Saturday, February 04, 2017

Politics Could Be Key to Future of California's $3 Billion Stem Cell Program

The Los Angeles Times, California's largest circulation newspaper, is carrying an article this weekend that says the future of the state's $3 billion stem cell agency could "depend more on politics than science."

The assertion was carried in a column by Michael Hiltzik, a Pulitzer Prize winner and author, that popped up on the Internet last night. He provided a broad overview of the agency that was less harsh than some of his previous pieces dealing with the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine or CIRM, as the agency is formally known.

Hiltzik wrote,
"CIRM’s leadership knows that the public’s inflated expectations threaten to obscure the program’s real accomplishments. With multiple clinical trials of CIRM-funded research underway, the first government approval of treatments is expected 'in the not-too-distant future,' C. Randal Mills, the program’s president, said in an interview.
"But he acknowledged that expectations 'need to be tempered with humility at the enormity of the task before us. We don’t want to overpromise or overhype. CIRM is doing what it was set up to do, but it might be taking longer than people thought or hoped.' "
Hiltzik continued,
"Still, the program’s future may depend more on politics than science. 'If it looks like Washington is flipping off California, that could have political ramifications' at the ballot box, (Hank) Greely (director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford)  says. Some researchers aren’t optimistic about the prospects for independent, federally funded science under the Trump administration."
The reference to the Washington involves the likelihood that the Trump Administration would impose restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research. The administration is populated by appointees who hold anti-abortion views that are generally coupled with opposition to embryonic stem cell research on the grounds that it is tantamount to murder. 

Hiltzik's column noted changes at the agency that make it significantly different than its earlier days, including a step-up in funding of clinical trials, the success of which could pay an important role in the success of a new funding measure. 

He wrote, 
"A new funding campaign could give the program a much-needed reboot. The ballot measure could restructure CIRM as an 'ordinary agency of the state' subject to legislative oversight, open meetings laws and other good-government statutes, says Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Berkeley-based Center for Genetics and Society."
"If it returns to the ballot, CIRM would have a chance to reconsider its administrative structure, the inflated expectations it gave voters in 2004, its embedded conflicts of interest and even whether it should be limited to funding research into stem cells. All these features of Proposition 71 (which authorized the agency) have created complications during the program’s first decade."
Hiltzik's column is scheduled to appear in print on Sunday, a day on which the Times says it has 2.4 million readers.

Here are links to two other recent overviews of the agency, including one last month on the California Stem Cell Report and Stat News.
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