Spiderman Sets the Tone for Stem Cell Agency Board Meeting

I don’t often think about Spiderman at meetings of our governing Board – no, really I don’t – but yesterday was an exception. Not that I was daydreaming, rather I was listening to our new President & CEO C. Randal Mills, Ph.D., talk about his determination to set a very specific tone in leading the agency.

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Randy had just explained to the Board that he had asked the agency’s General Counsel to draw up an agreement stating he – Randy, not the lawyer – will not accept a job with any company funded by CIRM for at least one year following his departure from the agency. In addition he will also refuse to accept gifts or travel payments from any company, institution or individual who receives agency funding.

In a news release we issued following the Board meeting he explained his reasons for making this commitment:

“I want the people of California to know that my sole interest in being at CIRM is to help advance stem cell treatments to patients who are in need. I will do so with a full commitment to transparency and by never compromising the integrity of our mission nor our trust to the taxpayers of California.”

And that’s where Spiderman comes in. As any fan of the movie or comic books can tell you one of the things Spiderman says a lot is “With great power comes great responsibility.”

In making his commitment Randy wanted to send a very clear and very strong message that he understands what his role as the President involves, and that it’s important for him to demonstrate that through his actions.

Board member and patient advocate, Sherry Lansing, echoed that saying:

“We take even the possibility of a perception of a conflict of interest very seriously and are determined to do whatever is necessary to ensure that we protect the reputation of the agency and the work that we do. We fully support Dr. Mills in the way he is handling this issue.”

Randy decided to make that commitment after his predecessor, Dr. Alan Trounson joined the Board of Stem Cells Inc., a company that we awarded more than $19 million to develop a therapy for Alzheimer’s disease. While there is nothing illegal about Dr. Trounson’s actions the news did cause a bit of a stir with a few commentators saying this was a dark mark against the agency – even though there is nothing we could have done to stop it because we did not know it was happening.

Randy is not asking anyone else to make the same commitment he has made, but he says it was important for him to do so. His role as President & CEO carries great responsibility and he says he wants to show that he takes it very seriously and will lead by example.

I rather think Spiderman would approve.

Kevin McCormack

A Second Chance for a Spinal Cord Injury Trial, and a Powerful Reminder from Patient Advocates

Yesterday’s meeting of our governing Board was important for a number of reasons. First, the Board voted to invest some $32 million to try and get two promising projects into clinical trials – more on that in a minute – and also to try and attract some world-class researchers to California through our Research Leadership awards. It was also the first Board meeting for our new President, C. Randal Mills, Ph.D.

However, for me one of the most important parts of it was that it offered patient advocates a chance to come and talk to the Board directly, to share with them their hopes for stem cell research, and their needs in battling disabling conditions.

Yesterday a mother, Silvia Michelazzi, who suffered preeclampsia during her pregnancy and almost lost her child talked about the need for research to find better ways of preventing this deadly condition. Silvia’s daughter was born at 29 weeks and spent the first couple of months of life in a hospital neonatal intensive care unit.

One of the researchers we are funding, Dr. Mana Parast of UC San Diego, is doing some fascinating work in using iPS cells to better understand how preeclampsia works, and hopefully to find better ways of preventing it or treating it when it’s detected. We’ll be posting video of both talks in the next few weeks.

Earlier a group of individuals who have Parkinson’s disease talked to the Board about what it is like to live with that disease, to slowly lose control over their bodies and know that it was only going to get worse. They made a strong plea for more funding for stem cell research into this area.

To hear people like this speak is a powerful reminder of why we do this work; it puts a human face on the need for more research into so many areas, and why we need to do all that we can to accelerate that research, to find new treatments and cures.

Too often patients are left out of the discussion when it comes to funding research. At the stem cell agency we invite them into the room and welcome hearing from them. It’s not always easy to listen to what they have to say, particularly as we know some research is at an early stage of development and we won’t always be able to do what they want us to. But those voices are an important part of what this agency is all about. We were created by the people of California, so it’s important that the people feel they can come and talk to us any time they want.

From a business perspective yesterday’s meeting was very productive. The Board voted to invest $14.3 million in Asterias Biotherapeutics to move a stem cell therapy for spinal cord injury into clinical trials. This is the second time this approach will have been tried. The first was with Geron in 2010 and that trial, even though it ended earlier than expected because of financial reasons, showed the approach appears to be safe. Asterias is going to take it to the next level.

The other big award was $5.6 million to John Zaia at the City of Hope near Los Angeles to move his work in finding a treatment for HIV/AIDS into clinical trials.

Both are part of our Strategic Partnership program that requires them to provide matching funds for this work.

You can read all about those awards and the Research Leadership ones too in a news release we issued after the meeting.

kevin mccormack