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Around the Regions: Jun 19, 2009


CIRM Governing Board OKs $40.6M in Research Training Program Grants

The governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, using part of the $275 million in funding it secured through a state bond sale in April, voted on Thursday to approve 15 Research Training Program II grants totaling $40.6 million over three years for graduate students, postdoctoral scholars and clinical fellows working in stem cell research labs statewide.

The 29-member Independent Citizens Oversight Commission approved the grants in a 6-0 vote; all other members recused themselves, citing conflicts of interest, according to the California Stem Cell Report. The vote came five months after the ICOC approved, but held off funding, for the grants because of the Golden State’s first budget crisis this year, resolved in February. Soon after, CIRM secured $275 million through the state bond sale — enough, the agency has said, to shore up its finances through late 2010.

The 15 grants comprise the second round of grants awarded under the Research Training Program; the first round consisted of 16 grants, all awarded in 2006, and all set to expire later this year. The 16 Early Translational grants, valued at a total $71.5 million, will go to two for-profit and 14 not-for-profit institutions.

The board also voted to approve funding for a 16th Early Translational grant that would create disease model mice for use by researchers studying stem cell-based therapies. The other 15 were approved and funded in April, following the recommendation of the Scientific and Medical Research Funding Working Group. These grants are intended to either lead to a drug candidate for an unmet medical need or address bottlenecks in the development of new therapies.

Other ICOC business:

New budget: The ICOC board voted to approve the 2009-10 budget, which was 3 percent under the budget proposed for 2008-2009, despite a significant increase in the agency’s scientific staffing levels. “As with previous years, this budget is considerably under CIRM's required cap at six percent of research costs, which is already well below the national average for a funding agency,” ICOC Chair Robert Klein said in a statement.

Biologics: The ICOC board requested that CIRM staff respond to a report by the US Federal Trade Commission addressing an accelerated regulatory pathway for new therapeutics that are biologically similar to previously approved products. That report argued that a long period of exclusivity, as mandated under a bill put forward by California Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto), was not necessary to encourage innovation.

The ICOC previously voted to support the Eshoo bill, reasoning that the exclusivity would reward innovation and encourage small companies to develop new products. Board members expressed concerns that the FTC report did not take into account the reality of innovation within stem cell research, CIRM reported in a recap of the ICOC’s June meeting, held June 17-18 in San Diego.

Ontario's Provincial Government Sets Aside $83M for Researchers, Research Projects

The government of Ontario will spend C$94 million ($83 million) to support 31 research projects and more than 300 researchers in seven communities across the Canadian province, Premier Dalton McGuinty announced on Monday.

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McGuinty said more than half of the $94 million will support medical research, and that researchers at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute will receive C$18.5 million to develop new treatments for cancer designed to spare patients the effects of chemotherapy.

Ontario said its life sciences sector employs 43,000 people at more than 800 companies, generating annual revenues of more than C$14 billion, making the province the largest hub of biomedical activity in Canada.

The announcement comes shortly after the economic development agency for the city of London, the London Economic Development Corp. named Bart Sullivan its new director of life sciences. Sullivan was previously employed at 3M Canada, where he worked in the life sciences sector and in mergers and acquisitions.

"We are at an amazing time in the life sciences area. There is so much happening now," Sullivan told the London (Ont.) Free Press.

But London's life-sci sector will need to do more to assist businesses if it is to grow in the future, Peter Riehl, chief executive of Stellar Pharmaceuticals in London, told the newspaper: "It is very basic — it is not a big or elaborate thing. The need is for hands-on help and advice.

"I do not know how you break down the silos to allow different sectors to work together better," Riehl told the Free Press. "If you have a problem, you can't really pick up the phone and ask anyone here and that is very important to small business."

With $2.5M Grant, NC Nanobiotech Center to Commercialize Research from State Universities

[By Ben Butkus, editor of BRN sister newsletter Biotech Transfer Week]

The state-funded North Carolina Biotechnology Center has approved a four-year, $2.5 million grant for its Center of Innovation in Nanobiotechnology, with the goal of helping commercialize nanobiotech research from the state's universities.

The center, also known as COIN, is one of four Centers of Innovation created by the biotechnology center since last year with a $100,000 planning grant from the NCBC, and the second to receive a Phase II award meant to help COIN establish itself as an independent, self-sustaining entity.

The $2.5 million will be paid as specific undisclosed business milestones are reached, NCBC added.

Chris Brodie, a spokesman for the biotech center, told Biotech Transfer Week this week that COIN is meant to act as a "giant commercialization facilitator" for cutting-edge nanobiotech research at North Carolina universities.

"Rather than let [technology] sit on the shelf [at universities], COIN will find someone that can use the technology," Brodie said. "The technology might not be the kind of thing that is ready to form a company around or to attract a licensing partner immediately," he added, so the center will look into ways to further advance the technology or bundle it with other IP from schools and companies statewide.

"Once the center is up and running, it will have people who understand tech transfer, are able to communicate with scientists [at universities], in industry, and with startup companies to discuss ways to commercialize research," he added. "A lot of the success is going to come down to the individuals we bring in there."

COIN has thus far primarily partnered with North Carolina A&T State University, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and Wake Forest University.

"This is the first major grant developed jointly by these three research universities," Gwyn Riddick, director of the NCBC's Piedmont Triad Office, said in a statement. "In developing nanobiotechnology, we aim to create a strong, region-specific science brand for the Piedmont Triad and the state."

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Eventually, COIN will seek to cull nanobiotech research from universities state-wide, public and private, Brodie said. In particular, the center will immediately begin to seek commercialization routes for nanobiotech research from Duke University, NC State University, UNC-Chapel Hill, and UNC-Charlotte.

COIN was expected to receive the Phase II grant this summer after having hired as executive director Brooks Adams, a Richmond, Va.-based professional with 14 years of life-science industry experience [BRN, March 9].

In March, NCBC approved a similar Phase II $2.5 million grant for the Center of Innovation in Advanced Medical Technologies. The other two Centers of Innovation – in drug discovery and marine biotechnology – are currently in the planning phase under a $100,000 Phase I NCBC grant.

Between 2008 and 2012, the NCBC plans to work with university researchers, tech-transfer offices, industrial partners, non-profits, and regional and statewide community leaders to establish nine total Centers of Innovation, NCBC said.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat Commits City, Partners to $25M, Five-Year Life-Sci Effort

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said the city and the Jerusalem Development Authority — which he co-oversees with Israel's ministers of finance and Jerusalem Affairs — intends to raise and spend about 100 million shekels ($25 million) over the next five years to promote the city's life sciences and health business cluster.

The funds will be allocated to bolstering infrastructure for biomedical research and development; training personnel; establishing an investment fund to focus on life science companies based in Jerusalem; and promoting and populating the first Israeli biomedical industry park within the campus of Hadassah medical center and the Hebrew University School of Medicine.

Hebrew University accounts for about 43 percent of all biotech research conducted in Israel, while Hadassah Medical Center is responsible for about half of Israel's total clinical research, Barkat said in an announcement.

The efforts announced by Barkat will be in addition to the BioJerusalem project, designed to advance economic growth in Israel's seat of government by promoting its life sciences industry.

Jerusalem is home to 110 life sciences companies that employ more than 3,250 people. Since 2006, the city has seen a 20 percent growth in the number of life-sci companies, and a 34 percent jump in its biomed workforce, Shirley Kutner, BioJerusalem's executive director, said in the statement.

"The investment on behalf of biomed companies is expected to top $350 million over the next five years. This growth will be accompanied by an addition of some 2,000 employees with academic degrees in biology, biotechnology, chemistry, pharmacy, and engineering," Kutner added.

She also cited the presence of corporate anchor Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, as well as companies such as Protalix and Omrix, the latter recently acquired by Johnson & Johnson for $438 million.

Barkat spoke at a reception held as part of the Israel Life Science Industry, or ILSI, Biomed 2009 conference, held June 15-17 in Tel Aviv.

Oklahoma Provides Selexys with Seed Money, Grants for Drug Development

Selexys Pharmaceuticals has secured the largest Small Business Innovation Research grant ever awarded by Oklahoma to a company, at $3.2 million — part of a roughly $7 million set of funds about evenly divided between grants and venture capital, CEO Scott Rollins told the Journal Record of Oklahoma City.

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The SBIR grant will be applied toward the human clinical trial stage of trials for inhibiting agents intended to fight Crohn’s disease and sickle cell disease. Much of the capital came from private physicians.

“We tried to target investors who were very well educated about the kinds of drugs that we’re developing and the science and medicine behind those drugs. We met with groups of docs around Oklahoma City and Norman, and once they heard about the science and our programs, they were very excited about the prospects and wanted to invest,” Rollins told the newspaper. “It was a reasonably easy sell.”

Most of the private funds came from angel investors whom Rollins wouldn’t identify, with the remaining $1 million provided by the Oklahoma Seed Capital Fund, and the Oklahoma Life Sciences Fund. Selexys was seeking a minimum $2.2 million, Rollins said, and was surprised by what it received from the two funds.

“For a biotech company, it’s pretty significant in this state,” Rollins told the Journal Record. “We pretty much maxed out what you can do locally with the funds that are available for life sciences companies.”

Selexys joined earlier this year with Cytovance Biologics for cell line development and manufacturing of the therapeutic monoclonal antibodies. Cytovance plans to expand within the 44,000 square-foot manufacturing facility at Presbyterian Health Foundation Research Park in Oklahoma City — a first step in the contract biologics manufacturer growing large enough to move into its own building at the tech campus within three to five years [BRN, June 5].

“We’re going to try to do as much of the development of these drugs in the state as we can … and the manufacturing as well,” Rollins told the newspaper.

LifeSciences British Columbia, Korea’s GyeongGi Bio-Center Eye More Collaborations

LifeSciences British Columbia has entered into a memorandum of understanding with the GyeongGi Bio-Center, a nonprofit organization responsible for supporting the biotech and pharmaceutical industries in Korea’s GyeongGi province, to facilitate partnerships and collaborations between the biotech and life sciences industries of both provinces.

The MOU follows up on a sister province relationship established under a May 2008 agreement intended to enhance understanding and cooperation between the two.

"Korea, and specifically the GyeongGi Bio-Center, is home to a cluster of leading international companies and research institutions, and both BC and Korea have much to gain through our working together," Karimah Es Sabar, president of LifeSciences BC, said in a statement.

The Scan

Study Examines Insights Gained by Adjunct Trio RNA Sequencing in Complex Pediatric Disease Cases

Researchers in AJHG explore the diagnostic utility of adding parent-child RNA-seq to genome sequencing in dozens of families with complex, undiagnosed genetic disease.

Clinical Genomic Lab Survey Looks at Workforce Needs

Investigators use a survey approach in Genetics in Medicine Open to assess technologist applications, retention, and workforce gaps at molecular genetics and clinical cytogenetics labs in the US.

Study Considers Gene Regulatory Features Available by Sequence-Based Modeling

Investigators in Genome Biology set sequence-based models against observational and perturbation assay data, finding distal enhancer models lag behind promoter predictions.

Genetic Testing Approach Explores Origins of Blastocyst Aneuploidy

Investigators in AJHG distinguish between aneuploidy events related to meiotic missegregation in haploid cells and those involving post-zygotic mitotic errors and mosaicism.