Friday, September 28, 2012

Fortune Magazine on California Stem Cell Agency: Warm, Personal and Favorable

California's $3 billion stem cell research effort today garnered a handsome dollop of favorable national news coverage– a lengthy piece in Fortune magazine that spoke of looming stem cell cures and the leading role of the state stem cell agency.

The article led the Fortune web page online at one point this morning and likely will be read by tens of thousands of persons, although it was not the cover story on the print product. 

Written by a former senior editor of the magazine, Jeffrey O'Brien of Mill Valley, Ca., the piece was warm and personal. He began with the story of his 95-year-old grandmother and her health issues, ranging from arthritis to macular degeneration. And he wrote,
“The citizens of California have spoken. If my grandmother and I had the power to get the rest of the country to follow, we would.”
O'Brien also discussed the science and finances of the stem cell business. He said,
“To be clear, the earliest stem cell therapies are almost certainly years from distribution. But so much progress has been made at venerable research institutions that it now seems possible to honestly discuss the possibility of a new medical paradigm emerging within a generation. Working primarily with rodents in preclinical trials, MDs and Ph.D.s are making the paralyzed walk and the impotent virile. A stem cell therapy for two types of macular degeneration recently restored the vision of two women. Once they were blind. Now they see!

“Some experts assert that AMD could be eradicated within a decade. Other scientists are heralding a drug-free fix for HIV/AIDS. Various forms of cancer, Parkinson's, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and ALS have already been eradicated in mice. If such work translates to humans, it will represent the type of platform advancement that comes along in medicine only once in a lifetime or two. The effect on the economy would be substantial. Champions of stem cell research say it would be on the order of the Internet or even the transistor.”
O'Brien continued,
“The obstacles along the road from lab rat to human patients are many, of course, but the biggest by far is money. With the dramatic events in the lab, you might think that a gold rush would be under way. That's far from true. Long time horizons, regulatory hurdles, huge R&D costs, public sentiment, and political headwinds have all scared financiers. Wall Street isn't interested in financing this particular dream. Most stem cell companies that have dared go public are trading down 90% or more from their IPOs. Sand Hill Road is AWOL. The National Venture Capital Association doesn't even have a category to track stem cell investments.”
As for the California stem cell agency itself, the article contained remarks from its Chairman J.T.Thomas, President Alan Trounson and former chairman Robert Klein about the origins and progress of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

O'Brien wrote, 
“The $1.7 billion awarded so far has made one obvious mark on the state: a dozen gleaming research institutions. CIRM has proved adept at getting billionaires to donate funds to the cause.”

O'Brien interviewed a several prominent businessmen who have contributed tens of millions of dollars to stem cell research “about the prospects of a legitimate industry emerging.” One was “bond genius” Bill Gross, who has contributed to UC Irvine. Gross replied.
“Goodness, you're talking to the wrong guy. Our donation had nothing to do with business.”
Eli Broad, another big stem cell donor, said pretty much the same thing. And Andy Grove, the former chairman of Intel, was “surprisingly full of doom and gloom.” O'Brien wrote,
“For close to two hours, Grove argues passionately about how the FDA is enabling predatory offshore industries by impeding progress and the many reasons financiers want no part of stem cells. "VCs aren't interested because it's a shitty business," he says. Big Pharma? Forget it. CIRM? "There are gleaming fucking buildings everywhere. That wasn't necessary." When I press him to be constructive, he wearily offers one possible solution. Rather than courting billionaires to put their names on buildings, we need a system of targeted philanthropy in which the 99% can sponsor the individual stem cell lines that matter to them.”
O'Brien said, however,
“It was clear during our talk that Grove wants an economic model for stem cell research and development to emerge, even if he's not willing to bet money on its happening. And that puts him in good company.”
While the Fortune article has its negative points about stem cell research, it is about as laudatory as it is going to get at this point for the California stem cell agency. The piece recognizes and even celebrates much of the work of the agency. The article clearly details the void in financing for commercialization of stem cell research, bolstering support for efforts like those in California. Importantly, it also helps to push the activities of the stem cell agency more fully into the national discussion of stem cell research and its future. That should pay off again and again in future news coverage and also benefit the stem cell agency as it explores the possibility of additional funding – either private or public – after the cash for new awards runs out in 2017.

(The story is in the Oct. 8, 2012, edition of Fortune.)
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