Sunday, October 19, 2014

California Stem Cells, College Football and Success

The $3 billion California stem cell agency this week will deal with the sort of odds that often figure in the financial fate of college football players.

The issue at hand involves education, helping young people and setting priorities. Should the Golden State’s stem cell effort train a few hundred college students at $65,000 a pop or spend $9 million to give a piece of advanced research the critical lift to turn it into a cure?

At least that is one way to look at the issues coming up on Thursday at the Los Angeles meeting of the 29-member governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known.

Up for decisions are two training programs on which CIRM has already spent $52.4 million. Costs per student average nearly $65,000 in one effort.

Extension of the high school training program would cost only $550,000 for one year. However, training at community and state colleges would cost $9 million for one year. That is the program that has schooled 782 students at a cost of about $65,000 each.

Extending both programs for one year would mean nearly $10 million less for basic research or support of clinical trials that could lead to actual stem cell treatments. Keep in mind that board has turned its focus sharply towards aiding clinical trials – which are very expensive -- in hopes of fulfilling the promises of the 2004 ballot campaign that led to the creation of the stem cell agency.

Strong cases have been made for continuation of the programs, most recently by Susan Baxter, executive director of the California State University’s system-wide program for biotechnology, who appeared before the board and asked for a review of the college program.

She said,
“The number one workforce need in this industry is hands-on practice and participation in multi-disciplinary, team-based research projects.  Research experience is baked into the Bridges (college training) program; as a result, graduates have many career options.  Despite the Great Recession, Bridges graduates have succeeded in landing jobs and gaining admittance to graduate and medical schools at much higher rates than peer groups.”
Jeanne Loring, director the Scripps stem cell program, also supported the college training program.  She said recently,
“I think it's a tragic loss to mothball the equipment and shut down the training labs just when work in those labs is leading to the cures that are CIRM's mission. Some of our best-trained stem cell researchers are losing their jobs, just when they are most needed."
One of the arguments made by backers is that one of those relatively few college or high school students could become the next Jamie Thomson, the scientist who is widely credited with starting what may be the stem cell revolution.  It is an appealing vision with strong emotional impact.

And it is also where college football comes in. Many persons support such athletic programs, contending that they provide a way for young persons to train and become a high profile athlete who earns tens of millions of dollars annually, possibly leading a pro team to the Super Bowl year after year.

The odds of that happening for an individual college student are supremely low. Only 1.6 percent of college players ever join pro teams – 254 out of 70,174 college players, according to the latest NCAA figures. Even fewer achieve stardom.

The odds of professional success resulting from the college football and CIRM training programs are not too different, this writer suggests.

Does that mean that the agency should not continue the training efforts. Of course not. But directors should be very clear about the message they deliver about their priorities and their limited resources. Funds likely run out in 2020, according the agency’s latest estimate, and it is years away from producing all the cures promised by the 2004 campaign – something that, in fact, may never happen.

Some might ask whether these programs – if they are so valuable – should not be funded by the state or community colleges themselves. The answer is that those systems have been starved for state funding for years and that situation is not likely to change dramatically any time soon. Of course, those institutions can change their own priorities if they truly believe that stem cell training is more valuable than some of their other offerings.

CIRM’s new president, Randy Mills, has not taken a public position on the training efforts. But he has offered four criteria to evaluate funding decisions by the agency.  They are:
“1. Will it speed up the development of treatments for patients?
“2. Will it increase the likelihood of developing a successful treatment for patients?
“3. Will it meet an unmet medical need?
“4. Is it efficient?” 
Come Thursday, California’s stem cell agency will apply those criteria and maybe some others to decide the fate of the two training programs.
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