Thursday, April 02, 2015

'Born in Hype:' The California Experiment and Stem Cell Research

A California newspaper with a daily readership of 1.5 million this week thrashed the field of stem cell science, declaring that it “is slathered with so much money that immoderate predictions of success are common.”

“Infected with hype” is the way the headline put it on the March 31 piece in the Los Angeles Times. The paper has the largest circulation in the state and is an agenda-setter for much of the state’s mainstream media.

The comments came in an article by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author Michael Hiltzik, who holds the California stem cell agency in low regard.

Kalina Kamenova
 U. of Alberta photo
Timothy Caulfield
U. of Alberta photo
His starting point was a study in Science Translational Medicine by Timothy Caulfield and Kalina Kamenova of the University of Alberta law school.  Their content analysis research focused primarily on newspaper coverage of timelines for stem cell therapies before and after Geron bailed out of the first clinical trial for a human embryonic therapy in the United States. They did not have warm words for scientists as public communicators.

Neither did Hiltzik, but he also faulted the media. He wrote, 
“The authors mostly blame the scientists, who need to be more aware of ‘the importance of conveying realistic ... timelines to the popular press.’ We wouldn't give journalists this much of a pass; writers on scientific topics should understand that the development of drugs and therapies can take years and involve myriad dry holes and dead ends. They should be vigilant against gaudy promises.”
Hiltzik then took on the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the stem cell agency is known.  He wrote about the cash that was "slathered" about. He said,
“The best illustration of that comes from California's stem cell program -- CIRM, or the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine -- a $6-billion public investment (including interest) that was born in hype
“The promoters of Proposition 71, the 2004 ballot initiative that created CIRM, filled the airwaves with ads implying that the only thing standing between Michael J. Fox being cured of Parkinson's or Christopher Reeve walking again was Prop. 71's money. They commissioned a study asserting that California might reap a windfall in taxes, royalties and healthcare savings up to seven times the size of its $6-billion investment. One wouldn't build a storage shed on foundations this soft, much less a $6-billion mansion.”
 He wrote about how CIRM played a dubious role in funding the Geron clinical trial only a couple of months before the company pulled the plug for financial reasons, something that the California Stem Cell Report has dealt with as well.  The $26 million loan to Geron involved a major departure from the agency’s normal procedures.  Abandonment of the trial also raised ethical questions that should be of continuing concern to the agency and its ethical advisors who are meeting today and tomorrow in Los Angeles.  

Caulfield’s views on stem cell hype are well-known in the small stem cell research community. But rarely does his sort of perspective, which is shared by others in the field, reach a mass audience such as the 1.5 million readers of the Los Angeles Times.

All of which poses a challenge for the California stem cell agency whose finite amount of cash is now expected to run out in 2020. As Hiltzik noted, the overblown expectations led voters to believe that miraculous cures were just around the corner.

Today, more than a decade after creation of the agency, the promised cures have not materialized and none are likely for some years. The agency has undoubtedly made a major contribution to stem cell science. But the unfulfilled promises of the campaign hype gave its foes the kind of tools they need to battle any efforts to provide more state funding for the agency.  How CIRM deals with that scientific and PR challenge will be one of the major tests for it over the next several years.
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