Monday, February 01, 2010

LA Times on CIRM Plans to Remain 'Relevant'

The changing focus of the California stem cell agency – with its aggressive push towards fast, tangible and marketable results and presumably away from its original emphasis on human embryonic stem cell research – was the focus of a Los Angeles Times article early last month.

The Jan. 10, 2010, piece by Karen Kaplan said,
“Now the institute has a more immediate goal: boosting therapies that are much further along in development and more often rely on less glamorous adult stem cells. It is concentrating its vast financial resources on projects that could cure conditions such as age-related macular degeneration, AIDS, sickle cell disease and various types of cancer.

“In shifting its focus, the agency is moving to fill a void known as the 'valley of death' -- a point at which projects are typically too commercial to vie for federal funds, yet too risky to entice private investors.

“This is how the agency -- with its constitutional mandate to invest $3 billion in stem cell research over 10 years -- plans to stay relevant as the state slashes billions from education, public safety, health and welfare programs to close a gargantuan budget hole.”
Kaplan's piece was more oriented towards the science of stem cells than the column this morning by Michael Hiltzik, also in the Los Angeles Times, which is California's largest newspaper with a readership of roughly of 1 million. Kaplan provided a contrast to Hiltzik, who took a more critical view, focusing on the public policy questions at the agency. Hiltzik's article also was an opinion piece as opposed to Kaplan's article, which was a news feature.

Kaplan, however, also wrote,
“Some scientists who study basic stem cell biology say the new emphasis on clinical trials is premature. They say many fundamental questions about stem cells still need to be answered, and diverting money from basic science means that revolutionary therapies -- still many years away -- will take even longer to materialize.

(CIRM President Alan) Trounson acknowledged that the shift has elicited 'a bit of a reaction from scientists' despite the institute's commitment to continue steering millions of dollars to basic biology. But, he said, the investments will have to produce actual therapies 'if we're going to be relevant to the community.'"
Not said was the need to provide real results that will help CIRM peddle its story in a few years to raise additional cash -- perhaps from the legislature, perhaps from private sources or both – when its 10-year bonding capacity runs out, possibly in 2017.

Also not discussed was the fact that the Prop. 71 campaign was almost entirely based on the need to fund human embryonic stem cell research. It is probably fair to say that the measure that created CIRM would not have passed had not then President Bush already imposed restrictions on the federal funding of hESC research.

Kaplan's article led with an anecdote involving research by Karen Aboody of the City of Hope, who has an $18 million grant from CIRM. Michael Friedman, the CEO of the City Hope, serves on the CIRM board of directors. His institution has received $37 million from CIRM. Also mentioned was Martin Pera of USC, a former colleague of Trounson's in Australia. Pera has received $6.4 million from CIRM. The dean of the USC medical school, Carmen Puliafito, serves on the CIRM board of directors. USC has received $71 million from CIRM.

CIRM directors are barred from voting on grants involving their institutions or even discussing the merits of those applications when they come up for approval. However, they do approve the concepts for all grants and control procedures for grant-making. Sphere: Related Content

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