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Texas Science Flap Cited as California Stem Cell Agency Eyes its Own Processes

Posted: October 28, 2012 at 7:46 am

OAKLAND, Ca. – Meeting against a
backdrop from Texas that involves conflicts of interest and mass
resignations of grant reviewers, a task force of the $3 billion
California stem cell agency today began a partial examination of its
own grant approval process, specifically focusing on appeals by
rejected applicants.

The president of the California
organization, Alan Trounson, told the task force that it was dealing
with a “very serious matter” that in some ways is similar to what
happened in Texas. He said the science community is “very much
The situation in Texas involves the
five-year-old Cancer Prevention and Research Institute, which like
the California stem cell agency, formally known as the California
Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM)
, has $3 billion of borrowed
money to use to finance research.
The chief scientific officer of the
Texas organization, Nobel laureate Alfred Gilman, resigned Oct. 12
during a flap about its attempts “to simultaneously support basic
research and nurture companies.”
Gilman's departure was triggered by a
$20 million award made without scientific review. Reviewer
resignations followed with letters that accused the Texas group of
“hucksterism” and dishonoring the peer review process. (Writer Monya Baker has a good overview today in Nature.)
The situation in Texas came to a head
AFTER the governing board of the California research group created
its task force. The problems in Texas are bigger and not identical to
those in California, which mainly involve the free-wheeling nature of the appeal process, not an entire lack of scientific review.
Nonetheless, this past summer, directors of the California agency for
the first time approved an award that was rejected twice by
reviewers. The award went to StemCells, Inc., of Newark, Ca., which
now has won $40 million, ranking the company No. 1 in
awards to business from CIRM.
Earlier this month, Los Angeles Times
business columnist Michael Hiltzik characterized the StemCells, Inc.,
award as “redolent of cronyism.”
Today's session of the CIRM task force
focused primarily on an aspect of the agency's appeals process that
CIRM labels as “extraordinary petitions.” They are letters which
rejected applicants use to challenge decisions by grant reviewers.
The researchers follow up with public appearances before the
governing board, often trailing squads of patients making emotional
Both researchers and patients have a
right under state law to appear before the CIRM board to discuss any
matter. CIRM, however, is trying to come up with changes in the
appeal process that will make it clear to researchers on what the
grounds the board might overturn reviewers' decisions. The agency is
also defining those grounds narrowly and aiming at eliminating
appeals based on differences in scientific opinion.
At today's meeting, CIRM Director Jeff
, a patient advocate and co-vice chair of the grants review
group, said peer review is an “extraordinary way of analyzing
science, but it is not always perfect.” However, he also said that
“as a board we are not respecting input” from scientists and thus
allow the perception that we can be “persuaded against the judgment
of scientists.”
CIRM Director Oswald Steward, director
of the Reeve-Irvine Research Center at UC Irvine, agreed with a
suggestion by Sheehy that board must act with “discipline” when
faced with appeals by rejected applicants. Steward said, 

process has gotten a little out of hand.”

It was a sentiment that drew no dissent
at today's 90-minute meeting.
Missing from today's meeting, which had
teleconference locations in San Francisco, Irvine, La Jolla and Palo
Alto, were any of the hundreds of California scientists whose
livelihoods are likely to be affected by changes in the grant
approval process. Also absent were California biotech businesses,
along with the only representative on the task force from CIRM's
scientific reviewers.
Our comment? When researchers and
businesses that have millions at stake fail to show up for key
sessions that set the terms on how they can get the money, it is a
sad commentary on their professional and business acumen.
Bert Lubin, a CIRM director and
chairman of the task force, indicated he would like to have two more
meetings of the task force prior to making recommendations to a full
board workshop in January with possible final action later that
month. Lubin, CEO of Children's Hospital in Oakland, said the matter
is “really important for the credibility of our whole


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