Thursday, July 12, 2018

Expansive Media Series on California's Stem Cell Agency as It Nears Cash Cutoff

Lead photo on Chronicle stem cell series, photo by Gary Wathen
The San Francisco Chronicle today kicked off a major look at California's $3 billion stem cell agency with a multimedia presentation that covered everything from stem cells and how they work to the desperation and hope of patients with all-but-untreatable afflictions..

The four-part series will roll out over the next six weeks in the Chronicle, which says it reaches 1.7 million persons weekly in the San Francisco Bay Area via both print and electronic means. The series looks to be the most expansive look ever at the agency, which is formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

The Chronicle effort, which has been many months in the making, comes as the agency is facing its lingering demise unless efforts to raise more billions are successful. CIRM expects to run out of cash for new awards by the end of next year. It is attempting to raise privately more than $200 million to bridge a financial gap with the hope that voters will approve a yet-to-be-written, $5 billion bond measure in November 2020.

The series is likely to have a significant foundational role in more news coverage of the agency as it nears its cash cutoff. As a starting point, reporters will be examining the Chronicle's work and other previous coverage of CIRM, which has all but vanished from news pages and news screens of California readers.

Patient Hopes and Unregulated Treatments

The initial installment in the Chronicle series, written by Erin Allday, had little specific to say about the agency, but dwelt on patients' hopes of finding unregulated stem cell therapies both within California and outside of the state. One piece served as a primer and was called "What Are Stem Cells and How Do They Work." The other two major pieces were headlined,
"In Search of a Miracle: She Tried Everything to Heal Her Son; Stem Cells Were Her Last Hope"
and
"Driven by Desperation: Out of Options, Six Patients Turn to Stem Cells."
An editor's note tied to the series said,
"'The Miracle Cell' explores the hope and reality of the revolutionary science of stem cell therapy. It focuses on what has transpired since 2004, when California voters approved a $3 billion bond measure to fund stem cell research with the promise that it soon would produce new treatments for incurable diseases.
"In four parts, it follows the stories of patients desperately seeking remedies; probes the for-profit clinics where unproven and unregulated treatments are being offered; takes you into the labs and hospital rooms where scientists are testing new therapies; and provides a comprehensive accounting of what California’s multibillion-dollar bet on stem cells has achieved."
The main piece today dealt with a nine-year-old boy from Scott's Valley, Ca., who received stem cell treatments in Tijuana. The story also documented the "powerful allure" of the therapies. Allday wrote,

"In 2004, California voters were so convinced that cures from stem cells were close at hand that they approved Proposition 71, a $3 billion bond measure to pay for research that the federal government would not.
"Nearly 15 years later, no proven therapy has emerged. But some doctors already claim to have tapped stem cells’ potential. And some patients refuse to wait any longer to seek treatment."

Asterias and Paralysis 

One of the six profiles of patients involved Mary Ambery, 59, who was paralyzed from the neck down in a fall in 2017. She is now engaged in a clinical trial run by Asterias Biotherapeutics, Inc., of Fremont, Ca.  The Chronicle reported, 
"Before the transplant, she had almost no movement in the muscles that allow her to bend her arms at the elbows and rotate her wrists. She couldn’t pinch her thumb and forefinger together. She couldn’t feed herself or comb her hair, couldn’t use a smartphone or a pen.
"More than a year after the surgery, she can do her own makeup and hair. She can use a fork, but needs help cutting up her food. She can text with her friends, she can write 'pretty legibly.'"
The story did not mention that Asterias' work has been supported by $21 million from the California stem cell agency.  

The next installments in the series are likely to contain more details on the Golden State's stem cell program. Here are the one-word topics and expected dates of publication: Clinics, July 25; Research, Aug. 8, and Progress, Aug. 22.
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