Monday, May 19, 2008

Ballyhoo, Economics and California Stem Cells

In an exuberant essay in the leading newspaper in Silicon Valley, an official of the California stem cell agency has touted its $271 million in lab construction grants as bold evidence of "the economic might of the little stem cell."

David Lichtenger (see photo), chairman of the Facilities Working Group at CIRM and head of Integrated Facilities Solutions of Palo Alto, Ca., wrote the op-ed piece that appeared May 16 in the San Jose Mercury News.

He said,
"Stem cells are tiny. In fact they are microscopic. Yet, they might prove to be the mighty engine not only for medical advances, but also for the ailing California economy.

"The economic might of the little stem cell was boldly evident earlier this month when the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the state's stem-cell agency, awarded $271 million to 12 universities and research institutions to build new stem-cell laboratories."
The economic impact of stem cell research was one of the main arguments behind passage of Prop. 71, which created CIRM in 2004. It continues to play a major role in the justification for CIRM's $3 billion in spending.

We believe the agency has a responsibility to tell the story of its work and to maintain and build public support. Call it marketing, public relations, public education or whatever. Fundamentally, it is all the same thing and quite necessary. Without continued public support, the agency becomes vulnerable to assaults from many sides.

However, long after the last Prop. 71 vote was counted, the grandiose economic claims from the campaign generated blowback, including a study from a UC Berkeley economist Richard Gilbert debunking them. The agency last year also seemed headed for production of another economic study to justify its existence. More recently the proposed $500 million biotech loan program promised handsome returns even at default rates of up to 50 percent.

All of which indicates a need for some perspective. CIRM leveraged its $271 million in lab grants into a $1.1 billion program that will certainly generate hundreds, if not thousands of construction-related job. However, the biotech industry, which goes well beyond stem cells, is a tiny player in the California economy. It accounts for something over 100,000 jobs, according to a state report, a mere piffle compared to the total workforce of 18 million in an economy that runs at around a mammoth $1.7 trillion annually.

And CIRM's $271 million does not even surpass the $356 million being spent on San Quentin's "condemned inmate complex."

That said, CIRM's lab grants have indeed generated a long overdue investment in the science side of California's infrastructure. CIRM deserves ample credit for handily leveraging its dollars. The agency is also preparing to make another substantial contribution this year to the state's intellectual capital with $66 million in training programs.

Lichtenger's essay was reasonably measured and nicely written. However, it is doubtful that stem cells will be the "mighty engine" for the "ailing California economy" any time in the foreseeable future. It behooves CIRM to exercise judicious restraint as it touts its achievements. Managing expectations is the key, and the best course is to avoid over-promising.

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1 comment:


    David Lichtenger expresses the enthusiasm so many of us feel about California's wonderful investment in stem cell research.

    Despite numerous blockages, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine has "moved forward", in the words of our great and unforgotten champion, Christopher Reeve.

    Sometimes the benefits are immediate, as when our $272 million investment in new construction was leveraged into S1.1 billion-- that is a lot of bang for the buck!

    But mostly, I think, the investment will be like seeds planted. They will become great trees, but it will take time.

    When the ten year program is complete, in 2014,what will be the results?

    None of us can know for sure, of course-- but I predict amazingness!

    There will be battles ahead, of course: with both the political opposition and the sheer difficulty of essentially doing the impossible with the invisible, which is what stem cell scientists have to do all the time.

    But I expect to see some cures, including the personal hoped-for miracle of seeing my paralyzed son rise from his wheelchair.

    I further predict that everyone-- from the most careful critic to the most enthusiastic supporter-- will be glad that California took this great step forward, into the future of regenerative medicine.


    Don C. Reed