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California Stem-Cell Institute Reacts To Expert Recommendations

NATURE.COM

California’s US$3-billion stem-cell agency plans to make a few changes in response to an assessment last month by the Institute of Medicine, an outside panel of scientific experts.

The governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) voted overwhelmingly to endorse a set of recommendations made by the chair of the board, Jonathan Thomas.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM)  report praised CIRM for supporting innovative science, but also cited problems with conflicts of interest and governance structure. In particular, it raised concerns that 13 members of its 29-member board come from research institutions that receive CIRM funds. Under the proposed changes, these board members would abstain from votes to approve grants, although they would still be able to participate in discussions about them.

Other changes concerned the role of patient advocates. The IOM had recommended that patient advocates on grant review committees should not be board members, as is currently the case. Instead, Thomas recommended that ‘programmatic review’, which considers non-scientific aspects of grants, be moved to the full board, and that patient advocates could participate in discussions but not vote on individual proposals.

The IOM also recommended eliminating certain instances in which unsuccessful grant applicants could appeal decisions. Thomas proposed that CIRM staff evaluate appeals to see if they merit further consideration.

Other IOM recommendations were only indirectly addressed by Thomas’s plan. The IOM report had stated that the board should restrict itself to an “oversight” role rather than an “operational” role. Thomas’s recommendations instead described ways to avoid overlapping duties. His own role as chair is to handle “external affairs” whereas CIRM’s president will be to handle scientific and internal affairs.

One long-term critic responded favourably to the proposals. Consumer Watchdog’s John Simpson wrote a blog post titled “Does the stem cell board finally get it?” which called Thomas’s recommendations “substantial”. Simpson also noted that CIRM will run out of money in four years and will need to maintain credibility if it hopes to go back to voters for more funds.

Further details of how the recommendations are to be implemented will be worked out in March. Blow-by-blow coverage of the meeting can be found at the California Stem Cell Report.

Update: CIRM has posted a press release summarizing the proposed changes, including a laudatory endorsement from the head of the IOM report.