California stem cell agency to launch new speedy funding mechanism

Building a foundation. California's stem cell agency has funded new facilities, providing $50 million for the Lorry I. Lokey Stem Cell Research Building at Stanford University, for example.

All Rights Reserved by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Mark Tuschman

California’s $3 billion stem cell funding agency has made a sweeping New Year’s resolution. The governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) yesterday approved a plan to overhaul the agency’s grant process, effective 1 January. The theatrically titled “CIRM 2.0” represents a big move by the agency’s president, Randy Mills, who took the helm in May with a plan to speed promising stem cell therapies through clinical testing to make them available to patients.

A key feature of the plan is a rolling application process, which will replace the system of proposal windows that opened and closed somewhat unpredictably. Groups can apply for funding at any time, and applications will be reviewed monthly. “We want the best programs coming to us—the programs that are ready to go,” Mills explains in a presentation on CIRM’s website, “and not one that’s been shoehorned into an artificial timeline.”

Mill has also vowed to shorten the time from application to funding from an average of about 2 years to 120 days, and groups must start work on a funded project within 45 days of approval.

“Anything that speeds up the process is potentially good,” says Larry Goldstein, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, and scientific director of the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, which has received numerous CIRM grants. His group was forced to submit its most recent CIRM proposal while there were still ongoing animal studies “where it would have been nice to know the answer” before applying, he says, and the more flexible application timeline may be a boon to researchers.

The board has approved $50 million in spending to support the first 6 months under the new funding mechanism, which will be available to “late preclinical” and clinical stage projects. Many have noted that the new plan reflects Mill’s background as CEO of Maryland-based Osiris Therapeutics and that its focus on clinic-ready research may attract more research projects from industry. “That’s where a lot of young early business biotech hangs out—that’s the valley of death,” Goldstein says. But like many in the field, he hopes the agency won’t neglect more basic stem cell research in its race to the clinic. “I think there’s still important work to be done earlier in the pipeline,” he says.

A recent overview of the new program explains that the same grantmaking model will eventually extend to two other funding categories—“discovery” and “translational.”

The agency has nearly $1 billion left of the funding it received through the 2004 ballot referendum that created it. Mills has said that the remaining money can continuously fund projects until at least 2020.

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