California Stem Cell Report
OCTOBER 10, 2018

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Dollars Dribbling Away: California Stem Cell Scientists Appeal for More Research Cash

When the cash spigot starts to dry up, the appeals stack up.

Such is the case this week at the now $144 million California stem cell agency, which has been mostly referred to as a $3 billion enterprise. But the cash is dribbling away quickly. And the agency is sticking to its budget in a way that did not happen eight years ago.

The latest evidence comes on the agenda for Thursday's meeting of directors of the agency, known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine or CIRM. The agenda contains 10 letters appealing to the directors to approve awards for various research projects.

These are projects that have been recommended for funding by the agency's scientific reviewers. However, the reviewers did not have the constraints of meeting the agency's budget for this round of awards.

Only $865,282 is available under the agency's budget. The applications in question total close to $7 million.

So letters appealing for the cash have been directed to the agency's board.
Here are a couple of samples from the letters.

This one is from Philip Beachy of Stanford University, whose application (DISC2-11105), Beachy wrote, was scored at 90 out of 100 by reviewers. He is seeking $1.4 million for work related to bladder cancer.

"In July we were surprised to learn that our application was not selected for funding, whereas four proposals ranked below ours were funded. We have subsequently learned that an important component of the funding decision made by the ICOC (the CIRM board) is comments from scientists and patient advocates. We wish to have the opportunity to present our comments at the October 11 ICOC meeting, at which our proposal will be considered. Four scientists involved in this proposal will be attending the meeting, including myself (Philip Beachy, Ph.D.), Kyle Loh, Ph.D., Lay Teng Ang, Ph.D., and Joe Liao M.D., Ph.D.)."

They also enlisted assistance from a patient advocate, Don Reed of Fremont, who is a regular at CIRM board meetings. He wrote,
"Is there a path to defeating the cancer and restoring the bladder’s natural function? Today I had lunch with two people, Drs. Lay Teng Ang and Kyle Loh, who (along with Drs. Philip Beachy and Joe Liao) may have the answer to this particular cancer. Their goal is to use embryonic stem cells to grow a healthy new lining of the bladder....But they need a grant from the California stem cell agency to do it."

Here is an excerpt from another letter. This one was written by Robert Rainey, the primary research associate involved in an application (DISC2-11183) that seeks $833,282 to create a screen to protect against hearing loss caused by chemotherapy. The proposal by Neil Segil, co-director of the USC Hearing and Communications Neuroscience Training Program, received a score of 87 from reviewers.

Rainey, who is profoundly deaf, wrote,
"In the entire history of CIRM, only three hearing loss-related grants have been awarded. This is not an oversight of CIRM, but rather a reflection of the paucity of experimental approaches for studying problems related to hearing loss in humans. Our approach can now overcome these problems, and the work described in this proposal will allow us to simultaneously improve the efficiency of our direct-reprogramming technique from human iPSCs, while allowing us to immediately begin pilot testing small libraries of FDA-approved drugs for hair cell-protective qualities during cancer treatment."
(Rainey's letter is in the same file as Segil's.)

Segil wrote,
"Talk about adding insult to injury! Imagine that you are the parent of a 4 year old child who has just been diagnosed with a deadly pediatric cancer. You are told that, in spite of this horrible diagnosis, a cure is possible, with a good chance of success. However, the cure has an extremely common side-effect, namely that your child will likely go deaf as a result of the chemotherapy. In fact, more than 60% of kids treated for pediatric cancer end up profoundly deaf."
Neither Segil's or Beachy's applications will be funded if the board sticks with its budget and abides by staff recommendations, which it has usually done in recent years.

You can find on the meeting agenda all the appeal letters, summaries of the application reviews and CIRM's rationale for the last award in this round. The transcript from the July board meeting also carries considerable discussion related to the financial pressures generated in this round along with how the initial decisions were made.