effectiveness of the agency’s communication and public education strategy. Recommendation: Develop communications and public education metrics that are integrated into CIRM’s quarterly reporting."
The study, which is required by state law, is the third conducted by Moss Adams. It will be discussed at Tuesday's meeting of the agency's board. The agenda for that meeting said the agency will have a response to the audit findings, but that document is not yet available on the CIRM web site.

The audit, which is required by state law, is the agency's third. Links and excerpts from items involving the previous two can be found here. 

Interested parties can participate in the meeting at 16 different locations throughout California. The  locations can be found on the agenda, but more specifics may be necessary for those who want to attend. They can be had by sending an email to Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

California Stem Cell Performance Audits and More: Public Has 16 Golden Opportunities to Weigh In

Californians throughout the state next week will have what appears to be a record number of opportunities to participate -- albeit remotely -- in one of the more important, regular public meetings involving the $3 billion state stem cell agency.

The occasion is the March 13 meeting of the governing board of what is known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine or CIRM. The meetings of the CIRM governing board are the single most important public events that the agency holds.

The board has 29 members. Fifteen of those members will be participating remotely in next week's session, which means that the public can participate as well from those locations in addition to the physical site of the meeting at CIRM HQ in Oakland. The remote locations range from Fresno to La Jolla  and from Riverside to Elk Grove.

And if you are in New York City, you can weigh in from there as well. One of the agency directors will be hooked up from the Big Apple.

During the meeting, the board solicits public comment on each item under consideration plus general comments as well.

The top item on the agenda is the triennial performance audit of the agency, which in the past has
Graphic by Shopify
reported checkered but improving results in the last two reports. Conflict of interest issues surfaced in the last audit(see below).  In 2012, the audit, required by state law, identified 27 areas where improvements were needed.

The actual audit for this year has not yet been posted on the CIRM web site but is likely to pop up any day now.  The audit, which is required by state law, cost the agency $230,000, bringing to $694,944 the total that the agency has spent on its three performance audits.

If you are interested in attending at the remote locations, check the addresses in advance. Sometimes not enough specificity is provided. But an email to will provide full directions.

Here is a link to the 2017 CIRM request for a proposal to conduct the performance audit.

Below are excerpts and links to previous items on the two earlier performance reports. At the end is a comparison of performance audit findings to results from other studies of the agency.

SUNDAY, MAY 17, 2015

Conflict-of-Interest Failings Reported in Application Reviews at California Stem Cell Agency

Conflict-of-interest issues have dogged the $3 billion California stem cell agency since its inception, and they are surfacing once again this week in a report commissioned by the agency itself.

This time the matter is being brought up by Moss-Adams, LLP, of Seattle, a business consulting firm that is being paid $230,000 by the agency to conduct a "performance audit."

In a report to be discussed at a CIRM governing board meeting on Thursday, the firm said it discovered serious problems dealing with the reporting of the interests of the agency's blue-ribbon reviewers.

TUESDAY, MAY 19, 2015

California Stem Cell Audit: Praise for Mills but More Work Needed on IP, Conflicts of Interest

The California stem cell agency this week received good marks for changes made by its new president, but it is also being told that it needs to improve how it tracks potential royalties and how it prevents grant reviewer conflicts of interest.

SUNDAY, MAY 17, 2015

Conflict-of-Interest Failings Reported in Application Reviews at California Stem Cell Agency

Conflict-of-interest issues have dogged the $3 billion California stem cell agency since its inception, and they are surfacing once again this week in a report commissioned by the agency itself.

This time the matter is being brought up by Moss-Adams, LLP, of Seattle, a business consulting firm that is being paid $230,000 by the agency to conduct a "performance audit."

In a report to be discussed at a CIRM governing board meeting on Thursday, the firm said it discovered serious problems dealing with the reporting of the interests of the agency's blue-ribbon reviewers.

THURSDAY, MAY 24, 2012

CIRM Directors Pleased with Performance Audit Findings

The $3 billion California stem cell agency received a "very favorable" performance audit report compared to other government agencies, CIRM directors were told today.

Representatives of Moss Adams, which was paid $234,944 by CIRM for the study, made the comments during a presentation today to the agency's 29 directors. During their comments, CIRM executives and directors focused on the favorable aspects of the findings of the six-month study.

TUESDAY, MAY 15, 2012

IP to Grant Oversight: Study Calls for Host of Improvements at California Stem Cell Agency

The $3 billion California stem cell agency is laboring under a range of problems that include protection of its intellectual property and management of its nearly 500 grants plus an inadequate ability to track its own performance, a seven-month study said yesterday.

The performance audit by the Moss Adams accounting firm of Seattle, Wash., made 27 recommendations for improvements, including more effort to ease strain connected to the agency's controversial dual executive arrangement. The study said that the nearly eight-year-old agency has many "opportunities" to "enhance performance reporting and decision making, strengthen effectiveness and efficiency, retain essential human resources and leverage technology."

In response to the report, the stem cell agency said, "(M)anagement concurs with the findings and recommendations....The recommendations are focused and constructive. CIRM is already implementing many of these recommendations, and we will be investigating the others in the coming months."
Here is a link to the California state controller's comparison of the findings of the 2012 performance audit to previous findings from a number of enterprises ranging from the National Academy of Sciences to the state's Little Hoover Commission. 
Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Aussie Bioethics Web Site Negative on California Stem Cell Royalties

The California stem cell agency and its royalty news drew attention today from down under in an article that did not exactly view the research effort with warm regards.

The piece appeared on the bioethics blog called Bioedge and was written by Michael Cook, who publishes the web site. He picked up on American news about the royalty matter, largely from the California Stem Cell Report, but also from the $3 billion agency itself.

Cook described the critics as scathing. He concluded,
"During the campaign for Proposition 71, supporters strongly argued that destructive research on human embryos was absolutely necessary for the science to proceed and that cures would certainly come. Almost 14 years later, there have been no cures. The royalty cheque was for a potential therapy for glioblastoma, a deadly brain tumour – but even this not on the market yet. Thus far, it has only passed Stage I clinical trials and been written up in glowing terms in O, The Oprah Magazine."

Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Full Text of Comments Summarized in Sacramento Bee Royalty Article

Below is the full text of the California stem cell agency response to questions from the California Stem Cell Report in connection with today's article in The Sacramento Bee concerning stem cell agency royalties. The full text of comments from Marcy Darnovsky and Bernard Munos were carried earlier in this piece on the California Stem Cell Report. The quote from Jean Loring of Scripps is verbatim from a comment she made on this item on the California Stem Cell Report. 

Comments from Maria Millan, CIRM CEO
"We view this initial payment as a 'mile marker' and not the destination. It is a good sign that we are going the right direction to a worthwhile destination - treatment and cures for patients with unmet medical needs. The royalty payment is only a piece of the intended return to California. The true return is in treatments & cures and the alleviation of human suffering and the mitigation of the financial burden of the multitude of diseases that CIRM is targeting."

Are there any other royalty possibilities in the pipeline for the next 12 months?
"Once there has been a cheque it means the grantee licensor has exceeded the $500,000 exemption so any subsequent payments to them trigger additional payments to the state. As regards future payments we have already identified another potential payee and are working with the grantee on the calculations involved in determining payment."

What time period does that royalty cover? In other words how long has the licensing been in effect, if that is the proper way to look at it?  
"For this particular payment from City of Hope this covers 4 license agreements over the last 2 years."

Is there anything else that CIRM wants to add to shed more light on this subject? 
"It wasn’t anticipated that revenue sharing would repay the $3b given to us to fund stem cell research in California. The only way that would have been possible is to demand such a high return from any funding we offered that very few companies would be willing to take the money. It would have completely undermined our mission of accelerating stem cell therapies to patients with unmet medical needs. It's also worth noting that an independent Economic Impact Report prepared in 2008 predicted that these kinds of payments would take many years to appear, even saying: “For example, tax receipts were modeled to commence shortly after funding under the proposition began, while improvements in health were modeled as becoming possible in as few as five or as many as 15 years, and receipts from intellectual property only beginning in the latter half of year 14. So, we are on track for where experts predicted we would be." Sphere: Related Content

Sacramento Bee, Royalties and California Stem Cell Payoff

The Sacramento Bee this morning carried an article by this writer on the California stem cell agency and its first $190,345.87, royalty check. The article is aimed at a more general audience including policy makers in the state Capitol. Here is a link to the piece, which carries this headline on The Bee web site:
 "Will California's $3 billion in stem cell spending pay off? First royalty check arrives"
The full text of comments summarized in the piece will be carried later today on the California Stem Cell Report.  Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

California Politics, Stem Cells and Campaign Endorsements

A relatively obscure stem cell scientist last week one-upped -- sort of -- one of the more powerful lawmakers in the United States Senate.

It was not a direct, head-to-head contest -- just sort of a rough comparison involving Democratic politics in California.

The two individuals involved are Hans Keirstead, who is touting his involvement in the creation of the $3 billion California stem cell agency,  and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has served in the Senate for 26 years.

Despite her long track record, last week she did not receive the endorsement of the California state
Democratic Party for re-election, apparently because she was not right type of liberal for the activists who dominate the party. The party, indeed, did not endorse any Democrat in Feinstein's re-election contest.

At its convention this past weekend, however, the party did endorse Keirstead in a Southern California congressional race.  He is running to replace Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who was once described oddly by a fellow Republican as "Putin's favorite congressman." 

Keirstead campaigning earlier this month.
Photo by Andrea Adelson, LB Indy
In political terms, Keirstead is indeed obscure, having never run for office before. However, he has achieved some recognition within the stem cell world, but most of that population does not vote in his district.

Keirstead, who did much of his research at UC Irvine, is trumpeting his stem cell work as part of his campaign. Here is a sample from a campaign web page:
"Hans served as a lead scientific advisor for the California Stem Cell Initiative which established a $3 billion stem cell research fund to support medical innovation in California."
The two candidates who receive the most votes in the June primary election will face off in November, whether they are Democrats or Republican. Keirstead has seven likely Democratic candidates facing him, according to one report. However, the filing deadline to run is March 9.

Rohrabacher is widely regarded as vulnerable and Democrats nationally are hoping to remove him from office in November.

Feinstein is way ahead in the polls in her separate race and vastly better financed than her opposition. The Democratic Party's lack of endorsement gained considerable attention in the mainstream media, but her backers said it provided little tangible benefit for her Democratic opponents. Sphere: Related Content

Friday, February 23, 2018

California's Stem Cell Agency Hits 45 Clinical Trials

Directors of the $3 billion California stem cell agency yesterday added another clinical trial to its portfolio, bringing to 45 the number of its forays into the late stage research that is the most likely to produce a therapy sooner rather than later.

The decision on the $5.7 million award carries more weight in terms of the viability of the agency than might ordinarily be assumed. The agency's cash is running out. It is facing its demise in less than two years unless prodigious funding raising efforts are successful.

One of those efforts involves asking California voters in the fall of 2020 for $5 billion more in bond funding. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine or CIRM, as the agency is formally known, would dearly love to point to a therapy or cure that would resonate with voters.

Thursday's award went to Joseph Rosenthal, director of pediatric hematology and oncology at the City of Hope and lead investigator on the trial. He told the agency,
"CIRM funding will allow us to conduct a Phase 1 trial in six adult patients with severe SCD (sickle cell disease). We believe this treatment will improve the quality of life of patients while also reducing the risk of graft-versus-host disease and transplant-related complications. Our hope is that this treatment can be eventually offered to SCD patients as a curative therapy.”
CIRM directors also approved a $4 million award to Fate Therapeutics, Inc., of San Diego, a publicly traded firm that is developing a "natural killer" cell cancer immunotherapy derived from induced pluripotent stem cells.

CIRM said that the goal is to treat many patients in an "off-the-shelf manner." The firm hopes to launch a clinical trial in 2019. Fate's stock closed at $10.58 today, down one cent. Its 52-week low is $2.52 and its 52-week high $11.70.

Here is a link to CIRM's press release on the awards. Here is a link to the CIRM blog item on the matter. Here is a link to the Fate Therapeutics press release which the company posted this morning.
Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

'Less Than a Drop in the Bucket' -- Dueling Perspectives on California's First Stem Cell Royalty Check

California is counting its first royalties from a 13-year-old effort to develop stem cell cures and has declared that it hopes that the check will be the first in a flood of payments.

Others, however, warn of the dangers of over-excitement about the $190,345.87 payment from the City of Hope, saying that it is "less than a drop in the bucket" compared to the cost of the $3 billion California Institute for Regenerative Medicine or CIRM, as the state stem cell agency is formally known.

Here is a longer look at the two perspectives in the wake of Monday's royalty report.

John McCain, Washington Times photo
 The royalties were generated from a $5.2 million award in 2012 to the City of Hope for research involving a potential therapy for glioblastoma, one of the deadliest forms of brain cancer and the type afflicting U.S. Sen. John McCain. 

"A little piece of history" is how Kevin McCormack, senior director for communications for the  stem cell agency, described the royalty in an email. He also wrote on the agency's blog,
"It’s the first of what we hope will be many such checks, helping repay, not just the investment the state made in the field, but also the trust the voters of California showed when they created CIRM."
McCormack continued,
"Maria Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO, says the amount of the payment is not the most significant part of this milestone – after all CIRM has invested more than $2.5 billion in stem cell research since 2004. She says the fact that we are starting to see a return on the investment is important and reflects some of the many benefits CIRM brings to the state."
Asked for comment on the payment, John M. Simpson of Consumer Watchdog in Santa Monica, Ca., who was deeply involved in the development of the agency's initial intellectual property rules, said,
“Once again it’s clear that Proposition 71 (the ballot initiative that created the agency) was oversold by its sponsors. Despite campaign hype, it’s only now that we are seeing the first royalty payment and a rather modest one at that."
Bernard Munos
Bernard Munos, a senior fellow at FasterCures. a think tank aimed at speeding medical research, elaborated at more length in his response to a query by the California Stem Cell Report. He said,
"The $200,000 check from City of Hope should be acknowledged, but it only represents 0.02% of the $1.1 billion in royalties that were promised to California taxpayers -- and does not even cover the annual salary of CIRM’s part-time vice chairman.

"It is also unclear how the licensing (by the City of Hope) of a discovery to a New York-based company, Mustang Bio, Inc., will generate jobs and investment in California, as proponents of CIRM originally promised voters. 
"The world has changed since 2003 when George W. Bush severely restricted government-funded research on embryonic stem cells. The Obama administration lifted those restrictions, and regenerative medicine has diversified into many lines of research that have taken the field well beyond the embryonic vs. adult stem cell debate of the early days, which gave CIRM its initial impetus. Looking ahead, it is unclear whether CIRM still has a role to play. 
"Regenerative medicine offers enormous promises, and Californians may indeed want to leverage that opportunity by supplementing federal funding with their own. We have proposed a way to do this, as an alternative to developing plans to extend CIRM with another $5 billion in California bonds, to be paid out of the state’s general fund. 
"Whenever a multi-billion dollar fund is created, it tends to attract all kinds of people who want a piece of it. Unless strong governance is in place with clear rules on how the money must be disbursed, some of it is likely to fund projects that don't get the scrutiny they should, or even lie outside the organization's remit. Inadequate governance has been a problem at CIRM, as documented by reports from the Institute of Medicine -- now the National Academy of Medicine -- and others. Before consenting to an extension of CIRM's mandate, Californians should look at the returns they have gotten, and are likely to get (or not) from CIRM's past investments, and should demand an independent assessment of whether these investments are consistent with what they were promised and with CIRM's mission."
Marcy Darnovsky, FIXED photo
Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, in Berkeley, Ca., said in her email,
"Many Californians voted to establish CIRM because they believed the promises that its backers were making: that we'd soon see revolutionary medical breakthroughs, that our state would get back a billion dollars or more in royalties, that the agency would be run by an 'independent' board. Almost a decade and a half later, none of that has come to pass. 
"The rules and regulations about royalty returns to California are confusing and unclear, and need to be made far more transparent. But it's hard not to ask whether this first royalty payment is anything other than theater, meant to assuage and allure voters now that CIRM is talking about another ballot measure for $5 billion more from the public purse.

"The royalty check from City of Hope is less than a drop in the bucket. It's almost as if you loaned someone $3000 (at your own expense) because they promised to do some good work and pay you back $1000. Years later, they haven’t finished the work but they are offering you twenty cents instead of $1000, and asking for thousands more."
The debate over what Millan has called the "value proposition" of the agency's work is likely to intensify over the next two years. CIRM expects to run out of cash within that period and is pinning its hopes for survival on a proposed $5 billion ballot initiative on the November 2020 ballot -- a campaign that should excite some considerable interest if it is not heavily overshadowed by the presidential election that year. Sphere: Related Content

Monday, February 12, 2018

Counting the Stem Cell Beans: Inside California's First Stem Cell Royalty Check

Readers who really want to dig into the numbers involving the first royalty check generated by  research funded by the $3 billion California stem cell agency have a special treat.

Below is a look at how the royalty payment by the City of Hope was calculated. The royalties grew out of an arrangement with Mustang Bio, Inc. of New York City.

 First Royalty Payment Generated by California  State Stem Cell Agency by DavidJensen on Scribd Sphere: Related Content

After 13 years, California Receives Its First Stem Cell Royalty Check

California's $3 billion stem cell agency this morning reported the first royalty check resulting from its 13-year-old research program -- a payment of nearly $200,000 from the City of Hope.

The money, however, did not go to the agency, which is scheduled to run out of cash by 2020. It went to the state's general fund and can be used for anything from smog prevention to patching up the state's freeways. 

The royalties resulted from a $5.2 million grant in 2012 to Stephen Forman at the City of Hope in the Los Angeles area. The research, now overseen by Christine Brown, involved the use of genetically modified CAR-T cells to improve cure rates of patients with "high-grade" malignant glioma, an aggressive type of brain cancer.

In an email today, Kevin McCormack, senior director of communications for the agency, described the $190,345.87 royalty check as a "little bit of history."

It was a "bit of history" that goes back to the ballot initiative campaign of 2004 that created the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine or CIRM as the agency is formally known.  Backers of the measure created what some say were unrealistic expectations that the agency would generate $1.1 billion in royalties. 

The royalty payment resulted from an agreement by the City of Hope to license the technology to Mustang, Bio, Inc., of New York City. It is a subsidiary of Fortress Biotech, Inc. Both are publicly traded firms.

The San Francisco Chronicle first reported the size of the payment, although the fact that a royalty check was coming was disclosed last summer. Joaquin Palomino wrote in the Chronicle this morning, 
"'This is an initial payment for the recognition of the potential of this therapy,' Brown said. 'If it’s ultimately approved by the FDA as a commercial product, this could be a continued revenue source' for California."
The Chronicle article also said, 
"'In order to prove that it was a good investment for California taxpayers, we are going to need to see returns in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, not in the hundreds of thousands,' said Bernard Munos, a senior fellow at the medical think tank FasterCures and a close observer of CIRM. 'It’s too early to claim victory, or to claim this was a great deal for the taxpayers of California."
Here is a link to CIRM's blog item on the payment. Below is a letter from the City of Hope to CIRM about how the royalty payment was calculated.
Sphere: Related Content

California Stem Cell CEO Millan on What's Missing in CIRM News Coverage

California's $3 billion stem cell research program suffers from the same sort of problem that arises at other state departments, ranging from Fish and Wildlife to Pesticide Regulation.

They are all struggling to gain the public's attention, tell their story and create support for their activities. The big difference is that Fish and Game and Pesticide Regulation are not likely to go out of business in two years. The stem cell agency, however, could well be on its way to closing its doors by then because it is running out of cash.

The California Stem Cell Report recently talked with Maria Millan, CEO and president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known. One of the topics was news coverage and how the agency is perceived, especially considering that voters may be asked to give the agency another $5 billion.

Millan was asked: What is the most "uncovered" story about CIRM, what is the "least written about?" Here is how she responded,
"I don't think people really have an understanding for what the value proposition of CIRM is as an agency. They know we're a funding agency, and I think it's best recognized for money."
Millan said that a lot of news coverage involves such things as "are you spending that money well, do you have enough oversight, do you have enough things in place to make sure that that's being done responsibly? There's a lot of focus on that."
"I think we've solved a lot of those issues and have things in place to catch issues and deal with them as they come up.... Part of it is that some of these assets didn't exist before and now we have them, and part of it is that the field has matured, and we've been positioned well to drive it."
Millan said that CIRM is "the model" for stem cell research and its funding. She said, 
"It's well-recognized that we do this very, very well. The NIH (National Institutes of Health) recognizes that we've been able in the space of stem cell regenerative medicine to do this extremely well. We have a portfolio in terms of development and our way of doing things that's unparalleled. 
"They recognize that. We're working with them to generalize this and it'll just be a two-way street in terms of benefiting for both sides of relationships."
Millan also talked about the value that her agency brings to the state, enhancing its position globally in biomedical research. She said,
"My goal is to make sure that we're responsibly sharing the knowledge, bringing things forward, because it's going to benefit California. I know that we want to make sure that we're responsible for optimizing our funds that they really support California directly, but there are a lot of things that can happen outside that will feed into us if we enable them."
Significant coverage in the mainstream media of the activities of the agency, created by voters in 2004, is rare nowadays. However, CIRM recently received some widespread attention within the state and nationally as the result of a lengthy assessment of its efforts on NPR and KQED's web sites.

The November 2020 ballot, which will include a presidential election, is the target date for the proposed $5 billion bond measure to keep CIRM alive.  Look for more intense coverage of the agency as that date nears.

(Look for more on the California Stem Cell Report on our conversation with Millan in the coming weeks.) Sphere: Related Content