Thursday, August 23, 2018

A Harsher Look at California's Stem Cell Program: No More Cash Without Changes

California's $3 billion stem cell experiment received a host of accolades last week at a state legislative hearing, but one strong, critical voice was not heard in the proceedings.

That came from the Biopolitical Times, a blog operated by the Center for Genetics and Society of Berkeley, a longtime foe of the agency. 

In a piece written by Pete Shanks, the agency was taken to task for a number of reasons. And he argued that it should not receive additional funds as it is presently constituted.

Shanks wrote, 
"At one time, CIRM had a deserved reputation for funding buildings , some of them at private universities, and was heavily criticized for that, but the $270 million “major facilities” budget approved in 2008 has all been spent. Some of the conflict of interest scandals are largely in the past, though ripples persist , and some of the institutional ones remain; several universities that receive large grants are still represented on the board . But there has been a new regime in place (“CIRM 2.0”) for several years.
"Things have improved, though not enough."
Shanks noted that the agency has failed to finance any therapies that are available for widespread use. He noted that the interest expense on state bonds that support the agency boost the cost to taxpayers to $6 billion from the $3 billion in awards.

He said the hearing last week was largely "a promotional vehicle." (Shanks' piece was published on Aug. 14, the day before the hearing by the Assembly Select Committee on Biotechnology.)

Shanks concluded:
"Going forward, there are two separate questions to consider: Is continued state funding of stem cell research at a rate of roughly half a billion dollars a year the best use of state funds?
"If it is, should those funds be spent through CIRM as it is presently constituted?
Is continued state funding of stem cell research at a rate of roughly half a billion dollars a year the best use of state funds? If it is, should those funds be spent through CIRM as it is presently constituted?
 
"The first question is debatable; the second deserves a flat “No.” There is something obviously wrong when an agency is funded by public money but never has to submit a budget to the legislature, and can even go 13 years without appearing before an oversight committee. Two major reports, in 2009 by the Little Hoover Commission and in 2012 by the then Institute of Medicine (now part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine), both concluded that the governance structure of CIRM is seriously flawed."
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