New CIRM head Randy Mills (left) with the chair of the group's board, Jonathan Thomas.

Hired. New CIRM head Randy Mills (left) with the chair of the group's board, Jonathan Thomas.

Todd Dubnicoff

California Stem Cell Institute Picks Industry Veteran as President

After a 6-month search, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has announced a new president. Predictably, the $3 billion agency is turning to a veteran of the private sector to guide it through a phase where industry savvy will be critical to its survival.

Randy Mills, who spent the last 10 years as CEO of the stem cell-focused Osiris Therapeutics, will take the helm as the agency plans for an uncertain financial future and attempts to move more of its research to the clinic. “We now reach a time in our CIRM life which is sort of mid-life,” the governing board’s chair, Jonathan Thomas, said at a meeting today in Burlingame, California. Since the 2004 California ballot initiative that funded the new agency with bond sales, CIRM has awarded about $1.7 billion in grants to scientists at 65 institutions, including university medical schools and private companies. But with funding from those bonds set to run out in 2017, CIRM is working to sweeten its relationship with industry and fulfill its mandate of getting therapies to patients.

Mills fits right into that goal, Jeff Sheehy, a CIRM board member and HIV patient advocate, tells ScienceInsider. “We’re getting someone who’s actually taken a stem cell product to market.” Under Mills’s leadership, Columbia, Maryland-based Osiris became the first company to receive regulatory approval for a stem cell drug. Canadian regulators in 2012 approved Prochymal to treat complications from bone marrow transplants. “We need something like that to happen with some of our projects,” Sheehy says.

The board’s choice “reflects an evolution of CIRM and how they look at themselves,” says Michael May, CEO of the Centre for Commercialization and Regenerative Medicine in Toronto, Canada, who in 2012 served on an Institute of Medicine panel tasked with reviewing CIRM’s structure and policies. “The message is [one of] being more business-like.” Mills is viewed as a pioneer in the stem cell industry, May adds, and may help cultivate partnerships that support CIRM as it looks for new potential funding sources.

Mills, who holds a Ph.D. in drug development, has served for 5 years on CIRM’s grant review board. He replaces Alan Trounson, a leading in vitro fertilization researcher who headed the agency for 6 years before announcing last October that he would step down to be closer to his family in Australia.