Friday, September 13, 2013

Selling Stem Cell Sizzle: The Future of a $3 Billion Effort

All stem cell research is not created equal, a truism that found fresh validity this week.  Particularly research that could play a role in whether the California stem cell agency can find more cash to continue its operations. 

The difference was highlighted yesterday by articles on the stem cell agency’s blog. The pieces dealt with findings – some esoteric and some not-so-esoteric -- that received international attention. The articles written by CIRM staffers Amy Adams and Don Gibbons were fine as far as they went. But it is one thing to deal with the nuts and bolts of research and another to look at it from the perspective of whether it resonates with the public. 

The research in question is from Spain and Stanford. Researchers in Spain  reprogrammed adult cells in a living mouse to become like embryonic stem cells. Those results received much “gee whiz” attention in the mainstream media, most of which overlooked problematic aspects  involving its cancer-linked results(see researcher Paul Knoepfler's take here and Gibbons' item here).  

The other findings out of Stanford dealt with people and Down syndrome, along with cognitive function, aging and Alzheimer’s.

The press release by Krista Conger from Stanford said,
"'Conceptually, this study suggests that drug-based strategies to slow the rate of stem cell use could have profound effects on cognitive function, aging and risk for Alzheimer’s disease in people with Down syndrome,' said co-author Craig Garner, PhD, who is the co-director of Stanford’s Center for Research and Treatment of Down Syndrome and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.”
Both the press release and the CIRM blog item briefly noted that funding from CIRM helped to sustain the research. Stanford buried the information at the end of its release. CIRM mentioned it much higher in its item. 

In neither case were specific funding figures mentioned. Nor was there any attempt to say whether this research would have been slow in coming or not coming at all without CIRM help. 

Why does that matter? The $3 billion state stem cell agency will run out of funds for new grants in about three years, not very long given the length of time it takes to develop major funding sources and the rather deliberate pace at which CIRM works on some matters. 

Currently the agency spends about $300 million year on research and is not likely to be able to renew its funding at that level. But if it wants to play at even the $50 million level, it will have to generate some sizzle from the research that it has funded. 

Sizzle is what the Stanford research has. It resonates with people. We all know somebody or a family with issues such Alzheimer’s, Down syndrome or cognitive problems. Missing largely, however, from the press releases, media stories and even the CIRM blog is some sort of way of assessing whether CIRM funding played a KEY role. 

And that is the clincher for agency. That is the sizzle that will sell the agency as absolutely necessary if it truly wishes to turn stem cells into cures.

(Editor's note: Shortly after this item was posted, we searched the agency's Web site. One of the results disclosed that agency gave $1.4 million to Michael Clarke of Stanford for the research. He has filed two progress reports on his findings.) The research received additional support from CIRM as well, but the amounts were not readily apparent.)
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