Monday, November 15, 2010

Kerfuffle over NY Times Take on California's Stem Cell Program

Last week, the New York Times published an article that was critical of California's approach to funding scientific research, quickly prompting denunciations that called it a “hit piece” and an “unbelievable attack.”

We differ with those characterizations, some of which seem to stem from a misunderstanding of a comment in the Times about how the NIH is like a manager of a stock index fund, as opposed to California's narrower focus.

The Nov. 8 piece was written by Nicholas Wade, who has had a long and respectable career in science reporting. The article was carried in a special section on “prognostications” about what could be coming up in 2011 in science. The article was not intended as a “balanced” news story. Rather it was an analysis based on Wade's years of covering science. That distinction might have been clear in the print version of the section, but it was easily overlooked on the Web version of the Times. That led to some misunderstandings by readers based on comments that we have read.

Basically Wade said that California – as opposed to the NIH – has made a $6 billion bet (including interest) on a narrow field of science. He wrote,
“By allocating so much money to a single field, California is placing an enormous bet on a single horse, and the chances are substantial that its taxpayers will lose their collective shirt.”
Wade contrasted that approach to the NIH, which funds all sorts of scientific research, instead of just stem cells. He wrote,
“...(T)he National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation are like the managers of a stock index fund: they buy everything in the market, and the few spectacular winners make up for all the disasters.

“But just as index fund managers often go astray when they try to improve on the index’s performance by overweighting the stocks they favor, the government can go wrong when it tries to pick winners.”
Writing on his blog Nov. 9, UC Davis stem cell researcher Paul Knoepfler described Wade's article as a “hit piece.” Knoepfler said,
“The NY Times has allowed Mr. Wade to publish in essence an opinion piece smearing stem cell researchers in their Science section.

“NIH is incredibly strict and deliberate in what it funds. NIH funds approximately only the top 10-15% of all grant applications after thorough peer review, which is an extremely low percentage. This hardly reflects 'buying everything', but rather is just the opposite.”
It is clear that Wade's piece reflects his opinion and would not be carried on the front page of the NY Times as a news article. However, his broad-brush analogy about the NIH being akin to a manager of a stock index fund is on the mark. The NIH does not limit its funding to only one brand of research. It is certainly deliberate and approves a small fraction of applications, but those represent a broad range of approaches, just as an index fund for the entire stock market has oil, auto, tech, health, insurance, soap and other companies represented in its portfolio. If Wade were to carry his comments further, he might say that California has only bet on or invested in the biotech sector. That creates an investment risk, looking at it from a financial viewpoint.

Knoepfler also differs with Wade's assertion related to dubious claims involving stem cell research. Wade wrote,
“Stem cell researchers have created an illusion of progress by claiming regular advances in the 12 years since human embryonic stem cells were first developed. But a notable fraction of these claims have turned out to be wrong or fraudulent, and many others have amounted to yet another new way of getting to square one by finding better methods of deriving human embryonic stem cells.”
Knoepfler described that as an attack on embryonic stem cell research and researchers.
“He(Wade) says that us scientists have 'created an illusion of progress' with our claims and that a 'notable fraction of these claims have turned out to be wrong or fraudulent'. Wow. Can you please give me some facts to support such aggressive claims?”
Wade did not carry any evidence supporting his assertion but also carried this sentence,
“Stem cell scientists, while generally avoiding rash promises themselves, have allowed politicians to portray stem cells as a likely cure for all the major diseases.”
Stem cell research has indeed been susceptible to considerable hyperbole, much of it coming during the 2004 election campaign that created the California stem cell program. We are likely to see more as the stem cell agency becomes increasingly serious about asking voters for another $5 billion(actually perhaps $10 billion including interest), as early as 2012.

California patient advocate Don Reed weighed in with a comment on Knoepfler's blog. Reed described the Times article as an “unbelievable attack.” He said that the California stem cell agency has awarded $1 billion and “received” $1 billion in matching funds. In fact, the agency has not received anything remotely like that sum. It has required matching funds on some grants, notably lab construction projects, but that cash is ginned up by applicants. It is reasonable to assume that a goodly portion of those funds would have found their way to the respective institutions even without CIRM's matching requirements.

Wade also had this to say,
“Strangely, for a project that is aimed at regenerative medicine, the arbiters of stem cell research have largely neglected the free lesson that nature is offering as to how regenerative medicine could actually work. Many little animals, like newts and zebra fish, do regenerate parts of their bodies. But their recipe is the reverse of that presented by the advocates of stem cell therapy. Instead of taking a stem cell and trying to convert it into a well-behaved adult tissue, animals like the zebra fish start with the adult cell at the wound site, and walk it backward into a stemlike state from which a new limb grows.

“For the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to invest its $3 billion in studying newts, rather than building new science buildings on every state campus, might seem the best way of understanding regeneration, but that would be hard to explain to California’s voters, who have been assured stem cell cures are just around the corner. Even if governments do better to avoid picking winners among basic research fields, they can play a necessary role in supporting specific scientific infrastructure that lies beyond the means of individual researchers or universities, like atom-smashers or the human genome project. But even these projects are not guaranteed success.”
Wade's bottom line?
“Basic research, the attempt to understand the fundamental principles of science, is so risky, in fact, that only the federal government is willing to keep pouring money into it. It is a venture that produces far fewer hits than misses.”
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  1. Anonymous5:53 PM

    Despite the outrage, Wade is right about the expansion of stem cell research rather than the progress of it. The persistent hype and all too common specious interpretations of in vitro data have to stop. He is also right about scientists if not stating it directly, letting the media claim the road to the cure for them. A decade of this is enough. Do Californians really care that a cocktail of factors can cause cells to do tricks in a dish without evidence that the phenotype is stable and functions in vivo? We should be tired of yet another new way to first base without appreciating that it is the run that really counts to all those looking beyond making it to 'lab chief'. Time to get to the real work, and it may be as Wade contends, getting to the fundamentals, or at least to be true to those paying for it, the tougher questions.

  2. Anonymous1:57 PM

    Great article, Nicholas Wade. Thank you for the insightful article and the courage to speak what your research and information led you to. California's voters need more thoughtful articles such as yours. Information is power; arming ourselves with the other side of the story that your article presents is key to making decisions as to where to best spend the people's money. Government needs to go smaller, not bigger, and I for one will be voting NO on any ballot initiative that asks for more money for CIRM given no cures have been brought to us after six long years (2004 - 2010) of funding CIRM salaries and operations. Especially since CIRM reportedly turned away/or barred scientists -- I think they were scientists; see Stem Cell Report story -- from attending a CIRM meeting at the Marriott. (That's just one of the many things I'm offended by.)

  3. Anonymous11:22 AM

    Wade's "bottom line" regarding basic research is ridiculous. Only with an understanding of basic science is there any hope of effectively developing new treatments. The pharmaceutical industry supports relatively little "basic" research and also "produces far fewer hits than misses."

    Knoepfler clearly doesn't understand the science: "by finding better methods of deriving human embryonic stem cells." This is presumably in reference to iPS cells, yet these cells are not "embryonic" stem cells at all. Practically speaking, iPS cell reprogramming is NOT "getting back to square one," it is a step forward toward the goal of developing therapies that can be used effectively in patients.

    hES cells have been available for 12 years; is progress in the field of stem cell research and regenerative medicine really that slow? How long has cancer research, which is well funded, been ongoing? Not an excuse, but remember, during most of these 12 years severe funding restrictions effecting SC research were in place.

  4. Anonymous11:24 AM

    I meant to say "Wade" in the 2nd paragraph of my previous comment. I hadn't previously heard of either of the people mentioned in this post.