As the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) prepares to hand out its largest grants to date, the agency has hit troubled waters. After a contentious meeting on April 13, CIRM president Zach Hall unexpectedly announced that he was resigning effective April 30, two months earlier than planned. The same week, the Southern California developer who chairs the advisory group charged with making recommendations about these major grants also quit suddenly, and without explanation. These departures reflect the emergence of deep fractures on CIRM's governing board.
The backdrop of the latest crisis is the upcoming award of $220 million in large grants for facilities construction. California's major research institutions have been preparing for these grants since the CIRM was established by the 2004 passage of Proposition 71, with their representatives on the CIRM's board engaging all the while in subtle political jockeying. These representatives, who make up a slim majority of the 29-member board, want construction to move forward as rapidly as possible. But the board's patient advocate minority is skeptical of giving construction such high priority, and favor spending the money on actual research instead.
The CIRM's facilities grants advisory group, on which the patient advocates constitute a majority, wanted CIRM to conduct a survey of the research institutions known to be interested in applying for money to build new facilities so that CIRM could issue a more effective request-for-proposals. But when CIRM's board rejected that recommendation, citing the need to move rapidly, board chair Robert Klein, himself a patient advocate and a member of the advisory group, urged that the survey proceed anyway. CIRM President Zach Hall, caught in the crossfire, cited these tensions as well as his own health concerns in announcing his resignation two months earlier than he had previously planned. Rusty Doms, chair of the facilities grants advisory group, gave no explanation about why he was resigning just before a key meeting.
Meanwhile, the state Senate is moving ahead with SB 771, its modest legislation to amend Proposition 71 and clarify its intellectual property provisions. While CGS believes the bill doesn't go far enough in ensuring fiscal returns to California and affordable prices for any successfully developed treatments, the CIRM and the state's biotech lobby oppose it as "premature." To date, the bill has unanimously passed two of the three requisite Senate committees.
For further coverage, see the California Stem Cell Report.