Frequently asked questions

What is the stem cell agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM)?

California’s stem cell agency was created by the voters of California in 2004 when they passed Proposition 71, which authorized $3 billion in funding for stem cell research in California. The agency funds stem cell research at institutions throughout California with the goal of developing new therapies for deadly diseases and disorders. Here is the text of Proposition 71.

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What does the stem cell agency do?

The agency uses money from bond sales to advance stem cell research in California. The agency doesn’t carry out research itself. Instead, the agency solicits research proposals and funds research, training and new research space throughout the state. A list of all our funded awards is available here.

The ultimate goal of our programs is to accelerate the pace of stem cell research in California toward new treatments for life threatening diseases and debilitating disorders like spinal cord injuries, often things for which there are no treatments today. By promoting the research and encouraging the growth of the stem cell biotechnology sector the agency has helped attract the best scientists to the state and established California as a global leader in stem cell research.

You can learn more about stem cell research and how it can lead to new disease therapies through our Stem Cell Basics Primer.

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How much money have you spent so far?

You can see how much money California’s stem cell agency has committed and spent at any time on our funding commitments page. The amount of money we’ve committed is the amount of money that our governing board has agreed to spend on all awards. However, most of those awards are for research that takes place over the course of several years. We give out funds incrementally rather than in one lump sum at the beginning of the award. That allows us to monitor the projects and terminate funding if the researchers aren’t meeting their goals, thereby saving money for the state. That’s why on the funding commitments page the amount of money we’ve actually spent to-date is just a fraction of the amount we’ve committed to spend on the full term of the awards.

On the funding commitments page, we also show the amount of money that we expect to spend on a given award by the end of its funding period. This number is usually less than the amount of money originally approved by the governing board. That’s because we work with grantees to bring costs down where possible, lowering the amount of money it takes to carry out the proposed research.

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What has the agency funded?

We fund in three general areas: research, training and facilities. This page of charts shows how our funds have been allocated.  When we started in 2004, there were few facilities in California where scientists could work with all types of stem cells, and few scientists had access to labs that contained all the equipment needed to do this specialized work. One of our earliest rounds of funding went to build lab spaces that could be shared by researchers within the institution and by visiting scientists. Those spaces are also used to train scientists how to work with stem cells.

We considered training to be a major need to build the field and create the next generation of stem cell scientists. New therapies won’t happen without people trained to work with stem cells and who have both the technical skills and the equipment they need to carry out groundbreaking research. We now have programs to train high school students, college students, graduate students and early career scientists.

Most of our funding goes to the research itself. There, too, we don’t put all of our money in one area. In the early years, because this is such a new area of research, much of the funding was focused on basic science, to help develop a deeper understanding of stem cells and how they worked. More recently we have been focusing on trying to move the most promising ideas that came out of that earlier funding into clinical trials in people.  On our Progress Toward Therapies page we have a chart showing how CIRM’s funding has changed over time, as more good ideas from the lab start being ready to test in animals and then in people.

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Why did the agency fund new buildings?

When California’s stem cell agency started in 2004, little research space existed where scientists could work with all types of stem cells and that contained all the equipment needed to work with the cells and develop new therapies. Stem cell scientists were also spread across research campuses, limiting interactions and slowing the spread of ideas. One of the greatest needs identified for the development of new stem cell therapies was laboratory space for these scientists to work and exchange ideas.

The agency provided $271 million toward 12 buildings throughout the state, requiring the institutions to provide the remaining $884 million to construct and furnish the buildings. That money largely came from donations from individuals or foundations who were inspired by the agency’s initial commitment to contribute toward the project. This public/private partnership created much needed work for the construction industry and new, full-time jobs for researchers and others staff. Here we have more information about those facilities and the major donors to each.

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Has the agency made any money for the state?

The agency’s grants create jobs in California and have expanded the biotechnology industry in the state. Our grants for new buildings also created construction jobs at a time when the state desperately needed them.

An independent analysis found that the agency’s major facilities program alone created 13,000 job-years (this is economist-speak for creating the equivalent of 13,000 jobs that last one year, or 6,500 jobs that last two years) and brought in $100 million in tax revenue. Our other programs create research positions, and positions associated with a growing biotech industry in the state. More broadly, by 2014 our programs are expected to have created more than 38,000 years of jobs and generated $285 million in tax revenue in California.

The tax revenue that results from the agency’s funding goes directly into the state’s general fund, where it pays for the interest on our bonds as well as other programs in the state.

In the future, as our funding leads to the development of new therapies, a portion of the profits from the sale of those therapies will also be returned to the state. And of course because these therapies are treating diseases that currently have no effective remedy we will also be reducing the health care burden on California, reducing medical spending and improving the quality of life for people in the state.

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What diseases are you working on?

There are a wide variety of diseases that CIRM-funded scientists are working on, including some of the biggest killers of Americans such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease. We are also working on diseases that affect far fewer people but are no less deadly or devastating, things like Huntington’s disease, sickle cell disease, autism, muscular dystrophy and Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS).

You can read our disease pages for more information about how stem cells can benefit different diseases and see a list of awards tackling that disease area. We also have a list of all CIRM awards that you can filter by disease area.

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When will there be cures?

The usual path from a scientific discovery to a new cure is on the order of decades or longer. James Thompson and his team generated human embryonic stem cells in 1998 and the first trial based on those cells started in 2010—a remarkably fast timeline for new therapies. The reprogrammed iPS cells that earned Shinya Yamanaka a Nobel Prize in 2012 were only discovered in 2007, and are expected to be entering clinical trials in the next few years. Similarly, trials based on work by CIRM-funded teams using tissue-specific adult cells are already underway and, if those trials are successful, will reach patients in a matter of years.

Research funded by the agency is moving toward patients at an accelerated pace because CIRM works closely with our teams to help them overcome the many obstacles they face in moving their research from the lab to the clinic – these obstacles include scientific and technical challenges as well as regulatory hurdles and even matters of reimbursement, namely who will pay for the treatment once approved. (This pages have more information about how we are smoothing the path to new therapies.) We provide a continuous source of funding so that promising therapies don’t languish while researchers seek out new funding sources. We also work with the FDA, which regulates clinical trials, to help our grantees understand the regulations and succeed at bringing new therapies to patients.

We at California’s stem cell agency also have friends and family members with incurable diseases and like everyone else are impatient to see new therapies approved and ready for use in patients. However, shortcuts in the path to new therapies can result in treatments that harm patients rather than helping them. That’s why we are working to remove the barriers that slow research without compromising safety.

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Who decides what the agency funds?

The agency’s funding happens in several steps. First, our science staff decides what type of funding is most likely to help propel new therapies. We fund research through rounds of funding, each of which is aimed at a specific goal. For example, we have rounds of funding intended to entice researchers into the field of stem cell research, to fund basic discoveries with stem cells, to take basic discoveries and develop them into therapies in people, and to begin funding clinical trials.

Once the agency puts out a request for applications, or RFA, researchers throughout California have time to submit an application. (Here is a list of all RFAs.)

The agency doesn’t work alone to decide which applications to fund. We have an international group of independent experts in stem cell research, therapy development and from the biotech industry who review the applications and make recommendations to our governing board. All these experts are from outside of California. (Here is more information about this grants working group.) The grants working group makes recommendations to our governing board regarding which applications to fund. Those recommendations are available for every application on our page listing RFAs by following the links titled "Summaries of review reports" under each RFA.

Our governing board then reviews those recommendations and votes on which applications to fund. All of those awards are listed on our website. Governing board members from a institutions that are eligible for CIRM funding are not able to vote on any funding decisions.

Usually the governing board follows the grants review group’s recommendations, but in some cases a board member will suggest funding an application that received a lower score. This process gives patient advocates a voice in the process of deciding which research to fund, and provides a way of funding research in disease areas that aren’t being addressed by pharmaceutical companies. Proposition 71 was written in a way that makes it possible for patient advocates to have a voice in deciding which disease areas should be the focus of state-funded research.

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Proposition 71 gave you $3 billion over ten years. What happens when the money runs out?

Right now the agency is exploring a number of different options to try and ensure that we are able to continue funding stem cell research after the money allocated to us by Proposition 71 runs out. Those include raising funds from philanthropic sources and partnering with industry to enable us to continue our mission.

SB1064 required CIRM to create a transition plan for when our funds run out. That plan is posted on our website.

What organizations are eligible to receive funding?

Any California-based research institution or company may apply for funding. This page contains a complete list of all organizations that have received funding. We also provide a searchable list of all stem cell grants awarded by CIRM.

Organizations that only have facilities outside of California are not eligible for CIRM funding. However, the agency does have collaborative funding partnerships with other funding agencies—international countries and states as well as U.S. states and foundations. Researchers in those states or countries apply with California investigators for CIRM awards, with the other funding agency paying for the research that takes place outside of California. We have more about those partnerships here.

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Can the funding be used to fund research on human reproductive cloning?

No. Reproductive cloning is specifically prohibited under Proposition 71 and under California law.

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Does stem cell research harm human embryos?

Almost all human embryonic stem cell lines come from four to five day old embryos left over from in vitro fertilization (IVF). In in vitro fertilization, researchers mix a man's sperm and a woman's eggs together in a lab dish. Some of those eggs become fertilized and begin developing. At about five days the egg has divided to become a hollow ball of roughly 100 cells called a blastocyst, which is smaller than the size of the dot over an “i”. It is these very early embryos that are implanted into the woman in the hopes that she becomes pregnant.

Each cycle of IVF can produce many blastocysts, some of which are implanted into the woman and the rest are stored in the IVF clinic freezer. After a couple has completed their family, they must decide what to do with any remaining embryos. They can continue paying to store the embryos or they can defrost the embryos, which destroys them. Some couples may choose to donate the embryos for adoption, though that option is not commonly taken. In some states, couples can also choose to donate the frozen embryos for research. These donated embryos are the source of human embryonic stem cell lines. Creating those lines does destroy that early embryo.

Some embryonic stem cell lines also come from embryos that a couple has chosen not to implant because they carry genetic mutations like the ones that cause cystic fibrosis or Tay Sachs disease. These are discovered through routine genetic testing prior to implantation. Still other embryos might be malformed in some way that causes them to be rejected for implantation into the mother. These embryos with genetic defects or malformations would have been discarded if the couple had not chosen to donate them to stem cell research. These cell lines are extremely useful for studying the diseases that arise from those mutations.

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Why are we paying for stem cell research, shouldn’t that be a job for private industry?

State and national governments have a long history of being involved in the kind of pioneering research that private industry is unable or unwilling to do. Private industry has to focus on the financial return, making them unlikely to take risks on projects with no guarantee of success. Government agencies can fund research with a focus on benefits to the public rather than on making money. This difference in focus gives government agencies the ability to fund projects that could have a big impact on human health but with little guarantee of financial return, at least in the short term.

At the Federal level the government’s support was vital to the success of the Human Genome Project, and funding from the NIH led to the development of 15 of the top 21 drugs introduced between 1965 and 1992.

Private industry tends to focus on projects that are in later stages of development. Without funding for the earliest stages of discovery there will be no stem cell therapies making it into those later stages where private industry becomes involved. We have more information about the therapy development pipeline on this page.

Scientists have referred to the stage right before industry becomes interested as the “Valley of Death”. It’s an area where promising therapies often languish, because there isn’t enough federal funding to push the projects through to the later stages. CIRM is very focused on funding the early research that leads to therapy ideas, and we fund heavily in the Valley of Death, helping to keep good projects moving toward the clinic. We also work with industry to fund later stages of verifying those therapies and beginning clinical trials in people.

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Doesn’t the NIH fund stem cell research?

The NIH and other federal agencies do fund stem cell research and play a vital role in driving scientific discovery. However, they have very broad research interests. With the agency’s focus on stem cell research we are able to work closely with academics and industry to craft our funding programs in a way that accelerates the field. Our programs are timed so that researchers with successful projects will have continuous funding from the basic laboratory research through beginning clinical trials. The NIH tends to focus more heavily on early stage research, leaving scientist with promising ideas having to pause their research and look for new sources of funding as the projects get closer to clinical trials.

CIRM also works closely with our research teams to help them navigate regulations leading up to clinical trials, and to find industry partners to help fund the later stage research. This ability to focus on accelerating stem cell research toward clinical trials is only possible for an agency with CIRM’s mission.

The NIH is also restricted in the types of research it can fund. Unlike the NIH, CIRM funds the creation of new stem cell lines, lines that have been critical to the success of some research programs.

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How can I stay up to date about the agency’s activities?

We have several ways of keeping people up to date on our research progress.

  • Sign up for our email lists. We have four different lists that provide people with information about CIRM news, new funding opportunities, and opportunities to attend public meetings.
  • Read our blog. We report on progress by CIRM grantees and update readers on the field of stem cell research.
  • Follow us on social media. We have active Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr channels

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Can I donate to California’s stem cell agency?

Under Proposition 71, CIRM can accept donations of "additional revenue and real and personal property [including cash], including, but not limited to gifts, royalties, interest, and appropriations that may be used to supplement annual research grant funding and the operations of the institute." To implement this section, the ICOC has adopted a policy and procedure on the acceptance of donated real and personally property.

That policy is available here: Gift policy [pdf]

If you have questions, please contact CIRM.

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© 2013 California Institute for Regenerative Medicine