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Stanford group wins $40 million grant to launch stem cell genomics center

California Wednesday launched a $40 million effort that is aimed both at creating medical treatments tailored for patients’ genetic makeup and making the state a world leader in the fledgling field of stem cell genomics.

Directors of the $3 billion California stem cell agency approved the grant to a seven-member consortium led by Stanford University on a 6-2 vote. The governing board has 29 members. Most of those not voting at the meeting in Berkeley were disqualified because of conflicts of interest.

The action came despite Stanford’s competitors’ allegations of unfairness, apparent preferential treatment and manipulation of scientific scores during the grant review process.

It was the largest research grant made by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is known, in its nine-year history. The research work is expected to begin well before the end of this year, but widespread, concrete applications involving actual patients are likely years away, according to scientists.

CIRM President Alan Trounson said that the work will enhance the understanding of stem cells. “That deeper knowledge, that you can only get through a genomic analysis of the cells, will help us develop better ways of using these cells to come up with new treatments for deadly diseases,” he said in a statement.

Genomics is the study of genes and their relationships. According to the National Institutes of Health, genes play a role in nine out of 10 of the leading causes of death in this country. Scientists and biotech businesses hope that genomics research can lead to a catalog of disease genes and pave the way for new therapies that are tailored to individual needs. Coupling the promise of stem cells with genomics is predicted to revolutionize medical treatment, according to many medical experts.

The Salk Institute in La Jolla is the co-leader of the Stanford project. Other enterprises involved include UC Santa Cruz, UC San Diego, the J. Craig Venter and Salk institutes and Illumina Inc., all in San Diego.

The top competitors against Stanford were groups led by UCLA, UC San Francisco and the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla. UC San Francisco and Scripps both sent letters to the agency’s board that protested the grant review process.

Scientist Pui-Yan Kwok, leader of the UC San Francisco effort, complained about the manipulation of Stanford’s grant application in such a way that its scientific score was raised. Kwok called the situation “appalling.” The stem cell agency today said, however, that the changes were permitted under the terms the agency had laid out.

Researcher Jeanne Loring, leader of the Scripps group, said that the stem cell agency had failed to disclose in its request for applications (RFA) that one of the key criteria for the “scientific merit” of the grants would be matching funds. Stanford was praised by reviewers for its $7 million in matching funds. Scripps’ application was cited for a “serious” deficiency in that area.

Some CIRM board members expressed concern that the need for matching funds was not spelled out in the RFA.

However, Trounson said he had told the applicants, with the exception of Stanford, that matching funds would be one of the criteria.

As originally presented to the board Wednesday, the Stanford proposal was slated for $33 million. The CIRM board added about $7 million for funding collaborators outside of the consortium, who could apply to the group for awards. The board said a priority should be given to portions of other genomic applications that were rejected today.