Sunday, July 06, 2014

Hope and Home Runs: Nature and the Chron on the California Stem Effort

It wasn’t exactly a stem cell tag team, but both the journal Nature and the San Francisco Chronicle this past week carried lengthy pieces examining the state of affairs at California’s $3 billion stem cell agency.

 Neither of the articles was a valentine, but overall the agency should be satisfied with them -- if only for the reason that they will make more people aware of what the agency is doing. The agency received something of a cyber bonus with a video on the Nature Web site that accompanied its online article(see video above). Coverage of the agency, especially in the mainstream media, has been minimal over the last several years.

 Meanwhile the agency has been trying to spread the word as it tries to fend off its financial demise in less than three years, when funds for new research awards run out. 

Both pieces covered familiar ground for readers of this Web site. And both emphasized the looming financial crunch for the agency, which is examining the possibility of some sort of private-public financing arrangement. The agency has not ruled out another bond measure to secure voter approval for as much $5 billion in additional financing. Neither article discussed the likelihood of voter approval, which is problematic. 

Both pieces took a run at providing summaries of the work that the agency has financed and its contributions. Both noted that the agency has yet to produce a stem cell therapy despite the apparent promises of the ballot campaign 10 years ago that created the agency. 

Erika Check Hayden, who wrote a Nature overview of the agency in 2008, was the reporter again on the latest article on July 2.  It was headlined, 

"Stem cells: Hope on the line"
The subhead said,
“A decade ago, voters in California changed the biomedical research landscape by directly funding embryonic stem-cell research. Now the organization they created needs a hit to survive.”
Hayden wrote,
“The institute has navigated a difficult path, however. CIRM had to revamp its structure and practices in response to complaints about inefficiency and potential conflicts of interest. It has also had to adapt its mission to seismic shifts in stem-cell science.
A "home run" is now in order in the words of agency board member Sherry Lansing, the Nature article said.

Hayden interviewed former agency chairman Robert Klein about his plan for a $5 billion bond measure, perhaps in 2016. She quoted Klein as warning that the nation and California could see a “theocratic government” in the near future that would endanger research. Hayden wrote that Klein said,
“We have to protect science's access to the full range of cellular types now. And in doing that, we will protect the freedom of science to ethically pursue knowledge in this country outside of religious ideology.”
Klein also said,
“If we don't take a position now the next ten years may see a theocratic government at the state and federal level that restricts scientific research in this country for the next 50–100 years.”
As for the agency’s accomplishments, Hayden wrote,
“(I)n California, researchers are making nerve, heart, eye and skin cells from iPS cells and embryonic stem cells — a range of work rare for a single state — and they aim to test many of these in humans. They are developing drugs against cancer stem cells, which are thought to perpetuate the disease. And they are leading the world's only two trials of treatments that combine gene editing and cell therapy to treat HIV. They are doing all this with an unmatched infrastructure, including a network of 12 new or newly renovated facilities, and a funding pipeline that acts as a beacon to young scientists.
“Almost every country would be jealous of what they've got in California,” says Christine Mummery of the Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands.”
Mummery is a member of the agency's scientific advisory board.

Stephanie Lee was the writer on the San Francisco Chronicle story that was on the first page of the business section on July 5.

It was headlined,
“Stem cell researchers under pressure to produce”
The headline was drawn from this paragraph by Lee,
“Fund recipients are under pressure to show results - commercially viable therapies, ideally. Universities and other nonprofit groups have received most of the money, but the pressure is especially heavy on biotechnology companies that have staked their livelihoods on such therapies."
Lee mentioned StemCells, Inc., (along with photos at the company’s lab), Asterias, Capricor, Calimmune and ViaCyte as companies that are making progress.

 She continued,
“As (clinical) trials add more patients, they become more expensive. The challenge in the future will be to find money to keep these trials going when the stem cell agency runs out of money.
"’It's certainly not going to make life easier,’ said (Martin) McGlynn (CEO) of StemCells, which reported a $28 million operating loss last year."’To their credit, the California voters stepped up to the plate, and $3 billion is a lot of money,’ he said. ‘But an awful lot more is going to be needed to finish the job.’"
Lee continued,
“It is not realistic to expect a stem cell therapy to reach consumers in five years, especially when the field is so young, said Enal Razvi, managing director at Select Biosciences, a life sciences market research company.
"Even so, by 2017, ‘if they don't have products already on the marketplace, they should not be expecting public money to fill their portfolio,’ he said. ‘Apple doesn't go to California and keep asking for money to build their own iPhone.’"
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