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Bonds, Boss, and Bucks for New Facilities: California’s Stem Cell Initiative Advances

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Alan Trounson, president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine
California has made three moves in recent weeks intended to strengthen its stem-cell program, four months after the state’s highest court cleared away all legal hurdles toward government funding of the research.
 
First, the Golden State joined the nation’s businesses and consumers in looking to capitalize on last week’s cut in interest rates by the US Federal Reserve. California officials hope they will save millions of dollars in interest costs now that they have delayed the state’s issuance of $250 million in bonds for various projects approved by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the agency created to manage the state’s stem-cell funding effort.
 
The bonds will be issued Oct. 4 — seven days later than the previous Sept. 27 issue date, and several weeks later than the mid-summer timeframe initially envisioned for the bonds. State officials held off in response to the stock market’s summer swoon, which followed the meltdown of the subprime mortgage market and lowered the Dow Jones Industrials index by about 600 points – wiping out nearly $2 trillion of stock market value – from July 19, when the market reached 14,000, through Sept. 18.
 
That day, in response to the market decline, the Federal Reserve lowered its benchmark overnight “federal funds” rate by half a percentage point, to 4.75 percent from 5.25 percent, stating that the market turmoil posed a serious threat to economic growth. The Fed’s action helped raise the Dow Jones Industrial Average by 336 points that afternoon, the Dow’s greatest single-day increase in almost five years.
 
“Given current market conditions, particularly in the credit markets, the decision of the [state] treasurer’s officer was that it might behoove us to wait a week, let things settle down, [and] we might be able to get a better interest rate on these things,” said Dale Carlson, a spokesman for CIRM. “With the 50 [basis] point cut, I think we probably will do much better.”
 
He said it was too early to tell as of last week how much the state would save, since the interest rate had yet to be established for the bond.
 
The bond is a piece of $3 billion over 10 years approved for embryonic stem-cell research by California voters in 2004 via Proposition 71. The proposition touched off a two-and-a-half-year court battle with opponents of the research that ended on May 16, when the California Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to a prior decision by the state Court of Appeals that upheld the program's legality, effectively greenlighting the funds [BioRegion News, May 28].
 
Saying G’Day to a New President
 
The bond sale will follow two other steps CIRM has taken recently to shore up its efforts: the appointment of a new president and the announcement of $227 million in available grants toward stem-cell research facilities.
 
On Sept. 14, CIRM’s oversight board appointed Alan Trounson as the institute’s new president. Trounson is a professor of stem cell sciences and director of the Monash Immunology and Stem Cell Laboratories at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. Trounson won approval from all 20 members of the 29-member Independent Citizens Oversight Committee who showed up to take the vote.
 
Carlson said Trounson is expected to start in December, though a specific start date has not been determined. “He’s got to close out his lab and close out his faculty responsibilities in Monash,” Carlson said.
 
Trounson will earn an annual salary of $490,000 and succeed Zach Hall, who retired from the post in April. Since then, CIRM has been led by two interim presidents — the institute’s chief finance and administrative officer, Lori Hoffman; then Richard Murphy.
 
“It’s just a wonderful conclusion to a career in science. These things don’t happen often to us colonials Down Under,” Trounson said in a conference call from Australia to board members and reporters attending the ICOC meeting following the board’s vote, according to several published reports. Speaking later to the Australian newspaper The Age, Trounson added: “It doesn’t get bigger than this.”
 
Trounson, who was unavailable for an interview last week, founded the Australian Stem Cell Center in 2003 and also served as its CEO and executive vice chairman. Previously, he launched eight biotech businesses, including ES Cell International of Singapore and CopyRat, a spin-off of Monash University formed to develop novel gene-targeting and stem cell technologies in rats that can be applied to fighting disease in humans. Trounson is considered a pioneer of stem-cell research, having developed some of the earliest colonies of embryonic stem cells a decade ago.
 
Trounson’s duties will include navigating the interests of CIRM and its board, which is chaired by real estate developer Robert Klein. In a statement released by CIRM, Trounson downplayed the possibility of friction similar to that experienced between Klein and Hall, instead outlining a vision for a new partnership between CIRM and ICOC. Trounson said he and Klein “will form a partnership to deliver the incredible opportunity of cell therapies for regenerative medicine.
 
“Together they have the financial, political and scientific capacity to take the well prepared CIRM strategy to the desired outcomes in the clinic efficiently and effectively. The partnership provides the further opportunity to engage nationally and internationally with other leading groups in stem cell science to avoid duplication of effort and to hasten clinical applications,” Trounson’s statement continued.
 
$227M for Major Facilities
 
Weeks before Trounson was named as president, CIRM announced one of the first major projects he will help shape: The institute’s pending award of $227 million toward construction of new laboratories at nonprofit and academic research institutions.
 
CIRM late last month released a request for applications. Each application has two parts: One covers the relationship of a proposed research facility to the stem-cell program of its university or institution, and seeks detailed information about the program. Applicants who pass muster under Part One advance to Part Two, which covers more technical aspects of the facilities seeking funding “to ensure that they align with CIRM’s objectives and that California taxpayers receive good value for the public funds invested in projects,” the institute said in a statement announcing the program.
 
CIRM objectives include:
  • Funding new facilities and encouraging investments by others in order to eliminate federal funds, and their restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research.
  • Expanding research capacity and capabilities statewide, and encouraging collaboration between researchers in new centers.
  • Removing hurdles to development of therapies by replacing facilities deemed inadequate by research institutions, or creating new facilities where they do not exist.  
Part One of each grant application will be reviewed by CIRM’s 15-member Grants Working Group, and Part Two by CIRM’s Facilities Working Group.
 
ICOC will review the grants group’s recommendations, then assign successful applicants to one of three categories for pursuing Part Two funding:
  • CIRM Institutes, eligible for between $25 million and $50 million for the most comprehensive research proposals.
  • CIRM Centers of Excellence, eligible for between $10 million and $25 million for “broad, but somewhat less comprehensive” research programs.
  • CIRM Special Programs, eligible for between $5 million and $10 million for projects deemed to support specialized research proposals.
The facilities group will assign scores to the Part Two applications and recommend grant winners to the ICOC, which will decide which projects receive the grants.
 
Grant recipients will have to provide matching funds equal to 20 percent of their CIRM awards.
 
San Diego Consortium’s Goal: $50M
 
Among applicants seeking CIRM Institute grants is the public-private San Diego Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, which promotes the San Diego area’s four research institutes — the University of California, San Diego; the Burnham Institute for Medical Research; the Scripps Research Institute; and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in nearby La Jolla, Calif. — as well as local companies specializing in stem cell work.
 
Tracey Milani, a spokeswoman for the consortium, told BioRegion News the group recently filed a letter of intent to request $50 million in CIRM Institute funding for the construction of a new stem cell research facility.
 
“Planning of a 135,000 [gross square-foot] building is ongoing. If SDCRM is awarded the $50 million of CIRM Major Facilities Grant funds, it hopes to occupy the building by summer 2010,” Milani said via e-mail.
 
Since last year, the consortium has been awarded the largest share of the stem-cell funding authorized by CIRM, just over $48 million, followed by Stanford University with almost $30.7 million and University of California, San Francisco, at about $29.7 million. It’s small comfort for a region that sought the headquarters of CIRM, only to lose the distinction to San Francisco.
 
The consortium and other would-be applicants must submit letters of intent to apply by Sept. 26. Applications for Part One of the grants are due Oct. 16, while the deadline for Part Two won’t be announced until January 2008. By April, the ICOC is expected to approve the Phase Two grants.
 
Applications for the grants are available here.

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