By Jeanne Loring
As the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) celebrates its successes on its 10th anniversary, there is coincidentally a less happy CIRM-related event. One of CIRM’s first investments in stem cell research was a network of dedicated stem cell laboratories throughout California. This program, called “shared labs” has been cancelled.
The shared lab idea originated as a means for California researchers to work on human embryonic stem cells without compromising their funding from the NIH. CIRM invested a million dollars for each of 17 institutions to purchase equipment for a laboratory that would have the sole purpose of supporting human stem cell research, development, and training. They provided a modest stipend for support staff and instructors.
As with every bold idea, there were unexpected consequences. In this case, CIRM did not anticipate that the shared labs would have such an enormous impact beyond their original intention. Over the last 6 years they have existed, the labs have provided the infrastructure upon which California’s reputation as the center of the stem cell universe was built.
Unwittingly, CIRM’s shared lab program jump-started human stem cell research in California, sending it on a trajectory that has led to stem cell clinical trials in just 6 years. Far beyond being havens for embryonic stem cell research, the labs became the places where new technologies were developed and shared, where clinical projects were born, and where scientists carried out the necessary lab work for bringing a stem cell therapy to the clinic.
CIRM did not expect that there would be interaction among the labs that would make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. The network of shared labs became our means to communicate and share ideas. It sparked new partnerships between institutions throughout the state, and became a conduit for trainees to move from CIRM’s Bridges internships to graduate school. One scientist described the shared labs as “the beating heart of California’s stem cell program”.
Why would CIRM discontinue such a remarkably successful program with so many unexpected benefits?
The decision was made in 2013, and predates “CIRM 2.0″, the optimistic restructuring that recently breathed new life into the institute. It is being implemented by Randy Mills, who became CIRM’s president just a few months ago.
A year ago, CIRM’s future looked bleak. In December 2013, Alan Trounson was CIRM’s president, and he expected that CIRM would run out of money by 2017, if not sooner. At that month’s meeting of CIRM’s governing committee, called the ICOC (Independent Citizens Oversight Committee), all of the discussion was focused on the end game- how they would spend the last hundreds of millions left in their coffers.
Anticipating an attack on the shared lab program, scientists from 11 of the dedicated CIRM-supported stem cell labs traveled to that ICOC meeting in LA to plead the case for continued support of stem cell infrastructure. We were asking for a chance to reapply for stipend funds for the labs, which would cost CIRM about $350,000 per year for each lab. The transcript of that ICOC meeting is here (jump to page 205) and the blog I wrote about the meeting is here.
Some of the ICOC members found the scientists’ requests compelling, and understood the scientists’ concern that loss of the infrastructure would have negative impact on all aspects of CIRM’s mission, from training young scientists to supporting development of clinical applications for stem cells.
But, money was the main concern, and the decision came down to this: did CIRM want to retain the laboratory infrastructure or did it want to dismantle it and disperse the money to other projects?
The answer was clear to the researchers in the audience and the fact that we were all there was living proof that the shared laboratories had made us into a cohesive group throughout California. In addition, CIRM had already invested nearly $20 million just in the equipment for the labs, and millions more in training the personnel who run them.
One irony is that the NIH now funds a broader range of human embryonic stem cell research, so the original purpose of the labs no longer applies. But the NIH and other funders don’t pay for maintaining labs like these. That idea belongs to CIRM, which remains the only agency that fortuitously created a network of stem cell scientists.
A second irony is that having existing stem cell labs has been a boon for California. Institutions were able to attract an estimated $240 million from granting agencies and philanthropy for research based on the existence of the dedicated stem cell labs. This represents a tenfold return on CIRM’s investment.
In spite of our testimony, we lost. Alan Trounson didn’t pay attention to anything we said, and instead told us that the labs were a luxury that CIRM couldn’t afford, and that we should find other sources of money to pay our staff, perhaps turning the labs into for-profit service centers. We explained that we all had been trying to raise alternative funds for our laboratories for years, but there is concrete evidence that facilities like these just don’t exist in the US without subsidies from a granting agency.
Because of potential conflicts of interest, only 6 members of the 29-member ICOC could vote. Two of them (Art Torres and Diane Winoker) abstained; the other 4 voted to close the program.
What will happen now? One or two labs will be able to support their staff with other grant money and be able to keep their labs, although they will no longer be shared. Some will lose everything: the lab space, the highly trained personnel, and CIRM’s equipment.
The third irony in this story is that the ICOC voted in October 2014 to continue the Bridges internship program for another year, unaware, apparently, that closing the shared labs means there will be no labs in which to teach the interns and no trained personnel to teach them.
I know I speak for the majority of my colleagues when I say that the dedicated stem cell laboratory program was the key to establishing the rapid pace of stem cell research in California. Loss of the labs and their trained personnel will lose us the edge that made California uniquely qualified for stem cell success.
What can we do? We have a very specific request. We ask that CIRM consider one of the ideas raised by an ICOC member at the fateful December meeting: open a new request for applications to allow the shared lab directors to reapply for a competitive award. Since CIRM has already paid for the equipment, we need only to pay for upkeep and for our personnel who run the labs and teach courses to Bridges interns.
I’ve shared this letter with other lab directors; those listed below express their support for this letter.