Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Economic Woes: California, the Stem Cell Biz and CIRM

In a story that circulated today nationally and perhaps internationally, The Associated Press has painted a bleak picture for the stem cell industry despite the election of a president who is a friend of the cause.

The news came on top of the even more unpleasant news that California is facing a $28 billion budget shortfall. The state's leaders are now in a position of holding out a tin cup to the federal government, enviously eying the $700 billion bailout for the private sector.

California Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, the state's second most powerful elected official, did not exactly say, "Please, sir, can I have some," but her words were close.

All this as the $3 billion California stem cell agency, which is constitutionally protected from budget woes, is looking to hand out tens of millions of more dollars in December and create a $500 million "bank," financed at taxpayer expense, to help struggling biotech companies. All of which may be good, but could lead to a ticklish image problem.

What the PR and policy problem boils down to is this: The state slashes medical assistance to the poorest Californians while millions and millions flow unfettered to CIRM-funded researchers.

First, the news from Associated Press reporter Matthew Perrone, writing out of Washington, D.C., He said that despite the election of a friendly president,
"Experts say struggling stem cell developers will face a new, equally daunting obstacle: an investment climate devastated by the financial crisis."
Perrone quoted WBB Securities analyst Stephen Brozak as saying,
"The good news is there will finally be freedom to operate, the bad news is there will be no more venture capital, which is the real freedom."
The AP story also said that investment in early stage stem cell companies was slumping even before this fall's financial meltdown.
"Venture capital investment in biotech startups — which includes stem cell developers — has fallen more than 65 percent to $443 million in the most recent quarter, from a high of $1.3 billion in late 1999."
According to Perrone, analyst Bill Tanner of Leerink Swann was even more pessimistic on hESC companies. Tanner said,
"Even if one of these companies was going to be successful, I doubt you'd have a new embryonic stem cell product on the market in the next 20 years."
The AP story appeared as California's Legislative Analyst posted a new estimate of California's budget shortfall -- $28 billion over the next 20 months. One recommendation from the analyst was for no new state borrowing, which could strike at CIRM's revenue source, California state bonds. Even before the new figure was released, State Treasurer Bill Lockyer said that the state will not be able to issue new bonds until 2009 because investors want to see how the state copes with its financial crisis.

The fiscal mess is so bad that Jim Sanders of The Sacramento Bee quoted Assembly Speaker Bass as saying "can we have $5 or $6 (billion?)" from the federal government.

The state's stem cell agency is all but immune from the California crisis because Prop. 71 locked in its funding sources and made it impossible for the governor or the legislature to cut its budget. However, if Lockyer refuses to issue bonds well into 2009, CIRM funding might hit a hard spot.

It is not clear what CIRM's current financial status is, although its chairman, Robert Klein, told directors on Sept. 25 that CIRM's cash situation at that point guaranteed "that this critical work to reduce human suffering and advance medical science is able to move forward."

He continued,
"The scientists and clinicians and patients counting on our progress need not be concerned about our work being interrupted."
Klein said that earlier this year he anticipated a troubled bond market and arranged for money from the state's "pooled money investment fund" that should be sufficient until late spring. But he noted,
"Maybe I should have drawn down three years of money."
There is no doubt that research cannot be done without a reliable source of funding. Nonetheless, CIRM must carefully consider how its operations, with salary ranges that exceed $500,000 annually and huge outside contracts, may be perceived by the public or elected officials. It is a time to tread with great care.

As for the $500 million biotech loan program, one could argue that it is needed now more than ever. At the same time, some might look askance at lending taxpayer funds to extremely risky ventures – ones that could not even find financing under the best of circumstances – while Californians who can least afford it will see health care, education and other vital services slashed.

The lending program will not make the slightest dent in the state's economic travails. As we have noted before, CIRM's activities currently have an infinitesimal, immediate impact on California jobs and businesses. CIRM's annual giveaway does not even exceed the $356 million budgeted for a new "condemned inmate complex" at San Quentin prison. That said, the lending program, which is yet to be fully explained, could well be a good idea.

We will know more after Nov. 19 when the CIRM Finance Committee will discuss it in greater depth. Sphere: Related Content

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