California Stem Cell Chief Seeks Trials in Four Years

By Rob Waters, Bloombeg.com

California’s $3 billion stem-cell funding agency wants to get 10 to 12 new therapies into human testing within four years, said the agency’s president, Alan Trounson.

In December, the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine plans to award grants of about $20 million each to 10 or 12 teams, with the goal of starting clinical trials within four years, Trounson said today in an interview. Most or all of the teams will include biotechnology companies, he said.

The San Francisco-based institute, established by voters in 2004, is putting greater emphasis on advancing research from laboratory testing to patient trials, said Trounson. After years of stem cell research being conducted largely by academics, companies are deepening their investment in the field, he said. The agency eventually would like to draw in big pharmaceutical companies to help fund the research.

“Pharma is moving into this space in a big way,” Trounson said. “They’re now generally interested in cell therapy. That’s a big change.”

Trounson, a former academic and biotechnology executive who assumed leadership of the institute in January 2008, said he is talking to companies on a regular basis about setting up partnerships.

While the agency now funds some small companies to advance promising stem-cell therapies, Trounson said he is looking for ways to attract investment by larger companies to develop treatments. In the long run, the agency may try to use industry funding to continue operating once its $3 billion in state bond revenue is exhausted by the end of the next decade, he said.

Grants to Companies, Academics
In April, the agency awarded 15 “early translational” grants totaling $67.7 million. Two of the grants totaling $11.1 million went to companies. Most of the $761 million the institute has given out so far have gone to academic institutions such as Stanford University, the Scripps Institute and various campuses of the University of California.

A deepening budget crisis in California caused by a 27 percent drop in revenue over the past year hasn’t stopped bond sales for the agency, which currently has enough cash to last through 2011, Trounson said.

Trounson said the institute receives no funding from the state’s general fund.

“Cuts to us would be purely symbolic,” he said. “Our focus is to do something to help people in the community suffering from horrible diseases.”

Institute funding of new research facilities throughout the state has also stimulated the economy and created thousands of construction jobs, Trounson said.