In a lengthy piece on the 12-year-old agency, West Coast editor Charles Piller wrote,
"The National Institutes of Health has supported three and a half times as many human trials of stem cell therapies, dollar for dollar, as the California agency has funded since it started making grants in 2006. Just two of its clinical trials have been completed."Piller continued,
"'I am floored by the disparity,' said Jim Lott, a health care consultant and member of the state board that monitors the agency, known as CIRM. If the numbers are correct, he told STAT, 'that doesn’t settle well with me as a voter. That doesn’t settle well with me as a taxpayer. That doesn’t settle well with me as a member of the oversight committee.'"The committee that Lott referred to is the Citizens Financial Accountability and Oversight Committee, which is the only the state body specifically charged with overseeing the stem cell agency, known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine or CIRM.
Under the ballot initiative that created CIRM in 2004, it operates outside of the control of the governor or the legislature. Its funding also bypasses both the governor and legislature.
Piller said that the agency has provided more than $300 million for work that supports preclinical and clinical trials compared to $540 million for new labs and buildings. He wrote,
"In part, that’s because its directors chose to focus on infrastructure early on, as well as bench experiments and animal studies given that the biology of embryonic stem cells was not well-understood and there are formidable roadblocks to moving into human studies. Much more is known about the bone marrow stem cells that are the focus of many NIH-funded clinical trials."Randy Mills, president of the agency since 2014, "declined to comment on STAT’s specific findings, but defended the initial emphasis on labs and basic science as underpinning future clinical work," Piller wrote.
“If we’re behind [NIH], we’re going to get better.”Mills has refocused the agency since coming aboard, pushing hard to fund clinical work, including 10 clinical trials in 2016 and projecting 40 new trials before the agency's money runs out in three years.
The possibility of another multi-billion dollar bond measure exists in 2018. However, Lott said he would not support such a measure again. He told Piller,
“We were all caught up in the time, and the events were different when we first looked at this. But not today. Not at all.”The STAT piece covered some familiar ground for readers of the California Stem Cell Report. But it also had fresh comments from the Center for Genetics and Society, Paul Knoepfler, the blogging stem cell scientist at UC Davis, and George Daley, dean of the Harvard Medical School.
STAT is a relatively new national, online news effort dealing with health, medicine and scientific discovery. It was started in November 2015 by John Henry, owner of Boston Globe Media and the Boston Red Sox. The well-regarded news operation is independent of the Globe but shares content.